A Different Take on E.O. Wilson

by Massimo Pigliucci

Here is a Roman joke: Two old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while happen to meet in the street. One says to the other: “Oh, hi! I thought you were dead!”

“What on earth makes you say so?”

“Well, all of a sudden people were speaking well of you …”

That joke came to my mind when I read three short tributes to biologist E.O. Wilson in Skeptical Inquirer (May/June 2022). Wilson passed away on December 26, 2021, at age ninety-two. The tributes are by evolutionary biologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins, evolutionary developmental biologist Sean B. Carroll, and cognitive linguist Steven Pinker. Predictably, all three portraits are very positive. Just as predictably, they are somewhat flawed.

Let me first acknowledge where I agree with Dawkins, Carroll, and Pinker. Wilson, whom I’ve met a few times during my career as an evolutionary biologist first and a philosopher of science later, was indubitably one of the towering figures in late-twentieth-century biology. His expertise on social insects, and ants in particular, was unparalleled. As a science writer, he won two Pulitzer Prizes. Right there that’s more than enough to enshrine him in the history of biology, which is no small thing. For more (well justified) praise, see Ken Frazier’s in-depth biographical essay in the May/June 2022 SI (Frazier 2022).

That said, some of his scientific ideas were questionable, and some of his personal ethics were borderline despicable; this ought to be acknowledged as well. After all, as skeptics we are presumably interested in the truth about the man, not in mythologizing him. … (continue at Skeptical Inquirer)

Plato’s mistake

by Massimo Pigliucci

What is your take on metaphysics? Mine is not particularly positive. At least, I am deeply suspicious, and largely reject, the whole approach to the field known as “analytic” metaphysics, which has been dominant since the beginning of the 20th century. (I am increasingly skeptical of the value of all analytic philosophy, but that’s a story for another time. And no, I’m no friend of the continental tradition either!)

My favorite whipping boy is a leading analytic metaphysician, David Chalmers, who initially became famous for his notions about consciousness and philosophical zombies, and has more recently embraced equally problematic notions like panpsychism. Chalmers and his colleagues proposed their “theories” on the basis of their intuitions and of what they find “conceivable,” regardless of whether there is any empirical evidence for their speculation. Indeed, they tend to be contemptuous of empirical evidence, dismissing it as the result of a “reductionist” approach to understanding things. … (continue at Substack)

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.]

Suggested reading: Two stories, Anton Chekhov and Jo Ann Beard

[Articles I come across that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Mary Gaitskill

These are beautiful stories about death. Much of their beauty comes from the authors’ matter-of-fact gentleness regarding the subject, the way they come to it with humility rather than horror or even much drama. Although Chekhov was ambivalent about traditional spirituality and Beard is an atheist, both stories quietly revere life and celebrate its phenomena, even when it is absurd, painful and starkly impersonal at the end.

Gusev was written in 1890. It is named after it’s main character, a poor, deeply ignorant soldier sick with consumption, on his way back to Russia in the hold of a ship with other dying men. Much of the story is taken up by his comically cross-purpose dialogue with another poor but educated man from a higher class. Although the style is realistic, the story blends mundane events and memories with literal dreams and fanciful images as the solid, understandable structures that create human meaning and sentiment (family, work) begin to internally break apart in inchoate pieces dominated by a powerful, implacable image wreathed in smoke. The story opens with Gusev musing about a boat “running over” a fish so big it destroys the boat, introducing the element of fantasy that, by the end, will have given way to a real fish situation. I won’t say more now in case you (hopefully) want to read the story before going further—it’s only 13 pages! … (continue at Substack)

Figs in winter and the idea of an art of living

by Massimo Pigliucci

So if you long for your son or your friend at a time when they aren’t given to you, you’re longing for a fig in winter, believe me. (Epictetus, Discourses, III.24.87)

Figs are one of my favorite fruits. The common edible fig’s scientific name is Ficus carica, a plant native of the Mediterranean and western Asia. Figs are in season twice a year: during the first few weeks in June, and then again between August and October. That’s it. Which means that if I crave fresh figs in December or January I’m a bit of a fool. I’m even more of a fool if I don’t take advantage of the right season and manage to have my fill of figs when they are actually around.

This is the metaphor that the first century Stoic philosopher Epictetus uses to explain to his students why they should not regret their loved ones when they are longer around, but should very much pay attention to them when they are. The idea applies to everything in life: relatives, partners, friends, but also the stages of our own life—from childhood to old age—and of course for everything we think we possess, in terms of material objects. … (continue on Substack)

Suggested reading: Philosopher of the apocalypse

[Articles I come across that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Audrey Borowski

As the commander of the weather plane that supported the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, Claude Eatherly did not feel any particular animosity towards the Japanese, involved as he was in committing arguably one of the most barbaric acts of the Second World War with complete indifference. Eatherly carried out his mission, oblivious to its ultimate finality. How had it come to that? How was it possible that, as the philosopher Günther Anders later wrote, ‘the amount of wickedness required to accomplish the ultimate crime, a disproportionate crime, was equal to zero’?

The work of Anders (1902-92), a German philosopher and essayist of Jewish descent, bears testimony to some of the 20th century’s major disasters and their effect on the intellectual landscape of the time. Anders set out to theorise those disasters and the impact of technology on modernity and the human condition, in particular technology’s gradual domination over all aspects of human activity – the commodification, dehumanisation and even derealisation of the world that had resulted from that domination. … (continue at Aeon)

Seneca to Lucilius: 87, in favor of the simple life

by Massimo Pigliucci

I’m sure you noticed that we live in a capitalistic, and therefore hyper-consumerist society. The logic of capitalism implies that the economy has to keep growing, and in order for that to happen more and more people have to buy lots of crap that they don’t need. Setting aside the obvious observation — made even by some economists — that indefinite growth is the goal of a cancer cell, that is why we are bombarded by advertisements that not so subtly aim at convincing us that if only we had the latest smart phone, a nicer car, a bigger house, and so forth then we would truly be happy. … (continue on Medium)

Suggested reading: Wine-tasting is junk science

[Articles I come across that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by David Derbyshire

Every year Robert Hodgson selects the finest wines from his small California winery and puts them into competitions around the state.

And in most years, the results are surprisingly inconsistent: some whites rated as gold medallists in one contest do badly in another. Reds adored by some panels are dismissed by others. Over the decades Hodgson, a softly spoken retired oceanographer, became curious. Judging wines is by its nature subjective, but the awards appeared to be handed out at random.

So drawing on his background in statistics, Hodgson approached the organisers of the California State Fair wine competition, the oldest contest of its kind in North America, and proposed an experiment for their annual June tasting sessions. … (continue at The Guardian)

Suggested reading: Popper was right about the link between certainty and extremism

[Articles I come across that strike me as being of general interest. Suggestions welcome, using the Contact form on this site.]

by Thomas Costello & Shauna Bowes

Political views are, fundamentally, opinions about the best ordering of society. To paint with the broadest of brushes, progressives are optimists, seeking to plant trees whose shade they may never stand under. Conservatives, by contrast, believe that moving too quickly risks breaking the fragile machinery of society – perhaps irrevocably so. In our view, both of these philosophical positions are logically coherent and, depending on one’s core values, defensible. We hope that this statement registers to most readers as uncontroversial. After all, most progressives can see that some risk accompanies any new, ambitious societal venture, while most conservatives can see that stagnation looms close behind excessive caution.

Regrettably, it is now apparent that reasonable, intellectually charitable discussions between progressives and conservatives are quite scarce in many places – leaving little room for compromise or legislative success. Many people hate those who disagree with them, perhaps seeing no possible route to the other side’s political conclusions other than moral aberrance or callous self-interest. Accompanying this vitriol and anomie, it would seem, is a widespread lack of scepticism toward one’s own political beliefs. Some people are not just confident, but absolutely, 100 per cent certain that their views about how to order society are optimal. For these people, extremism and animosity might seem to be the only logical route. The philosopher of science Karl Popper went so far as to argue that absolute certainty is the foundational component of totalitarianism: if one is sure that one’s political philosophy will lead to the best possible future for humankind, all manner of terrible acts become justifiable in service of the greater good. … (continue at Psyche)

The ethics (or lack thereof) of belief

by Massimo Pigliucci

William Kingdon Clifford (left) and William James (right)

A shipowner was about to send to sea a ship with immigrants on board. He knew that she was old, and not well built to begin with; that she had seen many seas and storms, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him to great expense.

Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors.

In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales. What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. … (continue on Medium)