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The Press Should Stop Making Philosophical Claims August 25, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
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In the Times Literary Supplement, Jerome Burne reviews Irving Kirsch’s book The Emperor’s New Drugs, in which Kirsch argues that anti-depressant drugs—SSRIs like Prozac, Seroxat and Lustral—are no better than placebos.  The evidence for his claim is impressive and it does not surprise me that the pharmaceutical industry has made billions of dollars by suppressing evidence.

What is bothersome about Burne’s review is his utterly misleading use of 20th Century philosophy of mind to make his case.

His review is subtitled: “A debate on Cartesian dualism has led to radically differing approaches to the treatment of depression”. The introduction of the article suggests that opposition to Descartes’ claim that the mind (or soul) is a non-physical substance led to the assumption that brain functions are nothing but chemical reactions that can be controlled through drug intervention—an approach that is now proving to be ineffective.

Sixty years ago, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle published his famous attack on Cartesian dualism, The Concept of Mind, which claimed to find a logical flaw in the popular notion that mental life has a parallel but separate existence from the physical body. Among other effects it provided sophisticated support for the psychological behaviourists, then in the ascendant, who asserted that since we could not objectively observe mental activity it was not really a fit subject for scientific investigation.

Nowhere was the notion of banning mental states taken up more enthusiastically than by the emerging discipline of neuropsychiatry. If consciousness and all its manifestations were “merely” the firing of neurons and the release of chemicals in the brain, what need was there to focus on mental states? Once the physical brain was right, the rest would follow.

It was an approach that has spawned a vast pharmaceutical industry to treat any pathological psychological state – anxiety, shyness, depression, psychosis – with a variety of pills.

The clear implication of the article is that we should return to a dualistic conception of the mind that treats the mind as independent of physical states.

But this is just silly. Ryle rightly criticized the Cartesian picture of the mind as assuming a “ghost in the machine”—a weird supernatural entity that somehow issues in experience and rationality. Ryle’s criticism of Descartes was surely apt.

However, Ryle’s solution to uncovering the nature of the mind, behaviorism, was rejected by cognitive science decades ago and few researchers think that we can understand the mind by ignoring mental activity. I doubt that behaviorism had much impact on the development of pharmaceutical interventions.

Furthermore, the fact that we haven’t yet discovered the complex brain functions that cause psychosis or depression does not entail that the mind must be non-physical. The failure of drug interventions simply shows that the brain is more complex than many researchers had thought and mental illness is unlikely to be cured by a pill.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


I Think, therefore I Have No Time to for Skepticism March 23, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Descartes famously posed the problem of global knowledge skepticism by asking us to prove that we are not always dreaming.

Philosopher of science Michael Ruse thinks this is a fascinating question:

I truly remember my first day in philosophy class and thinking: “Gosh, I am not the only person who really wonders if they are awake or asleep. I have been thinking about this since I was a kid and never could solve it. I am not a nut-case to be worrying about this. […] I want to suggest that the Meditations is a bit of a litmus test. Either you are hooked or you are not. […]

Humans are divided by nature into two essential types. This is not male or female, or straight or gay, or whatever. It is between those who think that philosophy, as marked by Descartes’ Meditations, is the only thing that truly makes worthwhile the life of a human being, and those who think that philosophy is really a little bit daft but we have to let our spouses have their silly enthusiasms

I was never fascinated by global knowledge skepticism (and I remain unconvinced that it is worth thinking too hard about). Logical possibilities are not as interesting as real possibilities. My entry to philosophy was a worry about whether I had free will given the social influences I was learning about in sociology.

And I think it is rather silly to make a fascination with global knowledge skepticism a litmus test. There have been countless philosophers—Aristotle, Nietzsche, Pierce, Wittgenstein, Rorty, etc.—who thought such questions a waste of time.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Was Descartes Murdered? February 18, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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A few days ago The Guardian reported that a new book by German scholar Theodor Ebert claimed that Descartes did not meet his end by being exposed to the harsh Swedish winter climate, as we philosophers have been fond of telling forever, but by arsenic poisoning.

According to Theodor Ebert, an academic at the University of Erlangen, Descartes died not through natural causes but from an arsenic-laced communion wafer given to him by a Catholic priest.

Ebert believes that Jacques Viogué, a missionary working in Stockholm, administered the poison because he feared Descartes’s radical theological ideas would derail an expected conversion to Catholicism by the monarch of protestant Sweden. “Viogué knew of Queen Christina’s Catholic tendencies. It is very likely that he saw in Descartes an obstacle to the Queen’s conversion to the Catholic faith,” Ebert told Le Nouvel Observateur newspaper.

In a letter written after his patient’s death, Descartes’s doctor, Van Wullen, described having found something wrong – which Ebert believes to be blood – in the philosopher’s urine. “That is not a symptom of pneumonia; it is a symptom of poisoning, chiefly of arsenic,” said Ebert, adding that Descartes asked his doctor to prescribe an emetic. “What conclusion is to be drawn other than the philosopher, who was well-acquainted with the medicine of his day, believed he had been poisoned?”

 What Ebert contributes here, contrary to the buzzing assumptions on the Internet, is not the theory that Descartes died by arsenic poisoning—that story has been circulating for a long time, at least since 1980. I myself read about it in, of all places, an old popular account of conspiracy theories we’d picked up, serendipitously, in a used bookstore, and I cautiously put it into a footnote in Chapter 7 in my textbook, The Human Condition, in 2001. (Unsubstantiated theories should not go into textbooks, but footnotes referencing the unsubstantiated are acceptable!) The prevailing theory was then, to my understanding, that Descartes was murdered by Protestant bishops, not a Catholic missionary, for precisely the opposite reason: The conversion to Protestantism in Sweden had been long and bloody, and Protestant bishops feared that Queen Christina would revert back to Catholicism, helped along by what they perceived to be a very Catholic French philosopher. Hence the plot to get rid of Descartes.  Evidence in support of this theory was that Descartes never got to have any in-depth discussions with the queen, but  was put off with excuses for five months, until his death. A missionary would not have that kind of political power, but a bishop might. So who knows? I’m looking forward to reading Ebert’s book, to evaluate the level of research and the likelihood of his hypothesis. I’m thrilled that somebody is finally doing a (presumably) serious study of Descartes’ death, which might very well be an old unsolved mystery, a “cold case,” not because of chilly temperatures, but because of chilly politics.  I’m just not sure that his conclusion is the most likely one. If anybody has a lock of hair of Descartes that we can test for arsenic, would he or she please step forward? That would at least tell us the “How,” if not the “Why.

Descartes Caused the Economic Collapse! April 29, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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The economic meltdown was certainly caused by excessive greed and the absence of government regulation to contain it. But it is important to remember that there is a reason why few of the people trained to anticipate economic problems saw this coming.

John Kay in the Financial Times writes:

Since the 1970s economists have been engaged in a grand project. The project’s objective is that macroeconomics should have microeconomic foundations. In everyday language, that means that what we say about big policy issues – growth and inflation, boom and bust – should be grounded in the study of individual behaviour…

This sounds reasonable—if you want to develop a theory of how economic institutions function, look at how individuals make decisions about buying and selling. Kay continues:

Most economists would claim that the project has been a success. But the criteria are the self-referential criteria of modern academic life. The greatest compliment you can now pay an economic argument is to say it is rigorous. Today’s macroeconomic models are certainly that.

By “rigorous” Kay means that economic relationships can be described by algorithms which are amenable to logical proof. (Descartes was perhaps the first philosopher to argue that only such a system could count as genuine knowledge, and his insight has deeply influenced scientific and social scientific inquiry to this day.)

But here is the rub. If you are going to describe economic relationships using algorithms (i.e. rules) you will have to make generalizations about human behavior.

Economists, like physicists, have been searching for a theory of everything. If there were to be such an economic theory, there is really only one candidate, based on extreme rationality and market efficiency. Any other theory would have to account for the evolution of individual beliefs and the advance of human knowledge, and no one imagines that there could be a single theory of all human behaviour…

In other words, even though human beings are often rational and, in market transactions, we often get exactly what we want for exactly the right price, the myriad ways in which we can fail to be rational or efficient is just too complex to model, especially when you consider the value we place on non-market goods. No set of rules could describe every twist and turn in the history of the market behavior of individuals or account for our quirky, idiosyncratic, emotional, intuitive, and sometimes irrational behavior. Thus, economic models assume that human beings are always perfectly rational and markets perfectly efficient.

As Kay writes:

That people respond rationally to incentives, and that market prices incorporate information about the world, are not terrible assumptions. But they are not universal truths either. Much of what creates profit opportunities and causes instability in the global economy results from the failure of these assumptions. Herd behaviour, asset mispricing and grossly imperfect information have led us to where we are today.

It was irrational behavior, left out of the economic models because it was too messy to capture in a set of rules, that caused the economic crisis.

Descartes has not yet issued his mea culpa.

So why did these very smart people fail to realize that their generalizations were rough approximations rather than precise models of human behavior.

Kay appeals to the mid-20th Century economist John Maynard Keynes for the answer:

Keynes went on to explain that economic understanding required an amalgam of logic and intuition and a wide knowledge of facts, most of which are not precise: “a requirement overwhelmingly difficult for those whose gift mainly consists in the power to imagine and pursue to their furthest points the implications and prior conditions of comparatively simple facts which are known with a high degree of precision”. On this, as on much else, Keynes was right.

The moral of the story (to borrow a title from a famous book) is that you can have knowledge of lots of facts but they will be messy, imprecise, and very context dependent; or you can have knowledge of a few precisely-rendered facts that produce beautiful generalizations. What you cannot have is knowledge of lots of facts that produce beautiful generalizations.

In other words, beautiful generalizations will usually not fit the world well. (I said usually—I’m not making universal generalizations here). And intellectuals tend to strive for intellectual beauty.

What Kay leaves out is that lots of people thought they could get very rich by applying these economic models, and they of course had an incentive to ignore the facts that the models left out.

By the way, I have made a career out of arguing that moral theory is in exactly the same boat—broad generalizations captured by models or rules will leave out the messy details of moral reasoning that make it genuinely responsive to life’s complexity.

I guess the difference is that no one has figured out how to get rich off models of morality.

If you figure that out, let me know (and don’t tell anyone else).