Category Archives: ontology

On Matthen’s Intelligibility Argument

Mohan Matthen’s post Teleology in Big Systems brought up two options explaining how someone — Tom Nagel in Mind and Cosmos — would choose a teleological explanation over a naturalistic one. The first, below, got me thinking:

First, he might be saying that though it is physically possible (by a fluke series of mutations, for example) for mentality to have come about, it would be better explained by teleology. (Let’s call this the “intelligibility” argument.)

Though Matthen was referring to doubts about Darwinism being sufficient to lead to consciousness, there is another way to understand this intelligibility argument. If we grant that consciousness is something very special, though not unphysical, someone might consider the laws of physics to be constructed, teleologically, to permit consciousness. This is to say that our physics is teleogically directed to account for consciousness. The claim is not that consciousness was necessitated by our physics, but that our physics must conform to allow the possibility of consciousness. What is one philosopher’s Nature is another’s Teleology.

Now, I can’t see any philosophical motivation for this outside of a very deep belief that consciousness is exceptionally special. But if we grant exceptional status to consciousness, then it wouldn’t be ridiculous to consider that our physics must somehow be subject to the requirements of consciousness instead of the other way around. Whereas there may be infinite other possible physics that do not allow for the possibility of consciousness, we live under a physics that does.

My immediate, knee jerk response to this sort of move is that it is just a semantic shift about the meanings of teleology and nature, nothing deeper. If what the teleologist means by teleology is what others mean by nature, then there is no difference of opinion, only word use.

However, this semantic response does not engage the motivation for the teleological argument. The motivation is that consciousness is exceptional. So, if the naturalist believes that consciousness is exceptional and entirely natural, then the naturalist is left with no natural explanation for why it is so exceptional. However the teleologist may say that consciousness is exceptional, subject to the laws of physics, but unsurprising, since the laws of physics itself are directed to allow for consciousness. Since the teleological account does a better job at explaining something as special as consciousness, it is preferable.

This conclusion about preferring the teleological explanation to the naturalistic one is based on the absolute assumption that consciousness is exceptional. But how exceptional must it be? Since we are making physics, and presumably the rest of science, subject to our assumption, then the reasons for our assumptions must then be ontologically more basic and more certain than our entire scientific understanding of the world.

Personally I do not have any basis for thinking consciousness is so special that all of science must be made to account for it. From my perspective, claiming that science must conform to consciousness is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, since I’d have to arbitrarily assume consciousness to be a fundamental substance and science to be constructed to allow for it.

However, there could be people who do have beliefs that strong. For them, they would not be arbitrarily assuming consciousness to be the more fundamental substance in the universe and hence it would follow that science should conform to it. Instead it would be a direct causal link: consciousness, therefore science that teleologically allows for consciousness. This kind of teleological naturalism is special in that it does not appeal to the unlikelihood or complexity of consciousness evolving, as is wont to happen nowadays, but is based on an ontological claim about consciousness. I don’t know if this is more defensible than the Intelligibility Argument based on likelihood, but, as it is different, perhaps it has a chance to fair better.

Posted in biology, design, evolution, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , .

Charity and OOPs

Given an Object Oriented Ontology ethics can present a problem.*  It is not obvious how to fit ethics into an object oriented view: even if objects have ethical properties, ethics itself has to be considered just as arbitrary as any other property.  One could, of course, hold some Deontological, Consequentialist or other ethical viewpoint, but this position would have to be justified on other grounds, since O.O.O. is silent on the matter.  Hence having ethics as an ad hoc ontological addition is a problem because it shows that Object Oriented Philosophy is inherently lacking an important part of human experience.

To achieve a more comprehensive viewpoint, while still being object oriented, a different ethical strategy must be taken.

Consider that the objects of our reality are both overdetermined and underdetermined (overmined/ undermined in Harman-y terms).  This means that no matter how we think about our reality, there are multiple underlying phenomena and multiple overarching phenomena that can be understood to govern every part of our world.  Often this is used to develop an argument supporting O.O.O., but I want to develop a different consequence.

By permanently securing multiple fundamental reasons for every phenomenon, no single reason has ultimate sway.  We must, in principle, be ontologically humble.

This means that however much we learn about ourselves, there will always be more, multiple explanations, theories, and phenomena; we are forever interesting to ourselves.

To live with the expanding enormity of human experience, while never being able to fully come to terms with it, then we must forever re-explain and rediscover those unknown parts of ourselves.  To do this we need charity.  Charity for others, charity for ourselves, and charity for that which we do not understand, because we already know we do not fully understand. Having charity — extra time, patience and effort — when we explore (speculate on?) our reality lets us extend our experience into the unknown (the chaos, if you will), even in the face of theories that should completely determine phenomena.  This gives us the opportunity to explore ourselves, others and other ways of life, to find new objects and phenomena, and new ways to be charitable, ad infinitum.

Therefore the same dilemma that Object Oriented Philosophy presents as its ontological support, also yields support for a concept of charity.

Charity, as described, has ethical teeth.  Determining the charitable thing to do in a given situation tracks, at least to my mind, a typical normative ethical stance.  Like deontology it can be seen as having space for moral indifference and praiseworthiness: not all acts are governed by charity, though certain actions can be seen as especially charitable.  Also it has built in brakes.  The principle of ontological humility prevents us from naively applying our personal understanding of charity to others, which means it would be wrong, for example, to donate one person’s organs (without their permission) to save others.

Granted, more work will have to be done to flesh out these ideas, but my hope is that this outline shows that charity can provide a promising start to an integrated ethics within Object Oriented Philosophy.


* I’m not sure how it happened, but my metaphysics has lead me to a similar position as the Object Oriented Philosophers, at least ontologically.  So for the course of this post, I’m wearing my Object Oriented Philosopher Hat.  My apologies if the arguments above are unique to my theories and not OOP in general, though this post makes me suspect I am not that far off.

Posted in ethics, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy. Tagged with , .

Review: After Finitude and Facticality

[cross-posted at The Road to Sippy Cups]

Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude © has a very interesting discussion of Hume’s problem, Kant’s Copernican Revolution, the principle of sufficient reason and the relationship between dogmatism and fanaticism. Any one of his analyses on these topics makes the book worthwhile, but I’d like to focus on something different: the fundamental assumption of facticality.

Meillassoux has a factical view of the world, meaning that the world is made up of facts. He does not argue that facticality is a necessary position, though, but as it seems convenient for the rest of his arguments and has an impressive pedigree, he seems to feel this is good enough. He claims this pedigree stems from both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, among others.

This leads to two ways of criticizing his position: either by attacking the ground of the facticality of the world using Meillassoux’s own strategies or by using historic attacks on facticality of the world and applying them to Meillassoux’s position.

First let’s take a look at some historical arguments:

I do not know if Heidegger ever repudiated his views on this subject, but it was Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus © that propounded a factical world. Wittgenstein did repudiate this work, though it is not necessarily the factical world view that became offensive to later Wittgenstein.* However, what we do have is this quote from the Introductions (p. x) of the Philosophical Investigations ©:

For since beginning to occupy myself with philosophy again, sixteen years ago, I have been forced to recognize grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book [the Tractatus]. I was helped to realize these mistakes—to a degree which I myself am hardly able to estimate—by the criticism which my ideas encountered from Frank Ramsey, with whom I discussed them in innumerable conversations during the last two years of his life.

Ramsey’s review of the Tractatus was published in October 1923 in Mind /©, and Ramsey died in 1930. Hence Ramsey’s review is five years prior to these discussions. Yet I do not know of any record of later conversations, so this Mind review remains the best source for Ramsey’s thoughts on the Tractatus. The task for me will be to show how his criticisms, which are directed at the Tractatus, can also be applied to the factical world view.

Ramsey criticized Wittgenstein’s concept of logical constants. Lighting upon 5.512

That which denies in ‘~p ‘ is not ‘~,’ but that which all signs of this notation, which deny p, have in common. Hence the common rule according to which ‘~p,’ ‘~~~p,’ ‘~p ∨ ~p,’ ‘~p & ~p,’ etc. etc. (to infinity) are constructed. And this which is common to them all mirrors denial.”

Ramsey says (p. 472)

I cannot understand how it mirrors denial. It certainly does not do so in the simple way in which the conjunction of two propositions mirrors the conjunction of their senses. This difference between conjunction and the other truth-functions can be seen in the fact that to believe p and q is to believe p and to believe q; but to believe p or q is not the same as to believe p or to believe q, nor to believe not p as not to believe p.

This criticism applies to the interpretation of logical constants within the Tractatus. Ramsey is arguing that Wittgenstein’s picture theory breaks down in its interpretation of logical constants since negation is not simply represented by a picture if pictures including negation also mirror denial. The situation for disjunction is worse, since it makes even less sense to say what a disjunction mirrors. The upshot is that there is more going on with logical constants than simply describing how facts can be broken down.

We can extend this criticism to the ontological, factical situation: In a factical world, everything can be otherwise. But if our logical constants cannot be pictured in certain ways — if our logical constants resist being viewed in certain ways since they are not strictly like other facts — then there are restrictions on our logical understanding of the world. Hence the factical world cannot be completely changeable: it is governed by the complex internal structures of logic. This means there are restrictions on what can be otherwise in terms of logic and a meta-restriction on how things can be otherwise: everything can still be otherwise, but not in every possible way.

This can be seen in another criticism of Ramsey’s. He said the Tractarian position commits one to holding, “the only necessity is that of tautology, the only impossibility that of contradiction.” (p. 473) He continues:

For example, considering between in point of time as regards my experiences; if B is between A and D and C between B and D, then C must be between A and D; but it is hard to see how this can be a formal tautology.

In terms of facticality we are dealing with absolute contingency, so everything must either be entirely contingent, or there is something necessary. But what this example shows is that if there is any sort of ordering that we can give to the world, then there are going to be necessarily existing facts about that world. So, again, everything could be different, but not in every possible way.

Worse, for QM, is that the factical position may then beg the question about what grounds for our scientific practice, since this is the sort of mathematical structure he wants to use to justify our understanding of the arche-fossil. So if there are mathematical systems built into the logical structure of facticality, then he will have to abandon his current project and start again without assuming facticality.

These two examples from Ramsey point out that the factical world is not an innocent assumption.

Now for an internal criticism of facticity.

Can facticity resist Meillassoux’s speculative move? If we can speculate on whether the world is factical or not, then must we still accept that the world is factical? I can’t see how since there is nothing about speculating on the factical world that should lead back to it; the factical world view was adopted on the principle that it worked with radical contingency. Also, seeing as Meillassoux is willing to apply speculation to his problems means that it is an available strategy to apply to his solutions. Hence we may engage in speculation before we accept facticity.

This leads to a dilemma of choosing between radical contingency and speculation: if we are speculative, then we no longer can accept the factical world and radical contingency theory based on it, but if we are radically contingent, then we accept the factical world and reject the speculative move, undermining the rest of the theory. Hence Meillassoux wielded too strong a weapon: using speculation without restriction is too dangerous for facticity, and this collapses the rest of his theory.


* Hintikka has put forward an analysis /© of Wittgenstein’s rejection of the Tractatus during 1929 based on his dated notebooks and other records, such as Vienna Circle commentary. He maintains that Wittgenstein repudiated the phenomenological view of language but not the picture view (facticality) of the world, at least at that time. See page 167.

Posted in metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, wittgenstein. Tagged with .

Occam’s Razor and Entropy

I was trying to understand Occam’s Razor, specifically I wanted to know its justification.  There are posts over at Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy worth looking at, but neither left me satisfied.

Instead, I came up with “Death Implies Economy”.  What this means is that we are fundamentally limited in time and resources, and hence we cannot afford to waste what little we have on unnecessary complication.  DIE is a metaphysical justification of ontological parsimony:  regardless of how we come to the knowledge of death, the principle only requires that we are fundamentally limited and is agnostic as to how we come to understand this of ourselves.  [One may revise the principle to ‘Demise Implies Economy’ without problem or changing acronym.]

Now, the reason I wanted to figure out Occam’s Razor was because I thought it might help me understand entropy better.  Entropy seems to be this force or cause that basically is always at work and does whatever we don’t want it to.  Jerk.  Of course the universe has no reason to conform to our way of doing things, or worse, my way of viewing the world, but entropy just seems to be excessive:  why should our physical science be subject to a form of energy loss?  This makes me think it is our fault.  No, not ‘fault’, but intrinsic part of how we go about our science.  My apologies to the universe for calling it a jerk.

So, back to Occam’s Razor and DIE.  If DIE underpins Occam’s Razor, then we are metaphysically bound to proceed in a piecemeal manner.  Even our most radical theories are not developed by immortals with no care for time.  So, in some sense, our theories are also fundamentally limited and hence will always admit some unknown factors as a metaphysical consequence.

It is fair to ask if this is all just a fancy way of stating pessimistic induction, “Since we haven’t gotten theories perfect in the past, we shouldn’t expect to in the future”?  How can I make the claim that we will never succeed in this scientific endeavor?

My answer is that these questions raise legitimate issues, but the specific question at hand is not to speculate on what will happen with future theory but how we are to understand entropy and simplicity now.  And to question whether our adherence to ontological parsimony has the theoretical consequence of an unresolvable force.   Since we must believe the theories we have, at least to some extent, whatever these theories do not describe must be left in an accordingly deep mystery– as the result of an unexplained force at least as powerful as the forces we do explain. Therefore I have to conclude that, given a metaphysical understanding of Occam’s Razor such as DIE, there is a legitimate concern of inevitable unresolvable causal consequences which could manifest as various forms of entropy.

Posted in economics, ontology, philosophy, physics, science.

Against Physics as Ontologically Basic

1.  Biology is epistemically independent of physics:

Let’s assume that biology is not epistemically independent of physics, i.e. to know any biology we must first know something about physics.  However, consider evolution as determined by natural selection and the struggle for survival.  We can know about the struggle for survival and natural selection without appealing to physics — just as Darwin did when he created the theory — and hence we can fundamentally understand at least some, if not most, of biology independent of physics.

2.  Physics supervenes on biology:

Whatever ability we have to comprehend is an evolved skill.  Therefore any physical understanding of the world, as an instance of general comprehension,  supervenes on the biology of this skill.

3.  Biology is just as fundamental as physics:

If the principles involved in biology and physics are epistemically independent and each can be said to supervene on  the other, then neither has theoretical primordiality.

Therefore physics is not ontologically basic.



[This argument was inspired by a discussion over at It’s Only a Theory start by Mohan Matthen.

And I want it to be known that I HATE SUPERVENIENCE.  Basically if you use supervenience regularly then you are a BAD PERSON.  The only good argument that uses supervenience is one that reduces the overall usage of the word:  it is my hope that the above argument will prevent people from saying that biology supervenes on physics.  For every argument in which I thought that using supervenience might prove useful, I found a much, much superior argument that did not make use of the term.  I know you always live to regret statements like this, but right now I don’t care.]

Posted in argumentation, biology, epistemology, evolution, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , .

A Priori Against Physicalism

I saw that Richard Brown is working to defend physicalism against a priori arguments.  He says that most (all?) arguments use the same intuitions found in the zombie-knowledge arguments.

This got me to thinking about a priori arguments against physicalism and I came up with something different:

If physicalism is, as Dr. Brown says, “… the view that only physical things exist. Physical things are those things that are postulated by a completed physics,” then I wonder who made physics king?  I’d have to assume that there is something within science that specifies physics as most fundamental.

However, science itself, or more specifically philosophy of science, is discipline agnostic.  There is nothing within the basic structure of science to specify physics as the foundation.  Maybe it is biology that is fundamental, maybe it is psychology, maybe something else; the point is that there is no a priori reason to prefer one over any of the others.  If there is nothing that distinguishes physics as a ground for the other sciences, then there is no reason that physicalism should be taken as a fundamental philosophy.

At this point the physicalist would want to find some grounds for the claim that physics is fundamental.  This is problematic though: nothing could be used from within physics because that would be question begging.  On the other hand, if we try to justify physics as fundamental by appealing to something outside physics, then isn’t that thing that provides the justification more fundamental than physics itself?  If we have to justify the claim ‘physics is fundamental’ by appealing to something even more fundamental, then physics is no longer fundamental because it needs an outside justification.  Therefore any justification for physicalism is inherently question begging or self-contradictory.

I know I haven’t disproved physicalism; at best I’ve indicated that justifications for it are bad.  And if any justification is bad, then the position is indefensible.  Since most philosophers don’t like to hold indefensible positions, perhaps this is sufficient.

Posted in biology, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , , .

On Charitability

There is no such thing as a private reality.  By private reality I mean any portion of reality that you alone can experience, that no one else could possibly understand.

There is, however, reality that is yet unexperienced and unknown to you.  Others may have experienced it before you, like explorers who have been to a far away place.  If a philosopher is clever, it is possible that she found a way to imbue her words with such an experience.  Since there are no private realities, it is also possible that you may be able to extract those experiences.

The allure of philosophy is then the allure of the unknown, the exotic and unexplored.  To be charitable is to approach philosophy in search of some yet unknown bit of reality.

Under these circumstances it is futile to give specific instructions on how to be charitable; each of us must understand how to prepare ourselves for adventuring beyond the relative comfort of what we know.

If anything, have faith in yourself and do not make assumptions (even charitable ones) about what you are doing.

There is no such thing as a private reality.  By private reality I mean any portion of reality that you alone can experience, that no one else could possibly understand.

There is, however, reality that is yet unexperienced and unknown to you.  Others may have experienced it before you, like explorers who have been to a far away place.  If the philosopher was clever, it is possible that she found a way to imbue her words with that experience.  Since there are no private realities, it is also possible that you may be able to extract those experiences.

The allure of philosophy is then the allure of the unknown, the exotic and unexplored.  To be charitable is to approach a philosophical treatise in search of some yet unknown bit of reality.

Under these circumstances it is futile to give specific instructions on how to be charitable; each of us must understand how to prepare ourselves for adventuring beyond the relative confort of what we know.

If anything, have faith in yourself and do not make assumptions (even ones considered to be charitable) about what you are studying.

Posted in language, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy. Tagged with , , , .

The Non-Reducibility & Scientific Explanation Problem

Q: What is a multiple star system?

A: More than one star in a non-reducible mutual relationship spinning around each other.

Q: How did it begin?

A: Well, I guess, the stars were out in space and at some point they became close in proximity.  Then their gravitations caused each other to alter their course and become intertwined.

Q: How did the gravitations cause the courses of the stars to become intertwined?  Gravity does one thing: it changes the shape of space-time; it does not intertwine things.

A: That seems right.  It is not only the gravities that cause this to happen.  It is both the trajectory and mass (gravity) of the stars in relation to each other that caused them to form a multiple star system.

Q: Saying that it is both the trajectories and the masses in relation to each other is not an answer.  That is what is in need of being explained.

A: You are asking the impossible.  I have already said that the relation is non-reducible.  I am not going to go back upon my word in order to reduce the relation into some other relation to explain it to you.  The best that can be done is to describe it as best we can.

Here is the problem: If you have a non-reducible relation (e.g., a 3-body problem or a logical mutual interdependence) then you cannot explain how it came to exist.  Explaining such things would mean that the relation was reducible.  But being unable to explain some scientific phenomenon violates the principle of science: we should be able to explain physical phenomenon.  Then the relation must not be non-reducible or it must have been a preexisting condition going all the way back to the origin of the universe.  Either you have a contradiction or it is unexplainable by definition.

What can we do?  You can hold out for a solution to the 3-body-problem or, alternatively, you can change what counts as explanation.  The latter option is the way to go, though, I am not going into this now.

For now I just want to illustrate that this problem of non-reducibility and explanation is pervasive:

Q: What is a biological symbiotic relationship?

A: More than one organism living in a non-reducible relationship together.

Q: How did it begin?

A: Well, I guess, the organisms were out in nature and at some point they became close in proximity.  Then their features caused each other to alter their evolution and become intertwined.

Q: How did the features cause the courses of their evolution to become intertwined?  Physical features do one thing: they enable an organism to reproduce; they do not intertwine things.

A: That seems right.  It is not only the features that cause this to happen.  It is both the ecosystem and the features of the organisms in relation to each other that caused them to form a symbiosis.

Q: Saying that it is both the place the organisms are living in and their features in relation to each other is not an answer.  That is what is in need of being explained.

A: You are asking the impossible.  I have already said that the relation is non-reducible.  I am not going to go back upon my word in order to reduce the relation into some other relation to explain it to you.  The best that can be done is to describe it as best we can.

As you can see, I am drawing a parallel between a multiple body problem and multiple organisms that live together.  Like the star example above, there is no way to explain the origins of organisms living together.  Even in the most basic case it is impossible.

Posted in biology, epistemology, evolution, independence friendly logic, ontology, philosophy, physics, science. Tagged with , , , , , .

Of Duckrabbits and Identity

Of late I’ve become increasingly concerned with the meaning of identity.  When we say, ‘x = x,’ we don’t mean that the x on the left is exactly identical to the x on the right because the x on the left is just that, on the left, and the x on the right is on the right, not the left.  Since equality would be useless without having 2 different objects (try to imagine the use of a reflexive identity symbol, i.e., one that for whatever object it is applies to, indicates that the object  is identical with itself), there is something mysterious about the use of identity.

But what is the mystery?  It cannot be anything to do with the subjects being declared identical: these objects are arbitrary to the particular topic being discussed.  For example if I say ‘the morning star = the evening star’ then we are talking about planets, and if I say that ‘3 = y’ then I am talking about numbers.  The identity sign is the same in both, even though the objects being discussed are rather different.

It is easy enough to believe that by paying attention to the different objects being declared identical we can know how to act (some sort of context principle *cringe*).  But this doesn’t address the question specifically: although we can know how to use the identity symbol in specific instances, this tells us nothing about how identity works or what it means.

Take a look at this:

drthumb = drthumb

The picture is the same save for location on the webpage.


But what if we call the one on the left a duck and the one on the right a rabbit: what is different?  The features obviously don’t change, only the way we are seeing (perceiving? apprehending? looking at? interpreting?)  the two images.

(Triple bonus points to anyone who can look at the two pictures at once and see one as a duck and the other as a rabbit. Hint- it is easier for me to do it if I try to see the one on the left as a rabbit and the one on the right as a duck… focus on the mouths.)

In this example, as opposed to the others discussed above, a decision was required to be made – to see one picture one way and the other another way – before the differences even existed.  Now, in the above examples it appeared that there was a difference of knowledge: at one point we didn’t know that the evening star and morning star were one and the same, or that y was equal to 3.  This isn’t the case when looking at identical duckrabbit pictures because there is nothing about the two pictures that is different; the difference is entirely in the mind.

Let me make a suggestion about how to describe the phenomenon of being able to see one image two different ways: the image can be instantiated in two different ways, i.e. it has an associated universe with a population of two.  There are two possible descriptions associated with this image and until we make a decision about how to describe it, the image is like an uninstantiated formula.

Identity, then, is an indication that the two associated objects are things that can be generalized to the same formula.  The picture of the duck and the picture of the rabbit can be called identical because they both have a single general formula (the duckrabbit picture) that can be instantiated into either.  The identity symbol indicates that the two associated objects are two instantiations of the same general thing, be it a number, planet or image (but not objects in space-time because that would be self-contradictory… space-time and instantiation, a topic for another day).

How identity works can now be identified: it is to instantiate and generalize.  Consider the mystery of how we see the duckrabbit one way or the other: no one can tell you how you are able to see the image one way or the other.  However, you are able to instantiate the image in one way and then another, and recognize that both the duck and rabbit are shown by the same image.

Instantiation and generalization are skills and the identity symbol between the two images above indicates that you have to use that skill to generalized both to one formula.  Most of the time it is non-trivial to instantiate or generalize in order to show two things (formulas) to be equal.  In the case of the duckrabbit it is trivial because the work went into the instantiation process (to see the images one way or the other); in the other examples the situation is reversed, such that we had the instantiations but not the general formula.  In all cases, though, only when we can go back and forth between different instantiations and a single generalization do we claim two things identical.

Posted in epistemology, metaphysics, ontology, philosophy, wittgenstein. Tagged with , , , , .

What Fodor Got Wrong

Jerry Fodor recently (4 March) gave a talk entitled “What Darwin Got Wrong” at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.  He accused Darwin of committing the intentional fallacy and hence said, straight out, that he didn’t believe in the theory of evolution.

So what exactly does Fodor think Darwin got wrong?

He believes that the theory of evolution is vacuously true (or just wrong) and hence not a worthwhile theory of science.

You can sink your teeth into the argument in this synopsis, but be forewarned, the argument is good: you may, depending upon your convictions, be forced to disbelieve the theory of evolution.  However, it doesn’t identify all the critical presuppositions that Fodor uses (this is no fault of the synopsis; it is accurate to the argument), and these are what are really necessary to show where Fodor is mistaken.

[The one day, the ONE DAY, a year that there is a talk specifically having to do with my work on philosophy of science and biology and I have an international plane flight to catch only a few hours after the talk.  I happily was able to catch the whole talk but I couldn’t stay for the question and answer session.  So I did the only thing I could think of and asked my questions during the break and ran out of the building (literally).  The following quote is accurate as far as I can remember, and, as far as I know, I am the only one who heard him say it.]

Fodor said,

“Natural Selection is statistical. It just is.”

What does this mean?

In my world Natural Selection is a force.  It is a force that changes species over time.  For example lets take some species of bacteria.  A few of the bacteria in that species adapt to be able to eat a novel sort of food and this gives them an advantage over the others.  Eventually these bacteria are able to replicate more often and eventually most of the overall bacteria population has this trait.  Hence the species has changed from not having a certain property to having a certain property.  If you ask me what caused this change in the bacteria population, I would say that Natural Selection was the cause or force behind the change in the species.

There are two ways I can think of interpreting Fodor’s statement: 1) Natural Selection is statistical and not a force.  2) Natural Selection is statistical and a force.

Taking the first interpretation that Natural Selection is statistical and not a force, how are we to understand my little story about the bacteria above?  Perhaps: “The change in the physiology of certain bacteria statistically increased their fitness over the other bacteria.  Hence those bacteria were able to replicate more readily and eventually outnumber bacteria without that trait.”  The thing that changed the species was the increased fitness, which was caused by the physiological change.  Natural Selection was the result of this change and can be observed statistically by seeing how individual organisms with that trait were able to fair better than their compatriots.  Therefore Natural Selection is a non-causal description or explanation of how species change.

This is immediately problematic because a description or explanation is always describing or explaining something that already exists: it will always be vacuously true, e.g. snow is white if(f) snow is white, or it will just be wrong, e.g. snow is blue.  Therefore, by assuming that Natural Selection is statistical and not a force, we have begged the question against Natural Selection.

Now let’s take a look at option 2: Natural Selection is statistical and a force.

As a force Natural Selection is the cause of things.  Causes can work directly, such as one object striking another and causing it to change direction, or as a field does, by creating an environmental disturbance of some sort which affects the object.  Natural Selection falls (more or less) into the latter category: the environment changes and this causes species to change, to adapt.

Is Natural Selection statistical under this interpretation? No.  If Natural Selection acts in the way a field does, by changing the environment which then affects things in that environment, then at every point there is some local interaction between the field and the object.  Otherwise we have a theory of action-at-a-distance, i.e. one thing is causing something to happen without any way for us to identify the underlying process: a theory of magic.  If something is acting statistically, then it is acting at different places with no known connection between them.  However, evolution comes with a ready made theory of local interactions: every organism is constantly struggling for survival.  The struggle for survival ensures that there is a connection between Natural Selection and the environment.  Therefore if Natural Selection is a force, it cannot also be statistical.

[I can confirm that Fodor believed that the struggle for survival was not critical because earlier in our brief conversation he said that the struggle for survival was merely a metaphor.  I responded by saying that Natural Selection is a metaphor then too, but he disagreed.]

In conclusion, by assuming that Natural Selection is statistical and ignoring the local interactions in the struggle for survival, Fodor has begged the question against evolution.  As a statistical non-causal explanation, Natural Selection cannot act as a force in evolution.  Once evolution has lost it’s driving force, it no longer can function as a working scientific theory.  However, believing that Natural Selection is a non-causal explanation is unfounded.  The theory of evolution provides a method – the struggle for survival – that explains how Natural Selection causes change in species via the environment, and ignoring this is what Fodor got wrong.



[EDIT:  I’ve put up a new analysis (24 March 2010) of Fodor’s argument here: Hypotheses Natura Non Fingo]

See a continuation of the argument against Fodor in  Dismantling Fodor’s Argument, and in Fodor’s Intensional Criticism of Evolution.

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