Paper: Presenting philosophy, what science has taught me about it

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

Science and philosophy are two areas of human endeavor that currently have, shall we say, a complex relationship. Arguably, the scientific approach to understanding the world was invented by the Pre-Socratic philosophers — folks like Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and the others — when they took the crucial step of rejecting mythical “explanations” of phenomena and realized that true understanding begins only when we look for natural causality (Waterfield, 2009). So was born natural philosophy, a branch of philosophy separate from metaphysics, ethics, logic, aesthetics, and so forth.

Jump forward to the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries (Shapin, 2018) and we begin to discern clear elements of what we nowadays refer to as science, fundamentally distinct from philosophy. Even though the word “scientist” wasn’t introduced until 1833 by philosopher and historian of science William Whewell (Cahan, 2003), and even though Galileo, Newton, and Boyle considered themselves natural philosophers, the irreversible divergence of science from philosophy had clearly started. It continued with a series of new scientific fields sequentially spinning off natural philosophy: physics, with Galileo and Newton; chemistry, with Boyle; biology, with Darwin; and psychology, with James. The process is still ongoing, with the classic field of philosophy of mind (Heil, 2019) increasingly turning into cognitive and neuro-science (Bermúdez, 2020). …

[From: Human Affairs, 15 October 2021. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Paper: The tension between scientific knowledge and common-sense philosophy

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

Werner Heisenberg, one of the creators of the theory of quantum mechanics, adopted what by today’s standards would be a rather unusual position for a scientist, especially a physicist. In Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, he wrote:

“The concepts of classical physics form the language by which we describe the arrangements of our experiments and state the results. We cannot and should not replace these concepts by any others . . . The concepts of classical physics are just a refinement of the concepts of daily life and are an essential part of the language which forms the basis of all natural science. There is no use in discussing what could be done if we were other beings than we are. At this point we have to realize, as von Weizsacker has put it, that ‘Nature is earlier than man, but man is earlier than natural science.’ The first part of the sentence justifies classical physics, with its ideal of complete objectivity. The second part tells us why we cannot escape the paradox of quantum theory, namely, the necessity of using the classical concepts.” (Heisenberg 1958: 46–56)

In these days when science in general, and physics in particular, have gotten even weirder than in Heisenberg’s time, such talk feels strange and perhaps outmoded. What could it possibly mean to remind our- selves that ‘nature is earlier than man, but man is earlier than natural science’, if natural science speaks to us of cosmic superstrings (Vachaspati et al. 2015), parallel universes (Linde 2017), and the illu- sory nature of time itself (Elmahalawy et al. 2015)? The picture of the world that science pushes on us is getting farther and farther away from our common-sense view of that same world. The desk on which I’m typing this is not ‘really’ a solid thing, according to fundamental physics, but rather a dynamic entity made possible by close-quarters interactions among tiny particles (Amoroso et al. 2013). My decision to accept to write this chapter for the book you are reading wasn’t ‘really’ mine, because according to some neuroscientists we don’t have anything remotely comparable to the sort of will that we sense, intuitively, we do have (Roskies 2012). Examples could be multiplied easily. Just open any graduate-level textbook, or even popular science book, in biology, neuroscience, or physics, and you’ll immediately get the picture. …

[From: The Cambridge Companion to Common-Sense Philosophy, edited by Rik Peels and Van Woudenberg, Cambridge University Press, 2020. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Paper: Public reasoning about the good life

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

We all want to live a “good life,” yet relatively few people pause to critically ponder what that might mean in the first place. This is interesting because it implies that we tend not to think too much about the very thing that is arguably the most important for us.

A common way to frame the question is: what makes us happy? Everyone agrees that they want to be happy, and entire industries – from movies to cosmetics, from exercise to diets – are geared toward making us happy, or at the very least selling us a particular conception of happiness. Indeed, a moment’s reflection will convince us that while it is sensible to ask why we want to pursue this or that project in life, it doesn’t make much sense to ask why we want to be happy. Happiness is taken to be the ultimate goal, something that has value in and of itself.

The problem with happiness, though, is twofold: first, the word is rather amorphous and means different things in different contexts and to different people. Second, when researchers have tried to measure happiness, adopting one operational definition or another, they have discovered that (i) people in many countries haven’t gotten happier over the span of the past several decades, and (ii) most people don’t seem to be aware of what would actually make them happy and instead pursue a number of other things that, empirically speaking, don’t. …

[From: A Companion to Public Philosophy, edited by Lee McIntyre, Nancy McHugh, and Ian Olasov, Wiley Blackwell, 2022. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Paper: Consciousness, a biologist’s perspective

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

“Philosophy is dead’, proclaimed the great Stephen Hawking. The ‘scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge’. This judgement will resonate with a lot of people. Philosophy is often seen as the science of the past, the abstract speculation we engaged in before we knew what we were doing. If you’re privileged enough to study philosophy, that’s great, but don’t be confused: it doesn’t make progress.

Our guide for this chapter is the philosopher and scientist Massimo Pigliucci, one of the most prolific, insightful and accessible thinkers of the modern day. According to Pigliucci, philosophy isn’t dead. The art of living, the forging of life’s purpose and the study of good reasoning are just as important as they’ve always been. Moreover, Massimo points out that science itself is rooted in the progress of philosophy. Psychology, chemistry, physics, biology – these disciplines are proof of the progress philosophy can make. However, there is a certain type of philosophy that is dead: armchair metaphysics.

In this essay, Pigliucci unleashes a sweeping attack on three of the biggest ideas in philosophy of mind: Mary the neuroscientist, philosophical zombies and panpsychism. Massimo cuts through to the heart of the debate. Speculative philosophy of mind, he says, is never going to solve the problem of consciousness. If we want to solve the mystery, science must lead the way. ….

[From: Philosophers on Consciousness – Talking About the Mind, edited by Jack Symes, Bloomsbury, 2022. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Paper: Scientism and liberal naturalism

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

Liberal naturalism as understood within the context of this volume is an approach that attempts to strike a reasonable balance between a philosophy that is simply a handmaiden to the natural sciences and one that rejects them. While relatively new on the modern philosophical stage, liberal naturalism builds on a long tradition in philosophy, one that loosely connects Aristotle, Spinoza, Hume, Kant and Quine, among others, without necessarily agreeing in full with any of the views put forth by those thinkers.2 As such, liberal naturalism squarely puts itself at odds with the emerging phenomenon of scientism, to which this chapter is dedicated.

Here I will (1) discuss what scientism is, (2) provide a few examples of it, (3) explore some excesses on the other side of the debate, where “scientism” is used as a generic (and unwarranted) trump card to defend irrational or antirational views; (4) connect scientism to our conceptions of what science itself is and then (5) adopt a more organic view of the relationship between science and the humanities, with particular reference to philosophy, based on the much underappreciated framework proposed in mid-twentieth century by Wilfrid Sellars and his “stereoscopic” view of what he called the scientific and the manifest images of the world. I will suggest that, just as Sellars himself envisioned (and contra some of his own disciples, both those of the so-called “right wing” and those of the so-called “left-wing”), it is a major and crucial task of philosophy to continually monitor and negotiate our conceptualization of the relationship between the two images. …

[From: The Routledge Handbook of Liberal Naturalism, edited by Mario De Caro & David Macarthur, Routledge, 2022. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Paper: Prosoche as Stoic mindfulness

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

Despite a widespread opinion that meditation is largely a practice developed in Eastern traditions, the West has produced a number of techniques that can reasonably be classified under the broad umbrella of meditative. For instance, Ignatius of Loyola – the founder of the Jesuit order – developed a set of spiritual exercises for Christian monks. His exercises were actually based on Epictetus’s Enchiridion, one of the fundamental texts in ancient Stoicism.

Modern Stoics, as well as cognitive behavioral therapists, have built on early Stoic techniques to develop a panoply of meditative practices based on a range of evidence-based techniques, including philosophical journaling and visualization exercises. Moreover, Epictetus himself devotes a chapter of his Discourses to the concept of prosochê, literally translated as ‘attention’ and often referred to as Stoic mindfulness. While its import in ancient Stoicism is still being debated by modern scholars, the idea is found also in Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, and has more recently been recovered and fleshed out by Chris Fisher (2015), Pierre Hadot (1995, 2001, 2004), and Donald Robertson (2019a, 2019b), among others. This essay examines prosochê, its purpose, and how it fits in the broader scheme of Stoic practical philosophy. …

[From: Routledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation, edited by Rick Repetti, Routledge, 2022. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]

Paper: Stoic therapy for today’s troubles

by Massimo Pigliucci

[Part of an occasional series presenting academic papers I have published but that may be of general interest. Full list with links here.]

Why would anyone want to resurrect ancient Stoicism as a way to tackle today’s troubles? Isn’t it all about going through life with a stiff upper lip while doing one’s best to suppress emotions? It may have been good for Roman legionnaires, but hardly suitable to the uber-technologic society of the twenty-first century, with its fast-paced life, recurring economic upheavals, and possible environmental catastrophe.

Also, wasn’t Stoicism a man’s thing? After all, the very Latin root of that crucial word, “virtue” [vir] means “man.” And we know that women in ancient Roman and Greek societies were confined to very restrictive roles, not really citizens in any meaningful way of the word. How is that going to square after three waves of feminism, the #metoo (fourth wave) movement, and the increasing, if still painfully slow, undoing of the patriarchy? …

[From: The Routledge Handbook of Hellenistic Philosophy, edited by Kelly Arenson, Routledge, 2020. You can ask for a free reprint by using this Contact Form.]