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. Elizabeth: 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.

    I wonder — does that entail that no animal (including ourselves) has cognitive access to the animal-independent world?

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  2. Lizzie,

    But either way, the pattern is a construct of the human modelling system.

    Patterns can be human constructs; I gave the example of pareidolia earlier. But are all patterns human constructs? No way.

    We discover patterns and regularities in nature, and this is what makes science possible.

    See definition 1b:

    pat·tern (păt′ərn)
    n.
    1.
    a. A usually repeating artistic or decorative design: a paisley pattern. See Synonyms at figure.
    b. A natural or accidental arrangement or sequence: the pattern of rainfall over the past year.

    Lizzie:

    In fact, I’d say that the pattern is the model.

    No, because we can and do discover patterns before we can explain or model them. A good deal of science involves coming up with explanatory models after we have detected patterns in the data.

    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.

    Again, we can and do discover patterns for which we have no predictive models.

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  3. Kantian Naturalist: I wonder — does that entail that no animal (including ourselves) has cognitive access to the animal-independent world?

    I don’t think so, I just think that the access is via predictive models, which we call, sometimes, “patterns”. You could argue (and I do!) that the fact that predictive models actually work fairly well on the whole implies that the world is comprehensible. But I think it’s stretching things a bit to say that there are *real* patterns *out there* waiting for us to discover them.

    I guess I’m saying that the patterns are the maps we make of the territory, not the territory 🙂

    As an obvious example, one kind of pattern we talk about are patterns of objects. But “objects” are just a way of parsing the world into Things with Properties. An alien visitor might have a quite different way of doing it, particularly if they didn’t have vision. Although they probably would, because vision is so useful and appears to evolve so readily. But that in itself makes my point – our ideas of patterns is very driven, I’d suggest, by vision. If we felt our way around, or echo-located, our patterns would be quite different, and our sense of objects probably quite difference – we might think in terms of surfaces rather than objects.

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  4. keiths: Again, we can and do discover patterns for which we have no predictive models.

    The act of “discovering a pattern” is making a predictive model.

    Take Jocelyn Bell’s quasars – she had no explanatory model for the quasars, but she certainly had a predictive one or she wouldn’t have been able to report the pattern, which was of a predictably repeating signal

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  5. Evolution won’t give you more intentionality than you pack into it.

    – Hilary Putnam

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  6. keiths:
    We discover patterns and regularities in nature, and this is what makes science possible.

    …we can and do discover patterns before we can explain or model them. A good deal of science involves coming up with explanatory models after we have detected patterns in the data.

    Patterns, ends, final causes. A -> always or for the most part -> B. It’s all teleological. 🙂

    But I agree. Before we start looking for the efficient cause we first discern the final cause. It’s not that the final cause is first in order of cause -> effect but is rather first in what comes to us as demanding or susceptible of an explanation.

    And we couldn’t do science without it. And efficient causes are unintelligible absent the final cause.

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  7. Elizabeth: But I think it’s stretching things a bit to say that there are *real* patterns *out there* waiting for us to discover them.

    I guess I’m saying that the patterns are the maps we make of the territory, not the territory

    Though it is surely right that some of the patterns we (and other animals detect) are partially constituted by the relevant sensorimotor abilities, it doesn’t follow that all patterns are co-constituted.

    But what I’m interested in here is what we can say about what the world contributes to the co-constitution of patterns: what we can say (if anything) about the relatively stable regularities and irregularities that co-constitute, in coordination with animal sensorimotor abilities, perceptual awareness of objects, properties, and so forth.

    Now, I am willing to leave open — in fact, I’m strongly tempted by! — the following thought: if we what we want in “metaphysical realism” is a characterization of what reality is like independently of everything that an embodied cognitive system brings to bear in making sense of its environment (and I think that’s a pretty good characterization of what metaphysical realism is!), then the statement

    there are relative stable regularities and irregularities

    turns out to be the only correct statement of metaphysics.

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  8. Lizzie,

    The act of “discovering a pattern” is making a predictive model.

    Take Jocelyn Bell’s quasars – she had no explanatory model for the quasars, but she certainly had a predictive one or she wouldn’t have been able to report the pattern, which was of a predictably repeating signal.

    No, because patterns can terminate, unlike Bell’s, and they needn’t be easily predictable, also unlike Bell’s.

    Suppose you are looking at a band of varves between other rock types. Their formation began and ended long ago, so there is no possiibilty of prediction in the chronological sense. There is no prediction in the scientific sense, either, because we can perceive the varve pattern without being able to “predict” its ending.

    Here’s another example:

    1, 11, 21, 1211, 111221, 312211, 13112221…

    Almost everyone recognizes that there is a pattern, but who can predict the next number at a glance?

    Clearly, we can recognize patterns in the absence of predictive models.

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  9. KN, to Lizzie:

    Now, I am willing to leave open — in fact, I’m strongly tempted by! — the following thought: if we what we want in “metaphysical realism” is a characterization of what reality is like independently of everything that an embodied cognitive system brings to bear in making sense of its environment (and I think that’s a pretty good characterization of what metaphysical realism is!), then the statement

    there are relative stable regularities and irregularities

    turns out to be the only correct statement of metaphysics.

    Which fits quite well with the definition of “pattern” I cited above:

    A natural or accidental arrangement or sequence: the pattern of rainfall over the past year.

    The pattern is out there in the world regardless of whether anyone is perceiving it, representing it, or thinking about it.

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  10. Lizzie, to KN:

    As an obvious example, one kind of pattern we talk about are patterns of objects. But “objects” are just a way of parsing the world into Things with Properties. An alien visitor might have a quite different way of doing it, particularly if they didn’t have vision.

    I would argue that any aliens capable of navigating the cosmos would necessarily have a concept akin to ‘object’. But let’s assume arguendo that our alien visitors lack that concept and that we introduce it to them. They are now able to recognize the sun and planets as distinct objects, just like us. We haven’t told them that we think the solar system is heliocentric, but we ask them to consider the evidence we provide or to make their own observations. Let’s assume that they are not crackpots who refuse to consider the evidence — instead, they are intelligent and interested in learning about our solar system.

    Is there anyone here besides Neil who actually thinks they could rationally consider the evidence — phases of Venus, distance measurements, and all the rest — and conclude that the solar system was geocentric?

    The pattern of heliocentric motion is not imposed by us — it’s part of external reality, and intelligent, non-crackpot aliens will reach the same conclusion we do: the solar system is not, and cannot be, geocentric.

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  11. How many years would the aliens need to study the solar system before they could discern “the pattern”?

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  12. Heya KN, is Hilary Putnam’s Pragmatism:An Open Question worth reading?

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  13. Mung: Heya KN, is Hilary Putnam’s Pragmatism:An Open Question worth reading?

    Yes. I think Putnam is one of the most important and interesting of living philosophers.

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  14. Mung:

    How many years would the aliens need to study the solar system before they could discern “the pattern”?

    That would depend on the aliens. If they were a race of Mungians, it might very well take forever.

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  15. There is a great variance in Mungian sizes. Say these Mungians are ant sized. Now how long?

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  16. Mung:
    There is a great variance in Mungian sizes. Say these Mungians are ant sized. Now how long?

    This discussion reverses the order of things I think.

    First, the aliens would likely be teaching us how to recognize important patterns of the universe. Second, they would start by teaching us the mathematics we did not know. Finally, third, they would use this shared mathematics to describe fundamental patterns in physics, and get to less important patterns like the orbits of planets later.

    This assumes math is universal although of course they may use new concepts to us.

    But it is possible to relate two concepts from apparently unrelated mathematics. There is a great book about the current Laglands Program to do that within our own mathematics: Frankels Love and Math. I find it very reasonable to believe that mathematics and physics are universal so that aliens could teach us (well, some of us!) enough of theirs to allow us to communicate about patterns in the universe.

    Finally, this assumes the aliens actually want to communicate with us. Perhaps they won’t care about us, as in Lem’s novel Solaris. Or perhaps they want to fool us, as in the classic Damon Knight SF Short Story To Serve Man where the alien book with that same title (spoiler alert!) turns out to be a cook book.

    (BTW, to your ant comment: abstract math does not depend on the height of mathematicians).

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  17. keiths: If they were a race of Mungians, it might very well take forever.

    And even if they came to a conclusion they’d not say what it was for fear of taking a position that they might have to later defend.

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  18. Kantian Naturalist:

    Now, I am willing to leave open — in fact, I’m strongly tempted by! — the following thought: if we what we want in “metaphysical realism” is a characterization of what reality is like independently of everything that an embodied cognitive system brings to bear in making sense of its environment (and I think that’s a pretty good characterization of what metaphysical realism is!), then the statement “there are relative stable regularities and irregularities” turns out to be the only correct statement of metaphysics.

    I understand L&R’s Ontic Structural Realism as proposing the the mathematical structures of a completed (say) physics are real. I’m not sure if that is enough to be called metaphysically real in the sense you are using it above. But if so, it would seem to be an example of a pattern which is independent of an embodied cognitive system.

    This assumes you take math concepts to be independent of a particular embodiment, which I do. (I don’t think that would necessarily mean I am a Platonist about math).

    Speaking of math, I took a look at the table of contents for one of the books you posted earlier, Enaction: Toward a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science, and was surprised to see enactivism applied to transfinites in one of the papers: Enacting Infinity: Bringing Transfinite Cardinals into Being.

    I took a look at an earlier paper from the same author which appears to address a similar topic.

    I thought it took enactivism a bit too far. As I understand it, he uses cognitive linguistics to analyse the mathematics which he describes as dealing with potential versus completed infinity, eg as in a converging series versus its limit.

    Very roughly, I believe he says the concept of infinity is based on an integration of two differing embodied actions, namely completed embodied actions like jumping versus incomplete embodied actions like flying.

    My problem is it seems unlikely to me that we can explain how people can conceive and understand highly abstract mathematics (which goes well beyond the very basic examples in the paper) through everyday, embodied actions like jumping and flying.

    I can agree our ability to do mathematics started with our embodied interactions with the world. But it seems to me one would have to beyond that for a full explanation of mathematical ability, and understand how the brain creates and represents higher abstractions, to truly understand how we can do advanced mathematics.

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  19. I find it very reasonable to believe that mathematics and physics are universal so that aliens could teach us (well, some of us!) enough of theirs to allow us to communicate about patterns in the universe.

    Bruce, wouldn’t they need to be able to successfully communicate with us about patterns in the universe in order to be able to teach us any math or physics?

    don’t find much sympathy here for Wittgenstein’s “forms of life” picture, wherein if a lion could speak, it would be impossible for us to understand it.

    In the first edition of Star Trek, there was one species really different from us that that we tried to communicate with–the Horta. They looked kind of like blobs with hair, and tried to communicate by burning symbols into rocks.

    But it turns out they wrote in quite legible English and the only difficulty was in trying to figure out if “No Kill I” was meant as a plea or a promise.

    No Witters there either, I guess.

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  20. OK, I’ve now read keiths’ and Bruce’s explanations of the differences between coordinate systems and models in our discussion more carefully, and they have been very helpful. I have a much better understanding now of how those terms differ, and agree that if one uses them as they are (and, I take it, as they are generally used by astronomers), a heliocentric system neither follows from heliocentric coordinates nor entails them.

    Thanks very much for explaining this to me. FWIW, It’s not clear to me that this (now intelligible to me!) distinction has as much to do with the general question of metaphysical realism as is being made of it here; I’d think the anti-realist would be inclined to make both the coordinate system AND the model human constructions of some sort. I, however, was just trying to get a basic understanding of how the model and coordinates could be orthogonal, as claimed, not solve one of the perennial questions of the universe, so Ich habe genug. And, again, thanks for taking the time and trouble.

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  21. walto: Bruce, wouldn’t they need to be able to successfully communicate with us about patterns in the universe in order to be able to teach us any math or physics?

    don’t find much sympathy here for Wittgenstein’s “forms of life” picture, wherein if a lion could speak, it would be impossible for us to understand it.

    Sure, it would not be a sequential thing. There may be a need to point to things in the real world perhaps to be started with numbers, for example. But for two species with ongoing contacts who want to communicate, then I think they could find common ground in mathematics and mathematical physics.

    I thought of the lion example, but my intuition differs from Witt’s. If lions had a language facility equal to ours, and there were ongoing contacts with good will on both sides, then why wouldn’t we be able to communicate eventually? We share the same world, the same need to survive and reproduce in it, etc, it seems that we have much in common to ease the communication. We could build a new language game together starting with those commonalities. After all, we invent new languages and new ways of communication to suit different communities and needs all the time : conceptual art, Fortran, Esperanto, linear algebra all come to mind.

    Now those commonalities of shared living on earth don’t work for aliens. But I believe that mathematics and physics may substitute.

    A bigger issue would be a variant of McGuinn’s mysterianism. I don’t know if his argument about consciousness would generalize to one that claims that we could never be smart enough to understand the aliens. Perhaps the aliens may need to talk down to our level initially, but I think they could lead us to finding common approaches to math and physics.

    Another thing to point out is how even today’s rudimentary AIs are able to recognize and name some patterns (eg of images) with little or no training from us. Imagine what the aliens would have. (Assuming they were not AIs themselves, of course. Maybe it would start with their AIs training ours?)

    Yes, I remember that Star Trek TOS with the happy ending where the species became partners in the mining operation. What about the TNG one where the aliens could only speak in metaphors about their culture? Both fun but not realistic about what a using a language involves, I think

    Two late ETAs:
    On Witt and lions, I have only hazy second hand knowledge of his argument; was he arguing that we would not understand each other initially or that we could never work together to build a common way of communicating? It’s the latter my thoughts are about.

    Second, is Witt’s original theory of “language is use” taken seriously by philosophers of language any more. I thought his successors had moved on to more sophisticated and worked-out theories, such as Brandom’s.

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  22. BruceS: I thought of the lion example, but my intuition differs from Witt’s. If lions had a language facility equal to ours, and there were ongoing contacts with good will on both sides, then why wouldn’t we be able to communicate eventually?

    Searle agrees with you. He criticizes that view of Wittgenstein in his recent perception book (I think that’s where I read it). But I agree with Wittgenstein.

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  23. BruceS: Two late ETAs:
    On Witt and lions, I have only hazy second hand knowledge of his argument; was he arguing that we would not understand each other initially or that we could never work together to build a common way of communicating? It’s the latter my thoughts are about.

    Second, is Witt’s original theory of “language is use” taken seriously by philosophers of language any more. I thought his successors had moved on to more sophisticated and worked-out theories, such as Brandom’s.

    I think your second picture of Witt’s view of the “forms of life” argument is right. Re Meaning is use, I don’t think there is a consensus view of philosophy of language. Wittgenstein continues to have many followers, in any case. Surely more than Brandom.

    BTW, speaking of Brandom, the first philosophy paper I ever tried to publish, back when I was in grad school, was a critique of Brandom’s own first pub–something on Spinoza (I also attacked a then-recent Spinoza paper by Daisie Radner). My article was rejected by a couple of history of philosophy journals, and I lost interest in it. Subsequently, Brandom got famous (Radner less so, although she has a nice book on Malebranche). AFAIK, Brandom hasn’t written about Spinoza since–which I think is just as well, since his paper wasn’t very good.

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  24. I would question whether and in what sense we and the lions share the same world and whether that’s from their perspective or from ours.

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  25. We treat organisms – the parts at least – as if they were manufactured, as if they were designed, and then we try to work out their functions. End-directed thinking – teleological thinking – is appropriate in biology because, and only because, organisms seem as if they were manufactured, as if they had been created by an intelligence and put to work.

    – Michael Ruse

    I disagree with Ruse. Teleological thinking is appropriate in biology because there is actual teleology in biology and it has nothing to do with intelligent design.

    [Unless perhaps you take the view that organisms are their own intelligent designers.]

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  26. Dennett remarks (in Consciousness Explained, maybe? Not sure!) that if a lion could talk, we could understand him perfectly well — but that we could learn nothing about non-talking lions from him! In this case my “intuitions” are more in line with Dennett than with Wittgenstein.

    BruceS, I’ll read that article on infinity in Enaction and get back to you. I do suspect that enactivists tend to exaggerate both the defects of cognitivism and the strengths of enactivism. In particular, I don’t think they appreciate the extent to which the evolution of language really was the emergence of a novel cognitive ability.

    Also: among serious philosophers of language, Brandom’s very complicated way of attributing correctness of inferential role based on proprieties of use — so that semantics answers to pragmatics — is widely taken to be a successor to Wittgenstein. But notice that Brandom, unlike Wittgenstein, is offering a theory of meaning.

    Wittgenstein doesn’t say that meaning is use; he says (if I recall correctly): “in many cases — though not all — don’t look at the meaning, but look at the use”. This comes up in his discussion of how to dissolve certain philosophical problems that seem insoluble. His suggestion seems to be that certain long-standing and insoluble philosophical problems arise because of the misuse of ordinary words. That produces category mistakes and all sorts of tangled knots in our thinking.

    But there is nothing like Wittgensteinian therapy in Brandom — Brandom is offering a positive explanation of what meanings are.

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  27. Neil Rickert: He [Searle] criticizes that view of Wittgenstein in his recent perception book (I think that’s where I read it).

    Wait — you still read new philosophy books as they come out?

    Now there is something I never would have predicted from reading your posts on philosophers and their failings.

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  28. BruceS: Wait — you still read new philosophy books as they come out?

    No, but I thought Searle would be worth reading even though I expected to disagree with him.

    Searle often seems to have pretty good intuitions, but his argument to support those intuitions seem to fall short.

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  29. Bruce, I think what Neil is saying here is that he prefers to restrict his philosophy reading to books by bad philosophers.

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  30. walto:
    Bruce, I think what Neil is saying here is that he prefers to restrict his philosophy reading to books by bad philosophers.

    Youtube has a recording of the lectures for Searle’s philosophy of language course at Berkley. I once tried to listen to it but gave up quickly.

    He spends the first half of the course explained why his theory of language is right and others are wrong. But his views are not accepted by anyone else, as far as I know.

    I think that course also contains him saying (paraphrased): “I’m right and everyone else is wrong about both how language works and how the mind works. But those other language philosophers are pretty smart and hard to refute. On the other hand, anyone who disagrees me on mind is just stupid”.

    The “I-am-right-and-everyone-else-is-wrong” attitude quickly soured me on listening to the rest of the course.

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  31. BruceS,

    Yeah, he seems like a cocky bastard to me as well. He writes clearly, which is nice, and is clever. But his stuff seems to me of the sort that the more you study and think about it, the less well it does.

    The thing is, I feel much the same way about Dennett, who’s a big fave around here. FWIW, I saw Dennett speak before he was famous. He gave a lecture at Brown, when I was a grad student there. I thought he was slipshod then, and my position hasn’t changed much. (Wow, I’m noticing how much this might sound like my remark above about Brandom–but I actually haven’t read much Brandom, so I have no opinion on his mature work.) Like Searle, Dennett is very prolific, clever and fun to read. Those are all important positives, surely. And, like Neil with Searle, I often agree with their conclusions. But to be a great philosopher, IMO, you have to make original, really compelling arguments on deep, important subjects; it doesn’t even matter if you’re ultimately right. In the 20th Century, Putnam does that, Quine and Lewis did as well, and, of course, Russell and Wittgenstein. Maybe Rawls. After those guys, it probably gets into the area of personal preference…..

    That’s my 2 bits.

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  32. BruceS: The “I-am-right-and-everyone-else-is-wrong” attitude quickly soured me on listening to the rest of the course.

    Yes, he does seem to come across that way.

    I have not tried his lectures on language. And I’m not likely to try. I have a copy of his book “Speech Acts” somewhere, but I have not read more than the opening paragraph (I picked it up cheap at a used book sale). I have read some of his philosophy of mind, though it seems rather shallow.

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  33. walto:
    The thing is, I feel much the same way about Dennett, who’s a big fave around here.FWIW, I saw Dennett speak before he was famous.He gave a lecture at Brown, when I was a grad student there.I thought he was slipshod then, and my position hasn’t changed much.

    Somewhere Dennett relates a conversation he had with Kim where Kim suggested Dennett be more formal in presenting his arguments. But Dennett said that was not his philosophical style.

    I too often find that informality irritating.

    The Kukla paper that KN referenced spends some time trying to ascertain his specific position on realism about the targets of the intentional stance, but in the end she says she cannot pin it down. Possibly Dennett is being deliberately ambiguous.

    I suspect he is popular here because his positions align with the worldviews of many people in this forum: on evolution, on free will, on religion, on physicalism and the mind. That is mostly true for me.

    The G-Man could say more on that role of worldviews in this group. Come to think of it, he already has, many, many times.

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  34. Kantian Naturalist:

    I do suspect that enactivists tend to exaggerate both the defects of cognitivism and the strengths of enactivism. In particular, I don’t think they appreciate the extent to which the evolution of language really was the emergence of a novel cognitive ability.

    I take that disdain for cognitivism to be the “radical” portion of some views of enactivism. It’s a part that troubles me.

    I enjoyed the introductory article to Neuroscience, Neurophilosophy and Pragmatism which you mentioned earlier in the thread but I think it shows some of this attitude. The following quote is exemplifies what I mean:

    That makes the environment part of the cognitive system; the information flow between mind/ brain and world is so dense and continuous that, for scientists studying the nature of cognitive activity, the mind/ brain alone is not a sufficiently meaningful unit of analysis.

    I agree that holistic research and explanation of embodied people in their culture and in the world is needed (And I think the article’s “system 3” idea is an interesting way to capture that).

    But I also think science uses systems analysis to help understand such complex systems by breaking them down into interacting subsystems. So I think there is also a place for analysis of brain/body as a system, with causal links to culture and the world. And for further analysis of the brain alone as a system, with causal links to the body (and through that to the world).

    I like Andy Clark because he seems open to all these levels of analysis, unlike the radical enactivists (I least based on my limited understanding of them).

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  35. I haven’t read much Searle, apart from his little Minds, Brains, and Science. I found his view severely problematic; basically he asserts that only brains have the right causal powers to have original intentionality, and that it’s the job of neuroscientists to tell us how the trick is done. His conception of original intentionality strikes me as basically Cartesian; if anything, Searle is exactly the sort of “Cartesian materialist” that Dennett criticizes in Consciousness Explained and elsewhere.

    Against this, I think that Searle errs in two respects: by neglecting other, more “primitive” kinds of intentionality other than the discursive intentionality of thought and talk in normal mature human beings, and by neglecting the role of lived embodiment in mediating between brains and their environments. (Arguably, he also errs in refusing to provide a positive account of what original intentionality really is.)

    Dennett, on the other hand, is (I think) an absolutely brilliant philosopher, but that he starts off by presupposing the achievements made by Ryle (in The Concept of Mind) and by Sellars (in “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind”). So he’s often misunderstood, because other philosophers don’t appreciate why he refuses to take other starting-points and problems seriously. Whereas to start thinking about intentionality as Fodor does, or about consciousness as Chalmers does, one is basically not working in the same philosophical paradigm as Dennett.

    I’m still working through Tomasello’s The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999). One point he stresses throughout is that linguistic cognition depends on symbolic representations that are different in kind from sensorimotor representations. I worry that pragmatists, under the influence of Dewey’s emphasis on “continuity”, neglect this distinction. That seems like the wrong way of understanding what Dewey was emphasizing, and it also could be that Dewey was wrong.

    I haven’t kept up with Clark since Being There, but yes, he is sympathetic to enactivism but worries that we should not (and indeed cannot) dispense with the concept of representation. There’s a lively debate amongst enactivists and cognitivists as to what representations are, whether we need them in doing cognitive science, and how they should be studied. I’m still trying to sort it all out myself, since it’s pretty clear that there are many different uses (and abuses) of the term.

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  36. BruceS,

    I suspect he [Dennett] is popular here because his positions align with the worldviews of many people in this forum: on evolution, on free will, on religion, on physicalism and the mind.

    And because of the strength and lucidity of his arguments for them. Even when I disagree with Dennett, I find my thinking improved for having read him.

    Since you like Andy Clark, it’s worth quoting his assessment of Dennett:

    As ever, my greatest intellectual debt is to Daniel Dennett, whose work and views are without a doubt the major, if sometimes subterranean, influence on all that I write.

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  37. Kantian Naturalist:

    I’m still working through Tomasello’s The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999). One point he stresses throughout is that linguistic cognition depends on symbolic representations that are different in kind from sensorimotor representations.

    Two books by neuroscientists on embodiment and understanding language that I’ve enjoyed:

    The case for embodied understanding: Louder Than Words: The New Science of How the Mind Makes Meaning. Presents fMRI experiments and priming experiments to show how sensorimotor areas for action relate to understanding language. Explores the idea that abstract concepts involve simulating embodied action with concrete objects, but admits this idea only gets to part of what is going on.

    The case against: The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition. Mostly about the unjustified hyping of mirror neurons, but also has a chapter on embodied understanding of language that questions the interpretations of the experiments like those in the first book as well as raising conceptual issues with embodied language understanding (eg how can people like quadraplegics with damaged motor areas in the brain still understand language?)

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  38. Neil,

    You accused me of misrepresenting your views. Walto asked you to elaborate:

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

    Your response was priceless:

    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.

    Your condescension toward Searle is especially amusing in light of the above. There’s plenty to disagree with in Searle, but you won’t see him saying “My views are too profound for words; it’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, to communicate them.” Competent philosophers know it’s their job to communicate their ideas, particularly when those ideas involve conceptual change.

    In any case, your ineffability argument is bogus. You had previously laid out your position using hundreds of words. It was quite intelligible, though obviously wrong. You deployed the ‘too profound for words’ gambit only after your position, stated in your own words, had been thoroughly discredited.

    In typical Neil fashion, you

    a) staked out a weak and poorly thought-out position;

    b) referred to criticism of your position as “nonsense” and “ridiculous bullshit” while declining to say why;

    c) accused your interlocutor of a rule violation literally two minutes after committing the same purported violation yourself;

    d) accused your interlocutor of misrepresenting your views;

    e) when asked to clarify your views and point out the misrepresentation, you balked, claiming that to do so would be “very difficult, perhaps impossible” to do using mere words.

    Good grief, Neil. It’s your responsibility to defend your position. If you can’t, then admit your mistake(s). It’s also your responsibility to back up your accusations. If you can’t, then withdraw them.

    Your moderator privileges aren’t a license to behave irresponsibly. Get your shit together, Neil.

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  39. keiths, do you take the assertion that patterns are already in the world (and not somehow put there by cognizers) to be a more general version of (roughly) the same point as that heliocentrism isn’t “made true” by the choice of a sun-centered coordinate system? In other words, would you say that those who believe that “it’s only thinking that makes it so” are committing the same mistake that is made by those who believe that a heliocentric system or model is entailed by the choice of heliocentric coordinates?

    Or do you make those independent errors? (I say “errors” based on my understanding of your posts above on both of these topics.)

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  40. keiths: Wickramasinghe and Hoyle argued that the human nose evolved with nostrils facing down to avert the ingestion of viruses falling from the sky.

    You have to admit that tinfoil hats evolved to prevent mental contamination from invisible space aliens.

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  41. walto,

    keiths, do you take the assertion that patterns are already in the world (and not somehow put there by cognizers) to be a more general version of (roughly) the same point as that heliocentrism isn’t “made true” by the choice of a sun-centered coordinate system?

    First let me stress again that I don’t believe that all patterns are “out there” in the world. Geocentrism is a clear counterexample, in fact — a pattern imposed by humans on a solar system that is in fact heliocentric.

    But yes, I see Neil’s mistake regarding heliocentrism as an instance of his more general error in claiming that patterns don’t exist in nature:

    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.

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  42. Alan,

    How is that OP on moderation coming along?

    There are two of them now, but I’m on vacation and won’t be working on them until I return. Don’t worry — you’ll notice them when they’re posted.

    Keiths,

    I think this comment is a good candidate for the “noyau” page.

    I don’t. The answer to a false accusation belongs in the same thread in which the accusation is made. Everything else I listed also occurred in this thread, so my response should be here and not in Noyau.

    So here it stays unless you unwisely decide to move it. I hope you’ll have the sense not to.

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  43. I read a paper on value-theory recently that seemed to me to conflate objectivity with “human-independence.” The author jumped from “being relative to human desires” to “subjective.” Neil’s graph above might be doing something similar.

    Here’s what I mean: consider “to the right of” it’s relative (perhaps to me) but nevertheless not subjective. I think values may be like that–relative to human desires, and thus created when desires occur. But that alone wouldn’t make them subjective, I don’t think.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that non-value “patterns” are similar to values in that way. I just think it’s important to distinguish “human-dependent” from “subjective” just in case they are.

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