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Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
March 7, 2006 11:10 AM   Subscribe

Prof. Daniel Dennett's (New York University, Philosophy) new book Breaking the Spell appears to have frightened its NYT book reviewer, Leon Wieseltier (The New Republic, Literary Editor). Wieselter claims "The question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question", and promptly proceeds to demonstrate that he himself knows nothing about philosophy. Dennett responds.
Prof. Brian Leiter (University of Texas, Philosophy) responds that "'The view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical' is not a 'superstition' but a reasonable methodological posture to adopt based on the actual evidence, that is, based on the actual expanding success of the sciences . . . during the last hundred years."
b l o g s s and serious reviews.
posted by jeffburdges (142 comments total)

 
In other news, jesusdance.org shuts down over mohammeddance.com.

Oh, two more.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:14 AM on March 7, 2006


Previously covered here.
posted by furtive at 11:24 AM on March 7, 2006


A theist bothered to see his superstitious nonsense made irrelevant?! My stars and garters!
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:26 AM on March 7, 2006


Isn't Dennett a prof at Tufts University, not NYU?
posted by Staggering Jack at 11:29 AM on March 7, 2006


Honestly, I didn't find any of this very enlightening. But at least we now have photographic proof of the existence of Santa Claus.
posted by teleskiving at 11:29 AM on March 7, 2006


Dennett is smart and has a lot of great points, Wieseltier is an idiot. Also I'm an athiest. Just so you know where I stand.

But I'm reading Dennett's new book right now, and I saw him speak at Seattle Town Hall a week or two ago, and I gotta say, Dennett does _nothing_ in his book or his speaking style to reach out to religious people and try to bring them around.

You could say that he shouldn't have to, that his book is about applying science and empiricism to religion, and if you don't like that then you're not going to like what he has to say. But he _claims_ to be trying to write toward a broader, more religious audience, to be trying to get them to listen to what he has to say. I think he's disingenuous about this point. What he's really doing, unfortunately, is preaching to the converted, like me.

For folks like me, his book is great.
posted by gurple at 11:30 AM on March 7, 2006


Yeah, Dennett's at Tufts.
posted by BackwardsCity at 11:30 AM on March 7, 2006


I'm not really seeing it, I haven't read Dennett's book yet, but I'm not sure I want to after reading Wieseltier's review. He seems to fairly criticize Dennett for a lack of consistency and vast overreaching. His critique of scientism is attacked by others, but not the substance of his critique of Dennett, which is that Dennett is (at best) arguing by assertion which should be a secular sin for someone as "rational" as Dennett is. But then, although I'm an atheist, I think the kind of biological reductionism that Dennett preaches is ludicrous.

But even putting aside the substance of Wieseltier's review, and putting aside Dennett's choice to himself as risking something which he is not, in fact, risking by speaking as he is, I think that the larger point of the review is good, that the position that Dennett represents is riskily founded on faith as well. Scientism may be a dumb thing to call it, it may be co-opted by fundamentalists as a criticism, but the reduction of human life to scientific explanations and processes does miss something about what it means to be human.
posted by OmieWise at 11:34 AM on March 7, 2006


So, I am an agnostic, leaning towards the religious, to explain my bias.

This particular article and response jives well with what I am looking at right now, but the one thing I still don't understand is why scientific methodology and the special sciences in particular get ontological status. Or, when did the inability to prove something become proof that something wasn't there?
posted by khaibit at 11:35 AM on March 7, 2006


the reduction of human life to scientific explanations and processes does miss something about what it means to be human.

To be fair, Dennett doesn't claim to explain the whole of human existence, he just thinks it's worthwhile to analyze religion from a scientific perspective. He's got a hammer, religion looks like a nail. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with that, and I think that there's a lot of interesting perspective in Dennett's book. The reviewer puts a lot of words in Dennett's mouth. If Dennett's guilty of anything in his work, in my opinion it's overuse of analogy. There are only so many times I want to hear him compare religion to one biological parasite or another.

One more thing I _don't_ like about Dennett, though, is his publicization of the term "bright". "bright" is a jackass term for athiest/agnostic. It's too positive -- it's like trying to give yourself the nickname "badass".
posted by gurple at 11:43 AM on March 7, 2006


when did the inability to prove something become proof that something wasn't there

It's not hard proof, but it's pointless to care about something that you don't have any evidence even exists. Maybe we're all just brains in vats, but because we can never know if we are or not, who gives a fuck?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:44 AM on March 7, 2006


Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in ... the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

Strawman, anyone?
posted by bcveen at 11:50 AM on March 7, 2006


I had read (with contempt) the New Republic review. I had read most but not all of the Dennett book but found myself unable to get through a book so greatly in need of a decent editor. I have read a number of works by Dennett and they all are wondewrful in what they try to do but suffer greatly from the writing. Of course that which is human (or alive)can and ought to be studied from the angle of science, and the best line I garned from the book, though it is not by the author: "Religion is a childhood disease." (but for many, carried on through adulthood, I would add)
posted by Postroad at 11:50 AM on March 7, 2006


I think the cartoon that appears next to the book review speaks volumes about the perspective of the reviewer.
posted by gurple at 11:52 AM on March 7, 2006


gurple writes "To be fair, Dennett doesn't claim to explain the whole of human existence, he just thinks it's worthwhile to analyze religion from a scientific perspective."

Fair enough, and as I said, I've not read the book, only the review and the response, but if Dennett's idea of science is the story about the origins of religion that the reviewer claims he invents on page 2 of his review (and which Dennett doesn't address as a mistake in his rebuttal, so I assume we can let it stand), then that's inane. Even if the story makes sense, though, even if it's correct as a description of origins, I've got to agree with the reviewer when he says that origins do not adequately encapsulate a things importance or interest.
posted by OmieWise at 11:54 AM on March 7, 2006


Brian Leiter rules. His dismantling of the pretentious Leon Wieseltier is just one example of what he does all the time on his blog---exposing bigotry, fraud, and incompetence with a kind of ferocious candor that is unusual, even in the blogosphere, from someone of his professional standing and intellectual caliber.

And for added entertainment value, there is the (unintentionally) hilarious blog devoted to attacking Leiter, by a resentful, apparently mentally ill philosophy professor at UT-Arlington named Keith Burgess-Jackson (possibly NSFW due to title of blog).
posted by jayder at 11:57 AM on March 7, 2006


Does Dennet always use that many exclamation points in his writing? I would avoid his book on that basis alone. What a bunch of petty idiots.
posted by JekPorkins at 12:15 PM on March 7, 2006


um, add a "t" to "Dennet" there. And please don't avoid my posts on that basis alone ;-)
posted by JekPorkins at 12:17 PM on March 7, 2006


Does Dennet always use that many exclamation points in his writing? I would avoid his book on that basis alone. What a bunch of petty idiots.

That's... meant to be ironic, right?
posted by mowglisambo at 12:20 PM on March 7, 2006


but if Dennett's idea of science is the story...

I think the reviewer got Dennett's story more or less correct, in outline. Is it Dennett's idea of science? Well, no. His idea of science is the various studies that he cittes that support his story.

Dennett admits that his story is only one of the possible histories of early religion. It's the state of the art today. The reviewer admits that Dennett admits this. They part ways on the issue of whether this is an interesting and useful story to explore. The reviewer sees it as an athiest's wet dream, and Dennett sees it as a springboard for finding out more about religion.
posted by gurple at 12:22 PM on March 7, 2006


jayder writes "Brian Leiter rules. His dismantling of the pretentious Leon Wieseltier is just one example of what he does all the time on his blog---exposing bigotry, fraud, and incompetence with a kind of ferocious candor that is unusual, even in the blogosphere, from someone of his professional standing and intellectual caliber."

Yeah, again, I don't get that from his critique of the review. He does expose some problems with Wieseltier's application of Hume, but that's about it. He's pretty pissed that the review doesn't fawn over Dennett, but that doesn't make the review some kind of apologetics for fundamentalism. And, his assertion that science is going to explain humanity, physical and mental, is simply an assertion at the same level as Wieseltier's, without the (warranted) skepticism that Wieseltier brings to his.

I'm now completely perplexed by this tempest on the internet. If Dennett is so great, his ideas so profound, his understanding so well-developed, why doesn't anyone (including him) address the substance of the review, which is that his conclusions are facile, they rely on rank speculation, on rationalism as a kind of faith, and are compounded by a failure to account for the ways in which an invented tale of, and reduction to, biological origins for complex human thoughts and beliefs adequately explains those beliefs.
posted by OmieWise at 12:30 PM on March 7, 2006


Actually, to be fair, the reviewer _claims_ to see it as an athiest's wet dream, and Dennett _claims_ to see it as a springboard for finding out more about religion. I'm not sure either of them is being entirely up-front about all their motives and views.
posted by gurple at 12:30 PM on March 7, 2006


I'm a big fan of Dennett myself, but I do have to agree that I can't really imagine this particular book influencing the devoutly religious.

It should also be noted that he doesn't really claim to add anything new to the discussion, in fact he explicitly denies it. His goal is to make the current research on the matter more accessible and to call for more research.

I think my favorite part of this book may end up being the bibliography.
posted by thedward at 12:32 PM on March 7, 2006


gurple writes "The reviewer sees it as an athiest's wet dream"

Not just an atheist's wet dream (I'm an athiest and I find it as inane as could be), but also an incongruous (and therefore very revealing) interpolation in a book dedicated (at least in part) to arguing that reason trumps belief. I guess it depends what kind of belief we're talking about.
posted by OmieWise at 12:32 PM on March 7, 2006


There are certain questions science can’t answer. Those questions are not related to explaining human conditions and physical or mental expressions. I agree with Leiter, any methodological exploration and iteration can only serve our understanding.

“the reduction of human life to scientific explanations and processes does miss something...”

I don’t know if I can be classified as an atheist. From my philosophical position, that’s irrelevant. Where I part company is that while life is indeed to be examined, it is also to be lived. Certain kinds of knowlege can only come from within.
But insofar as A posteriori knowlege? Phhht - shyeah, it’s all about the science, duh. Dennett seems like too much of a physicalist to me, but thats Dennett, not science.

And man an account of the historical genesis (Leiter) of a wide variety of beliefs and their etiologies would go a long way to straightening out people’s heads...after a while anyway.

I’m ambivalent about Dennett’s biological theory - it will be proven or disproven eventually, but I do dislike folks sticking their religion into science.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:32 PM on March 7, 2006


Why do physical scientists so often see their task vis-a-vis religion as proving the existence or non-existence of God?
It's really like shooting fish in a barrel -- and it's not going to make religion go away.

Scientists should be studying the role of religion in society. Why do we have it? How does it function. What good does it contribute to society, that it should persist century after century and generation after generation, despite the weakness and empherality of its arguments?

Science should answer these questions not so that we can get rid of religion (that's not going to happen), but so we can improve it.
posted by Faze at 12:32 PM on March 7, 2006


This is nothing more than a contemporary skirmish in an ancient conflict. Specifically, in contemporary terms, this is a conflict, played out in the theism arena, between those who support evolutionary psychology and its assumptions about the world and those who find such assumptions and arguments repulsive.

This is why these debates are so heated, so full of ad hominem arguments. Each side attributes to the other a worldview that is harmful and implicitly argues that the opponent is an active proselytizer of this harmful view. Thus the hostile stance.

Anyone who claims that either Dennett or Weiseltier is an "idiot" are themselves being idiotic. Weiseltier is one of the most highly regarded literary critics in the US; and to be a literary critic of his caliber requires a considerable amount of familiarity and facility with various schools of thought, and philosophy is one of them. I don't know whether Weiseltier is ignorant in philosophy or not—his representation of Hume is suspect but certainly doesn't prove him to be a complete dunce with regard to philosophy.

I've read Dennett and have met him; I generally agree with his worldview. But he has a tendency to overreach—Consciousness Explained is a good example. Additionally, it is revealing that Dennett for the most part exists in the pop-science/philosophy realm, it is not my impression that he is widely cited.

My worldview is probably almost exactly the same as Dennett's or Dawkins's. But I'm not convinced they're furthering "our" cause with their polemics. They're too glib.

In its most simplified and easily stated form, this conflict is the conflict about human exceptionalism. According to Weiseltier, Dennett approaches a variety of human exceptionalism related to the self-referential quality of consciounsess. But even so, Dennett's initial assumption, and the assumption of naturalistic empiricism, is that everything in the universe can be approached with the same essential materialistic assumptions, including humans. In other words, if we are sure there is a complete materialistic presentation possible for, say, a tree or a cow, there is no reason to assume that humans and our behavior is not similarly explicable. Humans are not exceptional.

On the other hand, a great many people believe that the exceptionalism of humans is self-evident and it is absurd to deny this. It is not only theists who feel this way—a great many atheistic materialists are nevertheless exceptionalists with regard to our own nature.

In my opinion, there is unresolvable conflict at the level of this basic assumption about the universe. I do not agree with Dennett or others who claim their materlistic, non-exceptionalist assumptions are necessary and self-evident, nor do I agree with those who believe the opposite is necessary and self-evident. I do, however, assume those materialist and non-exceptionalism assumptions.

On Preview, OmieWise writes:

"...and are compounded by a failure to account for the ways in which an invented tale of, and reduction to, biological origins for complex human thoughts and beliefs adequately explains those beliefs."

This is an example of the battle of these assumptions. I could answer OmieWise with "why wouldn't they?" And OmieWise would ask "why would they?".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:34 PM on March 7, 2006


failure to account for the ways in which an invented tale of, and reduction to, biological origins for complex human thoughts and beliefs adequately explains those beliefs

Well, the subtitle of the book is "religion as a natural phenomenon". Again, I don't think he's trying to "adequately explain" religion for all definitions of "adequately". He's exploring religion as a natural (as opposed to supernatural) phenomenon. How do you do that, since you can't be an anthropologist in all ages of history and prehistory? You take the available evidence and make up a story.

Dennett defends this approach extensively in the book, though he doesn't really do much to motivate a previously uninterested reader to be interested in it (he tries, and I think he fails).
posted by gurple at 12:36 PM on March 7, 2006


Scientists should be studying the role of religion in society. Why do we have it? How does it function. What good does it contribute to society, that it should persist century after century and generation after generation, despite the weakness and empherality of its arguments?

Those are exactly the ideas that Dennett explores in this book.
posted by thedward at 12:37 PM on March 7, 2006


One more thing I _don't_ like about Dennett, though, is his publicization of the term "bright".

I find this hugely irritating as well. I'm an atheist too, but I can't help but feel that they've chosen the term 'bright', because the opposite is 'dim'.

What's more, it seems to me to be illustrative of an arrogant, self-congratulatory subtext in of all his stuff that I've read so that even if I agreed totally with every word that he wrote, I still find myself wanting to kick his smug, self-satisfied geeky ass.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 12:42 PM on March 7, 2006


Does it frustrate anyone else that Dennett thinks of science as beyond criticism? What always pissed me off about him was that he thought of science as basically the only tool human beings have to understand things--and that therefore the critical examination of science is useless or idiotic. I don't particularly like Wieseltier, but someone needs to knock Dennett off of his ridiculous pedestal.
posted by maxreax at 1:01 PM on March 7, 2006


I'd need to know what you think "science" is and what you think Dennett thinks "science" is to be able to answer your question, maxreax.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:09 PM on March 7, 2006


Does it frustrate anyone else that Dennett thinks of science as beyond criticism? What always pissed me off about him was that he thought of science as basically the only tool human beings have to understand things--and that therefore the critical examination of science is useless or idiotic. --maxreax

I'm not sure where you got that perception, but it doesn't seem to mesh with what I have read of his writings. In Breaking the Spelll, he even goes on to talk about the value of the field of science studies in understanding the practice of science and fixing shortcomings.

The methods of performing science are constantly changing and evolving, and critical examination of the processes is an important part of that. Dennett ,time and again, has supported and applauded this process.
posted by thedward at 1:14 PM on March 7, 2006


OmieWise : "If Dennett is so great, his ideas so profound, his understanding so well-developed, why doesn't anyone (including him) address the substance of the review, which is that his conclusions are facile, they rely on rank speculation, on rationalism as a kind of faith, and are compounded by a failure to account for the ways in which an invented tale of, and reduction to, biological origins for complex human thoughts and beliefs adequately explains those beliefs."

Probably for the same reasons most scientists refused to appear as witnesses at that most recent ID "monkey-trial" and we ceased to acknowledge Bevets after the hundredth creationism thread. Both philosophers who cared to comment (Dennett and Leiter) found the literary editor (Wieseltier) review ignorant, simplistic and uninformed as a whole, so they saw no point in debating it sentence by sentence ("Never argue with an idiot, people might not notice the difference").
posted by nkyad at 1:23 PM on March 7, 2006


I stopped following Dennett's work after reading his paper on qualia. Wieseltier is still off the mark, though.
posted by Gyan at 1:26 PM on March 7, 2006


John Haldane has an interesting review of Dennett's book.
posted by peeping_Thomist at 1:28 PM on March 7, 2006


Dennett has had a few good ideas over the years - his attacks on qualia in particular - but his scientism is a sham. Dennett really isn't all that good a scientist, and since his reputation in philosophy rests on his ability to appear more up-to-date on science (and especially neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, insofar as the latter can be considered science at all), if his science can be shown to be faulty, so can much of the philosophy he derives from it.

For example, his book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" is absolutely ridiculous. It basically reimports Aristotelian teleology to evolutionary biology through careless use of language and conceptual confusion. As an example, pick up a copy, open it at random, and read until you find the first instance of the word "design" in reference to some specific trait. It won't be long. Evolution, of course, does not "design" anything, especially not specific and atomic features of an organism with an eye to its optimal functioning in a given environment (see Gould and Lewontin's famous essay, the Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm).

There is, of course, no evidence showing how the features of the human mind evolved. This is not to deny that the mind and brain certainly did evolve, but rather to hold science to a higher standard than whatever Just-So Stories can be cranked out this month. There simply is no mechanism that evolutionary psychology has demonstrated the existence of to explain the evolution of the mind in the sort of strict causal way we expect of any other science that studies a substance (as distinct from the social sciences).

To fully illustrate the intellectual paucity of evolutionary psychology would take more space than I can devote here, but I recommend those interested look at John Dupre's "Human Nature and the Limits of Science" and any philosophy of science primer that deals with what a scientific expanation is. Both will quickly show that evolutionary psychology is simply not science, and not even a particularly good explanation for many features of the mind and the modern human.

I say all of this as an atheist materialist who thoroughly enjoys reading well-founded, philosophically engaging attacks on religion. Dennett might as well have relied on phrenology or cranio-facial morphology to debunk religion.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 1:29 PM on March 7, 2006


OmieWise writes "are compounded by a failure to account for the ways in which an invented tale of, and reduction to, biological origins for complex human thoughts and beliefs adequately explains those beliefs."


Well, how else would we explain those beliefs, other than ultimately as biological?

The beliefs are the product of a biological system, and occur -- like all thoughts -- in a biological substrate. Thoughts "happen" in brains, brains are biological systems.

Biological systems are ultimately "designed' by differential rates of reproduction, and those rates differ because of natural, artificial, or sexual selection within particular environments.

There's a feedback loop, of course -- in humans, the beliefs influence the environment and the selection. But that doesn't change the nature of beliefs: beliefs, regardless of complexity, are the product of biological machines.

At bottom, we're all robots.

(And veering off topic a bit: I suspect most of our "higher" beliefs and feelings are just rationalizations, epiphenomena that mostly exist to prevent our "higher reasoning" from getting in the way of tried-and-true subconscious processes that seek to maximize our reproductive advantage without regard to "moral values" -- or the grinding of gears when the system goes awry. "Love", "loyalty", "honor", "duty", "justice" -- these are just insubstantial masks and velvet gloves over the iron fists and red teeth and bloody claws of dominance and appetite and lust.)
posted by orthogonality at 1:37 PM on March 7, 2006


Pseudoephedrine writes "As an example, pick up a copy, open it at random, and read until you find the first instance of the word 'design' in reference to some specific trait. "


You missed the part where Dennett explains his use of terms "desgn" and "designoid"?
posted by orthogonality at 1:39 PM on March 7, 2006


orthogonality writes "Well, how else would we explain those beliefs, other than ultimately as biological?

"The beliefs are the product of a biological system, and occur -- like all thoughts -- in a biological substrate. Thoughts 'happen' in brains, brains are biological systems. "


I'd say that they're rooted in but not reducible to biology. Just as I'd say that biology is rooted in but not reducible to chemisty, and chemistry physics. That seems like a perfectly fair position to me. The difference is that Dennett's position, and yours, seems to replace one infinite with another, the infinite of God with the infinitely receding biology-->chemistry-->physics-->?
posted by OmieWise at 1:44 PM on March 7, 2006


No, I just consider them evidence of his conceptual confusion.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 1:46 PM on March 7, 2006


nkyad writes "Both philosophers who cared to comment (Dennett and Leiter) found the literary editor (Wieseltier) review ignorant, simplistic and uninformed as a whole, so they saw no point in debating it sentence by sentence ('Never argue with an idiot, people might not notice the difference')."

Yeah, again, I don't buy it (and I'm really not trying to be obtuse, which I realise doesn't do away with the possiblity). Dennett and Leiter both were fine going line for line on the stuff they could refute, they just left it at that, and hoped to show by the nits they picked that Wieseltier had gotten it all wrong. They failed to convince me, and I'm a science-positive athiest!
posted by OmieWise at 1:47 PM on March 7, 2006


Pseudoephedrine : "Both will quickly show that evolutionary psychology is simply not science, and not even a particularly good explanation for many features of the mind and the modern human."

Whatever failures we may see in evolutionary psychology as it exists today, it does not mean that the "many features of the mind and the modern human" have not appeared and survived under evolutionary pressure, as everything else. In the end, all that lives is biological and all that is biological is also a product of Evolution.

On preview, most of what orthogonality said.
posted by nkyad at 1:49 PM on March 7, 2006


Whatever the merits of the arguments, the speed with which the three parties descend to childish ad-hominem attacks is pretty depressing. Philosophy is in very poor shape, judging by this exchange.
posted by grahamwell at 1:51 PM on March 7, 2006


Comrade, these terms they use, they cannot mean what you mean them to.

Whatever failures we may see in evolutionary psychology as it exists today, it does not mean that the "many features of the mind and the modern human" have not appeared and survived under evolutionary pressure, as everything else.

Certainly so. Nor does it mean that evolutionary mechanisms exhaustively describe and account for all human behaviour or thought.

In the end, all that lives is biological and all that is biological is also a product of Evolution.

This, comrade, is just untrue. Humans, for example, include large components of information. Information is not essentially biological. This kind of shoddy, simplistic, sloganeering attempts to run over all the inconvenient facts in the way and reduce very complex interactions between numerous factors to asinine nature vs. nurture arguments.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 1:55 PM on March 7, 2006


"(see Gould and Lewontin's famous essay, the Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm)"

Or don't.

There's a lot of good reasons to argue against EP as it exists today, but Gould and Lewontin's criticisms of adaptationism are not among them. Why? Because they are wrong. Evolutionary science has resolved that conflict and adaptationism has won. Period. Do not rely on Gould for one's understand of evolutionary science.

Specifically, contrary to your insinuation, adaptationism isn't teleology. That's a strawman or a deliberate misrepresentation.

That said, I deeply dislike and distrust teleological language when discussing evolution. The problem, however, is that humans are inherently teleological and it's almost impossible for us to completely eradicate are supposition of teleology in the natural world. It's how we think. That being the case, it's very hard to eliminate teleology from our language.

I don't think Dennett's scientific expertise is that great. And, frankly, he's not that high-powered of a philosopher. But he continues to do an important service as he attacks anthropocentric exceptionalism with regard to human cognition.

On preview: "...include large components of information. Information is not essentially biological."

You keep making authoritative statements without even bothering to define your terms. What is "information" in that sentence? What is "biological"? C'mon.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:04 PM on March 7, 2006


Pseudoephedrine : "Humans, for example, include large components of information. Information is not essentially biological."

That smells just like "anthropocentric exceptionalism" as Ethereal Bligh would say. Pray tell, do dogs include large components of information? Or, if you prefer, "Does even a dog have the Buddha-nature or not?". I just hope you're not talking about modern humans as the species exists today, because that wouldn't help the argument. Anyway, on preview, as EB asked, what is that "information" you speak of?
posted by nkyad at 2:14 PM on March 7, 2006


OmieWise writes "I'd say that they're rooted in but not reducible to biology. Just as I'd say that biology is rooted in but not reducible to chemistry, and chemistry physics. That seems like a perfectly fair position to me. The difference is that Dennett's position, and yours, seems to replace one infinite with another, the infinite of God with the infinitely receding biology-->chemistry-->physics-->?"


But biology is reducible to chemistry. It's just that it's usually more convenient to describe biologics things in biologics terms.

When you use a web browser, it's most convenient to describe it in terms of pages and DOM trees. But what's really happening can be described in terms of the C-language program that is the browser program.

And that can be described, even less conveniently, as the assembly language instructions that the C program was compiled to. And those instructions can be described in terms of the even simpler microcode on the chip in your computer. And that microcode as a series of NAND gates. And these NAND gates as transistors etched on the chip. And those transistors as the movement of electrons.

But it's highly inconvenient to describe the movement of billions of electrons when what we want to talk about is your viewing of a web page, so -- purely for convenience --, we talk about pages and DOM trees and "desktop" windows.

But when we do that, we understand that our terms encapsulate layered and nested systems that ultimately involve electrons moving.

A DOM tree is a tree of nodes, but those "nodes" are really areas of computer memory containing the addresses of other bits of memory -- the "tree" is real, but it's also a concept, a way to understand the organized gestalt result of lots of electrons. Similarly biology is a way to talk about systems of lots of chemical compounds and chemistry to talk about systems lots of physical particles.

And we know that those electrons are built of smaller particles, even if it's hard to describe them, and that at some point it bottoms out. No infinite regress, no God, no magic. Reduction that bottoms out.

No magic, and maybe no "free will" -- if "free will" is even a meaningful concept. We're all robots, organized mechanical systems performing lots and lots of rote mechanical activities. Eventually, we lose that organization and other mechanical systems eat us to maintain their own organization.

At which point, various "concept systems" which result from mechanical activities in other human brains cause a cascade of events called mourning, to adapt those brains to the changed environment resulting from our deaths.

Is that "mourning" meaningful emotion or just another mechanistic activity? It just depends on the realm of explanation you prefer to employ. at the concept level, it may seem meaningful and important. At the physical level, it's just another restructuring of matter, "designed" by evolution to increase the differential reproduction of the organism "feeling" it. The Universe certainly doesn't care.
posted by orthogonality at 2:18 PM on March 7, 2006


Evolutionary science has resolved that conflict and adaptationism has won. Period. Do not rely on Gould for one's understand of evolutionary science.

Sorry mate, but I call bullshit. Sure, _Dawkins_ is an adaptationist, but evolutionary theory is a broader tent than Dawkins & Dennett. Your personal favourite of the theories has yet to carry the day. And let's not confuse "evolutionary psychology" with "evolutionary biology" - the former is certainly adaptationist. The latter is not.

Specifically, contrary to your insinuation, adaptationism isn't teleology. That's a strawman or a deliberate misrepresentation.

Actually, it's neither, since I said it was Dennett who was importing teleology to evolutionary theory without warrant.

You keep making authoritative statements without even bothering to define your terms. What is "information" in that sentence? What is "biological"? C'mon.

You define "biological". You lot brought it up as a mystical telos of reduction.

"Information" is a handy way of labelling a half-dozen related things. These are:

Intentionality
Language
Rationality
Thought
Semiosis

Happy?
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:20 PM on March 7, 2006


That smells just like "anthropocentric exceptionalism" as Ethereal Bligh would say. Pray tell, do dogs include large components of information? Or, if you prefer, "Does even a dog have the Buddha-nature or not?". I just hope you're not talking about modern humans as the species exists today, because that wouldn't help the argument. Anyway, on preview, as EB asked, what is that "information" you speak of?

Clear up what you mean by "biology" first.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:21 PM on March 7, 2006


Pseudoephedrine writes "Humans, for example, include large components of information. Information is not essentially biological."

Humans are biological. If they "include" information, do they include it in some non-biological extension? Are you positing a soul? Or a filing cabinet?

In other words, are you saying that human information isn't biological, or isn't material?
posted by orthogonality at 2:23 PM on March 7, 2006


In other words, are you saying that human information isn't biological, or isn't material?

Is your toaster biological? It's certainly material, but it's hardly a product of evolution. And yet, you talk about your toaster (did you evolve to talk about toasters?), you interact with your toaster (did you evolve to interact with it?) and you possibly even think about it from time to time, say when it gets stuck. What mechanism of evolution causes you think and talk and interact with toasters?
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:26 PM on March 7, 2006


And we know that those electrons are built of smaller particles, even if it's hard to describe them, and that at some point it bottoms out. No infinite regress, no God, no magic. Reduction that bottoms out.

We don't know that at all.

How could you possibly know if it bottoms out? You could assume it does, and live quite happily, but there's no way to know.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:27 PM on March 7, 2006


What mechanism of evolution causes you think and talk and interact with toasters?

That's probably the dumbest thing I've heard on the subject of EP not written by Hovind or a Dworkinite.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:32 PM on March 7, 2006


While I'm on a roll, let me attack the stupidity of the slogan "anthropocentric exceptionalism". Of course man is unique - what other animal has novels, complex buildings, particle physics, medicine or virtue?

The question then, is not "Is man exceptional?" but rather "In what regard is man exceptional? What is the cause of this exceptional species?" The answer, of course, is not some magical soul or chi-force or whatever, but simply, man is the creature with intentionality and language.

We have literally no other cases of animals that have evolved to have intentionality and language of the sorts we have. We have little to no idea of how these actually influence natural selection, sexual selection, environmental factors of all sorts, or any of the other things that we can look at in other animals and compare across species. You cannot build a science on a single exceptional case. You especially can't do it when can't even explain how this case came to be exceptional in the first place.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:35 PM on March 7, 2006


"And let's not confuse "evolutionary psychology" with "evolutionary biology" - the former is certainly adaptationist. The latter is not."

Seriously. Contact some evolutionary biologists. They can be found at your local university. Adaptationism won the day. About 25 years ago. You're simply wrong. Don't simply believe me: talk to some evolutionary biologists. And then let us know what you were told.

'You define "biological'. You lot brought it up as a mystical telos of reduction."

You know what telos means, don't you? It's usually transated as that for the sake of which. Teleology, then, is the comprehension of a thing on the basis of the end at which it aims. Most assuredly, "my lot" doesn't think in terms of a "mystical telos of reduction", since neither "telos" nor "mystical" are terms which apply. You're using all your terms too loosely to simply incorrectly.

""Information" is a handy way of labelling a half-dozen related things. These are:

Intentionality
Language
Rationality
Thought
Semiosis

Happy?"


I'm happy that you made an attempt to define. I'm not happy with your definition because, frankly, it's an astonishing display of handwaving.

I can tell: your training is in theory and criticism, and not in either biology nor philosophy. Am I right?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:38 PM on March 7, 2006


That's probably the dumbest thing I've heard on the subject of EP not written by Hovind or a Dworkinite.

Then you just don't understand the position EP takes. If every psychological feature can be given an adequate accounting in evolution and by extension, genetics, then EP must be able to account for particulars as well as generalities.

And in fact, various EPers have historically claimed to do just that. Simply because I'm talking about toasters instead of Aztec cannibalism cannot make a difference to an EPer.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:39 PM on March 7, 2006


Pseudoephedrine : "Is your toaster biological? It's certainly material, but it's hardly a product of evolution. And yet, you talk about your toaster (did you evolve to talk about toasters?), you interact with your toaster (did you evolve to interact with it?) and you possibly even think about it from time to time, say when it gets stuck. What mechanism of evolution causes you think and talk and interact with toasters?"

I don't know if I understand you. Are you proposing the ability to learn as an human-only characteristic? Because in the end, my ability to talk about a toaster is not much different from my cat's ability to hunt small insects, my dog's ability to come to me when I call her or a dolphin's ability to communicate with its peers. Culture alone allowed humans to become a "Lamarckian" animal, transmitting information throughout generations, but many animals have already been observed to learn from observation and higher animals have been observed to pass learned information to its offspring. In the end, the larger and more intricate central nervous system that ultimately made us capable of building toasters is just that, larger and more intricate - another step in a eon-long evolutionary pressure upon a characteristic that proved itself good for survival.
posted by nkyad at 2:45 PM on March 7, 2006


EP must be able to account for particulars as well as generalities.

Uh, what?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:45 PM on March 7, 2006


"While I'm on a roll, let me attack the stupidity of the slogan 'anthropocentric exceptionalism'. Of course man is unique - what other animal has novels, complex buildings, particle physics, medicine or virtue?"

Only cats are cats. So what? Anthropocentric exceptionalism is the point-of-view that humans are so widely exceptional that they stand apart from the rest of the natural universe. You can believe this if you want. People believe in the strong anthropic principle. That doesn't make it any less foolish.

"...then EP must be able to account for particulars as well as generalities."

That's just simpleminded. Are you aware that we are unable to find a solution to a simple four-body problem in Newtonian physics? The difficulty of ultimate reductionism is not an argument that reductionism is in principle false.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:47 PM on March 7, 2006


Pseudoephedrine writes "Is your toaster biological? It's certainly material, but it's hardly a product of evolution. And yet, you talk about your toaster (did you evolve to talk about toasters?), you interact with your toaster (did you evolve to interact with it?) and you possibly even think about it from time to time, say when it gets stuck. What mechanism of evolution causes you think and talk and interact with toasters?"


"Is your toaster dog's chew toy biological? It's certainly material, but it's hardly a product of evolution. And yet, your dog chews it (did it evolve to chew plastic?), your dog interacts with its chew-toy (did the dog evolve to interact with it?) and your dog possibly even thinks about its chew-toy from time to time, say when it gets stuck under the couch. What mechanism of evolution causes your dog to think and chew on and interact with chew toys?"
posted by orthogonality at 2:53 PM on March 7, 2006


People believe in the strong anthropic principle. That doesn't make it any less foolish.

No need to drag all that in.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:53 PM on March 7, 2006


I can tell: your training is in theory and criticism, and not in either biology nor philosophy. Am I right?

No, actually, I'm a philosophy major with a pretty heavy background in philosophy of science. Nice try for an ad hominem though.

Seriously. Contact some evolutionary biologists. They can be found at your local university. Adaptationism won the day. About 25 years ago. You're simply wrong. Don't simply believe me: talk to some evolutionary biologists. And then let us know what you were told.

Sorry mate, but you're full of shit. As recently as 1997, according to Dawkins own website, he was debating the issue with Gould.

http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/WorldOfDawkins-archive/Catalano/the_g_files.shtml

Who are these magical evolutionary biologists who believe that no one else on earth is anything but an adaptationist?

You know what telos means, don't you? It's usually transated as that for the sake of which. Teleology, then, is the comprehension of a thing on the basis of the end at which it aims. Most assuredly, "my lot" doesn't think in terms of a "mystical telos of reduction", since neither "telos" nor "mystical" are terms which apply. You're using all your terms too loosely to simply incorrectly.

Your etymology is as shitty as your sourcing and your science.

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0057%3Aentry%3D%23103013

"Telos" means end, or completion. "Teleology" is the study of the ends towards which a thing progresses, or how a thing attains its completion. If you're going to pretend to be a Greek scholar _and_ a master of evolutionary theory, can you at least start getting things right?
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:58 PM on March 7, 2006


That's just simpleminded. Are you aware that we are unable to find a solution to a simple four-body problem in Newtonian physics? The difficulty of ultimate reductionism is not an argument that reductionism is in principle false.

If it's "simple-minded" then why are evolutionary psychologists doing it?

Because they are.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:59 PM on March 7, 2006


"Is your toaster dog's chew toy biological? It's certainly material, but it's hardly a product of evolution. And yet, your dog chews it (did it evolve to chew plastic?), your dog interacts with its chew-toy (did the dog evolve to interact with it?) and your dog possibly even thinks about its chew-toy from time to time, say when it gets stuck under the couch. What mechanism of evolution causes your dog to think and chew on and interact with chew toys?"

The chew-toy is itself an artifact of human construction. For that matter, so is the dog. Neither one, strictly speaking, "evolved" in a Darwinian sense, and yet both are parts of the world. One of them is even "biological", or maybe it isn't. You still haven't clarified what you mean by that term.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:02 PM on March 7, 2006


Pseudoephedrine writes "While I'm on a roll, let me attack the stupidity of the slogan 'anthropocentric exceptionalism'. Of course man is unique - what other animal has novels, complex buildings, particle physics, medicine or virtue?"


You're actually Daniel Dennett, parodying his critics, right? Because Dennett, in one of his books, imagines sentient elephant exceptionalists questioning how anything without a trunk could qualify as a "person".

"Of course man bats are unique - what other animal has sonar, or is a mammal with wings?"

"Of course platypuses are exceptional - what other monotreme has an electrical sense?"

"Of course ravens and crows are exceptional -- what other winged creatures use tools?"

Yes, sure, humans have out-sized brains and dextrous hands. Despite this, we also have genocide, infanticide, and rape -- just like animals.
posted by orthogonality at 3:03 PM on March 7, 2006


I don't know if I understand you. Are you proposing the ability to learn as an human-only characteristic?

No, I am proposing the much less radical thesis that certain kinds of learning are only done by humans.

Culture alone allowed humans to become a "Lamarckian" animal,

EP is a strictly Darwinian discipline. It has the same respect for Lamarckian explanations that EB does.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:04 PM on March 7, 2006


Okay, so some are arguing that all human behavior can be explained through science? Is that right? I haven't studied the EP or Dennett side of philosophy, mainly because I'm not sure it is philosophy. It comes off as a more rhetorical position that holds science up as some kind of moral hero, all the while holding that morality (like all human behavior) is reducible to some scientific construct or another. Meanwhile in what way is EP even scientific? Has it produced any testable ideas? Again, I've not studied this, but the explanations I hear sound a lot like reverse engineering without much support beyond the theories that they have already been assumed. Seems question begging? Thoughts?
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:05 PM on March 7, 2006


orthogonality> I'm not denying humans are animals. I'm denying that an evolutionary account of humans contains sufficient information (meant in the ordinary sense we use when talking about reduction) to actually carry out the process of reduction.

And all the animals Dennett imagines _already_ have language (how else could they "question" anything?). He's already assumed the fundamental difference is the same, and then wonders at how other, minor differences could possibly be as important. Well, no shit he finds them wanting.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:08 PM on March 7, 2006


Meanwhile in what way is EP even scientific? Has it produced any testable ideas?

Not really. It has given rise to a number of "experiments" but they generally wouldn't qualify as scientific explanations if a similar form of explanation was offered in another discipline. Like evolutionary biology, for example.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:09 PM on March 7, 2006


Pseudoephedrine : "how else could they 'question' anything?"

Maybe Jose Luis Bermudez has the answer.
posted by Gyan at 3:16 PM on March 7, 2006


“At bottom, we're all robots.”

I disagree - that assertion (at least in tone) implies ultimate resolution in infinite regress (the controlling system of the robot - the controller of the controlling system - etc). I think a complex enough system allows for self-sustainance at the ‘upper’ levels (for lack of a better term)- for example, logic.
(crude terms here - ‘scuse me)
Species survival is not a mask for lower or instinctual urges. Nor is nature tooth and claw the ‘true’ heart of us. I’m not denying that crudity exists, nor that it is somehow rarified - but that enough complexity from that crudity and you can derive a rarified state. Honor or justice are not invalid because of their roots anymore than a tree should be able to live without being rooted in dirt. We’re not masked animals or machines - we’re something else.

I’m not saying whatever term for us doesn’t exist, but that those metaphors you used don’t cover us.

So scientifically explainable? Yes. Robotic or animalistic? No.

“At the physical level, it's just another restructuring of matter”

That I’m down with. With the exception of the complexity thing. At some point you lose predictability.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:25 PM on March 7, 2006


I just got out of a class Dennett guest-lectured in; he was reveling in the controversy and chuckling over the seven or eight responses supporting him that are scheduled to be published in the NYT.
posted by nonane at 3:26 PM on March 7, 2006


I like how this thread started out as a bunch of fair-minded atheists criticizing the excesses of a pop scientist/philosopher of mind with the modesty to, w/ Dawkins, start a new social group based around beliefs and name it, essentially, "The Not Dumb People." I dont' like how the thread basically ended up as an ideological dogpile on those who do not share said pop scientist's beliefs.

Some people seem to be conflating the idea that man is biological with the idea that mind and culture are exhaustively explainable through biology. The pro-scientist side hasn't offered any set of scientific findings that show that a biological reduction of culture would be sufficiently specific. Davidson famously wrote about anomolous monism, the idea that when we think a sentence, the sentence does not form inside our heads--i.e., we cannot draw easy one-to-one correlations between our propositional statements and biological functions. (I'm vamping a little here.) Even if we can designate some relationship between biology and human behavior, it's not entirely clear that biology would offer a helpful explanation.

Anyways, I have to say that it's not surprising for a thread about evolution on a tech-geek-heavy board to end up as an entire disavowal of culture. The Dennet example above above human exceptionalism ("Bats are different because they have wings, etc.") only sounds reasonable to you if you already do not believe in culture. Much like memes and evolutionary psychology, this thread is terrified of the idea that human behavior might possibly be chaotic, inexplicable, social, intentional, interpersonal, etc. If memes are scientific ideas, where is the evidence? If the standards of scientific research are rational debate, why the ad hominem attacks in this thread instantly disqualifying someone if they're not either a philosopher (a position I was unaware implied a great deal of scientific depth) or an evolutionary biologist?
posted by kensanway at 3:49 PM on March 7, 2006


"'Telos' means end, or completion. 'Teleology' is the study of the ends towards which a thing progresses, or how a thing attains its completion. If you're going to pretend to be a Greek scholar _and_ a master of evolutionary theory, can you at least start getting things right?"

As I said, that for the sake of which is the usual translation of telos, particularly in the context of Aristotle, where it is most important and particularly relevant to this discussion. As it happens, I have translated portions of Physics, actually, and spent a couple of years learning both Attic and Homeric Greek. I wasn't very good at it, mind you, but given that telos and logos are two of the most important words in Greek philosophy, I'm pretty sure I got them right and I don't see how your definition invalidates mine. What it does demonstrate is that I have a stronger grasp of the term than you do.

"Sorry mate, but you're full of shit. As recently as 1997, according to Dawkins own website, he was debating the issue with Gould."

Mate, why don't you take my advice and contact some evolutionary biologists? Gould was a palentologist and widely an embarassment to evolutionary biologists by 1997. But if Gould is all you've read, and you think his popular writings were and are authoritative on the subject, then I can see how you've become confused.

"It has the same respect for Lamarckian explanations that EB does."

Here you reveal your true colors. In the context of evolutionary biology, this makes you a crank. Yes, epigenetics is a hot field now in evolutionary biology, but few evolutionary biologists would be caught dead identifying epigenetics with Lamarckism.

As to your claims about your competency in philosophy of science, Kuhn does not suffice as a heavy background. Frankly, philosophy of science begins with Aristotle and the fact that you don't know Aristotle's use of telos indicates incompetency.

Additionally, I see no rigor in your arguments—for a North American philosophy major that is a bit surprising. You can handwave your use of "information" all you want, it doesn't help.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:51 PM on March 7, 2006


Fun thread.

Nonane... yeah, I bet he was chuckling. Whatever his faults as a philosopher or a writer, Dennett certainly does not lack for ego. In my mind, Dennett stopped doing serious philosophy a long time ago, and has never done science. At best he is a science popularizer, but he's a very bad one since he always has an agenda and he often misrepresents the science.

I haven't read much evolutionary psychology lately. Some years back I read far too much, and I have never wanted to go back. The best of it is reasonably plausible speculation, the worst of it is like the stuff you find in Dennett's book on the origin of religion.

Enjoyed the back and forth between pseudoephedrine and the others. But could we please keep "evolution" and "natural selection" straight? Humans evolved, see the fossil record. The details of this are a separate matter.
posted by bumpkin at 4:00 PM on March 7, 2006


"Much like memes and evolutionary psychology, this thread is terrified of the idea that human behavior might possibly be chaotic, inexplicable, social, intentional, interpersonal, etc. If memes are scientific ideas, where is the evidence?"

That's a strawman and it's false. (Disregarding what you think you are referring to as "memes", because I don't believe the term has a rigorous definition and I think it is no more than a provocative speculation of Dawkins's).

I certainly am not terrified that human behavior may be chaotic, social, intentional, or interpersonal. Especially if those terms are rigorously defined. As a matter of fact, I think human behavior is all those things. Inexplicable is another matter and my stance on it depends upon what you mean by "inexplicable".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 4:04 PM on March 7, 2006


You cannot build a science on a single exceptional case. You especially can't do it when can't even explain how this case came to be exceptional in the first place.


So, are we giving up on scientifically establishing humanity's uniqueness? Coz I support that. Descartes did it as well as anyone can be expected to. Just as one person cannot scientifically establish his/her own uniqueness among a crowd of other people, cannot place his/her frame of reference outside the very body from which it emerges, so does humanity meet this same conundrum in the greater animal kingdom.

If you're worried about whether or not you are unique, go out on a spiritual journey in the woods. "God" will find you and make you unique to your liking. Likewise, this is what humanity must do as a whole to silence this question -- religion. It's a function of human existence to find new ways to silence the old questions, so we can make room for the new questions.
posted by Laugh_track at 5:13 PM on March 7, 2006


And I'd like to say something about evolutionary psychology.

Pseudoephedrine writes:

"Then you just don't understand the position EP takes. If every psychological feature can be given an adequate accounting in evolution and by extension, genetics, then EP must be able to account for particulars as well as generalities."

I tend to defend EP rather than criticize it because I believe that conventional wisdom is far more in the direction of disbelieving it than considering it. I have a hard time accepting that any reputable scientist would claim that every psychological feature can be "adequately" explained by an evolutionary process (specifically, adaptation). If I interpret what you wrote as literally as possible, then you're claiming that EP is determinism by another name. But I have a hard time believing that any serious scientist of any kind would take the absolute determinist position today.

It seems to me that EP claims that most predominant, ubiquitous human behaviors have at least a partial evolutionary genesis. By my sensibilities, this is a very reasonable assumption because it seems to me to be absurd to take it as axiomatic that human cognition as it relates to behavior is qualitatively unique.

More and more we're beginning to find important behavior in animals that is learned, not instinctive. In parallel to the fallacy of human dualism is the fallacy of animal mechanical determinism. Clearly, it must be the case that a good number of behaviors are not directly and explicitly the product of evolutionary adaptation.

But as I get to this point in the discussion, I'm struck by the fact that I don't really know or have a rigorous definition of the terms we're using when we are claiming when we say a "behavior" is causally "determined" by biology that is the result of an evolutionary process. Neither behavior nor determined have been pinned down. As it happens, I'm in no way defending an anachronistic and dogmatic reductionism—I believe in the qualitative distinction and existence of "complexity", even if we've only begun to attempt to understand what we mean by "complexity".

I talk and write very often about what I think is the fallacy of theoretical omniscience, the supposed "ominicience" of a universal episteme. A "universal comprehension", say. Assuming such a universal comprehension implicitly requires that everything has a meaningful relationship with everything else. Historical and dogmatic reductionism has this characteristic and it is in this way that I believe it fails. I don't believe that everything has a meaningful relationship with everything else. I know "meaningful" is a very handwavy term here...perhaps I should use instead useful. Is there necessarily utility in connecting any particular thing to any other particular thing? I don't think so.

I see no utility in describing every human behavior in terms of the interactions of elementary particles. Nor do I see the utility in describing every human behavior in terms of an evolutionary adaptation. However, historically we've placed human behavior in the metaphysical realm; our culture's particular version is a dualism. We've historically seen human behavior as inherently inexplicable in terms of materialism. Today, especially where a human behavior lies closer to what we see as biology and not cognition, we allow for an evolutionary perpective. But those are still by far the exceptions, not the rule. This seems to me to be irrational in its assumption that humans are qualitatively distinct from everything else in the natural universe, particularly other animals. It's telling that, as I mention above, we've traditionally been extremely resistant to any idea that sees learning, culture, language, or consciousness in animals—we've been very dogmaticaly mechanically reductionist about the rest of nature apart from ourselves. With regard to ourselves, we've been dogmatically metaphysical.

Given that I'm not what I'm calling a "dogmatic reductionist", and that I believe the infant field of "complexity" represents an important insight, I'm inclined to believe that there are vast numbers of human "behaviors" which have a meaningful explication only in terms of culture. But what the proponents of a cultural perspective on human nature are ignoring is the possibilty that the context which is "culture" may be largely distinct from the context which is a particular indidividual human's specific behavior. It is entirely reasonable and possible that specific individual human behaviors are most usefully described in evolutionary adaptationist terms while, in contrast, behaviors described at a higher level than an individual person are most usefully described at the cultural level which is largely independent of specific biology. This is an example of the essence of complexity: there are different levels of description for which different things are meaningfully described and that, for most purposes, we can see these levels of description of causality to be independent. Even more strongly: for greatest utility, we must see different levels of description to be essentially independant from each other.

From that perspective it seems to me that the vast number of things which can be labeled "human behavior" are unlikely to be predominantly best described culturally or predominantly best described from a reductive evolutionary perspective. We don't know.

What we do know, however, is that in terms of utility, the materialistic empiricist perspective has proven to be superior to the metaphysical, teleological perspective with regard to our everyday aims when we attempt to describe natural processes. An implication of this is that if you accept this assertion of the general utility of what we call "science", then it is intellectually suspicious to dismiss out-of-hand the utility of science for describing an entire category of natural phenonoma...namely, ourselves. Specific to this argument, we've found evolution, and recently its refinement into adaptationism, to be extremely useful for descibing the portion of the natural world we call "life". And although people tend to be anthropocentrically exceptionalist about humans, there nevertheless is wide agreement that we are "alive" in the same sense as other things in our natural universe. Therefore, we have every reason to believe that we might be equally successful at usefully understanding ourselves from the same perspective. That is, to the degree to which we assume that humans are best understood physically and not metaphysically. And if we prefer the latter, then we should question any magical and unexamined "lines in the sand" we draw between characteristics of ourselves that are best understood physically and metaphysically.

Seeing the whole of the natural world as best explained physically, with the sole exception being human consciousness, is arbitrary in every way other than in the context of historical progression or the tendency toward anthropocentricism.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:20 PM on March 7, 2006


kensanway writes "Davidson famously wrote about anomolous monism, the idea that when we think a sentence, the sentence does not form inside our heads--i.e., we cannot draw easy one-to-one correlations between our propositional statements and biological functions."

Before the discovery of cytochrome P450IIE1, I'm sure Davidson could have fatuously, er, "famously", written that alcohol is not metabolized by livers -- i.e., we could not draw easy one-to-one correlations between alcohol metabolization and liver functions.

If Davidson didn't know that televisions are manufactured in Chinese sweatshops, would he gaze rapturously at "Wheel of Fortune" and tell us that therefore are no "easy one-to-one correlations" between the flickering image and the innards of the TV?

If "when we think a sentence, the sentence does not form inside our heads", where do you suppose the sentence does form? In the smithy of Stephen Dedalus's soul? Or do sentences spring full-formed from Zeus's brow, like Athena? Or do they spontaneously generate themselves, like mice from decaying trash?
posted by orthogonality at 5:24 PM on March 7, 2006


As pseudoephedrine has mightily annoyed me, most especially with his assertions about telos, I'd like to actually quote what Liddell-Scott (to which he linked!) has to say about the word.

If you look way down to the end of the page, you see (emphasis mine for clarity):
III. achievement, attainment, têlou emoi nostoio t. glukeroio genesthai Od.22.323 , cf. Pi.N.3.25; t. de tês apallagês tou Aithiopos hôde elegon genesthai Hdt.2.139 ; pôs an kai touto tou t. tunchanoi, i.e. might be achieved, Gem.8.36.

2. winning-post, goal in a race, pros t. ornumenon B.5.45 ; in a contest, estin d' aphaneia tuchas kai marnamenôn, prin t. akron hikesthai Pi.I.4(3).32(50) ; eis t. elthein, of runners in a race, Pl.R.613c.

b. prize, ephere pugmas t. Pi.O.10(11).67; ou gar ên pentaethlion all' eph' hekastôi ergmati keito t. Id.I.1.27; poti grammai men autan stasekosmêsais, t. emmen akron Id.P.9.118 (perh. 'to be the winning post and prize'); krineis t. aretas B.10.6 : metaph., ouk echô eipein tini touto Moira t. empedon ôrexe Pi.N.7.57 .

3. Philos., full realization, highest point. ideal, haptesthai tou t. Pl.Smp.211b; pros t. iôn tôn erôtikôn ib.210e; pros t. aretês elthonta Id.Clit.410e , cf. R. 613c.

b. the end or purpose of action, t. einai hapasôn tôn praxeôn to agathon Id.Grg.499e ; freq. in Arist., EN1094a18, al.: hence, the final cause, = to hou heneka, Id.Metaph.994b9, 996a26, al.; hence simply = to agathon, the chief good, Id.EN1097a21, Zeno Stoic.1.45, etc.
"Philos." indicates the usage in the context of philosophy. Unless pseudoephedrine is in the habit of using foreign words transliterally and uselessly and not contextually and usefully, he's wrong. (Also, "Arist." refers to Aristotle.)

"End" is a paltry, lifeless English translation of telos and, in any case, misleading in the context of philosophy. Teleology is a well-defined, well-known philosophical term and it is first and foremost understood in the context of Aristotle—who is nothing if not exemplary among teleologists and an essential and foundational component of western philosophy. ...which pseudoephidrine claims to major in and have expertise. What are they teaching kids nowadays?
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:18 PM on March 7, 2006


orthogonality- (in response to your DOM tree answer above, and because my own rote self hasn't installed MetaFilthy on this computer I won't quote it)

Your description is quite chilling in a way, because although you're strictly correct about the kind of reducibility of which you are talking, the answer is itself reductive because it loses meaning as it progresses toward sub-atomic particles. That's why I use the language "rooted in but not reducible to" which acknowledges the links but doesn't reduce humanity to them. I'll be frank, as we've had this conversation more than once (I always enjoy it), I'm not sure if the issue is such widely divergent world views that I cannot comprehend yours, or if the issue is that I'm at the limit of my knowledge and ability and that's why I'm left kind of stammering.

What I can say is that your example above, and by extension, of course, your view of humanity does lose meaning and information. Even if we're just talking about a browser, talking about electrons does not adequately describe what gets displayed, it does not even begin to describe the meaning behind what those electrons form. Certainly if the browser is playing an MP3, say High Water Everywhere (Part 1) by Charlie Patton, mapping electrons does not convey the sound, and thus, misses the music. Of course it has to also miss the context of the song (the 1927 Delta flood, a 78 RPM recording which imposed certain limitations of form, etc.).

In fact, that recording is a good example of what's wrong with the kind of reduction I'm talking about, because it misses cause and effect because its concerns are at a different level of resolution. High Water Everywhere Part 1 is 2:99 in length, as is Part 2. Two sides of one 78. So, why is the song that long? How can we tell from listening to it why the song is that long? The answer is that we can't. If we seek the explanation in the soundwaves alone we'll miss a crucial explanatory context, which is that the length was at least partly dictated by the technology used to record it.

I know this isn't a very sophisticated example, but at least to my tired mind it seems to capture the problem of scientific reduction, and by extrapolation, the larger problem of context in EP. EP suggests that the most important context is evolutionary, by which it mostly seems to mean animal in a rank sense, and so it ignores the whole subsequent development of human culture and history. We're back to the NYTimes review's question which is why are origins assumed to contain all the necessary information for understanding subsequent development of complex ideas.

And incidentally EB, I disagree that society at large rejects EP. I actually think the opposite is true, I see recourse to our essential animal nature all over, it gets used as an excuse everywhere, the fight against evolution notwithstanding. Hell, I've always taken the notion of original sin to be just this kind of thinking.
posted by OmieWise at 6:35 PM on March 7, 2006


There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is "extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking," nothing more. "Breaking the Spell" is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: "I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don't yet know." So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and "generating further testable hypotheses" notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.

A vicious circle atheists love to revel in and thump their chests about:

Evolutionism is True, God does not exist
Evolutionism created everything -- including God
Therefore God does not exist
Therefore evolutionism must be True.
posted by bevets at 6:54 PM on March 7, 2006


hey dog what's up maybe you could self-link for us or do a little dance or something
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:05 PM on March 7, 2006


OmieWise writes "Even if we're just talking about a browser, talking about electrons does not adequately describe what gets displayed, it does not even begin to describe the meaning behind what those electrons form. "


Yes and no. Yes, A full description of the electrons (and all the other particles too) fully describes the state of the computer, including any software running on it, and any information that software is manipulating. In principle, that information would allow us to fully replicate the computer. (And to a lesser degree, that's how a Tempest setup can remotely read what's on your computer's screen -- by sensing the various electromagnetic energy given off by your monitor, and laboriously summing their effects to replicate a picture of what's on your screen.)

No, I agree, that's a terrible way of describing what's going on in your browser, because it both introduces extraneous data and, more importantly, fails to use the right concepts.

I'm not saying that you should describe biologic systems by describing the state of all elementary particles that make up that system. Nor would I want to read the machine language for the browser if I could read the C source code. While they describe the same thing -- while they are ultimately isomorphic -- the whole point of higher level languages is that they encapsulate processes and in so doing separate the relevant differences from the merely mechanical differences.

E.g., in many cases, you don't care where in the computer a value is stored, but you find it far easier to understand what's going on if the value is given a name: in machine language you get exact location and no name, in C you get a name but not an exact location. (For language purists, I'm talking about an automatic or register variable, not a pointer, which you could take a (possibly relative) address of.) so if you want to understand a program, sure, it's highly inconvenient to try to understand it in terms that are too low level.

The same applies to biology: the abstraction and encapsulation given by the concept "enzyme" goes a lot further than depriving the atoms that make up the enzyme and give it its necessary shape, and for most uses, we'd prefer the abstraction. But if we do need to characterize the enzyme's shape precisely -- as, to ask if it will perform the same function as a slightly different enzyme -- then we turn to chemistry.

Does EP explain everything about human behavior? Of course not. But it does provide a useful explanatory framework -- a framework that is more predictive than competing frameworks like Jung's archetypes or Freud's steam-engine analogy.

Individuals will for entirely contingent reasons, differ. Environment will have its effects (although more often than not in concert with, not despite, genes).

Is culture important? Sure, sure it is. But despite lots of different cultures, experimental psychologists consistently demonstrate cross-cultural -- and even cross-species -- universals. And Utopian communes even more consistently, jeep failing when they try for the noblest of reasons to use culture to oppose evolutionarily "designed" behaviors.

At the same time, neuroscience provides greater and greater evidence that our brains work in mechanistic, predictable ways, and that small amounts of chemicals or genetic mutation can cause great changes in behavior, changes that are similar in both humans and in animal models.

So there aren't many places to hide. If depriving a prairie vole of vasopressin makes a promiscuous cad out of a formerly monogamous mate, and supplying vasopressin to a mountain vole makes a it give up its wandering ways to settle down as a dependable husband, well, you want to start looking at vasopressin in humans, no? To not feel that impulse can only be a clinging to human exceptionality and a belief in extra-material processes.
posted by orthogonality at 7:06 PM on March 7, 2006


bevets writes "posted by bevets at 9:54 PM EST on March 7 [!]"


Do you use antibiotics dude, or do you reject those products of "evilutionist" science?
posted by orthogonality at 7:08 PM on March 7, 2006


You know what, it's not worth it. He's up past his bedtime and I guarantee he will not be able to contribute to the discussion. I've enjoyed OmieWise/EB/Ortho's posts and he's just oging to ruin it. Again.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:10 PM on March 7, 2006


OmieWise, I think you're sensitive to those abuses of the idea. Otherwise, dualism and all that it implies is woven into the deep structure of western civ and thought. Humans are overwhelmingly understood metaphysically, it's the rule and not the exception. Again, I think you're sensitive to the abuses of the materialistic view. Nevertheless, it's still a minority view.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:12 PM on March 7, 2006


A vicious circle atheists love to revel in and thump their chests about:

Evolutionism is True, God does not exist
Evolutionism created everything -- including God
Therefore God does not exist
Therefore evolutionism must be True.


orthogonality

Do you use antibiotics dude, or do you reject those products of "evilutionist" science?

My post was about evolutionism. It had nothing to do with science.


Modern science was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Christian theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think, I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Darwinian naturalism. ~ Alvin Plantinga
posted by bevets at 7:24 PM on March 7, 2006


Have you ever had an original thought or are you crippled by Bartlett's?
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:46 PM on March 7, 2006


(P.S. Don't forget to post the zinger about abusing the plaintiff you've only used it twenty times here and that motherfucker still has wheels)
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:47 PM on March 7, 2006


Modern algebra was conceived, and born, and flourished in the matrix of Islamic theism. Only liberal doses of self-deception and double-think, I believe, will permit it to flourish in the context of Christianity.
posted by kindall at 8:55 PM on March 7, 2006


[This was the most frustrating thread I've ever read on MetaFilter.]
posted by painquale at 9:47 PM on March 7, 2006


Oh please, EB, what's _your_ qualification to be claiming definitive authority on this thread? You've done nothing other than throw around a bunch of baseless ad hominem insults without once engaging with any of my points. All the grandstanding in the world doesn't prove a single one of the assertions you've made.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:15 PM on March 7, 2006


Maybe so, but I'd still vote for EtherealB as the winner. His points were comprehensible and more clearly relevantly cited.
posted by surlycat at 2:05 AM on March 8, 2006


Woot! EB kicked your a** P! :)

Also, Dennett is a philosopher, not really a scientist. Here he seems to be saying what science will eventually do. He is almost surely correct, but its really not an easy problem. AFAIK, all attempts to make memetics rigorous have suffered from the simple lack of structure in human thought.

To explain, the gene centric model crushed the species & individual centric models because it provided correct mathematical modeling of various specific traits, such as the gender ratios & "mom farming" (queens) in species with haploid males (like bees). But its still harder to pin down such clear and influential traits of memplexes.

Anyway, Dennett's book is great, not for scientifically explaining the evolution of religion, but for paving the way for real scientists to eventually explain it.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:10 AM on March 8, 2006


Great thread, esp the heights of explication reached by Bligh (with a Bevets cherry!). And Pseudoephedrine was the ideal irritant. I applaud you sir.
posted by It ain't over yet at 5:35 AM on March 8, 2006


jeffburdges: for paving the way for real scientists to eventually explain it

Exactly what role to you anticipate Dennett's screed playing in the actual future work of real scientists?
posted by peeping_Thomist at 6:55 AM on March 8, 2006


Scientists should be studying the role of religion in society. Why do we have it? How does it function....

Those are exactly the ideas that Dennett explores in this book.


I saw Dennett give the first speech in the U.S. about the book, almost a year ago in Maine, and that was the impression I got. Instead of arguing about whether religion or evolution is the correct 'answer,' we should be studying the evolution of religion. He said during the talk that Richard Dawkins emphatically believes the world would be a better place without religion, but that he is "genuinely agnostic" on that question.

He actually spent more time talking about lancet flukes than about religion.

p.s. He does look like Santa Claus, but was a bit more oleaginous than I imagine Santa being (and he had no entourage of elves).
posted by LeLiLo at 7:20 AM on March 8, 2006


Huh. I've spent a few years studying the Carnap, Quine and Davidson side of philosophy. I've ignored things like Dennett because it doesn't look much like philosophy when put into the larger philosophic context. Nor does it look much like science, when one really comes down to it. Dennett and his ilk represent some kind of social advocacy whose arguments are more rhetorical and heuristic than logical. Does evolutionary psychology explain human behavior? Well, that's a big maybe. Evolutionary psychology seems to survive on the strength of its advocates rather than its own arguments.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:21 AM on March 8, 2006


Surlycat> Maybe so, but I'd still vote for EtherealB as the winner. His points were comprehensible and more clearly relevantly cited.

His points aren't cited. The closest he came was a bit of sophistry attempting to show that "telos" doesn't mean "end" in philosophy... Except he the range of ordinary uses of the word "end" in English that mesh up with "telos" quite nicely. He is attempting to draw an unwarranted distinction between "end or goal" and "full realisation, completion, ideal" (note that the dictionary nowhere agrees with the actual definition he put forth "that for the sake of which").

http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=end

I should also point out that he's gotten confused and forgotten that there were two distinct uses of the words "telos" and "teleology" in this thread - one where I said Dennett was using Aristotelian teleology, and one where I said he had a mystical "telos" of reduction. He's trying to conflate the two, in a show of rather lame sophistry.

As for EB himself, his inability to read my posts, as shown by the below comment, shows you how careful a thinker and reader he is:

Here you reveal your true colors. In the context of evolutionary biology, this makes you a crank. Yes, epigenetics is a hot field now in evolutionary biology, but few evolutionary biologists would be caught dead identifying epigenetics with Lamarckism.

This was in response to a line I said to another poster, one in favour of EP, who thought that Lamarckian evolution might provide an explanation of human behaviour.

EB is pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. He's disingenuously pretending that EP hasn't done things it has, that it's more widely accepted than it really is, that its methodology is better than it really is, etc. and he's doing so by pretending to have all this rigour that he doesn't.

Look, if you want to see the real program of EP, go out and read Dennett's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" and maybe "The Mating Mind" or one of those similar junky science books, and then read "Human Nature and the Limits of Science" by John Dupre, or perhaps one of Hacking's papers on "Dynamic Nominalism" or "Alas, Poor Darwin" by Eds Hilary Rose and Steven Rose.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 12:58 PM on March 8, 2006


As I said, I studied Attic and Homeric Greek for nearly four semesters and in the process translated portions of Aristotle, Plato, Homer, and others. I've read most of both Plato and Aristotle, also as part of my formal education.

You don't know what you're talking about and you're trying to talk your way out of an embarassing error.

I've also read Lavoisier, Descartes, Darwin, Dalton, Harvey, Ptolemy, Apollonius, Archimedes, Newton, Cantor, Einstein, Hume, and many other philosophers and scientists.

You are ignorant about the current state of evolutionary theory and your knowledge of both it and EP is lifted mostly from Gould and Lewontin and basically what a bunch of people chatter. I made no claims as to the perfect integrity of EP or its researchers while you make strong claims about them that aren't true and by "virtue" of your being ill-informed.

Your presumably upcoming philosophy degree from Queens is shit, and it's not even that good with regard to philosophy of science. What is laughable is that almost all of your argument has been appeals to authority...and most of the few authorities you've cited aren't.

I've repeatedly asked you to leave your bullshitting, handwaving philosophy department and walk over to the biology building and ask some evolutionary biologists what they think about Gould and his critique of adaptationism. Go meet some Real Live Scientists.

Christ.

Oh, and if you happen to know anyone that knows Attic Greek and just possibly knows something about Greek philosophy and, um, teleology, then you might run by them your claim that that for the sake of which is an ignorant explication of telos in the context of philosophy and that what it really means is...end. Yeah, and logos means "word", and nomos means "name", and psyche means "soul", and noos means "mind", and eudaimonia means "happiness". There. Now you know Greek, right? Get to work on Aristotle, it should be easy for you.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:28 PM on March 8, 2006


Ethereal Bligh, what do you have against Hacking? I've always found him insightful.
posted by peeping_Thomist at 3:54 PM on March 8, 2006


Wow, Ethereal Bligh, I'm impressed at the level of your education. Did you ever take semiotics and being (an asshole) 355/455? I think you have a lot of interesting points, but you come off as pretty insulting.

What is laughable is that almost all of your argument has been appeals to authority

What is also laughable is all of your arguments have been an appeal to your own "authority."
posted by elwoodwiles at 5:44 PM on March 8, 2006


I got life credit for assholery, so I didn't have to take it in College.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:47 PM on March 8, 2006


You've still yet to do anything other than make ad hominems, baseless assertions and drop names. As I pointed out, the very authorities you've mentioned disagree with you - as the link I posted shows, Dawkins took Gould's position seriously as recently as 1997, let alone "25 years ago". You've yet to produce a single shred of evidence for your statements. Telling me to "talk to a biologist!" is nothing but a sham - I attend a university where I meet and talk with biology students and biology profs often enough to be aware of what's going on in the field. When do you interact with biologists? What's the basis of your expertise in this matter? Because whatever it is, Richard Dawkins disagrees with your view.

You are ignorant about the current state of evolutionary theory and your knowledge of both it and EP is lifted mostly from Gould and Lewontin and basically what a bunch of people chatter. I made no claims as to the perfect integrity of EP or its researchers while you make strong claims about them that aren't true and by "virtue" of your being ill-informed.

Just saying it on the internet doesn't make it true. EP _is_ reductive, as people on this very thread have said, and it's the position the guy who wrote the book that this thread is about, Dennett, says. Not only is it reductive about general "trends" in human thought, it's reductive about particulars as well. You might not want that to be part of EP, but it is. Specific behaviours and "mental modules" are part of what EP takes upon itself as suitable for it to describe.

Oh, and if you happen to know anyone that knows Attic Greek and just possibly knows something about Greek philosophy and, um, teleology, then you might run by them your claim that that for the sake of which is an ignorant explication of telos in the context of philosophy and that what it really means is...end. Yeah, and logos means "word", and nomos means "name", and psyche means "soul", and noos means "mind", and eudaimonia means "happiness". There. Now you know Greek, right? Get to work on Aristotle, it should be easy for you.

You don't seem to understand my argument, which is understandable, since rather than read it, you appear to be busy hurling insults at me. My argument isn't that your reading is wrong, simply that it's not definitive and it's not exclusive. You've yet to show that it is. Why exactly is referring to "telos" as "end" or "goal" wrong? For that matter, how does its interpretation either way make my original point wrong?

And stop name-dropping Aristotle as if he proves your point. I've read the Metaphysics about a dozen times now, in English and in Greek. You're not impressing anyone. What Dennett does is import the language suitable for describing the ultimate cause to a description of the efficient cause. You still haven't answered that charge, other than to say some shit like "It's uh, metaphorical!" Maybe the science that goes on in Ethereal Bligh's Magical World of Science is metaphorical, but out here in the real world, that shit doesn't fly. Nor can you get out of it by claiming that Dennett is doing it to make difficult concepts easier to understand, because the entire book is filled with metaphor, and never escapes from it.

So in conclusion stop attacking me and start attacking my points, you troll.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:44 PM on March 8, 2006


What's wrong with Philosophy? The professionals set the pace and now this thread has followed. Why can't we have a civil discussion, share that sense of curiousity and wonder that drove us to this study in the first place.

It's very sad. I did a Philosophy major 25 years ago and since leaving University have had no real opportunity to follow it up. When the Internet blossomed I thought it would be a real opportunity for intelligent discussion, bringing like minds together to 'do Philosophy' as I remember it. My hopes were vain. It seems Philosophy has to be done face-to-face, where the bonds of personal respect can form and honest enquiry progress, otherwise you just get lots of this disrespectful attack talk which goes nowhere.

Is there anywhere outside of the Universities where Philosophy is actually practiced now? Can we do anything about this?
posted by grahamwell at 2:05 AM on March 9, 2006


EB, Pseudoephedrine, for what it's worth, according to the paper Adaptationism--how to carry out an exaptationist program.(2002):
Everyone agrees that organisms have adaptations. Yet, adaptationism as a research strategy has not enjoyed consensual affection within evolutionary biology. In the 1970s, it became the target of criticisms by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and geneticist Richard Lewontin (e.g., Gould & Lewontin 1979; Lewontin 1978; 1979). Perhaps the most prominent criticism they made was that the explanations that adaptationists gave for traits were analogous to Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (outlandish explanations for questions such as how the elephant got its trunk). Of course, the criticism is not against storytelling in science per se. The generation of hypotheses and the making of inferences is an inherent part of science. Rather, the criticism refers to the acceptance of stories without sufficient empirical evidence. Gould, Lewontin, and their colleagues have made two important epistemological criticisms of the story telling that adaptationists do. First, adaptationists often use inappropriate evidentiary standards for identifying adaptations and their functions. Second, adaptationists often fail to consider alternative hypotheses to adaptation.
...
Most recently, the debate between Gould and adaptationists has been carried to outlets intended for the lay public, including exchanges about evolutionary psychology in the New York Review of Books (Dennett 1997; Gould 1997a; 1997b; 1997c; 1997d; Pinker 1997b; Wright 1997). Despite emerging nearly a quarter-century ago, these debates persist with no consensual resolution (though each side appears to think matters have resolved in their favor).


I can email you the PDF that consists of this paper, responses by critics, and a rebuttal.
posted by Gyan at 3:17 AM on March 9, 2006


grahamwell: My hopes were vain. It seems Philosophy has to be done face-to-face

I remember back in 1992 or so thinking that the Internet was going to be wonderful for facilitating philosophical discussions. Didn't happen. Every once in awhile you could find an interesting conversation somewhere, but not reliably. Then everybody and his dog got on the Internet, and it went downhill from there. The Internet is great if you want porn or airline tickets or to talk about popular culture, not so great for rational conversation.
posted by peeping_Thomist at 6:43 AM on March 9, 2006


Is there anywhere outside of the Universities where Philosophy is actually practiced now?

I (not kidding) hang out at a particular bar that has a very high nerd quotiant. I don't know if the conversation is at academic standards, but maybe that's why we're in a bar. Mostly we talk about earlier philosophy like Quine, and lately, Kripke. My group and I have a lot of issues around meaning, reference, intension etc. We haven't explored people like Dennett, though. He just came through and spoke at a local college, but I was unable to attend. All I've read by him was an article in Seed Magazine which I found wanting.

As far as the internet is concerned, I try to stay away from the dicussions. On the internet no one knows you're not a post-doc. Wikipedia is pretty good, as is Stanford's online offerings, but for conversation it seems that face to face is the best method.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:07 AM on March 9, 2006


Elwoodwiles, I envy you.

Here's a modest proposal, for a website like MF but dedicated to Philosophy, yet with some ground rules and loving moderation.

Much of this thread was excellent, with some great posts by some fine minds. The row between EB and P about the meaning of telos, however, is the sort of thing that happens often in philosophical debates and needs a process for resolution. In fact the term was not central to either's argument - but the lack of such process soured the debate.

The proposed site would need a method by which respect is built up and shared. This might be achieved by a mandatory disclosure and a requirement, over time, for a detailed profile. In this way you could get the true measure of your opponent, who might turn out not to be an opponent after all.

It's far too easy here to decide that your opponent is a troll or an idiot. and you might be right.

I love Metafilter dearly but it's the place you come for a quick fix rather than a thoughtful hour. I would be interested in an alternative. I'm aware that MF clones die a horrible death within weeks of their bright-eyed launch, call me a nut, but a project anyone?
posted by grahamwell at 9:51 AM on March 9, 2006


I'm surely not denigrating philosophy in general, nor a philosophy degree. I'm denigrating someone who can write the mystical telos of reduction and then deny that, regardless of his intent, the correct meaning of telos in that sentence is not merely end, but something more like the attainment of a goal. Or, as I specifically said and pseudoephedrine denied, that for the sake of which...and then have the gall to claim I'm pretending to be a Greek scholar while he knows better!

Why would someone use the word telos in a discussion of philosophy? If the word means merely end, then why not use end? If the writer believes the word to mean only end, and used it as such, then doing so is unnecessarily obscure and pretentious. On the other hand, if we assume that the writer knows what he's talking about, then the use of telos in a discussion of philosophy must mean something more than end; and, in fact, the word is used frequently in philosophy and it specifically means in that context not merely an end, but something more like "completed purpose" or, as is often translated in Aristotle, that for sake of which. The point here, and what Aristotle is trying to say, is that what "things" "really" are is best understood as their telos, not their superficiality.

One assumes that a philosophy student would be less prone to fallacy. But pseudoephedrine has repeatedly asserted this:

"Dawkins took Gould's position seriously as recently as 1997, let alone '25 years ago'."

...as proof that within the field of evolutionary biology, the anti-adaptationist view was (and implicitly is) a mainstream view. But consider this statement: "Gould took the creationist position seriously as recently as 1997". One might ask the definition of "seriously"; but having read Dawkins, I can safely assert that he takes Gould's position as seriously as Gould takes the creationists' position seriously. That is to say, as a pernicious misconception that science has largely discarded but that remains credible in the popular imaginantion (and thus requires constant battle). The weakness of this argument is further revealed when one considers that Gould was not an evolutionary biologist, so whether or not Dawkins took him seriously is weak evidence that Gould's ideas are taken seriously by evolutionary biologists. Anyway, pseudoephedrine's assertion about Dawkins's 1997 rebuttal of Gould does not prove what he claims it proves, and it's an obvious fallacy to claim that it does. One expects more from a philosophy student.

Additionally, pseudoephedrine writes this:

"Just saying it on the internet doesn't make it true. EP _is_ reductive, as people on this very thread have said, and it's the position the guy who wrote the book that this thread is about, Dennett, says. Not only is it reductive about general 'trends' in human thought, it's reductive about particulars as well. You might not want that to be part of EP, but it is. Specific behaviours and 'mental modules' are part of what EP takes upon itself as suitable for it to describe."

..which is another point he's harped on as if he's proven something. But if he would bother to read my comments in this thread, I've never asserted this strong version of EP and have not defended this strong version of EP. Pseudoephedrine believes that I'm being evasive and not engaging him on the real issue. The problem is that this is pseudoephedrine's issue, not mine, I did not make the claim that he insists I made and, actually, our argument has always been about Gould's credibility on these matters and the status of adaptationism within evolutionary biology. I have argued against what he's said on this matter, and pseudoephedrine continues to defend his argument against the excesses of EP. It's he who is being evasive, or confused, or both.

"I've read the Metaphysics about a dozen times now, in English and in Greek."

I don't believe you. I don't believe you've seriously studied Greek.

"You still haven't answered that charge, other than to say some shit like 'It's uh, metaphorical!'"

I don't believe I've defended teleology, and in fact I'm pretty sure I condemned it. But let's see what I wrote...

Ah, here's what I wrote:

"Specifically, contrary to your insinuation, adaptationism isn't teleology. That's a strawman or a deliberate misrepresentation.

That said, I deeply dislike and distrust teleological language when discussing evolution."


You've yet to demonstrate that adaptationism is teleological. Perhaps this is made difficult for you by your difficult with the meaning of the word teleology. Furthermore, that's the extent to which I engaged the matter of whether or not Dennett is teleological. I didn't write that it's "metaphorical" or anything else. You denied that you were arguing that adaptationism is teleological—you clarified that you were arguing that Dennett's writing is teleological. I didn't argue that point either way—why am I obligated to defend a position I never took? Answer: I'm not.

"Telling me to 'talk to a biologist!' is nothing but a sham - I attend a university where I meet and talk with biology students and biology profs often enough to be aware of what's going on in the field. When do you interact with biologists? What's the basis of your expertise in this matter? Because whatever it is, Richard Dawkins disagrees with your view."

No, Dawkins does not disagree with my view, if by my "view" you mean "adaptationism is the current doctrine of evolutionary biology".

If I were to say "look up that word in the dictionary", a response of "I use a dictionary every day, I know what it is going to say" is unsatisfactory. You're right: I don't have an evolutionary biologist at hand. You do. You could resolve this matter by walking somewhere and asking an evolutionary biologist. You refuse. Why?

My argument with you has mostly been with the assertions "that adaptationism is widely questioned in evolutionary biology" and "in the sentence 'the mystical telos of reduction', telos means nothing more than 'end'". The latter was your assertion in combination with an strong insult to my facility with Attic Greek. But I've quoted the part of Liddell-Scott that you conveniently overlooked, and I've made a coherent argument for why "end" is an unsatisfactory translation in this context. On the matter of the former, I've asked you to do something you could easily do, and that's consult an actual authority on the matter. I am limited to doing web searches or using Google to search for abstracts, and that is simply not sufficient. One can appear to support any given argument that way. Gyan's citation is a case-in-point: from the abstract it is not clear what the paper is arguing about adaptationism, and, significanly, the paper is a psychology paper written by a psychologist. Not an evolutionary biologist, but from a professional who is among those most threated by EP and thus implicitly adaptationism.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:30 AM on March 9, 2006


Typical St. Johns bullshit.
posted by peeping_Thomist at 11:15 AM on March 9, 2006


Funny how EB's post have so much information, but remain wholly uninformative at the same time. I officially suggest this be called the Bligh Paradox.

And I don't understand why a psychologist is not qualified to talk about adaptationism where psychological processes are being discussed. You suggest some sort of professional bias, maybe a conspiracy?

I'm not expert, of Attic Greek or biology, but running around the net and looking at wikipedia etc has shown me that the issue is highly, highly contentious. Apparently people in multiple fields are arguing the issue currently. So from my cursory investigation, I feel the issue is far from settled.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:38 AM on March 9, 2006


Gyan> Go for it. My e-mail's in my profile.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:47 AM on March 9, 2006


James Schwartz's essay, OH MY DARWIN! Who's the Fittest Evolutionary Thinker of Them All?, 1999, in Lingua Franca and available online presents a history of this conflict.

Here are some books and articles which may be helpful. (I've read Williams and I am currently reading those linked here which are available on the web.) Careful note should be taken of which discipline each writer is writing within.
  • The seminal work by George Williams on adapation: Adaptation and Natural Selection, 1966
  • Lewontin's 1966 review of Williams: Lewontin, R.C. 1966. Adaptation and natural selection (essay review). Science 152: 338—339
  • The Campbridge Studies in Biology and Philosphy Adaptationism and Optimality, 2001, edited by Steven Hecht Orzack, Elliott Sober
  • Peter Godfrey-Smith's essay, Three Kinds of Adaptationism (pdf) , in the preceding book is available on the web as a pdf.
  • The paper that gyan's paper is a riff off of: Mayr, E. (1983) How to Carry out the Adaptationism Program. American Naturalist 121: 324-34.
  • Godfrey-Smith, P. 1999. Adaptationism and the power of selection. Biology and Philosophy 14: 181—194.
  • Resnik, D. 1996. Adaptationism: Hypothesis or heuristic? Biology and Philosophy 12: 39—50. [abstract] philosophy of biology theoretical biology
  • Two Concepts of Constraint: Adaptationism and the Challenge from Developmental Biology (pdf) , Philosophy of Science 61, 1994, 556-578. Reprinted in David Hull and Michael Ruse, eds., (1998) The Philosophy of Biology, Oxford University Press.
  • Sober, E. (1987) What is Adaptationism? In J. Dupre ed. The Latest on the Best: Essays on Evolution and Optimality. 105-18. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • A defense of adaptationism by Dawkins: Dawkins, R. (1983) Adaptationism was Always Predictive and Needed No Defence (commentary on Dennett 1983). Behavioral and Brain Sciences 6, 360-1.
If someone has access to any of these papers, I'd quite like to read them.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:58 PM on March 9, 2006


Just to give access to everyone, I've put it on YouSendit(0.6MB).
posted by Gyan at 2:19 PM on March 9, 2006


Wow. I take my snark back. Thanks EB. And thank you Gyan, as well.
posted by elwoodwiles at 2:37 PM on March 9, 2006


"Wow. I take my snark back. Thanks EB. And thank you Gyan, as well."

By the way, I think my earlier comment had a lot of substantive points. Anyway, you're welcome. But keep in mind that tracking this stuff down via the web is hit-or-miss; I'm not an evolutionary biologist so I'm not in a position to accurately assess how comprehensively and fair my selections are; and though I tried to avoid it, there's probably still some bias in the things I selected.

I'd dearly love to read all of these. But more than anything, I'd like to hear from an evolutionary biologist, or an ecologist—the two disciplines from which I would trust for an authoritative accounting. You might claim that that's stacking the deck, as most of the criticism of adpatationism comes from outside these two fields. But that could be (and is) an objection by creationists, too.

Before SJC I majored in physics and my primary affiliation has always been with the math and science side of this unfortunate fence between them and the humanities. Expertise these days is very, very narrow—I never really trust anything written authoritatively by someone who is writing outside their field. There aren't many disciplines that are truly engaged in evolutionary theory. It's safe to assume that evolutionary biology and ecology are.

Finally, it should be noted that adaptationism and some related things would have been, for the most part, highly technical ideas battled over only by specialists if Gould and Lewontin and others hadn't built their arguments against sociobiology on a critique of adaptationism. That they did has resulted in a conflation in the popular mind of adaptationism and sociobilogy cum evolutionary psychology along with their presentation of evolutionary theory, very critical of adaptationism, becoming authoritative in the popular mind.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:15 PM on March 9, 2006


Here, EB, let's start this argument afresh without all the mudslinging.

I have two critiques, one of Dennett, one of EP. I'll lay them out somewhat systematically.

1) Dennett's philosophical stances are based, in his own opinion and in the philosophical community, on his scientific knowledge and even possible expertise.

My criticism of Dennett is that he does not have expertise in the relevant scientific fields. I think this is shown especially, but not only, by his careless and unrigorous use of teleological language, and especially his use of the term "design" in his discussions about and descriptions of evolution, both in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" and in "Breaking the Spell".

2) Evolutionary psychology is not a good scientific program for understanding human behaviour. It is not a good scientific program for understanding human behaviour because:

a) Evolutionary psychology has a much lower standard of what counts as a "scientific explanation" than other fields of psychology. Specifically, there is an ongoing and consistent confusion between the "plausibility" of an explanation of a phenomenon, and "correctness" or "verisimilitude" of an explanation. It is even unclear how we can distinguish between the two in the specific case of evolutionary psychology, since we lack any way to distinguish the one from the other empirically.

b) Many of evolutionary psychology's claims are untestable. They are untestable because they are unable to be normalised. We do not actually know how humans lived in the Pleistocene, and what the psychology of these humans was like. We have no baseline to say "All humans in the Pleistocene, prior to the advent of language, did or thought X" or "All humans in the Pleistocene prior to the advent of language, had these mental capabilities or tendencies". Nor is it clear, short of time travel, how we could ever know these things.

In biology we have fossils, which allow us to track the advent of specific features of organisms. Geology, meteorology and paleontology allow us to reconstruct, in a limited way the physical environment these organisms lived in. We have no such basis to establish the advent of specific mental features of humans, nor what the influence of any culture or language they possessed might be, or how the either of these things changed with the development of language.

We cannot treat evolutionary psychology as a historical science like geology, let alone a predictive one like physics, because of this. There simply is no history available to investigate, scientifically or otherwise.

c) Evolutionary psychology desires an unwarranted reduction. There are two phases of this - the first the program of sociobiology, represented fairly, I think, by E.O. Wilson's two books "Sociobiology" and "Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge". In the sociobiological phase, the claim is made that all human behaviours can be reduced to evolutionary adaptations to an environment. This was discredited in the 70's and 80's, so I won't spend any more time on it here.

The second phase is "evolutionary psychology" proper, which claims that the mind (importantly, the claim is not merely that the brain is modular, but the mind itself, though the two are often conflated in popular discussion) is modular in function, and that these modules have evolved in response to various types of stimuli our ancestors experienced, and are currently still functioning in fairly similar ways to influence our behaviour in modern life.

The reduction in the second, EP phase, is the belief that a complete account of the functioning and history of these modules - individually and collectively - will be a complete account of the mind and all of its features.

But:

i) It's unclear that the mind is modular, or what exactly the modules are. We (neuroscientists and philosophers) know there is not a one-to-one correspondence of brain areas to specific mental features (the multiple-realisability argument). So a mental module cannot simply be a specific part of the brain feeding into some grand Cartesian theatre.

The most plausible explanation of a mental module put forth by (philosophical) defenders of EP is that it is a distinct component of behaviour-motivating thought, not necessarily conscious, with certain intrinsic features that mark it out from other modules. There is, as yet, not a clear conceptual synthesis of what exactly these "intrinsic features" are, or how we distinguish one module from another in actual practice. Defenders cannot rely on some form of behaviour-determinism, such that a single module "makes" us act out a particular behaviour. But without behaviour and without neuroscientific evidence to distinguish them, it's unclear how we can assure the verisimilitude of any particular analysis of the mind into modules.

ii) To return to the initial conclusion of c), it is also unclear that an account of these modules' function and their origin is a capable within solely evolutionary theory.

If culture plays a role in shaping people's minds, then one must argue that culture itself reduces to evolutionary theory in order for EP to be true. But this is unproven as of yet.

More generally, if any non-species-intrinsic (in other words, non-genetic) feature plays any role in shaping a person's mind (epigenetic changes, etc.) then evolutionary psychology must account for that change in order for its project of reduction to be accomplished. But if that non-species-intrinsic feature is not itself susceptible to analysis into subjects suitable for evolutionary theory to explain, then it seems unclear how the project of reduction can occur.

d) It's unclear what predictive power EP gives us over rival theories. What novel features of the human mind does EP predict that other scientific theories of mind (say, the computational theory in cognitive psychology, or gestalt-influenced theories, or even simple eliminative materialism in philosophy) did not? What unexpected specific explanation for a behaviour has EP provided that other, more widely accepted theories, do not? What evidence do we have, if we are disinterested observers choosing amongst possible research programs, to suppose that it will in future out-perform these theories? The answers seem to be nothing, nothing and none, at least so far. But if that's the case, then why is it "better" than any of the other competing research programs in psychology?
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 4:58 PM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


You make your case cogently, Pseudoephedrine. But I'd like to remind you that, for the most part, I made no argument defending EP other than that I am inclined to defend it because I believe prevailing opinion is strongly biased against it. Also, my one and only comment about Dennett was that he overreaches himself, that he's certainly not any sort of scientist and he's not really that great of a philosopher. (I feel sort of bad repeating that, because I've met him and in general I appreciate his ideas.)

I will answer one compound point you've made, and it's related to your critique of adaptationism: that EP doesn't make testable predictions about the nature of the human mind. You mention that there are fossils for tracking other elements of evolution, but that in the case of EP specifically, and adaptationism more general, there's no way to find data that supports or denies a given theory.

But that rubs me the wrong way—and I think you'll sympathize with me about what I'm going to mention—because my entire life I've been hearing people make claims on the limits of knowledge on the basis of the availability, or lack thereof, of some form of "tangible" evidence. The most naive position is that "I'll believe it when I see it", and there are more subtle varieties. My point of view on this is that there simply is no qualitative distinction where intution claims there is—everything is essentially remote from us in space and time. As a philosopher, and a philosopher of science, surely you've thought about this matter a great deal.

So, in particular, while the lack of fossil evidence is an argument for an increased difficulty in verifying the ideas of EP, it certainly does not prove that verification isn't possible.

I'm sure you've read Cosmides and Tooby on their Wason test experiment. Setting aside their conclusions and the integrity of their study, you cannot deny that EP made testable predictions about cognition that an experiment like theirs is able to test. This answers your (b) above.

Finally, it seems clear to me that you're a partisan in this intellectual debate. If we were to see this as a nature/nurture debate, you've clearly staked out a position on the nurture side, and your expertise as a philosopher reflects that position.

But I am not a partisan in that debate. All I am is critical of dogmatic, absurd extreme positions in that debate. You'll notice that although I've defended both EP and adaptationism, I've not endorsed an biologically determinist position built around adaptationism or EP.

What I have advocated was a criticism of a anthropocentric, exceptionalist view of human cognition. That's really the largest stage upon which you and I clash, and there's not really any room for compromise if you believe that humans are broadly qualitatively cognitively unique, because I simply don't accept that assumption.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:28 PM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


EB: "my one and only comment about Dennett was that he overreaches himself, that he's certainly not any sort of scientist and he's not really that great of a philosopher"

I'm glad that you guys are kissing and making up, but does your agreement really have to be based on that? I've been gritting my teeth throughout the Dennett-bashing that's been going on in the thread, and it's pretty apparent that no one here knows exactly what Dennett's all about.

When I first read Dennett (some snippets of DDI for a cog sci seminar) I didn't realize that I was reading a philosopher. When I found out who the author was, I couldn't place him in the philosophical tradition very easily. Elwoodwiles mentioned this up above -- Dennett seems to be undertaking a different project than Carnap, Quine, and other philosophers of the like. But when you go back and read Dennett's earlier formal work (Content and Consciousness, Brainstorms), it's limpidly apparent how Dennett fits into the canon. Dennett studied under Quine at Harvard and under Gilbert Ryle at Oxford, and his philosophy is almost a perfect mixture of the two. From Ryle, he inherits logical behaviorism and a drive to take folk psychology seriously -- from Quine, he inherits theses of holism and indeterminacy of translation. Combined, these two perspectives lead to Dennett's intentional stance.

The IS is Dennett's great innovation, and whatever you might think of it succeeding as an explanation of intentional states or of semantics in general, it's impossible to claim that he's a bad philosopher. The 70s were a heyday for philosophy of mind, and Dennett (along with Fodor and Dretske and others) was one of the many who made that happen. It's impossible to take a philosophy of mind course in any department without reading Dennett on intentional systems. And you simply can't say that Dennett isn't cited much any more, or isn't doing real philosophy. He just gave an address at the Eastern APA on Wittgenstein and the death of ordinary language philosophy, for goodness sake. Many of the young hotshot philosophers of science and of mind (Evan Thompson, Alva Noe, Kathleen Akins) and some older ones (Ruth Garrett Millikan) are largely taking up Dennett's program. Many of them were trained by him. Moreover, he's more knowledgeable about science than he's being given credit for. He's been published in science journals ("Time and the Observer" in Brain and Behavioral Sciences is an utter classic), and stills engages in truly informed debates with real scientists (Ramachandran, Zeki, Libet, etc.).

I get a little riled when I see people who don't know Dennett's philosophy chastising him for his more popular work. In some ways, Dennett's kinda become like Bertrand Russell... his brilliant formal innovations are in the past (like Russell's Principia Mathematica), and he has gone on to write books like Russell's Why I Am Not A Christian. But while Russell's (admittedly atrocious) popular works were entirely orthogonal to his earlier philosophy, Dennett's newer works really are extensions of the verificationist, intentional-realist program he has defended many times over. The extensions are often brilliant.

Of course, if you don't know the tradition that Dennett is working from, and you don't know his real philosophy, then he comes across as a dilettante. Case in point: Pseudoephedrine's complaints about Dennett invoking telos in evolutionary explanations. Yes, DDI is littered with the word "design", but this is certainly not an assumption of Dennett's or something he hasn't considered. A foundational part of his earlier work is to explain how we can bootstrap theories of design out of brute physics -- hence Dennett's "design stance". Evolutionary biologists talk about functions and what adaptations are for all the time... it looks necessary in order to do evolutionary biology. Intensional talk in biology is ineliminable (I think this is broadly accepted and is entirely distinct from theses about EP -- even non-adaptationists don't want to say that everything is a spandrel). Dennett has a theory that justifies this practice. Pseudoephedrine, would you be utterly eliminativist about intensional meaning and function-talk in biology? Would you tell the biologists that they're doing science incorrectly if they ever talk about, say, the evolved function of the kneecap? I'm sure you do have answers to these questions, and perhaps you do have justified reason to disagree, but denouncing Dennett for being confused is simply unfair.

(For anyone interested, here are two excellent essays that give a survey of contemporary theories of intentionality:

Daniel Dennett, "Mid-Term Examination: Compare and Contrast". In his The Intentional Stance.

John Haugeland, "The Intentionality All-Stars". In his Having Thought.)
posted by painquale at 7:33 PM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]


painquale> I have a great deal of respect for Dennett in philosophy of mind. But I don't think he's particularly good as a philosopher of science. I certainly agree there's an obvious and strong link between his work and that of Quine's program of naturalising epistemology, and that his work is a valuable addition to that tradition.

But, his idea of the intentional stance is a bit dishonest, IMHO. He elaborates three stances as you know, and says that only two of them can be taken as "true", or at least verisimilitudinous descriptions of what's going on. There's literally no good reason provided in the paper not to take the intentional stance as _also_ accurately or truly describing what's going on.

Pseudoephedrine, would you be utterly eliminativist about intensional meaning and function-talk in biology? Would you tell the biologists that they're doing science incorrectly if they ever talk about, say, the evolved function of the kneecap?

Intensional or intentional? I think intentional language _is_ unsuitable for formal descriptions and explanations in biology, unless we use it in a very small number of ways. The ways that would be suitable are a bit complex to describe here, so I'll just go over the position in brief, if you'll grant me that this is a schematic, not an argument.

Basically, intentionalistic language is permissible in formal scientific descriptions insofar as it is used to refer to codes and their behaviour. By "codes" I mean the lowest level possible of intentional communication, where there is simply pointedness-towards, presence and absence, unity and division. If you want a more formal notion of what I'm talking about and don't mind a reference in place of an explanation, I'd point you towards Umberto Eco's "Theory of Semiotics" where he develops a formal communicative/semiotic notion of a code at some length.

Outside of that, intentional language involves "rearticulating" the world, just as science and religion and any other comprehensive system of thought does. Science, I think it's fair to say, is generally concerned with the study of substance - what is a substance, what is not, what substances are, what they do, etc. are all legitimate scientific questions, though the specifics of which sorts of substances are of interest vary from science to science. Insofar as the mind can be studied scientifically, it must be reduced to only a substance by science. Insofar as intentional language can be used in science, it must deal with a substance somehow.

But that, I think, is precisely the wrong way to understand intentionality (and a couple of other features of the mind, possibly). Intentional processes do not clearly emerge from substantial ones. This is not to give into dualism, and say that intentionality violates the laws of science, but rather, it operates under a separate set of laws that do not contradict the laws of science.

A metaphor that might be useful is the difference between the laws of physics by which a car operates and the laws of traffic. Both are laws, neither contradict the other, but their areas of application are wholly different, and it's not at all obvious that we could reduce (in the formal sense, with full preservation of information) the laws of traffic to just laws of physics, or vice versa.

More than that though, I don't think the laws of physics tell us anything useful about the laws of traffic - they at best provide a frame for understanding certain constraints cars have. Similarly, the laws of traffic tell us nothing interesting about the laws of physics.

I think something similar is going on with intentionalistic-rational descriptions and scientific descriptions. The laws of logic and the laws of science are distinct, but not contradictory, and are part of a unified ontology. Since each provides the background for the consideration of the other (unless we want to say that science is illogical and logic is just physics), we are engaged in philosophical and scientific wheel-spinning when we try and (metaphorically) bash one into the other to see which one is stronger.

The final point I'd like to make is that this view isn't destructive of psychology per se. Any thought that is _not_ intentionalistic or rational is still amenable to "another stance" as Dennett would put it, whether that's the physical (a better term for it, IMHO is "substantial") or design stance.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 9:58 PM on March 9, 2006


My point of view on this is that there simply is no qualitative distinction where intution claims there is—everything is essentially remote from us in space and time. As a philosopher, and a philosopher of science, surely you've thought about this matter a great deal.

I certainly agree that empirical evidence alone does not constitute the only sort of "scientific evidence" a legitimate scientist must draw on, and didn't mean to give the impression that I did. And it's true, empirical evidence is not the make-or-break of any given theory.

But, at the same time, the main other sort of evidence is usually mathematical or logical statements. I think we can both agree EP doesn't have a systematic body of those at this stage in its development. Where I think our disagreement is, is whether or not it's capable of developing something like that - if not necessarily mathematical laws more strict than statistics, at least some sort of logical link between the various modules, like a flowchart or something similar (to use analogies from computational theories of mind).

I don't think it is capable of doing that, because those kinds of logical links are really more representative of a computational theory of mind (which I have certain quibbles with that we can overlook for now). I think that once we abstract from the substantial level to the logical level, we've really left the level of research where EP wants to operate on.

I'm sure you've read Cosmides and Tooby on their Wason test experiment. Setting aside their conclusions and the integrity of their study, you cannot deny that EP made testable predictions about cognition that an experiment like theirs is able to test. This answers your (b) above.

I agree that the Wason experiments are testable predictions. What I'm unconvinced about is whether the specific explanation EP provides is actually tested in the experiment. It's important to remember that the Wason tests did not require EP to be formulated, and it's unclear why for example, the human brain should have a module that evolved in the Pleistocene that allows us to quickly think about subways and Boston (this is the specific example of a Wason test C&T provide here (the Wason test is about 4/5ths of the way down).

That no doubt seems like nit-picking, but nit-picking is important in these kinds of things. If the Wason test operated solely in instances where objects plausibly found in the Pleistocene were in question, the EP prediction would be novel and unexpected. In fact, C&T point out themselves that the specific content of the test is key to understanding how it works. But if the specific content doesn't need to be from the Pleistocene, then why assume it's operating because of a module developed in the Pleistocene?

Finally, it seems clear to me that you're a partisan in this intellectual debate. If we were to see this as a nature/nurture debate, you've clearly staked out a position on the nurture side, and your expertise as a philosopher reflects that position.

I wish! I actually really dislike the nature/nurture dichotomy, and I think it's precisely the problem with not only EP, but with biology and psychology as a whole (I was a psych major planning to go into cognitive neuroscience before I jumped ship to philosophy). I tend to consider the interaction of the two as inseparable, and possibly even clearly conceptually distinguishable. Organisms are always organisms-in-an-environment, and both sides of that are key. It's not "modeling clay" in an environment, but neither is it "atomic individuals" in a vacuum. Trying to squeeze out one side or another is only useful in certain limited instances - I'm not sure that even genetics can ignore the environmental factors, just as ecologies are constituted by predictable intrinsic statistical laws.

Now that said, as a philosopher I'm certainly more concerned with the intentionalistic and rational side of things than with the genetic or population biology angles on issues, and I don't deny I'm primarily interested in cognition involving intentionality rather than say, the pathology of mental illnesses, but if anything, I spend more time arguing against the "modeling clay" people than the "bowling ball" people.

What I have advocated was a criticism of a anthropocentric, exceptionalist view of human cognition. That's really the largest stage upon which you and I clash, and there's not really any room for compromise if you believe that humans are broadly qualitatively cognitively unique, because I simply don't accept that assumption.

I think we are going to have to agree to disagree here, though if you'll accept me taking some time to clarify my position a bit, I'll do so. I'm not an anthropocentric exceptionalist so much as an intentionalistic exceptionalist. There's nothing unique about man other than that it is the only species with highly developed intentional features in its thought. If we could genetically alter dogs to increase their brain mass and vocalisation capabilities to understand English, I'd be perfectly happy to accept them under the same rubric. The same is true of AIs, aliens, super-chimps, anything that can demonstrate the sorts of intentionalistic behaviour I'm talking about. In short, I think man is only contingently exceptional, just as certain kinds of animals only happen to be the only kinds of flying animals.

Anyhow, I'm glad we managed to get past a rocky beginning to a fruitful discussion at the end.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 10:45 PM on March 9, 2006


Pseudoephedrine : "There's nothing unique about man other than that it is the only species with highly developed intentional features in its thought."

Do you mean a difference of degree or kind? If the former, I agree. You should also check out the book linked in my second post.
posted by Gyan at 11:13 PM on March 9, 2006


Neither, insofar as degree implies an undifferentiated continuum, and kind implies rigid, intrinsic boundaries. Though I don't want to endorse a computational theory of mind, an analogy with computers might be useful. All computers are implementations of Turing Machines and thus of the same "kind" of thing, but the actual functions which two types of computers are capable of performing may differ drastically, as peripherals are added or removed, as memory is upgraded and more advanced programs are installed or deleted.

In the same way, complex intentionalistic thought (sufficiently complex to have beliefs and semiosis is as good a rough definition as any) is not a capability that other animals (that we know of) have, but it's also not a capability that they necessarily lack, just as your Pentium 4 does not necessarily run Windows and have a 3.2 GHz processor. Rather, it is contingently the case that there is only one organism that has this feature (complex intentionalistic thought). It's entirely possible that we may discover that dolphins have such a capability, or encounter aliens who do.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:02 AM on March 10, 2006


I've often wondered if something roughly equivalent higher-order thought doesn't occur among groups of animals, if not individuals, as in Aunt Hillary from GEB, or flocks of birds.
posted by sonofsamiam at 5:06 AM on March 10, 2006


Pseudoephedrine : "Neither, insofar as degree implies an undifferentiated continuum, and kind implies rigid, intrinsic boundaries. "

Nonetheless, most people classify differences into these two categories, because object categorization is based on a fuzzy logic, that has to stereotype in order to be be effective. A chimp and human show a difference in kind in terms of opera-writing but a difference in degree in terms of genotype and at the cellular level.

"It's entirely possible that we may discover that dolphins have such a capability"

What would qualify as evidence?
posted by Gyan at 5:50 AM on March 10, 2006


A chimp and human show a difference in kind in terms of opera-writing but a difference in degree in terms of genotype and at the cellular level.

Certainly so. But I don't think you can stretch those kinds of statements into a general statement that "Humans are different in kind!" or "Humans differ only in degree!" As you just showed, depending upon how we frame the discussion, we can produce either result.


What would qualify as evidence?

Of intentional features of the same sort as ours? Probably identification of propositional content in their utterances. I don't know enough about dolphin behaviour to really hone in on any specific promising features.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 6:48 AM on March 10, 2006


Pseudoephedrine : "Probably identification of propositional content in their utterances."

Are you suggesting that language is necessary for beliefs?
posted by Gyan at 6:54 AM on March 10, 2006


No, just that it's a possible angle by which we might discover intentional thought in dolphins if they have such thoughts.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 8:31 AM on March 10, 2006


Well, given that dolphins haven't publicly displayed a use of language like ours, what would a plausible search of evidence look for?
posted by Gyan at 3:26 PM on March 10, 2006


I'm sure we could adapt some of the tests we use to determine the capacities of an aphasic person for dolphins.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:14 PM on March 11, 2006


I think the problem comes in defining a belief. What is a belief? I see it as a functional disposition i.e. when provided a certain stimulus, if the animal responds non-autonomously in a certain deliberate fashion, then the bridge between the two is the belief.
posted by Gyan at 10:21 PM on March 11, 2006


I'm not entirely convinced that exhausts what a belief is, though. Beliefs about certain logical or mathematical truths wouldn't seem to indicate any particular behaviour, or else they suggest so many possible behaviours that it is impossible to isolate their specific behavioural contribution. For example, what does knowing modus ponens cause you to _do_ with it? It mainly seems to mediate or transform other beliefs you have, rather than particular behaviours.

And we can't escape simply by calling it a meta-belief, or a belief about beliefs. It's unclear whether we have _any_ beliefs that don't in turn affect other beliefs we have. With sufficient leg-work, we can show that almost any belief must modify countless other beliefs, whether or not it causes any behaviour. And in fact, that behaviour itself is almost never the product of a single belief, but relies on a countless number of beliefs (we can infinitely elaborate any proposition while maintaining its truth value).

Anyhow, that's one reason it's so hard to establish what a belief is. Guys like Dennett, Ryle and Wittgenstein have each tried to eliminate beliefs by reducing them to mere functions, but the analyses are never quite able to accomodate the sheer breadth of kinds of beliefs we have.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 5:05 PM on March 12, 2006


For example, what does knowing modus ponens cause you to _do_ with it? It mainly seems to mediate or transform other beliefs you have, rather than particular behaviours. ... It's unclear whether we have _any_ beliefs that don't in turn affect other beliefs we have.

That's entirely compatible with functionalism. In fact, you've just described the sole difference between functionalism and logical behaviorism.

Behaviorism: Mental states can be reduced to outputs given inputs.

Functionalism: Mental states can be reduced to outputs and changes in other mental states given inputs and initial mental states.

I think you are misinterpreting Dennett and other functionalists, thinking them to be old-school logical behaviorists. They are not as harshly reductionist as you have been characterizing them. For instance, in your last response to me, you wrote,

Intentional processes do not clearly emerge from substantial ones... A metaphor that might be useful is the difference between the laws of physics by which a car operates and the laws of traffic. Both are laws... and it's not at all obvious that we could reduce (in the formal sense, with full preservation of information) the laws of traffic to just laws of physics, or vice versa.

But that is Dennett's view exactly!
posted by painquale at 6:55 PM on March 12, 2006


Painquale> I disagree. That was certainly Dennett's view in the 1980's, during the "Brainstorms" period (when he was a self-professed token-functionalist), but if you read, for example, "Brainchildren" (a much more recent book), he has an entire paper in it devoted to showing that we don't have "beliefs", merely brain states that cause us to have brain activity such that we 'think' we have beliefs. I haven't read it, but I'm given to understand the change happened when he wrote "Consciousness Explained".

Dennet has gone, whether rightly or wrongly, from token functionalism into eliminative materialism. I actually quite like his token-functionalist period - Quining Qualia is a classic - but there's been a definite and steady development in his philosophy of mind work away from functionalism and towards some form of eliminative materialism.

Also, my comments re: functions and belief were in regard to Gyan, who basically elaborated a behaviourist understanding of what a belief was.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 6:27 AM on March 13, 2006


Pseudoephedrine : "For example, what does knowing modus ponens cause you to _do_ with it? It mainly seems to mediate or transform other beliefs you have, rather than particular behaviours."

It modifies any activity where it seems to be applicable, like in a relevant university examination. There need not be a 1:1 link between a singular belief & output. Other dispositions may interact, in an overall calculus.
posted by Gyan at 7:16 AM on March 13, 2006


It modifies any activity where it seems to be applicable, like in a relevant university examination.

It's relevant to all behaviours we have. That's the problem. It doesn't have a specific range of functional behaviours it modifies, because it operates on all of them. There are a cluster of beliefs like this that form the necessary (but not sufficient) conditions of what we call thought. And, recursively, they are also their own necessary foundations (proofs of the first-order predicate calculus, frex). Simply putting them within a psychological calculus doesn't work - they have to be presupposed for the possibility of a psychological calculus to make sense.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 11:20 AM on March 13, 2006


I'm not sure what the problem is, here. If a belief is implicated in all behaviors, fine. Whether the net result of a belief is modulating motor behavior or just modulating synaptic weights, it is a functional state.

Our discussion is going off on a tangent. Our original argument was over whether animals have beliefs. I think the mirror self-recognition resolves that to Yes.
posted by Gyan at 11:53 AM on March 13, 2006


If a belief is implicated in all behaviors, fine. Whether the net result of a belief is modulating motor behavior or just modulating synaptic weights, it is a functional state.

I'm trying to show that there are beliefs that are not functional states without breaking out in qualia.

Our original argument was over whether animals have beliefs. I think the mirror self-recognition resolves that to Yes.

It resolves that a small number of other animals have one or more mental features that resemble what we call beliefs, yes. When did we disagree about that? I said that it was entirely possible they might - they might even turn out to have intentionality. What exactly are we disagreeing on?
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 2:42 PM on March 13, 2006


Pseudoephedrine : "What exactly are we disagreeing on?"

Pseudoephedrine : "complex intentionalistic thought (sufficiently complex to have beliefs and semiosis is as good a rough definition as any) is not a capability that other animals (that we know of) have"
posted by Gyan at 4:26 PM on March 13, 2006


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