Faraone, a commenter on our Facebook page, says:
The Churchland episode was disappointing. You had a controversial academic who has made some bold and dubious claims during her career, and you spent your time tossing softballs to-and-fro. If you could not think-up challenging questions on your own, you could have read the many reviews of her book. Instead, it appeared that you prepared by simply reading her book. Don’t do that. The podcast is not supposed to be about respecting academic reputations. Anyone can do that, and it is boring. Its also boring to listen to people find agreement over such “controversial” theories as ‘our neurological responses might play a role in some decisions we make.’ Come on, really? That’s not what she is about. And if you can’t find a whiff of ‘scientism’ in a conversation with Churchland, then don’t you think you went a little tone-deaf on everyone?
Thanks for the comment, F. I think this is a good one to kick off some discussion on this little format experiment.
Here’s the fundamental difficulty: The issue for us wasn’t whether we were going to ask critical or easy questions to her, but whether we would ask questions at all.
The format of our show is not an interview. When guests come on, we have a conversation with them, just as we do when we don’t have a guest. I think making Hume an official part of the episode worked well: it made it a little more like a normal conversation.
What we do is essentially an on-air study group, not a debate. If a professor — the author of the book you’re reading — agrees to come by your study group, what do you do? My strategy was largely one of denial: Let’s try to just make our way through the reading as we normally would, despite the fact that she’d have much more to say than an ordinary guest. Having the author there, we could try to get some additional insight re. what she was about and help in incorporating what we had to say into our own thinking.
Generally for any episode, I just read the selected reading and bring in my past experience to try to deal with it. If I go to additional sources, it’s to help me interpret it, or to chase down some particular threads. The contrasts between different views tend to come out over a series of episodes, and you can be sure we’re not done talking about scientism, or about moral sentiments.
Re. the scientism objection in particular, that’s usually an objection to what the author DOESN’T talk about rather than what he or she does. Pat’s main concerns (in her book) are brain chemicals and which types of voles display which care-behaviors, etc. That’s what she tends to talk about in other forums. Also, I’ll say that her “philosophical” chapters towards the end are pretty fast: you’re not going to get a very satisfying account of G.E. Moore, for instance. I’m sure there are whole classes of ethicists that Pat’s not that interested in or knowledgeable about, but to me, having a debate about that doesn’t seem so productive. Instead, we’ll just read Moore and W.D. Ross and other folks we find interesting on future episodes, and if, say, in discussing Moore it seems helpful to discuss Pat’s strategy for ignoring his anti-naturalist argument, we’ll do that. I think the “back-end” parts of ethical psychology that interest Pat are worth researching. The extent to which she comes down as dismissive of the “front-end” work that professional ethicists see so many nuances in is not that interesting to me. I do want to understand the meta-ethical implications of a view that doesn’t see exceptionless, categorical moral rules as plausible, and what we did in this respect in our Nietzsche episode still needs further exploration on our part.
Lastly (for the moment), let me just express my personal distaste for Crossfire-style debates. If you don’t modify your tone in response to who you’re talking with, that’s just obnoxious. This was not a matter of respecting her academic reputation but of respecting her as a person interested in spending all this time talking with us. I apologize if you found the result “boring.” (Besides, given her extensive experience defending her views and our only mild interest in the whole topic, she would have wiped the floor with us in a debate.)