Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The History of Philosophy

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Justin Smith writes on the history of philosophy:

"I’ve argued before that in their floundering around the question as to whether there is such a thing as non-Western philosophy, academic philosophers in the English-speaking world appear unable to decide whether their activity should be understood more on the model of a tradition of, say, dance (e.g., ballet) or, instead, on the model of a technology (e.g., the military use of gunpowder)…

If philosophy were like gunpowder, there would be no question as to its reach: everyone would share in it equally. If philosophy were like ballet, there would also be no question as to why everyone does not share in it equally. My own strong suspicion is that philosophy is rather more like ballet, but perhaps a better comparison, one that keeps the example of military technology in view, would be to say that philosophy is not like the technology itself of war, but more like a particular military tradition that grows up around the use of weapons and the preparation for war, and involves the pinning of medals, the reference to great battles and strategies of the past, and so on.

In the case of martial pageantry, it is clear what the more basic thing is around which the tradition springs up (in the case of ballet, there is also clearly a more basic thing, dance, which in turn appears to be something humans qua humans do, about which see Ezra Zubow and Elizabeth C. Blake, “The Origin of Music and Rhythm” in Archaeoacoustics, ed. Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson, Cambridge, 2006, 117-126). But what would that more basic thing be, in the case of philosophy? I suspect it is what is often called bean-counting: the tallying of exchanges (of cattle, grain, etc.) by use of pebbles in bowls, of marks on clay tablets, and so on. Wherever we have traces of this sort of activity, we have concrete evidence of a sort of representational thinking (one pebble stands for one cow, etc.) that we can rightly suppose to be just the small report of a more elaborate system of classifications, of setting up correspondences, and of seeking adequate definitions.

Wherever you have people keeping track of things in this way, I mean, you probably have people trying to come to terms with the nature of the things they are keeping track of. A charitable assessment of what the ancients were up to would have us suppose that wherever there is a trace of a culture trying to keep track of the world for practical purposes (navigation, calendry, etc.), there is something like a ’science’, however different from our own: a theoretical elaboration of the grounds of the practice. And I really don’t know what philosophy could be other than the very most theoretical reach of this elaboration…

Recent work by Michael Friedman –who represents par excellence the sort of orientation with which I am sympathizing here– has made a convincing case, in more steps than I am able to mention, for tracing the Kantian theory of space and time as pure forms of intuition back to certain exigencies of medieval astronomy, which in the final analysis existed for the sake of calendry, which in turn had as its principal purpose the determination of the proper date of Easter and similar exigencies of culture."

I wonder if this doesn’t rather oversimplify matters. A lot of Greek philosophy could certainly be described as an attempt to analyse matters in terms that are quasi-scientific, with Aristotle as an obvious example. Equally, a lot of Greek philosophy (and certainly Indian and Chinese also) suggests an origin in theology and, as in the case of Plato, may very be hostile to empirical scientific investigation to some extent.

Undermining Free Will

Saturday, September 25th, 2004

Recently eight leading thinkers were asked to identify the world’s most dangerous idea. Somewhat predictably, the majority of responses were political; Nussbaum suggested religious intolerance, Francis Fukuyama suggested transhumanism and Eric Hobshawm suggested spreading democracy. However, the one that most struck me was the suggestion of Paul Davies: Undermining Free Will.

Davies observes that free will has been an uncertain concept since Newton when the universe was reconceived as a form of mechanism, with quantum uncertainty failing to address the matter since it leaves unable to determine our own actions. However, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience are the particular problems at present. In this case, the traditional notion of a self founding ideas of agency and responsibility (i.e. the legal distinction between a crime carried out by someone under hypnosis or sleepwalking and other conditions), is viewed as incompatible with evolutionary explanations for behaviour and the genetic encoding of those evolutionary processes. Naturalistic explanations displace metaphysical ones. To some extent this critique is not especially novel either, going back to Ryle’s critique of the idea of the Ghost in the Machine through to the localisation of conscious activity through PET scans. As Daniel Dennett put it in his critique of the Cartesian theatre where we are conscious of whatever it is we’re conscious of quot;if there is a theatre in the mind, there has to be someone in the theatre, watching it all; and if there is someone watching it, they must in turn have a little theatre inside them where the watching goes on, and that must have another watcher, and so on, smaller and smaller, in an infinite regress towards absurdity.

The more recent development is the replacement of those figures on stage with a set of evolutionary processes. I’ve written before that such explanations tend to be rather suspect (if nothing else because they are no more subject to conscious investigation than Freudian notions of the unconscious), on the grounds that they require a rather awkward apparatus to explain behaviour. On the whole though, the erosion of free will as a concept is largely to compatibilist accounts such as that offered by Dennett. As Jerry Fodor suggests:

Dennett’s particular contribution to this line of thought – is that if, by instrumentalist assumption, the evolution of agency is just the evolution of sufficiently agent-like behaviour, then whether or not you are an agent is independent of how your behaviour is caused… Because creatures that appear to be agents (actors, perceivers, thinkers) are such good ’solutions’ to her ‘problems’, Mother Nature increases their relative frequency in their breeding group. So here we are… (One wonders, in passing, why Mother Nature bothers with this elaborate charade. Wouldn’t the best way for her to make a creature that acts just like an agent be for her to make a creature that is an agent? Such are the puzzles instrumentalists are prone to.)

The figure on the stage is replaced instead with a puppetmaster bent on having his creations behave as if the strings were not present. At this point attempts to produce a compatibilist explanation of free will begin to seem little more coherent than the notion of a self independent from material factors. Much the same can be said for pragmatic accounts of free will where the superstructure of existing cultural assumptions is allowed to remain largely intact embodied in laws and ethical codes in the absence of the religious and philosophical ideas (based on notions of free will) that originally defined those legal and ethical codes. A naturalistic account of these matters could certainly permit much of them to remain, but it seems difficult to conclude that this would be a seamless process. This was something I had written about elsewhere, comparing the philosophical basis of Locke’s liberalism with Hobbesian conservatism:

Hobbes viewed mankind as being naturally governed by his passions and incapable of forming a social bond without some element of coercion to ward off universal war… John Locke, by contrast, dismissed notions of passions governing mankind, with the notion of the tabula rasa, or blank slate.

One of the grounds for citing these two conceptions, lies with the degree to which modern conceptions of rationality are increasingly spurning the idea of the blank slate and moving towards a conception that bears a marked resemblance to that of Hobbes, if we substitute the term ‘genes’ for ‘passions.’ As Edward O Wilson observed, every human brain is born not as a blank tablet (a tabula rasa) waiting to be filled in by experience but as ‘an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid.

Against Evolutionary Pyschology

Tuesday, April 6th, 2004

I took an enormous amount of malicious pleasure from this post at Crooked Timber, discussing the frivolous nature of evolutionary psychology just-so stories. In essence, one of the problems for evolutionary psychology is that it tends to offer genetic explanations of every facet of human nature, irrespective of evidence and without any significant prospect for either verification or falsification. The same people who denounce studies such as postmodernism will freely introduce concepts such as memes, which are then spoken of as if there was any empirical evidence for their existence. The most obvious example of this is Steven Pinker’s dismissal of modern art as being a cultural aberration, when he neatly forgot that popular art of the kind he views as being most compatible with human nature has been the exception and not the rule when it comes to the formation of literary canons. But beyond that, one can be quite sure that someone somewhere will have posited an evolutionary explanation for each and every aspect of our behaviour (not excepting the plumbing of kitchen sinks).

The more disturbing aspect is the question of political bias. Just as the age of Marx and Freud excluded such explanations in favour of environmental theories, I often feel that the present age is doing precisely the same thing in reverse. Certainly, in this case the genetic factors have associated environmental triggers and I tend to feel that the nature/nurture distinction is meaningless; since it is rarely possible to conceive of one without the other. In particular, the idea that human nature exists as a fixed quantity in the absence of a blank slate, is inherently conservative, being one of Hirschman’s central tropes in the Rhetoric of Reaction (not to mention fitting a Hobbesian/Burkean worldview far better than that of Locke or Dewey). Of course, this may simply be a matter that the conclusions of evolutionary psychology are simply more amenable to a right-wing standpoint and that to avoid this is a matter of denial, rather than a question of bias being behind the theories to begin with. But the fact that there are left-wing Darwinians like Singer and Dawkins suggests to me that this is much a matter of interpretation as of evidence.

Update: Here’s a rather good example of these problems, a piece by Steven Pinker dismissing evolutionary explanations for religion:

Pinker began his argument by refuting what he called “three spurious adaptationist explanations of religion:” the suggestion that people embrace religion for its comfort, its sense of community and its ethical value. Although he admitted that those three theories may be true, he questioned their merit in explaining the universal, widespread popularity of religion. Pinker furthermore dismissed the idea of religion as a “source of higher ethical yearnings” and an unambiguous moral guide. “The Bible is a manual for rape, genocide, and the destruction of families…Religion has given us stonings, witch burnings, crusades, Inquisitions, jihads, fatwas, suicide bombers…and mothers who drown their children in the river,” he said.

As it happens, my own view of religion is essentially very similar to what Pinker outlines here. The problem is the distinction he advances between evolutionary adaptation and by-products (Spandrels as Gould would have called them; odd to hear Pinker using a Gouldian argument) seems a rather arbitrary one in this context. Although I’ve always found the argument that religion is a guarantee of social order a poor argument for defending religion (since in such an argument the question of whether any deity actually exists is irrelevant) it does seem to have an obvious application, particularly if we consider the extensive evidence for a neurological basis to religion.

Update: An interesting piece from The Scientist further reinforces some prejudices:

EP is no more speculative, argue proponents, than any branch of psychology. Indeed, EP may be less speculative since it incorporates evolutionary constraints… But like Darwin’s theory when first presented, most of EP, says Atran, currently entails consistency arguments: plausible but unproven rationales. It remains to be seen, he argues, whether EP will blossom into a fecund area of study like Darwin’s work or go the way of phrenology.

It strikes me that evolutionary grounding actually makes evolutionary psychology less reliable than standard psychology for the very simple reason that the process of evolution is not something that can be easily observed while the question of whether a feature is an adaptation, a spandrel or a evironmental influence becomes arbitrary.