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Knowledge: Faith & Reason 21 December 2006

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Law/Courts, Philosophy of Science, Religion, Science.
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My alma mater (soul mother?) University of Kansas, Hall Center for the Humanities hosted a series of lectures this fall in their Difficult Dialogues series, including an amazing range of people talking about the role of religion and science in public life.  They are in RealMedia format, and so require RealOne Player. They are worth the time. I’m about 1/2 way through Judge Jones’ talk (the judge who presided over the Dover intelligent design case of last year), and will comment later.  Here’s a link to the Hall Center’s web site, and the links to all the talks.

KU: Hall Center for the Humanities


On Human Categories 21 December 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Cultural Critique, Ethics.
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[This is in response to comments made on the Problems with Pluralism post made be C.L. and -e-. I thought it was an interesting enough converesation to merit its own post.]

I think there are some real cognitive problems that need to be addressed in both C.L.’s and e’s comments. First, our brains are set up to think in categories, indeed, without categories, thought isn’t even possible. The mental categories that we create are largely learned and largely linguistic, but not entirely. In fact, human categories are highly plastic and change and transform over time and among groups as their experience of the world changes and evolves. It helps to think of categories as “tools” that our brain uses to categorize its knowledge of the world.Secondly, I’m not convinced that categorization is in and of itself unethical or problematic. Categorization of people enables as much good as it perpetrates “evil”. For example, categorization allows people to group together to fight oppression; to educate themselves and others; to create communities. The real ethical questions should not revolve around whether or not an individual or a group creates a category; indeed, that is not possible given the evolution and structure of the human brain. Rather, the ethical questions should arise in the specific effects or consequences of a specific act or practice of categorization.

Finally, because of the plasticisty of human categories and because of the continual change of the environment (that is, it is constantly moving and changing, beyond our control), that means that creating, rejecting, maintaining, and tweaking categories, as well as the constant monitoring of the effects of the categories we use, are ongoing, neverending processes.

Thinking about Naturalism and Social Theory 20 December 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Evolution, Philosophy & Social Theory, Philosophy of Science, Sexuality.
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[I’ve been trying to think through, again, how I think evolutionary theory and cognitive science could inform a more powerful and accurate social theory. This is from a conversation I’ve been having on the ASA’s Evolutionary Sociology listserve.]

I’m borrowing the word “naturalistic” and “naturalism” from the philosophy of science. It’s a particular orientation that, in a nutshell, insists that humanistic knowledge must align with and be supported by the current state of scientific research. I’m somewhat of a John Dewey specialist, one of the originators of that line of thinking, that human beings *are* animals, subject to evolution, and that science can know things about us that philosophy (humanities) cannot.  Dewey’s social theory (most fully developed after 1924; see esp. Nature and Experience) most important relies on the assumptions of what today we would call cognitive science, with the assumption that human cognition *evolved*.

In my own work (I’m a cultural sociologist, for lack of a better word), I apply these assumptions in my analyses and am currently working on an article-length piece that will propose a naturalistic social theory of culture, relying heavily on evolutionary psych/cognitive science.

My own orientation to these issues is that social sciences (esp. cultural anthro, poly sci, history, and most forms of sociology) ignore the findings of other sciences, especially cognitive science and paleoanthropology. I find that the retreat to “constructivism” is often facile and without careful thinking or understanding about how phenotypes come to be (for example) or the interaction of human cognitive processes and meaning formation (for another example).  BUT, having read a lot of sociobiology, I think that there is still big problems with a lot of sociobiology, which likewise tends not to account for the power of human cognition to transform human environments (both social and physical). In other words, observing the behavior of a marmot isn’t the same as observing human behavior, because human brain evolution actually enables us to create meaning systems (and concomitant practices) that are maladaptive and/or out of touch with reality. More simply put, human cognition (and by extention, culture) allows human beings to act in ways that do not match their “nature” and which are in fact biologically maladapted.  Further, sociology and anthropology and history have done a lot of work over the past 200 years trying to figure out how meanings (symbols, practices) move through time and work to shape interaction and social structure. I firmly believe that much of their findings are still valid, but need to be revised by accounting for what we know from the biological sciences. And sociobiologists need to take that 200 years of work seriously as well, and see that much of the understandings of social science are actually quite necessary in explaining human social-biology.

I do not believe with constructivists that perception is completely socially constructed; nor do I believe with the cruder forms of sociobiology that it is purely biological (genetic, brain morphology, etc.).  I think some of the most interesting thinking along these line is being done by geneticists who are trying to work out the complicated dance between the gene and the environment in producing a phenotype.

Likewise, I think that a naturalistic sociology would work to describe (and maybe explain?) the complicated dance between the genetic, hormonal, embodied human, and it’s social environment and meaning systems (i.e., cultures), including who the social environment can shape phenotypic expression; and how the genotype actually limits the power that a social environment can have and also limits what kinds of social and cultural arrangements would be adaptive (or at worst, evolutionarily neutral).

Full disclosure: Much of my feelings along these lines (and perhaps my own personal narrative which led me to explore this area) come from the fact that I’m gay. The social constructivist explanation of homosexuality makes absolutely no sense to me, when it’s carried beyond the obvious, that different societies in different times and places make sense of sexual desires differently. But to argue that the desire itself is social in origin borders on the absurd. I think that homosexuality is a good illustration of how the biological limits

Problems with Pluralism 8 December 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Cognitive Science, Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay Rights.
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In another forum I participate on, we’ve been commenting on the past few years of anti-gay politics in America and this great article from the Philadelphia Inquirer. A good friend of mine posed this question:

Can we ever really acknowledge, embrace differences without somehow ordering them? What say you, Todd?

Here is my meandering response:

I have a pretty negative outlook on this because of some stuff I’ve been reading in cognitive science lately. If the findings are correct, one of the functions of our ‘social brain’ (frontal cortex, among other things) is to determine ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, or as one research calls it, enemy/friend distinctions. Less than 15,000 years ago [corrected 20/7/07], humans as a species lived in small bands of hunter gatherers, and you can see how this function of the brain would be useful for survival and would mediate in-group conflicts while promoting care when dealing with people who are “different.” It seems clear that various cultures have their own in/out definitions that are based on any number of factors, such that the definitions of in/out, friend/enemy are not hardwired, but learned. But the capacity (need?) to learn them is, or seems to be, at present.

In american society, pluralistic and immensely diverse as it is, we find multiple (innumerable?) in/out and friend/enemy systems layered on top of each other, perhaps corresponding to other kinds of institutions and identities, where even individuals may have different systems depending on context, and they probably change over time.

The only hope, to me, seems to be the ongoing debates and dialogues about inclusion and exclusion that democracy itself fosters. That’s the only way to manage in an ethical way that kind of pluralism, without devolving into violence. canada, the U.S., and in some respects brazil are actually doing the best job of it at the moment (maybe Australian, but I don’t know enough about that country to say). I think europe is creating some intensely problematic formulations of multiculturalism right now that cannot work in the long run, all the while ignoring the deep-rooted racism that underlies their surface multiculturalism (esp. Holland, England, France, Sweden, Germany).

In other words, I think that social conflict may simply be inevitable among humans, and multiplied exponentially in large, pluralistic societies; so the trick is to set up a system of interaction with concomitant values, whereby those social conflicts can be continually worked out. The in/out boundaries will be quite different in 50 years, I’m sure; so the key is to have, maintain, insist on the democratic values that allow the “out” parties to fight their way in, and the “in” parties to increase their capacity to share power.

Democracy is messy and slow and fragile. But I can’t think of a better way to manage pluralism. What scares me is its fragility. Democracy relies on its citizens (i.e., participators in the civil society, not its nationals) sharing a set of values revolving around Tolerance (e.g., human dignity, equality, individual freedom and rights); if the central values of tolerance disappear or whither, the democracy cannot stand. The far right of the Christian Right, the Dominionists, are the antithesis of democratic tolerance; likewise some of the anti-speech policies being enacted right now in England from the left. To me, the fundamental battle against the Christian Right isn’t about specifics like “gay rights” or “immigration,” but about the meaning of Tolerance and its practice in our pluralistic society.