Field of Science

A rant on pluralism...

Perhaps it really does seem thus far that I'm obsessed with have a research interest in protistology. Unfortunately, I don't have too much time to discuss much else at the moment. Perhaps around midterm time I'll hang out here more, due to alotting more time to procrastination. I can be surprisingly productive during exams, accomplishing a multitude of trivial crap with a blatant omission of study time.

I could rant about that Sarah Palin cow, and her interview of epic fail , but it's a bit depressing, so I won't. Actually, it's mildly terrifying...

Actually, this past Friday I had the opportunity to attend a discussion panel on the integration of sciences and humanities, starring Prof. Steven Pinker (which is the main reason I went...), Richard Shweder and Steven Stitch. Prof. Pinker's talk was awesome, as expected; however, since praise and agreement rarely constitute good writing material, I'd like to share with you the following piece of verbal bowel movement produced by the Shweder guy:

His talk was read off a paper pretty much identical to that one, albeit with all the condescending intonations perfectly intact. Though I shall concede that excessive use of Latin-English pidgin does a great job at obscuring vacuous inanities. Unfortunately, too many in the humanities practice this sly art, thereby sadly undermining the rest of the field of any credibility and respect. Examples include postmodernism and the Sokal Affair. Another thing those pidgin Latin fetishists tend to obsess over is contempt towards anything materialistic and scientific. They are fairly wise to do so -- for in proper rigorous 'materialistic' inquiry lies their demise.

I must admit that I had tremendous difficulty following Shweder's talk, even though the two other speakers were very clear and easy to understand. Shweder relied extensively on -isms of all sorts to obfuscate his point further. Essentially I think he was trying to convey that sciences and humanities could never be reconciled because they 'lie on different ontological planes' -- i.e. there some sort of different metaphysical 'realities' of the body, mind, morality, and beyond. And apparently those metaphysical 'realities', whatever they're made up of, are separate, and cannot be examined by the 'monist' methods of inquiry.

Shweder went on and on about the apparent mind-body duality, claiming it is impossible to unify the two, and going as far as criticising collegues for not having read some ancient work of Déscartes himself. I admit I've never even heard of that book; and old writing is practically in a different language from its modern counterparts, thus I'll pass on the commitment to digest archaic French. We do not yet have a clear understanding of what consciousness is, but I insist: when we do, that understanding will be wrought by psychologists and neurologists rather than philosophers!

So then he went on this childish tantrum against 'materialist monists' (I guess I would be one?) and filled the room with enough straw to sustain a small pastoral tribe for a year. Essentially, he accuses us of 'arrogantly' dismissing the worldviews and ideas of the 'natives' and their 'realities'. And yes, he called the traditional tribal people 'natives', possibly implying we don't fall under that category somehow. Please, I'm a native of Russia. Does being white deny me of the privilege to consider myself a native now?

That, to me, is true arrogance. This "oh they don't know any better so let's pretend we believe in their silly games" attitude of most cultural relativists towards fellow humans. Do they seriously feel sorry for the people and assume they're intellectually impoverished, thereby deserving some special sanctum in our ontology? In One River Wade Davis quotes Lévi-Strauss saying "The people for whom the term cultural relativism was invented, have rejected it." (p.290) For some reason, those people don't think they ought to have a special 'ontological realm' for themselves; they see the rest of us as part of theirs.

Perhaps it's the 'pluralists' and cultural relativists who are dismissive and condescending towards differing worldviews? We at least try to comprehend and integrate their knowledge and wisdom in our worldview; albeit there's much improvement to be had, we don't shove them into some separate 'ontological reality'!

Furthermore, why bother creating separate realities when one is more than enough to deal with? Shweder starts off with a quote by Woody Allen: "“Can we actually ‘know’ the universe? My God, it is hard enough finding your way around in Chinatown”, alluding to the common argument that since science cannot know everything, there must be an alternative realm of metaphysics/energy/deities/spirits/woo . So why then, Shweder, are you trying to create a second Chinatown to navigate simultaneously, if one is hard enough?

I agree with anyone who says science cannot solve everything. Scientific inquiry has its limits. Eerily enough, so does the human mind itself. But if even the scientific method, the most powerful tool of acquiring and verifying knowledge we have, is limited in understanding the universe, how can blind belief systems work any better? The underlying principles of the scientific method, I insist, are innate; and have been selected for throughout the millenia of our existence. One who failed to make an accurate prediction was overcome by someone who succeeded. One who fell victim to unverified personal assumptions was on the losing side of competition.

Now we have this data acquisition method, which is far from completion or perfection, that has so far been the best tool we have. We use it on a daily basis -- some more aware of it than others. And as of any other naturally evolved instrument, we must be aware of its strengths and weaknesses, and try our hardest to compensate for the latter. This is where the formal scientific method comes in. Training as a researcher demands a good understanding of how our mind can fail. We extensively use statistics for precisely that reason -- we must have a way of checking and correcting for errors in our reasoning.

One of our bad glitches is the attachment we tend to share with our pet ideas. This blocks the self-correcting mechanisms of skeptical inquiry and sends one straight into the clutches of dogma. The further one strays from the sensical path, the harder it becomes to correct the course, due to the growth of emotional attachment. This is precisely why dualism (and pluralism) are, in fact, dangerous.

You can probably imagine by now an obvious example of dualism -- religion. Many religious people tend to separate the world into the physical, and the spiritual. It seems harmless, but renders the victims vulnerable to manipulation by those with alterior motives. Many are willing to die for their religion, and can be persuaded to commit a plethora of hideous acts. Reason cannot speak to these people, for they can create a sanctuary from logic in their alternative realities. 'I'm killing people to serve God, for it is God's will for these people to be killed' makes perfect sense if the related religious stories are perceived in the mind as reality. Suicide bombing makes perfect logical sense in the mind of an Islamic fundamentalist. Killing doctors makes perfect logical sense in the mind of a Christian anti-abortion fanatic. If we assume they are all right in their own way, we will have sheer chaos! Dualism (and pluralism) is dangerous!

On the first page of his talk, Shweder compares E.O.Wilson's Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge to a "monotheistic sermon". Prof. Wilson, the great sociobiologist and entomologist, is apparently a preacher. If so, then I hope I have convinced you, dear reader, that Shweder is a full-out religious fanatic.

After the talk I had a burning urge to pick a vicious fight with Shweder, but decided 5 min of conversation with Prof. Pinker would be worth a few orders of magnitute more than arguing with an arrogant, empty, fanatical academic. It definitely was! =D

And now that I've had a wonderful evening ripping apart some high-ranking academic, sleep is in order.


  1. Schweder, as far as I can understand him, is talking egregious rubbish - It looks like he is not arguing for an honest material dualism here, but for various and several incommensurate 'ways of knowing'. In effect he is arguing against the possibility of any kind of knowledge at all.

    But beware - you (and Wilson) have strayed into the same kind of territory as Schweder here. Monism is just as much a 'religious' position as dualism. It is an unwarranted leap beyond what science can support.

    Isaac Newton showed the ability to separate his scientific perspective from his morbid and baroque theological beliefs when he refused to speculate on what the essential nature of gravity was in his Principia. "Hypothesis non fingo"

  2. Very good! The whole article reminds of Tim Harford on the importance and shortcomings of empiricism in the face of finite resources. [I would nitpick with him about the difference between complexity and resource demanding simplicity, and that evolution is both trial-and-error and trial-and-reward on negative and positive fitness each.]

    @ Seele:

    "Monism is just as much a 'religious' position as dualism. It is an unwarranted leap beyond what science can support."

    You need to read the article again, because it is precisely this arrogance that it takes a whack at. As PW notes, science has evolved to efficiency (re Harford), hence the capability of "naturalism" is innate.

    And after 300 years of empirical science, it is quite obvious that naturalism has tested physicalism plenty and rejected everything else. It is no leap, but a patient hacking away of the alternatives.

    In fact, based on an estimate of the output of tested data and theory, I believe physicalist theory passed a 3 sigma binomial test somewhere in the 70-80's. We are assured this monism is all there is.

    Hence not only not a leap, but a humble test beyond reasonable doubt.


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