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Know-Nothing Philosophers? March 25, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
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Recently, there have been a number of books written by well-known philosophers—Thomas Nagle and Jerry Fodor in particular—calling into question fundamental features of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Philosopher of Science Michael Ruse has a readable take-down of this trend.

What does one say about these critics? One could certainly pick apart individual things, for instance Fodor’s claims about selective breeding versus natural selection.[…]

But rather than work over the details, I want to draw attention to the way this crop of critics ignores evolutionary biology—aside from the kind of cherry-picking in which Fodor engages. Nagel may sneer about the failure to find “accessible literature” that answers his worries. In what part of the library was he doing his literature search? Where, for example, is any discussion of the Grants’ work on the Galápagos finches? What about a detailed look at the new scholarship that is challenging earlier thinking about the evolution of bipedalism? What about the discoveries of molecular biology and of the similarities (homologies) between humans and fruit flies? And why no mention of Marc Hauser and his work uncovering the secrets of moral thinking? There is a deafening silence on those and other issues. Fodor, Nagel, and Plantinga don’t need to turn themselves into biochemists, but some awareness of the issues and advances would not be entirely misplaced.

Ruse points to a problem that I thought was an artifact of a bygone era. Earlier generations of philosophers often theorized about science without having much knowledge of science. But I thought contemporary philosophers had largely given up that approach and today endeavor to learn the science before pontificating about it.

So why are these respected philosophers returning to the bad old days? Ruse speculates:

This total lack of interest in the science is surely suggestive. The critics are being driven by other, for them deeper, concerns. And as an evolutionist, I turn to the past for clues. What fueled the initial opposition to Darwin was a concern with our species, with Homo sapiens. For 150 years, since the Origin, critics have feared that we humans might become part of the evolutionary picture—not just our bodies, but our minds, our very souls. What makes us distinctively and uniquely human? This worry is still alive and well in today’s philosophical community. Plantinga is open in his fear that Darwinism makes impossible the guaranteed existence of our species. More, for years he has argued that Darwinism is bound up with the metaphysical belief that everything is natural (as opposed to supernatural), and that this leads to a collapse of rational belief and knowledge. The chance elements in Darwinism are simply not compatible with Plantinga’s Christian faith.

As nonbelievers, Nagel and Fodor are a bit different, but not that different. For years Nagel has argued against a reductive view of the human mind, believing it to be more than just molecules in motion—the obvious end result of Darwinism. At some level, Nagel believes, the mind is above the material. It is perhaps a stretch, but probably not too much of a stretch, to say that the kind of sympathetic attitude that Nagel takes toward intelligent design points not so much to a concealed theism (akin to Plantinga’s open theism) as to a kind of vitalism, in which there are nonnatural, nonphysical forces that direct things in the material world.

And then there is Fodor. The final section of his new book is very revealing. As a dreadful warning to those who do not accept his main conclusions, Fodor prints passage after passage of claims by Darwinians that one can understand human nature and thinking as the product of natural selection: This is where we will all end up if we don’t stop the rot right now. My suspicion is that Fodor doesn’t really give a damn about fruit flies or finches or anything else out there. But when it comes to Homo sapiens, he wants no part of a naturalistic explanation that reduces design to the workings of blind law. There may not be a God, but we sure are made in his image.

This strikes me as a plausible explanation. There is, even among some philosophers, reluctance to acknowledge that we are, as Brad Delong puts it, “jumped up East African Plains Apes”. This is especially true of philosophers, like Fodor and Nagle, who have built a career arguing that mental properties are irreducible.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Michael Mussachia - March 26, 2010

But if my mind is irreducible to physical processes, it may survive the death of my body, and that would make me godlike. Hummm…, maybe I should consider becoming a Mormon.

More seriously though, the way in which mental properties are irreducible is the same way that information in general is irreducible; namely, it is the organization of one or another physical medium or process. As we all know, information is not a type of physical substance but rather a type of organization that can be implemented with many different types of physical stuff. Being a kind of organization of physical stuff, information (software, programs, digital image files, visual impressions, thoughts, etc.) is physical. It makes no sense to talk of information as though it can exist independently of any and all physical mediums, i.e., the idea of completely disembodied information is a variant of mind-body substance dualism and is, indeed, related historically and conceptually to spiritualism.

From the perspective of cognitive science, the mind is a set of mental functions, and mental functions are information processing functions implemented in the brain. As researchers like Koch and Tononi argue and as increasing empirical evidence suggests, mental properties emerge from the integrative, collective behavior of large numbers of neuroelectrical signals in the brain. Much remains, of course, to be worked out on just how this is done, but I fail to see how anyone today can actually believe that, e.g., since A and B appear to be different things, A cannot be identified with or reducible to B. I propose that intellectuals hold off on any final pronouncements as to what is and what is not possible in regards to the nature of mental properties, and let research (and philosophy) continue to explore the nature of A (the mind) and the nature of B (its possible physical basis). And as for the implication that, if mental properties emerge from the interactive organization of neuroelectrical signals, no aspect of our minds will survive the death of our brains, well, maybe we just need to get used to it. Why should our minds be so important in the grand, evolutionary or cosmic scheme of things that they should be forever? Isn’t the desire to be immortal both immature and arrogant?

2. Paul J. Moloney - March 28, 2010

I would especially not want to be immortal if it made me feel uncomfortable in any way.

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