Book Review: Answers for Aristotle, by Massimo Pigliucci

How do we give our lives meaning without theistic or supernatural belief? How to we instill a sense of purpose in ourselves? How does one lead a moral and satisfied life without the crutch of religion?

In this book, published just last year, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci makes the case, and I think persuasively so, for a combination of modern science and philosophy he calls sci-phi.

In chapter 1, Sci-Phi and the Meaning of Life, he says,

“The basic idea is that there are some things in life that ought to matter, whatever problem we experience in life: the facts that are pertinent to said problem; the values that guide us as we evaluate those facts; the nature of the problem itself; any possible solutions to it; and the meaningfulness to us of those facts and values and their relevance to the quality of our life.”

He continues,

“Since science is uniquely well suited to deal with factual knowledge and philosophy deals with (among other things) values, sci-phi seems like a promising way to approach the perennial questions concerning how we construct the meaning of our existence.”

After reading this book from cover to cover, and of course noting my own leanings in favor of science and philosophy in their broadest sense, together as scientia as the best ways to acquire knowledge of the natural, conceptual and social worlds, I’m inclined to agree.

Chapter one gives a broad overview of the topics covered in subsequent chapters, discussing how science and philosophy should inform each other, how both make progress over time and can help us to reach eudaimonia, or flourishing, in our path to a life lived well, and warning of the confusion caused by the naturalistic fallacy, of the unjustified logical conflation of matters of fact with matters of value.

Part I, How Do We Tell Right from Wrong, begins a discussion of morality, starting with chapter 2, Trolley Dilemmas and How We Make Moral Decisions, dealing with the ways in which we reason about ethics, research on the psychology of morality, and the nature of human moral intuitions as revealed by research including the famous Trolley Dilemma and its variations. Three general sorts of moral systems are mentioned; Deontological ethics, or rule-based systems, like the Ten Commandments, Consequentialist Utilitarian ethics designed to enable moral judgments based on the consequences of our actions, and Virtue ethics, by which moral excellence derives from the sort of person one wants to be or become, that last system historically proposed by Aristotle and developed since then.

Chapter 3, Your Brain on Morality, discusses the neurobiology of morality — what is going on in our brains when we make moral judgments — and the effects on same of environment and biology, including the research of Jim Fallon on serial killers and what makes them tick, so to speak. It was interesting to find out that even with the ‘right’ brain activity signature and genetic markers, our personal history has a significant effect on our psychiatric development.

The chapter concludes with a caveat on brain research, and that,

“…we should remember that, as always in science, what current research tells us should be taken as only provisionally true and that it is likely to be superceded (and occasionally overturned) by better methods and more sophisticated thinking.”

Chapter 4, The Evolution of Morality, describes recent development of research on the origin of morality, particularly in social primates, like us, and including that done on other species, like chimpanzees and vampire bats. Topics include research on altruism, our sense of justice, and evolutionary hypotheses on how these may have come about based on our best empirical findings on what would seem at first glance to be contrary to a naive understanding of natural selection. It ends with this note:

“…moral reasoning is to moral instinct what scientific investigation is to raw observation and intuition; in other words, we come to a better understanding of morality by studying it scientifically at the same time as we improve our moral judgment through philosophical reflection.”

Chapter 5, A Handy-Dandy Menu for Building Your Own Moral Theory, lays out two steps in the process of devising our own moral compass; first, the metaethical question:

“…if there is no absolute source of morality (like a god), how do we avoid sliding into “anything goes” moral relativism?”

Followed by a more in-depth discussion of the three previously mentioned ethical systems (Deontological, Consequentialist, and Virtue ethics) and suggestions on how they may even be combined to construct a personal-but-not-arbitrary ethical system, morality without the trappings of religion or theistic belief.

Part II, How do We Know what We Think We Know? begins with Chapter 6, The Not So Rational Animal, discusses the ways we reason, and the ways in which our reasoning frequently goes wrong, how we fool ourselves into believing the silliest things, and the shortcuts our brains take in their default mode when so doing. This one I thought was interesting, because it went over the research on how we reason politically, which cleared up a lot of questions I had on the nature of political partisanship.

Chapter 7, Intuition versus Rationality, and How to Become Really Good at what You Do, involves the process of what we typically call intuition (having nothing to do, though, with anything paranormal, like alleged psychics), the best research on the cognitive processes underlying it, and how we may use it, not as an opposite, but as a complement to our more rational thinking for better, more effective and efficient decision-making. Here’s a hint: To be good at intuition, you have to have a lot of knowledge and experience at what you use it for figuring out. Effective and reliable intuition requires competence in your field, the more, the better.

Chapter 8, The Limits of Science, brings up the nature of science, which could be summed up as:

“The idea underlying this chapter is that science is neither the new god nor something that should be cavalierly dismissed. As a society, we need a thoughtful appreciation not only of how science works but also of its power and limits.”

I thought this was interesting, because it brought up that, among other things, there while science is to a degree a rational enterprise, it lacks a deductively logical self-justification for it’s process…then again, science works, and to use it effectively we must simply roll up our sleeves and accept the fact that while the results of science show its value, and the rules of science must be obeyed by those playing the game of science, the rules do not need to obey themselves, nor really need absolute, certain grounding.

Part III, Who Am I?, beginning with chapter 9, The (Limited) Power of the Will, starts with the example of trying to quit smoking, and the downside to potential psycho-surgical techniques to treat it, moving into the science and philosophy of human volition and the nature of the current debate on free will, and the factions who argue over it, particularly on the issue of determinism. As for my own views, I’m now less firmly decided than I was prior to this, and I think that’s a good thing.

Chapter 10, Who’s in Charge Anyway? The Zombie inside You, brings up the unconscious processes going on in our heads when we figure things out. The research showing the hidden side of our decision-making apparatus is explained, along with the history of our ideas on the subject of the human mind, and the chapter ends with a discussion of human impulsiveness and what we (so far) know about it.

Part IV, Love and Friendship, begins with chapter 11, The Hormones of Love, and it doesn’t take an Aristotle to get what it’s about. Four different conceptions of love are defined and discussed: love as an emotion, love as a “robust concern,” love as a union, and love as valuing some other. The neuroscientific basis of love is described, and this informs the philosophical give and take on it. Interesting even to a philosophical nube like me.

Chapter 12, Friendship and the Meaning of Life lays out the importance of healthy human relationships and their effect on our happiness, a positive one, no surprise, with a few details that debunked some erroneous notions of my own, and disabusing oneself of myths is a good thing. The news is not good, though, for those of us with no relationships outside of social networking sites, particularly with an overconcern for how many friends or followers we have on Facebook or Twitter…

Part V, The (Political) Animal Inside You, begins with Chapter 13, Right, Left, Up, Down: On Politics, shows that the picture of political climates as depicted in the mass media is hardly complete, and much more interestingly complex than the nightly news would have us think. Ideological partisanship has deep roots in our evolutionary history, our psychology and can motivate us to defend a position despite facts and contrary reason if we are caught unawares by our own bias, and that applies to all of us. As much as I normally dislike politics, this chapter taught me to appreciate it a bit more…

Chapter 14, Our Innate Sense of Fairness, discusses the current thinking and findings on our ability to intuit and reason about fairness, including the neurobiological workings of our monkey brains when we do this, and brings up a useful tool of ethical thinking called “reflective equilibrium,” which can be used to give a bit more coherence to our beliefs when they may not match well.

Massimo says,

“In essence, the method of reflective equilibrium, as the name implies, is a type of rational reflection that seeks to achieve an equilibrium among different notions, judgments, or intuitions we might have about a given ethical problem (or any other problem, for that matter).”

Very good. AND very useful.

Chapter 15, On Justice, begins with the myth of Gyges, in a passage of Plato’s Republic, which in that dialogue, Glaucus puts forth to Socrates, seeking from him a suitably justifiable answer to it’s moral. The science of our sense of fairness, hardwired into our brains by our evolutionary history, and the conceptual implications of our ideas on justice, including the free-rider problem, are described, and this I found especially helpful, especially the work of John Rawls and his idea of justice as fairness.

Part VI: What About God? begins with Chapter 16: Your Brain on God, discusses the thinking on superstition and belief in gods, a favorite topic of mine, and the findings that indicate we are all predisposed from an early age to accept such beliefs as universal to human cultures across history. It describes our tendency to find patterns, especially when we feel a lack of control in a situation, even when these patterns don’t really exist, and to attribute agency to inanimate objects and phenomena. It’s no surprise that our brains have these tendencies because they helped us survive in our early years as a species, however dysfunctional they can be at present…

Chapter 17, The Evolution of Religion, starting with the superstitious pigeon experiments of B. F. Skinner, describes the origins of religion, not just as a social institution, but as a thing that has itself evolved as we have, a natural phenomenon describable as an outcome of our biological and cultural history. Massimo offers a caveat on the findings of evolutionary biology alone, noting the difficulties of explaining the development of our minds from a sample size of one: Us. As the only surviving member of our genus, we are unique, and uniquely challenged, in attempting to piece together our psychological history via natural selection. The different categories of Darwinian explanations are brought up, as by adaptive processes, by random drift, or as by-products of adaptive traits. He shows, I think convincingly, that religions do not require the existence of gods to explain them, even if that is not ruled out.

Chapter 18, Euthyphro’s Dilemma: Morality as a Human Problem, describes the argument and those meant to refute it, so far effectively unchallenged in showing that gods are not needed for morality. To get the full nuances of the argument and its would-be counterarguments, I suggest getting a thorough read of this chapter…at only ten pages, it’s well worth your time.

The conclusion, Human Nature and the Meaning of Life sums up the previous chapters, and ends with a discussion on our nature as a species and the different conceptions of it over time, in which our societies and cultures build upon our biological heritage to make us the species we are today. Science is humbling, and when done well and thoughtfully, so is philosophy. I rather liked this book, and I’ll happily read it again.


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