When I was in college, I took a course called “Belief and Unbelief, and The Good Life” that was taught by a Catholic priest. In that class we looked at various belief systems and how they worked toward The Good Life, what Aristotle called Eudaimonia. Massimo Pigliucci (@mpigliucci) has written the book Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life(AMZ/BN/Sony) which expresses quite well how to live The Good Life.
Pigliucci divides his book into six parts as well as an introduction and conclusion. In each section, he tackles a specific question about how we live a good life. He starts off the book by introducing us to a term he coined called Sci-Phi (pronounced sigh-fee). Sci-Phi is a system or mentality that combines the use of science and philosophy to shape a person’s worldview. With the introduction of the Is/Ought Problem, Pigliucci shows us how a Sci-Phi system can be used to attack both sides of this problem. He then makes a claim that we can use Sci-Phi to reach Eudaimonia, the word used by Aristotle to describe human flourishing. The rest of the book is dedicated to supporting this claim.
Part 1: How do we tell right from wrong?
For those that get frustrated by stereotypical philosophical discussions (How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?), this part is going to be scary at first. Right away Pigliucci plunges right into the classic “Trolley Dilemmas” that many are already familiar with. However, Pigliucci’s approach is gentle. Instead of arguing one particular philosophical side to the debate, he shows us research on how the average person will answer the different variations of the Trolley Dilemma. He then uses these examples to delve right into neurological research on how the brain handles moral decisions. From the neurological research he then adds in comparative studies to create theories as to why we developed morality to begin with. I found it interesting to compare his account of morality in other animals with that of Daniel Quinn of Ishmael fame (I doubt Quinn’s ideas are on the same rigorous level as Pigliucci’s). Finally, after giving us a base on how humans think of morality, he swings back into philosophy with a taxonomy of three different philosophical morality systems: Consequentialism, Deontology, and Virtue Ethics. There are other systems, but he focuses on these three throughout the book. Aristotle was the first to come up with Virtue Ethics, the system that Pigliucci bases much of his own system of morality on.
Part 2: How do we know what we think we know?
In this part there is a slight shift in gears as the book delves into human cognitive processes. This is an area of research I have a hobby in and was glad to see Pigliucci’s descriptions were congruent with my own understandings of the research. Using very concrete examples, Pigliucci illustrates how we as humans have very imperfect brains when it comes to being rational. We are prone to unavoidable cognitive biases that at one point were likely adaptive, but get in the way at times when making rational decisions. Pigliucci doesn’t stop at just cognitive biases though. He moves on to show how we as humans are not even good judges of our own intuition. People are not very good at judging if their gut feeling is reliable or not (spoiler: it isn’t). He shows us some potential uses for this information, so that people can make better decisions more often. Given that science is supposed to help us reduce these cognitive biases, why shouldn’t we just use that for all moral thinking? Pigliucci covers this too with a deeper look into the Is/Ought problem as well as the Problem of Induction, which are both closely related. In doing so, he shows some of the limits of science. Anything concluded to with inductive logic is provisional. We also can’t derive a value from facts. Pigliucci uses this opportunity to voice his disagreement with Sam Harris‘s Moral Landscape in which both Pigliucci and I agree that Harris has not really addressed the Is/Ought problem properly. Pigliucci then ties much of what we learned to parts of Aristotelian philosophy, as Aristotle seemed to guess at some human psychology.
Part 3: Who am I?
In order to have morality, one must have the ability to choose one action over another. Thus begins the importance of will. In chapters in this part, Pigliucci discusses the limits of our will power as well as the science behind Free Will. This section is short, but not unimportant. The descriptions of how our willpower is like a muscle that atrophies with no use and the various cognitive processes that we use in all decisions, have huge impacts on how we understand will and therefore morality. The idea of one choice making process is not congruent with cognitive theories for example. This means that many philosophical theories that rely on one agent in their ‘theory of mind’ seem to have some serious issues when confronted with various studies. This is where we see science really informing the direction philosophy can and should go. Swinging back to Aristotle as usual, Pigliucci points to more research showing that willpower is not the only mental muscle that needs exorcise; being virtuous is also a practiced skill.
Part 4: Love and friendship
Love is an essential part of the human experience. Philosophers and scientists alike have found the phenomenon of love to be fascinating. Here we get an Aristotelian description of love in three types: Eros, Philia, and Agape. We also get a great overview of the neuroscience of love. Unsurprisingly, hormones have a huge impact on our feelings of love. The descriptions of the hormonal stages of love fit quite nicely with my own psychological knowledge of the stages of love, which unfortunately are not talked about in this book. It is unsurprising, however, that the neuroscience seems to coincide with psychological research on the same topics. Friendships and other social connections are talked about in this section. They are linked to both scientific and philosophical theories of senses of well being and fulfillment. Pigliucci also ties into the main theme of morality quite a bit here, as research shows we are, in part, responsible for the happiness of our friends and family.
Part 5: The (political) animal inside you
Pigliucci then turns the ship toward the rough seas of politics. Why talk about morality, if we can’t talk about moral policies? Instead of arguing for one political ideology or another, he instead stays firmly in the realm of describing how we come to our particular ideologies and why we make political decisions the way we do. This section focuses very heavily on justice and how morality demands a kind of justice. Here we see the two sides of Sci-Phi being used often: the science showing how people think and the philosophy showing how we can help us reach the values we hold as societies. We see, through comparative studies, that humans have some innate underpinnings of a sense of fairness. We then use these underpinnings to build up a system of justice. Here is where we flip back into philosophy to talk about John Rawls‘s Reflective Equilibrium and Theory of Justice. In this discussion of justice, we talk about Rawls’s thought experiment called the Veil of Ignorance, in which we see a good theory on how to create the most fair society in a multi-cultural world. Naturally, Pigliucci ties much of this back to Aristotle in that Aristotle called humans “Political Animals” that work at creating good societies.
Part 6: What about God?
What book about morality would be complete without the discussion of God and religion as it relates to moral decisions? Pigliucci starts us off with the science of belief. Many non-believers will see neuroscience staples such as “The God Helmet” and the lucky ball experiment. Using these tools, and others, we can start to build a framework in which religion and superstitious thinking is built on. Our tendency to have innate senses of fairness and ascription of agency to objects and actions make religion a very likely outcome. The section ends with a tail of Socrates that aims to show that morals dictated by gods are not morals at all. This tail is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In it, we see that either morals are good inherently, therefore no god is necessary for moral beings, or morals are arbitrarily the will of the gods, which means that any arbitrary ‘rule’ could change, making it harder for us to say these morals are good. This summary is rather simplistic, and I encourage others to read about this dilemma and the attempts to answer it. Pigliucci points out in this chapter, rather politely, that literal God-given morals are really not moral at all. This seems to devastate most common forms of deontology with a religious underpinning.
Pigliucci’s book provides a great overview of the science and philosophy behind moral thinking and The Good Life. He has convinced me that we need both science and philosophy to inform our worldviews in order to continue human flourishing. I find this book to be a much better alternative to The Moral Landscape, in that there are much fewer mental gymnastics that must be performed to stay logically consistent. Pigliucci’s style of writing is neither too dense, nor too cursory. The average person with absolutely no science or philosophy backgrounds (I barely have either) could easily follow this book. Those with large backgrounds in either (or both) could still find this book enjoyable, since it covers such a wide area that there is sure to be something everyone will enjoy. Answers for Aristotle, does a fantastic job of weaving multiple disciplines and studies into one elegant argument for Sci-Phi.
Have you read the book? Are you interested in more details? Let me know below; I’d love to have the conversation.