The Early Days of a Better Nation

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A scientist, a philosopher and a theologian walked into a bar ...

... and had a discussion. The Highland Park Speigeltent, that being the bar, was pretty well crowded for Thursday night's panel 'Belief in Evolution: what does it mean?' Genomics Forum director Steve Yearley, who introduced the speakers, said he was going to assume we were all in some sense Darwinians here - though anyone who wasn't was free to question that - and that we were going to discuss what acceptance of evolution meant for our views about ourselves and society, the nature of human beings, and so on.

That would have been an interesting discussion.

The actual discussion, while certainly interesting, was about something else entirely. Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne said he thought he'd been cast as the brash American, and that was what he was going to be. Evolution and religion are incompatible. 'Belief' in evolution is quite different from a religious belief. The first is based on having seen overwhelming empirical evidence, which it would be irrational not to accept. The other is based on no evidence at all, and if necessary in the teeth of the evidence. The difference is that between science and superstition.

John Dupré (philosopher) and John Brooke (theologian and science historian) disagreed, in detail and at length, while insisting that they were on the same side as Coyne on the reality of evolution (and paying handsome tribute to the cogency and clarity of his book). Dupré argued that the provisionality of science is its strength, and that most of what we now understand about evolution will be obsolete in fifty years. The facts in Coyne's book, and their irresistible implications, will remain as solid as they are now, but not all Coyne's own views on speciation, etc, will likewise stand the test of time. Brooke pointed out that leading Presbyterians and Anglicans (such as Asa Gray and William Temple) were won over to Darwin's ideas within months of the publication of The Origin, and remained Christians (in Temple's case, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury). Even the creationists can't be defeated by denouncing them as irrational: within their system of priorities, they are rational (though mistaken, mainly through inadequate theology rather than inadequate education or intelligence or even (in some deeply sad cases) acquaintance with the evidence).

I have to say that, though I disagreed with some of their points, the philosopher and the theologian had the best of the argument. Jerry Coyne, as I've found from reading his marvellous book and following his combative blog, and indeed from hearing him and Nick Lane talk the following day about the evidence for evolution, is a fine scientist and brilliant populariser of science. In philosophy of science, and in history of ideas, he's as likely as you and me and your average working scientist to get walked over by professionals in these fields. That's no disgrace. Division of labour - it's all in Ricardo.

What I'd still like to see, some day, is the discussion that Steve Yearley adumbrated and that didn't happen. I am thoroughly jaded with the argument with creationism, and indeed the whole science-and-religion thing. Been there, done that, got the bloody shirt. I loathe and despise creationism, and my main interest in it is in avenging the scars it has left on me. But its recent salience deserves explanation. My impression is that creationism and evolution have both changed since I first became acquainted with them in the 1960s and early 1970s. Back then, evolution was popularly understood as containing moral messages. Part of the reason for that was mistaken scientific theories - notably, group selection (as a major explanation) which was heavily relied on by Robert Ardrey, whose semi-racist speculations were widely read back in the day, as were the (variably more sound) works of Desmond Morris, Konrad Lorentz, Ashley Montagu, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, all of whom moralised in their different ways. Another part of the reason was fuzzy feel-good vulgarizations, which found their ecological niche and competitive advantage in the progressive temper of the time. Thomas Huxley's classic address, 'Evolution and Ethics', should have long ago nailed all such, but it didn't stop his grandson, Julian Huxley, from promulgating an 'Evolutionary Humanism' and from writing an enthusiastic introduction to Teilhard de Chardin's religiose sprinkling of saccharine pixie-dust on the same pathetic fallacy.

Christian anti-evolutionism, at that time, wasn't like modern creationism. It wasn't joined at the hip to insanities about a six-thousand-year-old Earth. It was a protest - valid enough in its own terms - against quite specious conclusions about the inevitability of human progress drawn from evolutionary thinking. (In the hands of, say, C. S. Lewis, this protest was quite compatible with public acceptance of - and private reservations about - evolution as a fact.) Even young-earthism started out (to stretch the principle of charity a little too far) at least presenting itself as as an alternate hypothesis, which could in principle be accepted even by atheists. (One can idly imagine a planet populated by all the organisms in the fossil record, devastated by a catastrophe in the recent past, leaving a spurious record of succession in the rocks, and with the actual evolution having occurred on another planet or in the deep pre-Cambrian.) But the evidence just didn't stack up, and the creation/catastrophe argument has moved from claims of hard facts on the table to waffle about 'presuppositions' and 'world-views', in an involuntary admission of evidential bankruptcy. The creationist style of thought, preeningly self-blinkered and paranoid, has become a watering-can for the tree of crazy. Of course the outright denialist strand of thinking was there all along, but why did it become dominant, and widespread, after the 1960s?

One reason, I'd suggest, is that popular understanding of evolution changed radically in the 1970s, with the works of first Jaques Monod and then Richard Dawkins. Chance and Necessity and The Selfish Gene both based their arguments firmly on the molecular, materialist account of life, and both insisted that no moral lessons or eschatological comfort could be drawn from the process - very much the reverse, in fact. The even more widely-read work of Stephen Jay Gould, though pitched in a different register, was likewise stark in its implications:
The radicalism of natural selection lies in its power to dethrone some of the deepest and most traditional comforts of Western thought, particularly the notion that nature's benevolence, order, and good design, with humans at a sensible summit of power and excellence, proves the existence of an omnipotent and benevolent creator who loves us most of all (the old-style theological version), or at least that nature has meaningful directions, and that humans fit into a sensible and predictable pattern regulating the totality (the modern and more secular version).

To these beliefs Darwinian natural selection presents the most contrary position imaginable. Only one causal force produces evolutionary change in Darwin's world: the unconscious struggle among individual organisms to promote their own personal reproductive success—nothing else, and nothing higher (no force, for example, works explicitly for the good of species or the harmony of ecosystems).


Darwin's system should be viewed as morally liberating, not cosmically depressing. The answers to moral questions cannot be found in nature's factuality in any case, so why not take the "cold bath" of recognizing nature as nonmoral, and not constructed to match our hopes? After all, life existed on earth for 3.5 billion years before we arrived; why should life's causal ways match our prescriptions for human meaning or decency?
That Gould made these points in a polemic against the 'Darwinian fundamentalists' (Dawkins, Dennett and Maynard Smith) makes the essential congruence of their views on exactly this point all the more significant. Monod and Dawkins would have agreed with every word, and wrote similar passages themselves.

It's this 'thrilling godlessness', as Martin Amis called it, that drives the fury of modern evolution denialism. Julian Huxley's 'Religion Without Revelation' of Evolutionary Humanism was no doubt troubling enough to believers, but at least it wasn't a vision of blind, pitiless indifference at the heart of things.

But what, as I said, I'd still like to see more discussion of are the implications of this changed view of evolution for secular ideologies. Does junking the woozy teleological version of evolution affect socialism, liberalism, conservatism? Monod thought so, but who else has done serious thinking about the question?

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Your post deserves a more serious comment than this, but the idea of a writing team named "Lionel Tiger" and "Robin Fox" writing about the descent of humans from animals always gives me a chuckle.

But okay, let me shoulder the burden of the serious comment. I confess I feel pretty strongly (though not as strongly as he did) the pull of Wittgenstein's remark that "Darwin's theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science." My reason (and to some extent, I think, his reason) is that evolution and creationism are both causal accounts about how there came to be such creatures as us, and I don't think those accounts shed much light on what sorts of things we ultimately are.

By way of analogy: if I want to know why there's a cube on my front porch, I may need historical information about who put it there, plus physico-chemical information about how the stuff it's made of maintains its cubical shape under current temperature, atmospheric, and gravitational conditions; but if I want to know what a cube is -- what makes something count as a cube, and what cubicality logically implies -- those are questions of geometry that have almost nothing to do with my causal interests.

But having said that, I do think the truth of evolution nevertheless has in other respects some important philosophical implications, and here's one: as an anarchist I obviously think that the idea that complex social order requires centralised top-down rational control is a mistake, and so the evidence that complex biological order doesn't require it either is useful in overcoming the constructivist bias.
(Of course this to some extent gets the chronology going the wrong way, since the development of spontaneous order ideas in social theory -- e.g., the fairly direct line from Smith through Paine to Godwin and Hodgskin -- actually preceded Darwinism.)

I confess I feel pretty strongly (though not as strongly as he did) the pull of Wittgenstein's remark that "Darwin's theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other hypothesis in natural science."
R.T. Long

As a philosophical dilettante and militant atheist I'll try and keep this on topic. I have a scientific education up to 2nd year undergraduate level. I confess I find risible any suggestion that philosophy... how should we put it? -: that it needn't bow to the general conclusions we can draw from natural science. I mean to say, one thing we can be sure of is that natural science effectively refutes religion even if it doesn't immediately supercede it as a form of popular consciousness. We have to hope that it is only a matter of time before a free humanity discards religion exactly as we expect children to discard Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.

I would suggest that the importance of I.D. creationism in the ideology of ultrareactionary christian populism in the U.S. body politic means that we have to address these issues, however tiresome we find these ranting loons. In philosophical terms I think Wittgenstein was simply wrong. Unless I'm very much mistaken, Hegel's dialectic was an attempt to resolve the antinomies of Kant's failure to integrate ontology and epistemology; a failure I understand to have arisen from the analytic a posteriori he had to deduce from his paired dipoles, but which he could never rationalise.

If I am correct also to understand that this amounts to the question of how can we accept the evidence of our senses about the basic properties of nature, then I would suggest that evolutionary theory is vital to the resolution of this issue. Simply put: the commonplace certitude about the spatiotemporal properties of massy being is a result of evolution, not of ratiocination. That is to say: we inherit this certitude from the success of our evolutionary forebears. Kant simply had no access to this simple idea, for obvious historical reasons.

Why Wittgenstein chose to ignore this I don't know. ;)

I'm not to keen on drawing philosophical results from evolution. Partly because we put our philosophical opinions in in the first place. The "red in tooth & claw" original version fited Victorian capitalism. The "social genes" fits contemporary society. Both are true & both are limited explanations. In amy case, unless we do something fairly terminal to our society it is unlikely that evolution is going to be a driving force in human development in future.

Your comment about C. S. Lewis makes me think of his delightfully witty "Evolutionary Hymn," which I have just lately reread (it's in the Kingley Amis New Oxford Book of Light Verse):

Far too long have sages vainly
Glossed great Nature's simple text.
He who runs may read it plainly:
Goodness=what comes next.

* * *

Though opposing creationism in all its versions is important, I don't think there's much theoretical interest in the effort. Creationists don't tend to present substantial or philosophically sophisticated theories! Dealing with them is on the one hand a question of the identification and classification of fallacies, and on the other of rhetoric and strategy. And neither of those is necessarily all that interesting to someone who is fascinated with evolution itself and with how its perspective might apply to human existence.

Now, H. G. Wells's fiction contains some interesting attempts to explore this, usually in a pessimistic direction. Consider for example the Time Traveler's discovery of two human races shaped by evolution under the conditions of industrial society: Wells's point was precisely that natural selection had not stopped, that it would fit the bourgeoisie and the proletarian to their respective social places as surely as it had fit moths to blackened surfaces in industrial cities. There is also the discussion of how the evolution of an intelligent race naturally tends to produce lifeforms such as the Martians, so that they are in effect our future, and the War of the Worlds is a kind of invasion by future humanity, transposed from a distant time to a distant planet.

Ken and previous writers, those are all fine entries that provide much food for thought. My comment now might veer off in another direction. But being incompetent in biology I'm not sure it will.
I was a student in NYC when Lorenz's book was published. The others, I think, were published previously. In NYC there was a lot of talk about Lorenz, with "The Naked Ape" always in the background. Much of this talk was discussed with at least some use of existing science. Around 1971 a change took place there, i.e. an unstoppable trend towards first wishy-washy ideas about psychological therapies and then (a natural extension) on to New Age crap. I witnessed this on two continents and was appalled at its dumbing-down effects and propagation of irrationalisms. Now my query is this: Does such nonsense connect with the current anti-scientific creationism that Ken mentions, and if so how and with what societal effects? My excuses if this is veering off-topic, but it's a subject that has been bothering me since 1974, when a labor-unionist friend's wife switched from solidarity to individualism almost overnight, under the influence of some American "therapist" and her public talks in Amsterdam.

JMC, Kant did have access to the common sense ideas you allude to, and he despised them. With apologies to Ken, I'm referring to the works of Thomas Reid, who defended the truth of common-sense ways of thinking about the world. Kant did more than attempt to refute Hume on causation. He successfully (imho) refuted Hume's notion that all propositional knowledge (Hume spoke of "ideas" and "beliefs") comes directly from sensations. Reid denied this too, but Kant found Reid's common-sense solution "painful" (Kant's word), since Hume's arguments were so strong that Reid could not simply switch to common-sense. Kant's solution was to postulate a world of "things in themselves" forever cognitively inaccessable to us. it is usefol today to think of this as the world of basic physical objects, whatever they are, and to view these as cognitively accessable. This may be wrong, but it makes sense of Kant and demolishes common-sensism, since the world of basic physics is most likely so weird that any attempt to view it as (say) visually common-sensical will fail.


I confess I find risible any suggestion that philosophy... how should we put it? -: that it needn't bow to the general conclusions we can draw from natural science.

Well, I think they address different questions (since philosophy deals with the assumptions that the sciences presuppose) so there isn't really any issue of one bowing to the other. (Do geology and literary criticiam clash? How?) Of course scientists have often tried to claim scientific authority for what are really philosophical claims, and philosophers have often tried to claim scientific authority for what are really scientific claims -- but in both cases they tend to wind up talking nonsense.

one thing we can be sure of is that natural science effectively refutes religion

"Religion" isn't a thesis. It's a term that has been arrived to a vast variety of wildly different sorts of claims. I don't know what could be meant by "refuting religion." It's like saying "This refutes all Spanish ideas."

the question of how can we accept the evidence of our senses about the basic properties of nature, then I would suggest that evolutionary theory is vital to the resolution of this issue

I don't think evolutionary theory could resolve the problem of whether we can trust our senses, since evolutionary theory itself rests on, and so presupposes, sensory evidence. However, I don't see this as a problem, since I think there are already good philosophical grounds for dismissing skepticism about the senses as a non-problem.

George Berger,

Kant's solution was to postulate a world of "things in themselves" forever cognitively inaccessable to us.

Well, this gets into some controversial areas of interpretation, but I don't think Kant is best understood as positing a real of entities cognitively inaccessible to us. Strictly speaking (though I'll admit Kant doesn't always speak as strictly as he should) "in themselves" is best understood not as modifying "things," as though there were some special entities called "thing in themselves," but rather modifies our way of knowing them -- so "we can't know things in themselves" doesn't mean "there are these things-in-themselves, and we can't know them" but rather "there are these things, and of course we can know them, but we can't know them as they are in themselves."

When I said that the term "religion" has been "arrived to a vast variety of wildly different sorts of claims," I of course meant "applied," not "arrived." I rily du spik inglish gud.

Argh! And when I wrote "philosophers have often tried to claim scientific authority for what are really scientific claims" I meant "philosophical authority." The perils of cutting-and-pasting ....

And here's another way of putting my understanding of the division of labour between philosophy and science. It's philosophy's job to determine which claims make sense, and then it's science's job to determine, among the claims that make sense, which ones are true. So as long as philosophers and scientists are each doing their job properly, they can't contradict each other, and so there's no question of one bowing to the other or not.

Of course philosophers can mistakenly claim that something scientists want to say doesn't make sense when it actually does -- which tempts scientists (and some philosophers) to say that philosophy should bow to science. But scientists can also mistakenly claim that something is true when actually it doesn't make sense -- which tempts philosophers (and some scientists) to say that science should bow to philosophy. History is filled with both examples -- though as you go further back in time it gets more complicated, as the same people tend more often to fill both roles (e.g., Descartes and Kant were not only philosophers but also scientists, Galileo and Newton and Einstein were not only scientists but also philosophers). You can still distinguish the two roles, though; for example, when Galileo used his thought-experiment to disprove the claim that heavier things fall faster, he wasn't using empirical evidence to prove a claim false, he was using philosophical reasoning to prove a claim senseless.

Hallo Roderick--I knew quite well that I was getting myself into a thicket of Kant interpretaton. You are right: there are two ways of interpreting "things in themselves," and they are now best represented by Allison (epistemic interpretation) and Wilfrid Sellars (ontological, Scientific Realist interpretation). I go for Sellars, although I know that he's in the minority and that the scientific realist interpretation is rather stretched (it never entered Kant's head!). Still, this charitable extension keeps what I like in Kant: inaccessability of basic entities directly to the senses & respect for science. More popularly, I think Eddington got it right but was verbally incautious: there are two tables there: the affection of my senses that causes me to be a table-seer and the scientific stuff that does the affecting. There is a tradition of realist Kant-Interpretation here, and that's where I am. Indeed, I'm a grandstudent of Sellars. That said, I'm no dogmatist and am more than open to drastic correction.

"I'd still like to see more discussion of are the implications of this changed view of evolution for secular ideologies. Does junking the woozy teleological version of evolution affect socialism, liberalism, conservatism?"

I can recommend Janet Radcliffe Richard's book "Human Nature After Darwin: A Philosophical Introduction".


Actually my interpretation is closest to Strawson's (in The Bounds of Sense): there are two ways of conceiving Kant's project, one "austere" (Kant is exploring what conception of the world we can make sense of) and one "transcendental" (Kant is thinking of our conceptions as somehow imposed on a reality that's different), that Kant himself sometimes slid back and forth between the two, but that the strand best supported (both by Kant's remarks and by independent considerations) is the austere (semi-Wittgensteinian) one. Part of the upshot if that is that I reject the two-tables idea; there's just one table, it's solid throughout, and it's composed of atoms with lots of empty space between them, because "solid throughout," properly understood (in terms of the implicit rules for its use), doesn't contradict "composed of atoms with lots of empty space between them."

Right Roderick--Strawson's book is indeed a source of the austere view. Allison's emphasis is different. I'm no scholar and cannot judge which view is best supported. I can only say that, had Kant been a scientific realist with ideas close to Eddington's, and had he wanted to retain some sort of "transcendental psychology" (Strawson's term), then the option I mentioned would be available to him. I must add that an appropriate conception of consciousness would have to be thought up by him. The Sellarsian claim is that this concept would involve
The transcendental psychology that Strawson thought was worse than unnecessary. Thanks for helping me improve my earlier formulation.

My dialogue with Roderick shows how hard it is to keep philosophy out of science writing and politics. As soon as (say) some physicist (in fact James Jeans) states that quantum mechanics makes free will possible, dozens of philosophers grab their pens and write adequate refutations (Stebbing). But then other philosophers come up with remarks about those refutations. Before you know it you have left physics for the depths of philosophy and its history. The current debates in evolutionary psychology illustrate this. Hence although our contributions do get us off the track, they show up the need for scientists to think more philosophically. In fundamental physics this enrichment has become routine. So let's get back on track here, but with clarity on the basics.

The "red in tooth & claw" original version fitted Victorian capitalism. The "social genes" fits contemporary society.

It's always satisfying to be able to place philosophical fashions in their historical contexts, but what does the above actually mean? How would the "social genes" version have failed to fit Victorian society, or the "red in tooth & claw" to fit contemporary capitalism?

Del - good point.

(And besides, who talks about 'social genes'?)

Roderick, not sure I agree with Wittgenstein's remark but not sure where to go from there.

William: Though opposing creationism in all its versions is important, I don't think there's much theoretical interest in the effort. Creationists don't tend to present substantial or philosophically sophisticated theories! Dealing with them is on the one hand a question of the identification and classification of fallacies, and on the other of rhetoric and strategy. And neither of those is necessarily all that interesting to someone who is fascinated with evolution itself and with how its perspective might apply to human existence.

I agree, though I do recall learning quite a bit of philosophy of science from Philip Kitcher.

And on that subject, thanks to George for reminding us of the wonderfully lucid Susan Stebbing.

Right Ken. Ms Susan Stebbing gave Jeans what he deserved for writing such confused crap. She wrote "Philosophy and the Physicists" in the most lucid, generally readable style possible and it worked.
Many people have told me about Kitcher's work, Ken. You read "the right stuff." If I can think of anything that's both good and relevant to your concerns, I'll let you know. Right now I am thinking of books by my old friend Alexander Rosenberg, a top philosopher of biology. Good stuff, although you will not go along with many of his claims and conclusions. Rightly so!

Right Ken. Ms Susan Stebbing gave Jeans what he deserved for writing such confused crap. She wrote "Philosophy and the Physicists" in the most lucid, generally readable style possible and it worked.

Ever since encountering that book, I've thought that what is most interesting about it is that Lenin was one of her secondary targets: she was chiding Jeans and others for making (or running the risk of making) Lenin's militant materialism more appealing. That intrigued me, all the more so since the last thing you'd imagine about Lenin's oft-derided Materialism and Empiriocriticism is that well-regarded professional philosophers would ever've taken it seriously at all; let enough seriously enough to consider it threatening. ;)

Hallo JMc--That's very interesting. I read Stebbing when I had less than no interest in politics of any kind. What are the connections that Stebbing saw between Jeans and Lenin? I have never read Lenin's attack on Mach and his followers. All I can think of right now is this. Jeans was some sort of idealist, as was Mach. So an attack on Jeans' idealism could perhaps be used against Mach. In this way, an exposure of Jeans' errors could indirectly support materialism (as one alternative to idealism). I know that Stebbing was no materialist, so perhaps this was why she was worried. But why Lenin in particular? Perhaps her grounds were purely ideological (anti-Communism), since there were a few non-marxist materialists around in her day (C.D. Broad, Roy Wood Sellars). Was Lenin the most prominent, or simply the most dangerous (to her)?

Seems to me I wrote something relevant in the context of the horrific US national elections of 2008.

It is difficult for me to draw any conclusion other than that we are in need of vast transformations in our institutions and philosophies. Deep time, deep space, evolution, ecology--these things were not even dreamt of when the ideas our reactionaries rely on were formed. If there is to be a human future, we must begin to think about them as the basis of our social ethics. If we are to have a future, therefore, the institutions that refuse to respond to them must either change their ideas, or fade into insignificance. ***

This is not, mind you, anything that Gregory Bateson hadn't said decades earlier, but it is still relevant.

(BTW, I really wish this page accepted the blockquote tag.)

Kropotkin's "Mutual Aid" is an interesting couterweight to the social darwinists.

Since I studied philosophy at university I've tended to think that general philosophy is only of use as pub conversation.I did think Lenin's argument in M&E-C made sense when I read it many years ago, and tend towards naive realism for the want of caring.

Where to start and what to say? I think I'll have a quick go at the question at the end of the post and then make a few remarks about previous comments.

Does junking the woozy teleological version of evolution affect socialism?[The liberals and conservatives can speak for themselves]
I think it reinforces the argument that socialism is a self-conscious process of actual human beings rather than a historical inevitability.
Having had a quick look at Monod I think his dismissal of historical materialism is a sleight-of-hand - just becuase it is claimed that social processes contain contradictions does not make the materialist dialectic a mental process.
I don't know what could be meant by "refuting religion." It's like saying "This refutes all Spanish ideas."
This assumes that all Spanish ideas have a common error in the way that it is claimed all religions have.
Wells's point was precisely that natural selection had not stopped
I discussed this with a biologist once. My point was that descent with modification tends to operate where there is a relatively low survival rate of offspring, the opposite now being true of human beings it is social rather than environmental factors that determine survival.

Somewhere on the thread someone mentions that scientists and necessarily that good at puncturing fallacies. James Hogan in "Code of the Lifemaker" makes the point that stage magicians might be best to do the job.

the horrific US national elections of 2008
Those the ones that saw Barack Obama elected? I know they night not be exactly what some of us might have wanted, but at least there was an election[see 2000/2004].

The need to see a moral order at work in Nature (or History) induces distortions all over the the place.

For a particularly strong example, note the usual reaction in the States whenever anyone publicly suggested that the 2001-09-11 attacks had anything to do with American policy and behaviour: the suggester was shouted down with a 'How dare you suggest that we deserved this!!!?,' when nothing of the sort was meant. For a certain cast of mind---the sort that equates the results of the workings of the Most Holy Market with what people 'deserve', or otherwise believes that sodomy causes hurricanos---this reaction is inevitable.

Gerald, here is another example of the phenomena you describe so well. I recently connected up (online) with my best old friend from high school in NYC. He's a heavily professional academic psychologist who is deeply involved in all sorts of committees devoted to "rationalizing" mental health care. He is quite well-off. In one conversation I stated something that to me was(and is) obvious: that in a decent, rationally organized, society money would be unnecessary. He was at least as shocked as were (and are) the people you wrote about.

I don't think even the Incas, where everything & everybody was the property of the state 7 king managed quite that much rationality. I doubt if human beings would like to be that organised.

Hi Neil---Well, of course I meant a free society that was rationally organized. This is not the first time that I've stated things on this blog that involved unstated but necessary assumptions. So your reply is fully correct and well-taken. Also, having a rational society need not (I hope) involve being like the Incas! So what do I mean by "rational"? That's half of the main question. The other half is how to combine rationality and maximal freedom of the individual. It's clear to me that these two notions, rationality and freedom, must be developed jointly, as part of one social project. But please don't ask me for many details.

John and George - just got a copy of Philosophy and the Physicists, and Stebbings doesn't seem too bothered by Lenin, other than in distinguishing her position from his. Anthony Flew made some fairly positive comment about Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Whatever else about that book at least it is a work of philosophy.

Hi Ken--Thanks for taking the trouble to look at Stebbing's fine book. I too thought that she could not have much to complain about, as far as Lenin went. For every philosopher I know (including one fan of Maggie) who has read the book has told me that it is philosophically sound, contains all the right (and logically valid) arguments, and that it is rhetorically brilliant and hence effective. I own the book and hope to read it someday. Its deriders call it a polemic. Of course it is. But that's compatible with its being well-argued. Besides, good polemics are fun to read. Stodgy philosophical tomes are often boring, even those that are classics.

skidmarx said...

> Kropotkin's "Mutual Aid" is an interesting
> couterweight to the social darwinists.

It truly is! (I've been a bit of a fan of Kropotkin wever since we had Kropotkin's desk in our house for a while back in the 1970s - we gave it to the Museum of Labour History later)

> I don't know what could be meant by "refuting religion."
> It's like saying "This refutes all Spanish ideas."

Yes. And has the obvious shortcoming that there are plenty, millions, of scientifically educated people who are Christians (or members of other religions) and who do not believe YECcy nonsense. (Including me FWIW)

> ...natural selection had not stopped
> I discussed this with a biologist once.
> My point was that descent with modification
> tends to operate where there is a
> relatively low survival rate of offspring,

Not neccessarily. It is the variability in family size that counts. Different kinds of selection are likely to occur in fast-growing and slow-growing and shrinking and collapsing populations, but selection can occur in all of them. For example a fast-growing population might select for fecundity and fertility - the ability to exploit superabundant resources (especially in males, for obvious reasons). A collapsing population might select for resistance to whatever is killing everyone off.

> the opposite now being true of human beings
> it is social rather than environmental factors
> that determine survival.

But our reaction to those social factors, just like our reaction to non-human environmental factors, is constrained by our physiology and our behaviour which emerge from our genetics.

Actually the thing that slows down genetic selction is the size of the human population. Unless you experience very great selection pressure (which CAN happen in good times as well as bad) it takes a long, long time for any allelle to become fixed. So what is likely to happen in the human popualtion, or any very large population is a gradual increase in heterozygosity - the population is so large that many neutral or only mildly favourable mutations are occuring in every generation, some of which increase in the population pretty much at randon, but none (or very few) become fixed. (Wheras small populations have a restricted supply of genetic variation but favourable genes can be fixed very quickly)

Though it might happen even in a population of billions. In a world full of small families, genes which made women more likely to want large families might spread quite fast. For men, if there was a gene (or a virus) which made women want to have your babies, it would spread fast in any population of any size.

"Religion" isn't a thesis. It's a term that has been arrived to a vast variety of wildly different sorts of claims. I don't know what could be meant by "refuting religion." It's like saying "This refutes all Spanish ideas."
Roderick T. Long

Oh dear, I feel so jejune, as if I'd been caught using the wrong piece of cutlery at a society dinner. I believe skidmarx has already pointed to your essential non sequitur Roderick: that this 'spanishness' is an accidental attribute, with no real bearing on the content of the ideas themselves; whereas this religiosity is an attribute essential to the ideas in question.

And the phrase "refutes religion" might well've been a poor choice of words, but its meaning is surely clear enough: atheists can confidently base their criticisms of religious thinking on the knowledge of nature accumulated through the practice of the natural sciences. I believe the irrationalist ideologues of contemporary rightwing populism in all its hideous guises are only too well aware of this hence, eg. the anti-evolutionists' kulturkampf or the heavenly rewards the Islamists offer their sacrificial warriors.

Further, I believe that these ideologues have been empowered by the century-old onslaught on philosophical materialism which has been fought largely under the banner of the 'new physics'. This is why I think that Ken and George are taking Stebbing's remarks on Lenin and materialism a touch too lightly.

Hi JMc--I'm glad to see you and others involved in this discussion. The issues are important. But I don't understand the final paragraph of your last post. Let me try this out: Are you saying that something was wrong with "philosophical materialism" and that the "new physics" is correcting this? If so, there are senses in which you are right, senses in which you are wrong, and senses in which the word "materialism" is too vague to make a decision as to the nature and worth of philosophical materialism. This might sound pedantic but it is not. For the connection you make between this topic and the social and cultural issues mentioned in the previous paragraph are (as you imply) currently important. So what exactly do you mean?

Hey George, I'm enjoying joining in and having a chance to exercise ideas which have preoccupied me for years, although I haven't read much about them in quite some time. You ask: "Are you saying that something was wrong with "philosophical materialism" and that the "new physics" is correcting this?"

No I wasn't. I'm with Lenin in his derision in the face of the scepticism he saw in the Machism of his day. I believe that this has become the dominant trend in the interpretation of the physics which isn't as new now as it was a century ago. Long since plunged into outright irrationality this philosophising tendency has become so much the common sense of our age that the most absurd ideas about reality are presented as if they have a basis in physics. In short: idealist physics has helped put philosophical materialism on life support, where it has languished for decades.

Beyond that, I'm drawing a line on to the recent rise to would-be respectiblity of anti-evolutionary pseudo-science, with the suggestion that the two tendencies bear upon each other with a less than accidental relationship.

hi JMc--I think I'm closing in on your meaning. I guess you are thinking of interpretations of quantum mechanics (QM). There are some that one can call idealistic. In these the role of an observer, or an act of human observation, plays a crucial role. Von Neumann started this, by claiming that it's meaningless to talk of the state of a QM system until an observation is made. At that time von N. was a positivist and made no claims about the basic structure of reality. It was a claim about the proper application of QM language. Schrödinger's cat pointed to a real problem with combining this view with a realist interpretation of the world (materialist, of a sort). The problem has not been solved, but evaded. In the idealistic direction two Frenchmen, London and Bauer wrote a book in which the observation was crucial in creating reality (whatever that means). I believe that John Wheeler went this way too. The materialistic interpretation was pioneerd by David Bohm, who developed a consistent interpretation of QM using discrete particles and a certain kind of field that allows "nonlocal" actions. The Bohm interpretation works but is controversial. So now, as a friend told me, "physics is up for grabs." Nobody knows what the true interpretation is, but most reflective physicists now plump for some sort of realism (not necessarily anything like Bohm's). You can call any of these materialistic, since the observer plays no role in determining the state of a system. So idealism in QM is all but dead. What remain are attempts to formulate good, noncontroversial realisms. Call these materialisms if you will, for although some interpretations use fields, the latter are essential all over physics. Fields are now considered just as materialistic as particles might be. This is nearly where my knowledge ends. I suggest you look at Brian Greene's beautiful, noncondescending, "The Fabric of the Cosmos." It is oriented around the realism issue, is up to date, and contains titbits for SF readers on time, time travel, entanglement, and (even) teleportation! The best pop-physics book I've read in ten years.
BTW I've said nothing about the many-worlds view, now familiar to SF people. I don't know much about the theory and believe not one sentence of what I have heard about the idea.
To sum up, if you are saying that "idealistic" tendencies are now "dominant," then I think you are wrong. I am a realist (ok, materialist) but I don't know what kind I ought to be. That sentence is incoherent, but you get the point I'm sure :)

Without going into detail George, I beg to differ. I mean to say: if you can't hear the cat's meow without opening the box, then WTF, eh? ;)

Meanwhile for the sake of reference, here is what Stebbing had to say about Lenin:

The belief that the 'new physics' is favourable to some form of philosophical idealism has caused much alarm to Lenin and other leaders of Russian Communism. As long ago as 1908, Lenin wrote:

'On the side of materialism there is the large majority of scientists in general, as well as in that special field, namely, of physics. The minority of modern physicists, however, under the influence of the crisis in the old theories (due to the great discoveries of recent years), and under the influence of the crisis in the old theories (which clearly revealed the relativity of our knowledge), because of their ignorance of dialectics fell from relativism into idealism. Idealistic physics, which is in vogue just now, is just as reactionary and transitory as the fashionable idealistic physiology of the recent past.'

But it is not by knowledge of 'dialectics' that we shall be saved from idealism, whether 'reactionary' or not. Lenin and other dialectical materialists have as much an axe to grind as any Gifford Lecturer. The 'materialists' - to give them the name which they so ardently admire - seek at all costs to establish some kind of metaphysical materialism. Scientific results must somehow or other be forced into an interpretation which will yield the special philosophical views upon which their political philosophy is professedly based. There is as much bad metaphysics and immature philosophising among the upholders of dialectial materialism (so far as my acquaintance with their writings goes) as among those who support the philosophical idealism of the pulpits. It has not, however, lain within the scope of this book to discuss these ardent philosophers. I would merely guard against a possible misunderstanding. If I have succeeded in showing that the present state of physical theories does not warant any form of idealism, it must not thereby be concluded that I suppose it to warrant any form of materialism.

Stebbing (1937), pp. xi-xii.

Stebbing, L. Susan (1937) Philosophy and the Physicists (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.)

Good morning JMc--Thanks for the reply and for sending the texts. Perhaps I will comment on them later.
From your other posts I gather that you would never want to be thought of as an idealist. Now I'd consider the old Logical Positivism and Machism forms of idealism (the former stressing language, the latter sensations). But your remark about the cat, if I understand you rightly, is a nifty expression of the Logical Positivist position on our issue! For if one must say WTF in this case, it's because the cat's condition (even existence) is unverifiable in principle . Now the Logical Positivists (especially the most Left of them all, Rudolf Carnap) considered any such statement to be meaningless. I strongly suspect that you don't like this result, and yet it's what you seem to be saying. So you are in this case an idealist! Schrödinger was a realist. He claimed that the cat is in some definite state, but that his paradox shows that QM cannot describe it without making an idealistic assumption about an act of observation. I side with Schrödinger although I don't know what to think of his preferred version of realism (a field theory without matter of any other kind).

I took a first look at the Lenin-Stebbing passages. Each deserves a separate comment, so let me think about them.
Ken--I borrowed Axelrod's book. I'm sure that I can follow it, even though it does use at least one prisoner dilemma diagram. I can always refer back. Thanks for the advice.

Here are some thoughts about the quote from Lenin. When he wrote his book in 1908 the battle between idealism (in the form of various positivisms) and materialism was already won. Until 1905 a debate raged between positivists (mainly Mach and Ostwald) and believers in the atomic structure of matter that positivists rejected (Boltzmann was the most strident atomist). In 05 Einstein published a paper that used atomic theory to explain the statistics of Brownian motion. In the same year, Perrin in France argued persuasively that Brownian motion, as he experimentally observed it, was due to collisions of water molecules with very small particles of matter suspended in the water (the particles were banged around in a statistically meaningful way called a random walk). Theory and experiment convinced very many physiciste (including Ostwald but not Mach) that atoms existed. I.E., one form of materialism (or: realism) won out (although the depressed and stressed-out Boltzmann killed himself while on vacation).
I know very little about the debate in Russia, but I do know that Mach had a tremendous influence there. Knowing about Lenin's strategic good sense, I tend to think that he was right to write his book even though the issue was almost closed outside of Russia. 1905 was no doubt fresh in his mind!
Now my first paragraph shows that one need not be learned in "dialectics" to be a materialist. In fact, physics has never had any need for dialectical materialism (although historical materialism properly formulated might be useful). The only text on Diamat that I have browsed around in was a little, well written French work by Heinz Politzer (shot by the Nazis). Most of it stated a materialism that is coherent but I think wrong. I even made sense of the "negation of the negation." But the "transformation of quantity into quality," (or whatever it's called) is a vague notion that plays no role at all in physics. There has been no place for it since J.W. Gibbs formulated his ideas about statistical mechanics of solids, liquids, and gasses (his thermodynamics of "ensembles" and his phase rules). So I hold that Diamat is unnecessary in
physics (and have heard funny stories about this from former SU scientists). Two last points. (1) The formulations of Diamat that I have seen are not up to current standards of philosophical precision. (2) Its use of "quality" brings it close to an Aristotelian physics that noone except a dogmatic Thomist or a philosophical Aristotelian (today, alas, their number is growing) would accept. Diamat is either logically incoherent or useless; I think it's both.

Here are a few comments on Susan Stebbing's views. The first ten lines assert a connection of influence between materialism and the political philosophy of those physicists who call themselves materialists. In 1937 there was no one political philosophy that allmaterialist-orientated philosophers accepted. Russell (a sort of materialist after 1927) and Bernal were materialists, but R. was anti-Marxist and B. Marxist. Something weird can be said of Olof Stapledon, a naturalist with tendencies towards scientific (non-dialectical) materialism who appeares to have adhered to a version of Intelligent Design (in Star Maker)! But her two chief examples of philosophically unsophisticated physicists were Jeans and Eddington, and here she is correct. Both were outspoken idealists. Eddington embraced his own form of Kantianism. I know too little about Jeans to comment here.
Thus Stebbing was quite wrong to attribute one political philosophy to all materialists. Perhaps she overgeneralised from her two main examples. Her last sentence, a conditional, is correct. Refuting some versions of idealism does not warrant any form of materialism: for there might be some third (fourth....) philosophical notion that can serve as a replacement Perhaps some forms of Panpsychism will do.

Thanks John for the long quote from Stebbing. You seem to see this as more of an attack on materialism than I do. George - the first ten lines assert a connection between dialectical materialism and politics - her phrase "the 'materialists' - to give them the name which they so ardently admire" refers to them and not materialists in general.

(By the way Politzer's first name was George, not Heinz.)

My impression is that in the thirties Diamat was pretty dogmatic and amateurish, but that later Soviet philosophical thinking was at least interesting. Loren Graham's massive book Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union rates it quite highly. My Russian friend Kiril Eskov (a palaeontologist now in his fifties) told me that most Soviet Academicians (those who wrote the official expositions of dialectical materialism anyway) in the Brezhnev era were positivists and deeply, deeply cynical about dialectics (and Marxism in general). This may be borne out by the hard times suffered by E. V. Ilyenkov, who was anything but cynical. His short book Dialectical Logic is quite unlike the typical Soviet exposition of dialectics.

Hi Ken---Thanks for the name correction and for the Ilyakov reference. Russell became a sort of materialist in 1927, with "The Analysis of Matter," but this book was neglected or misinterpreted by almost all British academic philosophers (got Russell terribly and justly upset). So perhaps Stebbing did not know about the book or (worse) didn't mention it for professional reasons. The quasi-materialist C.D. Broad published "The Mind and its Place in Nature" in 37, so Stebbing most probably did not know abouut Broad's emergent materialism. So she probably was, as you say, referring to the Diamat people. And BTW, today many philosophers--mostly materialists--consider this neglect of Russell's materialism a scandal in British philosophy. The Americans were more receptive. As for myself, I'd be willing to be convinced that emergent materialism properly formulated is correct. If it gets a good formulation, the result need not be far removed from Diamat. But then "quantity into quality" had better be decently formulated as well. Then the two philosophies can converge. The question then becomes: Is the result true? As a realist I hold that this question (and similar ones) are not trivial. They are about the world and not merely about our linguistic preferences. Another long story!

A slight but necessary correction. I should have written "...I'd be willing to be convinced that emergent materialism can be decently formulated." My use above of "correct" prejudges the issue by implying the truth of emergent materialism (decently formulated). The truth-question comes into play in my last 2 sentences only.

Ken, thanks for recommending Dialectical Logic. I just ordered it from the Uppsala City Library (a great institution soon to be subject to budget cuts).

Monod: "Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism? Only, we suggest, in the sources of science itself, in the ethic upon which knowledge is founded, and which by free choice makes knowledge the supreme value - the measure and guarantee of all other values."

-- This has lead to the disastrous doctrine and dogma's of political correctness in the post-modern and now post-materialist world. The ethics are from a closed morality, self-righteous, leftist-elitist, in desperate need to keep retweeting and mimetics on their side, to bring the hail state, be it of Marxicist or Jihadist nature. They claim openness, but their eyes are as wide shut. I wish they would all disappear, or at least do the calculation how CORRECT that would be. At least scientifically, judicially and journalistically.

An unargued assertion, to which I'll reply with another:

On the contrary, it's the decline of the kind of universalist rationalist view that Monod advocated that has led to political correctness.

The rationale of this argument is Bergson's philosophy that multiplicity requires open morality and dynamic religion instead of closed morality and static religion, as Marxist PC'ness and Monod's radical atheism have it ('invariance precedes teleonomy').

You seem as the kettle calling the pot black Ron C. de Weijze. I mean to say, is there not a contradiction between your argument from Bergson that "multiplicity requires open morality", on the one hand; and your wish that "they [by which I presume you mean all those moralities which don't fit your definition of openess] would all disappear", on the other? That is to say: your evident ideological motivation must surely render you as 'closed' to your antagonists' values as you point out your own are to them.

I perceive an essential link between this imposture and your stated attitude regarding political correctness. I confess I believe it is sadly true that PC exemplifies a left unable to understand why history has passed it by leaving it bereft of a genuine social base; so that it has resorted to policing the 'backward consciousness' of people apparently otherwise too stupid to buy into the left's apodictic values. To that extent I think your remarks about "self-righteous, leftist-elitist" are quite apt.

Nonetheless, however harshly I might criticise such failings, I cannot for a moment tolerate or condone the way in which PC has become the banner of a populist rightwing backlash whose first forces were rallied by reactionaries railing against the pernicious 60's. For let us be perfectly clear what so-called PC represents: nothing more than the determination to show respect for all in open contradiction to the bigoted values which were the presiding social norm until a generation ago. Or, to put it another way: the anti-PC crusaders essentially seek to restore prejudice and bigotry to the pedestals from which they were so recently toppled.

Here in Britain Tories like Ann Widdecombe have appropriated the language of human rights in their anti-PC campaign. It is this appeal to universal values in defence of particular prejudices that I found echoed in your own words Ron C. de Weijze; as I argued, by defintion your own morality can no more be truly open than that of those you castigate. The general tenor of your comments coupled with your throwaway reference to "Jihadist" leaves me wondering if your values are less open even than that.

JMcL63, I think I see what you mean and you may be right. My metaphor is not that of the pot and the kettle, but of the ship capsizing: when I see all people run, for whatever reason, to one side, I go to the other. The right kind of rightwing I would like to belong to, allows for deliberation and Popperian questioning of basic values, norms and dogma. It is the 'terror within' for Islamists if that is allowed to happen and ipso facto for leftists. Yet if we cannot let that critical rationalism happen, we cannot either defend any truth we believe we need to fight for, for it to be true for us and not because Marx or Allah said so and therefore must be dominant.

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