Here. My favourite is Dark Matter.
The structure of Fodor’s argument against Darwinism (a paraphrase of the summary in his paper):
- Explaining the distribution of a phenotypic trait in a population requires determining which trait[s] were selected for, not just which traits happened to be selected. In particular, it requires determining which of two coextensive traits was the one that was selected for.
- To determine which of two coextensive traits was the one selected for, we have to consider counterfactuals about which of them would be selected for in possible worlds where they are not coextensive.
- Such counterfactuals can be answered only if there (a) there is an agent that does the selecting, or (b) there are laws of selection.
- There is no agent that does the selecting in Darwinism.
- Due to contextual sensitivity, there are probably no laws of selection.
Conclusion: Darwinism cannot explain the distribution of phenotypic traits in a population.
As I see it, 4. is the only premise that is relatively unproblematic. 1., I think, indicates how Fodor misunderstands Darwinism/natural selection. It is simply untrue that “explaining the distribution of a phenotypic trait in a population would require a notion of ‘selection for’ a trait.” This had already been pointed out to Fodor by Coyne and Kitcher, but evidently he didn’t accept their point. It is quite possible to explain the distribution of traits in a population by how certain genes/individuals/groups (pick your favourite level of selection) were simply [plain vanilla] selected. I doubt that biologists who use the phrase ‘selection for X’ really mean ‘selection for’ in the way Fodor construes it — when pressed, they would concede that it really is just ‘selection of’. ‘Selection for’ is more like a useful mode of thinking that is often wrong but produces enough fruitful predictions that it continues to be used.
Perhaps Fodor wasn’t thinking of the sophisticated explanations of the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology — perhaps his ‘Darwinism’ is vastly different from that. In his Darwinism, it would seem that distributions of traits can be explained only by their being selected for. It is, in short, indistinguishable from an extreme version of adaptationism. Which would explain very nicely how he claims to have discovered the fatal flaw of Darwinism from a consideration of adaptationist evolutionary psychology (EP). It would also explain why he thinks evo-devo is evidence against ‘Darwinism’. His argument as laid out above may be OK against EP, but not against any non-adaptationist version of ‘Darwinism’. And I doubt (although, as I’m neither a biologist nor philosopher of biology, I may be wrong on this) it’s conventional usage to equate Darwinism with strictly adaptationist natural selection. Indeed, the SEP article on Darwinism (written by James Lennox) does not list adaptationism or anything resembling it as one of its principles. All we get there, in fact, is exactly the kind of ‘story’ that Fodor derided Coyne and Kitcher for providing:
The theory can be set out as a series of causal elements that, working together, will produce the needed transformations.
- Species are comprised of individuals that vary ever so slightly from each other with respect to their many traits.
- Species have a tendency to increase in size over generations at an exponential rate.
- This tendency, given limited resources, disease, predation, and so on, creates a constant condition of struggle for survival among the members of a species.
- Some individuals will have variations that give them a slight advantage in this struggle, variations that allow more efficient or better access to resources, greater resistance to disease, greater success at avoiding predation, and so on.
- These individuals will tend to survive better and leave more offspring.
- Offspring tend to inherit the variations of their parents.
- Therefore favorable variations will tend to be passed on more frequently than others, a tendency Darwin labeled ‘Natural Selection’.
- Over time, especially in a slowly changing environment, this process will cause the character of species to change.
- Given a long enough period of time, the descendant populations of an ancestor species will differ enough to be classified as different species, a process capable of indefinite iteration. There are, in addition, forces that encourage divergence among descendant populations, and the elimination of intermediate varieties.
Note that there is nothing in this account that says that the every distribution of every phenotypic trait can be explained by natural selection, or even that most such distributions can. And because this account does not require traits to be selected for, we don’t have to care about answering counterfactuals about possible worlds where polar bears are white but do not match their environment. Hence we don’t need to have laws of selection. In fact, Peter Godfrey-Smith’s reply to Fodor was that there aren’t laws of selection, but not every scientific theory needs to have laws, so it’s not a problem that natural selection doesn’t. Fodor’s reply to him reveals what I think is an appalling lack of understanding of the empirical status of natural selection:
I’m puzzled as to what Godfrey-Smith takes the substance of the theory of natural selection to be. ‘ [W]e can think of the textbook as describing abstract processes, describing actual-world mechanisms, and also bringing the two together… ’ (p. 35). So, is adaptationism merely the thesis that speciation is the product of [some or other] mechanisms and abstract processes? Cf. ‘ we had to destroy it in order to defend it ’ . With such friends, Darwin doesn’ t need enemies.
I have no idea why he feels that “merely” is appropriately used there — why he thinks Godfrey-Smith’s description of the theory of natural selection is demeaning. Any set of “mechanisms and abstract processes” that gives us the quantity and quality of predictions about empirical observations that we have from natural selection should not be brushed aside with a blithe “merely”.
And what of Fodor’s claim, near the end, that although explanations via natural selection aren’t nomic, they can be ‘salvaged’ as ‘historical narratives’? Although I agree that they probably aren’t nomic, I would have to disagree that they are necessarily post hoc. The theory of natural selection is not solely concerned with explaining the past. It also does an admirable job of predicting future observations, as admirably (dare I say) as the likes of quantum mechanics. It’s not just that when such explanations work “they provide plausible historical narratives”. It’s a lot more than that.
Turns out Fodor has a response to the ‘but it works’ line as well (nestled in his reply to Dennett):
‘But it works’. That’s not obvious; in fact, it’s what is in dispute. To be sure, the theorist can often distinguish between confounded variables; but it doesn’t follow that the theory can since the theorist has much more than the theory to go on: In particular, he has access to all sorts of intuitions about the relative plausibility of one or other natural-history scenarios. (That’s why selectionist explanations, like historical explanations, aren’t always just-so stories.) It’s often a delicate matter to distinguish what the theorist knows from what the theory tells him; but it ’ s essential to do so if one is to determine what the data do or don’t say about the confirmation of theory.
Too bad he doesn’t say anything about how the theory works beyond providing plausible historical narratives. People aren’t just working on ‘intuitions’ about the mere plausibility of natural scenarios. They have hard, quantitative evidence, gleaned from paleontology and genetics.
I’ll cap off with an amusing observation: In their replies, both Sober and Dennett take Fodor’s argument as a reductio that should lead Fodor to abandon one or more of his premises. Fodor, however, embraces what Dennett calls the ‘absurd conclusion’. Dennett expends nearly a full page mocking him for that, which only invites an even more childish reply from Fodor:
Dennett fears that scientists won’t take me or my sort of arguments seriously. I might not get invited to the Biology Department ’ s Spring Picnic, which would put a terrible hole in my social schedule. But I am dauntless; if it be so, then so be it. I have spent about fifty years palling around with scientists, and here is what I have discovered: They are a lot like us. That is, they are often precipitous and confused and not reliable as to the significance of their theories and discoveries. It is therefore desirable to distinguish between two quite different methodological principles, one of which I cleave to but the other of which I treat with circumspection. Namely: ‘take the science seriously’ and ‘take the scientist seriously’ . Often enough, in my experience, doing the one precludes doing the other.
Well, I hardly think that scientists have the last say on everything, but in this matter it really is a case of Fodor not taking the science seriously either — if he did he would not condemn all the correct predictions the theory of natural selection has made about genetics experiments (say) as ad hoc “historical narratives”.
One of the best xkcd strips I’ve seen.
Found via the 63rd Philosophers’ Carnival.
I did finish reading Fodor’s anti-Darwinism paper, but, frankly, am finding the idea of writing about it somewhat repulsive at the moment. Instead, here’s a little squeak of puzzlement about Chapter 3 of Barry Dainton’s Stream of Consciousness.
The whole of Chapter 3 is an examination of the viability of what Dainton calls the S-thesis: the idea that simultaneous experiences are co-conscious solely by virtue of occurring at the same time within a single unified 3-D phenomenal space. (Co-consciousness, as is no doubt obvious, means “experienced at the same time”.) However, he doesn’t further explicate how the spatial unity of experiences could account for co-consciousness. It doesn’t seem at all obvious to me why objects that are in the same space should be simultaneous. In special relativity, simultaneity has to be defined as a particular relation between objects in the same space, a relation that is in addition to their being in the same space — there are objects in “co-existing” in the same space that aren’t simultaneous.
You could always say, of course, that the quirks of special relativity should not concern us when we’re talking about phenomenal space, which need not fall under the usual physical laws. But doesn’t the fact that we can conceive of objects existing in the same space that are not simultaneous suggest that co-existence in a single space is an insufficient condition for simultaneity?
Another possible line of doubt is as follows: if we conceive of space as a kind of mathematical relation, then what reason do we have not to consider time as just another spatial dimension? I’m not saying that we should do so in light of general relativity or any successful physical theories that involve a unified spacetime. Rather, the idea is that if one can say that co-existing in the same space accounts for simultaneity, why can’t one say that co-existing in time and in the same two spatial dimensions accounts for co-existing in the one remaining spatial dimension? If space and time are really just mathematical relations, it’s not obvious why there should be an asymmetry of grounding for phenomenal space — why it is that Dainton should think co-existing in three of the dimensions accounts for co-existing in the same point of the last, whereas co-existing in any other combination of three of the four dimensions available should not account for co-existing in the same point of the one remaining dimension. Most would agree, I think, that it is intuitively implausible that we should think that if four objects are in the same plane and are all events in time, then that accounts for why they are also in the same point in one of the spatial dimensions.
Now, of course I glossed too easily over the idea of space and time as ‘just’ mathematical relations. But we could say, at least, that mathematically, there’s no reason to think of space as ‘more’ of a dimension than ‘time’. So why should we phenomenally unify the three spatial dimensions apart from the temporal one? If we have independent reasons for doing so, then we could say that the spatial unification accounts for co-consciousness. But if we do so only out of convention, then it would seem that it’s our convention, rather than any real property of phenomenal experience, that’s responsible for co-consciousness.
Project Implicit now has an implicit association test for the remaining presidential candidates. While I ranked McCain as ‘warmer’ than Clinton, Clinton surprisingly came in second in my implicit preferences, close behind Obama. This may have to do with the fact that although I do find McCain ‘warmer’ in personality, I’d vote for Clinton if I had to choose between the two.
A similar survey, forwarded to me some time ago when Giuliani and Romney were still in the Republican race, asks you to rate presidential candidates on various dimensions. It’s basically the politician version of a consciousness survey I’d blogged about before.
When Fodor’s bizarre argument for the incoherence of Darwin’s theory of natural selection first appeared, I remarked that he seemed to be conflating extreme adaptationism (a la some quarters of evolutionary psychology, usually marked out by the capitalized label Evolutionary Psychology) with natural selection. Now he’s published a more comprehensive screed in Mind & Language, where he begins by narrating how he came to realise the flaws of adaptationism in general when making arguments against Evolutionary Psychology. I haven’t read through the whole thing yet. I must confess to having read the replies to his screed from Dan Dennett, Peter Godfrey-Smith and Elliott Sober before even dipping my toes into Fodor’s paper. Interestingly, they each have different accounts of what went wrong in Fodor’s argument, and some accounts aren’t consistent with others. Dennett’s reply was in his usual caustic style, which I semi-guiltily enjoy reading even if it doesn’t make his arguments better. My favourite sentence from his commentary: “[T]he explanation of heterozygote superiority in the case of sickle cell anemia is not a matter of people competing with each other in a great malaria tournament.”
I’ll blog more details of their arguments and Fodor’s after I finish reading Fodor’s paper and his reply to them.
I’ve been craving live Mahler since I left Chicago. Was quite spoilt by what was on offer there — someone in the programming division there clearly loves Mahler. To reduce that craving somewhat I have been watching my the sole Mahler DVD in my possession repeatedly and borrowing Mahler DVDs from the public library, but somehow none of them are even half as satisfying as the live experience. More recently, I attended a performance of Mahler’s 3rd by the local professional orchestra, but the best one could say about that performance was that it was patchy. Today I came across a DVD of Klaus Tennstedt conducting the CSO in Mahler’s 1st, and was most delighted with that find, but soon found that the performance is way too slow. Slow enough that the tension dissipates in many parts of the last movement and I start becoming bored. For fuck’s sake. I listened to Kubelik and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of this tens of times and not once did my attention wander. Dudamel’s concert with the CSO last year was not bad either.
Addendum: OK, I’m watching it for the second time now and am finding it much better. I still don’t like the tempo in the last movement, but the other movements are just fine. There are also some outstanding bits in the last movement that almost make up for the lack of momentum: the slow ‘soliloquy’ by the strings somewhere in the middle is particularly heartfelt and wrenching.
Disclaimer: I have almost no prior background in aesthetics, so this is just an uninformed ramble cooked up when I was too tired to read but not sleepy enough to sleep.
Came across this old music theory blog on which Rudolf Serkin was paraphrased as saying: “When two people hear a piece of music, and one likes it and the other doesn’t, the person who likes it is always right.”
That has to be right to some extent — it is often the case that some people hear things in a piece of music which the others are incapable of hearing, things that may be legitimate contributors to the piece’s artistic worth. But it can’t be taken too far either — at some point we have to put down our foot and say that no, “Mary had a little lamb” is not an artistically worthwhile song even if some listeners like it very much (perhaps more than they do the Eroica Symphony).
Furthermore, there are pieces of music which one does not gain satisfaction from listening to (because, say, one is unable to empathise with the emotions conveyed by it, or one has an innate distaste for a certain characteristic of it even as one realises it’s not an aesthetically justified distaste), but which one can still recognise as ‘great’ pieces. That is, one does not need to like a piece of music in order to recognise it as good music. This is roughly my attitude towards the works of Debussy, Faure and Chopin: while I can see how their compositions are great, I get no emotional satisfaction from listening to them. Or, as I like to think of it, I recognise the craft involved in them and hence judge them to be great works even if in a sense I cannot partake of the experential satisfaction they apparently offer to other listeners.
So now it seems like this idea of craft, of a thing being well-made according to (sometimes) vaguely defined standards, could be the essence of aesthetic value. It is more than emotional satisfaction, but it correlates with emotional satisfaction because the really well-crafted ones can take you to heights of emotional intensity that you rarely experience elsewhere.
But anyone who has analysed even a few of the ‘seminal’ musical works in so-called ‘classical’ music (Western art music from 1600 onwards) knows that many of them are great because they violate standards, not because they are the epitome of a certain style. They are great because they managed to turn the original purpose of traditions back on themselves and subvert them for the production of something with such emotional power/beauty/[insert aesthetic characteristic]. But the gold standard isn’t the wanton violation of existing standards. One has to choose which to violate, and for what purpose. And there seems to be no general formula for that. Should this stop us from thinking of music as a craft?