Friday, March 26, 2010

The Dangerous World of an Elite Philosophy

The follow up arguments to these posts have been on Brian Leiter’s blog for over a week now, but I only just got around to watching it. Last week, Jerry Fodor and Elliott Sober had an hour-long argument on about the subject matter of Fodor’s new book, co-written with Massimo Piattelli-Palmerini, What Darwin Got Wrong. In the book and the conversation, Fodor argues that natural selection is not actually a scientific theory, despite the popular conviction that it is the theory of natural selection. The argument is provocative, but in my view considerably dangerous politically, but I think understanding this argument can show how dangerous and reckless philosophy can be when it’s done without reference to the role it can play, whether faithful to the purposes of its writers or not, in the formation and battles of ideologies.

People familiar with Fodor’s writings will find it rather strange that I’d call him reckless. Fodor is a writer who spends literally decades perfecting his arguments. Last year, I read his previous book, Language of Thought II, the main thrust of which was his argument for the modularity of mind and nativism of concepts. This argument he first formulated in the original Language of Thought, which was published in 1975. Since then, the argument has changed in its particular derivations, and how it connects one concept with another, but the basic structure and goal has remained the same. Essentially, Fodor’s writings on philosophy of mind have continually revised a single argument for thirty-five years.

How could a writer this meticulous about the creation of his argument be called reckless? Keep this question in mind as I walk through the argument between Fodor and Sober. I’ve embedded the full video a couple of paragraphs ago, but here’s Fodor’s basic point. A scientific theory, says Fodor, is a set of universally generalizable statements about what can and cannot happen, about how a system can behave. Such statements are the sole content of any scientific theory. By Fodor’s standards, if natural selection was genuinely a scientific theory, then it would be able to make universally generalizable statements about whether some trait is adaptive: for all occurrences of trait x, trait x is adaptive.

The natural selection principle cannot do this, because it can only tell you about what traits are adaptive in some particular situation. The predictions of natural selection as a theory can only be made in some particular context: Some of the particular contexts Fodor and Sober discuss are predator-prey relationships, sex distribution ratio in some particular ecology. Evolutionary biologists reproduce these contexts in mathematical models to make predictions about the development of these ecologies. According to Fodor, these concepts are mere particulars, which he dismisses as gossip, stories granny tells about lions and zebras, turtles, fungi, etc. No specific predictions can be made about what THE adaptive traits are.

But here is what Fodor doesn’t understand about evolutionary biology: no trait is adaptive in all situations. That fact is why species evolve in the first place: a trait is adaptive to an ecological context. The statement “Trait x is adaptive,” said without specifying an ecological context, is neither true nor false. Without an ecological context, such a statement is meaningless. Trait x is always an adaptation-to, and natural selection is always a selection-for. A statement in evolutionary biology is contingent, dependent on the particular ecology in which the organisms and traits in question exist. It cannot make universally generalizable statements about what traits are adaptive, because adaptation is not a universally general process: it is contingent and singular in its articulation and its situation.

If you share Fodor’s definition of ‘scientific theory,’ then you will agree with him that natural selection is no scientific theory. And perhaps as a corollary, you will believe that evolutionary biology is no science. This is Fodor on top of his game: he builds ironclad arguments based on premises that sound entirely plausible in the abstract. But as soon as those abstract premises and arguments are applied to real-world situations, then we end up assenting to what we never would have otherwise. Has Fodor convinced us of a truth of which we were previously ignorant? Or has something more dangerous happened?

Here is where we see the recklessness of Fodor’s method. Just put his argument into the contingent context in which he makes it. You could flippantly (or Frippantly; see Fripp, Robert) say we’re now working in an evolutionary ecology of ideas. Fodor and Sober spend their hour long conversation arguing over what is properly a definition of a scientific theory, about what kinds of propositions should properly be called theoretical and what should properly be called empirical field research (or gossip, in Fodor’s terms).

As a side note, I have never liked Fodor’s dismissive attitude towards philosophies he holds to be wrong. His contemptuous and insulting words I find rude and spiteful, no matter the calm and apologetic tones in which he may say them in conversation.

Now imagine how a fundamentalist religious campaigner may take Fodor’s words and twist them to his agenda. A respectable, scientific philosopher appreciated throughout his field for the rigor and care with which he crafts his arguments, is saying that natural selection, the key principle of evolution, is no theory. It doesn’t matter that Fodor is arguing over the definition of the word ‘theory’ and whether natural selection fits his definition.

Fodor is just trying to isolate his argument over definitions from the context of education and science programs and support in the rest of the world. Such political debates would, according to such a philosopher interested only in truths discovered through dispassionate (yet so very rude) argument, be mere gossip, grannies bickering at each other. Yet these debates craft the structure of our culture itself. One cannot understand the thought of Charles Darwin without reference to how he developed it. And one cannot understand this development without reference to the religious, social, and political climate in which Darwin worked and wrote. His ideas had a social power that may not be inherent in the propositions themselves, but constituted a profound revolution when placed in an ecology of Victorian Europe and North America.

Ideas themselves are developed in a contingent context, and while some may consist of universally generalizable propositions, the propositions alone cannot tell us how an idea will be put to work in the world. A philosopher who sees his discipline as above this riff-raff of mere politics, partisan gossip, and bickering grannies, may craft ideas that those grannies can take from him and pervert into a form the philosopher might find ethically repugnant. A genuinely mindful philosopher will keep her eye on the world in which her ideas are taken up, and think so as to help create the world where she wants to live. From riff-raff we are born, in riff-raff we live, and to riff-raff we will return. The highest philosophy is not the most abstract and distant from the distasteful, but the most powerful in transforming taste.


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Anonymous said...

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