Sunday, March 07, 2010


Philosophers Doing (Bad) Science

A thought:

What does one say about these critics? One could certainly pick apart individual things, for instance Fodor's claims about selective breeding versus natural selection. The very last thing that Darwin and his followers are trying to do is put mind into nature. In both artifice and nature, some organisms are going to reproduce and others are not, and the reasons for that are (on average) going to be connected to the different features of the winners and losers. To say that a speckled moth is less likely to be eaten by a robin than a dark moth, because the robin can less easily see the speckled moth against the lichen-covered tree, is to say nothing about God or any other conscious being.

One could also pick up on the fact that neither Plantinga nor Nagel seems to have the slightest awareness of the scientific criticisms that have been launched against intelligent design. Every example that supporters of intelligent design produce to suggest that natural causes are not adequate—the bacterial flagellum, the blood-clotting cascade—has been shown to be the exquisite end result of evolution. And one could certainly groan at the tired suggestion that Darwinians are unaware of or threatened by developments in evolutionary development. No evolutionary biologist, least of all Sean Carroll, suggests that one day the eye just appeared. However the new sources of variation play out, selection is going to be there right along with them.

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

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

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

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

- Michael Ruse, "Philosophers Rip Darwin," The Chronicle of Higher Education

I have two questions that seem to work quite well against any anti-evolutionary argument:

1. Does this argument work just as well against reproduction and development?

2. What is the alternative?

If someone finds it yucky that we are related by common ancestry with monkeys, do they also find it yucky that we grew from a single cell? If they don't like the role of chance in evolution, do they also reject the role of chance in genetics (or, for that matter, in how our mother and father happened to meet)?

How do they like the idea that we were deliberately designed to have the body of a primate, rather than having some special kind of body?

I somewhat understand why the creationists don't want to address questions like these. What I don't understand is why the pro-evolution people continue to take the anti-evolution arguments seriously.

I don't think it is the fact that they, scientifically find it "yucky". What they find "yucky" is the answer to "Why", that is, "Why are humans different?" that science offers. Philosophers are generally the first to claim "Why" as their playground which science has no business stepping into.

Yet, science continues to attempt in our day and age of media coverage to offer "Why". Philosophers don't exactly get media coverage anymore. The "yucky" part is that science refuses to leave open that we are different from animals - despite the fact that every philosopher of all time has both presumed and shown why we are in fact different.

So then, what recourse has the philosopher but to oppose it on whatever grounds he can find? This is a recent development, so one can expect to get more refined thought within a short while.
Please answer the two questions.

Tom S.
I can't resist quoting this bit from Ruse's essay:

"As the Victorians used to say about sexual intercourse, if God decided that we should reproduce in such a disgusting way, then it is for us to accept this fact and put it in context."

Tom S.
JohnO wrote

The "yucky" part is that science refuses to leave open that we are different from animals - despite the fact that every philosopher of all time has both presumed and shown why we are in fact different.

That's an amazingly silly claim. Differences are the means by which scientists classify organisms into species. Comparative anatomy, comparative genetics, comparative embryology, etc., etc., are all about similarities and differences.

And science does not "refuse to leave open that we are different from animals," it has concluded on the basis of massive evidence gathered over centuries that we are not completely different from and unrelated to "animals." We are in fact animals, one among millions of species of animals, all of which are different from one another.
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