Philosophy: January 2012 Archives

There's a relatively new movement in the communities of people who deal regularly with autism and related conditions that's assigned themselves the term "neurodiversity" as a shorthand reference to their commitment to affirming atypical neurological conditions as equally legitimate. This movement shuns the terms 'normal' and 'abnormal' and instead prefers to speak of those who are neurotypical and those who are not. The neurodiversity movement seeks to identify various traits common with autism as neither better nor worse but simply different.

This movement should be praised for its recognition that respecting people with autism requires taking into account how differently they take in information, process it, use it, and produce various responses. They rightly emphasize that an atypical neurological state need not be thought of as a disease that needs a medical cure or treatment or a disability that requires taking the person to be deficient. They recommend supporting a person for who they are rather than trying to "fix" them to conform to the standards everyone else has. Some autism advocates on the autistic spectrum insist that they wouldn't want to be made "normal" if a "cure" were ever found. They like being the way they are.

There's something obviously right about most of that. The more I read stuff from this movement, however, the more disturbed I get that there's something they're just not seeing, and the good in what I just wrote is blinding a lot of well-meaning people to a serious philosophical error lying behind much of what the neurodiversity movement produces. Consider this story by Karen Kaplan of the Los Angeles Times. She is right to point out that, just because autistic people do badly on certain standardized tests, it doesn't mean they're cognitively deficient. It may well be that the reason a certain person scores low on a certain test is because the test is relying on typical patterns of language use, and someone with autism may be using a different pattern of language use. The underlying cognitive ability being tested for may be stronger than the test shows. That's all correct. But in her rush to make this point, Kaplan completely ignores the fact that the reason someone is scoring low on the test is because of a genuine deficiency in the kind of language use that most people are much better able to engage in. That means there is a lack of ability that comes with autism, even if its manifestation will be different from person to person.

Again, Kaplan speaks of those who emphasize "training kids with autism to behave like typical kids instead of allowing them to make the most of their differently wired brains." That's especially helpful, because allowing autistic people to make the most of their differently-operating brain is certainly the right goal. But that's perfectly compatible with taking their differently-wired brain to be operating at a deficient level with respect to certain cognitive skills, even if it's also operating at a higher level with regard to other cognitive skills. Some in the neurodiversity movement are willing to recognize that differences between neurotypicals and autistic people involve autism conveying certain strengths and weaknesses. But the language of "not better or worse but just different" disallows any such recognition and smacks of crude relativism, whereby we cannot recognize any difference as being better or worse. When taken to its logical implication, we'd have to say that someone who is not intelligent enough to read is not less smart in any respect than the norm, just different. I submit that such a statement is nonsense. There's a particular cognitive ability that allows for reading that most people have, and someone who doesn't have that ability (assuming they genuinely don't) is lacking a cognitive skill. Why can't we just accept that?

Similarly, there is a seeming refusal to recognize any medical condition that can be spoken of in terms of being made worse off. In some respects this strikes me as a general problem among disability communities that stems from crudely relativistic thinking. The deaf community is largely unsupportive of cochlear implants, because it gives children the ability to hear, and they take their lack of hearing not to be a genuine disability. There's nothing wrong with not hearing, so why should they support giving deaf children the ability to hear the way most people can?

If we really took this line of reasoning seriously, we'd have to apply it to other conditions that virtually no one wants to see as perfectly normal. For example, one could argue that pedophilia is just a different way of being, and we should respect it. After all, it's caused by a brain condition, and all brain conditions are equally good. In terms of the arguments I see from the neurodiversity movement, I see no way to say the things they say while avoiding such a conclusion. There are plenty of ways to distinguish between the two cases, but I don't see how those are available given the extreme sorts of statements that I regularly see among neurodiversity advocates.

People who have serious cognitive deficiencies often have serious problems seeing their own intrinsic worth. It's important to affirm that. It's important to help them see that their very existence is not wrong in the sense that we should blame them for being the way they are. It's important to help them see that their preferences may seem weird to others but that in many cases perfectly all right for them to have them. But some voices advocating for neurodiversity want us to say that someone with autism is not messed up in any sense. The fact is that we're all messed up. We're all distorted. We're all flawed. No one is the way we ought to be. Autism is one way to have various deficiencies, one that also happens in many cases to have plenty of strengths above the level typical of most people. To say that we can never evaluate being less good at something or more good at something with such value-laden language would be to overreact to a genuine problem in how many people look at people with disabilities.

But on one level, I can't blame the neurodiversity movement (and the more general relativistic outlook among other disability communities). After all, their view follows fairly easily from a particular version of secularized naturalistic thinking. Different neurological conditions stem from natural variation, and there's no other level of explanation but natural variation. There's no God who designed human beings to have certain capabilities. There are no natural purposes according to which organisms have a nature, and certain capacities are part of what a well-functioning member of their species will be able to do. There's no notion of well-functioning if your worldview doesn't allow for higher-level explanations about purposes and design, other than perhaps simply asking whether a particular organism fits into the way most members of its species are or whether it fits the patterns members of its species typically desire for themselves. There's nothing objective about what a healthy member of that species or a well-functioning member of that species would be like. There is no way we can have a notion of the way we ought to be if there's no ground for what it would be to be the way we ought to be. But such a conclusion seems to me to be so obviously false that perhaps we should just question the metaphysical underpinning of the neurodiversity movement, rather than giving in to that metaphysical picture's logical implications.

[cross-posted at Evangel and the Neurodiversity Consulting blog]

I was thinking last night about the new show Once Upon a Time, and it occurred to me that it might provide a really good illustration of the difference between externalism and internalism in epistemology. (I haven't seen last night's episode yet, so please no one spoil it for me.)

Internalism holds that what justifies our beliefs or makes them rational or what grounds our knowledge must be something internal to our thinking, in other words something where the reasons why it is justified, rational, or grounded are accessible to our conscious thought. We have to be able to see why our beliefs are grounded for those beliefs to be grounded. We have to be aware of what makes it a good belief for it to be a good belief. It wouldn't be enough to have reliable belief-forming mechanisms (such as senses that reliably give me the right information).

Externalism holds that there might be things make our beliefs justified or rational or grounding our knowledge that are not accessible to our conscious thought. We don't have to be aware of what justifies us in thinking something for it to be a justified belief. For it to be well-grounded knowledge, we don't have to know that our knowledge is grounded in reliable practices and thus why it is well-grounded knowledge. It just has to be grounded in the right sort of ways.

Perhaps the biggest place of disagreement comes over how to respond to skepticism. If internalism is true, I would have to prove that my senses are reliable for them to ground my knowledge, which of course I can't do, because I might be in a virtual reality for all I can know by internalist standards. There are internalists would would disagree, but a lot of philosophers have concluded that internalism leads hopelessly to skepticism, because I can't prove that my senses are reliable, and just having reliable senses isn't enough. I'd have to be able to prove it, which I can't do. But externalism can handle skeptical arguments by pointing out that I can know all sorts of stuff even without being able to prove it. It doesn't mean I can prove I know things. It just means that skeptical arguments fail, because the skeptic has to show that my senses are unreliable to show that I don't know things. With internalism, all the skeptic has to show is that I don't know if my senses are unreliable. With externalism, the skeptic has to show that they are in fact unreliable. So the burden of proof on the skeptic is higher with externalism.

Once Upon a Time provides a nice illustration of externalist epistemology. The basic premise of the show is that the Evil Queen has cursed all the characters in the Enchanted Forest by bringing them to a terrible place where there are no happy endings except for her. That terrible place is Storybrooke, Maine, in a world otherwise very much like our current day. The Evil Queen is the mayor. The story shifts back and forth between events in the characters' lives back in the Enchanted Forest and events in their lives now in Storybrooke, where no one is supposed to remember their previous lives except the Evil Queen.

Snow White and Prince Charming are the Evil Queen's primary targets. She wants revenge against Snow White for something we haven't seen yet (as least as of last week's episode). She wants to ensure that they are not together. They have no memory of each other, certainly not of having been married to each other. He was in a coma when the show began, and apparently he had been since the curse began. She has no memory of him. When he awakes from his coma, he has no memory, until the Evil Queen at some point seems to have interfered to give him memories of being married to someone else, someone who turns out to have been engaged to him in the Enchanted Forest before he broke it off to marry Snow White. But when they meet up, they feel such a longing for each other, as if they have always been meant to be together.

Prince Charming tries to rebuild his marriage, but he can't ignore his feelings for Snow White. This woman whom he (falsely) thinks is his wife brings out no current feelings, but he seems to have memories of feelings for her, and he tries to make it work. Technically, he's living in an adulterous relationship with her while thinking his feelings for Snow White are the adulterous ones. But Snow White is really his wife, and some process within him is leading him to think he should be with her. But he has no access to what would be leading him to that. An externalist would say that he has some process within him that he can't understand that's leading him to know that Snow White is the one for him, and his false beliefs about his past do not interfere with that knowledge. An internalist has to say that his most justified beliefs are the false ones.

So suppose there's some reliable process whereby his body's memories of his love for Snow White are leading him to know that she's really the one he's supposed to be with. His resistance to this woman who isn't his wife, whom he believes is his wife, is then grounded in processes that he has no access to. An externalist could say that his belief that he should be with Snow White (whom he knows now by another name, of course) is justified by these processes he's unaware of, and it's bogus to rely on his memories for the belief that he's married to the other woman. An internalist would say that his belief that he is married to the other woman is in fact false but is justified. Which belief is justified, then, depends on which epistemology is correct.

Which view you adopt would seem to have significant moral implications. He's doing something clearly wrong, according to internalism, by having clandestine romantic interactions with Snow White. But what if he has knowledge on some level that can somehow cancel his seeming knowledge (that isn't knowledge at all) that this is adultery? Those are false beliefs, based on false memories. If he doesn't know those things but falsely believes them, and he also knows on some level that Snow White is his true love, is it enough to remove the wrongness of the adultery? Perhaps that's too much, but it does seem to be ethically different in some ways.

I want to announce that I've signed a book contract with Lexington Books, an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, to publish a revised and expanded version of my dissertation. My current plan is to send them the manuscript by the end of April, followed by a review process and then revisions to be due by the end of June or early July, which they say will allow them to have it in print by December. The title (for now, although it might change) is A Realist Metaphysics of Race: A Context-Sensitive, Short-Term Retentionist, Long-Term Revisionist Account.

General Overview: There are three main metaphysical positions on race. Anti-realists deny that there are races. Natural-kind positions find sub-groups of homo sapiens with scientific importance and call them races. Social-kind views consider races to exist because of contingent social practices. I argue for a view closest to the third camp, with a few wrinkles. Three distinctives of my approach are:

(a) I self-consciously argue as an analytic metaphysician, taking this to be a work of applied metaphysics in the same sense that looking at questions regarding abortion, just war theory, or the ethics of lying count as applied ethics, and its relation to theoretical metaphysics (what is most commonly called metaphysics among analytic philosophers) is analogous to how applied ethics relates to ethical theory (e.g. utilitarian, deontological, virtue, natural law, or other theoretical approaches, which was what ethics was largely restricted to until the applied ethics revolution of the late 20th century). Part of my aim is to remove the bias against seeing this sort of subject as part of what metaphysicians should be doing.

(b) I argue that race is highly context-sensitive, in more ways than most race theorists mean when they speak of themselves as holding views they call contextualist.

(c) My overall conclusion by the end is that we should not abandon race-talk, race-theorizing, or race-classification, at least not in the short-term. We need to be able to speak of such social realities to address real racial problems. However, we ought to find ways to challenge some of the social forces that work to make racial groups racialized and to form the social realities that surround race, some of which are not the way we should want them to be.

Here is the chapter breakdown:

1. Natural Kinds and the Analogy of Species:

There's a debate in the philosophy of biology about whether species are natural kinds. This chapter looks closely at that debate to argue that it is meaningful to speak of natural kinds, although species are not natural kinds in the strong sense that Aristotle might have taken them to be.

2. Natural Kinds and Race

I look at three conceptions of race as what I call minimalist natural kinds, two from philosophers and one from biologists. Al three views have potential to pick out groups useful for categorizing people according to scientific purposes but all three have problems if we want to identify the groups they point to as the same groups that we ordinarily call races.

3. Classic Anti-Realism

I argue in this chapter against certain of the traditional anti-realist arguments (especially Naomi Zack and Kwame Anthony Appiah), especially emphasizing ordinary use (as opposed to the language of experts) and changes is race-language.

4. Glasgow's Revisionism

Joshua Glasgow develops an anti-realism that takes the groups we call races to exist as social constructions, but he doesn't think those groups should be called races. I resist his arguments and argue that some of his evidence actually support a social kind view like the one I end up adopting.

5. Social-Construction and Biological Constructionism

The contingency of the racial categories, the fact that arbitrary socially-determined facts determine the structure of racial classification, and the instability of racial categories are all good evidence that races are social constructions. I conclude that races are social kinds that take their basis in biologically-identified traits, but the selection of which biological traits we use to identify races are biologically-arbitrary.

6. Races and the Metaphysics of Objects and Groups

My view is that races exist as socially-constructed entities but that they might just as well have existed without being races. Social facts don't bring races into existence but rather make existing groups into races. This chapter looks to contemporary metaphysics to see arguments that nihilists and coincident-entity theorists might make against my view. I argue against those conceptions, but even if those views were correct, much of what I say would still follow.

7. Context-Sensitive Features of Racial Assignment

This chapter argues for context-sensitivity in racial constructions, with fluidity from one context to another even for the same person. Different factors might be relevant in different settings to change which racial labels might apply.This context-sensitivity is much more diverse in terms of ways of being context-sensitive than I find in most of the philosophy of race literature. The particular ways this works will support my eventual revisionism in the next chapter.

8. The Ethics of the Metaphysics of Race

Here I argue that we should use existing racial categories to identify problems within the social constructions of race, rather than seeking to eliminate the categories in any direct way, but we should also make efforts to change the conditions that generate those problematic elements, so we can retain only the unproblematic aspects, and some elements of racial identity-formation can be good.

9. Implicit Bias and the Argument for Elimination

Recent work in psychology and cognitive science shows that our patterns of forming race-judgments rely on a more general pattern in child development that leads to implicit racial bias of an invisible but harmful sort, even among people who are explicitly anti-racist in their reflective views. I argue that there is evidence in the psychology and cognitive science literature that shows that we need to retain our racial categories to address existing implicit bias, but there is also evidence that we should rethink how we speak of racial issues with small children, to reduce the perpetuation of implicit bias in further generations, and this result fits well with (and gives further details to flesh out) the conclusion of the previous chapter.


    The Parablemen are: , , and .

    Twitter: @TheParableMan



Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently