Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Strange to say, I sort of agree with Nato and Tom's pro-Darwinist comments in my recent post "Occam's Razor: Last Refuge of the Atheist/Darwinist True-Believer."

Tom writes:

What is "Darwinism", eh? It consists of two fundamental components and that is all. Do you know what they are? Descent with modification and natural selection. Darwinism thus defined is not a "belief" or even a whole system of such.

Okay, well, if that's what Darwinism means, then I'm a Darwinist. But in that case we need a term-- perhaps "ultra-Darwinist?"-- who believes (a) and (b) and also (c) that all life on earth emerged through this Darwinian process. It is (c) which lacks an epistemic basis and is believed dogmatically rather than rationally. (a) and (b) are both demonstrable, and together they provide the basis for an extremely fertile method of analysis of biological phenomena, which is brilliant and may well be one of the greatest intellectual achievements of our age. If Tom is signaling a retreat from ultra-Darwinism to Darwinism in this narrower sense (or perhaps he never was an ultra-Darwinist?) then he and I are on the same page.

Nato writes:

Let's say that "Darwinism" is as well proven as the roundness of the Earth*... I think evolution is as well proven as the roundness of the Earth. Not that our current theory of evolution is perfect by any means, but then, neither is Earth perfectly round.

Hmm. I don't think this is what Nato meant to say, but this implies that Darwinism is false. If the Earth is not (perfectly) round, then the roundness of the earth, strictly speaking, is a false proposition, albeit only slightly false. And the same for Darwinism? Myself, I think that Darwinism rests on physicalism, and we can recognize physicalism as false because it is inconsistent with our experience: we have a whole range of experiences, from numbers to moral choice to beauty to ideas and so on and so on, that are not reducible to particles and forces and energy. (Daniel Dennett introduces a bogus dichotomy here between reductionism and "greedy reductionism," in order to insist dogmatically on the former while labeling the numerous past failed attempts at reductionism as the latter. In fact, there is no grounds for embracing any form of reductionism.) But the Darwinian theory is still a very powerful tool for understanding our world, so perhaps in a sense it is partly-right, like the roundness of the Earth, though there is no reason to believe that Darwinism comes as close to the truth as the roundness of the Earth does. The claim that "Darwinism is as well proven as the roundness of the Earth" (unless we mean the non-ultra-Darwinist Darwinism Tom describes) is totally wrong: the roundness of the Earth is a well-described, testable fact, which passes the Popperian falsifiability test with flying colors, while Darwinist claims rely on a far greater degree of assumption and inference, and indeed in their most widespread form are not falsifiable and therefore should not be regarded as scientific claims at all.

The Darwinist theory needs to be re-framed, in much the same way as the Genesis Creation story has been reframed by many contemporary Christians. Christians once assumed that the Adam and Eve story was literally true (though it's hard to know; people's relationship to stories changes over time, and science and journalism may give us an idea of "facts" which doesn't correspond with that of, say, medieval Christians, so that we can't really understand how they understood the story). Today, many Christians read it as etiology, a way of describing the nature of things by a story about how they began. We need to treat the Darwinian theory etiologically: it's a brilliant theory and a useful intellectual tool, but the clues are much too scanty for us to hold justified opinions about whether it is a complete description of the history of the world. The actual history of the world we'll probably never know: it's like a mystery novel in which the author gives the detective too few clues to solve the case. Unfortunately, people are really uncomfortable not knowing, so they always invent creation-myths to fill in the gaps, like old mapmakers who wrote "Here there be dragons" in the unexplored corners of the map.

Nato attempts to make a reductio ad absurdum argument against leaving Darwinism out of the curriculum (maybe we shouldn't have schools at all, he suggests) that starts with this question:

Are we doing inexcusable violence to Flat-Earthers to require their children to be taught of the roundness of the Earth?

It's not irrelevant to the debate that there are virtually no Flat-Earthers. Advocates of putting the roundness of the Earth into the curriculum can at least plead democratic legitimacy; Darwinists cannot. But if there were sizeable numbers of Flat-Earthers, let alone if they were a majority, then I would say: No, don't force Flat-Earthers' children to learn the roundness of the Earth. The state should not be in the business of propagandizing its own definition of truth. Still less should an unelected judicial elite, deferring to epistemologically illiterate scientists, impose a belief system on a very large minority of Darwinism-skeptics who may indeed, be a majority of the population.

And no, that does not mean we can't teach biology. There is plenty of factual material in biology along with the ultra-Darwinist myths. Remember organelles, and mitochondria, and cell membranes, and DNA, and marsupials, and photosynthesis? One of the pernicious effects of Darwinism is schools is that it tends to distract biology teachers from the observations about the structure and behavior of plants and animals and other life-forms that constitute real biology.


  • I don't know what scientific explanation is, if not reduction in some guise or another. If one wanted to scientifically explain some notionally veridical "soulstuff" for example, it would be in the form of reducing the array of soulstuff-related phenomena to the result of a reduced set of soulstuff-related properties. Otherwise, only historical explanation or mere description is occurring. What did you really mean to say?

    Now, non-reductive reasoning can "generate future" in a manner vital to science, but that's an application and test of scientific explanation rather than its substance.

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:41 AM  

  • Yes, scientific explanation is reduction, in particular reduction to physical phenomena. If non-physical phenomena exist, science is blind to these phenomena by virtue of its methodology.

    Freud, B.F. Skinner and many others have been trying to reduce soul-related phenomena to their physical basis for decades. The attempts sometimes illuminate things about the mind, but in the grand project of reductionism they are always unsuccessful.

    If there is a soul, which dwells in a thought-realm and makes moral choices, what "evidence" (in science's special sense) of this entity could science ever find? Nothing, except perhaps that certain phenomena remain stubbornly unexplainable.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 5:15 AM  

  • You could always use the Intentional Stance and Heterphenomenology to describe "internal" phenomena, which is pretty much what we do when we "speak" and "communicate" with each other.

    By Blogger Thomas Reasoner, at 6:32 AM  

  • Let me see if I understand you. I'm guessing here because I'm not familiar with the terms. "Intentional stance" is what I refer to when I speak. "Heterophenomenology" means that the phenomenal or experienced aspect of the same entity/event is different for different people. Thus, I might refer to an internal phenomenon with the words "I felt bad about what I did." Another person can understand this statement with reference to his own internal experiences, an identification he has learned to make by observing patterns in others' references, even though he doesn't really know whether they experience underlying my statement "I feel bad" feels the same way that his experiences did.

    This is a plausible way of approaching the problem of communicating internal experiences, though I believe that neither the skeptical nor the solipsist hypothesis can be rationally refuted and that the intellectual moves we make to get past these hypotheses (which are as impossible to believe as they are to refute) are prototypical examples of faith.

    Understood this way, intentional stance and heterophenomenology don't help along, or have any bearing on, the reductionist research program. But, as I say, I'm just guessing about what the terms mean.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 2:51 PM  

  • Reduction is simply the explanation of a complex higher level phenomenon in terms of lower level, simpler phenomena, physical or not. There are cases where complex dynamical systems are explained in terms of other dynamical systems (think weather) in a way that's less obviously reduction, but it still counts as long as it boils down to a fairly compact logeto-mathematical description that covers a wide range of circumstances.

    It is true that science is methodologically blind to things that follow no rules and have no detectable properties. That said, if souls have physical effects, then I presume they are studiable and to some degree reduceable. As for soulstuff being the source of various difficult questions in cognitive science, well, science is certainly very slow to consider non-physical answers, since that wouldn't fit any intersubjectively definable aspects of the scientific universe.

    Should we consider that there might be some special soul goo out there that's qualitatively different from everything else? Perhaps, if that offers fruitful avenues of research - something that doesn't seem to be the case. In the meantime, there's a plethora of current science and theory that is just a slight bit more advanced than Freud and Skinner. If you feel that Ramachandran, the Churchlands, Carruthers, PANIC, the Multiple Drafts Model and others aren't getting deep into reductive explanations of our soul-like properties, then perhaps you should reach Chalmers' "The Conscious Mind" and contemplate exactly how much this last, best defender of dualism concedes before insisting on the need for special properties.

    As for the intentional stance and heterophenomenology, it's easiest if you just wiki them - the discussions of the conscepts there are reasonably accurate. What I will say is that with these two tools, amongst others, we can arrive at an account of consciousness that takes our subjective experiences seriously, allows for us to have real intentions and desires, but doesn't require an unsupportable level of realism.

    By Blogger Nato, at 9:38 AM  

  • As a side note, I wanted to note with approval the appeal to Popperian epistemology - we're on broadly common ground there. Of course, I disagree regarding evolution's score therewith, but that's a separate issue well trod elsewhere.

    By Blogger Nato, at 9:17 PM  

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