I’m pleased that my last post on naturalism has generated some interesting discussion– pro and con –about naturalism. As I reflect on that discussion, it occurs to me that “naturalism” is one of those nebulous terms that means a variety of different things. For some naturalism seems to mean eliminativism, of the variety advocated by the Churchlands. For others naturalism means reductionism of the type advocated by evolutionary psychologists such as E.O.Wilson. There, all social phenomena are explained in biological terms pertaining to reproduction and survival. For others, naturalism means positivism. I do not advocate any of these positions, though I do think that theorists like E.O. Wilson shed important light on human behavior. I just don’t think they tell the entire story and that there are other causal factors involved that can’t be reduced to reproductive and survival aims. I take it that this is part of the importance of meme theory. There are a number of problems with meme theory, but one thing I think it does underline well is that there are replicators besides genes– cultural units –that contribute every bit as much to why humans are as they are and these replicators have “aims” other than biological reproduction and survival. Here, for example, we might think of soldiers facing almost certain death as they storm the beach at Normandy. They are acting on behalf of memes not genes, and are acting on behalf of aims that can’t be reduced to biological survival or reproduction. I think Lacan’s theory of desire nicely outlines these sorts of motivation.
For me, naturalism has a very broad meaning and is an open-ended project. I think there are three basic axioms one must endorse to count as a naturalist. First, one must hold that there is no supernatural causation, only natural causation. Put differently, there is nothing outside of the world. Note that this thesis says nothing about what natural beings exercise causal force in the world. Reductionists, for example, seem to hold that only atoms, genes, and neurons have causation. I believe that things like signifiers, narratives, discourses, institutions, objects (what I now call machines), atoms, neurons, genes, etc., all have causation. In other words, I reject that form of reductionism that only treats atoms or genes or neurons as having causation. I just don’t think that one has to privilege the agency of one type of being– say atoms –to be a naturalist.
Second, naturalism entails that one reject metaphysical teleology. The emphasis here is on the metaphysical. Within a naturalistic framework, there is nothing that nature is supposed to be, nor any goal towards which it is being pulled. Everything is contingent. The evolution of human beings, for example, was not a teleological necessity. Had some being stepped on the right slug, humans could have just as easily not evolved. Likewise, the acorn is not pulled towards becoming an oak tree. It is a set of efficient causes that leads the acorn to become an oak tree. With that said, I do not reject the thesis that teleological beings can emerge within nature. Humans, institutions, dolphins, octopi, dogs, etc., all seem to engage in goal-directed behavior. They envision future goals for themselves and engage in action to meet themselves to achieve these goals. These beings have developed cognitive systems capable of acting on behalf of goals. The point is that they weren’t metaphysically designed this way to become goal directed.
Third, naturalism treats culture as a part of nature. I don’t see how one can be a naturalist and advocate a bifurcated concept of being composed of two domains, the natural domain and the cultural domain. If nature is all there is, then culture is a part of nature. There can’t be one domain, nature, and another domain, culture. I have written about this elsewhere under the title of “wilderness ontology“. Within a naturalistic framework, culture is a understood as a particular ecosystem in which hominids such as ourselves are bound up. It is an ecology that includes weather pattern, mountains, rivers, oceans, but also signifiers, markets, institutions, groups, buildings, narratives, discourses, etc. It will be said that this is an abuse of terms, that when we refer to nature we’re talking about invariant laws of physics, chemistry, etc, or that when we’re talking about nature we’re talking about that which is untouched by civilization such as remote regions of the amazonian rain forests or Antarctica. Clearly naturalism can’t endorse this latter thesis as it holds that there’s nothing outside of nature. As for the first, it’s odd that one would treat invariant laws of physics as synonymous with nature. I suspect that most of us would agree that the complex ecosystem of a coral reef is a natural phenomenon. Those of us familiar with evolutionary theory would also agree that this ecosystem is contingent, or that the animal, plant, and bacterial life that lives there, along with the interrelations between these beings, was the result of a series of historical accidents that could have turned out otherwise. In other words, we recognize that the reef is both natural and that its organization is accidental and variable, not invariant. Granting this, why would we not make a similar claim about social relations and why would we not treat these relations as both natural and contingent? Culture is as much a natural phenomenon as anything else. This doesn’t entail that we reduce culture to the biological, neurology, or physics. Rather, it entails that we transform our understanding of nature to account for both the peculiarities of culture and the facts of culture as a natural phenomena. For example, we need to account for how, within a naturalist framework, it is possible for people like Kant to live their lives as bachelors, devoting themselves to their philosophical work. It is difficult for someone like E.O. Wilson, who sees everything in terms of biological reproduction and survival to account for such a life. This suggests that Wilson’s account of naturalism is mistaken, not that naturalism is mistaken.
However, it would be a mistake to suppose that this means that we can just discount biology. In my previous post I took some philosophers to task for conceiving us primarily as knowers, rather than taking into account the fact that like all critters, we evolved for getting around in the world and reproducing. This led some to suppose that I was advocating an account of our being akin to Wilson’s. However my point– and I didn’t elaborate on it –was rather different. My point was that if we are to understand the nature of our minds, we need to take our biological being seriously. A number of thinkers working in cognitive science and philosophy of mind begin with the premise that we are primarily reasoners and that are minds are completely representational. The idea here is that reasoning is a set of operations that take place within the brain.
I do not deny that we represent, just that this is the entire story. Here’s the problem: test after test shows that 1) solving problems or reasoning purely in our minds is time consuming, and 2) we just aren’t very good reasoners. Now if we adopt a conception of humans in which we are primarily knowers, we’re likely to ignore these facts as mere curiosities, whereas if we adopt a biological perspective on our being, we’ll see this as suggesting that representationalism is mistaken. Getting around in the world requires real time response to shifting circumstances in the environment. A being that required extensive time to reason through problems would be tiger chow. Given that we’ve been pretty successful at not being tiger chow and that this has something to do with our minds, mind must be something different than what hardcore representationalists suggest.
Enter cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind like Andy Clark. Proposing a theory known as the extended mind hypothesis, Clark argues that mind is not simply what takes place inside and between your ears, but rather is a relationship between brain, body, and the things of the world. To solve these problems of real time response, Clark argues that we “offload” cognitive operations onto material things outside our brains. Take the example of solving a geometrical theorem such as the Pythagorean theorem. Most of us would have trouble doing this inside our heads. According to Clark, there are physical and biological reasons for this. As he puts it in Natural Born Cyborgs, our brains are evolved more to play frisbee– to respond in real time to physical events in our environment without thinking about it –than for engaging in abstract reasoning. Our short term memory, unlike a computer, just isn’t very adept at remembering long chains of reasoning. So how do we nonetheless do it? Clark contends that we offload memory on to the physical world outside us.
The paper and pencil that we use is not just an unnecessary prop that we use for the sake of convenience and that we could dispense with as representationalists would have it. Rather, paper and pencil actually extend our minds and allow us to engage in forms of reasoning that we would not otherwise be capable of doing. The paper remembers on our behalf. As I prove a geometrical theorem, I write down each step on a piece of paper. The paper preserves the earlier steps, allowing us to focus on the step we’re currently working on. Because the paper preserves the earlier steps, we can return to them when we need them for a new stage in the proof. More importantly, the paper reduces the work-load of the brain insofar as we don’t have to engage in the calorically costly activity of keeping all these steps in our mind, and increases the speed at which we’re able to solve the problem. Clark’s theory is anti-representationalist in the sense that he claims that cognition involves the use of physical entities outside the brain, rather than claiming that all cognition is the manipulation of symbols in the brain. For Clark, the paper and pencil are literally a part of the cognitive apparatus. This is not an idealist thesis as he’s not suggesting that mind makes these physical entities, but is rather the thesis that the tools we use are a part of our cognitive system. He could be mistaken– I happen to think he’s right –but the important point is that he’s able to arrive at this thesis by taking our biology seriously, by taking seriously limitations of our brains, memory, etc., and by taking seriously the fact that like all other critters we need to get around in the world, respond to events in the world in real time, etc.
Notice just how much Clark’s naturalism differs from that of E.O. Wilson’s. Clark is not making the claim that everything we do is really about biological survival and reproduction. In fact, Clark’s extended mind hypothesis seeks to explain how, through our use of various media, we go beyond our biology. The media that we use render us capable of things that at the level of simple biology we would not be capable of. For Clark the first prosthesis or mental extension we develop is language. Language, according to Clark, extends our mind dramatically, allowing us, for example, to think of entities in terms of general classes and in their absence in a way that would not be possible for perceptual systems alone. In many respects, though a naturalism, Clark’s hypothesis is diametrically opposed to Wilson’s. Humans become something different with each new medium they invent. We don’t simply endlessly repeat the same biological imperatives of reproduction and survival.
Another person suggested that our communal being is every bit as important to us as our biological being. This was used as an argument against reduction to biology and a defense of culture. However, this argument is already based on a highly contentious set of assumptions about what naturalism claims. In the field of biology, a number of theorists would not disagree. This is the case with biologists in the tradition of developmental systems theorists (DST) and evodevo, these theorists challenge the neo-Darwinian focus on genes as the sole agency defining development, as well as the inflated claims of evolutionary psychologists. Instead, they argue for parity of explanation, treating genes, proteins, cells, niches, and environments as forming a developmental system, where all factors contribute to what the phenotype will become. To give a very simple example, the pheromones that ant larvae are exposed to in their nest will determine what sort of ant they become (worker, queen, warrior, etc.). These are factors that come from the environment, not the genetics. There is an interaction here between the genes of the ant and these environmental factors, leading the phenotype to develop in a particular way. How the niche is constructed by the organism plays every bit as important a role in development as the strictly organic factors. To understand why organic beings take on the form and behavior they do, we have to understand the entire developmental system and how all these factors interact and modify one another.
This holds for humans as well. As Kim Sterelny notes in Thought in a Hostile World, we humans have significantly constructed our niche in ways that significantly impacts how we develop. Our niche consists of a culture that precedes us, the homes and infrastructure we’ve constructed, the media and technology that surround us, the practices we’ve developed, but also the ways in which we have chemically and organically modified our environment. All of this has an impact on how we develop both physically and cognitively. Development is not, as the poster seems to suggest, the unfolding of an algorithm inside the flesh of an organism, but is always “development with” in a milieu or a niche that contributes significantly to what the organism becomes. In this regard, we are not faced with the option of either attending to biological development or attending to cultural development. Both of these options are reductionist. Rather, development in a natural world necessarily involves all of these factors. We have to take both dimensions seriously and investigate how they mutually influence one another, modify one another, and generate unique individuations.