Darwin


Nagel, Fodor, and Plantinga responding to Darwin. Plantinga is excusable because of his theology and the manner in which this requires him to reject the thesis that humanity is the result of random chance. There’s no compromise here in evolutionary theory: every species, including humans, is, within the framework of evolutionary theory the result of random chance, and could have just as easily not existed. I see no possible compromise here between anthropocentric theologies that attribute a privileged place to humans in relation to the divine and evolutionary thought. I am not suggesting that it is not possible to develop a non-anthropocentric theology that is consistent with evolutionary theory, but this would require ousting humans from their special place in the order of creation. When this type of theology is formulated I confess that I see little reason why this divinity would be worthy of worship or veneration. To worship such an entity makes about as much sense as worshiping gravity; then again, my cynical tendency is to think anthropocentric theologies and the religious worship that accompanies them as a rather oblique attempt to engage in economic or calculative exchange with the divine (as per Socrates’ suggestion in the Euthyphro). What is really disappointing in this article is the manner in which Nagel and Fodor reject evolutionary theory, placing normative considerations (a.k.a. wishful thinking) over what the evidence clearly suggests.

Hat tip to Cogburn.

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In response to my post on Nature and Its Discontents, Joseph C. Goodson posts a terrific comment on what he sees as the significance of OOO/SR. Joseph writes:

Precisely. As Gould puts it, the history of our evolution is a history of catastrophes, one after the other. I wonder, thinking along these lines, that in the wake of the death of God, this transcendentalizing of our fissures, breaks, discontents, etc, was done in such a way that the effect was one of making the human (so to speak) another exception (even if this exception is fundamentally “negative”). “Man” was still allowed this exceptional place even though the theological backdrop was lost. Part of what is exciting about SR and OOO in particular, and why the continuing backlash against it is so interesting, is that it takes these fundamental antagonisms of Marx, Freud, Lacan, et al, completely seriously — if anything, *its* wager seems to be that we have not taken them far enough, and that the death of God must imply, at one and the same time, the death of a theological concept of nature (this self-consistent sphere which would allow the -1 of humanity to appear).

Another very productive thing I have noticed about OOO is that, even in order for this ontology to begin, in its positivity, it also critiques much of these unsaid philosophical prejudices which, even in some of the most critical philosophies, still operate. This often subtle culture/nature hierarchy is one such prejudice that is very nicely displaced in a flat ontology.

Joseph here gets at one of the key aims or ambitions of the flat ontology I’ve tried to formulate in my version of OOO. I restrict this flat ontology to onticology because Graham, in the past, has expressed reservations about just how flat my ontology is. This difference, for example, comes out in our respective differences with respect to fictional entities. Graham draws a distinction between sensual objects (roughly intentional objects) and real objects. The latter are, if I’ve understood Graham correctly, dependent on minds to exist. In my case, however, symbolic entities are real actants or objects no less than rocks or stars. In my view there are collective entities like symbolic entities, pure mental relations, and nonhuman objects or actors like technologies, stars, quarks, cells, etc. I do not think that symbolic entities can be properly thought by reducing them to a mind-intention sort of relation. This, I suppose, is part of my debt to structuralism and semiotics. If I’m interested in fictions and the ontological status of fictions then this is not out of any sort of perverse wish to say that fictions are real, but rather because fictions provide a sort of exemplary case of a purely symbolic entity that is not a representation of something else. As a consequence, fictions shed light on what symbolic entities are in general. Hopefully Harman and I will work through some of these issues together at the Object-Oriented Ontology event at Georgia Tech in April (please come if you’re able! You’ll get to see me, Shaviro, Harman, and Bogost go at it!).

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Both Ben and Austin have posts up responding to some claims Zizek makes about nature. Ben writes:

For Zizek nature must be non-all or barred, but this nature never goes beyond the range of the earth. Zizek those go on to argue that the appearence of the whole in nature, that the very possibility of nature-in-itself is merely a result of subjective experience, an argument he ties to the experience of the sublime. Zizek then argues for ecology without nature thereby following Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature. I have unfortunately not yet read his text of the same name. From what I have read it seems that what he attacks as the concept of nature is a dominant mode of nature – one stemming from the rationalist tradition where is an immense but separate entity. Zizek writes: “what we need is ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on.”

Here my largest issue (which seems to come up with many commentators on nature and ecology) is that the ecology of concepts of nature is severally narrowed for the sake of argument. Zizek seems to make a reversal when discussing the films of Tarkovsky and in particular Stalker but then shifts back to focus on transcendental subjectivity.

The ontological priviledge of the subject remains a serious stumbling block for any approach to nature that is not too shallow or too obfuscated. The finitude of the subject has become increasingly transcendentalized at the expense of nature, nature becomes merely an elaborate background. Nature goes right through the subject.

Following up on Ben’s criticism, it seems to me that there is a fundamental ambiguity in how Zizek refers to “nature”. When Zizek critiques nature is he referring to nature as such or the discursive concept of nature as it functions in a particular ideological discourse? If the former, it is completely appropriate for Zizek to critique this concept of nature and how it functions ideologically. Within this discursive framework, nature is treated as a whole that is harmonious and independent of culture. That is, culture is treated as something other than nature and outside of nature.

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I came across the game of life in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and decided to research it a little further. Designed by John Horton Conway, the game of life is interesting because it is a universe based on two very simple rules that generates surprising organized complexity. Here’s a short video illustrating these properties:

All of this reminds me of a discussion Dominic and I had a year or so ago in another context. In that context, Dominic was objecting to my use of the term emergence. My memory of the actual discussion is a bit fuzzy now, but if I recall correctly Dominic’s concern was with those ideas of emergence that posit some sort of gap between simple rules or principles governing a system and properties of the emergent system. This sort of emergence is akin to magic, in the sense that it asserts the irreducibility of the system to its rules or principles. Emergent properties thus become something “ontologically spooky”.

The game of life perhaps provides the possibility of a more rigorous conception of emergence. The properties that emerge within the system are all made possible based on the rules, constraints, or principles governing the system but are not strictly predictable within these constraints. As Dennett articulates this sort of emergence, “…the properties [are]… unpredictable in principle from the mere analysis of the micro-properties of the [system]” (415). There is nothing magical here, as these properties are products of the constraints underlying the system. Perhaps a clearer way of putting the issue is that the results of the system are not themselves programmed, but rather are rendered possible by the constraints on the system. This seems to be similar to what biologist Stuart Kauffman is getting at in books like The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. What he draws attention to are certain physical constraints in matter that give rise to persistent organization under specific conditions. It is unfortunate that he’s chosen to dress up this thesis in the trappings of a sort of spiritualism in books like At Home in the Universe. Ah well, no accounting for taste.

Fall_Creek_2For some time now I have drawn a great deal of inspiration from biological thought. In part, I suppose, this is because I went through a period when I wanted to be a marine biologist and watched The Food Chain Channel (National Geographic and Animal Planet) nightly. Between the ages of eight and thirteen I could be found, on any given Summer day, mucking about in the creek in my backyard, shorts rolled up all Tom Sawyer like, capturing various critters such as tadpoles, frogs, snails, crayfish, turtles, fish, and whatever else I could find for my numerous aquariums in my room. Needless to say my parents were much dismayed by a rather swamp-like miasma that came to permeate the upper story of our house. Despite the social alienation I experienced then, this was a happy time in my life, spent exploring the plants and trees and animals and building all sorts of things. Beyond my fascination with the biological, however, I’ve found that biology converges on issues central to contemporary debates. When I suggest this there are, no doubt, those who shudder, immediately jumping to the conclusion that I am suggesting that philosophy should be “biologized”. But really that isn’t it at all. If biology should be of interest to philosophers, then this is because it deals with issues at the heart of contemporary debates such as the nature of what constitutes an individual, the nature of systems, how change takes place, how negentropic phenomena are possible, the nature of difference, and so on and so on. As my brilliant friend Adam Miller recently exclaimed when describing his encounter with Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory, “it is like an embarrassment of ontological riches”. This is not, I take it, because of the contributions Gould makes to evolutionary theory, but because of how he tackles questions like what constitutes an individual?, what is the relationship between different scales of individuals?, how does change take place?, what is difference?, etc. Adam is right, just read the book. If anything else it is good for pushing you into different constellations of thought.

For the last week I’ve been working through Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea with my students. Written in a gorgeous conversational and entertaining style that I can only dream of having and which emulates Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach (who was, incidentally, one of his mentors), Dennett’s book, no less than Gould’s, is an embarrassment of riches. If this is so, then it is not because one is ultimately convinced by his arguments– though that’s always possible –but because the book is so rich in concepts, analogies, and thought experiments that it functions as a rich machine for producing other associations very remote from his own immediate aims and interests.

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Responding to my post on Darwin, my interlocutor writes:

Fact of the matter, Levi, is that you are a pretty arrogant guy when you want to be. Fine. I don’t generally comment unless I think that there’s a point to be made. If you don’t like it fine, don’t post it. I’m really ok with that. But if you really must know, what was so heart-breaking for me in that stupid 200 words on Darwin was the vacuity of it all, the shallowness of what you’d written — and this soming from a full prof of philosophy. Since Aristotle’s critique of PLato, individual differences have been primary (the whole categories and analytics is at pains to show this). And it’s the same for the bloody scolastics you dislike so much — for Aquinas existence precedes essences, which entails that individual differences are primary. Same with Occam. etc. I’m not even going to mention Fodor, Kant or any of that, because honestly, you won’t listen anyway.

For the record, I am not a “full prof of philosophy”. There is no professorial ranking system at my institution, nor any tenure, so we’re all simply referred to as “professors”, regardless of our degree or our time there. To make things even more confusing, we call our part-time or adjunct professors “associates”.

Now on to the philosophical issue. I have to confess that my interlocutors understanding of the issue of universals and essence in the history of philosophy is news to my ears. I’ll grant him Ockham as Okham was a nominalist holding that only individuals exist, but certainly my interlocutor can’t really mean what he says about Aristotle or Aquinas. My interlocutor is certainly correct about individuals being primary substances for Aristotle and Aquinas, but this is a far cry from the claim that individual differences are primary in Aristotle or Aquinas (I confess that I’m on shaky ground with Aquinas). Rather, the formal cause still functions as a normative ideal against which the individual is measured.

Moreover, the idea that forms could be the result of a genesis is unthinkable within this framework. In other words, natural kinds are treated as eternal and unchanging. The idea that there could be a genesis of natural kinds is unthinkable within this framework. This is why the remarks about Darwin are not vacuous as my interlocutor suggests. Darwin’s great contribution is not simply that he granted precedence of existence or individuals over essence or species, but that he gave an account of general natural kinds through the agency of individual differences. There are thus three categories at work here, not two: individuals, individual differences, and species. Individual differences are borne by individuals, but are the agency through which species are formed (through natural selection and reproduction). What is so interesting about Darwin is that the contingent or the accidental (random variations) becomes the driving force behind the formation of species or regularities in nature. It is the genesis of species that is of such significance here. Indeed, species no longer differ in kind from individuals under Darwin’s model, but species are themselves individuals at larger levels of scale.

When I criticize thinkers like Kant or Fodor for remaining too scholastic in their thought, for their appeals to categories in the mind, it is on these sorts of ground. Like the Aristotlean that continues to subordinate individuals to species-difference, while nonetheless asserting the primary existence of individuals, the Kantian proceeds with categories of the understanding, forms of intuition, universal moral laws, etc., as fully formed types that have no genesis out of individual differences. Yet why should mind be markedly different from how species are formed? Why should what we call “concepts” or “categories” not be statistically preponderant regularities that emerge in a developmental process? This is what I alluded to in my post on Edelman and Deleuze a few months ago. The payoff of this approach is that we get an account of cognitive regularities and structures that doesn’t fall into all the problems of how abstract categories are related to individual instances. However, the major shift is that if it is the case that categories are the result of a genesis, categories will not have the enduring and eternal a priori status that they have in thinkers like Kant. Just as species are not eternal and enduring but are the result of a genesis with a history and will change, categories and concepts will be subject to differences from individual to individual and will change historically as well. But again, why should the structure of mind be markedly different from that of species? Given the vehemence with which my interlocutor responds I would at least say I’ve hit a nerve.

In a recent offline a correspondent expresses ire at my post on Darwin, accusing me of explaining things away through rhetorical flourishes. As my interlocutor writes, “It just happens that neither… contempt, nor the rhetorical flourishes of some recent posts (and I include here the heart-achingly frustrating piece on Darwin and difference here) are particularly productive pieces of writing. There’s no way to save them Levi — and I say this as someone who respects you, not as someone trying to bring you down a notch.” Towards the end of his email he goes on to say, “all this said, if you want to engage in a serious transvaluation, that’s fine, but that’s a book-report kind of project: you need to work through material, not just condescend to chuckle at it for taking a set of problems seriously, or feel justified in hating folks — however repugnant — simply because you feel entitled to. These latter responses have no philosophical or intellectual value.” This is an uncharacteristically impassioned remark on the part of the person who wrote this post. Knowing a bit about this person’s intellectual background, he is, no doubt objecting to this passage in my post on Darwin:

From this perspective, the significance of Darwin for philosophy becomes clear: What Darwin’s thought challenges is the primacy of all essence/accident/individual and form/content theorization. After Darwin, it is difficult not to chuckle when we hear philosophers continue to harp on distinctions between form and content, scheme and content, type and token, essence and existence, norm and fact, and all the rest. One marvels at how legions of scholars continue to take Kant’s account of the role played by the categories in cognition, or how we get endless discussions of the aporetic relationship between scheme and content or type and token. For example, how can thinkers take seriously Adorno’s negative dialectic between form and non-conceptual differences? Have they not heard? Species-difference is an effect of individual difference, and species themselves are individuals, not ontological categories like essences that differ in kind from individuals. Somehow philosophy today has remained all too theological, all too Medieval.

This person’s email has the flavor of the “with all due respect” scene from Talledaga Nights. “I respect you and am not trying to bring you down a notch, but with all due respect…” Setting that aside, I would like to address the issue of “taking problems seriously”. There are situations, I think, where it is appropriate to chuckle at how a particular problem has been posed. Were we to encounter someone today who takes the issue of how species relate to individuals seriously, treating species as one being and the individual as another, we would rightly marvel and chuckle at their perplexity. “Haven’t you heard”, we would think to ourselves, “species are not enduring and eternal essences that differ in kind from individuals, but are statistically preponderant regularities among a reproductive population of individuals subject to change.” In other words, the person tying himself in knots over this issue would lead us to raise an eyebrow in surprise because a solution to this problem has been found. We would wonder why such a person continues to labor within such a framework.

Now, when a successful idea arises in the course of history, we suspect that perhaps elements of this idea can be successfully employed with respect to other problems. If the concept of species turned out to be a fiction in the case of biology, if it turned out that there was no difference in kind between species and individuals in biology, and if it turned out that species are the result of individual differences not the reverse, then perhaps something similar holds in the case of other form/content, essence/existence, type/token, norm/fact, scheme/content distinctions. This is, of course, only a hypothesis, but given the number of problems these distinctions have generated– problems not remarkably different from those generated by the relationship between species and individuals in Scholastic thought –it is a hypothesis worth pursuing. In short, these distinctions look suspiciously like carry overs of Scholastic metaphysics. Kant did the best he could with the tools that he had, but the fact still remains that Kant was working within the framework of a now discredited faculty psychology based upon occult entities like “categories” and “concepts” that you would have a very difficult time finding in Kant’s form anywhere in contemporary psychology or neurology. Rather, with the exception of certain cranks in philosophy circles like Jerry Fodor, contemporary psychology begins with the thesis that these sorts of abstractions do not explain, but rather must be explained. That is, they begin from the thesis that we must give a developmental account of these sorts of cognitive regularities from individual differences. What is painful is seeing so many talented minds– let us call them “normaholics” due to their fetishistic obsession with questions of normativity and their naive belief that normativity ever prevented anything terrible from happening –continuing to waste their energy on occult entities such as this and poorly posing problems and questions as a result, but so it goes. Should we really continue to take the scholastics among us seriously, or should we instead acknowledge that they do an important service with their work on intellectual history, reminding us of the curious follies of certain past thinkers with respect to questions of knowledge, metaphysics, and ethics?

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