Monday, May 27, 2013

More Mind-and-Cosmos Bashing

Michael Chorost in the Chronicle.

Summary: Nagel isn't crazy--his views aren't that different from those of some biologists. Yet he's being vilified by many philosophers and biologists? Why? Because the book is bad. Why? Because its claims are too cautious and fallibilistic, and Nagel, as he admits, has only an amateur's knowledge of evolutionary biology.


First: yes, he's being vilified. The philosophical criticisms are pretty lame. But I, too, have only an amateur's knowledge of evolutionary biology. So I can't speak to the biological points. But the way Nagel is being treated on the philosophy side does not redound to the credit of our so-called profession.

Second: I don't think that most of the biological views cited by the author are really all that close to the kind of view Nagel is discussing...but here things become complicated. We're not entirely clear what we're talking about when we talk about teleology.

Third, GOD DAMMIT. The studiously cautious nature of Nagel's claims are one of the great strengths of the book. It's really nauseating to read things like:
And Nagel is diffident about his ideas. Take this sentence, which packs four negatives into 25 words: "I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn't." Mind and Cosmos is full of such negatively phrased assertions. If you're going to make a controversial claim, it helps to do so positively. It also helps to enlist distinguished allies. Nagel has done nothing of the sort. Which is strange, because he has plenty of allies to choose from.
First, confidence of the kind in question is bullshit. Yes, you might convince more people, but you'd be doing so on non-rational grounds. Not that I even think that Chorost is right here. If Nagel had pretended to be confident, he'd have been criticized for hubris and dogmatism. Chorost complains that Nagel seems unconvinced by his own ideas... But, more importantly:


He IS unconvinced by his own ideas, as well he ought to be.

His point is really something like:

Many biologists and philosophers treat the idea of teleology as insane and conclusively discredited; however, from the perspective of the well-educated amateur, that isn't obviously true.

This is a very, very modest point, and I think Nagel is right about it.

I've tried asking biologists about this sort of thing before--raising the issue in the humblest and most fallibilistic way I knew how--and they've often treated me as if I were some kind of feeb or creationist.

Nagel might be wrong on the substance, but he's right to raise the question. Teleology is not a crazy idea. So far as I can tell, it's out of fashion, and on the ropes, but not ruled out on evidential grounds. Maybe it's already been refuted, but if so, then not by the evidence I've seen. But I, like Nagel, am an interested amateur, and I may just be ignorant. Maybe it will be refuted some day; that won't surprise me a lot. But you don't have to be a feeb or a creationist to raise the question...

To me, it seems as if we've got a theory that works very well, and it's non-teleological. It's a great theory, and there's a lot to be said for it. As it has more and more successes, biologists become more and more convinced of it. Irrational, religiously-motivated opposition also makes biologists very, very cranky, and more than a little dogmatic about it. So, though a rational and well-intentioned amateur might be excused for pointing out that, to one in his position, reasonable doubts remain...well, biologists are used to dealing with irrational people on this score, and are not exactly on their best behavior. Nagel bending over backwards to be kind to Behe and company didn't help anything...


Blogger Dark Avenger said...

I'm reminded of the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote about the subject:

The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other, for the simple reason that there are nearly 300,000 species of beetle known, and perhaps more, as compared with somewhat less than 9,000 species of birds and a little over 10,000 species of mammals. Beetles are actually more numerous than the species of any other insect order. That kind of thing is characteristic of nature.

What is Life, 1949

1:14 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

But, metaphorical creator aside, you see why this isn't inconsistent with the proposition that there is teleology, right?

1:32 PM  
Blogger Dark Avenger said...

Shaw called the anti-teleologists of his day as Neo-Darwinians, although his own alternative to that school of though wasn't much more respectable.

This seems valid enough:

Teleological errors persist whenever evolutionary biologists turn the observation that an organism would not exist unless it possessed a certain trait into the claim that the trait in question came into existence because it had this salutary effect.

I don't really have a dog in the fight, I figure I'm not smart enough to detect teleology above a vulgar animal instinct for order.


7:02 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, that's an extremely crude conception of teleology. I don't know of anyone who's ever seriously accepted that conception.

So I'd agree that that's some kind of an error about teleology...but that's not what Nagel (nor anybody else I know of) is talking about.

9:36 PM  

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