Archive | April, 2012

Rethinking the Language of Evolutionary Discourse

23 Apr

Evolution as a “Contentious Issue”:  Moving beyond the Darwin Debate by rethinking the Terms of Evolutionary Discourse


Evolution shouldn’t be a “contentious issue” but is I think for people’s talking past each other on a number of topics; the big two being (1)  the science behind natural selection and (2) metaphysical problems making philosophers and religionists think the trouble is in the process of evolution itself and/or in evolutionary biology as a means of explaining evolutionary change rather than in other factors.

My own POV is in trying to refocus the conversation on the substance of the science itself and away from sidetracked discussions over meaning; in fact by adjusting the language of evolution to better fit the science and philosophically strengthening that language to avoid misinterpretation and wrong turns in the course of reasoning about evolutionary change and forming ideas about it.  The science of evolution is not in question, absolutely not in question and shouldn’t be. What is in question perhaps is how Darwin’s theory of natural selection is presented and relayed to the public, and the language in which it’s framed as a system of understanding.

There are two parts to this I think.  (a)  The confusion of the presentation itself (concepts and ideas mistakenly couched in language that conveys other interpretations necessarily), the manner with which its presenters unwittingly embed ideological intonations onto their information and ideas, and worse, (b)  the further confusions of audiences and critics in misinterpreting an already confused scientific message on evolution and its mechanisms in Darwinian natural selection.

I agree “evolution is a fact” [with certain reservations of course].  That evolution exists is a fact; that the dynamic of evolution is real is a fact, and that its driven by the mechanism and processes of natural selection in the organismic adaptation of creatures (within nature) is established; that also is a fact.

But how far are we willing to go in this?  Evolution/natural selection/principle-and-processes in nature … all this is scientifically proven fact … and has been demonstrated to be so for nature.  But are we willing to say Darwinian theory and formulation on this material is absolutely factual beyond a doubt, and without any further need of improvement or enhancement as an epistemological system?  … So Darwin got the mechanism(s) in nature for evolution right.  But did he [and do his students today] really get his theory right in any fundamental or axiomatic sense?  In other words, is Darwin’s “theory” truly “theoria” or “scientia” in the classical epistemological sense of the concept? …  That is the question.

If he did get his “theory” right, then evolution-as-theory is also a fact just as evolution-the-natural-mechanism is a fact.  But if even the slightest bit of uncertainty abounds about the conceptual structure of Darwinian evolution and its exposition, then it’s a stretch to refer to evolution [=theory] as a fact. … In that case, then, its mistaken to be calling evolution-the-theory a “fact” since it mixes up what’s actually factual in evolution with what’s no more than a useful intellectual construction and a transitory working model for describing natural systems and phenomena.

Now maybe this isn’t anything important; however it points to the problem of truth value in Darwinian evolutionary theory.  The truth value in evolution is in the dynamic and how accurately it’s characterized, not in a supposed truth quality of its formulation.  To conflate the two only confuses the model and equates its factual character as science with its nomenclature.

In other words, it ends up confounding the Science of Evolution needlessly by saying what’s essential in it is its present language and format (how evolutionary theory is currently communicated to people as a system of knowledge and understanding about the dynamics of life on earth) rather the methods used to uncover that understanding and most importantly the said findings themselves about how evolutionary change works in its systems, processes, and phenomena.

That’s why there’s so much confusion over evolution and controversy about its position; not ignorance (willful or otherwise), not intellectual (and moral) blindness … just good old fashioned befuddlement over its exposition as a body of knowledge and the ensuing debate that comes when misinterpretation meets epistemological ambiguities.

Let me be clear:  I’m not disagreeing with the science or the idea of “evolution.”  I’m disagreeing with the foolishness of the “debate” and the silliness of its rhetoric.  The bad joke which is ID/Creationism is is matched only by the incompetence of evolution’s champions in trying to effectively refute it and ultimately failing to do that, and dispensing with Designer Creationism once and for all. Worse, now the new agers are in on the act (ala Deepak Chopra), further confusing the concept of evolution with screeds about “evolutionary consciousness”, while critics of the theory regularly undermine any sound aspects of the idea that are left (even well-established ones that there shouldn’t be any argument over, and that have been demonstratively proven time and time again & agreed upon through scientific consensus in the facts)(i.e., common descent, common morphologies, non-random selection, fossil evidence, and adaptive mechanisms in evolutionary change).

The media war/PR fight over evolution is being lost … It’s time for evolutionists to fall back and rethink their strategy in taking on the critics.  Evolution shouldn’t be a contentious issue; that it is bespeaks the problem of its development as a theory.  Time to recast it a new mold, one that separates it firmly from the ideology that is “social darwinism” and that defuses its science as an object of controversy. Newtonian mechanics doesn’t have this problem; Einsteinian Relativity doesn’t have this problem.  The question is “why.” … The answer I think:  as scientific fields, with their own unique brand of knowledge and practitioners who practice it, they’ve largely circumvented the fight making a battle over their models meaningless.

Time for evolutionary theory to do the same.

Science and Principle: Building a Better Society

23 Apr

Science and Principle:  A Vision of Science can help us better form our Values and Concepts in order to Build a Better Society


The U.S. Presidential election is just six months away and already the campaign politics of Republican ideology versus Democratic has gotten into full swing with Barack Obama pitted against his GOP challengers, most notably Romney, with the Ron Paul movement in close pursuit trying to pull off an upset for their favorite Texas Congressman.

What a time then to look back on the U.S.A’.’s roots and consider the ideas that made it what it is today as a nation.  Thomas Jefferson, one of this country’s most well-known Founders, and major drafter of the Declaration of Independence, was a man of contradictions – slaveholder and advocate for liberty, humanist but unafraid to use the civil theologies of the time in order to advance the causes of freedom and republicanism he believed in.

So it should be no surprise then that we today face the kinds of political frictions we do, when from the very beginning of the nation and before, and indeed right at the advent of the American Revolution itself, the colonies were as rife with these contradictions as they are now, and that such incongruities were cemented into the very core of it from the start through the very people who lived through such times and made them what they were.

Not surprising either that the “big issues” we confront at present – questions of Reason and Truth, Science and Philosophy, Freedom and Equality – were major areas of concern for the peoples of Jefferson’s day too with about as much consensus around them as we have today over atheism, empiricism, and liberal values in society [and whether gov’t has a duty to assist the less fortunate].

Take, for instance, this famous passage of the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Nothing all that controversial about these ideas; and, yet, look at them more closely. … They are framed in exactly the same sorts of concepts we’re having such trouble with today viz-a-vis the fight over free will, the science-philosophy debate, religion versus non-belief, and the role of government to provide for its citizens versus the idea of ruling over them as subjects.

The right to pursue happiness, to live, and be free of lordly restraints in society … We can all for the most part agree with these ideas. … But should we accept them on word of authority or even social convention without considering reasons WHY we embrace them and the evidence FOR their being adopted, let alone any idea or value we choose to adopt as thinking human beings?

SELF EVIDENCE:  It is enough to accept things on self-evidence alone (taking something as a given) or, in our day and age, should we even be looking beyond these truisms and philosophical postulates to actually discover the true bases behind why we really believe in human equality, affirm human rights, and so forth?  … At best is the notion of self-evidence a cop-out and at worst, is it in fact, a form of reinforcing a kind of dogmatic, metaphysical thinking about the world? … If that’s the case, then we have to honestly reassess the founding values of Western republicanism and democracy in place like the United States.  We have to scientifically and humanistically probe these ideals for the real merit they bear us and the challenges they present us in carrying them out.

“CREATIVE” DISSONANCE:  We may agree on issues of social equality and championing it, but what if its roots are up for grabs?  What then?  … What of being “created equal” if there is no God-Creator to “create” men [and women] “equally?”  What of the “endowment” with “unalienable rights” if no God-Being is around to “endow” them on humankind? …  Where then do these values and these principles come from if they were not “given” by a “Creator?”  … That question needs to be further explored and strongly weighed as an idea (by secular humanists especially) rather than just taking it for granted they exist and arose up ‘out of the blue.’ … Where did they arise from? …

It’s not enough to say these inalienable rights arise [and arose] from social convention. … Social conventions alone could never have provided the justification for asserting self-rule and breaking away from the authoritarian governance of kings and princes as was done by the American colonists.  Some other factor or set of factors had to be in play here in order to provide the basis on which Independence and Revolution were successfully argued for and won.  … A notion of natural rights, deriving from natural law, is the only instrumentality through which such a justification could have come, and thus be able to carry forth a case for separation w/o immediately being put down by the British imperial force and the idea for “liberty” being squelched as a result. … In other words, if a Creator didn’t endow these rights and establish this principle of human equality, then they must have arose out of a context of historical and evolutionary development … And that’s how these ideas could achieved the impact they did in lieu of a God-Creator bestowing them on humanity.


I hope I’ve convinced you these founding ideals of the United States/Western democratic-republicanism  aren’t as set in stone as is sometimes it’s assumed they are in public discussion and popular civics … that they were shaped in fact out of the very problems we’re struggling with today as peoples of the modern world in terms of secular values, liberal democratic principles, and palpable reason … and that just as science has something to offer in terms of illuminating contemporary philosophy as a whole, it can also shed light on many of these founding principles of the U.S government and society.

True, maybe it’s not needed … Maybe we can get along without science taking a scalpel to the major concepts of the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and the Declaration of Independence to plumb them for better knowledge of ourselves and our world while extricating them from the irrationalities of the past … But if the surgery of science is needed on such things as Biblical ethics and Greco-Roman philosophy, gleaning from them their essential and worthwhile parts while cutting out the excess baggage of religionism and metaphysics, then why not on the very precepts that founded American society in the United States? … That’s why we should pay attention to a document like the Declaration of Independence.  Its ideas deserve greater scrutiny.

A vision of science can help us better frame our values and ideas about the world.  Not doing so only condemns us to remain chained to the nonsense of the past.  For the sake of our future, we owe ourselves and our children the understanding that comes from combing these principles for their empirical merits and particulars.

Our future and the future of our society depends on it.

Reconstituting Free Will

23 Apr

Reconstituting Free Will:  Toward a new Theory of Choice and Determination in Human Affairs


John Horgan enters the fray of free will debate once again.  Here’s what he has to say in a blog post for Scientific American.

I spent this morning pondering whether I should attack neuroscientist Sam Harris for attacking free will. … But Harris keeps intruding on my thoughts, in part because he keeps emailing me about his writings, and especially his new book Free Will (Free Press, 2012).  Also, I admit to a certain voyeuristic fascination with Harris. I wonder, what crazy idea is he going to peddle next? Some of his righteous rants give me a perverse pleasure. I’m simultaneously irritated and titillated. I get the same feeling listening to Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum. … But I don’t know anyone who admires the ideas of Limbaugh or Santorum.  Harris’s memes, in contrast, are infecting the minds not of right wing and religious cranks but of smart, knowledgeable people. Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer, when he hosted a recent talk by Harris at Caltech, praised him for “cutting through all the obfuscation and getting straight to the point” about free will in his new book. The neurologist Oliver Sacks calls Free Will “brilliant and witty—and never less than incisive.” Michael. Oliver. Really?

Maybe Harris does sound like Rush Limbaugh or Rick Santorum at times.  Maybe his statements do seem like “rants” or the “peddling” of “crazy ideas.”  Nevertheless, for the fact that his ideas are catching on with people both in the general public and in intellectual circles, that doesn’t mean his points are entirely off the mark and/or are merely exercises in glitzy marketing and media spin.   Agree with Harris or not, buy into his arguments or don’t buy into them, he may be onto something with his discussions viz-a-viz “free will” … and that’s why people are listening to him and picking up on his ideas … not for their being “infected” by his “memes” or being manipulated into a position of denying the principle out of hand, but for real substantial reasons having to do with the fact that “free will” (as it’s commonly understood through human perception and conceptions) just doesn’t make sense when you stop and reflect on it as a metaphysical principle.

“Free will” as an object of intuitive experience and our unvarnished perceptions of the world is a philosophical chimera, and people are beginning to recognize that fact in their daily lives within today’s world. … It’s a contradiction. Through its agency as a “true cause” people are supposed to be able to make real change in the world, and yet it itself is postulated to be indeterminable and stand-alone as a faculty of human capabilities and potential (in an ontological sense).  It’s supposed to operate in the context of being an “uncaused cause”, and yet what potency can it actually have outside of the demarcations and determinations of the naturally ‘causal’ universe? … For such reasons, then, free will (as it’s commonly understood as existing and operating) can’t be real. … It must be an illusion.

But if it is, then what of human freedom and contingency in world affairs and history? … How can they exist without “free will?” … How can there be “choice” and “agency” in human affairs in a true and real way if “free will’s” not completely and absolutely ‘free’ in a metaphysical sense? … The answer I think comes down to definitions and degrees of freedom in nature.  Self-movement, an epistemological concept from philosophy, takes place in a systemic context.  Something is only as ‘free‘ and ‘self moving‘ as the system in which it exists allows it to be.  Free motion, at bottom a product of randomness in nature, is a function of both systemic determination and self-organizing principles.  In other words, there’s no level or manner of freedom that’s completely free on principle; it’s all more or less couched in the language of determinism. … Ergo, whether we’re talking about the element of ‘freedom‘ in human experience or the relative ‘self-motion‘ of physical-natural things, they are not completely unbounded processes, but are only “free” in as much as they individually play-off the determining influences of their larger scale systems.

In other words, to bring this conversation back into the realm of human affairs, “free will” isn’t as much about unbridled, self-determination as it is about this counterpoising of individual will or agency against the determining influences of human life (i.e., laws of nature, biological principles, evolutionary psychology, and the metrics of social science).  … And that provides us a much better picture of what (so-called) “free will” is rather than more classical renditions of the concept … and especially many ‘commonsense‘ notions (sic) people have about “free will.”

So why is this important? … Because much as ideas like “purpose” and “meaning” need an overhaul in modern philosophy due to their spiritualist trappings, the notion of the freely-acting “will” is in equally bad a shape for its religionistic overtones and overtures to being a faculty of the “spiritualized” soul in human beings. … In other words, traditionally-accepted ideas of “free will” only represent more ghost-in-the-machine-style explanations of reality and odes to religiously-oriented metaphysics, and they need to be reconsidered and re-outfitted as ideas for the improvement and betterment of the principle, if the idea of human agency and self-determination is to have a future in helping us better understand the world and ourselves.

It’s well past time, then, that science and modern philosophy refit the idea of “choice” (alias free will) for our modern world, even if we haven’t quite figured out whether we want to completely scrap it as an idea or not or just retool it for the times.  It wouldn’t take too much to re-brand a theory of “choice” for the 2st century on scientifically, modernly acceptable, and rationalistic terms; but to allow it to remain couched in the metaphysics and theologies of the past only harms the principle in ways a Sam Harris -style edit of the idea could only portend to do.

An outdated metaphysics of “free will” only stunts the development a renewed theory of “choice”, for the 3rd millennium CE.  It’s time to set the idea anew instead of keeping the metaphysical artifacts of the past.

Is Philosophy a Science? … A Response

12 Apr

Is Philosophy a Science?  A Response to Jerry Coyne on the Science-Philosophy Debate


Is philosophy a science?  … Yes, in its truest sense as “episteme” or “scientia” (a systematized body of knowledge).  But it starts to get dicey as soon as we start splitting off from stricter forms of rationalism, logic, and intellectual inquiry.  So maybe Colin McGinn is right that we should refer to it as “ontics”, though I prefer to continue calling it by its separate functions —> “Epistemology” in its position as the study of knowledge and “Ontology” in its study of the real world.   Philosophy, in this instance, is a very different affair from the questing after wisdom typified in the etymology of philos-sophia or the “love of wisdom.” … Philosophy, in fact, is a science; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved upon through an interaction with the empiriological sciences.

Science as we know it today can assist philosophy in living up to its reputation as a field of rationalistic inquiry. The question is, will philosophy as we understand it survive the encounter, and can today’s instrumentalist science rise to the intellectual rigors of advanced epistemological philosophy? …

And, that’s a question for the History books of the future …


Is philosophy a science?

I’m not going to answer the question posed above, for I haven’t resolved it in my own mind, but I did want to throw out a few thoughts and invite the input of readers.  This post was inspired by two New York Times pieces at The Stone, a forum for philosophers.

The first, “Philosophy by another name“, was published on March 4 by Colin McGinn, a famous philosopher of mind who’s now at The University of Miami. …. In the second piece, “Philosophy is not a science,” Julian Friedland, an assistant professor at Fordham’s Gabelli School of Business, demurs. Although he considers philosophy separate from science—a different “way of knowing”—he sees it as adding to the sum of human knowledge. Indeed, he sees it as more efficacious at understanding stuff than science itself, and he manages to get in a curmudgeonly lick at “scientism” …

… I’m prepared, then, to say that philosophy is a “way of knowing,” but not quite comfortable in saying that it’s a science.  I’d love to hear readers’ input on this.

The “Marxist Naysaying” of Liberal Critics

11 Apr

Great piece by Louis Proyect over at the Unrepentant Marxist blog.  Maybe now the Marxist naysaying of liberal critics, in whatever form they come, can be brought to a close.  He may have had his faults as a political thinker and advocate for social change, but Karl Marx is still a boon and a beacon for our times.  Kudos to LP for writing this piece and saying what needed to be said.


Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 9, 2012 — British liberals versus Karl Marx; Marx wins by a TKO — Filed under: economics,liberalism,ussr — louisproyect @ 6:12 pm

Caught in the Throes of Embattlement

11 Apr

Caught in the Throes of Embattlement:  Atheism and the Catch-22 of Cultural Warfare.  Liberal Values as the Remedy for a “Clash of Civilizations” Mindset about the World and the Inevitable Chaos Resulting from such a View.


I don’t know quite what to think about this piece.  … I don’t believe in any sort of atheism that has to be politically-correct from a leftward leaning point of view … The movement should be broader than that, I agree, and I do maintain a Secularly Liberal position. … But at the same time, I’m very concerned about a kind of political Rightism spearheading the secular movement via the so-called New Atheism.

There’s no reason why atheists should be the political dupes of the neoconservatives or pawns in an agenda of promoting the us-against-them attitude of the rightward-leaning, West-against-the-Rest culture war bloc.  You can still cast a broad, politically inclusive net via the secular-atheist community without having to get caught up in extraneous political and ideological debates over its nature as a movement or risk losing conservative supporters in the process.

Yet at the same time, something has to be done about the manner in which an embattled atheism faces the world w/o slipping into the myopic jingoism of conservative ideologues who want to ‘go to war‘ with others, under the pretense of preemption in a replay of the Samuel Huntington’s idea of a Clash of Civilizations.  That kind of an attitude is not helpful in the modern world of the 21st century, as our world teeters precipitously on the edge of large scale regional warfare where the “nuclear option” is almost always on the table.  A left-liberal attitude forestalls this by its emphasis on pluralism and peace (i.e., through the antiwar perspective).

So if the “weaponization of atheism” is a problem in fact, it doesn’t have to be.  There’s a foil to slipping into the throes of embattlement, and that foil is a Liberal philosophy of human interaction and international relations.  The “irrationality” of religion isn’t the only enemy humankind faces; the war drive and the Hobbesian/Nietzsche-esque mindset accompanying it is equally its enemy.

Humanity’s future depends on secular modernity’s squarely facing this problem as much (and as stridently) as it does the religious superstitions of the past.  Atheism and the secular movement should re-affirm a commitment to pluralism and antiwar values.   For, somewhat paradoxically, that’s how we’re going to win the culture wars.  That’s how we’re going to win the fight against these warlike impulses exuding out from humanity’s religious traditions, collective experiences, and irrational leanings in history.

How do you really win against the spirit of war embedded in the human psyche?  You make [the] peace.  That’s the mission for liberals and secularists in the times ahead as we drift closer and closer to war entanglements on the international stage, whether it be in places like Iran or in other places like Syria.  The Doomsday Clock can indeed be stopped. It’s just a question of whether we’re civilized enough and evolved enough as present-day human beings to do it.

Are we? …

The Politics of Free Will

11 Apr

The Politics of Free Will:  The ideological implications of either too easily accepting or rejecting the idea of “free will.”


A fascinating conversation about free will is taking shape over the blogosphere. Sam Harris’ book of the same name has touched off a rather thought-provoking debate regarding what FREE WILL is, if it is, and how it fits in with what we know of the natural universe and how we understand our own experiences as human beings within that context.  I tend to agree with Harris and Coyne about “free will” as we know it being “illusory”, but am sympathetic to the position of Daniel Dennett as well (that some form of free will is indeed compatible with determinism and the determining influences of nature in our world).  More than anything, though, while I’m more critical of the free will principle than I used to be, I do have at least one misgiving about either affirming or denying it as a concept. … The free will issue is a complicated affair, both existentially and normatively. … Accept or reject it too easily, and/or too readily, and you reap the political and ideological consequences for doing so.

Take an ax to it too easily and you risk justifying an out of control totalitarian impulse in society.  That’s not the explicit intent of its detractors who are merely looking at it from an epistemological and scientific standpoint (rather than making a sociological determination and value judgment about our world in light of their philosophical position); but if people don’t have free will, then this necessarily implies a rethinking of freedom and democracy and the social order of the West.  No “free will” means we have to rethink political freedom and how society should respond to personal liberties in modern life.  Society in such an instance has rights to bypass freedoms/liberties if we don’t have a real choice on matters of individual health, what we do in our personal sphere of day to day living, and so on. Reality being “reality” and truth being “truth”, if there is no real free will, then we don’t have any right to any sorts of freedom impinging on the ‘way things are’ in the world. Without the endowment of free will, the state can put a check on our freedoms and our capacity to exercise them in certain cases where our personal rights butt up against a perceived social good or the idea of a higher moral good that most citizens in a society have agreed on as being right (i.e., smoking laws, code enforcement, etc.)  While, in many cases, this is a good thing … how far can and will it be carried if science can even make a plausible case in demonstratively taking apart free will as a concept? … That’s the first problem in drawing out the implications of this issue over free will and considering its social consequences from a denialist point of view.

However, push the free will envelope too much and you fall into the libertarian trap of ceding too much power to the capacity for individuals to determine their own personal ends without the input of the greater social community.  It’s Ayn Rand all over again, and it comes about through placing too much credence on the power-to-will/will-to-power in society.  … Worse, if Randian Objectivism wasn’t bad enough, by the time you do reach questions of the social good in society, guess what? … It doesn’t matter if individuals fall through the cracks in the climb to success or particular minority groups are marginalized in the competitive drive to eek out a living … if you didn’t ‘make it to the top’, by this libertarian reading of freedom and free will, then you deserve to be poor or be marginalized. … And, that is why a serious re-consideration of personal responsibility, individual freedom, where they arise from, and what their true conditions are is vitally important here.  The “responsibility” bandwagon can only be carried so far, and it’s dependent on the basics of this notion of human freedom and free will.  If free will is mitigated by social circumstances, upbringing, the state of our minds, our evolutionary heritage as animals, and the laws of nature … then so too is this idea of human achievement. There is no responsibility without a true response-ability, and if the latter is conditioned by the determining influences of our world, then a perceived moral culpability for ‘not being able to make it’ or ‘fight your way to the top’ is unjustified.  … That’s the lowdown on granting too much credence to the power of free will.

And, while I’m certainly happy that fair attention is being paid to the free will debate, not enough people are thinking about it from these essential cultural and political dimensions.  It’s fine to analyze it from a scientific point of view or a philosophical-epistemological one; but until you actually focus on what it means in an ideological sense or in terms of the social and political realities of a country like the United States (just to give one example), you haven’t really covered the full implications of what it means to affirm free will or reject it.

The free will debate isn’t merely academic.  There are some really serious issues to saying either that it exists or doesn’t exist.   One way or another, there are definite consequences to picking one side or the other in the fight over free will. Fail to attend any of them sufficiently with an adequate amount of forethought given to each, and you risk serious repercussions for society as a whole and for its individual citizens in their day to day lives.