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

On multiplexity and the Zarathustrans

In my last post talking about simplex–complex–multiplex, there was one angle missing from what Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart say about them. I’ll write about it in a post of its own but also add it there afterwards.

In both their book The Collapse of Chaos and the previously mentioned Figments of Reality, Cohen and Stewart sometimes illustrate their points with stories about the fictional aliens called the Zarathustrans. In Collapse, human space travellers encounter Zarathustrans on their own planet, whereas in Figments, Zarathustrans observe the Earth. They look vaguely like flightless birds, but this resemblance is superficial, and they’re both very alien and very human at the same time. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that they have evolved not to be entirely independent individuals but to live in groups of eight Zarathustrans (plus one symbiote of a different kind). This means not only that they are obsessed with the number eight and see numerological significance based on it everywhere, but also that they naturally think in a multiplexual way and find simplex thinking hard. Continue reading

The pastor and the steam engine

In many of my recent posts, I could have referred to a story in an old philosophical article. I’ll quote it here, along with some other parts from the article.

From R. E. Hobart: “Free Will as Involving Determination and Inconceivable Without It”:

We have been accustomed to think of a thing or a person as a whole, not as a combination of parts. We have been accustomed to think of its activities as the way in which, as a whole, it naturally and obviously behaves. It is a new, an unfamiliar and an awkward act on the mind’s part to consider it, not as one thing acting in its natural manner, but as a system of parts that work together in a complicated process. Analysis often seems at first to have taken away the individuality of the thing, its unity, the impression of the familiar identity.

For a simple mind this is strikingly true of the analysis of a complicated machine. The reader may recall Paulsen’s ever significant story about the introduction of the railway into Germany. [I have not found the original story.] When it reached the village of a certain enlightened pastor, he took his people to where a locomotive engine was standing, and in the clearest words explained of what parts it consisted and how it worked. He was much pleased by their eager nods of intelligence as he proceeded. But on his finishing they said : “Yes. yes, Herr Pastor, but there’s a horse inside, isn’t there?” They could not realise the analysis. They were wanting in the analytical imagination. Why not? They had never been trained to it. It is in the first instance a great effort to think of all the parts working together to produce the simple result that the engine glides down the track. It is easy to think of a horse inside doing all the work. A horse is a familiar totality that does familiar things. They could no better have grasped the physiological analysis of a horse’s movements had it been set forth to them.

Hobart’s point here relates to free will, of course. This is the point I made in “Can you be the ultimate origin of your own choices?” Hobart makes an explicit comparison later:

After all, it is plain what the indeterminists have done. It has not occurred to them that our free will may be resolved into its component elements. (Thus far a portion only of this resolution has been considered.) When it is thus resolved they do not recognise it. The analytical imagination is considerably taxed to perceive the identity of the free power that we feel with the component parts that analysis shows us. We are gratified by their nods of intelligence and their bright, eager faces as the analysis proceeds, but at the close are a little disheartened to find them falling back on the innocent supposition of a horse inside that does all the essential work. They forget that they may be called upon to analyse the horse. They solve the problem by forgetting analysis. The solution they offer is merely: “There is a self inside which does the deciding”.

This also describes what I called anti-explanations.

I can also recommend reading the whole article for a good exposition of a view of free will that I can get behind. I’ve never spelled out my view and arguments fully on this weblog, but Hobart does most of that here for me. There’s something more I want to say — and I have said some of it — but Hobart’s argument should already prove quite clearly how free will is nothing like contradicted by determinism.

Richard Dawkins on “genetic determinism”

Misleading German cover of The Selfish Gene

Dawkins mentions (p. 17) how this German cover picture for The Selfish Gene is completely missing the point.

Some time ago, a year or so back, evolutionary psychology was established as a separate subject at the University of Turku. This immediately raised controversy, at least from a few people trying to shout loudly. Some were apparently religiously motivated, but never mind them. Others were afraid of a reductionist program enforcing existing power structures by explaining them as biologically determined. That, I know, can be a real thing.

After that hassle, it was sobering to now read what Richard Dawkins had written about the myth of genetic determinism as far back as 1982 in The Extended Phenotype. Because some people still haven’t got the memo — and I’m not sure to what extent these are found among evolutionary psychologists and to what extent their critics, although in this last controversy it seemed like critics were missing the point more — I want to quote some of this to make it easily available. I will add a little commentary of my own. Continue reading

Good guys are allowed to hate bad guys?

Humans clearly have an automatic tendency to think in terms of good guys and bad guys. Old news, really. What I want to talk about is how insidious it is.

Let’s look at an absurdly black and white example first. Some games — such as the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and a computer game I almost played at one point called RetroMUD — have a system where characters are officially classified as good, evil, or neither. (This is often called character alignment.) This kind of thing doesn’t need to be all black and white, but it often is. In the extreme versions, it goes like this: while it’s heinous for an evil creature to attack a good one, a good creature attacking an evil creature is doing a good deed even if the evil creature was just sitting there. After all, if the evil creature ever did something, it would be evil things. Because it’s evil. Often this applies to entire species or “races” of creatures. I mentioned RetroMUD because if I recall correctly the documentation said that to maintain a good alignment for your player character over time it was necessary to keep killing evil creatures — combining total naïveté with the bean-counting mechanics of a computer game to absurd results.

Okay, so how is any of this subtle? The subtlety is in how much our brain manages to fool us assuming something just like that even after we have reached the point where we would recognise it as absurd spelled out loud. Continue reading