Sunday, January 01, 2006

Is philosophy a profession?

Karsten Harries, "Philosophy in Search of Itself," in C.P. Ragland & Sarah Heidt, eds., What is Philosophy? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 47.
Kathryn Schulz, "Brave New World: The Ethics of the New Brain Science," in The Nation, January 9/16, 2006, p. 11.

I will refer to two articles: 1) an essay by Karsten Harries on the nature of philosophy in America; and 2) Ms. Schulz's well-meaning and dogged attempt to grapple with the issue of biotechnology's transformative possibilities for the brain, which she confuses both with the psyche and mind, even as she struggles to distinguish between these concepts.

The first article is a philosophically sophisticated display of conceptual analysis and theoretical exploration; the second is an intelligent person's philosophical confusion, resulting from an inadequate grasp of the concepts being deployed. The first essay suggests that philosophical education is necessary; the second proves the point by (unknowingly) providing an example of what happens to someone -- who is clearly intelligent and a superb writer -- but who lacks such an education, yet wishes to address philosophical issues in metaphysics, metaethics and applied ethics, disciplines which are also confused, during the course of her discussion. Professor Harries notes that philosophy has become a profession (heaven help us!), like dentistry or accounting:

Philosophy has become an industry, a business, a trade. There is tension between such an understanding of philosophy and [Professor] Frankfurt's insistence that the philosopher's only irrevocable commitment is to the truth, the latter inviting an understanding of philosophy for philosophy's sake, requiring a freedom of thought difficult to reconcile with industrial production.

In seeking an accomodation between philosophy as a profession and as the search for truth, Professor Harries quotes an alarming statistic:

The APA has more than eight thousand members, the Directory of American Philosophers lists over ten thousand names -- less than twenty percent are women, less than two percent minorities.

This lack of representation guarantees philosophy's increasing irrelevance (even as it is desperately needed) in a troubled society and by millions of people all over the world burdened with forms of suffering resulting from dismally flawed philosophical ideas that are not seen as such.

Philosophy's quest for professional status in the academy is an attempt at intellectual respectability in a scientific age that dismisses philosophy, even as it wallows in philosophical perplexities, sometimes expensive and violent ones. Philosophy is trivialized, despite being more necessary than ever, while those fascinated by the subject are ridiculed as anti-scientific or impractical "dreamers." This is to say nothing of the disdain for religious persons in academia or elite professions. William F. Buckley, Jr.'s introduction to the reissue of his early book God and Man at Yale, is more timely and important today than when it was written.

Racism is a philosophy. It is a very bad philosophy which can be destroyed in argument, but not by ethical relativists who believe, incoherently, that it is true that all ethical views are equally irrational and a matter of choice, because there is no ultimate truth with regard to such matters -- except for this one truth. Ironically, most ethical relativists are not racists and have their hearts in the right place, often failing to appreciate that they are sawing off the branch of the tree on which they happen to be sitting.

Other assumptions associated with gender-roles, economics and culture also receive very little philosophical examination because there are not enough people trained to perform such evaluations, nor would they be taken seriously if they did the necessary work -- unless empirical research is cited, of course -- whether or not the issue under discussion happens to be empirical as opposed to, say, a question of values.

It is always a good idea to have statistics on hand to support your case, then you can go on to make your philosophical argument and hope to be heard. This is something that I plan to demonstrate in a paragraph or two.

This bias towards "concreteness" and "facts," as distinguished from truth, has affected our courts, where the cult of the expert is now dominant, resulting in predictable tragedies and imbecilities. In Texas, for example, an attorney sought to prove -- by way of expert testimony and statistical evidence offered by mathematicians -- that his client's criminal behavior was caused by his very bad horoscope on the day in question. Whatever happened to the "twinkie" defense?

Inevitably, lawyers respond to this statement by asking: "Did it work?" In New Jersey, it probably would. Meanwhile, real science tells us that (so far) 169 men have been exonerated by genetic testing while sitting on death row, awaiting their executions. Most of those men are African-American and Latino. Very few of them have studied philosophy or science. I doubt that this surprises many of us.

This bias for scientific evidence, even in matters that are not centrally concerned with scientific issues (what to do with or about the results of genetic tests is not a scientific determination, but a legal and moral one), reflects a world-view and contested value assumptions that are simply taken for granted by Ms. Schultz and many other persons in academia or government, persons who are intelligent but lacking in philosophical sophistication. Ms. Schultz asks, quite unselfconsciously: "What if we could sleep less, rejuvenate our aging brains, rebound quickly from emotional trauma, improve our memories, regulate our moods, enhance our sexual response?"

Notice that human beings are assumed to be machine-like, with externally replaceable parts or characteristics and aptitudes, also that such things as "rebounding quickly from emotional trauma" are assumed to be philosophically and morally unproblematic. Who wouldn't want that? Well, what if we choose to learn from our sufferings? What if the purpose of human suffering is for the sufferer to learn and change, slowly or gradually, and not to "rebound quickly"?

A student once approached a philosopher who had been discussing the ethics of self-realization and she said: "Today, we are highly sophisticated very early in life. We go directly from infancy to sophistication." The philosopher responded: "The only thing that you've missed, then, is life."

Such an ideal of immediate "smartness" (maturity) is really a prescription for shallowness and narrowness (immaturity). People and societies are not "things" to be fixed from the outside, but they are agents of change and choice, beings or entities with an inner life, deciding for themselves what is for their own good and why it is for their good, as they acquire life-experiences, over time. Yes, there is also an "inner life of societies" -- I am aware that this is metaphorical, which is my point -- and it is called art or religion, sometimes even politics and law. (See "Say Goodbye to Unwanted Memories.")

There is an objectifying tendency and a world-view associated with science -- which is highly valuable for the purposes of conducting scientific inquiries -- but it is disastrous in other contexts. For instance, when this scientific mentality is used by well-meaning persons for allegedly altruistic purposes, and especially in social and/or ethical-political debates, the results are often dismal. Benefitting from the information that science yields is always great, but the choices concerning what to do with that information are not amenable to resolution by scientific methods -- because they come from us, not from nature. Whenever you hear the words "this is for your own good," run in the opposite direction.

Professor Harries hints that a "philosophical profession" could become complicit with the powers that be, evolving into an instrument of domination and control by the State. This is something that has already happened to American psychology, unfortunately, as evidenced by Abu Ghraib. Also, the likely result of professionalizing is the standardization of the philosophical work product. After all, the production of a group-think mentality and professional deformation among (mostly) white males, from America's comfortable middle class, writing highly abstruse articles for one another, is not exactly unforeseeable.

Philosophy needs its lunatics. Philosophy needs Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, Bradley and Wittgenstein. All of these men would probably be committed to a mental institution today, so would Simone Weil or Germaine Greer perhaps.

If philosophy may be thought of as a kind of conceptual plumbing required by a society (as both Mary Midgley and Professor Harries suggest), then it may be that its best plumbers will be those persons accustomed to coping with their own psychic blockages and occasional floods. For example, here is a paragraph that contains dozens of unrecognized philosophical assumptions, most of which are false or incoherent, written by someone who is much too sane for her own good:

In locating criminality in our brain chemistry -- rather than in a corrupted soul or malignant heart -- neuroscience could help forge a less punitive justice system. But that is hardly a foregone conclusion. "It could make people think [criminals] deserve help -- the trend we've seen with alcoholism," says Eric Parens, senior research scholar at the Hastings Center, a bioethics institute in New York. But, he cautions, "it could just as easily be interpreted to suggest that they are bad to the bone and should be locked away forever."

Well, if criminal actions and all other sorts of behavior are products of brain chemistry, alterable through drugs and detectable in observable brain processes, then both praise and blame become meaningless. Behavior, then, is not chosen, it is merely produced by the chemical processes that can be changed, possibly, through medication. Leonardo Da Vinci would deserve no praise since his actions are the result of his brain chemistry, and the same goes for Charles Manson. Goodness or love might also be chemically induced, with the result that both words become meaningless, since a lover would lose interest once his or her prescription expires.

Now for some science stuff to trouble those who are into scientism, so that they will have to take these arguments seriously. The so-called human "mirror neuron system" is activated by social encounters and realities. What takes place in the brain is the "result of" social agency, allegedly, rather than "producing" that social agency or behavior. There is a necessary continuity between biology and culture in the shaping of human subjectivity: "In one study, people watched a hand move forward to caress someone else and then saw another hand push it away rudely. The insual region of their brains registered the social pain of rejection." Sandra Blakeslee, "Cells That Read Minds," The New York Times, January 10, 2006, at p. F1.

Notice that the key concept in this article's title is "reading." Essential to the understanding of this study is what the Times journalist does NOT concentrate on: the interpretation of the relevant social gesture. The communication of meaning through gesture is deciphered only by a "hermeneutic exercise," so that another culture may choose to regard that same gesture of brushing a hand away as a sexual invitation or as a signal that it is time to do one's taxes, or as anything else, positive or negative.

The meaning of communicative acts and "language games," or linguistic moves in any particular culture or interaction between animals is not determined by brain cells, while the activities of brain cells -- what they do -- is shaped by how external, social realities are INTERPRETED by persons in social interactions. Accordingly, these studies seem to indicate that culture or language comes before the actions of these brain cells, or that the interaction is much more complex and symbiotic than simplistic physicalist or biochemical reductivism would allow.

For one thing, notice the metaphors being deployed and getting out of hand in this essay. Brain cells are said to "read." Do they also go to the movies? (See Mary Midgley's critique of the concept of "Selfish Genes.") Scientism does not allow for the validity of metaphors and symbols in reasoning. Phenomenology and hermeneutics insists upon that validity because of the inescapability of metaphors and symbols in social life and human thought, or even thought about thought. Think of any complex legal analysis and notice how filled to the brim it will always be with metaphors and symbols.

I am not denying that brains are necessary for minds to exist. I am a kind of monist (a dual- or multiple-aspect theorist), but I am emphasizing that "brains," in isolation from the human social contexts, which explain the formulation of "minds," will tell you little about the contents of consciousness and subjectivity. What it is like to be a person, the nature of experience, will not be seen under a microscope and cannot be dissected in a laboratory. Thomas Nagel might well say the same about "what it is like" to be a bat.

Stephen Jay Gould devoted a book-length study to warning of the dangers associated with theories of biological determinism in the history of science -- theories that were used to keep women and minorities "in their place," on the grounds that they were determined by their brain chemistry or physiology to be inherently inferior to the men who found themselves, not surprisingly, to be nature's "ideal" specimens. ("You mean we're not?")

Is this the sort of thinking that Ms. Schulz wishes to restore to our social discussions and politics? I doubt it. In The Mismeasure of Man, Professor Gould said:

"... biological and medical arguments about human nature ... have been associated in America, as in the rest of the world, with conservative and even reactionary ideologies. Under their long hegemony, there has been a tendency to assume biological causation without question, and to accept social explanations only under the duress of a siege of irresisitible evidence. In political questions, this tendency favored a do-nothing policy." [Quoting Gunnar Myrdal.] Or, as Condorcet said more succintly a long time ago: they "make nature herself an accomplice to the crime of political inequality."

Even if such controlled and artificially chemically induced emotive changes were possible -- which they are not and never will be -- the ethics of manufacturing medications to yield such "altered states," would remain highly questionable at best. For one thing, there is the issue of human freedom and choice. But then, the constraints on choice might be chemically produced too, leading to an "infinite regress" problem.

It has always been possible to induce emotional reactions socially, without chemistry. For instance, I can make you angry by punching you in the face. Much can be accomplished with persons amenable to suggestion in highly wrought or hypnotic states. But these effects do not require drugging or a knowledge of fancy chemistry. They only require a criminal disregard on the part of behaviorists for the privacy and autonomy of others, something which does not seem to be a problem for them.

Would it be possible to produce drug-induced chemical changes in the brain that result in freedom? If so, then you would be chemically determined to be free? Existentialism rears its head again. Come to think of it, maybe that is what evolution has done to us. We are forced to be free. God is a chemist, working in the research and development department of the universe's pharmaceutical section. If you're lucky, she'll give you a lollipop when you stop by.

In fact, of course, philosophers have been arguing for centuries that human emotions and behavior emerge only socially and are not products of brain chemistry alone, in isolation. Hence, two persons with substantially identical brain chemistry may become very different people, depending on the interpreted social context in which they are raised, especially in light of their experiences of love and acceptance, or encouragement and respect for their contributions to discussions. It is both nature and nurture that we have to worry about.

As a matter of fact, the same person may be very different if allowed to love and be loved by someone needed for sanity, so as to cope with a heavy burden of suffering, as opposed to being subjected to non-comprehending brutalization and manipulation by strangers. The best way to destroy any chance for rehabilitation for an offender -- or healthy social adjustment for anyone -- is to send the person to prison, where he or she will certainly become what is admired in such places: a criminal.

Much the same is true if a person is elected to political office or becomes a judge(?), any chance for healthy adjustment to "normality" (What's that?) goes out the window. We need a program of rehabilitation for judges and politicians. Possibly a half-way house, so that former elected officials can be taught useful work skills. Air conditioning repair or hair cutting are some of the likely areas of instruction.

This may have something to with the fact that so few persons who come from socially despised minority groups become scientists or philosophers, or are taken seriously when they express opinions on these matters or any others, even as women search for a room of their own in which to write about all this social science stuff.

Ms. Schultz must know better than this. She may come to the realization that the coincidence of a brain state with subjective emotions does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the brain states caused the emotions. It could just as well be the other way around. (See my post about the Dalai Lama and neuroscience.) Happily, Professor Harries has found the right answers:

Philosophy, as I understand it, has its origin in a sense of homelessness that is intimately linked to the demand for authenticity, the demand that the individual should act and think for himself or herself -- a demand that stands in some tension with today's professionalization of philosophy. At the center of philosophy so understood lies something like an ethical concern, born of the demand that individuals assume responsibility for their thoughts and actions, and of the consequent refusal to rest content with what has come to be established, accepted, and taken for granted. ... Philosophy is thus a critical, and especially a self-critical enterprise. Not that it can draw on a firm understanding of where to go. Quite the contrary: philosophy remains alive only so long as the question "What is the right way?" continues to be asked because that way remains questionable, because our place and vocation remain uncertain.

And finally,

... self-transcendence is inseparable from the freedom that defines philosophy and its search for truth. Philosophy is an exercise in freedom.

Not only is philosophy an exercise in freedom, it is also a joyful freedom or a kind of child-like "playing," in which imagination is vital. I recently saw a new book by Robert Solomon entitled, The Joy of Wisdom. I am saving up for that one. I continue to believe that the best science -- and maybe also legal thinking -- is like that too, joyful or playful, and that no pill can produce such an attitude in people.

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