Teleology and Biology

In the ‘Moderation’ thread, William J Murray tried to make a case for ideological bias among evolutionary scientists by referencing a 2006 Gil Dodgen post, in which numerous authors emphasise the lack of teleology within the evolutionary process. I thought this might merit its own OP.

I disagree that authors are showing a metaphysical bias by arguing against teleology. I wrote

Evolutionary processes, conventionally defined (ie, variations and their changes in frequency due to differential survival and reproduction), do not have goals. If there IS an entity with goals that is also directing, that’s as may be, but the processes of evolution carry on regardless when it isn’t. It is important to erase the notion of teleology from a student’s mind in respect of evolutionary mechanisms of adaptation, and most of those quotes appear to have that aim. Organisms don’t, on the best evidence available, direct their own evolution.

To which WJM made the somewhat surprising rejoinder: “how do you know this”? Of course the simple answer is that I qualified my statement ‘on the best evidence available’ – I didn’t claim to know it. But there is a broader question. Is there any sense in which evolutionary processes could, even in principle, be teleological? I’d say not. You have a disparate collection of competing entities. Regardless whether there is a supervening entity doing some directing, the process of differential survival/reproduction/migration cannot itself have goals.

An example of evolution in action: the Chemostat.

The operator of a chemostat has a goal – often, to create a pure cell line. The process by which this is achieved is by simultaneous addition and removal of medium, which causes purification by random sampling, which is evolution (a form of genetic drift). How can that process have a goal? There is no collusion between the cells in the original medium to vote one to be the sole ancestor of all survivors. How do I know this? That would be a pretty daft question. I think it would be incumbent on the proponent to rule it in, rather than for me to rule it out.

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690 thoughts on “Teleology and Biology

  1. KN,

    I am just not sure how for how long you will be able to maintain the distinction that you insist upon. We already have artificial limbs and even artificial hearts.

    I asked a couple question that you didn’t seem to answer. Is a heart only a pump by analogy or is it an actual pump? Is the lens of an eye only a lens by analogy is it an actual lens?

    I am not asking “does it function as,” and unless by your answer you meant to convey that if it functions as a pump it is a pump (and not merely a pump by an analogy to some human designed artifact), and if it functions as a lens it is a lens (and not merely a lens by an analogy to some human designed artifact), then I don’t think you’ve answered.

    Another reason that I find it difficult to believe that you can maintain your desired distinction is that the source of the teleology is the same in both cases, the organism as a whole. Humans are no less a complete organism with intrinsic finality and we make things and even incorporate them into our bodies for what we think to be in our own good.

    What exactly is the distinction by which one is artifact and the other not?

    Marcello Barbieri maintains that “life is artifact making.”

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  2. Kantian Naturalist: In other words, organisms have “purposiveness without purpose,” but artifacts do indeed have purposes.

    I have trouble making sense of “purposiveness without purpose.” Why not call it teleonomy or something less confusing? It is not only the artificial heart which has a purpose, the naturally manufactured heart also has a purpose.

    We must be on different planets or something, lol. If we could not discern the purpose of a heart, how could we possibly replace it with an artificial heart? How is it that you can ascribe purpose to the one but not the other?

    Kantian Naturalist:That makes biological and artifactual functions quite different, and it is precisely this difference that is neglected by the analogy between organisms and artifacts that lies at the heart of the Argument from Design. This is also why the Argument from Design, and contemporary design theory, is and always has been deeply mistaken to assume that we are entitled to posit the existence of a designer or Demiurge from the fact of teleological realism.

    Contemporary design theory does not argue from teleology to the existence of God. Obviously if there is real design there is/was a real designer. The argument is not an argument from analogy.

    Paley argued to the existence of God, but Sober (iirc it was Sober) admits it was not an argument from analogy.

    Finally, the classical teleological argument (e.g., The Fifth Way) was definitely not an argument from analogy.

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  3. Mung: unless by your answer you meant to convey that if it functions as a pump it is a pump (and not merely a pump by an analogy to some human designed artifact), and if it functions as a lens it is a lens (and not merely a lens by an analogy to some human designed artifact), then I don’t think you’ve answered.

    That was my intent: “pump” (like “lens”) is a functional role. Something is a pump if it functions as a pump. Hearts function as pumps; ergo they are pumps. Etc.

    Another reason that I find it difficult to believe that you can maintain your desired distinction is that the source of the teleology is the same in both cases, the organism as a whole. Humans are no less a complete organism with intrinsic finality and we make things and even incorporate them into our bodies for what we think to be in our own good.

    Except that we intentionally craft tools and other devices in order to augment our natural, teleologically-structured capacities, intentionally transmit the crafting of those tools to the uninitiated, experiment with new ways of making the tools better or using them to serve new purposes for us. There’s nothing like that in the teleological organization of organisms themselves.

    Mung: I have trouble making sense of “purposiveness without purpose.” Why not call it teleonomy or something less confusing? It is not only the artificial heart which has a purpose, the naturally manufactured heart also has a purpose.

    “Purposiveness without purpose” is Kant’s phrase for organisms, because they display a teleological organization but it is not imposed on them from something beyond themselves (as the teleology of a hammer or computer is). The goal of an organism as a whole is its own continued existence, both over the course of its individual existence (e.g. in its metabolic activities) and also, in reproduction, acting in a way that contributes to the likelihood of other individuals like itself.

    I dislike “teleonomy” because — if I recall correctly — Monod coins that term to mean “it isn’t really purposive, but it looks to us as if it is”. Whereas I want to say that organisms really are purposive, but it is a purposeless purposiveness. (Maybe this sounds more intelligible if one has read as much of Kant, Jonas, and Varela as I have.)

    We must be on different planets or something, lol. If we could not discern the purpose of a heart, how could we possibly replace it with an artificial heart? How is it that you can ascribe purpose to the one but not the other?

    I ascribe the same function to natural and artificial hearts, but the goals are differently ascribed. The natural heart functions within the whole animal to realize its own goals of continuing its existence. The artificial heart is something that we’ve made to carry out the same functions due to various purposes that we have, like intentionally staving off death and disease for as long as possible.

    Mung: Contemporary design theory does not argue from teleology to the existence of God. Obviously if there is real design there is/was a real designer. The argument is not an argument from analogy.

    But it does take an argument from analogy to see organismal teleology as designed in the first place.

    Paley argued to the existence of God, but Sober (iirc it was Sober) admits it was not an argument from analogy.

    That might be right — it’s been a while since I’ve read Sober’s Evidence and Evolution, and though I do dimly recall his having a discussion of Paley in there, I might be misremembering. In any event I don’t recall any details.

    Finally, the classical teleological argument (e.g., The Fifth Way) was definitely not an argument from analogy.

    That’s quite right, but that’s not germane to the point I was making above. Aquinas is giving an argument for the existence of God. Based on my cursory knowledge of Aquinas, the Fifth Way is supposed to work in concert with the other four, and the others are all a priori arguments.

    But I wasn’t saying that design theory is even intended to give us an argument about the existence of God; I used the term “Demiurge” for a reason. I want to distinguish between a priori arguments for God as conceived by classical theism and the a posteriori arguments for some divine or semi-divine tinkerer or craftsman.

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  4. Kantian Naturalist: That was my intent: “pump” (like “lens”) is a functional role. Something is a pump if it functions as a pump. Hearts function as pumps; ergo they are pumps. Etc.

    Thanks. And your response to those who say the genetic code is a “code” only by speaking in metaphor? If there are biological pumps and biological lenses why on earth can’t there be biological codes?

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  5. Kantian Naturalist: Except that we intentionally craft tools and other devices in order to augment our natural, teleologically-structured capacities, intentionally transmit the crafting of those tools to the uninitiated, experiment with new ways of making the tools better or using them to serve new purposes for us. There’s nothing like that in the teleological organization of organisms themselves.

    What are your thoughts on horizontal gene transfer?

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  6. Mung: I have trouble making sense of “purposiveness without purpose.” Why not call it teleonomy or something less confusing? It is not only the artificial heart which has a purpose, the naturally manufactured heart also has a purpose.

    Well, you could use two words, or you could use one, and distinguish between two slighlty different meanings.

    I’d say that teleonomy is to teleology sort of what function is to purpose.

    You could say that the pillars of a natural arch function to hold the cross member in place. You could say that of a human-designed arch too. But only of the designed arch would you say: the pillars were put there for the purpose of holding up the cross member.

    It’s not that the pillars are only “metaphorically” pillars in the natural arch. It’s that in the natural arch, it’s just what they do – without them the arch would not persist. Whereas in the human-designed arch they serve the purpose of some human, who wanted them to do that so that she could have an arch to walk through, or admire, or whatever purpose she made the arch for.

    You could even say, of the natural arch that the pillars “serve the purpose” of holding up the crossmember, but that would be definitely a bit more metaphorical, because “function” is the more natural, less teleologically loaded, term for the pillars of a natural arch.

    So “purposiveness without a purpose” could possibly be better phrased as “intentionless function”, and perfectly well describe things that function to promote the persistence of something, but were not put there so that the thing would persist for the benefit of some put-er.

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  7. Kantian Naturalist: I completely agree that brains are actively looking for solutions that satisfy their coordination problems, rather than passively taking up whatever data is lying around in the environment —

    Which is why I think it is potentially misleading (not saying you are misled!) to think of “brains” as the agent here. Brains are organs within bodies, and the perceptual system is intrinsically (I would argue) related to the motor system, because the motor system is necessary for ensuring that new and relevant sensory data is available. So yes, brains aren’t “passively taking up whatever data is lying around” – your brain is constantly driving the motor system to bring in new data relevant to the “hypothesis” it is currently testing.

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  8. walto,

    You’ve been doing really well in this thread, and I both thank and commend you for that.

    However, your bias is showing in the comment above, when you write:

    I wish it could be discussed without keiths getting nasty with those who disagree with him (in this case possibly you), but it’s quite hard–you really have to walk on eggshells.

    You might want to ask yourself if it’s quite as one-sided as you would prefer to believe. Taking this thread as an example, who do you suppose made the following statements?

    That was your mistake. But I won’t waste my time arguing it.

    I looked through that [thread] again. It is comedy gold.

    I guess I should accept that as conceding the point.

    Yes. Attempting to debate you is a mistake.

    Sorry, but the rest of your comment is nonsense.

    What does it mean to “defend my claims” against that sort of nonsense?

    So the same ridiculous bullshit.

    Mostly, it’s about the failure of keiths to understand what I am arguing. I don’t think he is even trying to understand.

    Sort of punctures your narrative, doesn’t it? If you’re honest with yourself, you might even have to give up your comfortable but distorted view.

    But again, I thank you for the generally improved tone of your comments toward me recently. It is genuinely appreciated.

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  9. walto,

    Anyhow, you said above that separating the coordinate system from the model was doable, if unwieldy. (That’s something you two seem to agree upon, btw). Could you elaborate on that? Maybe explain a bit how one would go about it? (hopefully without too much math–my abilities are pretty limited in that direction). Thanks.

    Models are separate from the coordinate systems in which they are expressed; it’s just that for a given model, some coordinate systems are far more “natural” than others.

    Here’s an example. Don’t worry about the actual math — just notice that the math is far more complicated in some coordinate systems than in others.

    A sphere is the collection of all points that are a given distance from a designated point. The distance is known as the “radius”, and the point is known as the “center”. How do we write the equation for a sphere with radius 3 in various coordinate systems?

    Again, it isn’t the actual math that matters — just note how much more complicated the equation is in some coordinate systems than in others.

    1. In a spherical coordinate system whose origin is at the center of our sphere, the equation is remarkably simple:

    r = 3

    2. In a Cartesian coordinate system whose origin is at the center of our sphere, the equation is

    x^2 +y^2 +z^2 = 3^2

    3. In a Cartesian coordinate system whose origin is not at the center of our sphere, the equation is

    (x – cx)^2 + (y – cy)^2 + (z -cz)^2 = 3^2

    where (cx, cy, cz) are the coordinates of the center of the sphere.

    4. In a Cartesian system whose origin is actually moving uniformly in a straight line with respect to the sphere, the equation is

    (x – cx + vx*t)^2 + (y – cy + vy*t)^2 + (z – cz + vz*t)^2 = 3^2

    where (cx, cy, cz) is the location of the center at time 0, (vx, vy, vz) specifies the velocity vector of the coordinate system with respect to the sphere, and t is the time.

    5. You don’t even want to know what the equation looks like if the origin of the coordinate system is moving non-uniformly in a figure-8 pattern.

    In all these cases, the equation represents exactly the same sphere. The sphere doesn’t change at all — only our representation of it changes. The choice of coordinate systems affects the representation but not the sphere itself.

    The same principle lies behind the fact that a geocentric model remains geocentric even when it is expressed in heliocentric coordinates, and vice-versa.

    Contra Neil, heliocentrism and geocentrism are not expressions of the same underlying reality in different coordinate systems. Heliocentrism and geocentrism are different even when expressed in the same coordinate system. Heliocentrism is accepted by scientists, and geocentrism is derided as a crackpot idea — for very good reasons.

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  10. Elizabeth, you still seem to be hung up on intentionality.

    Ernst Mayr writes:

    Nature (organic and inanimate) abounds in processes and activities that lead to an end.

    – Toward a New Philosophy of Biology. p. 44

    If this were not the case, how would we ever make sense of nature? How would science even be possible, if this were not in fact the case?

    This fact of the natural world has been understood for millennia.

    An irrational fear that it might lead to God is not a reason to reject it as a fact. Synonyms for purpose include both end and goal. Also, as I pointed out up thread:

    Similarly the “directedness” in terms of which modern philosophers characterize intentionality does not for the Aristotelian mark a difference between the material and the immaterial … intentionality, at least as typically understood by contemporary philosophers – again, as a matter of something’s being “directed” onto an object, or “pointing” beyond itself – is just a special case of this more general phenomenon of teleology or finality in nature. Indeed, the contemporary analytic philosopher George Molnar characterizes the causal powers even of inorganic phenomena as possessing “physical intentionality” insofar as these powers point to their typical effects, while another analytic philosopher, John Heil, speaks of the “natural intentionality” by virtue of which dispositional properties … point to their manifestations … And the biologist J. Scott Turner characterizes unconscious organic developmental processes as manifesting “intentionality” insofar as they point beyond themselves to a certain end state. All of these phenomena are, for the Aristotelian no less than for the materialist, entirely material.

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  11. keiths: In all these cases, the equation represents exactly the same sphere.

    Prove it. Show us the proof.

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  12. Mung: Elizabeth, you still seem to be hung up on intentionality.

    Dunno about “intentionality” but I am professionally interested in “intention”.

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  13. keiths:

    In all these cases, the equation represents exactly the same sphere.

    Mung:

    Prove it. Show us the proof.

    Crack a book, Mung.

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  14. Elizabeth: Dunno about “intentionality” but I am professionally interested in “intention”.

    I was considering making an OP of this but I’ll just post it here.

    Aristotle’s God

    Now Aristotle’s God is not a directing general: he does not directly intervene in the world, or in any sense create it. He does not create matter or form, nor does he intervene in any way so as to be considered responsible for the bringing together of form and matter. Nor is he a divine engineer. He has no purposes or intentions: so the teleological organization to be found in the world cannot be the expression of divine purpose.

    Jonathan Lear. Aristotle: the desire to understand. p. 295

    I don’t think you’re all that interested in intention, I think you are interested only in a particular kind of intention. Your belief that animal communication requires no sense of self gives evidence of that. But that’s for a different thread.

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  15. Mung: don’t think you’re all that interested in intention, I think you are interested only in a particular kind of intention.

    Well, that’s possible. What kind of intention do you think I’m not interested in?

    Your belief that animal communication requires no sense of self gives evidence of that.

    Not sure where you are getting that from. Can you link?

    But that’s for a different thread.

    Seems highly relevant to this one.

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  16. keiths:
    walto,

    Models are separate from the coordinate systems in which they are expressed; it’s just that for a given model, some coordinate systems are far more “natural” than others.

    Here’s an example.Don’t worry about the actual math — just notice that the math is far more complicated in some coordinate systems than in others.

    A sphere is the collection of all points that are a given distance from a designated point.The distance is known as the “radius”, and the point is known as the “center”. How do we write the equation for a sphere with radius 3 in various coordinate systems?

    Again, it isn’t the actual math that matters — just note how much more complicated the equation is in some coordinate systems than in others.

    1. In a spherical coordinate system whose origin is at the center of our sphere, the equation is remarkably simple:

    2. In a Cartesian coordinate system whose origin is at the center of our sphere, the equation is

    3. In a Cartesian coordinate system whose origin is not at the center of our sphere, the equation is

    where (cx, cy, cz) are the coordinates of the center of the sphere.

    4. In a Cartesian system whose origin is actually moving uniformly in a straight line with respect to the sphere, the equation is

    where (cx, cy, cz) is the location of the center at time 0, (vx, vy, vz) specifies the velocity vector of the coordinate system with respect to the sphere, and t is the time.

    5. You don’t even want to know what the equation looks like if the origin of the coordinate system is moving non-uniformly in a figure-8 pattern.

    In all these cases, the equation represents exactly the same sphere.The sphere doesn’t change at all — only our representation of it changes. The choice of coordinate systems affects the representation but not the sphere itself.

    The same principle lies behind the fact that a geocentric model remains geocentric even when it is expressed in heliocentric coordinates, and vice-versa.

    Contra Neil, heliocentrism and geocentrism are not expressions of the same underlying reality in different coordinate systems.Heliocentrism and geocentrism are different even when expressed in the same coordinate system.Heliocentrism is accepted by scientists, and geocentrism is derided as a crackpot idea — for very good reasons.

    Thanks. This is very helpful. I’ll think about it and get back with any questions I may have.

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  17. keiths:
    Crack a book, Mung.

    To what end, oh keiths, who can always support his claims?

    Let us say I “crack” a number of books and they each have one or more of your equations and for each of your equations represented in each book they each proclaim that the equation represents a sphere.

    What is the proof that they all represent “exactly the same sphere”?

    Just post a link to the proof. Surely it’s on the internet somewhere.

    keiths:

    In all these cases, the equation represents exactly the same sphere.

    The proof.

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  18. Let me just ask this one question now, though:

    You wrote, The same principle lies behind the fact that a geocentric model remains geocentric even when it is expressed in heliocentric coordinates, and vice-versa.

    and I’m wondering how the geocentric model DOES remain geocentric when it is expressed in heliocentric coordinates. What remains of the geocentrism when we do that? I guess that’s been my main question on this thread throughout–though I may not have put it very well.

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  19. I’m not sure if mung is asking a similar question (I’m really not sure what he’s getting at here). But I don’t doubt that we can get the same sphere (or at least the same spherical location) regardless of what we make its coordinates relative to. That’s similar to expressing a length in terms of inches or millimeters. But, once we’ve settled on coordinates that make earth the center of our measurements, what does it mean to say that the system is nevertheless heliocentric?

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  20. walto,

    I’m wondering how the geocentric model DOES remain geocentric when it is expressed in heliocentric coordinates. What remains of the geocentrism when we do that? I guess that’s been my main question on this thread throughout–though I may not have put it very well.

    It’s too bad we’re not standing in front of a whiteboard. This would be really easy to explain with a drawing, but I guess words will have to do.

    The model is orthogonal to the choice of coordinate system. Just as the sphere remains a sphere when we go from spherical coordinates to rectilinear (Cartesian) coordinates, the geocentric model remains geocentric when we go from geocentric coordinates to heliocentric coordinates. The equations are different, but the sphere remains a sphere and the geocentric model remains a geocentric model.

    The geocentric model holds that the sun and the planets revolve around the earth, as illustrated here. Note that there are no coordinates in that drawing — just circles with arrows showing you the paths that the sun and planets take as they orbit the earth.

    Now imagine that you draw a square grid on a transparent sheet of plastic and place it over the drawing. The square grid represents Cartesian coordinates, and having placed the grid over the drawing you can now specify the orbits in terms of those coordinates. But note that you didn’t change anything about the original drawing by superimposing the grid on it. If you move the grid around, the same thing is true: the original drawing remains unchanged.

    If you take the grid and move it so that the central reference point — the “origin” — is located over the earth, you have a geocentric coordinate system. If you move the grid so that the origin is over the sun, you have a heliocentric coordinate system. Neither move changes the nature of the drawing underneath. The drawing — and the model — remain geocentric whether the coordinates imposed on them are geocentric or heliocentric.

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  21. keiths:
    It’s too bad we’re not standing in front of a whiteboard.This would be really easy to explain with a drawing…

    Five whiteboards would be better.

    You could write an equation on each of the first four whiteboards and draw the sphere represented by that equation on the board containing the equation.

    Then on the fifth whiteboard you could draw a fifth sphere and explain how the other four spheres you drew on the four other boards are exactly the same sphere, and then provide the proof.

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  22. Mung,

    You can sit at the grownups’ table after you turn 13. Now go play with your sister, and remember to wash your hands after using the bathroom.

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  23. That’s ok keiths,

    I reserve the right to use the “crack a book” response myself when I can’t provide a proof. Do you need more whiteboards? Is that the problem? More markers?

    Perhaps there are in fact an infinite number of equations that all “represent exactly the same sphere.”

    A proof would be nice.

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  24. Mung,

    I reserve the right to use the “crack a book” response myself when I can’t provide a proof.

    If I were trying to persuade you to accept what I’ve written, you might have a point.

    Perhaps there are in fact an infinite number of equations that all “represent exactly the same sphere.”

    Indeed there are. Now run along and let the grownups talk.

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  25. keiths: In all these cases, the equation represents exactly the same sphere.

    I’ve been told I can find the proof in Euclid. Which book? Euclid online? A link?

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  26. keiths, I find a certain self-serving incongruity in your claims. You want to teach me, yet you don’t want to teach me.

    I would think it a rather remarkable discovery that “in all these cases, the equation represents exactly the same sphere,” and an even more remarkable discovery that there are in fact an infinite number of equations that all “represent exactly the same sphere” and yet even more amazing fact that all these proofs can be found in Euclid.

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  27. Bruce,

    My understanding of the basic thrust of Neil’s position is this:

    A model can be very successful at predicting reality. A model can have many other positive scientific virtues, eg simplicity, math elegance, concordance with other scientific models, making novel predictions, long time acceptance by the scientific community.

    Despite all of this, a model must always be based on human concepts. And anything based on human concepts cannot tell us about reality full stop. It can only tell us about reality as viewed by human concepts.

    Neil goes far beyond that. If he were merely asserting that we see natural patterns through (metaphorical) human lenses, he would have my whole-hearted agreement.

    Instead, he insists that patterns are completely absent until we create them:

    I see nothing more realistic, than that patterns are of our creation. What I see as unreal, is the widely held view that there are human independent patterns and that cognition works by finding them. I see this mistake as a major failure of philosophy.

    He sees heliocentrism and geocentrism as examples of these human-imposed patterns, and he denies that heliocentrism is any truer than geocentrism:

    Compare with language. I do not say that the English language is objectively true. And I do not say that the German language is objectively true. I see those languages as neither true nor false. And I see scientific theories in a similar light.

    We cannot sensibly ask “does the German language correspond to reality”. The language plays a different rule. In some sense, the German language is the system of correspondences that we use to decide whether a particular statement in German corresponds to reality. We can apply a correspondence test to individual statements, but not to the language as a whole.

    Given a statement in German, we can often say almost the same thing with an English statement. We take the German statement, see what it asserts about objective reality, then find an English way of saying the same thing.

    Given a geocentric statement, we can similarly find a heliocentric statement which says about the same thing about objective reality. Heliocentrism and Geocentrism are alternative systems for establish correspondences between linguistic statement and reality. In that way, they are analogous to English and German.

    And lest you think that by ‘heliocentrism’ he simply means ‘a heliocentric coordinate system’ and not ‘a heliocentric model/system’, read the rest of the exchange. It’s quite an eye-opener:

    keiths:

    The defining statement of heliocentrism is “the planets, including the earth, revolve around the sun”. There is no way to assert that idea in a geocentric system without converting it into a heliocentric one!

    Likewise, “the sun and the planets revolve around the earth” cannot be asserted in a heliocentric system without converting it into a geocentric one.

    Neil:

    Mathematically, it is just a change of coordinate systems (change of variables).

    keiths:

    No, because if you take the heliocentric system and express the paths of the sun and planets in an earth-centered coordinate system, you don’t get the same paths you get in the geocentric model.

    This should be easy to visualize. In the heliocentric system, the planets revolve around the sun. This means the sun is near the center of the planetary orbits, and this remains true regardless of the coordinate system chosen. In the geocentric system, by contrast, the earth is near the center of the planetary orbits, and this also remains true regardless of the coordinate system.

    Heliocentrism is a feature of reality itself, not an artifact of the coordinate system chosen. If it had been merely a change of coordinate systems, heliocentrism wouldn’t be heralded as a great scientific advance.

    Neil:

    Perhaps you never understood relativity.

    The sun and planets are hurtling through space along intertwining paths. Heliocentrism is simply a convention to establish a convenient coordinate system.

    keiths:

    Heliocentrism isn’t merely the choice of a convenient coordinate system. It’s an actual scientific hypothesis about the nature of physical reality.

    People laugh at geocentrists not because they failed to update their coordinate system when everyone else did. They laugh at geocentrists because they’re wrong. The predictions of the geocentric model are disconfirmed by observation.

    Choose any coordinate system you like. The geocentric model is still wrong, and the heliocentric model is right.

    Surely you’ve heard the story of Galileo’s observations of the phases of Venus, and how that was decisive evidence against the geocentric model in favor of the heliocentric one. Haven’t you?

    Neil:

    The phases of venus depend only on the relative positions of earth, venus and sun. They are predictable from the geocentric model. That they were not predicted, is presumably due to the greater complexity of that model.

    keiths:

    Neil,

    The phases of venus depend only on the relative positions of earth, venus and sun.

    Right, and the relative positions do not change merely because you express them in a different coordinate system.

    They are predictable from the geocentric model.

    Yes, and the geocentric model predicts them incorrectly, just as it predicts thousands of other things incorrectly. That’s why geocentrists go into the “crackpot” category with the flat earthers.

    We wouldn’t call them crackpots if their only offense were to choose a different coordinate system!

    Heliocentrism vs. geocentrism is not just a matter of convenience. The Apollo missions would have killed a lot of astronauts if they had been flown under the assumptions of the geocentric model, even if the calculations had been done perfectly. Heliocentrism works for planning space missions, while the geocentric model — even when correctly applied — is a total bust.

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  28. Nature (organic and inanimate) abounds in processes and activities that lead to an end.

    …the class of end-directed processes is composed of two entirely different kind of phenomena.

    – Ernst Mayr. Toward a New Philosophy of Biology. p. 44

    Question. According to Mayr, are these two entirely different kind of end-directed phenomena differentiated by either “intention” or “intentionality”?

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  29. Bruce,

    So as you can see from that exchange, my characterization of Neil’s position is correct, despite his false accusations of misrepresentation.

    1) He thinks the heliocentric pattern of motion does not exist in nature; rather, it’s imposed by us through our choice of a heliocentric coordinate system.

    2) He repeatedly confuses the geocentric theory with the geocentric coordinate system and the heliocentric theory with the heliocentric coordinate system.

    3) He thinks the heliocentric model is no truer than the geocentric model. Geocentrists aren’t crackpots — they just chose a coordinate system that’s harder to work with.

    4) He denies that Galileo’s observations of the phases of Venus were decisive in falsifying the geocentric model. He offers the excuse that

    They are predictable from the geocentric model. That they were not predicted, is presumably due to the greater complexity of that model.

    In fact, they are easily predicted from the geocentric model (as this illustration shows), and the predictions are wrong. Geocentrism is falsified by Galileo’s observations, and he understood that perfectly well. He wasn’t arguing for a change in coordinate system, he was arguing for a change in model. And he was right to do so, because the geocentric model is clearly and obviously false.

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  30. Mung,

    Thanks. And your response to those who say the genetic code is a “code” only by speaking in metaphor? If there are biological pumps and biological lenses why on earth can’t there be biological codes?

    I’m happy to call them codes, but to me, the distinction is that the codon does not represent the amino acid in the way one symbol represents another in a code. A raw nucleic acid triplet has a ‘landscape’ – a shape and pattern of charge distribution – which is most strongly bound by its cognate anticodon. It’s a physical interaction, not a symbolic one. That anticodon can exist as simply the complementary DNA strand (and hence be nothing to do with protein manufacture), as an interfering RNA, or (in the translation system) as part of a tRNA. What is on the other end of the tRNA is up for grabs. It happens that in the modern system there is partitioning of the possible set of tRNAs. There are 20 or so, to cover the 63 possible anticodons (there has to be a STOP). But it remains a physical, not a symbolic, interaction.

    Suppose you had a system whereby there was a set of paint brushes with differently shaped ends. The brushes are loaded with different coloured paint according to the shape of the end, so that the square-ends always have red, triangles yellow, hexagons blue etc. Would you say (in that system) that this was a code? That a square end ‘meant’ red? I’d say not, though YMMV.

    If these brushes were then docked in some way, such that it’s not the shape of the end, but the complementary shape of the hole they fit, that determines what colour goes where, would you say that a square hole represented red? Even less so I’d say, but that’s what you are doing if you say that a triplet represents the amino acid in the other end of its cognate tRNA.

    A lens in an eye really is a lens. But I don’t think the genetic code really is a code because it is a physical system, not a symbolic one.

    You could go the other way – you could carve the ASCII code out of wooden blocks, with the binary pattern as raised dots on the base and the natural-language symbol on the other end. But then, you are just designing a physical implementation of the symbolic code. We know that there is a symbolic version of ASCII. But we don’t know there is a symbolic version of the genetic code. You might be persuaded there is, but that’s the explanandum. Does there have to be a symbolic version before you can have a physical one?

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  31. Mung: Where in Euclid?

    I just looked it up, and actually couldn’t find it! I thought that he applied pythagoras theorem to 3d space somewhere, but not sure where.

    Anyway, you can extend it from any proof of pythagoras for 2D. You just need some extra triangles.

    But I may be missing your point. What exactly did you want proof of?

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  32. Mung: I would think it a rather remarkable discovery that “in all these cases, the equation represents exactly the same sphere,” and an even more remarkable discovery that there are in fact an infinite number of equations that all “represent exactly the same sphere” and yet even more amazing fact that all these proofs can be found in Euclid.

    Well, you only need one proof, and that is of Pythagoras theorem. The reason you can have an infinitely number of equations to describe the sphere, depending on your coordinate frame is the same as you can have an infinite humber of equations that describe a straight line of given slope, depending on your coordinate frame – there will be as many equations as there are possible origins for the reference frame. Which is why 3D computer animation works – you can define a single sphere, and that sphere can be rendered by the same number of equations as there are view points in the scene i.e. lots, and if you want to generalise to, say, the sphere as viewed from a flying mosquito, then you have even more.

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  33. keiths:
    Bruce,

    Hi Keith:
    Thanks for your detailed thoughts.

    I think I’m going to let walto continue to act as the referee and interpreter for the debate between you and Neil.

    (Don’t take that comment too seriously; it is meant as levity, that is, anti-gravity).

    And in any event, I’ve already debated Neil about scientific realism and AFAIK my position is much closer to yours than his.

    So in lieu of a detailed reply, let me offer you two things that may be of interest to you given the broad range of topics you post about:

    The book A Natural History of Natural Theology: The Cognitive Science of Theology and Philosophy of Religion. There is also a New Books in Philosophy podcast interview with an author.

    The Cousera course hosted by Bruno Latour, who I recall as one of the targets in your OP on obscure writing. The course is a very basic introduction to the social sciences and history of science. It won’t let you go toe-to-toe with the G-man in his area of expertise. But it has some fun examples, eg development of birth control technology required an alliance of a feminist and a Social Darwinist.

    Plus Latour draws a lot of co-ordinate free (or at least scale free) graphs.

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  34. walto:

    You wrote, The same principle lies behind the fact that a geocentric model remains geocentric even when it is expressed in heliocentric coordinates, and vice-versa.

    and I’m wondering how the geocentric model DOES remain geocentric when it is expressed in heliocentric coordinates.What remains of the geocentrism when we do that?I guess that’s been my main question on this thread throughout–though I may not have put it very well.

    I’m not “you”, but here are my thoughts on the issue.

    It depends on what you mean by a model.

    For gravity, the model is the mathematical equations of physics. Einstein thought the equations of physics should take the same form for any observer, even one being accelerated/subject to gravity (SR did not work for such observers). He built the equations of gravity to keep the same form regardless of the coordinates used in order to meet that goal.

    (Aside on curvilinear: From SR we know that measures of space and time change in an interrelated way depending on relative motion. Gravity changes them too. So to meet to his goal Einstein needed curvilinear coordinates. Think of a finely-meshed fishing net stretched tightly over a lumpy potato for a two-dimensional analog. The mesh gives coordinates for the surface of the potato. )

    Now for the geo versus helio bit. As far as the equations of gravity are concerned, the geocentric model could be thought of as a model used by an observer from the centre of the earth, and heliocentric for an observer at the centre of the sun. Same laws, same form of equations, no dependence on coordinates in that sense. Of course, any predictions they make will be in the coordinates they use, but they can interrelate their coordinates and the predictions will turn out the same.

    But that is not how we usually think of geocentric and heliocentric.

    Usually, we think of these helio versus geo as what the motion of the sun and planets would look like if viewed by an observer situated well “above” the plane containing the sun and planets (and ignoring the motion of the solar system with respect to the centre of the galaxy). What would the the observer see: the planets going around the sun or the sun going around the earth? I can describe that situation purely by naming the curves and their relative geometry. I don’t need to use any mathematical equations since I am not trying to explain the physics of why they move. So the model is coordinate free in that sense.

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  35. Thanks to you both for the detailed explanations. Look like they’re going to be really helpful. I’m pretty sure that between both of your comments, I’ll be able to find answers to my questions–which doubtless aren’t terribly new or original. Obviously, I’ve got a lot of reading/absorbing to do. (That’s what happens when one never takes physics–no one should be surprised at this, however, since Gregory has kindly indicated my education level on another thread.)

    But this isn’t a task for today!

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  36. walto: Thanks to you both for the detailed explanations.

    I’m assuming that “both” refers to keiths and to BruceS. So a general comment.

    Unfortunately, keiths understanding of my views is at around zero. BruceS at least has a small degree of understanding. So BruceS recognizes that he does not fully understand, and he asks questions seeking further clarification.

    By contrast, keiths is damned sure that he fully understands my position (strong Dunning-Kruger effect), and seems driven to ridicule and denounce what he falsely takes my position to be.

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  37. Mung: Prove it. Show us the proof.

    Different equations representing the same thing (in different coordinates!) is easier to visualize if you start with circles in 2D.

    If you use the usual rectangular coordinates, ie a simple grid x-y centered at (0, 0), then the equation for a circle of radius 1 is x^2 + y^2 = 1. Here ^2 means squared.

    But you can also use polar coordinates. To locate a point on a plane using them, you use two numbers again, r is a length and t an angle with respect to some arbitrary reference line.

    Now imagine a line going through the point you want to give polar coordinates for and the origin of the polar coordinates system which still has coordinates (0, 0). (But now this means r=0 and t=0). To name that point you want to give coordinates for, use the angle t and the distance along the line. That distance is r.

    Then, with polar coordinates, the equation for the all the points in a unit circle is r=1.

    So for the same circle: x^2 + y^2 = 1 in rectangular coordinates and r=1 in polar coordinates.

    (Maybe the equation r=1 looks strange to you since there is no t. The equation y=2 for a line parallel to x-axis is the analog in rectangular coordinates).

    Proving this involves showing that r^2 = x^2 + y^2 which is Pythagoras directly and that x = r cos(t) and y = r sin(t) which involves Pythagoras due to definitions of sin and cos and the resulting identity sin^2 + cos^2 = 1, which is used in the proof. The proof is all over on the internet the place if you want more details.

    In 3D sphere, you can use x, y, z rectangular or you can use r, t, and another angle to locate any point and you get analogously different equations for same sphere.

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  38. Neil Rickert:

    BruceS at least has a small degree of understanding.

    I’ll take that as a compliment and move on to other things for today with my head held high.

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  39. Neil Rickert,

    Why not take this opportunity to clarify both your actual position and where you are being misrepresented above. When one tends to be a bit laconic (or even a bit cryptic) there’s
    Always a danger of being misunderstood.

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  40. walto: Why not take this opportunity to clarify both your actual position and where you are being misrepresented above.

    It is very difficult, perhaps impossible.

    What we can say and describe is limited by our concepts. Investigating human cognition has led me to major conceptual change. Some of what now seems trivially obvious to me was actually not at all obvious when I started.

    There’s no easy way that I know, of communicating conceptual change.

    Ordinary communication depends on shared assumptions that we take for granted. Most theorizing is built on top of that. I am questioning what is usually taken for granted.

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  41. That’s a transparent cop-out, Neil.

    You made the accusation. Back it up.

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  42. walto,

    Here’s my compact summary of what Bruce and I are saying:

    In the geocentric coordinate system, it’s the coordinate system that is centered on the earth. In the geocentric model, it’s the motion that’s centered on the earth. You can have one without the other.

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  43. Elizabeth: Which is why I think it is potentially misleading (not saying you are misled!) to think of “brains” as the agent here. Brains are organs within bodies, and the perceptual system is intrinsically (I would argue) related to the motor system, because the motor system is necessary for ensuring that new and relevant sensory data is available. So yes, brains aren’t “passively taking up whatever data is lying around” – your brain is constantly driving the motor system to bring in new data relevant to the “hypothesis” it is currently testing.

    No, I think it’s fair to say that I was slipping back into the rhetoric of the metonymic fallacy (ascribing to a part — in this case, the brain — properties that are properly attributed only to the whole).

    For what it’s worth, I do recommend Neuroscience and Philosophy. It begins with an essay by Hacker and Bennett — Hacker being one of the foremost Wittgenstein scholars alive, and Bennett being a successful neuroscientist (I think he deals with single-neuron recordings). They argue that most neuroscientists and their popularizers are prone to a sort of category mistake — attributing to the brain predicates that are only “at home” when attributed to whole organisms and persons. There are two replies, one by Searle and one by Dennett. Searle’s response to, by my lights, uninteresting, whereas Dennett’s was quite fascinating. The book as a whole is quite shot and I recommend it.

    The basic point that Elizabeth is stressing here — that cognitive activities essentially involve a brain-body-environment system — has long been stressed by the American pragmatists, beginning not only with William James’s Principles of Psychology but also with John Dewey’s “The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology.” In the past twenty or so years some philosophers have gone back to pragmatism for forgotten insights and have updated pragmatism with contemporary neuroscience and cognitive science. Teed Rockwell’s Neither Brain Nor Ghost: A Nondualist Alternative to The Brain-Mind Identity Theory is superb, as is Chemero’s somewhat more technical Radical Embodied Cognitive Science. Chemero remarks that there’s actually a direct line of influence from James to Gibson — one of Gibson’s mentors was a former student of James’s. So there’s a direct line of transmission from James’s direct perceptual realism (which, quite frankly, was also influenced by Peirce and, before him, Thomas Reid) to Gibson’s direct perception of affordances.

    The next books on my docket are Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science (which is actually quite the tome, and I won’t read it through all at once) and The Feeling Body: Affective Science Meets the Enactive Mind.

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  44. keiths:
    walto,

    Here’s my compact summary of what Bruce and I are saying:

    In the geocentric coordinate system, it’s the coordinate system that is centered on the earth. In the geocentric model, it’s the motion that’s centered on the earth. You can have one without the other.

    But either way, the pattern is a construct of the human modelling system. In fact, I’d say that the pattern is the model. Although we talk about “pattern finding” abilities of things-with-brains (I wish there was a better generic noun), I’d say that it’s not so much that things-with-brains are good at finding patterns, but that patterns are what we attribute to phenomena we have a good predictive models for.

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