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.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Toward a science of morality. An annotated response to Michael Shermer.

by Massimo Pigliucci

Michael Shermer and I have been engaged in what I hope has been a productive discussion on the relationship between science and philosophy as it concerns the field of ethics. Roughly speaking, Michael contends that science has a lot to say about ethical questions (though he is not quite as reductive as Sam Harris, who contends that science is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to ethics). I respond that science provides informative background but grossly underdetermines ethical issues, which therefore require philosophical reflection. Michael’s opening salvo was followed by my response, with Shermer recently adding some thoughts, further articulating his position. The notes below are my point-by-point commentary on that third round. (Throughout, italics indicates Michael’s writing, with my comments immediately following.)

...I begin with a Principle of Moral Good: Always act with someone else’s moral good in mind, and never act in a way that leads to someone else’s moral loss...

Well, that sounds good (and mighty close to Kant’s famous categorical imperative), except for the significant degree of begging the question hidden in Michael’s principle (but not in Kant’s). What is a moral good? Reading the principle as it stands I would have pretty much no idea of how to actually act, or whether my acting would lead to someone else’s moral good or loss.

...Even if there is a God, divine command theory was refuted 2500 years ago by Plato through his “Euthyphro’s dilemma”...

Good point. So we have at least one example of a philosopher arriving at a major — and still standing — conclusion about morality regardless of empirical evidence or scientific insight...

...The Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) has a severe limitation to it: What if the moral receiver thinks differently from the moral doer? ... This is why in my book The Science of Good and Evil I introduced the Ask-First Principle: To find out whether an action is right or wrong ask first.

Besides the fact that the golden rule is strictly speaking a religious, not a philosophical precept, I don’t see the difference at all. The ask-first principle seems to suffer from precisely the same problem as the golden rule. What if someone wanted to be hurt, or humiliated, or being treated as inferior? Would that make it ok? It’s not just 12-yr old girls belonging to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (to use Michael’s example) who may be morally incompetent or not sufficiently mature.

Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women.

This is just a parenthetical observation, Michael, but that study has been debunked, together with a lot of the other questionable “science” about gender we get from a certain brand of evolutionary psychology...

... applying evolutionary theory to not only the origins of morality but to its ultimate foundation as well, it seems to me that the individual is a reasonable starting point...

Two problems here: first, Michael confuses evolutionary explanations for the origin of morality with the much more complex, and extremely culturally dependent, context of modern-day moral decision making. Natural selection has pretty much nothing to tell us about under what circumstances abortion may be acceptable or not, whether we should pursue drone warfare, or whether health and education should be considered as human rights. Second, morality is an inherently social phenomenon, so I’d say that the individual is precisely the wrong place to start.

... The survival and flourishing of the individual is the foundation for establishing values and morals, and so determining the conditions by which humans best survive and flourish ought to be the goal of a science of morality.

Natural selection has everything to do with survival (and reproduction), but pretty much nothing to do with flourishing. The latter, in turn, is an inherently cultural concept, that is difficult to articulate and whose specifics vary with time and geography. Which means that Michael’s “smooth transition” between is and ought is anything but smooth.

In his annual letter Bill Gates outlined how and why the progress of the human condition can best be implemented when tracked through scientific data...

This seems to me a good example of a recurring confusion on the part of those who claim that science can answer moral questions. No philosopher would doubt Gates’ statement. But that data becomes relevant only after one has already engaged in moral judgment and decided that we ought to reduce poverty. It is, rather, a very sensible way to check whether our actual policies are having the desired effect. Shermer et al. seem to confuse ethics with social policy. It is the first that informs the second, not the other way around.

This is why Bill Gates is backing with his considerable wealth and talent the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals program...

Good for Gates. But Bill Gates has also decided that public education is a rotten concept and has put his considerable wealth and talent in the service of undermining it. I think that was a bad decision, and yet I’m sure Mr. Gates can easily produce statistics that measure how well his misguided policy is being implemented.

A second example may be found on the opposite end of the economic scale in a study conducted for the National Bureau of Economic Research entitled “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth” by the University of Pennsylvania economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers, in which they compared survey data on subjective well-being (“happiness”) with income and economic growth rates in 140 countries.

I am aware of that sort of survey, and I appreciate their value, as is clear in several chapters of my Answers for Aristotle (where I explore the relationship between science and philosophy in a number of areas of human interest, from morality to love). But “subjective” well-being has little to do with morality, since it is about the psychological satisfaction of an individual. That satisfaction can be easily increased by just hooking said individual to a perpetual drug machine, as philosopher Robert Nozick famously pointed out, something that can straightforwardly be argued would actually be morally wrong. Besides, again, morality is about how we behave towards others, not about how happy we feel.

Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection.

Given what I have written so far, and in my previous post, I’ll leave it to the reader to unpack the above chain of reasoning and show where he goes wrong (hint: there are at two problems with it, but I may have missed an additional one or two).

The fact that there may be many types of democracies (direct v. representative) and economies (with various trade agreements or membership in trading blocks) only reveals that human survival and flourishing is multi-faceted and multi-causal, and not that because there is more than one way to survive and flourish means that all political, economic, and social systems are equal.

I’m afraid this is a straight straw man. To my knowledge, no moral or political philosopher has argued that “all political, economic, and social systems are equal,” so I don’t think this requires a response, except insofar as it shows that science enthusiasts tend to read little philosophy, moral or otherwise. (Which, of course, is fine, except when they then go on to make major claims about the limitations of moral philosophy.)

We know that belief in supernatural sorcery and witchcraft and their concomitant consequences of torturing and murdering those so accused is wrong because it decreases the survival and flourishing of individuals — just ask first the woman about to be torched. ... The ultimate solution is science and education in understanding the natural causes of things and the debunking of supernatural beliefs in sorcery and witchcraft. And it is science that tells us why witchcraft and sorcery is immoral.

Not at all. Science tells us that witchcraft and sorcery are unfounded superstitions, not that they are immoral. If they were real, and people really used them to kill innocents, then it would be perfectly moral to prosecute the perpetrators (though not to burn them alive. But again, why not? Because we think torture and the death penalty are immoral on ethical grounds, since they respectively cause needless suffering and are done out of revenge, neither of which are morally salient reasons). Also, about Shermer’s “just ask” principle: clearly it won’t work. Just ask the murderer who is serving life in prison if he’d rather do something else with his life. Certainly his ability to flourish has been curtailed by society, but presumably this is happening because of a (philosophically) justified moral judgment.

There seem to be two major sources of error in Michael’s reasoning about science and morality. First, his insistence on evidence-based decisions is perfectly appropriate to the implementation of policies, but it is entirely unclear how it applies to the sort of issues that moral philosophers actually discuss. Just as an exercise, try reading any chapter of Michael Sandel’s Justice and let me know which of the questions that Sandel discusses so clearly would be settled by empirical evidence. Again, empirical evidence is relevant to our ethical choices but it grossly underdetermines them.

Second, Michael keeps talking about survival and flourishing in a single breadth, invoking natural selection as working to increase both. This is absolutely wrong. Natural selection increases survival, and even that only insofar as it assures reproduction (after that, good luck to you, my friend!). Selection has nothing whatsoever to do with flourishing, the realization of which completely breaks any evolutionarily based “smooth transition” between is and ought. Not to mention, of course, that Michael should know that natural selection likely also produced a number of nasty behavioral patterns in humans (e.g., xenophobia), which we have been trying  — in good part through philosophizing about them! — to get rid of throughout the past couple of millennia.

So, again, science — or more broadly, factual evidence — most certainly has a place at the high table of any meaningful discussion about how to achieve human goals and fulfill human desires. But philosophical reflection remains central to ethics because ethics is about reasoning on the implications of and conflicts generated by those goals and desires. To put it as Kant did: “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.”

117 comments:

  1. Excellent and thought-provoking. We regular (non-scientist, non-philosopher) people face actual moral dilemmas every day, but culture tilts us in one direction or another.

    I have a queasy response to TV ads for programs to combat world hunger. There are seven billion people in the world. Is it really moral to ensure that they all survive and reproduce? (leaving aside whether they thrive) Wouldn't it be more ethical to supply women with long-lasting birth control? If a culture has developed a trait of encouraging the most possible births to counter their history of having a high infant mortality, shouldn't charities that help infants to survive do something to continue that culture's population stasis?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ethicist Peter Singer has a lot to say about precisely these concerns. Take a look. You might be relieved to find that you have some unfounded assumptions on the matter.

      Delete
    2. I have a queasy response to your comment!

      (Not that that's a bad thing - we should always be willing to ask questions even if they're uncomfortable ones).

      Delete
    3. There is a moral obligation to reduce the suffering of the existing population as well as to treat and remove the cause of the suffering in the next generation.

      Policies that only seek to feed existing people are treating only the consequences and not the causes of that hunger. The best programs will treat both.

      Reducing suffering in the present without reducing the causes of the next generation is condemning the next generation to suffer more of the problem that the current program is trying to combat. That is, the care and responsibility that is provided at one level is offset by failure to reduce the source of the problem for the next generation. Such programs are both compassionate and irresponsible.

      Delete
  2. What is the purpose of studying morality? I think there are two main purposes that are often not clearly distinguished:
    1. To study the moral beliefs and moral norms existing in a society or in the mind and behavior of various individuals / groups / social classes / ethnic groups etc within one or more societies. The purpose here is to understand moral beliefs, norms and behavior as they objectively exist in human societies.
    2. To decide what is moral and what is immoral, independently of what people actually do in this society or another. More precisely perhaps, to develop a logically consistent system of moral principles and norms, that can be used to decide what is the moral thing to do in different situations.
    There may be a third, combining the two above:
    3. Study the moral beliefs and norms in a society, and reformulate them (if you can) into a logically consistent system of moral principles and norms. This recognizes that any philosophically formulated moral system should be based on certain assumptions and values, and opts for adopting the ongoing or prevailing moral values of an empirical society, say the US, instead of using the philosopher's personal set of values and beliefs, or any other set of values that might be adopted for this purpose.
    I am not sure whether along this interesting controversy, Massimo and Michael were always on the same page regarding the definition of the problem being discussed. Some of the disagreements seem to be related to different definitions of the problem or purpose.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I enjoyed and appreciated reading this clear distinction between the different types of moral science/philosophy.

      Delete
    2. Hector, isn't your list of 3 an attempt to bridge the is-ought divide? I.e, 1 = 'is'; 2 = 'ought'; and 3 is what Shermer (and Sam Harris) are trying to argue for. In my view, their arguments are wanting, precisely because they believe they can foist "certain assumptions and values" onto a moral system, as if such things exist as objectively true concepts.

      Delete
    3. Hector, isn't your list of 3 an attempt to bridge the is-ought divide? I.e, 1 = 'is'; 2 = 'ought'; and 3 is what Shermer (and Sam Harris) are trying to argue for. In my view, their arguments are wanting, precisely because they believe they can foist "certain assumptions and values" onto a moral system, as if such things exist as objectively true concepts.

      Delete
  3. I think there may be some overconfidence regarding how empirical facts can impact moral questions from some seemingly-obvious examples. Things like the history of Eugenics (and its link to science of the day) and the much-decried insipid book The Bell Curve are often decried on factual grounds (which is important), but you can do the work much more easily on philosophical/moral grounds.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hector: I can add to this list, I think. Because we've got a moral pluralism (which seems to me a good thing), we need to learn how to accept arguments from other moral systems in ways that are meaningful. By making sure we stand on shared moral values, we can provide arguments that transcend the specifics of our own individual moral system. There won't be many/any arguments that satisfy all or even most moral systems, but why not give the tools for a libertarian to make arguments with a liberal utilitarian? This kind of coalition-building is a good political reason to have competence in moral reasoning.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Alex, I entirely agree. In fact, my third problem definition addresses the notion that different groups or societies may have different moral values, on which different moral systems could be built.
    However, my point was only to call attention to a possible dissonance between the (mostly implicit) problem definition used by the two participants in this controversy (and by others in other similar controversies).

    ReplyDelete

  6. TRUTH

    KNOWLEDGE IS THOUGHT

    EDUCATION INCREASES THOUGHT

    WISDOM IS TRUTH

    ENLIGHTENMENT REDUCES THOUGHT

    TO A SINGLE SIMPLE TRUTH

    ONENESS OR EQUALITY

    THE SINGLE SIMPLE

    WISDOM OR

    TRUTH

    =

    MJA

    ReplyDelete
  7. >Second, Michael keeps talking about survival and flourishing in a single breadth, invoking natural selection as working to increase both. This is absolutely wrong. Natural selection increases survival, and even that only insofar as it assures reproduction (after that, good luck to you, my friend!).<

    Quite so. That was the point I was trying to make in connection with Shermer's human flourishing (when I wrote that a disadvantage may turn out to be an advantage in the long run).

    Social Darwinist have long pretended that they knew what is "best" for the human race in the long run. In truth, no one knows this, we know only about factors that have previously been useful to help short term reproductive success.

    Nature is not a conscious agent with a teleology in mind. Nature does not "want" or "hope" for a particular species to survive. The only thing happening is that random variations in traits, if successful, will show up with greater frequency in the gene pool. This does not guarantee that such traits are the "right" way to go. To the contrary, a particular trait -- albeit successful in the short term -- may lead to the extinction of the species in the long term.

    As Mark Twain said, "one gets such wholesale returns on conjecture out of such a trifling investment in fact."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agree with much of what you're saying, Tom, but again I just want to make the point that just because it is difficult in practice to identify which policies will be beneficial in the long run does not mean that any attempt to investigate these questions scientifically should be dismissed a priori.

      Delete
    2. Hi Disagreeable Me!

      You've tried to engage me several times, and I apologize for not answering sooner. I tend to get on my high-horse and do too much talking and not enough listening!

      I don't think you and I disagree too much. I will acknowledge that science can help to INFORM our choices -- but the choices are still ours to make. Science can tell us that "A" will lead to "B", so IF (a big IF) we determine that "B" is a desirable place to go, science can tell us how to get there.

      Shermer tends to ignore and gloss over the human choices and human values. He acts as if some vague vapid pronouncement that he pulls out of his hind quarters like "human flourishing" can serve as a moral foundation for all of humanity and will obviate the need to make choices or select values. Science can't even properly understand insects, let alone direct human affairs.

      Shermer claims that Science can prove Adultery is wrong and that a Market Economy is the "best" economic system? What's next? Science will prove that the "best" work of art ever executed was the painting that Shermer's wife did for her garden club? I don't see why not. We can use the same reasoning he used for selecting the best form of government: "Well, it is OBVIOUS that the best work of art will have to be something painted within the last few years, using acrylic paints, exactly 8 pigments, painted on a Acme canvas held by exactly 27 nails, whose subject matter is a bunny with 3 yellow flowers ... well, what do you know? That's the painting my wife did last week! Another triumph for Science!"

      In short, Shermer pretends that the "best" values and choices somehow emerge from an objective evaluation of the data in combination with arbitrary axioms like "human flourishing". What tripe!

      Delete
    3. Hi Tom,

      I think we have similar views on morality, I just feel that you're probably judging Shermer a little too harshly, and that in actuality he's not quite as unreasonable as he seems to be to you.

      Delete
    4. Massimo, all, I would never defend Shermer. He claims science shows rape is immoral, yet Pop Ev Psycher Randy Thornhill says rape is adaptive! Put that in your Pop Ev Psych pipe and smoke it, Shermer!

      Seriously, from an EEA that postulates hunter-gatherer humans as the baseline for psychological evolution, rather than the scavenger-gatherers we were long before that, even "legit" ev psych has "issues" on matters of gender, and Pop Ev Psych has them in spades. Between that and his racialist(s) ... now singular ... at Skeptic ... Shermer's not worth the time, IMO.

      Delete
    5. I'll also counter Shermer's "scientism" with repeated recent revelations of cheating on grants, Ben Goldacre's whole new book about selective research reporting in the pharmaceutical industry, and more.

      Say, Joseph Mengele? Eugenics "research" in the US? Arthur Jensen? Shockley?

      Science is, to riff on Euclid, NO royal road to morality. Period. End of story.

      Delete
    6. Gadfly, there is no contradiction between the idea that rape is adaptive (or rather, that rape was adaptive during the evolution of hominids) and the idea that rape is immoral (for modern humans living in modern human societies). The two statements are responses to different questions (It it immoral? Is it adaptive?). I am not affirming that rape is adaptive: it may or may not, I leave that to specialists in evolutionary biology as applied to our evolutionary lineage; what I stress is the difference in the questions.
      Other examples may be useful, albeit not exactly equivalent. For an Afghan peasant living in utter poverty, growing opium poppy may be adaptive (increases the odds of survival and well being for the farmer and his family), even if one accepts that producing the raw material for heroin and selling it to the drug cartels is immoral. For a gangster to have superior weapons is adaptive, even if used for immoral purposes such as bank robberies. And so on. Not exactly equivalent, I said, because these illustrative examples refer to individuals, while the rape issue referred to societal norms and patterns of behavior; but even in conventional sociology it is accepted (at least since the 1930s) that entering into a gang or other 'deviant subcultures' (as they were called) may be an alternative way used by some young people to gain approval and prestige among their peers. Becoming a tough gang leader or fighter may be, thus, a form of conformity, a way of agreeing with the social norms prevailing around, even if a member of the larger society may consider those activities immoral (and in fact as criminal and punishable under the law of the land).
      Returning to a former comment of mine, statements such as 'rape is adaptive' belong in the study of how people behave and what are the consequences of their actions, not going into any discussion of their morality; the same goes for statements such as 'in certain cultures, genital mutilation of young girls is regarded as highly moral and commendable, and is moreover often believed to be based on religious commandments'). Instead, statements like 'rape is immoral' spell out the contents of a certain moral code, possibly based on certain moral values or axioms. Once formulated, the latter may in turn become an object of objective scientific study just like the study of prehistoric rape or contemporary genital mutilation.

      Delete
    7. Disagreeable Me:

      While I believe that science can play a role, my problem with Shermer is that he lacks humility. As Richard Feynman said, "I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy."

      Science is extremely limited in what it can tell us. Shermer fails to appreciate that. He fails to appreciate that meaning, aesthetics, and morality are created by human beings -- they are not "out there" in the external world waiting to be objectively discovered by scientists.

      If my comments on Shermer seem vitriolic, it is because such views are, at heart, authoritarian and dictatorial. Shermer is essentially saying, "you dumb people shouldn't be making choices, you should leave such things to your betters (scientists), who will TELL you what is the best way for you to live" (in the dubious manner in which Shermer determined that a value like adultery can be determined by science to be wrong -- instead on being a value accepted or rejected by human choice.)

      Delete
    8. Tom:

      I think we're just interpreting what he is saying differently. I read what he is saying as a reaction to the impression that scientists are being shut out of the moral conversation by philosophers.

      As far as I can see, he's not saying scientists are better, he's just saying that scientists should be included in the conversation.

      I do think his views are perhaps a bit naive or poorly fleshed out. There are perhaps a number of assumptions he does not even realise he is making, and I would be more pessimistic than he of the hope of finding definitive answers to moral questions using science.

      I have no problem with him trying to do so, however.

      Delete
    9. Gadfly:

      Sure, there's lots of examples of bad science, but the same is true of any field. There's bad philosophy, bad theology, bad music, bad art, etc.

      You can't prove that we can't trust in good science by giving examples of bad science.

      Delete
    10. Hector, my real point is, or meant to be, beyond adaptive vs. moral (which itself shows that science by itself is NOT a stand-alone guide for morals, at least on this issue) is that **rape is not adaptive.**

      And, that would be even more the case, its non-adaptiveness, in tribal pre-state bands of early hominids. You rape once, within your clan/band, and you get killed. You rape as part of a raid of another clan and you start a war, and if your own band gets tired enough of that, they kill you.

      ===

      Disagreeable: But the point of scientism is to **elevate science to a privileged position.** I'm not saying it's less than philosophy, etc., but rather than, conducted by the same mix of good, bad and ugly humans as philosophy, etc., it has no "privileged position."

      And, I totally disagree with your reading of what Shermer is saying. Perhaps that's part of the issue right there.

      And, if he doesn't realize some of the assumptions he's making, well, then ....

      Doesn't he need the help of philosophy?

      Touche.

      Delete
    11. Sure, he might need the help of philosophy.

      But, again, perhaps due to our different readings, he doesn't seem to be saying that he doesn't. I think he just wants science to have a place at the table.

      Delete
    12. Disagreeable,

      but philosophers don't object to have scientists at the table. The question is what are they bringing? If information that is useful to better articulate policies and the actual implications of value choices, good. If they pretend to be determining values empirically, bad.

      Delete
    13. Agreed.

      I think Harris and Shermer are either arguing against a strawman or arguing against an assumption held by members of the general public and fellow scientists rather than philosophers. I don't think they actually disagree with you as much as you think.

      Harris in particular is arguing for determining _some_ values empirically (an example of the kinds of things he is talking about might include feminism, veganism, pro-choice-ism) based on the assumption of more fundamental values, in particular valuing the well-being of conscious creatures.

      He tries to twist this into the position that science can empirically determine all values, and I agree with you that he's totally wrong here.

      Harris and Shermer are guilty of overstating their case, but I think in their central points they are not saying anything too revolutionary or remarkable. It's just the application of science to help calculate utility in the context of utilitarianism.

      Delete
    14. I think to be clear, Harris's target is not so much philosophers as the assumption among the wider public that religion must be the basis of morality and that atheism leads to immorality.

      Perhaps not in his book, but in talks such as this one: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtH3Q54T-M8), Harris is explicit that by "science" he means secular rationality and reason in general, encompassing both empirical science and secular philosophy.

      Delete
    15. ... and he's also arguing against moral relativism. He doesn't think that it's acceptable to say "well, you have your morality and I'll have mine - there's no way to say who is right because these questions are ineffable".

      Delete
    16. Disagreeable,

      > Harris is explicit that by "science" he means secular rationality and reason in general, encompassing both empirical science and secular philosophy. <

      I concluded some time ago that Harris is an intellectual lightweight, and am constantly surprised by how many people taking him seriously. He doesn’t get to redefine science as he pleases so that he can sell a book claiming that “science” solves moral questions.

      As for his fight against relativism and religion as a base for morality, by far the best arguments against both are philosophical, not scientific, in nature.

      Delete
    17. Largely agree with you here, especially on his exaggerated claims for science, apart from the fact that I enjoy reading Harris's controversial positions nonetheless.

      Delete
  8. Is there a big difference between the book and this?
    The Great Debate Panel: Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, Patricia S. Churchland...
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ScMJEVoj-s

    Where Sam and a few do not seam to differ much... To me it seams that ppl just are talking around each outer.

    ReplyDelete
  9. @Massimo.
    "Second, Michael keeps talking about survival and flourishing in a single breadth, invoking natural selection as working to increase both. This is absolutely wrong. Natural selection increases survival, and even that only insofar as it assures reproduction (after that, good luck to you, my friend!). Selection has nothing whatsoever to do with flourishing, the realization of which completely breaks any evolutionarily based “smooth transition” between is and ought."

    Did natural selection evolve our intelligence, regardless of whether you take the stochastic approach or the self-engineering approach to the theory? And you've given natural selection the pseudo purpose of survival only to increase reproduction. Does intelligence then only increase reproduction?
    I imagine you'll say yes, but I had to ask.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Natural selection has no "purpose", not even survival or reproduction. "Natural selection" is the name given to an actual process, whereby there is variation in individual traits (and their genetic basis) among individuals of a species, and some of those traits (or gene alleles) in a certain environment are more favorable to survival and reproduction, and hence those individuals and alleles increase their frequency in the population (unless the environment changes and leads to the survival and reproduction of other alleles or traits). It is then just a stylized description of a natural process.
      Once one trait (say an opposing thumb, or the neural capacity to do compute the odds of various possible behaviors of predators) arises through natural selection, it may or may not preserved through multiple generations until today. If it is preserved, it may end up serving other purposes (say, turning pages in a book, in the case of the thumb; or calculating the risk of an airplane crashing, in the case of ability to compare relative odds). The "purposes" served today by either the thumb or such brain capacity may be many, but the trait originally emerged and was preserved through perhaps millions of years (in the case of the thumb) or hundreds of thousand years (in the case of some brain circuitry) or perhaps just tens of thousand years (lactose tolerance), because natural selection favored them, i.e. because they enhanced survival and reproduction (mainly the latter: survival is selected for only as far as it is directly or indirectly favorable for reproduction).
      Natural selection does all that not because it has a "purpose" but just because that is what natural selection does. "Natural selection" is just a fancy name for the process that favors the propagation of certain traits in a population living in an environment, just because individual with those traits (and the related alleles) happen to survive better and are able to produce (and raise to adulthood) a larger number of (fertile) descendants.

      Delete
    2. So natural selection non-intelligently evolved intelligent creatures. Just checking.

      Delete
    3. Baron,

      exactly right. That was the whole point of Darwin's insight. If you want intelligence behind natural selection you are going back to natural theology, Paley's intelligent design and all the rest.

      Delete
    4. Actually Darwin thought intelligence did play a part but was forced to reconsider that by some influential critics. And those who have since attempted to point out that intelligence can't accidentally be evolved from non-intelligence are called teleologists. Which you automatically and erroneously equate with theologists.
      I could give you a long list of evolutionary scientists who now see, even in the limited theories of epigentics, how intelligence is needed to evolve intelligent behaviors.
      So as expected, all you can say as to how evolution of intelligence is supposed to work without it is that it was the belated insight of a long dead genius that tells us this.

      Delete
  10. Hector says, "Some of the disagreements seem to be related to different definitions of the problem or purpose."
    Sure, but Massimo won't agree that either evolution or morality has or serves a purpose. Shermer might not either as he avoids that aspect of the argument s well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I was not referring to the purpose of evolution (there is none) or the purpose of morality. I wrote about the definition of the problem, or the intellectual goals of those presenting a discourse about morality. I might be studying the moral principles prevailing in a certain group of people (a tribe of prehistoric hunters, or a street gang in a modern urban ghetto) in the same way that I study their aesthetic preferences or the manner in which they manage to make a living in economic terms. The purpose of that intellectual stance is to know what is going on. That is a different from one trying to find out whether the behavior of those people is moral or immoral under a given system of moral values (which is not necessarily theirs).

      Delete
    2. So you're saying that morality doesn't serve a purpose. Just checking.

      Delete
  11. //What is a moral good?//

    To be fair to Michael, it's not as if philosophers have done an awesome job at finding out the answer to that. I've been reading Nichomachean Ethics and Aristotle seems to be pathetically confused about what a good is, and what is good. He sets out to find what a good is. His answer seems to be good is that at which all things aim at. My reaction was WHAT??? And his answer to that is "those who object that that at which all things aim is not necessarily good are talking nonsense."

    That was a disappointment.

    ReplyDelete
  12. While on previous threads I have defended Shermer, I have to say I also appreciate agree with most of Massimo's points.

    I think Shermer needs to drop evolution as a basis for morality, needs to recognise that human flourishing is a somewhat arbitrary and vague goal for morality, and that philosophy has a crucial role to play in clarifying these issues.

    That said, his main point still stands: that scientists should not assume they have nothing to add to the moral debate. Some moral questions (when sufficiently well defined) are empirical in nature, and science can help to answer them.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Another "overlap" of the science and philosophy of morality is in the field of sociology of morality (e.g. sites.google.com/site/classes390e/home/sociology-of-morality). This seems to blur the separation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Philip,

      certainly the sociology of morality is interesting, but I don't see why it blurs the distinction between science and philosophy. Sociology is descriptive, philosophy is analytic and prescriptive. While those categories are not completely airtight, they are different enough, seems to me.

      Delete
    2. I agree. Let's add that social science is not only descriptive, is also explanatory. It investigates causal links between different traits of behavior, different social patterns, different layers of society (economy, power, social class, values, and so on).

      Delete
  14. Debunking the Pseudo-Scientific New Atheist

    http://theartofmisinformation.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/debunking-the-pseudo-scientific-new-atheist/

    ReplyDelete
  15. "Why does money matter morally? Because it leads to a higher standard of living. Why does a higher standard of living matter morally? Because it increases the probability that an individual will survive and flourish. Why does survival and flourishing matter morally? Because it is the basis of the evolution of all life on earth through natural selection."

    I don't understand why Michael stooped there. One could rightly ask "Why does natural selection matter morally?". Natural selection is not a moral agent and has no moral content. Shermer's "smooth" transition between is and ought is nothing but conspicuous. What he's doing is asserting his own moral values as evidently true and then continuing from there, which is not so different from what moral philosophers do, IMHO, but at least they don't try to convince us that there's scientific proof (well, at least not most of them :P).

    ReplyDelete
  16. Natural selection is presumed to be unintelligent on this blog. But if it depends on the organism's intelligence for effectiveness then it's actually the primary moral agent that evolves our moral cultures, which in turn evolve ourselves as moral creatures.

    ReplyDelete
  17. "But if it depends on the organism's intelligence for effectiveness then it's actually the primary moral agent"
    I don't see how that follows.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Moral rules, however right or wrong you as an individual might find them, would be intelligently selected by biological agents. Which many of us have already seen to be the case.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I don't see why the eutyphro dilema is a problem for divine command theory, apparently neither Massimo nor Shermer have read what phisolosophers of religion like Robert M. Adams have to say in response to that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, open your eyes then! That said, I've run into liberal Xns who claim, "Oh, that just applied to the Olympian gods," not Christianity's modern Ground of Being or other mush.

      Delete
  20. Gotta look at the Olympian gods. You'll never figure out gods without studying them. In this case the dilemma is just more confusion, similar to free will arguments caused by bad commonplace definitions. Common sense answers it. You have your boss, your spouse, whatever telling you what to do. You have your own feelings about what to do. The stuff that you think you 'ought' to do is promoted to the level of 'pious' or 'moral' or 'just' (pick the platform) if there is agreement between entities 'you' and 'boss' /'spouse' The combined monad carries this absolute of a fiction around until everyone decides it is no longer 'moral' or 'just' to always put down the toilet seat. Same with free will. Before you talk about it, exactly what does one mean when it is said the 'one' has or doesn't have it. One what? person? Define 'person'. I think its best to think of a person as a collection of a very large number of entities, each a monad it its own right.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Been thinking about this a little more, and I think I sort of get what Michael's saying. It's probably not what he's saying though.

    The thing is, the fact that philosophy cannot even irrefutably prove "thou shalt not kill" is not my problem. I believe that I shall not kill. I would even say that I know that I should not kill. Philosophers (pedants), would say that I don't know that. They are right. But do I care? No. I still act as if I know that I should not kill. I even believe that the world is better off that way. I might even say I know it. Philosophers (pedants) would again argue that I don't know it. They would argue all day about what constitutes "better". Do I care?

    The fact that philosophy has limits is not really the problem of a scientist. The same way I know that I should not kill even though philosophers would talk about is/ought all day, scientist know what's best for humanity even though philosophers would argue about is/ought and good/bad all day. I have no problem in saying that Canada is morally superior to Nazi Germany. The fact that I cannot irrefutably prove that philosophically, doesn't mean I shouldn't blow the Nazi's up like in Inglorious Basterds.

    ReplyDelete
  22. paco,

    > apparently neither Massimo nor Shermer have read what phisolosophers of religion like Robert M. Adams have to say in response to that. <

    Actually, I have read what theologians have been writing about Euthyphro’s dilemma, and I find them to be weak rationalizations. I write about them in the last chapter of Answers for Aristotle.

    brainoil,

    > Philosophers (pedants) <

    Bad start to any constructive comment.

    > philosophy cannot even irrefutably prove "thou shalt not kill" is not my problem <

    No, but your problem should be to understand moral philosophy a bit better. Starting with the fact that proving moral truths isn’t the issue, it’s about reasoning about the consequences that logically follow from certain assumptions about morality (just like math is about developing the consequences of axioms, not proving axioms).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. //Bad start to any constructive comment.//

      Not to be rude, just to be a pedant, that is not how I started my comment.

      // it’s about reasoning about the consequences that logically follow from certain assumptions about morality//

      Oh, but that's hardly the point. I don't think Michael Shermer would disagree with that. The point is the Is/Ought problem, and the idea that science has nothing to say about oughts. The way I understand, what Michael is saying is that scientists shouldn't be too much concerned about this philosophical problem.

      Strictly speaking, philosophers have nothing to say about oughts as long as they don't have a way to bridge the Is/Ought gap. Strictly speaking, as long as philosophers don't have a way to derive ought from is, they can't talk about moral progress either. In other words, strictly speaking, as long as Is/Ought gap is not bridged, Oughts is the domain of philosophers as much as it is the domain of plumbers.

      But that's only if you speak strictly. Certain scientists who knew how to build an atomic bomb, tried to prevent Nazi's from getting that knowledge. Why? They believed that Nazi's will use that knowledge to build an atomic bomb, and use that atomic bomb to kill everyone except Nazis. Why? They thought that they should not let such destruction to happen Why? Certainly not because of any kind of philosophical argument, because strictly speaking, as long as the Is/Ought gap is not bridged, philosophy has nothing to say about oughts. No, they decided that they shouldn't let that happen because there was an evolutionary drive in them that led them to believe that that's bad. That's a cause. Not a reason. Strictly speaking, as long as the Is/Ought gap is not bridged, one doesn't have any reason to think that he/she should not allow Nazis to build an atomic bomb and kill everyone except Nazis (Even self-preservation isn't a reason, strictly speaking, as long as Is/Ought gap is not bridged).

      Now even though strictly speaking there was no reason for those scientists to think that they should not allow Nazis to build an atomic bomb, no one thinks they did something morally wrong. The scientists simply calculated the power of the atomic bomb, calculated the exactly what kind of and how much damage the Nazis would do with it, and decided that it's a bad idea to give them that knowledge. Now the question is, if scientists can act like that even though strictly speaking they knew about Oughts as much as philosophers knew (in other words, nothing), one might wonder whether instead of preventing destruction, whether scientists can lead us to prosperity too. They don't have to worry about philosophers too much because as long as the philosophers haven't found a way to bridge the Is/Ought gap, there is no way they could come up with an Ought Not, strictly speaking.

      Delete
  23. Baron,

    oh boy. Ok, I'm going to try, but I bet this is going to fall on death ears...

    > Actually Darwin thought intelligence did play a part but was forced to reconsider that by some influential critics. <

    Never heard of such a claim. And I've read a lot by and about Darwin. Do you have any references?

    > those who have since attempted to point out that intelligence can't accidentally be evolved from non-intelligence are called teleologists. Which you automatically and erroneously equate with theologists. <

    I made no such mistake, I am perfectly aware of the difference between teleology and theology. But the only sensible way to get teleology these days is through intelligent design (unless you are going to buy the really badly argued recent book by Nagel). Besides, you aren't just talking about teleology, you are explicitly talking about intelligent causes.

    > I could give you a long list of evolutionary scientists who now see, even in the limited theories of epigentics, how intelligence is needed to evolve intelligent behaviors. <

    By all means, feel free to give me that least any time. I have actually worked on epigenetics, and the field has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence per se, much less with purpose.

    > all you can say as to how evolution of intelligence is supposed to work without it is that it was the belated insight of a long dead genius that tells us this. <

    Baloney. You ought to know better than accusing me of making an argument from authority. You are the one who brought in Darwin, I simply corrected the record.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Massimo, First of all, you brought in Darwin, so the baloney is on you if anyone. And it's common knowledge that Darwin initially gave credit to Lamarck for the organism arranging to pass on its own acquired traits, and that alone is an intelligently strategic process (unless you'll now say that strategies aren't intelligently contrived).
      So you've now said that, "I have actually worked on epigenetics, and the field has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence per se, much less with purpose."
      Did I mention purpose in that latest comment? No. But of course you know that any consideration of intelligence implies it has a purpose, so apparently in habitually denying something's purpose, you've been prompted to deny it's intelligence in the bargain.
      Epigenetics is clearly a process that requires the intelligence of the organism to make it succeed. And yes, I'm talking of intelligence as causative. How in hell could the process work without it, I'd ask, but you'd simply say it does and nobody can prove it doesn't.
      So please google "epigentics and intelligence" and find numerous references where the intelligent and intelligently constructed processes are explained.

      Delete
    2. But if you want a name or two that supports intelligent change that's not design by an intelligence other than the organism's, read this:
      Mae-Wan Ho, Geneticist and Biophysicist, excerpted from The End of Bad Science and Beginning Again with Life:

      “Finally, the ultimate neo-Darwinian taboo has been broken. Wiesmann’s barrier has been breached, and in many different forms, some of which I mentioned already.
      The inheritance of acquired characters
      Epigenetic inheritance - inheritance of cellular or gene-expression states such as patterns of DNA methylation, cortical inheritance in ciliates, dauermodifications.
      Inheritance of induced changes in genomic DNA - fertilizer treatment of flax and other plants; drug-resistance in mammalian cells insecticide- resistance in insect pests and herbicide-resistance in plants.
      Feedback from somatic cells to germ cells - reverse transcription and insertion of cDNA into germ cells, eg. immunoglobulin V genes
      'Adaptive' mutations in bacteria, yeast and other cells.”

      “ -- others including myself have written on how those newly discovered processes seriously undermine neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory over 15 years ago10. The evidence against the natural selection of random mutations has grown overwhelming since. Simply stated, organisms can mutate their genes as they are selected; and there is a large degree of non-randomness to mutations.
      Recently, molecular geneticist James Shapiro has joined the debate. He is critical of neo-Darwinians like Richard Dawkins and John Maynard Smith who are still clinging to the discredited paradigm. "Localized random mutation, selection operating "one gene at a time" (John Maynard Smith’s formulation), and gradual modification of individual functions are unable to provide satisfactory explanation for the molecular data, no matter how much time for change is assumed. There are simply too many potential degrees of freedom for random variability and too many interconnections to account for."

      Delete
    3. And lastly, the onus is still on you to explain how organisms evolve without their own intelligently learned input, derived from their own experiences - epigenetics being only one example of this. Which so far you've not even tried to do.

      Delete
    4. Baron,

      here we go again, of course. This will be my last comment on this thread, you can have the last word if you like.

      > you brought in Darwin, so the baloney is on you if anyone. <

      Point taken (not about the baloney, that’s still on you, but about bringing in Darwin).

      > it's common knowledge that Darwin initially gave credit to Lamarck for the organism arranging to pass on its own acquired traits, and that alone is an intelligently strategic process <

      You really seems to have no idea of what you are talking about my friend. Yes, that is common knowledge. It is also common knowledge that Darwin quickly saw that Lamarckism wasn’t getting him anywhere. And even Lamarckism itself was not about intelligence, only about natural tendencies of organisms to adapt to their environment. You keep confusing the two.

      > Epigenetics is clearly a process that requires the intelligence of the organism to make it succeed. <

      Epigenetics is clearly nothing of the sort, and if you knew a bit of biology you might even recognize that.

      > So please google "epigentics and intelligence" and find numerous references <

      Oh please, you can google anything and find numerous references to it, no matter how crappy or silly it is.

      > if you want a name or two that supports intelligent change that's not design ... Mae-Wan Ho ... James Shapiro <

      I thought you had tons of names, now we are down to two? Never heard of Ho, and as for Shapiro he has a well deserved reputation as a biochemist, and an awful one when he talks about evolutionary biology.

      > the onus is still on you to explain how organisms evolve without their own intelligently learned input, derived from their own experiences - epigenetics being only one example of this. <

      It’s called the theory of evolution, perhaps you heard of it.

      Delete
    5. Well Massimo, you can run but you can't hide. Yes Lamarck was clearly all about the animal's intelligence, the giraffe's choice making efforts in attempting to get food in particular, etc., and all you've done is deny it - but without any apparent ability to explain why these efforts were not intelligent after all. It's disingenuous to claim that since I've only mentioned two names of scientists that oppose non-intelligent selection, that's all I know to list. I've long been on to that sly little tactic of yours and more importantly, so have your readers. Adaptive mutation as a field of study is now quite large, and they know that too.

      And if you knew a bit about biological behaviors, you'd know that the behaviors that epigenetics deals with require intelligence to function, so your use of insults as intelligent argument there are as tactically lame as your general denials are.
      Shapiro is awful? That's the best you can do, as usual. Other than say you've never heard of him or her, etc.
      Yes, I've heard of the theory of evolution. I can even explain in great detail how it works. But you've demonstrated a complete inability here to show us how your non-intelligent version works in any detail at all.
      Shermer could have a good time with this, but we both know why he probably won't. He likely doesn't believe organisms have and use intelligence to evolve either.

      Delete
    6. Baron P: I can easily believe that there may be some cases where acquired characteristics are passed on to the next generation.

      If so, these mechanisms themselves evolved by natural selection and exist in a minor complementary role. They certainly do not disprove evolution by natural selection nor do they show that evolution is itself an intelligent process.

      I am at a loss to address your comment that epigenetics requires intelligence as this is completely unsubstantiated.

      Even totally Lamarckian evolution would not be an intelligent process. You might imagine giraffes "intelligently" striving to stretch their necks to reach higher plants, but what about completely brainless organisms such as plants stretching to reach the sunlight?

      The intelligence of the organism has nothing to do with whether or how the evolution of the organism takes place. All processes participating in evolution are natural and hence the result of blind physics as applied to complex organisms over countless generations. No intelligence is involved.

      Delete
    7. DM, If you believe that brainlessness is proof of non-intelligent behaviors that nevertheless make intelligent choices, then like Massimo and Hector, you need to bone up on how biological functions have to operate. Or do you actually believe there are life forms that make non-intelligent choices, and make the occasionally successful ones to boot? Which of course you do, since you believe in a series of successful accidents that evolved them.
      Except that if that's so, how did that non-intelligent evolutionary system evolve the intelligence you're (apparently) using to deny that intelligence was previously needed by our ancestors?
      (And you do know that human cells that calculate and communicate are brainless, right? And that certain plants eat animals with brains by outsmarting them, right?)

      Delete
    8. Darwin wrote six editions of the “Origin.” Most people only study the first one. By the time of the 6th edition of “Origin,” Darwin was rather incoherent and Lamarckism had made a return in his mode of thinking.

      This was the result of two factors.

      First of all, he had to respond to the observation that “blending” inheritance cannot provide a basis for natural selection to act on. In the absence of “atomic” genes (like the one proposed by Mendel,) it is necessary to somehow prevent the dilution of characters due to blending. Darwin argued that “use and disuse” was the mechanism that prevented the dilution effect. This was a form of Lamarckism.

      The second factor was the extreme underestimate of the age of Earth that the physicists, like Lord Kelvin were pushing. Around 1875 (the date of the last edition of “Origin,”) the commonly accepted age for the Earth was less than 100 million years. It was obvious that the slow mechanism of natural selection was not going to work in such a sort period of time. Many - including Darwin – thought that Lamarck-like mechanisms could help speed-up evolution.

      A still-relevant discussion of the first problem is given by Fisher in his “The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection.” An historical discussion of the second problem is given in “Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth,” by Joe D. Burchfield. An edition of the “Origin,” containing all the changes made by Darwin over the years is “The Origin of Species: A Variorum Text (Variorum Reprint),” edited by Morse Peckham, University of Pennsylvania Press (May 9, 2006).

      Of course all of this is only of historical interest. The first problem was solved by modern genetics (as pointed-out originally by Fisher.) The second problem was really only completely solved with the advent of quantum mechanics. It was only when it was realized that the fusion reactions in the Sun proceed via quantum tunnelling, that it became clear how the Sun can produce energy for such a long time and at such a low temperature.

      My take on all of this is that the “primacy of physics” is a fallacy. Lyell and Darwin were originally right about the age of the Earth (and Sun,) while the physicists were wrong. This shows that physics sometimes needs to be changed to allow for the realities of life. Nagel might be right, after all. He does sound incoherent, but then so did Darwin circa 1875.

      Delete
    9. I haven't read Nagel's book, but I've looked at the summary on Amazon, and he seems quite rational. However, he doesn't seem to address the problem of intelligence as it supposedly evolved from non-intelligence with any rigor.

      Delete
    10. The physical world does, in fact, contain “intelligence.” This is because the world is – at least partially – ruled by natural laws. Because of this, there is selective advantage for living systems to develop computational capabilities. This development is known to be possible logically because of mathematical results like Turing machines, etc. Also we know that it is physically possible for living systems to develop computation, because of the availability – even at the cellular level – of low-entropy sources of energy. They are photons in green algae, ATP molecules in regular eukaryotic cells, etc. (Low-entropy means basically high-information.) So biological computation has some selective advantages and is both logically and physically possible. Does this means that it will evolve? Possibly...

      ...skipping intermediate steps...

      ...The last step is to go from computation to intelligence. If the strong AI conjecture is correct, given enough computational ability, then intelligence (and even consciousness) will follow. So how do we go from a little computation to a lot? The answer is arm races, possibly between the members of the same species. Trying to outsmart each other, our ancestors developed more and more computational capabilities – until they became intelligent and conscious...

      ...or so the story goes. Except that the strong AI conjecture is total BS. Differently from the Turing conjecture and the entropy argument, it has no justification. If you think about it, the fable I told sounds suspiciously like the “singularity” pushed by Ray Kurtzweil. Kurtzweil's last book, “How to Create a Mind” is praised by AI leaders, like Marvin Minsky. The fact that a crackpot like Kurtzweil is taken seriously by the leaders of AI research, only shows how intellectually – and even morally – bankrupt the field is. Nagel's suspicions are fully justified. I don't think he has to provide a solution to the problem of intelligence. His main problem is that he is not scathing enough when denouncing the strong AI charlatans.

      Delete
    11. Baron:
      "Or do you actually believe there are life forms that make non-intelligent choices, and make the occasionally successful ones to boot?"
      Yes, although "choice" is possibly a loaded term.

      "Except that if that's so, how did that non-intelligent evolutionary system evolve the intelligence you're (apparently) using to deny that intelligence was previously needed by our ancestors?"
      By blind natural selection. The same way giraffes evolved to be "tall" through a process which is not itself "tall".

      "And you do know that human cells that calculate and communicate are brainless, right?"
      Computers calculate and communicate but are not intelligent.

      "And that certain plants eat animals with brains by outsmarting them, right?"
      No. Plants don't outsmart animals any more than a falling rock outsmarts a goat as it crushes it. Some plants have evolved to be traps. That doesn't mean they are intelligent, because they didn't decide or choose to become traps.

      Delete
    12. DM, Well, I'll agree that some of us are a lot less intelligent than others. Does that mean that some of these have none at all? If so, they couldn't choose to argue that their lack of it evolved from none of it. Although if you redefine the word, then of course they could.

      Delete
    13. Baron:
      "Well, I'll agree that some of us are a lot less intelligent than others."
      Goes without saying!

      "Does that mean that some of these have none at all?"
      Not sure what you mean by "none". You mean no intelligence at all? I'd imagine that for a human to have no intelligence that human would have to be in a coma, so yeah, in those cases.

      "If so, they couldn't choose to argue that their lack of it evolved from none of it. Although if you redefine the word, then of course they could."
      No, they couldn't argue anything because they'd be in a coma.

      Delete
    14. DM, You can duck the question as to whether choices can be made without intelligence, but can you also duck the question as to why those at any level of intelligence think that at some time in their early animal or mineral ancestry no level of intelligence existed at all.

      Delete
    15. Baron:

      > the question as to whether choices can be made without intelligence,<

      "Choice" is a loaded term. Does a stock trading software system make a choice as to which stock to buy, or does it simply make a selection according to the deterministic rules by which it is programmed?

      Does a die "choose" which side it lands on?

      Does the environment "choose" which individuals in a population will survive and reproduce or does it merely influence it?

      If you define choice as something which only happens in the context of intelligence, then of course choices cannot be made without intelligence. If you have a broader definition of choice, then you get a different answer.

      >why those at any level of intelligence think that at some time in their early animal or mineral ancestry no level of intelligence existed at all<

      Because intelligence is something that evolved, like musicality. If you believe you have an ability to appreciate music, then by your logic all your animal and mineral ancestry must also have had some level of ability to appreciate music, which seems to be incorrect to me.

      Delete
    16. So early life forms didn't make choices, they were programmed. (Like falling rocks are programmed to kill what they hit, and water is programmed to run downhill and drown stuff.)
      And intelligence evolved as a talent, like the musicality that life forms also evolved from no initial talent. Neither of which was needed when they operated from a non-evolved program.
      Nobody never 'splained it like that before.

      Delete
    17. I think that probably sums it up.

      However, I don't believe in non-deterministic free will, so ultimately I think we are just as programmed as the rock. Choice is really an illusion.

      But it's a useful illusion or abstraction when discussing intelligent agents. It's just not fundamentally distinct from the deterministic outcomes of unintelligent events.

      Delete
    18. You forgot to point out that unless there's what could be called a final programmer, it's programs programming programs all the way down.

      Delete
    19. Except that it isn't.

      There's not an ultimate programmer, there's an ultimate program: the laws of nature.

      Now, where do these laws come from? One answer might be that they were created by a programmer, sure. However that's not much of an explanation, because then you have to wonder where the programmer came from.

      There are other explanations. For example, there might be an infinite number of universes, one for every possible set of laws of nature. Why not?

      Whatever the actual reason, and I have my own suspicions in this regard, there is not enough to justify a belief in a "final programmer". And even if you do find yourself believing in this programmer, there's no reason to believe that he intervenes, or that he wants us to be good, or that any specific religion is accurate.

      Delete
    20. Sorry but you've got yourself a determinant universe where no-one has other than an illusion of choice, that effectively perpetuates that illusion for all conceivable time, and there's no determiner? I'd think that such determination would be hard to have arranged for by an eternally endless series of obedient accidents.

      Delete
    21. > I'd think that such determination would be hard to have arranged for by an eternally endless series of obedient accidents.<

      You can like to think what you please, but that's not really an argument. There's nothing obedient about the accidents - there is nothing to obey. If your point is that it seems improbable that life would be created by a series of chance events, then you may be right.

      But the universe is vast, and perhaps infinite. However unlikely something is, in all that vastness you can expect that it will happen, many times over.

      Delete
    22. DM,
      Has it then happened that life forms are programmed to have expectations, but no choice, as you see it, in dealing with the unexpected? Since as you see it, programmed expectations aren't expected to be other than anticipated?

      Delete
    23. If I understand your question, you are asking how life forms deal with the unexpected when everything they do is predetermined by their programming.

      This is because their programming is not a script. It is a dynamic process that maps inputs to outputs in a deterministic but complex fashion. It doesn't have to account for every possible eventuality in advance.

      In many cases, the programming the life forms have evolved is sufficient for day to day life and can even be adapted to deal with novel problems, as exemplified by humans.

      This programming is often found to be unreliable in situations which the life form has not evolved to cope with, and so will likely not work particularly well in unexpected situations.

      We can see examples of this every day, like when birds fly into glass windows. The birds' programming, which evolved in an environment without glass, does not deal with the unexpected glass in an optimal fashion.

      But it's not just animals that have this problem. The growing problem of obesity demonstrates how the programming of many humans (including yours truly!) does not deal very well with the unexpected widespread availability of more calories than we need.

      Delete
    24. DM says, "It is a dynamic process that maps inputs to outputs in a deterministic but complex fashion. It doesn't have to account for every possible eventuality in advance."
      If the system can't account for every possible eventuality, then it's not deterministic, it's probablistic. And since those systems are indeterminate systems, they will require choices made by any organisms that need to predict and separate the most probable from the many possibles in order to continue to survive. This requires the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills, which is the definition of intelligence.
      Rocks don't have that ability, and neither does water. There are other entities besides life that may have it, but there should be no doubt in the minds of the logical that life has that ability.

      Delete
    25. "If the system can't account for every possible eventuality, then it's not deterministic, it's probablistic."

      You misunderstand me. I said it does not need to account for every eventuality in advance, this doesn't mean that it doesn't have a well-defined output for every input.

      For example, suppose I define a function for integers which gives an output which is twice the value of the input. I have not listed out all possible inputs in advance, and yet it has a perfectly defined output for all inputs.

      So what happens if I give an unexpected input, such as a letter? Well, if the function is a mechanical system such as a computer program or a biological brain it's going to do something. What it does depends on how it is implemented. It might return a special value such as "undefined" or it might return 0. The point is that even if you give it an unexpected input, it will still have a defined and (in principle) predictable answer.

      Delete
    26. In your example, it seems you're putting yourself in an indeterminate universe dealing with a mechanism in its own predetermined niche. You have found choices you can decide to make, while the machine however needs you to select, decide, and make its choices for it.
      So it's not so much that I don't understand you, as it's likely that you don't understand yourself.

      Delete
    27. Baron:

      I'm sorry you find me to be incoherent, but I must also confess that I find it excruciatingly hard to understand you.

      For example, what do you mean by "indeterminate"? The word means vague or undefined. I suspect you mean non-deterministic. Why do you think I'm putting myself in a non-deterministic universe?

      What is the mechanism you refer to? Evolution? An evolved organism? I have no idea.

      Predetermined niche? Who or what has predetermined it? What do you mean by predetermined?

      But if I can guess at the general point of the question, you're asking me to recognise the difference between me making choices, as an undesigned entity, and a machine making choices as a designed entity.

      If I understand you correctly, you are saying that designed entities have their choices predetermined in some sense by the designer, while undesigned entities do not have a designer so do not have their choices predetermined.

      I answer that I am designed in a sense. My designer is the blind unintelligent force of evolution by natural selection influenced by a great deal of chance happenstance. My choices are predetermined by these forces just as are the choices of a machine I design manually.

      Furthermore, I'd like to point out that a designed machine does not need me to "select, decide and make its choices for it". Rather, it needs me to build it so that it can decide for itself according to some algorithm. It may be that the algorithm is so complex that it would be unfeasible for me to predict what its choice might be.

      This is why programmers are often surprised by the output of their programs. Usually, this manifests as software bugs, but occasionally some interesting and useful behaviour can arise unexpectedly.

      Delete
    28. "Rather, it needs me to build it so that it can decide for itself according to some algorithm. It may be that the algorithm is so complex that it would be unfeasible for me to predict what its choice might be."
      Good god, man, that's pitiful. If a thing decides according to some algorithm, did the algorithm derive its options from its own sensory apparatus, as life does, or were these options built in or later added by the human that prepared them for that algorithms use?
      Or perhaps you've been the first to come up with algorithms that can choose to use lifelike sensory apparatus to prepare its fellow algorithms.
      And if you can't predict what an algorithm's choice will be, you've made one that makes choices by randomness - and since we've supposedly been talking about choices made with at least a minimum of intelligence involved, then you've continued to believe that randomness can produce intelligence by accident.
      But on the other hand, if you consider all of this an adequate explanation, then for you it is.
      Intelligible, comprehensible, understandable, cogent, and coherent, it isn't.

      Delete
    29. Just to follow up, I was a bit unfair. Your comments about the mechanism in the predetermined niche are understandable in the context of my comment to which you were replying to.

      I see now that the mechanism is something implementing the function "return twice the number" and the predetermined niche is the job I have assigned that function.

      Delete
    30. > If a thing decides according to some algorithm, did the algorithm derive its options from its own sensory apparatus, as life does, or were these options built in or later added by the human that prepared them for that algorithms use? <
      Don't know what you mean about options - in the simplified example of a mathematical function I suppose the available options consist of the output space, namely the numbers. I did not prepare them for the algorithms use (in the sense that I did not list out all possible answers in advance), but the options available are implicitly implied by the nature of the algorithm I have designed.

      The options available to animals are the space of possible actions they can take, which can be further decomposed into what muscle movements they can make, which can be decomposed into what nerve signals they can send. The space of what nervous signals they can send is predetermined by their evolutionary heritage.

      >Or perhaps you've been the first to come up with algorithms that can choose to use lifelike sensory apparatus to prepare its fellow algorithms.<

      You've lost me.

      >And if you can't predict what an algorithm's choice will be, you've made one that makes choices by randomness<
      Not so. Lots of algorithms are complicated and the only way to figure out what choices they will make is to work out the steps the algorithm will take step by step. For sufficiently complex algorithms, this is not feasible for a human being armed with pen and paper to calculate. (this is why we have computers, after all!).

      The only way to see what such an algorithm will do is to run the algorithm on a computer, and so it is possible for the algorithm to surprise us. This is why it is possible for chess computers to beat the programmers who made them, despite there being no randomness involved.

      And so I'm not sure the rest of your argument is relevant since your premises seem to be incorrect.

      Delete
    31. DM,
      The chess computer was made to beat their programmers because it was given all the known options that human chess players were known to have devised in the past. It was given a memory to use that humans don't have the capacity to memorize. It didn't devise any options from any clues that weren't already entered in the system by its programmers. It didn't select what it either needed or wanted to remember, and it didn't do any "thinking" that the programmers hadn't fashioned it to do. It was nothing more than a very complex tool that couldn't work without its programming coming to it from outside of itself.
      You seem incapable of getting that. You seem to think, in other words, that algorithms somehow construct themselves. If the maker is surprised at what an algorithm can do, it was not the algorithm that surprised him, but the consequences of his own creation that were not anticipated. The algorithm itself is incapable of either creating a surprise or being surprised itself.
      But you'll now protest that you didn't understand what I've just written. And that it's my fault. And because I'm incapable of explaining what you're not capable of understanding, you'll be right.

      Delete
    32. >The chess computer was made to beat their programmers because it was given all the known options that human chess players were known to have devised in the past.<

      Historical data was used and it was of benefit for the computer, however chess computers are also capable of playing chess without using historical data. Some of these chess computers can beat their programmers without reference to historical data.

      Everything else you say in this paragraph about chess computers is true and beside the point.

      >You seem to think, in other words, that algorithms somehow construct themselves.<

      No I don't.

      >If the maker is surprised at what an algorithm can do, it was not the algorithm that surprised him, but the consequences of his own creation that were not anticipated.<

      The algorithm surprised him. The consequences of his own creation surprised him. Both are true and equivalent.

      If we get back the point, I believe your argument was that algorithms can't cope with the unexpected because they can only do what they were designed to do. My answer is that whether solutions are found by the algorithm or as consequences of the designer's creation, solutions may yet be found to unexpected situations which are superior to those that might be found by the designer himself.

      To bring it back to the chess computer, there are positions in chess the designer will never have considered (and so in a sense they are unexpected) but the chess computer will still be capable of dealing with them. If the chess computer is better at chess than its designer (a likely scenario), then the chess computer will make a better move than its designer would in that situation.

      This refutes your point that we can't be algorithms because we can deal with the unexpected.

      Delete
    33. "chess computers are also capable of playing chess without using historical data."
      No, they're not, if the purpose of the game is to win it. Or else you know next to nothing about playing chess.

      And Jesus, where in hell did I say we can't be algorithms? Our brains must use their own evolved forms of predictive algorithms to function. Which couldn't happen either if our sensory apparatus didn't furnish the environmental observations from which the most viable optional approaches could be induced.
      What I said of course is that your algorithms can't simulate brains in a computer without simulating our sensory apparatus. Plus without an additional biological assessment process that programs those algorithms differently to suit each organism's particular purposes. (Purposes that computers can't acquire either without our brains.)
      And computers that are programmed to play chess don't "expect" anything. Expectations are built into the programs as its alternatives. We may be surprised by the results that the complexity of the process produces, but that's why we built it - to use binary systems to solve problems mathematically in a few seconds that would take our human brains a few years to do. But only our human brains have the ability to create mathematical problem solving machines. We can't create machines that compute intuitively, and computers can't simulate our intuitive human brain processes.
      And in the end of course the chess computer is supposed to make better moves than its creator would. But as it turned out in the famous game between Kasparov and the IBM computer in 1996, Kasparov won the game. Because in part, the computer's creator was no Kasparov.

      Delete
    34. >No, they're not, if the purpose of the game is to win it. Or else you know next to nothing about playing chess.<
      I have to say flat out that you're wrong here.

      Historical data is useful but not absolutely essential. Give a computer enough processing power and memory and any advantage from mining historical data can be overcome through brute force.

      >And Jesus, where in hell did I say we can't be algorithms?<
      Apologies. Your precise position is hard for me to grasp. If you agree with me that we are algorithms then we can build on that.

      However, your subsequent statements that algorithms might need additional "biological assessment processes" or that human brains are capable of doing stuff that computers cannot rather indicates that you do in fact believe that we are more than algorithms.

      By definition, an algorithm is something that can be carried out by a digital computer. If you think that we are capable of more than computers, then you don't think that we are algorithms.

      >We can't create machines that compute intuitively, and computers can't simulate our intuitive human brain processes.<
      Yet. There's no good reason to believe that this is impossible in principle.

      >But as it turned out in the famous game between Kasparov and the IBM computer in 1996, Kasparov won the game. Because in part, the computer's creator was no Kasparov.<
      Irrelevant. The current state of the art chess computer is unbeatable by any human, Kasparov included.

      Delete
    35. You don't seem to be able to grasp that we can both make and use algorithms which then become a part of us, and yet have to be more than algorithms to make the living system work - while a computer can use its man made algorithms but can neither make nor use them without a human's help to program them.
      In short, humans program and reprogram their algorithms, Computers don't and can't unless the humans help them do it.
      And it's not at all irrelevant that Kasperov beat the computer because it's evidence that the computer depends on its programmer for its use of that programmers intelligence. Otherwise if the intelligence of the programmer had nothing to do with the computers intelligence, it should have beaten that mere human, Kasperov., on its own.
      And then you make no attempt to explain why the newer computer can certainly beat any human. Why, because it has had a better programmer, or because it has self evolved its algorithmic system, or what?
      I'd rather that you didn't answer, but of course you will. You seem to have no sense of the consistency that's necessary for the sake of logic. But then neither do computers if their programmers don't.

      Delete
    36. If you'd prefer that I didn't answer then we can drop the conversation.

      Delete
  24. Massimo says: "This is just a parenthetical observation, Michael, but that study has been debunked"

    However, from what I can tell from the link referenced, it would really be more appropriate to say something like this claim has been 'called into question'. There are clearly potential methodological issues in getting people to answer honestly about sexual behavior and interpreting what these findings mean. 'Debunk' seems a bit strong here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. dantae,

      I disagree, I think the correct wording here truly is "debunked." When the study was redone with proper controls the effect disappeared.

      Delete
    2. Shermer said: "Most men, for example, are much more receptive toward unsolicited offers of sex than are women."

      From what I can tell, Terri Conley is the person who you are claiming debunked this study. However, it seems from Conley's follow up work (abstract below) on this she has confirmed this finding but suggested that it is mediated by how sexual behavior is viewed in males versus females (at least in the culture studied). So Conley, the supposed debunker is confirming what Shermer stated, but suggesting the reasons for it might be very different than some assume. If we could show that in most other cultures such social opprobrium didn't exist, than this would suggest that this finding has been debunked. However, I don’t think Shermer made any strong claims about the reason for this observed pattern and that his use of this example has not really been debunked if you read it in context. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting this somehow??
      Thanks

      http://pwq.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/11/26/0361684312467169.abstract
      Backlash From the Bedroom
      Stigma Mediates Gender Differences in Acceptance of Casual Sex Offers
      1. Terri D. Conley1⇓
      2. Ali Ziegler1
      3. Amy C. Moors1
      1. 1Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
      1. Terri D. Conley, Department of Psychology, 1012 Church Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA Email: conleyt@umich.edu
      Abstract
      Harsher judgments toward women (relative to men) for engaging in similar heterosexual sexual activity have been termed the sexual double standard. Within heterosexual casual sex scenarios, we examined whether the sexual double standard can be explained by desire to avoid counterstereotypical behaviors for fear of social repercussions (i.e., backlash effects). Study 1a showed that female casual sex accepters received more opprobrium than male accepters. Study 1b demonstrated that women were less likely to accept casual sex offers than men and that the gender difference was partially mediated by the more negative judgments women anticipated for accepting the casual sex offer. In Study 2a, participants recalled real-life sexual proposals; women expected to be perceived more negatively than men for accepting an offer of casual sex. Finally, in Study 2b, we demonstrated that fear of stigma mediates gender differences in acceptance of actual recalled casual sex offers. Across the four studies and nearly 3,000 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 74, we examined the role of stigma in men and women’s reactions to casual sex and successfully integrated two relatively independent research domains: that of sexuality on one hand, and research on the backlash effects on the other. We were also able to extend the concept of backlash to help us understand a wider range of social choices

      Delete
    3. And since I've gotten intrigued enough to research this a bit more, here is some reactions to Conley's work:

      "Conley et al. (2011) also reconsidered whether women desire (and have) fewer sexual partners than men do, concluding that such sex differences are artifacts of “inappropriate statistics and social desirability” rather than reflections of underlying psychological differences. In the context of desired numbers of partners, Conley et al. (2011) cited Pedersen, Miller, Putcha-Bhagavatula, and Yang (2002). Numerous studies have addressed problems with Pedersen et al. (2002), including the inappropriate use of the Maritz-Jarrett median test (this statistic allows distributional skew to bias significance testing; Schmitt et al., 2003), failures in replicating the absence of significant median-based sex differences (Fenigstein & Preston, 2007), failures in addressing the tails of men’s and women’s distributions (McBurney, Zapp, & Streeter, 2005), and problems with the conceptual misconstrual of sexual-strategies theory (Schmitt et al., 2003).
      Sexual-strategies theory does not predict that most men will seek large numbers of partners or that few women will seek short-term mates (see also Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). Rather, it predicts that when men are actively seeking short-term mates, they should tend to seek larger numbers of sexual partners than women should when they are actively seeking short-term mates. It is because of the psychological shifts that occur within men and within women when they choose to pursue a short-term mating strategy (as opposed to a long-term mating strategy) that researchers can compare the sexes and expect overall differences across their distributions of desired number of sex partners. When examined in this proper context, repeated cross-cultural tests have shown that men’s and women’s desired number of sex partners are not the same; for example, Schmitt et al. (2003) found that about 25% of men but only 5% of women want “more than one” sexual partner in the next month.
      None of these important published correctives to Pedersen et al. (2002) were noted by Conley et al. (2011), nor was the wealth of converging evidence of sex differences in desired numbers of short-term sexual partners—such as robust and reliable sex differences in desiring multiple partners for extradyadic sex, short-term mate poaching, sexual fantasies, and pornography consumption, as well as level of postcoital regret, time needed before consenting to sex, and attitudes toward engaging in casual sex (for a review, see Buss & Schmitt, 2011). Sex differences in permissive sociosexuality (e.g., agreeing with the statement, “Sex without love is OK”) were universally observed across 53 nations (Lippa, 2009). A meta-analysis of sex differences in sexuality (Petersen & Hyde, 2010) concluded, “In support of evolutionary psychology, results from both the individual studies and the large data sets indicated that men reported . . . more permissive attitudes than women for most of the variables” (p. 21) and “evolutionary psychology proposes that short-term mating strategies are associated with significant gender differences. . . . Results from the current study support this theory” (p. 35). It is unclear how a scientific review of evidence on this topic could lead to the strong assertion that sex differences in desired number of short-term sexual partners are negligible."

      From A Reexamination of Sex Differences in Sexuality
      New Studies Reveal Old Truths
      1. David P. Schmitt1,
      2. Peter K. Jonason2,
      3. Garrett J. Byerley1,
      4. Sandy D. Flores1,
      5. Brittany E. Illbeck1,
      6. Kimberly N. O’Leary1 and
      7. Ayesha Qudrat1



      Debunked???

      Delete
    4. This will really be my last post, but also:
      "Hookups can result in guilt and negative feelings. In a study of 169 sexually experienced men and women surveyed in singles bars, when presented with the question “I feel guilty or would feel guilty about having sexual intercourse with someone I had just met,” 32% of men and 72% of women agreed with the statement ( Herold & Mewhinney, 1993). The percentage of women expressing guilt was more than twice that of men. This is consistent with a classic study by Clark and Hatfield (1989), which demonstrated that men are much more likely than women to accept casual sex offers from attractive confederates. Conley (2011) replicated and extended this finding, demonstrating that, under certain conditions of perceived comfort, the gender differences in acceptance of casual sex is diminished. In a study of 333 men and 363 women on a college campus, in deliberate hookup situations women had more thoughts of worry and vulnerability than men ( Townsend & Wasserman, 2011)."

      Sexual hookup culture: A review. By: Garcia, Justin R., Reiber, Chris, Massey, Sean G., Merriwether, Ann M., Review of General Psychology, 10892680, 2012, Vol. 16, Issue 2

      Delete
    5. dantae,

      > Terri Conley is the person who you are claiming debunked this study. However, it seems from Conley's follow up work (abstract below) on this she has confirmed this finding but suggested that it is mediated by how sexual behavior is viewed in males versus females (at least in the culture studied). So Conley, the supposed debunker is confirming what Shermer stated, but suggesting the reasons for it might be very different than some assume. <

      But that's the whole point! The alleged evolutionary prediction failed once researchers accounted for social context. So, yes, debunked.

      As for the other literature you cite, a couple of considerations: first, if those authors didn't do the sort of control for social context that Conley did (and I bet they didn't, because it is not standard practice in evopsych studies) then they are just as useless. Second, nobody argues that there are no differences in behavior between sexes. The question is whether these are ingrained/evolved or cultural or, more likely, a combination of both. And the further very difficult issue is how to test for evolutionary adaptive explanations given the dearth of information on past selective pressures and environments.

      As for the hookups stuff, again, hard to question the data, but what makes anyone think that cultural / social context has nothing to do with it? And if so, how do we tell that apart from the genetic / evolutionary component, since we can't do the properly controlled studies? (I know because I used to do the properly controlled studies - with plants, where it is possible to do them.)

      Delete
    6. I agree that causation and adaptation are very tricky issues to sort out here. As well for how social contexts got to be that way and what the diversity of social contexts are around the world (not to mention how we should try to change the social context).

      However, did Shermer make any claims as to causation and adaptation here with respect to this point? My reading is that he did not. I agree that there is good reason to consider the causes for such empirical observations, but Conley's own empirical observations show exactly what Shermer states.

      Delete
    7. Well, clearly we are reading Shermer differently. If he didn't intend to endorse the original evopsych explanation his mention of that study makes no sense in context, at least not to me.

      Delete
    8. Massimo:

      "Well, clearly we are reading Shermer differently. If he didn't intend to endorse the original evopsych explanation his mention of that study makes no sense in context, at least not to me."

      He didn't mention the study though, did he? As far as I can see, you brought it up.

      In context, he was just using an example of how the Golden Rule is not absolute. Different people want to be treated in different ways. The reasons, whether evolutionary or social, are irrelevant.

      Delete
    9. Disagreeable,

      Shermer didn't the the study, but he mentioned the evopsych orthodoxy, which is in fact false (once one controls for social factors). My comment was explicitly parenthetical, pointing out the flaw of his constant reference to the evopsych literature. My main argument about his point concerning the golden rule was stated in a different comment, where I pointed out that the golden rule is not a philosophical precept per se (it is often confused with Kan't imperative, but the two are different).

      Delete
    10. Shermer may rely too much on evopsych and on evolution in general for his ideas about morality. I am also aware that you have dealt with the Golden Rule elsewhere in your post.

      However I think his original comment on differing attitudes to sex among men and women was fair in context, and your criticism of it, however parenthetical, was off base.

      I think dantae is coming from the same position. In context, it doesn't matter whether these differences evolved or are social constructs, so your claim that the studies were debunked appears to be unjustified.

      Delete
  25. Hi Massimo,

    You wrote,

    "...the only sensible way to get teleology these days is through intelligent design (unless you are going to buy the really badly argued recent book by Nagel)."

    I have no interest in Nagel's version of teleology. However, I am interested in various versions of so called "naturalized teleology" eg)Wright, Wimsatt, Ayala, R. Brandon. Have you published anything discussing such views? If not, is there a reference or two you could recommend that you have found to be convincing refutations?

    I would really appreciate it

    Thanks, and I really enjoy your blog

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. mmcdono2,

      well, I think Nagel's version is similar, he also proposes a naturalized teleology. If you look at the reviews of his book by a number of philosophers and scientists they all point out the same thing: there is no positive reason to invoke teleology, and no mechanism is produced. Why do it, then?

      Incidentally, I'm not aware of Wimsatt or Brandon invoking teleology. Which Wright? And which Ayala?

      Delete
    2. Hi Massimo,
      there is, in fact, a very compelling reason to introduce teleology (or final causality) in physics. It is to explain the so-called "anthropic coincidences" without invoking multiple universes. The absence of "mechanisms" is irrelevant in physics. As you should know, most explanations in modern physics are based on formal causality.

      Delete
    3. Filippo,

      not sure what you mean by "formal causality," and of course the concept of causality itself is far from clear (upcoming post about that on Monday!). But I see no reason other than wishful thinking to invoke teleology. Nor do I see any way to invoke it and escape the implication of intelligent design, either supernatural or not (the latter if you believe, say, in the simulation hypothesis about the nature of the universe).

      Delete
    4. I agree that “cause” is very fuzzy idea. I somehow assume that the explanation of something is the same thing as its cause. This is essentially Aristotle's idea that explaining something is giving its cause.

      By “formal causality,” I mean explanations like “The solidity of matter is the result of the Pauli principle.” It goes without saying that there is no “mechanism” explaining the Pauli principle. This kind of “formal” causality is the only one allowed at a fundamental level if you assume structural realism. The usual kind of causes are only possible at the level of “special sciences.” But, in fact, chemistry is dominated by the Pauli principle. The saturation of covalent bonds is not understandable without it.

      Formal causes have the characteristic of being non-temporal, which opens the door to teleology. A discussion of teleology requires an understanding of the subject of “anthropic coincidences,” however. I will just make the observation that, in the multiverse idea, anthropic selection implies that the laws of physics of our universe must be such to accommodate life and such restriction makes them “unnatural.” (Weinberg famously used the anthropic principle to predict the unnaturally small value of the cosmological constant.)

      In the multiverse selection view, we are not the result of natural processes ruled by fixed physical laws: the laws themselves are selected by our own existence. If there is any difference between this view and Nagel's teleology, I fail to see it. The proponents of the multiverse don't realize this but they are, in fact, rejecting traditional Naturalism.

      Delete
    5. Filippo,

      ah yes, I'm almost completely on board with that. Indeed, I find it fascinating that causality plays a crucial role in the special sciences but not in fundamental physics. And as you probably know I am sympathetic to structural realism.

      Still, I don't see the multiverse as necessarily teleological, not even necessarily in Smolin's idea of cosmological natural selection (on which I have commented on negatively on this blog). Nagel is the only truly naturalistic teleologian (!!) I know, though I quite agree that he doesn't seem to grasp the non-naturalistic implications of his ideas. That is, except for the possibility of a simulated universe (in which case there are intelligent designers, but their are "natural," in a broader sense of the term).

      Delete
    6. Massimo,
      I agree: I am almost totally convinced that structural realism (SR) is the only way to preserve convergent realism. I am reading a rather important (I think) book, “The Conceptual Framework of Quantum Field Theory” by A. Duncan, Oxford, 2012. It is basically a 782-page commentary on the “philosophical” aspects of the best theory of the physical world at the present time.

      The book has a very good discussion of scale sensitivity and of how scale separation is necessary for the “emergence” of theoretical science (not just the special sciences, but physics itself.) Basically, if it is “structures all the way down,” one has to explain how science works reasonably well at a particular level, even though “deeper” structures are ignored. SR requires scale separation. Scale separation is not possible in classical physics (Duncan 2012, page 571) and it is only possible in some QFTs. SR has been a provably consistent option only since about 1975!

      Delete
  26. I was thinking of Wimsatt's (1972), Fransisco Ayala (1970), Larry Wright (1976) and Brandon (1981)

    I don't think any of these authors mean to be "invoking" any distinct mechanism over and above selection in explaining adaptations. Rather, the question seems to be whether selection explanations are a distinct kind from other kinds of causal explanation in that they ineliminably invoke the adaptive function of a trait to explain its existence. By ineliminable I mean that the theoretical language has more than mere hueristic value

    I wonder what your answer would be to this question (perhaps you've discussed this in print?). In any case it seems to me that answering yes does not lead to anything like intelligent design or natural theology. I suspect that for this very reason you would suggest not using the word teleology to express this view. I'm fine with that insofar as the terminology isn't what's important.

    I am somewhat inclined to hold onto the terminology though. I think that the accounts of functional explanation these theorists develop are in many ways much closer to Aristotle's use of the concept of teleology/final cause than either are to the concept as used in natural theology.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. mmcdono2,

      > I was thinking of Wimsatt's (1972), Fransisco Ayala (1970), Larry Wright (1976) and Brandon (1981) <

      Ah, yes, now I know what you are referring to. Well, I still wouldn’t use the word teleology, because of its loaded history. But indeed, Darwin reintroduced “final causes” into biology, and therefore science, because natural selection does produce organs and behaviors that have a function, and therefore one can *metaphorically* talk about “purpose.” I have actually written a paper on this, a number of years ago: http://philpapers.org/rec/PIGFMT

      Delete
    2. So, Massimo, one can metaphorically talk about an event's "purpose", and then non-metaphorically talk about "why" it happens? Words and their conceptual natures operating metaphorically only when it has somehow been decided that they should or shouldn't?

      Delete
    3. And by the way, do these non-purposive behavioral functions use a metaphorical form of intelligence to operate them?

      Delete
    4. Baron,

      please get back to me when you have clear in your mind the difference between a metaphorical and a literal statement. You don't see to grasp that distinction at the moment.

      Delete
    5. Oh, but I'm quite sure I do, because metaphors are both symbolic and abstract representations of what you seem to only see as literal - in other words, seen in their most basic sense.
      So that when you see a purpose, which you can't accept as basic to an understanding of the whys of the world, you are compelled to describe it as metaphorical, enabling you at the same time to deny that it has the literal application that others of us must attribute to any biological function.

      Delete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.