Pirsig’s Metaphyisics of Quality – It’s Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid
Wilson’s Consilience – It’s Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid
Rand’s Objectivism – It’s Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid
It’s Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid
I realise I missed the boat, and that evolutionary psychology as philosophy came and went out of fashion some time ago, but all roads, even diametrically opposed ones lead me to the same place, which shouldn’t be a surprise, since the earth we inhabit (maybe even the universe we seem constrained to inhabit) seems close to spherical.
Matt commented in my earlier thread referring to Wilson, that Rorty’s problem with (scientists like) Wilson, is that they are mistaken to somehow suggest joined-up science replaces philosophy of any kind. I keep quoting Max Born, who apparently said “Theoretical Physics is Actual Metaphysics”. OK, so there is always a metaphysical boundary condition in even the most holistic scientific explanation of the whole world, but the boundaries between science and philosophy must be constantly re-drawn by scientific understanding, no ?
(BTW, my favouring science is purely pragmatic and contingent. Somewhere in that metaphysical hole there may be something that ultimately invalidates science in some sense, some sense hard to imagine naturally, but whilst science shrinks the hole and makes ever more consilient, joined-up, consistent explanations of the whole outside the hole, then it has the maximum value / quality of the available “belief systems”.)
Explanations of the “whole” need to include the spiritual and human nature aspects of reality, otherwise we have a humungous hole in our model. Part of Matt’s objection (on Rorty’s behalf) to Wilson was that it was arrogant for a scientist to suggest that (consilient, scientific) explanations of human nature were either necessary or valuable in any predictive causal sense. Pragmatically, Matt and Rorty would be right, given accepted knowledge of the current state of “scientific received wisdom”. But of course causality and predictability, are two hugely problematic issues, being addressed by both philsophers and scientists. Personally, I think philosphers’ progress with predictable causation is best in the areas that point out its illusory nature (see Paul Turner’s Buddhist view), which it is of pragmatic value to at least be aware, whereas scientists are advancing “complex recursive systems evolution” views of at least explaining it, with statistics and emergence as the closest things to predictability and causation.
OK, so …
I already, in my 2005 paper, referred to Pirsig’s MoQ as evolutionary psychology. Wilson’s neo-Darwinian angle on consilience is also easy to characterise as evolutionary psychology in a direct sense and the meta-sense. (ie at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, it is “our” intellect that is evolving, but part of that evolution of intellect is evolving our evolutionary explanations of the physical and biological layers on which it is built – that’s all I mean by “evolutionary psychology”. It’s awesomely consilient.)
You may have noticed, if you’re following MoQ-Discuss, that I’ve been reading Ayn Rand. Well if Atlas shrugged, Ian struggled. (Aside – I’m still only 400 pages through my 1000 page edition, and I have no prior knowledge of the main plot or point of the story.)
In summary – much of the plot (so far) is about big business, self-made men (and women), moral choices and “state” interfence. I said after 200 pages, lousy physics, lousy metallurgy, lousy engineering, lousy politics and nauseating sex, but OK business and OK morality. I didn’t mention the stilted writing (as Alice did below), the idiot-proof plot, and the transparent one-dimensional characters, but hey, I pressed on in hope and with suspended disbelief.
The science actually gets less believable, or at any rate more fictional – something close to a perpetual motion machine that creates dynamic (kinetic) power out of static energy (matter) – but hey, that sure is a business opportunity for the right guy or gal with the right access to the technology, motivation, funding, opportunity, freedom from state red-tape, etc. (A large part of the plot is about market distortions created by “bad” legislation – eg people trading in quotas and stocks making five times the profits of those in the primary industries – no, really ?)
I also said earlier that the Randian morals (expressed by her apparent heros and heroine anyway) were the triumph of the (individual) will kind. Little did I know.
Although the edition I’m reading (Signet Centennial paperback edition), has a deliberately sparse introduction, to leave the reader with only Rand’s text, I discover there is a 2-page summary of “The Essentials of Rand’s Objectivism” at the end. I thought it might be a laugh to read it, put me out of my misery anyway.
To be continued.
17 thoughts on “Randian Objectivism – It’s Evolutionary Psychology, Stupid”
I may have reached a new plateau in my understanding of Ayn Rand. She is after all is said, naive and artless. She thought that people would buy her ideas if she expressed them with the intensity she felt. I heard of an incident on the Phil Donahue Show where she appeared. A member of the audience stood up and started by saying that in college she had read and adopted Rand’s philosophy, but…Rand stopped her right there and would not let her go on. I’m sure that Rand was thinking that the woman was now a flaming liberal and had no business speaking further. Rand never got on the outside of her writing to argue with herself. If she had, or if she had been capable of it she would have written a more interesting novel.
And isn’t that the problem? Not much can be said which can’t be challenged.
Philosophers who make the greatest impact are keenly aware that they are arguing with someone or something and that they need to make their argument air-tight. But this may diminish the sincerity of the idea. Can we come to truth through argumentation? We seem to have bought this notion wholly. Why?
Nihilism is the only truly defensible position. But then where do we go from there and why do we want to? Evolutionary psychology attempts to answer the question of how and why we are designed to create meaning.
I think you misunderstood me a little bit. On scientists solving philosophical problems, you summarized my summary of Rorty as saying scientists “are mistaken to somehow suggest joined-up science replaces philosophy of any kind” and you suggested that “the boundaries between science and philosophy must be constantly re-drawn by scientific understanding, no?”
I, too, think boundary lines must be adjudicated when new stuff is happening (though I’m not sure how constant it is). Part of that is replacement. What Rorty objects to is the idea that science, for instance, can solve the mind/body problem. Rorty sees philosophers like Dennett who use the instruments and findings of science (pace Dennett) not as solving philosophical problems, but as suggesting that the problem be replaced by a scientific question: “What is consciousness? No, no, that’s a bad question. Here’s a bunch of reasons why we should set it aside. And instead, we should let neurophysiologists tell us all we need to know about how the brain works.” Something like that.
Rorty likes to draw analogies to what happened when the New Science strolled along. Its not that Cartesians and Lockeans solved scholastic questions about God, its that they set them aside for new, better ones. Science didn’t solve philosophical questions then, it just made a bunch of questions look silly. It didn’t solve problems with hylomorphism, it gave a new description of things so that those problems looked quaint.
I will say that science can never replace philosophy tout court, but that’s only because philosophy is the kind of thing that can never die. _Science_ could conceivably die, if we someday reached critical mass on predictive capabilities. What would scientists do if they could no longer get better predictions? But philosophy will never die as long as we have cultural change (though, it too could then conceivably die). What science can do is replace philosophical questions with scientific questions. The replacement is usually solidified by either a) creating new problems (so that philosophers just up and forget about the old ones) or b) philosophers (like Dennett) convincing other philosophers that all we need is the science.
That’s why Rorty gets his panties in a bunch when scientists think they can answer philosophical questions, like “What is human nature?” To Rorty’s ears, that’s just a bad question. The whole idea of “human nature” is a load of hooey, part of Platonistic baggage. What we should do is not try and answer it, we should replace it with better questions, like “What does our physiological makeup do to our social interactions?”
So when you say my objection “was that it was arrogant for a scientist to suggest that (consilient, scientific) explanations of human nature were either necessary or valuable in any predictive causal sense”, I want to respond that, no, I think scientific explanations are part and parcel of our self-image as human beings. What I think pragmatists should object to is the idea scientific prediction and control empties out that self-image. If I’m not mistaken, Wilson thinks that the consilience of the natural sciences is going to give us a better idea of what we _ought_ to do, thus taking over, replacing, the branch of philosophy we might call “moral philosophy”, a branch that is roughly what Aristotle called _phronesis_. I think Aristotle was right in thinking that what he called _sophia_ (finding the nature of things, which has basically been replaced by science’s command of prediction and control) could never replace _phronesis_. That’s why I said Wilson looks reductionistic.
p.s. Alice: I think we bought into the idea that we can “come to truth through argumentation” because Socrates suggested that truth is what’s left standing at the end of battle. The expression of that core insight has changed (one of which is James, “truth is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief, and good, too, for definite, assignable reasons”), but I think its basically right. It’s why we don’t believe in geocentrism or the telos of rocks. Which is why I think it strange for you to say that “nihilism is the only truly defensible position.” To my eyes, nihilism is either entirely too easy to knock down or not really nihilism at all.
Hi Alice, I’m impressed at your faith, but I hadn’t actually said why Rand is saying the same as the others yet (even if she didn’t realise it) (because she is very, very, naive scientifically). I’ll continue soon.
Matt – actually we are still talking past each other unfortunately. Science “can” say (explain) what human nature is, even though “nature” is pretty vague (meaningless) as a term. I have not the slightest embarassment defending a scientist who asserts that kind of thing. Rorty is as naive as Rand in that sense. ie science can describe it better than (as well as) anyone (even Plato) could. Taking explanation on towards predictable decision making is another matter (see causality, etc) … clearly human intellect can never get the better of human intellect – the best we can aspire to is game theory (ie psychology, evolutionary or otherwise)
I need to read the rest of your comment, and think on it.
Matt #2 – science always looks reductionist, analytical, but that’s because the constructive synthetic bits are in the heads of the scientists, or (if exposed) look very unscientific – like art and quality – but they are an essential part of a model of reality. The scientific “process” is destructive (of hypotheses). The problem is causality (emergence, as if) etc … it doesn’t provide simple (idiot-proof) rules
Scinetists (inc Wilson) apologise, but … cannot accept the lowest common denominators, just because they are simpler to understand (like induction).
Wilson (and Chalmers and Deutsch) expend much effort on this dilemma / paradox (problem). This is where philosophers and scientists can help each other. (find the excluded middle rather than the obvious disagreements.)
You already know this Matt. What we have is a communication problem – the illusion that we have (communicated) 🙂
Every scientific (evolutionary) “philosopher” I’ve read (a la Dennett) does draw in large measure on neuro-physiology, particular exceptional / abnormalities – natural scientific method. (most recently Wegner, recommended by Alice, but also Zeman, Pinker, Searle, Sacks, Edelman, Blackmore, Adam, James, and many more)
Re-framing the “question” is good.
Human “nature” is a (terminological) red herring – a shorthand we’ve got used to using. Mind is explained by brain (in the widest meat-based sense). Human nature is just a term for the more (statistically) predictable aspects of brains – the core problem is that explanation is not the same as prediction (causation).
Good scientists understand this, even if they can’t solve it. I’m not sure about philosophers.
My money is on Paul (Turner).
I’m not sure I understand everything you wrote (or why you wrote it, how it hooks up), but I agree that “human nature” is a red herring. I was surprised to see you using the term. Science can certainly tell us something about our “nature”, but I would take it to be just as important to read literature. So if you have no embarrassment in defending scientists who assert what our nature is, to be a non-reductionist pragmatist, you shouldn’t have any embarrassment at anthropologists, novelists, and poets who do the same. In the sense of “reduction” you used above, every vocabulary when it’s used looks reductionistic. That’s not the point, though. The true blue philosophical reductionist (or “realist”) thinks that there’s one vocabulary that everything should be stated in and reduced to. I’m not sure how that would be possible. Part of the work of Donald Davidson and Dennett have been to suggest how the intentional can’t be reduced to the non-.
To me, the most important issue is about whether biology can tell us what we ought to do. If scientists want to say they’re solving philosophical problems, whatever–in the long run either we’ll forget about the problems (and the scientists will say they did solve it) or we won’t (and the scientists will continue to be smug in thinking they did solve them, but philosophers just won’t listen). But I just don’t understand how writing the kind of generalities about biology that Wilson and Pinker do are going to help us decide what to do. That’s the bafflement contained in Rorty’s reply to Wilson.
I wrote this post before you posted your latest, Matt, but my internet provider sucks so some of this may not quite follow…
P.S./BTW… (I feel so marginalized!)
Go to the dictionary and look up nihilism:
4)Philos, an extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.
Go to Durant and look up Nihilism: oops, not there
Go to The Story of Thought by Magee: oops not there either
Go to Sophie’s World and look up nihilism:
“That is a person who thinks that nothing means anything and everything is permissible”
Go to The Moral Animal and look up nihilism:
“It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the prevailing moral philosophy within many philosophy departments is nihilism” (lots of qualifiers there) and
“What about nihilists? What about people who insist that not even happiness is a good thing or that only their happiness is a good thing?”
Go to my brain and look up nihilism: The idea that nothing has intrinsic meaning.
I think my idea is defensible (if it is an idea. Of course I would have to go on and define nothing, intrinsic and meaning). It is only after that bit at the bottom of the pile (cold, uncaring universe, primordial ooze, genetic material, natural selection and all that) is established that the building begins and begin it must because we as a species can’t tolerate meaninglessness. I think that evolutionary psychology is trying to get at why this is so.
Socrates was the one to establish the rules of argumentation, but I am sure you will agree that he didn’t invent the process. And as we know, it is far from pure. But we humans do rely on it and here again we must ask why it is that we do. I think post-Darwinists are trying to explain why logic holds up so well in our minds and I think it is valid to wonder if it is only because we are constructed the way we are that it does hold up. Could it be that logic wouldn’t be so logical in another species? Natural science would seem to be saying that logic (scientific method) holds up on its own, at least before the quantum thing came up.
As I stated before, I think Rorty puts words in Wilson’s mouth. I don’t think Wilson is so concerned about what we ought to do except that we should let science inform. I think that he is more interested in discovering why we do what we do and how why becomes ought.
I realize that I tend to less subtlety than those here assembled, but I am either unaware of or unable to articulate the layers of points at issue. If my original point holds up, however, the whole thing is just a game for our amusement, status and (perhaps) ultimately for our survival.
“If scientists want to say they’re solving
I don’t see that they are saying this at all. In fact Pinker in “How the Mind Works” says:
“Our thoroughgoing perplexity about the enigmas of consciousness,self, will and knowledge may come from a mismatch between the very nature of these problems and the computational apparatus that natural selection has fitted us with”.
or to put it another way… just because we can think of a question doesn’t mean science can answer it.
“Science didn’t solve philosophical questions then, it just made a bunch of questions look silly.”
Hey, those old philosophers weren’t right. They weren’t even wrong, but they made a hell of an attempt!
“That’s why Rorty gets his panties in a bunch when scientists think they can answer philosophical questions, like “What is human nature?” To Rorty’s ears, that’s just a bad question. The whole idea of “human nature” is a load of hooey, part of Platonistic baggage. What we should do is not try and answer it, we should replace it with better questions, like “What does our physiological makeup do to our social interactions?”
“What science can do is replace philosophical questions with scientific questions.”
I think Rorty likes his panties bunched up. If these assertions were attributed to Wilson, Pinker or any of the other cogni-science guys, I think they would gladly accept them as their own.
Alice, Matt, my comments and posting are getting a bit out of synch … before I post the next installment of my Rand piece above, I’ll respond to a couple of comments here.
As usual Matt our debate is really “so what is the argument” – we’re agreeing.
An unreconstructed reductionist scientist can say a great deal about how and why social, political, intellectual, artistic behaviours (human nature for short) arise and are co-evolved from the original void.
What they cannot say is what “should” be done in the higher evolved levels (a) without agreed values and (b) without agreed causal predictability at these emergent levels. A good reductionist scientist knows this.
What that same scentist is saying is that the philosophers should however listen to what science does say about the evolving quality and consistency of scientific “explanation”.
It may not give the philosophers the “should” answers, but it gives the philosophers a better understanding of the workings of the world (including the evolutionary psychology of minds). Science “contributes” to understanding and solving erstwhile philosophical problems. That massive excluded middle, scientists and philosophers (and artists) often forget. Neither can answer the should question without the other.
BTW Alice, your comment about “Rorty liking his panties bunched up” is for me the same excluded middle point … some people are only happy when they are “arguing” from positions of (unnecessary) disagreement.
Matt, on further reflection, I’m repeating myself … my point was already in comment 3, immediately following the “no embarassment defending” sentence, …
Rorty is as naive as Rand in that sense. ie science can describe it better than (as well as) anyone (even Plato) could. Taking explanation on towards predictable decision making is another matter (see causality, etc) … clearly human intellect can never get the better of human intellect – the best we can aspire to is game theory (ie psychology, evolutionary or otherwise
ie should “is another matter” beyond science. But don’t ignore the pragmatic lesson about the end game – “intellect can never get the better of intellect” – it is literally a “game” or “arms race” and the result is evolution to … who knows where.
Hence the tag line “it’s evolutionary psychology stupid”.
Panties in a bunch, the excluded middle or perhaps Rorty hasn’t had the time to stroll through Border’s bookstore.
“The analogy between the individual-society relation and the microstructure-macrostructure relation is tempting. However, the attractions of the analogy are diminished when one starts asking oneself why psychology and sociology, despite all that grant money, have remained relatively barren. How many of us can site a STARTLING AND USEFUL RESULT PRODUCED by either discipline (especially if one brushes Freudian psychology aside as unscientific)? Why do the behavioral sciences never seem to come up with either useful predictions or persuasive advice about what we should do?”
Answer, because it’s a difficult question.
Tell me a philosopher who’s done better.
“Answer, because it’s a difficult question”
Well, yes, but in the light of evolutionary psychology, certain things might be able to be eliminated. Or if not eliminated, understood better, such as the belief in a supreme being or the belief in an afterlife or rape or status seeking. (nice collection)
Certain people are saying that in the light of our nature certain political/economic structures aren’t as effective as others. For instance, Wilson said of socialism, “good idea, wrong species”. Of course that is the problem, the data will be interpreted differently by different people, which is why prescriptions aren’t such a big part of this field of study.
I just see science as grinding out possible explanations for our behavior. It’s up to the moralists and each individual to put that together into a workable life (style).
PS. and as far as freud goes, he was actually quite right about the subconscious it seems, but a bit far afield in some of his supposed syndromes.
Hi Alice, sorry for my inactivity … been away for a long weekend … in Chicago … our 25th Anniversary …
Better explanation and understanding – yes, that’s the point of science. But deciding what should be done and predictability of what will happen … has its limitations, which is also something science can explain and hep us understand.
Why perceptions aren’t such a big part ?? … but my point is they are / should be … psychology (perceptions) are(just about) everything in the space where science can’t provide clear answers.
Yes, moralists, ethical philosophers, help address the should (life-style) questions, but they should do it in the full knowledge and understanding of what science can and does explain, about how the world works.
I agree, the good idea, wrong species line is important to Freud, as well as Wilson. Freud, via Maslow, is very very parallel to Pirsig’s pyramid of value.
Chicago. Did you like it? I was born and raised there (in the city, not the suburbs). It’s my kind of town.
“predictability of what will happen … has its limitations, which is also something science can explain and hep us understand.”
I, for one, have no illusions about the predictability of life. I have even questioned the old adage about those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Can anyone prove that statement?
Best guess is the best we can do. And we are all about guessing.
“real human enterprises succeed or fail through subjective, chaotic and seemingly irrational behaviour”
Chicago – loved it – our kinda town it seems.
Guessing – not quite as crude as that … hard to predict with certainty, but worth understanding the odds, the rules of the game, the cards in the deck, etc.
Seemingly – don’t forget that word in my quote – chaos is hard to predict, but not completely inexplicable.