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Rationally Speaking
science,philosophy,scientific method, natural selection
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N. 57, January 2005: Nonsense on Stilts, an Example

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Massimo takes a "modern" philosopher to task for publishing confused and torturous thinking as if it contained seriously deep thoughts, and in the process shines a new light on the "New Age."

Philosophy is supposed to be about clarifying concepts and bringing rigor and critical thinking to the analysis of complex problems. Socrates, for example, thought of himself as a philosophical midwife, helping people bringing into the clear what they really believed by questioning them until they were aware of the contradictions in what they thought. Unfortunately, much technical and popular philosophical writing seems to do exactly the opposite, with authors indulging in statements that equivocate and obfuscate matters, resulting in the regrettable propagation of much nonsense. As an example, I will comment on a recent article by John-Francis Phipps on the philosophy of Henri Bergson, which appeared in Philosophy Now (October/November ‘04). I am picking on Phipps not because his article is worse than many others, nor because Bergson’s ideas are particularly bad, but simply because it just happens that I’m writing this column during a trans-Atlantic flight, and my most obvious example of nonsense on stilts (as philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously referred to shacky reasoning) was Phipps’ essay.

Phipps starts out with an unequivocal example of purely rhetorical statement: he says that he read Bertrand Russell’s critique of Bergson and found that it “provided unconvincing reasons to justify his [Russell’s] prejudice.” Why was Russell’s opinion of Bergson a “prejudice,” rather than an informed opinion based on the examination of the Frenchman’s philosophy? When people begin their attacks with rhetoric rather than substance, one can smell more nonsense coming up, and I was not disappointed just a few lines further into Phipps’ article. Bergson, apparently, started out his career being “wholly imbued with mechanistic theories” (his words), and as we all know this quickly leads to the cold and unfriendly view of the world and humanity promoted by science. Fortunately, Bergson saw the light and produced a new theory of time as soon as he recognized “to my [Bergson’s] great astonishment that scientific time does not endure” (original italics). Come again? What does it even mean that time does not endure?

If Bergson had simply pointed out the difference between time as conceived by science and psychological time as perceived by human beings in the course of their lives (the starting point for his doctoral thesis), all would have been well — if a bit dull. But he had to go on and claim that the mechanistic time of science is (as Phipps summarizes) “based on a misperception: it consists of superimposing spatial concepts onto time, which then becomes a distorted version of the real thing.” The trouble is that science does not have any such concept of time at all. In science, and in particular according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, time is a dimension of the fabric of the universe, akin to the three classical dimensions of space (and to a few more that we cannot perceive directly, if more recent physical theories are correct). Indeed, Bergson publicly debated Einstein on the question of time, and soundly lost (except in Phipps’ view, since he claims that “there aren’t really winners or losers in any debate about time” — a sweeping generalization that is simply handed to us with no argument to back it up).

Phipps then moves on to Bergson’s conception of the relation between mind and body. While indubitably the Frenchman had several interesting things to say on this (as on much else), he proposed an entirely unhelpful analogy, which Phipps takes to be a deep insight. This mistake is so commonplace in much popular philosophical, scientific, and especially mystical/new age literature that it is worth quoting the paragraph in its entirety; Bergson says: “As the symphony overflows the movements which scan it, so the mental/spiritual life overflows the cerebral/intellectual life. The brain keeps consciousness, feeling and thought tensely strained on life, and consequently makes them capable of efficacious action. The brain is the organ of attention to life.” What? Once again, what does this mean? If Bergson is telling us that it is the brain that allows animals to keep track of and react to events in the world that may affect them, this is a truism that requires no particularly deep philosophy or science. If one tries to unpack the terms embedded in the paragraph in search of a deeper meaning, one immediately runs into a quagmire that Phipps doesn’t bother to clarify (presumably because the stunning insight is, well, so stunning!). For example, why is mental equated with spiritual, and cerebral with intellectual? Is the mental somehow supposed to be separate from the cerebral? Can we have a mental life without a brain? But you can see how my mechanistic prejudice clearly shows through…

Phipps correctly points out that Bergson’s best known work is his 1907 book, Creative Evolution, in which the concept of “vital force” is put forth to “explain” why living beings are fundamentally different from inanimate matter. Any modern biologist who hears about vital forces automatically reaches for his gun, but this isn’t because of a mechanistic prejudice: the fact of the matter is that saying that living beings are different from rocks because the first have a vital force that the latters lack explains precisely nothing. It is the same as “explaining” the motion of objects by saying that they are compelled by the moving force, or that someone got sick because his health left him. Duh. This, incidentally, is the problem with much (if not all) mystical or non-scientific “explanations”: they sound deep and insightful, until one applies a modicum of critical thinking and scratches just below the surface, to find simply an empty and useless tautology.

Phipps reaches the apotheosis of nonsense toward the end of his article, when he speculates on what sort of world we would live in if we had paid more attention to Bergson, abandoned our ill-conceived scientistic prejudice and whole-heartedly embraced Bergson’s “greater respect for all expressions of the life force.” What a world it would have been! Apparently (with no argument to butress his speculations, of course), Phipps thinks that “by now we would have had an environmentally-friendly form of global politics … Political and economic priorities would by now have changed dramatically and war would be seen as an absolute last resort … There could therefore be no question of any nation, however powerful, embarking on pre-emptive wars against any other nation.” And so on.

Wow, and all of this didn’t happen because we insist on science and its despicable reductionist attitude! Never mind, of course, that in this so-called scientific era, and in the most scientifically-minded country in the world (the United States) about half of the population believes that the earth is 6,000 years old; moreover, it is apparently irrelevant to the argument that both the 9/11 attacks and the counter-attack against Afghanistan and Iraq have been informed not by science and reductionism, but by the sort of mindless “vitalism” butressed by non-sequitur arguments that is so similar in structure (although, thankfully, not in effects) to new age thinking and the sort of philosophy that Bentham referred to as “nonsense on stilts.” I am no friend of radical reductionism, and I am mindful of the limitations of science as a tool to understand the real world. I would also not deny that the realm of human experience is much richer than a purely scientific framework can account for. But this does in no way justify sloppy thinking, obscure metaphors, and an anti-science attitude that is all too common in this era supposedly overwhelmed by scientific thinking. Please, let’s get off the stilts and pay more critical attention to what we (and others) say!

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Massimo’s other ramblings can be found at his Skeptic Web.

Massimo’s books:

Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science

Tales of the Rational: Skeptical Essays About Nature and Science

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