The Books We Reviewed

Lately I've been seeing "best books of 2017" lists online, including five best philosophy books.  I can't see making this sort of list, since my reading habits are way too idiosyncratic.  However, I can tell you what we reviewed in The Philosophers' Magazine this year.  I'll also tell you the philosophy book I most enjoyed reading this year.

Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Enlightenment
Jason Brennan, Against Democracy
Tommie Shelby, Dark Ghettos
Steven Patterson, Square One
Emrys Westacott, The Wisdom of Frugality
David Benatar, The Human Predicament
Peter Godfrey Smith, Other Minds
Einav Katan-Schid, Embodied Philosophy in Dance
Russell Blackford & Damien Broderick, Philosophy's Future
Massimo Pigliucci, How to Be a Stoic
Nick Riggle, On Being Awesome 

So the philosophy book I most enjoyed reading.... (drumroll) .... is Peter Godfrey Smith's Other MindsHere's the review I wrote for Issue 78:

Peter Godfrey Smith’s new book on cephalopods would be lovable for its metaphilosophy and beautiful writing if it said nothing interesting about the octopus.  “Philosophy is among the least corporeal of callings”, he writes.  “It is, or can be, a purely mental sort of life.  It has no equipment that needs managing, no sites of field stations.” Yet his project, he says, had a “bodily side”. He started studying cephalopods while spending time with them underwater, primarily at a site that he calls “Octopolis” on the east coast of Australia. His book is full of boats and diving, as well as biology and neuroscience, so is it really philosophy?  Sure!  “Doing philosophy is largely a matter of trying to put things together, trying to get the pieces of very large puzzles to make sense. Good philosophy is opportunistic; it uses whatever information and whatever tools look useful.”
            In fact, the book does say all sorts of interesting things about the octopus.  It covers their evolution, way of evading predators, lifespan, habitat, odd mating rituals, and incredibly cool colour-changing skin, but it’s especially about octopus minds (hence, the title).  Do they really have minds? Is there something it’s like to be an octopus? Smith divides the issue in two: wondering whether the octopus has mere sentience, and then wondering about more sophisticated, full-blown consciousness.
The first thing he says about the sentience question is that philosophers tend to think of sensation as driving action, and think too little about action driving sensation.  You don’t just receive sensations from this page; you turned the page a minute ago in order to acquire new sensations.  Apparently the fact that you’re the actor can make a difference to the resulting sensations, as he demonstrates with a fascinating example involving tactile vision substitution systems for the blind. The device converts camera images into skin vibrations, so that when a blind person uses the device, a dog in their environment is experienced as a pattern of skin sensations. What’s interesting is that when they actively seek sensations, having control over the camera, the dog is experienced as “out there”.  Acting, instead of just passively receiving, makes a difference.
 This emphasis on activity rather than passivity is also in play in several discussions of perceptual constancy.  For a cube to seem like it’s the same size, as you get closer to it, you’ve got to not just be a passive receiver of sense data, but process inputs with an awareness that you are an agent, getting closer.  Ingenious experiments show that the octopus also gets the cube size right. When researchers reward octopuses for discriminating between big and small cubes, the octopus doesn’t make the mistake of treating cubes as bigger just because they’re closer.  Could the active life of an octopus make the difference between insentience and sentience?  The suggestion is that this may be so, though Smith really does just suggest, not insist, and he also explores other possible harbingers of sentience, such as integration of multiple senses and coping with novelty.
            The most fascinating chapter of the book is about the coloration of the octopus and cuttlefish. One layer of their skin is composed of chromataphores, which contain cells filled with colored chemicals.  They are surrounded by muscles that are controlled by the animal’s brain.  Stretching the cell makes the color visible and relaxing it makes the color invisible. The chromataphores are controlled by a cephalopod’s brain, giving rise to the intriguing possibility that when the animal’s skin changes color or exhibits patterns, something about the octopus’s mental state is revealed.  But what?
            An intriguing possibility is that the octopus is “chattering” as they move around, constantly changing colors and patterns.  Could that be a sign of octopus consciousness?  Smith tells a long story about human consciousness that connects it to human speech.  When we speak, the brain has to treat the incoming sound as “just me”, not confusing self-produced sounds with sounds coming from “out there”.  It’s the same theme as before – brains have to keep track of their own agency, to appreciate whether a change is inside or outside.  But if there are internal “just me” memos being sent and received, there’s an inner, silent correlate of speech. Maybe that’s central to our capacity for sophisticated consciousness.  And so could octopus color chatter be a sign of consciousness too? Smith rejects the inference for a very a very simple reason.  We hear our own speech, so have to distinguish it from sounds coming from outside ourselves.  But the octopus doesn’t see its own skin color!  Smith speculates that humans have “a more complicated mind” and “Cephalopods are on a different road.”
But wait, we don’t see our cheeks when we blush, but blushing does reveal inner emotional changes.  It’s a possibility too delicious to give up quickly. It might feel like something to be an octopus making as if to be a rock, or trying to scare predators with a psychedelic skin pattern, or changing from gold to red.  It might be incredibly trippy to be an octopus.


Metaphysics Isn't Ethics

I'm puzzled that in the literature on the nature of sex, gender, race, etc., there are so few philosophers who take a biological realist stance.  Maybe this is a function of who is drawn to these topics.  The biological realists might be among those not drawn. So you don't find many biological realists working on sex, gender, and race for the same reason you don't find many people who think animals don't matter among people working in animal ethics.

Here's what Dawkins says about sex in The Selfish Gene:
There is one fundamental feature of the sexes which can be used to label males as males, and females as females, throughout animals and plants  This is that the sex cells or 'gametes' of males are much smaller and more numerous than the gametes of females.  This is true whether we are dealing with animals or plants.
Male whales are the ones with the numerous small gametes and female whales are the ones with fewer, bigger gametes.  Same goes for all animals and all plants, if Dawkins is to be believed. And here's what Dawkins has to say about race, in a chapter of his book The Ancestor's Tale.  He says a race is like a sub-species, where the differences separating different subspecies are superficial and brought about when sub-populations live in different environments. (He makes some of the same points in this article.)

Of course there's a whole lot else that we think about sex and race.  Historically and still today, people represent sex and race as involving very big differences; and as being "essential" in the sense of profoundly influencing an individual's life; and as coming with associated norms, so that men are supposed to act one way, women another, or one race is supposed to lord it over the others.  A lot of those representations and norms are just plain false or ethically misguided, if sex and race are as Dawkins says.

But take note!  Being critical in that fashion is of course an option for a biological realist.  So there's nothing particularly anti-progressive about realism. In fact, I would go further. If I want to liberate myself and all women (for example) from the shackles of old norms and stereotypes, the language of falsehood works really well.  Women aren't like that. Those norms are groundless.  If social constructionism opens the door to saying certain ideas and norms aren't "inevitable" so does good old fashioned criticism of theories for being false, or norms for being inappropriate.

So what makes people prefer to speak of the social construction of sex, if they're critical of traditional stereotypes and norms, rather than speaking of the misrepresentation of sex?  Why do they think sex must go away entirely, no longer being seen as part of the pre-existing, mind-independent "furniture of the world"? Likewise, why do they want to talk about race being constructed by the racist, instead of saying it's horribly misrepresented?

An awful lot of the argument for social construction seems to have to do with grey areas, intermediates, borderline cases, vagueness, etc.  The biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling claims that about 1.7% of babies are born intersex.  In each society those babies get sex-labelled in ways that have to do with the representations and norms we have regarding sex.  Fausto-Sterling makes a convincing case for that.  Why, though, should we conclude that the sexes of the other 98.3% are socially constructed?

The same thing seems to go on in the debate about race, except that the grey area is much more extensive due to intermarriage.  People who are in fact mixed-race get race-labelled (by others or by themselves) in ways that have to do with the full set of representations and norms we have regarding race.  Does that mean that all of race is socially constructed?  Why would anyone think so?

In fact, vast numbers of our concepts (maybe even most) involve grey areas in the same way that race and sex do.  There are clear cases of tables and clear cases of chairs.  Then there are stools.  A big enough stool is really a table.  But what about medium-sized stools? Are they tables or chairs?  There might be customs and assumptions that people use to settle such question, but so what? The reality of two categories can't be wiped out just because there are numerous entities that lie in between, and just because all sorts of norms and representations help us decide where to put the inbetweeners.

There is another reason why some people want to do away with biological sex as a reality "out there."  Grey areas aren't a problem for frogs, kangaroos, whales, and apple trees. But people have strong feelings about the way they're sex-labelled.  If an intersex person lives happily as a woman, it may be offensive to her for anyone to say she is in fact intersex, and not female. Likewise, even in cases where labels apply clearly, there can be preferences at odds with the labels.  A transgender woman may prefer to think she was not born biologically male.

I wonder, though, whether any theorizing about sex and race that tries to be sensitive in this way really deserves to be called philosophy or metaphysics.  How could the truth about what sex is turn on how people feel about how their sex is represented?  And if we do take into account such sensitivities, where will we wind up? It's certainly going to be a pretty weird philosophy or metaphysics that sees sex in humans one way, but sex in the rest of nature in another way.  Or that sees sex in all of nature in a way that's ultimately motivated by sensitivity to certain humans.

Of course saying sex is real, and not socially constructed, doesn't settle every question we might care about.  People don't just have sexes, they also have sex-identities.  (I agree with Heath Fogg Davis—in the book Beyond Trans— that this is a better term than "gender identity" for many purposes.)  When someone has a male sex but a female sex-identity, what then?  To my mind, this is an ethical question (and the answer is that sex-identity takes precedence).  It's a question about well-being and how to treat people.  I don't see how it can makes sense to let progressivism color what we think about what categories like race and sex are in the most fundamental, metaphysical sense.