Massimo Pigliucci – Living Philosophically

October 01, 2012

Our guest this week is a return guest of the show, Massimo Pigliucci.

We last heard about his book Nonsense on Stilts, which was about how to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. But his newest effort is in some ways even more ambitious.

It’s called Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life. And in it, Pigliucci lays out an approach that he calls “sci-phi.” It involves assessing the science of an issue—like, say, the biology of romance—and then also weighing an array of philosophical considerations, before figuring out how to negotiate this life domain.

It’s quite the heady undertaking—but, well, that never stopped us here before….

Massimo Pigliucci is a professor in the Philosophy Program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and was formerly a biology professor at Stony Brook University. He is the author or editor of eight previous books, most recently Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. He lives in New York City.

Today’s episode of Point of Inquiry is brought to you by Saigon, the conference dedicated to science and skeptical inquiry happening this October 25th through the twenty eighth in Nashville, Tennessee. Visit CSI conference dot org for more information. 

This is Point of inquiry from Monday, October 1st, 2012. Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. 

And at the grassroots. 

Our guest this week is a return guest of the show, a two timer, Massimo Pilly Yuchi. We last heard about his book Nonsense on Stilts, which was about how to distinguish between science and pseudo science. But his newest effort is in some ways even more ambitious. It’s called Answers for Aristotle How Science and Philosophy Can Lead US to a More Meaningful Life. And in it, Pili Yuchi lays out an approach that he calls sci fi. That’s a c i p h i. What it involves is sort of assessing the science of an issue like, say, the biology of romance, but then also weighing an array of philosophical considerations as well before finally figuring out how to negotiate this particular life domain. So it’s a pretty ambitious undertaking, but that really never stopped us here before. In fact, for all of you need for cognitions, skeptics and free thinkers, people who really need to think your way to happiness and to meaningfulness pillages approach just might help point the way. Massimo Pierluigi is a professor in the philosophy program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And he was formerly a biology professor at Stony Brook. He’s the author or editor of eight previous books, most recently Nonsense on Stilts How to Tell Science from Bunk. 

He lives in New York City. 

Massimo Pilly. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. It’s a pleasure. Last time we had you on to discuss your prior book, Nonsense on Stilts, which is about telling science from non science. Now, in your new one, you’re telling us about the meaning of life and how to live a good one. So it’s not like your being ambitious or anything. 

I’m not known for being an ambitious person. That’s right. 

Everybody knows the answer to this question. It’s 42, right? 

Absolutely. That is, if you want a short answer to the point, that’s that’s the white elephant from Douglas Adams. The track is a guide to the galaxy. But if you need more elaboration on that, then then I think there’s is quite a theory actually disgusts still. 

So let’s let’s let’s get into it. 

I mean, because you’re you’re really acting more as a guide to answering the question and you want to guide us through a concept that you call sci fi. And that’s not the sci fi channel. It’s FCI Dash. 

P.H., I wish had something to do with Aristotle. So tell us about that. 

Yeah. So I wouldn’t and, you know, pretend to be giving answers to either start the lies with. The book says that the title of the book wasn’t really my choice. As you might imagine, as you know, editors have their own ways of thinking about those things, but it does have to do a lot with Aristotle. I certainly wouldn’t pretend to give answers to very subtle and or to anybody else in terms of meaning of life. 

What I do try to do in the book, as you point out, is to provide tools to sort of provide a guide to what I think are the best tools available to address or think about the big questions in life. 

And look, there are, it seems to me, two classical sets of tools which largely have failed at this point, or at least I think are inadequate. And then there are two new tools or new were tools, which I think are better, and they’re the focus of the book. 

So the tools that I think are not working very well anymore are religion, of course, for a variety of reasons that we can get into. There are three chapters in the book toward the End where I explain why, whether whether there is a God or that the answer to that question is pretty much irrelevant as as a guide to your meaning in your life. The other one, of course, is a common sense. I mean, whenever you have a problem with relationships or friendships or, you know, what you do with your life, people tell you to use your common sense. 

People give you advice. Unfortunately, of course, we live in the 21st century when science has shown the common sense very often gets it wrong. And so you need to be careful about what you consider a commonsensical answer to, especially to complex questions. So my suggestion is the sci fi or sci fi, depending on how one wants to pronounce it. That is the basic idea. 

Is this the most prolific intellectual endeavors of at least once Western civilizations? 

And at this point, I think worldwide have been science in terms of giving us the best understanding of reality, factual thing. You know, the way things are and philosophy in terms of understood as a general quest for reflection, for for meaning, for ethics and so on. 

So why not combine them? 

Why not ask questions and and ask then in turn, what is it that the best science and the best philosophy may be able to tell us about it? What can I get final answers from anybody? In the end, we’ll have to make our own decisions about what what to do in life. 

But it seems to me that it’s much better to go about using good tools than than tools, than being outmoded or out-of-date. 

So, yeah, and, you know, chapter by chapter, you then give us the science of a particular issue where you’ve got to figure out what to make of it. Like maybe it’s your personal relationships with then you also sort of bring in the philosophy. But there’s a sense in which philosophy out of all these ways of approaching meaning has been overshadowed by science. I mean, if I read this book, is you trying to make them a little bit more equal again? 

Yeah, that’s correct. I think it’s it’s too bad that philosophy is being overshadowed, at least in very recent years. This section, a fairly recent development and there been a particularly a number of scientists recently, both biologists and philosophers, who, for whatever reason, they can take it upon themselves to sort of declare philosophy bad or useless or whatever it is. I mean, the latest one of the latest examples is Stephen Hawking, the cosmologist, even opens his book by essentially saying philosophy is that, in fact, that’s verbatim what he says. 

And then apparently oblivious to what he just said, he goes on for probably the book making a lot of philosophical arguments about cosmology and in the limits of science. So it’s kind of an interesting situation there. I think that what we’ve seen honestly in the last several years in terms of debates between scientists and philosophers is a reprisal of. A pretty old controversy. What does Sleepy’s know back in 1959, the clear that defined as the two cultures know the humanistic cultures and the scientific cultures, they correspond to different ways of thinking. They have different sort of domains of of of interest. They approach things differently. And very often they don’t talk to each other. Snow famously said that he wasn’t one pointed at a cocktail party of his new colleagues in the humanities because he wasn’t. In fact, he started out as a scientist and then moved into the humanities later on in his career. And he asked know if people had any idea about what the second principle of thermodynamics says. And it was that the question was received with us corn with no incredulity that anybody would ask that kind of question, because, after all, it’s not that important. 

And Snow pointed out that while all I did was blast the equivalent of you familiar with the works of Shakespeare. 

And that is an interesting point that I think that is that has to be much more sort of understanding and fervent, frankly, respect of across across disciplines and in the country science and philosophy. I’m in a situation which is somewhat difficult and it’s not made easier by either scientists like Stephen Hawking or Lawrence Krauss or there are others sort of mixing philosophy that they clearly have not read or do not understand. 

On the one hand and on the other hand, philosophers like, for instance, Jerry Father, who last year published a book go out for the book declaring evolution and biology. And, you know, entirely on the wrong foot in terms of understanding of life is threatened by the versity. 

That doesn’t help, but it is that there is not much, in fact, that the two disciplines have in common, and they can aim at the same sort of questions from different perspectives. 

Well, so let’s go let’s go and think about how we apply your approach to a topic or an area in which we have to figure out what we think. And you start the book with ethics or morality. So let’s let’s start there, because there’s there’s now a heck of a lot of science. 

And you discuss in a lot of detail showing how, you know, really our moral judgments are, you know, based on emotions and instincts, which in turn probably have an evolutionary history. But but you can’t necessarily go from just that to determining what is right or wrong. 

In fact, I make a big deal out of the fact that you can not go from an from an is prompt to an art. I don’t like as you I’m sure of well aware some other authors have actually blatantly done recently. I’m talking about Sam Harris. Yeah. Sam Harris. The moral landscape. Now, I’m not saying, you know, I’m with David Hume there. I’m not saying that draws no connection between factual knowledge and and values. Of course there is. And you fed your values better be informed by the best factual knowledge, which is exactly what I try to do throughout the book for all these different topics. All I’m saying is that there is not a necessary, logically necessary connection between the two so that whenever you want to connect facts and values, you have to do the actual work. You can’t just say the ride your your values straight from your from your facts. Now that the chapters there, especially the third, fourth and fifth chapter, are very good example of the Cytori approach that I try to put forth throughout answers proudest. Although as you as you know, it starts out with an examination of the neurobiology and cognitive science of moral decision making. Then I move to the evolution or potential evolution of early evolution of model, a moral sense. And then finally, I get to the philosophy. Now, what’s the point of this? Because those three chapters are really answering three distinct, if interrelated questions. When you when you look at evolution, you’re really asking what is the origin of that trait? When you’re looking at the cognitive science, you’re really asking, how is that thing working? And when you’re looking at the philosophy, you’re really asking. OK. And now that I know how it works and when it comes from, you know, what do I do with it in that analogy, I think that it’s easier to sort of grasp and wrap your one’s mind around is is with, let’s say, advanced mathematical abilities. Right. Clearly, we can do brain scans, let’s say, of somebody working on Fermat’s last theorem. And those brain scans will tell us quite a bit about how the brain works when it’s faced with certain kinds of cognitive tasks. And that’s very interesting and compelling research. What the brain scan isn’t going to tell you whether is whether the subject is getting the proof of the theorem right or not. You need a mathematician for that. You’re not going to ask a neuroscientist. Similarly, if you want to know where mathematical abilities come from. Well, they are a type of human reasoning. And therefore, they depend on the brain, the brain involved. So very likely there is a lot a story that an evolutionary biologist could tell about the evolution of a divinity, for instance, to count and eventually to abstract things like numbers. But what evolution is going to tell you is much really of relevance about four months last year. And because Fermat’s last theorem strengthened, he didn’t have any fitness advantage in the in the place that scene. So the three are all necessary for an understanding of the broad. The broad idea of, you know, how is it that we can do math? But none of those in it by itself is enough to give you a complete answer. And the saying goes, I think for for moral decision making. 

Well, let’s let’s figure out how you use this. If you’re a person who wants to live a, you know, Aristotelian better life. So, you know, you I mean, I’m imagining that if one is aware of everything you’re talking about and of course, let’s just preface this by saying most people aren’t aware of either the complexities of philosophy or tell you that or the science. But, you know, assuming they are, then I guess you you end up with a situation where you feel in your body emotions that are essentially moral about some situation. And I don’t know what it is. I mean, let’s take the thing from a debate. You know, I think is a Tea Party debate where people were cheering when the death penalty was mentioned. And, you know, in some way, because they’ve you’ve made yourself cognizant of how your body actually works and how morality actually works. You then are able to want to check that and to do something else. It means that ultimately what you want to happen. 

Yeah. Ultimately, like people to make a distinction between their initial sort of gut reaction to something which are much more clearly influenced by their biology. And, of course, to some extent also by the their psychology, by the societal setting, and then the ability that people have to reflect about what are their first reaction was was correct or not. As you know, there is there is a chapter in a section of the book that deals with these idea of intuition. Intuitions are important. They are essentially a way for human beings to come up with quick answers whenever those are necessary, based on sort of essentially a subconscious processing over huge amounts of information. So I, I certainly am not going to discount intuitive responses to certain things. There are some situations where you just don’t have the time to stop and deliberate and think about it and pick up your already subtle and then you’ll have to do whatever whatever your your gut reaction is and hope that it’s correct. 

However, when you do have the time when when when it comes to deliberation about things like the death penalty or abortion debate or anything else in modern democratic societies, we all have an immediate reaction. We all have what some psychology and psychologists and social scientists are referring to us a little bit emotional gut reaction of certain or the yuckier reaction, I suppose. 

So you have Jonathan Hyde, for instance, as mentioned, as is done in studies that have shown these views being very convincingly. And I and I quote him in the book as much as we disagree on other things. But in that one is research I think is compelling. 

Will people actually feel physically disgust towards, say, gay marriage? They feel that disgust and then that that turns out to be their morality. I mean, there’s a lot and we have actually physiological research that shows this, right. 

Exactly. And it is important. So once you are aware, whatever that what you’re feeling there, isn’t it a infallible sort of guide to moral truth? 

It simply is psychological reaction that is probably shaped in part by the fact that you have ancestral emotions and evolved over one part of the time and in part, of course, by the fact that your neutral biological machine has been co-opted and influenced by your upbringing, the society in which in the particular society and family in which you happen to be born and raised, then you realize that, OK, well, wait a minute. Maybe maybe actually stop and sort of ignore or suppress that gut reaction and see if I can actually explain why something is, in my opinion, right or wrong. Now, there are these research that shows that these actually works. So a lot of the times that the second chapter in the book in Just Where I start, though, is devoted to the well-known trolley dilemma, a family of thought experiments in moral philosophy. And in fact, there are so well known and there are so many different varieties that that somebody jokingly has referred to this whole field as troll ideology. 


We had the trollies on the show like two episodes ago. So, yeah, they’re everywhere. Good for a different reason. Yeah. If you’re listening would be familiar. You know, these are. These are thought experiments which. 

Where introducer agented by a philosopher, Philip Food, to sort of explore people’s intuitions, you know, originally philosophers intuitions about what is right and wrong under certain conditions. Now, when you do experiments with with people who are not trained in philosophy and you and you ask them under control conditions, you know. So what would you do under this particular morally salient situation? They’ll give you an immediate response and then immediate response. 

You can show the MRI that is connected to certain parts of the brain that that are more in tune with emotional response. You know, the amygdala and all that sort of stuff. 

And then you ask them, you say, OK, well, why did you keep that response? And now something interesting happens, because sometimes people cannot articulate an answer. And other times they cannot. So that that right there stock stops. I mean, their track and say, oh, wait a minute. Why? Why did I think that even when they do articulate an answer, then then the experiment that can come back and point out that there is, let’s say, a logical flaw, an inconsistency in that answer. And that’s where the interesting stuff, as far as I’m concerned, is begins, because now you brought people to reflect on things and to say, oh, maybe minds control initial reaction was, in fact, not particularly appropriate. Perhaps there is something that needs to be discussed there. Now, I’m not saying, you know, I don’t want to be naive. I understand that it is. It is not very easy for people to change their mind about, especially about things that they care deeply, emotionally about it. And I do understand, of course, in fact, I cite some of the research in the book about cognitive biases. And, you know, and there are all these these problems that we have. But frankly, if we give up completely on the idea that we can have or at least try as you monkey as possible to have a rational discourse and change people’s minds, we might just as well go home and give up the project of a liberal democracy. 

And they’re prepared to do that. Nor do I think that the evidence is actually compelling that we should do that. 

But that is that is going to be the Nardy area for you, because, I mean, even in the time of their Stotler now, most people didn’t go around knowing that they needed to check themselves in this way. 

And they still don’t. And it’s it’s very hard. And we all failed to do it all the time. 

So, I mean, I guess, you know, do you think it’s best to put the knowledge in people’s heads? Intellectually, the f to do it? Do you think it’s best to. 

I don’t know, build culture differently so that kind of forces people to do it? 

I don’t necessarily see that. That’s a good question. I honest. I don’t think so. I think the two things are actually mutually exclusive. 

I mean, you mentioned Aristotle, which is prominently displayed displaying the car or the book. But Aristotle had this idea of virtue ethics. Right. This idea that the virtues like courage and equanimity and a sense of justice and so on, they sometimes they come natural to people and at other times they need to be cultivated. And the way he said we calculated it is that by a combination of what you just said, on the one hand, yes, of course, he was a philosopher. So he said, you know, are you come with me and study philosophy, come to my school and study philosophy and reflect and think, engage in discussions. 

But on the other hand, you know, I just thought it was an astute early psychologist and he realized that a great part of that is, in fact, the ability of the possibility that person has to develop virtues depends on the environment in which that person grows up. And by that, he meant both the familia, the family environment, as well as the social environments. And so, yes, you would agree with you that you need to change or cultivate a good family environment and a good social environment. And that certainly is going to make a huge difference. Interestingly, by away are the most effective type of of talk therapy. 

Psychotherapy these days in the 21st century is cognitive behavioral therapy and the allied kind of approaches. And you can think of those as essentially Aristotle, a plot. What you’re doing, cognitive behavioral therapy is exactly what Aristotle suggested you should do in order to improve your burcher, your virtuosity, and by virtue, of course. 

Again, he didn’t mean anything like sort of the Christian neutral purity or anything like that, a virtual character. Basically, cognitive behavioral therapy does the same thing. It makes you reflect on why you have certain kinds of destructive or negative behaviors. And then it nudges you slowly, slowly toward Öztürk altering that behavior. Initially, that’s very difficult. Initially, there was resistance. It doesn’t come natural. But then the more you do it, the more you practice the virtue, the better you are at it. It’s like going to the gym the first time. It’s. 

I want to remind our listeners that Masimo Baluchis new book Answers for Aristotle Health, Science and Philosophy Can Lead US to a more meaningful life is available through our Web site at point of inquiry dot org. Let’s jump to a completely different domain and do this exercise again, because you talk about figuring out what to make of your love life, your relationships, your friendships in the same light. 

Yes. Now there’s another things. First of all, from a philosophical perspective, actually, friendship and love are actually connected. You know, the ancient Greeks distinguished three fundamental kinds of love. One was Harrows, Eris know, erotic love and, you know, sort of sexual beasts, actually base love. And then there was a type of love that had to do with with both love for your companion and love for your children. It was the same feeling. I was the same kind of love for the Greeks. And then finally, you have the more ethereal kind of love, this sort of of attachment that we have for ideals or if you believe in God for it for gods now. And that’s why the two chapters are in the same section there. They deal with two fundamental aspects of human life. I mean, there is no, no, no way that a for a human being, since we are social animals, there’s no way for us to do without, you know, to build a meaningful existence without no love and friendship. And so if it does become important to ask yourself, well, and I know I do that and what what what what do science and philosophy is about that now? Love is perhaps a little easier. There’s more research, certainly in science done on love them than friendship, although there’s some really interesting bits and pieces of scientific research on Frensham that that are mentioned in the book that I found fascinating when I was doing the research for us. Let’s talk a lot about love for a second. So let’s clearly is an emotion. It clearly is affected by the neurochemistry of the brain. And we know quite a bit at this point about about that neurochemistry. So, for instance, one of the things we know is there are different, somewhat distinct phases of love that you move from infatuation to sort of romantic love to attachment in those faces, varying in sort of length between different people. But they are characterized by pretty specific neurotransmitters and or mental profiles. And why is that? Why? Why do we care about that other than from from a purely scientific perspective? Well, as I’m sure many listeners have experience, for instance, this situation where you you’re initially very attracted to somebody or you fell in love, we go through the romantic phase and then all of a sudden almost one day or the other about the typically about a year, year and a half, maybe two years into the relationship. All of a sudden and you just don’t feel that kind of really strong emotion and you feel something different then and you may feel like things are not going well or, you know, that the whole the magic is gone now or whatever it is. Well, it’s not that the magic is gone is that different parts of hormones and neurotransmitters have taken over. And you are moving from a from from the romantic phase to an attachment phase. And there is a tradeoff there. So typically, what’s what’s going to happen is that you’re basically going to have probably less sex than you used to in the beginning of the relationship. But at the same time, you gain sort of a deeper attachment to the person. And what more trust in the person, the kind of thing that actually makes you makes it possible to build a long term relationship. So knowing that you weren’t so. Oh, OK. So this is perfectly natural. I know what’s causing this bang, and I don’t need to have to be concerned about it. So now I can the woman energy to talk to think about something else, which is what is the meaning of this relationship for me. And one of the examples there is, of course, where the philosophy comes in with a philosophical reflection comes in in the book, I go through several different understandings of love that philosophers, contemporary philosophers have developed. But let me give you just one example, which I thought was interesting. So there’s the issue of why not trading up? 

The you might think that, you know, somebody asked him, why are you in love with that person? Typically the response is, well, because she’s smart. She’s attractive. She is kind. She has this. And now. Yeah. In other words, people of give a list, a laundry list of three sticks, which, by the way, it’s the same principle on that that online dating is based on. Right. So lisick bunch of characteristics and then sort of a shopping list. Now I’m not saying those critics guys exist. I’m not relevant. But the point is that death can not be older is true. It and in fact, not even arguably in some cases the most important thing about it, because if that were the case, then it would be perfectly understandable or rational for you to trade up every time you find that you encounter. 

Let’s put it this way. A better mother writes, I mean, if your current companion is, you know, attractive, intelligent and kind. Presumably there is somebody out there who can who might be more active, more kind, more intelligent signs of support. So what is going to stop you from just, you know, exchanging companions and the way in which people change cars or smartphones? Most people do. Right. But we don’t normally think very highly of those. We think that there is something most people would think there’s something sort of ethically questionable about it. And yet it’s difficult to articulate because if you come at it from a purely, you know, list of of characteristics point of view, it’s hard to imagine what is exactly that is wrong there. 

Well, there are several answers. One of which, of course, would be the Kantian answer at which if you trade up your literally using a person, the person for as a means to an end and not as an as an ending in s you out of words demeaning that person, you might get that person a virtue out. This is like I started with say you’re you’re simply not respect. You’re not treating that person as a human being. You’re doing him or her as a smartphone. And there’s a different human being and a smartphone. There are practical reasons why you might not want to do that, because, you know, the Russian John Shook keeps going. And so you build memories and experiences together that are going to be unique. And this cannot be tied up. 

I think there’s also something here. If I could just add I don’t know how you would discuss this. I mean, it seems to me that especially given that you’re talking about the physiological side of this and how you literally become infatuated and how it’s a chemical hormonal cascade. 

I mean, I think one reason you don’t trade up and I think that this it would be a sci fi analysis in your toes is because, you know, you’re probably deluding yourself. I mean, people people convince themselves that their partner is great based on a relatively little amount of information when they first meet and they don’t actually have all the information, but they’ve got all the emotions. And so sometimes it turns out that they’re completely wrong and they might be completely wrong if they keep trading right now. 

That is correct. And in fact, you know, again, knowing that the romantic infatuation phase is dominated by certain hormones, particularly adrenaline and testosterone, is what happens is that if you know that, then you’re even more careful about exactly what what you just said that is. OK, well, I realize I feeling a certain way, but if I stop and think about it, I know that in fact, this is a biological reaction that is making me grossly overestimate how good the match with that person is. So, for instance, if that is the case, I might want to wait until that phase is over. I can see, like, moving in together or, you know, buying a house together or something like that. That might be a better way to go about it. It doesn’t it doesn’t imply sort of it doesn’t diminish the feelings, doesn’t diminish what your experience is. It just means that you also are capable of reflecting about that experience and and help that reflection of that affection to help you make more reasonable decisions. 

Well, I think that, you know, I think that if people can can sort of master this, and that’s I think that’s the big if. I think there’s no doubt that this is actually sort of helpful life advice disguised as actually a more of an academic analysis, if you can internalize it. That’s still the test. 

I just want to touch on a couple of other things. I mean, you know, you have a really interesting discussion of free will. You sort of rescue it in some form. And so maybe we can maybe you can tell us a little bit more about, because I think that’s kind of also it’s it’s hard to not have that in the background of this kind of conversation if you’re constantly checking these basically biological aspects of who you are. The question is, are you really checking them at all? 

Right. And now that’s a that’s a very good question, which is why there’s two chapters on that topic and answers, very subtle. 

And so I try to be reasonable about the whole free will or willpower. You should you know, how much can we actually change things? How much are we in charge? I try to stay away from two extremes. So on the one hand. The classical view, free will, which which is really that theologically informed medieval view of free will, which is essentially Contar Khazaal free will like, you know, well, this is these ability to do things regardless of causers, without any attachment to physical causes or or or psychological causes, which, of course, that type of physical causes. I don’t believe in that. I don’t think any serious philosopher believes in concert. Kasel. We will. You have to believe in that if you’re a theologian. Because otherwise your entire castle crumbles. But but no suit for I think outside of theologians. Think of it that way. 

At the opposite extreme, we have a tendency that I notice, particularly in that sort of the skeptic atheist community over the last few years, to sort of relegate all of these things, including freewill and consciousness and all that to the category of illusions. The word delusion, in fact, is being thrown around so easily, so casually and so frequent. The reason to do that. That I’d become to despise it. The problem is, what would it mean? What do you mean by illusion? This is a major I mean, the the feeling that we make decisions. It’s a major constituent of human psychology. It’s a major way in which we make sense our life. And by the way, it’s also a major way in which psychologists themselves make sense of what we do. Not only by the psycho social scientists in general, they deployed the idea of decision making. Conscious decision making in order to make sense of a lot of human behavior. Now, if those are the two extremes, where are we going to be somewhere in the middle in a reasonable way? Well, the first thing to do is, as I do in our Anstice first, although I acknowledge that, yes, there is quite a bit less that is under control than we thought. Until a few years ago. Clearly kind of science has, I think probably at this point or as he reputably a science can do anything shown that a lot more goes on underground. So is being unconsciously and a lot more is automated and only surfaces to the level of consciousness later on than than people were willing to admit. Until fairly recently. So that one is. Which means that the power that we actually have to make decisions and deliberate on them and so on. What is more limited than we thought? At the same time, there is also some compelling research in cognitive science that actually does show that the conscious and subconscious levels of processing of information in the brain constantly interact with each other. And that conscious deliberation can, in fact overrule or feedback into subconscious data processing and vice versa. Which is exactly pretty much the sort of experience that we do have. Right. I mean, my this it’s a fairly common experience, I think, too. Let’s look at yourself in the middle of a of a reaction to something I don’t know. Traffic light that just changed. And then realizing that that’s probably not the reaction you wanted to actually enact. And then you override whatever you think that you were doing once. Did you realize what it is now? That means that there’s some conflict going on there. There’s some different decision making inside inside your brain. And that seems to be the way human brains actually do work. So it’s it’s, I think, dangerous to throw out entirely the idea of I don’t want to use the word free. Well, in fact, you notice that in the Trump the in the in the book, I really use it. I prefer to terms like, well, willpower when I’m when we’re talking about the ability to make decisions contrary to our desires or generally pollution. That’s actually the technical term that it’s most used in in cognitive science. And these days even more so in in philosophy in mind. It’s the question isn’t really whether I were willis’ free because it always comes down to, well, free from what exactly the question is, you know, how do we make decisions? What kind of volition, how does human volition work and what is the what are the limits? What is the what amount of conscious versus unconscious control you have over evolution in the book? I also try to sort of debunk a couple of things. You know, there are a couple of classic experiments like the limpets experiments that go back several decades that people casually and I mention as demonstrating that there is no such thing as free will. So these are these are the famous experiments where psychologists can demonstrate that that motor action that that makes possible for you, for instance, to hit a button in response to an external stimulus started out much earlier than than you’re aware of. And that, therefore, the idea being that sometimes seconds before. So the idea there being that you’re unconsciously making the decision to push the button way before your consciousness actually comes into play. And so the consciousness becomes sort of an output. But the limit experiments. We’re never actually interpreted that way, even by Libit himself. First of all, we’re not interpreted as as demonstrating that there’s no free will. 

And second, they are actually being questioned very recently. In fact, I finished writing the book. There was this really interesting paper that we did the experiments, and it basically showed that a Wynnum you know, there’s there’s quite a bit of limits here and now as we interpret these things. And actually what’s going on is that the kind of feed continuous feedback between consciousness and unconscious control that I mentioned earlier. Also, you have to remember that experiments like the ones by Libit, which again, are taken, as you know, are almost the quintessential proof that there is no such thing as war will actually be done in a very, very specific conditions. There’s nothing there. You know, the classical setup is that you experiment there, asks the subjects to make a decision at some point about what it will when to push a button and just then and then act on it. Well, that is essentially a random decision. There is no deliberation there. It’s not I wouldn’t even expect their conscious consciousness to get them much involved, because usually we have this, we have this and others. 

I mean, you’re not going disagree with me. But in you know, there’s a famous paper that I think really influenced political science. And, you know, preferences have no inferences. You know, it’s about it’s like 30, 40 years old now. But I mean, essentially, when it comes to comes a reasoning about things you care about. You know, that you actually have the feeling before you have the thoughts. And I think that’s been demonstrated in a lot of ways. 

So, you know, I mean, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have volition or choice. 

But again, if you’re not aware of how your physical body is actually working, then you’re going to have all these kinds of emotions and feelings influencing your thinking and you’re going to think you’re thinking rationally. 

You’re not going to be correct. That’s right. I’ve been more so fooling ourselves than. Yeah, absolutely. All I’m saying is I’m resist going all the way, you know, the whole nine yards. You gonna say, therefore, we’re never in charge of anything and we should just trust that we have an override. 

And I think that’s a valuable point. And it’s kind of the same point that you made in the morality space and in the relationship space. I mean, essentially, it’s it’s we have an override. There’s all these physical, biological, evolutionarily grounded emotional aspects of that that are influencing us in all kinds of ways. But essentially, we can think our way into something different. 

Let’s also not forget that, you know, when we deliberate, when we think about stuff, we’ll do that in the back. And we do that usually through interactions with other people. Right. Especially in these age of Internet. I know that that there’s quite a bit bad that can be said about sort of social networks. In fact, I there’s a chapter there in the answers for this, although about the influence, the positive and negative effects of social networking. So it’s it’s known it’s well known that, you know, people can create their own echo chamber and only talk to people that they’re ready to do with them and so on and so forth. But I think if you think back to every time that you actually change did change your mind, which I’m sure happened, happens to everybody about even some major issues. And whenever I think back to when that happened to me and me, that what happened? Well, you happened over. Usually it happens over a long period of time. It is the result of quite a bit of presumably off subconscious, sort of, you know, handling of information by my brain, but also through constant feedback. You know, you read stuff that challenges your current opinion or you talk to somebody, a friend or a teacher or a colleague, you read something in a newspaper or whatever. It keeps our brains keep going and then elaborating and thinking about these old stuff to the point that it becomes very difficult to tell. Well, when I finally change my mind about, you know, whatever, let’s say, moral issue or, you know, or whether or whether this particular intervention had been political intervention is morally justified or not, one that happened. 

How did it happen? What didn’t happen on the split second? It didn’t happen either because entirely subconscious thinking or because you actually really sat down like it was over and thought the whole thing through. It happened through him, an amalgam of those things that that took place over a long period of time. And the important point is that both reflection and a lot of sort of parallel, that sense of subconscious information processing happen and they’re important. 

Well, you know, I think that there is I mean, again, I think it’s I think it’s not the way people go through their everyday lives thinking, but I think there is a guide for living here. And if we could just sort of to conclude it sort of ends up being the case that you’re making. And I don’t know who this quote is from. And it’s probably not Aristotle. But I mean, essentially what you’re arguing is that, you know, the end of the day, the examined life is actually indeed worth living. And the reason is because you’ll be it’s a new reason in a way. It’s because you’ll be aware of what you’re actually do in a biological sense, and then you can actually choose whether you want to be doing that. 

Dr. Daccord, this is from Socrates. Socrates. 

I know us in the right region, an era at one of the three, you know, members of the dream team of Orange. All right. Yes, you’re absolutely right. In fact, I think it’s fair to characterize answers for Aristotle as a self-help book for people who don’t like self-help books. It’s a.. Look, if you end to be a reflective person, if you want to know what’s going on based on the best of empirical evidence available and you want to reflect about it based on the best philosophy that is available, then this is the kind of book that you might want to consider. 

Well, you know, I think we have actually in this interview, we very much made that case. So I think we’ll wrap up there. And Massimo Pelusi, thanks so much for being on point of inquiry. It was a pleasure. 

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One of inquiry is produced by Atomizing and Emma’s New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Whalen. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney