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Interesting, but devoid of empirical content
on December 26, 2009
Philosophers frequently seem so confident in what they write and say. It is as if they really believe they are the possessors of fundamental truths or deep insights. But this confidence should not be confused with arrogance, the latter of which is typically exhibited by the scientific community. It should rather be viewed as a kind of naiveté about the difficulties in obtaining true knowledge. Indeed, the path to true knowledge about any topic is a painstaking one, sometimes requiring years of concentrated effort. Many philosophers don't seem to realize this, as is clear from a study of their works. They are skilled at rhetorical constructions, but logical deductions and linear sustained narratives that reach coherent or valid conclusions are only a small part of what one must do to arrive at true knowledge. One must also collect and analyze data, formulate hypotheses that sometimes go nowhere, engage in sometimes vague or random thought experiments, and be willing to face criticism or challenges from alternative points of view.
The author of this book is one example of this, and even though the contents of the book are very interesting, to substantiate its claims would swell this short pamphlet to many thousands of pages. If the assertions that are made in this book are as obvious as what the author seems to believe, then they should manifest themselves in every day life, and in sociological or psychological data collected by statisticians or others interested not only in philosophical construction of ethical systems but also moral psychology and social neuroscience. The author's assertions are not so unique as to have been ignored by people who work in these fields, so it cannot be said that they have ignored them. Indeed, cognitive neuroscientists have analyzed the neuronal phenomenon behind trading and "making money", and this analysis has shed considerable light on moral concepts such as greed and avarice.
The author does not include any empirical data or analysis in this short work, but is content to deliver a narrative that supports what at first might be considered by some moralists (particularly of religious backgrounds) to be provocative. It is not often that one encounters an apology for the making of money, so any view that challenges traditional orthodoxy on this topic is very welcomed (at least by this reviewer). The author is working in a framework that was developed some decades ago by the writer and philosopher Ayn Rand, the ideas of which are just now being considered worthy of commentary by professional philosophers, but the tone of presentation is considerably different, and should be much more palatable by those readers who are not followers of Rand or advocates of her philosophy.
But again, the author's claims are astounding, considering what it would take to substantiate them empirically. It is not obvious at all for example that:
- Shopping is a "national addiction" as she claims early on in the book. But referring to shopping as an addiction has connections with the work of cognitive neuroscientists mentioned above.
- People are commonly plagued by clouds of guilt. How common is this, and how does the author know this? Statistical sampling or some other technique?
- Workaholics complain of not having enough time to enjoy the fruits of their labors. How many do?
And what does the author mean when she says that money can "astronomically expand" the value of an individual's products? Is this supposed to be an extreme statement that serves to perturb the reader's conceptual bias or slumber or one that can be quantified? Are there any real-world examples of "astronomical expansion"? None are given in the book.
The list goes on, but the book does have value in that it opens up the discussion on a topic that is only now been of interest to philosophers, cognitive neuroscientists, and moral psychologists. A revision of the book is in order that reflects the research of these different groups. Such a revision would be fascinating and of great scientific and social importance.