There's nobody here but us chickens.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Evolution in Mind - Michael Ruse

Ruseblogging is in vogue currently, keen as he is to prosecute proponents of evolution (the charge: raising to a religion what should be simply an explanatory paradigm). For more on that issue best visit Butterflies and Wheels where close readings hew out the rhetoric from the facts on most issues. Specifics found here, here and here

What the above description might not make apparent is Ruse is a fierce proponent of evolution himself - indeed, was introduced at this week's symposium as "Huxley to David Hull's Darwin". So as a sort of counterweight to Ophelia's posts at Butterflies and Wheels I thought it would be interesting to see Ruse shot from both sides.

His talk, "Darwinism and its malcontents", was essentially a j'accuse directed against those who try and keep humans outside of the realm of nature and evolution. His wide-bore approach scattered shot into Alfred Russel Wallace; Soapy Sam and various dissenters from the evolutionary view, through to Intelligent Designers; and critically individuals such as Elisabeth Lloyd, David Buller and other individuals who are in concord with evolution per se but are making sounds (not sure precisely what, but a 'tut' or drawn-out 'hmmmmm' should do it) about how it is currently applied to brains, minds, and certain other features which may (or may not be) particular to humans. Lisa Lloyd analyses the proposed adaptive value of the female orgasm and finds it wanting, David Buller critiques the E-Psych program (debated here at Crooked Timber), and so on. [NB the site containing the Lloyd piece is an excellent resource on major issues within current biology.]

This wallification (to abuse a phrase I suspect intended to be abused) of humankind off from evolution could well be a topic for concern. Yet I found Ruse entirely unconvincing because he presented none of David Buller's arguments against Evolutionary Psychology, or addressed Lisa Lloyd's concerns with some seemingly inconsistent adaptive analysis. It was really framed as an argument from authority: Darwin believed that selection was operating 'all the way up', and we are all good Darwinists if we are nothing. A corollary is the insinuation that if you hold beliefs that an Intelligent Design proponent would be happy you have, then your beliefs are suspect.

Flimsy stuff, really; I don't give a damn what Darwin really thought about human exceptionalism. I'm a scientist dammit. Show me the evidence and convince me! If Lloyds arguments do ultimately hit a wall in that they are fundamentally anti-materialist - really unwilling to accept that physical forces shaped these properties - then put the argument out step by painstaking step. It's not clear that this is the case at all, and readers will know that I myself have issues with several components of the EP program while still firmly wedded to materialism. Yes I have read Darwins Dangerous Idea and yes it is wonderful, but the fact that selection could operate in all realsm does not entail that it must, or that it can't be outstripped by other forces - either selection at another level (the old meme idea) or cultural learning forces that aren't well described as selection at all, due to the levels of top-down direction, non-heritability or what-have-yous that make natural selection a specific, designed process, rather than just a catch-all for any kind of change.

Engaging and rumbunctious as he was - the overall tone was that of giving his colleagues a good teasing - it still had the insipid flavour of some sort of jovial McCarthism - these are the sorts of things we should not be thinking in the United States of Darwin. So it seems that Ruse is fighting on two fronts. It leads me to wonder whether this is because he has a very narrow and specific view of what evolutionary science is, and how it should proceed, and leads me further into ruminating whether that is a exemplary or terrible perspective.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Evolution in Mind - symposium

There was a symposium at my department 'to celebrate the academic career of Henry Plotkin' - i.e. his retirement or half-way point in the academic career, depending on how you want to look at it (half full, half empty, sour). Prof Plotkin was our head of department and supervised my final year project, gave inspiring lectures on evolution of mind and wrote good books on the same, so you bet I was there. Some thoughts follow.

David Hull gave a fairly gentle talk on evolutionary epistemology. I shall just pick out a few comments I found particularly interesting, chiefly on universality. This is a claim made about a feature or characteristic, specifically that it is found across [the class, taxa, all life - but most typically species, and in the context of humans neary always framed in this way] without exception excluding abnormal cases. According to Hull, although all humans possess characteristics, if species evolved as evolutionary biologists think they do, universals should be rare. In fact, Hull doubts that many exist at all, especially not the hundreds of traits claimed by Donald E. Brown to constitute his 'Universal People'. What Hull points out is that universals are often achieved by arguing away variability - partitioning off the 'normal' population under consideration. As he points out, blue eye colour is found in 1% of the population, and is the result of a malfunctioning gene, but it's just as human as anything else. I share this concern, which has its mirror in the tendency of some universalists to universalise from traits only seen in the abnormal - i.e. in psychopaths - which I wrote about here .

Hull also posed a question, which can be summed up as 'Why are universals so universal?' Why is the need to pin these things down so ubiquitous? He suggested two reasons, one being sheer outgrowth from the nature-nurture debate and the polarised positions this produces. He also suggested that it is due to a perceived link between universality and Laws of Nature - the Big Game of scientific endeavour - even though the considered view in biology is that there is no such thing. He concluded that perhaps it is also that essentialism is simply very hard to avoid.

Hull is also concerned with the future of science - whether it has a future, which he doesn't take for granted and urges us not to. He is convinced that central to science is the notion of Mutual Use - collaboration, sharing of information, open access, which he feels must stay central to science to prevent it going under. So yay science blogging.

Tomorrow I'll try to give a little on a few more talks.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Moral relativism II; neighbourliness and conduct

More in Left2Right on relativism, this time of a special breed.
Living in close quarters with exotic strangers: the perfect hothouse setting for the growth of dormitory relativism. And I think it's a gorgeous flower, not a weed.

Dormitory relativism says, oh, it's all just taste or personal preference. You like atheism, I like religion; you embrace the sexual revolution, I prefer staying a virgin; you're a radical, I'm a conservative. As long as you don't leave the bathroom a mess and don't keep me up at 2:00 in the morning with your stereo blasting, we can get along just fine. To vary the metaphor, dormitory relativism is the perfect peace treaty for getting along with people with sharply different views. Instead of bitter arguments and hatred, we get amiable shrugs.

To be defensible - to stay crassly political and eschew any claims about ethics or justification or epistemology or ontology - dormitory relativism has to be an as-if, wink-nudge-nod collective understanding. Dormitory relativism doesn't say, "there is no point arguing about these matters because there's nothing there but personal preference." That's rotten philosophy.
Read the whole thing, if only for gratuitous ice-cream analogies.

The comments thread that follows is spasmodically interesting, but I want to pick up on a comment by Steve Horwitz:
Don's bifurcation of the dorm room and the classroom is problematic here. (I would suspect he would agree and that his use of "dormitory relativism" was a convenient rhetorical flourish for the underlying idea.) My students, who are not of Michigan caliber, far too often and too easily slide into that same relativism in the classroom, fearful that actually taking a hard position might generate negative social repercussions either in or out of the classroom. The degree to which we encourage "dormitory relativism" as a way to "go along to get along" outside the classroom is probably correlated with its spillover into the intellectual space.

Why not, at least in the context of a college residence hall if not in other communities, challenge it at a deeper level? Why cannot members of a residence hall (standing in for other communities) find ways to move beyond treating moral positions as if they were ice cream preferences while still managing to play by rules that enable the civility and mutual respect necessary for living together? We expect tough classroom discussions to accomplish that lofty goal, why not in other forums as well? By accepting literal and metaphorical forms of "dormitory relativism" do we do a disservice to students by stunting their ability to engage in meaningful and tough dialogues in a variety of settings, including ones where they, literally, have to live with the consequences of what they say and the moral and political views they hold?
I think I agree more with Mr Horwitz than Mr Herzog. But in reality, I think that at times I do practise dormitory relativism. Many of my friends and family hold opinions that I disagree with (not violently, but not negligibly either) that I will often gloss over rather than tackle head-on. It seems tiresome and pointless to play welfare-state shuffle or taxation frenzy (actually, if that was a real game, I would SO play it) with someone who just doesn't see the world on your terms. Is there a clue in the word 'dormitory'? That is, when we shunt up to the family level or winch in people who are not just entering adulthood, and forming and fusing opinions, but who are relatively entrenched and perhaps defined by their ideas, are we on a different playing surface entirely? But just how entrenched are we, at any age? One of my elderly relatives is characterised by an involvement with the world and a widening of ideas that has only increased with age. Is this the wisdom that accompanies our later years? Perhaps it is exceptional, and wisdom as commonly understood is instead the focusing and greater articulation of a single world-view, corroborated by evidences selectively remembered over a great span. Is it simply self-gratification for youth to yank the beards of the wise, or is it necessary - even if it is too late to make any real impact on the way they organise their lives? To give an example, would even the most militant atheist do missionary work in hospices?

Friday, June 17, 2005

Moral relativism I (courtesy Philosoraptor)

Philosoraptor welcomes Benedict XVI's snipes about moral relativism in modern liberal society, as "liberals might finally be forced to give some serious thought to the relationship between liberalism and relativism." He gives an exceptionally clear reading to a valuable argument: I'm going to shamelessly hack n' stick it here.
The most important point to be made here is this one: liberalism in no way presupposes moral relativism. This is not a particularly difficult point to understand, and it should be clear to anyone who has spent even a moderate amount of time thinking about the issues.

Most liberals, like most conservatives, haven't given very much thought to meta-ethical questions about the nature of moral obligations. Most liberals, like most conservatives, say a lot of extremely vague and confused things when they do set out to say something about these meta-ethical issues. When conservatives and liberals do make claims about the moral foundations of liberalism, it is common for them to make claims that are interestingly ambiguous. The ambiguous claims made by liberals in this context are frequently ambiguous in a predictable way--that is, ambiguous as between (a) an objectivistic/realistic/rationalistic interpretation and (b) a relativistic interpretation. The ambiguous claims made by conservatives in this context are frequently ambiguous as between (a) an objectivistic/realistic/rationalistic interpretation and (b) an interpretation that presupposes some version of the Divine Command Theory of morality.

Some important points:

(1) Although some liberals say things that can be interpreted as being relativistic, this does not mean that one must be a relativist to be a liberal.

(2) Although some conservatives say things that can be interpreted as presupposing the truth of the Divine Command Theory, one needn't do so to be a conservative.

(3) Since moral relativism is a hopeless philosophical junk heap, philosophically astute liberals will not endorse it.

(4) Since the Divine Command theory is a hopeless philosophical junk heap, philosophically astute conservatives will not endorse it.

(5) The astute liberal believes that the moral claims made by liberalism are really, objectively true. This is commonly taken to mean that these claims are rationally binding on us. That is, that they are non-optional demands of reason. Astute liberals do not believe that the reason that women should be treated as the equals of men is that our culture happens to say that they should. Philosophically astute liberals recognize that mere widespread acceptance or cultural orthodoxy cannot underwrite moral obligations. In fact, that recognition is in some sense what liberalism is all about. Rather, philosophically astute liberals believe that there are rational, objective, and reasonably well-known reasons in support of the claim that (e.g.) women should be treated as the equals of men.

(6) Conservatives frequently act as if liberals are the only ones who face puzzles about the nature of moral obligations. But conservatives face the same problems liberals face....The DCT is simply moral subjectivism writ large. The DCT proper is merely divine subjectivism.
Read t'all y'all. Some of the ground is also covered well in Baggini's What's it all about? which I've endorsed before as a nice primer on the philosophy of (personal) meaning.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Webcom 1

Some Tom the Dancing Bug for my little children.


A genius caption competition

Fun facts for the psychotic

Scalia and congress

And from Big Fat Whale:

Science Facts

Science Militia

Atheism's One Commandment

Malevolex Pharmaceuticals

Have you noticed that koalas are turning up with alarming regularity?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Buggy recommendations

Why was this recommended to me?

We recommended...
Thunderbirds: The Thunderbirds have only just returned home to their secret base when their space based station ...

because you have selected or watched:
Collateral: Fate has it that a contract killer, working for a drug cartel, and a veteran taxi driver will meet.....

the adoption industry announces new, younger models.

Interesting post at Left2Right on embryo donation. J David Velleman argues that the practise of passing on excess embryos from IVF to other infertile couples is morally problematic. In essence, adoption entails some distressful impact upon life of the child (identity crises and so on) and should the number of kids being adopted should be kept low; creating a new child to be adopted rather than taking one that already needs to be conflicts with this premise. Of course, all sorts of (highbrow) tonguelashing ensues in the comments. Velleman's later expansion is interesting:
An important piece of background to my argument is what moral philosophers call the "non-identity problem", which is a problem in the ethics of procreation. Here is how the non-identity problem arises.

Suppose that a woman is taking a medication that is known to cause birth defects: if she becomes pregnant while taking the medication, her child will be born disabled. We ordinarily think that this woman is under an obligation not to become pregnant until she has finished taking the medication and the danger has passed. If she is careless and becomes pregnant with a disabled child, we will think that she is blameworthy. And if the woman positively tries to become pregnant while taking the medication, and does so for the express purpose of bearing a disabled child -- why, we would consider her a monster.

Now consider what this latter woman -- this supposed monster -- might say in her own defense:

Yes, I have purposely conceived a child who will be born disabled. But the vast majority of people who are born disabled go on to live happy and rewarding lives. There are people far more seriously disabled than my child will be, and they are still grateful for having been born. What's more, my child will not have any grievance against me for conceiving him while I was taking the medication. If I had waited until the following month, when I was no longer taking the medication, I would have conceived a different child -- and this child would never have been born at all! There is no way that I could have conceived this same child without conceiving him disabled. So I have done nothing wrong: I am giving the gift of life to a child who will be grateful to have received it, and my child will not wish that I had given that gift to a different, able-bodied child instead. If my child will have no grievance against me, how can you?

Should we be persuaded by this woman's argument? Of course not.
Read it all y'all.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

The road to bulging cortex

Reposting some stuff I put up as a comment at Harry's Place in response for requests for books to make one an intellectual. Further to lists of books (so help me, I'm not writing 'The Canon'..look what you made me do) that everyone simply has to read, spanning three millenia and hundreds of thousands of pages, I demurred:

I worry that the goal of reading the 'greats' is never going to be achieved through a sense of obligation. I've embarked upon Proust twice, because I'm doing a PhD on memory and time and it seemed like I simply had to be familiar with his work. Don't get me wrong, Proust was immensely rewarding; paragraph upon paragraph of precise articulation of what the relationship is between ourselves, our lives and our past. Even the few hundred pages I read changed the way I think about the world. But I lost the pace, and then lost the thread entirely, I think in part because I began thinking "I ought to read Proust" rather than "I want to read Proust". (I've read some people saying you only totally get him once you're at the age he was when writing À la recherche du temps perdu.) My take on it would be to read thought-provoking books that you want to read - stuff that is written well and engaging, and can be enjoyed on multiple levels. Once in a while, when motivation grasps you, you can go for the less forgiving stuff; I managed to swallow a book on Rawls and Theory of Justice (by Crooked Timber's infrequent Jon Mandle, actually) last year without it sticking in my throat, mainly because I was on a roll from all the other stuff (it's an engaging book by the way, also serving as a good introduction to communitarian and post-modern critiques of liberalism, and responses to those).

As such I would second Huck Finn (and Connecticut Yankee, a stunning book) by Mark Twain and the Periodic Table - Primo Levi, as totally engaging works that arrest the mind as well. Moreover

Bleak House - Dickens. It is humongous. But from the very beginning it's laced with this bitter energy that crackles and sparks. It's split between chapters from the POV of the heroine, using a bit of an 'unreliable narrator' approach, and other chapters from a truly 3rd person perspective that nonetheless stabs out emotion in every description (just read the opening chapter describing the fogs around the law courts and comparing it to the lawyers themselves). Can do with being taken on holiday, but works ok serial-like too.

Graham Greene - most anything I've read by him, but The Comedians is tremendous and the totalitarian angle (Haiti) might particuarly interest. He's an uncomplicated writer but his prose is breathtaking anyway.

Chekov - haven't read since I was a kid, but I remember the Cherry Orchard and the Seagull as being pretty great.

I'd recommend reading some (fun) science. Fun science for me takes a few forms, most seemingly on evolution:
Pinker. Any of his books. Given the political angle and its tendency towards stoking feuds and taking the scalps of opponents, The Blank Slate might be a good read for any HP member. For me it was riveting when read but on re-examination just too onesided, cheap and polemical to be a really great book. The Language Instinct is the most playful in some senses (but pretty focused); How the Mind Works is perhaps the most useful book of his, for its efforts in getting to grips with Cognitive Neuroscience.
Dennett. Mentioned above, he is a real heavyweight but writes too well for you to notice at times. Darwin's Dangerous Idea is a great intro to the implications of selection processes, and its transformative influence on the world we live in. Other stuff of his seems heavier, but I haven't tackled his new book, freedom evolves.
Dawkins. Getting tired of the names yet? Obviously known for the selfish gene, I think he continued to develop his metaphor and would recommend Climbing Mount Improbable for carefully employing metaphor that invigors how we understand evolution.
Paul Broks - Into the Silent Land. A wonderful book about brain damage and implications for how we understand ourselves; also deeply personal and inventive. He writes about whether Robert Louis Stevenson could be right that little people in his head wrote his stories in his sleep (answer: possibly), imagines himself at a kangaroo court of Hardline Materialists, and describes all his cases with vigour and humanity. Think Oliver Sacks, I suppose, but more playful and provoking.

Part of the reason I recommend these folks is because (Broks aside) I disagree with all of them on some issues: their privilaging of evolutionary psychology over other (evolutionary-friendly) forms of neuroscience, their preoccupation with rebranding atheism etc. I get the sense that being an intellectual, whatever that means, involves having some critical perspective to what you are reading or watching or listening to. I find it easier to step into that mode by reading those I don't fully agree with. Further to this are

C.S. Lewis - He comes generally recommended, but I've only read The Screwtape Letters, which is an exposition on Christianity livened up by being told from a devil's POV. As a quick and demonically funny introduction to Christian Theology you'd be pressed to do better.

and, more Scholarly than Intellectual - please don't ask me to justify this, merely a sense I get- Samuel P Huntingdon's Who are we? about American identity. There is much there, mainly factual, to make you think, and although I'm resistant to his central premise, that America should formally embrace its Anglo-Protestant culture, there's enough there to force you to reassess your arguments. But I'm not sure if it really counts as it's chiefly a historical work, dealing with particular contingencies, and I often get the sense that intellectual works grapple with eternal truths and whatnot.

I learned a lot from these kind of books (and others) to challenge myself and attempt to criticise the work of my betters.

Oh, and a modern intellectual I can half recommend is Geoff Dyer. I read his In Pure Rage and he has a special grip on the world, thought and language - so many paragraphs where I went 'wow'. Then again, he comes across as extremely unlikable (the book is in the main a record of him traipsing about various locations writing a book about T.S. Elliott and moaning 'oh no! I'm fed up with Sicily. Oh no! I'm fed up with Mexico) so much so you want to hit him.
I forgot Abelson's Statistics as Principled Argument which I've blogged about before - a wonderful introduction to statistical thinking. But more importantly, what do others think about this? Firstly, is every book that makes you think an intellectual or intellectualising book? See my reluctance to put Huntingdons book on that shelf, although he's personally surely as smart as the other authors, and his book is authoratative and thought-provoking. I see that history or biology or computer science can be mind-expanding, but fall short of being intellectual. Am I wrong?

Moreover, what books do you recommend? Either to pad out that cortex in the proper way, or just because they've been floating your boat recently> Tell, tell, tell.

[A great source of second hand books here. ]