Friday, October 29, 2004

Anti-Evolutionism in Dover, Pennsylvania

Anti-Evolutionism Establishes an Ironic Precedent in a state formerly known for progressive religious tolerance

I suppose this is a symptom of the larger movement in the US toward acceptance of religious conservatism as a common vision, and its (to many of us) frightening tendency to reverse all of the gains made by the tradition of Jefferson's more secularized and tolerant democracy.

I live in Pennsylvania and have always been proud of the history of religious tolerance found in this state. Even small Protestant groups like the Friends (Quakers) couldn't have existed in places like Virginia at the birthplace of the nation much prior to the 1st ammendment. So it is with great disappointment and embarrasment that I read the following article about the Dover school board voting to include theology in the science classroom and by any reasonable account thereby effectively mandate the teaching of theistic religion in science classes. I would find this objectionably of place even in a good private religious school science classroom, but in a public school it is also blatantly illegal. It's very disturbing to see the Constitutional protections that allowed the Friends and my Jewish grandparents to live in peace in Pennsylvania without having the state push the most popular current flavor of theism onto our children against our wishes.

Understand, I'm not even one of these people who is particularly opposed to prayers in school, so long as they are more a matter of solidarity and community than advocating a particular religion and they don't put people of different religions at each others' throats as we once had between Catholics and Protestants in many public schools before the perhaps excessive ban on all prayer. So long as different religions aren't at each other's throats, I think everyone but perhaps a subset of militant atheists might be ok with some degree of reverence in public. However, crossing the line into teaching (essentially a minority subset of orthodox Christian theology) in science class is an unprecedented violation that goes well beyond any reasonable and understandable show of reverence or appreciation of religious diversity. There is a very well established line being crossed there, and it is being crossed.

In response, I sent the following email to Dover Area School District Board President Alan Bonsell via email at

Please consider my emphatic plea that the school board of the Dover Area School District reverse its decision to include "Intelligent Design" (ID) in its biology curriculum as soon as possible.

I'm well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of both evolutionary theory and intelligent design theory, so I am in a good position to make this evaluation. Regardless of what individual politicians and school board members think of the issue personally, there is simply no credible legal precedent or ethical justification for the inclusion of the theological intelligent design philosophy in basic science classes. This is an unprecedented and blatantly unconstitutional incursion of school board sponsored and even mandated religion into a science curriculum.

Indeed, it is universally agreed among both opponents and proponents of ID, that it is intended as a form of theology, or religion. See for example ID author William Dembski's text on Design Inference "as a bridge between science and theology."

Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory. It fails the criteria for a real scientific theory laid out in the 1982 court decision, McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education, namely that real science is: (1) guided by natural - physical or biological - law; (2) explanatory by reference to natural law; (3) testable against the empirical world; (4) tentative in its conclusions; and (5) falsifiable, i.e., makes predictions that can be tested by observation.

Intelligent Design is a philosophical and theological position and in my opinion and that of most educators and scientists it is based upon the misrepresentation of evolution as a "contested" theory. In fact, the theory of evolution is accepted with the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community. ID is, even according to its primary supporters and authors, intended to redefine science to include the Creator of Christianity. This is done while attempting to discredit the current scientific consensus. This is clearly not an issue for a basic science class.

Teaching ID to the students of the Dover Area School District and giving them the impression that the theory of evolution through natural selection is somehow "controversial" in the scientific community is preparing them for a lifetime of uninformed ignorance.

The Dover Area School Board members are an utter embarassment to the State of Pennsylvania, a proud birthplace of religious tolerance and long respected in the nation for our opposition of this kind of state mandated religion.

Teach the scientific pros and cons of every theory of course, but don't drag religion in to try to fill the theoretical gaps that board members imagine is in a science curriculum. This is not an ethical or desired role for a school board in my opinion.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Intelligent Design and The Meaning of Creation and Evolution

Intelligent Design: The Meaning of Creation and Evolution

We care very much about what other people believe and what sort of communities they participate in. It matters to us somewhat whether other people believe in fairies or demons or astrology. It matters to us much more what communities they belong to and the threat posed by well-organized opposing groups. That's why most scientists and educators are only bemused and vaguely threatened by horoscopes, but deeply concerned about intelligent design.

Intelligent design is the intellectual leading edge of a broader grassroots movement opposed to modern secularism in education in science. The core argument is that what most of us think of as deity ("intelligent designer") has been arbitrarily and wrongly rejected by the traditions of science, and as a result we have been subjected to an empty materialistic science that doesn't really explain what it is widely assumed to explain: particularly the diversity of life on earth.

The issue is very heated and takes place primarily over the battleground of education. Politicians are proposing legislation which forces schools to teach that evolutionary biology is relatively discredited as science compared to other sciences, and that intelligent design is on equal scientific grounds.

It is true that many of the ID proponents avoid saying that they are talking about deity when they talk about "intelligence." They sometimes say that "intelligence" could be an advanced extraterrestrial or a process in nature of some kind. Let's be clear on one very important point. Any such intelligence that could do what the ID proponents hypothesize about (create life and worlds through an act of planning without any evident means) would be indistinguishable from what we commonly call a god (whether it is the God imagined by Jews, Christians, and Muslims or not). Just as any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, any sufficiently advanced alien creator would be indistinguishable from God. We are indeed talking about "Creator" as well as "designer" when we discuss intelligent design.

That's why the prolific ID author Phillip Johnson argues against naturalism in science, and why ID theorist William Dembski argues that his "design inference" is "a bridge between science and theology." It is also why the word Creator is capitalized in many of the intelligent design legislations that are being proposed. And of course this is one of the big reasons why many people feel so threatened about intelligent design.

We have a long tradition in U.S. politics of keeping anything that resembles anyone's religion out of public matters, in order to avoid having big religious groups dominate minority religious groups. We also have a long tradition in modern science of rejecting the idea that natural phenomena should be explained in terms of planning. This rejection of teleological thinking in science is the intellectual issue at the forefront of the ID movement. They want to reverse it, to discredit the idea that adaptation is a sufficient explanation for form and function, and have natural phenomena explained presumably in terms of processes of Creation or "design" that is explicitly planned in some sense.

It isn't clear that the two underlying stories at stake, evolution and creation, are neccessarily as incompatible as our "culture war" politics and some of our intellectual traditions have often made them. The evolutionary story is about the appearance of form and function through natural processes over time and the creation story is about the meaningful emergence of new things. Evolution can certainly produce creation, or even Creation, and many theologians argue that way. Creation could also produce evolution, as the deists and some others have sometimes argued. Creation and evolution have existed in parallel for centuries, with evolution being taught as science and creation taught as religion.

Intelligent design is notably different from these views. The people involved in ID do not want to reconcile the evolution and creation stories, they consider the evolution story something to debunk, primarily because of its rejection of the possibility of what they see as an obvious fact, the intelligent design of life's diversity.

ID is clearly not theistic evolutionism. ID is explicitly opposed to something that is central to the evolutionary story. It is most specifically opposed to materialism, the view that matter is fundamental and that life consists of properties of matter. The evolutionary story in science is naturalistic, or relies explicitly on natural processes. Since the scientific tradition considers spirit or "intelligence" in some sense a property of nature rather than an independent substance or process, it does not allow for a separate "intelligence" to have planned and carried out a plan of creation.

Of course, there are various clever ways to try to reconcile the existence of a deity with an unplanned but meaningful evolutionary process, especially if we downplay the planning aspect and focus on the emergence of novel form and function. ID is a strategy of conflict, however, not one of reconcilliation. It is part of the so-called "culture war." When William Dembski says that his concept of Design Inference "bridges science and theology" his idea is surely not to find a place for God to hide in quantum physics. His focus is to show that adaptation cannot explain the diversity of life, that we must accept in science the existence of the sort of designer that (presumably by coincidence) many people already accept in their personal beliefs.

Dembski is part of a far larger intellectual community that considers it undesireable to deliberately and systematically keep God and secular education apart. He is a leading intellectual edge of an anti-secularist movement to oppose the separation of church and state and the sanctioning of state religion.

It isn't just change in species over time, or common origins that ID proponents oppose, although they are often disposed against those things. What unites ID as an intellectual community and is implicit in their very concept of "intelligence" is the fundamental distinction we tend to make between spirit and matter. You simply cannot be an ID proponent and yet agree that spirit is just some higher level property of matter. Spirit, or "intelligence" must be prior to and separate from matter in order to believe that it can be causally responsible for planning and creating physical things.

That's why evolutionary biology is a theory of "design," yet not a theory of "intelligent design." Naturalistic evolutionary theory is an explanation of the origin of form and function, but it does not allow for any sort of planning to have taken place. Why? Because of the tradition of materialism. Intelligence, in a materialistic theory, must be a result of matter, but a cause of it. The hypothetical design process in naturalistic evolution would have to reside within nature itself as some sort of algorithm, such as the one described by Dan Dennett in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," or as a "telic process" of some sort, as in process theology.

So now it is more obvious what distinguishes intelligent design from Darwinian design, and why the issue matters to people. Darwinian design (apparently) starts with a lifeless universe of matter and tries to find some way of explaining how things that are important to us have arisen from that lifeless matter by means of algorithmic processes in nature. Intelligent design starts with spirit (the traditional theological term for "intelligence") and explains everything in terms of planned design. It's not hard to see why the ID story is compelling to those who are not heavily committed to the secular thinking traditions.

The challenge left to those of us who understand the great explanatory power and deep scientific and philosophical importance of the evolutionary story to offer an equally compelling vision. The very soul of the secular scientific tradition of the past several centuries is at stake if education is being altered at the grassroots level to discredit evolutionary biology, since it is the central explanatory schema in all of biological science. Our greatest obstacle is that the creation story is far more emotionally compelling than the evolution story during periods like this when there is great anxiety among us. Creation in religion offers a common vision of a knowing, caring God as opposed to the promise of an ever-changing world. Evolution in science offers real scientific insight into our natural origins, but always in the form of hypotheses. Fear leads us to choose certainties rather than hypotheses, to judge and act rather than to reflect and think.
What is at stake is the ability of our descendents to reflect and think and benefit from scientific insights into life.

It matters to us whether other people believe that we are not all the children of the same Creator. It should also matter to us whether we have the tools to understand the natural world. Intelligent design is a compelling story that offers us a non-secular alternative to science that is devoid of explanatory power. Knowing that there is an intelligent designer responsible for the world would not help us understand the natural world any better. Our commitment to evolutionary biology is as essential for our education as our commitment to physics, chemistry, mathematics, reading, and history.


For those in doubt that it is the redefinition of science, essentially a cultural attack on science, that is at stake, the following makes the point clear. The Michigan Bill would force educators to teach that basic facts of natural history accepted by most educated people for centures regardless of their religion are essentially "unproven," that the species do not change over time but appear out of nowhere as in the literal story of Creation in scripture. If there is any doubt of the relationship of "intelligent design" and anti-secularism, this should

While talking about "intelligent design" as a supposedly alternate scientific theory to the theories of natural selection and common origins, the various state legislations regarding the subject generally capitalize the word Creator, as in Michigan House Bill #4946 introduced by Republican Ken Bradstreet. Along with the matching Senate Bill 5005, it proposes to modify the school code (1976 PA 451), by adding section 10:

a) In the science standards, all references to "evolution" and "how species change through time" shall be modified to indicate that this is an unproven theory by adding the phrase "All students will explain the competing theories of evolution and natural selection based on random mutation and the theory that life is the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a Creator."
(b) In the science standards for middle and high school, all references to "evolution" and "natural selection" shall be modified to indicate that these are unproven theories by adding the phrase "Describe how life may be the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a Creator."
(c) In the science standards for middle and high school, all references to "evolution" and "natural selection" shall be modified to indicate that these are unproven theories by adding the phrase "Explain the competing theories of evolution and natural selection based on random mutation and the theory that life is the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a Creator."

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Scientific Explanations as Narrative

Scientific Explanations as Narrative?

Some thoughts on the question of whether science is some sort of a story roughly equivalent myth to other stories.

This is a touchy subject because of the politics involved in the so-called “science wars.” If you take it seriously rather than just dismissing all externalist philosophy or sociology of science as “postmodernism” out of hand, this one is even trickier than the mind/body problem, because it is more abstract. At least the mind/body problem can be reduced to empirical questions if you assume a materialist framework. This one actually questions the way we explain things in any framework in general, if we rely on “scientific thinking,” which most people today consider roughly the same thing as so-called hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Where is truth, if different explanations might be supported by the same evidence, as implied by the underdeterminism thesis?

What exactly do wemean by science (processes, methods, institutions, traditions, etc.) and committing to that definition; does it really rely on narrative exposition in some sense? Why? Is narrative exposition helpful or essential?
If it does depend on narrative, then how do you distinguish the narrative(s) underlying science narrative from others?
In what way is it possible, if it is possible, to translate propositions in the context of one story into propositions in the context of another? Is it possible for something to be true for one person and false for another … under what conditions, and under what conditions would that NOT apply?

In addition to the usual philosophy of science sources, a valuable source for this is “Rationalism and Relativism,” edited by Hollis and Lukes. Lots of useful examples of different ways of distinguishing “one sort of reasoning” or one “conceptual frame” from another.

Also I recently found some interesting ideas in this paper:

This one is near and dear to my heart, since it asks the questions about the nature of reasoning that I care about most, in addition to planting a stake in the issue of the nature and justification of scientific knowledge.

Dualism and its modern nuances

"Dualism" and its modern nuances

To my understanding, most people are dualists of some sort since: (1) we have a powerful intuition that mental events are real in some sense and not just an artifact of physical processes, and (2) the properties of mental phenomena are extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to describe in purely physical terms. At the very least, most of us acknowledge that the very fact that we are so compelled to talk about minds the way we do means that they have their own kind of description, and thus their own properties in some sense. There are an awful lot of nuances possible within this grand view, however.

To clarify a point about “dualism,” consider some conventional alternatives for comparison, and focus on good examples (definitional entries copied from )

Dualism in general, with classical examples:

Most generally, the view that reality consists of two disparate parts. In philosophy of mind, the belief that the mental and physical are deeply different in kind: thus the mental is at least not identical with the physical.

That is a very different proposition from the claim that that they are “independent” or saying that “the mental cannot be reduced to the physical.” Not to mention that “independent” and “reduce” can mean vastly different things in different contexts.

First important question: are mental and physical “different objects” or are they “different properties of the same object?” Answering that gets you off the back of people who think you are making “Descartes’s error.”

Second question (nuance): If mental and physical are different properties of the same object (presumably brain, or body and their associated processes in the materialist tradition) then what is the relationship of those properties. Is it causal, and in what way? Is it descriptive or explanatory (does it provide a way of describing things that cannot be achieved otherwise) ?

Third question (nuance): Can one be subsumed entirely within the other (“supervenience”)?

Fourth question (nuance): Can one be explained entirely in terms of the models we use to describe the other, either in principle or in practice? What sort of translation is possible and how?



Property Dualism

The view that the mental and the physical comprise two different classes of property that are coinstantiated in the same objects

According to property dualism, even though mental properties are totally different than physical properties, they are nonetheless all properties of the same kinds of objects. Thus, for example, a single object instantiates the property of my being six feet tall and my believing that the Eiffel tower is in France. Property dualism is compatible with the token identity thesis, but not the type identity thesis. Property dualists are typically, if not unanimously, anti-reductionists about the mental, which is to say, they deny that it is in-principle possible to translate mental predicates into physical predicates.

Substance Dualism

The view that the mental and the physical comprise two different classes of objects: minds and bodies.

Perhaps the most famous proponent of substance dualism was Descartes, who cashed out the distinction between minds and bodies as follows: minds are things that think but lack spatial magnitude, and bodies are things that have spatial magnitudes, but don't think. Different substance dualists may disagree as to how best to define what's essential to being mental and physical, but they do agree that the difference in question is one of objects, not properties. So, for example, my belief that the Eiffel tower is in France and my being six feet tall are properties of different objects, i.e., my mind and my body, respectively.

If you see mental and physical as having some causal connection, it can easily be distinguished from the various forms of parallelism, the classical forms of dualism which do not connect them directly in any causal way (I suspect they have variants that still have modern adherents):

Occasionalism: Espoused by Clauberg, de la Forge and Malebranche, occasionalism entails the contention that everything is devoid of causal efficacy and that God is the only truly causal agent. So, for example, placing your hand on a hot stove is does not cause pain, but is rather an occasion for God to cause the mental state of pain. So, not only mind/body interactions, but all causal interactions become the work of God.

Preestablished harmony: This doctrine was formulated by Leibniz and is basically Cartesian interactionist dualism without the interaction. Thus, rather than causal interaction, God has provided setup in which the mental and physical are synchronized so as to provide this appearance. However, it should be noted that Leibniz himself was not a dualist: for him there were no physical substances, these were just appearances. Nevertheless, this position is often considered a possible dualistic solution to the mind-body problem.

Both occasionalism and preestablished harmony are considered instances of parallelism: the view that the mental and physical realms co-occur but are not causally connected.

More usefully, if you do see M and P as having some causal connection, then it is very helpful to distinguish it.

supervenience - A set of properties or facts M supervenes on a set of properties or facts P if and only if there can be no changes or differences in M without there being changes or differences in P.

In other words, the mental supervenes on the physical if it is impossible to have mental events that have no physical correlates whatsoever. This is one of the most useful and nuanced ways to talk about “independence.” The term was introduced by the late Donald Davidson, but Jaegwon Kim has written some of the most interesting modern analysis about supervenience in mind-body questions.

Seeking common discourse between secularists and conservatives

In order to communicate things of importance between different groups of people with different traditions of reasoning, you must find some means of building a common discourse.

My own proposal for this is to identify the background conceptual models and lineage of each tradition to see how each is rational and then find ways to compare them in different contexts with mutually agreed objective standards. That's based pretty much on the principles of integrative negotiation plus the principle of tradition-bound reasoning.

For example, God is "ultimately implausible" mostly in the tradition that began with the 18th c French philosophers, peaked with Voltaire, and represents largely their reaction to the religious wars and consequently blaming "organized religion." But we are also a product of Hume and the Scottish Enlightenment, Aristotelian and Aquinan reasoning and so on, and several other traditions that are less dogmatic in their atheism and in their certainty that God, social order, and morality are completely dissociable. By not respecting the fact that God is perfectly rational within some traditions of reasoning, we miss the point and refuse to engage the argument fairly.

Also, by not recognizing that a number of different traditions of reasoning are alive and well in jurisprudence, politics, religion, and even within science, we miss the chance to figure out what they are really arguing about.

I think the valuable thing about *secularism* as manifested most dramatically in the Deists of Locke's tradition was not the implausibility it rendered to the supernatural, but the fact that it promoted a form of increasingly universal discourse by focusing on things that were least specific to particular other traditions. The liberal university tradition of modern times is a deliberately self-reflective discourse where we make every effort to make it as universal as possible. However, we have also found that it can only be taken so far. The extremes of poststructuralist gibberish are a logical result of trying to take rationalist discourse so far skeptically that we discount every possible totalizing system or grand narrative, and we end up with implicit stories ones that are worse than the ones being deconstructed. Atheism is one of the artifacts of the Enlightenment tradition off slightly to the side of scientific traditions.

With increasingly universal discourse comes the possibility of the rule of law, and so on. But only when there is an underlying social order supporting it. That was Burke's insight, and also Toqueville's, I think.

American conservatives often take Burke and Toqueville to the point where they see secularism as a kind of totalizing system equivalent with militant atheism. That's an error. There are many more religious secularists than atheist secularists. Religious secularists are people who implicitly recognize the tendency of competing totalizing systems to dominate discourse and so want to "keep religion out of the public square." They are largely motivated by the recognition that big religions tend to suppress little ones, which is why the most active secularists historically have been small active Protestant churches and Jews. They have the most to lose by having a state religion, as much as the atheists do.

Religious conservatives see secularism itself as a form of competing religion to theirs, partly because they miss the point that it is a more universal discourse, but also because they correctly observe that discourse that becomes too universallized also loses much of its social function and its overall coherence, unless it also becomes a totalizing system like that of religions. Thus Atheism becomes a quasi-religion because it cannot be coherent and serve the solidarity of a group of intellectuals without a narrative akin to that of religion.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Some "Big Picture" thoughts from cognitive science, EP, and related fields I've been tossing around lately. The notes in parens mean something specific to me and my bookshelves and all those little piles all over floor, but I haven't included the formal cites here.

1. The human mind is probably both computational and a symbol processor (Marcus, Algebraic Brain). It seems to have adapted selectively not just to drive behavior (Sociobiology) or produce discrete computational devices (Cosmides and Tooby) but also (and particularly in human beings) to process information efficiently (Churchland and Critics). One important possibility is that the human brain became adapted to exploit semantics for highly selective computational purposes (Baum).

2. Much human perception and concept formation relies on prototypes (Lakoff, Johnson). At least for perception, this may have a computational basis in ""neural networks"" (Churchland). There appear to be functionally distinct domains of prototypes (ontological domains) (Atran).

3. The more perception and concepts rely on prototypes rather than ""classical categories,"" the less a pure objectivist framework applies and the more framing and metaphor are needed to help apply reasoning from mental categories to real situations.

4. Much abstract reasoning relies on metaphor. This makes abstract reasoning pluralistic but not arbitrary. (George Lakoff, Mark Johnson)

5. The more that reasoning relies on metaphor, the more it is bound to particular systems of metaphor and particular traditions of interpretation and argumentation. (bridging from Mark Johnson to Macintyre)

6. Normative reasoning is abstract thinking which relies heavily on systems of metaphor and is generally bound to a particular tradition of interpretation and argumentation. (bridging from Johnson to Macintyre)

7. Political thinking and moral thinking are linked because of their normative aspect: both are bound to systems of metaphor regarding human nature and the human mind and traditions of interpretation and argumentation. (Lakoff, Johnson, Sowell, Macintyre)------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
8. The less that abstract reasoning depends on metaphor, the less it is bound to particular systems of metaphor and particular traditions of interpretation and argumentation.
9. The modern tradition of liberal democracy reflects a particular attempt to minimize our reliance on other traditions and seek universal moral and political principles and reasoning. (Johnson, Macintyre)

10. Scientific reasoning is based on a particular evolving tradition of interpretation and argumentation (epistemic values, naturalism) and uses particular systems of metaphors to help construct new theories (e.g. mechanical metaphors for physics, intentional metaphors for psychology), but attempts to find a universal description, and to reduce dependence upon metaphor for description. (Atran)

Of possible value:

In What Is Thought? Eric Baum proposes a computational explanation of thought. Just as Erwin Schr?ger in his classic 1944 work What Is Life? argued ten years before the discovery of DNA that life must be explainable at a fundamental level by physics and chemistry, Baum contends that the present-day inability of computer science to explain thought and meaning is no reason to doubt there can be such an explanation.

Baum argues that the complexity of mind is the outcome of evolution, which has built thought processes that act unlike the standard algorithms of computer science and that to understand the mind we need to understand these thought processes and the evolutionary process that produced them in computational terms.

Baum proposes that underlying mind is a complex but compact program that corresponds to the underlying structure of the world. He argues further that the mind is essentially programmed by DNA. We learn more rapidly than computer scientists have so far been able to explain because the DNA code has programmed the mind to deal only with meaningful possibilities.

Thus the mind understands by exploiting semantics, or meaning, for the purposes of computation; constraints are built in so that although there are myriad possibilities, only a few make sense. Evolution discovered corresponding subroutines or shortcuts to speed up its processes and to construct creatures whose survival depends on making the right choice quickly. Baum argues that the structure and nature of thought, meaning, sensation, and consciousness therefore arise naturally from the evolution of programs that exploit the compact structure of the world.

Todd's posts on Panda'a Thumb

The Panda's Thumb is an anti-anti-Evolution site with some surprisingly civil and constructive discussions.

Some recent posts of mine there:

(1) On Del Ratszch and his take on the design concept in science:

I think the key to appreciating the relationship between Del Ratszch and ID
is in his comment “We don’t yet have a good definition of science,” rather than
his comments on design.

His comments on design raise the reasonable
philosophical question of whether (and when) viewing something as designed helps
you understand it and theorize about it. Dan Dennett approaches a similar
question in The Intentional Stance, regarding whether it sometimes makes sense
to view something as having goals or intentions that don’t break down into other
causal models. He concludes that it does indeed.

In the case of viewing the universe as designed, of course we have a
long legacy of dispute. Humans have a demonstrated temptation to see
“agency” where it doesn’t in fact exist, but we also see it when it does make
sense to see it.

The question becomes whether the design inference contributes more than
the risk of misperceiving it, and most parties are right to point out that it
has not demonstrated any such thing yet, but could “in theory.”

So we return to what I consider Ratszch’s more critical claim, that we
have no adequate definition of science. That’s where the open
philosophical question of the value or danger of assuming “design” becomes
assumed to be solved, by being introduced into science as if it were established
canonical principles equivalent with evolutionary biology. Should we teach
people to gather data and ask questions based on the assumption that the
universe is designed, and biological differences are “gifts” from some sort of
‘telic’ or planned design process or entity. Or should this be the
province of people who are already educated as scientists and choose to spend
their time in this way.

That’s where I think we need to raise objection to Ratzsch’s
characterization, the point where we supposedly have no reliable way to
distinguish established science from frontier science, proto-science, or
“pseudo”-science. We do have a way of distinguishing them, and ironically
for the tradition of positivism, it is a social criteria. Scientists work
together in networks that share assumptions and ways of reasoning, so they can
work on the same questions and apply evidence to them in the same way.
Some of them are independent of each other, but we choose the most reliable and
well established over time and the best generalized principles for textbook
We can agree somewhat with Feyerabend’s scientific anarchy
regarding what might possibly constitute potential science, without it making
any sense at all to introduce it as textbook science. As much as frontier
science and proto-science may be defensible in principle, we don’t teach them as
if they were basic. That’s where the *anti-secularist* element of
anti-evolutionism rears its ugly (imo) head, quite apart from the speculations
about “design inference.”

The “teach the controversy” concept is ridiculous at the grassroots
level that the antievolution political movement is trying to introduce it, even
if it makes sense to many people as a philosophical and theological
question. It is not a controversy of basic science, it is partly a
philosophical division and partly a political anti-secularist movement.

kind regards,

(2) On varying perceptions of the evidence for natural selection:

Charlie Wagner writes:

How come you folks spend *all* of your time
and effort asttempting to
debunk intelligent design and not one single erg
of energy or second of time
defending evolutionary theory? It would seem to
me that the best defense would
be to elucidate a comprehensive and
believable alternative to ID, something
which evolutionists have NEVER

I have to agree strongly with some of the other posts. In my
experience, there is a small literature critical of intelligent design, but
is dwarfed by the literature of evolutionary biology, a significant
portion of
which is dedicated to exactly what Charlie is asking for.
He is reading
very selectively. Many authors who are critical of ID’s
slant still make similar points to the ID theorists in other
ways, as ID authors
often point out.

In general, it occurs to
me that people who approach this topic either
find ubiquitous adaptationism
plausible or they don’t, based on how they’ve been
conditioned to see
it. They either read Origin of Species (if they bother
to read it) and
think, “wow, what a remarkable way of thinking about life’s
diversity,” or
they think it seems to have limited plausibility but to be a
suspicious. The folks that find it a bit suspect either become
critical of universal Darwinism and ubiquitous adaptationism like Gould, or
anti-evolutionist like Dembski. They differ widely on how much they
can be explained solely by “selection and mutation” and on what they
think the
missing piece or pieces might look like. They fill in the
blanks from
whatever they do happen to find plausible.

My own
impression is that the suspicion itself is healthy. The
reason that ID
is particularly threatening to many is probably more its
anti-secular aspect
than just its anti-adaptationist aspect. To me, we
should remain
suspicious of how much any grand theory of form and function can
but we should also use it to build and test hypotheses. Even if
“design” is plausibly useful to build testable hypotheses, adaptation has a
successful track record in fruitful hypothesis testing. To me,
that it does not simply demonstrates a failure to look very hard
for it, or an
unwllingness to accept anything as an adequate example of
adaptationist explanation.
kind regards,
(3) On the relationship of political orientation and temperament:

The thought that politics and temperament are somehow related
apparently occurs to nearly every one of us at some point, and is not entirely
unfounded. However, at the very least, a great deal of evidence gathered
in political science shows the relationship between temperament and political
orientation to be extremely complex, and varying with various kinds of
circumstances, not the least of which is the varying composition of each of the
various historical parties. I’m not the first to notice with some irony
that in the U.S. for example the party of Lincoln is also the party of

Yet there are different ways that people think about the same
issues, ways that can be reasonably linked to ideological vantage points.
Different ways of defining such central abstractions as personhood, loyalty,
fairness, justice, and human nature.

It seems likely to me that these
are distinct traditions or styles of reasoning that are each coherent to their
practitioners, the people that interact with each other using the same kind of
reasoning. Political party leaders are people who rely paerticularly
heavily on the abstractions of one style of reasoning and are motivated to avoid
engaging different ones.

For most of us outside of politics, that is
usually not the case. We are less politically polarized because we are
less reliant on and immersed in a particular tradition of reasoning, although we
may still tend to think more from a particular tradition most of the time when
forced to make choices related to the relevant abstracts.

challenge for intellectuals seems to me not to be to pick a tradition of
political or moral reasoning and argue for it, but to recognize what each is
talking about and translate it into common terms as far as possible so that more
universal criteria of value can be applied to the reasoning. What it seems
to take is to enter into a particular way of reasoning by interacting with
people who reason in that way and picking up on the way they treat the various
important abstractions.

This is an activity that probably cannot take
place within the context of politics because political activism is neccessarily
ideological and neccessarily dependent upon garnering a broad base of support,
which requires a single coherent way of framing the “issues.”

We need
to keep reminding ourselves that polarized thinking within each tradition of
reasoning seems perfectly logical within each tradition, but is based on
different ways of defining abstractions and thus distorts understanding of the
underlying reality.

There need to be intellectuals and journalists who
can translate between the different ways of thinking and help us see what each
is saying, in order to make more intelligent choices between them rather than
being driven mostly by fear mongering or radical idealism.

That is, if
the ideal of intelligent civic responsibility is still worthwhile.


Saturday, May 01, 2004

Philosophical Generosity and Richard Dawkins

In Ektopos, Matthew writes:

Philosophical Generosity (AKA Why do I hate Richard Dawkins)

I’ve been wondering why it is that every time I see Dawkins name my blood just boils, especially when I see a quote. I figured out last night that I get irritated not so much by Dawkins ideas as by his attitude. Simply put Dawkins lacks philosophical generosity. Perhaps it is the case that this was not a concept that anyone ever taught young Dawkins at Oxford. Perhaps it might stem from the fact that Dawkins studied zoology and not philosophy. Whatever the case you would think that Dawkins would have stumbled across the concept by now.

I think the concept is really rather simple. When discussing philosophical matters try and give the most positive reading to your opponent, remember that you may think your opponent wrong but that doesn’t necessitate them being stupid, and try to act magnanimously .

I’m wondering if anyone else ever learned of such a concept, or maybe it’s just my little neck of the woods? Perhaps such a notion is well spirited but wrong-headed?

I agree with this assessment, and I'm gratified to hear others taking a similar perspective. The more of Dawkins I read, the more impressed I am by his intellect and his knowledge of certain aspects of biology, and ability to reason through difficult biological theories. However I'm also taken aback by exactly what Matthew calls philosophical ungenerosity.

Dawkins seems very much to assume that anyone reasoning from a background of any theistic tradition is arguing from revelation or "blind faith," and that this is the kind of reasoning that characterizes anything associated with religion. While he's not entirely wrong, it certainly seems to lead him to sometimes to cross that translucently veiled line we all (should) fear into assaulting strawmen.

This is indeed one of the things that for me best distinguishes Dawkins from other people who often take very similar positions on current issues. For example, Dawkins is often aligned in the media with Dennett, for example for their nearly simultaneous and similar assaults on Stephen Jay Gould, and their nearly simultaneous and similar support of the Brights movement. However, to me Dennett is a model of philosophical generosity, and takes great and admirable pains to argue against the strongest form of his opponents argument he can stomach. Some of his dialogs with Rorty are a great example of this.

I agree that philosophical generosity is a worthwhile value, perhaps a core value of what I think of as the modern liberal intellectual tradition, and that we can and should support it both through reasoned argument and by directly expressing our gut feelings about it.

To put the matter succinctly, as it was in a negotiation course I once took, I take as a useful and important guideline to be "hard on principle, but soft on people." To me that translates to giving some benefit of the doubt to opposing viewpoints, to explore them actively rather than simply taking our gut impression of them as accurate and final, but to do this exploration without capitulating on important principles. It's a challenge, but sometimes it isn't hard to identify people who seemingly haven't even accepted the challenge.

Does philosophy succeed or fail?

In response to an interesting post at Ektopos, claiming that philosophy was a failiure and an "untruth," I had some thoughts...

Whether philosophy fails at its goal depends on what the goal is supposed to be. If philosophy is an ongoing endeavor continuous with the Greeks, and if that endeavor was a program to discover the truth about the foundations of knowledge and reality, then yes, it has probably failed thus far. Neither have the sciences yet filled in the gaps, if such a thing is even forthcoming.

If you accept the arguments of the pragmatists, philosophy failed self-consciously to find a foundation for certainty. If you go farther and accept the arguments of many of the latter 20th century philosophers, then philosophy failed even to form a coherent tradition of reasoning from which to explore the questions of importance to us. (I'm partial to the pragmatists, but the latter argument seems to me to often be too pessimistic about human knowledge).

On the other hand, if you think of philosophy in a less conventional way, as a questioning process, identifying the issues and assumptions, grouping issues by intellectual history, traditions of reasoning, and background assumptions, and less emphasizing the solving of problems, then it still seems very relevant to each of us personally in our thinking.

That is to me somewhat independent of academic fashions in philosophy, and not reliant upon technical expertise in the field.

Philosophy as a lifelong study and a way of thinking still supports the individual search for knowledge and wisdom, and serves as a useful way to organize our reasoning, without neccessarily being a solution finding process per se.

Essay about "The Brights" and their goals

Essay about "The Brights" and their goals ...

Originally posted at Ektopos

I'm simultaneously fascinated and disturbed that two issues are so closely linked in our discussions: (1) freedom of speech for atheists, and (2) the value of religious practices and institutions to human life.

The first is the stated goal of the Brights movement, and I can wholeheartedly agree with it. Whether you consider atheism as the lack of religion, a quasi-religion, or modern secular religion, and whether it may be partisan speech in some sense notwithstanding, it is speech deserving of protection, often made by very knowledgeable people deserving of our attention.

That's the critical issue of freedom of philosophical speech. I would argue should include reasoning from secularist traditions and religious ones. I don't think that all speech or all reasoning is equal on merit, but it does seem to me unavoidable that there is more than one rational tradition of value to political and social issues. Either side of an issues like abortion or euthanasia can be argued from progressive/secularist or orthodox religious traditions, in spite of our tendency to associate progressive reasoning with one side (e.g. pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, "pro-death"), and the orthodox reasoning with the other (e.g. "pro-life", anti-euthanasia).

The second issue, raised by Dawkins especially, seems to be linked by Brights to their justification for the first issue: atheists need their speech protected partly because they are right, and partly because people who think differently are not only wrong, but often dangerously wrong. I'm referring to Dawkins' anti-religionism. We all know that atheists are not always anti-religious, but there is a dark side anti-religionism just as there is a dark side to religion. For one thing, it denies the aspect of our nature that makes us think of ourselves as spiritual beings.

This comes very close to presenting a paradox to the humanistic values espoused by the Brights. We probably don't need to escape naturalism entirely in order to value a human spirit and share an optimistic and egalitarian ethos, that's the central point made by atheist philosophers. However, we do need to frame naturalism in a way that doesn't preclude or discourage the very values we are trying to promote.

That is, Brights have to be careful not to let their argument for free speech get in the way of their core humanistic values, the way we find left liberal political activism sometimes gets in the way of liberalist values, and the way conservative activism against their perceived enemies of social order sometimes gets in the way of their core values as well.

My claim is that thinking of ourselves as spiritual beings is not simply a matter of being superstitious, it is also a way of thinking about persons that supports the reasoning that lies behind some of the core values of humanism.

The rational challenge for Brights seems to me to be separating out the value of a spiritual view of the human person from the specific traditions of theistic reasoning, and moving toward the Enlightenment goal of universal reason in its support. That is, finding a way to incorporate humanity into what are supposed to in principle be non-sectarian traditions of reasoning such as science. That, and recognizing the legitimacy of orthodox religious reasoning, while seeing through its unfortunate frequent dependence on sectarian assumptions.

For the opponents of the Brights, the challenge is recognizing the legitimacy of secular tradition of reasoning. and separating it from its unfortunate frequent dependence on its own sectarian assumptions.

We can argue for atheist speech, which seems important in the current conservative climate in the U.S., while also having a a productive dialog about the roles religion plays in human life, and arguing for some kind of legitimacy of both progressive and orthodox traditions of reasoning. This limited pluralism seems to me a very worthwhile thing to promote in both philosophy of politics. Atheist speech merits protection not because it tells the whole story, but because it often tells an important part, and I would argue that the same is true of some religious speech.

I would argue that the presence or absence of a religious background of assumptions does not determine the value of the reasoning.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Iteration in solving complex problems

Some thoughts on solving complex problems ...

One of the things that characterizes a complex system (system that appears complex to human beings) is our relative inability to predict its behavior, or the result of changes to the system. See Dietrich Dorner's "Logic of Failure" for a good example of the analysis of complex systems and their modes of failure. Dorner's examples have human beings tested in rule-based simulations of complex systems. Presumably, being rule-based, these systems are at least as predictable as real world complex systems, but Dorner's results reflect our inability to predict the cascade of secondary effects of our changes to the systems.

To me, an important implication of this result is that problem solving of complex systems usually has to be iterative, so that we can make changes and observe the results of our changes. Attempts to engineer a solution by making radical changes to a complex system all at once are likely to fail because of the secondary effects of our changes, the ways they interact, and our general failure to envision these secondary effects and interactions. The important lesson is not simply that we have to be careful about predicting these effects and interactions, but that it may be beyond our ability to do so in many kinds of complex systems, or at least so error prone as to be impractical. This has important implications for making changes to existing complex systems as well as creating new ones in a given environment.