30 December 2011
In “Part I: The Problem of Agency,” I showed that our normative concepts (roughly, noncausal requirement, purpose, value, and meaning) are intimately related conceptually to one another and to the notion of agency.
Next, I showed that the concept of normative agency, thus defined, is properly applicable to even the most primitive forms of life—even single cells may be properly viewed as normative agents. Thus, conceptually speaking, agency appears to be an essential feature—probably the essential feature—of life itself.
And finally, I ended by asserting that the most reasonable explanation for these facts is that our concept of agency refers to a real phenomenon—agency is an objectively existing property of all organisms.
These claims may appear fantastic to most defenders—and even many critics—of the mainstream Darwinian view of life. Therefore, two more discussions will be required before my via media position between reductionism and theism may begin (I hope) to take on an air of plausibility.
First, I must show why the problem I am addressing—roughly, the place of normativity in the universe—has not already been solved by mainstream science. That is the topic of this column.
Second, I must offer at least some hint of a new direction for future research. Logically, it ought to be enough to point out the inadequacy of our current scientific worldview. But rhetorically, in order for my view to appear plausible, I need to give at least some positive indication of what a post-Darwinian scientific worldview might look like. So, that will be the topic of Part III.
Before proceeding, I would like to acknowledge that not everyone who broadly accepts the mainstream scientific story is a normative nihilist. In the first place, most biologists are probably content to pay lip service to the Darwinian metaphysics without giving too much thought to what it actually entails. They just go about their business—in the laboratory and around the dinner table—with the vague idea that somehow the theory of natural selection makes sense of it all. My remarks are not really addressed to such folks, who are simply unconcerned, professionally or personally, with philosophy or consistency between the different aspects of their lives and experience.
Rather, my remarks here are addressed to those—be they naturalistic philosophers or scientists who make grandiose metaphysical claims for Darwinism—who do concern themselves with the big picture. They do philosophy the honor of taking the problem of normativity seriously, but they do so by viewing our normative concepts as illusory—as referring to nothing real. They claim that the theory of natural selection—supplemented by physics, chemistry, and molecular biology—provides an empirically complete and logically coherent explanation for all the data of biology, and that our normative concepts simply fail to refer to anything objectively existing. These are the folks to whom this column is mainly addressed.
But there is another group, as well, who more or less accept the mainstream scientific worldview at face value, but who balk at its materialistic and reductionist implications. I am thinking of those philosophers who take a basically dualistic approach to the problem, arguing that the domain of normativity—and the realm of human subjective experience, more generally—has its own separate reality, which natural science is simply incompetent to address. There are both theistic and naturalistic versions of this position.
I admit that the naturalistic forms of dualism (broadly, Kantian and phenomenological approaches) are in many ways attractive.(1) But ultimately I reject them, for two reasons. First, the metaphysical division they postulate seems an arbitrary limitation on our search for understanding. Unification—showing how the various parts of our experience cohere—is the very essence of understanding, and there seems no a priori reason why the problems of normativity and agency should be sealed off from empirical inquiry. Of course, it remains for me to show how “unification” can be pursued in a nonreductionist spirit (see Part III).
The other reason why I feel the dualistic approach ought to be rejected is pragmatic. Some philosophers may see in dualism an irenic solution to our problem, but scientists are not likely to go along with them. And, unfortunately, wherever the scientists lead, they tend to drag the rest of us by the nose along with them. The materialist and reductionist vision of the world favored by consistent Darwinists—what I have been calling “value” or “normative” nihilism—is gaining ground with the public at an alarming rate. If it isn’t effectively challenged, our very humanity may be at risk. The most effective way to mount such a challenge is to demonstrate the conceptual and empirical bankruptcy of the Darwinian reductionist worldview.
Let us now turn, then, to this pressing task.
* * *
By “Darwinism,” I mean the claim that the theory of natural selection provides a logically coherent and empirically adequate explanatory framework that is capable of accounting for all biological phenomena in purely mechanistic terms.
Note that challenging this reductionist explanatory framework in no way calls evolution (common descent) into question. It simply raises the question whether our current understanding of life—and so of evolution—makes sense.(2)
It is sometimes hard for those who have not thought very much about these matters to realize what a radical claim Darwinism, so defined, makes. The claim is that our concepts of purpose, value, and meaning—and many other related concepts—literally refer to nothing. Nothing exists in reality corresponding to these ideas. All that really exists is just matter, energy, physical forces, and the principle of natural selection. And with these scientific concepts, we are supposed to be able to give a complete account of everything there is to know about living systems, including ourselves.
So, let’s see if this is true—if it is really the case that the theory of natural selection, together with molecular biology and the rest, provides us with a conceptually and empirically adequate account of biological reality.
The first thing to observe is that the Darwinian explanatory framework cannot do everything it claims to do unless it strictly avoids invoking any normative concepts. That means it may neither appeal to any normative concepts explicitly, nor tacitly presuppose any such concepts. If it does explicitly invoke or tacitly assume such concepts, then—at best—it is begging the question of normativity, or—at worst—it is simply incoherent.
Now, it is a striking fact that actual biological practice is replete with normative terminology. You can hardly listen to a lecture in a biology class—you can scarcely find a single page in a biology paper or textbook—that does not violate this prohibition on normative language.
At every step of the way, biology demands consideration of functions (a variety of purpose), requirements, needs, and the reasons why things happen. Everything that happens in organisms seems to have an evaluative dimension as well: We speak constantly of success and failure, good and bad, better and worse, correct and incorrect, etc.
Then, there is the whole range of intentional discourse that has entered biology over the past couple of generations. Biologists cannot get along nowadays without using intentional terms like sign, signal, message, messenger, code, representation, transcription, translation, proofreading, editing, and many others, all borrowed from the ordinary vocabulary for discussing various aspects of human language use.(3)
In short, it appears impossible to discuss biological systems intelligibly for any length of time using only the vocabulary of the natural sciences. Normative vocabulary is simply essential to biological discourse—whether in technical language or in everyday speech. It seems that we have no choice but to employ normative concepts in order to describe living things adequately, and yet we have no need of them to describe the nonliving world.
Presumably, this is no mere coincidence, but rather is due to the fact that living systems are physically quite different from nonliving systems. The fact that we must make use of normative concepts in the one case, but not in the other, provides us with an important clue about the real nature of living systems, if only we choose to pursue it.
Now, the Darwinist will be unimpressed by all of this. He will say that the difference in our way of thinking and speaking about living things is simply an artifact of our cognitive limitations. He cannot very well deny that biological discourse is shot-through with normative terminology, but he can and will deny that we ought to draw any deep metaphysical conclusions from this fact. Rather, he will blithely brush the problem away, saying that the normative language of biology is merely a convenient way of speaking—a façon de parler—and that no particular importance should be attached to it. It is useful in practice, as a heuristic device, but in principle it is not necessary.
Why is it not necessary? Because according to the Darwinist, in principle we know how to substitute the language of the physical sciences for the normative terminology. That is, the Darwinist claims we can take any particular normative term and translate it into terms of physics and chemistry—with the help of the theory of natural selection—without loss of explanatory power.
This, then, is the crucial claim that we must evaluate. Can the Darwinist really use natural selection to rid his theoretical framework of explicit and implicit reliance upon normative concepts? If he can, then he wins, and we must admit that our entire human spiritual world of purpose, value, and meaning is just a tissue of illusion. If he cannot, then he loses, and natural selection goes out the window as the foundation for the modern scientific worldview.
Normative nihilism, yes or no? The intellectual stakes could hardly be higher.
To save space, I am going to assume the reader is familiar with the basics of the theory of natural selection, and go straight to the heart of the Darwinist’s reductionist strategy. The fundamental idea—the essence of Darwinism as a metaphysical system—is that all the appearance of normativity and agency in living things can be explained away in two steps:
(1) We assume that the cell is a machine—all its operations may explained through local physical interactions, and there is no global constraint on the local interactions. Let’s call this the mechanical principle.
(2) The functional coordination of the parts comes about purely through the process of natural selection—random variation and selective retention. Let’s call this the selection principle.
To expand the second step slightly, the selection principle says the following: The parts in the new individuals born in each generation vary in a random way; in some new individuals, these varying parts may accidentally fall together in such a way as to give those individuals a relative advantage at survival and reproduction (greater “fitness”), in relation both to their conspecifics and to their environment; fitter individuals will tend to survive and reproduce at a higher rate, passing on their type to future generations; thus, over time individuals of the new type will represent a increasingly greater proportion of the population.(4)
In this way, we are invited to see how the parts of organisms (conceived of as machines) can become functionally coordinated—both internally and with respect to the external environment. This process may be applied to any case whatever to explain away all appearances of purpose in living things. Once we get rid of purpose, it is supposed, the other normative concepts will not much bother us any longer.
Many philosophers and scientists view all of this as the finest flower of the human intellect. But there is a worm lurking in its heart. The worm is this.
The machine metaphor is problematic for the reductionist, because human beings impose the functional coordination on machines from the outside. There is nothing about the parts of a car, considered in themselves, that has any tendency to make the whole heap actually go. Bits of steel and rubber simply do not give a damn whether the car goes or not. All of the functionality (and hence all of the normativity) associated with a car—the fact that it is supposed to go at all, as opposed to explode or just sit there—is in the eye of the human engineers who designed the car and the human driver who uses it.
So, the Darwinist needs to explain the following: If organisms are machines, what is playing the role of the external human agent in coordinating the parts into a functioning whole? And that is where the theory of natural selection comes in. What natural selection does is stand in for the external human coordinator.
The upshot of all of this is that Darwinism only makes sense as a reductive explanatory framework on the supposition that (1) the parts of organisms really are mechanical (hence normatively inert); and (2) natural selection really can explain all the functional coordination we see in nature.
I claim that both of these suppositions are demonstrably false.
They are demonstrably false for two different sorts of reasons.
The first reason is that on the rigorous assumption that organisms are machines, the whole explanatory framework is preposterous. Imagine ripping old parts out of your car and throwing new ones in, randomly! What is the likelihood that you are going to improve the car’s ability to go?
The only reason that Darwinism has any superficial plausibility is due to a sleight of hand. When we are focusing on the selection principle, we are made to forget all about the mechanical principle. Do we need new parts to coordinate with each other in a new way, in order to produce increased fitness? No problem! Just give it enough time, and anything can happen.
Well, anything can’t happen—not if we keep the mechanical principle in mind. You are not going to improve the drivability of your car by throwing parts into and out of it at random—not even if you do it for a hundred million years. It is only by suppressing the mechanical principle that Darwinism can be made to make any sense at all.
If we do forget about the mechanical principle, and focus just on the selection principle—well, then, yeah, maybe, given enough time, sure, why not? But that only makes some sort of sense because we are tacitly assuming that when the parts of organisms undergo variation, the organisms have some inherent power of compensatory self-adjustment in accordance with some sort of global constraint, all of which tends to produce viable outcomes.
But when we do that, we smuggle in the very normativity we are trying to get rid of. This shows that—at least with respect to the problem we are examining here, the problem of normative agency—Darwinism is little more than a massive exercise in question-begging.
Now, this sort of argument is hardly new. It is usually deployed by people who agree with the Darwinist that organisms are machines in order to show that evolution is impossible. But I am assuming that evolution occurs, and am using the old argument for an entirely different purpose—to show that the assumption that organisms are literally machines, and so devoid of normative agency, makes no sense.
The only way to make sense of living things is to assume that the apparent normative agency they exhibit is really there. The functional coordination of organisms must be understood as a manifestation of some fundamental power internal to life as such. One way we can know that this is so is that on any other assumption, evolution becomes inconceivable.
However, there is another reason why the two basic Darwinian suppositions are demonstrably false, as well. We now have direct empirical evidence for the existence of an inherent power of normative agency in all living things—a power that cannot conceivably be explained away by the theory of natural selection.
Many examples can be given, but two will have to do, for the present.(5)
A neuroscience research team at MIT under the direction of Mriganka Sur has been performing experiments on the neural cortex of ferrets for the past decade or so. The experiments demonstrate tremendous plasticity in the brains of these animals. In the most famous experiment, the Sur team severed the optic nerves in newborn ferrets and rerouted them from the visual cortex to the auditory cortex. They found that the animals’ brains were able to “rewire” themselves so that the auditory cortex supported vision—in spite of the massive insult to their brains, the animals recovered most of their ability to see.
So much for the concept of “hard-wiring” in the brain!
The other example is related to the case of Faith the Dog (pictured at top), but was duly reported in the scientific literature. During Word War II, a Dutch zoologist named E.J. Slijper was given a baby goat born without forelimbs. He was able to train the goat successfully to walk bipedally. When he later sacrificed the animal and dissected it, he found that its musculature and skeleton had been extensively remodeled, and that anatomically the animal resembled a kangaroo more closely than it did a goat.(6)
Now, I can almost hear the Darwinist spluttering “So what?” through clenched teeth. After all, why can’t the enormous plasticity demonstrated by these two examples be explained by natural selection?
Granted, there cannot have ever been selection for the specific rewiring of the neural cortex in ferrets or for the capacity for bipedality in goats. That is obviously absurd. But why couldn’t the Darwinist just say there was selection for plasticity itself?
Well, he could—and I’m sure he will.
But that way lies a very slippery slope indeed—one leading inevitably to the idea that living systems as such have an inherent power of plasticity, where “power of plasticity” is a sort of euphemism for “power of normative agency.”
At that point, the concept of plasticity would be doing all the real explanatory work (which it was really doing tacitly all along, anyway), and the theory of natural selection would be finally emptied of whatever little cognitive content it seemed to have to begin with.
Next—Part III: What Might an Organism Be, If Not a Machine?
(1) I will not be defending my presupposition of metaphysical naturalism (in an extended sense) here, but that does not mean I do not feel it requires defending. I acknowlege the need to answer criticisms from my right flank, as it were—theism—as well. It is just that that is a task for another occasion. In this series, I am presupposing naturalism without argument, the better to engage with Darwinist normative nihilism, which is my main target.
(2) It is historically uninformed to identify the name of Darwin with the concept of evolution in the basic sense of common descent. Numerous authors had proposed the idea before him, as he was well aware; the idea was “in the air” throughout his lifetime. Darwin’s main contribution to the history of ideas is not the concept of evolution, but rather the “mechanism” that purports to explain evolution—the theory of natural selection. Of course, that theory is much modified today, but everyone—supporters and detractors alike—still call the basic concept of natural selection by his name, and rightly so.
(3) “Intentional” and “intentionality” are philosopher-speak for the way we “intend” particular things—or “have them in mind”—when we think or speak about them. The basic way language works is that we use physical signs (whether utterances or written symbols) to “represent” particular things (or classes of things) out in the world. Philosophers say that the signs “are about” the things. For example, when I utter or write the word [cat] (the physical sign), I mean—I have in mind—a cat (the furry thing with claws). In this example, the word that I use ([cat]) “represents,” or “is about,” the thing I have in mind (a cat). This property of “aboutness” is a species of aiming or directedness, hence of purpose. As such, it can succeed or fail (I may utter [cat] when a possum is present). Therefore, intentionality is yet another kind of normativity. I will return to this topic in Part III, where I will consider the relation between “information” and “meaning.”
(4) Modern neo-Darwinian theory has added a great many complications to this basic picture, having to do with population size and structure, biogeography, genetic drift, meiotic drive, endosymbiosis, and a great many other things. But I think most Darwinists would nevertheless agree that the basic picture of natural selection I give here is the main, if not unique, source of adaptive evolution—and that is all I require for my purposes.
(5) For further examples and discussion, I refer the interested reader to Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s Developmental Plasticity and Evolution (Oxford UP, 2003). See, also, my Ph.D. dissertation, Teleological Realism in Biology.
(6) E.J. Slijper, “Biologic-anatomical Investigations on the Bipedal Gait and Upright Posture in Mammals, with Special Reference to a Little Goat, Born without Forelegs,” Proceedings of the Koninklijke Nederlandsche Akademie van Wetenschappen, 1942, 45: 288–295, 407–415.