Some Preliminary Thoughts

The Foundational Science?

Happy Valentine's day everyone! In lieu of a treatise on the heart, here's some musings on the Enlightenment's "sciences of the soul," on animal lives, and on how ChatGPT is more like a crappy JPEG than a mind.

Psychology: The "first and most useful" science?

Vidal, Fernando. The Sciences of the Soul: The Early Modern Origins of Psychology. Translated by Saskia Brown, University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Système figuré des connaissances humaines (figurative system of human knowledge) from the Yverdon Encyclopedia

The "Figurative system of human knowledge" or tree of knowledge from the Yverdon encyclopedia. Image from Laussane University Library via ENCCRE

What's the most foundational science? A common modern view, illustrated by this xkcd cartoon, is that math is fundamental, physics is how math is instantiated in the real world, and all other fields may as well be applied physics.

"Purity" (xkcd #435)

But it wasn't always thus. The Yverdon Encyclopedia, published in Switzerland in the 1770s, declared that psychology was "the first and most useful of all the sciences," because

without knowledge of the nature, faculties, qualities, state, relations and destination of the human soul, we can pass judgment on nothing, decide nothing, determine nothing, choose nothing, reject nothing, prefer nothing and do nothing with certainty and without error.1

In the Enlightenment, it was common to arrange fields not in a linear hierarchy, but in a branching tree, often shown at the front of Encyclopedias like the Yverdon one. These often divided not only all sciences, but all intellectual endeavors, first by the cognitive capacity they used (often memory [history, including natural history], reason [philosophy, under which the various practical arts and sciences were included], and imagination [the creative arts]), and then by method or subject matter. For the Yverdon encyclopedists, psychology was a branch of metaphysics, alongside ontology and theology. This represents a view common in the Enlightenment, and one that Vidal explores in The Sciences of the Soul, that to know anything you first had to know your own soul. Psychology, from the Greek ψυχή (psyche, in the sense of soul) was the field that would help you do that.

Detail from système figuré des connaissances humaines (figurative system of human knowledge) from the Yverdon Encyclopedia

There's much to like about this view, though there's much to dislike too. In The Sciences of the Soul, Vidal traces how psychology as the study of the human soul only developed once Christian and rationalist philosophers decided that there was something qualitatively different about the human soul. The medieval sciences de anima ("soul" again, this time in Latin) included, as the name implies, animals as well, descending from Aristotle's view that whatever force animated us was shared by all animals, human and otherwise. This Enlightenment exclusion of animals from psychology would only start to change when Darwin suggested that the differences between humans and other animals were those of degree, not kind.2 And I think we can still see it today, in popular science's constant posture of surprise upon discovering that animals use tools, feel disgust, or have a sense of humor.

More broadly, it's good to remember that the fundamentality of math, and even the very idea of arranging fields of knowledge in a linear hierarchy, is a product of our own place in the history of science. It could have been otherwise. And in fact, it's not only in the Enlightenment that it has been. At the beginning of the Cold War, a motley crew of computer scientists, molecular biologists, linguists, and others might have told you that all the world could be understood as information and noise, order and entropy, signals and communication. For these cyberneticians and information theorists, information theory was fundamental, and biology, economics, and military planning were no more distant from this foundation than physics. The history of such "cybernetic" approaches is fascinating, but that's for another time.

Other things I'm reading

New stories edited by Marina:

ChatGPT is a blurry JPEG of the Web, which explains both its power and its dangerous shortcomings. By Ted Chiang, one of the best sci-fi writers and thinkers on other minds out there.

Can you rescue a dying animal in Utah? Not if Governor Cox signs a recently-passed bill. In 2017, two animal rights activists removed a pair of dying piglets from a Smithfield factory farm in southwestern Utah, and nursed them back to health. Smithfield didn't realize they were gone until the activists published a video of their rescue, but then called in Utah prosecutors and the FBI to initiate a multi-state search for the piglets. Last October, a St. George jury acquitted the activists on charges of theft and burglary, on the grounds that the piglets had no value to Smithfield (a $5 billion company). (Marina covered the trial for The Intercept.)

Last week the Utah legislature passed a bill that would close that "loophole," decreeing that it's not a defense in theft cases if the stolen "property" is a sick animal, even if the "theft" saves the animal's life. Several of the St. George jurors vocally opposed the bill, one writing in the Salt Lake Tribune "I am shocked to see legislators fast-tracking a bill to usurp the proper role a jury plays in our constitutional system because they dislike a verdict in one particular case."3

University of Denver Law Professor Justin Marceau agreed:

This bill is consistent with the sort of special treatment the Utah legislature has long afforded to factory farms. The legislature has passed ag-gag laws that turned whistleblowers into criminals, they have sought to prohibit efforts to limit the growth of factory farms, and now they seek to overturn the will of a jury confronted with the abject horrors of factory farming.4

The bill now goes to governor Spencer Cox, who as of last week has not indicated whether he will sign.

The recipe

We love this Caesar salad, from the New York Times. Since the dressing is cashew-based (with caper brine for the trademark Caesar taste), it's a high-protein, low-fat salad that's fresh and bright enough for summer and hearty and filling enough for winter.

This is Some Preliminary Thoughts, Bennett McIntosh's blog. You can sign up for email updates here, or unsubscribe here.

  1. Gabriel Mingard, Psychologie (Métaphysique), in Fortunato Bartolomeo de Felice, ed., Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire universel raisonné des connoissances humaines (Yverdon: Société Typographique, 1770–1775); Supplément (1775–1776), vol. 35, 511b–513a, pp. 512b–513a; as quoted in Vidal, p. 1

  2. For an account of this process (though one that ignores the pre-Enlightenment forerunners to the post-Darwinian view), see Degler, In Search of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 1991). However, see "'Intelligence,' animals, and the scale of creation" in Carson The Measure of Merit (Princeton University Press, 2007; pp. 78–81) for a gloss of the subtly different histories of reason, which both Aristotle and the Philosphes generally assumed animals lacked; and of intelligence, which was applied to animals earlier in the 19th (and even 18th) centuries than the psyche/soul/whatever the subject of psychology is.

  3. Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 31, 2023

  4. Direct Action Everywhere press release

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