Hitchens, Dawkins, and Craig

As I have said, I never thought it was realistic to expect a deathbed conversion from Christopher Hitchens.  But for all his ill-informed ranting and raving on the subject of religion, Hitchens was capable of showing a manful, basic decency toward the other side in a way some other New Atheists are not.  Consider these remarks by Hitchens about William Lane Craig, prior to their debate:

And compare them to the cringe-makingly dishonest tactics employed by Richard Dawkins in avoiding the public debate with Craig that he so obviously fears, and to these remarks:

(Hat tip to Peter Byrom for calling my attention to Hitchens’ comments.   Peter is the guy in the second clip asking Dawkins the question about Craig.)

Dawkins is a petty man.  Hitchens was not that.


Reading Rosenberg, Part V

In the previous installment of our look at Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, we began to examine what Rosenberg has to say about biological phenomena.  This time I want to take a brief detour and consider some of what Rosenberg says about the subject in his book Darwinian Reductionism.  I noted that while Atheist’s Guide pushes a generally uncompromising eliminative materialist line, Rosenberg resists the “eliminativist” label where issues in the philosophy of biology are concerned, and presents his views in that field as reductionist.  Darwinian Reductionism (a more serious book than Atheist’s Guide, and of independent interest) explains why.

I have emphasized that though Rosenberg offers no serious criticisms of theism, though his own positive philosophical claims are preposterous, and though his core argument for the scientism on which his entire position rests is worthless, he is nevertheless a more serious thinker than the likes of Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, or other New Atheists.  The reason is that Rosenberg is more consistent than these other writers, and he is more consistent because he understands (as they do not) the grave philosophical challenges facing naturalism.  In particular, he understands that a consistent naturalist must take a radically eliminativist line vis-à-vis intentionality -- that the naturalist must deny that meaning of any sort exists, even at the level of human thought and language.  And he understands that the reason why the naturalist must take this line is that it follows from the claim that there is no teleology or final causality inherent in the natural order.  Or at least, once you make that anti-Aristotelian move -- a move which (as I have argued at length) was definitive of modern philosophy -- and you affirm also that the natural order is all that exists, there is no way consistently to affirm that intentionality is a real feature of the world.  For intentionality essentially involves “directedness” toward an object, as a thought is “directed” toward what the thought is about or a word is “directed” toward what the word means.  And to deny that there is any teleology or final causality immanent to the natural order just is to deny that there is any “directedness” of any sort in it -- that there is anything that points beyond itself to some end, goal, or object.  (For more on intentionality, see the relevant posts among my many posts on the mind-body problem.)

The intentionality of words is commonly said to be derived, insofar as, apart from human interpreters and their linguistic conventions, the sounds and ink squiggles we think of as words would be entirely devoid of meaning.  “The cat is on the mat” would, apart from us, have no more semantic content than “blah blah blah.”  The intentionality of a thought, by contrast, is commonly said to be original insofar as it is inherent to our thoughts in a way it is not inherent to words.  We use otherwise meaningless ink squiggles and noises to convey meaning, but no one is using our thoughts as instruments to convey meaning.  They just have it, and are the source of the meaning of words and the like.  The eliminativist is committed to the claim that not only what we think of as words, but even our thoughts are really as meaningless as “blah blah blah” is.  For if original intentionality exists, then there exists something irreducibly “directed” toward an object, which there can’t be if there is no teleology in nature.  And without original intentionality, no derived intentionality can exist either.

This position informs Darwinian Naturalism, where Rosenberg writes:

The problem of naturalistically explaining the original intentionality of the human (and infrahuman) brain is perhaps the most serious fundamental challenge facing neuroscience and its philosophy.  No one has yet solved it…  Indeed, if human intentionality turns out to be derived from some evolutionary process as yet unimagined (and it will have to be unimagined so far, if it is to prove “unmysterious”), it will turn out that both artifacts and genomes will be on a par, neither of them deriving their intentionality directly from something with nonderived intentionality, and both tracing their intentionality back to evolution by natural selection.  Of course, as I indicated above, I am dubious that natural selection can actually produce original intentionality in the brain or anywhere else, and so it cannot produce derived intentionality either.  Both will, on my view, turn out to be illusions, like the purposes we overlay on nature and that natural selection has dispelled. (p. 108)

As I have said, I think this eliminativist position is the one a consistent naturalist has to take.  For to say that “directedness” is real but external to the natural order is essentially to adopt a Cartesian position; while to say that it is real and intrinsic to the natural order is essentially to return to an Aristotelian position.  And either way, naturalism will have been abandoned.  A serious naturalist, then, either has to find some way out of this dilemma -- the dilemma of having to choose either eliminativism or some form of anti-naturalism -- or follow Rosenberg in adopting eliminativism and then try to find a way to make eliminativism something other than the incoherent mess that I (and many others) have argued that it is.  Whatever his faults, Rosenberg faces up to the problem in a way that ignorant hacks like Coyne do not.

Or at least he does where the mind is concerned.  While his position also entails (as I suggested in my previous post) a kind of eliminativism about organic phenomena, Rosenberg in general tries, as I have said, to hew to a less radical, reductionist line in the philosophy of biology.  Not that even that line isn’t radical.  Rosenberg’s complaint in Darwinian Reductionism is that most of his fellow naturalists are not sufficiently reductionist.  Like him, they tend to be physicalists, holding that the physical facts fix all the facts; but unlike him, most of them resist reductionism in biology.  Rosenberg (rightly, in my view) regards this position as incoherent.  But rather than taking that as a reason to abandon physicalism (which is what it is), he takes it as a reason to endorse reductionism (committed as he is to physicalism -- though there is even less in the way of argument for physicalism in Darwinian Reductionism than there is in Atheist’s Guide).  His aim in Darwinian Reductionism is to argue that biological reductionism does not have the unhappy implications that have led other naturalists to resist it.  

One of those implications is that reductionism would seem to conflict with the evident fact that where biological phenomena are concerned, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.”  Rosenberg maintains that the sense in which this slogan is true is a sense perfectly consistent with reductionism.  He offers the wetness of water as an example of a feature that the parts of a whole do not have -- individual H2O molecules are not wet -- but which is nevertheless reducible to relations between the parts.  And purportedly irreducible biological phenomena (Rosenberg implies) are no different.  

Now since it is the distinctively organic properties of biological phenomena that are supposed to pose a challenge to reductionism, appealing to the wetness of water hardly addresses the biological antireductionist’s concerns.  Moreover, the claim that even water and its properties are “reducible” to H2O molecules and their relations is more controversial than Rosenberg (and many other naturalists) suppose.  (See e.g. Oderberg’s Real Essentialism and van Brakel’s Philosophy of Chemistry for discussion of the relevant issues.)  But let’s leave all that aside and consider Rosenberg’s response to the specific objection that the feeling of wetness isn’t reducible to relations between H2O molecules:

But the feeling of wetness is a complex relation between the molecules and our neurological system -- more molecules, of course.  It’s not an isolated property of the water.  Reducing the feeling of wetness of water is another matter altogether different from reducing its wetness.  Reducing feelings, sensations, is one that science has yet to accomplish, owing to the incompleteness of our understanding of neurology.  But it would be blatantly question-begging to assert that no macromolecular -- that is, reductionistic -- explanation of our sensations can ever be provided.  Making such an unargued assumption is very far from taking on the burden of proof.  It is, in fact, a matter of shifting the burden of proof onto the reductionist, and demanding an impossibly high standard of proof: that science should complete the reduction of human neurology in order to show that the wetness of water is equal to the relations among molecules.  Although reductionists cannot accept so high a standard, they can and do argue that the whole history of science since the seventeenth century has been a continuing empirical vindication of reductionism. (p. 13)

Now, I do not necessarily have a problem with the suggestion that the feeling of wetness is a complex relation between water itself and our nervous systems, nor with the idea that the feeling is a material feature of the human organism (though my own, Aristotelian conception of “matter” is not the same as Rosenberg’s materialist conception, and “molecules” are certainly not the whole story).  But the rest of this passage reflects a delusion common in those beholden to naturalism, scientism, and (by extension) modern atheism -- the “picture that holds them captive,” as Wittgenstein might have put it.  

This delusion -- the delusion that “science has now explained everything else, and so it’s only a matter of time before it explains X (where X = qualia, or intentionality, or some other feature which poses a difficulty for naturalism)” -- is one I have elsewhere called “the materialist shell game,” and it works like this.  First, “science” is (implicitly if not explicitly) defined in such a way that no explanation that makes reference to irreducibly teleological or qualitative features of the world is allowed to count as “scientific.”  Second, seemingly irreducibly teleological and qualitative features of the world -- apparently goal-directed natural processes, say, or colors, sounds, heat, cold, and the like as these manifest themselves to ordinary experience -- are re-described as mere projections of the mind onto external reality and not allowed to count as truly “material.”  Teleology, color, sound, heat, and cold as we experience them do not (so the story goes) really exist in the material world itself, but only in our subjective mental representations of it; objectively there are only colorless, soundless, purposeless particles in motion, which by virtue of their motions cause us to experience them as if they had the characteristics common sense attributes to them.  (Color, sound, etc. as physical properties are accordingly also re-defined, in terms of surface reflectance properties, compression waves, and the like.)  Third, it then asserted that “science has explained” such-and-such external material phenomena in a way that makes no reference to irreducible teleological or qualitative features.  What is not acknowledged is that this claim is a tautology, since (again) nothing that made reference to such features would be allowed to count as “scientific,” and (again) no features that couldn’t be described in non-teleological and non-qualitative terms would be allowed to count as “material.”  Fourth, it is fallaciously inferred that since this methodological sleight of hand has “shown” that irreducibly teleological and qualitative features do not exist in the external material world, we have every reason to believe that it will also “show” that they do not exist in the mind either -- that they will either be reduced to non-teleological and non-qualitative features of the brain, or eliminated altogether.

This is like saying that since we have gotten rid of all the dirt in the room by sweeping it under the rug, we have good reason to think that the dirt under the rug can also be gotten rid of in the same way, and even for thinking that it never really existed in the room in the first place.   Such an argument would be doubly farcical.  For first of all, none of the original dirt has really been gotten rid of at all, but merely relocated.  And second, the “sweep it under the rug” method is for obvious reasons the one method that cannot in principle work when applied to the dirt under the rug itself.  Those naturalists -- and they are like the sands of the sea for multitude -- who confidently appeal to the historical “success” of scientific reductionism in providing “reductive explanations” of “everything else,” as evidence that the mind too is bound to yield to the same mode of explanation, are committing a fallacy no less egregious.  (And we have already seen why an appeal to the predictive and technological virtues of the methodological stipulations in question is no less fallacious if intended to establish the metaphysical completeness of the reductionist’s picture of the world.)

In Darwinian Reductionism no less than in Atheist’s Guide, then, the scientism that undergirds Rosenberg’s entire position rests on little more than an appeal to ill-founded contemporary academic prejudice.  But there are other problems too.  As I have indicated in earlier posts in this series, one problem with reductionist and eliminativist accounts of this or that natural phenomenon is that they fail to do justice to the irreducible causal powers (arguably) manifested by the phenomenon.  In the case at hand, a reductionist account of biological phenomena would seem implicitly to deny that there are any genuine causal powers at anything higher than the molecular level, and thus seems to entail eliminativism about the biological (as, in my previous post, I suggested Rosenberg’s position does).

In response to this sort of objection (which, as he notes, parallels what is called the “causal drainage argument” in the philosophy of mind, since reductionism seems to make causal power at all higher levels of reality “drain away” to the lowest physical level), Rosenberg tells us that “reductionism does not deny that biological kinds have causal powers -- the physical ones; it reveals them” since “’higher-order’ [functional] terms… name the same properties which ‘lower-order’ -- macromolecular -- terms name” (p. 196).  In other words, it’s not that biological phenomena lack causal powers; it’s that they have no causal powers over and above those of their molecular parts, no powers that are not “physical powers,” which are “the only causal powers there are” (Ibid.)  For biological or functional terms, Rosenberg claims, “do not identify distinct ‘higher-level’ kinds with distinct ‘higher-level’ causal properties.”

This is like saying that Feuerbach’s conception of God as a mere projection, or Freud’s theory of religion as wish-fulfillment, are not really forms of atheism, but are rather merely “reductionist” versions of theism which do not “eliminate” God but merely “reveal” the true nature of His causal relationship to the world.  Obviously, to say that a “higher-level” term like “God” does not “identify a distinct ‘higher-level’ kind with distinct ‘higher-level’ causal properties” but instead names “the same properties which ‘lower-level’ terms name” -- viz. human psychological properties like projection and wishful thinking -- would just be a roundabout way of saying that there is no God and that only the psychological processes themselves are real.  Similarly, to say that biological terms do not really name any kinds or causal powers over and above the molecular ones is just a roundabout way of saying that the biological kinds and causal powers do not exist and only the molecular ones do.  Rosenberg’s biological reductionism -- like the bogus Feuerbachian or Freudian “reductionist” “theism” just described, like reductionism in the philosophy of mind, and indeed like reductionism generally -- really is just a thinly disguised eliminativism.  

Except, that is, when it is a thinly disguised Aristotelianism.  In one of the more interesting sections of Darwinian Reductionism, Rosenberg addresses the question of whether genes really can be said to carry “information” and to embody “programs,” as they are commonly said to do.  As I emphasize in The Last Superstition, this sort of talk doesn’t sit well with the naturalist’s official rejection of immanent teleology.  Now, some philosophers of biology regard talk of “programs” and “information” (in anything but the thin Shannonian sense of “information”) as merely metaphorical.  But as Rosenberg indicates, the problem cannot be so easily evaded:

Molecular biology is, of course, riddled with intentional expressions: we attribute properties such as being a messenger (“second messenger”) or a recognition site; we ascribe proofreading and editing capabilities; and we say that enzymes can discriminate among substrates… Even more tellingly, as we have seen, molecular developmental biology describes cells as having “positional information,” meaning that they know where they are relative to other cells and gradients.  The naturalness of the intentional idiom in molecular biology presents a problem.  All these expressions and ascriptions involve the representation, in one thing, of the way things are in another thing…  The naturalness of this idiom in molecular biology is so compelling that merely writing it off as a metaphor seems implausible.  Be that as it may, when it comes to information in the genome, the claim manifestly cannot be merely metaphorical, not, at any rate, if the special role of the gene is to turn on its information content.  But to have a real informational role, the genome must have intentional states. (pp. 99-100)

But how can a naturalist accept such descriptions of biological phenomena as more than metaphorical -- especially a naturalist like Rosenberg, who takes an eliminativist line on intentionality?  

Rosenberg’s solution is to split the difference.  “The crucial question,” he says, “is not intentionality but programming” (p. 108).  What does this mean?  Rosenberg rehearses John Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment, and allows at least for the sake of argument that it shows that running a program is not sufficient to generate original intentionality.  But even if the intentionality of a program is at most derived, the program can still be efficacious.  After all, Searle in the Chinese Room still gives out the right answers in response to questions put to him, even though he has no idea what the symbols he’s manipulating mean; and he does so by virtue of running a program.  Therefore (Rosenberg seems to infer), we can say that genes embody programs, and do their distinctive work by virtue of embodying them, even if we deny that they really possess original intentionality. 

The trouble with this is that it takes account of only half, and the less important half, of Searle’s critique of computationalism.  The Chinese Room argument shows only that computationalism cannot be the whole story about the mind.  But Searle’s later argument against what he calls “cognitivism” -- the thesis that the brain is a digital computer (as distinct from the thesis that the mind is the software run on the computer) -- is intended to show that it isn’t even part of the story.  If the Chinese Room argument succeeds, it shows that even if the brain is running programs, it could not possess original intentionality merely by virtue of running them.  The later argument purports to show that the brain is not in any interesting sense running programs in the first place.  For being a “program” is not (Searle argues) an observer-independent feature of the world; it does not capture anything intrinsic to the physics of a system.  A physical system “runs a program” only relative to an interpreter, who uses the system to run the program, just as ink squiggles and sounds count as words only relative to an interpreter who uses the squiggles or sounds to convey meaning.  And since no one is literally “using” the brain to run programs -- no one is literally saying of each of our brains “Let’s let this brain process count as such-and-such a symbol, let’s let that brain process count as such-and-such a transition between symbols, and so forth” -- the brain is not running them.

Now as I argue in The Last Superstition, one could resist Searle’s conclusion here, but not in a way that helps the naturalist.  If we say that computationalist descriptions of the brain capture real, objective features of the brain, then we are implicitly committed to an Aristotelian conception of matter.  For the notion of a program is teleological; and teleology that is intrinsic to a material system is just Aristotelian, immanent final causality.  As Searle emphasizes, we could in principle attribute all sorts of programs to all sorts of physical systems -- to use one of his examples, there is a possible interpretation of the microstructure of the wall in his room on which it is running Wordstar.  To say that some particular attribution is privileged, that a physical system is, apart from our interests, running such-and-such a program and not the others, is to say that its states inherently “point” to the realization of that program rather than to the others.  (The Aristotelian implications of computationalist descriptions of nature have also been noted by James Ross and Valentino Braitenberg.)

This puts Rosenberg in a dilemma.  If he wants to insist that matter is utterly devoid of any inherent teleology -- his official general metaphysical position -- then (given Searle’s critique of cognitivism) he is not entitled to attribute programs of any sort to genes.  If instead he wants to insist that genes really do embody programs even apart from human interests -- his official position on this specific issue -- then he has to acknowledge that something like Aristotelian final causality is a real feature of the world after all.  

Rosenberg misses the Aristotelian implications of his position because he evidently thinks that the only alternative to reductionism and eliminativism in philosophy of biology is vitalism.  But vitalism is like Cartesian dualism in the philosophy of mind, or the extrinsic, “watchmaker” model of teleology represented by Paley’s “design argument” -- it is a corruption of the Aristotelian-Scholastic views the moderns sought to replace, even if a corruption that is sometimes mistakenly read back into those older views.  For the Aristotelian, the right way to think about the soul is in hylemorphic terms, as the form of the living body, not as a complete substance in its own right a la Descartes’ res cogitans.  The right way to think about teleology is as immanent to the natural order, on the model of organic phenomena rather than on the model of machines.  And the right way to think about life is also in hylemorphic terms, as the possession of a certain kind of formal cause, not as a spooky kind of “force” or elan vital.  

(Rosenberg also seems to think that intentionality-with-a-t entails intensionality-with-an-s, so that since -- he argues -- genes do not exhibit the latter, neither do they have the former.  As Tim Crane and others have emphasized, though -- and as I noted in an earlier post -- intensionality-with-an-s is not essential to intentionality-with-a-t.  What is essential is just directedness toward an object, which a thing can exhibit even if we can give a non-intensional description its directedness.)

So, Rosenberg’s attempt to find a reductionist middle ground in the philosophy of biology fails.  His position is unstable, equivocating between eliminativism on the one hand and Aristotelian anti-reductionism on the other.  But there is a lot more to Darwinian Reductionism than I have been able to convey here, and in particular much to make it a more serious and interesting book than Atheist’s Guide.  As a philosopher of religion, and as an apologist for naturalism, Rosenberg is hopeless.  But as a philosopher of science and an interpreter of naturalism, he is consistently interesting.  Both naturalists and their critics need to take him seriously.


Links of interest

Kathrin Koslicki and Tuomas Tahko are two important contributors to the current revival of interest in neo-Aristotelian metaphysics.  Tahko’s commentary on Koslicki’s book The Structure of Objects is available via his blog.

Mike Flynn, hard SF writer extraordinaire and friend of this blog, is interviewed here.

David Goldman argues that, like Europe, the Islamic world is facing a catastrophic decline in population.  

An interview at with the executive director of the winery that produces the Aquinas line of wines.

Robert Pasnau discusses Averroës, the decline of Islamic philosophy, and the revival of philosophy in the medieval West.

Metaphysician Stephen Mumford describes the influence superhero comic books had upon him.

New and recent books to watch for: 

Stephen Mumford and Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes from Powers

Something new from the late David Stove: What’s Wrong with Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of Enlightenment [Links to reviews here.  Scroll down.]

Bruce Charlton, another friend of this blog, has recently published Thought Prison: The Fundamental Nature of Political Correctness


Hayek and Popper

My paper “Hayek, Popper, and the Causal Theory of the Mind” appears in the latest volume of Advances in Austrian Economics, a special issue edited by Leslie Marsh and devoted to the theme Hayek in Mind: Hayek’s Philosophical Psychology.  The publisher’s web page for the volume is here.  You can find Marsh’s website devoted to the book here, the table of contents here, and Marsh’s introduction to the volume here.  Here’s the abstract of my article (which follows the publisher’s required abstract format):

Purpose – The chapter provides an exposition both of Hayek's causal theory of the mind (especially as applied to intentionality) and of Popper's critique of causal theories, argues that Hayek fails successfully to rebut Popper's critique, and shows how the dispute between Hayek and Popper is relevant to controversies in contemporary philosophy of mind.

Methodology/approach –The chapter elucidates Hayek's ideas and Popper's by situating them within the history of the mind/body problem and comparing them to the views of contemporary philosophers like Fred Dretske, Jerry Fodor, and Hilary Putnam.

Findings – Popper's critique has yet to be answered, either by Hayek or by contemporary causal theorists.

Originality/value of the chapter –The chapter calls attention to some important but neglected ideas of Hayek and Popper and examines some of their as-yet-unpublished writings.

What that last line is referring to, specifically, are Popper’s private letters to Hayek vis-à-vis Hayek’s book The Sensory Order and Hayek’s unpublished (and unfinished) draft “Within Systems and about Systems: A Statement of Some Problems of a Theory of Communication,” all of which receive substantive discussion in my article.  The article is an extended treatment of themes to which I was only able to devote the last few pages of my essay “Hayek the cognitive scientist and philosopher of mind” in The Cambridge Companion to Hayek.  It also contains material that should be of interest even to readers with no special interest in Hayek or Popper, since what it has to say about them is relevant to the more general question of whether causal theories of intentionality (which are at the core of attempts to “naturalize” intentionality) can succeed.  (I’ve addressed this issue in previous blog posts, such as this one, this one, and this one.  Obviously, my many other posts on the mind-body problem are also relevant.)


My Christmas gift to you…

We’ve had some things to say about nothing (here, here, and here), or at least about how some people who themselves claim to have something to say about nothing in fact have nothing, or at least nothing of importance, to say about nothing.  Or something like that.  One thing’s for sure, and that’s that this is a subject about which one had better have a sense of humor.

So, for the blog reader who has everything, here’s a little more about nothing, and on the lighter side.  (Nothing can be pretty heavy, after all.)  For something on nothing written along philosophical but humorous lines, there’s nothing better than P. L. Heath’s article “Nothing” from the 1967 Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Paul Edwards.  Something also worth reading about nothing is Jim Holt’s “Nothing Ventured,” from the November 1994 issue of Harper’s.  Holt’s book on the subject, Why Does the World Exist?, is due to appear (not out of nothing, presumably) next year.  I’ll no doubt have something to say about it when it does.  (Holt’s little book Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, about which I’ve long been meaning to write up a blog post, is terrific.)

No need to thank me.  It was nothing.


The phenomenology of spirits

Human life is tragic.  And while there are, without question, a great many evils we would all wish away in a heartbeat if only we could, to wish away all of them would be to wish away much of what gives our existence depth and meaning.  Every grownup knows that life would lose its savor if it entirely lost its bite.  (Of course, a certain kind of atheist thinks that a really loving God would have made the world a 24/7 Disneyland.  But I was talking about grownups.)  

Nor are the pains always extrinsic to the pleasures.  Some of them are built in; indeed, the greatest earthly delights are never without a sharp sting.  Examples are all around us: Tobacco.  Women.  And whiskey.

Spirits are an adult pleasure.  They grow on you with experience -- experience with the drink itself (no one ever likes his first sip), but, more than that, experience in living.  High school and college kids like their keggers.  The school of hard knocks breeds a preference for something more refined and bittersweet, or indeed just bitter.  Show me a guy who doesn’t like whiskey or gin and I’ll show you a guy who’s never lost his job, or had his heart broken or his ass kicked.  Beer is for party people dancing to “Love Shack.”  The Scotch drinker’s favorite song, as everyone knows, is “Deacon Blues.”

Hilaire Belloc, it seems, recommended confining one’s drinking to beer and wine, or in any event to alcoholic beverages developed before the Reformation.   One can easily see Chesterton heartily agreeing.  What this shows is that for all their insights, the Chesterbelloc were capable of saying eye-rollingly stupid things -- something you already know if you’re familiar with Belloc’s views on the French Revolution (now there’s modernism for you) or Chesterton’s on jazz (now there’s Puritanism for you).  Where culture is concerned, the “more Catholic than thou” card ought seldom if ever to be played -- Catholicism is universal and embraces what is of value in all cultures, not just the medieval.   

But if we are going to play that silly game, the friend of spirits has the better of the argument.  The Incarnation, after all, is not a story of beery pub songs and forced bonhomie, after the fashion of the local Chesterbelloc Men’s Supper Club:

Come on now, fellows, let’s show the world we Catholics aren’t Jansenists!   Um, but do stick to the script.  Please put down the Martini and cigarettes!  Pick up the burgundy.  Light that pipe.  Adjust that monocle.  Now sing along, everyone:  “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine etc.”  

No, the Incarnation is the story of God Himself taking on the pain of being a human being, to the point of public humiliation and gruesome death.  It’s a swig of frozen gin, or a bracing shot of peaty Laphroaig.  

And the peatier the better, I say.  Youth prepares you for adulthood, with its greater joys and deeper sorrows.  And beer and wine exist in order to prepare you for the Speysides, which in turn exist in order to prepare you for the Islays.  

Now listen to the gorgeous Carolyn Leonhart singing gorgeously on the theme.  (She looks like my wife, by the way.  Just sayin’.)  More reflections on our subject here and here.


Greene on Nozick on nothing

Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality surveys the various speculations about parallel universes on offer in contemporary physics.  Toward the end of the book, Greene discusses a proposal put forward by Robert Nozick in chapter 2 of his book Philosophical Explanations.  (Turns out that Greene took a course with Nozick at the time Nozick was writing the book.)  Greene notes that even if any of the multiverse theories currently discussed by physicists -- those inspired by quantum mechanics, string theory, inflationary cosmology, or what have you -- turned out to be correct, one could always ask why the world is as the theory describes it, rather than some other way.  (This is one reason why it is no good to appeal to such theories as a way of blocking arguments for God as an Uncaused Cause of the world.  We had occasion recently to note some other problems with this atheist strategy.)  But Nozick put forward a version that Greene regards as not subject to this question -- what Greene calls the Ultimate Multiverse theory.

On the Ultimate Multiverse theory, all possible universes exist, including a universe consisting of nothing.  To the questions “Why does this universe exist rather than some other?” and “Why does any universe at all exist rather than nothing?”, the Ultimate Multiverse theory responds: “There is no ‘rather than’ about it.  This universe and every other possible universe all exist; indeed, this universe and a universe consisting of nothing both exist.  So there is no special explanation of our universe required, because it isn’t in the first place only one of many possibilities to have been actualized.”  (It should be added that neither Nozick nor Greene actually endorses this theory; they merely float it as a possibility.  David Lewis famously did defend a similar view, though.)

Now, the proposal that every possible universe exists does not, by itself, actually explain anything.  In fact -- again, at least by itself -- it makes things more mysterious rather than less.  Suppose I ask “Why is there a cup on the table?”  It is no good to answer “Actually, there are in fact two cups on the table; hence there is no special reason to ask where the one cup came from!”  This hardly defuses the original question; indeed, there is now more to explain than there was originally.  And the problem would rather obviously only be made worse if it turned out that ten or twenty cups were on the table, and certainly if every possible cup were on the table.  Similarly, that every possible universe exists hardly explains why anything exists at all; it just adds to the explanandum rather than providing an explanans.

But Nozick’s Ultimate Multiverse theory involves more than merely the suggestion that every possible world exists.  Nozick tells us that this “fecundity assumption,” as he calls it (and which he compares to the traditional “principle of plenitude,” which I had reason to discuss in an aesthetic context), follows from a metaphysical “egalitarianism.”  But what does he mean by “egalitarianism,” and why does he think it defensible?  The answers to these questions constitute the heart of Nozicks’ treatment of the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  And they reveal, I think, that Nozick misses the point both of the question and of the traditional theistic answer to the question, at least as these are understood within classical (Platonic, Aristotelian, and Scholastic) philosophy.

Recall that in the Platonic/Neo-Platonic tradition, whatever is in any way composite must be explained by reference to what is absolutely simple or non-composite; that in the Thomistic tradition, whatever has an essence distinct from its act of existence must be explained by reference to something whose essence just is subsistent existence; and that these points ultimately reflect the Aristotelian principle that whatever contains potentiality of any sort must ultimately be explained by reference to that which is pure actuality, devoid of potentiality (since that which is a composite of an essence and an act of existence, or indeed composite in any way, is merely potential until the composition of its parts into a whole is actualized by something else).  These points are, of course, very abstract, and as always I presuppose that the reader has some familiarity with the basic concepts given that I’ve spelled them out in detail elsewhere.  (The Aristotelian and Thomistic ideas in question are developed at length in The Last Superstition, Aquinas, and my article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways” and, more briefly, here and there in various blog posts such as this one or this one; and I had reason to discuss the Neo-Platonic conception of divine simplicity in another earlier post.)  The point for now is to emphasize that it is because the things in the world of our experience are composite, because there is in them a distinction between essence and existence, and because they are mixtures of actuality and potentiality, that they necessarily require a cause.  And it is because God is none of these things -- where what we mean by “God” is that which is none of these things -- that He does not and cannot in principle require a cause.  Precisely because he can actualize without having to be actualized, precisely because He is being or existence itself rather than something which merely participates in existence, and precisely because He is absolutely simple and not in need of composition of any sort, He and He alone can serve as the ultimate terminus of explanation.

Now at the beginning of his discussion, Nozick tells us, plausibly enough, that the alternative to an infinite regress of explanations is that there is some truth to which no further truth stands as an explanation.  But he regards the latter possibility as entailing that there is some truth or truths “without any explanation.”  And this claim, in turn, is one he says can be interpreted in either of two ways:

About such truths p lacking further explanation, there also appear to be two possibilities.  First, that such truths are necessarily true, and could not have been otherwise.  (Aristotle, as standardly interpreted, maintained this.)  But it is difficult to see how this would be true.  It is not enough merely for it to be of the essence of the things which exist (and so necessarily true of them) that p.  There would remain the question of why those and only those sorts of things (subject to p) exist; only if p must be true of everything possible would this question be avoided.

The second possibility is that p is a brute fact.  It just happens that things are that way.  There is no explanation (or reason) why they are that way rather than another way, no (hint of) necessity to remove the arbitrariness. (p. 117)

Here, it seems to me, Nozick’s account already goes awry in several respects.  For one thing, the notion of what is “necessary” needs to be more carefully unpacked than he (and many other contemporary philosophers) unpack it.  For instance, there is in Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) metaphysics a sense in which a necessary being might derive its necessity from some other necessary being.  That a derivatively necessary being exists (if it does exist) is thus a truth which will have a “further explanation,” in terms of a further necessary being from which the one in question derives its own necessity.  (See my discussion of the Third Way in Aquinas for more details.)  Moreover, even with respect to an absolutely necessary being -- one which does not in any way derive its necessity from another, but has it in itself -- it will not be correct to say that its existence is “without any explanation.”  Rather, its existence is self-explanatory.  For that which is absolutely necessary is (for A-T) absolutely necessary precisely because it is pure actuality or subsistent being itself.  Hence it doesn’t “have” or merely “participate in” being or existence in the way contingent and derivatively necessary things do, and it doesn’t have a potential for contingent or derivatively necessary existence which needs in some way to be made actual.  Again, it “already” is being or existence itself; it “already” is pure actuality.  That does not make its existence less intelligible than that of other things, but more intelligible.  Contingent and derivatively necessary things are contingent or derivatively necessary precisely because their existence is merely participated existence, and is in one way or another merely potential until actualized.  Their explanation must accordingly lie in something outside them.  The being or actuality of an absolutely necessary being, by contrast, is like the goodness of Plato’s Form of the Good -- it is intrinsic, intelligible in itself and the source and standard of the intelligibility of all other things.

(Note that the notion of being self-explanatory is not to be confused with the notion of being self-caused, which is incoherent.  Causation is a metaphysical notion, having to do with the source from which a thing derives some aspect of its being.  But explanation is a logical notion, having to do with the way in which we understand or make sense of some aspect of a thing’s being.  We cannot coherently say that a thing derives its existence from itself or its nature, for that would entail, absurdly, that the thing or its nature exists prior to itself, in an ontological sense even if not a temporal sense.  But we can coherently say that a thing’s existence can be made sense of in terms of its nature, for that has to do, not with where a thing “gets” its existence from -- an absolutely necessary being doesn’t get it from anywhere -- but rather with how we can make intelligible or understand its existence.)

This brings us to the second part of the passage from Nozick just quoted, wherein (to repeat) he says:

It is not enough merely for it to be of the essence of the things [lacking further explanation] which exist (and so necessarily true of them) that p.  There would remain the question of why those and only those sorts of things (subject to p) exist…

Nozick seems to mean by this that we would have to ask, with respect to any purportedly necessary terminus of explanation, whence it derived its necessity and why only the thing or things that constitute the terminus have derived it, and that we would have to ask this even if this necessity were “of the essence” of these things -- as if the necessity of the terminus of all explanation were merely a “participated” or “instantiated” necessity, in the way that the four-leggedness of a dog, though “of the essence” of being a dog, is still a “participated” or “instantiated” four-leggedness.  But this misses the whole point of the idea of God as an absolutely necessary being, at least as that is understood in classical metaphysics (i.e. in terms of pure actuality, subsistent being itself, and so forth).

Nozick may have been misled here by the way modern philosophers of religion often speak of God, under the influence of what Brian Davies has called a “theistic personalist” conception of God that is very different from the classical theism of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and other ancient and medieval thinkers.  (I have addressed the difference between classical theism and theistic personalism in a number of posts, such as this one, this one, and this one.)  Proponents of Leibnizian cosmological arguments and Cartesian ontological arguments often say that God’s essence “includes” existence -- as if existence (or perhaps “necessary existence”) was merely one among a number of “great-making properties” that God “instantiates.”  But that is not at all what Aquinas (and, I would say, Anselm) are saying.  God doesn’t “instantiate” properties.  That would make of God merely “a being” among other beings, and the God of classical theism is not that.  Aquinas, Anselm, and other classical theists are saying something far more radical.  For them (and to repeat) God does not “have” existence but is existence itself; and He doesn’t “instantiate” or “participate in” anything, but is rather that in which everything else participates.  

Of course, one might object on various grounds to classical theism and its classical (Platonic, Aristotelian, and Scholastic) metaphysical underpinnings.  The point is just that Nozick’s discussion of the question of why there is something rather than nothing simply fails even to take account of this entire classical tradition -- no small lacuna given that it is, historically, the mainstream approach to the question.  And it is his failure to take account of it that leads him quickly to jump to the conclusion that any answer to the question is to some extent going to have to appeal to an inexplicable “brute fact” -- a position the classical tradition vehemently rejects.  One can intelligibly deny that the God of classical theism exists.  But one cannot intelligibly say that even if He did exist, His existence would be a “brute fact,” or that “there would remain the question of why that and only that sort of thing” does not require further explanation.   As I have noted before, suggestions of this kind completely miss the point of classical theism.

This brings us to Nozick’s metaphysical “egalitarianism,” which undergirds his Ultimate Multiverse scenario and which is best understood in contrast with what he calls “inegalitarian” views:

An inegalitarian theory partitions states into two classes: those requiring explanation, and those neither needing nor admitting of explanation.  Inegalitarian theories are especially well geared to answer questions of the form “why is there X rather than Y?”  There is a non-N state rather than an N state because of the forces F that acted to bring the system away from N.  When there is an N state, this is because there were no unbalanced forces acting to bring the system away from N.

Inegalitarian theories unavoidably leave two questions unanswered.  First, why is it N that is the natural state which occurs in the absence of unbalanced external forces, rather than some other (type of) state N’?  Second, given that N is a natural or privileged state, why is it forces of type F, not of some other type F’, that produce deviations from N?  If our fundamental theory has an inegalitarian structure, it will leave as brute and unexplained the fact that N rather than something else is a natural state, and that F rather than something else is the deviation force. (p. 121)

Perhaps it is obvious from the foregoing what is wrong with all this, at least if intended as an analysis of classical metaphysical approaches to the question of why anything exists rather than nothing.  As the classical tradition understands it, the N from which there are “deviations” would be (say) a potency or potential, such as the potential redness of skin (before it has become sunburned), the potential squishiness of an ice cream cone (before it has been left out to melt), or indeed the potential existence of a universe.  And there is nothing “brute,” “unexplained,” or “unanswered” about why these or any other potentials need some “external factor” or “force” to bring about a “deviation from N” -- being merely potential rather than actual, the Ns in question quite obviously cannot do anything at all.  In particular, potential redness, potential squishiness, potential universes, etc. cannot actualize themselves.  The relevant F which does actualize them is something which is itself already actual (such as the sun in the case of the sunburn and the melted ice cream cone), and there is nothing remotely “brute” or “unexplained” about why F has to be something already actual -- nothing non-actual could be F, because being non-actual, it (obviously) couldn’t do anything at all.  

Nozick makes the whole issue sound more mysterious than it really is precisely because of his use of formalisms of the sort fetishized by analytic philosophers, and he thereby provides a good illustration of how this method can generate obfuscation rather than rigor.  For the formalisms simply ignore the actual content of the principles classical writers appeal to when addressing questions of ultimate explanation, and thereby miss the entire point.  When, for example, a Scholastic writer says that no potential can actualize itself, but has to be actualized by something already actual, he is not postulating some mysterious “force of type F” whose power to “produce deviations from N” is left “brute” and “unexplained.”  For he is not talking about “a” force among other forces in the first place, not even a special kind of force; he is rather making the extremely obvious point -- indeed, one almost wants to say the trivial point, except that some decidedly non-trivial consequences follow from it -- that only what is actual can serve as any kind of force at all.  And neither is the Scholastic postulating some mysterious “natural state N which occurs in the absence of unbalanced external forces.”  He is rather making another obvious point, viz. that what is merely potential -- whether it is “natural” or not is not relevant -- cannot do anything, precisely because it is merely potential and not actual.

Thus, when Nozick asks “Why is it forces of type F, not of some other type F’, that produce deviations from N?” he is not asking a profound question, but a very silly question, at least if he intends to raise problems for an account like that of Aquinas or some other Scholastic.  You might as well ask: “Why is it only actual forces that act as forces?”  To ask the question is to answer it.  Nor is it profound to ask “Why is it N that is the natural state which occurs in the absence of unbalanced external forces?”, again, at least not if this is intended to raise problems for views of the sort defended by ancient and medieval philosophers.  You might as well ask: “Why do potentials remain potential until actualized?”  When we put things the way traditional writers actually put them, instead of in terms of Nozick’s pseudo-rigorous formalisms, the answers are obvious, and obviously hard to deny.  

It is also obvious why there is nothing the least bit “brute” or “unexplained” about the classical metaphysician’s “inegalitarian” “privileging” of actuality over non-actuality.  Nozick’s own discussion presupposes that actuality is “privileged” in this way, insofar as he is keen to explore various possible answers to the question of what “states” and “forces” might account for this or that aspect of reality.  For to raise the question of whether this or that “state” or “force” is the correct explanation of anything is precisely to ask whether this or that “state” or “force” actually obtains or is operative, and is thus available to serve as an explanans.  (This is true even of Nozick’s rather farcical discussion of the idea of a “nothingness force” which “nothings” other things, and even “nothings itself” -- see pp. 122-24, complete with the obligatory variables, and even a graph for extra “rigor.”  To ask whether there is such a force is precisely to ask whether it is actual and thus an available explanans.  It is, by the way, standard Nozick shtick to devote many pages to exploring ideas that are obviously non-starters and which he does not even believe himself.  Some of Nozick’s fans seem to find this kind of mental onanism entertaining.  I find that it gets tiresome pretty fast, especially in a book of over 700 pages.)

Now, Nozick’s Ultimate Multiverse proposal crucially depends on the suggestion that there is something fishy about “inegalitarian” theories.  The idea is that if no state of affairs is special or “privileged” in the way “inegalitarian” theories suppose, then there is no reason not to regard all possible worlds as equally actual.  In this way, Nozick’s “egalitarianism” -- which is just a rejection of “inegalitarian” theories -- underwrites the “fecundity assumption.”  But what Nozick does not realize is that what the classical, “inegalitarian” metaphysician regards as “privileged” is not this or that state of affairs or possible world, and not even the actual world per se, but rather actuality itself -- something that, as I have said, Nozick too implicitly “privileges” no less than the classical metaphysician does.  The classical metaphysician simply pushes this “privileging” out to its logical conclusion: Since actuality is more fundamental than potentiality, the ultimate explanation of things must be purely actual, without potentiality; for anything less than that would itself require actualization in some respect, and thus not be the ultimate explanation.

To be sure, Nozick suggests that his “principle of fecundity… den[ies] special status to actuality” insofar as it makes every possible world as real as the actual world (p. 131).  But what it really denies special status to is the actual world, not actuality itself.  That is to say, it denies that there is anything special about a universe which (say) includes human beings, began with a Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, is governed by the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity, and so forth.  It does not deny that being actual is privileged over being non-actual; on the contrary, rather than denying this privilege to any possible universe, it extends it to all of them.  Indeed, its attribution of actuality to all of them is precisely what is supposed to be doing the theory’s explanatory work vis-à-vis answering the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

That Nozick does not understand the way ancient and medieval philosophers would approach that question is especially evident from the following passage:

To ask ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ assumes that nothing(ness) is the natural state that does not need to be explained, while deviations or divergences from nothingness have to be explained by the introduction of special causal factors.  There is, so to speak, a presumption in favor of nothingness.  The problem is so intractable because any special causal factor that could explain a deviation from nothingness is itself a divergence from nothingness, and so the question seeks its explanation also. (p. 122)

This is, in fact, the reverse of what the classical metaphysician thinks.  For the classical metaphysician, God -- understood as pure actuality, subsistent being itself, and absolute simplicity -- could not have failed to exist, precisely because He is pure actuality, etc.  Hence His existence -- the existence of that which is the opposite of “nothingness” -- is the “natural state” of things, in the relevant sense.  When the classical metaphysician claims to explain why there is something rather than nothing, then, he doesn’t mean that sheer nothingness is the natural state of things and that we need to find out why it doesn’t obtain.  He means that the world of our experience, since it is a mixture of actuality and potentiality, composite rather than simple, etc., could have failed to exist, so that its explanation must lie in something distinct from it, something which actualizes its potentials, which composes its parts, and so forth.  And when we arrive at that explanation, we find that it lay in something whose existence is self-explanatory, precisely because it is pure actuality without any admixture of potentiality, absolutely simple, and subsistent being itself.  Rightly understood, then, the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” leads us to conclude that nothingness is not the natural state of things and that there is nothing without an explanation -- precisely the opposite of where Nozick seems to think the question leads.  And we are led to these conclusions however many possible universes -- one, two, or all of them -- exist.  For that they could have failed to exist -- that they are mixtures of actuality and potentiality -- is what leads to those conclusions.


Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Christopher Hitchens, who had been suffering from esophageal cancer for over a year, has died.  I think I first came across his work around 1990, at the time his book Blood, Class, and Nostalgia appeared.  (My copy is still around here somewhere.)  I recall seeing him on television -- grilling some George H. W. Bush administration official, perhaps -- and being very impressed by his forceful and formidable intelligence.  I have always been conservative and have usually disagreed with him, but I followed his work with interest from that point on, long before he started to please right-wingers with his well-argued criticisms of the Clintons and support for the Iraq war.  He was almost always smart, funny, and interesting even when he was wrong.

Except on religion, where he was a complete bore and an insufferable hack.  There is no use sugar-coating that fact now that he is gone, and Hitchens was not in any event a fan of the polite obituary.  Religion is the last subject about which to have a tin ear or a closed mind, and Hitchens had both.  Some Catholics seem to have gotten it into their heads over the last year that he might convert -- as if someone who is overtly so very hostile to Catholicism simply must be compensating for a secret longing for it, and is sure to be moved by the prospect of imminent death to let his inhibitions fall away.  This struck me as romantic fantasy, born of too steady a diet of happy “crossing the Tiber” stories.  Sometimes a man has mixed feelings about you, but will accentuate the negative, loath as he is to acknowledge the merits of an adversary.  And sometimes he just hates your guts, and that’s that.  As far as I know, Hitchens was no closer on his deathbed to becoming the next Malcolm Muggeridge than he had been when penning his decidedly un-Muggeridgean book about Mother Teresa.   I very much hope I am wrong.  

The Hitchens jokes in The Last Superstition are the only ones with any affection behind them -- well, some of them have it, anyway.  (No one who knows me or my work could think I regard a crack about one’s affection for the sauce as a serious insult.  Which makes it ironic that the one joke my publisher demanded I remove was a certain jibe about Hitchens’ boozing.)  Of the four horsemen of the New Atheism, Hitchens was the only one I found likable, and the only one possessed of a modicum of wisdom about the human condition, or at least as much wisdom about the human condition as one can have while remaining essentially a man of the Left.  While there was rather too obviously something of the champagne socialist about him, I do not doubt that he had real concern for real human beings -- rather than merely for grotesque abstractions like “the working class” or “humanity” -- and that he showed real moral and even physical courage in defense of what he sincerely took to be the best interests of real human beings.  But love for one’s fellow man, however genuine, is only the second greatest commandment.  

May God comfort his family, and may God have mercy on his soul.


Reading Rosenberg, Part IV

Alex Rosenberg’s dubious use of physics was the focus of the previous installment of our look at his new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  In this post we’ll look at his dubious biological claims.  “When physics disposed of purposes,” Rosenberg tells us, “it did so for biology as well.”  Now as I’ve noted before, in fact modern physics has not “disposed” of purposes at all, if what Rosenberg means by this is that physics has somehow established the metaphysical claim that the material world is devoid of objective teleological features.  All it has done is to make the purely methodological move of confining itself to non-teleological descriptions of the phenomena it studies.  This no more shows that teleology doesn’t exist than the fact that I am confining my comments in this post to Rosenberg’s work shows that no other philosophers exist.  Moreover, the non-teleological methodology of modern physics rules out irreducibly teleological explanations in biology only if you buy into Rosenberg’s “physics or bust” brand of scientism, which he has given us no good reason to do.

But Rosenberg does at least understand the implications of his position for the question of biological adaptation:

Scientism needs more than an explanation of this or that particular adaptation -- white fur in polar bears or the fact that bottom-dwelling fish have both eyes on the side of their bodies facing away from the bottom.  We need an explanation of how, starting from zero adaptations, any adaptation at all ever comes about.  The explanation we need can’t start with even a tiny amount of adaptation already present.  Furthermore, the explanation can’t help itself to anything but physics.  We can’t even leave room for “stupid design,” let alone “intelligent design,” to creep in.  If scientism needs a first slight adaptation, it surrenders to design.  It gives up the claim that the physical facts (none of which is an adaptation) fix all the other facts. (p. 50)

We might compare the alternative Rosenberg wisely rules out -- that the naturalist might allow in a tiny bit of adaptation at the start and build up more complex adaptations on that basis -- to the strategy of “homuncular decomposition” in the philosophy of mind.  This is the idea that we can explain human thought in terms of sub-personal homunculus-like processes which exhibit a lower degree of intelligence than the thought processes we are trying to explain; that these sub-personal processes can, in turn, be explained in terms of even “stupider” homunculi; those in terms of yet stupider homunculi still; and so on until we reach a lowest level of homunculi which are so stupid that their operations can be carried out by processes that are clearly purely material and non-intentional.  As critics like John Searle and John Haldane have pointed out, this whole procedure is fallacious.  The lowest-level homunculi will be carrying out operations that can intelligibly be said to “add up” to the higher-level mental ones only if they possess some minimum degree of intentionality, in which case the naturalist’s problem of explaining intentionality in non-intentional terms will merely be relocated rather than solved.  Proponents of the strategy fail to see this because, as Haldane notes, they confuse the intentional/non-intentional distinction with the more intentional content/less intentional content distinction.  And, I would add, if they were to bite the bullet and accept that there is genuine intentional content at least at some very low level of physical reality, they will have implicitly given up a physicalist conception of matter and revived an Aristotelian commitment to finality or “directedness” as a fundamental aspect of the natural order.

Rosenberg -- who correctly sees that to be a consistent naturalist in the philosophy of mind requires being an eliminative rather than reductive materialist vis-à-vis intentionality -- also realizes that to pursue a similarly reductive strategy in biology vis-à-vis teleology would be equally fallacious, and equally fatal to naturalism.  He sees that teleology and allied notions must be completely avoided, that smuggling in even a “slight” or “tiny” amount of adaptation would give the game away.  (As I discuss in The Last Superstition, Daniel Dennett is one naturalist who does not see this, or at least who constantly helps himself to teleological concepts which he cannot successfully “cash out” in naturalistic or non-teleological terms.  Dennett is also, as it happens, a well-known proponent of the homuncular decomposition strategy in the philosophy of mind -- in for a penny, in for a pound, and all that.)

Now, I would say that in fact you aren’t going to get any biological adaptation at all from a starting point utterly devoid of adaptation, any more than you are going to get the intentional from the non-intentional.  Biological adaptation is an inherently teleological concept, and the processes from which Rosenberg would derive it are (as he conceives of them, anyway) inherently non-teleological.  Reductive versions of materialism in the philosophy of mind are always disguised forms of eliminative materialism; they make use of mentalistic vocabulary while subtly but completely evacuating it of its ordinary mentalistic content.  And Rosenberg’s reduction of the adaptive to the non-adaptive does something similar.  But while Rosenberg’s eliminativism in the philosophy of mind is explicit, he does not make it clear that he is committed to an eliminativist position with respect to biological adaptation.  (Indeed, in his -- very interesting -- book Darwinian Reductionism, Rosenberg presents his position in philosophy of biology as reductionist rather than eliminativist.  I’ll have something to say about that book in a follow-up post.)

Here’s how the “reduction” goes in Atheist’s Guide.  Rosenberg sets the stage as follows:

Natural selection requires three processes: reproduction, variation, and inheritance.  It doesn’t really care how any of these three things get done, just so long as each one goes on long enough to get some adaptations.  Reproduction doesn’t have to be sexual or even asexual or even easily recognized by us to be reproduction.  Any kind of replication is enough.  (p. 59)

He later puts things instead by saying that in addition to “replication and variation… fitness differences [are] the last of the three requirements for evolution by natural selection.” (pp. 64-65).

With these criteria in hand, Rosenberg devotes several pages to sketching out scenarios in which inorganic molecules can be said to replicate, vary, differ in their fitness, and thereby give rise to “adaptation.”  And he has no trouble doing so given how broadly he construes the key concepts: The formation of crystals counts as an example of “replication”; the chemical difference between sugar and Splenda counts as an example of “variation”; an inorganic molecule’s being able to “persist or replicate or both” counts as “adaptation”; and so forth.

Thus does Rosenberg “show” how “adaptation” can arise from non-adaptation in a way that doesn’t “cheat” by smuggling in adaptation in at the beginning.  But this is a little like proudly proclaiming that you didn’t cheat on your exam, because the professor handed out the answers in advance.  It’s true, but only in a completely trivial and uninteresting sense.  For given how broadly Rosenberg is willing to allow us to construe the key notions, you might as well say that pebbles are “well-adapted” to their environment.  After all, they “replicate” (when one pebble is broken into two); they “vary” (the new pebbles are smaller than the original, and differ from it and from each other in shape); they “inherit” features from their parents (the new pebble is solid and rough, just like Dad -- a chip off the old block!); and they differ in their “fitness” (the new pebbles are smaller and thus less easily broken than their ancestors).  Descent with modification, in rock gardens no less than in botanical gardens!

But what does any of this have to do with organic phenomena, with biological adaptation?  Nothing at all; certainly Rosenberg does nothing to justify the claim that it does, other than to make the obligatory hand-waving reference to the Miller-Urey experiments and hydrothermal vents, and a passing concession to the effect that “molecular biologists don’t yet know all the details, or even many of them” about how organic processes might arise from inorganic ones.  Ah yes, all we’re missing is a few details.  Except that since the question at issue is whether biological adaptation can be explained in terms of the stuff about crystals, Splenda, etc., to leave out these “details” is just to fail to answer the question at all.  Rosenberg is like the guy who contracts to build you a house, clears the ground a little, and then takes off without doing anything else -- dismissing your concerns about the absence of a foundation, framework, walls, electrical, plumbing, etc. as mere quibbling over “details.”  Well, no, they’re not mere details.  They’re the house.  

What Rosenberg owes us is an account of how biological adaptation, specifically -- and not just the kind of “adaptation” a resilient inorganic molecule or a pebble exhibits -- can arise from physical processes that initially involve no biological adaptation at all.  And that means he owes us an account of what life is -- an account that makes it evident exactly how the sort of “adaptations” he describes add up to the kind a living thing exhibits.  But “What is life?” is a question which (oddly for a professional philosopher of biology) Rosenberg does not directly address.  He just speaks of “adaptation” sans phrase, and insinuates, without argument, that having given an account of processes that might in some extended sense of the word be called “adaptation,” he has thereby given an account of life.  

Now the Aristotelian tradition has, of course, an account of what life is.  Living things, it says, are those which exhibit immanent causation as well as transeunt (or “transient”) causation; non-living things exhibit transeunt causation alone.  Transeunt causal processes are those that terminate in something outside the cause.  Immanent causal processes are those which terminate within the cause and tend to its good or flourishing (even if they also have effects external to the cause).  For example, an animal’s digesting of a meal is a causal process that tends to the good or flourishing of the animal itself (though it also has byproducts external to the animal, such as the waste products it excretes).  By contrast, one rock’s knocking into another is a transeunt causal process, in that it does not in any sense tend to the good or flourishing of the rock itself.  (I had reason to address these matters in an earlier post.  I also address them in chapter 4 of Aquinas.  The best recent treatment of issues in the philosophy of biology from an Aristotelian point of view is in chapters 8 and 9 of David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.  If you’re up for tracking down older Scholastic works on the subject, you might look for Henry Koren’s An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animate Nature or George Klubertanz’s Philosophy of Human Nature.)

Whatever the details, the Aristotelian conception of life is irreducibly teleological, for the notion of causal processes that tend toward the good or flourishing of the cause is itself inherently teleological.  (Though it is important to stress that the kind of teleology characteristic of living things is only one, relatively rare sort of teleology; and also that -- contrary to what Darwinian naturalists and “Intelligent Design” theorists alike suppose -- whether there is teleology in nature and whether there is a “designer” are separate questions.  On these issues, see my article “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide” and my various posts criticizing ID theory from an Aristotelian point of view.  I should also note here that the “immanent causes vs. transeunt causes” distinction in Aristotelian philosophy of biology is different from the “immanent finality vs. extrinsic finality” distinction that arises in discussions of the question of whether final causality is immanent to the natural order -- as Aristotelians claim -- or whether it is entirely extrinsic or imposed from outside -- as moderns like Newton and Paley claim.)  

Rosenberg, who claims that teleology of any sort has been banished by physics and that “the physical facts fix all the facts,” will naturally have no truck with this conception of life.  But if the Aristotelian is correct to hold that life is an inherently teleological notion, then Rosenberg’s position vis-à-vis life is implicitly eliminativist: If life is inherently teleological but there is no teleology, then there are no living things either; there only seem to be.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that Rosenberg is committed to denying that there is a real difference between you and your corpse.  But it would mean that whatever important differences there are between you and a corpse, or you and the “adaptive” inorganic molecules Rosenberg describes, the difference does not involve your having some teleological or irreducibly “life-like” features that they lack.

But you needn’t be an Aristotelian to regard Rosenberg’s position on life as implicitly eliminativist.  Rosenberg implies that his account of adaptation is not merely an account of life that is consistent with scientism; he evidently regards it as the only account that is consistent with it.  Though he finesses the details, he is committed to the proposition that there cannot be any “adaptation” in the world that doesn’t boil down to the sort of thing he describes when he tells us his story about how Splenda is an example of “variation,” resilient inorganic molecules are instances of “fitness,” and so on.  Rosenberg’s Infallible Dogma -- “The physical facts fix all the facts!” -- cannot allow anything more than this; certainly it is hard to see how we could add any more to it without bringing in something like the Aristotelian notion of immanent causation and its attendant teleology.

Now, that means that biological adaptations must in Rosenberg’s view be entirely continuous with inorganic “adaptations” of the sort he describes.  And that means in turn that we are faced with a choice if we buy into Rosenberg’s premises.  We could say, on the one hand, that Rosenberg’s resilient inorganic molecules -- and, for all I know, pebbles too -- are “really” “living” things after all, even if very simple kinds of life.  (On this interpretation, when contemplating a crystal or a pebble, Rosenberg might soon find himself channeling Colin Clive, or maybe Gene Wilder.)  Alternatively, we could say that since inorganic molecules really are inorganic and so-called “living” things are not essentially different from them, it follows that so-called “living” things are “really” no more alive than inorganic molecules, pebbles, and the like are.  Again, this doesn’t mean that Rosenberg would have to deny that you differ significantly from a corpse or an inorganic molecule -- any more than, as an eliminativist about intentionality, he would deny that there is a significant difference between the words you utter and random noises.  But just as he would deny that the words you utter really have any meaning or semantic content that random noises lack, so too (on this latter interpretation) would he deny that there is any such thing as “life” which you have and the corpse or inorganic molecule lacks.

Given that Rosenberg clearly holds that the bottom-level physical facts determine what we should say about higher levels rather than the other way around, and given that he is already more than happy to eliminate other higher-level phenomena from our picture of the world, it is pretty clear that this latter, eliminativist view of life is the one Rosenberg is implicitly committed to.  And I don’t see why he couldn’t shrug his shoulders in agreement, given the other things he’s willing to say.  (Again, Rosenberg does in his book Darwinian Reductionism claim to be a reductionist rather than eliminativist vis-à-vis biology, but what he is directly addressing in that context is the question of whether functional descriptions pick out real features of the biological realm, rather than the question of whether there is a real distinction between living and non-living things.  Anyway, as I have said, I’ll discuss that book in a follow-up post.)

The problem with all of this isn’t that it’s absolutely bizarre, though of course it is.  The problem is that there is simply no reason whatsoever to take it seriously.  In particular, there is no reason at all to think that whatever is true of bacteria and bees, trees and toads, pigs and people is entirely exhausted by what physics tells us about these things, as Rosenberg understands “physics.”  It isn’t biological science, but ideological scientism that leads him to suppose otherwise.  And as we have seen, his sole argument for scientism is entirely devoid of merit.  Biological phenomena, as Rosenberg represents them, are like something you’d find in a taxidermist’s shop -- bits of dead matter stripped from a corpse and sewn onto a framework of cold wiring and stuffing, so as vaguely to look like something living.  Here as elsewhere, Rosenberg guides us, not to reality, but to a Frankenstein’s-monster-like simulacrum of reality. 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...