What Edward Slingerland Offers Everyone

When UBC’s own Edward Slingerland gave a guest lecture to my Cognitive Systems class last year, I was intrigued by the world-view he advanced. His explanation of a reductionist-physicalist, but not eliminativistic formulation of embodied cognition seemed to provide the solution to a problem which I had been troubling me – how I could reconcile the empirical supremacy of physicalism (which had recently been illustrated forcefully to me by Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” and Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”) with the undeniable attachment I feel to human-level truths – emotions, art, and the illusion of free will – which seemed, at first blush, to be contradictory to a strictly materialist world-view. Since then it has been my intention to read Slingerland’s book “What Science Offers the Humanities“, and this past week I have finally done so. What I found was an embellishment and explanation of the themes which first intrigued me, in a wonderful book which far outstripped even my hopeful expectations.


There seemed to be two major themes of the book. The first – alluded to in the title – is Slingerland’s quest to close the gulf between modern Science and Humanities; to create a “true University” from what is currently a “Biversity” (a distinctly “Terry-istic” goal!) He argues that postmodernist institutions such as extreme cultural relativism and epistemic skepticism have overstayed their usefulness, and have caused the Humanities to stagnate in recent decades, and to lose relevance outside their tight-knit circles. On the other hand, those same postmodenist movements have rightfully put to bed the naive Objectivism of the Enlightenment.

What is necessary is an account of human-level truths which is firmly grounded in the physical sciences, but which can account for the cultural diversity celebrated in the humanities and the undeniable “special quality” of human-level phenomena. This can be achieved through “vertical integration”, which places the Humanities in their rightful place at the top of an explanatory hierarchy grounded in the Sciences:

Despite their variety and “disunity,” the disciplines of the natural sciences have managed to arrange themselves in a rough explanatory hierarchy, with the lower levels of explanation (such as physics) setting limits on the sorts of explanations that can be entertained at the higher levels (such as biology). To move forward as a field of human inquiry, the humanities need to plug themselves into their proper place at the top of this explanatory hierarchy, because the lower levels have finally advanced to a point that they have something interesting to say to the higher levels. (p.261)

To illustrate this point, Slingerland provides a survey of the recent work in the Cognitive Sciences which shed light on the nature of human thought, and provides a convincing account of a schematic blending-theory. He then illustrates how this theory could be applied to Humanistic endeavours through an analysis of a series of fourth-century BC Chinese philosophical texts (his area of expertise).

This is the main thrust of the book – as the title suggests, Slingerland’s mission is to convince his colleagues in the Humanities to start listening to what the Sciences have to say. He gives a broad introduction to the various objections to this integration and then critiques these evaluations in light of the empirical evidence – providing through this a great review of the past three or four decades of philosophy of cognition. I found his conclusion to be very satisfying, but I am ultimately not the target audience, being a Cognitive Systems major I did not take much convincing!

What really impressed me about this book was the world-view Slingerland espouses, one in which we have have our Materialist Cake, but eat the Fruits of Human Kindness, too. Unlike hard-line materialists like Dennett, who seem to argue that mentalistic concepts like free-will and beauty are illusions of conciousness which will ultimately lose meaning once the consequences of physicalism are fully realised, Slingerland shows that these fears are ungrounded; human-level concepts like these are part of our engrained perceptual systems, built into us by evolution in such a manner that we cannot help but see the world this way. None of us, no matter how firmly committed we are to an empirically grounded physicalist ontology, can help but live life at human scale.

…we can say, qua naturalist, that our overactive theory of mind causes us to inevitably project intentionality onto the world – to see our moral emotions and desires writ large in the cosmos. It would be empirically unjustified to take this projection as “real.” Nonetheless, the very inevitability of this projection means that, whatever we may assert qua naturalists, we cannot escape from the lived reality of moral space. As neuroscientists, we might believe that the brain is a deterministic, physical system, like everything else in the universe, and recognize that the weight of empirical evidence suggests that free will is a cognitive illusion. Nonetheless, no cognitively undamaged human being can help acting like and at some level really feeling that he or she is free…. Similarly, from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, I can believe that the love that I feel toward my child and my relatives is an emotion installed in me by my genes in accordance with Hamilton’s rule. This does not, however, make my experience of the emotion, nor my sense of its normative reality, any less real to me. (p. 289)

Slingerland thus avoids the pitfalls of both naive Objectivism and postmodernist relativism, and provides a convincing and immensely satisfactory answer to those who, it would seem, would reject physicalism solely out of fear of what it might entail. This thesis, combined with Slingerland’s engaging personal style, gives this book a firm place in my “List of Books I Can’t Urge you Strongly Enough to Read”, alongside the afformetioned Dawkins and Dennett.

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Nicholas is a senior undergraduate majoring in Cognitive Systems (Computational Intelligence stream). He enjoys a wide spectrum of intellectual pursuits from programming to philosophizing. As well as writing for the Terry project, he maintains a private blog, and a personal home page. His long-term goals include earning his Ph.D, and crushing all life beneath the iron-clad heel of his merciless robotic cohort.