The Art of Darkness

01-no-bullshitby Maarten Boudry

In some circles, the writings of Jacques Lacan are revered as a source of deep insight into the human psyche and the nature of language and reality. In saner quarters, however, the French psychiatrist is denounced as an intellectual charlatan: a purveyor of obscure and impenetrable nonsense. Lacan was one of the prime targets of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostors, the book-length criticism of postmodern nonsense that followed the famous hoax that Sokal perpetrated on the journal Social Text [1].

Many people who read Lacan, or see him at work in some of the available YouTube clips, find it hard to believe that anyone can take him seriously. In a new paper with philosopher of language Filip Buekens, published in the journal Theoria, we explored Lacanian psychoanalysis as a case study in the psychological and epistemic mechanisms of obscurantism [2]. On the one hand, we develop cognitive explanations for the allure of obscure prose. On the other hand, we explain how the particular structure and content of Lacan’s theory facilitates the overextension of the cognitive heuristics that make us vulnerable to obscurantism.

How is it possible for the reader to be taken in by the impenetrable pronouncements of — as we shall call him — The Master? The first thing to note is that, in everyday life, it sometimes makes perfect sense to accept a statement before fully grasping it. For example, children accept what adults tell them even before they understand precisely what they are supposed to believe. People endorse the equation of special relativity (E=mc²) or the reality of economic recession while having only the foggiest idea of what such claims really amount to. This willingness to accept an obscure utterance for the nonce, without knowing what exactly was on the speaker’s mind, may actually facilitate the learning process. If you insist on understanding every single word of what you are told, before proceeding to the next step, you may not get very far. Better to bracket those obscure parts and trust that you will figure out their exact meaning later on.

In line with the principle of charity in cooperative communication, people will try to reconstruct the meaning of unknown terms on the presumption that what the speaker utters is true and relevant — particularly when they defer to the speaker as an authority. If what the speaker asserts seem bizarre or false on its face, it is prudent to suspect that the problem lies with your interpretation. The cognitive scientist Dan Sperber has called such utterances, swallowed without proper understanding, “semi-propositional ideas” [3].

As with all mental heuristics, this charitable attitude towards speakers, particularly ones regarded as experts, is liable to exploitation. Not everything that is obscure or apparently bizarre will eventually resolve into something true and relevant.

But then people will find out at some point, won’t they? Not necessarily. Another well-known psychological mechanism may kick in and prevent the listener from stopping the hermeneutic search for meaning after diminishing returns have set in. Psychologists have long known that people are averse to losses. Interpreting obscure prose is a form of cognitive investment, an expenditure of time and energy. If there is no hidden meaning to be found after all, your cognitive efforts will have been wasted. People are reluctant to face their losses, and tend to hold on to assets that have long since failed to deliver any returns.

In a similar vein, someone who has spent years wading through obscure prose will have a hard time facing up to reality and admitting that she has been duped. This is especially true when the quest for meaning is an open-ended one. For all you know, treasure may still be lurking deeper down, if only you are prepared to dig a little further — if only you spend a little more time and effort interpreting The Master’s writings. Some fine day perhaps the truth will dawn on you, or perhaps it never will — there is no way to know except by trying.

To make matters worse, people may persevere in a futile hermeneutic quest because — taking up the investment analogy again — they conjure up imaginary returns. In financial investments, however, at least the losses and gains can be objectively measured, they appear as hard figures on a balance sheet. In the quest for meaning identifying the long-sought treasure is less straightforward. In the hope of rationalizing his investment, the interpreter may be tempted to project all sorts of less-than-exciting “insights” onto the Master’s writings, such as common-sense knowledge or psychological lore. Alternatively, she can read her own musings into the Master’s pronouncements, thus using the latter as a mouthpiece. Naturally, obscure writings are perfect vehicles for such ventriloquism. Psychologists have identified the Forer effect: interpreters tend to read specific claims into obscure statements, mistaking their own creative interpretations for the author’s intended meaning. As Richard Webster wrote, “its very vagueness and obscurity means that it is pregnant with semantic possibilities” [4]. In line with Forer’s observations, this creates an illusion of intimacy: Lacan’s students had the impression that he was speaking for them and for them alone, revealing his insights in a secret code. Everyone ends up understanding The Master — but they all disagree about what is being said.

Black holes in the sky

These psychological mechanisms are fairly well-known, but they only tell part of the story. What is striking about Lacanian psychoanalysis is that it facilitates the slippery slope I just described, by accommodating for those psychological effects within its very theoretical framework [5]. Indeed, it seems almost designed to seduce the reader into an endless hermeneutic quest, and to shut down any critical questions that may arise in the process.

Lacan’s pronouncements are couched in a number of arcane concepts — the Other, the Symbolic, the objet petit a, jouissance, the Phallus, etc. — that are notoriously difficult to define. The central tenets of Lacanian theory, to the extent that one can make sense of them, are that the unconscious is structured like a language and that human beings are trapped in a web of signifiers. Communication is a failure, language is a prison, and our deepest desires remain frustrated. In Lacan’s linguistic re-interpretation of Freud’s Oedipus complex, subjects are symbolically castrated upon introduction in the Symbolic order. By means of obscure pseudo-mathematical formulas, Lacan has tried to show that the Real can never be fully accounted for by the Symbolic order. There always remains an ineluctable loss, something that defies understanding and remains elusive. This thing that cannot be grasped or comprehended, which plays a central role in Lacanian psychoanalysis, has been theorized as the “objet petit a.” It is like a vanishing point, always out of reach. Or as The Master wrote: “The objet petit a is what remains irreducible in the advent of the subject at the locus of the other.” The later Lacan coined the term “sinthome” for that which is beyond meaning in his so-called topology of the human mind. Meaning is always manifold and interpretation ambivalent, determined by a web of unconscious associations that we can barely glimpse. As a consequence, communication is doomed to fail, our identity is fragmented and divisive, and truth has a fictional structure.

If one looks at these Lacanian mantras, it is striking how well they exemplify the experience of trying to make sense of Lacan’s own writings. After all, what better illustration of the primacy of the signifier over the signified and the elusiveness of meaning than Lacan’s own ever-shifting and esoteric concepts?  The doctrine itself tends to acquiesce the interpreter into the frustrating experience of trying to make sense of it. If you don’t understand, you must be on the right track. Lacan’s style of exposition, some followers have suggested, mimics the language of the unconscious. Or, to put in in Lacanese, the unconscious speaks through Lacan. Unfortunately, Lacanians have mistaken the predicament of their own belief system for that of every other discourse. Paraphrasing Karl Kraus, one of Freud’s earliest critics, Lacanian psychoanalysis is itself the disease for which it claims to be the cure.

By anticipating and accounting for the readers’ feeling of disarray and puzzlement, Lacan’s theory not only facilitates a futile quest for meaning, but also provides a protective shield against criticism. To bemoan Lacan’s obscure language, from the Lacanian’s own point of view, is to refuse to understand the deeply subversive nature of Lacan’s teachings about meaning and truth. To insist on clarity of language is to miss the very point of Lacan. Thus, the diligent interpreter is kept under The Master’s spell. The philosopher Stephen Law, in his book Believing Bullshit [6], has likened such belief systems to black holes, constructed in such a way that “unwary passersby can find themselves similarly drawn in,” never to escape again.

Let There Be More Light

Obscurantism is a symptom of a degenerating belief system. It arises whenever one needs to defend what is (no longer) defensible. Just as Freud’s theory was collapsing under its own implausibility, Lacan’s obfuscations came to the rescue. For instance, Lacan recast the traditional Freudian Oedipus complex — where a boy wants to kill his father and have sex with his mother — as an abstruse psycholinguistic drama, where physical castration becomes a symbolic amputation through the entry into language, and the capitalized Fallus is equated with the imaginary square root of -1. Freud’s theory was difficult to falsify, but at least it could be comprehended. In Lacan’s hands, the Freudian edifice was lifted out of the realm of meaning altogether. In spite of this radical departure from orthodoxy, Lacan presented his theory as a return to the founding texts, to whatever it is that they have always meant.

Of course, nowhere is this need for obfuscation more pressing than in theology. God used to be an invisible agent in the heavens with human-like emotions, listening to prayers and performing miracles on earth. Nowadays, he has retired from that role and lives on as some ineffable Ground of Being, hardly capable of existing in the mundane sense, let alone revealing himself on earth or performing miracles. After every retreat, however, theologians will often insist that this is what they meant all along [7].

But what if postmodern theology or Lacanian psychoanalysis is just too sophisticated and profound for philistines like us? What if the illusion of depth is not an illusion at all? Perhaps the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A couple of years ago, I made my own pudding, just to see if anyone out there was ready to swallow it. I wrote an abstract full of obscure gobbledygook and submitted it to two theology conferences, under the pseudonym Robert A. Maundy (an anagram). It was partly constructed as a parody of John Haught’s book God After Darwin, which had exasperated me with its nebulous prose. Both conferences accepted the abstract without any problem, presumably after sending it out for peer review [8]. After the hoax had been exposed, one of the conference organizers argued, in his own defense, that he gave my submission the benefit of the doubt, because “postmodern theology can often be somewhat impenetrable.” Quite so.

In the case of Jacques Lacan or postmodern theology, we can never be sure if there is not some hidden meaning that we fail to grasp. In the case of Robert A. Maundy, however, I can assure you that none is to be found (unless God is using me as his vessel). Every single sentence of it is meaningless. In fact, the abstract was largely written in reverse order, to avoid meaningful connections between the sentences. As it turns out, it’s not easy to keep meaningful interpretations at bay, because the human brain (or mine at any rate) wants to construct a coherent narrative. I tried to keep my focus on grammar and syntax, and as for the vocabulary, I was just dipping my spoon in the unctuous soup of Sophisticated Theology (the obligatory snipe at Richard Dawkins probably also worked as a lubricant). As soon as some part started to make sense, it went out of the window. As it happens, my collaborator Filip Buekens, who wrote a devastating study of Lacan and his followers in Dutch, also wrote a parody abstract under Robert Maundy’s name, on the ineffable object petit a with regard to “anal male discourse” [9]. We’ll get back to this.

Obscurantist Strategies

It is useful to have a look at the book that has been most recently hailed as the pièce de résistance of theology, which will leave all atheists fuming at the sidelines. Ironically, David Bentley Hart’s intention in Experiencing God is merely to clarify the meaning of the word God. Some would call that a particularly egregious example of false advertising. After wading through many pages of pedantic prose, all the reader is left with are a number of obscure and contradictory phrases, invariably capitalized or prefixed with superlatives, supposedly capturing the nature of God’s existence. For example, we learn that God is the “transcendent actuality of all things and all knowing, the logically inevitable Absolute upon which the contingent depends,” that he is the “infinite wellspring of all that is” and also “simplicity itself, the very simplicity of the simple, indwelling all things as the very source of their being.”

This brings us back to the principle of interpretive charity. A classical strategy of the obscurantist is to say something prima facie absurd, or to juxtapose two apparently contradictory claims. For example, Hart claims that God is “not a being but is at once ‘beyond being’ (in the sense that he transcends the totality of existing things) and also absolute “Being itself” (in the sense that he is the source and ground of all things)” [10]. The trick is content-free and can be repeated with any adjective: “He is not just something X, but X-ness itself, the uncaused source and ground by which finite X-ness [is] created and sustained” [11]. (Can you guess which adjective Hart used in this case?)

So God is simultaneously not a being, beyond being, and Being itself. The strategy exploits our interpretive charity: the contradiction is so palpable that we assume the writer must have meant something different and more profound. God is also “beyond my utmost heights” and “more inward to me than my inmost depths.” So, both extremes at the same time? As Bob Maundy put it, he is “an absolute Order which both engenders and withholds meaning.”

Not to be outdone, Jacques Lacan has offered us the most exquisite example of this strategy. In his formulas of sexuation, describing the phallic function in relation to the desiring subject, he presents us with the following diagram of masculine and feminine sexuality.

lacan

The right-hand column describes feminine sexuality, the left-hand column its male counterpart. Now, as any student of logic will spot right away, not only do the two formulas in each column contradict each other, but the columns themselves are restating the same contradiction: 1) everyone is submitted to the phallic function; 2) there exists someone who is not submitted to the phallic function.

Because the contradiction is so obvious, at least for someone with a grasp of elementary logic, the reader is tempted to conclude that Lacan must have meant something more profound. The rest is left to the creative imagination of the reader. Ever since, commentators have dreamt up interpretations to make sense of the formulas of sexuation, but no consensus seems to be in the offing (“well yes, that is the ineffable objet petit a of understanding!”). The paradoxes of sexuation also provide the framework for Robert A. Maundy’s second abstract on anal male discourse.

Postmodern philosophers are quite fond of stating such provocative contradictions or outright absurdities: other one-liners by Lacan include “la femme n’existe pas” and “Il n’y pas de rapport sexuel chez l’être parlant” (there is no sexual relationship in the speaking subject). The deconstructivist Jacques Derrida claimed that “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (there is nothing beyond the text) and Jean Baudrillard wrote a whole book about why “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.” Stephen Law advises aspiring gurus to work around cryptic contradictions: “The great beauty of such comments is that they make your audience do the work for you.”

Such tantalizing claims often vacillate between some straightforward yet absurd interpretation, and a sensible but trite one. For example, of course “the woman” as such does not exist, as no two women are exactly similar. And naturally, what happened during the Gulf War is partly open to historical interpretation. Did we need the postmodern savants to tell us that?  The strategy appeals to interpretive charity on both fronts: we assume that the speaker must have meant something more profound than the banality, but we also assume that he could not possibly have intended the absurd interpretation. Daniel Dennett called this a Deepity [12] and uses the example “Love is just a word.” If you put scare quotes around ‘love,’ the claim is trivial. If you read it at face value, it doesn’t make any sense. Whatever love is (an emotion, some neurochemical process), it is not composed of letters.

Postmodern discourse, which is heavily indebted to Jacques Lacan, is full of such Deepities: “Truth is just a social construction,” “Reality is another kind of fiction.” Philosopher Nicholas Shackel has compared this strategy to a medieval defense tactic in which a defensible stone tower (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of open land (the Bailey):

For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of […] the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed. [13]

Intellectual intimidation

It is important to emphasize the intimidating effect of unintelligible prose. In the midst of people who all profess to understand what is being said, it takes courage to stand up and admit that you don’t. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur was brave enough to admit, after attending one of Lacan’s seminars, that he did not understand a word of what was being said, even though he found himself in the company of people who seemed to be in the knowing. Many interpreters have boasted that they, for one, understand Lacan perfectly well. The philosopher Jean-Claude Milner has maintained that the man’s writings are in fact crystal-clear, despite appearances to the contrary, and are hardly in need of any interpretation. Who will be confident enough, after years of investment in Lacanian exegesis, to see through this rhetorical bluster?

In his latest book, David Bentley Hart spends a lot of time lamenting the intellectual poverty of our age and hectoring his (atheist) readers, calling them out for their abysmal ignorance and their puerile misunderstandings. Lacan was fond of insulting and belittling those in his audience who failed to understand him. In a television appearance in 1974, he announced that most of his audience were “idiots,” and that he was surely mistaken to descend to their level. Intellectually insecure readers felt that the difficulty of Lacan’s prose was erected as a natural barrier for excluding those unworthy of his insights. Only the best divers could access the most precious pearls. As Lacan himelf wrote: “If you don’t understand them [my writings], so much the better, it will give you the opportunity to explain them.”

Obscurantism is a means for creating anxiety and insecurity about not understanding. This phenomenon has an important social dimension, as in Hans Christian Andersen’s story about the emperor who orders a new suit of clothes that, as the tailors assure him, are invisible to those that are either unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor flaunts his new cloths on the streets, everybody can see that he is naked, yet nobody dares to point it out. But as soon as one child cries out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything at all, the spell is broken and everybody starts laughing. Many of the followers of Lacan are undoubtedly sincere, because they have spun their own interpretive fabric around their naked emperor. But the social dynamic is the same. It only takes a couple of sycophants, and a large measure of intellectual insecurity, to make sure that no-one dares to challenge the emperor. The seduction of obscurantism therefore has a self-reinforcing social dynamic.

There are of course many differences between the cult of Lacan and postmodern theology. In the case of theology, we have to take into account its ambivalent relation with popular religion. On the one hand, it takes a distance from the anthropomorphism of folk religion, but on the other hand, it remains attached on its leash. As the philosopher Robert McCauley wrote: “Theology, like Lot’s wife, cannot avoid the persistent temptation to look back — to look back to popular religious forms.” [14] Most religious believers have no idea about the arcane lucubrations of theologians, but the intimidating jargon of academic theology assures  them that religious faith is still intellectually respectable, and that those simple-minded atheists have fundamentally misunderstood what religion is all about. In that sense, theology functions as an intellectual fig leaf for popular religion. In any, case, the self-protective rationale of obscurantism in both belief systems seems to be the same. Darkness provides a safe haven from the light of evidence and reason. According to Augustine, the serpent in the Genesis story was sentenced to grovel in the mud for committing the sin of curiosity. Expelled from the garden of Eden, he was forced to “penetrate the obscure and shadowy.” Make of that what you wish.

_____

Maarten Boudry is a philosopher of science and postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University. In 2011, he defended his dissertation on pseudoscience: Here Be Dragons. Exploring the Hinterland of Science. He is co-author of a Dutch book on critical thinking (2011), together with Johan Braeckman and co-editor, together with Massimo Pigliucci, of Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem.

(Thanks to Stephen Law and Filip Buekens for  their comments! Parts of this essay were published before at the Epistemic Innocence blog.)

[1] Sokal, Alan, and Jean Bricmont. 1997. Impostures Intellectuelles. Paris: Jacob. For a contribution of Sokal to SciSal see here, here, and here.

[2] Buekens, Filip, and Maarten Boudry. 2014. “The Dark Side of the Loon. Explaining the Temptations of Obscurantism,” Theoria.

[3] Sperber, D., F. Clément, C. Heintz, O. Mascaro, H. Mercier, G. Origgi, and D. Wilson. 2010. “Epistemic Vigilance,” Mind & Language 25(4):359–393.

[4] Webster, Richard. 2002. “The Cult of Lacan: Freud, Lacan and the Mirror Stage,” richardwebster.net.

[5] Boudry, Maarten, and Johan Braeckman. 2012. “How Convenient! The Epistemic Rationale of Self-Validating Belief Systems,” Philosophical Psychology 25(3):341-364.

[6] Law, Stephen. 2011. Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. New York: Prometheus.

[7] This is not to say that all modern theology is obscurantist. Theologians such as Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig have tried to defend the traditional tenets of faith in a pretty straightforward manner, without much recourse to obfuscation.

[8] The abstract is still listed in the proceedings of the Reformational Philosophy conference. To the best of my knowledge, the other ones are authentic, but don’t take my word for it.

[9] Both abstracts can be found on Bob’s website.

[10] The claim is repeated a couple of times: “In one sense he is ‘beyond being,’ if by ‘being’ one means the totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is ‘being itself.’”

[11] In case you are wondering how this works, it is just a matter of God “pouring forth its infinite actuality in the finite vessels of individual essences.”

[12] Dennett, Daniel C. 2013. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking: WW Norton & Company.

[13] Shackel, Nicholas. 2005. “The Vacuity of Postmodern Methodology,” Metaphilosophy 36(3):295-320.

[14] McCauley, Robert N. 2010. “How Science and Religion Are More Like Theology and Commonsense Explanations Than They Are Like Each Other: A Cognitive Account,” in D. Wiene and P. Pachis (eds.), Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and Cognitive Science: A Festschrift in Honor of Luther Martin Thessaloniki: Barbounakis, 242-265.

 

326 thoughts on “The Art of Darkness

  1. DM, as flattering as your comment is, it actually makes my points: first, you don’t seem to be able to find an example of a field that you think makes progress in a way that is seriously distinct from science. Second, my writings on virtue ethics are entirely derivative, and have been made possible by reading Aristotle as well as other (primary) sources in modern virtue ethics. Which is fine for non professionals, but I would be stunned if any professional philosopher would get much out of that stuff and felt thereby comfortable skipping Aristotle (or Philippa Foot, for that matter).

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  2. The article begins with calling Lacan a “charlatan.” In later remarks, the author refers to all of psychoanalysis as “pseudoscience.” If that is the case, than clinical psychoanalytical practice is fraudulent and constitutes malpractice.

    As Jarnauga has patiently pointed out, the profession–and the scientists who make up the population of that profession–disagree with this assessment. Or at least, enough of them disagree for the APA to continue with its inclusion of psychoanalysis as a part of its disciplinary portfolio.

    This, then, is a classic case of a scientific and clinical dispute over a form of treatment. It is not a case of obvious fraudulence, such that non-specialists and non-experts (like the author) can just dismiss them. (Well, they *can*, but no one who matters will care.)

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  3. Hi Massimo,

    … it is hard to imagine why you are making that claim (or the equivalent one about much of math).

    Where else do we get maths and logic from, other than from patterns in reality?

    But you have now inspired me to write a piece on what I’ve become to think of as “radical empiricism,” including a discussion of Duhem-Quine.

    I look forward to it!

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  4. I never mentioned meridions, qi flows, or anything of the sort. I cited it partly because the study itself refers to the history of controversy surrounding the practice and the view that it is in practice nothing more than hokum. On the Memorial Sloan-Kettering website, they also mention this business of Qi but that this is simply a way of describing what we in the modern West refer to as things like endogenous opiods. No one is saying that the theory of Qi is scientific, but clearly there is now substantial evidence that that pre-modern theoretical structure in traditional Chinese medicine refers to something quite real. One should be charitable towards practices that demonstrate results- particularly (as in the case of psychoanalysis) if they have the backing of large, modern, professional and educational institutions. The alternative is to legally charge such organizations and institutions with systematic fraud. I have yet to see any such legal challenges be advanced.

    http://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/herb/acupuncture#field-herb-mechanism-of-action

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  5. Hi Aravis,

    Re: the weird, as you know, I find your way of thinking as weird as you find mine. Variety is a wonderful thing, is it not?

    On that we can agree, and that is partly why I find a philosophy-dominated forum interesting,

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  6. Some quotes from Disagreeable Me about a supposed analogy between science and philosophy:

    [quote]Coel and I are baffled by why philosophers do not think it should be a little bit more like science specifically with respect to preferring modern, synthesized versions of ideas to ancient, obsolete ones.[/quote]

    and:

    [quote]I fail to see the harm in the analogy: a modern book on mechanics is related to what Newton wrote, but acquaintance with Newton’s actual writing is not usually particularly useful in understanding it.[/quote]

    and:

    [quote]I would much rather read Pigliucci’s account of virtue ethics than the original work of Aristotle.[/quote]

    IMHO, the analogy between studying studying science (say biology) by using a modern textbook (say Futuyma’s textbook on evolution) and studying philosophy by using ancient texts doesn’t help to understand one of the main reasons why philosophers find it important to study ancient texts.

    It might be more useful to see philosophers reading ancient text as analogous to scientist doing observations and experiments. Just as you cannot become a biologist without dissecting sharks, chickens and rats, you cannot become a philosopher without studying ancient texts. And for exactly the same reason: you need practice to acquire the skills you need for your profession.

    One of the skills that makes a philosopher into a philosopher is the skill to understand, reconstruct, analyze etc. different conceptual frameworks, to reconstruct the history of such framework, to see how such frameworks and their history are answers to certain problems, to see how they give rise to new problems, to evaluate other’s analyses of such frameworks etc.

    [quote]If there’s some high-school student out there with a great mind and aptitudes/preferences similar to my own, philosophy will not be attractive to them even though they could have a lot to contribute.[/quote]

    Anyone can read Massimo’s account of virtue ethics, but not anyone can write such an account! I am sure that to write this account Massimo exercised the skills he acquired by studying ancient texts!

    As Massimo said:”it just means you are not going to be a philosopher.”

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  7. Hi Massimo,

    you don’t seem to be able to find an example of a field that you think makes progress in a way that is seriously distinct from science.

    Well that’s kinda tricky for those of us who think that every field that progresses knowledge is a “science” (in a broadly defined sense).

    But how about medicine. We don’t teach anatomy to medical students by asking them to read the works of Leonardo da Vinci or William Harvey. Ditto engineering, I’m guessing that you don’t teach aircraft design by using the writings of Orville Wright. Or take maths, we don’t expect calculus students to read Newton or Leibniz. Of course all of these could be called “sciences”.

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  8. Hi Massimo,

    from thinking about abstract things?

    Ah yes, “thinking”, a process that is fashioned by the brute empiricism of natural selection. Anything derived from “thinking” is thus ultimately a product of the empirical universe and cannot be separated from it! What other reason do we have for accepting “thinking” as telling us anything about anything?

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  9. Forgive me, but that’s one of the most spectacular non sequiturs I’ve read on this site yet. So, we think as a result of material processes, therefore thinking about abstract concepts is an empirical matter? What?

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  10. The article begins with calling Lacan a “charlatan.” In later remarks, the author refers to all of psychoanalysis as “pseudoscience.” If that is the case, than clinical psychoanalytical practice is fraudulent and constitutes malpractice.

    Nope. Lacan being a charlatan (if indeed he was) does not make practitioners who believe his theories fraudulent. Engaging in pseudoscience, if one believes the pseudoscientific theory to be true, is not fraudulence. Fraud requires intended deceit. You’re plainly wrong here.

    This, then, is a classic case of a scientific and clinical dispute over a form of treatment.

    No. It’s a dispute over whether a *theory* is nonsense or not. We have not been discussing praxis.

    It is not a case of obvious fraudulence, such that non-specialists and non-experts (like the author) can just dismiss them.

    This doesn’t make any sense. Why would a case of fraudulence not require an expert/specialist and a clinical dispute require it? Lacan wrote theories about stuff. You could argue that those theories themselves require some large amount of educational background to understand or dispute (which I don’t see you doing) — but whether the dispute is clinical or involves fraudulence doesn’t make any difference.

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  11. Jarnauga has been patiently pointing out that there is a dispute within the field. He has not, if you’ve noticed, been defending any specific points of Lacan’s theories.

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  12. I never mentioned meridions, qi flows

    That’s right, you didn’t. And I didn’t say you did. My point is that the dispute about Lacan is about the theory, not the effectiveness of the practice.

    One should be charitable towards practices that demonstrate results

    I see no problem with being charitable toward practices. I do see a problem being charitable about nonsense theories.

    The alternative is to legally charge such organizations and institutions with systematic fraud

    I would rather recommend charging them with systematic not being correct (in the High Court of Hyperbolic Rhetoric)

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  13. Hi Arno.

    Thanks for some very thoughtful and interesting points.

    One of the skills that makes a philosopher into a philosopher is the skill to understand, reconstruct, analyze etc. different conceptual frameworks, to reconstruct the history of such framework, to see how such frameworks and their history are answers to certain problems, to see how they give rise to new problems, to evaluate other’s analyses of such frameworks etc.

    My first reaction to this argument is that analysis skills can be fostered with other sample texts, including modern texts. I see no real need for the texts to be ancient.

    I agree that ancient texts are required to reconstruct the history of conceptual frameworks, but I do not think that reconstructing the history of conceptual frameworks should be the goal of philosophy itself but instead the goal of the history of philosophy. Although I must admit I do see some merit to your argument. An appreciation of how certain ideas have developed over time may help one to better appreciate how one’s own ideas might change or be revised by others.

    The point that we may want to evaluate others’ analyses of frameworks is a good one. There is a standard canon of philosophy which has been much written about, and therefore it is fertile ground for spawning competing interpretations. If it is important for trainee philosophers to practice the evaluation of competing interpretations of difficult texts, as I can see it might well be, then it makes sense to study the texts most commonly evaluated so as to facilitate such evaluation.

    Anyone can read Massimo’s account of virtue ethics, but not anyone can write such an account! I am sure that to write this account Massimo exercised the skills he acquired by studying ancient texts!

    Perhaps, but then perhaps he could have acquired the same skills by studying modern texts. Sure, he wouldn’t have learned of Aristotle’s ethics directly, but were philosophy a little more like science then Aristotle’s best ideas would persist in some form (perhaps improved) in the zeitgeist of contemporary philosophy and could be gleaned from contemporary sources, without Massimo’s needing to read the ancient texts.

    In any case, I don’t accept the implication that it is necessary to read ancient texts to write something like this. Aristotle didn’t have Aristotle to read when he wrote about virtue ethics. It is possible to come up with good ideas that are not simply interpretations of the ideas of others. I don’t think this is even particularly hard. The major advantage Plato and Aristotle had was that they were first. Almost every good idea, argument or counter-argument I have ever had I have later found in the literature. It was not necessary for me to read it to think these thoughts.

    That, of course, underscores the importance of being familiar with what is out there if you want to publish something. I do of course realise that literature review is important, but my ideal would be for ancient ideas to be kept alive not by studying them in their ossified ancient forms but by letting them evolve and adapt in the writings of contemporary philosophers (much as languages do, perhaps, but with more of a sense of progress towards clarity and coherency). Yes, this happens too, but it is the ossified versions that are preferred by many.

    As Massimo said:”it just means you are not going to be a philosopher.”

    Perhaps, but I find I still resist this conclusion. What may happen instead is that you might talk me around! I can certainly see the rationale of your point of view, while not yet being entirely ready to abandon my own. Something to think about!

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  14. So, we think as a result of material processes, therefore thinking about abstract concepts is an empirical matter? What?

    Why do we have brains and why do we think like we do? Because animals that think like we do were, over evolutionary time, more successful in surviving and leaving descendants than ones that didn’t think or thought in different ways. Whether an animal survives and leaves descendants is a factual matter about the real empirical world.

    Thus our ways of thinking are derived from the empirical world and are reflections of the way the empirical world works. That is the only reason why hugely expensive brains would have evolved.

    One cannot separate our brains and our ways of thinking from the empirical process that produced them, and thus empirical reality is stamped all over our ways of thinking. Any thoughts that we have are, in a real and direct sense, “about” the real empirical world that moulded those thoughts over evolutionary time.

    (Of course what evolution does is give a recipe that then plays out through development, but since that development is all about contact with empirical reality it doesn’t change the basic argument.)

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  15. Coel, you are confusing epistemology and ontology here. “Empirical” in our discussion of science, philosophy, math and logic refers to the former, to the source of our knowledge. The process of natural selection is not “empirical” in that sense at all, so to move seamlessly from one sense to the other really doesn’t help the discussion.

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  16. Hi Massimo,

    Forgive me, but that’s one of the most spectacular non sequiturs I’ve read on this site yet. So, we think as a result of material processes, therefore thinking about abstract concepts is an empirical matter? What?

    I’m with you in this particular debate, but what Coel says is not the spectacular non sequitur you take it for.

    The point is not that brain processes are material, but that they have been shaped by evolution. Evolution favours ways of thinking that correctly or approximately model the physical word. Natural selection is itself a form of empiricism performing experiments by trial and error to see which kinds of thinking strategies work and which do not. Therefore, from this perspective, our innate thought process (including how we think about abstract objects) are chosen empirically, although not by us.

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  17. Hi Massimo,

    Yes, and as I just said to him, this confuses epistemology and ontology.

    Ontology: There exists a work, Principia Mathematica, produced by an epistemic agent called Newton.
    Epistemology. The epistemic agent called Newton produced the Principia by conducting trial and error experiements (empiricism).

    Ontology: There exists a work, Newton, produced by an epistemic agent called Natural Selection.
    Epistemology: The epistemic agent called Natural Selection produced Newton by conducting trial and error experiments (empricism).

    Yes, this is bizarre. I’m not saying this is the right way of thinking about it but it does I think clarify something of Coel’s intent. If you must speak of epistemology, then Coel’s argument works as long as you are willing to temporarily anthropomorphise evolution by natural selection.

    I anticipate that you will not be willing to take such a leap, so see it as a metaphor, and see Coel’s empiricism of thought as metaphorical empiricism, which is — like true empiricism — grounded in trial and error experimentation by interaction with the natural world. And this is all Coel seeks to establish.

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  18. Hi Massimo,

    “Empirical” … refers … to the source of our knowledge. The process of natural selection is not “empirical” in that sense at all, …

    I beg to differ. Suppose we have ten keys, and in order to know which one fits a lock we try them all, picking the one that fits. Would we agree that that is an empirical process?

    In the same way, mutations produce a whole lot of different ways of thinking, and natural selection picks the one that best matches reality. Isn’t that an empirical process. Isn’t the resulting “way of thinking” both about empirical reality and a product of an empirical process?

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  19. DM,
    I’m with you in this particular debate, but what Coel says is not the spectacular non sequitur you take it for.

    It is worse than spectacular, I am afraid. Massimo has understated it.
    As a software developer you and I share the same insights and experience.
    You are keenly aware of the way that software layers can become independent of the hardware layers.

    I don’t expect the same understanding from Coel because he has made a metaphysical commitment to scientism and he is now in the difficult position of having to doggedly defend an untenable position, no matter what the facts. For example, he will continue to assert that science can answer moral questions no matter that there is not the smallest shred of evidence to support his position.

    Scientism has a high cost as it forces one to take up untenable positions and Massimo has, rather pithily, highlighted the latest example of this.

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  20. What else could it be? A non-empirical process? Why does that have anything to do with whether mathematics is an empirical discipline or not? You completely lost me.

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  21. Why do we think that 1 + 1 = 2? Because empirical reality exhibits a deep regularity that can be summed up as 1 + 1 = 2. What links the two? Either, the fact that as we grow up we notice this deep regularity and thus adopt 1 + 1 = 2. Or, the fact that our brains have evolved to think along lines matching reality. (Or most likely a mixture of both of these.)

    Either way, the ultimate reason that we adopt maths such as 1 + 1 = 2 is that it matches (and is derived from) the real world that we experience empirically.

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  22. Coel,
    you are badly confusing your terms, otherwise known as the fallacy of equivocation.
    Yes, counting has its origins in the natural world and you choose to label that empirical.
    You then make a leap in logic by calling mathematics ’empirical’.

    You have fallen victim to the fallacy of equivocation by using the word ’empirical’ in two distinctly different senses. One relating to its origin and the other relating to its methodology. When we label a discipline as ’empirical’ we usually mean that it extends its domain through the methods of empiricism. Mathematics does not do this. It extends its domain logically and so the word empirical is not applicable.

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  23. Re Labnut’s claim:

    For example, he will continue to assert that science can answer moral questions

    For anyone interested in my argument for this, which labnut persists in ignoring, it is here.

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  24. Re imaginary numbers: Yes these do relate to and derive from examination of the real world. Let’s presume we’ve got as far as the concepts of multiplication (as an extension of simple addition) and the idea of negative numbers (as a subtraction, deficit or debt). It then makes sense to consider the question “what number multiplied by itself will produce a negative number?”, and by asking that we arrive at imaginary numbers.

    Imaginary numbers do indeed relate to the real world. We know that because of the presence of i in Euler’s equation (where all the other symbols being related are real-world numbers), and also because imaginary numbers work in describing oscillations and a whole host of real-world physical phenomena.

    There is nothing “other worldly” about imaginary numbers any more than there is about irrational numbers (and it’s obvious enough how one can arrive at pi from consideration of the real world). These are indeed a bit less intuitive than simple counting numbers, but then so is much of physics.

    Modus ponens is simply a description of a deep regularity of how the world actually is. We have adopted it because it works.

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  25. Coel, just give us the evidence. You are a scientismist and so I naturally presume you understand the need for evidence.

    So, be consistent with your beliefs and give us the evidence. Hey, just imagine that, my parish priest might need to be re-trained. Perhaps he will be equipped with a morality-gizmo. Oh no, this is beginning to sound like scientology.

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  26. What deep regularity about the world is described by modus ponens, exactly? You do know that MP can be and is applied to all sorts of situations that do not find any counterpart whatsoever in the real world, right?

    As for imaginary numbers, you vacillate between the claim that the concept derives from empirical notions (your own description clearly shows that it doesn’t), and the idea that it has applications to empirical questions, which is an altogether different matter.

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  27. Hi labnut,

    When we label a discipline as ‘empirical’ we usually mean that it extends its domain through the methods of empiricism. Mathematics does not do this. It extends its domain logically and so the word empirical is not applicable.

    But this again is a distinction that I don’t accept. What you call the “methods of empiricism” include logical reasoning and mathematics and concepts and model building. We can’t do science with data alone and no logic or reasoning or concepts or models. These things are all a package.

    Thus, if mathematics is a mixture of empirically derived axioms plus logical reasoning to extend its domain then it has exactly the same status as theoretical physics and any other model building in science.

    Of course one could attempt to place the demarkation between theoretical physics and observational physics, but again that does not work because you cannot divorce the observations from the conceptual framework about those observations.

    Thus, the fact that axioms of maths are adopted because they reflect empirical reality is to me sufficient to bring it within the “empirical” umbrella, even though, as with other things under that umbrella, one then uses logical reasoning about those axioms much of the time.

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  28. Coel, Massimo, you both have points.

    Coel, you should acknowledge that if innate human thinking processes are empirical, then they are empirical in an unusual sense. Empiricism usually means that an agent is discovering truths by trial and error experimentation. In natural selection, there is no such agent performing experiments. The only agents are products of those experiments, not experimenters themselves.

    Massimo, you should acknowledge that there is something very like empiricism going on in evolution. There is a process of trial and error which finds a solution by interaction with the real world. Whether we as a result call innate human reasoning empirical is not the important point. The important point is that human reasoning it is not independent of anything like empiricism, but is a product of something very much like it in certain key respects.

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  29. Coel, that’s precisely the problem: you “don’t accept” what is a perfectly uncontroversial, reasonable distinction, btw empirical investigation, mathematical thinking and logic. This is not at all to mean that they are not related, or even somewhat entwined. But you take very tenuous interdependencies and make them out to erase any meaningful distinction between empiricism and logic / math. And I honestly don’t see why you persist in so doing, except for your a priori commitment to what I call radical empiricism (and labnut refers to as scienticism).

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  30. DM, to say that there is something like empiricism going on in natural selection is to commit a category mistake based on an fruitless analogy. “Empiricism,” as you correctly state, is usually meant to refer to a particular, conscious, human epistemic activity aimed at discovering things in the world. Natural selection is not conscious, nor human, nor does it attempt anything. So, sure, I can see the analogy, but I can also see why it’s entirely misleading.

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  31. Massimo, Coel:

    What if Coel’s thesis were expressed in terms such as the following:

    “All knowledge has at its ultimate root a process of trial and error in interaction with the natural world. This can be personal trial and error, the trial and error of others passed on through teaching, or even the trial and error of the process of natural selection.”

    I think this is correct as far as it goes.

    However, expressing it in these terms I think reveals the flaw in Coel’s argument. It makes the term “empirical” useless, because it means that any thought that any human ever thinks is in some sense empirical, as it is a product of evolution.

    Therefore if mathematics is empirical, then so is theology, homeopathy and astrology, all being the results of thought process honed by a process of evolutionary trial and error.

    So I was somewhere in the middle, but now I think I’m firmly on Massimo’s side.

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  32. Hi DM,

    Coel, you should acknowledge that if innate human thinking processes are empirical, then they are empirical in an unusual sense. […]

    Yes, I agree with your whole paragraph. I don’t see anything wrong with adopting this slightly unusual sense of the word. The important things seem to me to be that: (1) the axioms of our logic and maths match the behaviour of the real world, and (2) we have those particular axioms of logic and maths because they match the behaviour of the real world.

    You are right that I’m using “empiricism” in a slightly broader sense than usual in covering all processes that give rise to both (1) and (2).

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  33. Coel,
    But this again is a distinction that I don’t accept.

    This is beginning to sound like the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Useful communication assumes that we stick to commonly accepted terminology and distinctions.

    The usual reason for tinkering with definitions is to give them greater precision and clarity. You are doing the opposite by broadening them with a resultant loss in clarity.

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  34. And I honestly don’t see why you persist in so doing …

    I am trying to explain the fact that our logic and our maths matches the behaviour of the real world very well. That’s a notable and interesting feature of our world. I’m thus arguing that we hold our axioms of maths and logic *because* they are derived from the behaviour of the real world.

    It’s also part of a worldview of seeing humans (and human brains) as very much a product of our universe. It’s no accident that a product of natural selection should operate on the same principles of the environment that creates it.

    This is indeed a “scientism” view, seeing the universe (including ourselves) as a unified whole.

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  35. What deep regularity about the world is described by modus ponens, exactly?

    The regularity *is* the modus ponens. Modus ponens describes how our universe is. Put it this way, if you were going to write out a blueprint for our universe from scratch, at some point you’d specify modus ponens or something equivalent.

    As for imaginary numbers, you vacillate between the claim that the concept derives from empirical notions (your own description clearly shows that it doesn’t), and the idea that it has applications to empirical questions, which is an altogether different matter.

    I’d argue for both of those. But, again, empiricism is *never* a matter of data alone, a simple mirror reporting exactly what is seen and nothing more. It is always a matter of creating concepts and models out of sense data. In that sense imaginary numbers are no different than concepts such as “atoms” or “metals” or “trees” or any other concepts that we construct to interpret the world.

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  36. Hi Coel,

    The important things seem to me to be that: (1) the axioms of our logic and maths match the behaviour of the real world, and (2) we have those particular axioms of logic and maths because they match the behaviour of the real world.

    I agree with (1) and (2). Perhaps Massimo might also. But to call mathematics empirical as a result is to destroy the term by making it over-broad, applying to everything.

    True mathematical knowledge has been shaped by contact with the natural world, but so has all kinds of false pseudo-knowledge. I think we are therefore left with three categories.

    1) Knowledge derived directly from correct empirical processes (science)
    2) Knowledge derived from correct usage of our evolved reasoning (mathematics, logic, some philosophy)
    3) Pseudo-knowledge derived from incorrect empirical processes (pseudoscience)
    4) Pseudo-knowledge derived from incorrect usage of our evolved reasoning (some philosophy, theology — sorry Labnut, but I’m making a point to a fellow atheist — irrational beliefs)

    I think these distinctions are useful, and the problem with calling mathematical knowledge empirical is that you destroy them.

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  37. Hi DM,

    What if Coel’s thesis were expressed in terms such as the following:

    Yes, I accept your statement of it.

    It makes the term “empirical” useless, because it means that any thought that any human ever thinks is in some sense empirical, as it is a product of evolution.

    Yes, it is indeed seeing everything as a unified whole, and a rejection of NOMA-style divides. But, if we accept that, we can then use terms where they are useful without implying any fundamental divide (just as we can usefully use the terms “physics” and “chemistry” without implying any great epistemological divide between the two).

    Therefore if mathematics is empirical, then so is theology, homeopathy and astrology, all being the results of thought process honed by a process of evolutionary trial and error.

    Yes, but they can still be poor models that should be rejected. Being an “empirical process” doesn’t guarantee that the result is good, since there are lots of bad models arrived at in science (and lots of deformed and diseased animals produced by evolution).

    We still need a mechanism for quality control within the empirical domain, so your objection doesn’t seem to me to be a problem.

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  38. To Asher Kay:

    “My point is that the dispute about Lacan is about the theory, not the effectiveness of the practice.”

    The dispute about Lacan for Boudry is part of a larger question concerning whether psychoanalysis is pseudoscience. I have already posted the link to philosopher Richard Wollheim’s piece critiquing Lacan 35 years ago while also defending Freudian psychoanalysis. Whether Wollheim is correct I do not know- but I cited it as an example of an engaged critique that takes the trouble to unpack Lacan’s ideas even while disagreeing with them, unlike Boudry. Concerning the theory of psychoanalysis and its merits, I would argue that on this question, the APA disagrees and the field of philosophy is divided, with a not-insubstantial roster of supporters and their work. That much is clear and obvious. In my humble opinion, you may charge whomever you like with incorrectness- but a charge is not an argument. Since I have already posted why I am unconvinced by the article Boudry cited in defense of his claim, I will leave it at that.

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  39. Addendum 2: The pages for the Jupp piece on Cioffi are 441-453, not 441-443 as originally cited.

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  40. Coel:

    “It is always a matter of creating concepts and models out of sense data. In that sense imaginary numbers are no different than concepts such as “atoms” or “metals” or “trees” or any other concepts that we construct to interpret the world.”

    Bravo! I’m with you 100% with you on this.

    The question raised is, at bottom, the relation of abstractions, categories, types, to concrete objects and reality.

    Sure, we construct long chains of connotations to get from 1 to -1 and then to its square root, and much, much, farther, as the quantity of brains working on mathematics, physics, computer software keeps increasing, and there’s no end in sight to the collective development of our abstract concepts and methods.

    But, if they have any meaning, they have to be related through a long chain of associations and connotations to perceived reality. After all, both Euclid and Archimedes made their demonstrations by physical geometry or mechanics.
    Our symbolic is now more refined. But its meaning is still related to an underlying base of concrete observations, however atmospheric our symbolic writings may seem to us now.

    There’s no real distinct function of the brain that is allocated to “logic” per se. Reasoning is nothing more than mental manipulation and mental observation, and mental coherence. They are obviously derived from hand manipulations and visual observations. Dogs, cats, and other animals do show that they have some logic and reasoning power as well.
    If we cannot establish a connection of our abstractions to the physical world, we are faced with abstract concepts that have, ultimately, no meaning.

    Nothing is more entertaining, as an example, in the sphere of absurdity than the discussion about the meaning of the “Ground of Being”. We do know what “ground” means and where the meaning comes from, we know. or seem to know what “being” as a verbal name, means, obviously related to what we also mean with “existence”, but when we jump to the association of both into “ground of being”, that is “being” having a “ground”, we are no longer sure of what connection this has with our knowledge of the real world which is our base, and where we initially started thinking from. No mystical faculty of “logic” or “reasoning” can help us. We are in the area of empty words associations. That is the big trap of constructing abstract concepts by arbitrary association of words.

    Well, Coel says all this more succinctly and more appropriately. I simply wanted to add my support to his statements, and reassure him that he is not alone in this crowd of debaters here.

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  41. I’m not a lawyer or a psychologist, but it is my understanding that psychology is significantly more regulated than “alternative medicine” and thus ought to be distinguished from it legally. For example, in Massachusetts:

    http://www.mass.gov/ocabr/licensee/dpl-boards/py/regulations/rules-and-regs/251-cmr-300.html

    Failure to register with the state licensing board means you are not allowed to practice:

    “A licensee with a lapsed/expired license is not authorized to practice psychology or use the title ‘psychologist’ during the period that the license is lapsed/expired.” 3.10.2 (a)

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  42. Aravis:

    The article begins with calling Lacan a ‘charlatan.” In later remarks, the author refers to all of psychoanalysis as “pseudoscience.” If that is the case, than clinical psychoanalytical practice is fraudulent and constitutes malpractice.

    As Jarnauga has patiently pointed out, the profession–and the scientists who make up the population of that profession–disagree with this assessment. Or at least, enough of them disagree for the APA to continue with its inclusion of psychoanalysis as a part of its disciplinary portfolio.

    This, then, is a classic case of a scientific and clinical dispute over a form of treatment. It is not a case of obvious fraudulence, such that non-specialists and non-experts (like the author) can just dismiss them. (Well, they *can*, but no one who matters will care.)

    Asher Kay replied:

    Nope. Lacan being a charlatan (if indeed he was) does not make practitioners who believe his theories fraudulent. Engaging in pseudoscience, if one believes the pseudoscientific theory to be true, is not fraudulence. Fraud requires intended deceit. You’re plainly wrong here.

    And a bit further down:

    This doesn’t make any sense. Why would a case of fraudulence not require an expert/specialist and a clinical dispute require it? Lacan wrote theories about stuff. You could argue that those theories themselves require some large amount of educational background to understand or dispute (which I don’t see you doing) — but whether the dispute is clinical or involves fraudulence doesn’t make any difference.

    ___________________________________

    To Asher Kay:

    If it were the case that the bulk of the APA are not psychoanalysts and do not subscribe to its theory *nor think that it is scientific*, and yet allow psychoanalysis as a constituent part of the organization, then that is a case of an organization knowingly allowing people to practice in a manner which the bulk of the organization does not believe is scientific. *If* psychoanalysis is as straightforwardly and obviously pseudo-scientific as has been claimed (and analogized with aromatherapy, etc), then in terms of the APA, some sort of institutional deceit would be at play given that they nonetheless allow psychoanalysis under their aegis as a constituent member even though in this scenario they would have to believe it to be pseudoscience, given the argument that psychoanalysis is so patently unscientific to any casual observer (not to mention those with medical training) that disavowals to the contrary would be laughably false.

    This scenario is not what is going on- the APA is clearly not willing to say that psychoanalysis is anything like pseudoscience, given that it is a constituent member of the organization. The disagreement, then, between non-psychoanalytic and psychoanalytic practitioners is internal to the field. A straightforward case of a violation of the standard of care by a health professional is obvious once one knows what the standards and regulations for that field are. In this case, however, there is an internal disagreement regarding treatment, but not one that has apparently escalated anywhere near an accusation of pseudoscience, given that the APA gives its imprimatur to psychoanalysis as a legitimate treatment method and thus that it fulfills the standard of care.

    If you disagree and believe that it is patently pseudoscience, then the only reasonable explanation given the APA’s total membership (mostly not psychoanalysts) and the scientific training of its members is that the organization knows that psychoanalysis is false but permits it anyway for whatever reason. Hence, the only reasonable charge in this case would be intentional institutional deceit. This is why accusations of pseudoscience here imply massive institutional deceit given the purportedly obvious nature of the pseudoscience and the scientific training of the membership which makes ignorance of the deceit highly unlikely (and since most aren’t psychoanalysts, it can’t be a case of self-deception either).

    If one is not willing to go this far and impugn the APA and others, then one must recognize that differences in approach by psychologists who are not psychoanalysts and those that are constitute an internal conversation within the discipline regarding the most effective treatments, an internal debate which cannot be settled as easily as a straightforward case of a violation of the standard of care, since the standard of care includes psychoanalytic approaches themselves as legitimate.

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  43. @ jarnauga111:

    allowing people to practice in a manner which the bulk of the organization does not believe is scientific

    A straightforward case of a violation of the standard of care

    an internal disagreement regarding treatment

    psychoanalysis as a legitimate treatment method

    differences in approach by psychologists

    regarding the most effective treatments

    I think I’ve said maybe three or four times that I am talking about theory, not praxis. Praxis is not a science or a pseudoscience — it is a practice. One can completely disagree with the theory and be perfectly okay with the practice.

    Is there something confusing about this? If the APA thought psychoanalytic praxis was harmful to patients, they would likely do something about it. But it would have nothing to do with what I’m arguing.

    There are licensed therapists practicing EFT and TFT as well. Do you think those theories are scientific?

    Pseudoscience operates within respected disciplines. Psychology is ripe for this kind of stuff because we lack a rigorous, empirically validated theory of mind. Complicated, obscure theories like Lacan’s are very difficult to disprove or even deconstruct for the reasons Boudry outlined in his post, among others. No fraud has to be present for people’s theories to be completely speculative and ungrounded.

    If you really actually want to understand what I’m saying, leave praxis out of it altogether. Imagine Lacan is just a philosopher of mind. I am saying that his philosophical theories are wrong, incoherent, and ungrounded.

    You have been arguing this whole time completely from the authority of organizations and experts. Do you care to actually defend Lacan’s theories? Do you believe them to be coherent and grounded?

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  44. Hi DM,

    1) Knowledge derived directly from correct empirical processes (science)
    2) Knowledge derived from correct usage of our evolved reasoning (mathematics, logic, some philosophy)

    I’m going to again dispute your neat categorisation. You don’t like my extension of “empiricism” to cover the process of natural-selection that produces evolved reasoning — OK, fine, let me accept that for the sake of argument (it’s just a labelling issue).

    But, even so, the “evolved reasoning” is still heavily empirical. That’s because evolution only produces a genetic recipe, and that genetic recipe by itself doesn’t reason (since a fertilised egg doesn’t reason).

    Thought experiment: if we feed a fertilized egg with all the nutrition it needs but deprive it of all sense data, is it ever going to develop into a reasoning device capable of modus ponens?

    My hunch is that no, it isn’t, and that the stream of sense data is an essential part of the training and development of the neural-network brain that leads to its ability to reason.

    That developmental learning process, through exposure to sense data, is certainly “empirical” (agreed?), and thus at the very least, our “innate reasoning” ability is heavily entwined with real-world empiricism and cannot be separated from it.

    So, in my opinion, your category 2 is thoroughly steeped in empiricism (even if you discount the natural-selection part of it). Now let me address your category 1:

    If you expose, say, an oak tree to a real-world environment, with it being bombarded by all the photons that carry information about the world, it is not going to develop “reasoning”.

    But in the same environment we do. The difference is the evolved genetic programming. Thus “empiricism” cannot be a simple matter of mere sense data. It has to be a combination of sense data with innate concepts and evolved reasoning — these things are again thoroughly entwined and inseparable.

    Unless we regard science and empiricism as a simple list of photon-arrival events, it has to be just as much about concepts and reasoning as your category 1.

    At that point categories 1 and 2 are more or less merged. This isn’t a mere issue of how we use labels like “empirical”, it is a much deeper issue of how we come to think like we do, why we reason as we do, why we have the logical and mathematical axioms that we do.

    Now let’s turn to your categories 3 and 4. We try to make sense of the world using both sense data and our evolved reasoning, and develop concepts using both.

    Of course this process is fallible. Epicycles were an attempt using both sense data and reason. It was a decent attempt, but over time we’ve done better. Newtonian gravity was a better attempt, but again we’ve now done better.

    There was nothing “wrong” or non-empirical in the processes that led to those concepts, even though those concepts had flaws.

    What about theology in your category 4? Well, theology is also “empirical”, in that it is an attempt to make sense of the world. It’s just as much a “scientific hypothesis” as Newtonian gravity, it’s just a much worse one.

    It’s wrong to see theology as non-empirical. God is invented in mankind’s image, the god of the Old Testament is blatantly a disembodied tribal chief. The concepts are clearly derived from real-world experiences and are attempts to model and understand the world, just as science is.

    It’s just a much worse attempt, one that should be abandoned in the same way that epicycles have now been abandoned.

    [Of course theologians have since resisted abandonment by stripping the concept of “god” of all actual content and meaning, as a way of retaining it, but that’s a side issue.]

    But we can’t use the fact of theology being a flawed and poor attempt as sufficient to put it in a different category, unless you want to put things like epicycles and Newtonian gravity in that same category, with General Relativity in the “science” category. But then that is also not viable since even GR will likely be found wanting.

    So, sorry, but I’m not accepting any of your 4 categories. Over-categorisation is a human failing that can mislead us!

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  45. SciSal:

    “Seems to me that under-categorization is also a common human failing…”

    Exactly, both “under”-categorization and “over”-categorization are both traps of reasoning, and a product of its inherent flexibility.
    Hitting the “right”, “correct”, etc.. categorization is the goal, and it can be elusive or glaringly evident, or a speculative fantasy.

    This is further proof that the reflective study of the mind by mind itself cannot be an objective “science” in the sense of science of objective phenomena, because its facts will always be reports of the mind on itself and depend on the reporting minds.
    So reaching the “right” categorizations will never derive from any imaginary “theory of the mind” that would lead us to incontestable and final facts about the working of the mind. Any “theory of the mind” can only be tentative, and only a working hypothesis to put some order and clarity on the psychological facts of mind’s work.

    Abstract concepts, products of the mind’s categorizing power, will always leave some room for lateral ambiguity and uncertainty, because the nexus of connotations and associations that can be produced by memory cannot usually be closed and stopped, but remains open to additional potential associations that are not yet made explicit. “Racking one’s brain” can usually produce further connotations.

    The illusion is that using one word to represent an abstract concept contains all the “meaning” of that word. It is at best a sign or guidepost. However, it cannot deliver the whole potential landscape of connotations. That is impossible. One word uses a fraction of a second to be pronounced, used, or coming to one’s mind. The meaning is the huge potential nexus of associations to which this word can be attached. They may lie latent in one’s memory, but bringing them to mind, making them explicit in our linear language takes times, many seconds, many minutes, or hours. Some thinkers need a whole book to unfold the whole meaning of their concept. Others need a lifetime of writing and lecturing to make their meaning clear to other minds. It can be Aristotle, Descartes, Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. Many contend here that Lacan never achieved this communication of his concepts in any way.
    And the linear exposition of language is a restraining limitation. Two-dimensional drawings of interconnections can help. It is likely that connotations and associations don’t come to mind spontaneously in a linear fashion, but perhaps in a irreproducible network of neuronal connections activating at their own rhythm and direction.

    So navigating among abstract concepts cannot be the object of a rigid “science”. It will remain an art, dependent on the skill and knowledge of the thinker, a “praxis” dependent on the practitioner. Some teachers are great, others poor. New ideas can be revolutionary and illuminating, and rewarded with Nobel prizes and elite professorships. Other new ideas can be aimless shots in the dark.

    This is why the origin of ideas and concepts cannot be separated from the specific minds that produced them. Any history is intimately linked to historians. And the meaning of ideas, scientific or philosophical, cannot be separated from the real minds that produced them at their origins.

    Science is inseparable from the scientists’ minds that created its concepts and theories. And philosophy’s concepts cannot be studied in an imaginary sky of ideas separated from the real minds of their original thinkers. The network of associations or connotations of any abstract idea is too immense to be restricted and captured, at least at the level of communication and language, in a word or a few lines of text.

    Undergraduates can ignore that dimension of production of ideas, and naively believe that meanings are instantly locked in the few words they use, and the contents of their undergraduate studies can come from cleverly presented textbooks. But this is a limited exposure to knowledge, simplified for the sake of beginners’ limited comprehension power of college age brains.

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