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Michael Shermer - Why Darwin Matters - 09/22/2006
Posted: 24 September 2006 04:18 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I really enjoyed this episode! I love Dr. Shermer╠s books and find his talks fascinating.  His latest book ¤Why Darwin MattersË is a very quick read and also explains the current ID evolution debate in great detail.

Dr. Shermer╠s brand of atheism very closely resembles that of Carl Sagan.  I am also an atheist but have never quite known how to place views of believers. Dr. Shermer seems to hold the view that the vast majority of believers pose no day to day impediments on societal progress and should, as he put it ¤Be part of the big tentË. I was surprised at the very different styles of four non-believers that I hold in very high esteem.

1. Carl Sagan
2. Michael Shermer
3. Sam Harris
4. Richard Dawkins

It seems that Carl Sagan╠s and Michael Shermer╠s view of the co-existence of believers and atheists is that of a peaceful and eventual education of theists with a slow conversion to reason and logic. On the other side there are Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins that take a much more forceful and pessimistic view of the co-existence of believers and atheists.

I wonder which groups the majority of atheists fall into?  Does anyone else have the same take from these great scientists of our time?

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Posted: 25 September 2006 03:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Posted: 25 September 2006 03:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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George, many people in psychology basically believe Freudianism to be pseudoscience. I know some practicing and retired psychologists who also believe that although Freud was largely wrong in his diagnoses, nonetheless his insight into ideas of the ‘subconscious’ and its impact on behavior were very helpful to the development of the field.

For a bit more info, click here .

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Posted: 25 September 2006 04:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Posted: 25 September 2006 05:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Posted: 26 September 2006 12:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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[quote author=“George Benedik”]I see! So if in psychoanalysis schizophrenia and depression are not brain disorders, but narcissistic disorders, we label “Freudianism” as pseudoscience. What about quantum mechanics when Newton’s laws cannot be applied to the subatomic particles? Does hence “Newtonism” become pseudoscience? Or perhaps, one day, when we’ll find out what had actually happened at Nazca, would we call “Nickellism” a pseudoscience? :wink:

Well, I think the standard argument against Freudianism is that it isn’t testable or (in the Popperian locution) “falsifiable”; it doesn’t make predictions.

Newton’s laws are testable, falsifiable (falsified, actually) and make predictions. They are also true to a measure of accuracy, which is to say that they are correct for mid-size objects not travelling too fast or accelerating too much. That this is the case you can verify by experiment, as I’m sure you did in high school physics class. NB: Newton’s calculations also got humans onto the moon.

[quote author=“George Benedik”]And Marx? Who cares?

Good question. A lot of people, unfortunately.

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Posted: 26 September 2006 09:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I think a good way of thinking about Freud is to view him as a philosopher - in the sense that his ideas regarding subconscious and unconscious tendencies built on modern philosophy’s new focus on deeper drives (from Dostoevsky to Nietzsche’s “will to power”)... many of these admittedly anti-Enlightenment thinkers were not scientists, but they nevertheless contributed to literature and philosophy and broached topics about the darker and more primitive aspects of so-called ‘human nature’ when no one else would dare.  In that sense, Freud is very significant in the intellectual development of both philosophy and psychology.

And Marx?  Who cares?  I certainly do, and I think anyone who thinks about capitalism ought to… Sure “Marxist” governments have manifested in cruel and destructive forms, but none were truly “Marxist” - Marx himself famously admonished “Marxism” as it had taken form.  His primary goal was a historical critique of traditional class systems and the new capitalist economy, along with some valuable criticism of religion as a socially constructed, political enterprise. 

So… I’m not sure why it’s so “unfortunate” that people still care about these thinkers, Doug.  Like so many others, they were wrong about many things (or perhaps just on the early side of an evolving understanding), but also right about some, and without them, we lose a great deal of our philosophical progress.

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Posted: 27 September 2006 12:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Nietzsche has a great line in this regard. Something like “the errors of great men benefit us far more than the truths of little men.” Marx and Freud were wrong about many things but are still very important. And Shermer mentions them as the two others of the big three names.

Yet, Freud was more of Einstein’s contemporary than Marx’s (who died in 1883, Freud died in 1939), and Einstein wasnt mentioned.

Darwin matters not because of the three of them, he is the only one who ended up being right while the others were proven wrong.

Instead, I think he matters because, like them and also like Einstein, his ideas were revolutionary. Like Freud’s and Marx’s and Einstein’s, his ideas changed not only the world of their day, but redefined the world for everyone. Even if you think Marx and Freud were completely wrong, you are responding to their influence, admitting their continuing importance.

(In Freud’s case, it is not an overstatement to say that we are even now living in a Freudian world: any talk of repression, the unconscious or subconscious, our sexual morivations, etc. is to speak his language. Watch any talk show or read any book on psychology and you will even today get his influence. The twentieth century was a century of Freud’s impact on the masses, and now everyone, whether they like it or not, is in some sense, a Freudian. Not to mention his measurable impact on philosophy, art, literature, film, feminism, and even political theory, etc.)

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"Few have the courage of their convictions.  Fewer still, for an attack on their convictions."—Nietzsche

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Posted: 27 September 2006 12:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The problem is that both Marx and Freud set themselves up as doing science, of discovering certain hidden features of reality and exposing them to critique. Subsequent research has demonstrated that these claims were nearly universally false. One does not find Freud in basically any contemporary university psychology class. One does not find Marx in basically any contemporary university economics class.

I don’t talk about politics, because ‘political science’ is clearly a contradictio in adjecto. One may well argue that economics isn’t a science either, which is debatable. It is, perhaps, a proto-science. But at any rate, Marx hasn’t survived the first cut.

I am not sorry to be done with Marx because his effect upon the world was indirectly responsible for the deaths of over 100 million people in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Cambodia, et al. He is, in that regard, arguably the most pernicious philosopher ever to have lived. Although his aims were superficially humanist, his influence demonstrates the damage that enlightenment-inspired ideals can have when they are affixed to misunderstanding and pseudoscience.

Freud was much less pernicious, although as you both point out, his influence persists in the popular imagination, largely in the form of pop-psychology.

As I noted before, many psychologists might well reject basically everything that Freud said and yet believe that his existence kick-started the science of psychology by getting people to look at mental problems as illnesses. (The Skeptic Dictionary entry makes this point quite well).

Of course, similar things could be said of Marx—although wrong about history, economics and human nature, his writings did inspire people (e.g., left democrats and socialists) to set up social programs to help the poor and out of work, and to push for job safety and workers’ rights. All that is quite laudable, of course.

Of the three, only Darwin remains as having actually uncovered something revolutionary and true about reality. Only his insights persist in contemporary university science courses. Taking physics as our template, Darwin is like Newton, Marx and Freud were basically alchemists. (After all, alchemy did inspire modern chemistry).

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Posted: 27 September 2006 02:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Good analogy re: alchemistry versus chemistry, but I think its a bit overstated: Freud made significant contributions to our understanding of people; even his errors shed some light.

Yes, Freud was very eager for the world to see his work as science, and he was profoundly an heir to the Enlightenment in this regard. But as today’s philosophers of science have come to define science, Freudianism is certainly not a science: it isnt falsifiable. Also, it isnt based on data in the sense that science proper is. His notions about unconscious and uknown drives, if they were true, would obviate the whole project of truth-seeking which most scientists see their work as doing—if all our conscious thoughts are just by-products of this teeming, boiling cauldron of drives deep inside of us, can objective claims about the world even be made? Or are all of them also just a function of our hidden drives? In this sense also Freud fails at actually talking about the real world.

Even so, I am persuaded that until Freud, most people assumed that who they were on the surface was who they really were: the whole notion of interiority and complex selves wasn’t cemented in the public mind until Freud. This is one reason why he still matters.

Yes, consensus is that every almost every one of his particular claims is wrong, whether thats the Oedipal complex, childhood sexuality, death and sex drives, etc. But he was profoundly influential, and it benefits us to know him. He still matters.

Now, to gently disagree about what you get in psych or economics classes: in both contemporary psychology classes do you still learn Freud and in economics do you still learn Marx, but never only Freud nor only Marx. Just because they were wrong doesnt mean they are passe.

Now, about political science and economics: as social sciences, of course they are more nascent than the other sciences, but when they are their most “scientific,” they do collect data in order to test theories about the real world. I am talking here not about the system builders like Marx, as they are more properly thought of as political philosophers, but of people like Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Putnam, Douglass North, etc.—economists and “political scientists”.

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Posted: 27 September 2006 03:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Thanks for keeping the discussion going, DJ. Good to have you here.

[quote author=“djgrothe”]Even so, I am persuaded that until Freud, most people assumed that who they were on the surface was who they really were: the whole notion of interiority and complex selves wasn’t cemented in the public mind until Freud. This is one reason why he still matters.

Yes, I think that’s what I was getting at before by saying that he had inspired a lot of present-day psychology. But the point is, as you say, that the theory he constructed (Ego, Id, Oedipal drives, etc.) has not stood up to the test of time. It is pass╗ in psychology, though clearly it persists among the less scientifically-minded.

My concern is that this stuff does persist as pop-psychology even long after it has been discarded by the people who actually know the most about the way the mind works. One may well say that Freud still matters, of course he does, but the question I think we should ask is whether that remains a good thing. To the extent that by “Freud” we mean the scientific study of mental illness, etc., of course that’s a good thing. But to the extent that we mean Freud’s actual theory of mental illness, this is a very bad thing, because that theory is in fact false.

... then, as you agree, the other big problem with Freudianism is that it is unfalsifiable.

The same we can say about Marx.

[quote author=“djgrothe”]Now, to gently disagree about what you get in psych or economics classes: in both contemporary psychology classes do you still learn Freud and in economics do you still learn Marx, but never only Freud nor only Marx. Just because they were wrong doesnt mean they are passe.

Marx and Freud are mentioned, of course, but their theories are brought up as historical curiosities. To this extent, yes, they are pass╗.

Standard undergrad Economics studies involve Microeconomics , Macroeconomics , Statistics , Money, Banking, International Trade and Finance , Labor Economics , Competition and Game Theory , etc.

Standard undergrad Psychology studies involve Experimental Psych , Abnormal Psych , Cognitive Psych , Language acquisition , Statistics, etc.

Neither of these course schedules is founded on the theories of Marx on the one hand or Freud on the other, and you will see virtually no mention of either of these figures in any of the Wikipedia entries linked to.

It does say this in the Psychology section: “Although Freud’s theories are of virtually no interest today in psychology departments, his application of psychology to clinical work has been very influential.” I take this to mean that his ‘talking cure’ method continues in use. Fair enough, to that extent his influence lives on, although there is some controversy over how successful the talking cure really is.

Further, insofar as modern economics had a founder, it was Adam Smith , followed more recently by J.M. Keynes . ( Here is a neat piece from Paul Krugman about the relative merits of Marx and Keynes).

[quote author=“djgrothe”]Now, about political science and economics: as social sciences, of course they are more nascent than the other sciences, but when they are their most “scientific,” they do collect data in order to test theories about the real world. I am talking here not about the system builders like Marx, as they are more properly thought of as political philosophers, but of people like Jeffrey Sachs, Robert Putnam, Douglass North, etc.—economists and “political scientists”.

Sure. Jeffrey Sachs and Douglass North are in fact economists by training which make them particularly insightful about issues of poverty and development. Insofar as political scientists or economists attempt to gather objective (rather than push-poll-type) data about society, they are clearly doing something that is of value ... even though we may agree that the phenomena under scrutiny are of such great complexity that likely it will take many generations to really understand what’s going on to any high degree of accuracy.

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Posted: 27 September 2006 07:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Posted: 27 September 2006 02:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Just in from the monthly happy hour with co-workers and friends.

Doug, what a great and publishable response. Yes, an undergrad survey in economics or psychology will give short-shrift to Marx or Freud but not because they are intellectual curiosities nor passe, but because undergrad surveys of a discipline do that to many topics. By definition, they survey, and give just a gloss, just an slight introduction.

Regarding standard undergrad psych surveys particularly: (I havent been to Wikipedia) They also concentrate on topics like social psych, developmental psych, humanistic psych, etc. Most any practicing *psychotherapist*, if they are not an anti-Freudian like an RET guy or a cognitive-behavioral therapist, will acknowledge Freud as a significant influence, and not just in the way that therapy is done (the magic of talking). Freud more than got the ball rolling. In many ways, he created the ball. (Ignoring the roots of his thinking found in Plato, Nietzsche, and even Jewish mysticism.)

Regarding Marx: yes he was wrong, almost completely. But he asked questions that merit being asked, and which Keynes never asked, even as amazing a mind and influence as Keynes himself was (gay, brilliant investor, architect of western democracies, etc.).

OK, I am being nudged to go do my aerobics at the gym across the street. Maybe more later, but it is a busy next few days.

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Posted: 27 September 2006 02:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Can someone please tell me how Marx was “completely” wrong?  The failures of so-called “Marxist” regimes in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China are irrelevant to judging Karl’s philosophy and economics.  If your claim is that he was wrong about the inevitability of the “proletariat revolution”, then it’s useful to note that this was only really argued in The Communist Manifesto, which was meant to be overly dramatic.  The future of politics and the idea of a revolution were about 5-10% of what Marx wrote about, 90-95% was the “materialist analysis of history” and economic/social analysis of capitalism.  To Doug and others on this forum, I would ask exactly what you’ve read of Marx, other than the Manifesto.  His Manuscripts of 1844 and his point-by-point critique of Adam Smith (who himself brought many of the dangers of unbridaled capitalism to bear) are worth noting.  I think, contrary to what many are saying on this thread, that Marx was largely RIGHT about the effects of unregulated free market economics - Industrial Revolution society proved his concerns to be right on the money.  A Utopian socialist communal nation of worker-controlled means of production and a work-based salary scale might be fantastical, but my point here is that this was not his emphasis as a philosopher.  And again, in no way was he “to blame” for the injustices of the political institutions that used his name (or to whom his name was ascribed)... Lenin was far from a follower of Marx!  Marx believed in a working-class uprising, Lenin believed in a bloody revolution conducted entirely by an elite, underground “Vanguard.”  A similar point could be made about Mao - “Marxist” philosophy was misused and made into an abusive, controlling system of state control and homogeneity.

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Posted: 27 September 2006 04:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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It has been quite awhile since I’ve read my Marx, HolyAvenger, but I have read more than just his Manifesto, FWIW.

Let’s just say that there are a number of basically fatal problems with Marx’s program. To start with:

(1) The notion of fixed, unified ‘classes’ that can and do struggle against one another in society is a fiction. There are a large number of equally valid ways of carving up a society, and these cut across standard Marxist notions of class, which are fundamentally naĹve and unworkable. The proper locus of ‘consciousness’, ‘struggle’ and interest is the individual, and properly understood each individual case is different.

(2) The notion that history is a sort of Hegelian dialectic of such struggles is a fiction. His history is basically theory-infused, which is to say it uses theory to construct the evidence, rather than vice versa.

(3) The Marxist “labor theory of value” (upon which basically the entire edifice of his program is built), that is, that an object’s value is calculated by the amount of labor that went into producing it, is false. For clear counterexamples, consider art, design or paper money. Or it is simply a matter of unfalsifiable quasi-religious faith. At any rate, the labor theory of value has been discarded in mainstream economics.

The point is that Marx purported to be providing (among other things) a systematic analysis of market capitalism and economics, including economic history. His system has not stood the test of time in present analyses of economics or history.

There is a separate issue dealing with the failures of market capitalism; FWIW, Keynes’s understanding of market capitalism did involve the notion that governments should intervene to correct market imbalances. This is quite separate from the naĹve notion of simple “laissez-faire” economics. If you read some Krugman you will get more of a sense of how this sort of insight infuses contemporary economics ... for example, that there are ‘market externalities ’ that are not recovered in classical economic prices ... things like environmental pollution, which must be taken into account.

One might say that some of Marx’s ideas were prods or inspirations for such more modern notions in economics. In fact, Krugman clearly does not say this, in the passage I linked to from him above. But I suppose one might say such things. Indeed, I said something similar above when I said that some left democrats or socialists have taken inspiration from Marx to work on social programs for the poor, e.g., during the depression and the New Deal. OK, I’d probably want to do some further research but I don’t have any in-principle argument against such a claim.

However, I don’t agree that Marx isn’t responsible for the damage done in his name. His Manifesto made perfectly clear that he expected and desired a revolution to take place, and that he believed it would be followed by utopia after the totalitarian state had come into being. The fact that the actual proletariat was unwilling to start such a revolution is telling and ironic, but the people who did start the revolutions did so because they felt very deeply that Marx was right, and that his project just needed a little ‘push’ from above. Then, of course, once totalitarianism was set up, and when the Marxist utopia failed to occur, the assumption continued to be made that this was due to the pernicious influence of the “bourgeoisie”, “vipers”, “capitalist west”, etc., who were impeding it. As a result, such sympathizers were liquidated in the hopes that this would free up the blameless proletariat, etc. It’s a dreary and sordid story, and Marx is at the base of it. It is also intensely anti-humanist, as any (even purportedly temporary) totalitarianism must always be.

The overarching problem with the whole program is that Marx did not understand human nature. He had a ‘blank slate’ notion that the mind could be reprogrammed by proper indoctrination, and that there was one select segment of society (the working class) that was somehow “more pure” and “better” than the rest—they were the ethical kings. The root of these sorts of notions goes to Rousseau’s misguided notions of the ‘noble savage’, of course. FYI Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate shows how these notions have been exploded by present research in cognitive psychology.

Perhaps DJ or others have other things they want to add here ...

... but all that said, this is getting waaaaay far away from the beginning of this thread, and poor Michael Shermer’s talk on Darwin!

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Posted: 28 September 2006 05:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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