Rorty Phones It In

Richard Rorty’s paper, “Philosopher-envy” in the new Daedalus issue on human nature is just trash. You’d think that someone who has given up rational argumentation would be a better rhetorician. Instead, Rorty seems like he’s just phoning it in. The sophism is almost too transparent to count as sophism. He must be tired. The paper smells like death.

Rorty goes after evolutionary psychology — Pinker in particular. His general argument has this form:

Everything the Pinkerites say is painfully obvious, we don’t need science to tell us what we already know, and nobody really disagrees with it. Also, it is totally irrelevant, so who cares? Hey, let’s try socialism! Why not?

Here is Rorty on the idea of a theory of human nature:

What these philosophers doubt [that is, what Rorty, via the usual Rorty-ized history of philosophy sock puppets, doubts] is that factoring out the role of genes in making us different from one another, or tracing what we have in common back to evolutionary needs of our ancestors, will give us anything appropriately labeled ‘a theory of human nature.’ For such theories are supposed to be normative — to provide guidance.

Nope. No argument forthcoming. So, I will powerfully counter-assert: a theory of human nature is NOT supposed to be normative. Take that Richard Rorty! A theory of human nature, or at least a theory of homo sapiens is supposed to tell us what we are like and how we got to be that way. Such theories need tell us no more about what we ought to be like than the theory of the big bang need tell us what the universe ought to be.

Science can tell us a lot about the space of possibility, however. And because ‘ought’ implies ‘can’, there is a straightforward link from the descriptive to the normative. Because a theory of human nature can tell us a lot about what we can’t do, and what won’t work, we can learn a lot about what we shouldn’t do.

Now Rorty will probably want to say that there is no fact of the matter about what we are like and how we got that way, or that we have no objective access to the facts (what’s a fact!), and that there are just stories, and that any story we tell is going to be infected with all sorts of normative assumptions, and so our theory will just be a moralizing fairy tale anyway. So why not cut out the descriptive song and dance and go straightaway to talking about how we ought to live? But Rorty doesn’t make this argument.

He just wants to say that whatever we find out about the constitution of human beings, it doesn’t make any difference. Which is plain stupid.

Rorty argues that

The question “Is our humanity a biological or a cultural matter?” is as sterile as “Are our actions determined or do we have free will?” No concrete result in genetics, or physics, or any emprical discipline will help answer either bad question. We will go right on deliberating about what to do, and holding each other responsible for actions, even if we become convinced that every thought we have, and every move we make, will have been predicted by an omniscient neurologist. We will go right on experimenting with new lifestyles, new ideas and new social institutions, even if we became convinced that, deep down, everything depends on our genetic makeup.

Now, I agree, with caveats, with the point about free will. But the parallel to biology’s relation to “social experimentation” is just so transparently bad that we’ve got to wonder why Rorty’s even bothering. Does he assume that members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are retarded?

In one sense he’s of course right. Yes. We will continue experimenting, no matter what we think about ourselves. But that’s not his point. He’s implying that our experimentation will go on unaffacted by our biological beliefs in the way that our practices of assigning praise and blame are unaffacted by our beliefs about free will. Yet, obviously if we come to sincerely believe, via good science, that some lifestyles and social institution are bound for failure we will tend not to try them. And that can be a huge blessing for humanity.

People in North Korea are eating each other because other people sincerely believed Marx’s theory that the human essence varies with the socio-economic context in which it is embedded. It’s not just that some preferences are endogenous to social structure (no doubt true), but that human psychology as such is endogenous to social structure, and so human psychology cannot be an exogenous constraint on “experimentation.” This is probably the deadliest idea in human history. And it’s just incredibly hard to give credence to the idea that it makes no difference whether or not we discover that some social goals are impossible due to they way that people are

When Pinker draws on some finding of evolutionary psychology to make some kind of social point, Rorty dismisses it as old news. Science tells us nothing we didn’t already know. “Pinker describes facts familiar to Homer and Herodotus as exhibiting ‘nonobvious aspects of human nature.'” Rorty implies that if Homer and Herodotus have said it, then it must be obvious. But, no, Homer and Herodotus have stood the test of time because of their insight, their ability to illuminate nonobvious truths about ourselves. And of course, others have made claims about human nature diametrically opposed to those of Homer and Herodotus. And so evolutionary psychology is quite usefully helping to settle the argument.

The kernel of Rorty’s bad argument comes in this passage:

Post-Galilean science does not tell us what is really real or really important. It has no metaphysical or moral implications. Instead, it enables us to do things that we had not previously been able to do. When it became empirical and experimental, it lost both its metaphysical pretensions and the ability to set new ends for human beings to strive for. It gained the ability to provide new means.

There are too many things wrong with this passage to enumerate. Modern science is full of metaphysical implications. If our best theory quantifies over something, then modern science is telling us that that something is “really real.” And it’s hard to follow how enabling us to do things we couldn’t do before has no moral implications. Morality is about thinking about what to do. And if new things keep showing up in the feasible set, due to scientific innovation, then we have more options open to us — more things that we might do. That’s just straightforwardly morally relevant. And, to take another tack on it, a billion people may well have starved to death had it not been for Borlaug’s “green revolution.” Whether or not a thousand million people live or die is a matter of no moral relevance?

Of course, what Rorty is trying to say, in his amazingly cavalier fashion, is that science can’t pin down what exactly we should be aiming at. And, yes. But that’s incredibly boring.

Rorty goes on:

But every so often a scientist like Pinker tries to have it both ways, and to suggest that science can provide empirical evidence to show that some ends are preferable to others.

This doesn’t follow. I agree that science doesn’t establish ultimate ends. But everything that is not an ultimate end is not merely a means. Some ends are partly constitutive of ultimate ends. And science can help us understand which ends together may succesfully constitute our ultimate end(s).

A physicist can provide an architect with evidence that a certain kind of structure will necessarily collapse. Now, the physicist doesn’t tell us whether to prefer non-collapsing or collapsing structures. But she can tell us that if you want a non-collapsing structure, don’t do this. Similarly, if we want individual happiness, or a stable social order that minimizes suffering, say, then we need science to tell us what constitutes happiness, what the empirical conditions for social order are, etc. And science can be extremely helpful in ruling things out.

That’s why, I guess, Rorty is so antagonized by the whole business of actually finding out about what people are really like. It may turn out that his arational political commitments are precisely the sort of thing that get ruled out. And we can’t risk that.

Here’s his conclusion:

The dreams of socialists, feminists, and others have produced profound changes in Western social life, and may lead to vast changes in the life of the species as a whole. Nothing that natural science tells us should discourage us from dreaming further dreams.

[link added]

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center