Saturday, December 10, 2011

Reading Rosenberg, Part IV

Alex Rosenberg’s dubious use of physics was the focus of the previous installment of our look at his new book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  In this post we’ll look at his dubious biological claims.  “When physics disposed of purposes,” Rosenberg tells us, “it did so for biology as well.”  Now as I’ve noted before, in fact modern physics has not “disposed” of purposes at all, if what Rosenberg means by this is that physics has somehow established the metaphysical claim that the material world is devoid of objective teleological features.  All it has done is to make the purely methodological move of confining itself to non-teleological descriptions of the phenomena it studies.  This no more shows that teleology doesn’t exist than the fact that I am confining my comments in this post to Rosenberg’s work shows that no other philosophers exist.  Moreover, the non-teleological methodology of modern physics rules out irreducibly teleological explanations in biology only if you buy into Rosenberg’s “physics or bust” brand of scientism, which he has given us no good reason to do.

But Rosenberg does at least understand the implications of his position for the question of biological adaptation:

Scientism needs more than an explanation of this or that particular adaptation -- white fur in polar bears or the fact that bottom-dwelling fish have both eyes on the side of their bodies facing away from the bottom.  We need an explanation of how, starting from zero adaptations, any adaptation at all ever comes about.  The explanation we need can’t start with even a tiny amount of adaptation already present.  Furthermore, the explanation can’t help itself to anything but physics.  We can’t even leave room for “stupid design,” let alone “intelligent design,” to creep in.  If scientism needs a first slight adaptation, it surrenders to design.  It gives up the claim that the physical facts (none of which is an adaptation) fix all the other facts. (p. 50)

We might compare the alternative Rosenberg wisely rules out -- that the naturalist might allow in a tiny bit of adaptation at the start and build up more complex adaptations on that basis -- to the strategy of “homuncular decomposition” in the philosophy of mind.  This is the idea that we can explain human thought in terms of sub-personal homunculus-like processes which exhibit a lower degree of intelligence than the thought processes we are trying to explain; that these sub-personal processes can, in turn, be explained in terms of even “stupider” homunculi; those in terms of yet stupider homunculi still; and so on until we reach a lowest level of homunculi which are so stupid that their operations can be carried out by processes that are clearly purely material and non-intentional.  As critics like John Searle and John Haldane have pointed out, this whole procedure is fallacious.  The lowest-level homunculi will be carrying out operations that can intelligibly be said to “add up” to the higher-level mental ones only if they possess some minimum degree of intentionality, in which case the naturalist’s problem of explaining intentionality in non-intentional terms will merely be relocated rather than solved.  Proponents of the strategy fail to see this because, as Haldane notes, they confuse the intentional/non-intentional distinction with the more intentional content/less intentional content distinction.  And, I would add, if they were to bite the bullet and accept that there is genuine intentional content at least at some very low level of physical reality, they will have implicitly given up a physicalist conception of matter and revived an Aristotelian commitment to finality or “directedness” as a fundamental aspect of the natural order.

Rosenberg -- who correctly sees that to be a consistent naturalist in the philosophy of mind requires being an eliminative rather than reductive materialist vis-à-vis intentionality -- also realizes that to pursue a similarly reductive strategy in biology vis-à-vis teleology would be equally fallacious, and equally fatal to naturalism.  He sees that teleology and allied notions must be completely avoided, that smuggling in even a “slight” or “tiny” amount of adaptation would give the game away.  (As I discuss in The Last Superstition, Daniel Dennett is one naturalist who does not see this, or at least who constantly helps himself to teleological concepts which he cannot successfully “cash out” in naturalistic or non-teleological terms.  Dennett is also, as it happens, a well-known proponent of the homuncular decomposition strategy in the philosophy of mind -- in for a penny, in for a pound, and all that.)

Now, I would say that in fact you aren’t going to get any biological adaptation at all from a starting point utterly devoid of adaptation, any more than you are going to get the intentional from the non-intentional.  Biological adaptation is an inherently teleological concept, and the processes from which Rosenberg would derive it are (as he conceives of them, anyway) inherently non-teleological.  Reductive versions of materialism in the philosophy of mind are always disguised forms of eliminative materialism; they make use of mentalistic vocabulary while subtly but completely evacuating it of its ordinary mentalistic content.  And Rosenberg’s reduction of the adaptive to the non-adaptive does something similar.  But while Rosenberg’s eliminativism in the philosophy of mind is explicit, he does not make it clear that he is committed to an eliminativist position with respect to biological adaptation.  (Indeed, in his -- very interesting -- book Darwinian Reductionism, Rosenberg presents his position in philosophy of biology as reductionist rather than eliminativist.  I’ll have something to say about that book in a follow-up post.)

Here’s how the “reduction” goes in Atheist’s Guide.  Rosenberg sets the stage as follows:

Natural selection requires three processes: reproduction, variation, and inheritance.  It doesn’t really care how any of these three things get done, just so long as each one goes on long enough to get some adaptations.  Reproduction doesn’t have to be sexual or even asexual or even easily recognized by us to be reproduction.  Any kind of replication is enough.  (p. 59)

He later puts things instead by saying that in addition to “replication and variation… fitness differences [are] the last of the three requirements for evolution by natural selection.” (pp. 64-65).

With these criteria in hand, Rosenberg devotes several pages to sketching out scenarios in which inorganic molecules can be said to replicate, vary, differ in their fitness, and thereby give rise to “adaptation.”  And he has no trouble doing so given how broadly he construes the key concepts: The formation of crystals counts as an example of “replication”; the chemical difference between sugar and Splenda counts as an example of “variation”; an inorganic molecule’s being able to “persist or replicate or both” counts as “adaptation”; and so forth.

Thus does Rosenberg “show” how “adaptation” can arise from non-adaptation in a way that doesn’t “cheat” by smuggling in adaptation in at the beginning.  But this is a little like proudly proclaiming that you didn’t cheat on your exam, because the professor handed out the answers in advance.  It’s true, but only in a completely trivial and uninteresting sense.  For given how broadly Rosenberg is willing to allow us to construe the key notions, you might as well say that pebbles are “well-adapted” to their environment.  After all, they “replicate” (when one pebble is broken into two); they “vary” (the new pebbles are smaller than the original, and differ from it and from each other in shape); they “inherit” features from their parents (the new pebble is solid and rough, just like Dad -- a chip off the old block!); and they differ in their “fitness” (the new pebbles are smaller and thus less easily broken than their ancestors).  Descent with modification, in rock gardens no less than in botanical gardens!

But what does any of this have to do with organic phenomena, with biological adaptation?  Nothing at all; certainly Rosenberg does nothing to justify the claim that it does, other than to make the obligatory hand-waving reference to the Miller-Urey experiments and hydrothermal vents, and a passing concession to the effect that “molecular biologists don’t yet know all the details, or even many of them” about how organic processes might arise from inorganic ones.  Ah yes, all we’re missing is a few details.  Except that since the question at issue is whether biological adaptation can be explained in terms of the stuff about crystals, Splenda, etc., to leave out these “details” is just to fail to answer the question at all.  Rosenberg is like the guy who contracts to build you a house, clears the ground a little, and then takes off without doing anything else -- dismissing your concerns about the absence of a foundation, framework, walls, electrical, plumbing, etc. as mere quibbling over “details.”  Well, no, they’re not mere details.  They’re the house.  

What Rosenberg owes us is an account of how biological adaptation, specifically -- and not just the kind of “adaptation” a resilient inorganic molecule or a pebble exhibits -- can arise from physical processes that initially involve no biological adaptation at all.  And that means he owes us an account of what life is -- an account that makes it evident exactly how the sort of “adaptations” he describes add up to the kind a living thing exhibits.  But “What is life?” is a question which (oddly for a professional philosopher of biology) Rosenberg does not directly address.  He just speaks of “adaptation” sans phrase, and insinuates, without argument, that having given an account of processes that might in some extended sense of the word be called “adaptation,” he has thereby given an account of life.  

Now the Aristotelian tradition has, of course, an account of what life is.  Living things, it says, are those which exhibit immanent causation as well as transeunt (or “transient”) causation; non-living things exhibit transeunt causation alone.  Transeunt causal processes are those that terminate in something outside the cause.  Immanent causal processes are those which terminate within the cause and tend to its good or flourishing (even if they also have effects external to the cause).  For example, an animal’s digesting of a meal is a causal process that tends to the good or flourishing of the animal itself (though it also has byproducts external to the animal, such as the waste products it excretes).  By contrast, one rock’s knocking into another is a transeunt causal process, in that it does not in any sense tend to the good or flourishing of the rock itself.  (I had reason to address these matters in an earlier post.  I also address them in chapter 4 of Aquinas.  The best recent treatment of issues in the philosophy of biology from an Aristotelian point of view is in chapters 8 and 9 of David Oderberg’s Real Essentialism.  If you’re up for tracking down older Scholastic works on the subject, you might look for Henry Koren’s An Introduction to the Philosophy of Animate Nature or George Klubertanz’s Philosophy of Human Nature.)

Whatever the details, the Aristotelian conception of life is irreducibly teleological, for the notion of causal processes that tend toward the good or flourishing of the cause is itself inherently teleological.  (Though it is important to stress that the kind of teleology characteristic of living things is only one, relatively rare sort of teleology; and also that -- contrary to what Darwinian naturalists and “Intelligent Design” theorists alike suppose -- whether there is teleology in nature and whether there is a “designer” are separate questions.  On these issues, see my article “Teleology: A Shopper’s Guide” and my various posts criticizing ID theory from an Aristotelian point of view.  I should also note here that the “immanent causes vs. transeunt causes” distinction in Aristotelian philosophy of biology is different from the “immanent finality vs. extrinsic finality” distinction that arises in discussions of the question of whether final causality is immanent to the natural order -- as Aristotelians claim -- or whether it is entirely extrinsic or imposed from outside -- as moderns like Newton and Paley claim.)  

Rosenberg, who claims that teleology of any sort has been banished by physics and that “the physical facts fix all the facts,” will naturally have no truck with this conception of life.  But if the Aristotelian is correct to hold that life is an inherently teleological notion, then Rosenberg’s position vis-à-vis life is implicitly eliminativist: If life is inherently teleological but there is no teleology, then there are no living things either; there only seem to be.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that Rosenberg is committed to denying that there is a real difference between you and your corpse.  But it would mean that whatever important differences there are between you and a corpse, or you and the “adaptive” inorganic molecules Rosenberg describes, the difference does not involve your having some teleological or irreducibly “life-like” features that they lack.

But you needn’t be an Aristotelian to regard Rosenberg’s position on life as implicitly eliminativist.  Rosenberg implies that his account of adaptation is not merely an account of life that is consistent with scientism; he evidently regards it as the only account that is consistent with it.  Though he finesses the details, he is committed to the proposition that there cannot be any “adaptation” in the world that doesn’t boil down to the sort of thing he describes when he tells us his story about how Splenda is an example of “variation,” resilient inorganic molecules are instances of “fitness,” and so on.  Rosenberg’s Infallible Dogma -- “The physical facts fix all the facts!” -- cannot allow anything more than this; certainly it is hard to see how we could add any more to it without bringing in something like the Aristotelian notion of immanent causation and its attendant teleology.

Now, that means that biological adaptations must in Rosenberg’s view be entirely continuous with inorganic “adaptations” of the sort he describes.  And that means in turn that we are faced with a choice if we buy into Rosenberg’s premises.  We could say, on the one hand, that Rosenberg’s resilient inorganic molecules -- and, for all I know, pebbles too -- are “really” “living” things after all, even if very simple kinds of life.  (On this interpretation, when contemplating a crystal or a pebble, Rosenberg might soon find himself channeling Colin Clive, or maybe Gene Wilder.)  Alternatively, we could say that since inorganic molecules really are inorganic and so-called “living” things are not essentially different from them, it follows that so-called “living” things are “really” no more alive than inorganic molecules, pebbles, and the like are.  Again, this doesn’t mean that Rosenberg would have to deny that you differ significantly from a corpse or an inorganic molecule -- any more than, as an eliminativist about intentionality, he would deny that there is a significant difference between the words you utter and random noises.  But just as he would deny that the words you utter really have any meaning or semantic content that random noises lack, so too (on this latter interpretation) would he deny that there is any such thing as “life” which you have and the corpse or inorganic molecule lacks.

Given that Rosenberg clearly holds that the bottom-level physical facts determine what we should say about higher levels rather than the other way around, and given that he is already more than happy to eliminate other higher-level phenomena from our picture of the world, it is pretty clear that this latter, eliminativist view of life is the one Rosenberg is implicitly committed to.  And I don’t see why he couldn’t shrug his shoulders in agreement, given the other things he’s willing to say.  (Again, Rosenberg does in his book Darwinian Reductionism claim to be a reductionist rather than eliminativist vis-à-vis biology, but what he is directly addressing in that context is the question of whether functional descriptions pick out real features of the biological realm, rather than the question of whether there is a real distinction between living and non-living things.  Anyway, as I have said, I’ll discuss that book in a follow-up post.)

The problem with all of this isn’t that it’s absolutely bizarre, though of course it is.  The problem is that there is simply no reason whatsoever to take it seriously.  In particular, there is no reason at all to think that whatever is true of bacteria and bees, trees and toads, pigs and people is entirely exhausted by what physics tells us about these things, as Rosenberg understands “physics.”  It isn’t biological science, but ideological scientism that leads him to suppose otherwise.  And as we have seen, his sole argument for scientism is entirely devoid of merit.  Biological phenomena, as Rosenberg represents them, are like something you’d find in a taxidermist’s shop -- bits of dead matter stripped from a corpse and sewn onto a framework of cold wiring and stuffing, so as vaguely to look like something living.  Here as elsewhere, Rosenberg guides us, not to reality, but to a Frankenstein’s-monster-like simulacrum of reality. 

133 comments:

Anonymous said...

According to the Aristotelian tradition, would you classify a virus as alive? What about a prion? Or robot?

CQC said...

Ed,

You say:

"All it has done is to make the purely methodological move of confining itself to non-teleological descriptions of the phenomena it studies."

Should we draw a distinction between teleologically neutral descriptions and descriptions that affirm a lack of teleology? It seems to me the Aristotilean should point out that scientific methodology does not describe a world that lacks teleology, but describes a world in a way that is neutral with regards to the presence or lack of any teleology. That seems to be a distinction with a very big difference.

James said...

Theist: Non-material things exist.
Rosenberg: Material things exist, right?
Theist: Sure.
Rosenberg: Gotcha! Material things exist. Therefore non-material things don't exist. QED.

Matteo said...

One interesting thing about Rosenberg's book: it seems to have made nary a splash amongst the Gnu's. I haven't found that it is getting much discussion or trumpeting from the usual suspects.

Given that the book plainly and proudly spells out the absurd consequences of scientistic premises, maybe they just don't want to go there.

Anonymous said...

*"A plant is a plant. You see it. You don’t see its physical-chemical processes, and nothing about the plant changes if you know that physical-chemical processes are going on inside. How these processes will result in what you experience immediately as a plant (a rose or an oak tree), you don’t know anyway. So if you know these substructures in the lower levels of the ontic hierarchy and go into the physical, chemical, molecular and atomic structures, even farther down, the greater becomes the miracle how all that thing is a plant. Nothing is explained."*

If one seeks to construct an explanation of a plant—or a soul, or a text, or a bat—from the material knowledge gained through science he commits the fallacy of misplaced concreteness:

*“If you deform your experience by trying to explain what you experience by the things which you don’t experience by which you know only by science, you get a perverted imagination of reality—if you see a rose as a physical or atomic process.”*

This *“scientistic ignorance becomes a civilizational disaster because the substantial ordering of existence cannot be achieved through the acquisition of knowledge in the phenomenal sense.”*

The problem proceeds beyond mere ignorance (which can be remedied, though not easily) when the:

*“belief in the self-sufficient ordering of existence through science is socially entrenched. … The spiritual desire, in the Platonic sense, must be very strong in a young man of our time in order to overcome the obstacles that social pressure puts in the way of its cultivation.”*

This creates social stratification through the mechanisms of prestige and various economic incentives. It also gives rise to what Voegelin calls “aggressive dilettantism” in matters outside the narrow purview of the expertise possessed by the scientist and imposed as a standard on all others.

*“What the scientistic dilettante -cannot understand must not be proposed in discussions of a problem.”*

Rupert said...

In particular, there is no reason at all to think that whatever is true of bacteria and bees, trees and toads, pigs and people is entirely exhausted by what physics tells us about these things, as Rosenberg understands “physics.”

Are you denying that there is any reason to think that a complete and correct set of predictions about the future behaviour of all the physical bits of a biological organism could in principle be derived from complete information about the state of all the physical components of that organism together with the true laws of physics, whatever they may happen to be?

This position strikes me as commonsensical, and I would say that the reason to believe in it is the history of the progress of physics and the outstanding empirical success of our best physical theories.

Or is it that there is some reason to think that a complete and correct set of predictions about the behaviour of every physical component of a biological organism could in principle be obtained by a complete knowledge of the physical states of all those components together with a complete knowledge of the true laws of physics, but that there is no reason to think that this would exhaust everything true that is to be said about the organism?

Anonymous said...

"This position strikes me as commonsensical, and I would say that the reason to believe in it is the history of the progress of physics and the outstanding empirical success of our best physical theories. "

What makes the success outstanding? And what would constitute a lack of success?

Rupert said...

The success is outstanding because it enables us to explain and also correctly predict the behaviour of an extraordinary diversity of physical systems, at all places in the universe and both in the small and large scale. A total lack of success would be if we were unable to make any progress in understanding physical phenomena at all.

It could conceivably be that sometimes events take place which cannot be explained by a complete knowledge of the physical state of physical systems together with a complete knowledge of the true laws of physics whatever they may happen to be - perhaps the resurrection of Jesus took place, for example - but I would echo Dr. Feser's words in saying that there is no good reason to take that seriously. The burden of proof is on one who would deny that in principle physical phenomena can be explained by a complete knowledge of previously existing physical states together with a complete knowledge of the true laws of physics.

Anonymous said...

"The success is outstanding because it enables us to explain and also correctly predict the behaviour of an extraordinary diversity of physical systems, at all places in the universe and both in the small and large scale."

What makes the diversity extraordinary? What about the tremendous amount of things that aren't subject to such predictions, possibly in principle? Does that add up to an extraordinary failure on the part of science? Do all the unsolved problems in science add up to an extraordinary failure on the part of science?

"The burden of proof is on one who would deny that in principle physical phenomena can be explained by a complete knowledge of previously existing physical states together with a complete knowledge of the true laws of physics."

I think the burden of proof is on whoever is making the claim. And the claim that the human mind, among many other things, is "physical phenomena" is exactly what's questioned by many opponents of Rosenberg - along with the claim that all things are "physical phenomena" is a claim not worth taking seriously.

By the way, Rosenberg seems to insist there are no beliefs, no selves, and therefore no conversations. Do you agree with him?

Rupert said...

When you say "What makes the diversity extraordinary?" I don't really know what to say except you need to become more familiar with the range of phenomena that physics can explain. It's not something that I can summarise in just a few lines; I was assuming familiarity with it.

There are some phenomena which we cannot currently explain in purely physical terms but there is no reason to think that such explanation is impossible in principle. It is possible that there are some instances where such explanation is impossible in principle, yes. But the astounding range of phenomena which can be successfully so explained, and the absence of any reason why such explanations could not in principle be extended, given a sufficient increase in our knowledge, to cover any physical system whatsoever, is such that it puts the burden of proof on one who would claim such explanation is in principle impossible.

You might claim that there are some phenomena for which such an explanation is lacking like the resurrection of Jesus, for example, or the phenomenon of the human mind. Examples can be debated on a case-by-case basis; in the case of the resurrection of Jesus I would say that there is not the slightest reason to think it took place, but the question about the human mind is a more serious question, and one would have to distinguish between the claim that physical events take place which could not in principle be predicted from a complete knowledge of the previously existing physical state of the system and the true laws of physics, and the claim that, while the physical aspects of the system are indeed completely described by the laws of physics, nevertheless there is a non-physical aspect to the system which lies beyond the purview of such laws. This is the point on which I was seeking clarification.

But I find it quite striking if Dr. Feser is claiming that there is not the least reason to think that such explanation is in principle always possible. That strikes me as a very strong claim, if that is really what he is saying. It seems to me to be more reasonable to say that the question of whether complete explanations of physical phenomena in terms of the physical states of the systems and the true laws of physics are always possible is a question on which there is some good reason for an affirmative answer, but reasonable minds may differ. But of course I may not be right in thinking that that is what Dr. Feser was saying; that is why I asked for clarification.

You ask whether the fact that there are some phenomena which have not yet been given a complete explanation in terms of the laws of physics, or the fact that there are unresolved problems in physics, count as an "extraordinary failure" on the part of science. The answer is, obviously, "Of course not". That was easy enough.

You write "I think the burden of proof is on whoever is making the claim." The claim is that that burden has been met by the outstanding empirical success of our best physical theories to date, and that this available data is now such as to displace the burden of proof onto one who would deny the claim. The outstanding empirical success of our best physical theories to date is something that may reasonably taken as common knowledge among well-educated inhabitants of our society. It is indispensible for fundamental aspects of the way we live such as the way that you and I are communicating right now.

Rupert said...

The claim that the human mind is not a purely physical phenomenon is a reasonable claim about which a reasonable debate may be had. The claim that there is no good reason to take physicalism seriously is not. What I was addressing here was Dr. Feser's claim that "there is not the slightest reason to take any of this seriously". I wanted to get clearer on what exactly it was that there is not the slightest reason to take seriously.

I do not agree with Rosenberg as you have paraphrased him that there are no beliefs, no selves, and no conversations. I am not in a position to know whether this is a fair paraphrase because I have not read his books. If that is really what Rosenberg claims then I would not agree but I would be happy to give his arguments a respectful hearing, just as I am happy to give arguments for theism a respectful hearing, although in both cases I think it is most unlikely that I would be convinced. What I am interested in here is Dr. Feser's criticism of Rosenberg's stance in the philosophy of biology which he says is implicit eliminativism about life. I am not sure that it has to be identified with eliminativism about life; it seems to me that one could avoid this by saying that life is a vague concept for which we lack a precise definition. But the claim that there is no sharp boundary between the organic and the inorganic examples of the phenomena that Rosenberg discusses seems to me to be just the common-sense interpretation of what science has taught us. I think that the first question posed by the first Anonymous to post in this comments thread is to the point here.

dmt117 said...

"Or is it that there is some reason to think that a complete and correct set of predictions about the behaviour of every physical component of a biological organism could in principle be obtained by a complete knowledge of the physical states of all those components together with a complete knowledge of the true laws of physics"

This sort of "hard determinism" has already been shown to be false by physics. Physical law is ultimately only statistical in nature - so the specific future of any particular system is not even determinable in principle - and also subject to the non-linearity of effects like those addressed in chaos theory (e.g. the "butterfly effect" in weather). Forget the mind... just the dynamical evolution of a few billiard balls bouncing around together on a pool table is beyond prediction in anything more than the simplest scenarios.

Rupert said...

The issue with chaos theory is just an issue with how accurately we are able to measure the initial state of a system. Since we are talking about what is possible in principle I don't see this as a serious problem. The issue with indeterminism is a more serious one, and it would have been more correct for me to specify that some of our predictions would have to consist of merely specifying a probability distribution.

Anonymous said...

Anon said: "If science has taught us anything, it has taught us that there are no sharp boundaries."

Last week I received my patient's sputum culture results. I initially suspected he had Mycobacterium tuberculosis but he ended up having Mycobacterium fortuitum. We did not end up treating him for TB and the difference made 6 months of treatment and liver/nerve damage.

Daniel Smith said...

"whether final causality is immanent to the natural order -- as Aristotelians claim -- or whether it is entirely extrinsic or imposed from outside -- as moderns like Newton and Paley claim"

...and Plato?

acucucuuc said...

"If science has taught us anything, it has taught us that there are no sharp boundaries. We cannot define precisely what is a human, or a species, or life, or matter."

So that means humanity etc. don't exist? Or that we can't tell human from non-human, one species from another etc.? How does that argument work?

Rupert said...

There is a sharp boundary between the human and non-human among those animals that exist at present, but if you were to trace the evolutionary history of the human species backwards you would eventually reach an ancestor of ours who would illustrate that the distinction between human and non-human is vague.

acucucuuc said...

I understand that it may be difficult to say exactly where in the evolutionary history of humanity we should say "This is a humn. It starts here." What do you conclude from that?

Mark Szlazak said...

Dr. Feser would you please comment or maybe even post an article on the similarities and differences between an (neo)Aristotelian account and a process philosophy/(neo)Whitehead account.

These seem very similar since both put teleology in nature and make the universe sound like an developing organism.

Thank you.

adi said...

I understand that it may be difficult to say exactly where in the evolutionary history of humanity we should say "This is a humn. It starts here." What do you conclude from that?

Some people think pointing out examples of the Sorites paradox disproves essentialism...

Edward Feser said...

So, djindra's troll mask comes off and underneath is... an even bigger troll.

Yes, djindra, I will keep deleting your puerile comments, because (as I've said already) you are banned. Get lost and stay lost.

acucucuuc said...

"I understand that it may be difficult to say exactly where in the evolutionary history of humanity we should say "This is a humn. It starts here." What do you conclude from that?

Some people think pointing out examples of the Sorites paradox disproves essentialism..."

Thanks for your answer, adi. I am now out of my depth; I had to look up "Sorites paradox." After doing that, I have some idea about what your comment means, but I don't know how to respond to it. I would be interested in hearing what some of the other people who post here and view essences as real have to say.

Richard said...

Hi. I am a bisexual liberal, and on behalf of my reasonable left-wing bretheren, (and yes, we do exist) I want to apologize for all of the djindras' of the world. I come here every day to read Prof. Feser and the informed comments of his readership, and I want to say that no matter the politics or metaphysical positions taken by the people here, it is great to see such calm, charitable, and intelligent people at work trying to work towards truth. Thanks.

Tony said...

Rupert, there is a sharp boundary between whatever came before Adam, and the animal that God made when He breathed life and a spirit into him: the rational animal named Adam. You have no proof that there is no such sharp boundary, because the record is insufficient in detail and quantity to tell us.

Anonymous said...

Not to mention that what qualifies as a "sharp" boundary is itself a debate unto itself.

Sometimes jumps happen even in mundane evolution. And not all cases have to be mundane.

Jinzang said...

Apart from the problems caused by quantum indeterminacy and chaos theory, the simple fact is that for all but the simplest problems the mathematical models produced by physics are not solvable and physics must rely on approximate solutions. And the approximations are chosen to agree with the observed phenomena. There are so many examples it's hard to choose one, but one is the superfluidity of helium, which is explained by a semi-classical model chosen to fit the observed facts. So any claim that all phenomena are reducible to physics is just not so in any strict sense, the phenomena determine the mathematical models used in physics.

Jinzang said...

"If science has taught us anything, it has taught us that there are no sharp boundaries. We cannot define precisely what is a human, or a species, or life, or matter."

Someone has never heard of the Sorites paradox.

TheOFloinn said...

the range of phenomena that physics can explain [is] not something that I can summarise in just a few lines

1. Inertial motion due to gravity.
2. Electromagnetic motion due to electromagnetism (and, by extension, chemistry)
3. Nuclear motions due to the strong force.
4. Radiative motions due to the weak force.

It was, I think, Jaki who pointed out that not even chemistry is exhausted by physics, and biology is not exhausted by chemistry. To this we might as well add that sociology, economics, etc. is not exhausted by biology.

But since each level of system subsumes the prior levels, one can always find the physical, chemical, and biological aspects in any social matter.

Tony said...

OFloin: and imagine, we cannot explain even ONE of the basic forces in terms that make sense. The closest we have to an explanation for weak or strong forces is an "exchange of particles". But of course, in real terms an exchange of particles does not tell you why the two masses attract.

Anonymous said...

Alfred North Whitehead - fallacy of the misplaced concrete:

"The enormous success of [the enlightenment’s] scientific abstractions, yielding on the one hand matter with its simple location in space and time, on the other hand mind, perceiving, suffering, reasoning, but not interfering, has foisted onto philosophy the task of accepting them as the most concrete rendering of fact. Thereby, modern philosophy has been ruined."

"It has oscillated in a complex manner between three extremes. There are the dualists, who accept matter and mind as on an equal basis, and the two varieties of monists, those who put mind inside matter, and those who put matter inside mind. But this juggling with abstractions can never overcome the inherent confusion introduced by the [wrongful] ascription of misplaced concreteness to the scientific scheme of the seventeenth century."

Mr. Green said...

Here as elsewhere, Rosenberg guides us, not to reality, but to a Frankenstein’s-monster-like simulacrum of reality. 

I thought the idea was that Frankenstein had stumbled upon an alternative way to combine the pieces so that a real living creature resulted? In any case, back to my old thought-experiment: suppose, for the sake of argument, that organisms can be scientifically reduced to physics in their behaviour ("scientifically" as opposed to metaphysically, note; while it's not necessary, it's possible that the merely physical aspects of an organism could be "reducible" to a physical description).

The interesting thing is that God could therefore make a "robocow" that looks and acts from the outside like the real thing. There is no way we could tell, based on the physical knowledge that comes through the senses, whether it's a "mechanism" or an organism. (Not that this is any help to the materialist, of course; not only is the physics involved still thoroughly teleological no matter how much one avoids using that term, the cow still has an extra level of final causality whether or not it happens to be intrinsic or extrinsic.)

Mr. Green said...

Richard: I want to say that no matter the politics or metaphysical positions taken by the people here, it is great to see such calm, charitable, and intelligent people at work trying to work towards truth.

Thanks, Richard. One of the problems with trolls is that they provide a great temptation to view one's opponents as idiots or jerks, which is never truly representative. But overall we really do have thoughtful people posting here, and that includes the critics. So thanks to everyone who posts comments worth reading, and to Prof. Feser for setting the tone.

Mr. Green said...

Tony: in real terms an exchange of particles does not tell you why the two masses attract.

Does there need to be any further explanation? If the rules say that two particles with certain charges attract, or that knights move two squares up and one over, what else is there to say? Certainly, we are conditioned to think in terms of billiard ball causation, but once we've defined that a certain type of particle acts a certain way (formal and final causes), and find such a particle doing its thing (material and efficient causes), then I think we have a full explanation.

Mark Szlazak said...

@ Anonymous or anyone else.

Is (neo)Aristotelian thinking and metaphysics the same as (neo) Whiteheadian or process philosophy thinking? If not then what are the differences?

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

It's a different animal, Mark. But I don't think Process Philosophy is outright hostile or inimical to A-T. It's just... something else.

hyperdeath said...

Would a fully self-replicating robot count as "life" by the Aristotelian tradition?

Untenured said...

Excellent observations by the O'Floinn.

I want to ask all of the people who keep saying that the scientific method is anti-essentialist: Have you actually read any philosophy of science written after 1965? Or have you only read the usual suspects like Ayer, Carnap, Popper, Hempel, and company?

If the latter, then your understanding of the scientific method is at least 40 years behind the times. This is kind of ironic since we are the ones defending Medieval Scholasticism.

Ayer, Popper and company all wrote at a time when the linguistic framework theory of the a priori, the idea that there was clean break between "theory" and "observation", and the idea that sciences at higher levels can be neatly reduced to physics using analytic definitions and bridge laws were in vogue.

These views have all been exploded not just in the eyes of reactionaries like us- in eyes of those in the mainstream of the profession. And, once these views are discarded, it is difficult to maintain the position that the scientific method is inherently anti-essentialist.

The fact that the sciences can discern explanatorily significant patterns at every level of material aggregation is an indirect argument for formal causation. The fact that there are almost *no* straightforward reductions between the different levels of aggregation is further evidence for formal causation. And countenancing formal causation commits one to essentialism.

Many of the standard philosophy of science readings are very misleading. Genuine cases of empirically established reductive identities like "Water = H2O", or "Heat = Mean molecular motion" are exceptional. And yet they are presented as the norm, leading callow undergraduates everywhere to assume that some kind of naive type-identity theory applies to nature as a whole when no such thing is the case.

The notion that science somehow "disproves" essentialism is misleading at best and outright false at worst.

dguller said...

I think that if you focus upon evolution rather than “science”, then the anti-essentialist argument is akin to the paradox of Sorites. If you have a situation where you are simply unable to demarcate X from not-X, then what does it mean to say that there is an essence X at all?

Untenured said...

@dguller:

The appeal to Sorities paradox needs a lot of auxiliary argumentation before it can generate a good argument against essentialism.

First, you would need to show that any material aggregate would have to be determinate between some form X and some transitional non-X form at all times if essentialism is true. This assumption is natural, but it has to be argued for.

Second, you would have to rule out "Epistemicism", which is the claim that material aggregates really are always determinate between X and not-X, but we sometimes lack the ability to know whether the form X is present or not. If this position is correct, then the Sorities arguments don't go anywhere.

Moreover, if Sorities paradox is the real clincher, then the appeals to modern science are (as they almost always are) sheer bluff. You don't need modern science in order to run the Sorities arguments, and if those arguments work, they work in domains well outside of biology.

Obviously, we can't resolve these debates in a combox. The point, however, is that the appeal Sorities just isn't the show stopper that many anti-essentialists seem to think it is.

dguller said...

Untenured:

First, you would need to show that any material aggregate would have to be determinate between some form X and some transitional non-X form at all times if essentialism is true. This assumption is natural, but it has to be argued for.

I think it stands to reason that there must be something about the essence of X that differentiates it from the essence of not-X. Otherwise, there would be no difference at all, and they would simply identical. If we are simply unable to identify what this something is, then there are two possibilities: (1) there is no such something at all, which would imply that essentialism is false, and (2) there is such a something, but we are simply ignorant of what it is by virtue of the coarse nature of our cognitive apparatus, which simply isn’t fine-grained enough, which would preserve essentialism.

Second, you would have to rule out "Epistemicism", which is the claim that material aggregates really are always determinate between X and not-X, but we sometimes lack the ability to know whether the form X is present or not. If this position is correct, then the Sorities arguments don't go anywhere.

This would correspond to (2) above.

Here’s a corresponding case for you to consider. The later Wittgenstein had a famous analysis of whether “game” has an essence. He was unable to discover any common essential properties that all games shared, which led him to conclude that there is no such essence. If (2) was true, then that would mean that even though we have no idea what the essence of “game” is, and even though we are simply unable to come up with a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for something that we have invented, then there is still something common to all games that we are missing.

It seems that when the number of cases where our major concepts have irreconcilable grey areas of vagueness and indeterminacy multiply, at some point – ha! – we need to reconsider the idea that all things have a determinate essence that they share with other things.

Moreover, if Sorities paradox is the real clincher, then the appeals to modern science are (as they almost always are) sheer bluff. You don't need modern science in order to run the Sorities arguments, and if those arguments work, they work in domains well outside of biology.

True.

Ray Ingles said...

Anyone want to tackle the first Anonymous comment on this thread? (December 10, 2011 2:37 PM)

(As a bonus, does a thermostat 'intend' to maintain a constant temperature?)

Anonymous said...

As a bonus, does a thermostat 'intend' to maintain a constant temperature?

Chalmers called, he wants his ideas back.

Ray Ingles said...

Feser states, "they confuse the intentional/non-intentional distinction with the more intentional content/less intentional content distinction"

The Sorites paradox talks about taking things that aren't a heap, putting them together one at a time, and at the end you've got a heap. The boundary between the states is indeterminate - either because there is no boundary (dguller's first case) or because we aren't able to figure out the exact boundary (dguller's second case).

Isn't Feser essentially (sorry) engaging in a Sorites-style argument in the above passage, though? We don't assume that a single grain of wheat has 'heapness', but that doesn't mean a pile of wheat therefore isn't a heap. So why must a simple 'neural circuit' have intentionality in order for a collection of them to have intentionality?

machinephilosophy said...

Ed,

This is a rewrite (so that I could try to understand it, frankly) of some heavy metal stuff on page 109 of The Last Superstition: I may have misinterpreted it but here goes:

Since there is no divine essence distinct from the divine existence, there is no general category under which multiple distinct divine beings could be specified or recognized.

Therefore, the idea of multiple necessary beings makes no sense.

Therefore, when we speak of God as being powerful, intelligent, good, and so on, we are not describing features that exist in a distinct way in God.

Intellect, power, goodness, and so on, exist as irreducibly distinct objects in the experience of finite minds.

Consequently, to clearly understand these objects, a finite mind must already assume they exist as irreducibly distinct from each other.

But in God they exist as one: God's power *is* His intellect, which *is* His goodness, and so on.
They're just different ways of referring to the same thing: Being Itself.


And on it goes, mind-halting at warp speed. I'm wondering if the above remains essentially what you're saying.

So for a finite mind to understand divine attributes, it must already assume they are irreducible and different from each other to begin with, just to know that they exist at all?

(Seems like irreducibility has to go with these necessary distinctions somehow, so I just stuck that in there and it may be incorrect/superfluous and I just don't realize it yet.)

BenYachov said...

Isn't a "heap" an ambiguous thing in essence?

Could it be that it doesn't have the property of reducibility because of it's "heap" nature?

Unlike let us say a Set of things which might be reduced to subsets?

TheOFloinn said...

If you have a situation where you are simply unable to demarcate X from not-X, then what does it mean to say that there is an essence X at all?

But what if advances in genetics demonstrates that mutation in the code can be massive and particular? Why cannot the offspring be essentially distinct from the parents? Why not quanta rather than continua?

Anonymous said...

I'm with Ben. The thing with all the Sorites examples is that they pertain to vague predicates. Things like 'bald' and 'heap' are loosely defined. 'Little to no hair' and 'a bunch' are ambiguous, and since you start from there you will obviously hit the paradox at some point.

It seems like a language thing to me. I guess this is why calling a girl fat is such a big issue.

TheOFloinn said...

does a thermostat 'intend' to maintain a constant temperature?

A thermostat is an artifact and carries the intention of its artist. But in terms of its physics, it does of course tend toward an equilibrium state, "always or for the most part."

Or do you confuse all intentions with a conscious sentient intention?

BenYachov said...

Essences are fixed but that doesn't stop Evolution as Oderberg said essences can't change but they can be destroyed and replaced with new essences.

TheOFloinn said...

We don't assume that a single grain of wheat has 'heapness', but that doesn't mean a pile of wheat therefore isn't a heap.

Why not? In mathematics, we often consider the case where n=1 or even n=0. Besides, a heap isn't a thing, as its components do not by nature associate. So there's no essential difference between a heap of n=1 and a heap of n=1000.

Untenured said...

Dguller,

Not much time, so I'll be brief.

First, even a term such as "game" has putative real definitions. Check out Oderberg's book Real Essentialism for an analysis that purports to defeat the standard Wittgensteinian critiques. If Oderberg is correct, there is a real definition of "game" that applies to all and only instances of "games".

Additionally, some people have also proposed "heap" as a term that is Sorities-vulnerable, but one could even argue that "heap" has a real definition. Check out W.D. Hart, who, in a paper who's title I forget, offers a fairly convincing argument that there is indeed a clear cutoff between a collection of grains of sand that constitute a "heap" and those that do not.

And, at any rate, even if terms like "heap" and "game" ultimately lack real definitions, this would be no big deal in the grand scheme. This is because neither of those terms purport to refer to natural kinds.

Finally, it is not clear to me that the verificationist assumption you are relying upon is correct. It would take more argument to show that it is.

All for now.

The Deuce said...

I'm with Ben. The thing with all the Sorites examples is that they pertain to vague predicates. Things like 'bald' and 'heap' are loosely defined. 'Little to no hair' and 'a bunch' are ambiguous, and since you start from there you will obviously hit the paradox at some point.

Yup, what precisely constitutes a "heap" is subjective by definition, and the usage of the word will vary from person to person.

Nevertheless, even in cases like this, there are essences involved. Consider that their are all sorts of studies under way, and various methods under development, to treat baldness. It would be impossible to even attempt to treat baldness as a general condition if there were really no essential reality of baldness, if every instance of it were essentially distinct from every other. So even where our language isn't entirely precise, or where the usage of certain words may differ somewhat from person to person, we may well be conceiving various essences. The existence of essences and universals is a prerequisite for the very possibility of rational thought about the world.

Ray Ingles said...

Feser - "After all, they “replicate” (when one pebble is broken into two); they “vary” (the new pebbles are smaller than the original, and differ from it and from each other in shape); they “inherit” features from their parents (the new pebble is solid and rough, just like Dad -- a chip off the old block!); and they differ in their “fitness” (the new pebbles are smaller and thus less easily broken than their ancestors)."

Wouldn't replication (in the sense Rosenberg seems to be using it) necessarily require at least the possibility of duplicating the 'parent', though? Forming a new layer of a crystal produces (modulo inclusions or flaws) another layer just like the prior one. A replicating organic molecule produces more of the same kind of organic molecules. Even a virus produces more viruses after infecting a cell.

Breaking a pebble cannot, even in principle, produce an identical pebble, though. (Well, unless it's a crystal in a super-saturated solution...)

Ray Ingles said...

More on "the intentional/non-intentional distinction".

I'm given to understand that blue pigment (molecules that reflect blue light) are very rare in nature. Most blue creatures don't actually produce a blue color via pigment, but rather by diffraction patterns, or coherent scattering, or whatnot.

In other words, the 'blueness' doesn't go all the way down. If you dismantle the structures, the components won't be blue. But further decomposition is possible.

Might intentionality be like that? It can be decomposed to an extent (the existence of functional models in the brain seems to indicate this) but might not go "all the way down"?

Gene Callahan said...

Here Rupert demonstrates that there is absolutely no reason to take Rupert seriously.

dguller said...

TOF:

But what if advances in genetics demonstrates that mutation in the code can be massive and particular? Why cannot the offspring be essentially distinct from the parents? Why not quanta rather than continua?

I think that the answer is that we do not observe anything like that happening during evolutionary change, especially of complex biological organisms, such as mammals. What we do observe is gradual and minor change over large periods of time rather than sudden ruptures of reproductive isolation.

But maybe others can add to this with more details.

dguller said...

Untenured:

First, even a term such as "game" has putative real definitions. Check out Oderberg's book Real Essentialism for an analysis that purports to defeat the standard Wittgensteinian critiques. If Oderberg is correct, there is a real definition of "game" that applies to all and only instances of "games".

What is that definition?

Additionally, some people have also proposed "heap" as a term that is Sorities-vulnerable, but one could even argue that "heap" has a real definition. Check out W.D. Hart, who, in a paper who's title I forget, offers a fairly convincing argument that there is indeed a clear cutoff between a collection of grains of sand that constitute a "heap" and those that do not.

What is the clear cutoff?

And, at any rate, even if terms like "heap" and "game" ultimately lack real definitions, this would be no big deal in the grand scheme. This is because neither of those terms purport to refer to natural kinds.

I don’t think that move will work, either. I mean, take “dog”, which should refer to a natural kind. Say you take a current example of a dog, and follow its evolutionary ancestry over hundreds of thousands of years. You would see a long chain of individuals stretching back in time, each very similar to the next, until you find yourself looking at a mammal that is not a dog at all. When looking at the individuals in time, and not the group, then you would simply be unable to say where the determinate cutoff between dog and non-dog is. And that seems to imply a grey area of individuals that are neither dog nor non-dog, which seems contradictory.

Finally, it is not clear to me that the verificationist assumption you are relying upon is correct. It would take more argument to show that it is.

This isn’t a verificationist assumption at all. Essentialists claim that all beings have a determinate nature that defines what they are. If that nature includes belonging to a particular species, then each individual member of a species should have a nature that is shared amongst all members of that species. If there are examples of individuals that do not seem to belong to any classification of species, then that would imply that the essentialist idea is problematic, at least. At least, there should be an explanation for why, for all intents and purposes, there is no reason to say that an individual belongs to X or not-X, that it stills must belong to X or not-X.

Rupert said...

Tony,

No, I have no proof of that. The burden of proof is obviously on one who would make such an implausible claim, which is obviously totally ungrounded in any kind of scientific evidence.

Jinzang,

If you're talking about differential equations where we can't prove that there's a unique solution, I think there are grounds for hoping that we could develop a unified theory where that would not be the case at the fundamental levels.

TheOFloinn,

Is your objection that some chemical aspects of the system would not be translatable into the language of physics? Or do you deny my claim that the true laws of physics provide a complete description of physical reality?

Gene Callahan,

It would be nice if you could be specific about where I demonstrated that.

TheOFloinn said...

we do not observe anything like that happening during evolutionary change, especially of complex biological organisms, such as mammals. What we do observe is gradual and minor change over large periods of time...

Alas, we do not "observe" any evolutionary change in complex organisms. Every species known to Darwin (within the appropriate geographical range, of course) was known to Aristotle. What we see in the fossil record is long periods of virtually no change, and then the sudden appearance of a radically different kind. Even with free interpolations, long gradual sequences are the exception. Speciation seems to make use of genetic mechanisms like those noted by Shapiro.
http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/Shapiro.1997.BostonReview1997.ThirdWay.pdf

Anonymous said...

dguller,

"I think that the answer is that we do not observe anything like that happening during evolutionary change, especially of complex biological organisms, such as mammals. What we do observe is gradual and minor change over large periods of time rather than sudden ruptures of reproductive isolation."

If you're going to restrict what we can say about evolution based on what we observe in the laboratory and in nature, you've given all ground to the Intelligent Design movement and other critics. The best reply there is to insist that we don't need observation to make the claims we see about the explanatory power of evolution.

It's even worse than that, because we actually do observe evolution making grand and large jumps all the time. It just so happens that those evolutionary processes are works of intelligent agents: directly altering the variation, the selection, or even the populations themselves.

You also seem to believe that evolution makes no big jumps and that all change is extremely gradual. That's a view which has been given up in the modern discussion: you don't get a bear from an eagle egg (well, it's possible, but viewed as just so amazingly unlikely), but you can get very sudden and severe changes within the space of very few generations.

TheOFloinn said...

you can get very sudden and severe changes within the space of very few generations.

For example:
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/04/080421-lizard-evolution.html

Anonymous said...

"Or do you deny my claim that the true laws of physics provide a complete description of physical reality?"

What if the true laws of physics aren't what you think they are?

George R. said...

Untenured:
Genuine cases of empirically established reductive identities like "Water = H2O", or "Heat = Mean molecular motion" are exceptional.

Water cannot equal H2O. First of all, water is one thing, and H2O is many things. Is the oxygen atom the same as the hydrogen atom? No. So how can such diverse parts of the molecule be all identical to the same thing, namely water? They can’t. It’s absurd. Therefore, the reality is either that water supervenes upon H2O, or that it stands in relation to H2O as a substance to its proper attribute. If the former, then water has no essence (and neither does anything else in nature). No essentialist could accept that. Therefore, H2O is no substance per se, but merely belongs to the substance of water as its proper attribute.

Mr. Green said...

Hyperdeath: Would a fully self-replicating robot count as "life" by the Aristotelian tradition?

No, a robot (on any usual definition) is an artificial collection of parts, rather than an organic whole or substance, so no matter what it can do it would not be an Aristotelian organism.

Bobcat said...

dguller,

I don't know Oderberg's definition of "game", but I suspect it might come from Bernard Suits, who defined a game as follows:

"To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity."

See his 1967 paper, "What Is a Game?"

Rupert said...

Anonymous,

I don't believe that we know the true laws of physics. I believe that they exist and are in principle impossible to discover.

Rupert said...

Anonymous,

I don't believe that we know the true laws of physics. I believe that they exist and are in principle possible to discover, and that we know some good approximations to them.

Anonymous said...

"I don't believe that we know the true laws of physics. I believe that they exist and are in principle impossible to discover."

"I don't believe that we know the true laws of physics. I believe that they exist and are in principle possible to discover, and that we know some good approximations to them."

That's a pretty big switch, isn't it? ;)

Anyway, the "true laws of physics" may not be what you think they are. Arguing what the true laws of physics will show, when we don't know them, is... well, something.

Untenured said...

@dguller:

I'm still not sure why you think that the proposition "All beings have a determinate nature" entails "We can always tell what nature any being has at any time and under any conditions." Someone might well know that certain samples of a shiny metal are determinately either Gold or Iron Pyrite without having any clue which is which.

@George R:

I have no wish to quibble with that. Even if you are right, my point still stands. The sorts of cases that are often alleged to show that science is successfully reducing kinds at the macro level to kinds at the micro level are exceptional, and even if they are cases of genuine reduction they do not provide evidence for the often parroted claim "everything reduces to physics"; a claim that is asserted with confidence far more often than it is ever actually defended.

P.S. Word verification is "nonese" which is one letter away from "non esse." Whooooaaah.....man.

DNW said...

Untenured said...


I want to ask all of the people who keep saying that the scientific method is anti-essentialist: Have you actually read any philosophy of science written after 1965? Or have you only read the usual suspects like Ayer, Carnap, Popper, Hempel, and company?

If the latter, then your understanding of the scientific method is at least 40 years behind the times. This is kind of ironic since we are the ones defending Medieval Scholasticism.

Ayer, Popper and company all wrote at a time when the linguistic framework theory of the a priori, the idea that there was clean break between "theory" and "observation", and the idea that sciences at higher levels can be neatly reduced to physics using analytic definitions and bridge laws were in vogue.

These views have all been exploded not just in the eyes of reactionaries like us- in eyes of those in the mainstream of the profession. And, once these views are discarded, it is difficult to maintain the position that the scientific method is inherently anti-essentialist."

Difficult perhaps, but no doubt convenient.

It's called having your nihilist cake and ...

In fact that very phenomenon has become a recurring theme in professor Feser's postings and comboxes.


What is going to be interesting, is watching how the Rosenberg "matter" plays out in academic circles. What, if anything, will be the official take on this kind of unapologetic nihilism?

Will it come to the point where atheistic political progressivism will be called upon to intellectually justify it's own values in light of it's premisses? Or will there simply be a smug admission that "Power politics in aid ultimately of, well, nothing, is all that it has ever been about. Despite whatever it is we may have said to you working class slobs about yielding up to the claims of universal justice; *prior* to our having gained effective control, that is" LOL

Rupert said...

Anonymous,

The "impossible" in my first post was a typo, as you may have realised.

I believe we have reason to think that we know some good approximations to the true laws of physics, and on that basis we can speculate about what would be the case regarding the true laws of physics.

Ray Ingles said...

Actually, the more I think about 'replication', the idea involves taking raw materials (that are not the kind being reproduced) and producing more of the thing being reproduced, indefinitely. That applies to viruses, autocatalytic chemical systems, crystal layers, humans, etc.

That doesn't apply to pebbles - carry out the 'splitting' operation long enough, you don't have pebbles anymore. The only 'raw material' you could feed in is more pebbles, formed by some other process.

It's not clear to me from the quotes provided that Rosenberg really does define replication as broadly as Feser indicates. Even if Rosenberg does, it's possible to meaningfully discuss replication with the more restrictive - but still broad - definition above.

Ray Ingles said...

Mr. Green - "No, a robot (on any usual definition) is an artificial collection of parts, rather than an organic whole or substance, so no matter what it can do it would not be an Aristotelian organism."

You do realize we have organ transplants today, right? Humans aren't the same all the way through, like a potato...

Ray Ingles said...

TheOFloinn - The lizard example linked to earlier is an example of observed "evolutionary change in complex organisms."

Of course, when you say, "What we see in the fossil record is long periods of virtually no change, and then the sudden appearance of a radically different kind"... I'm very curious if you could define "sudden" and "radically" in this context. Does this count?

Ray Ingles said...

If you're going to restrict what we can say about evolution based on what we observe in the laboratory and in nature, you've given all ground to the Intelligent Design movement and other critics.

Why? The fossil record exists in nature. So does comparative morphology. So does DNA cladistics.

TheOFloinn said...

You do realize we have organ transplants today, right? Humans aren't the same all the way through, like a potato...

Living things grow their own parts. They are not assembled from pre-existing parts which otherwise have no organic relationship one to the other. (That's one reason why ID fails: the presumption that a bacterium is somehow "like" a mousetrap.)

Transplanted organs are no different in principle from eyeglasses or prostheses; with the exception that they have something in common with digestion. Just as the apple is digested to become part of one's being, so too (in a successful transplant, at least) is the organ "taken in" by the organism. But you will notice that it is the organism that is the actor.

Ray Ingles said...

TheOFloinn - "Living things grow their own parts."

So, a virus isn't alive, in your view?

TheOFloinn said...

TheOFloinn - The lizard example linked to earlier

Ray - when you say, "What we see in the fossil record is long periods of virtually no change, and then the sudden appearance of a radically different kind"... I'm very curious if you could define "sudden" and "radically" in this context.


Just as astronomers once saw continuous "canals" in the reality of discrete dots, it is possible, by taking a long step back to "see" a gradual change.

As the article says: These facts strongly indicated that the hammer and anvil had evolved from these reptilian jawbones—that is, if common descent was in fact true. This is more carefully worded than usual, and highlights that the common descent is an assumption in the light of which the fossils are viewed and interpreted.

What we see is a pelycosaur, a therapsid, and an "early mammal," easily distinguished in kind one from the other. I would expect higher level taxa - the skulls shown are "typical" not "actual" and show only the sudden changes at that level.

What we encounter in actual material existence are individuals and their kinds, not higher level taxa. It is the change from one species to the next that is likely to be sudden. Show me the skull of the late pelycosaurs and the first therapsids. Betcha they show the self-same difference in jaw/ear bones. IOW, the smart money says that therapsids were discretely different right from the get-go.

SO the answer to your question would be that "sudden" can be as short as thirty years, as in the case of the lizard - and we don't really know how suddenly the new organ appeared. Remember how a single population of Galapagos finches, introduced to a remote Hawaiian island, developed in the course of a mere 20 years into the whole range of Galapagos beak variants.

I would expect that if you took the 30 years and turned it into "# generations," you'd get a fair approximation of "sudden." But this is only an intuition. The DNA code is discrete, not continuous; so alterations to it are more likely to be "either/or" than "more of less." Darwin thought inheritance was by means of a continuous process, the "blending" of the "blood." This would certainly mean change would be necessarily gradual. (It also falsified his theory, but fortunately Popper hadn't been born.) We know today that there are genetic mechanisms for repair and replication within the genome itself that at least allows for sudden, massive, and particular change at the phenotype level. You get a horse or a zebra depending "simply" on the timing with which a particular gene activates.

I suspect that genetics has more of a say in matters than natural selection.

TheOFloinn said...

Ray - So, a virus isn't alive, in your view?

TOF
I'm inclined to place it on the closure of the set of living things. Sort of like 0 is in the closure of the positive numbers without itself being a positive number.

I dare say there are natural kinds on the boundary between plant and fungus or between fungus and animal.

Even so, fuzzy sets are still sets; and the existence of dawn and dusk does not invalidate the distinction between night and day.

Ray Ingles said...

TheOFloinn - "This is more carefully worded than usual, and highlights that the common descent is an assumption in the light of which the fossils are viewed and interpreted."

Got an alternative? One that also explains the congruence between neutral DNA variations and morphological similarity?

"What we see is a pelycosaur, a therapsid, and an "early mammal," easily distinguished in kind one from the other."

Scroll down a little, to Figure 1.4.3. Note also the passage, "Since Figure 1.4.3 was made, several important intermediate fossils have been discovered that fit between Morganucodon and the earliest mammals."

"What we encounter in actual material existence are individuals and their kinds, not higher level taxa."

Or ring species.

"I suspect that genetics has more of a say in matters than natural selection."

Evo-devo, baby! :)

BenYachov said...

Ray if you are looking for an argument against Evolution from TOF you are barking up the wrong tree.

He will point out the known scientific gaps in evolutionary theory based on our present knowledge but unlike the ID crowd he won't conclude evolution is bogus because of that just incomplete.

This is a board of Catholic Thomists. Creationism of bothe the Young Earth & Old Earth species is a non-starter here.

Anonymous said...

I think Ray is operating under a typically mistaken view. The tone and direction of his comments seem to indicate that he thinks what's being denied here is macroevolution and common descent entirely. Instead what TOF and others seem to be questioning is whether evolution necessarily proceeds in an extremely gradual manner.

These are distinct questions. Common descent can be true, and evolution can be true, while the sort of extremely gradual evolution Darwin had in mind can be false. And there's plenty of reason to believe that it is, in fact, false. Darwin was wrong about a lot of things relating to evolution. Give him a break: Newton was wrong about some important things too.

The Deuce said...

Ray:

Or ring species.

It's kind of ironic that you mention that, since TOF brought ring species up himself in a fairly recent post of his.

dguller said...

TOF:

Are the lizards a different species of lizard, or just a different variation of the same species of lizard?

I think that irrespective of the speed of evolution, the idea is that from one parent to offspring, it is impossible to clearly demarcate when one species has evolved into another.

Anonymous said...

"I think that irrespective of the speed of evolution, the idea is that from one parent to offspring, it is impossible to clearly demarcate when one species has evolved into another."

But talking about what kind of difference we can expect even in a single generation isn't irrespective of the speed of evolution. It's specifically claim about evolution's speed, if only within a certain generation span. And the lizard evolution shows that even natural evolution doesn't need to go as slow as Darwin insisted.

And impossible has to be made separate from difficult (for us), and difficult still more separate from "not present".

Almost Thomist said...

Dr.Feser what do you think of William Lane Craig's argument that Divine Simplicity in the thomistic sense is hard to reconcile with the doctrine of Trinity?

Hear Craig's podcast on this:

http://www.rfmedia.org/RF_audio_video/RF_podcast/Relationship_with_God_Divine_Simplicity.mp3

In that podcast Craig also summarizes some of the objections against the thomistic doctrine of Divine Simplicity and Aquinas' view that God is pure actuality.

TheOFloinn said...

Common descent can be true, and evolution can be true, while the sort of extremely gradual evolution Darwin had in mind can be false.

I suspect Darwin's a priori commitment to gradualism had its roots in two things:
a) He associated sudden change with religion and was (as his letters show) at least as interested in denying divinity as in explaining biology. He even had kind words for Lamarck because they shared that common goal of denying telos in nature.
b) In his day, the mechanism of inheritance was assumed to be some sort of blending of "the blood." (We still use "bloodlines" and similar locutions.) Given this assumption, gradualism is necessary.
c) However, it also falsified his theory of natural selection. Since a mutation is unlikely to strike several individuals in a breeding population at the same time/generation, the First Mutant's bloodline would be quickly diluted to homeopathic levels. Most mates would not share the mutation. Darwin knew this and cited it as a major problem with with theory and airily presumed it would be solved some day.
d) Mendel's experiments showed that inheritance was "digital" or "discrete" and his mathematical laws of inheritance showed how recessive genes could lurk in the population and show up a few generations later. When his work was rediscovered during the "Twilight of Darwinism," it breathed new life into evolutionary theory.

But a discrete inheritance structure implies discrete change in the organism. Thus, massive alterations in the jawbone might take place.

"Ring species" cast doubt on the use of "interfertility" to define "species." In fact, the definition does not apply to wide swaths of the plant and fungi kingdoms or to asexual species. And cannot be operationally applied to extinct species.

dguller said...

Anonymous:

But talking about what kind of difference we can expect even in a single generation isn't irrespective of the speed of evolution. It's specifically claim about evolution's speed, if only within a certain generation span. And the lizard evolution shows that even natural evolution doesn't need to go as slow as Darwin insisted.

Whether evolution happens quickly or slowly, it seems impossible to say from parent to offspring, “Whoa! This offspring is a new species!”

And impossible has to be made separate from difficult (for us), and difficult still more separate from "not present".

If it is just difficult, but not impossible, then how do you account for its possibility? In other words, what would you ideally need to be able to determine from parent to offspring whether the offspring were, in fact, a new species?

Anonymous said...

"Whether evolution happens quickly or slowly, it seems impossible to say from parent to offspring, “Whoa! This offspring is a new species!”"

Why? I ask this especially in light of your previous statements here, where you were basing the claim that evolution poses a problem for delineating species due to the (very gradual) speed. Now you're saying speed doesn't matter. But before, speed was exactly what mattered.

"If it is just difficult, but not impossible, then how do you account for its possibility? In other words, what would you ideally need to be able to determine from parent to offspring whether the offspring were, in fact, a new species?"

The form, which is why the question answers itself. What's the difference between a difficulty and an impossibility? And a claim of impossibility is something that has to be accounted for as well: saying "well, I don't see how..." or "it would be difficult to..." isn't such an account. That's a good thing for evolution, because if "we don't see how..." meant impossibility, we'd have a refutation for evolution on hand.

dguller said...

Anonymous:

Why? I ask this especially in light of your previous statements here, where you were basing the claim that evolution poses a problem for delineating species due to the (very gradual) speed. Now you're saying speed doesn't matter. But before, speed was exactly what mattered.

What is it about the offspring that would make it a new species? How would you be able to know at that moment that it was a new species?

The form, which is why the question answers itself. What's the difference between a difficulty and an impossibility? And a claim of impossibility is something that has to be accounted for as well: saying "well, I don't see how..." or "it would be difficult to..." isn't such an account. That's a good thing for evolution, because if "we don't see how..." meant impossibility, we'd have a refutation for evolution on hand.

So, it is a new species, because it has the form of a new species? What is the form of a new species from parent to offspring, though? You are the one who is saying that there is a difference between the parent and offspring where a new species emerges, and so the onus is upon you to specify, even in broad outlines, what the actual difference could be.

Anonymous said...

"What is it about the offspring that would make it a new species? How would you be able to know at that moment that it was a new species?"

If the offspring had a capacity for rational thought that the parents lacked, to give one example.

I gave an extraordinarily, unfathomably unlikely example earlier of an eagle giving birth to a bear. Let's call it a small bear. :-) Are you saying that if this took place you'd say that we can in no way take this to be a case of offspring and parents being of different species?

What if a scientist genetically engineers a pair of rabbits to give birth to a creature who had all the common traits of a lizard? Still the same species?

If you say no to these, I think you'll have to say why. If you say yes but argue that you don't expect to see any of these take place in nature, then it looks like we're back to speed being your main concern after all.

"You are the one who is saying that there is a difference between the parent and offspring where a new species emerges, and so the onus is upon you to specify, even in broad outlines, what the actual difference could be."

No, I haven't said that the difference between a parent and offspring is what determines a new species. I've been responding to your claim that it is impossible for there to a difference in species in the space of a generation. Noting that you find it a difficult question to answer does not establish, or even imply, the impossibility you're claiming. And claiming it is impossible means the onus is on you to show it to be.

Surely you agree with this. Would saying that we don't know how given biological structure X could have evolved mean that we've shown its evolution to be impossible? When creationists do this, it's called an argument from incredulity, or an argument from lack of imagination.

dguller said...

Anonymous:

If the offspring had a capacity for rational thought that the parents lacked, to give one example.

And this could happen from parent to offspring? Wouldn’t this require significant changes to brain function? Also, why does the capacity for rational thought necessarily imply a new species instead of a really, really smart variation of an older species?

I gave an extraordinarily, unfathomably unlikely example earlier of an eagle giving birth to a bear. Let's call it a small bear. :-) Are you saying that if this took place you'd say that we can in no way take this to be a case of offspring and parents being of different species?

If that took place, then sure, that would count. Since it doesn’t take place, its nothing but science fiction.

What if a scientist genetically engineers a pair of rabbits to give birth to a creature who had all the common traits of a lizard? Still the same species?

Different species, but since we were talking about evolution, maybe we should stick with what actually seems to happen in the world rather than with whatever our imaginations can come up with?

If you say no to these, I think you'll have to say why. If you say yes but argue that you don't expect to see any of these take place in nature, then it looks like we're back to speed being your main concern after all.

Again, the issue is not speed. Whether evolutionary change happens over tens, hundreds, thousands or millions of years, the bottom line is that you would have to be able to look at a single parent-offspring set and be able to see, at that moment, that a new species was being born. Any evidence of anything like that ever happening? Even the lizard example occurred over 30 years, and about 15 generations, and it wasn’t a new species, as far as I know.

No, I haven't said that the difference between a parent and offspring is what determines a new species. I've been responding to your claim that it is impossible for there to a difference in species in the space of a generation. Noting that you find it a difficult question to answer does not establish, or even imply, the impossibility you're claiming. And claiming it is impossible means the onus is on you to show it to be.

My argument is that there is no evidence whatsoever for a determinate differentiation between the parent of an old species and its immediate offspring as a new species. There is plenty of evidence for gradual change over several generations without any clear-cut demarcation between species from parent to offspring. Therefore, I rank your position quite low in the plausibility scale. If all you have to justify your position is science fiction and thought experiments, then I’m afraid that is just not good enough.

Surely you agree with this. Would saying that we don't know how given biological structure X could have evolved mean that we've shown its evolution to be impossible? When creationists do this, it's called an argument from incredulity, or an argument from lack of imagination.

This is different. I am saying that we never observe X to occur, and thus should conclude that it is highly unlikely for X to be true, and you are saying that there are some imaginary scenarios where X could happen, even though X has never been observed, and that is good enough to believe in X. It is not that we observe a clear-cut demarcation between old species parents and new species offspring, and we don’t know how this happens. It is that we never observe this demarcation at all. It would be like me saying that we always observe the speed of light to be c, and you say that you can imagine some parallel universes where the speed of light is c + 1. So what? Should I no longer use c for the speed of light? And if I don’t, then am I falling victim of an argument from incredulity?

Anonymous said...

"Again, the issue is not speed."

It is about speed, for you. Specifically, you think that the speed would have to be real, real fast. Major change in the space of a generation. Speed.

"Even the lizard example occurred over 30 years, and about 15 generations, and it wasn’t a new species, as far as I know."

+

"Wouldn’t this require significant changes to brain function? Also, why does the capacity for rational thought necessarily imply a new species instead of a really, really smart variation of an older species?"

What standard do you use to determine a new or different species?

The rest of your comments, including whether it's true that we do or don't "observe this happening" is beside the point until you give your own definition of species, and how to tell the difference between one species and another. I'll wait for that before replying further.

Or maybe you're denying that there are any different species at all?

dguller said...

Anonymous:

The rest of your comments, including whether it's true that we do or don't "observe this happening" is beside the point until you give your own definition of species, and how to tell the difference between one species and another. I'll wait for that before replying further.

You can use the standard definition of species as “reproductively isolated and incapable of interbreeding”, but that doesn’t capture all cases. In fact, there is no single definition that works in all cases, and thus “species” is similar to “game” in that there are no necessary and sufficient conditions at all! And that is because there are grey areas and fuzzy borders, which simply bolster my point that our concepts and classification systems are simply not fine grained enough in many cases to truly capture what is happening in reality.

We like to pretend that the concepts upon which we base our rational arguments upon adequate capture reality, and yet this is a good example of where we simply lack the conceptual precision to “carve nature at its joints”, as it were. This is actually a useful limitation to be aware of, because if an argument requires precision in its conceptual demarcations, and such precision is simply impossible for us to possess, then the argument fails. You find such arguments in debates about free will where we have to locate a precise point where I made a choice and was not influenced by anything else, and yet there is no such precise point ever observed or found.

BenYachov said...

dguller,

You might be equivocating between the modern definition of "species" vs the classic metaphysical Aristotelian definition.

I don't think they are the same.

Aristotle defined the human species as "a rational animal". Therefore strictly applied if God gave your dog rational faculties the dog would be the species "human" even thought no species (as defined in modern terms) of Homo Sapiens Sapiens could interbreed with him and he could still breed with his non-rational genetic contemporaries.

TheOFloinn said...

here is no single definition that works in all cases, and thus “species” is similar to “game” in that there are no necessary and sufficient conditions at all!

That is interesting, since it makes the concept of "origin of species" incoherent.

dguller said...

TOF:

That is interesting, since it makes the concept of "origin of species" incoherent.

Only if you think that all concepts must have precise boundaries and demarcations. After all, we can certainly play games despite having no idea what all games have in common, and we can talk about baldness, even though we have no idea where to draw the precise line where baldness begins.

Ray Ingles said...

TheOFloinn - "But a discrete inheritance structure implies discrete change in the organism. Thus, massive alterations in the jawbone might take place."

A discrete inheritance can indicate discrete changes in the organism, but does not demand it. There are two closely-related issues.

First, given enough resolution, the difference between digital and analog can get arbitrarily small. Using sound as an example, the fidelity of an 8-bit sound file is drastically less than a 16-bit sound file. Once you get into the 24-bit range, the difference is all but impossible for a human to detect.

Second, a digital control system acting on an analog system still can have analog results. Simple example, the sound files on a CD are purely digital. When they are played, though, they are translated into analog movements of one or more speaker cones, leading to an analog sound waveform.

Genes are certainly digital, but the effect of their expression is very frequently analog - governing timing of reactions, concentrations of chemical signals, and so forth.

(An example of how complex developmental paths are here.)

That's not to say that small mutations can't have large effects - they certainly can. But it's not a slam dunk that small changes must have large effects - and most of the time, they don't.

There's also the problem that - in species that exclusively reproduce sexually, at least - a mutant with a mutation that causes large phenotypic effects has the problem of finding a compatible mate. This puts some constraints on how much change can happen in a generation. (Though they are theoretically still capable of interbreeding, a Chihuahua is going to have difficulty hooking up with a St. Bernard. Changes like that don't happen in one generation.)

And I pointed out ring species for a reason. The two 'ends' of the ring can't interbreed, even though there is a more-or-less continuous set of 'intermediates' between them where interbreeding is possible. Picturing such transitions happening across time instead of (or in addition to) space gives a better model of speciation in practice.

TheOFloinn said...

And I pointed out ring species for a reason. The two 'ends' of the ring can't interbreed, even though there is a more-or-less continuous set of 'intermediates' between them where interbreeding is possible. Picturing such transitions happening across time instead of (or in addition to) space gives a better model of speciation in practice.

But it does so nicely illustrate the incoherence of the biological definition of "species." If A can interbreed with B and B with C, but A and C cannot interbreed, then we have the situation in which A belongs to the same species as B, and C belongs to the same species as B; but A and C do not belong to the same species!

Now, Darwin's definition was different. In the Origin, he writes: "I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other..." Which would make him a radical nominalist. The philosophical realist would say that there must be something real in the individuals in virtue of which they "closely resemble" one another.

But if we take him at his word, the origin of species occurs in the human mind: whenever humans decide "Hey, that's different!"

Of course, I cannot interbreed with my great-grandmother's sister-in-law for the excellent reason that she is dead; but this does not make her a different species from me. And as dguller, I think, pointed out, there are whole swaths of life-forms to which the "interbreeding" definition does not apply.

We might observe that the herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull are considered to be separate species because they do not interbreed. But they are nevertheless, still gulls. OTOH, the Northern Spotted Owl and the California Spotted Owl do interbreed but we designate them as separate "species" for other reasons. So if the ring species is an exemplar geographically of evolution over time, we need not demand that the successor species be incapable of interbreeding with its progenitor.

As dguller points out - and as I did earlier - much depends on how closely you peer. From a sufficient distance, a series of discrete changes can look an awful lot like a continuous change. A simple change in the timing of the expression of a gene is all that is needed to make a zebra instead of a horse.

Anonymous said...

*hovers over link*
*notices it's from POZ Myers' hugbox*
*doesn't click it*

Bobcat said...

dguller,

How do you know that we don't know what all and only games have in common? I gave you a definition that purports to capture features that all and only games have in common. What is your problem with the definition?

dguller said...

Bobcat:

Your definition was:

To play a game is to engage in activity directed toward bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by specific rules, where the means permitted by the rules are more limited in scope than they would be in the absence of the rules, and where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity.

How does this differentiate between work and play? In fact, how does it differentiate between any rule-governed human activity at all? It just seems to be the definition of any rule-governed human activity, and does not differentiate between the different types of rule-governed human activities, such as work and play.

Bobcat said...

Hi dguller,

Recall this bit of the definition:

"...where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity."

You follow the rules of a game because otherwise you couldn't play the game. You (often) follow the rules of work because those rules enable people to bring about something (products, for example) more efficiently than they would otherwise be able to bring about that something.

But I recommend your reading the article, too.

dguller said...

Bobcat:

You follow the rules of a game because otherwise you couldn't play the game. You (often) follow the rules of work because those rules enable people to bring about something (products, for example) more efficiently than they would otherwise be able to bring about that something.

I’m sorry, but you could still function at work without following any rules? Usually that results in someone being fired. So, following the rules is necessary to work at a job, and thus meets your definition of “game”.

Mr. Green said...

Dguller: I’m sorry, but you could still function at work without following any rules? Usually that results in someone being fired.

No, he means that you follow the rules of a game for the sake of the rules themselves, whereas you follow the rules at work for the sake of not getting fired. In other words, games are rules that you follow just for fun. Now you can still come up with examples that don't fit the definition exactly, but that's because human beings like playing games with words. (That is, there are rules of language for the sake of effective communication, but we like to add or modify rules for the sake of amusement — everything from metaphors to outright puns.) But of course we have to be careful not to confuse ambiguity or flexibility of language with things themselves.

Mr. Green said...

Ray Ingles: You do realize we have organ transplants today, right? Humans aren't the same all the way through, like a potato…

Who needs transplants? You do realize that humans digest food, right? But I think you're misunderstanding what the Aristotelian concept of a substance is: an organic whole isn't a homogeneous whole, it's one that has a single substantial form. A pile of rocks is just a pile of separate things, but so is a space shuttle. The function or complexity or even whether some parts have been melted together to make a "single" part are not the point here; only whether there are multiple essential forms or one.

Mr. Green said...

TheOFloinn: Which would make [Darwin] a radical nominalist. The philosophical realist would say that there must be something real in the individuals in virtue of which they "closely resemble" one another. 


I wouldn't be surprised if Darwin was very nominalist, but in this particular case, is it really radical? Some things are just names, after all. If it turns out to be more useful in practice for biologists to use rather arbitrary classifications in their work that do not map up to actual metaphysical species, that's fine. Political boundaries sometimes follow real natural boundaries like rivers or mountain ranges, and sometimes they don't — they're "nominal", but that's all right because that's all they need to be. And since — as far as I can see — it's impossible to identify exact essences via empirical science, biologists would have to resort to [somewhat!] subjective classifications anyway. (Of course it would be nice if biologists knew any philosophy and could tell the difference between methodological conveniences and real natures, but that's a different story.)

Untenured said...

@dguller:

A distinction you might be helpful here is that between regulative rules and constitutive rules.

Regulative rules govern an activity that can be performed whether one abides by the rules or not. One can engage in work without working in accord with any set of rules. Just as one can eat without obeying any rules of etiquette.

Compare this with the rules of chess. If one violates the rules of chess, one is no longer even playing the game. You are doing something else altogether, like shuffling pieces around checkerboard at random.

In the case of games, adherence to a set of rules is partially constitutive of the activity itself.

Ray Ingles said...

TheOFloinn - But it does so nicely illustrate the incoherence of the biological definition of "species."

As Ernst Mayr put it, "species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups". Species is inherently a group concept.

We were just talking about the Sorites paradox. A 'heap' is inherently a group concept, too. If the species concept is incoherent, then the idea of a heap must also be incoherent for the exact same reason. Is that your contention?

Imagine two nearby 'heaps' of wheat. We keep adding grains of wheat to the sides nearest each other until there's a 'tail' between them. Are they now the same heap? Do the grains in the middle belong to one heap, or the other, or both?

Of course, I cannot interbreed with my great-grandmother's sister-in-law for the excellent reason that she is dead; but this does not make her a different species from me.

Dude. Seriously? You really intend that as an honest objection to the idea? Even in populations that are all actually alive at the same time, you don't need to breed every individual with every other individual to establish reproductive isolation or the lack thereof. Biological and genetic considerations are sufficient to establish that.

"You get a horse or a zebra depending "simply" on the timing with which a particular gene activates."

Well, and a few chromosome fusion events.

I actually agree that the 'biological species concept' (depending on reproductive isolation) is indeed incomplete, and doesn't apply to asexual species, among others. That being said, in its domain of applicability - sexually-reproducing organisms - it's quite accurate and useful.

Ray Ingles said...

Anon@December 14, 2011 1:26 PM -

Your choice. Myers does, in fact, post science on occasion, and this was an example.

Ray Ingles said...

Mr. Green - if a "space shuttle" can be an Aristotelean substance, then why not a robot?

dguller said...

Mr Green:

No, he means that you follow the rules of a game for the sake of the rules themselves, whereas you follow the rules at work for the sake of not getting fired. In other words, games are rules that you follow just for fun.

There is a difference between following rules “for the sake of the rules themselves”, and following rules for the sake of having fun. The bottom line is that nobody plays a game just to follow the rules. That would be pointless. People play games for a number of reasons, such as for a challenge, for the thrill of victory, for learning to cope with defeat, for learning how to be competitive, for physical fitness, for mental agility, for earning approval from others, for material gain, and so on. Again, nobody plays a game just to follow rules and for no other reason.

Now you can still come up with examples that don't fit the definition exactly, but that's because human beings like playing games with words. (That is, there are rules of language for the sake of effective communication, but we like to add or modify rules for the sake of amusement — everything from metaphors to outright puns.) But of course we have to be careful not to confuse ambiguity or flexibility of language with things themselves.

But that is precisely the issue. The problem is not where there are clear-cut examples and exemplars of a concept, but where there is a grey area and fuzzy border, i.e. “examples that don’t fit the definition exactly”. And this becomes problematic for philosophical arguments that demand precision and demarcation in their conceptual underpinning. Whether this lack of precision is epistemological or ontological, the bottom line is that our concepts are inadequate, and thus the inferences that we make on the basis of those concepts are equally inadequate.

Bobcat said...

Recall this end-bit of the definition:

"...where the sole reason for accepting such limitation is to make possible such activity."

Mr. Green is wrong when he says this equates to following the rules for the sake of having fun. We have to distinguish between a person's reason for playing a game and a person's reason for following the rules of a game. There are numerous reasons people can have for playing a game. What Suits is claiming is that the reason we have for following the rules of a game is that if we didn't follow such rules, we wouldn't even be playing the game in the first place.

But I encourage you to read the original article. If you need a copy, let me know.

dguller said...

Bobcat:

What Suits is claiming is that the reason we have for following the rules of a game is that if we didn't follow such rules, we wouldn't even be playing the game in the first place.

How does that differ from any constitutive rule-governed human activity? Being a physician is has constitutive rules (e.g. being knowledgeable, being compassionate, making decisions in the best interests of your patients, maintaining accreditation, etc.) such that not following those rules would mean that you just aren’t practicing medicine. In addition, doing mathematics has various constitutive rules whereby not following them (e.g. 1 + 1 = 3) means that you just aren’t doing mathematics at all.

Again, the task is to determine the necessary and sufficient conditions whereby an activity is a game, and not anything else. Suits’ definition just seems too broad.

But I encourage you to read the original article. If you need a copy, let me know.

I can’t find the article anywhere. Can you post it somewhere?

TheOFloinn said...

there are rules of language for the sake of effective communication, but we like to add or modify rules for the sake of amusement — everything from metaphors to outright puns.

That's why we can "game the system."

I'd like to suggest that the problem some folks have with fuzzy sets is that what makes a game "game" is largely in the mind of the player. You can "game the system."

Tony said...

RAY: As Ernst Mayr put it, "species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups". Species is inherently a group concept.

If that's what they mean by the term, and they stick to that without equivocation, it might be useful. But such a meaning for "species" is problematic when they try to discuss the issues with others, because the term "species" had a meaning before and apart from such a limited definition. Such a definition, then, becomes a means of mis-communicating.

By the way, what does "reproductively isolated from other such groups" mean? Does it include groups that cannot reproduce together only because they are isolated in space? Groups that don't reproduce together for purely reasons of taste (red finches don't naturally select blue finches to mate with) even if they could reproduce if they mated?

We were just talking about the Sorites paradox. A 'heap' is inherently a group concept, too. If the species concept is incoherent, then the idea of a heap must also be incoherent for the exact same reason. Is that your contention?

No, the problem is the hidden assumption that this is the ONLY KIND of collecting that occurs, the heap kind: A clump of molecules is a heap even if they happen to be a part of a human being.

I actually agree that the 'biological species concept' (depending on reproductive isolation) is indeed incomplete, and doesn't apply to asexual species, among others. That being said, in its domain of applicability - sexually-reproducing organisms - it's quite accurate and useful.

It can be useful. But since it is also an unnecessarily distinct way of using the word compared to the way it was used - before Darwinism - from the time of Plato at least, it is a poor use of nomenclature. Biologists should have come up with their own word that means what you said instead of borrowing another word that had its own (different) meaning. They didn't because they chose instead to cut off the philosophic debate on the matter that underlies the two uses of the term.

TheOFloinn said...

Ray:
As Ernst Mayr put it, "species are groups of interbreeding natural populations that are reproductively isolated from other such groups". Species is inherently a group concept.


So if Australian aborigines are isolated from Eskimos, they belong to different species??

How does this apply to roses or mushrooms? And if it doesn't, how are we talking about the same thing in each case? In metrology, we know that by defining a measurement system, we define the thing being measured, and using different definitions - even of mechanical measurements like 'coefficient of friction' - we can obtain different results on the same object.

We were just talking about the Sorites paradox. ... Imagine two nearby 'heaps' of wheat. We keep adding grains of wheat to the sides nearest each other until there's a 'tail' between them. Are they now the same heap? Do the grains in the middle belong to one heap, or the other, or both?

They are one kind of thing: "wheat grains." The "heap" you are talking about has no essential relationship among the grains. They are related only accidentally, by location. In a species, otoh, there is some essence in virtue of which the individuals form a kind of thing.

Dude. Seriously? You really intend that as an honest objection to the idea? Even in populations that are all actually alive at the same time, you don't need to breed every individual with every other individual to establish reproductive isolation or the lack thereof. Biological and genetic considerations are sufficient to establish that.

So let's abandon Mayr's definition. "Biological" or "genetic," which is it to be? Are we also abandoning behavioral and geographic barriers along with temporal barriers to reproduction?

Of course, a reductio is not a serious objection to anything except the weakness of the original definition - to which you have now added unspecified "considerations." In the hard sciences and in engineering, a definition must be "operational." That is, you must be able to specify the operations to be performed that will result in the measurement (or classification). How, for example, is Mayr's definition to be applied to distinguish different contemporary "species" of trilobites or tyrannosaurs?

In its domain of applicability - sexually-reproducing organisms - it's quite accurate and useful.

Useful, indeed; but to call it accurate is to beg the question. Accuracy can only be judged by comparison to a standard, and the definition is supposed to be the standard. It strikes me as the modern definition of "atoms," which is also useful. But the entities defined are not actually "atoms."
+ + +

Perhaps we ought to encourage the term "biospecies" to emphasize it scope limitations. It may well be that roses and mushrooms don't have "species" in the same sense as higher animals

Ray Ingles said...

Tony - "Does it include groups that cannot reproduce together only because they are isolated in space? Groups that don't reproduce together for purely reasons of taste (red finches don't naturally select blue finches to mate with) even if they could reproduce if they mated?"

Yes. Of course, given the fact that mutations and variations accumulate in isolated populations over time, this tends to lead to hybridization problems eventually.

"They didn't because they chose instead to cut off the philosophic debate on the matter that underlies the two uses of the term."

Nope.

Every single discipline appropriates common words and applies specialized or limited meanings to them. In programming, for example, I can sensibly speak of an "atomic bus queue operation". It's not what you're probably picturing.

Theology and philosophy do it, too. Consider 'divine simplicity', which is uniquely different from every other kind of simplicity.

TheOFloinn said...

Consider 'divine simplicity', which is uniquely different from every other kind of simplicity.

Actually, no. It is the original meaning of simple. Compare in pharmacy the distinction between "a simple" and "a compound." This, too, follows the original meaning.

Of course, in topology a maze is a "simple" curve and a figure-8 is "complex." But this is also derivable from the original meaning. It comes from L. simplus, "single." The adjectival meaning of "not complicated" dates only from the 1550s.

Tony said...

Right. In natural philosophy up until Darwin, two populations that didn't interbreed merely because of separation by location would not be called "different species" at all, they would be different populations of one species. When they eventually get around to enough variation between them that they CAN'T interbreed, then that might justify calling them different species, but it is not in virtue of the isolation, it is in virtue of the differences.

Heuristics said...

"I can sensibly speak of an "atomic bus queue operation". "

When speaking of atomic operation in computer science we are using the original definition of the term atomic: non-divisible. An atomic operation is one that cannot (from the point of view of other threads) be divided. An atom in the sense of physics was the basic physical unit that could not be divided, then they managed to divide that which they had labeled as atomic and changed the meaning of the word instead of coming up with a new one.

Mr. Green said...

Ray Ingles: if a "space shuttle" can be an Aristotelean substance, then why not a robot?

Sorry if I wasn't clear. The space shuttle is not an Aristotelian substance either.

Bobcat said...

Dguller,

I have the article, but I don't know how to post it. How do you do that?

dguller said...

Bobcat:

I have no idea. :P

Josh said...

Hitch has died in Texas:

http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2011/12/In-Memoriam-Christopher-Hitchens-19492011

man with a computer said...

Kyrie, eleison.

BenYachov said...

My sister-in-law has also died today.

2011 will be my Annus horribilis.

First my Mother-in-Law at the end of Feb then last month his sister then my wife's brother's wife.

God have mercy on their souls and the soul of Hitchins.

man with a computer said...

Sad to hear that, Ben. Condolences.

Tony said...

My condolences to your family, Ben.

Catholic Programmer said...

Now the Aristotelian tradition has, of course, an account of what life is. Living things, it says, are those which exhibit immanent causation as well as transeunt (or “transient”) causation... Immanent causal processes are those which terminate within the cause and tend to its good or flourishing (even if they also have effects external to the cause).

Hi Ed,

As programmer, I write software that detects errors in the system, of which it is a part, and takes corrective action. For instance the program can choose to restart or terminate faulty sub-systems/part for the benefit of the whole. It would seem that according to the Aristotelian definition of life the system would be alive since it is showing signs of immanent causation.

Can you please help me see how this conclusion is erroneous?

StoneTop said...

So if Australian aborigines are isolated from Eskimos, they belong to different species??

No, because they can still interbreed.

But then using the ability to interbreed as a hard deliminator for species isn't a good idea... as it removes people who cannot reproduce from the species (a man with a genetic defect that renders him incapable of producing sperm would then not be a member of the same species).

But then there isn't a good way to create hard limits on what constitutes a species. Consider that there is considerable evidence that our H.Sapien Sapiens ancestors interbred with H.Neanderthals. The evidence that it happened is genetic, so obviously a H.Sapien Sapiens and H.Neanderthals produced viable offspring.

It simply highlights that our classification of groups of living things into species is an artificial construct hammered on top of the natural world.

They are one kind of thing: "wheat grains." The "heap" you are talking about has no essential relationship among the grains. They are related only accidentally, by location. In a species, otoh, there is some essence in virtue of which the individuals form a kind of thing.

Sure, and by that same token we can refer to "organisms" (wheat grains) and "species" (heap)... with organisms only related "accidentally" by genetic similarity.

Greg Ransom said...

If memory serves, the current Rosenberg position is eliminativism when it comes to most biological categories and concepts.

Check his web site for his most recent papers on the topic.

Anonymous said...

Well I really enjoyed parts 1-3. But part 4 seems to struggle at the beginning and fall apart by the middle. Which is a shame as this essay purports to be a critique of Rosenberg, which is curious because Rosenberg from by second hand reading does not seem to be particularly sophisticated, philosophically.

"And, I would add, if they were to bite the bullet and accept that there is genuine intentional content at least at some very low level of physical reality, they will have implicitly given up a physicalist conception of matter and revived an Aristotelian commitment to finality or “directedness” as a fundamental aspect of the natural order."

Unfortunately the reason why they don't "bite the bullet" is that they see no need to. I can describe a chess playing computer in terms of intentionality, or in terms of logical/mechanistic processes. Both approaches are useful, but the intentional or teleological is redundant if you wish to explain in terms of the fundamental natural order.

Now I'm sympathetic to those who are critical of Scientism, but appeals to Aristotelian teleological principles is silly beyond words. It amounts to an appeal to a type of Vitalism, except applied to everything including physics. The world, and philosophy, has moved on.