It’s all bullsh*t! On the relationship between pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy

Figs in Winter
Mar 18 · 6 min read
[image: No bullshit, Wikimedia Commons; this is essay #282 in the Figs in Winter series]

I’ve read a large number of technical papers in both science and philosophy during my career, and I’ve written a decent quantity myself (so far, 89 in science and 92 in philosophy). It’s rare that a new paper grabs my attention to the point of thinking, “I really need to write about this, more people ought to be aware of it.” And yet, one such paper came across my iPad recently: Bullshit, Pseudoscience and Pseudophilosophy, by Victor Moberger, at Stockholm University in Sweden (published in Theoria, October 2020).

I have been interested in pseudoscience for a long time, and specifically in the so-called demarcation problem, i.e., what separates pseudoscience from legitimate science. More recently, I have also started writing about what I think of as the philosophical equivalent of pseudoscience, i.e., pseudophilosophy, and about the corresponding (more difficult, in my mind) demarcation problem. Moberger has found a neat way to describe the profound similarity between pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy: it’s all bullshit!

He means “bullshit” in the technical, not colloquial, sense of the term. Specifically, Moberger takes his inspiration from the famous essay by Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit. As Frankfurt puts it:

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”

You don’t say. He then goes on to differentiate the bullshitter from the liar:

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. … A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he consider his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are. … He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly.”

So while both the honest person and the liar are concerned with the truth — though in opposite manners — the bullshitter is defined by his lack of concern for it. This lack of concern is the culpable variety, so that it can be distinguished from other activities involving not telling the truth, like acting. This means two important things: (i) bullshit is a normative concept, meaning that it is about one ought to behave or not to behave; (ii) the specific type of culpability that can be attributed to the bullshitter is epistemic culpability. As Moberger puts it, “the bullshitter is assumed to be capable of responding to reasons and argument, but fails to do so” because he doesn’t care enough.

Moberger doesn’t make the connection in his paper, but since he focuses on bullshitting as an activity carried out by particular agents, and not as a body of statements that may be true or false, his treatment falls squarely into the realm of virtue epistemology. We can all arrive at the wrong conclusion on a specific subject matter, or unwittingly defend incorrect notions. And indeed to some extent we may all, more or less, be culpable of some degree of epistemic misconduct, because few if any people are the epistemological equivalent of sages, ideally virtuous individuals. But the bullshitter is pathologically epistemically culpable, he incurs in epistemic vices and he doesn’t care about it, so long as he gets whatever he wants out of the deal, be that to be “right” in a discussion, or to further his favorite a priori ideological position no matter what.

After having introduced Frankfurt’s notion of bullshitting, Moberger turns to a quick analysis of pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy. The term pseudoscience refers to well known examples of epistemic malpractice, like astrology, creationism, homeopathy, ufology, and so on. The term pseudophilosophy picks out two distinct classes of behaviors: first, what Moberger refers to as “a seemingly profound type of academic discourse that is pursued primarily within the humanities and social sciences,” which he calls obscurantist pseudophilosophy. Here are some examples, in my opinion. Second, a “less familiar kind of pseudophilosophy is usually found in popular scientific contexts, where writers, typically with a background in the natural sciences, tend to wander into philosophical territory without realizing it, and again without awareness of relevant distinctions and arguments.” He calls this scientistic pseudophilosophy, and here is an example. Moberger goes on to say “Sam Harris’s discussion in The Moral Landscape is pseudophilosophical even if he should happen to be right that there are objective moral facts of the kind that he envisions.” Indeed.

The bottom line, then, is that pseudoscience is bullshit with scientific pretensions, while pseudophilosophy is bullshit with philosophical pretensions. What pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy have in common is bullshit. While both pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy suffer from a lack of epistemic conscientiousness, this lack manifests itself differently, according to Moberger. In the case of pseudoscience, we tend to see at play a number of classical logical fallacies and other reasoning errors. In the case of pseudophilosophy, instead, we see “equivocation due to conceptual impressionism, whereby plausible but trivial propositions lend apparent credibility to interesting but implausible ones.” I love the phrase “conceptual impressionism”!

Moberger’s analysis provides a unified explanatory framework for otherwise seemingly disparate phenomena, such as pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy. And it does so in terms of a single, more fundamental, epistemic problem: bullshitting. If you don’t see the beauty of this, I can’t help you.

Moberger then spends some time in his paper both fleshing out the concept — for instance, differentiating pseudoscience from scientific fraud — and responding to a range of possible objections to his thesis, for example that the demarcation of concepts like pseudoscience, pseudophilosophy, and even bullshit is vague and imprecise. It is so by nature, Moberger responds, adopting the Wittgensteinian view that complex concepts are inherently fuzzy.

Importantly, Moberger makes the same point I have made in my own analysis of pseudoscience: any demarcation in terms of content between science and pseudoscience, or philosophy and pseudophilosophy, cannot be timeless. Alchemy was once a science, but it is now a pseudoscience. Engaging in “first philosophy,” attempting to figure out things about the world by a priori reasoning, was once philosophy, but — I contend — is now pseudophilosophy. What is timeless is the activity underlying both pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy: bullshitting.

There are several interesting consequences of Moberger’s analysis. First, that it is a mistake to focus on the specific claims made by proponents of pseudoscience, as so many skeptics do. That’s because sometimes even pseudoscientific practitioners get things right. We should focus instead on their epistemic malpractice. Again, content vs activity. Second, what is bad about pseudoscience and pseudophilosophy is not that they are unscientific, because plenty of human activities are not scientific and yet are not objectionable (literature, for instance). Science is not the ultimate arbiter of what has or does not have value. Third, pseudoscience does not lack empirical content. Astrology, for one, has plenty of it. But that content does not stand up to critical scrutiny. And astrology is a pseudoscience because its practitioners don’t seem to be bothered by the fact that their statements about the world do not appear to be true.

One thing that is missing from Moberger’s paper, perhaps, is a warning that even practitioners of legitimate science and philosophy may be guilty of gross epistemic malpractice when they criticize their pseudo counterparts. Too often I’ve seen so-called skeptics reject unusual or unorthodox claims a priori, without critical analysis or investigation. And I have noticed the same in the case of alleged pseudophilosophical notions, such as overly simplistic criticism of postmodern authors. It all again comes down to our character as agents, whether moral (virtue ethics) or epistemic (virtue epistemology). We need to push ourselves to do the right thing, which includes mounting criticisms of others only when we have done our due diligence to actually understand what is going on.

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