Essentialism and operationalism in philosophy

I just finished a remarkable little book called How to Think Straight about Psychology. It was remarkable because it was such a good introduction to what science is; you can read my review of it here. There was one point, however, where I felt like I wanted to write a reply, to explain that what was being said did not apply to philosophy the same way. At the same time, such a reply will illuminate something in science and philosophy. This is that reply.

In chapter three, “Operationalism and Essentialism”, there’s a section entitled “Why Scientists Are not Essentialists”, and it has a subsection called “Essentialists Like to Argue About the Meaning of Words”. I liked this as soon as I saw it, because this is the feeling I get in philosophy. Essentialism is roughly the idea that there are (or that we should find) some ultimate real nature of things that really define what they are. I think it’s generally more meaningful to say what you mean (by a word, say) and then say what is to be said about that meaning and its relationship to the world. Indeed, I’ve written before about “arguing about words” in almost the same sense. Continue reading

Review: How to Think Straight about Psychology by Keith Stanovich

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an introductory textbook for psychology students — but it’s also a great introduction to what I might call practical philosophy of science.

A lot of philosophy of science, when it’s under that label, is about things like “Can science be true if it’s socially constructed?” or “How can we prove induction works when we can’t use induction to do it?” I’ve heard it’s largely uninteresting to actual scientists. But there’s something else, too, something I’ve mainly come across in The Skeptic’s Dictionary — and psychology courses at our university, where this book (tenth international edition) is currently required reading. It’s about how science really works, the things you need to understand as a scientist. It’s also about why you need science instead of something else.

How to Think Straight about Psychology is an excellent introduction to these questions, as well as dispelling misconceptions about psychology specifically. It tells, among other things, how the public misunderstands psychology because they think of Freud and science because they think of Einstein. It goes through the basic methods of science in general and how these apply in psychology, and it keeps things colourful by using examples such as the Amazing Randi, Clever Hans the Wonder Horse who was thought to be mathematically able but was actually more of a mind reader, and of course that one guy who proved that a disease was not spread by feces by eating them. Still, these are just flavour, not arguments; everything here is scientifically based, and this is one of the rare places where it’s also made very clear why this matters. Pseudoscience is also discussed and it is shown just why it is so “pseudo-“. And why it is not harmless, either.

While much of the book is a kind of apology for psychology, there is towards the end a small but candid section about when — quite often — psychology itself is unscientific.

I recommend this book for anyone, even if not interested in psychology specifically, wanting to know the “secret” behind the success of science. It illustrates well the point I wrote recently about, that science is largely based on being really suspicious about every putative belief. If only more people understood these things, there would be a lot less nonsense around.

I’m also writing another post as it were in response to something said in this book, about essentialism in science and philosophy.

Rating: 4.5/5

Science is not based on faith in human reason

So many things are true in some sense, yet it might be better not to say them. There is a sense in which science is based on trusting human reason rather than, say, divine revelation. But this puts them on an equal level in a false way. What is “reason” in such a case? It’s largely about being critical, about questioning things — about not taking them on trust, or faith. But it goes further than that: the scientific method is in a significant sense based on a deep mistrust in human reasoning.

Let’s start with an analogy outside of science proper. Say you have a holy book, and two people, Alice and Bob. Both are taught to believe in the holy book at first. Alice never goes beyond this but goes on accepting the holy book as it was taught to her. Bob, on the other hand, starts questioning it. He does some research and finds that the way he was taught about the book is not historically accurate. Maybe he believes in the original book then, or maybe he starts questioning it on the whole because he sees things are not as simple as he was shown.

Is it now that Alice has faith in revelation and Bob has faith in reason? If you would say yes, then what is revelation? Is it whatever people happen to teach you about your holy book, or is it what the book originally meant? Continue reading

Why I stopped liking The Da Vinci Code after I’d already read it

da Vinci CodeBack when I read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, I rather enjoyed it. It had nice suspense and action and fascinating fictional extrapolation from more or less real-sounding historical details. I didn’t notice the bad writing people complain about, either.

But later on, I heard something that turned me against the overall. I don’t remember the form I heard it in, but it’s summed up by this quote from Dan Brown:

99 percent of it is true. All of the architecture, the art, the secret rituals, the history, all of that is true… [A]ll that is fiction, of course, is that there’s a Harvard symbologist named Robert Langdon, and all of his action is fictionalized. But the background is all true.

Just… hold on a second. You’re not going to say that all that extravagant conspiracy theory stuff is made up? Because I know about conspiracy theories, and that was some serious tin foil hat stuff. It’s nothing like either a reasonable or a generally accepted hypothesis.

It gets worse. Turns out Dan Brown basically can’t get anything right, in regards to background. Even the title — apparently, calling Leonardo da Vinci “da Vinci” is like saying “What would of Nazareth do?” And how about the fact that there is no such thing as a “symbologist”? The real-life study of symbols is called semiotics, but it’s totally different. (The eminent semiotics guy Umberto Eco has written a book that’s exactly the opposite of Dan Brown’s; whereas The Da Vinci Code is an action-packed story with a naïve conspiracy theory, Foucault’s Pendulum is a long novel in which very little happens until the end that cynically deconstructs conspiracy theories. Also, I expect the numerous historical etc. details Eco includes are correct.) Indeed, the closest equivalent in real life to what Robert Langdon does might be “conspiracy theorist”, since his job is to find secret symbols everywhere that connect everything to everything else.

I like fantasy fiction, but the authors seldom claim that elves or sparkly vampires are real. So Dan Brown’s false claims basically turn his entertaining and imaginative fiction into pseudoscience. Why did he claim it was truth instead of fiction? Who knows, but doing so devalued the whole thing. Also, as it turns out, he should have done his research better even for fiction.

The imperfect universe and the idea of a perfect being

All things sick and cancerous
All evil great and small
All things foul and dangerous
The Lord God made them all

Monty Python’s version of “All Things Bright and Beautiful”


I’m far from the first to question the idea that god as the perfect being fits together with our world as it is. The problem of evil has been used as an argument against the existence of god: how could there be a perfectly good and all-powerful being and there still be evil in the world? Wouldn’t the perfectly good want to fix it and the all-powerful be able to? (Personally, I don’t need an argument against when we haven’t got an argument for.) There have been attempts to argue against this, but they’re all dodging the issue: the argument proves that there can’t be a god that’s perfectly good and all-powerful in the sense assumed in the argument, and it’s not easy to come up with a sense for both that’s satisfactory but doesn’t run afoul of this argument. Honestly, I think theists should just see reason on this point and admit that god doesn’t have both attributes, but it seems as if surprisingly few do.

But that’s an old thing. I want to go a step further. Not only is god’s “perfection” incompatible with the imperfect world without selectiveness and doublethink — the whole idea of a perfect being barely makes sense at all, and especially not in conjunction with the imperfect supposedly created world. Existence in this world is based on happening and striving towards something, and both imply imperfection. Continue reading

Always now but never still – our strange relationship with time

We are always situated in time — unsurprisingly, since “always” pretty much means “at every time”. Anyway, we can observe that we are always at some particular point in time. Yet, we are also moving “forward” in time (again, redundant considering what time means), and the conjunction of these two facts has strange consequences.

If something is in the past, then provided its effects are not still present, we can justly say that it’s gone. So we can say “thank goodness it’s over” about something unpleasant, or have to acknowledge that something pleasant is gone already. This isn’t so paradoxical. What’s in the past is gone, save for whatever effects may linger now, and it remains gone. But what about things in the future?

Since now is always now, and the future isn’t, it might be thought that we don’t need to be bothered by whatever lies in the future. Continue reading