Monday, March 27, 2006

A Genetic Fallacy?

This post is a belated contribution to the "Dennett Wars": the explosion of scientific and philosophical invective directed at Leon Wieseltier's notorious review of Breaking the Spell.

I haven't read the book; nor do I mean to defend the whole review. But much of the invective strikes me as being unfair. Part of the pleasure of reading reviews is the occasional polemic, and given the constraints of space, the polemical review is bound to involve some measure of unargued assertion. If it is to concede this point, the objection to Wieseltier must be that his dismissal of Dennett's book depends on assumptions that are simply unreasonable, ones that no competent reviewer would make. That seems to be the implication of some of his critics.

The problem is that, for the most part, the implication is false. Resistance to "scientism" is perfectly reasonable – at least if it is sufficient to make an opinion reasonable that it is held by perceptive thinkers who have thought carefully about the matter. (A stronger test for reasonable belief would make the polemical review impossible.)

To take one central case, consider Wieseltier's suspicion of genetic tests for the credibility of our beliefs:
You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason.
These remarks are easy to dismiss. But everyone knows that the simple genetic test – on which a belief is justified only if it was formed on the basis of appropriate evidence – will have to be revised. If there is sufficient evidence now, who cares how the belief was formed? You can't refute belief in God, however it arose, without tackling the ontological argument.

More significantly, even a qualified genetic test will threaten to undermine our moral and political beliefs: suppose that our basic ethical stance is formed by acculturation, not rational argument; and that it cannot be defended against every alternative – at least not without begging the question. These assumptions are no doubt controversial, but they deserve to be taken seriously. (Witness the anxieties expressed by G. A. Cohen, in the introduction to his wonderful book on egalitarianism.) One reasonable response is to reject or further qualify the genetic test – and this may well leave room for the credibility of religious belief.

It is also reasonable to fear that a crude genetic test will undermine science, by undermining our belief in the reliability of scientific method. (Think of "inference to the best explanation": why do we assume that the world is simple, or that more elegant descriptions are more likely to be true?) Even worse, the test might indict belief in itself. It doesn't matter, here, whether such fears turn out to be correct. What matters is that reasonable people are moved by them – and so they are sceptical of anything but an extremely qualified version of the genetic test.

This may not be Wieseltier's point, of course. His rejection of the test may be the product of sheer ignorance – not a shorthand for the need to qualify it in ways that might permit religious belief. But it would be clear instance of the genetic fallacy to dismiss his critique of Dennett's book on that account.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Creation: Pro and Con

We have examined an argument against marriage; now for an argument against children.

In the case of marriage, the argument turned on a positive objection, a reason not to marry. In the case of pro-creation, the con is typically expressed by a rhetorical question:

What reasons can one give for having a child?

This is sometimes pronounced with cynicism: who would bring a child into this fine mess? But I think its force is meant to be more general. It stems from two constraints on what the critic is willing to accept in response.

In the first place, the answer cannot appeal to the interests of the parents. It is – the questioner assumes – not a reason to have a child that one would enjoy it, or that it would benefit one's relationship (if it would). Or, more accurately, it is not that such considerations have no weight at all, but that they seem defective or mis-placed, at least when offered by themselves. These cannot be the only reasons that a good parent has.

Perhaps the missing reasons are altruistic ones? But this threatens to violate a second constraint: our answer to the question cannot turn on benefits to the child. There is a puzzle about whether causing someone to exist can benefit that person, at all. (See Part Four of Reasons and Persons.) But even if the answer is yes, and there is an altruistic reason to procreate, the critic seems right, once again, to doubt that this is the sort of reason we want to give.

Even worse is the argument from the threat of extinction. ("The world must be peopled!") And this is not much improved by the invocation of public goods. ("The world must be peopled – to some extent; and in refusing to participate, we free-ride on the arduous labour of parents." This could be, at most, an argument for public child support.)

Although I haven't presented the point with care, I am sympathetic to the critic of procreation, at least to this extent: that the answers to the question considered so far feel palpably inadequate. If the question is pressing, remarks like these will not put it to rest. What is less clear, and much more puzzling, is why we should feel obliged to answer the question, at all. Justifications come to an end; why not here? What makes us think that we need a further reason to do what comes naturally?

I wonder if the source of pressure, for those who feel it, is a rationalist fantasy whose effects reverberate in other, more prominent parts of moral philosophy: the fantasy that practical reason is more than human. Here is a familiar challenge in the discussion of "animal rights":
Why assign moral status to human infants but not to non-human animals that have greater mental powers? What if the infant lacks even the potential for rational thought?
The assumption is that "It's a human being" is not a good enough reason by itself. Nor is "in order to have a child." It is as if reasons must speak to reflective thought, as such – to angels and Martians, as well as to us. We feel the need to convince an interlocutor who will not accept the argument, "This is what human beings do." But when we try to meet this demand, what we say seems to miss the point.

Of course, "human nature" is a pretty feeble guide. But one need not embrace it blindly to doubt that there is anything wrong with a (defeasible) prejudice in favour of human life.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Love and Marriage

Why marriage? It's an impertinent question: why the hell not? But "An Argument Against Marriage" has recently been proposed.

It takes the form of a dilemma, framed around a question: is the marriage vow binding in the unilateral absence of love? If it is, then the risk of ending up in a loveless marriage ought to be a strong deterrent. If not, then the vow will be redundant. So, why bother?

The issues raised by this argument range from the exalted to the tawdry. Tawdry, first: even while it lasts, love is no guarantee that one will be honoured and cherished, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others. Neglect and adultery need not signal the end of love; a commitment to avoid them, even if conditional, would not be redundant.

The more exalted question is: can love be promised, or given at will? On the face of it: no. Love is not voluntary; it is a passion, and therefore passive. But the orthodox view among philosophers is (I think) that love is active at least in the way that judgement is: there are reasons for love, as there are reasons for belief, even if we cannot decide to love, or to believe.

There is something right about this. But it is immediately worrying. We don't want to be loved for our qualities: that would seem to make love conditional, and to allow for fungibility and "trading up". Nor does it help to appeal to relational properties, or relationships: love can be capricious, unfounded, unrequited; there can be love at first sight. (In any case, how self-centred to love people only for how they relate to me!)

We need to re-examine the arguments for taking love to have reasons in the first place. It is true that love seems intelligible from the first-person perspective. But so do many things that have no reasons, in the ordinary sense: tearing one's clothes in grief; stabbing out the eyes of a photograph in anger; jumping for joy.

It is also true that love can seem appropriate, desirable – or not. It is bad to be in love with an abusive spouse. But why conclude that there are reasons for love, not just reasons to wish for love (or for its absence). Compare: it might be good to believe in God; but that is at most a reason to wish for belief, not a reason for belief itself.

In its typical form, the idea of reasons for love seems to conflate the feeling of love with such things as caring for someone, or with emotions and judgements directed towards them. Love need not go along with caring, or valuing, or judging to be good. (Back the tawdry point, above, about the marriage vow.)

I wonder if the truth is more like this. There is love as passion, which has causes but not reasons, and which lies outside of our control. (The causes are often trivial, and so the "reasons" that we give for love are often trivial, too: think of the final scene of When Harry Met Sally.) And then there is the activity of love, which has reasons in the way that any action does. (The reasons may be good or bad; selfish or disinterested; tied to relationships, obsessions, or genes.) Love in the active sense is struggling to see the beloved in ways that sustain the passive sort of love. It can be promised and it is, in part, the object of the marriage vow.

Perhaps this is quite wrong: I'm not sure. It would explain how love can be unconditional, even though it has reasons. And it would explain the point of asking, "Why do you love me?" – wanting in answer not reasons for love, by which it might be justified, but for signs of what Iris Murdoch called "the capacity to love, that is to see."

Monday, March 06, 2006

Cock and Bull

It would be hard to find a more apt description of Tristram Shandy than Tristram's own account of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
I will tell you what the book is. – It is a history. – A history! of who? what? where? when? Don't hurry yourself – It is a history-book, Sir, (which may possibly recommend it to the world) of what passes in a man's own mind.
Woolf called it "the greatest of all novels" – though Hume was more reserved:
[As] to any Englishman, that Nation is so sunk in Stupidity and Barbarism and Faction that you may as well think of Lapland for an Author. The best Book, that has been writ by any Englishman these thirty Years […] is Tristram Shandy, bad as it is.
In a similar vein, the best film to appear in the last few months is Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, bad as it is – "A Remark which may astonish you; but which you will find true on Reflection."

Tristram Shandy is, in part, a book about the suspicion of words: the deferral of contact with the world that permits it to out-pace its own articulation – as Tristram finds that the narration of his first day takes a year; – and Walter struggles to prepare his Tristra-paedia,
at which (as I said) he was three years and something more, indefatigably at work, and at last, had scarce completed, by his own reckoning, one half of his undertaking: the misfortune was, that I was all that time totally neglected and abandoned to my mother; and what was almost as bad, by the very delay, the first part of the work, upon which my father had spent the most of his pains, was rendered entirely useless, – every day a page or two became of no consequence. –
Sterne is cheerfully haunted by the aspiration to represent nature in its own terms – a pure resemblance theory. – Consider Uncle Toby, modeling the progress of the battle day by day in the miniature trenches and forts of his kitchen garden, and never falling behind; – or the page on which we are invited to draw our own impression of widow Wadman. – Tristram Shandy is a comical version of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

It follows that the filming of the book must pose a special challenge and a special opportunity. For the medium of film inspires one form of the illusion that Sterne is out to mock: what Bazin has called "the Myth of Total Cinema" – "a recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time."

There are brilliant moments here – as when Uncle Toby's map of Flanders comes alive; – the melon that stands in for baby Tristram's head is crushed by a pair of forceps; – Steve Coogan dances to the agony of a "real" hot chestnut dropped down his trouser-front.

Yet the film's exploration of the central issue – its own mimetic character – feels routine. Yes, Steve Coogan plays "himself," or a version of himself. – And what seems to be the filming of another film of Tristram Shandy turns out to be the filming of "itself." None of this is sufficiently new to match the shock and intellectual penetration of the book.

– But perhaps that is the point? Moving pictures falling short of words – a further repudiation of the resemblance theory, made with tongue in cheek.

You may object that I am taking all this too seriously. – I can only plead, like Walter, that my thoughts proceed "after the manner of the gentle passion, beginning in jest, – but ending in downright earnest."