Response to Pigliucci on Metaphysics and Interpretation of Data

In the preceding discussion, he claims that empirical data uni-laterally constrains interpretation.  His claim is that empiricism settles matters, despite the fact that the theory will decide what is data and what is mere error/anomaly.  Meanwhile, there is a run of literature that stands untested, showing that it does not.  I attempted to give an historical example closer to his domain of study within his specialized science (biology), using the Galvani-Volta debate as an example of how experiments do not definitively settle questions.  Massimo preferred to refer to move the discussion toward, in his terms, “useless” philosophy.  He preferred the ancient conceptions I brought up, but chose the one that he thought he could use to formulate a gotcha-question.  Instead of addressing Aristotle’s nous, he asked me the abovementioned question in relation to the ancient conception of the heart as being central for emotions or some kind of cognition.  By asking whether future thinkers would return to thinking of the heart as having some central importance to any “ruling faculty.”

Massimo Pigliucci’s meaning is beyond question in its clarity, as he asked the same question a few times in his challenge for me to answer.  My answer is going to fly in the face of his dogmatism.  Here’s my answer:

Answer: Yes, it is not completely outside of the realm of reasoning that what we call “the heart” could be considered as having some central “ruling” importance, similar in ways to the ancients thought, supposing that the metaphysical framework is slightly different, and the way in which science ontologically conceives of and chops up reality is altered.  It’s hard to provides such an unconceived schematization or new conception that fits, to some extent, with contemporary modern medical science’s understandings of data.  I can get completely hypothetical, for fun, as I enjoy engaging in less exact, creative thought.  Suppose that scientists, advanced in nanotechnology beyond our current conception, finds something like Hammeroff’s and Penrose’s nanotubes, but with a very different function, structure, and upshot: they carry electromagnatic resonance around the body. In this scenario, electrical computations in the brain do not simply result in action potential firings in the peripheral nervous system, but result in a particular type of resonance in nano-particle moves electromagnetic information from the brain, through the blood, pools in the heart, and interacts with the peripheral nervous system to fire appropriately to induce global organismic (agential) action.  Add in whatever you like to make the hypothetical setup to work as a fiction.  Though complete fiction, I have contrived a scenario in the deep future to show a scenario in which the heart becomes a central actor as possessor of a ruling faculty of some kind.  Try as I might, I couldn’t fit this nuanced, hypothetical scenario into a Tweet.

Additionally, in that Twitter discussion, I find a number of Massimo’s remarks about the history and philosophy of science to be flat false.  One example is his whiggish historical attribution of credit to Galen, in the shift in thinking the heart is not ruling faculty, but rather the brain is; and that this was an empirical determination. 

First, a historical fact, found in many places but specifically pointed out by Matthew Cobb in his forth coming book, The Idea of the Brain, is that Galen’s empirical findings were not accepted until after the fall of the Roman EMpire (see the chapter, entitled “Heart”). Massimo’s triumphal march of the history of science, held by many scientists, is simply false. In the case of history of science, scientists, as Massimo was formerly afflicted, are far less interest in empirical data when it comes to what the history of science actually says about the trajectory of scientific developments.  The grosser point is the philosophical one, where one can easily argue against the interpretation Galen gives in his medical texts.  For example, Galen argued that, when pneuma leaked out of an animal brain, it lost consciousness, but that when the hole releasing the pneuma had dried or was plugged, the animal regains consciousness.  This does no damage to an Aristotelian’s metaphysical and scientific (ontological) framework, as one could argue that the pneuma was required in the heart for consciousness –and there’s always the option to consider it an unexplained anomaly.  In complete matter of fact reality, Planck’s principle is more centrally responsible for the acceptance of Galen’s views than just empiricism imposing Galen’s views upon the thinkers of the time.  Empiricism does matter, but it is not the only feature or component of scientific argumentation and interpretation, which was my overarching point in the Twitter discussion.  There’s an abundance of examples in the late medieval period, where the Church is trying to jam new data into their own frameworks, rather than allow new ones to take over.  In short, “correctness” is judged by a theoretical frame work, which ontologically sits within a metaphysical framework. This is not easily debated, as every collection of ontological concepts governing a conceptual framework might induce the question of metaphysics: what sorts of things must or might be necessarily so in order for all of this to be as we have conceived?

In reflecting upon my reading Massimo’s writings and this exchange, where he ended up getting unnecessarily hostile (e.g., accusing me of patronizing him for saying he needed some Duhem in his life), I find that what I like about his writing is also what I disliked about interacting with him in this case.  It’s well worth noting that I have been a big supporter of his, always kind to him in discussion, but I have had to correct him before about his unnecessary hostility, often regarding remarks that are hard to interpret in ways that indicate hostility, though I admire that he managed.  I find this behavior psychologically telling and indicative of extreme dogmatism.  Strangely, this observation feeds into why I enjoy his writings and disliked this exchange with him.  On the one hand, such an analytic and dogmatic thinker understands their own positions quite well, and Massimo writes beautifully, so his thoughts come across clearly, making for great expositions.  On the other hand, his dogmatism makes for an interlocutor who does not entertain or discuss amiably ideas that he does himself not hold.  Given that the disposition and temperament he has presented, I will treat any future interaction him and his texts with the same kind of caution I treat other dogmatic thinkers, like Ayn Rand –cum grano salis.

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