There are always more books to read than time to read them. But Paul Frijters’ and Gigi Foster’s An Economic Theory of Greed, Love, Groups, and Networks is on my shortlist. Foster’s preface is personal and captivating:
A longer-term cost that has come from working on this book is a loss of innocence. The story told here offers such a powerful microscope into the inner workings of humans that looking through it can trigger fundamental personal change. As a prime example, while the prospect of understanding the genesis of love is intellectually compelling, actually witnessing the demystification of the love mechanism is also shocking on a personal level. One must find a way to carry on after this experience as a normal individual, despite having deconstructed love (and hence one’s own loves) into constituent parts that are laid bare.
Foster warns that while the ideas in the book may be extremely uncomfortable they could also be intellectually thrilling.
Many theories in the humanities and social sciences are deeply unsettling. That so many students emerge from university without becoming mentally unhinged is testament to how few take what they’ve been asked to think about seriously or think to apply it to everyday life.
For example, generations of psychology students have learned about B.F. Skinner’s behaviourism. But few have really thought much about what it means to treat behaviourism as a theory of mind rather than just a research methodology. For the most radical behaviourists, talk of mental states has no place in science. When combined with the view that anything not supported by scientific evidence is a worthless opinion, it’s easy to see how applying behaviourism to all aspects of life might be challenging.
Of course while radical behaviourists don’t believe in love, they may find cuddling their spouse or partner highly reinforcing.
Some philosophers face a similar challenge. Eliminative materialists don’t believe in beliefs. In their view, propositional attitudes such as beliefs and desires will be left behind when we finally understand how the cognitive apparatus in our head works. Like the demonic possession theory of mental illness or the phlogiston theory of fire, beliefs and desires will turn out to be entities postulated by scientifically worthless folk theory.
It might occur to some students that distinctions between right and wrong and good and bad are just made up. For these students non-cognitivism offers a way to salvage moral talk. And for those who want something a bit blunter, there’s always moral error theory. For serious moral anti-realists, moral talk is just as worthless as talk about phlogiston.
Students who arrive in meta-ethics class thinking that their naive utilitarianism or egoism makes them radical thinkers are confronted with the task of rationally justifying why anybody should value anything. Most fail (but pass the course anyway).
Taking this kind of thing personally can lead to nihilism and existential despair. While the problem for eliminativists is that they can’t say that they believe in anything, the problem for nihilists is that can’t believe in anything.
Students who want to continue using scientific realism as blowtorch to destroy confused everyday notions can turn to naturalised epistemology and do to truth what they’ve just done to ethics. Philosophical theories of knowledge and truth give way to the theories of cognitive science. But sometime after the collapse of the fact/value dichotomy pragmatism may set in. Then the student is ready to return to everyday life (or stay at university and write papers about Richard Rorty).