Biology as viewed through 19th Century Lenses

Most modern readers have difficulty appreciating the resilience of spiritual or metaphysical overtones to 19th Century scientific thought, alternatively referred to as “vitalism” & “teleology”. At this point, a quick historical digression is in order.

What exactly is life?”! Traditional education systems were well-grounded in the classics, and many 19th Century naturalists could relate to an ancient Greek philosopher named Aristotle who was convinced no real boundary existed between “living” and “non-living”. According to Aristotle, non-living matter could give rise to living things because our universe possesses some vital life force or soul, “anima”, which could “animate” non-living matter. In Aristotle’s view: the universe, as a whole, had its own soul. In modern terms the universe could be considered as some giant fractal and we are all but elements therein. Even today, various mystical traditions hold similar ideas.

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What did Lamarck and Darwin really say?

Historically and conceptually, modern Genetics and modern Evolutionary Theory are closely intertwined. Mendel and Darwin both published their masterpieces in the mid-1800s and both were promptly misunderstood and discounted for half a century. Both theories required several more “kicks at the can” before final acceptance. Put simply: the Theory of Evolution itself evolved in response to an emerging understanding of Genetics.

Some quick questions:

Question: Name the scientist that first suggested “the effects of use and disuse” were passed from one generation to the next?

Answer: Charles Darwin and NOT Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who actually had a somewhat different theory.

Question: Name the scientist who first to employed the term evolve/evolution while also suggesting human beings had “evolved” from apes?

Answer: That would be Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. (Lamarck in fact invented the word “evolution”, a word which never appeared in Darwin’s Book “Origin of the Species”). Continue reading

The Disunity of Reason

Last night I was talking with an old friend of mine, an atheist Jew, who is now in the best relationship of her life with a devout Roman Catholic. We talked about the fact that she was more surprised than he was about the fact that their connection transcends their difference in metaphysics. He sees himself as a devout Roman Catholic; she sees him as a good human being.

This conversation reminded me of an older thought that’s been swirling around in my head for a few weeks: the disunity of reason.

It is widely held by philosophers (that peculiar sub-species!) that reason is unified: that the ideally rational person is one for whom there are no fissures, breaks, ruptures, or discontinuities anywhere in the inferential relations between semantic contents that comprise his or her cognitive grasp of the world (including himself or herself as part of that world).

This is particularly true when it comes to the distinction between “theoretical reason” and “practical reason”. By “theoretical reason” I mean one’s ability to conceptualize the world-as-experienced as more-or-less systematic, and by “practical reason” I mean one’s ability to act in the world according to judgments that are justified by agent-relative and also agent-indifferent reasons (“prudence” and “morality”, respectively).

The whole philosophical tradition from Plato onward assumes that reason is unified, and especially, that theoretical and practical reason are unified — different exercises of the same basic faculty. Some philosophers think of them as closer together than others — for example, Aristotle distinguishes between episteme (knowledge of general principles in science, mathematics, and metaphysics) and phronesis (knowledge of particular situations in virtuous action). But even Aristotle does not doubt that episteme and phronesis are exercises of a single capacity, reason (nous).

However, as we learn more about how our cognitive system is actually structured, we should consider the possibility that reason is not unified at all. If Horst’s Cognitive Pluralism is right, then we should expect that our minds are more like patchworks of domain-specific modules that can reason quite well within those domains but not so well across them.

To Horst’s model I’d add the further conjecture: that we have pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “theoretical reason” (abstract thinking and long-term planning) with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and also pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “practical reason” (self-control and virtuous conduct) with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (and especially in its dense interconnections with the limbic system).

But if that conjecture is on the right track, then we would expect to find consistency between theoretical reason and practical reason only to the extent that there are reciprocal interconnections between these regions of prefrontal cortex. And of course there are reciprocal interconnections — but (and this is the important point!) to the extent that these regions are also functionally distinct, then to that same extent reason is disunified. 

And as a consequence, metaphysics and ethics may have somewhat less to do with each other than previous philosophers have supposed.



Foundationalism and Anti-Foundationalism

There’s a deep and fascinating question about whether we need “foundations” in our philosophical system, and if so, why and what kind.

First question: is the foundationalism primarily epistemological (foundations of knowledge) or ontological (foundations of being)?*

Second question: insofar as foundationalism implies a hierarchy, is the grounding or fundamental principle at the top of the hierarchy or at the bottom?

These two questions give us four positions:

top-down epistemological foundationalism: rationalism
bottom-up epistemological foundationalism: empiricism
top-down ontological foundationalism: theism/idealism
bottom-up ontological foundationalism: materialism

The ontological foundationalism can be reductive or non-reductive. Hence:
reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: idealism
non-reductive top-down ontological foundationalism: emanationism
reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: physicalism
non-reductive bottom-up ontological foundationalism: emergentism

Likewise, anti-foundationalism can also be epistemological or ontological:

epistemological anti-foundationalism: pragmatism (or: the good parts of Hegel/Peirce/Sellars)*
ontological anti-foundationalism: process ontology (or: the good parts of Spinoza/Whitehead/Deleuze)*

The main reason why I have resisted efforts to interpret me as an empiricist or materialist is that both empiricism and materialism are forms of foundationalism. Since I am an anti-foundationalist (both in epistemology and in ontology) I am as opposed to empiricism as I am to rationalism, and as opposed to materialism as I am to theism. My views might look like those of an empiricist/physicalist, but only if one insists on interpreting those views through the lens of the foundationalism that I reject.

As time permits I’ll explore the arguments for epistemological anti-foundationalism and ontological anti-foundationalism. For now I just wanted to get the conversation started.

*I’m leaving aside ethical and political versions of foundationalism and anti-foundationalism, though I think that’s where the philosophical action is really at.

** I’m only citing philosophers in the Western canon here, but Nagarjuna in the Madhyamika tradition of Tibetan Buddhism developed a consistently anti-foundationalist epistemology and ontology one and a half millennia  before it was even conceived of in the West. Within the West, probably Nietzsche and Dewey would be the first consistently anti-foundationalist philosophers.

Intention, Intelligence and Teleology

On the left is a photograph of a real snowflake.  Most people would agree that it was not created intentionally, except possibly in the rather esoteric sense of being the foreseen result of the properties of water atoms in an intentionally designed universe in which water atoms were designed to have those properties.  But I think most people here, ID proponents and ID critics alike, would consider that the “design” (in the sense of “pattern”) of this snowflake is neither random nor teleological.  Nor, however, is it predictable in detail.  Famously “no two snowflakes are alike”, yet all snowflakes have six-fold rotational symmetry.  They are, to put it another way, the products of both “law” (the natural law that governs the crystalisation of water molecules) and “chance” (stochastic variation in humidity and temperature that affect the rate of growth of each arm of the crystal as it grows). We need not, to continue in Dembski’s “Explanatory Filter” framework, infer “Design”.

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Unyielding Despair

Gregory has made the connection more than once between atheism and despair. But he wasn’t the first.

That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

– Bertrand Russell. A Free Man’s Worship

I’m thankful that my foundation is not one of unyielding despair.

The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with with a problem of pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves.

– Aldous Huxley. Ends and Means

I am also thankful that I do not believe that there is no valid reason why I personally should not do as I want to do, and that my friends have no desire to seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves.

Dictionary halting problem makes A=A fallible

It would seem superficially this is correct

A=A, necessarily and infallibly true

but it is false for non-trivial A and where the EQUAL SIGN means equal in essence, not just equal in description. This is a consequence of the dictionary and halting problem that has been well demonstrated by first rate mathematical logicians and computer scientists (like Alonzo Church who was a devout Christian) who actually work with formal languages vs. people clinging to antiquated and non-rigorous theological notions.
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Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR)

The Principle of Sufficient Reason is a powerful and controversial philosophical principle stipulating that everything must have a reason or cause. This simple demand for thoroughgoing intelligibility yields some of the boldest and most challenging theses in the history of metaphysics and epistemology. In this entry we begin with explaining the Principle, and then turn to the history of the debates around it.

Principle of Sufficient Reason

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n a piece posted on the Discovery Institute website, responding to bad publicity surrounding the Wedge Document , the author or authors write:

Far from attacking science (as has been claimed), we are instead challenging scientific materialism –  the simplistic philosophy or world-view that claims that all of reality can be reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone. We believe that this is a defense of sound science.

So there we have a one definition of “scientific” materialism: “the world-view that claims that all of reality can be reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone”.

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Feser’s First Way: an argument proving God’s existence?

This post arises out of an exchange between me and one Matt Sheean at Ed Feser’s blog. I got involved there because there have been some exchanges, at times quite amusing and colourful, between Feser (assisted by some of his regular commenters) and Vincent Torley, well known to UD readers as perhaps the less unacceptable face of ID, in that he comes across as a nice guy on a personal level. Both Feser and Torley are both staunch Catholics, a religion that I find pretty objectionable (above all for it’s interference in private life and thought, the readiness of its leaders to tell others how to behave, oppression of women and minorities.. but I digress). In an earlier post at Uncommon Descent, Vincent Torley kindly transcribed some of Feser’s presentation (admittedly to a young, lay audience) of his version of Aquinus’ “First Way”. I was asked to summarise my impression of the video and agreed. Hence this post. Continue reading


Some of the discussion on the “Edward Feser and Vincent Torley” thread seems to have drifted way off topic.  So I’m starting a new thread for further discussion on realism.

I’ll just quote part of a recent comment by BruceS:

1. A complete description of the world is a scientific description (or has a large component that is a scientific description).

2. Science is in principle reducible to physics.

3. Physics requires mathematics.

4. Mathematics is “unreasonably effective” when used in physics, which is saying that somehow the world is describable by mathematical concepts.

5. The (parts of the) any two separate complete description of the world (eg by us and some alien species) in mathematical physics will hence involve the same (or at least mathematically equivalent) concepts.

I realize all of these statements are quite questionable, although I would have thought that #3, the need for mathematics in physics, would have been among the least questionable premises!

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Quine, Alston and Hall On What There Is

As we have been discussing ontology as it refers to hidden variables and multiple worlds, I thought there might be some interest in this excerpt from my Hall book, The Roots of Representationism.  It focuses on a shift in Quine’s position subsequent to “On What There Is,” but I think it touches on some of the broader questions of ontology and how one ought to investigate it as well. Continue reading

Stuck between a rock and an immaterial place

Kairosfocus has a new OP at UD entitled Putting the mind back on the table for discussion. His argument begins thus:

Starting with the principle that rocks have no dreams:

Reciprocating Bill points out that since KF denies physicalism, he has no principled basis for denying the consciousness of rocks:

If the physical states exhibited by brains, but absent in rocks, don’t account for human dreams (contemplation, etc.) then you’ve no basis for claiming rocks are devoid of dreams – at least not on the basis of the physical states present in brains and absent in rocks. Given that, on what basis do you claim that rocks don’t dream?

Needless to say, KF is squirming to avoid the question.

I’ve got popcorn in the microwave.  Pull up a chair.

A Critique of Naturalism

The ‘traditional’ objections to a wholly naturalistic metaphysics, within the modern Western philosophical tradition, involve the vexed notions of freedom and consciousness.   But there is, I think, a much deeper and more interesting line of criticism to naturalism, and that involves the notion of intentionality and its closely correlated notion of normativity.

What is involved in my belief that I’m drinking a beer as I type this?  Well, my belief is about something — namely, the beer that I’m drinking.  But what does this “aboutness” consist of?   It requires, among other things, a commitment that I have undertaken — that I am prepared to respond to the appropriate sorts of challenges and criticisms of my belief.  I’m willing to play the game of giving and asking for reasons, and my willingness to be so treated is central to how others regard me as their epistemic peer.  But there doesn’t seem to be any way that the reason-giving game can be explained entirely in terms of the neurophysiological story of what’s going on inside my cranium.  That neurophysiological story is a story of is the case, and the reason-giving story is essentially a normative story — of what ought to be the case.

And if Hume is right — as he certainly seems to be! — in saying that one cannot derive an ought-statement from an is-statement,and if naturalism is an entirely descriptive/explanatory story that has no room for norms, then in light of the central role that norms play in human life (including their role in belief, desire, perception, and action), it is reasonable to conclude that naturalism cannot be right.

(Of course, it does not follow from this that any version of theism or ‘supernaturalism’ must be right, either.)


God and Identity

When is the YEC God no longer the YEC God?  That question came up in my recent thread on methodological naturalism and accommodationism.  In that thread I argued that science falsifies the YEC God, because it shows definitively that the earth is about a million times older than the YECs believe.  If the earth is old, then the YEC God doesn’t exist. There might still be a God, but not the YEC God, because the YEC God necessarily created the earth a short time ago.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t be “the YEC God” at all!

Robin and Petrushka objected because they didn’t see “the YEC God” as being essentially YEC.  In other words, they saw “the YEC God” as referring to a God who would still be the same God even if it turned out that he hadn’t created the universe several thousand years ago.

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