Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Clown with Delusions of Philosophical Grandeur

For no particular reason, I just returned to this discussion at Butterflies & Wheels, in which Peter Beattie charges Massimo Pigliucci with two counts of deplorable argument. I was surprised to find that one of my comments had been deleted. Nobody had said anything about it. I don't follow B&W. That discussion is the only one in which I've ever participated, so I'm not sure what to think.

The deleted comment consisted of me pointing out to another commenter that I thought we had been "wasting our time on a clown with delusions of philosophical grandeur." I was speaking of Peter Beattie. I'm not sure, but I presume this is the Australian politician who was Premier of Queensland from 1998 to 2007. That's not why I called him a delusional clown. I called him a delusional clown because he was acting like one.

I don't blame anybody for deleting senseless insults, and if there was no justification for my comment, so be it. But sometimes harsh criticism is warranted. In this case, I believe the comment was both justified and accurate. I'll give a brief overview of the circumstances for those who aren't inclined to peruse the long thread. However, I do recommend the discussion to anyone interested in Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape and surrounding debates.

The problems started when I told Peter I thought he could have been a lot more charitable in his assessment of Pigliucci's review of Harris' book. Peter responded with a little condescension, telling me my "simple counter-assertion" was "not particularly helpful."

I elaborated. Peter claims that Pigliucci made two "deplorable" errors. I, in contrast, don't find anything deplorable about Pigliucci's review, however imperfect it may be.

First, Peter quotes Pigliucci, who wrote: "If these sentences do not conjure the specter of a really, really scary Big Brother in your mind, I suggest you get your own brain scanned for signs of sociopathology.” Peter responds as follows: "That anyone, let alone a professor of philosophy, should literally argue, ‘If you don’t agree with me, you should get your head examined’, is deplorable."

Let's look at Pigliucci's comment in context:

Indeed, Harris’ insistence on neurobiology becomes at times positively creepy, as in the section where he seems to relish the prospect of a neuro-scanning technology that will be able to tell us if anyone is lying, opening the prospect of a world where government (and corporations) will be able to enforce no-lie zones upon us. He writes: “Thereafter, civilized men and women might share a common presumption: that whenever important conversations are held, the truthfulness of all participants will be monitored. … Many of us might no more feel deprived of the freedom to lie during a job interview or at a press conference than we currently feel deprived of the freedom to remove our pants in the supermarket.” If these sentences do not conjure the specter of a really, really scary Big Brother in your mind, I suggest you get your own brain scanned for signs of sociopathology (or watch a good episode of Babylon 5).

Pigliucci's comment about getting your head examined needn't be taken as an argument at all, and certainly not the literal argument Peter says it is. Pigliucci's comment looks like a semi-humorous, if abrasive, way of saying that Sam Harris' views are bordering on the sociopathic. That's an observation, not an argument. Maybe Pigliucci's language was a bit unprofessional, but the tone of the review is clearly informal. I don't see anything deplorable about that. I have no doubt that Peter's interpretation is uncharitable and implausible. Yet he chose to deny this, claiming that either Pigliucci was making a deplorable argument, or he wasn't supporting his assertions with an argument at all, which would be "at least as deplorable" for a professional philosopher.

The second "deplorable" point is where things got more heated. According to Peter, Pigliucci has grossly misrepresented Harris. Here's what Pigliucci says:
Harris says: “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” That’s it? The whole of the only field other than religion that has ever dealt with ethics is dismissed because Sam Harris finds it boring? . . .

Harris entirely evades philosophical criticism of his positions, on the simple ground that he finds metaethics “boring.” But he is a self-professed consequentialist — a philosophical stance close to utilitarianism — who simply ducks any discussion of the implicatons of that a priori choice, which informs his entire view of what counts for morality, happiness, well-being and so forth. He seems unaware of (or doesn’t care about) the serious philosophical objections that have been raised against consequentialism, and even less so of the various counter-moves in logical space (some more convincing than others) that consequentialists have made to defend their position. This ignorance is not bliss . . .
Here's what Peter says in response:
Harris excuses his omission of philosophical jargon by (only half-jokingly, I suspect) asserting that it every piece of it “directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe” (TML, 197n1). Pigliucci says this amounts to a dismissal of all of metaethics, that Harris finds it boring, that TML as a whole “shies away from philosophy”. (And so on and all-too-predictably on.) Not only is this implausible even given the quote that Pigliucci used; Harris explicitly gives his reasons for “not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy”: he arrived at his position not because of that literature, but for independent logical reasons; and he wants to make the discussion as accessible to lay readers as possible. Again, in such a way to distort a position beyond recognition is deplorable.
Peter's claim about jargon is plainly wrong. Harris explicitly says that he is avoiding many metaethical "views and conceptual distinctions." He is avoiding "much of the literature." He's not just leaving out the jargon. True, Pigliucci is being hyperbolic when he says Harris is dismissing the whole field of metaethics, but his criticism isn't so far off the mark. Other professionals have responded to Harris in a similar fashion. For example, in another review of Harris' book, Troy Jollimore writes:
It would be one thing to try to write intelligently about moral skepticism while avoiding the language of academic philosophy—or at least, the unnecessarily finicky aspects of it—with the hope of reaching a general audience. But to try to avoid not only the terminology, but large portions of the subject matter itself—the “views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible”—is to commit oneself to providing an incomplete and highly distorted account of the subject.
I pointed Jollimore's review out to Peter, but he was implacable. Instead of accepting the point and acknowledging his error, Peter insisted that Harris was just leaving out academic jargon that would make his ideas inaccessible. He accused me of being "more than careless" and said that my interpretation of Harris is "the least charitable one the text will (barely) support." When I pushed the point that Harris was not simply leaving out jargon, but dismissing arguments and ideas, Peter took issue with the word "dismiss" to the point of parody, insisting that Harris explained why he was not tackling so much of the literature in his book. But I never said Harris was dismissive without reason. The point is that Harris does, in fact, dismiss much of the literature, and that this has consequences for the value of his book. Perhaps it makes his book more accessible, but that does not invalidate Pigliucci's and Jollimore's criticism.

I was also getting fed up with Peter's tone. I took offense at the accusation that I was being careless, but Peter refused to apologize. He said he was just making a "factual statement" about my behavior. It appeared that I didn't "care enough" about the discussion. Yes, calling somebody a delusional clown is making a factual statement, too, but clearly there's room to disagree about whether or not that is appropriate. Instead of an apology, I received only condescension from Peter and thus ended the discussion.

After witnessing another participant arguing in circles with Peter, whose argumentative strategies and philosophical acumen were consistently poor, I then made the comment about having wasted our time on a clown. It was a fair assessment, I think.