Monday, November 14, 2016

Thinking in progress

Industrial agriculture: Genetically manipulated sunflowers. Progress in science?

When the neurophilosopher Paul M. Churchland argued that “both the content and the success of FP [folk psychology, or commonsense] have not advanced sensibly in two or three thousand years”, he put forward a controversial view. He actually stated that our commonsense thinking is still on the level of the Ancient Greeks and that it has come to a standstill since then, if there has been any progress at all before these times. This becomes clear, when we see how Churchland goes on with his argument immediately after the sentence quoted: “The FP of the Greeks is essentially the FP we use today, and we are negligibly better at explaining human behavior in its terms than was Sophocles. This is a very long period of stagnation ...”. Actually it is not only Churchland who says so. It has often been contended that there is no progress in commonsense thinking, for the difference with the spectacular progress in scientific thinking is great. And not only commonsense thinking seems to stagnate but also more learned but non-scientific ways of thinking like philosophy according to some.
Although it is true that there has been much progress in science, nevertheless I think we have to put it into perspective. Scientific progress has been spectacular, indeed, but in fact it mainly happened during the past 400 years. Before progress has been very slow, although undeniable. But the development of celts from the simplest forms to efficient instruments was already a matter of three million years, and for the development of industrial forms of agriculture man still needed 15-20,000 years, to take a few examples. Only since about 1600 A.D. the development of science has been exponential.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that commonsense thinking and also philosophical thinking will finally develop in the same exponential way. But why should it? For unlike what Churchland thinks, commonsense thinking is not a sort of making quasi-scientific theories that are confronted with what is happening in the world and then tested and improved, just in the way scientific theories are experimentally tested. Commonsense views are not theories from which predictions can be deduced that can falsify them, and they are not quasi-scientific theories that are replaced by better ones. This is not the way man thinks, as every psychologist can tell you. And just this “as every psychologist can tell you” is already a case of refutation of Churchland’s view, for in the days of Sophocles no one who thought about human behaviour would say that. Moreover, it’s simply not true that the “folk psychology” of the Greeks is essentially the same as ours. Ancient Greek society was a class society that distinguished between free citizens and slaves. Among the former, only adult males had the right to vote (at least that was the situation in Athens, which was a kind of democracy). This society was very different from today’s Western society and today’s Western democracy. Much of what belongs to our present commonsense conception would be completely useless in Ancient Greek society, not only because the social organization has changed but also because many daily social conventions are now entirely different. Just that is one reason why many people in authoritarian political systems rise in revolt against such systems since there have been developed democratic alternatives. In the days of the ancient Greeks authoritarian systems were replaced by other authoritarian systems if necessary, with a democratic upper layer at most. Nowadays people want a fully-fledged democracy. And should we not consider it to be progress that today human rights are generally accepted and applied to everybody irrespective of class, sex, origin, etc. (how poorly they may be observed), while in Ancient Greece human rights (or what counted as such in those days) obtained only for free citizens? And what about the feudal system? Were not even then the rights different according to which estate one belonged? Is it not to be called progress that today there are generally valid human rights? And what to think of the idea of women rights, gay rights, and so on? Isn’t all this a matter of progress in commonsense, so that we can say that “both the content and the success of FP have ... advanced sensibly?”

Reference: Churchland, Paul M. (1992), A neurocomputational perspective. The nature of mind and the structure of science, Cambridge, Mass. etc.: The MIT Press (quotes from p. 8).

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