Myths and Traitors

Before offering some final words, I want to thank the editors for inviting me to share my thoughts this week about The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychology of Well-Being.

A quick recap of the week’s events:

In The Myth of the Great Divide, I laid out my goal for the week: to argue that the Great Divide between descriptive science and normative (branches of) philosophy is a myth.

In R-E-S-P-E-C-T, I introduced the basic respect assumption: Philosophers and psychologists who seem to be studying well-being are studying well-being. This led in short order to the inclusive approach: Figure out if there’s something that philosophers and psychologists who are studying well-being are all roughly right about. Whatever that special something is, it’s probably well-being.

In A Fine Mess, I argued that psychologists studying well-being are studying Positive Causal Networks. PCNs are self-maintaining networks of feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments people tend to find pleasant or valuable.

In Feelin’ Groovy, I adduced the network theory of well-being: A person’s well-being is made up of her PCNs and PCN fragments. I also defended the network theory against two objections: (1) PCNs aren’t necessary for well-being, and (2) PCNs aren’t sufficient for well-being.

In The Normative and the Descriptive, I argued that the network theory, despite explaining well-being in purely descriptive terms, can account for normativity. The intuitive argument was: (1) well-being is PCNs and PCN fragments; (2) well-being is valuable; (3) therefore PCNs and PCN fragments are valuable. Premise (2) is supported by intuition. (NB: Here’s a benefit of not having been too hard on intuitions.) What’s more, on various respectable views of normativity, the network theory can explain the value of well-being.


There is a no Great Divide separating science from the normative branches of philosophy.

The Great Divide is not buttressed by an epistemological distinction between the way philosophers and scientists study well-being. The inclusive approach says that the evidence for a theory of well-being comes from both scientists’ observations and experiments and philosophers’ intuitions. And the network theory receives support from both sources of evidence.

Some philosophers will try to preserve the Great Divide by relying on a semantic distinction – no compendium of descriptive concepts can ever have that authority, that “oomph,” that je ne sais quoi that make our normative concepts so special. If that’s true, that’s a very interesting fact about our normative concepts. But this semantic fact by itself cannot support the Great Divide.

Once you recognize that a significant line of evidence for a theory about the nature of well-being comes from the observations and experiments of scientists, then you’ve got to live with the possibility that the world’s not going to conform to your ideas of it. The true theory of what well-being is might not deliver that je ne sais quoi that’s in your concept of well-being. C’est la vie.

Once the epistemological thesis maintaining the Great Divide falls, the semantic divide – as real as it might be – is just too flimsy to prop it up on its own.


Bertrand Russell offered a dramatic myth about the history of Western philosophy that goes something like this: For centuries, every systematic study into the nature of the universe was philosophy. Then in about 1600, the sciences began to develop successful theories and empirical methods, and they began annexing great swaths of philosophy’s lands. Today, philosophy is no longer a colossus that dominates the world. We’re Luxembourg.

Given Russell’s Myth, the Great Divide serves an important purpose. It keeps the hordes at bay. Science might snatch from us all there ever was, is or will be. But it can never take from us What Ought To Be. Philosophy has sole and absolute power over the normative.

If we buy Russell’s Myth, it looks like I’m doing my best to open the gates and share perhaps our greatest treasure with the scientists. By suggesting that we tear down the wall dividing Ought from Is, have I proven myself a traitor to philosophy? No. But to see why, we have to see Russell’s Myth for what it is. A myth.


There’s enough truth in Russell’s Myth to make it convincing. But it misleads.

It’s a mistake to think about intellectual disciplines on analogy with sovereign nations battling for territory. It’s more useful to think of them as engaged in a cooperative venture. A big reason evolutionary biology is so epistemologically solid is that it has so many connections with other disciplines. It receives support from (among others) physics, chemistry, geology, and other branches of biology. And in turn, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

There is one way that intellectual disciplines are like sovereign states: Trying to build impenetrable walls around your territory is not a sign of a health and strength. It’s a sign of weakness and disease.


Are there subject matters that are philosophy’s only and always? Maybe. But this isn’t something we should be worrying about.

If you’ve taught philosophy for a while, you’ll have had the “But what am I going to do with a philosophy major?” discussion. And you’ll have told countless bright students that while the study of philosophy doesn’t train you to do a particular job, it does give you some really valuable skills that many employers will find very useful.

And you know what? There’s evidence that this is exactly right. Students of philosophy should go out in the world with confidence in their own talents and in the skills they’ve acquired by studying philosophy.

Instead of building walls, perhaps we’d do well to heed our own advice.


  1. Hi Mike – Thanks so much for this series, I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and I’m very sympathetic to most of what you’ve said. This isn’t my area at all, but I do teach applied ethics; as it happens, I’ve been saying that maximizing well being in the PCN sense is the most plausible version of consequentialism for a few years now. I’m glad to have a book to cite by someone who actually knows something!

    Here are three questions that have been percolating as I’ve read your entries:

    First, I assume that the inclusive approach could reveal that there are two (or even more) PCNs in humans that are pretty much independent, and so there could be two (or more) kinds of well being? It seems to me that positive psychology is a long way from being able to rule this out, and it might also do a great deal to explain some philosophical & even political clashes.

    With that possibility in mind, I’m a bit unclear on what determines a state’s inclusion in a PCN. You seem to have both “internal” and “external” criteria in mind. The internal criteria have to do with what a person (or people in general?) tends to find pleasant or value; those things are candidates for inclusion in a PCN. The external criteria have to do with identifying what states are homeostatically causally networked with the pleasant or valued states (and so may extend beyond them). This sounds reasonable, but I have a bit of a circularity worry when it comes to states that we value. Are these states just the ones we have an explicit positive attitude towards? That seems a bit shallow. (E.g. people can be deluded in their explicit positive attitudes.) But then the states we value would have to be determined by broader criteria, criteria that would probably involve the relevant PCN precisely because it is a PCN. It counts as something we value because it’s part of a PCN. Thus the circularity worry.

    I’m wondering if you see a role for evolutionarily determined biological norms here. Which links up to my last question: how do you see human PCNs and animal PCNs as related? There will obviously be links of common descent here. What about cases where there aren’t (e.g. maybe invertebrates, or for sure alien life forms)? Is your theory resolutely a theory of human well being only, or do you have something to say about how to extend the notion beyond humans?

    • Michael Bishop

      Thanks, Dan, for the thoughtful questions. Answering them will take a while. So I’ll split my reply into 2 parts.

      1. You’re right about the possibilities for the inclusive approach. When I started this project, I was sort of hoping that I’d find something more radical: “Maybe there’s nothing psychologists study that’s anything like our intuitive notion of well-being. And then I can argue for well-being eliminativism! Or maybe there’s a number of different things they study that fit our intuitive notion of well-being reasonably well. And then I can argue for the fragmentation of well-being!” But to my surprise (and, I’ll admit it, chagrin) I ended up with the boring conclusion: there’s one condition psychologists study that meets our intuitive understanding of well-being quite well.

      Here’s a secret: I care about the inclusive approach more than I care about the network theory. So if you convinced me that the fragmentation view explains the entirety of the evidence better than the sort of monistic view I press, I’d be a bit unhappy that you’d defeated the network theory. But secretly, I’d be a bit pleased too!

      2. Your last question is about whether it’s possible to extend the network theory beyond individual humans. In the book I argue that the theory can be extended to cover groups. The well-being of a group (a family, an organization) is a function of its interpersonal PCNs. Although I don’t touch on this in the book, I think the theory can be pretty straightforwardly extended to some non-human animals. But I don’t have well-developed views about how far it can be extended – to simple organisms? plants? aliens?

    • Michael Bishop

      3. When someone introduces a posit, like PCNs, the first thing we philosophers do – what we’re trained to do – is immediately ask for a classical account of it: “Give me clear and precise conditions, preferably singly necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, for something’s being a PCN.” Your question doesn’t put this challenge quite so bluntly, and maybe you don’t mean anything so bold. But let me over-interpret your request for “criteria” in this bold manner.

      I’d be happy to be able to give you a classical account of PCNs. But insisting on one at this early stage of our investigation is a mistake. Positive Causal Networks are a posit of science. The reason to think PCNs exist is not that they’re (according to me) crucial to our making sense of well-being. The reason to think PCNs exist is that psychologists study them: positing the existence of PCNs makes sense of what psychologists are doing when they’re doing Positive Psychology.

      But it’s very common in science to not have a classical account of a young posit. It can be difficult to give a classical account of even established scientific posits (e.g., gene). But even when science does deliver a classical account of a posit (e.g., gold, lightning), it’s usually developed only after considerable empirical investigation.

      If that’s right, then we have to lower our expectations. What I’ve proposed is a modest empirical account of PCNs – one that allows us to identify PCNs and distinguish them from other scientific posits. In time, we can hope for a more stylish account.

      So when it comes to “states we value” – yes, I mean states we have a positive attitude toward. Is this shallow? Sure. Will it sometimes pick out a state that isn’t “valuable”? Absolutely. Does that mean PCNs don’t exist? No. All it means is that we don’t yet have a very good account of what they are.

      Important side note: I’m not committed to the claim that everything one has a positive attitude toward is valuable. PCNs are scientific posits. We want to be able to identify PCNs. So I’ve offered a modest empirical account of PCNs: They’re homeostatic clusters of feelings, attitudes, traits and accomplishments people tend to find pleasant and valuable. So far, this is pure philosophy of science. No ethics. No normativity.

      After you grant that PCNs exist (if you ever do!), then I make my case for the network theory. And that’s when we can turn to normative questions about whether PCNs are valuable and (if they are) what makes them valuable.

      IOW, it’s very important to keep the two stages of the argument separate. Descriptive stage: Argue for the existence of PCNs and that Positive Psychology is the study of PCNs. Normative stage: Argue for the network theory. (And the inclusive approach says that part of the evidence for this theory will come from conclusions drawn in the descriptive stage.)

  2. Thanks, Mike. Don’t worry, I wasn’t after a classical account. (I knew I shouldn’t have used the word “criteria”. As a Millikanian, I abhor classical accounts!) I think I was after something more like methodological clarification, which you gave me: start with the explicit attitudes, and work from there, in good empirical fashion. I think that’s a good answer, especially if you don’t think the science has progressed very far yet. Of course, that method might run into a wall with non-human animals in the long run, when they lack explicit attitudes. (But they have pleasure, so that can still be a good entry point; maybe “valuing” is beyond their ken.) I suppose the method could even be problematic if there are multiple PCNs in humans, at least one of which is somehow attitude independent. But that seems unlikely. This wouldn’t disappoint me. Unlike you, I definitely like the boring view best!

    Great stuff, thanks again!

  3. Michael, Thanks for this interesting recap of “The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychology of Well-Being” in particular regarding Positive Causal Networks (PCN’s) and what is, for me at least, a useful new is/ought distinction perspective.

    Right, “inference to the best explanation” is the relevant science’s most important truth criteria (though some of that explanation can be for predictions) and “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

    I’d add that “nothing about our moral sense makes sense except in the light of evolution”. (The intuitions produced by our moral sense are biology based near instantaneous normative judgments of right and wrong made without conscious thought.)

    Perhaps in TGL you discuss the role of our moral sense in PCNs, but if not:

    The relevance of our moral sense includes its products the ‘elevation’ emotion (a synthesis of satisfaction and pride that is arguably central to durable happiness) and concern for reputation (including a demand for respect). The relevance of our moral sense to is/ought distinctions is it provides intuitions about right and wrong that have innate motivating power.

    I see acting in accordance with our moral sense as central to our sense of well-being, even though certain toxic moralities can obviously cause our own and other’s unhappiness. (Understanding the evolutionary origins of our moral sense can help identify toxic moralities and rationally justify their rejection.)

    Perhaps separating the moral sense related components of PCNs from others, such as pleasure in expanding knowledge, perfecting skills, and the like could be useful for strengthening both the underlying science of Positive Causal Networks and is/ought arguments.

    To me, the most distinctive characteristic that makes us human is our incredible ability to cooperate in groups. This ability has made us the wonderfully successful social species we are. The adaptation that enabled this cooperation is our moral sense which appears central to our experience of durable well-being. That is, perhaps the core of our sense of durable well-being is a product of our ability to cooperate in groups.

    • Michael Bishop

      Thanks for your comment, Mark. I agree with the basic outlines of your approach to thinking about the evolution of our moral sense. A complementary point (not inconsistent with what you say) is the importance of cultural evolution in shaping our moral sense. I’m not an expert on this, but I might plug Philip Kitcher’s 2011 book, The Ethical Project, as something I’d (mostly) embrace.

      What you say about the importance of “acting in accordance with our moral sense as central to our sense of well-being” – heck, I’d say it’s central to our well-being! – is interesting. In the book, I cite evidence that being good seems to be important to (at least some) people’s PCNs. People who do volunteer work today report being happier later, and people who report being happy today tend to do more volunteer work later. Barbara Fredrickson has this great study showing that inducing positive affect makes the “own race bias” (our tendency to recognize same-race faces better than cross-race faces) disappear.

      This idea of “normative consilience” – that different normative goods, ethical, prudential, epistemological, tend to correlate w/ each other & (perhaps) mutually support one another – has not received the attention I think it should. (Even though the idea goes back to Aristotle.) Perhaps it’s because we philosophers tend to find cases of normative conflict interesting – cases where (say) moral considerations pull against prudential or epistemological ones. (And they are interesting!)

      But put two ideas together: (1) Well-being involves a causal web of positive states. (2) Well-being is correlated with moral and epistemological goods, and perhaps (in certain moderately favorable circumstances) all these sorts of goods tend to be mutually causally supportive.

      Now, I haven’t figured out the details. But I think there are some resources there for the proponent of the inclusive approach to mine in thinking about normative matters beyond well-being.

      • Michael, I fully agree with the importance of cultural evolution in shaping when our moral sense is triggered and the intensity of the motivating ‘moral’ emotions that are, in turn, triggered.

        I did not mention cultural evolution because it was not necessary to make my main point about what I see as the central importance of our moral sense to our well-being.

        Glad to hear you see our positions as perhaps compatible. Regarding the cultural evolution of enforced moral norms, Kitcher’s book is largely a philosophy text, as is entirely appropriate for a philosopher. I have gone a very different way, and study the evolution of past and present moral norms as a matter of descriptive science. That is, testing hypotheses about the selection forces for these norms by again relying on “inference to the best explanation”, no contradiction with known facts, simplicity, integration with the rest of science, and so forth.

        It might or might not be of interest, but what appears to be a very robust hypothesis regarding selection forces for moral codes is something like the following: “The primary selection forces for enforced moral norms are the benefits of cooperation in groups.” Those benefits can be anything that people find attractive, including the emotional benefits of cooperation in groups. I see this hypothesis as consistent with people such as Martin Nowak (Evolution, Games, and God) and D. S. Wilson (many) but I state this hypothesis more bluntly, so far as I have found, than they do. I also more bluntly state that our moral sense is often fully ready to classify cooperation strategies that exploit out groups as moral.

        As a philosopher, have you ever considered that the above modern science based view of our moral sense as motivating cooperation strategies was first described by Protagoras to Socrates in Plato’s dialog of the same name? That Socrates rejected Protagoras’ view of our moral sense and morality in general, perhaps because it was too commonplace (what the common people thought) and not sufficiently intellectually satisfying, seems to me to be one of the greatest needless tragedies of intellectual history. I am getting off subject here, but am curious if you are aware of any modern academic work on the subject.

  4. Michael Bishop

    I must admit that my Protagoras is pretty rusty. But there are quite a few philosophers these days who start their philosophical theorizing by viewing our moral practices as the products of evolution. But the tricky part is the challenge of the Great Divide: How do you get from the “descriptive science” (as you say) to anything normative? To put it concretely and in terms of your example: How do you get from the fact that “our moral sense is often fully ready to classify cooperation strategies that exploit out groups as moral” to any sort of conclusion about how we ought to treat individuals we deem members of out groups?

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