Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Book review: Hilary Putnam: A philosopher in the age of science

Hilary Putnam: Philosophy in the age of science

Reviewed by Malcolm Nicholson

The Harvard philosopher Hilary Putnam might seem a dwarf at first glance, and his latest collection of essays, Philosophy in the Age of Science, another scholarly text for academics. It is a weighty book from a university press with foreboding chapter titles like “Axioms of Set Existence.” It will likely be ignored by non-philosophers. This is a shame because Putnam, in lucid and readable prose, confronts some of the most philosophically rich debates out there. Can science produce an exhaustive description of the universe? Are moral values subject to rational scrutiny? Can we give an account of mind that is compatible with what we know about cognitive psychology?

Putnam, unlike most philosophers, does not take a slow and plodding approach. His style is more detached, more panoramic. He takes long strides, condensing arguments into a few sentences, rather than the whole chapters one would usually expect. What Putnam’s approach lacks in microscopic nuance, it makes up for with its ability to capture the big picture—to see how small philosophical problems relate to grand, overarching topics.
This kind of approach can come off as naïve or arrogant, unless deftly handled. Bertrand Russell got away with it in his Problems of Philosophy because he was a famously brilliant logician, who also spent decades thinking about the arguments he reduces to short paragraphs. For similar reasons William James’s Pragmatism, a poignant American counterpoint to Russell, gets away with its grandiose and sweeping style. Putnam pulls off the trick too—he is one of the few living philosophers in the same mould as Russell and James.
Like Russell, Putnam began his philosophical career working on topics concerning logic and mathematics. In the 1960s his work with three other mathematicians led to the solution of Hilbert’s Tenth Problem, and his work with Martin Davis led to the creation of an algorithm about satisfiability for first-order predicate logic. Like William James, Putnam has a keen eye for where lofty philosophical notions such as truth, knowledge, value, and justification can be related to pragmatic concerns about use and practicality. And like James and Russell, Putnam sees both science and philosophy as participating in a similar project of refining our conception of reality. Sadly Putnam has never enjoyed a similar level of fame or public influence, though his famous essay “Brain in a Vat” may have been one of the inspirations behind The Matrix, a film which introduced philosophical scepticism to a whole new audience.
Within the world of academic philosophy, Putnam is famous (perhaps notorious is the word) for his habit of changing his mind. His entry in the joke Philosophical Lexicon runs:
Hilary: A very brief but significant period in the intellectual career of a distinguished philosopher. “Oh, that’s what I thought three or four hilaries ago.
His longtime admirer Sidney Morgenbesser once quipped of Putman: “He’s a quantum philosopher. I can’t understand him and his position at the same time.”This intellectual mutability extends to his politics and personal life. Born in 1926 to an intellectually gifted, middle-class Jewish family in Chicago, Putnam was raised an atheist and progressive. In the 1960s Putman was a vocal defender of the Civil Rights Movement, a critic of the American involvement in Vietnam, and a member of the communist Progressive Labor Party. By 1976 Putnam, after grappling with the human rights abuses by communists, left the PLP and gave up his support for Maoism. Both Putnam and his wife, the philosopher Ruth-Anna Putnam, returned to Judaism after decades of atheism. Putnam was 68 when he had his Bar Mitzvah.
Changing your mind in any situation, much less academic philosophy, is seen as a sort of weakness. It takes a very secure ego to end a debate with “well I think I may have been wrong.” Putnam’s shifts in position demonstrate not just his intellectual confidence, but also the virtue of seeing the bigger picture. Putnam is able to step back for a moment and see a particular position, say functionalism in philosophy of mind, and notice that it doesn’t quite fit in with a greater commitment in metaphysics and philosophy of language.
In Philosophy in an Age of Science Putnam wants us to take a step back and consider the relationship between two deeply entrenched ways of understanding the world. One, the scientific position, attempts to explain things in mind-independent and law-like terms. This is often called the descriptive or “is” position. The other, the moral position, attempts to explain things in mind-dependent and value-laced terms. This is often called the normative or “ought” position.
For the past century philosophers, and our culture in general, have seen these positions as mutually exclusive. This line of thought was taken up during the 1940s and 50s by the logical positivists. Wanting to place all thought on firm scientific ground, they proposed a severe reduction of the scope of philosophy. Proper philosophy, they argued, should concern itself with the analysis of well-defined propositions with clearly identified conditions for verification.
Inevitably, after the reign of the logical positivists, there followed a backlash. Their sharp division between the scientific and normative positions began to appear untenable. Putnam was one of the leaders of the attack, consciously rejecting the primacy of the scientific stance that has dominated philosophy since Russell. Philosophy in an Age of Science condenses a career’s worth of work but it is Putnam’s criticism of the false distinction between facts and values that is his most convincing and important argument. Briefly put, in Putnam’s view there is no clear-cut way to distinguish facts from evaluative judgements.
This goes against one of the most widely held convictions of the modern age. It seems a simple matter to sort our beliefs into neat piles—objective facts in one corner, subjective opinions and values in another. “The acceleration of gravity on earth is 9.8 metres per second squared” as opposed to “Schubert’s music is better than Justin Bieber’s.” Politicians and pundits are always trying to “get to the facts.” We placate disagreements with “well that’s just my opinion.” Working in the background here is another idea: that facts are something that all rational people can agree upon while values are ultimately impervious to reason and argument. This view of the world as divided into the subjective and objective is so deeply held that many people assume that it is just the way things are and not a philosophical position.

On March 13, America lost one of the greatest philosophers this nation has ever produced. Hilary Putnam died of cancer at the age of 89. Those of us who had the good fortune to know Putnam as mentees, colleagues, and friends remember his life with profound gratitude and love, since Hilary was not only a great philosopher, but also a human being of extraordinary generosity, who really wanted people to be themselves, not his acolytes. But it’s also good, in the midst of grief, to reflect about Hilary’s career, and what it shows us about what philosophy is and what it can offer humanity. For Hilary was a person of unsurpassed brilliance, but he also believed that philosophy was not just for the rarely gifted individual. Like two of his favorites, Socrates and John Dewey (and, I’d add, like those American founders), he thought that philosophy was for all human beings, a wake-up call to the humanity in us all.