Tag Archives: physics

On the defense of ‘Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces’

Dr. Ellen Clark, a.k.a. Philosomama, has written a good review of Velasco & Hitchcock’s Evolutionary and Newtonian Forces [no paywall], one of the first papers to appear in the new open access journal Ergo. She points out that although V&H are trying to show how evolutionary forces are well described by analogy to classical causal Newtonian forces, they very nearly prove their opponent’s — the statisticalist — position. However, she comes to their defense.

Briefly, the causalist position is that evolutionary forces are causal like the force of Newtonian gravity. Natural Selection is a causal force that acts on biological organisms. The statisticalist position claims evolutionary phenomena are just the statistical result of the underlying causal physical processes. Hence, for the statisticalist, evolutionary phenomena have no force of their own.

V&H want to argue that evolutionary forces are like friction or elasticity. Dr. Clark points out that these forces can be problematic for their view, as they too note:

As Velasco & Hitchcock acknowledge, friction and elasticity are usually thought of by physicists as emerging “from the aggregate statistical behaviour of more elementary forces in certain kinds of system.” … But this is grist to the statistical view’s mill, we might say. They argue that natural selection supervenes on more basic causal events, without adding any extra causal power of its own. So these critics might happily accept that evolutionary forces are analagous to non-fundamental Newtonian forces, whilst holding their ground on the claim that natural selection is not causal.

However, causalist vs. statistical isn’t what I would like to discuss here; see her review for more discussion. Instead I’d like to focus on her appeal to the unknown as a defense of V&H’s causalist position. She claims that it is OK to consider evolutionary forces causal, like Newtonian forces, because Newtonian forces are mysterious. Since Newtonian forces are mysterious, we shouldn’t privilege their causality and should grant that right to not well understood biological forces as well. She says:

If there is anything magical about thinking of natural selection as an overall force producing all the multifarious births and deaths that we actually observe, then it is in very good company lumped in with physical forces.

This is an example of my favorite fallacy, Ignotum Per Ignotius: explaining something unknown by appealing to something even less understood. Let me explain why this is really problematic for her defense and ultimately for V&H.

Imagine a statisticalist pointing to their analogies and explanations of evolutionary phenomena and saying, “Evolution isn’t mysterious at all, and we have a perfectly good statistical explanation right here. The only causality is in the underlying fundamental physics.” The evolutionary causalist is then in the uncomfortable luddite position of insisting, without reason, that we don’t understand evolution. Appealing to an analogy with physics that supports the causal position is question begging, if there is no deeper reason why this analogy holds other than it supports the claim that evolutionary phenomena are mysterious and hence causal. Therefore without some other reason to support the causal view of evolutionary phenomena, appealing to mysteriousness does not justify the causalist position.

Moreover, without a supporting causalist argument, V&H have done the statisticalist’s work for them. As noted above, they have gone and shown exactly how evolutionary phenomena are like statistical results of underlying forces.

Posted in biology, evolution, philosophy, physics. Tagged with , , , , .

Special Relativistic Fitness, Preliminary Thought Experiment

Imagine two different tribes of biologists.  The first tribe is comprised of very fast people.  They survived for thousands of years by studying biology and being faster than their competitors.  The second tribe is comprised of very strong people.  They survived for thousands of years by studying biology and being stronger than their competitors.  After all this time, the first tribe is filled with very fast biologists and the second tribe is filled with very strong biologists.

Now imagine that two biologists, one from each tribe, are evaluating the fitness of two organisms.  One of the organisms is fast, the other is of average speed.  Other than the difference in speed, they are identical.  The strong biologist recognizes that one is faster than the other, but does not find this to be significant and assigns the two organisms equal fitness.  The fast biologist recognizes that one is faster and assigns it a slightly higher fitness because of its speed advantage.

Is the difference in fitness evaluations a matter of scientific opinion?  If it were an opinion that the fast organism was fitter, this would be a scientific opinion based upon environmental and competitive factors.  Given different competition and environment, the evaluation would have come out differently.  However, the fast biologist and her entire tribe have survived by being faster than their competition.  Her evaluation is not only scientifically based but also partly based upon her evolutionary heritage and Weltanschung that is finely attuned to how speed is beneficial.  It is these factors, unique to people of this tribe, that give more weight to speed as evolutionarily significant and makes it more than just a case of scientific disagreement.

Is the fast biologist unfairly biased? If we consider the perspective of the strong biologist, we can see that the strong biologist has no greater claim to her appraisal of an organism’s fitness: strength is just as arbitrary a trait as speed and this thought experiment could have equally been set up with two organisms that only differed in strength.  Hence the fast biologist could equally claim the strong biologist is unfairly biased toward strength and away from speed.  Generalizing, we can say that no one perspective, be it speed, strength, sight, etc., or any combination of traits, is privileged.  Hence their is no unfair bias because every scientific perspective based upon evolutionary heritage and an associated Weltanschung is as legitimate as any other.

Lastly, consider that every biologist will recognize the same amount of phenotypic difference between two organisms;  difference in phenotype does not permit variation in interpretation.  Therefore any difference in fitness evaluation is not due to a perceived physical difference by the biologists in the organisms studied.

Therefore this thought experiment implies that our determinations of fitness are not independent of the evolutionary history of the biologist(s) making those determinations.   Insofar as we cannot escape our own biology and how it shapes our views, it will determine the fitness value we assign to organisms, if only to a small extent.

Consequences:

In one sense everything on Earth has been evolving for the exact same amount of time, since the dawn of life, and hence no organism alive is any more evolved than any other.

However, from the perspective of the fast biologists, the fast organism is more evolved.  Insofar as the fast biologists believe that life is evolving towards moving faster, the organism that moves faster has adapted before the other organisms.  So, in the special circumstance of a population perceiving evolution to move regularly towards a trait, an organism with that trait can be considered more evolved.

—– the analogs —–
evolutionary significant events are specific adaptations :: physically significant events are light flashes
regular evolutionary change is a population with trait selection :: regular motion is a non-accelerating inertial frame
difference in phenotype does not permit variation in interpretation, regardless of observer :: failure of addition of velocities of light, regardless of observer.
upper limit to adaptation- by definition, no jumps :: speed of light in vacuum defined as c

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, philosophy, Special Relativity. Tagged with , , , , , .

Rewrite of Evolution

New theory of evolution!  Hooray!

Patched a bunch of things together to make a nice story.  Fixed the little issue about fitness being circular.  Expanded natural selection to apply more generally.  Causal structure.  Epistemological foundations.  ooOoOO0Ooooooo.

And it’s good fun.  I swear.  Epistemology, history of physics, evolution… makes me happy.  You should really read it.

Download here. [pdf, 304kb]

Posted in biology, epistemology, evolution, fitness, General Relativity, measurement, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science. Tagged with , , , , , , , .

Hypotheses Natura Non Fingo

Newton famously wrote [1] [2]:

I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses…  It is enough that gravity does really exist and acts according to the laws I have explained, and that it abundantly serves to account for all the motions of celestial bodies.

as a response to those who challenged him to provide causes of gravity.  He said, “Hypotheses non fingo,” or, “I feign no hypothesis,” or if you will, “I haven’t even a guess.”

Earlier in a letter he wrote:

That one body may act upon another at a distance through a vacuum without the mediation of anything else, by and through which their action and force may be conveyed from one another, is to me so great an absurdity that, I believe, no man who has in philosophic matters a competent faculty of thinking could ever fall into it.

These passages show that Newton recognized a fundamental causal problem within his theory: that although his mathematics described gravitational physics, it did not provide a causal explanation.  It was not until General Relativity 200 years later was this problem solved.

Recently another major fundamental theory of science has been accused of lacking the proper causal structure:  Fodor & Piatelli-Palmarini’s attack on evolution, What Darwin Got Wrong.  Consider what Fodor says in his recent reply to Block and Kitcher,

A mere chronicle of instances of adaptation would not therefore amount to a theory of adaptation. It would just be “natural history.” We haven’t the slightest doubt that Darwin thought that he had discovered a theory of adaptation. It was, to be sure, a pretty thin theory, as it would have to be in order to apply to evolving creatures as such, whatever their phenotypes and whatever their ecologies.

He is saying that evolution is a mere chronicle of natural history — not a cause of it — just as Newton’s gravitation described gravity without revealing its causal structure.  Later he says,

[Biologists should] give up on the project of finding a mechanism for evolution and study the fixation of adaptive traits case by case. Since all the evidence suggests that they are extremely heterogeneous, this should keep evolutionary biologists busy well into the indefinite future.

This means that biologists should give up on repairing evolution and just try to explain individual phenomena moving forward, just as physics moved forward even as Newton knew his theory was on metaphysical shaky ground.

Hence it is Fodor now saying, “Hypotheses non fingo,”  because he believes he can describe natural history accurately, but also has no guess as to what caused things to work out the way they did.

* * * * *

In light of this analysis, consider this statement from Block and Kitcher’s counter argument:

After our critique, Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini have apparently decided that the crucial point is the lack of a “theory” of natural selection. But, as we have noted here, nobody needs a “theory” of the type they demand.

And this from Sober’s recent review [pdf]:

What is the net gravitational force now acting on the earth?  That depends on the mass of the sun, the moon, the stars, and of everything else.  It does not follow that there are no laws of gravity, only that the laws need to have numerous placeholders.  FP may object to my analogy because it is always the mass of these various objects and their distance from the earth that are relevant to the gravitational force that the earth experiences.  My reply is that this makes no difference…

Neither has understood the argument as presented above.  If Block and Kitcher had understood, then they would have recognized that yes, for the vast majority of people, the “‘theory’ of the type they demand” is unnecessary, but it is, nevertheless, of critical importance to the likes of Newton and Einstein.  If Sober had understood, then he wouldn’t have used the worst possible example to make his point:  by saying it is “always the mass of these various objects and their distance from the earth that are relevant,” and not mentioning motion, we know he was only thinking about Newtonian Mechanics.

* * * * *

Should we, with Fodor, believe that we are stuck in a philosophical absurdity?

No.  What I said in my original criticism of Fodor, found in What Fodor Got Wrong (18 March 09),  still applies.  Though the above description of the problem is likely clearer than my analysis based on his claims that Natural Selection is statistical and that the struggle for survival is only a metaphor, the problem of causal structure is the same.  My solution focuses on using individual struggles as local interactions of Natural Selection — like a gravitational field in General Relativity — and hence provides the causal structure that Fodor wanted.

[EDIT 6 April 2010:  I’m thinking I gave Fodor too much credit in this post.  I now think his arguments amount to saying that for each instance of evolution we have, we are merely relaying natural history, not a causal explanation.  The argument I attributed to Fodor above says that evolution by natural selection is natural history.  Fodor must be more agnostic about evolution’s ontology because of how he says it is possible to look for some alternative to natural selection in his reply to Block and Kitcher.  My solution is still viable though:  since I provide causal structure, this also provides how to describe evolution in a causal way.]

Posted in biology, evolution, General Relativity, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science. Tagged with , , , , , , , .

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.

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[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 , , , , .

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 , , , , , .

Aether Propeller?

I was trying to figure out how planes stay in the sky.

So this is what I came up with.

wing

As the plane moves forward, a small vacuum is created above the wing. The vacuum is a low pressure zone which pulls the wing up and the air down to fill itself in (because Nature HATES a vacuum).  This upward pull that the low pressure zone creates we call lift.

I thought, “Hooray.  This isn’t so complicated!  Planes stay up because they create small vacuums above their wings as they move forward, creating an upward force.”

Then I thought, “And this is why planes can’t fly in outer space, because there is no air to displace and create a vacuum.”

Then I thought, “But if there is an aether theory, why not?”

wing2

So as a wing moves through a vacuum, generally we don’t think there is anything to cause lift or drag.  But if we have an aether theory of a vacuum, i.e. there is some substance below what we can observe that our matter exists within, then why can’t we create a vacuum in that substance?

My line of thought was: Air is to Vacuum as Vacuum is to Black Hole.

Can’t we just spin a propeller fast enough in outer space to create lift?  As the prop turns small vacuums in the aether will be created, and, insofar as Nature hates vacuums, a force will be created to fill in this vacuum, pulling the propeller in that direction.

(Someone please tell me how this is nonsense so I won’t go around thinking I’ve come up with a new model of space flight.)

Posted in fun, physics, random idiocy, science, technology. Tagged with , , , .

Dismantling Fodor’s Argument

Fodor argued that the theory of evolution is not a legitimate theory of science because it is either vacuously true or wrong.  He accused Darwin of committing the intentional fallacy. (synopsis here)

Insofar as he made no logical mistakes in his reasoning, we need a different strategy to defend the theory of evolution.  In this post I will argue that his argument is an instance of gerneral underdetermination, and hence not a problem of evolution but of philosophy of science.

Underdetermination means that we can’t specifically identify the exact cause of scientific phenomena.  For example, given some phenomenon, say darkness during the day, there can be many possible explanations: an eclipse, an exploding volcano shooting ash into the air, the sun has gone out, the electric company has blocked the sun to make more money, it was the work of Claw Vipers, etc.  The exact cause of the darkness is underdetermined; sure we can research the problem and eliminate some of the possible explanations, but because of our limitations we will never be able to check everything.  So the cause of the darkness can be said to be underdetermined, i.e. there is just not enough determining evidence.

Fodor argues that the theory of evolution is vacuous becuase given any trait we identify as benficial to the fitness of the organism is arbitrarily selected.  Since there are too many factors to identify within an ecosystem or organism acting within that ecosystem, any hypothesis we propose about the fitness of that organism in that ecosystem will be trivially compatible with evolution.

For example assume there is an argument that having a certain trait, say longer legs, increases a zebra’s fitness.   We can recognize that this argument could be unfounded because it might not be the longer legs but something else that increases the zebra’s fitness.  It just happened that increased leg length was a harmless side affect of this truly beneficial trait.  Either way, if it is the longer legs or some other unidentified trait, evolution is always compatible with our theories, and so it is trivially vacuously true.

In short I would say that he is arguing the cause of natural selection is underdetermined.  The task is to identify whether this is a unique case of underdetermination or an instance of general underdetermination.  I will now show that this sort of underdetermination can exist in physics*:

Imagine we are doing physics and we want to know which of two metal ingots is the more massive.  We pull out our scale, place each object on one of the trays and wait for the scale to indicate which is the more massive.

Why does the scale tip in the direction of object A?  We could argue that object A has a trait, it is composed of iron, and that trait makes it more massive than some other object.  However, maybe object B is connected to a helium balloon.  Maybe there is a gravitational anomaly in the location where we are doing our experiment.  Maybe the iron is magnetized and there is another ingot with the opposite polarity under the table.  Maybe a God is tampering with our experiment with a noodly appendage.  Feel free to make up as many of these as you want.  There any number of reasons why one object could tip the scale in its favor, and being more massive is among them, though selecting this as the reason is arbitrary.

(One of the things that is wrong here is that we don’t expect General Relativity to predict which objects are more massive.  The mass of an object is the result of the history of its creation and ‘life’ up till the point we measure it.  We do expect Relativity to suggest methods for testing such claims, which it does.  Likewise Evolution should not be expected to predict which organism is fitter, but to suggest methods for testing fitness.)

If I now recast Fodor’s criticism into physical terms, in reference to the above thought experiment, this is the result: The theory of General Relativity (gravity) is vacuous because any given trait we identify as increasing the mass of an object is arbitrarily selected.  Since there are too many factors to identify within a physical system, any hypothesis we propose about mass of the object in that physical system will be trivially compatible with General Relativity.

Therefore physics suffers from the same kind of underdetermination that Fodor accused of evolution.  Anyone who persists in disbelieving evolution on these grounds should also deny General Relativity.  Of course this is excessive: since the underdetermination criticism goes to the heart of our scientific theories in general, it is a problem of philosophy of science and not a problem of biology or physics specifically.  Insofar as underdetermination remains an issue within the philosophy of science we still have to take it into consideration, but this should not be seen as a reason to think our current scientific theories are wrong.

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[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 What Fodor Got Wrong, and in Fodor’s Intensional Criticism of Evolution.

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* This is the argument I presented Fodor with during our brief conversation after his talk at CUNY.  He tried to block it by saying that Natural Selection is statistical, whereas General Relativity is not.  In my previous post, What Fodor Got Wrong, I argued that this position begs the question or is just wrong.

Posted in biology, evolution, fitness, General Relativity, measurement, philosophy, physics, science. 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.

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[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.

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