Consilience on whose terms?
A new Natural Philosophy
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Let’s give “natural philosophy” a new meaning. Let’s have it refer to a basic account of what the world consists of and how it’s put together. This would be the basic understanding we’d want our children to have before we go into details. Each particular science or detailed body of wisdom would expand on some part of this natural philosophy but stay consistent with it and keep referring back to it, so all our understanding would fit together smoothly.
Of course we already have something like this that we offer strangers to our culture, such as our children or Martians or people from other cultures. But it’s nothing more than a jumble of ideas left over from history or the separate developments of modern sciences. Better would be to start over, from scratch, to come up with and maintain a new natural philosophy.
I see this as a project for the humanities. I'll give it a try.
TRIAL ONE—OUTLINE OF A NEW NATURAL PHILOSOPHY
Half of what matters in the world is living creatures.
Limited life span-- Some kinds of living creatures live for just a few minutes, others for thousands of years, but each has to have parents that give it life, and each eventually dies.
Made of cells--Each living creatures consist of extremely small cells. Some creatures consist of only one cell but those large enough for us to see consist of many cells. Our bodies consist of a trillion cells. Different parts of living creatures, like our blood and our skin, are made up of different kinds of cells.
Defined by genomes—each cell of a living creature contains a copy of a tape of code that says what kind of creature it is, that makes it grow to become part of a particular species of creature. That tape of code is called the genome. Each creature inherits its genomes from its parents. Cells of different kinds in a living creature result from different parts of the genome being active.
Kinds of living creatures—living creatures divide first into animals, like us, and plants. Then, animals and plants divide up into different kinds, until you get down to species. Species consist of populations of individuals that reproduce together, sharing their genomes, keeping them similar enough to stay distinct from other species.
What makes us special--We’re a special kind of animal because we’re conscious of ourselves and we can talk to each other about what we’re conscious of. Just by consciously wanting to we can be creative and arrive at decisions. For each kind of creature its genome specifies what colors it can see, what feelings it can experience, how it will sense and respond to things. That’s why we see in particular colors, and have particular kinds of feelings.
The other half of what matters in the world is what’s not living creatures.
Energy—One aspect of what’s not living creatures is energy, what makes things happen. It takes a variety of forms, such as heat, light, electrical, chemical, that can change into one another. Lightning is electrical energy passing through air. As it goes it heats air hot enough to glow brightly. And by making different kinds of air combine chemically it makes fertilizer plants can use to grow.
Matter, physical stuff—“Earth,” water, air. “Earth” is a combination of soil, that plants can send their roots into, and rocks or solids. Water flows when it’s liquid but can be frozen to a solid and boiled to become part of air. The air we breathe is a mix of different kinds. Oxygen, that makes up one fifth of air, is a good source of energy. It can help wood and candles burn to make heat and light, and living creatures use it to generate electrical and chemical energy.
Exception 1, Living creatures-- the bodies of living creatures consist of energy and matter, but they relate together very differently when they’re under the control of genomes in living creatures.
Exception 2, manufacture—our homes and cities look very different from what’s natural because we’ve learned how to use energy to give matter new properties. What I referred to as “Earth” and air turn out to consist of different kinds of materials you don’t come across otherwise, that can be separated and recombined to make new kinds of matter, such as glass and metals.
Atoms—in a basic natural philosophy I don’t see a need to mention atoms, or that electricity comes in positive and negative forms. Those are accidents-of-history-of-science concepts. I think one can go several stages further before needing to involve them.
Genome--Curiously, I do have to imply existence of an atomic scale when I describe what’s distinctive about living creatures: genomes, and how there’s one per living cell. But for me that’s has become essential background to any further study of life.
Elements—That matter comes in the form of separate elements is extremely fundamental, but I don’t think it can add much to a basic natural philosophy. Cannot the growth process in trees, for example, be detailed without mentioning specific elements? I do think elements should be referred to, but perhaps only as an aside as I do above in the context of technology.
Human exceptionalism—I think a humanities’ account-of-everything should give human conscious experience at least as much prominence as things in the world. I felt I had to introduce life and genomes first because I think consciousness can be understood only in terms of operations upon a platform our genomes construct for us, responsible for the particular colors we see, the range of sounds we can hear, 3D vision and location of sounds in space, particular emotions, degree of rationality, awareness of time, language capacity and so on. Should human conscious experience be made a third part of what matters in the world, alongside life and matter? I didn’t, because I couldn't think of what else to say.
Evolution—I omitted this because I feel description of properties of the genome can stand in for knowing how living creatures originated. In fact, little is known for certain about that process, particularly how it began which is really important to an understanding of the process. So I omit it from a basic natural philosophy.
“Energy” in place of “forces”—to describe the physical world I used to jumble together “matter and physical forces,” but I now see that as originating in a primitive atomism, hard atoms being jostled by the equivalents of wind and rain. Now I like to invoke a peaceable kingdom of various kinds of energy flowing into one another. So I no longer talk of “forces.”
I'd welcome your thoughts, either as comments added here or via our contact page
Creating Consilience: Slingerland, Collard. Review.
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This will open by being not a review of the book as a whole but an analyses of the motivation behind physicalism as presented in an article, "Mind Body Dualism and the Two Cultures" by one of the editors, Ed Slingerland. This expands my analysis in my review of his book "What Science Offers the Humanities."
In summary, Slingerland does not give adequate reasons for abandoning what he concedes is the default position, dualism, so I explore what other reasons he may have for opting for physicalism.
He provides context for considering the issue:
The humanities-science divide, then, is fundamentally based upon mind -body dualism.... the other primary barrier to embracing physicalism: the feeling that there is something so special to consciousness that it simply has to constitute an entirely new order of reality
The reasons he gives for denying consciousness such a role confuse consciousness with mere cognition and intelligence, as:
As Daniel Dennet has argued, a crucial and vivid bit of evidence tipping things in favor of the physicalist view of consciousness was the development of artificial intelligence, which finally put to rest the "boggled" argument that no amount of physical complexity could produce creative intelligence.
Must we assume Slingerland is not aware of consciousness as a capability in itself, but only of it having such content as acts of cognition and operations of intelligence that it shares with machines? Does he not experience any difference between experience and matter that he could appreciate others wanting to account for?
Yes, evolution has embedded in us illusions associated with conscious phenomena. But Slingerland assumes the existence of these illusions means there are no such phenomena.
What this [the illusions] means is that the move from physical explanation to human explanation will always feel different to us than the move from physical chemistry to organic chemistry -- though, of course, they are no different in principle.
Not only are physical and human explanation not different in principle, they are to be regarded as different only for heuristic purposes:
It would be foolish to try to replace organic chemistry with physics, or to dismiss the explanatory usefulness of concepts and entities unique to organic chemistry . However, this emergence is clearly understood by everyone involved as merely heuristic.
His proof for why physical and human explanation are not significantly different is, we're equally ignorant about both so they must be the same!
It is exceedingly likely that... it will remain impossible... to accurately predict the future behavior of even a single human being...It is equally likely that... it will never be possible to pick out a single molecule of water ...and predict where that molecule will be one year from now. However, we never doubt that the molecule's future movements will be fully determined by the laws of physics... . we have no more reason to believe that the cascades of neural impulses in our brains are any less determined and governed by physical causation than the water molecule.
He gives empty logic priority over conscious experience. Here's another example. He must know that negative scientific findings cannot prove whether or not we are free, yet he gives the findings of science more weight than our healthy conviction that we are free.
As neuroscientists, we might believe that the brain is a determinist, physical system like everything else in the universe, and recognize that the weight of empirical evidence suggest that free will is a cognitive illusion. Nonetheless, no cognitively undamaged human beings can help acting like and at some level really feeling that he or she is free.
Engaging with arguments as weak as these is beside the point. The more important issue is what lies behind his passion to banish from mind awareness of itself.
When I look for those passions I am disturbed by how dark they appear. However, he is pressing a program for changes in how the humanities should train and instruct:
The physicalist position is that the study of consciousness and its products - -that is, the traditional domain of the humanities -- should be brought info alignment with the manner in which we study other complex (or differently complex) material structures...
So l think the implications of such a program must be explored.
In the following quote, for "daughter" I read "self":
At an important and ineradicable level, the idea of my daughter as merely a complex robot carrying my genes into the next generation is both bizarre and repugnant to me.
Here for "people" I again read "self":
Seeing people as, in essence, very complicated things, however, inspires in us a kind of emotional resistance and even revulsion... that must, I would argue, be felt at some level by any thoughtful and psychologically healthy human being.
And, again, for "individuals" I read "self":
There may well be individuals who lack this sense, and who can quite easily and thoroughly conceive of themselves and other people in purely instrumental, mechanistic terms, but we label such people "psychopaths," and quite rightly try to identify them and put them away somewhere to protect the rest of us.
Slingerland is urging the humanities to embrace and propagate a self concept that he cannot provide good reasons for adopting, that he admits is bizarre and repugnant, that would inspire revulsion in any thoughtful and psychologically healthy human being, that would justify us in labeling people "psychopaths," and putting them away somewhere to protect the rest of us. What could possibly induce someone to recommend that the humanities adopt such a gospel of self-hate?
Is Slingerland tapping into a society-wide self loathing, against which the best defense is denial of one's own consciousness?
What evidence are we challenged to produce to refute his position?
If we had an accumulation of a critical mass of replicable evidence for the existence of some non-physical, causally efficacious, intention-bearing substance, it would be unscientific not to be a dualist...
For the dualist this could be the daily writing of a journal detailing one's awareness of intentions hinging on thoughts and feelings in consciousness having been executed in the outside world. It could even be as immediate as being aware of directing one's attention to serve content associated with qualia, to which matter is not privy. To me, merely experiencing being conscious is proof of dualism, no matter how much of its contents owes its origin to physical stimuli. Are physicalists open to evidence in the form of the contents of their own consciousness? If not, dualists could just ignore them.
They could, but they can't. There is an alien and repugnant monster stalking the physicalism/dualism battleground, lending its support to the physicalist cause:
The Darwinian model of the origin of human being and other animals, and its formulation of the ultimate reasons for many of our abilities and behaviors, while appearing alien and often repugnant, from any sort of normal human perspective, is thus theoretically powerful and satisfying.
Is it the looming presence of this monster that's been breeding self loathing us, as we see ourselves reflected in its shiny scales as mere fodder for mutation and selection, our highest aspiration being to reproduce and see our genes passed on?
Whatever its role in feeding a passion to deny consciousness, I think its main role now is to give physicalists the courage of their convictions. I see Slingerland's endorsement of Darwinism as lending support to this web site's mission.
Restoring free will to a "theory of mind" based on Darwinism
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The human self—Who will speak for it?
Once without custody of the human self, what will become of the humanities? They will lose all meaning and fade away. And the self, will it be happy under new management? Instead of meekly standing aside while a change of custody takes place, shouldn’t the humanities take on responsibility for checking out the new quarters, and the new terms of care, and raise a stink if they aren’t adequate?
The science’s immediate goal is a conceptual makeover of the self. The humanities would be rewritten in terms of science. The sciences would then account for all material things and all of human nature. The result would be a grand consilience, a uniting of all knowledge, as laid out in the 1998 book “Consilience” by the biologist Edward O. Wilson. (See article “Consilience” in this section).
The wrapper around his offer, naturally, is Darwinism. All our traditional messy human motivations and volitions would be replaced by the clinical principles of natural selection—competition for scarce resources, means of escape from predators, mating strategies, sexual selection, kin selection, all other ways of favoring one’s own genetic line over others to ensure the persistence of one’s own genes in the species’ gene pool. All human motivation and behavior should be reduced to these, the argument goes, because only these would have survived the process by which the human self evolved. The human self would be grounded for the first time on a sound scientific basis.
Inside the wrapper lies the real heart of the new discourse—physical determinism. Physics rules, precisely, and admits no exceptions. Free will therefore cannot exist, it can only be an illusion. Behavior can be driven only by physical causes; conscious experience is merely an epiphenomenon of events taking place in the brain without any power of independent action, like the picture in a camera’s viewfinder. Finally, in fulfillment of man’s ancient dream, all phenomena will be accountable for through one master discourse, physics.
How should this prospect be explored, and the offer responded to? 2011 saw publication of a book of responses by humanities practitioners, under the sponsorship of the National Academy of Humanities. They’re divided on the issue, uncertain how to assess the offer.
I believe the humanities should reject the consilience and just continue about their business. I’m not a professional academic, but that won’t stop me from offering my two cents.
The wrapper, Darwinism.
For all that, Darwinism is a very flimsy theory. It can survive only as long as science’s denial of free will resists challenge. Most of this site is taken up with rebuttals of it and suggestions for how to arrive at alternatives.
The more significant element in the consilience offered by science therefore is scientific determinism. As the resources of the humanities shrink and those of the hard sciences continue to grow, should the humanities yield up human nature to the embrace of scientific materialism? How would the human self fare in the embrace of those who deny free will? What would the consequences of that denial be? What would be the benefits?
Benefits from embracing determinism
We are promised no benefit beyond the satisfaction of knowing we’ve become safe from error. But can we be sure free will does not exist? No, we can’t. In fact, the evidence points the other way.
Proofs we do have free will
It isn’t even coherent. Scientific determinism, or physicalism, claims the following: "Only things that exist physically can be the cause of physical change. Conscious experience may exists but has no physical existence. But our behavior is physical. Therefore conscious experience cannot be a cause of our behavior. What we experience as conscious acts of volition driving behaviors must be an illusion, nothing more than a byproduct of something actually happening in brain chemistry and so, like all other physical happenings, determined."
This obviously wrong for at least three reasons. If consciousness doesn’t have any physical existence science can’t study it, can’t know anything about it, and can’t know whether consciousness can drive behavior or not. Second, if it can’t drive any physical events at all consciousness couldn’t even be known to exist, as scientific determinists admit that it can. And third, they admit physical agents can affect conscious experience, through drugs for example, but claim consciousness can't act back on matter. Why can't interaction take place in both directions? If matter and consciousness can interact in one direction there’s no logical reason why they can’t interact in the other direction too.
Proof from guilt: There’s a lot going on in the brain, all the time. Most of it we’ve never conscious of. But some forces itself into our attention whether we like it or not. Presumably we evolved that way, to be conscious of those things. Guilt, for example. Guilt acts on us to change our behavior. If all our behavior was driven by brain chemistry evolution could have simply built the guilt mechanism into the brain to act on information there. But evolution built guilt into consciousness, and that suggests the causes of behaviors that guilt acts on must lie in consciousness too. If the causes of those behaviors originate in consciousness, then maybe the causes of all our behaviors originate in consciousness. If that’s true, and given that consciousness is immaterial and so inaccessible to science, there’s nothing to contradict our subjective impression of having free will.
Proof from conscious experiences being motivating: Why do we do things? To have something happen in brain chemistry? Sometimes yes, when we feed an urge that we can’t understand the point of. But more often it’s to have a conscious experience, some kind of pleasure. To maximize our pleasure we vary our behavior in ways that increase our pleasure—we eat more ice cream. So our behavior can be driven by conscious experience. We experience this as free will. We could, to demonstrate we do have free will, will ourselves to stop eating ice cream even though we want more. We can play free will against conscious derives. A free-will-conscious-desire explanation of this behavior would be simpler than one based on determinism by purely physical agents. You could say of course that the conscious experience of pleasure exactly matches a chemical imbalance in the brain but then you have to account for why a capacity for conscious desire exactly matching that balance evolved, if it could lead to no consequence.
Urge to enrich conscious experience: we will submit ourselves to training whose only purpose seems to be to give us heightened conscious experience. Examples are trapeze acrobatics, singing, art appreciation. Behaviors involved in acquiring these skills appear to be driven by a desire for a heightening of conscious experience. Why is so little of our behavior driven by causes we fail to understand? Is the close link between self improvement training and conscious experience a coincidence? I don’t think so.
Avoid the philosophy-of-mind discourse
And the discussion is often pitched at a level of sophistication that precludes any relation to experience. Example: In 220 pages of Four Views on Free Will by four professors of philosophy the index finds 24 pages referring to moral responsibility, only one to consciousness. Here’s an extract from this one page. “…it is not obvious and clear that consciousness cannot have a physical basis (in some relevant sense). Similarly, it is not at all uncontentious that the self cannot be composed of a set of events (broadly construed) located in a causally deterministic niche within nature (or perhaps the external world).” Note in each sentence a complex double negative with its meaning largely nullified by meaninglessly broad qualifications within parens. This has the feel of an exhausted field with only professional academics prodding a few cold embers.
The free will wager
One determinist says to another, “What’s the point of deciding whether to do such and such, it’s already determined whether I will or not. It’s just too much trouble to bother. But it sure would be better if I did.” The second determinist replies, “I’ll grant you some virtual free will. It’s not real free will but it’s as if you had free will.” “Gee thanks,” says the first determinist, and he decides to do whatever it is, and things turn out well.
A week later the first determinist calls up the other and says, “This virtual free will is great. How long does it last?” “You dummy,” says the second guy. “That was just a joke. You stayed determined just like before!”
The first determinist puts down the phone and ponders this for a while. Something happened that otherwise wouldn’t have if he hadn’t believed in virtual free will. So it made a difference. “Maybe this virtual free will really does work. Maybe I’ll declare it operating whenever there’s a decision to make I’d rather put off, and afterwards I’ll turn it off again.” But then he says to himself, “Once the virtual free will is turned on, I understand I can choose to turn it off. But how can I choose to turn it on, when it's off? It's as if I've free will all the time even when this virtual free will is turned off.”
Suppose you’re going to write a novel. You might choose to give your characters free will because it makes for a better story. Of course, whichever you choose might be determined even if in writing the story you can imagine what it’s like to have free will. Presumably you can also choose to make your life imitate your art, if that makes for a better story.
Maybe believing we’ve free will trumps believing we’re determined, even if we really are determined. Either way you can’t lose by believing in free will.
Potential costs of determinism
Cost of a break with tradition: Will determinists guarantee that all our humanist and humanities’ traditions can be translated into the discourse of the consilience? Of course not. They’re determinists, they can’t offer such a guarantee. The risk is ours. Is it worth our while to make the enormous investment involved in such a translation, just on the off chance they’re right? No way.
Actually, isn’t that looking at things the wrong way round? Isn’t what motivates them just one more step in the tradition of human conscious speculation. Isn’t that tradition already a consilience that can be offered them for them to fit themselves in?
Here’s how I fit them in this tradition. It’s a tale of three windows. The first window is the whole of conscious experience. Set into that is a much smaller window that looks out onto the non-us world, as reported by our species’ particular sense organs and cognitive capabilities. Set into that secondary window is an even smaller tertiary window where we observe matter falling into patterns we then abstract as science. Scientific materialism is looking through that tertiary window back at the primary window and proposing that everything in that primary window be redefined in terms of what’s apparent only through that tertiary window. Here’s an example of someone doing exactly that, Susan Blackmore quoted in The Myth of Free Will: “lt is possible to live happily and morally without believing in freewill…. As for giving up the sense of an inner conscious self altogether– this is very much harder. I just keep on seeming to exist. But through l cannot prove it, I think it’s true that I don’t.”
Of course if that compulsion were determined you could understand it. But Susan writes as if she’s freely choosing to train herself to believe she’s determined, to not even have conscious experience of a self. Let’s bear her in mind when we wonder what kind of person would offer us a consilience based on scientific determinism.
What kind of a new tradition? As far as I can make out, the only guarantee scientific determinists do make is that we won’t be able to tell the difference between believing in determinism as they do and believing in free will And how they believe in determinism is, the web of material circumstance leading up to present consciousness is so vastly complex that it could never conceivably be comprehended. Here’s how E.O. Wilson puts it: “Because the individual mind cannot be fully known and predicted, the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will.”
But how about in another century or two, when the conviction we’re determined has sunk home and the last scraps of discourse supporting a belief in free will have vanished? Curiously, Wilson conjures up that future for us as he goes on to say “And that is a fortunate circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the mind, imprisoned by fatalism, would slow and deteriorate.” He acknowledges the consequence of humankind losing confidence in free will as imprisonment in fatalism leading to a loss of biological fitness. Could we invite a worse doom!
Self contradictions at the heart of determinism
Determinism involves a "stolen concept": this is the fallacy, identified by Ayn Rand, of making a claim that denies the existence of something essential for the making of the claim. Doesn't judging the validity of determinism necessarily involve free will? I like to expose the stolen concept through a paradox. Of someone who claims to be capable of distinguishing between determinism and free will I ask, "Supposing I give you one bin for things that are determined and another for things that have free will, and you agree to allocate everything in the world to the appropriate bin, in which bin would you put yourself?" Could the judgment to put oneself in the "determined" bin be arrived at without free will?
Infinite regresses: Whatever determinists claim our volition is determined by we can take into account so it no longer determines us. Take Freud's defense mechanisms. Once we recognize how they unconsciously influence our behavior we can bear them in mind and take them into account in future decisions. Our behavior, something physical, changes because of decisions we experience arriving at through conscious mental operations. That these defense mechanism act on us to determine our behavior we can appreciate. But is choosing to incorporate them into the apparatus of our conscious volition also determined? Then what about a decision not to pay any attention to them since whether we will or not incorporate them into our personal wisdom is already determined and can't be affected by an exercise of conscious volition? ls a descent into fatalism determined? A decision to develop a drug to arrest descents info fatalism, must that also be determined? And your thinking about these issues as I raise them, is that also determined?
Wouldn’t a claim of determinism at each of these steps give the impression of increasingly futile efforts to escape an inevitable surrender?
What is free will?
Here’s my conception of it. It requires a dualism of matter and mind such that mind and matter can interact in both directions. Mind does require a material support but, once generated, operations in mind are different from those in matter. Ideas in mind follow a logic based not on physics but on evolution – ideas evolve in mind. Free will is consciousness of this process of ideas evolving. Like evolution in living creatures, this can be a creative process. Decisions arrived at through evolution of ideas in mind can be expressed in matter as memories of mental experiences and as behaviors such as talking.
Physics, not yet having developed any understanding of evolution, cannot comprehend mental processes or assess how different they are from physical processes. As a result science has not yet found any evidence of mind. This “absence of evidence” is taken by scientific determinists as “evidence of absence,” reinforcing their disposition to deny self, mind and free will. And that’s not likely to change as long as they succeed in monopolizing evolutionary theory with the outcome of Darwin’s physicalism. Determinist quotes from Darwin’s Notebooks found online: “the general delusion about free will is obvious...” and “…one doubts existence of free will [because] every action determined by heredity, constitution, example of others or teaching of others.” From Wikipedia, “Inception of Darwin’s theory”: “Darwin's notebooks developed an essentially materialist and deterministic view of human beings, with the conclusions that freewill was an illusion and the brain was mechanistic.” Darwin did not become a physicalist became of the implications of natural selection, he settled on natural selection because he had already become a physicalist. Only physicalist options would have satisfied him. And only such a physicalist theory would win the support of 19th century Positivism. The dice were loaded, and they have remained so ever since.
Winning strategy in response to the offer of consilience
What Science Offers the Humanities, by Ed Slingerland
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This important book consists of two quite distinct advocacies for a consilience of the sciences and the humanities. Ed Slingerland refers to the goal as “vertical integration,” the humanities to be stacked in layers of emergence atop another stack of the material sciences, the whole pile resting on a foundation of quark and atomic physics. In his super-reductionist vision each layer is to look for its meaning in how it is accounted for by those below it.
One advocacy, cautious and lavishly-referenced, to me as a layman rather tedious, and occupying most of the book, is addressed exclusively to his fellow practitioners in the humanities. His aim is to offer “a way for humanists to steer between the Scylla of objectivist intellectual imperialism and the Charybdis of the postmodern ‘prison house of language’” This section of the book consists of detailed but restrained attacks on excesses of both these scourges of the academy, ending with a spirited celebration of the middle way, which he identifies with common sense. Common sense, then, according to this advocacy, is the standard under which he hopes to unite his fellow humanists.
The other advocacy for a thoroughgoing consilience appears exclusively in Chapter 6. Here I found a wonderful defense of material monism, far more persuasive than the Dawkins, Dennetts and Flanagans of this world. Slingerland is so persuasive because he drops his caution and launches into a passionate personal account of his beliefs. At the same time, he acknowledges fully and fairly, as something he experiences, that dualism is a more accurate and more comforting record of our experience. I found his testimony in favor of common sense very disarming.
What inclines someone to material monism? Temperament, I believe. Slingerland as material monist: “It is important to realize that any truly interesting explanation of a given phenomenon is interesting precisely because it involves reduction of some sort—tracing causation from higher to lower levels or uncovering hidden correlations.” For me the opposite is true; reductionism is useful but not interesting; it is not synonymous with uncovering hidden correlations. I got further insight into the reductionist temperament from a reference Slingerland makes to a monograph he wrote on his primary field of study, ancient Chinese thought. He showed how “a tension internal to a spiritual ideal” shared by five early Chinese thinkers “motivated much of their theorizing about human nature and self cultivation.” He refers to his “trying to show how five apparently disparate texts could, in fact, be seen as motivated by a single, ‘deeper,’ shared goal and common conceptual tension” as an example of reductionism. To me it’s the opposite. Suppose I wanted to account for the fingers of one ancient thinker tracing their way across the page, I could do this in terms of muscles, nerve impulses, biochemistry and eventually physics and quantum effects. That would be reductionism. But I could also account for it by transcendent causes: the scholar’s belief in a concern for human nature and self cultivation. How can both directions be regarded as reductionist? I see Slingerland tending to hijack all forms of explanation into a reductionist straightjacket. For him, explanation of any kind seems to amount to reductionism.
Slingerland’s passions for both common sense and reductionism lands him in an agonizing tug-of-war. On the one side he respects and feels the appeal of a common-sense dualism as much as anyone can (though he dutifully quotes others referring to it as “mysterian," a polite way of saying "supernatural"). On the other side his passion for reductionism pulls him towards a scientific hypothesis that, if true, would support materialist monism. In such a situation, what would you do? Most of us would question, first, common sense, and then, the monist hypothesis. That Slingerland won’t do, Rather than question that hypothesis he abandons, with much sadness, common sense. And what is the hypothesis supporting a strict reductionism he refuses to question? Darwinism! He refers to “evolution and natural selection” as if they form an indissoluble pair. On page 251 he says, “there do not currently appear to be any empirically viable alternatives to the physicalist position,” yet he spends no time considering the possibility. There is no mention of Lamarckism, for example—surely worth a mention in such an analysis. Finding in Darwinism a suitable object for his reductionist passion, he looked no further.
Slingerland’s Chapter 6--Who’s Afraid of Reductionism? Confronting Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—is a 47-page account of his passage between the Scylla of common sense dualism and the Charybdis of a Darwinism-fronted material monism, a wonderfully drawn pilgrim’s progress. He begins with seven increasingly reductionist propositions you are invited to rate your comfort with. The final proposal, which is what he will defend and obviously subscribes to himself, is:
How much comfort does Slingerland expect to bring us through his account of this philosophy? “If you are not disturbed and somewhat repelled, then I have not done an adequate job of explaining this material…” And what are we to assume from his even making the effort? “Thinking under this understanding, then, is not a ghostly, disembodied process, but rather a series of brain states—a series of physical configurations of matter—each causing the next in accordance.” In other words, the judgments through which he arrived at the opinions he so passionately defends involved no more weighing of options than the operation of the Krebs Cycle. How, in offering byproducts of his step in that cycle to his readers, can he expect them, probably at other steps around that cycle, to find his offerings nutritious?
He nowhere explains, as common sense demands, how a purely physical system can exercise judgment through the weighing of options and creativity through the generation of novelties. He merely declares it be so: “Human level meaning emerges organically out of the workings of the physical world, and we are being ‘reductive’ in a good way when we seek to understand how these lower-level processes allow the higher-level processes to take place.” Allow! Is that an explanation? “There are some very good reasons for this privileging of lower levels of explanations,” and for his illustration of these reasons he borrows from Daniel Dennett the operation of a computer game. All the common sense he uses in evaluating the merits of common sense desert him when he’s evaluating the merits of material monism. “Everything we know about how the world in general works suggests there is no place for nonphysical causation.” Really? Didn't his conscious experience while writing those words suggest a possible place for non-physical causation? He endorses the usual reassurance that we needn’t worry about being limited by determinism because the world is too complex for our futures to be elucidated. How, then, can he be so sure we are determined? If this is an untestable hypothesis it cannot be proved, and so is not science.
Darwinism clearly does seriously threaten traditional religious beliefs and conceptions of the self, he says. “We are convinced that Darwinism is the best account we have for explaining the world around us, and therefore that human beings are physical systems and the idea that there is a ‘ghost in the machine’ should be abandoned.”
The revelation that our nature, like our origin, involves only purely physical processes is beyond question. “Just as children come eventually to realize that there is no such thing as Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, so will dualist adults eventually grow up intellectually, realize the truth of physicalism, and come to see such songs and sentiments as childish wishful thinking—beautiful and once quite comforting, but not a proper component of a mature worldview.”
In other words, you're either of one temperament or the other, there can be no compromise. We can arrive at the truth only by voting. For an early preview of the outcome watch out for publication of papers from a conference organized by the National Humanities Center. Title: Creating Consilience: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities. Editors: Mark Collard and Edward Slingerland.
"Consilience," how big a threat to the humanities?
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The crisis facing the humanities can be boiled down to a single word: consilience.
A little history: Philosopher of science William Whewell introduced the word in 1840 to refer to instances of the same induction emerging in two or more different "classes of facts." Over time it began to be applied more generally to any two or more fields of knowledge turning out to have, or being given, the same basis.
Fast forward to 1998. The term burst into public attention with publication of "Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge" by the biologist Edward O. Wilson. Wilson's premise was that a common body of principles forms the basis of the entire human endeavor. With great passion he identified these principles with Darwinism.
Another biologist with a complementary mission is David Sloan Wilson. His "Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives" shows how we can observe the principles of Darwinism in all kinds of situation. On his website he outlines his mission:
"The Ivory Tower would be more aptly named the Ivory Archipelago. It consists of hundreds of isolated subjects, each divided into smaller subjects in an almost infinite progression....psychology, anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, history, art, literature, philosophy, gender studies, ethnic studies....
"Unity of knowledge has always been the ideal of a liberal arts education and efforts to foster integration across disciplines. Unfortunately, these commonly held goals cannot be realized in the absence of a common language that can be spoken across disciplines. Evolutionary theory provides a common language—a single explanatory framework that can be used to organize knowledge across a diversity of subject areas. This integration took place in the biological sciences over the course of the 20th century–but only now is taking place for most human-related subjects."
To achieve that "integration for most human-related subjects" Coffin created The Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Consortium-- slogan: Advancing the teaching of evolution in higher education. From the EvoS website:
The Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Consortium is designed to facilitate the development and implementation of Evolutionary Studies Programs at colleges and universities across the United States. An Evolutionary Studies Program introduces students from all majors to evolutionary theory early in their academic careers, emphasizes human-related subjects in addition to biological, promotes the continuation of evolutionary training throughout the undergraduate education, and promotes faculty training and collaborative research related to evolution.
36 colleges and universities are already members of the consortium. So the program to draw all the humanities into a consilience based on Darwinism is well advanced.
Obviously, making evolution the basis of the humanities is also the mission of this website. Except, I'd like to see the process initiated by the humanities. And I'd like to see it based on principles drawn from some other evolutionary theory than Darwinism.
I've three misgivings about basing the consilience on the sciences. First, as I point out elsewhere on this site, the evidence for Darwinism being the primary mechanism driving evolution is insufficient to justify making it the basis of all human endeavor. Second, Darwinism as currently advocated by its supporters, with its emphasis on competition and reproductive strategies, could be a very baleful influence on the culture at large. Third, scientists seem to assume the point of the humanities is the same as for the sciences, explaining and accounting for things, rather than enhancing the self and enriching conscious experience.
Here are some illustrations:
First, from "Evolution & Human Behavior," journal of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, a major channel for communicating Darwinian evolutionary thinking in the US, have are the titles of articles in the current issue as I write this, Volume 31, Issue 6, (November 2010). Note the focus on issues to do with reproduction:
Universal sex differences in online advertisers age preferences: comparing data from 14 cultures and 2 religious groups.
Natural selection can be expected to result in creatures concerned with overcoming competition, reproduction, and the favoring of one's own children. The above list of titles is almost a travesty of even that characterization, concentrating so much on reproduction. Are the humanities being invited to adopt such a focus?
My second illustration is an actual proposal for how Darwinism could be applied to the humanities, in this case literary criticism. In a book edited by David Sloan Wilson and Jonathan Gottschall, "The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative," in an article “Human Nature and Literary Meaning: A Theoretical Model Illustrated with a Critique of Pride and Prejudice” Joseph Carroll writes “Next to sex and property, fidelity to kin presents itself as an urgent motivational force.” In the Afterward to “Creating Consilience” (forthcoming) Geoffrey Harpham writes “Evolutionary literary studies now constitutes a vanguard movement , with books, articles, conferences, special issues of journals, blogs, and every other accoutrement of a dynamic scientific undertaking” (source.)
My third exhibit comes from surveys of evolutionists carried out by American Scientist. Most (79 percent) of the respondents billed themselves as metaphysical naturalists. They were strongly materialists and monists: 73 percent said organisms have only material properties. 14% said they believed humans do not have free will. Can the humanities join in a consilience with such a bias against volition?
I see joining in a consilience based on Darwinism as an embrace of barbarism. It's scary to imagine the authority of science imposing such a consilience on cultures all around the world. I hope the offer of a consilience based on Darwinism and Physicalism ends up being as short-lived and unsuccessful as the earlier offer of a consilience based on behaviorism.
If the humanities and the sciences are to join in a consilience, l suggest the humanities fashion it. Two profound mysteries resist the methods of science. One is life in general, the other is volition. I suggest the humanities apply their methods to forge a consilience connecting these two mysteries and offer it to sciences to free them from the straightjacket their denial of volition confines them to. Then Edward O. Wilson's call the unification of all knowledge would be fulfilled.
Finally, illustrations of how science sees the point of the humanities as being, like the sciences, explaining and accounting for things, taken from Wilson's "Consilience":
Given that human action comprises events of physical causation, why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences?
In his 1941 classic Man on His Nature, the British neurobiology Charles Sherrington spoke of the brain as an enchanted loom.... the loom is the same for both enterprises, for sciences and for the arts, and there is a general explanation of its origins and nature and thence of the human condition, proceeding from the deep history of genetic evolution to modern culture. Consilience of causal explanation is the means by which the single mind can travel most swiftly and surely from one part of the communal mind to the other.
Natural selection, defined as the the differential survival and reproduction of different genetic forms, prepares organisms only for necessities. Biological capacity evolves until it maximizes the fitness of organisms for the niches they fill, and not a squiggle more.
Followed more or less along there lines, reductionism is the primary and essential activity of science. But... even the most narrowly focused of researchers. . . still think all the time about complexity.... Behind the mere smashing of aggregates into smaller pieces lies a deeper agenda that also takes the name of reductionism: to fold the laws and principles of each level of organization into those at more general, hence more fundamental levels. Its strong form is total consilience, which holds that nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws and principles can eventually be reduced.
Science, its imperfections notwithstanding, is the sword in the stone that humanity finally pulled. The question it poses, of universal and orderly materialism, is the most important that can be asked in philosophy and religion.
Belief in the intrinsic unity of knowledge... rides ultimately on the hypothesis that every mental process has a physical grounding and is consistent with the natural sciences.... All that has been learned empirically about evolution in general and mental process in particular suggests that the brain is a machine assembled not to understand itself, but to survive. Because these two ends are basically different, the mind unaided by factual knowledge from science sees the world only in little pieces. It throw a spotlight on those portions of the world it must know in order to live to the next day, and surrenders the rest to darkness.
Virtually all contemporary scientists and philosopher expert on the subject agree that the mind, which comprises consciousness and national process, is the brain at work. They have rejected the mind-brain dualism of Rene Descartes.... The brain and its satellite glands have now been probed to to point where no particular site remains that can reasonably be supposed to harbor a nonphysical mind.... For the first time the ready important questions are asked in a form that can be answered, thus: What are the cellular events that comprise the mind? Not create the mind-- too vague, that expression-- but compose the mind.
Because the individual mind cannot be fully known and predicted, the self can go on passionately believing in its own free will. And that is a fortunate circumstance. Confidence in free will is biologically adaptive. Without it the mind, imprisoned by fatalism, would slow and deteriorate. Thus in organism time and space, in every operational sense that applies to the knowable self, the mind does have free will.
What, in final analysis, joins the deep, mostly genetic history of the species as a whole to the more recent cultural histories of its far flung societies? That, in my opinion, is the nub of the relationship between the two cultures. lt can be stated as a problem to be solved, the central problem of the social sciences and the humanities, and simultaneously one of the great remaining problems of the natural sciences.