An interview with Jesús Zamora

This post is also available in: Spanish

Aboard the Otto Neurath” -the name of your blog- makes clear reference to the thinker of the Viena circle. Is it also a defense of unified science and physicalism?

Not necessarily. These are two independent, completely different metaphors. The idea of Otto Neurath’s ship makes reference to the absence of an absolute foundation. In fact, these ideas are not only different, but there is a certain collision between them. As I said, the ship’s metaphor makes reference to a lack of an absolute foundation of knowledge but, on the other hand, the idea of the reduction and unity of science to the physical language seems to assume the thesis that there’s a more proper foundation for knowledge, which would be given by Physics. I think that, if you take the ship’s metaphor in a more natural way, Physics possibly plays an important role in the whole of scientific knowledge, but there’s no reason to assume it has the ability to be used as a foundation for the whole of knowledge.

Philosophy today is mainly adjective. Is there a substantive Philosophy, in any sense?

It’s a rather difficult question. Personally, because of the kind of things I work on, I focus on adjective Philosophy, rather than substantive, because my research field is Philosophy of science, of certain particular sciences. But it’s possible to understand Philosophy as something which possesses its own subject matter. The knowledge derived from it won’t be like that derived from science since, from my point of view, Philosophy is characterized by being an activity which tries to pressure concepts to their last consequences, to the most radical consequences we can find. But it pressures all kinds of concepts, extracted from any field of knowledge, not only science but also ethics, politics, law, etc.

What happens is that languages used by the social and natural sciences are different, since those of natural science can be tested and falsified, while in social science that’s more problematic.

There are many differences, but I don’t think all of them can be reduced to the degree of testability. This happens indeed, but it’s a matter of degree, not an absolute difference. There are fields of science where testability is very difficult: for example, imagine the hypotheses about the origin of life on Earth. It’s almost impossible to test any of them. However, there are aspects of knowledge in social science where testability is just as easy as it is in other disciplines of the natural sciences. I’m thinking about some areas in economics, even in sociology, in history, for example. I believe there’s a more radical difference between natural and social sciences and it’s that, in social science, there’s a concept which does not appear in natural science and which is fundamental: the concept of normativity. That is, social science deals with a parcel of reality in which not only things happen -as in natural science- but where also what happens is very influenced -not necessarily determined- by the notions which the subjects have about what should happen. Human beings move, partly, driven by their biology and, also partly, driven by their internal rules, their ideas about what’s right and wrong. However, electrons and lemurs possibly don’t worry about right and wrong.

In your blog you mention the distinction between mind and brain, clearly placing yourself in the monist side.

I am a radical monist. For me, the mind is the workings of the brain. In this dialog you’re referring to, the view I wanted to defend was a criticism of the idea that the qualia -subjective qualities of things perceived- are not reducible to what we know about the brain materially speaking, what we know about its physical operation. And my thesis was that, in fact, we have absolutely no idea -from the scientific point of view- about how the brain is in its qualitative aspects. Not only do we have no idea about the brain, but also about any object in the universe. All we can scientifically know about objects in the universe is their formal aspects, that is, we can say which equations describe them more or less adequately, but we cannot say what their qualities are. Therefore, there’s no reason to assume it’s impossible for the qualia, which supposedly -or intuitively- are realities of the qualitative type and apparently not describable by natural science, to be part of the brain. We just cannot know other qualitative aspects of the brain beyond those qualia. On the other side, we cannot know anything but formal aspects, that is, which mathematical structures describe the brain well. But it’s perfectly possible for the real structures contained by the brain to contain qualitative aspects, of which the quantitative, formal description is the one given by natural sciences. And therefore the point of that debate was that the existence of the qualia does not prove the mind to be something different from the brain. Both can be one and the same thing.

What do you think about theories like Penrose’s, who claims that consciousness is intimately linked to Quantum Mechanics?

Since I’m a monist, I believe consciousness is a natural phenomenon, just like any other. Therefore consciousness is based on Quantum Mechanics, just as a glass breaking as it falls to the ground is also based on Quantum Mechanics. That is, we’ve discovered the quantum laws because they were the only way we had of explaining certain phenomena we observed in the universe. And those quantum laws are the ones which give rise to all realities, including the brain and the mind. When Penrose and other people say that consciousness can be only understood as a quantum phenomenon, it seems kind of trivial to me, since absolutely everything is a quantum phenomenon, everything is made up of quanta. What happens is they simply mean something else and my problem is I still haven’t been able to figure out what that is. I’m not really sure whether they are right or not because I don’t fully understand what they’re trying to say.

They seem to suggest that the brain is capable of things a classical computer is incapable of.

If they are trying to say the brain is a kind of object where quantum superpositions happen at the macroscopic level, that seems to me a very dubious claim. If that were true, it should be possible to prove it empirically and I don’t know any kind of empirical proof of anything remotely similar. On the other hand, a reason why all of this makes me suspicious is that, from the quantum perspective, the brain of a lizard is exactly as complex as the human brain. It’s less complex from the classical point of view, we could say, but from the quantum point of view, seen from the perspective of an electron, the brain of a lizard is as complex as that of a human. And, therefore, I don’t see any reason why, if the biochemical structure of the neuron’s organelles was responsible for consciousness, for free will, for our capacity to perceive mathematical truths -the kinds of things Penrose talks about- I don’t see why lizards can’t have free will and know Pythagoras’s theorem and humans can. So I’m very doubtful about the part that refers to the empirical consequences of this train of thought. On the other hand, I still think that we can’t describe a classical computer exactly using only the classical description, since the classical computer is a quantum system which works the way it does due to quantum laws.

With that it seems clear that, for you, the notion of free will exists and makes sense.

Well, of course there is a notion of free will. What’s more, there are many different notions of free will and many philosophers use different ones. The question is whether human beings -or lizards, or computers- have free will or not. When I was talking about lizards before, I was referring to certain empirically testable capabilities that human beings have and lizards don’t. We can choose amongst a much greater number of options than a lizard, but that’s due to the complexity of our brain -understood from the biological point of view, not the quantum one- allowing us to imagine a lot more alternatives than the lizard, which maybe is only able to imagine whether it lies in the sun or the shade. We have the ability to imagine many different options and also to adjust our behavior to choose one or another. This capacity can be perfectly described without the need to introduce a metaphysical notion of free will, which would entail some kind of violation of physical laws and for which I see no need. It seems to me that what we should do is observe the behavior of human beings, the behavior of other animals and then talk about those differences -which, as we understand, could refer to a greater number of choices- as free will, but we’re inside the realm of empirical science, not Metaphysics or Philosophy.

To put it like Spinoza: “what we call free will is the ignorance of the causes of our behavior .”

Exactly. I completely agree with that statement. For example, if I have a piece of chocolate in my hand and I’m trying to decide whether to eat it or not, what I observe by introspection is that, at a certain moment, I decide to eat it and I also observe there has been a process of deliberation in which the desire to eat it and the desire to not put on weight -or to not increase my cholesterol or whatever else- compete, but what I do not observe in any way is the causal process that leads from the deliberation to decision. I observe the decision as I see a pimple come out, without knowing how it comes about. Possibly, if we had a more precise knowledge -as Spinoza thought- of the causal mechanism which leads from the deliberation process to the decision, we would see there’s no need to assume there’s some entity which violates the laws of physics or anything like that.

In your blog you mention atheism several times. Do you think science and philosophy have anything to say in the debate about the existence of God?

Philosophy certainly has something to say, because it has been debating the matter for 2500 years. The question is whether what Philosophy says about it is reasonable or not, since evidently each philosopher has said different things. With regards to whether science has anything to say about this question, it depends on how it is posed. If we do so in terms of whether it’s possible to give a scientific proof of God’s existence -or his non-existence- then I think neither is. That is, science cannot find God’s existence the same way it can find, for instance, the existence of a certain chemical element. And it cannot proof non-existence in the same way it can proof the non-existence of a certain chemical element, for example between two such elements. So the existence or non-existence of God as a scientific discovery is something which lies beyond the grasp of science. However, what science can do are two interesting things. Firstly, showing that the supposition of God’s existence is not necessary for many of the things which had traditionally been explained through that supposition, that is, that certain reasons for the belief in God are no such reasons. That can be discovered by science. Secondly, it can also discover many of the causes why human beings have a tendency to accept God’s -or some supernatural being’s- existence. Combining these two empirical discoveries, which are legitimate, -that is, discoveries which show it’s not necessary to suppose God’s existence in order to explain certain things and empirical discoveries which show that it’s reasonable for beings like us to believe in God in certain circumstances, even without a scientific foundation for it- we have non-demonstrative but very powerful reasons to question God’s existence. That is, if the God hypothesis is unnecessary to explain what we supposedly want to explain with it and, on top of that, we can explain why people have a tendency to believe in God even if there isn’t one, we will have to suspect that belief does not correspond to reality.

In fact, a great deal of scientific progress has consisted of gradually dispensing with God as an explanatory mechanism. Until Kant, who tries to dispense with him for morality, when he creates an autonomous morality.

Well, Kant dispenses with God in the area of natural knowledge rather than in the area of ethical knowledge. In the area of ethical knowledge, God is at the end -for Kant- a postulate of reason, that is, it is true that he tries to give an autonomous justification to ethics, but he reaches the conclusion that his autonomous ethics is only possible if we assume that the world has been created by an infinitely benevolent being. Because, if we had implicit in us the desire to do good, but the world was made in such a way that there was no guarantee we could do so, that -Kant thinks – would be absurd. It would be absurd to have a being -such as us- in the universe who believes he or she has to do something that cannot be done. I agree with Kant that it may be absurd, but I don’t agree with the fact that it can’t be. That is, human beings may be absurd beings.

Maybe Kant re-introduces God that way with the same intention as Hobbes in the second part of his Leviathan, where he tries to prove that his absolutely materialistic postulates agree with the Bible, but that neither of them actually believed it.

It’s certainly possible. In fact, the influence of religious thinking in European history has been so strong that it’s empirically impossible to find out whether some of the things the authors back then said were said in order not to reject Christian religion or because they actually believed them. There is no situation in which we can judge how intellectually honest they were and we can’t even judge whether they were subject to some kind of mechanism of self-deception, due to the social situation they lived in.

While knowledge had God as a guarantor, there was a strong notion of truth which, in the current epistemic research, seems to fluctuate. Is it possible to use a strong notion of truth?

I’m not so sure that the God hypothesis offered that guarantee, because the deepest theologists, including Saint Thomas Aquinas himself -who is the paradigm of Christian theology- deep down accepted what they called a negative theology, in the sense that the truth about God -and therefore the most profound truths about the universe- are for them ineffable, which means they are not graspable through language. And, therefore, deep down anything we say through language is relatively false. So I believe that, deep down, religion -Christian religion in particular- does not necessarily grant an absolutely firm foundation to our desire of knowing the world. And it may be used both to try to establish a foundation of this kind and to give basis to relativistic and skeptical theses. In fact, several of the great theologists have been skeptical in relation to the knowledge of the world, though not necessarily to the knowledge of God. So the concept of truth was neither so stable, so firm, in the ancient tradition, nor it’s necessarily more unstable in our atheist or secular or disenchanted tradition. I believe that, deep down, science -and that’s a subject which worries philosophers more than scientists- is based on having a notion of truth which is pragmatically useful. A notion of truth with some method for agreeing about some subject, about who’s right about a certain problem. For science to work, it’s enough to have some mechanism to help us determine whether it’s that scientist or the other who came up with the right answer to the question. We don’t need something akin to a transcendental notion of truth.

And for that you use the notion of verisimilitude.

Exactly. The idea of verisimilitude is a fairly vague concept which has a long history, even a prehistory, but in current philosophy it was introduced by Popper, who did it with a very different sense to the one I’m trying to defend. Popper suggested it precisely as a defense of the idea that there is an objective truth and that the object of science consisted of getting closer to that objective truth. Popper didn’t succeed: the definitions he tried to give of the concept of closeness to the truth were inconsistent, from the logical point of view. Later many other definitions were attempted, some of them not inconsistent, some of them consistent, but they could hardly be applied to real science. What I tried was suggesting some versions of this concept in which there is no need to suppose that verisimilitude consists of getting closer to an objective truth, but that it is instead some kind of quality of the results we obtain. Verisimilitude in science, the way I suggest it, would be a similar concept to the one we use when saying a movie is realistic, with a similar meaning to the one the same word has in art, literature, etc.

You have intently criticized creationism. What’s the difference between real knowledge and pseudo-knowledge?

There’s a fundamental difference: knowledge has to be subject to some kind of empirical test. If a thesis is put forward such that no possible empirical test could count as an argument against it, it can’t be part of the game of science. It’s something which can be accepted or rejected according to the customer’s taste, to put it some way. Science is characterized, on the other hand, by the attitude scientists have of saying “we will reject this theory if we observe this or that fact” and those facts have to be previously defined, even though they may be so in a relatively vague way. A series of cases we may observe, which would force us to reject the theory, have to be predefined. For example, the kind of things that would lead us to throw away the theory of evolution are absolutely clear. If we found, for example, that decoding the DNA of a certain bug we could assign a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, for example, to each codon and it turned out that, when we put those letters together, we saw an entire chapter of the Genesis -for example- it would be an absolute refutation of the claim that the bug evolved by natural selection. But there’s nothing we could ever observe that could lead us to the conclusion that the world, the living creatures, haven’t had to be created by God. Then, there is no way of knowing whether that hypothesis is true or false. One believes it if one feels like it and, if not, one doesn’t.

And what do you think about the fact the universities, such as the one in Zaragoza, have opened homeopathy chairs? Why do you think this happens?

I don’t have a scientific explanation of why. Let’s say that, from the point of view of an informal chat, I suspect it has to do with economic interests. Someone can make money doing that and they’re trying to. What’s worrying is not the fact that some incentives exist in the economic system to promote this kind of thing -which there obviously always are: while there are people who believe in witches, the horoscope, etc. there will be people who spend money in hand reading and that kind of thing and, therefore, there will be people who will make money doing it. What’s worrying is that this is being done inside public institutions. I have no problem with someone setting up a hand reading business -of course, there will have to be legal precautions against fraud: if someone loses all of their capital because they’ve been conned through hand reading, it’s just like any other con- but, while it remains a relatively innocuous activity, where one spends the amount they could spend at the movies -since it’s entertainment, just like anything else- there’s nothing to argue about. The problem is that public institutions and, particularly, public institutions devoted to science and teaching, admit this kind of thing. That’s worrying and it seems to me that it’s simply a total lack of responsibility on the side of the institutions.

You frequently use economic theory to try to model scientific activity. What makes it possible to use those tools for science?

This is a question that has caused me a lot of debates, because what I’ve tried has been to establish some kind of bridge between two very different views of the study of scientific knowledge. One is epistemology and traditional philosophy of science, which is based on the idea that science and other epistemic activities are based on the search for truth, and it tries to see what the conditions have to be in order for that search to be successful -conditions of the logical or psychological type, in some occasions- and, on the other hand, another current of science studies, which are sociological, anthropological studies, based on how scientists act and in what are the interests that make them act as they do. There’s a great incommensurability -to use the Kuhnian term-between both views, simply because the traditional view of philosophy of science does not accept that non-epistemic interests may have a relevant role in our understanding of scientific knowledge, while the proponents of the sociological view consider that, since in fact scientists -or so they observe through their studies- are driven by non-epistemic interests -apart from the epistemic interests they have- and those non-epistemic interests sometimes greatly influence their choice of theory or research line, then scientific knowledge has no epistemic value whatsoever. Therefore, there is simply no possible communication between both paradigms. What I’ve tried has been to study the behavior of scientists the way it’s done in the social studies of science but, instead of basing my research on sociological theories, which study more qualitative aspects of the scientists’ decisions -based mostly on norms, prejudices, interests, etc.- I have used economic science as a tool, which presupposes -unlike other branches of social sciences- that individuals act rationally. That is, once they have decided what their objectives are, they try to find the most efficient means to reach those objectives. Then, trying to reconstruct the scientists’ behavior -the behavior that sociologists of science claim scientists have- with the help of tools from economic theory, decision theory, game theory, etc. the result I get is that the type of activity and social interaction that science constitutes can be much more similar to the type of search for knowledge that traditional philosophers and epistemologists considered science was. Put another way, just as in the market -in the market of traditional economic goods- the pursuit of one’s own interest by businesspeople and consumers doesn’t make the products worse but, on the contrary, to make products which are as good as they need to be for consumers to buy them, and therefore the way the market works makes interactions between economic agents lead to a socially optimal -or at least, relatively acceptable- situation, in the case of the “market of science” something similar may happen. The interactions between different scientists, pursuing their own social interests -such as recognition, fame or power within a certain discipline- can be organized in such a way that what they produce -knowledge, theories, empirical discoveries, experimental data, etc.- has great quality, from the epistemic point of view. What I’ve tried to do is show that the rational behavior of individuals pursuing their own interests within science can lead to the production of epistemically efficient results. I haven’t been able to prove it as an objective fact of reality, but I’ve shown it’s an intermediate and acceptable possibility between this traditional idea of philosophy of science being based solely on the pursuit of truth and the idea that sociology has of science, that scientists only pursue their interests and therefore knowledge is purely relative.

Finally and on a lighter note, what’s the meaning of life?

The meaning of life -which in Spanish can be read as “the direction of life”- is forward. Many years ago, I was teaching in high school and I had a pupil who was really funny, who always said “I always go towards the north.” And I asked “OK, but where is the north?” and she said: “there. In front of me.” For her the north was always in front. So the meaning of life is always towards the north.

See this author’s biography.

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