About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, December 29, 2006

On evolutionary epistemology

The January issue of Skeptical Inquirer published a short article by yours truly on the concept of “evolutionary epistemology,” the idea that evolutionary theory can help explain how we learn things about the world, as well as why there are limits to this ability.

The article starts out with a classic contrast between the humanities and sciences. On the one hand, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (in his Tractatus) remarked that “Darwin's theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science.” Apparently, Darwin himself disagreed, as it is clear from this bit from his Notebook M of 1838: “Plato ... says in his Phaedo that our 'necessary ideas' arise from the preexistence of the soul, are not derived from experience – read monkeys for preexistence.”

I'd be curious to see what you guys think of this indirect exchange between Ludwig and Chuck, and more generally about evo-epistemology.

12 comments:

  1. My response to the general question is that critters whose perceptual/cognitive representations of the (meso)world are worse (less veridical) than those of other critters tend to end up as lunch for the latter.

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  2. I would disagree with the previous words "...to end up as lunch for the latter" from the RBH's comment. We all end up being lunch for lesser creatures. For some, cognitive ability only helps in delaying the inevitable. If perception were a premium trait, natural selection would ensure every creature had it, and the best of it. But survivial can be insured by other, more practical and less costly, means than perceptual power. Basically, if it were the best option, everyone would be doing it. But most creatures are not. They don't need to.

    Some philosophers, like Wittgenstein, philosophize themselves right out of the natural world. Best to be grounded like good old Chuck. The source of our philosophical ability is ultimately natural selection. Our thoughts are stuck within the limits of the physical mind after all. Therefore the Chuckster was right. Monkey Power!

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  3. Nice article in the magazine- I linked to it over here. I greatly enjoy your writing.

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  4. "Some philosophers, like Wittgenstein, philosophize themselves right out of the natural world." This is a misunderstanding.

    For Wittgenstein, the reason that “Darwin's theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science” is that "philosophy" does not (cannot) advance theories. The sole function of philosophy is to clarify the sense of the propositions of natural science. It never addresses the truth of such propositions.

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  5. But "natural science" does say where philosophy came from and it does determine its limits. Philosophy isn't for answering questions, it is for framing them. Perspective is everything!

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  6. "But 'natural science' does say where philosophy came from and it does determine its limits."

    Where philosophy "came from" is irrelevant. How does natural science determine the limits of philosophy in Wittgenstein's sense of "philosophy"?

    Pigliucci's concluding remark,

    "Evolutionary epistemology may not have all the answers, of course, but it is an excellent example of how science can inform philosophy, contrary to Wittgenstein's smug comment in the Tractatus."

    is incorrect because it assumes a definition of "philosophy" that Wittgenstein would reject. Wittgenstein, of course, would deny that epistemology is philosophy. How, then, can evolutionary epistemology inform philosophy? Indeed, the very idea of "informing" philosophy would be completely opposed by Wittgenstein. There is nothing to inform. Philosophy does not have a unique subject matter or set of truths. It is not a rival to science. It is nothing more than a critique of language. And therefore, there can be "philosophy without accounting for the findings of science."

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  7. Yes, but I think even most philosophers reject Wittgenstein's extremely narrow definition of philosophy. Epistemology has always been, and rightly is, a branch of philosophy.

    However, I don't think philosophy and science are in competition, because philosophy is about the analysis of concepts, not the discovery of factual truth about the universe (and vice versa for science).

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  8. "Yes, but I think even most philosophers reject Wittgenstein's extremely narrow definition of philosophy."

    Quite right. I was merely defending Wittgenstein.

    "However, I don't think philosophy and science are in competition, because philosophy is about the analysis of concepts, not the discovery of factual truth about the universe (and vice versa for science)."

    I couldn't agree more. I think many people who are not familiar with Wittgenstein's idiosyncratic definition of "philosophy" read his remark in the Tractatus about Darwin, and think that Wittgenstein is opposed to evolutionary biology or science generally. Whereas, his claim is more akin to the claim “Darwin's theory has no more to do with mathematics than any other hypothesis in natural science.”

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  9. Wittgenstein is a hundred years (or so) out of date on a lot of important developments in epistemology that consider the affects of evolution on our cogntive faculties. Stich, Feldman, Ross, Plantinga, Goldman, etc. have been hashing over this one in the literature. There are good reasons to think that evolution equipped us with at least some cognitive faculties that are not very good at truth tracking because in some circumstances accurately representing the world around you is actually disadvantageous to survival. Consider the common reaction that humans have when they have suffered a severe trauma, as in a car accident. The first thing they say is, "I'm fine, just let me get up and go home," despite broken legs or other severe injuries. When people go into shock the false beliefs they form are quite predictable. The obvious evolutionary explanation might be that believing you are fine lends itself to your getting away from the threat and closer to safety, even if it requires your beleiving that you're fine when you're not. So if there are mechanisms like these at work in our cognitive machinery (I have some speculations about the matter and religion here:
    www.atheismblog.blogspot.com
    ), then they would be clear obstacles to our being able to form accurate representations of the world around us. And that means tthat evolution may well have made it harder for us to have knowledge in some cases.

    Matt McCormick
    Department of Philosophy
    California State University, Sacramento

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  10. "Wittgenstein is a hundred years (or so) out of date on a lot of important developments in epistemology...."

    Given that the early Wittgenstein, i.e., the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, had no interest in epistemology whatsoever, in what sense is he "out of date"?

    The kind of investigation that Wittgenstein is engaged in -- critique of language, logical analysis, etc. -- is completely independent of advances in empirical science.

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  11. Well, Ludwig essentially believed that "philosophy" was supposed to be therapeutic, like a clearing up of muddled concepts and nothing more. So I can see why he would think evolution would have nothing to do with philosophy. Unfortunately, I think Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy itself was a little muddled, and evolution surely can provide insights into how we know things and how we think about the world. I am of the mind, as many are, that the sciences are only an outgrowth of philosophy. When the pre-Socratics around, "philosophy" for them was still about the meaning of life, religion, and so on, but it also addressed questions now handled solely by science--like how natural things functioned, and so on.

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  12. On the background to Ludwig's comment, see

    Cunningham, Suzanne (1996), Philosophy and the Darwinian legacy. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

    Not long before the Tractatus, the prevailing use of evolution in philosophy was the sort of thing that Spencer was doing, with grand overtheorising and question begging. He and Russell both rejected this, following Moore's argument in the Principia Ethica.

    On evolutionary epistemology, the real problem is that it is not prescriptive, any more than evolution itself is prescriptive. As David Hull once wrote, evolution, in epistemology or biology, is like the Prussian military academy admirably suited to turning out officers capable of winning past wars. In short, evolutionary epistemology fails to deal with the inductive problem.

    Hilary Putnam once wrote that evolutionary epistemology is not wrong so much as it fails to answer the interesting questions. Since evolution is not about truth, but about fitness, what is or has been fitter may fail to be in the future. Evolutionary epistemology cannot guide our future inferences, but it can, as you say, explain why we made the past ones.

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