Friday, March 26, 2010

The Dangerous World of an Elite Philosophy

The follow up arguments to these posts have been on Brian Leiter’s blog for over a week now, but I only just got around to watching it. Last week, Jerry Fodor and Elliott Sober had an hour-long argument on about the subject matter of Fodor’s new book, co-written with Massimo Piattelli-Palmerini, What Darwin Got Wrong. In the book and the conversation, Fodor argues that natural selection is not actually a scientific theory, despite the popular conviction that it is the theory of natural selection. The argument is provocative, but in my view considerably dangerous politically, but I think understanding this argument can show how dangerous and reckless philosophy can be when it’s done without reference to the role it can play, whether faithful to the purposes of its writers or not, in the formation and battles of ideologies.

People familiar with Fodor’s writings will find it rather strange that I’d call him reckless. Fodor is a writer who spends literally decades perfecting his arguments. Last year, I read his previous book, Language of Thought II, the main thrust of which was his argument for the modularity of mind and nativism of concepts. This argument he first formulated in the original Language of Thought, which was published in 1975. Since then, the argument has changed in its particular derivations, and how it connects one concept with another, but the basic structure and goal has remained the same. Essentially, Fodor’s writings on philosophy of mind have continually revised a single argument for thirty-five years.

How could a writer this meticulous about the creation of his argument be called reckless? Keep this question in mind as I walk through the argument between Fodor and Sober. I’ve embedded the full video a couple of paragraphs ago, but here’s Fodor’s basic point. A scientific theory, says Fodor, is a set of universally generalizable statements about what can and cannot happen, about how a system can behave. Such statements are the sole content of any scientific theory. By Fodor’s standards, if natural selection was genuinely a scientific theory, then it would be able to make universally generalizable statements about whether some trait is adaptive: for all occurrences of trait x, trait x is adaptive.

The natural selection principle cannot do this, because it can only tell you about what traits are adaptive in some particular situation. The predictions of natural selection as a theory can only be made in some particular context: Some of the particular contexts Fodor and Sober discuss are predator-prey relationships, sex distribution ratio in some particular ecology. Evolutionary biologists reproduce these contexts in mathematical models to make predictions about the development of these ecologies. According to Fodor, these concepts are mere particulars, which he dismisses as gossip, stories granny tells about lions and zebras, turtles, fungi, etc. No specific predictions can be made about what THE adaptive traits are.

But here is what Fodor doesn’t understand about evolutionary biology: no trait is adaptive in all situations. That fact is why species evolve in the first place: a trait is adaptive to an ecological context. The statement “Trait x is adaptive,” said without specifying an ecological context, is neither true nor false. Without an ecological context, such a statement is meaningless. Trait x is always an adaptation-to, and natural selection is always a selection-for. A statement in evolutionary biology is contingent, dependent on the particular ecology in which the organisms and traits in question exist. It cannot make universally generalizable statements about what traits are adaptive, because adaptation is not a universally general process: it is contingent and singular in its articulation and its situation.

If you share Fodor’s definition of ‘scientific theory,’ then you will agree with him that natural selection is no scientific theory. And perhaps as a corollary, you will believe that evolutionary biology is no science. This is Fodor on top of his game: he builds ironclad arguments based on premises that sound entirely plausible in the abstract. But as soon as those abstract premises and arguments are applied to real-world situations, then we end up assenting to what we never would have otherwise. Has Fodor convinced us of a truth of which we were previously ignorant? Or has something more dangerous happened?

Here is where we see the recklessness of Fodor’s method. Just put his argument into the contingent context in which he makes it. You could flippantly (or Frippantly; see Fripp, Robert) say we’re now working in an evolutionary ecology of ideas. Fodor and Sober spend their hour long conversation arguing over what is properly a definition of a scientific theory, about what kinds of propositions should properly be called theoretical and what should properly be called empirical field research (or gossip, in Fodor’s terms).

As a side note, I have never liked Fodor’s dismissive attitude towards philosophies he holds to be wrong. His contemptuous and insulting words I find rude and spiteful, no matter the calm and apologetic tones in which he may say them in conversation.

Now imagine how a fundamentalist religious campaigner may take Fodor’s words and twist them to his agenda. A respectable, scientific philosopher appreciated throughout his field for the rigor and care with which he crafts his arguments, is saying that natural selection, the key principle of evolution, is no theory. It doesn’t matter that Fodor is arguing over the definition of the word ‘theory’ and whether natural selection fits his definition.

Fodor is just trying to isolate his argument over definitions from the context of education and science programs and support in the rest of the world. Such political debates would, according to such a philosopher interested only in truths discovered through dispassionate (yet so very rude) argument, be mere gossip, grannies bickering at each other. Yet these debates craft the structure of our culture itself. One cannot understand the thought of Charles Darwin without reference to how he developed it. And one cannot understand this development without reference to the religious, social, and political climate in which Darwin worked and wrote. His ideas had a social power that may not be inherent in the propositions themselves, but constituted a profound revolution when placed in an ecology of Victorian Europe and North America.

Ideas themselves are developed in a contingent context, and while some may consist of universally generalizable propositions, the propositions alone cannot tell us how an idea will be put to work in the world. A philosopher who sees his discipline as above this riff-raff of mere politics, partisan gossip, and bickering grannies, may craft ideas that those grannies can take from him and pervert into a form the philosopher might find ethically repugnant. A genuinely mindful philosopher will keep her eye on the world in which her ideas are taken up, and think so as to help create the world where she wants to live. From riff-raff we are born, in riff-raff we live, and to riff-raff we will return. The highest philosophy is not the most abstract and distant from the distasteful, but the most powerful in transforming taste.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Was This What Romans Felt Like, But With More Funny Cat Videos?

I read two articles today that gave me a very good sense of the national depression in the United States today. I don’t mean just the economic crisis, which is still just in recession territory. I mean the psychological and moral depression in the United States.

One explained a particularly strange investment: an insurance that will pay off if a country defaults on its national debt. Particularly, the article explained how counter-productive such an investment is when it’s held against the national debt of the United States. Because that country is so intimately integrated with the economies of so many other countries (particularly in terms of those countries which themselves have purchased large amounts of US debt), this actually would cause the entire global financial system to collapse.

Of course, under these conditions, no one could collect on this insurance, because there wouldn’t be any money left. And these insurance packages constitute a very small percentage of the total investment market. But the fact that they exist at all speaks to the amazing pessimism of contemporary Americans. What kind of people would even consider the possibilities of betting against their own country? Perhaps people who have become resigned to collapse.

The other article talked about a curious phenomenon in popular culture: the prominence of the Omega Male. We all know what an alpha male is: the muscular, dominating, soldier, jock, thunder lizard. And we can get an idea of what a beta male is: a nice guy who gets by, maybe a little on the bland side, the baxter, Jim Halpert. The omega male is the self-sabotager who whines about having been sabotaged, the loser, the stoner, the jerk. Referring specifically to Ben Stiller’s new movie Greenberg, he seems a holy fool, a pathetic figure played for laughs, but for whom a strange sympathy develops.

The omega male comes in many forms. The “Liberal Arts Layabout” is a failed artist or professional, becoming either bitter at the consciousness of their failure of retreating into a fantasy world. The “Mimbo” (thank you for this word, Elaine Benes) is a prettyboy without the intelligence even to direct his confidence towards some goal, or even to formulate some goal. The “Beer Guy” is a moron who has let himself relax into a pool of filth and Bud Lite. The “Game Boy” is the nerd who lacks the brains to make good use of his antisocial habits, the perpetual adolescent.

They are the figures of a society who has dropped out, archetypes of dominance who no longer have the capacity to control. Americans still have some measure of hope for the future, but this is a culture who has long equated success with domination, and that just isn’t possible anymore. Obama is probably a public figure who breaks most of these stereotypes of Greek-lettered men: intelligence, power, and charisma coupled with humility and respect.

But I still find something romantically strange about some of these failure figures. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been readind Don Quixote. Jason Schwartzman’s character in Bored to Death is described as a Liberal Arts Layabout Omega Male: a failed writer who enters a fantasy world to become a bumbling private detective after reading too many mystery novels. The parallel with Quixote is clear: our Don was a landed gentry of no note whatsoever until he read too many chivalric romance novels and took up a career as a knight errant, resurrecting through his own examples a golden age of justice that never before existed. I’m not saying Bored to Death is in the same league as one of the seminal works of Western literature. But there could be worse things to imitate, and far worse sources of material to steal.

The funny thing is that Don Quixote meets with a kind of success: he’s condescended towards throughout the first part of the two-part novel (I’m just under halfway through). But he demonstrates a kind of ethical striving that inspires a lot of the characters he encounters to improve their lives. He passes among quite a few people whose lives he plays a part in making better. He has an equal number of screw-ups, but the perfection he seeks is impossible. Perhaps this is the path of some of these noble loser figures, and dreams of better days gone by can resurrect that which never was.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What Happened? Have You Done Anything?

Of the movies I’ve seen in the past year, none have stayed with me more than A Serious Man, and not just because “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane is such a great song. There’s a wonderful article on Slate that gets to the heart of its story quite concisely. Larry Gopnik, the protagonist, is a man whose misfortune appears out of the blue because he didn’t see it coming. It wasn’t that there was very much concealing going on - he just never looked.

It’s a meditation on a perennial human failing: we never ask until it’s too late, we never fix the bridge until someone falls. Trying to rationalize our own inattentiveness to the important events results in a lot of empty calls to a God whose job isn’t to answer. Larry never tries to figure out the answers to what has gone wrong in his life for himself. “I haven’t done anything!” he says repeatedly throughout the film. This is really the problem in his life. The only times he acts positive at all are in his dream sequences. At all other times, he’s barely reacting, watching his life fall apart. It’s true that it isn’t his fault, but he never tries to put it back together. He hasn’t done anything, and still doesn’t.

This movie made me think about what we use reason for, to explain our world and try to improve it. That’s one of its higher goals at least, but most of our time is spent using our reason to make excuses for why the world is as it is. Larry goes to talk to the three rabbis of his community for some advice about his life, and all he’s told is that what happens is God’s will. “Look to the parking lot,” goes the empty platitude of one. Another tells a pointless story of a dentist who found the Hebrew letters “Help me!” written on the back of a gentile customer’s teeth. What does the dentist do? He couldn’t figure out the mystery, so he returned to his practise as he always had before. How does that help me? asks Larry. How can we understand God’s will? answers the rabbi.

The last rabbi won’t even leave his office to say hello.

Weakness is more common to us than we like to think. So many of us like to believe that we’re in control of our lives, but it’s remarkably easy to mistake stability for control. If there are no disruptions to test whether I control my life, then there’s nothing to prevent me from believing that I control my life. Therefore I control my life. Spelled out as directly as this, the thought process seems utterly ludicrous, but I think it’s more common to a lot of us than we like to think. A person can be very uncomfortable facing how weak they actually might be. It takes fortitude to test yourself.

When Rabbi Marshack, the oldest, most venerable rabbi in the community, finally speaks, he speaks not to Larry, but to his son Danny, who is too high to listen. “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, what then?” Sometimes control is a fantasy, and hope is all we have. A Serious Man suggests that a happy life might be one that’s just lucky enough to avoid disruption.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Imagine the Possibilities of a New Sound, Or a Sound So Old It’s Forgotten

The other day, I came across an article about a collection of centuries-old pianos in a small town in Massachusetts. The bulk of the article examined the differences between the sounds of particular famous pieces of classical music on different brands of piano. The samples of music blew me away, so radically strange they were to my ears.

The pianos that are used universally in classical concerts and records today are contemporary Steinways. This is the instrument on which I’ve always heard Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” for example. But hearing it played on a 200-year-old Katholnig, a brand of piano that Ludwig van himself would have composed upon was mind-blowing. The sustain on the notes was just short enough not to overpower the subsequent notes, but created a much more dreamlike sound. The articles included examples of Brahms played on a Streicher and Debussy on an Erard, and the differences between these rare, out of production pianos and the mainstream Steinways was incredible. It makes one wonder why such variety of piano production, and therefore such variety of sound production, has disappeared from classical music today.

It made the article’s author Jan Swafford wonder, and she told a very nice little just-so story about why. In her interview with Michael Frederick, the owner of the piano collection in Massachusetts, he continually mentioned the standardization of piano production in the contemporary classical music world. All pianos were made to sound the same, and there was no longer any variation of piano products. Swafford speculated that the reason for this was because of the social role of recording technologies. Now that recordings exist, she said, people go to concerts to hear the music played exactly as it would be heard on the recordings. In order to get a perfect reproduction, one would have to make sure that every concert piano would sounds the same.

But as soon as I thought about how well this story applied to any other genre of music – jazz, rock, hip hop – I realized that recording alone could not be at fault for the deadening of variety in classical music. We music fans get the recordings, listening to them attentively, sometimes obsessively. But when we go to live shows, we’re bored when the songs are played exactly as on the records. We want to hear variations, improvizations, guest rappers, a random solo where we least expect it. And the proliferation of brands of guitar, each with their own eccentricities, is another sign of the embrace of this variety, of the possibility of new sound. Just compare the same stretch of music played on a Rickenbacker, a Telecaster, a Les Paul, and a B. C. Rich.

Classical music has come to be dominated by a feature of musical appreciation that modern forms largely, and thankfully, lack: obsessively insular reverence to the point of stagnation. Try to throw some improvization into a performance of “Appassionata,” a Beethoven piano piece with an ending cacaphony so wild that it foreshadows the guitar solos of Kerry King or Hendrix. You’ll never get away with it in front of a crowd of classical music fans. Classical music fans are centred on the worship of their godly figures who are long dead.

A performance of classical music isn’t meant to have the performer physically in front of you play a piece according to her own creative impulses. She’s meant to be a channeller of the idols. There are similar impulses in folk music too, but there’s still room for creativity in that genre. That’s why classical music has been standardized and had the life sucked out of it. And it’s been such a successful procedure that we don’t even know what we’re missing anymore until the owner of an antique piano museum in Massachusetts brings someone in to play us some Beethoven.