Neil deGrasse Tyson on Philosophy

Tyson says:

My concern there is that the philosophers believe they are asking deep questions about nature, and to the scientist, it’s, “what are you doing? Why are you wasting your time? Why are you concerning yourself about the meaning of meaning?”… If you are distracted by your questions so that you cannot move forward, you are not being a productive contributor to our understanding of the natural world. And so the scientist knows when the question, what is the sound of one hand clapping, is a pointless delay in your progress… Then it becomes how do you define clapping and all of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definitions of words and I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. And when you do that, and you don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this, but the scientist says, “Look, I’ve got all this world of unknown out there, I’m moving on, I’m leaving you behind, and you can’t even cross the street, because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions that you’ve asked of yourself, I don’t have time for that.”

Here is Massimo Pigliucci’s response reblogged at the Huffington Post.

Wayne Myrvold says this:

Philosophy does carry with it a risk of getting bogged down in questions that are either pointless or meaningless, and it always has. There is, of course, a long tradition of philosophers saying just that. Insert your favourite examples here; my greatest hits list includes the resounding closing paragraph of Hume’s Enquiry, and Kant’s challenge to metaphysicians in the Prolegomena. The logical empiricists, of course, tried to demarcate between sense and nonsense in such a way as to keep science on one side and the sorts of pointless metaphysical disputes they wished to avoid on the other.

But doesn’t this thought show even more where Neil deGrasse Tyson has gone wrong? Isn’t he engaging in a time-honored philosophical discussion with no evident knowledge of what others have said on the topic? All things considered, I do not think that’s the takedown I’d prefer to marshal against Tyson. It smells of mere interdisciplinary squabbles and professionalized turf warfare. After all, maybe he has read all the logical positivists and this is his considered position on the non-sense of most philosophical questions.

I think the better move against Tyson will involve discussing the issues on their merits and not reducing the discussion to interdisciplinary turf warfare. Can there be understanding in the absence of answers? I think that is an interesting question worth pursuing and I’ll do so in a blog post tomorrow.

Louis Menand on Paul de Man and “Theory”

Today I was reminded of the halcyon days of my youth. My college years — like the college years for many others — were constituted in part by the heady atmosphere of “Theory.” Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Barthes, Benjamin, Adorno, Nietzsche, Kojève, Bataille, Kristeva, Butler, Spivak. (I will merely list names rather than attempt a shoddy summary that usually suffices for most journalists writing about recent intellectual history.)

Louis Menand has written a review article at The New Yorker focussing on Paul de Man’s youthful fascism in occupied Belgium and the quasi-deconstructive criticism of his academic career in America. The question is do the fascist ideas he published in newspapers have any relationship to the kind of literary criticism or theory he practiced later? Would this relation point to the inherent fascism of deconstruction or would his turn to deconstruction be a kind of penance? The former makes an accusation against deconstruction and “Theory” in general that they evince a kind of intellectual and political irresponsibility, while the latter suggests that deconstructive thought and “Theory” in general are responsible forms of thought that find fascism anathema.

Menand ends abruptly with an unheralded and unsupported conclusion that de Man would have to have essentially believed in nothing to believe in both fascism and deconstruction. Well, it couldn’t be that he believed in nothing exactly. But certainly he may not have identified with or felt very deeply at all what he professed to believe. Menand’s words:

It may be that he was able to write what he did, both the chillingly deplorable things and the chillingly inspiring ones, because he believed in nothing.

So, what does that mean? Believe in nothing? Is that to affirm nothingness? It is to have no beliefs? Is it to believe things but not like other people do so that inconsistent beliefs didn’t strike de Man as problematic and requiring reconciliation?

My Book Review of “The Universe as We Find It” by John Heil

Now out with Springer! It’s my book review of The Universe as We Find It, by John Heil!

My review has been online for a good while and getting daily traffic at But more recently, the paperback journal has finally printed.

Heil’s book is available in hardback at Amazon. Heil argues for a certain ontology, or theory of what fundamentally exists. If you think about it, after you say “tables, chairs, students and teachers exist,” you might prefer to say, “furniture and people exist.” The latter is a list of what exists that aims to be both comprehensive and simple. You could push for further comprehensiveness, though, by realizing that basically what exists are material things and maybe minds. Another way to count, though, would be to bring physical and mental things together as “things” or “substances.” If you think, then, that maybe all there is is substances, you might be convinced by many philosophers who think that substances and their properties are ontologically distinct. This is where Heil intervenes.

I wrote:

[According to Heil], there are not substances and properties both. There are propertied substances, separable only in the mind (more about which below). If there are properties then there are substances and if there are substances then there are properties, (p. 12). In other words “[e]very substance is some way or other, every property is a way some substance is,” (p. 12).


Furthermore, substances “are not bare, featureless entities to which properties attach themselves as limpets attach themselves to rocks at the seashore… For a substance to possess a property is for it, the substance, to be a particular way… Substances “are not hidden beneath, or masked by, their properties…A substance is not a faceless entity that combines with properties to form a concrete object,” (p. 285). There is a unique ontological relationship between a property and its substance we might call “bearing” or,going the other way, “being borne.” So, properties and substances go together. They are separable only by an operation of the mind (p. 15).

What’s it mean so say they are separable only by an operation of the mind?

According to Locke’s cognitive procedure of abstraction, or “partial consideration,” we may consider, for example, a thing’s shape while excluding its color or consider its color while excluding its shape, even though nothing with shape is colorless and nothing with color lacks a shape. Partial consideration also allows us to consider a propertied substance as a something that has a property or as a property of a something. For instance, we may consider as separate the really inseparable tomato-which-is-red from the redness-of-the-tomato… Significantly, there exists no such thing as a propertyless substratum, a “bare particular.” Although we can arrive at the conception of a “bare particular” by abstracting the properties away from a substance, this result has no ontological upshot.

(The following consists of text entirely from my review. I’ve just pulled-quoted some parts to make it more interesting to the eye.)

Let me turn now to Heil’s application of his theory to an issue in the philosophy of mind. According to non-reductive physicalism, the mental is not reducible to the
physical. The problem has been that this idea coupled with some plausible physicalist commitments seems to indicate that either the mind is epiphenomenal or indeed
reduces to the body. I wrote:

The most popular expression of this worry is known as the exclusion problem. A mental property that is realized by a physical property or
supervenes on a physical property might seem to be pre-empted by the property realizing it or the property it supervenes on. It will be excluded from having any
causal power if the realizing or subvening physical property is sufficient for its effects and we rule out overdetermination.

The exclusion problem generalizes, Heil says—and many philosophers agree—from mental quasi-properties to all upper-level quasi-properties.

When a tomato is taken to be a complex arrangement of simples, it can start to seem as if the complex arrangement has causal relations to the world that exclude the tomato itself from being causal. In different terms, the just-so arrangement of clay seems to do all the causal work and the statue can do none.

Heil’s theory as described above offers a solution to the exclusion problem in its mental-physical and generalized versions. His first point simply denies the sense of a
real distinction between mentality and physicality, and says that there is thus simply no question either of reduction or non-reduction.

Heil describes this move as one of Wittgensteinian therapy. A wrong kind of thinking has got us into trouble and a right kind of thinking will dissolve the problems. “The mental and the physical are names, not of families of substances and properties, but of ways we have of conceiving, describing, and explaining the universe,” (p. 209). When we think about it with Heil, we see that what we thought was a problem was no problem at all. Of course, that may not be satisfying for philosophers who take the exclusion problem to be genuinely problematic.

Heil’s proposed solution to the generalized exclusion problem is to highlight his claim that there are not multiple levels of reality beyond fundamental substances and
their fundamental properties. Their arrangement into complex entities such as tomatoes and bits of clay and, for that matter, statues, is “no addition of being.”

The Evolutionary Psychology of Liberalism and Conservativism

At the Washington Monthly there’s a book review by Chris Mooney of two recent works about the psychological and biological differences between liberals and conservatives.

The most rock-solid finding, simply because it has been shown so many times in so many different studies, is that liberals and conservatives have different personalities. Again and again, when they take the widely accepted Big Five personality traits test, liberals tend to score higher on one of the five major dimensions, [namely] “openness”: the desire to explore, to try new things, to meet new people…

Jonathan Haidt has covered this territory before. I often show this TED talk by Haidt to my ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ students.

Here’s the talk on YouTube.

Leon Wieseltier of ‘The New Republic’ Trashes Nate Silver’s Neo-Postivism

There’s been some buzz after Nate Silver criticized some opinion-makers and pundits as being essentially non-empirical and, therefore, no better than bullshitters. Leon Wieseltier, of The New Republic, seems offended:

[Silver] does not recognize the calling of, or grasp the need for, public reason; or rather, he cannot conceive of public reason except as an exercise in statistical analysis and data visualization.

Many of the issues that we debate are not issues of fact but issues of value. There is no numerical answer to the question of whether men should be allowed to marry men, and the question of whether the government should help the weak, and the question of whether we should intervene against genocide. And so the intimidation by quantification practiced by Silver and the other data mullahs must be resisted.

We say the following in philosophy a lot: “this is a philosophical question and not an empirical question.” Indeed, it is hard to see how some empirical fact (whatever it is) could on its own justify a normative claim. Just because things are a certain way does not mean that they ought to be that way or ought not to be that way. On the other hand, philosophico-ethico questions are answered in a form that essentially involves rationality and inference and what propositions follow from what other propositions.

Silver proclaimed in the interview that “we’re not trying to do advocacy here. We’re trying to just do analysis. We’re not trying to sway public opinion on anything except trying to make them more numerate.” His distinction between analysis and advocacy is a little innocent. (Like the insistence of the man who went from the Times to ESPN that he is an “outsider.”) Is numeracy really what American public discourse most urgently lacks? And why would one boast of having no interest in the great disputations about injustice and inequality?

NYTimes ‘Room For Debate’ Has Brought Affluenza Back Up

What do “affluenza” and Bat Kid have to do with each other? My essay on the moral psychology of empathy is here. I wrote:

The New York Times’ “Room For Debate” feature has brought “affluenza” back into the conversation.

Remember? A Texas judge gave a lenient sentence to a wealthy 16-year old, Ethan Couch, who killed four people while driving drunk. Rather than the 20-year prison sentence the prosecution had asked for, the judge gave Couch 10 years probation and sent him to a luxury rehab facility at the cost to his parents of $450,000. The defense had argued that Couch suffered from “affluenza,” which means, apparently, being too rich to know right from wrong. The defense’s psychologist, G. Dick Miller, seems to think that Couch’s rich parents raised him “without ever setting limits” such that he never learned that “actions have consequences.”

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Reverse Engineering the Essence of Hollywood Films at Netflix

People are talking about Alexis Madrigal’s excellent investigative piece into Netflix’s content ontology and architecture.  You know those super-specific genre categories that Netflix recommends to you? I watch “Bowling for Columbine” and Netflix recommends to me other “Critically-acclaimed Fight-the-System Documentaries” such as “Gasland.” There’s “Cerebral Foreign Horror Movies,” and “Witty Dysfunctional-Family TV Animated Comedies,” for instance. Netflix created these partly by hand and partly by algorithm.

Madrigal wrote a script to scrape the genres from Netflix’s site and discovered the genres number in the tens of thousands. With these data Netflix is able to push new titles to their subscribers that, chances are, the subscriber is going to like. As Madrigal insightfully said:

 … it occurred to me that Netflix has built a system that really only has one analog in the tech world: Facebook’s NewsFeed. But instead of serving you up the pieces of web content that the algorithm thinks you’ll like, Netflix is serving you up filmed entertainment.

You’d think that Facebook would just show you the posts from the people you know and the businesses or online magazines and other content providers that you’ve “liked” with Facebook’s ubiquitous “like” button. If a content provider, say Time Magazine, posts on Facebook a link to an article at their own site,, you’d think that everybody who’s ever “liked” Time’s Facebook page would see the post linking to the article.

But that is no longer how it works. Facebook announced a  new change to their algorithm recently which makes it so that posts only go to some not all of a subscriber’s list of “fans.” Facebook said they wanted to provide higher quality posts to its users. So they are going to downgrade kitten photos and time-wasters from Upworthy if the wizards at Facebook can determine that you prefer serious journalism, for example. This change could put some content companies out of business, as has happened before.

Doctors Are Prescribing Books

Leah Price has written a piece in the Boston Globe about how some doctors in Britain are prescribing books for their mental health patients. The National Health Service set up a program called Books on Prescription, which is just the latest example of a new wave of “bibliotherapy.”

The School of Life, founded by Alain de Botton and Sophie Horwarth, employees philosophers, artists, writers, literary critics and others who offer workshops and classes, focussing on how books can help all of us address basic problems of life.

Indeed, some studies have been conducted which suggest that the written word may promise mental health benefits. Price:

As early as 1997, a randomized trial found bibliotherapy supervised by therapists no less effective in treating unipolar depression than individual or group therapy. More surprisingly, a 2007 literature review by the same researcher found that books treated anxiety just as effectively without a therapist’s guidance as with it. A 2004 meta-analysis comparing bibliotherapy for anxiety and depression to short-term talk therapy found books “as effective as professional treatment of relatively short duration.”

In the last analysis, however, Price concludes that books are only this good: they are better than nothing. And nothing is what lots of people are getting with respect to treatment for their mental health issues, for instance, say, depression.

Whence Shyness?

Some in the blogosphere are wondering about the evolutionary origin of shyness. Why are some people shy and others not? Is there an evolutionary benefit? Maybe it’s a “spandrel” (that is, a by-product of another fitness-making trait).

One study I read somewhere said that shy people as kids have over-active pre-frontal cortexes, which caused them to find it difficult to get out of their own heads. This is a sort of flattering explanation of shyness — shy people are just smarter!

Another explanation is that as social morays came to be more complex there came to be some people who would wonder when they were acting acceptably and this might trip them up from acting at all. Joe Moran writes:

Until a few hundred years ago, life was lived far more in public. For example, it was quite normal for people to urinate or defecate in public places. Even in private houses, whole families would eat, sleep and socialise together in the same room. Then, gradually, bodily functions and aggressive language and behaviour were rendered increasingly invisible in polite society, thanks to what the late sociologist Norbert Elias called the ‘civilising process’ that took place in the Western world from the 16th century onwards. As greater physical and psychological boundaries grew up around individuals, particularly among relative strangers in public, there were more opportunities for awkwardness and embarrassment about when these boundaries should be crossed.

Is that it? That would suggest that at one time there were fewer shy people than there are now. That’s an empirical question but I’m not sure how well it lends itself to scientific research methods.

Another explanation is due to Dr. Zimbardo, author of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

Zimbardo began thinking of shy people as incarcerating themselves in a silent prison, in which they also acted as their own guards, setting severe constraints on their speech and behaviour that were self-imposed although they felt involuntary.

That seems undermotivated. He is just arguing from analogy. It’s a hypothesis without yet any reason to believe it other than it would explain the phenomenon.

Here’s another question. Are we correct to treat shyness as a pathology?

Extreme shyness was redefined as ‘social anxiety disorder’, and drugs such as Seroxat (also known as Paxil), which works like Prozac by increasing the brain’s levels of serotonin, were developed to treat it. As Christopher Lane argues forcefully in his book Shyness: How Normal Behaviour Became a Sickness (2007), this was part of a more general biomedical turn in psychiatry, with its ‘growing consensus that traits once attributed to mavericks, sceptics, or mere introverts are psychiatric disorders that drugs should eliminate’

Another more philosophical issue would be the careful definition of shyness, so we can know what we are talking about. To this end, some are careful to say that introversion is not the same as shyness. Introversion means you get tired out by social stimulation. This is apparently not regarded as pathological. Shyness on the other hand is “a longing for connection with other people which is foiled by fear and awkwardness,” Moran writes.

Moran consider whether or not he believes,

that lots of voluble people do not really listen to each other, that they simply exchange words as though they were pinging them over a tennis net — conducting their social life entirely on its surface. A small, self-regarding part of me thinks there is something glib about easy articulacy and social skill.

If you are shy, it’s worth thinking about just what that means, its origins, and whether or not it’s such a bad thing.

Happiness May Be Bad For You

Emily Esfahani Smith at writes about the philosophical distinction that most psychologists make between happiness and well-being. Happiness comes from the satisfaction of desires, wants and goals, while well-being comes from possessing meaning in life, which the psychologists equate to living for a purpose higher than the self.

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of a new study write. The new study concludes that happiness might even be bad for you.

Happiness may not be as good for the body as [previous] researchers thought. It might even be bad.

Most significantly the study showed a correlation between self-reported happiness and the kind of gene expression that occurs in cases of adversity, loneliness, and stress.

When people feel lonely, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling to make ends meet, their bodies go into threat mode. This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of proinflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses.


“Empty positive emotions” — like the kind people experience during manic episodes or artificially induced euphoria from alcohol and drugs — “are about as good for you for as adversity,” says [one of the authors] Barbara Fredrickson.


Steven Cole and Fredrickson found that people who are happy but have little to no sense of meaning in their lives — proverbially, simply here for the party — have the same gene expression patterns as people who are responding to and enduring chronic adversity.

For a lucky few, happiness and meaning are both in their possession.

But for many, there is a dissonance — they feel that they are low on happiness and high on meaning or that their lives are very high in happiness, but low in meaning. This last group, which has the gene expression pattern associated with adversity, formed a whopping 75 percent of study participants.

It’s an age old philosophical question and a part of any philosophical approach to therapy: can you be happy and hedonistic or is there something more?