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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Transcendent Angels Are Not Necessarily Epistemically Arrogant, and Jumped-Up Monkeys Are Not Necessarily Epistemically Modest

One theme running through Brad Delong's posts is that someone like myself or Thomas Nagel, who believes that our reason can (at least sometimes) lead us to objective truth, think we are some sort of omniscient demi-gods, while people like DeLong, who realizes we are just "jumped-up monkeys" making guesses, are epistemically modest.

This is nonsense. In fact, I would suggest, it is the idea that the "truth is out there," and we should strive to reach it, that leads to true epistemic modesty, since we are liable to realize just how little of that truth we have actually managed to perceive. After all, it was Socrates, the nemesis of the first sophists (and the argument of DeLong, Kuehn, etc. is just sophistry in modern garb, although, holding philosophy in contempt, they know too little of it to realize this) who decided he might just be the wisest of men because he realized how little he knew. Meanwhile, the idea that it is all just guesses paves the way to arrogance: hey, my guess is just as good as anyone's, and probably better! What the hell does it matter if Nagel has been at this business for decades, and me ten minutes: it's just guess versus guess, ain't it?

Let us look at the evidence, shall we? DeLong, who has no training as a philosopher and has never published as a philosopher, encounters the latest work of Thomas Nagel, who has spent fifty years at the very top of the field. Nagel is perhaps the leading figure in the number one philosophy department in the English-speaking world (as judged by other philosophy departments, not macroeconomists). The other philosophers in that department, themselves obviously among the best in the world, while often disagreeing with Nagel, treat all of his arguments with great respect: they know he is very smart. (I speak from personal experience here: I spent two semesters attending seminars in the NYU philosophy department when I was a visiting PhD student at the university, and personally witnessed the interactions of Nagel and others in the department.)

So what does DeLong do when he encounters a book by Nagel forwarding a hypothesis he doesn't like? He never stops to think for a moment that, "Hmm, this guy is an expert in a field about which I know little; perhaps I should be very careful evaluating what he says." No, first he completely mangles a rather simple argument from Nagel, and then uses his mangled version to declare that Nagel is "distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware." And then he goes on to show his contempt for the entire subject: "I cannot help but think that only a philosophy professor would believe that our reason gives us direct access to reality." This despite the fact that at the very moment he is writing this, DeLong is engaged, in a very, very amateurish fashion, in the very activity for which he is showing such contempt.

Can anyone even remotely picture Thomas Nagel, on his (imagined) blog, writing a post like, "Nutjob DeLong Thinks Closed End Fund Discounts Are a Yardstick of Small-Investor Sentiment"? And in that post saying that DeLong even considering such an hypothesis shows that he is "dumber than anyone running an eight-bit virtual Benjamin Graham on his wetware"? And then, to top it all off, declaring that "only an economics professor could write such nonsense"? Or, top it even further off, when someone actually versed in economics protested that Nagel had no idea what he was talking about, responding, "All of economics is just guesswork; my guess is just as valid as his!"

No? I didn't think so. So just who is epistemically arrogant, again?

UPDATE: And speaking of epistemic closure, DeLong refused to post most of my comments demonstrating that he had egregiously misinterpreted Nagel! Meanwhile, he did post such insightful comments as "I have never heard of Nagel" or another one where the commenter first boasted that he knew nothing about Nagel, and then, nevertheless, attributed to him two positions he most definitely does not hold. Good show of epistemic modesty, Professor!

UPDATE II: My comments are now posted!

11 comments:

  1. Gene, Quine bothers me in a very similar way. Consider two of his major claims. (I) Quine provides an account of what it is to have an ontology. On his account, to be committed to an entity is simply to be committed to placing truth values next to statements (“to be is to be in the range of reference of a pronoun”, to be the value of a (bound) variable). (II) Quine is committed to metaphysical nominalism. So all there is is concrete particulars that we can discover and place a truth value next to.

    Now, this is supposed to be in furtherance of his scientific/naturalistic world view, as well as his commitment to theoretical parsimony. But looks can be deceiving. Consider a Kantian reaction to this set of claims. The Kantian says that we can only have knowledge of Kantian “objects”, never of “things in themselves”. So there is a range of possible objects that are completely outside our sensibility and cognitive capacities. As a result, there is an objection to both (I) and (II), but it seems like the Kantian is motivated by a fundamental recognition of our cognitive and sensual limitations. Consider this interpretation.

    (1) we can only perceive those entities which we have the capacity to perceive.
    (2) we can only understand whatever it is we have the capacity to understand.
    (3) it is not unintelligible to think that there are entities that are beyond our capacity to grasp.
    (4) but because we can understand only that which we have the capacity to understand, I do not legislate such entities, for there is nothing we can say about "their" existence, one way or the other. it is always an open question (i.e., is there anything beyond our capability to grasp? have we discovered everything? well, if we can only discover that which we have the capacity to discover, how can we know if there is anything beyond our capacity? I understand that these are now epistemic questions, but that's just the point)
    (5) thus, there is no truth value for some entity "possible entity". it is more along the lines of (?) (possible entity).

    First, Quine cannot come back and say "but these entities are within your ontological system". These “entities” are not within this system, but I also do not deny their existence. So Quine seems to be wrong about what having an ontology necessarily consists in.

    Second, notice that his desire for simplicity in ontology necessitates a more complex theory of evolution and human sensual/cognitive capacity. He needs to provide a story about the evolution of humans that also explains why this thing has the capacity in principle to detect through their physical properties every type of entity that exists in the universe. And it is precisely at this point that his immodesty is shown. He is atheistic vis-à-vis possible entities. They do not exist. Period. The Kantian, on my interpretation, is agnostic. We cannot say one way or the other. We simply do not and cannot know what is within our grasp/cognition and what is not.

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  2. Gene,

    Brad DeLong isn't exactly known for his epistemic modesty in general. I think showing his lack of epistemic modesty on this topic says more about him than about his theory. Some others like Daniel Kuehn seem much more modest while holding the Jumped-Up Monkey hypothesis.

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  3. I don't think any of the belligerents in this battle is particularly modest.

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    1. You should have used "are" in that sentence, which I know with certainty because my reason gives me transcendental access to the true, timeless grammar of English.

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    2. It's ironic you say that, because I don't think the matter is certain. I can't find anything more definitive than this, but e.g. it is clearly correct to say, "None of the members of this discussion is humble."

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    3. Yes, that is exactly why I mention my transcendental access to the Platonic true form of English grammar!

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  4. Let us look at the evidence, shall we? DeLong, who has no training as a philosopher and has never published as a philosopher, encounters the latest work of Thomas Nagel, who has spent fifty years at the very top of the field. Nagel is perhaps the leading figure in the number one philosophy department in the English-speaking world (as judged by other philosophy departments, not macroeconomists). The other philosophers in that department, themselves obviously among the best in the world, while often disagreeing with Nagel, treat all of his arguments with great respect: they know he is very smart.


    Replace "philosophy" with "astrology" and this metric becomes far less impressive.

    The best BS filters are the ones that can resist mere parochial consensus. (Though I perhaps shouldn't call such an achievement "mere", it's indicative, in isolation, of loosing one's mooring in reality.)

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    1. "Replace "philosophy" with "astrology" and this metric becomes far less impressive."

      Yes, and if we replace "quantum physics" with "navel gazing" on a resume, that resume becomes far less impressive.

      Nagel's genius certainly does "resist mere parochial consensus" -- there were many, many materialist philosophers at NYU when I was around the philosophy department there, and they all respected Nagel as brilliant. They often disagreed with him, but not one of them ever regarded him as "dumb." And, besides the acknowledged most brilliant philosophers in the world, who, exactly, do you think should be judging philosophical arguments? Macroeconomists?

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    2. Ideally? Engineers. (Specifically, those specializing it automating intelligent behavior.) They can't fake it when someone's ideas clash with reality.

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    3. Right, Silas, because if you can build a good bridge, that certainly also makes you an expert on virtue and metaphysics! And the best people to judge football coaches are no doubt doctors, and plumbing work is best judged by painters.

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