PHILOSOPHY AGAINST THE MACHINE, #2–L. Ron Dennett and The New Scientology.
By Robert Hanna
PREVIOUS INSTALLMENTS IN THIS SERIES
L. Ron Dennett and The New Scientology
Scientology[i] was (and still is) a pseudo-scientific pseudo-religion.
What do I mean by saying that?
Real natural science constructs logically consistent and mathematically well-grounded theories for the explanation of a certain well-specified range of formal and/or empirical data, entails testable predictions, and then tests these against natural reality for truth or falsity.
And real religions are social institutions that satisfy true human needs about people’s search for meaning and/or purpose in their lives, and about people’s commitment to, or pursuit of, the highest good.
By sharp contrast, pseudo-science provides elaborate bullshit for the purpose of pandering to people’s fantasies, favorite myths, or misinformation, calls itself “science,” and fails all the criteria of real natural science; and pseudo-religions are social institutions that provide elaborate bullshit for the purpose of exploiting people’s true human needs about their search for meaning or purpose in life, and the highest good, call themselves “religion,” and fail all the criteria of real religions.
Scientology, as the creation of the former pulp science-fiction writer and classic American Elmer-Gantry-style huckster/rain-maker transformed to cultist Wizard of Oz, L. Ron Hubbard,[ii] meets all the criteria of pseudo-science and pseudo-religion: it is pernicious bullshit, pure and simple.
But Scientology is not my critical target in this little essay; instead, my target is a philosophical and socio-cultural movement, or tradition, I’ll call The New Scientology.
Like the original or old Scientology, The New Scientology is also a pseudo-scientific pseudo-religion, and, at bottom, pernicious bullshit.
But The New Scientology is not pure and simple pernicious bullshit: instead it is impure (half-scientific), subtle (misleadingly proclaiming itself to be anti-religious) pseudo-scientific pseudo-religious pernicious bullshit dressed up in a white coat and sitting in front of a desktop computer in a “lab,” with a PhD, well-monetized by governmental or military-industrial-university-digital complex funding agencies, assisted by many pre-doc or post-doc research assistants, and waving the magic wand of Peer Review.
The crucial difference between the two kinds of scientology, then, is that whereas the old Scientology was promulgated and purveyed by L. Ron Hubbard, the former pulp science-fiction writer and classic American Elmer-Gantry-style huckster/rain-maker transformed into a cultist Wizard of Oz, but with no white coat, no professional academic credentials, and no governmental or military-industrial-university-digital complex funding, The New Scientology is being promulgated and purveyed by white-coated, lab-possessing, PhD-possessing, high status professional academic cultist sorcerers[iii] with well-funded, Peer Reviewed “research programs,” at top-ranked universities, who are fully compliant with the aims, demands, and needs of their funding-sources, whom I’ll call The Compliant Experts.
What essentially characterizes The New Scientology? Here are its five individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions.
First, scientism: the rationally unjustified epistemic and metaphysical valorization of the exact natural sciences — mathematics, physics, and chemistry — as (in Protagoras’s words, updated and applied to science by Wilfrid Sellars) “the measure of all things.”[iv]
Second, biologism: the rationally unjustified epistemic and metaphysical valorization of evolutionary and genetic biology, interpreted as entailing reductive or non-reductive materialism or physicalism about the activities, lives, and minds of living organisms, especially including human animals.
Third, natural mechanism: the rationally unjustified scientific and metaphysical doctrine according to which everything whatsoever in the natural world, including all things human, not only operates according to but also is fundamentally explicable in terms of Turing-computable algorithms, together with deterministic or indeterministic (statistical, stochastic) natural laws, together with the total set of fixed quantitative facts about the past.
The belief-system that consists in scientism, plus Darwinian dogmatism, plus natural mechanism, is itself a new pseudo-religion.
Fourth, not only the false identification of minds (to the extent that minds can be correctly or properly said to exist at all) with either (i) brains and brain-processes, or
(ii) computational functional patterns realized in the brain and in brain processes, or
(iii) sets of beliefs, expressed as claims in natural language, but also the false elimination of the very idea or concept of real human minds, i.e., irreducible causally efficacious capacities or powers for consciousness or subjective experience, self-consciousness, emotion (desires, feelings, and passions), rationality, and free agency, in all fairly sane, healthy, and mature human animals.
For convenience, let’s call this mind-denialism.
And fifth and finally, the false identification of real natural science (as defined above) with what The Compliant Experts say.
For convenience, and borrowing Jeff Schmidt’s terminology in Disciplined Minds,[v] let’s call this false identification ideological discipline.
Elsewhere, I’ve argued at length against scientism, biologism, natural mechanism, and mind-denialism,[vi] so I won’t repeat all that here; and Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds provides a brilliant critique of ideological discipline.
Let’s now consider the case of Daniel C. Dennett, the famous philosopher:
Daniel Clement Dennett III (born March 28, 1942) is an American philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist whose research centers on the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science.
As of 2017, he is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Dennett is an atheist and secularist, a member of the Secular Coalition for America advisory board, and a member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, as well as an outspoken supporter of the Brights movement. Dennett is referred to as one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
While he is a confirmed compatibilist on free will, in “On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want” — chapter 15 of his 1978 book Brainstorms — Dennett articulated the case for a two-stage model of decision making in contrast to libertarian views.
The model of decision making I am proposing has the following feature: when we are faced with an important decision, a consideration-generator whose output is to some degree undetermined, produces a series of considerations, some of which may of course be immediately rejected as irrelevant by the agent (consciously or unconsciously). Those considerations that are selected by the agent as having a more than negligible bearing on the decision then figure in a reasoning process, and if the agent is in the main reasonable, those considerations ultimately serve as predictors and explicators of the agent’s final decision.
While other philosophers have developed two-stage models, including William James, Henri Poincaré, Arthur Compton, and Henry Margenau, Dennett defends this model for the following reasons:
First … The intelligent selection, rejection, and weighing of the considerations that do occur to the subject is a matter of intelligence making the difference.
Second, I think it installs indeterminism in the right place for the libertarian, if there is a right place at all.
Third … from the point of view of biological engineering, it is just more efficient and in the end more rational that decision making should occur in this way.
A fourth observation in favor of the model is that it permits moral education to make a difference, without making all of the difference.
Fifth — and I think this is perhaps the most important thing to be said in favor of this model — it provides some account of our important intuition that we are the authors of our moral decisions.
Finally, the model I propose points to the multiplicity of decisions that encircle our moral decisions and suggests that in many cases our ultimate decision as to which way to act is less important phenomenologically as a contributor to our sense of free will than the prior decisions affecting our deliberation process itself: the decision, for instance, not to consider any further, to terminate deliberation; or the decision to ignore certain lines of inquiry.
These prior and subsidiary decisions contribute, I think, to our sense of ourselves as responsible free agents, roughly in the following way: I am faced with an important decision to make, and after a certain amount of deliberation, I say to myself: “That’s enough. I’ve considered this matter enough and now I’m going to act,” in the full knowledge that I could have considered further, in the full knowledge that the eventualities may prove that I decided in error, but with the acceptance of responsibility in any case.
Leading libertarian philosophers such as Robert Kane have rejected Dennett’s model, specifically that random chance is directly involved in a decision, on the basis that they believe this eliminates the agent’s motives and reasons, character and values, and feelings and desires. They claim that, if chance is the primary cause of decisions, then agents cannot be liable for resultant actions. Kane says:
[As Dennett admits,] a causal indeterminist view of this deliberative kind does not give us everything libertarians have wanted from free will. For [the agent] does not have complete control over what chance images and other thoughts enter his mind or influence his deliberation. They simply come as they please. [The agent] does have some control after the chance considerations have occurred.
But then there is no more chance involved. What happens from then on, how he reacts, is determined by desires and beliefs he already has. So it appears that he does not have control in the libertarian sense of what happens after the chance considerations occur as well. Libertarians require more than this for full responsibility and free will.
Dennett has remarked in several places (such as “Self-portrait,” in Brainchildren) that his overall philosophical project has remained largely the same since his time at Oxford. He is primarily concerned with providing a philosophy of mind that is grounded in empirical research. In his original dissertation, Content and Consciousness, he broke up the problem of explaining the mind into the need for a theory of content and for a theory of consciousness. His approach to this project has also stayed true to this distinction. Just as Content and Consciousness has a bipartite structure, he similarly divided Brainstorms into two sections. He would later collect several essays on content in The Intentional Stance and synthesize his views on consciousness into a unified theory in Consciousness Explained [RH: As a young and very tiny philosophical fly-on-the-wall, I once heard Dennett say in an elevator, that Consciousness Explained should have been called “Consciousness Explained Away”]. These volumes respectively form the most extensive development of his views.
In chapter 5 of Consciousness Explained Dennett describes his multiple drafts model of consciousness. He states that, “all varieties of perception — indeed all varieties of thought or mental activity — are accomplished in the brain by parallel, multitrack processes of interpretation and elaboration of sensory inputs. Information entering the nervous system is under continuous ‘editorial revision’” (p. 111). Later he asserts, “These yield, over the course of time, something rather like a narrative stream or sequence, which can be thought of as subject to continual editing by many processes distributed around the brain, …” (p. 135, emphasis in the original).
In this work, Dennett’s interest in the ability of evolution to explain some of the content-producing features of consciousness is already apparent, and this has since become an integral part of his program. He defends a theory known by some as Neural Darwinism. He also presents an argument against qualia; he argues that the concept is so confused that it cannot be put to any use or understood in any non-contradictory way, and therefore does not constitute a valid refutation of physicalism. His strategy mirrors his teacher Ryle’s approach of redefining first person phenomena in third person terms, and denying the coherence of the concepts which this approach struggles with.
Dennett self-identifies with a few terms:
[Others] note that my “avoidance of the standard philosophical terminology for discussing such matters” often creates problems for me; philosophers have a hard time figuring out what I am saying and what I am denying. My refusal to play ball with my colleagues is deliberate, of course, since I view the standard philosophical terminology as worse than useless — a major obstacle to progress since it consists of so many errors.
In Consciousness Explained, he affirms “I am a sort of ‘teleofunctionalist’, of course, perhaps the original teleofunctionalist.” He goes on to say, “I am ready to come out of the closet as some sort of verificationist”(pp. 460–461).
Much of Dennett’s work since the 1990s has been concerned with fleshing out his previous ideas by addressing the same topics from an evolutionary standpoint, from what distinguishes human minds from animal minds (Kinds of Minds), to how free will is compatible with a naturalist view of the world (Freedom Evolves).
Dennett sees evolution by natural selection as an algorithmic process (though he spells out that algorithms as simple as long division often incorporate a significant degree of randomness). This idea is in conflict with the evolutionary philosophy of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who preferred to stress the “pluralism” of evolution (i.e., its dependence on many crucial factors, of which natural selection is only one).
Dennett’s views on evolution are identified as being strongly adaptationist, in line with his theory of the intentional stance, and the evolutionary views of biologist Richard Dawkins. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett showed himself even more willing than Dawkins to defend adaptationism in print, devoting an entire chapter to a criticism of the ideas of Gould. This stems from Gould’s long-running public debate with E.O. Wilson and other evolutionary biologists over human sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould and Richard Lewontin opposed, but which Dennett advocated, together with Dawkins and Steven Pinker. Gould argued that Dennett overstated his claims and misrepresented Gould’s, to reinforce what Gould describes as Dennett’s “Darwinian fundamentalism.”
In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennett writes that evolution can account for the origin of morality. He rejects, however, the idea that morality being natural to us implies that we should take a skeptical position regarding ethics, noting that what is fallacious in the naturalistic fallacy is not to support values per se, but rather to rush from facts to values.
In his 2006 book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett attempts to account for religious belief naturalistically, explaining possible evolutionary reasons for the phenomenon of religious adherence. In this book he declares himself to be “a bright,” and defends the term.
He has been doing research into clerics who are secretly atheists and how they rationalize their works. He found what he called a “don’t ask, don’t tell” conspiracy because believers did not want to hear of loss of faith. That made unbelieving preachers feel isolated but they did not want to lose their jobs and sometimes their church-supplied lodgings and generally consoled themselves that they were doing good in their pastoral roles by providing comfort and required ritual. The research, with Linda LaScola, was further extended to include other denominations and non-Christian clerics. The research and stories Dennett and LaScola accumulated during this project were published in their 2013 co-authored book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind.[vii]
Thus Dennett, his work, and his basic beliefs, all in a wikified nutshell.
Now let’s apply the criteria of The New Scientology.
Is Dennett committed to scientism? Yes.
Is Dennett committed to biologism? Yes.
Is Dennett committed to natural mechanism? Yes.
Is Dennett committed to mind-denialism? Yes.
Is Dennett committed to ideological discipline? Yes.
Eureka! Given that he satisfies the five individually necessary and jointly sufficient criteria of The New Scientology, and is also arguably the most famous of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” it is self-evidently clear, that Dennett is not only an apostle of The New Scientology, he is its L. Ron Dennett.
As a perfect example of L. Ron Dennett and The New Scientology, let’s further consider a recent book review by Dennett — who holds a BA from Harvard and a D.Phil from Oxford, and has spent his entire career teaching in Boston, hence as a Bostonian Brahmin — of a book by another New Scientologist who works (you guessed it) just around the corner, the Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich, in The New York Times Book Review (of Each Other’s Books, also a classic quip about The New York Review of Books) — which is available online,[viii] although sometimes hiding behind an NYT paywall: so, for easy reference, I’ve also provided it below in full.
Now that we know what The New Scientology is, that Dennett is its leading cultist sorcerer, and that Henrich is another one of the New Scientologists, the review speaks for itself.
But I also couldn’t resist inserting some critical comments inside square brackets.
THE WEIRDEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD
How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
By Joseph Henrich
Reviewed by Daniel C. Dennett
According to copies of copies of fragments of ancient texts, Pythagoras in about 500 B.C. exhorted his followers: Don’t eat beans! Why he issued this prohibition is anybody’s guess (Aristotle thought he knew), but it doesn’t much matter because the idea never caught on.
According to Joseph Henrich, some unknown early church fathers about a thousand years later promulgated the edict: Don’t marry your cousin! Why they did this is also unclear, but if Henrich is right — and he develops a fascinating case brimming with evidence — this prohibition changed the face of the world, by eventually creating societies and people that were WEIRD: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic.
In the argument put forward in this engagingly written, excellently organized and meticulously argued book, this simple rule triggered a cascade of changes, creating states to replace tribes, science to replace lore and law to replace custom. If you are reading this you are very probably WEIRD, and so are almost all of your friends and associates, but we are outliers on many psychological measures.
The world today has billions of inhabitants who have minds strikingly different from ours.
[RH: Really? Strikingly different minds? What’s your evidence for this? Don’t they at most have sets of beliefs that are strikingly different from ours?]
Roughly, we weirdos are individualistic, think analytically,
[RH: Hmm. Don’t Dennett/Henrich actually mean that many or most members of the coastal elites in the USA are “individualistic” (read: “committed to psychological and ethical egoistism” ) and think “analytically” (read: “committed to instrumental reasoning and empiricism”)?
And even leaving aside non-coastal-elite Americans, are the labels “individualistic” and “analytic thinker,” as I’ve glossed them, generally true of, say, the USA’s North American neighbors to the north, the Canadians (about whom — not to mention North Dakotans — the US coastal elites typically know little or nothing), or generally true of the USA’s North American neighbors to the south, the Mexicans (about whom the same blithe American coastal-elite ignorance typically applies)?
Is it generally true of people living in Continental Europe, especially including Scandinavia?
And so-on and so forth: my worry is simply that Dennett, Henrich, and Henrich’s hand-picked Ivy League research group are projecting their own specifically American class-consciousness biases onto the mountains of statistical data they’re analyzing.]
believe in free will,
[RH: Ha. As a hard-core compatibilist, Dennett believes at most in “free will,” not real free will.]
take personal responsibility, feel guilt when we misbehave and think nepotism is to be vigorously discouraged, if not outlawed. Right? They (the non-WEIRD majority) identify more strongly with family, tribe, clan and ethnic group, think more “holistically,” take responsibility for what their group does (and publicly punish those who besmirch the group’s honor), feel shame — not guilt — when they misbehave and think nepotism is a natural duty.
[RH: Really? Wow. Doesn’t this read like “settler colonialism,” dressed up in a white coat as hard-nosed social science, then WEIRD-ly generalized over all of humanity outside American coastal elites?]
These differences, and more, are manifest in surveys of attitudes and many other data sources, and more impressively in hundreds of psychological experiments, but the line between WEIRD and not WEIRD, like all lines in evolution, is not bright. There are all manner of hybrids, intermediates and unclassifiable variations, but there are also forces that have tended to sort today’s people into these two kinds, genetically indistinguishable but profoundly different psychologically.
[RH: With all due respect (a classic professional academic bullshit phrase that means some heavy-duty put-down is coming right up) Professors Dennett and Henrich, this seems like utter bullshit to me.
Leaving aside their mountains of statistical data, do Dennett and Henrich actually know anyone from outside their own coastal elites?
I mean, I’m no Bostonian Brahmin or Harvard anthropologist, and I haven’t analyzed mountains of statistical data, but (i) I do know that although statistics don’t bullshit, bullshitters frequently use statistics, (ii) I’ve lived and traveled outside the USA quite a bit, and read lots, and also thought lots about human nature,[ix] from which I conclude (iii) that the mountains of statistical data used by Henrich are probably tracking sets of beliefs, not real human minds, and furthermore that all people everywhere do seem to me to be pretty much the same as regards their basic set of psychological capacities and their true human needs, even despite obviously having somewhat or even very different ethnic and racial identifications, languages, cultures, sets of beliefs, class identifications, religious identifications, gender identifications, sexual identifications, etc., etc.]
WEIRD folk are the more recent development, growing out of the innovation of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, the birth of states and organized religions about 3,000 years ago, then becoming “proto-WEIRD” over the last 1,500 years (thanks to the prohibition on marrying one’s cousin), culminating in the biologically sudden arrival of science, industry and the “modern” world during the last 500 years or so. WEIRD minds evolved by natural selection, but not by genetic selection; they evolved by the natural selection of cultural practices and other culturally transmitted items.
[RH: Sigh. This seems to me a classic case of confusing sets of beliefs or ideologies, as expressed in natural language, which do indeed evolve in this way, with real human minds, which don’t evolve in this way, but are fundamentally the same in all fairly sane, healthy, and mature human animals. In this regard, I think that Dennett has never really advanced philosophically beyond the views of his famous D.Phil advisor, Gilbert Ryle, who held in his 1949 philosophical blockbuster, The Concept of Mind, that thinking, essentially, is “talking to oneself in silence” or sotto voce.[x]]
Henrich is an anthropologist at Harvard. He and his colleagues first described the WEIRD mind in a critique of all the work in human psychology (and the social sciences more generally) built on experimental subjects almost exclusively composed of undergraduates — or the children of academics and others who live near universities. The results obtained drawing on this conveniently available set of “normal” people were assumed by almost all researchers to be universal features of human nature, the human brain, the human emotional system. But when attempts were made to replicate the experiments with people in other countries, not just illiterate hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but the elites in Asian countries, for instance, it was shown in many cases that the subject pool of the original work had been hugely biased from the outset.
One of the first lessons that must be learned from this important book is that the WEIRD mind is real;
[RH: Well, as per the above, I’ll concede that the set of beliefs or ideology that constitutes WEIRD-ness is real enough. But frankly, but I strongly doubt whether that belief-set or ideology actually exists much beyond American coastal elites.]
all future investigation of “human nature” must be complicated by casting a wider net for subjects, and we must stop assuming that our ways are “universal.” Offhand, I cannot think of many researchers who haven’t tacitly adopted some dubious universalist assumptions. I certainly have.
[RH: Gosh. Does Dennett mean “dubious universalist assumptions” like (i) that every fairly sane, healthy, and mature human animal everywhere possesses at least a minimal competence for reasoning according to what I’ve called “the protologic,”[xi] (ii) that every fairly sane, healthy, and mature human animal everywhere possesses at least a minimal competence for reasoning according to basic arithmetic, (iii) that every fairly sane, healthy, and mature human animal everywhere possesses at least a minimal competence for moral reasoning, and (iv) that every fairly sane, healthy, and mature human animal everywhere is a person who possesses human dignity? What would it mean to deny these?]
We will all have to change our perspective.
[RH: Double wow. Really? We “have to change our perspective” about people’s personhood and dignity? That really IS pernicious bullshit.]
Many of the WEIRD ways of thinking, Henrich shows, are the result of cultural differences, not genetic differences. And that is another lesson that the book drives home: Biology is not just genes. Language, for instance, was not invented; it evolved. So did religion, music, art, ways of hunting and farming, norms of behavior and attitudes about kinship that leave measurable differences on our psychology and even on our brains.
To point to just one striking example: Normal, meaning non-WEIRD, people use left and right hemispheres of their brains about equally for facial recognition, but we WEIRD people have co-opted left-hemisphere regions for language tasks, and are significantly worse at recognizing faces than the normal population. Until recently few researchers imagined that growing up in a particular culture could have such an effect on functional neuroanatomy.
[RH: I thought that neural plasticity was a well-attested phenomenon: so why should it be a surprising, game-changing fact–if it is indeed a fact–about our growing up in different cultures? And even if it were a fact, it wouldn’t change anything about our real human minds and our basic set of specifically rational human capacities: it would be at most an interesting fact about our brains.]
The centerpiece of Henrich’s theory is the role played by what he calls the Roman Catholic Church’s Marriage and Family Program, featuring prohibitions of polygamy, divorce, marriage to first cousins, and even to such distant blood relatives as sixth cousins, while discouraging adoption and arranged marriages and the strict norms of inheritance that prevailed in extended families, clans and tribes. “The accidental genius of Western Christianity was in ‘figuring out’ how to dismantle kin-based institutions while at the same time catalyzing its own spread.”
[RH: Again I’m no Bostonian Brahmin or Harvard anthropologist, and with all due respect please call me “anarcho-socialist,” but it seems to me that the emergence of the State[xii] and capitalism[xiii] are a hell of a lot more important for the development of humankind than the Church’s prurient obsession with sex.]
The genius was accidental, according to Henrich, because the church authorities who laid down the laws had little or no insight into what they were setting in motion, aside from noticing that by weakening the traditional bonds of kinship, the church got rich fast. One of Henrich’s goals is to devalue the residual traces of “Great Man” history, so he would be reluctant to rely on any ancient documents that came to light recounting the “real” reasons for the church’s embattled stand on these issues. As a good evolutionist, he can say, “The church was just the ‘lucky one’ that bumbled across an effective recombination of supernatural beliefs and practices.” But as for why the church fathers enforced these prohibitions so tenaciously against resistance over the centuries, this is still a bit of a mystery.
[RH: Oh come on: you mean you don’t know that power elites like to exercise and retain their power, whether inside or outside religions? Or are you just being coy and clever, and virtue-signalling to other New Scientologists because you’re one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism”?]
Around the world today there is still huge variation in the societies where cousin marriages are permitted and even encouraged, and societies in which it is close to forbidden. There are good reasons for supposing that our early hominin ancestors were organized for tens of thousands of years by tight kinship relations, which still flourish today in most societies. So what happened in Europe starting in the middle of the first millennium was a major development, largely restricted to or at least concentrated in certain cultures where positive feedback turned small tendencies into large differences that then turned further differences into the birth of WEIRD culture and WEIRD minds.
This is an extraordinarily ambitious book, along the lines of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel,” which gets a brief and respectful mention, but going much farther, and bolstering the argument at every point with evidence gathered by Henrich’s “lab,” with dozens of collaborators, and wielding data points from world history, anthropology, economics, game theory, psychology and biology, all knit together with “statistical razzle-dazzle” when everyday statistics is unable to distinguish signal from noise. The endnotes and bibliography take up over 150 pages and include a fascinating range of discussions.
The book bristles with apologies for not having gathered quite enough data on various questions and hence settling for somewhat tentative hypotheses, warnings about not confusing correlation with causation, and occasionally tart admonitions, like “Some critics will ignore these points and pretend I never made them.” One can often discover a lot about an organism’s predators by seeing what defenses it has put in place. Henrich is expecting a battle, and well he might.
There has long been a hostile divide between physical anthropologists, who have labs and study hominid bone fossils, for instance, and cultural anthropologists who spend a few seasons in the jungle learning the language and ways of a hunter-gatherer tribe, for instance, or today, spend a few seasons studying the folkways of stock traders or baristas. Henrich is a cultural anthropologist but he wants to do it right, with controls, experiments, statistics and factual claims that can be shown to be right or wrong. In 1960 the field of cliometrics was born, history done with large data sets and statistics, and Henrich wants to show just how far this approach can be pushed. Traditional historians and the more informal cultural anthropologists will see themselves being confronted with a methodology few of them use and challenged to defend their impressionistic hypotheses against his lab-based results.
The virtues of having a theory to guide investigation are vividly displayed. Who would have thought to ask if the prevalence of rice paddies in different small regions of China played the same causal role that distance from a monastery played in Europe? Or why blood donations are strikingly lower in southern Italy than in northern Italy today. Or how testosterone levels differ dramatically during the life histories of men from WEIRD societies and men from kin-intensive societies. Henrich has found dozens of ways of testing aspects of his theory, and it stands up remarkably well, yielding many surprising predictions that find multiple sources of confirmation, but that is not enough.
He admits that his research overlooks (so far) large portions of the world’s population, and when he counts societies instead of people to get his measure of how abnormal we WEIRD people are, one can wonder what percentage of the world’s population is WEIRD today. The normals are turning into WEIRDs in droves, and almost nobody is going in the other direction, so if we WEIRDs aren’t the majority yet, we soon will be, since societies with high Kinship Intensity Indexes evolve or go extinct almost as fast as the thousands of languages still in existence.
A good statistician (which I am not) should scrutinize the many uses of statistics made by Henrich and his team. They are probably all sound but he would want them examined rigorously by the experts. That’s science.
[RH: Super wow. So science is whatever The Compliant Experts say it is. What happened to real natural science?]
Experts who don’t have the technical tools
[RH: Yes, you wouldn’t want to be caught critically thinking for yourself, without your “technical tools” strapped on.]
— historians and anthropologists especially — have an important role to play as well; they should scour the book for any instances of Occam’s broom (with which one sweeps inconvenient facts under the rug). This can be an innocent move, since Henrich himself, in spite of the astonishing breadth of his scholarship, is not expert in all of these areas and may simply be ignorant of important but little-known exceptions to his generalizations. His highly detailed and confident relaying of historical and anthropological facts impresses me, but what do I know? You can’t notice what isn’t mentioned unless you’re an expert.
This book calls out for respectful but ruthless vetting
[RH: by Compliant Experts, waving their magical wands of Peer Review,]
on all counts, and what it doesn’t need, and shouldn’t provoke, is ideological condemnations
[RH: Yes, just like the work of all New Scientologists, and especially of the other three “Horsemen of New Atheism,” Dennett’s and Henrich’s work is entirely free of ideology.]
or quotations of brilliant passages by revered authorities. Are historians, economists and anthropologists up to the task? It will be fascinating to see.
[RH: Yes, fascinating.]
Daniel C. Dennett is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University and the author, most recently, of “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.”
[i] Wikipedia, “Scientology” (2020), available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientology>.
[ii] See, e.g., M. Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 2018/1990), pp. 53–60. I’m borrowing Davis’s brilliantly acerbic label for New Scientologists, “sorcerers.”
[iii] See, e.g., R. Miller, Bare-Faced Messiah: The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard (New York: M. Joseph, 1987).
[iv] W. Sellars, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” in Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality, pp. 127–196, at p. 173.
[v] J. Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives (New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).
[vi] See, e.g., R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), also available online in preview at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/21620839/Embodied_Minds_in_Action>; R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview HERE; and R. Hanna, “The End of Mechanism: Kant, Science, and Humanity,” (September 2019 version), available online HERE. See also S. Haack, Science and its Discontents (Rounded Globe, 2017), available online at URL = <https://roundedglobe.com/books/038f7053-e376-4fc3-87c5-096de820966d/Scientism%20and%20its%20Discontents/>.
[vii] Wikipedia, “Daniel Dennett” (2020), available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Dennett>.
[viii] D.C. Dennett, “Why Are We in the West So Weird? A Theory,” The New York Times Book Review (12 September 20), available online at URL = <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/12/books/review/the-weirdest-people-in-the-world-joseph-henrich.html>.
[ix] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “On Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: Optimism For Realists, Or, Neither Hobbes Nor Rousseau” (July 2020 version), available online HERE.
[x] See G. Ryle, The Concept of Mind (London: Hutchinson, 1949), p. 28.
[xi] See R. Hanna, Rationality and Logic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006) [Pbk., 2009], also available online in preview at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/21202624/Rationality_and_Logic>.
[xii] See, e.g., J.C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2017).
[xiii] See, e.g., P. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 1979).
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 482
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 22 September 2020
Please consider becoming a patron!