A view from social psychology

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Photo by Carl Cervantes on Unsplash

Just a heads-up. This article is dense and semi-academic. But you’re not likely to read anything like it in the mass media or even academic journals, and I think the topic needs more attention and discussion. Popular culture is increasingly influenced by ideas from academic philosophy (or its close cousins, literary, critical, cultural, gender or social theory). But philosophy, or any purely discursive discipline, is not a method for producing good… or even true… ideas, but rather the opposite. If you’re interested in why, read on.

Introduction

Two English-speaking anthropologists visit an insular tribe that is purported to have its own unique language. In order to learn the tribal language, one anthropologist joins the tribe. The other camps outside, but finds she is unable to learn anything about the tribe’s ‘language’ (other than what it sounds like) by observing their behavior, which is entirely visible and audible to her through surveillance equipment. The tribe members appear to ‘talk’ a great deal, but nothing they ‘say’ seems to relate to the external world. They only ‘talk’ when sitting around doing nothing else, and go about other activities silently (using only crude gestures such as pointing). …


How an immortal jellyfish could end evolutionary theory as we know it

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Turritopsis dohrnii, the ‘immortal jellyfish’. Image by Dr. Karen J. Osborn via Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)

Almost all organisms grow old (i.e. physically deteriorate over time), a process that eventually results in death. Biologists call this age-related decline ‘senescence’. We know only a few exceptions. The ‘immortal’ jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii periodically reverts to an earlier stage in its life-cycle, like a butterfly turning back into a caterpillar.

This life-cycle reversal has been observed in another species of jellyfish, Aurelia. A flatworm called Schmidtea mediterranea appears to be able to regenerate itself indefinitely. Another sea creature called Hydra seems to not age at all. Lobsters don’t show obvious signs of deteriorating with age, but they never stop growing. Since their shells don’t expand, they have to discard them and grow larger ones. …


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Photo by Sofia Sforza on Unsplash

An MI6 operative goes missing in Singapore, and rookie agent David is partnered with retired local hand Colonel Milhouse to find her.

Chapter 1

David regretted choosing Rule Britannia as a ringtone. It didn’t sound as patriotic at 3:00 AM. “It’s me,” he answered absent-mindedly. “There’s been an incident in Singapore. We’re sending a car. Be ready by oh-three-thirty.” The line cut. David swore audibly. “F__k. Why me?” Five years since he was reassigned to a desk job at the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6. He liked the hours, and more time with Linda and the kids. …


No one seems to know what they’re good for

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Somebody has to say it. PhD degrees are useless. Bertrand Russell never had one, law professors still don’t need them. Why do we have them?

Reason №1. PhD programs are a source of cheap indentured labor. Graduate students do a lot of undergraduate teaching — and pretty much anything else their supervisors want them to do — for very little money.

Reason №2. Nobody likes competition, and the PhD requirement adds a bottleneck for academic job applicants. 10 Masters and 25 Bachelors degrees are awarded for every PhD in the US. Nobody wants 10X or 25X more competition, so the PhD stays. …


And it’s the same for all of us

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Some disciplines have a ‘blind spot’, assumptions that go largely unquestioned because they justify the existence of the discipline. For philosophical ethics, that blind spot is the assumption of moral ignorance, that there are circumstances in which we do not know the right thing to do. Moral ignorance is not ignorance of relevant facts, such as not knowing that a piano is falling as you walk under it. …


Or the economy will regularly implode

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Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

Recently, there have been calls by some economists for a ‘debt jubilee’, which essentially means the cancellation of debts (either by debt forgiveness, acting as if the debt never existed; or third-party redemption, where someone other than the lender or borrower — such as the government — pays off the debt). This was proposed as an ad-hoc solution to a growing worldwide crisis in personal and government debt, which together threaten a new global depression, especially after the economic havoc wrought by COVID-19 lockdowns. …


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Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

There’s such a vast literature on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘private language argument’ (PLA for short) — almost 5,000 references in Google Scholar, excluding unpublished theses — that it’s impossible, in any realistic time-frame, to ascertain if the version I’m presenting here is a new one (hence the question mark). Life is short, so I’m just going to riff off the top of my head, and if this was originally someone else’s idea, then it’s their new version of PLA, not mine (in which case, I’m just explaining it in plain English). …


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Photo by Robin Klein (modified by author) via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In an op-ed in the Washington Post entitled ‘Why America Needs a Hate Speech Law’, Richard Stengel suggests that since many countries have such laws, America should consider implementing one. I’m sure he would agree that every country needs to tailor its laws to suit its own circumstances. Therefore, rather than copy other nations, the United States should look to its own situation in deciding if it needs a hate speech law. Conversely, the United States is not necessarily a model for all other jurisdictions.

American society is marked by diversity, vigorous political contestation, and regular switching between Republicans and Democrats in the White House and Congress. Politicians compete aggressively for the support of interest groups, who in turn organize around grievances for which they seek redress by the state. Sometimes these grievances include demands for restrictions on speech deemed “offensive”, as defined by the offended group. …


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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

While researching this topic, I came across a paper by Robin Allott (2003) which was somewhat technical and wide-ranging in covering issues in philosophy, linguistics, psychology and neurology. Allott’s discussion may interest a wider readership, and I have taken the liberty of writing this short non-technical piece introducing what I believe to be a key theme in his paper, philosophical implications of the gestural theory of language origin. The theory presents an opportunity for mutually fruitful collaboration between language origin research and the philosophy of language.

Language Origin Research (LOR) is a multi-disciplinary enterprise, drawing on anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, psychology and the biological sciences. Despite sharing a preoccupation with the necessary and sufficient conditions for language, philosophy and LOR rarely cross paths. The central question in LOR is: If language is a natural stage in the evolution of animal communication, why are humans the only known language-using species? The apparent uniqueness of language to humans suggests that it developed at a time when the human species branched off from the evolutionary tree and took on unique characteristics leading to language-use. …


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Photo by Pascal Swier on Unsplash

In his classic book, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, Irving Janis observed that when members view staying in a team as highly desirable, they tend to seek mutual agreement rather than express contrarian views that may alienate peers, especially authority figures. This collective desire for consensus, which Janis called ‘groupthink’, can lead to irrational decisions. He recommended the use of ‘devil’s advocates’ or designated contrarians to disrupt the influence of groupthink.

As the name suggests, the designated contrarian’s role is to present alternative and opposing perspectives against the consensus or majority position of the team. Separate studies by the psychologists Stanley Milgram and Solomon Asch found that visible dissent, even by one person, had a disruptive effect on compliance by others. In a classic experiment by Asch, a group of volunteers was asked which one of three lines on a card was the same length as a fourth reference line on another card. …

About

Ben Gibran

Ben writes on the theory and social science of communication, and anything else that comes to mind

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