Philosophy and General Reading

Disenchantment and the anthropology of (re-)enchantment

I recently read an interesting essay by Egil Asprem entitled Dialectics of Darkness. Its original purpose was to serve as a review of The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Jason Josephson-Storm. I have yet to read Josephson-Storm’s book, so I shall have to reserve comment for another time. But I am certainly already familiar with its main subject and the history behind it, which is one reason I found great interest in navigating Asprem’s essay on the enlightenment (and thus, too, the notion of enlightenment reason) and the anthropology of active (re-)enchantment.

Additionally, following the publication of Asprem’s work, a number of other short essays and articles appeared directly in response. I list them as follows, The Enchanted World Today by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem; The Reemergence of Magical Beliefs by Adam Possamai; and, finally, Models of (Re-)Enchantment by Dafydd Mills Daniel. 

The latter article by Daniel offers what I think to be a decent and certainly interesting reading of Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins, particularly their nuanced and deeply considerate approaches to naturalist philosophy as well as their attempts to satisfy the demands for ethical norms rooted in a naturalistic model. It is no secret that I enjoy a lot of Russell’s writing, and a short disclaimer would highlight at this point that Russell’s essay A Free Man’s Worship (referenced by Daniel) is perhaps one of my favourite pieces of humanist literature. However, while I think a review of the contents of Daniel’s contribution could, in itself, be the focus of an entire essay, I will save a few comments for the end.

In reading the essay by Asprem, and then the follow-up by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem, one thing struck me in particular. Up to this point, I’ve tended to see the enlightenment not as some cultural totality or as a total cultural shift in a particular moment of time but as a historical process. From d’Alembert and Descartes to Leibniz, Pascal, and Newton (to name a few enlightenment thinkers) – I think there is also a kernel of insight to be retrieved from their respective notes on this issue. Indeed, for many notable enlightenment thinkers, not least Kant, there was no such enlightenment as a historical period that completely extinguished enchantment; it was instead perceived as an ongoing process of social, psychological or spiritual development in human history. (In fact, as an aside, I would be inclined to argue that the enlightenment philosophes are generally distinguishable by the very nature of their confrontation with the dichotomy between process vs. substance metaphysics, a point that I think is relevant here). The philosophes were or can be read as an attempt to formally describe this process and capture its positive implications. Indeed, I think for many enlightenment scholars this view would not be received contentiously. And so, I am inclined to perhaps warn against the view that the enlightenment should be seen as a period of total cultural disenchantment that may or may not have eventually regressed to an unfolding process of (re-)enchantment over time.

Moreover, an investigation into the objective validity of reason and of scientific knowledge discloses, I think, a sort of naivety that sometimes saturates our thinking with regards to the idea of the historical realisation of cultural enlightenment. In the essays cited above, Newton is mentioned because for all his mathematical and scientific genius he also studied alchemy. But when the enlightenment is seen as a process, which too must exist or manifest in given history with its own established domain of concepts and prejudices, the weight of this contradiction becomes more measurable. To generalise my complaint: it is no secret that many enlightenment thinkers, even some members of the radical enlightenment (as some scholars distinguish), maintained belief (personal or via organised religion) in God whilst championing secularised knowledge and humanistic values. However, I’m not convinced this should be seen as a failure or interpreted in the context of (re-)enchantment. Even today, I don’t think it is entirely false to say that some members of the scientific community maintain a belief in the superstitious, supernatural, or the divine. Famously, there were many significant and famous modern physicists who also carried superstitions beliefs or artefact beliefs in myth. Taking a broader view, we may objectively perceive and criticise such logical inconsistency, and perhaps for the benefit of reason take lesson from their example. One lesson to recognise is that myth – or perhaps its remnants depending on how we parameterise the theory – may persist in very organised or established ways as historical legacy or artefact. It is not at all controversial to say that human bias and prejudice may continue to exist despite evidence against whatever belief; and it would seem very appropriate to look at these issues in their sociohistorical context in order to establish as nuanced a view as possible.

So from my own reading and studies, my interpretation of the enlightenment project is as an ensemble of concepts not necessarily unique in category but realised uniquely in time. In a sense, my view has been shaped around the idea of the enlightenment as a unique realisation of concepts, the genesis of which dates back and through such pre-Socratic scholars as Anaxagoras and Democritus, Thucydides and the The Mytilenaean Debate, and then eventually the philosophical considerations of Plato onward. Such concepts include, in modern language, basic ideas of reason as set against myth and political realism.

In many of the grandfathers and fathers of modern science we see this much more in terms of a general shaping of epistemology, however much residues of myth and enchantment may be found (from one philosopher to the next), given that human history is saturated in the perpetuation of prejudice. Although such a course of discussion requires a fuller essay in itself, what I am trying to say, in different words, is how the enlightenment may be viewed as a certain continuation in the historical generation of ideas and that epistemology is perhaps the best site to study its development. In philosophy, particularly or especially philosophy of the subject, this may be expressed by way of a study of the genesis of the modern subject, which some trace as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. Perhaps more insightful is Bertrand Russell’s study of knowledge in The Problem’s of Philosophy (1912) in which, rather than considerations of metaphysics, epistemology is brought directly into focus. From this view – namely, from the study of epistemology – the genesis of well-known enlightenment values and ideas appear in different forms, under different guises, and through manipulations of different frameworks in the very seeds of philosophical thought in classical antiquity forward.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave can very much be read as an investigation into epistemology not so dissimilar to the enquiry of enlightenment philosophes into the possibility of knowledge – rational and scientific or otherwise. The leading question for the enlightenment may be stated, ‘What even constitutes knowledge, let alone rational and objective knowledge?’. As a profound site of investigation, often ignored or not taken serious enough, it is one that can be traced back to pre-Socratic study which was, I am inclined to argue, eventually refocused with advent of the first Medieval universities and their systematic introductions of Aristotelian language, then in the humanist renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, and finally in the 18th century philosophes.

On the other hand, although the enlightenment project did not emerge simply out of nothing, there is something unique about it which continues to draw serious interest and consideration. In a sense, I think it may also be viewed a lexicalized concept. As such, it is unique in what it represents as a particular unification of ideas and values realised in such a way as to be epistemologically revolutionary. Taking this view, I think we can also begin to delineate different epistemologies and their significance with respect to the prospect of enlightenment knowledge.

Arguably, one of the last great philosophical efforts to answer the fundamental question of the status of knowledge and the possibility of knowing – and, really, the status and legitimacy of abstract concepts – was in the work of Kant. Interestingly, I think it can be strongly argued that Kant’s investigations, and likewise also Hume’s skepticism in which Kant seeks to overcome, are much more relevant to philosophical systems of knowledge than scientific systems of knowledge. There is, at a point, a divergence between traditional philosophical epistemologies and scientific epistemologies. For Kant, and also Hume, neither seem to be able to do justice to the unique epistemological domain of scientific enquiry, which, I think was clearly realised in the 20th century to be very different than the general philosophical domain of enquiry. Although, in my opinion, Kant comes extremely close in places, I would be inclined to expand that, at least in a Platonic sense of conceptual space, scientific knowledge can be cleanly and clearly differentiated from purely subjective reasoning, and that while Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism is not entirely satisfactory, the latter can be overcome through explanation within scientific systems of reasoning. But with these matters put to one side, the deeper point is that I think one can see clearly this delineation of epistemologies not only in the progression of modern science but also in what it has to say about the prospects of reason and human rationality.

Mention has already been made of Russell. It would be terrific to write more about his works in both a critical and non-critical way, because his 1912 investigations are some of the best when it comes to late-modern encircling of these differences in epistemology by way of fairly systematic investigations into the nature of knowledge. That said, I think some of the most illuminating sites of reflection can also be found in the writings of many of the great 20th century physicists, who concerned themselves with such longstanding historical debates. Einstein, to offer one example, is noted to have spent time thinking about epistemological questions and engaging with debates on the nature and status of knowledge.

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These essays, especially the one by Asprem which ignites a wonderful chain of contributions and perspectives, are undoubtedly stimulating. The one thing that stands out to me, given the above reflections, is the risk that one may easily take a viewpoint that is too binary, lacking the complexity of a systems view of human society and the general types of behaviour it fosters. Disenchantment and re-enchantment seem less like fundamental processes than epiphenomena. In many ways, I think the antimony often defined between disenchantment and enchantment can be broken down into very basic elements of the epistemological study of reality versus appearance, from which Russell for example delineates two forms of knowledge: by description and by direct acquaintance. The latter is very much akin to the best of existential phenomenology of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which intimate description of the phenomenal world of direct experience and sense data is given. Often these movements neglect the abstract and theoretical or are simply unable to conceptualise it. Russell, on the other hand, is able to substantiate the validity of logicism and logical reasoning – indeed, we may even extend his analysis today to theoretical knowledge – whilst maintaining ample recognition of the experiential and the phenomenological. Preservation of the recognition of the type of knowledge by direct acquaintance is important in terms of secularised ethical and moral foundations; but doing so while maintaining a concept of the objective and not regressing to subjectivism is no easy task. Much of contemporary post-modern philosophy, for instance, sinks into the muddied confusion of pure subjectivism and at a great cost.

But if we decide that the disenchantment-enchantment model is not satisfactory, what I want to say is that, as I have been alluding, perhaps the more fundamental site of enquiry is the study of epistemology, from which any and all discrepancy between disenchantment and (re)-enchantment may emerge. And, in few words, I think this and the paragraph immediately above describe why Daniel’s essay touches on something very important in his reference to the compelling arguments by Russell and also Dawkins, respectively. Intentionally or not, they both present fairly convincing approaches principled, firstly, on the foundations of knowledge and the validity of objective knowledge. From this, and as modern science would also indicate, (re-)enchantment is reduced to the domain of cognitive human bias, dogma and superstition; the persistence of myth played out in daily human life has its roots here, just as the violence and irrational ideologies that define the contemporary political domain are often a projection of the unreasonable on the basis of the prejudiced nature of the subject’s interaction with the world. If, as some scholars describe, the contemporary political domain may be generally depicted as a polarised space for the practice of bias and prejudice, with the establishment of echo chambers and irrational subjective pursuits of ideological ends as opposed to rational, disclosing, truth-giving processes – I take it from the view of Russell that such a space is merely the continuation pathological epistemologies.

What is also significant about both Russell and Dawkins is that, rather than completely rejecting the human existential inclination to search for meaning, it is acknowledged and reformulated positively. They argue that there is no deeper source of meaning than that which is naturally disclosed within the epistemological domain of science, and that through science and its many lessons the human need and thirst for meaning may be quenched, even in the face of our own cosmic insignificance. Unlike romanticism for example, in which meaning and inspiration is deduced purely subjectively and with emphasis on the primacy of the individual, which completely prefigures the notion of the subject by neglecting the objective; what we see in the better parts of Russell and Dawkins is a positive, evolving notion of enlightenment meaning-giving process that in many ways may begin to answer Camus’ deep (and certainly valid) conundrum.

For these reasons, I agree and sympathise with Daniel’s assertion that, in many ways, Russell and Dawkins successfully carve a path a forward, transcending the pitfalls of the romantics so often tied to (re-)enchantment and anti-modern movements, whilst preserving the existential depth of what it means to be human and in search for meaning. Through this lens, I think the picture of total enlightenment disenchantment from the perspective of cultural anthropology becomes something of a myth. Allow me to explain.

In certain strands of contemporary philosophy, the projection of some complete realisation of reason and the crystallisation of rational society (such as in Weber’s construction) would seem to rely in some way on a view of cultural enlightenment as a sort of final development. In that sense, it too would seem predicated in places on the myth of cultural enlightenment and hence the achievement of solid rational outcome. But I would argue that history has witnessed neither, and even the best examples of contemporary society fail satisfy the demands of both concepts.

Furthermore, many of the critical philosophes of the 20th century, most of which were rooted in or indebted to the enlightenment, placed great importance on reason, its historical genesis, and the ongoing struggle in its realisation. That is to say that the genesis of the modern subject was a central point of focus, and with this focus many provocative debates on knowledge and reason may be found. Crucially, the concept of enlightenment reason is not perceived as a given. The concept of enlightenment reason may have historically crystallised in a unique way – or at least some framework was formalised to better describe it – and hence concepts of rational society may have begun to spring forth. But we learn in the critical philosophies that the parameters in which reason and notions of rational (thus disenchanted) society may be historically realised can be more or less pathological, and that generally in the social and communicative domain it is reason’s absence that continually defines humanity’s historical struggle. In Weber’s construction, then, one could argue that the concept of reason is essentially utilised in a less than rational way. There is, in other words, an ongoing classical distinction between form and content, and their lack of synthesis, that I would argue underlies much of the struggle for reason that continues to the present day.

Such a viewpoint reinforces the idea – indeed, the acute observation – that we do not presently live in a rational, scientific society. Evidence of this can easily be found in the very structure of contemporary debates and the issues they concern. Instead, it would seem much more akin to a society that uses notions of reason or quasi-systems of reason and science at its convenience, without complete subscription to its logical and rational demands. So, in a way, I think there is a deeper truth to Josephson-Storm’s study. I would say that some enlightenment disenchantment has been achieved but only up to a point within a particular epistemological domain that exists within broader social-pathological and enchanted parameters. I think the subtlety and nuance of such a viewpoint carries forward what may have been deemed the radical enlightenment based largely on the assessment that, following a lexicalized concept of the enlightenment, the reality of the process of enlightenment reason is much more akin to a struggle for reason and for a future rational society against the forces of its absence.

One last comment, to conclude this already lengthy engagement. If the enlightenment is seen more as a unique configuration of concepts and ideas, as part of a larger history, which triggered a process (against myth, prejudice, etc.) in the development of reason, science and ultimately fundamental secularised values – from this point of view, reason and human rationality may be perceived within the scope of a theory of society that recognises how, and in what way, such important concepts must be socially fostered. The notions of disenchantment and enchantment, if the binary is correct to construct, discloses a tremendous conflict: namely, the legacy of historical and cognitive biases, in addition to general irrational human tendencies and inclinations which reject the objective. That a society may, in recent time, promote itself as disenchanted only to then be said to have regressed to (re)-enchantment and myth – or only for (re)-enchantment and myth to continue propagate – would seem one of the central themes of Dialectic of Enlightenment. At the same time,  modern science continues to push the boundaries of human thought, and its special epistemological domain of enquiry is generally irrefutable. The influence and demands of enlightenment reason continues to challenge, even scientists, to normatively check one’s biases and to continue to struggle for a clearer recognition of objective knowledge within the historical context of constraints of that knowledge at any given time.

However, in that the promise of enlightenment reason – the promise of reason and human rationality – may exist and yet simultaneously be folded into a human social world of continued and renewed enchantment – and hence, myth and the irrational confluence with the rational – this is akin to acknowledging that differentiated spheres of society may each be affected differently. It is this fragile and precarious existence of reason and its unrelenting possibility of betrayal that seems to be one of the essential features of today’s social world, so much so that in continued enchantment reason can take on the appearance of a disfigured form that is, in fact, absent of any rational content.

The struggle is to see reason and unreason, solid as the ground beneath one’s feet or as the material objects in one’s daily life. Even those who believe they command reason often, in their certainty, fall guilty of its opposite. It is notable that most major cultures and religions to have crystallised in human history possess a concept of good and bad, in moral philosophical terms; light and dark in religious language; or reason and unreason, in epistemological terms. With no exception, none have reconciled these ideas however much one may faithfully believe the contrary. This is as close to an objective view that may be accessed, and almost always whatever lesson one may wish to glean such fleeting objectivity can quickly turns subjective through the simple demand of interpretation. This was as much a struggle for Plato as Aristotle and the 18th century philosophes. In the modern lens, it was as much a struggle for Kant and Hegel as Adorno or alternatively the opposing attempt to formulate the post-modern.

One thing I can speak to is that in mathematics, ideally, we follow the systematic through to the result, and then we ascertain whether the logic is true or not. But this space of concepts and of thought would seem different to the world of social occupations, in which concepts – like policy – can be reasonable, unreasonable, or both simultaneously. This is why there is no realised fundamental moral theory, because the space of concepts is saturated in the subjective stuff of daily human life. The point is not to say that the objective is in accessible, but oftentimes its fleeting and precarious nature cannot be trusted in the eyes of human beings. Even when solid objects are attempted to formed in words, such as God, or in symbols, such as peace, one can easily feign through solid and rigid representations the opposite of its conceptual substance. People have killed in the name of religion or the idea of a just politics without any awareness of the indignation of the contradiction. I think here, too, Russell and Dawkins serve important lessons and insight as we continue to reflect on the importance of the enlightenment and its realisation.

**Image: Projection of the Enlightenment by Anshu Kumar.

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Philosophy and General Reading

As a substitute for Christmas tales, let’s talk evolution

Some time ago I wrote a post on human evolution and civilisation. It was one of my first contributions to my general reading blog. But I feel it is worth thinking about this morning, as, generally, this is what I tend remind myself of at Christmas: our immaturity as a species. Instead of fanciful tales of miraculous birth, I think of the hard grind of evolution and our general cosmological insignificance.

This might sound gloomy and depressing, but it’s lesson is the opposite.

Human evolution is a process over millions of years, and still that is nothing in contrast to geological and cosmological time. With early migrations estimated to be between 2 and 1.8 million years ago, current best approximations place first arrivals to Australia as 60,000 years from present and 30,000 years from present for the Americas. And yet, if we maintain a macroscopic view, agriculture and civilisation only began to emerge approximately 12,000 years from present. In the greater context of reality, this timeline is not even a mark on Earth’s total history.

In our current history, we tend to issue the belief of advanced civilisation. But this notion of advancement is only relative to a microscopic history that, in the grand scheme of things, is puerile or callow. Social-historical, moral and technological progress are both micro and macro in scale. Our systems, knowledge, even the genesis of such concepts as reason and human rationality are at best fledgling, should we take seriously the idea of evolutionary process. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are only about 100 years old, while our theory of the Standard Model of Particle Physics is much less than that. Physics is young. Science, while having made significant progress in a few hundred years, is far from complete. Still, today, human beings believe in myth and remain governed by prejudices and tribalisms, from arbitrary nationalistic identities to fear-driven impulses of racist and bigoted behaviourism. The total of what we know is little, and the extent of genuine progress of our systems is morally and ethically debatable.

As far as human beings have come as a species, as much as the historically recent modern enlightenment traditions have stoked the fires of human intelligence, reason and science – our systems, our ideas, the genesis of our concepts and the macroscopic patterns in our behaviours and beliefs are the mark of a species still very much young and undeveloped. The continued persistence of irrationality in addition to the microscopic pathology of our societies, dating as far back as the earliest tribalisitic identifications along with the continuation of the constituent psychologies of Myth in both shamen and totem, attest only to this immaturity. But these also serve as healthy reminders.

If Christmas is generally a story entwined with narratives of the divine, encompassing also a greater historical tale spanning just a few thousand years in which human beings are said to be of special rank touched by God (see creationism), I prefer instead to remind myself of the actual reality that human beings are in fact cosmologically insignificant. We’re a product of millions of years of evolution. Our knowledge is fledgling, and the total body of that which we know scientifically is not that much at all. Hurling through space on a rock, in the context of our own micro-scale history of life, the lesson of science is that culturally and morally we have only our humanism. I think this reminder contributes more to one’s ethics and morality than any tale of miraculous birth.

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Sagan demon haunted world
Philosophy and General Reading

Thinking about philosophy and Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”

I find philosophy to be an incredibly controversial subject, one that is difficult to get a handle on. There is a value to philosophy, though I often struggle to understand it or place it. Perhaps this is because I lack a satisfactory definition of philosophy – a term which can represent so many different bases of ideas, including different methodologies and epistemologies ranging broadly from the analytical to the postmodern and purely subjective. For me, any grasp I may have of philosophy breaks down with the latter – I find a lot of contemporary philosophy to be subjective and lacking what I once termed “epistemological and methodological coherence”.

Maybe this last comment strikes a more explicit concern: philosophy not as a particular form of systematic enquiry, but as a weapon to enforce the formalising of opinion.  I suppose as a person who has engaged a lot with philosophy over my younger years, from the enlightenment philosophes to critical theory and anglo-american or what is otherwise known as analytical philosophy, I think I can say that, despite my struggle to find the basis for logical and rational validity, I am not of the scientific representatives who reject philosophy’s relevance. I think philosophy is relevant, in some ways, perhaps most crucially with respect to the social world. In other words, I think the situation is much more nuanced and convoluted than to merely assert “philosophy is dead” and that its fate was brought about by the march of science. Even though some of the utmost traditional philosophical areas of study are becoming (and rightfully so!) increasingly subject to scientific methodologies and epistemology – there is still something lastingly relevant to genuine philosophical thought.

From the perspective of science, one of the easiest mistakes, I think, is to presuppose the existence of some sort of rational communicative utopia. It doesn’t correlate with the phenomenology insofar that the ideas of science, of scientific logic and rationality, and more broadly of the principle of objectivity, are found to be in constant tension with the opposite: the irrational characteristics of the human social world. Science can report objectively verifiable facts and those facts may still be rejected for the benefit of political bias or general prejudice. This duality seems quite apparent, at least from my vantage. The more science becomes politicised the worse the situation because the more rational and objective engagement and communication is undermined. At the same time, the pathologies of the social world also confront the scientist, as a human being, embedded in those systems and cultural patterns. The idea of objective reality, natural and social, can easily fade by force of overwhelming communicative disorientation. That even a scientific subject of concern – say, for example, climate change (without fronting my own position and study on the subject) – is contested by some members of the scientific community (for example, see here or here) despite overwhelming consensus reveals that something fundamental in human knowledge and in the engagement with scientific study is vulnerable to bias, ulterior motivation or worse. Indeed, even scientists – perhaps especially physicists – can be guilty of hubris. But it still begs a different question. Science is principled on the basic idea of expert consensus forming, and with that a weight is given to experts in their field followed by great trust and responsibility. In such a debate, who is right and what are the facts for rational consensus? The hope, always, is that the scientific method will prevail (assuming a scientific matter). But there also seems to be implicitly a philosophical criterion here which demands consideration.

For myself, my concern is with science inasmuch as it is also with knowledge, such that the former also implies fundamental concern with reason and the idea of obtaining as objective of an understanding  of reality (social and natural) as possible within the confines of human ignorance. There is an entire thesis to be written systematically dismissing many arguments by the likes of Thomas Kuhn and others regarding the nature of “ordinary science”, “scientific revolution” and theory-forming from historical, epistemological and scientific perspectives. That science probes closer to some truer notion of reality is should not be contentious.

And yet, these concerns also become philosophical when science is forced to reflect upon itself in a critical way. And in thinking about this, I’ve come to the suspicion that the continued relevance of philosophy is possibly featured particularly with respect to the social domain as it exists in tension with such concepts of reason and unrelenting scientific consideration. Moreover, it is hard to avoid that many questions remain with respect to human behaviour, society and ethics that currently extend well beyond the scope of scientific enquiry. That scope may, indeed, continue to narrow over time, such that even the traditional philosophical subject of consciousness is becoming an increasingly scientific concern. But today it is not possible to find a scientist who, outside of thinking scientifically and performing scientific research, offers non-scientific opinion and thus also implies non-scientific philosophical assertions. That one might feign opinion as scientific – or exploit one’s position and authority in science to propagate personal bias outside of science – is something we observe all the time. To recognise the existence of bias is perhaps one of the certain hallmarks of broader intelligence in a systems-thinking frame. And yet, when all things are considered, the question of unavoidability is genuine. That, generally, the whole of science as a movement in history teaches valuable lessons – morally and broadly philosophically – does not mean that, in particular instances, subgroups may still profess scientific reason and be simultaneously fascist or bigoted or whatever.

I suppose, if one follows this course of enquiry, it can be stated that there exists and may always exist a contiguous region within a scientific society – a region of questions about greater (systemic) moral and ethical patterns and trends that require critical philosophical concepts and tools to enable science science, empiricism and evidence-based thinking to reflect upon itself in truly systemic ways. Even members of the scientific community that argue against the lasting relevance of philosophy (in whatever form) often invoke philosophical arguments outside of scientific matters of concern reveals an intriguing contradiction. That one may argue, as a matter of opinion, toward or from a basis or counter-basis of facts without the objective means to recognise potential implicit bias in the simultaneous formation of biases in those arguments, is an essential element of human irrationality that seems to come with being human (or, so the science of cognitive bias increasingly reveals). Some people are better than others in such practices of critical reflexivity, but one can hardly argue with any clarity that this is the general rule.

In any case, and whilst I have deviated somewhat from the primary trajectory, the key idea I am encircling considers whether philosophy continues to have genuine meaning in this context – that is, whether it has a role to play a critical function in human thought. As much as I have engaged with philosophy in the past, placing the role of philosophy in the enterprise of human thought (especially in the age of modern science) and excavating some satisfactory definition of “genuine” or objective philosophical theory as opposed to “bad” philosophy is something I struggle to grasp in any sort of satisfactory way. I think, primarily, because delineating between the basis of objective and even systems-based philosophy and philosophy with objective flavouring or even completely fiendish philosophical argument – the point at which one blends into another is currently subjective. And this subjective problem is what perhaps undermines completely any claim to philosophical objective enquiry, whereas science, despite microscope tensions and struggles and problems in practice, has much more of a grip on the objective.

But if the question of philosophy as a relevant critical function remains open, what I am reminded of whilst writing this short essay is piece is perhaps one of the most penetrating and thought-provoking pieces of social philosophy that I have ever read. The book I am referring to is by Carl Sagan titled “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (2008). Sagan may have his critics, but this book has always struck me as being intriguing for the reason that it interweaves both science, scepticism and philosophy (social and natural) in a way that seems to exemplify the continuing power of philosophy to draw certain connections and illuminate objective patterns for the benefit of broader critical reflexivity.  Sagan evokes, if not practices with a relatively high degree of success, a rational and critical epistemology, applying scientific logic and reason along with philosophical tools to evoke deep questions about the human world. In the process, he unfolds his own humanistic values as those which he sees as a product of the unfolding of science (and, perhaps, of enlightenment reason). It is not the perfect book, by any means. And almost all popular literature shares the same fatal flaw. But what Sagan does is capture, or at least has a unique way of tracing, a sort of enlightenment scientific philosophy (however one may then project their views or biases on such a philosophy). He goes from deriving the importance of scepticism in all things (in science as well as in human policy) to forewarning about the dangers of dogma in the form of modern witch-hunts, New Age healing, and fundamentalist religion. He extracts patterns from human history – patterns of bias and repeating tendencies toward the irrational, pathological and dogmatic – to offer explanations that fit with the science.  There is also the presence of critical thinking, and, perhaps, the presence of a sort of critical theory, in which great emphasis is placed on understanding and being able to dissect fallacious arguments and practice media literacy (to be able to identify sensationally fallacious media stories and biased narratives) as well as rationally consider all that which envelops a person, with grounding in evidence; it is, in a sense, Sagan’s own social philosophical appeal to a future rational society. This is deeply philosophical inasmuch as it is motivated by science and its broader lessons.

Below are two particular passages. Reading these parts of Sagan in the contemporary social context remind one that perhaps science does serve many valuable critical lessons – even moral lessons, should one argue from the basis of its epistemology and draw out a broader philosophy of human reason. In what way, and on what basis it might philosophy be grounded in science, or cooperate and collaborate with science, I am not sure. That there are theoretical physicists who have vacated their physics departments in order to find new homes in philosophy departments, where it is felt they can then ask potentially deeper questions about the physics they are practising, is perhaps one reference point. Of course, I might also invoke MY past studies of history here, and cite the classical context in which philosophy and science were not separate, divisible parts. The natural philosopher – through the tools provided by philosophy – conceived of the scientific method, and a trace of that legacy – in the very concept and practice of scientific logic – surely remains.

That such a deep connection exists suggests that a rational, critical and objective philosophy would not see itself as being too far from also being normatively informed scientifically. Moreover, perhaps it is true that philosophy is necessarily speculative, but philosophy without science is condemned to the practice of blind speculation. From another angle, I’ve read in the past that perhaps it is the categorical imperative of philosophy to support the project of human reason, science and critical thinking – to guide such efforts and keep them honest. In some ways, I read this in Sagan – he is philosophical in his humanism without ever vacating from his scientific foundation, referring to the support of science, education and a literate and rational social class as key values (there is also a very clear economic argument to be made here, if one is thinking of psychological well-being in relation to fostering the capacity for increased social rationality, as linked in past discussions on social pathology). He writes, for example:

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Sagan lays out these arguments in the context of science and its potential broader moral and ethical lessons, while discussing anything from Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetism and quasars to the human genome. He does so from a framework that allows for prescient critique, such as in the following quote that I reference to close this article. Notice, too, the kernel of applied critical philosophy as the web for each concerning depiction of the future. I close with the following quote,

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

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Philosophy and General Reading

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’: Epistemology, Feedback Loops and the Science of Bias and Human Irrationality

R.C. Smith

If we take as a stated assumption, based off the growing body of science, that prejudice is pervasive – that human irrationality is, to put it philosophically, a central theme in the human struggle toward a rational society – I think one of the lessons is epistemological in form. Its basic reduction is this: instead of approaching the world of phenomena, a priori, through the conscious endeavor to understand, which implies openness in the learning subject as a sort of constant and normative orientation process, the standard paradigm of irrational society is driven to approach the world a priori through hardened established frameworks. It is the practice of what some call dogmatic thinking. It is the philosophical account of being deeply consumed by paradigmatic emphasis on bias of opinion instead of an emphasis on fact.

I remain interested in the notion of social pathology, particularly in how through the notion of “social pathology” there exists the potential for a broader meta-analysis of human irrationality. Further, it is interesting to think about how human irrationality might become deeply normalized paradigmatically, in both thought and practice. One description or example is in the form of the increasing hostility and polarisation of political views, which has been observed or described also in terms of the hardening of attitudes (toward opposing views). The idea of pathology, in critical sociological terms, attempts to explain this (in part) through an account of positive and negative feedback loops. This concept is one that can be found in a number of areas, from science and engineering to social systems theory. But the idea, applied in the current context, is simple: the more divisive and polar people’s views, including also things like media consumption (which have become increasingly biased and tribalised on both sides of the spectrum), the more that creates a sort of echo chamber that basically serves only to reinforce the extremity of polar views. As the median of polarisation widens, into opposing extremes, the pathology of the cycle is such that it leads to increasing irrationality of views that no longer have any first order engagement with facts, unbiased researched, or constructive rational debate.

Another additional account of such pathological cycles or feedback loops can be found in a critique of the sociology of “worldviews”, in which these feedback loops essentially operate in terms of the solidification separate hardened and almost absolute views of reality. But the core detail, at least in how I’ve thought about it in the past, concerns how the feedback loop leads to or is an exemplification of increasingly extreme positioning of views that are no longer rational in epistemological engagement. The study of an issue or social phenomena, the engagement in debate about varying interpretations, is not based on an openness to learn or to arrive at a more accurate account – rather, the drive seems more to argue from the basis of one’s biases. This is not only generally counter-scientific, and also non-rational, it is very similar to the sort of patterned dogmatisms that was critiqued by certain enlightenment philosophers centuries ago.

Evidence of such trends can be found both in theoretical and empirical research, such as the widely cited study by Pew Research on Political Polarisation in the American Public.
But we can also deepen this discussion by noting that what one is also describing here is the implicit (and often explicit) presence of bias in people’s engagements, as well as what seems to have become the cultural acceptance of that bias on behalf of “politics”. This signals the magnitude of the problem of human self-ignorance, individually and culturally. I think it is an epistemological problem inasmuch as, in other studies, we understand such bias and prejudice and dogma as sociological, cultural, psychological and even bio-chemically driven. As an aid, what is required, to the best of my reading, is genuine critical thinking that challenges the very existence of the construction of these negative feedback loops and “worldviews” as well as, psychologically, the production increasingly hardened attitudes.

Psychology

But let’s pause a think a little bit about the psychology. This problem seems to be more than instinct versus rational cognition, though that is one reduction. The notion of a “gut feeling” – or an intuition or impulse based purely off experience (i.e., emotional history, past experiences, etc.), could be argued as being one distinct basis of the irrational process of belief formation. It is based on subconscious decision making processes, cognitive biases, memories and even bio-chemical reactions. There is a lot of incredibly interesting science in this area, especially in relation to survival training. One might think, too, of the psychology of self-affirmation theory, in which researcher describe how “much research suggests that people have a ‘‘psychological immune system’’ that initiates protective adaptations when an actual or impending threat is perceived” (p. 184). Additionally, and interestingly, “At both the individual and collective levels, important domains of functioning—health, political decision-making, conflict, relationships, academic performance—call forth the motivation to defend the self. People defensively distort, deny, and misrepresent reality in a manner that protects self-integrity” (pp. 230-231).

Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence in psychology about how, when one perceives oneself to be under threat, one’s brain resorts to an evolved fight or flight reaction. This perceived threat can be immediately physical or cognitive. Under anxiety, the brain shuts down (for lack of a better description). This state is certainly not prone to rational deliberation, as areas of brain that govern working memory, the processing of new information, and so on are prohibited as adrenaline floods one’s bloodstream and the hormone cortisol is released. Working memory has also been shown to be impaired in response to increases in the hormone cortisol. In other words, the body switches into or turns to being reliant on instinctual mechanisms.

In these situations, and even those where one is faced with overwhelming or unclear information and uncertain decisions, studies have found the people tend to resort to cognitive shortcuts. In psychology such shortcuts are referred to as heuristics, which can be useful but also tend to lead to irrational decision-making processes. It’s an interesting concept, which refers back to the inhibiting of the brain and basic cognitive processes which might foster rational deliberation and consideration. Most recently I learned of a study in The Journal of Neuroscience, which furthered discussion on heuristics.

There is too much science to link in one essay. But one of the basic ideas across the literature seems to suggest that, in many situations, the cognitive status can be incredibly reactionary and certainly not logical. That some studies on heuristics, such as the one in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that it is not all emotion, but potentially also cognitive laziness, add even more intrigue to the total picture that researchers are slowly building.

From a behavioural perspective – and here I am thinking aloud in memory of passed resources I’ve studied over the years – it would seem that there are many instances in which one’s inclination is toward very instinctual pattern of thinking, designed similarly to the fight or flight reaction; though I don’t think it is necessarily deterministic, as survival studies show people can think rationally under threat or stress. And this makes sense in that, if my memory serves me correctly, the primitive part of the brain is understood to be the amygdala. Located deep within the medial temporal lobe, it is thought that this part of the brain is link to both fear and pleasure. Some describe it as the “danger detector”. But the amygdala has also been linked to cognitive bias and biased behaviour.

On an epistemological level, these fascination points of research remain me of the widely celebrated book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012) by Daniel Kahneman. I discovered this book far beyond my particular period of interest and study that resulted in my thesis on social pathology, which is a shame as it would have significantly impacted my arguments and would have served as a key reference.

Additionally, this discussion brings to mind a study I recently read on the epistemology of bias, particularly in relation to conspircist ideation.

PLOS Study

The study, titled Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation, is interesting in that it studies prejudice, bias and conspiracist ideation in relation to epistemology. As an empirical reference, it seems to drill down a bit deeper into an incredibly fundamental issue: human irrationality.

In short,  the researchers found that “People who tend to trust their intuition or to believe that the facts they hear are politically biased are more likely to stand behind inaccurate beliefs. And those who rely on concrete evidence to form their beliefs are less likely to have misperceptions about high-profile scientific and political issues”.

As the lead researcher, Kelly Garret, commented in the article linked above:

“Scientific and political misperceptions are dangerously common in the U.S. today. The willingness of large minorities of Americans to embrace falsehoods and conspiracy theories poses a threat to society’s ability to make well-informed decisions about pressing matters […]. A lot of attention is paid to our political motivations, and while political bias is a reality, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that people have other kinds of biases too.”

In addition to the PLOS study, the book by Kahneman also serves to suggest, it seems, how there is potentially the question of an interesting connection between all the points discussed so far and the general cultural development of thinking fast as opposed to slow, rational thought and consideration. More than that, as the author’s of the PLOS article suggest: one counter to epistemic beliefs not based on evidence is premised on “emphasizing the importance of evidence, cautious use of feelings, and trust that rigorous assessment by knowledgeable specialists is an effective guard against political manipulation”. It echoes calls that what is needed – at the very roots of culture and society – is a more scientific mindset. Perhaps it also signals the need for a more slow, thoughtful and considerate culture? Perhaps, too, it signals the need for “critical thinking” and less political thinking?

All of these questions and many others encircle a deeper issue that seems to be subject of increasing empirical acknowledgement. But more concisely there is also the question as to whether – or to what extent – there is a social and structural component to the fostering or promoting of cultural groups based on misperception, bias and conspiracist ideation. It sort of ties-in to discourses on social pathology, in which there is a component of human stupidity and, thus, irrationality, understood to operate as a scar. It’s the idea of the frightened snail, as edges along with its tentacles extended, until, in fear, it recedes back into its shell. The analogy serves also as a description of the hardened subject, of which stupidity is, in a sense, a developmental and emotional scar. The key idea here concerns an enquiry into what role social, economic and broader environmental conditions play in fostering rational subjectivity, as opposed to irrational, fear-driven and hardened forms of subjectivity.

It is striking, too, in this age of post-modernism in which post-empirical, post-truth developments provide ripe soil for the growth of conspiricist ideation and non-scientific approaches, that such conspiracies as the earth being flat often also refer in some way to hidden forces. It’s almost like the myth of the devil all over again. But what I am really angling toward is the question of sociohistorical-cultural context in addition to psychological, emotional and cognitive development. A lot of conspiracy theories are premised, as the PLOS study alluded, on manufacturing what I would describe as a substitute reality. As such, many of them seem to perform the same operation as the myth of devil – and of religion writ large – insofar that they explain away, in a ‘just so’ sense, everything that the individual finds overwhelming or difficult in life and in the (real) social world. Unemployed or stuck in a dead-end job in one’s thirties? ‘It’s not my fault, it’s the Illuminati or some hidden New World Order!’ These sorts of explanations or justification don’t seem uncommon – they indicate some belief that society is rigged, and that one’s struggle in life or in seeking personal success are the result of a massive hidden force, as opposed to one’s choices or concrete social issues like economic inequality. Conspiracies, in this sense, act as substitute realities to appease the psyche not only with respect empirical injustice, struggle and suffering – that is, concrete structural social, economic and political issues – they also seem on my observation to deflect from personal responsibility and the platitudes of existential angst common to human experience. These “worldviews” become so entrenched, even the concept of facts are rendered meaningless.

Thinking broadly – and perhaps searching philosophically

What I am mostly curious about at the current juncture is how all of this might link together, especially considering the PLOS study with respect to the formation of closed and prejudiced – or dogmatic – systems of belief. Philosophically speaking, it is interesting to think about how prejudiced systems of belief seem to operate according to established predictors of misperception. Indeed, that is something the PLOS study hints at.

Another interesting study from Stanford University was recently published. It seems to go with recent trends in terms of research findings and the slow piecing together of a much larger picture on human bias. It suggested that changing behaviors may be easier when people see norms changing. This raises a number of very interesting sociological questions.  One example cited, as summarised in the article linked above, concerns how “people ate less meat and conserved more water when they thought those behaviors reflected how society is changing”. One can think of a long list of examples that would seem to support, or be supported by, this research. Think of such a facile example as the changes in fashion trends, where majority of people will think a new fashion style looks ridiculous only for that same style to be normalized and supported by the majority five years later. One can draw examples of the same basic meaning from a number of areas.

More deeply, it is interesting to think of this research in relation to cognitive bias. Can it help explain why some norms, which may have become pathological or destructive, continue to be sustained? For example, think of the norms of gun culture in the U.S. in comparison to every other western society, particularly in relation to levels of gun violence. The data, at least when I last reviewed it, was striking. Moreover, in that studies of social pathology have a direct connection to the study of social norms, can it be said that there is link between this research on behaviour in relation to norms and social bias more generally? One can think of a number of different types of bias in this context, including Bayesian priors.

Ultimately, these questions should be saved for another time and after more thorough research and studies have been achieved. Indeed, a lot of the questions I am hinting at need to be weighed against the evidence. But this essay has, admittedly, aroused in me a deeper question about bias and what, in sociology, one might described as “systemic trends”. If bias is so widespread and prevalent, and if human beings are (or can be) incredibly irrational, what does this say in epistemological terms about us in our present history? Let me put it another way, what does it say about the current successes of the enlightenment project and how far do we still have to go to defeat the epistemologies of myth? Bias and prejudice are intimately linked to myth, which, itself, is perhaps the most pure case of human irrationality.

A fascinating example, which I’ll cite here to touch on the deeper point I seem to be encircling, refers to an anti-vaccination movement in the 1990s. I recently read about this in relation to the latest science which suggests, due a variety of factors (some cyclical, some in relation to climate change), that lyme disease is potentially about to explode among the populace. Currently, there is no vaccine, and lyme disease remains a very urgent problem. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t a vaccine! Indeed, as Chelsea Whyte wrote, “We used to have one, but thanks to anti-vaccination activists, that is no longer the case”. What happened?

In the late 1990s, a race was on to make the first Lyme disease vaccine. By December 1998, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the release of Lymerix, developed by SmithKline Beecham, now GSK. But the company voluntarily withdrew the drug after only four years.

This followed a series of lawsuits – including one where recipients claimed Lymerix caused chronic arthritis. Influenced by now-discredited research purporting to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, activists raised the question of whether the Lyme disease vaccine could cause arthritis.

Media coverage and the anti-Lyme-vaccination groups gave a voice to those who believed their pain was due to the vaccine, and public support for the vaccine declined.

What is interesting about this example is because it is in no way uncommon, and it offers interesting angle of insight into a similar problem the PLOS study sought to investigate. A few years after the anti-vaccination movement won the media battle and persuaded public opinion, comprehensive research in a retrospective study showed “only 905 reports for 1.4 million doses”. “Still, wrties Whyte, “the damage was done, and the vaccine was benched”. And even though there is a vaccine currently in ear;y human trials, what is essentially myth – false or baseless knowledge thought of as true – remains insofar that it will be an uphill battle to fight anti-vacc. lobbyists and re-educate the public.

Why this example, among many others, stand out is because it seems to correlate not only with the PLOS study but also more broad studies on the development of post-factualist, post-empirical culture. And the deeper question of this essay asks: what, if at all, underlines such developments in thought, perception and in human behaviour?

Concluding reflections

To conclude: it will be fascinating to monitor the emerging research and growing body of evidence when it comes to understanding human bias. What direction it all goes, it is difficult to say. We know human beings can be deeply biased. Not only is this a problem is greater society, it is one we must also constantly fight against in the natural sciences. But in thinking about epistemology in relation to the PLOS study, I suppose what I find interesting is the question of whether, if bias can take different forms – from the construction of some sort of complete worldview (think of a highly politicized subject) to prejudiced belief about a particular topic (think of a generally pro-science politically left individual, who then is also anti-GMO in the face of scientific consensus) – perhaps the simple reduction is one of science or anti-science? When I think of anti-science, and anti-reason for that matter, which can actually sometimes operate under the guise of pro-science and pro-reason, I think of a closed, repressed, dogmatic form of thinking that possesses very particular epistemological characteristics. What does one call such thinking? I have no answer. I’ve seen accounts under numerous headings: “uncritical thought” (associated with the critical thinking movement), anti-enlightenment epistemology, ideological thought, the epistemology of cognitive bias, and so on.

It also serves to emphasize things like Bayesian reasoning, critical thinking and critical reading (and simply general cognitive and epistemological agility and openness to new evidence), which are incredibly important skills and analytical tools when it comes to academic study and even daily experience, forming a precursor to exercising to the fullest extent one’s capacity to reason and to engage with the world in a rational way. Critical thinking has a deep place in science, and is increasingly informed by advanced scientific research in learning, cognitive and neural systems, and so on. The definitions of all these terms are very well known, with students introduced to critical thinking and reading exercises at undergrad (or earlier).

Having said that, it is worthwhile noting that critical thinking is not necessarily a negative process, although some describe it this way. This is because the a priori aim of critical thinking and reading is not to find fault. Identifying, constructing and evaluating arguments is certainly one aspect of critical thinking, and this includes the ability to dissect arguments and locate underlying assumptions, and thus test those things for inconsistency. At its most basic however, critical thinking is a deeply rational process – to assess the strength and weakness of an argument, especially when weighed against the evidence and a fuller assessment of the phenomenon or issue in question from all points of study in its complexity. Thus, it refers to systematic evaluation and problem-solving, as well as normative consideration and reflection on the status of one’s own beliefs and values as a subject, so as to ensure openness against potentially creeping bias and prejudice.

In this sense, it may not be entirely accurate, but I often think of “critical thinking” in epistemological terms as systemic thinking in that one one component of it is to seek to understand not only  the local phenomenon but also the systems around it or within which that phenomenon (or issue) exists, and thus also the logical connections between concepts, ideas and the thing itself. It is about deep, multidimensional and open consideration inasmuch as it entails scrutinizing the work presented to see whether there are biases that one can detect which shape the author’s interpretation of any facts and ideas. But beyond that, to think critically does not necessarily mean to think “politically”. It is much closer, in epistemological terms, to thinking objectively, slowly and with great deliberation.

And so maybe one lesson here – in a consideration of deeply biased social world – is the need for more critical thinking, and less political thinking?

Perhaps another interesting questions concerns whether, if bias and prejudice are so widespread and prevalent, as emerging research on cognitive bias would seem to indicate, is the current trajectory of social culture not then heading in the opposite direction that it should? Contemporary social culture seems, in a more speculative tone, predicated on “fast thinking” (to borrow from Kahneman) and heuristics. There seems to be a lot of reactionary debates, instead of thoughtful, informed and considerate engagements. With an overwhelming and endless flow of information – which almost acts as a new form of censorship repressing genuine content, data and fundamental discussion – there seems to be a significant emphasis and discernible demand for immediate reaction, click-bait headlines, news spectacle and watered down literature, as opposed to thoughtful and well-informed and evidence-based deliberation that requires deep rational consideration. It leaves one to wonder,  would the general coordinates of a science-based society or science-inspired culture not be represented by a complete different vector?

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Philosophy and General Reading

Social Pathology, Philosophy of Reason and Bloom’s “Against Empathy” – On Science, Ethics, and Knowledge

R.C. Smith

To think of ethics is likely today to evoke the idea of empathy. Similarly, in the context of many mainstream discourses within social theory, to think of empathy is often to evoke philosophical consideration in the field of radical ethics. The same is true with the order of terms reversed. It is not uncommon for contemporary discourses around radical ethics to be situated very closely to the prevailing emphasis on empathy. But what is the social value of empathy? This question does not mean to incite a common definition, namely “the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state”. The target of my query is much more fundamental in the sense of a social value.

It is en vogue these days to believe that empathy is key to unlocking morality once and for all. Religious and philosophical ethics are commonly out the window – the former understandably. Empathy is here to save the day. Like equality or democracy, it has become a social value that many are increasingly relying on philosophically as a source of ultimate and profound goodness. It has become a staple value for progressives. And it makes sense, because empathy suggests the broader horizon of a particular progressive social world conceived on the basis of social justice and non-violence and mutual recognition and all that other stuff. Within this mainstream and established discourse the problem, we learn, is that there’s just not enough empathy. But what I would like to do is take a moment to question this value or principle in its pure conceptual form. More concisely, I would like to ask: is empathy enough?

In beginning to approach this question, I offer two immediate points of clarity. In the past I have written about empathy as a key to a broader ethical theory. In a recent book on social pathology, which considers the deficit of reason in contemporary society from a number of angles, empathy was one of a number of normative values that was considered as an essential constituent of an integrative and progressive social philosophy. But there is a caveat, and it is an important one. Empathy was considered directly in relation to rationality. The same goes for past engagements with things like intersubjective theory, which I have argued toward within the field of interpersonal social ethics, but again with the caveat that social intersubjectivity is insubstantial without rationality. Perhaps, in the end, what all these debates come down to is a discourse on epistemology. But seeing how such a discussion extends beyond the remit of our current engagement, let’s continue down a more simple path that entertains a series of reflections on reason and empathy.

***

Reason and empathy? Empathy and reason? In present popular discourses, the two are often perceived antinomically. Proponents of empathy argue away from reason and rationality. Extreme proponents on the other side, in terms of what some seem to describe in philosophy as a strict and immoderate rationalism within the field of social theory, which should in no way be conflated with a positive, moderate or sensible rationalism, will sometimes lose sight of the value or important role of empathy in interpersonal relations. The criticism here, from what I have gleaned, is that such a strict rationalism, which some seem to also associate with social positivist theory, is said to lose sight of how human emotion, for better or for worse, forms a part of basic human experience.

Admittedly, one might call me a rationalist. Those who know me personally will undoubtedly say that I even verge on the “extreme” end of rationalism, the definition of which I am not always sure. But I also understand that human reality is not so idealistic. Contemporary society is by no means rational, and I tend to think of its lack of rationality as a projection of the deficit of reason on a more macro level of general human experience. Quite frankly,  it is debatable whether human beings have ever known a rational society. But the critical normative value of reason persists, and within irrational society the voice of reason remains one of the only remaining spaces for hope. In any case, understanding and agreeing with the rationalist perspective that the primacy of reason is important, I think it is also upon us to recognize the complexity of everyday human experience (that which resides outside the scientific method), and how human motivation is multidimensional and includes a significant emotional component. On the note, perhaps proponents of empathy theory are not wrong to emphasize the place of human emotion within the context of human reality. But the main issue I have with empathy theory – that is, social theory principled on the primacy or fundamental value of empathy – is that while empathic experience is generally positive, it is also severely limited. More sharply, I would argue the rejection of reason on behalf of the primacy of human emotion is incredibly misguided if not ill-judged.

On this point I was pleased to discover a recent book by Paul Bloom titled Against Empathy (2016).

Putting aside the provocative title, which is custom to the landscape of popular literature, the author’s arguments are generally well laid out. Within we read not an argument against empathy (per se) as a positive value strictly placed on the level of interpersonal relations. Rather what we read is an argument against empathy in what I would describe as its overextended use in moral philosophy.

For Bloom, the notion of empathy that he is “most interested in is the act of feeling what you believe other people feel–experiencing what they experience. This is how most psychologists and philosophers use the terms” (pp. 3-4). Picking up on how it is a popular trend these days to identify empathy as an ultimate philosophical value, a pure source of moral guidance, what we read in Bloom’s book is a counter-argument about how the value of empathy is insufficient on a much larger level. To put it tersely, empathy in the purely emotional sense of its definition is analytically weak. In my own words, it does not in and of itself serve the purpose of constructing a foundation for progressive social philosophy; and by no means does it by itself lead to supporting a more rational social world.

There are a number of ways to unpack these assertions. Bloom offers many illustrations in his book, including the example of charity. This is a good example to run with, because we can also deepen Bloom’s account of charity in the process of exploring some of the positive implications of his thesis. To start, an obvious question arises: what makes for an effective charity drive? Simply put, it is their emotive appeal and call for action. Charities often explicitly target message so as to ensure that their advertisements evoke an emotional response. People describe this as “pulling at the heartstrings”. This is because charities often depend on the human capacity to empathize – the emotional base of human empathy. Thus their campaigns and infomercials often explicitly aim to create or foster a moment of empathic experience – an emotionally charged response of action, often in the sense of contributing a donation or signing a petition.

The very same description can be applied to the ethical consumer movement, where at times the motivation seem much more emotional than rationally considerate. Think, for instance, of the push toward Biodynamic farming. This alternative agricultural technique is on the rise, energized in part by the ethical consumer movement; but it is not without valid concern. Indeed, there are many science-based questions about the legitimacy of biodynamic farming practices. Could it be that, underlying this issue, is another case of how consumers, including or perhaps especially conscious consumers, make emotion-based choices instead of science-based ones? Perhaps this tendency resides at the heart of the struggle to maintain a sense of lucidity within the conscious consumer movement. And this is one of many areas where Bloom’s book can be applied.

Moreover, and on the basis of my crude sketch, an interesting question arises pertaining to the rationale of the operation of charity within society. Again, to approach the matter in a very analytical way, charities of course do a lot of good. This statement is obvious. Charities and non-profit campaigns are generally well intentioned and can have a great effect on a local and national level. But let us for a moment consider the complexities of economic inequality as a focus of charity. Can it not also be said, in terms of a much more systemic and rational analysis, that the human goal should be the elimination of inequality at its roots, as opposed to relying on charitable initiatives for the purpose of generating financial aid to patch the deficits of modern political-economic system? Is this question not the obvious rational point of enquiry?

To approach it differently: does the reality of economic inequality not demand systemic solutions that target the roots of its causality?To Bloom’s point, empathy in and of itself is not analytically substantive or expansive enough to ask these questions. In other words, it does not signify ratiocinative qualities of unbiased critical thinking and rational and evidence-based analysis. It is not empirical, scientific or rationally substantive. Nor is empathic experience motivated by fact or systematic assessment of reality; thus in no way is it necessarily substantially considerate.

Allow me to ask the obvious question in another way: Without the fully realized ability to reason, to think critically, what effective purpose does empathy serve? Likewise, the argument goes, what purpose does charity really serve when it comes to particular issues like economic inequality? It may help ease the economic burdens of an individual or a family, and this can no doubt be lifesaving. To make it clear: I am in no way devaluing what positives charities contribute in this regard. But when it comes to the larger systemic picture, the entire dynamic existence of charity and the emotional basis on which it operates, is there not an argument toward the requirement of a much deeper analysis and line of consideration?.

I think this is an interesting point of thought, one that we could re-employ in the context of Bloom’s book. He does a terrific job at exploring the limits of empathy along similar lines, which leads him to make the case for a notion of “rational compassion”. I think this is an incredibly important concept, which resonates with my own thesis in Society and Social Pathology that was angling toward what I now consider to be a notion of cognitive empathy (which I basically take to mean the same thing).

Continuing to preserve the positive role empathic experience might play strictly on an interpersonal level, how I interpret Bloom’s book is that, empathy itself does not offer the necessary conceptual tools to think through, analyse and ultimately assess social issues in the detailed, evidenced-based and comprehensive manner required. Empathy is not necessarily critical or comprehensive in terms of a cognitive-rational process of assessment. Empathy does not imply rationally contemplative, critical or substantive consideration. As an emotional response it can have an incredibly narrow scope. Empathy can even also be prejudiced and it can be manipulated to serve other’s interests. Ultimately it is a weak guide in the face of complex moral dilemmas. What’s also interesting about this argument is how it may connect to a deeper philosophical analysis regarding the current deficit of social rationality. Indeed, I believe one can draw a direct connection between Bloom’s book and the more broad claims that what is also required today is a historical and cultural renewal of reason and rationality as core progressive social philosophical values. But I’ll save that for later.

***

I would like to take a moment to expand on a few of my comments. It is not that empathy is useless or redundant. Likewise, it is not that empathy isn’t important or that it is not a key guiding value of progressive social philosophy. This essay is not meant to serve the suggestion that empathy doesn’t play a role in maintaining some semblance of sanity in human life. The fact of the matter remains that an overwhelming body of evidence and research confirms the importance of empathy on the level of interpersonal relations, from psychotherapy to medical practice to education and special needs. Even progressive values such as restorative justice or, perhaps more broadly, the very idea of democracy contains to whatever degree a notion of empathy in addition to a notion of compassion and rationality. On the basis of everything we currently know, from anthropology through to developmental psychology and beyond, it would seem fairly safe to suggest that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of social empathy. Contemporary proponents of empathy and its social importance do not appear wrong in this regard. It is only that, at least to my mind, empathy can become over-valued. Or, to put it another way, it is overextended beyond the effectiveness of its range. Thus in taking from Bloom, the argument put forth here is that while empathy has a very real social value, reason and the notion of rational compassion are also absolutely vital. Inasmuch that it may be safe to conclude that a healthy (or less pathological) society is one that fosters a high degree of social empathy, so too it would seem safe to conclude that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of individual and social rationality. In this sense what we’re talking about is very much a deep, integral, complex and many-sided developmental account.

I think most moderate and rationally sensible people would agree on the basis of evidence that progressive social philosophy, much like a progressive theory of ethics, is grounded to some degree in the social-culture promotion and fostering of empathic experience and intimate social relations. But empathy is not going to solve the many issues we face in relation to climate change. Empathy and its sociocultural increase is not going to solve potentially pending energy crises, systemic poverty, or the inequalities of health. It won’t serve to ensure humanities defense against a possible future asteroid, or put humans on mars, or help us identify the chemistry of sustainable materials or the cure for preventable diseases.

To this point, I like Bloom’s idea of rational compassion. Moral decisions are not purely empathic decisions. Inasmuch as they depend to a large degree on critical thinking and, impliedly, a form of meditating subjectivity, moral decisions should also necessarily be considered as rational, evidence-based and comprehensive systemic decisions in the sense of their relation to the larger social picture. Empathy, which, itself, on a policy level, can become a purely reactionary principle of moral action, lacks the necessary rational and critical normative basis of systemic or comprehensive evaluation. And this, in a very crude and summarized way, is one of the fundamental issues when it comes to contemporary theories that rely solely on empathy and empathetic experience as source of moral and ethical action, as Bloom notes.

Simply put, social theories of empathy become too one-dimensional, and they lack integration into a more coherent and complex view. And for these reasons, among others, my arguments in Society and Social Pathology could perhaps be considered somewhat akin to Bloom’s book: namely, that the practice of social empathy and reason should be considered in a very reticulate way. We may call this “rational compassion” or cognitive empathy or whatever; but the main point, for me, is the underlining basis that is the human capacity to reason. This is why, in my own study on social pathology, I spent a significant amount of time describing irrationality and the social deficit of reason, especially in relation to a form of social critique and within the frame of developmental psychology. But I think an even deeper point is that a less pathological society, one which reconciles the deficit of reason, is one that would evidence not just a high degree of cultural empathy but an even higher degree of social rationality. And in my book on pathology, this was described primary through the notion of the mediating subject.

***

Having said all that, I think Bloom’s book could be expanded and deepened in several ways. My first point of reflection begins with consideration within the boundaries of philosophy of reason.

One senses that there are a number of moments of tension in the Bloom’s analysis. One reason for this, I think, has to do with how the social world isn’t quantifiable in the same way as nature, and for this reason it is easy to anticipate the criticism I’ve read of Against Empathy, namely that it verges on being what a section of philosophers describe as “positivist”. This is actually I term I tend to see a lot in social philosophy, and it is not always easy to understand what it means. Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the complications associated with attempts to purely translate or reemploy the successes of natural science methodologies within the domain of social research and analysis. The difficulty, as I understand it, can perhaps be better expressed in methodological terms. “Positivism”, or “positivist epistemology”, which I would differentiate from positivist social theory, is a highly effective tool within the natural sciences. It is an important epistemology; but when utilized in the study of social phenomena and relations, including the study of human beings, this epistemology is criticized as being limited. The study of social phenomena, of the social world, is different than studying objects of nature. As a physics student, I often think for instance of the difference between the study of a natural phenomenon way out in the cosmos – or the study of the tangled web that is gravity – and the study of something like human migration and economy. Human beings have agency, society too, as one learns through a thorough study of sociology, is the product of a complex interplay of the relationship between structure-agency. A positivist epistemology, as I understand it within the frame of natural science practices, comes under criticism when, what is labelled as “positivist social theory” – that is, the translation of natural science methodology as the pure means of social research methodology – throws a rational blanket over everything, failing to grasp the complexity of human consciousness and the multidimensional realities behind human action and behaviour. Human beings, social phenomena, are said to be seen atomistically with little to no recognition of the realities of social construction. Social scientific practice in this sense can often become economically reductionist when applied within the particular dynamics of the social world.

From the books I’ve read, one way to describe the issue in methodological terms is how when trying to translate the undeniably successful methodologies and epistemologies withing the natural sciences into the domain of social research and study, it’s basically like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I don’t always know what to make of these debates. Being a science student and an individual committed to the natural sciences, as well as an individual widely read in social science, I would suggest in the very least that it would be beneficial to differentiate the useful and effective positivist epistemology we commonly use in the natural sciences, with “positivist social theory”. In critical theory and in critical sociology, the two tend to be conflated or confused and this, I think, is a mistake because what’s good about positivist epistemology gets lost.

Whatever one thinks of these arguments, a critical reader of Bloom’s book will certainly raise concern about how certain moments of argumentation verge toward “positivist social views”.

To avoid the possibility of such charges in the future, perhaps it is useful on a methodological level to see the study of the social world and the study of the natural world as separate complex entities, however much they may also find points of interrelation. While quantifiable in certain ways, the social world has its own complexities and the underlying realities aren’t entirely appropriate for natural scientific methodology. Coming from the perspective of the natural sciences, when I read social philosophy and theory and the perspectives offered in relation to philosophy of science, I often read how scientific methodology easily becomes an ideological extension of society within the domain of social research; because “positivist epistemology” isn’t able to reflect on itself and the facts its social research discloses. In other words: there is a broad range of literature that argues how, the direct translation of natural scientific methodologies into the field of social scientific study, often becomes subservient or an extension of the social status quo. Many popular commentators have also pointed out how it often produces too much of a one-dimensional view of human society. We observe strange theories such as those based on the view of human beings a “rational maximizers”, which seems to neglect the fact that everyday human experience is much more convoluted and messy. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a wonderful line, which I interpret in a similar way: namely about why so many people seem to struggle with even basic mathematics, speculating that it is because human beings are not necessarily purely logical beings. It’s hard to argue against him. What else is modern history if not a simultaneous celebration of modern reason and the value of human rationality in addition to an ongoing struggle to understand the deficit of reason and the problem social irrationality?

It is interesting to reflect on these debates. I think one of the simple lessons within the history of social science, to use a very obvious example, is that when trying to understand the complexities of the social world, we cannot completely expunge human emotion from human life. If what people call “social positivist philosophy” becomes too hardened and one-dimensional in terms of a strictly behavioural view, perhaps what we lose sight of is the role human emotion plays in human experience and the complexities of impact and causality with regards to structure-agency. And this connection would make some sense. Behaviouralism, as a social philosophy, in the sense of its social philosophical designation, relates very much to a particular philosophical paradigm that attempts to translate the insights of natural science to an analysis of human social behaviour.

In physics, chemistry, and so on modern scientific knowledge is unparalleled. The scientific method is undoubtedly one of the great human epistemological accomplishments, which has resulted in an exponential increase in knowledge. But we if take seriously the idea that the study of the social world requires, however subtly, its own unique approach. Is this the same as saying that social research cannot learn from the natural sciences, preserving important concepts or values as objectivity and the generation of objective knowledge about social phenomena? Can it not also integrate natural science methodologies and epistemologies? If the ontology of the social world is different than the natural one, as are the basic dynamic-structures and systems. with issues of meta-theory, epistemology, aetiology, the role of theory, explanation and prediction – surely a progressive framework for social research would have at its foundation the lessons of natural science, the core value of empirical research and evidenced-based thought.

In this sense, if the social sciences are largely considered to be in state of disarray because its prevailing methodologies and frameworks have yet to grasp accurate methodologies, techniques, and certainly also a mature epistemology – perhaps an example of social science research can be found in what is called social systems theory and systems thinking. When analyzing the social world, as a good science-driven systems researcher would do, complexities involving structure-agency, subject-object, individual-collective, universal-particular, qualitative-quantitative, seem to take on a unique complexity. Scientifically driven, it is one example of what I would describe as good contemporary social science; but the problem is that it is few and far between, especially in mainstream social science, which is being increasingly overrun by poststructural and postmodern perspectives with their hypertheoretical, hyperspectulative and meaningless jargon.

With these considerations in mind, maybe what is left to be said is that philosophy of social science must also be adjusted. What doesn’t help, as alluded earlier, is that the social world is  drenched in emotion. It’s largely pathological, often irrational, and its history is almost constantly entrenched in ideology and the battle of “worldviews”. Additionally, even from the side of research practice and analysis, it is easier for the social scientist to become entwined in systems of power and political worldviews, for the concept of objectivity and truth seem to so easily erode within the social sciences. We see it all time, and often it is because the individual subject is more heavily mediated or invested in the social world and the social issues that constitute his or her sociohistorical-cultural context. The natural sciences doesn’t face the same degree of tension, even though it is not entirely free from or autonomous to sociohistorical-cultural contexts (a topic for discussion at a later time).

In the natural sciences I find that it is easier for us to preserve the primacy of reason, the parameters of rational analysis and debate, and the process by which the scientific community can reach consensus. Perhaps this is also because science often acts as a sort of corrective against human error, such as the creeping inclination for instance toward “confirmation bias” (a notion I’ll return to later). In the social world however, even concepts of reason and truth become so deeply socially mediated, that it is not uncommon for an irrational politician, an ideologue or dogmatist, to make claim to the voice of reason and rationality. What were originally progressive, critical and reasonable movements can easily become extremist, while extremist movements are at times seen as “reasonable”. The social world is one where people fight for values, and thus prejudice is freely and openly celebrated. An individual can take up the progressive cause to preserve a piece of natural landscape from exploitation by an oil corporation, standing for the need for the generation of clean energy and against extreme environmental degradation. But that person can also easily lose sight of rational debate and analysis. Instead their position can also become one between opposing forces reduced to political opinion and “difference of values”. Likewise, the same can be said for reactionary movements, which tend to be primarily based in ideology and operate within the realm of anti-reason. Here, the objective is to intentionally reduce debate to opinion, to prejudiced subjectivity, because more often than not reality and fact for reactionary movements – such as “climate deniers” – is an inconvenient truth. But ideology can be found throughout the whole of the social political world, and each scenario can be crossed to the other.

***

In response to these problems, an intriguing alternative paradigm is presently emerging (especially in the UK) under the designation “critical realism”. I am by no means an expert reader, but from my understanding this emerging paradigm seeks to offer a considerable engagement with both a “positivist” and “critical approach” within the field of philosophy of social science. In postulating an interface between the study of the natural and social worlds – to assist the translation of natural science methodologies and epistemologies within the domain of social research and participation – it provides a meta-theory at the intersections of philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, and aetiology (to name a few). Furthermore, it would be interesting to hear an informed scholar’s view of how its combination of transcendental realism with critical naturalism could offer a more thorough sense of an alternative social theoretical paradigm. The speculation here is emphasized further in relation to the question of integration without losing sight of the primacy of reason, something which I’ve discussed in other places.

To deepen our considerations: Critical realism, on my understanding, seems to want to take serious the reconciling of the extensive list of issues at the heart of philosophy of social science. Refreshingly, it doesn’t appear to be sociologically relativistic. Thus, one could perhaps see it as avoiding the traps discussed in relation to other books I’ve critique in recent time. Secondly, and in relation to a number of recent publications, including Bloom’s Against Empathy, on my reading critical realism appears to recognize a critique of positivist social theory without completely rejecting the value of positivist epistemology and, in turn, also accommodate a humanistic and integrative view of the total human subject. Likewise, too, it maintains the primacy of reason, even when opening discourse up to the notion of integration.

In addition to this last comment, note the use of the term “integration”, which connects to what was touched on earlier and what will be discussed a little later. This is something I’ve personally struggled to frame for some time: how to honour the primacy of reason while also doing justice to an integral view of the human subject? How to do justice to reason and social rationality, while also engaging with realities pertaining to the relation of structure-agency and the role emotion might play in human decision making? In a past essay concerning a different book I considered, for example, how it is not enough to posit a holistic and integrative view if that means the primacy of reason is rejected, because what happens is that one’s position eventually succumbs to a variant of sociological relativism (even in spite of aims to preserve universal normative values).

Having said that, I see critical realism as being limited purely to the domain of social research. And it is not entirely without its own cause for critique. For instance, there are subtleties about its position on epistemology that for me don’t quite capture a progressive enough argument.

“Due to CR ontology and epistemology, (there is a ‘real’ world and it is theory-laden, not theory-determined), all explanations of reality are treated as fallible (Bhaskar, 1979), including the explanations provided by research participants, theorists and scientists. This ontological departure of CR from interpretivism becomes particularly useful for […] research in which participants offering competing explanations of a phenomenon and some must be taken as more accurate than others. For the same reason, CR epistemology may also be seen as disempowering for participants (i.e., through the implication that the scientist knows best!). However, it should not be assume that scientific explanations are always more accurate than experiential explanations – indeed, all are potentially fallible, and participants experiences and explanations of a phenomenon may in fact prove most accurate in explaining the reality. In qualitative CR research, participants’ experiences and understandings can challenge existing scientific knowledge and theory (Redman-MacLaren & Mills, 2015).” (Fletcher, A.J. (2016). Applying critical realism in qualitative research: methodology meets method. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Vo. 20, Issue 2, p. 188)

While it is not entirely inaccurate or unreasonable to suggest that all forms of knowledge and all forms of explanation may be fallible, and that even in certain situations existing scientific knowledge and theory may be challenged and proven incorrect when set against participants’ experiences and experiential understandings; there is a different way to express this whilst also ensuring the preservation of the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge. Having said that, it seems fairly clear that critical realism seeks to utilize “the ‘practice of rational judgement, wherein the researcher may need to elaborate upon (or deviate from) participants’ own interpretations in order to ‘provide fuller or more adequate interpretations’ of reality” (Parr, 2013, p.10; cited in Fletcher 2016, p.190). This suggests that the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge are in fact ultimately preserved, without the naivety of thinking that such forms of knowledge are absolute and free of the possibility of error.

With these considerations in mind, instead of devaluing positivist perspectives within the natural sciences, what the position in this essay offers in its reading of Against Empathy, is recognition of the success of positivist approaches within the natural sciences, with the caveat that attempts to directly and cleanly translate positivist approaches to social theory practice are problematic. In other words, this essay serves to speculate that perhaps the lesson to be learned is that a rationalist perspective, such as the one I often argue toward, has to be more subtle and integrative when applied within the domain of social theory and research.

Unlike positivist attempts at translating directly the success of the natural sciences to social studies, which fails to recognize social construction and the relationships between agency-structure (among other things), viewing individuals only as rational agents, critical realism could be seen to shed another light on the the struggle for a rational social world from within an integrative and holistic framework (as opposed to throwing a rational blanket over everything and pretending human beings are purely rational actors).

***

Returning to Bloom’s book, I sense a bit of a tension, perhaps even naivety, behind certain passages of thought as a result of the above. His categories, his framing, does not allow for what I would describe as holistic or integrative perspective that would seem increasingly vital to social-based analysis and study. This notion of an integrative perspective takes inspiration partly from the humanist tradition, referring on one level to the view of the integrated human person. It goes back to the notion that the individual is not purely an economic means or a rational maximizer, but a complex subject in which emotion also plays a part, for better or for worse.

Such a form of rationalism, which preserves the primacy of reason and places it within a more integrative frame, serves as a reminder of the very real ongoing struggle for reason and social rationality. Reason and rationality are not taken for granted, and the human capacity to access reason is featured as a fundamentally important question.

 

To approach it differently: I think Bloom is right to make his critical intervention. But we can deepen it by recognizing that reason and social rationality – even rational compassion – very much also have a developmental component. To put it another way: the notion of rational compassion is predicated, I would argue, on the overlap between reason, rationality and the healthy status of the individual subject. Reason and social rationality are integral to progressive philosophy of the subject because they very much depend on a form of healthy subjectivity. Philosophy of reason is based, I would argue, in philosophy of the subject.

In Against Empathy there is a risk, in moments, where empathy, reason and compassion once again take on antinomical positions, when I think the progressive argument is much more advanced, subtle and perhaps imbricated.

This comes out in strange ways. For instance, I agree with other commentators that subtle moments, such as in Bloom’s use of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among a few others, as examples of “people of the heart”, as opposed to people of reason, is grossly inaccurate and simplistic. It comes, I think, from an underlying antinomical view. As one commentator put it, these individuals, particularly Gandhi and MLK, were actually very rational in their ethics.

Bloom also seems to make assertions about empathy on the level of feeling, without fully realizing that both empathy and rationality can have a common range: a deeply rational person can also be deeply empathic, in the emotional sense. The difference, and here I can only speak analytically and speculatively, would be in how emotionally defined or oriented empathy would percolate as cognitive empathy in a rational individual. If we consider the following axiom as true, namely that human emotion is integral to the human situation, perhaps the aspiration behind the social philosophical value of reason is not a complete repression of human emotion, which is arguably impossible anyway.

Rather, if there’s reason to suggest that the healthy, open, mediating subject – which I often liken to the scientific mind-set (think of the young discovering child, open and exploring) – is one that supports and fosters reason, this would suggest a more integrative perspective on human development. There is a reason why many leading psychological theories argue that the struggle for rational society is also the struggle for the healthy and reconciled subject. It is likely true that there can be rational people that are not necessarily the most emotionally developed, but there is a defined limit to this statement. Likewise, there can be people who pretend to be rational – one can think of many politicians – but are clearly biased ideologues. As a general philosophical rule, however, I think most rational, sensible and even scientifically-minded (or evidenced-based) people today that exemplify what might be described as a mediating form of subjectivity, possess, to whatever extent, an awareness of their own emotions. Awareness of one’s own emotions would seem to be important in order to rationally and objectively assess a situation or analyse a phenomenon, so as to ensure we keep a check on our own prejudices (social, theoretically, scientific or otherwise).

Following a similar logic to above. A high level of emotional empathy does not necessarily make one a good person. The same can be said in reverse. There are numerous disorders that reduce, neurologically speaking, an individual’s ability to empathize; and a low level of empathy in no way makes one a bad person or a person without progressive ethics. The point to take away from this is that the reality is much more nuanced. And really, what is required is again a deeply subtle and integrative approach.

What it all comes down to, I think, is the issue of (developmental) constitution. This was my argument in my book on pathology. What are the appropriate conditions that foster an openness and security in the individual to feel able to openly, rationally and critical enquire and engage with the world (as opposed to safeguarding “worldviews” or cognitive political ideological designations)?

In the cognitive sciences the notion of “confirmation bias” is incredibly insightful, highlighting the human tendency toward the familiar, to reject “otherwise” or any evidence that contradicts one’s established worldview. There are numerous studies in this area, and they are revealing as to how the human brain works, including in terms of the physiological effects of having one’s established views affirmed.

When reading many of the leading studies in this area, it is interesting to think more broadly in terms of societal functioning, such as in how confirmation bias seems evident in so much of general human behaviour. Think for instance of how the media functions. Black and white sensationalist statements confirming one view or another, the content of which often lacks nuance and thorough consideration of the many sides of an issue. It is opinion versus opinion, bias versus bias. It is hard to deny, especially in our present irrational social context, that confirmation bias doesn’t rule the day. Practically speaking, the difference between the positive feeling of having one’s views affirmed – and even the physiological effects of this experience – and the existential insecurity of having them challenged, is incredibly human.

But one of the issues I have with the assertions made by certain proponents of the confirmation bias thesis is how it can become reduced too much to a deterministic viewpoint. In other words, we have to keep aware of the tendency versus determinism relation. It would seem, on the basis of current evidence, that confirmation bias is a very real dimension of human experience. At the same time, it is one dimension. Another dimension is the possibility of reasoned and rational thought. While the inclination may be to reduce and absolutize the tendency toward confirmation bias and resolutely assert its reality within a deterministic frame, I think it is more accurate within the total human picture to balance this tendency with its opposite (which we can also observe, however fragile and fleeting).

There are so many wonderful examples within the sciences of individuals, even entire collectives of researchers, evidencing a very different type of subjectivity. It is a form of subjectivity, as already described – one that is open, searching, exploring, and willing to consider the possibility of “otherwise”. The excitement and anticipation of possibly discovering sometime new, this scientific experience goes against the tendency toward confirmation bias. In this sense, inasmuch that confirmation bias seem prevalent, there is also evidence of the opposite – people who are open to their own ideas being challenged, to being proven wrong, in their rational pursuit of knowledge.

Undoubtedly even the most rational person must constantly consciously remind oneself of the importance of maintaining normatively open, to thinking critically even when it comes to one’s own theories, ideas and views. The tendency toward confirmation bias seems to be always be creeping in the background. But how might we do justice to both sides, to two very different forms of experience, and two very different developmental mind-sets, and arrive closer to understanding this complex interplay of forces?

In psychology, many seem to argue that emotions play an incredibly important role in determining whether one is rationally engaged or closed, repressed and propelled by overbearing self-preservation drives. Additionally, there are some fascinating studies emerging within the neurosciences that touch on the deeper point being made here: the interrelations between psychological and biological development. What is the difference between the rational individual feeling secure in themselves to constantly challenge their own position, to consider “otherwise” and maintain an openness to the unknown, and the individual driven by the need for confirmation bias?

In engaging with the confirmation bias thesis, I would be inclined to suggest that it is important to remain nuanced and to maintain recognition of the developmental dimension of the irrational attitude and the biased-driven mind. It is possible that I am wrong in my suspicions, but if the inclination toward confirmation bias is one dimension of human experience, maintaining some space for the possibility for the realization of the free-flourishing subject and the flourishing of human reason would also seem vital.

In this age of “alternative facts”, the question begs to be asked: developmentally, what conditions would support or help foster more generally a rational subject who is open to the world and to the constant rational pursuit of knowledge? What are the appropriate social conditions that foster a more healthy, open, critical and rational subject? What are the appropriate social conditions to support and foster “rational compassion”, to use Bloom’s words, or cognitive empathy, which allows for principled, enlightened and evidence-based thought about nature, the social world, and the many complex systemic social issues we face?

To argue that there is a deficit of cognitive empathy – or “rational compassion” – is essentially to argue, by way of inference, that there is a deficit of reason. Holding on to this, it is then interesting to ask what proponents of empathy theory might be responding to in terms of our modern social reality. In asking this question their ideal seems to be a projection of something much more than purely empathic experience on an interpersonal level. A lot of the literature I have read seems to want to extract an entire social theory or foundational social philosophy. Empathy in this  philosophically ultimate sense is perhaps closer in its symbolic meaning to the notion of rational compassion. I say this in the sense that, philosophically, the social value of empathy seems to symbolize more than its strict definition: a certain sensitivity of experiential relations akin to what some philosophers describe as the subject-subject plane of experience. When framed in this way, perhaps there is some compromise as to what both sides seem to be hinting: I would synthesize this as an alternative or perhaps more reconciled mode of experience, which is phenomenologically sensitive, rationally considerate and investigative, fluidly shifting between the subject-subject and subject-object paradigms. As this is only speculation, I’ll leave the thought open for consideration.

As a whole, and in sum, in many popular books that treat empathy as a sort of pure source of moral goodness, one senses that what the respective authors are reacting to is the deficit of something vitally important to healthy societal functioning. There is a lack, a void – a deficit of compassionate, considerable thought as well as a lack of a certain sensitivity of experience and a sensitivity of astute observation and intimate relations (with all things) that very much comprises the idea of a lived ethics. There is a systemic deficit of moral thought and action, in addition to a prevailing hardened subject. The contemporary social world is one of largely irrational action, growing increasing defined by the prevalence of hardened social attitudes. And so the inclination is to identify a positive value, such as empathy, to fill the void. The point of critique, taken from Bloom, is that it is an error to fill this void with some emotional ideal. But in considering the above reflections, perhaps one way to reconcile the debates is through the notion of integration and an integrative philosophy of reason?

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With these contextual points in place, it is not insufficient to now state that my main complaint with Bloom’s book: the account of “reason” and “rationality” is in no way advanced enough. What I mean by this is that it struggles to reconcile or address the differences between the irrefutable success of the natural sciences and its methodologies with the unique dynamics and methodologies of social research. In this regard, Bloom’s book can be seen to serve too much as a useful target of critique for those weary of “positivist social philosophy”. In defending the primacy of reason this is something one must safeguard against.

The problem, to put it very simply, has to do with a lack of integration. Subtle instances of this lack appear in passing moments, such as in Bloom’s example of the starving child on p. 106, in which we read: “The niceties of personal contact are far less important than actually saving lives”. It’s not fair to isolate this statement and draw conclusions or criticism – I’m simply suggesting that subtly, nuance and an integrated view are constantly required, and it is this more progressive epistemology about where methodology meets social research method that at times lacks in Against Empathy.

Additionally, and in passing, Bloom’s book also lacks reflection in relation to the notion of critical rationality. For instance, in the odd passing sentence in which Bloom will make a statement about morality, or “violence and cruelty”, his view seems to lack critical awareness. When reading Bloom’s book one is inclined to ask: morality for whom and for what end? The answer, for me, is critical: Morality like philosophy of history – the normative universal enlightenment values integral to modern (social) reason and the modern scientific project – are based on a progressive and transformative social philosophy. Reason, as an emancipatory social philosophical concept, is ultimately based on or inspires the struggle for a more humane, egalitarian world. I say this on the basis not because reason is biased or prejudiced toward a particular political agenda, but because, in being a reader of the enlightenment philosophes, reason and rationality are also indicative of the presence of critical thought.

To approach the matter in another way: according to what normative criteria is the telos of morality considered? Perhaps the answer is that it is a means itself, just as reason should be a means itself. Therefore, in making the important case for “rational compassion”, which, I take to be a vital concept positively set in direct opposition to pathological society, maybe the that end rational compassion serves is no end at all. Maybe it harks back to the enlightenment notion of “progress”, which is seen as critical and open-ended. I favour this view, inasmuch as that I favour the view that modern science is also a means itself, which ought to be free of any ideological bias or ends.

I think a progressive account is one that considers social reason, in the enlightenment sense, as a fundamentally critical operation. Today, though, it can easily become conformist, which serves as an important reminder for us all: is one’s notion of “reason” really “reason” at all? Is human rationality not, first and foremost, the capacity to think through a problem in all its complexity and dimensions, given whatever wealth of evidence currently available? And is this not, inherently, also a critical process, a means in itself? I am not necessarily challenging or criticizing Bloom here. But these questions and reflections serve as an important point of reflection. Just like empathy can be prejudiced or manipulated to serve biased or ideological interests, so too can an uncritical notion of reason.

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In closing, Bloom’s book offers an incredibly important contribution to contemporary debates. Reason, rationality, truly critical thinking – the current social deficit of these important values on behalf of totalized “worldviews” and dogmatic political and economic ideologies, is one of the basic characteristic of pathological thought. And that is because pathological thought, or subjectivity, is often closed, hardened and repressed. Cognitive empathy or “compassionate reason” implies the opposite: an open, free-flourishing, critical and rational subject akin to the scientific mind-set. Empathy has a place too in the more total picture. But empathy or compassion without analytics, without reason and rationality, and without critical evidenced-based thought offers nothing constructive in the grand scheme of things.

In other words: in entering the empathy debates, one can say that what gives reason its emphasis is that, without it, empathy means very little. If irrational, reactionary, and self-destructive patterns and trends are characteristic of much of the contemporary social world, as many argue, the deficit of reason and the lack of truly rational deliberation and discourse is without a doubt the fundamental matter at hand. This issues surrounding this deficit are complex, but the pathological lack of the daily capacities for rationality and compassion ultimately take precedence to a lack of empathy. One cannot have an empathic social world within an irrational societal context.

In this sense one could add in conclusion that the struggle for a more rational social world, a world that is compassionate in a truly considerate and constructively analytical sense – this is also the struggle for a healthy social world and a positive form of social development. Here, we should reintroduce the importance of humanistic philosophy, of which reason has long been an integral and leading member. There are aspects of Bloom’s book in which the internal logic of arguments seems to recognize this point. Concern for other’s welfare, which I agree is more of a mark of compassion than of empathy, is fundamentally indicative of reason and rationality in its social practice, and the entirety of such a social vision is ultimately a fundamental humanistic one (in a very direct enlightenment sense). And yet, to foster social conditions conducive for increasing social rationality, we learn when looking through the lens of social pathology that these conditions appeal to social dynamics that foster healthy, open and mediating subjectivity.

Thus, in the end, the struggle for a rational society raises deep searching questions regarding the status of the contemporary social world, its structures and systems and therefore also the general status of knowledge and subjectivity. It raises developmental questions about the effects of pathological society and about the health and status of the individual, and whether people generally feel secure enough in themselves to feel open to the world, and to the existential challenges of what it means to be rational in practice. When I think of a science inspired vision of society, I think of a form of social practical and debate that would be open and constantly surveying, rooted in evidence and deep consideration. Science inspires the idea of social engagement and deliberation based on facts, on evidence, and on the constant normative consideration and evaluation of phenomena – that is, a constant knowledge forming process. Modern science much like the enlightenment project in general – they inspire, at least for me, a vision based on a very real and materially substantive philosophy of the subject. And one can imagine how this subjectivity, this epistemology – this alternative way of experiencing the world, set against drives toward confirmation bias and the preservation of worldviews – could be the underpinning of an almost natural egalitarian, democratic process of social thought and deliberation. In many ways, this type of social philosophical vision, these basic normative values, represent the lasting legacy of the enlightenment. Long may that legacy continue to inspire, and long may modern science continue to invigorate the idea of a hopeful future.

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