Some of the initial listener reaction to our David Brin episode harkens back to similar comments we got about our Pat Churchland episode, our first attempt at including a celebrity author in the discussion.
As Seth commented right after the recording with David, there was little purchase on his edifice in which to plant a foothold in real time. I did my best to engage him in discussing what philosophy is and how it really differs from science and sci-fi, and Dylan hit him about the same issue from a different angle a few times, but his answers tended to be in the form of “OK, but what you’ve got to understand is…” and then lapsing into one of his stump speeches whose relevance to the question was only evident about 5 minutes in. I’ll admit at the time that by half way through the episode I had more or less given up and was starting to tune out a bit, particularly since I had just listened to David on maybe three other podcasts deliver many of the same points that we were hearing. This was not what I had in mind, but as he was essentially doing us a favor by participating, I didn’t see a lot of options to change the dynamic then and there without massively violating the spirit of PEL congeniality. It was good to have the follow-up discussion (which Wes did join us on) a week later, and I hope to post that early next week for you.
In doing the edit, I got to hear the whole show again, and think there is definitely something to be gotten out of the episode, where at least Brin’s picture gets laid out in reasonably thorough detail. He’s not your garden variety advocate of scientism, as he has written some philosophy himself. I think his attraction to philosophy is somewhat less mindfucked than many of ours who went through philosophy graduate school: he’s interested in the fundamental questions of life after death, the nature of space and time, what constitutes a just society, etc., and not questions that I often struggle to formulate for PEL, which are really “What could Derrida possibly be talking about?” and “What possible advantage could two ontological views have over each other if they are formulated to have no difference in practical upshot?” David doesn’t dismiss philosophy, but I think there’s a legitimate challenge in what he says to philosophy’s pretensions. Toward the end of the episode, he lays out philosophy’s benefits, which I’ll reword considerably here:
1) Philosophy is high-level science, is proto-science, is science before it has figured out a paradigm and where you retreat to in order to compare the virtues of different possible paradigms. I think there’s room for a great deal of disagreement here about the relative importance of the two stages of thinking: is, for instance, the move that Darwin makes in creating the picture of natural selection and so setting up the research program the important one, or is it the results you gain from applying that method? Once you jump into the paradigm, is that when all the interesting work starts happening (as the scientist would say), or is the really interesting move, the one probably forever worth revisiting and refining and challenging, Darwin’s initially theoretical one (i.e. the philosophy)? The answer will differ depending on what science you’re talking about; astronomers are going to be less interested in revisiting Galileo vs. Leibniz than psychologists will re. visiting Freud vs. Skinner.
2) Philosophy is critical thinking. Now, I do find laughable Brin’s particular comment that philosophy’s discovery of logical fallacies is his greatest achievement. This is not dissimilar to the scientism on display at lesswrong.com, which I’ve written about before. If you think that pointing out a formal logical fallacy or cognitive bias solves any of our perennial philosophical problems, then you likely haven’t read far enough in the literature in that area. But still, certainly I agree that in a broader sense, training in philosophy most reliably instills critical thinking skills rather than imparting any particular wisdom.
3) Philosophy is good for the soul. This has been our essential response (in episodes like the one on Plato’s Gorgias) to scientistic criticism: Philosophy is one of the humanities, and as such is one of the “higher pleasures” as Mill would say. We have gotten much further in other discussions in figuring out the relationship between philosophy and literature. Brin is hardly delicate in the way he puts his philosophical points in the mouths of his characters and depicts them through events in his book, but at least there’s some meat there, and not just the semblance as so often happens in “deep”-seeming but probably largely romantic literature. I’ve written previously about trying to take literature too philosophically seriously, and philosophy as the ostensible advantage over the arts as being explicitly oriented towards truth, even if, as I pointed out at the end of the discussion with David, the appeal of a lot of philosophy to me ends up not being a matter of actually having learned more truths the world after reading it.
To me, this list seems pretty exhaustive, and constitutes a challenge to the philosophy fan. In my case, at least, I do want to have it both ways: I want philosophy to be a fun hobby, one of the arts, an immersion that has the advantage of exercising certain parts of my brain, a purposefully “useless” endeavor, but I also retain the pretension of wanting to investigate truth and (where applicable), contribute to the direction of world history in light of truth, in my own pitifully small way. I don’t think David is entirely misguided in telling us to be philosophical, but not too philosophical, lest we waste our lives isolated in secretions of our own thought. That’s a reasonable take on what it is to live the partially examined life. I am of course aware of the irony in putting the phrase there about “secretions of our own thought” there in David’s mouth, as his pad is no doubt thoroughly decked with such secretions, but at least there’s an essentially outward focus to his proselytizing; he’s a public intellectual and not an academic mummy, read only by his peers, if that. If you take environmentalism seriously in any of its aspects, and agree with him that the world is in real danger (from climate change, overpopulation, depletion of natural resources, and all the horrible things that could be brought about inadvertently by technological advances), then you do have a moral imperative to act, not just think.
Finally, a word to those objecting to David for his “arrogance.” I thought reading Nietzsche was supposed to immunize one from getting riled up at this. If you think you’ve got anything to say, and find the whole false modesty of our culture tedious, then you’re inevitably going to sound arrogant (and it’s not uncommon for PEL to be accused of that). Our collective (American?) oversensitivity to others’ haughtiness is probably something best gotten past. As philosophy fans, it’s tempting for us when someone dumps on our interests to get defensive, but a more fruitful response is to take what there is to be had (as I’ve tried to do above) and merely shrug at the folly of those who are apparently too sure of themselves.
The recurrence in David’s speeches of the issue of intelligence is weird and off-putting, of course. It appears to beg the question of whether intelligence is unitary/real/measurable/significant, and there’s an inevitable personal dynamic involved in dwelling on the words “smarter than,” such that the implication is “I’m smarter than you” or “We are smarter than those unwashed masses” or something snooty like that. Even though David described C.P. Snow’s and his own long-held assessment of scientists as smarter than those in the humanities as mistaken, he also gave a pretty clear impression of his current views in a way that I’m not surprised leaves much of our audience feeling insulted and/or that David is a dabbler in philosophy that doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But look at the context: His view is dominated by recognition of existential threats to our species, which we, collectively, have not been smart enough to deal with (“wise enough” might be a better term, but he has in mind not just making wise choices but inventing them). He thinks that technology such as the ready availability of information on the Internet has made us functionally smarter, but that we have a long, fricking way still to go to meet the challenge. Despite his delight in being a polymath, I think his take on intelligence is generally self-deprecating as part of a species deprecation: we are these animals that burst through the glass ceiling and don’t quite know what to do with ourselves. In the face of this pressing need for orientation, and in the face of a society that he sees as crazy in so many of its prevalent political decisions and attitudes, do you blame him for trying to ruffle some feathers? He sees himself as a modern-day Socrates, who is intentionally irritating people with his prodding. I think he’s got the self-consciousness to know he’s irritating (and that declaring yourself to be playing the role of Socrates is smug), and hopes you will join him in his chuckling, which has both ironic and sincerely gleeful elements.
Image note: Found this fighting old superhero thing here.