Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Rant on “Philosophers”

When I first heard the word “Philosopher”, I thought it meant someone with a profound or interesting insight about reality or the “human condition”. However, when I studied philosophy, it eventually became apparent to me that philosophers don’t merely have profound insights; they also engage in a rational inquiry about foundational issues. In other words, philosophers think critically about fundamental issues via reason and argumentation. It’s much easier to have a profound insight than arguing for it. In fact, it’s not very hard to have an epiphany, but it’s much harder to critically examine one’s intuitions, assumptions, and beliefs.

After I learned what philosophers actually do, I took it for granted until I come across a common phenomenon that I use to be a part of. People start calling notable figures “philosophers” simply because they made some insightful remarks. For example, I remember someone calling the comedian Louis C.K. a philosopher, because he said something insightful about a young generation’s obsession with selfie and social media. I also remember the speaker of my graduation commencement regarding Dr. Seuss as a philosopher for writing insightful books dedicated to children.

I want to emphasize that I’m not claiming that Dr. Seuss and Louis C.K. lack profound insights; i’m not claiming that they aren’t important figures who had an important impact on contemporary culture. Remember, the term “philosopher”, as I understand it, doesn’t merely mean someone with profound insights about the human condition. The term “philosopher” means someone who engages in a rational inquiry by applying reason to fundamental issues like “consciousness”, “intentionality”, “knowledge”, “morality”, “justice”, “truth”, etc. This means that a philosophers does more than have an interesting insight: he or she systematically develops or critiques arguments. A philosopher also poses hard questions that usually begin with a “why” or “what”.

Someone could reply that as long as people like Louis C.K. and Dr. Seuss make a philosophical claim through literature or comedy, then we should at least consider them to be philosophers. However, my problem with that reply is that it’s very easy to make a philosophical claim. Claims like “All people are equal”, “Capital Punishment is unjust (or just)”, “God exists”, “The scientific method works”, “I know myself better than you!”, “I know what that person is thinking”, and such are all philosophical claims that we find to be relatively common in every day conversation from the most controversial political issue to ordinary conversations. They all make some kind of basic assumption worth examining. However, what makes someone a philosopher is that he or she critically thinks about these claims.

A philosopher would usually ask the following kind of questions about those claims: “What does that claim really mean?”, “The claim uses a key term (i.e. God, Equality, Unjust, Scientific Method, Know, etc.)  but what does that term mean exactly”, “What is the justification for the claim (or why is that claim true)?”, and more. After a philosopher poses those kind of questions, he or she would proceed to develop some arguments. If another person makes an argument, a philosopher would examine it to consider if it’s a good or bad argument. If the argument is good, but has some flaws, then a philosopher would consider what would improve that argument.

Someone could just shrug and dismiss my concern as a semantic issue. After all, what a “philosopher” means would vary among people. However, I think this more than just a “semantic” issue. Suppose a large segment of our population believes that a scientist is someone who invents new technology to improve our lives. Consequently, people who believe that scientists are inventors would believe that Thomas Edison is a scientist. An actual scientist would be somewhat annoyed, since he or she rightfully thinks that a scientist is more than just an inventor. Generally, a scientist is someone who makes an observation, considers a hypothesis, and then test it through rigorous experimentation. Afterward, a scientist should record an experimental result and then submit it for peer review. In other words, a scientist is someone who tries to understand the world and engages with a scientific community to facilitate that understanding.

We normally would agree that people who think that scientists are technological inventors are not entirely being accurate. Likewise, I think we should agree that people are misguided into thinking that philosophers are simply people with profound insights. Someone might object that “philosopher” and “scientists” aren’t analogous, because the former strictly isn’t a profession whereas the latter is. Again, I’m afraid that I have to disagree. Most philosophers nowadays are professional philosophers who are academically trained to do philosophy. There are some people who I call “lay philosophers” who are familiar with various philosophical topics, but pursued alternative careers. What professional and lay philosophers have in common is that both of them do think about the same problems.

Someone could point out that in the past great philosophers like Hume, Plato, Leibniz, Descartes, Stuart Mill, and others weren’t philosophers in the professional sense given that a “philosopher” wasn’t a profession back then. This is true, but I think one could make a similar argument about scientists. A long time ago, during Galileo’s time, science wasn’t as professionalized like today. A scientist back then would just be any educated person who wants to advance knowledge. Over a hundred years ago, there use to be independent scientists who could easily do science outside the confines of academia. Nowadays, it’s virtually impossible to do science outside of academic research institutions.

A more sophisticated critic would point out that my definition of the term “philosopher” seems to exclude some people like Nietzsche who is widely acknowledged to be a philosopher. After all, someone could argue that Nietzsche reads more like a poet than an average professional philosopher who systematically develops arguments. There are two possible replies. First, Nietzsche might not be a typical philosopher who makes clear arguments, but one could argue that he has implicit arguments that could be reconstructed by a Nietzschean scholar. Second, Nietzsche is familiar with the philosophical literature and he does criticize (though somewhat dismissively) some well known philosophers like Kant and John Stuart Mill.

In the end, I think this common yet benign misunderstanding could be resolved through education. I take it somewhat personally because I don’t like it when people misunderstand a discipline that I care so much about. I don’t entirely blame them for misunderstanding philosophy. After all, philosophers are not great at Public Relations. That’s part of the reason why I developed this blog in the first place.

Are Children Scientists?

Allison Gopnik , who is a psychologist and philosopher, is known for arguing for the controversial thesis that children are scientists. You may not take her position seriously, since her claim could be metaphorical. However, when Gopnik says that Children are scientists she means it literally. Gopnik argues that scientists and children are using the same cognitive processes that are required to do science; both scientists and children are using the same cognitive processes when it comes to developing a theory, making predictions,  testing them, providing an explanation, and revising a theory. Gopnik appeals to the evidence such as the development of folk-psychology and folk-biology among children. According to Gopnik, children develop theories (i.e. folk-psychology and folk-biology), make predictions, provide explanations, and revise theories. For example, Children possess a theory of folk-psychology that enables them to use concepts of mental states to predict people’s behaviors and explain them. Children may predict that John goes into the fridge to find an ice cream and then explain his behavior by appealing to his beliefs that the ice cream is in the fridge and he desires it. Moreover, children eventually learn that there are false beliefs and upon that discovery they revise their theory of folk-psychology.

Gopnik addresses several objections. It is important to keep in mind that Gopnik is committed to the view that theories like those of folk-psychology and folk-biology are entirely acquired; she rejects the idea that these theories are innate. Philosophers and cognitive scientists argue that if that were the case, then it would be a matter of sheer coincidence on a global scale that virtually every children acquire the same kind of mental state concepts in spite of being in different environments. Gopnik points out that as long as there is an initial condition that determines the outcome, then her theory remains plausible.

Another objection is that science is a social enterprise that requires a group of scientists to cooperate through institutional practices from peer review to laboratory experimentation. So, being a scientist means participating that enterprise. However, children do not seem to partake in that kind of enterprise. Gopnik points out that while children are not literally part of the academic institutions, they are born into an environment with parents and other children. So, children are part of some social environment that enables them to develop a theory.

Philosophers and scientists naturally point out that children do not reflect like scientists. Scientists reflect on an observable phenomenon and then consciously develop a theory. However, children do not seem to consciously develop a theory; even if children do develop some kind of theory, they are not aware of what they are doing. Gopnik responds that scientists do not know what are the underlying cognitive processes of scientific reasoning, so they aren’t really in a better position than children in that respect.

So far, I think Gopnik does well in defending her position. However, there is one potential problem with Gopnik’s theory: If children are scientists, then they should be able to falsify any theory. Falsification amounts to abandoning a theory in favor of an alternative theory. However, we normally do not observe children abandoning a theory in favor of another theory later in their early adulthood. Let me elaborate: later in life, in adolescence, people are able to learn that folk-biology is wrong. For example, contrary to their theory of folk-biology, the theory of evolution undermines our folk notion of biological essentialism. In other words, members of any species are not individuated or defined in terms of their essence, but rather in terms of their evolutionary history. A member of any species is understood in terms of its evolutionary relation to its ancestors. Nonetheless, even after learning evolution in high school biology, people will continue to (unconsciously) think as essentialists. People will continue to attribute essences to themselves, their friends, domestic animals, and wild animals without necessarily being aware of doing so. Likewise in folk physics, people will unconsciously think that an object will continue to fall straight down even after a person dropping it moves along.

Gopnik could argue that through rigorous training people can eventually replace their theory with an alternative theory from modern science. She does appeal to an example in which children who are trained to learn the concept of false beliefs acquire it faster than those who are not trained. However, this argument is implausible. There is an experiment, conducted by Deborah Kelemen, which shows that professional scientists are unable to escape their implicit teleological biases. Professional scientists such as physicists, geologists, chemists, and such are trained to favor mechanical explanations over teleological ones. However, in an experimental condition, where professional scientists are pressured by limited time to answer scientific questions, they tend to give answers that are laden with teleology. The experimental result indicates that there is an underlying implicit preference for a teleological explanation over a mechanical explanation. Moreover, I think that the result suggests that our teleological theory has never been replaced by our modern scientific theories. When a theory is falsified, scientists replace it with another theory. However, if children are unable to replace their theory in the long run, then they aren’t very close to being scientists.

However, Gopnik could find a way to circumvent my objection. She could point out that physicists never really abandoned classical mechanics, after discovering Quantum mechanics. Physicists (and astronomers) continue to use classical mechanics when it is much more feasible to use it for calculation than if they were to use Quantum mechanics. If astronomers or physicists want to predict and calculate a future trajectory of large objects (i.e. asteroid, rocket, comet, etc), then classical mechanics is a feasible and relevant tool. Despite the fact that classical mechanics (as originally intended) was falsified, it was never replaced because it remains useful. Likewise, teleology remains useful in dealing with our ordinary lives, especially when we are constantly surrounded by designed artifacts. Falsification does not necessarily amount to abandonment of a theory, since many aspects of a theory remains useful for scientists. So, even though someone may find out that teleology is largely false, he or she may continue to use it for practical use.

I think this is a very plausible response, but I want to see if it works. It appears that there is an analogy between scientists and children insofar as both will continue to use falsified theories. Scientists continue to use classical mechanics even though it is falsified. Likewise, even after children grow up to learn that teleology is false they still use it. However, I think there is an important disanalogy between them. In general, scientists are able to abandon a theory if it is both falsified and rendered obsolete. Consider the example from the history of Chemistry: the theory of classical elements was the theory that the basic elements were fire, earth, air, and water. This theory was prominent in many cultures, especially in the ancient Greek culture, for centuries. However, by the time Antoine Lavoisier discovered the elements that constitute water, the theory of classical elements was both falsified and rendered obsolete. We no longer find modern Chemists using the theory of classical elements to understand the nature of matter. There aren’t any chemists using that theory to make any useful predictions or calculations in the way physicists are using classical mechanics. However, children are unable to do this with both folk-biology and folk-psychology.

In the end, the objection from falsification probably isn’t a deadly blow to Gopnik’s conclusion. Gopnik can still maintain that for the most part the cognitive process of scientific reasoning exists in both children and scientists. She doesn’t have to insist that scientific reasoning between children and scientist is the same in every aspect. She can concede that there are a few major differences, but continue to argue that the similarity remains significant.

Cartesian Materialism Vindicated?

Gray_718-emphasizing-claustrum

I have a confession to make: I haven’t read Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (I am reading Dennett’s Brainstorm and so far I’m enjoying it). So, I’m not exactly in a position to argue against Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. However, I think there is a plausible evidence against one of Dennett’s argument. Let’s begin with Dennett’s argument. Dennett argues against what he calls “Cartesian Materialism“, which is the view there is a central region that integrates all conscious experience. One of Dennett’s argument against Cartesian Materialism is that neuroscientists discount it given the overwhelming evidence that different conscious experience is stored at different areas of the brain. For example, visual experience happens in the visual cortex, but there’s no the center of consciousness that stores that experience. Dennett might be correct that there is no central region of the brain for consciousness, but there is recent evidence that appears to contradict his claim.

The evidence I’m referring to is one that appears in recent news. In one news outlet Business Insider, it reports that neuroscientists may have found some region in the brain that they can “switch” on or off. Specifically, neuroscientists from George Washington University were experimenting with an epileptic patient by switching off her consciousness (and then switching it back on). A few years before this experiment, Francis Crick and Christof Koch proposed a hypothesis that the region of the brain known as the Claustrum is the center of consciousness that integrates different informational inputs. In the experiment, neuroscientists place an electrode between Claustrum and anterior-dorsal insula. When they stimulated an electrode, the patient lost consciousness. The experimental result indicates that the Claustrum could be the center of consciousness, which supports Koch and Crick’s hypothesis. I think their hypothesis is a version of Cartesian Materialism. If their hypothesis is supported by recent evidence, then there is evidence for Cartesian Materialism. This could mean that Dennett was wrong that there is no center of consciousness. So, does this mean that Cartesian Materialism is vindicated from Dennett’s critique? Probably not.

While the experimental result is interesting, it is only a single case study that hardly qualifies as a sufficient representative sample. Moreover, there needs to be an experiment that accounts for both epileptic and non-epileptic patients to ensure that this isn’t a unique case for an epileptic patient (unless there is an ethical issue with that kind of experiment). Nonetheless, one could reasonably expect that the same thing that happens for an epileptic patient could happen if one places an electrode in the same region for non-epileptic patients and then stimulates it.

Another thing to consider is that there is another experiment four years ago that suggests an alternative hypothesis that isn’t committed to Cartesian Materialism: the Claustrum consists of distinct “zones” with “unimodal” neurons that respond to specific kind of sensory inputs. The visual “zone” consists of neurons that respond to the visual stimuli, but not the auditory stimuli. Likewise, the auditory “zone” consists of neurons that respond to auditory stimuli, but not visual stimuli. In other words, the auditory and visual experience may not be integrated in one conscious experience, but rather they remain isolated from each other in different “zones” of the Claustrum. So far, there has been an experiment with primates as test subjects that produces a result that supports the alternative hypothesis. Given that both homo sapiens and their close cousins share a common ancestry, it is not unreasonable to think that their Claustrum has similar functions. One could infer that if our close cousins’ Claustrum does not integrate multiple sensory information, then likewise our Claustrum may not be the center of consciousness (there is another evidence that the function of Rats’ Claustrum is an interhemispheric coordination of whisker representations from both the somatosensory and motor cortical areas. So, the function of the Claustrum may not necessarily have to be the center of consciousness for all non-human animals). It could be the case that the experimental result from the epileptic patient could support the alternative hypothesis. Perhaps all zones of the Claustrum were turned off simultaneously by an electrode. Consequently, the evidence is underdetermined between two available hypothesis. So far, it appears that Cartesian Materialism is not vindicated, but it is also not ruled out.