Western Civilization or Universal Culture or WEIRD Culture?

It is common to think of Western Civilization as rooted in classical antiquity, the Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity, and the languages, history, and cultural attainments of Western Europe. It is also common to think of Western Civ as particularly favorable, and maybe even essential, to modernization as exemplified by the industrial revolution and the modern market economy. An example of both these ways of thinking is Huntington (1996). But this view is open to challenge, and in this post, I want to examine two such challenges: Scott Alexander’s “universal culture” and Joseph Henrich’s “WEIRD culture.”

In a Slate Star Codex post, How the West Was Won, Scott Alexander argues that what people often call Western culture is really universal culture, the omnivorous culture of “what works.” For example, “Western medicine” is really just whatever has been found to be the most effective at curing disease, maintaining health, etc. It is driven fundamentally by empirical standards, and in that sense is nonideological, and so the contrast with “natural” or “traditional” or “Eastern” medicine is bogus, in at least two ways. First, despite claims of its opponents in these other camps that “Western” medicine is forcing a certain conception of health or science or efficacy onto people, the truth is that it is the opponents who are playing that game, not “Western” medicine, which will adopt indiscriminately whatever can be shown empirically to get the job done. Second, there is nothing geographically Western about “Western” medicine, except insofar as the “what works” approach to medicine first began making spectacular progress in the West in the nineteenth century, and Western Europe and the Anglosphere nations have maintained a lead ever since. But it is not peculiarly “Western.” For one thing, it will take new ideas from anywhere, indiscriminately; the criterion is efficacy, not region of origin. For another, it can be adopted anywhere—and it is. Its essence is a rational standard of acceptance, as opposed to any ties to tradition, culture, region, or ideology. It is an accident of history that “Western” medicine was developed in the West.

Alexander gives some other examples of what he claims is the same phenomenon: Coca-Cola succeeded because it is “refreshment that works,” egalitarian gender norms “work,” sushi “works.” And note that sushi, of course, was not invented in the West. That’s the point.

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Zombies Are Impossible

Nonphilosophical Zombies

No, not those zombies! They aren’t merely possible, they are actual, as you can see.

Rather, our topic today is philosophical zombies, beings that are physically identical to us but without conscious experience. Thus, a zombie version of yourself, for instance, would be atom-for-atom identical to you. It would share all of your behavioral dispositions: it would walk like you, talk like you, have the same tendencies to be angry, happy, or sad as you, report any information that you are able to report, and perform any tasks that you are able to perform. It would also remember everything that you can remember, know everything that you know, and it would have all the same politics and cultural attitudes and biases as you. At least, it would do all these things as near as we could tell. It would be behaviorally and neurophysiologically identical to you. There would be no way for another person to tell that your zombie twin was not you merely by comparing you with it, no matter what tests he might arrange. Nevertheless, your zombie twin would not be the same as you, because it would not have consciousness. That is, it would not have subjective experience. In the phrase widely adopted from Thomas Nagel’s well-known essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, there would be nothing it is like to be your zombie twin.

Philosophical zombies are a way to make vivid an old philosophical argument, going back at least to Descartes, known as the Conceivability Argument. In the present version, the idea is that it is conceivable that the world could be just as it is physically down to the last elementary particle, but without conscious experience. That is, we could have had the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe just as it is, including the evolution of life on earth and the human species, and physically everything would be just as it is today, including all of us having discussions just like this one, although none of us nor any other beings have conscious experience. By conceivable, I mean there is no contradiction in this scenario and no reason that science can discover, whether physical, psychological, or otherwise, why it could not have happened. If this scenario is conceivable, then it seems we must conclude that consciousness is epiphenomenal: it is nonphysical, it cannot be explained by the physical, and its presence or absence makes no difference to the causal, functional, or physical order of nature.

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Thomas Reid and the Theory of Ideas

Thomas Reid photo
(c) Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

All of Thomas Reid’s thought seems to grow out of his resistance to the skeptical conclusions of Berkeley and Hume. On the one hand, Reid is an effective critic, because he understands their arguments so well. By his own account, he started out as a convinced Berkeleyite and lost his enthusiasm only when he saw the skeptical scorched earth left by Hume. Instead of Berkeley’s real (albeit nonmaterial) and known world, with Hume there is not only no external world, there are no minds, no necessary relations of cause and effect, no rational inductive inferences, etc. Reid decided there must be something wrong, and identifies the problem as the theory of ideas (or “system of ideas” or “ideal system”), which he attributes to Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke (10; information on page references is given at the conclusion of this essay). He argues that Berkeley’s and Hume’s reasoning is mostly correct, derived by pursuing the theory of ideas more consistently than Descartes, Malebranche, and Locke had done. Thus, the extreme conclusions of Berkeley and Hume were due not to errors of reasoning but to errors of their starting points.

On the other hand, Reid’s effectiveness is undercut, in my view, by his failure to supply a convincing alternative to the theory of ideas. He should not be blamed for this. After all, it took philosophy more than 200 years after Reid to resolve the errors of the theory of ideas and put the philosophy of perception on a new footing. In my view, this has now been done with Intentionalism, and we shall see that Reid made promising steps in this direction. But he doesn’t go far enough, and as a result, he does not produce a fully convincing account of perception. He also fails to produce a plausible account of the contribution of the senses to conceptual thought, as the theory of ideas claims to do. Finally, I think Reid’s appeal to “common sense” is another reason he failed to convince. The notion of the authority of common sense—as a set of supposedly unchallengeable, quasi-axiomatic tenets, such as that there is an external world that we know by sense-perception—is fundamentally dogmatic and anti-intellectual, and it’s no surprise that philosophers generally denigrate it.

Thus, although Reid produced trenchant criticisms of the theory of ideas, these did not get the attention they should have. Every theory has problems and inadequacies. Accordingly, thinkers do not abandon a theory merely because it is in difficulties and arguably falsified or refuted. Rather, people abandon a theory when they have a better theory. Now that this is in our grasp, Reid suddenly looks a lot smarter than he used to.

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Academized Paper Writing Service

How to succeed in high school, college, and even grad school: Buy your papers from the Academized Paper Writing Service!!
 
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Article Recommendation: “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance”

Yesterday I read an excellent article by Tomas Pueyo titled, “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance.” It is pretty long, but it is the best single thought piece I have seen on what to do about the coronavirus problem. Pueyo is the author of an alarmist article on the severity of the coronavirus a week ago that went viral and gained him a large audience. I hope this article gets as many reads as the previous one.

The main thrust of the piece is an outline of a plan for dealing with the problem, one that is similar to what I have argued in some comments here. (That, of course, is what makes him so wise.) His basic strategy, indicated by his title “The Hammer and the Dance,” is to implement immediately a lockdown (the Hammer) in the short term, to last only a few weeks, followed by some more relaxed strategy (the Dance) modeled after the efforts of countries like South Korea and Singapore. The short term lockdown, similar to what California has recently imposed, would be implemented not because it is a good idea in itself (he thinks it is not), but because we are at present so woefully unprepared to do anything more moderate, such as widespread testing, and quarantining and tracing the social contacts of identified cases. Exactly what the “Dance” would consist of is something we would have to figure out; he is necessarily vague about this, since we as yet know so little about what we’re fighting. Still, I find his strategy hopeful, and it is the most sensible program I have yet seen.

Reason, Naturalism, and Free Will

People familiar with Objectivism will remember an old article by Nathaniel Branden titled, “The Contradiction of Determinism,” (Objectivist Newsletter, May 1963). In it, he argues, not that the doctrine of free will is true, nor that determinism is false. Rather, he argues that if determinism is true, we cannot know it. And the reason we can’t know it is that, if determinism is true, no knowledge is possible at all.

The argument is that knowledge must be validated by a process of reason. Our suppositions about the world are not self-certifying. The mere presence of an idea in your mind does not establish that it is true. Therefore, we have to evaluate our suppositions about the world by means of sensory evidence and other tests, such as coherence. This must be done by a process of reason. But the process of reason cannot be realized by merely mechanical causation of the sort that is expressed by causal laws. Causal laws determine that a certain sort of event results in consequence of a certain sort of prior event, and this sort of determination is entirely different from that of seeing reasons or recognizing logical connections.

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Stoicism and Free Will

It has taken me a while to get around to reading Aaron Smith’s piece on Stoicism at the Ayn Rand Institute, which Roderick Long posted about already, but now that I’ve done so, I want to make a few comments.

What interests me particularly is Smith’s treatment of free will and determinism. It seems to me that Smith makes some common errors with regard to these, and it will help me to refine my own thinking on them a bit to comment on his remarks. I also think he somewhat misconstrues the impact of the Stoics’ determinism on their ethical philosophy. I should say that this is not hard to do. For the past several years, I have taught Stoicism every semester as part of my moral philosophy class, and when I started out, my interpretation was not so very different from Smith’s. But over time I have come to see—or so it seems to me—that their determinism has actually rather little impact on their ethics. It certainly is not the dominating influence that Smith makes it out to be. Or so I shall argue. Continue reading

What Mary Never Did Know; or, How Kant Was Right

A well-known argument, due to Frank Jackson, goes as follows. (You can read the short version here.) The brilliant genius Mary has complete knowledge of physical reality. All the sciences, physics, chemistry, neuroscience, etc., have been completed—there is nothing more to add—so that the fundamental physical constituents and causes of all phenomena are known, together with everything that supervenes on them, and Mary has mastered all of this. But although Mary thus knows everything about the physical world there is to know, she does not know everything there is to know. For, a peculiarity about Mary is that she has lived her entire life in a black and white room and has never been permitted to view anything except in black and white. Thus, on the day when she finally leaves her room and sees, say, a red object, she will learn something she didn’t know before. She will say, “Ha! So that is what seeing red is like.” If this is correct, then, apparently, red, or the experience of seeing red, is not part of physical reality.

The “Mary” argument is just one of several ways to bring out what is really an old, classic problem with any sort of reductionistic physicalism. It is this. Continue reading

What’s So Great about Joint Intentionality? Haidt, Tomasello, and Henrich

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt invokes Michael Tomasello’s notion of “joint intentionality,” calling it our evolutionary Rubicon; i.e., the critical trait the evolution of which made us irrevocably human and led inevitably to the development of a large number of our most distinctive human characteristics, especially our groupishness. Haidt writes:

When everyone in a group began to share a common understanding of how things were supposed to be done, and then felt a flash of negativity when any individual violated these expectations, the first moral matrix was born… That, I believe, was our Rubicon crossing. (239)

I think Haidt gets a little too carried away over joint intentionality. The purpose of this post is to explain why and to suggest a more sensible alternative proposed by anthropologist Joseph Henrich.

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Haidt—The Righteous Mind, Chs. 7 & 8

In chapters 7 and 8, Haidt describes in detail his account of our innate “moral foundations”—a relatively small set of fundamental psychological mechanisms that underlie and produce our moral intuitions. In previous chapters, he has argued that moral judgment is driven primarily by moral intuition—that the intuitive dog wags the rational tail—and that our moral intuitions cover more areas of life than just harm and fairness. It is now time to get specific. Just what are these fundamental, innate sources of moral intuition, and how can we show that we really have them?

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