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If you think science can replace philosophy, read this

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The New Atlantis

Here, in “Philosophy is here to stay” (New Atlantis, Spring 2011) Benjamin Storey deflates evolutionary novelist David Brooks’ pretensions that reached “the end of philosophy” and that neuroscience can replace it. (Anyone who even imagines such a thing should read frightful books like Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape and failed books like Roy Baumeister’s Willpower.) There’s nothing like a trip through a wasteland to cure the desire to homestead there. Storey notes,

But all the arresting data, all the comic-sociological observations, all the insightful meditations on the moral struggles of everyday life are not the main point of The Social Animal. That main point is the momentous claim Brooks made most clearly in a New Yorker article adapted from the book: “Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy.” On the authority of brain science, Brooks settles old philosophic quarrels, declaring that “the French Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, loses; the British Enlightenment, which emphasized sentiments, wins.” He compares the cognitive revolution to the most momentous occasions in the history of Western thought: “just as Galileo ‘removed the earth from its privileged position at the center of the universe,’ so this intellectual revolution [in brain science] removes the conscious mind from its privileged place at the center of human behavior.” In politics, Brooks wants to see that “the new knowledge about our true makeup is integrated more fully into the world of public policy.” If cognitive science can fill the hole left by the atrophy of philosophy and theology; if it can vindicate some philosophies and discredit others; if it can relocate the center of human self-understanding; and if our public policy makers should look to it for guidance, then the unmistakable implication is that we should defer to it as our highest intellectual, moral, and political authority. A new sheriff, it seems, is in town.

And responds that the new sheriff has little basis for authority:

… consider happiness. Brooks cites extensively from social-scientific happiness research, which is conducted “mostly by asking people if they are happy and then correlating their answers with other features of their lives.” Brooks acknowledges that this method “seems flimsy,” but argues that its results are “surprisingly stable and reliable.” The stability of the results, however, does not address the fundamental flimsiness of the method in question: the problem is not that one cannot establish a stable pattern of correlation between self-reported happiness and other aspects of life. The problem is the difficulty of measuring the correlation between self-reported happiness and actual happiness: the willingness to call oneself happy when asked by a researcher could be as much a sign of self-deception, vanity, or vapidity as it is of actual happiness. And to speak accurately of one’s own happiness, one would have to know what happiness is. As Brooks admits, this is “a subject of fierce debate among the experts,” which is no surprise, because any answer to the question of happiness depends on comprehensive reflection on the whole of human experience and aspiration, such as one finds in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Such reflection may be the work of a lifetime.

Not only that but, in a culture that takes for granted that trying to be happy is almost an obligation, many may defensively say that they are happy. More.


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