Dr. Maarten Boudry

I was first told about Maarten Boudry by one of his collaborators, Massimo Pigliucci, who recommended him as a potential interviewee. At the time, they were working on a book together, which they have just published. Shown above, Science Unlimited?: The Challenges of Scientism, is a collection of essays and opinions centered around the questions that science can't answer. I caught up with him while he was in Dusseldorf at the Generalized Theory of Evolution conference.

Here, he shares his thoughts on pseudoscience, public misperceptions of what

philosophers "do", and the value of a good publishing prank in academia.

The following interview took place on February 2, 2018.

 

INTERVIEWER

Where did you grow up? 

 

BOUDRY

I grew up in Roeselare, a medium-sized city in West Flanders, not too far from Bruges. We were living on the countryside just outside the city. I was born in a small village nearby (a home-birth), but we moved to Roeselare soon after.

 

INTERVIEWER

What did you want to be when you were growing up? Who or what were your inspirations?

BOUDRY

I guess that, as soon as I discovered music, I wanted to become a concert pianist. I’ve been playing piano since I was 9 or so, mostly classical music. I actually studied one year of music composition at the conservatory in Ghent, but then I switched to philosophy. And I wasn’t talented enough to study classical piano. For a while, I also considered studying engineering or mathematics, as I’ve always had a passion for science.

 

INTERVIEWER

What are your favorite books? Favorite books on science? They certainly don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I guess I’m trying to tease out fiction versus books on science, which are generally more historical non-fiction.  

 

BOUDRY

My favorite science book is The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, but once his next book, Enlightenment Now comes out, I might side with Bill Gates, who has recently said that he would stop touting "The Better Angels..." as his favorite book of all time, because he got a preview of the new manuscript, and apparently Pinker outdid himself. In any case, I think moral progress is one of the greatest stories that is almost never told, and Pinker does it in a spectacular way, with tons of hard-nosed statistics, but also with a deep understanding of the biological roots of our inner demons, and why we have becoming better and better at subduing them for the past couple of centuries, even though our biological nature hasn’t changed.

There’s a huge discrepancy between the actual historical facts and people’s

understanding. Progress is an undeniable fact, and its main engines are science and enlightenment thinking. You really wouldn’t want to live in any other age except this one. In light of all this, you’d expect people to be grateful and optimistic, but nothing is further from the truth. Among western intellectuals, it’s very fashionable to downplay or disparage the Enlightenment, and to disparage progress as a myth, especially among postmodernists. For a variety of reasons, in spite of all progress, people keep believing that things have never been so bad, or that we’re somehow on the brink of collapse (or both). Other favorite science books are Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett, The Big Picture by Sean Carroll, The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, and James Gleick’s Information.

Recently, I also immensely enjoyed The Invention of Science by David Wootton.

Finally, a historian who makes short shrift of all the postmodern nonsense that has been going around in science studies for the past decades. Another favorite is Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber’s The Enigma of Reason, which offers a completely original theory about the evolutionary roots of human reason. Instead of seeing reason as aimed at truth and rationality, they argue that reason has evolved in a social context: to persuade others and be persuaded in return. It’s like a gestalt switch: suddenly all the foibles and biases of human reason start to make sense.

My favorite novels are Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, and

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I love books with humor, so I’m also a big fan of Douglas Adams. More recently, I’ve been blown away by Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (not a funny book though), and by Zadie Smith’s brilliant and sparkling debut White Teeth.

INTERVIEWER

What pseudoscientific belief is the most surprising/enraging/demoralizing?

 

BOUDRY

I’ve been studying pseudoscience ever since I wrote my PhD thesis about the topic. Strangely enough, I noticed that some kinds of bullshit leave me mostly indifferent, while others really get on my nerves. Foremost in the second category are theologians, 9/11 truthers and psychoanalysts. For some reason that I can’t quite fathom, I’m particularly annoyed by these forms of irrationality. In the case of theologians, I guess it’s because, unlike any other irrational belief system, they have some academic standing and respectability. By contrast, astrology or creationism are mostly harmless because they’re marginalized, at least in the academic world. I once asked on Twitter: "If a university allows a faculty of Theology, why not a faculty of Astrology? At least stars exist." The chancellor of Leuven University (which is Catholic) was very upset about that comparison, and wrote an angry reply. Theologians have this idea that their belief system is so much more sophisticated than astrology. But there’s no genuine difference: both are irrational belief systems shored up by rationalizations, immunizing strategies and special pleading. Perhaps over the centuries more intellectual energy has been wasted on theology than on astrology (although I wouldn’t be too sure about that), but there’s no real difference between them.

But in the end, I’d say all misbeliefs are potentially dangerous, even if they look

innocuous at first. Beliefs are levers for action, and if they are wrong, they will collide with reality sooner or later. They also tend to branch out in our minds and have unpredictable side effects.

INTERVIEWER

Alternatively, is there a “germ theory”-like scientific idea in its infancy, that is currently ridiculed, that you believe will emerge as a paradigm-shifting theory in the later stages of the 21st century?

 

BOUDRY

I’m not sure, I wouldn’t be confident about any breakthrough outside my own field. And even then! I’ve been drawn to memes lately, which is literally a “germ theory”-like notion! I think that the concept has been unfairly ridiculed, even though meme enthusiasts share part of the blame. There was a lot of bad and frivolous meme talk out there in the early days. It’s just easy to get carried away with such an irresistible idea. I don’t expect a paradigm shift, but I think that we will see a shift in cultural evolution towards the meme’s eye view, just as in biology we witnessed a shift from the organismal point of view to the gene’s eye view. Instead of thinking that cultural evolution revolves around us, and that culture is always useful and beneficial to us, sometimes it is enlightening to adopt the perspective of the cultural representations themselves (‘memes’ or whatever term suits you). Because of the dynamic of replication and transmission, it may well happen that memes proliferate at the expense of their hosts. There’s not a lot of attention devoted to this in the field, because the current models make it hard to think about those types of situations. I’m not saying that harmful or parasitical forms of culture are very common. In most cases, the ‘interests’ of the memes and their hosts will align fairly well, so that it doesn’t really matter what perspective you adopt. But just as in biology, it gets interesting when the two perspectives diverge: what will happen then? At this moment, I’m working together with historian Steije Hofhuis from Utrecht to apply these ideas to the European witch hunts, which were driven by an exceptionally vicious and destructive belief system. Why was it so successful, even though it ravaged whole communities?  

INTERVIEWER

You’re a researcher in the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at Ghent University. What are you working on right now?

 

BOUDRY

I’ve worked at Ghent University for 10 years, funded by the Flemish Institute for Research, but recently my second postdoc term ended. For the time being, I’m trying to work as an independent writer and speaker, to see if that suits me and if I can make ends meet in this way. Right now, I’m working on my next (Dutch) book, which will be an attack on fashionable pessimism, postmodernism and Western self-flagellation. But I might return to the academic world next year.

INTERVIEWER

What aspect of the study of philosophy do you wish the public understood to a greater extent?

 

BOUDRY

I wish people had a better understanding of philosophy itself. If people hear that you’re a professional philosopher, they’re either surprised that there are still philosophers around, or they think that doing philosophy means leaning back in an armchair and speculating about the nature of existence and other "deep questions." Anyone can do that! And they pay you for that kind of stuff? Such ideas are still very much alive. Now, if even a famous educator like Bill Nye thinks that all philosophers ever do is freewheeling about the “meaning of meaning”, how could you expect the public to know what philosophy is all about? To be sure, there are still plenty of philosophers around who fit the stereotype, especially postmodern savants in the continental tradition. And some philosophers can be arrogant themselves. They think they have a superior understanding of reality, based on a priori reasoning and intuition, and they look down on the menial labors of scientists.

INTERVIEWER

What is the scientists’ responsibility to the public? In the last decade, huge interdisciplinary projects have been deployed to eradicate cancer and map the human brain. For example, as part of the 21st Century Cures Act, Congress has authorized $1.8 billion in funding over the next 7 years for the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. Since 1971 when Nixon launched his “War on Cancer”, $200 billion has been invested in research aimed at cancer therapy development. The advances in life expectancy and tailored therapies enabled by that endowment are truly remarkable, but nonetheless, cancer remains the leading cause of death worldwide. This is a specific example, but when milestones aren’t necessarily met for these headline-grabbing projects, how far should scientists go to educate the public on why things didn’t work out as they’d hoped?

BOUDRY

As far as I know, the answer for the ‘failure’ in this case is pretty straightforward: there are more case of cancers because people live much longer. In the past, people died before any rogue cells got a chance to start a rebellion (which is what a cancer is). For each extra year you’re living, the chances of getting a bad mutation and developing a cancer get higher. This is one of those ways in which medical progress is becoming a victim of its own success, at least in people’s minds. In reality, we’ve never been as healthy as today. For some types of cancer, there’s also the problem of overdiagnosis and overtreatment. For instance, many people die with a prostate cancer, but far fewer die from a prostate cancer. Is invasive treatment always the best option?

I think scientists should explain to the public that it remains largely a matter of

bad luck. We can do the best we can to prevent cancers, and to spot them as quickly as possible, but there’s only so much we can achieve. It’s not a good idea to raise people’s expectations unreasonably high, because then people will inevitably be disappointed. And they will think more about the things that science has not solved than about all the things it really has (think about the eradication of smallpox and the wonders of vaccination in general).

INTERVIEWER

You’re stranded on an island with a record player and a Blu-ray-player-equipped TV. Let’s also assume this island comes equipped with the food, shelter, and clothing necessities, so you don’t have to worry about those – merely entertaining yourself for eternity. You can bring five things. What are they?

BOUDRY

You’re asking a philosopher, so you should’ve defined “things” first. I’ll bring the whole DVD Collection of Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen as Box Sets, and count only two “things.” Those are two directors I absolutely love, and I would be hard-pressed to pick only one of their movies. While we’re at it, I can also bring the Pink Floyd Discovery Box Set (16 CDs), and the Complete Cantatas of Bach (72 CDs), which should keep me busy for a while (though eternity is a long while). So that makes four “things”. I think I’ll finish it off with Beethoven’s Sonatas.

INTERVIEWER

After the 2016 election, the idea of scientists coming forward to run for public office gained momentum. If you had to nominate one scientist to run for President, who would it be and why? 

BOUDRY

Suppose I nominate Steven Pinker, because of his vision of moral progress and his defense of Enlightenment values. But then the guy doesn’t have time to write books anymore! That would be a big loss for science. Besides, politics requires special talents, which are not the same as scientist’s. But I think someone like Barack Obama, whom I still miss very much, basically shares Pinker’s worldview. He’s a firm believer in moral progress, which today is almost a form of political incorrectness. People are indignant when you say that things have never been better than today, because they think that means you’re downplaying or trivializing our current problems. Nothing of the sort is true of course. There seem to be only two politically correct positions today: things have always been the same, and things are getting worse. But Obama is one of the few politicians who’s not afraid to say, as he did as a guest editor of Wired magazine, that today is the best time to be alive. So let people like Pinker do the science, and people like Obama the politics. They’re on the same side anyway. 

INTERVIEWER

Besides your chosen discipline, are there other areas of scientific study that you remain actively interested in? Chemistry? Physics? Biology?

BOUDRY

My work has always been partly interdisciplinary. I’ve been making forays mostly into psychology and evolutionary biology, but I don’t have any scientific training. Right now I’m setting up an experiment about reasoning fallacies, together with some psychology colleagues, and I’m thinking of another experiment on cultural replication. Very exciting for a philosopher!

INTERVIEWER

Do you pay any attention to the philosopher-physicist feud?

 

BOUDRY

I’ve been following it from a safe distance. I’ve already mentioned Bill Nye, and of course we have people like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, who are fond of saying disparaging things about philosophy. It gets you cheers in some circles nowadays. Some of these comments were very ill-informed, and I understand the frustration of philosophers. A few years ago I moderated a discussion between Krauss, Dennett, and my collaborator, Massimo Pigliucci. I noticed that Krauss is a bit of a moving target. He’ll dismiss the whole field of philosophy as useless verbiage, but then when you press him a little, he’ll take back most of what he said. It all depends on what you mean by “philosophy” and “science”. Sometimes the discussion ends up with a version of the No True Scotsman fallacy: “All philosophers are useless windbags. But how about Dan Dennett? Well, he’s a more of a scientist, not a “real” philosopher, is he?” I’m more interested in solving problems, not in turf protection or academic mud fights.

INTERVIEWER

“The Paradoxes of Darwinian Disorder: Towards an Ontological Reaffirmation of Order and Transcendence”, sounds like a page turner. Tell us about your “hoax” and its intentions.

BOUDRY

Too bad the author doesn’t exist. Well, I submitted an abstract full of postmodern nonsense to two theology conferences, under the pseudonym Robert A. Maundy (an anagram). Theology is particularly susceptible to the postmodern virus (nonsense attracts more nonsense). It was a Sokal-style prank, but of more modest proportions. For me it was an interesting exercise. It’s more difficult than you think to write something that is truly devoid of meaning. Your brain is a meaning-generating machine, so you’ll always trying to make sense of things. I wrote the abstract in backward order, sentence by sentence, just to make sure that there wouldn’t be any semblance of logic. If you read it, you’ll see that it’s filled with vacuous phrases and theological jargon, like “'Being-whole, as opposed to being-one, underwrites our fundamental sense of locatedness and particularity” and idiotic postmodern word puns like “de-contextualization and reification of meaning has ultimately led to the establishment of ‘dis-order’ rather than ‘this-order’’’. In spite of all of that, the text was credible enough for two theology and philosophy of religion conferences: a conference at VU in Amsterdam, and the 'What is life' conference organized by the Centre of Theology and Philosophy of Nottingham University.

INTERVIEWER

Your new book, Science Unlimited?: The Challenges of Scientism, explores science as discipline with insights from “a diverse group of scientists, science communicators, and philosophers of science.” What did you discover?

BOUDRY

Well, we discovered that we didn’t all agree about what (if any) are the limits of science! One thing we did all agree on, however, was that science is one of the most impressive accomplishments of the human intellect, and it is the best way to find out things about the world. So all of the contributors are friends of science in that sense. One of my motivations for putting together this volume is that the discussion about the limits of science risks being hijacked by various enemies of science (postmodernists, new age gurus, pseudoscientists). That’s unfortunate, because there’s an interesting discussion to be had about the limits of science. We shouldn’t leave it to those folks to pontificate about the limits of science. The term “scientism” often equates with “science I don’t like”, and is often used as a protective cover for some form or other of anti-science. The interesting thing is that some enthusiasts of science have embraced the term “scientism” as a badger of honor. They argue quite explicitly that science is the only game in town, that all interesting questions will eventually be either solved by science or not solved at all, and that the humanities should be subsumed under the sciences. Alex Rosenberg and Don Ross, who contributed to our volume, are among those proud flaunters of the term “scientism.” This gives the discussion an interesting twist, because it’s no longer taken for granted by everyone that “scientism” is a term of abuse, a sin to be avoided. In any event, we had a constructive and lively discussion, and I think we did clear up some confusions about the nature of science and the borders with other disciplines. My own position, which I defend in my chapter, is that science does not have any limits. Or at least, the limits of science will coincide with the limits of human knowledge in general. But that doesn’t mean I’m against philosophy of the humanities. I’m a philosophical naturalist, who believes that human knowledge forms one big web, with many interconnecting strands and no clean breaks. Philosophy as I see it is very much engaged with empirical science, and uses methods that are continuous with the sciences. If philosophy is disconnected from empirical science, that’s usually a bad sign. In my own work, I’ve collaborated with psychologists, physicists, sociologists and biologists. My papers on the cultural evolution of irrational belief systems, for example, can be seen as an extension of the psychology of irrationality. Where to draw the line between science and philosophy, or between science and everyday knowledge for that matter? I think the word “science” itself causes a lot of confusion. There’s no such thing as the scientific method, and it’s a mistake to think of science as one “way of knowing” next to others. The definition of science has changed over time, and the methods used by scientists are changing partly as a function of its findings (think about how the discovery of the placebo effect made us realize the importance of double-blind procedures). That makes the scientific enterprise very open-ended and pragmatic. To put it in very simple terms: science is just whatever works, in our particular universe, and with our particular cognitive make-up.

 

INTERVIEWER

What would you say is key to the young scientist’s development? To me, research science and the arts run parallel paths. It’s a career mired in failure (failed experiments, rejections from publishers) that requires obstinate will power and a creative approach.

 

BOUDRY

I like that parallel, and it’s very Popperian in spirit: how to improve yourself through endless cycles of trial and error. I also like that Edison quote: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Right on! In a way, every form of learning happens through failure: you try out something, and you find out that it doesn’t work. Some of this selection happens in your mind, some in confrontation with the real world, and some in the selection tournament of peer review and debates at conferences. I think it’s a healthy exercise to ask yourself: what have I changed my mind about lately? If you can’t find anything, either you’re a preternatural genius who’s always right about everything, or you have been extremely luckily, or you’re just pig-headed.

INTERVIEWER

If you could have dinner with one philosopher, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

 

BOUDRY

Lucretius. He’s an extremely fascinating character, but we know very little about him. I read Stephen Greenblatt’s marvelous book The Swerve about the serendipitous rediscovery of a single copy of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in a German monastery, after it had been destroyed and forgotten in the middle ages, and the way Lucretius’s “memes” of atheism and atomism spread far and wide, first underground among a circle of Renaissance humanists and early scientists, and then breaking out into the world. It’s an absolutely gorgeous poem, and it’s also strikingly modern. He’s right about many things, and wrong about many others in interesting ways. It’s stirring thought that someone wrote this two thousand years ago, and still you have so much in common. It’s as if the author is speaking directly to you. But of course, a dinner would be even better!

INTERVIEWER

Last, but not least: Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Stones or Beatles?

 

BOUDRY

Pink Floyd! Though I'm a Beatles fan, too.

Visit Dr. Boudry's page at Ghent University to see his most recent publications. 

Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interview in the comments section.

©2019 by EG Lund.