14 October 2012

The Mischievous Innuendo of Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg’s Brains

Leiter and Weisberg’s review of Thomas Nagel’s latest book Mind and Cosmos (hat-tip Andrew Sullivan) is a wonderful example of mischievous innuendo masquerading as substantive and thoughtful critique.  They begin their review by establishing that Thomas Nagel is old – for at least fifty years, they ponder, he has been writing about moral and political philosophy and making contributions to the philosophy of mind. Nagel’s most influential contribution to the philosophy of mind, they say, was a paper called “What is it like to be a bat?” This paper, they describe, as memorably titled, by which they subtly imply that there was little else about it that was memorable. By extension (and the reader can see where this is going immediately), they begin the business of establishing a Straw Man Nagel, whose arguments about “materialism and Darwinism” in the epoch of post-modernity they will bravely challenge.
Nagel, they observe, appears to be appropriately situated in what they call “a small cottage industry” of critics of neuromania and Darwinitis (because, as any reader knows, everyone who argues against neuromania this way is an intellectual light-weight). By drawing upon the weak analogy of cottage industry, both Leiter and Weisberg hope to convince rhetorically their readers that such critics are either nostalgic pastoralists of the Romantic Age, or worse, comparable to the Luddites who stood against the rise of industrial capitalism. Significantly, however, both Leiter and Weisberg cast critics of neuromania in generational terms. The critics, they say, are all “prominent senior philosophers”. (Just to be clear, I am not senior, not prominent, and not a philosopher.) Their 'brilliant' limiting of the options thus successfully brands critics of ‘the neuro turn’ as aged, nostalgic-types, uncomfortable in a fast changing world. They continue in this vein by pointing towards one tempting potential Ad  hominem line of attack – secretly philosophers like Nagel are closeted Christians in the mold they imply of an Alvin Plantinga. Nagel, as Straw Man, in other words, is beginning to cast an antediluvian shadow, even as both Leiter and Weisberg are quick to admit Nagel is an “avowed atheist” (as is the author of this blog). Note how Leiter and Weisberg’s critique rhetorically situates Nagel in a religious pool of critics and translates his own atheism in the ecclesiastical language of “avowed.” They, moreover, note that Nagel's “far-reaching broadside” appears to see Plantinga favorably. In other words, Nagel’s critique is the mere gun-smoke of a religious cannonade. And that will disappoint  - they now generalize – all philosophers (because, you know, no serious atheistic philosopher ever agreed with anything a religiously-engaged philosopher like Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Kierkegaard et al had to say).
Both Leiter and Weisberg are quick to establish that they did read Nagel’s book. Yet both reviewers again restrict the options, arguing that fundamentally Nagel’s book makes only two arguments against “the “materialist” view inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Nagel, they say, is firstly against reductionism. On this point, they agree with Nagel, but then they appeal to the authority of Philip Kitcher, who they claim said all of these things (better) thirty years ago.  Get that? Nagel is aping arguments long ago accepted by everyone. This appeal to the popularity of the idea, of course, creates an inconsistency in their argument, because upon having restricted their critique of Nagel to two options, they have now established that they agree with one of them, ipso facto they agree with half of everything Nagel says even though they have cast him in the role of an anti-modern, closeted religious nostalgic, shouting at the “kids” about “how in his day, we did things better.” Yet Leiter and Weisberg go further still. They capstone their agreement with Nagel by saying, “We simply do not see any serious attempts to reduce all the “higher” sciences to the laws of physics.” With this brilliantly positivist statement, they mean to imply that they know – seriously! – more than we – their readers – and, by extension, they also know more than Nagel. They have thus both generalized their authority and also asked us to trust them. The problem is that on its face, empirically, they are wrong. What do they think biophysics, computational neuroscience, and, yes, quantum neuroscience are all about? (Seriously: google scholar “quantum neuroscience”.)

In spite of the fact that both Leiter and Weisberg say that they and everyone else agrees with Nagel that theoretical reductionism is bad, they bizarrely continue this line of attack. The point, of course, is to continue to develop a Straw Man for later. They say that Nagel claims that reductive materialism drives the scientific community, again limiting their critique to Nagel’s considered remarks on Steven Weinberg’s Dreams of a Final Theory. The example they pick allows them again to say that no one in the majority of philosophers and practicing scientists disputes Nagel’s claim. At this point, their hyperbole, truly gets the better of them, because they are implying a) that they know the majority of philosophers and practicing scientists (that is absurd), and b) that because a majority of philosophers and scientists believe something, that fact alone is sufficient to invalidate Nagel’s claim. 

Not content, however, with these exaggerations, Leiter and Weisberg go a step further and argue “very little of the actual work in biology inspired by Darwin depends on reduction materialism of this sort; evolutionary explanations do not typically appeal to Newton’s laws or general relativity.” This truly exemplary rhetorical deflection asserts there is something knowable about the “actual work of biology” (by which I assume they mean the normal science of biology, psychology, and neuroscience) and presumably they both think this has always historically been the case. Except that this point is historically inaccurate. Let me point quickly to the obvious and important role that geological time plays in Darwin's theory; let me also quickly point out that Lord Kelvin presented Charles Darwin with an enormous problem that was fundamentally derived of physics. I could go on and on about this point, but let me just mention that Claude Bernard, John Burdon Sanderson, and Michael Foster, and the entire school of physiology that came after them, predicated much of their research on physics and chemistry (and much of modern neuroscience in turn is predicated upon their discoveries). What precisely Leiter and Weisberg believe an action potential to be, I can only imagine. But remember their evisceration of Nagel has been coded purely in the language of “everyone knows this”.So thus far no reader can know more about why Nagel is wrong than the fact that Nagel reiterates common complaints.

Since everyone has so far agreed with Nagel, it seems reasonable to suppose that the second component of Nagel’s complaint – recall that this complaint is the product of a cottage industry of nostalgia – must be the object at which their ire is directed. Indeed, this is the case. Nagel, they say, is opposed to naturalism, which since neither reviewers would want to fall into the trap of being excoriated for misrepresenting Nagel’s definition, they decide to define in his terms and "as features of our world like 'consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value'" that can be “accounted for in terms of the natural processes described by the various sciences (whether or not they are ever “reduced” to physics).” Nagel, both reviewers agree, has found a weighty target, an astonishing claim because they are quick to add that Nagel provides “few specifics” and only names Daniel Dennett as a “proponent”. Leiter and Weisberg’s rhetorical adjustment in tone here has to be unpacked. They have to establish that they “know something” about Nagel’s argument. If they don’t, then they have no business critiquing Nagel's argument. Yet they must also and quickly find a way of diminishing his case, so they criticize the paucity of empirical evidence that Nagel musters. It is important to understand why Leiter and Weisberg are on dangerous ground in their critique. They must establish that there is nothing that supports Nagel’s position, but if they sound as though they know very much about his argument, then their actual knowledge will indicate the wider existence of a “far-reaching broadside”, which might suggest that they are misrepresenting Nagel and by extension critics of the neuro turn. They very quickly say that Nagel is opposed to Dennett’s “neo-Darwinian” picture. They have now safely restricted the options – this despite the fact that they ignore that Ian Hacking, Henri Bergson, David Hume, Gilbert Ryle, and several others worthy of mention appear in Nagel’s critique.  Let clever circularity now commence! 
Nagel, Leiter and Weisberg say, admits early-on, in what they deem “a striking admission”, that he is not a specialist in science. This fact will I'm sure astound all of Nagel's readers. Nagel’s omission is important for the reviewers, however, because remember in the above they have made opaque references to the sciences in such a way that alerts readers that in contrast with Nagel they supposedly know a great deal (i.e. have great experience) about the sciences. The trick here is that they both assert much without ever asserting too much for themselves. Their preferred method of innuendo is expertise dressed in false modesty. Nagel, they say, critiques naturalism by appealing to common sense. Naturalists, by contrast they say, argue that the facts of scientific productivity in the life sciences speak for themselves. Note here how Leiter and Weisberg deliberately confuse the issue by appealing to generals in the absence of specifics. Science productivity must be good, because productivity is good. Common sense, which sounds good, they will say shortly has so often been proved false. “So what should we make of the actual work in biology that supports the ‘materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature’” they ask rhetorically? Having not even bothered to establish clearly that Nagel has ever attacked the productivity of biological science, they are setting him up to play the Catholic Church in an Opera about Galileo’s life. This method is quite familiar. It is the same method Washington Irving used to make his biography of Christopher Columbus ‘sell’ more books – the motif that the Church said the world was flat but the intrepid hero of New World Modernity set out to disprove religious traditionalism.  A neat story, but also a deliberate invention of an author (see here for the details); Leiter and Weisberg are doing the same thing to a Straw Man Nagel. It is pure rhetoric. 

Please note that so far nothing has been said about why Nagel’s argument is wrong. No fact has yet established why the reviewers disagree with him. And any detail that they have picked out for criticism is only a critique so long as their readers accept that the restrictions they have placed on interpreting Nagel are founded. Have they done that yet? Not a chance. But by eliding details and using this tone, many a harried reader might be forgiven for thinking that Nagel is old, substance-lite, and nostalgic - all criticisms easily leveled at the reviewers.

Common sense, Leiter and Weisberg, observe with deep gravitas “alas” (who the hell uses alas in a review anyway?) does not have “a promising history”. They then in fact muster in their defense the long discredited (and already mentioned) idea that once upon a time people believed that the “earth is flat”. There it is: “All the ordinary evidence supports that verdict”, they cry. Any critical reader should at this point say what utter balderdash. Leiter and Weisberg are philosophers at respected institutions who are aping the inventions of Washington Irving as though they are hallowed cultural certainties? Good grief? Students pay money to learn this malarkey; this is really the substance of serious critique? “Happily” our too glib reviewers observe, Nagel is not so medieval in his cosmology that he wants to “repudiate the Copernican revolution”. See that? The brilliant nastiness of Ad hominem now reveals like Raphael. They suggest, in effect, that both philosophers suspect Nagel would like to turn back the dial on progress! 

Their line of attack continues with growing crescendo. Nagel is trying to destroy the edifice of the successful research program of 400 years that has been the Scientific Revolution (ahem here). And, then cleverly, they slip in the point that Nagel is talking about “morality”. The incoherence of their attack is thus now revealed. They are mixing square pegs and round holes. They are talking about scientific discoveries and Nagel is talking about problems of morality. Indeed, all Nagel is doing is arguing that things that “are” scientific do not establish how things “ought” to be. So having established for the reader that Nagel’s concerns derive from the observation that some scientific naturalists have been applying scientific naturalism to things upon which science offers no solution, Leiter and Weisberg accuse Nagel of being anti-science, when their own presentation of Nagel’s case makes explicit that Nagel is interested in the Humean problem of "is-ought." Nagel, they suggest, is against things that “are” – never mind that it is clear from their very review that Nagel’s target is things that ought to be.

Nagel retreats, Leiter and Weisberg claim, into Aristotelian mysticism. 
In support of his skepticism, Nagel writes: “The world is an astonishing place, and the idea that we have in our possession the basic tools needed to understand it is no more credible now than it was in Aristotle’s day.” This seems to us perhaps the most startling sentence in all of Mind and Cosmos. Epistemic humility—the recognition that we could be wrong—is a virtue in science as it is in daily life, but surely we have some reason for thinking, some four centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that Aristotle was on the wrong track and that we are not, or at least not yet. Our reasons for thinking this are obvious and uncontroversial: mechanistic explanations and an abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us. The fruits of the scientific revolution, though at odds with common sense, allow us to send probes to Mars and to understand why washing our hands prevents the spread of disease.

Here Leiter and Weisberg assert that the ideal of “epistemic humility” is all well and good, but that poor old Nagel has lost the thread. Things are unequivocally better because humanity abandoned the supernatural and now we have rockets and cure diseases and all this good stuff like I-Phones. Their immature doctrine of progress could be easily challenged: against the small pox inoculation readers could offer the atomic bomb. Against industrial revolution readers could offer ecological crisis. And so on. But note also that Leiter and Weisberg have to suggest that no discoveries could have been made that resulted from efforts to discover the supernatural. Again this statement is empirically false. The Islamic tradition of science could well be offered as strong evidence for how wrong they are (see here). 

But these criticisms are not even the point, because Leiter and Weisberg have not even established clearly that Nagel has been arguing against any of this. So far, all we can know from their review, is that Nagel is growingly concerned by scientifically inclined naturalists who see their knowledge as useful for informing us about our moral things and moral order. Surely Leiter and Weisberg do not mean to suggest, as their review implies, that scientists never comment on questions of social policy, because if that is their argument then I’m sure that I can produce for their edification a list of several thousand individuals in physiology, biology, sociology, psychology who did precisely that. At this point, anyone thoughtful reading their review has to be wondering: you’re kidding right?

Believe me: the rest of this review continues along these rhetorical lines. I won't waste our time further with the details, save to mention that I feel sorry for Nagel (not that he needs my pity). He deserves better from his critics. I should also say that I do agree with reviewers about one thing. Like them, I don’t agree with Nagel’s conclusions.  L. J. Henderson long ago eliminated the need for teleology in science (readers can search Henderson on this blog). Nagel and I, however, would likely agree that Henderson’s organic analogy, especially in the way that Talcott Parsons used it (see here), is worrying. But Henderson's elimination of teleology for me was convincing. In any case, I don’t think resurrecting teleology would resolve the concerns that the “cottage industry” of critics have about ‘the neuro turn’. Few indeed would join with Nagel in his solution. 

Finally, I think it is worth noting that when Leiter and Weisberg say that “Nagel’s arguments against reductionism are quixotic,” they give much away about their own method of practicing philosophy. Critics of ‘the neuro turn’ will notice that both reviewers mirror a pattern much criticized on this blog. They might be wise, therefore, to recall that Cervantes’ Don Quixote is ultimately a study of the cultural meaning of deception. Never in my life have I understood the expression “tilting at wind-mills” better than upon reading their extraordinary review.


  1. That L & W are masters at eliding proof of their assertions shows up here:

    "We agree with Nagel that if the sciences could not explain our capacity to have thoughts about the world around us, that would be a serious failing and a reason to call their findings into question. But they can and they do!"

    At this point we expect some statement of proof or a reference backing up their assertion, instead these philosophs resume their Nagel pummeling:

    "It is here that Nagel’s lack of engagement with contemporary cognitive science and his idiosyncratic views about what a scientific explanation should look like make his argument especially perplexing ...."

    In fact, the sciences cannot explain such capacities because their _mechanisms_ continue to elude, a fact these dilettantes ignore in favor of inflating their hot-air balloon by pointing out that none of the other sciences have reduced their principles to 'basic' ones either.

    Consider that eliminating a ~century of biological theory from, say, 1883 to late 1900s* (but keeping Mayr, McClintock, punc eq and Waddington), would improve the acuity of our insight into biological dynamics generally, and evolutionary theory in particular.

    *eliminates Mendel, neodarwinian ejaculations, the "gene" and Dawkins' foolish gene and so on.


  2. It is clear that Leiter and Weisberg have problems even in understanding the passages they quote from Nagel. For example, he writes that it is no more credible than in Aristotle's day that we have the *basic tools* needed to understand the universe. That is not to say that the scientific revolution has not made huge advances in understanding different levels of the physical domain, but that the concepts we need to understand the basis of the universe are still not forthcoming. In particular we have no viable theory of how consciousness fits into the physical world.

    Leiter and Weisberg want to turn Nagel into an anti-scientific ogre. But it is visible from the quotations in their own review that he is not.