How Mysterious is Evolution?

How Mysterious is Evolution?

 

 

The basic mechanism of evolution is not mysterious at all. Random variation combined with natural selection is a fully intelligible means of biological change, perspicuously accounting for speciation. The abstract idea has a mathematical simplicity to it: (a) a process for generating outcomes at random, and (b) a method of selection imposed by some sort of agency (either agents with intentions or nature without intentions). So far this says nothing about implementation, which might introduce mysterious elements into the process: living tissue, DNA, sexual reproduction, competition, etc. In principle, the units could be anything, including blobs of ectoplasm or ideas in immaterial minds; and the method of selection could be a wise god’s decisions or holes through which objects can differentially pass. Random generation plus a filtering mechanism is all that is logically required. So the basic apparatus of Darwinian evolutionary theory is fully intelligible, not mysterious in the slightest. Compared to invoking God as creator, it is elementary arithmetic. Nothing could be clearer.

But that is not to say that evolution as we find it on planet earth is without mysterious elements. There are in fact puzzles aplenty, a few quite recalcitrant, some even deserving the name of mystery. Here is a list: the origins of life, sexual reproduction, altruism, dreaming, aging, bipedalism, syntax, suicide, fiction, modal thought, aesthetic sense, pure mathematics, music, dance, depression, mind and consciousness. None of these is easy to explain given what we know of the evolutionary process, chiefly because they seem surplus to survival requirements or even counter to survival. There is much that we don’t understand. We can wheel in spandrels and sexual selection to explain apparently non-adaptive traits, but that will only take us so far. A more streamlined biological world would consist of same-sex reproductive machines with no distractions tolerated. A Darwinian planet could easily consist of bacteria alone. But none of this should make us question the correctness of the basic theory, though we may wonder at its sufficiency. Nor should we surmise terminal mystery at this stage of intellectual history: the Darwinian theory is recent and there is still much to be learned. These are problems to solve not mysteries to resign ourselves to; puzzles not indications of intellectual limitation. Progress has been made on many of them; after all, it is only recently that the role of the gene has been properly understood, and DNA wasn’t discovered till late in the 20th century.

Well, that is true up until the last item on my list. Up to that point there is no compelling need to acknowledge deep mystery in the field of biology. The mechanism of evolution is not mysterious, and its products present at most puzzles (so far as we can see at present), but the existence of mind and consciousness is another matter. Here genuine mystery descends like a cloud on the evolutionary process: how could random genetic mutation and natural selection lead from an organism devoid of mind and consciousness to an organism with those things? The raw materials of evolution are chemicals that can combine, and the method is fundamentally rearrangement of those chemicals, so how could the process generate consciousness from such limited resources? At least under theism we inject consciousness into the process from the beginning (however illicitly). How could the selection of some bunches of chemicals over other bunches of chemicals lead to consciousness in those bunches? This is just a version of the mind-body problem seen temporally: the problem of emergence, as it is often called.[1] Consciousness wasn’t there to begin with (unless we go panpsychist), so how did it emerge in the upshot? This seems like a miraculous qualitative leap quite at variance with the basic form of the theory. We can understand (more or less) how bunches of chemicals can get more complex over time, producing the things we call animal bodies, as mutations get selected and passed on, but how can this process produce consciousness from non-consciousness? To put it differently, only materialism seems able to account for the evolution of mind; but if materialism is false, then evolution is in trouble. The only alternative is to assume mystery and credit the process with properties that we don’t grasp, maybe can’t grasp. My point here is not to urge the merits of the mysterian philosophy; it is to observe that this is the only aspect of evolution that is genuinely mysterious. Of course, organisms are made of matter and matter itself poses some real mysteries; but the biological theory of evolution by mutation and natural selection is free of intractable mystery up to the moment when it has to explain the origin of consciousness.[2] Darwin could write a book called The Origin of Species and hope to dispel the mysteries surrounding that topic, but he could not (and did not) write a book called The Origin of Consciousness and hope to provide an intelligible theory of that. Nor can anyone do it today. Yet consciousness is clearly an evolutionary product, as much as feet and brains. There seems to be something we are missing: what was the mutation that led to there being something it is like for the organism? How did subjective experience break into the objective world? And once it arose how did further iterations of it come about—novel forms of consciousness? Was there a specific mutation that led to the phenomenology color vision? How did gene selection produce sensations of red, say? Why conscious brains and not zombie brains?

Evolutionary theory as we have it thus combines an enviable lack of mystery with a very conspicuous mystery. At its core it is pure lucidity, but in practice it contains an enormous blind spot. It is both advanced and backward: everything a scientific theory should be yet afflicted with a gaping hole. The answer to my title question is therefore “not mysterious at all” and “utterly mysterious”, depending on where we look.

 

[1] Of course, I am saying nothing original here: this problem for Darwin’s theory was perceived from the very beginning.

[2] I am using this as a catchall term that might be taken to include other aspects of the mind such as free will or some kinds of knowledge.

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Woody Allen’s Memoir

I had the pleasure of reading A Propos of Nothing recently and greatly enjoyed it. If you are interested in Woody’s personal history and his many films, this book will sate your appetite: funny, impressive, and endearing. As to the allegations made against him, he convincingly refutes them, thereby demonstrating the absurdity and corruption of the world, especially the American part of it. When I first moved to New York in 1990 I happened to see him in Central Park walking with a woman, which was itself such a New York experience.

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Predator Blues

 

 

Predator Blues

 

 

We humans have a tendency to admire, even envy, what we are pleased to call apex predators: big cats, eagles, sharks, polar bears, and the like. We thrill to their powerful jaws, vice-like talons, speed, agility, and ruthlessness. No one pushes them around, they dominate their worlds: king of the jungle, master of the air, most-feared in the seas. They eat other animals for breakfast, and no one eats them. They are at the top of the heap, the aristocracy of the animal kingdom. We view them as one step down from us, the supreme beings, though we admit that in a dark alley they would have the edge.

But this is a biased and anthropocentric view of the life of a premier carnivore. They too are victims, sad, suffering, vulnerable, anxious, fear-ridden, teetering on the brink of death: for they are afflicted with a highly selective digestive system that can process only meat. The result of this is that when hunger strikes they must hunt to survive; and the hunt is strenuous, exhausting, uncertain, and dangerous. The prey does not give in easily and the predator can be injured both by the chase and by the animal being chased. The lion is kicked, the eagle crashes, the shark is blinded—all in the cause of a full stomach. No ruminant must undergo such peril just in order to eat—the grass just sits there waiting to be nibbled at. Do you think lions like to chase big strong beasts and fight to bring them down? Would you like to do that? How about if whenever you fancy lunch you have to have a fistfight with a burly attendant? You emerge bloodied clutching your sandwich, but at least you are fed for another day. Do you think mother eagles like to watch their young starve while they fail to bring back enough meat to eat? Food gathering is a constant battle punctuated by periods of excruciating hunger and anxiety. Imagine being so weak from hunger that you can’t give chase to the only food source that can save you from death. And then there are the fights with other predatory animals chasing the same scarce food: you finally bring an animal down to save yourself and your family from starvation and immediately you are set upon by a bunch of vicious coyotes. None of this is fun.

Carnivores are the helpless victims of their own digestive limitations. Just think how much easier life would be if they were omnivores: when meat was scarce they could fall back on nuts and berries or chomp on grass. They wouldn’t need to starve when fleet-footed prey elude them. There is nothing more pitiable than an old or sick lion unable to hunt any more lying down to die—how much better if it could adopt a vegetarian diet at that point. Lions don’t choose to be exclusively carnivorous—they don’t think it’s cool or a matter of pride. They were born that way, evolved that way: that’s how the gene machine made them, willy-nilly. All around them animals happily chew on their various preferred foods, but the carnivore has no other option if its supply of meat runs out—and meat is always hard to come by. It’s like being at a feast in which you can only eat one dish and that dish is always running out (literally). Surely no benevolent god would ever design a species that exists only on meat: quite apart from the fate of the prey animals, there is also the stress and strain of catching dinner (you might actually die in the attempt). When I watch a nature documentary and see a lion bring down a deer, I am conscious of fear on the part of the deer but also of relief on the part of the lion—finally this gnawing hunger will go away, at least for a while. A hard-pressed lioness could be forgiven for reflecting that life would be so much easier if she could just stay at home with her cubs and eat peanuts.

And these reluctant predators are victims of another biological limitation: not only the limitation on what they can digest, but also a limitation on the means of obtaining it. We humans have the kind of intelligence that allows us to hunt without taxing our bodies too much: bows and arrows, spears, guns, four-wheel drives, helicopters. The eagle is impressive in its aerial feats, powerful talons, and keen eyesight; but it lacks the ability to shoot at prey from afar or catch it in a net or organize a hunting party. So the carnivore is also a victim of its limited brain: it is condemned by its brain to using only what nature gave it. We humans have the advantage here: not only are we omnivores, we can also use our brains to augment our body’s natural endowments. No doubt this looks like cheating from an eagle’s point of view, but it is a moral certainty that the eagle would accept the augmentation were it offered. Natural selection, however, in addition to giving nature’s top predators a restrictive digestive system, has also given them a restrictive cognitive system, which makes life even harder. You can only eat meat andyou can only obtain it by running it down yourself. The apex predator is thus restricted in its ability to live an acceptable life; indeed, we might say that it is condemned to live one the toughest and most demanding lifestyles on planet earth. If I try to imagine what it is like to be a lion, I picture intense hunger, anxiety, fear, fatigue, and pain—with brief periods of relief from the strain of simply staying alive. God did lions no favors when he made them apex predators, and he must have disliked eagles equally. Why not at least give them the option of eating something else when the going gets tough?

I have two cats and one of them likes to catch lizards and chew their tails off while they are still alive. I feel for the poor lizards (sometimes I manage to save them) but I also wonder what it would be like for the cat if this were its only source of sustenance. It’s hard to say who has it worse, predator or prey. No doubt we like to project our own fantasies onto the animal world, elevating some animals to the pinnacle of the food chain, but really we should spare a thought for those poor apex predators. Life at the top is not always what it seems.[1]

 

[1] It is a good question which animal has the cushiest lifestyle. All life is afflicted with scarcity and danger, but some animals seem less stressed than others. Tree dwellers always strike me as more content than other animals, because of the availability of food and the relative safety of life in the trees. Bees used to be happy.

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The Mind Problem

 

The Mind Problem

 

 

What makes body possible? What are the conditions of the possibility of material objects? Space: bodies are essentially extended things and space is the home of extended things. Without space body would be impossible; with it body slots smoothly into place. Space and body are intelligibly connected, made for each other. A world consisting of space and bodies in space is an intelligible and possible world, not a peculiar and paradoxical one. For instance, parts of bodies, even minute parts, map neatly onto parts of space. The two seem designed to fit together. An intelligent God would approve. But now ask what makes mind possible: what are the conditions of possibility for minds to exist? Minds are not extended things but rather conscious things: their essence is thought (as Descartes put it) not extension. So space is not the matrix into which they naturally fit—its properties do not map onto the properties of mind. Parts of consciousness don’t match up with parts of space; the very idea seems like a category mistake. So what does make mind possible? That is the problem I am calling “the mind problem”.

One response is to invoke a different type of underlying reality: instead of extended space we introduce a non-spatial substance or realm. Call this “immaterial substance”; then we say that what makes mind possible is the existence of an immaterial substance. But this has all the advantages of theft over honest toil, for we can say nothing about the properties of this supposed substance that explains its link to mind. Space has a nature ideally suited to matter, but the supposed non-spatial substance has no nature that we can specify, and so no nature that can explain its power of harboring consciousness. We are merely bandying labels and conjuring phantasms. So this kind of dualism does not solve the mind problem; it simply re-raises it. We still don’t know what gives mind an intelligible foothold in the world. Postulate an immaterial substance if you will, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you have solved anything thereby. For instance, how does the what-it’s-like of consciousness arise from the inner nature of the immaterial substance? Have you really any idea what you are talking about when you utter these words?[1]

Another response is to populate the world with something closer to mind so as to give mind a chance of getting off the ground. Thus we postulate a world of mini minds that can organize into a recognizable macro mind. We call this “panpsychism” and congratulate ourselves on our ingenuity. Now we can map parts to parts, starting with something that will in principle make mind possible, viz. more mind. Here the problem is that the mini minds raise the same question as the macro mind: what makes them possible? They need to slot into the world of extended matter (specifically, the brain), but we have said nothing about how that works; and there is the distinct danger that we will end up declaring them primitive and inexplicable, in which case why not do that to begin with and avoid the detour through the mini mind level? What we don’t have is an analogue of the role of space in relation to matter; instead we have the analogue of postulating lots of mini bodies to explain the existence of macro bodies—but what makes them possible? We already know that space exists, so we can help ourselves to its properties in accounting for the possibility of matter. But in the case of mind we have no such antecedently accepted reality to fall back on.

This is where we might choose to rethink our premises: why not deny that mind lacks extension? True, it seems that way intuitively, but intuitions can be faulty, so we are not obliged to follow their dictates—leaving us the option of asserting that consciousness is an extended thing just like matter. Thoughts and feelings accordingly have length, breadth, and height, size and shape, location and volume—they are no different from regular chunks of matter. Then we have no trouble saying what makes them possible—the same thing that makes bodies possible. We label this liberating doctrine “materialism” and commend ourselves for our intellectual fearlessness in the face of insurmountable paradox. The drawback is that this looks a lot like denying the obvious in order to escape a genuine difficulty: mind simply does not have extension, no way no how. That is like saying that numbers have mass or values have color! What is the exact size of the thought that purity is overvalued? Where are that thought’s parts located? Do some thoughts have different shapes from other thoughts or do they all have the same shape (different from the shape of desires)? Such questions haunt (and daunt) less robust souls than our intrepid materialist.

Have we run out of options? Stunned into silence, another type of theorist wonders if we are able to say anything: perhaps the answer to our question lies beyond our limited powers of comprehension. The conjecture is that in addition to properties of extension material things have other properties of an unknown nature that explain the possibility of mind. These properties are intuitively “closer” to mind than properties of extension, which is just physical geometry. Thus mind comes to exist in virtue of hidden properties of matter, though properties as natural as any known properties. If a race of beings had no notion of space, then they might puzzle over how bodies can exist; we are like that with respect to mind. In reaction to this “mysterian” position many feel that we simply haven’t the foggiest idea what these hidden properties could be, so they doubt that such a view is tenable. Yet the other positions are even less tenable, so we seem stuck in theoretical limbo. The mind problem continues to taunt us.[2]

What is called the mind-body problem could be re-labeled the mind problem, because it concerns the very existence of mind not just its relation to body. It is not that we understand how mind exists and we understand how body exists but we are puzzled about their connection; we don’t really understand how mind exists at all. It exists in virtue of something—something must make it possible—but we draw a blank on saying what it might be. Descartes’ problem goes deeper than even he realized.[3]

 

Colin McGinn

[1] I am not claiming to have decisively refuted the various positions that have been offered in this area in these brief remarks; I am merely summarizing prevailing opinion, or recording familiar objections. I am aiming to articulate the shape of the debate.

[2] Someone might wonder whether time is to mind as space is to body: does mind exist in virtue of time? It is true that consciousness has a temporal dimension, while lacking a spatial dimension, and this seems integral to its essence. Certainly this would restore the analogy to matter and space, but time by itself cannot explain the distinctive features of mind, since it holds equally of non-conscious phenomena. It is not that the features of consciousness map point-by-point onto the structure of time; time is too “thin” to provide this kind of underpinning. Still, the suggestion is worth pondering (could time have a richer nature than we generally recognize?).

[3] Another way to put the point is that mind presents itself as a dependent phenomenon but it is impossible to say what it depends on: it is unintelligibly dependent. The threat is that this epistemic point could turn into metaphysical impossibility. Then we end up denying its very existence.

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Species Psychology

 

Species Psychology

 

 

It is an interesting zoological fact that animals don’t sexually desire animals outside their own species (excluding pathological cases). A particular species may not strike us as sexually desirable, but within it we may suppose that sexual desire runs high; even the most beautiful species on earth will not attract members from outside its ranks. The loveliest human female has nothing to fear from the lascivious attentions of orangutans, say. Sexual desire is species-centric. Why is this? Is it some sort of innate sense of propriety or an instilled taboo? The basic equipment for copulation is present, but the interest is lacking. The reason, as any biologist will tell you, is that species cannot interbreed, so cross-species sex will never lead to offspring. If a gene arose by chance that encouraged sex across species boundaries, it would never make it into future generations, since the mechanics of reproduction disallow the requisite mixing of DNA. Perhaps such a gene has arisen many times, but each time it quickly exits the gene pool because it cannot lead to offspring in which it recurs. If things were different, if species could interbreed, then we may suppose that sexual attraction would be far more promiscuous, since a gene for cross-species sex would lead to offspring containing that gene. Animals would favor animals that look (and smell) quite unlike them—mammals desiring reptiles, birds fancying moles. The result of such copulations would be strange (to us) hybrids, the fruit of inter-specific sex. What prevents this from being the case is a basic physical fact, viz. that DNA can’t combine if it is too different from other DNA. Species sexual psychology is the outcome of a genetic law at a basic chemical level—a kind of psychophysical law. The physics shapes and constrains the psychology. That is the sole explanation for why animals don’t breed with other species. Dogs can breed with other breeds, given the genetic facts, and dog breeds vary enormously; hence dog sexual psychology is flexible as to phenotype. That would be the model for all sexual behavior if DNA were more accommodating. Humans, say, might have a thing for big cats or even elephants, if the DNA were sufficiently flexible: emotion would follow chemistry.

And it is not just a matter of glandular excitation; there is also the question of rivals. Each animal of a given species competes with other animals for mates, sometimes fiercely, even fatally. Males fight other males for access to females. But they don’t worry about males of other species, because these individuals cannot impregnate females of their own species and have no wish to do so. The psychology of aggression and competition is limited to members of the animal’s own species—other orangutans, say. The reason again is that the DNA of other species cannot combine with the DNA of the species in question, so there is no genetic need to ward off suitors from other species. It would be quite different if this were not so: then an animal would need to compete across species boundaries. A male squirrel, say, may need to fight off a handsome snake for the attention of female squirrels; human males may find themselves pitted against massive orangutans for the attentions of human females (the fights would be terrible to behold). The psychology of male-male interactions would conform to the genetic possibilities afforded by inter-species sexual congress. Again, the psychology would be fixed by the chemistry of DNA—not by any supposed proprieties or taboos.[1]

Perhaps on other planets life has evolved without the constraints that terrestrial DNA labors under; on these planets inter-specific sex is common and deemed entirely normal. It would be thought strange to limit one’s erotic interest to one’s own species (too many fish in the sea, as it were). No doubt our own psychology (and that of other terrestrial species) would recoil at such freewheeling ways, but the logic of Darwinian genes predicts it. There is nothing in standard Darwinian evolutionary theory to preclude inter-specific sex, merely the chemical possibilities inherent in DNA. Animals will mate with any animal that can carry its genes into the next generation; species identity is irrelevant. Species psychology simply tags along with the genetic story. If our DNA were less choosy, so would we be.

It may be objected that the scenarios I have envisaged are not logically (metaphysically) possible for the simple reason that interbreeding is the criterion of species identity. If two animals can reproduce together, then they must be of the same species, by definition. But this objection is misguided even if we accept the proposed criterion of species identity. Let us suppose that successful copulation between an orangutan and a crocodile (say) does entail that the two animals are of the same species; that does not gainsay the point that enormous phenotypic differences are compatible with sexual desire. If such a thing became possible tomorrow, there would still be a striking disconnect between psychology and genetics—the animals may as well belong to different species so far as phenotype is concerned. Besides, the interbreeding criterion only works because of de facto correlations between genetic possibility and phenotypic resemblance: if cold-blooded quadrupeds could interbreed with warm-blooded bipeds, we would still need a way to mark the phenotypic distinction—so we may as well say they belong to different species that happen to be able to produce offspring.

No doubt it seems entirely natural to each species to be attracted only to members of its own species—as if anything else is inconceivable—but in reality sexual psychology is fixed by chemical facts that lie outside of anything psychological, or even physiological. Let alone anything preordained by an approving or disapproving divine creator. Intra-specific sexual attraction is an artifact of chemical combinability. Sexuality would be quite different in a world in which DNA could more freely intermingle.

 

Col

[1] The perceptiveness of animals is markedly superior within their own species, as things stand. The reason for this is that animals need to evaluate potential mates or rivals with greater acuity than members of other species given that their genetic future depends on it. In a world in which cross-species reproduction occurs, however, animals would need to extend their perceptiveness beyond their own species; they would need to perform the same exact calculations and careful appraisals of members of other species in order to maximize gene propagation.

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The Concept of Life

 

The Concept of Life

 

 

The concept of life is notoriously hard to define. The OED makes a decent stab at it with the following: “The condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, functional activity, and continual change preceding death”. The first part of this is blatantly circular, since “inorganic matter” just means “lifeless matter”, so we are being told that life is the opposite of non-life. All we can gain from this is that “life” is a contrastive term, distinguishing animals and plants from such things as rocks and water. But the rest of the definition gives us more to chew on: life involves growth, activity with a function, and continual change, culminating in death. I would emphasize that life involves birth, youth, maturity, old age, and death: developmental stages in which there is growth, relative stasis, and decline. This growth is not purely a matter of increasing size, since organisms can grow in their complexity and sophistication (the brain is the obvious example). We speak of the mind growing, reaching maturity, and then declining, thus conceiving it as part of life—as a living thing. We also refer to our “inner life” or “mental life”. The dictionary does not stipulate such properties as homeostasis or reproduction or metabolism or DNA; no doubt these characterize life on earth, but they don’t belong in a definition, because they are too parochial. They provide neither necessary nor sufficient conditions for the concept of life as such. For example, crystals reproduce (replicate) but they are not living, and we do not withhold the concept from animals that are unable to reproduce. Our concept of a living thing does not require these conditions to be met, though they are certainly typical of actual living things, as we know them. The concept is neither a family resemblance concept nor a primitive concept nor a concept rigorously definable by means of necessary and sufficient conditions; it is a concept that can be roughly glossed in terms of such features as growth, functional (goal-directed) activity, and change unto death. We might call it a “typical features concept”.

Does the concept apply to anything other than whole organisms? Does it apply to the parts of whole organisms? It would be wrong to say that the molecules that compose an organism are living things (certainly not the atomic constituents of such molecules), but it isn’t a stretch to say that the gross organs that compose a body are themselves living things. The heart is a living thing and it fits the dictionary definition: it grows, actively functions, and changes till death stops it—and similarly for the other bodily organs. Also, it seems right to say that cells are living things, because they too fit the definition—they grow, act functionally, and eventually die off. Even outside the context of an organism these entities count as living things. Bacteria do too—though viruses are not clearly living things (they can’t survive without a host cell and lack the kind of development characteristic of life forms). They are more like tiny robots that invade an organism, replicating but not really living. They disappear or disintegrate, but they don’t really die; they don’t have a childhood, a middle age, and an old age followed by death—they don’t change form in these ways. In any case, the definition applies to bodily organs as well as whole organisms. The tougher question is whether the organs of the mind qualify as living things. The eyes are living things, but is vision a living thing? Is memory a living thing? Is language a living thing? Is the rational faculty a living thing? We certainly think that persons are living things—and they clearly fit the definition—but do the mental faculties characteristic of persons also qualify? If so, that would make psychology into a branch of biology by definition—and philosophy too, if it deals with such faculties. I shall suggest that they do so qualify: so mental organs are as much living things as bodily organs.

The obvious point is that the faculties in question bear the marks of life as specified in the dictionary definition: growth, change, and functional activity. Memory, intelligence, the senses, language ability, consciousness, and the emotions all develop and grow during ontogenesis, display functional characteristics, and suffer decline in their later stages, eventually ceasing to exist with death. They may be healthy or diseased, effective or defective, and they are bound up with the survival of the organism. They are not extraneous to the life of the organism but integral to it. No doubt they have an innate component as well as acquiring features as they mature. They are adapted to the organism’s environment–part of the equipment the organism brings to its life. So the components of mind are as much living things as the components of the body. The study of the mind is thus a study of an aspect of life, hence a part of biology. This kind of perspective is not entirely alien to the analytical tradition in philosophy—there is Wittgenstein’s “form of life” and Husserl’s lebenswelt (life-world), for example—but it is not taken as a clear truth and generally acknowledged. The categories of Mind and Matter are standard philosophical categories, but we don’t hear much about the third category of Life. Nor is it that this category has suffered any demotion in intellectual history comparable to the travails of the concept of matter: it isn’t as if Darwin destroyed the notion of life as Newton destroyed the notion of matter by introducing the “occult” force of gravity. It is true that the conception of life as an expression of the “vital spirit” has fallen into disrepute, but that is not to say that the concept of life itself has fallen upon hard times. So there is nothing suspect about using the concept of life to describe the faculties of mind and body as well as complete organisms. There is nothing “non-natural” afoot here, or conceptually bankrupt. We are simply resisting the tendency to take the mind to belong to some sort of supernatural realm by insisting that it belongs to biology—not because of any reductive urge but because mind is an evolved and functional trait of organisms. Growth, maturity, and decline are aspects of its natural history, setting it apart from inanimate matter, which neither matures nor ages nor acts functionally.

Are there any other living things that are not conventionally described as such? How far can the concept be legitimately extended? Rocks, planets, and electrons are clearly not living things, but what about numbers or geometric forms? I think not: they don’t display the sort of developmental arc characteristic of life, and they don’t die or contract diseases or suffer injuries. Is God a living thing (as God is traditionally conceived)? Jesus certainly was, being part man, but what about God the Father? There is no birth or death in his case, to be sure, but there is purpose and activity, not stasis and aimlessness. Perhaps God is partly a living thing—a quasi-organism (blasphemous as that may sound). The concept is perhaps not clear enough to yield a determinate answer. Hair and fingernails also hover on the border, exhibiting both growth and functionality, but lacking in feeling and organic substance (they are made of keratin and consist of dead cells). What about human productions like artifacts and systems of belief? Artifacts have functions and something close to birth and death, but they lack self-directedness and adaptability; thus they can give an appearance of life while lacking the key ingredients of life (robots, in particular). Fire too can look like a living thing, but it has no functional properties: it grows and changes and dies out, but it never does anything directed towards a goal. What about physics or religion? We might describe them as having a birth and undergoing growth, possibly entering a mature phase, conceivably dying a death; but this seems metaphorical in the absence of active self-propelled survival tactics. Physics and religion don’t strive to stay alive by exploiting the environment functionally. Particular natural languages are similar: we speak of “dead” languages like Latin, but there is no active self-preservation on the part of Latin. The idea of a meme might seem more promising: memes replicate and proliferate, following Darwinian logic, but they don’t engage in functional activity (certainly no metabolism or functional organization)—they lack a physiology. Perhaps surprisingly, genes are dubious candidates for life too: genes are not themselves living things despite their role in the life of living things. Genes (bits of DNA) don’t grow and mature or purposefully act to preserve themselves—they are not like mini organisms. The double helix is not an animal or a plant, however microscopic: it is a chemical, and chemicals are not alive. No one has ever seen a strand of DNA scavenging for food or trying to find a mate or running for its life or growing protective spikes. Genes lack the chief characteristics of life: they cause life but they are not alive. Cells yes, genes no. Are beliefs alive? That sounds odd, and not without reason: beliefs are states of living things but are not themselves living things, since they lack the features of growth, self-directed functional activity, and eventual death. It is a category mistake to say that beliefs can be healthy or unhealthy, alive or dead, though they may make the organism that has them to be so describable. In general, states and properties of organisms are not themselves living things: being hairy or strong is not a living thing, merely a property of a living thing. Is the unconscious mind a living thing? As conceived by Freud, it may qualify, as it is self-like in its organization, like a second buried person: it has a natural history, it is functionally active, and it keeps changing till death puts a stop to its machinations. The brain certainly is a living thing and presumably the unconscious occupies a part of the brain (the occipital lobe is a living thing). Are art and music living things? They mimic life to some degree—they originate, mature, and expire like life—but again they lack autonomous functional activity. Is the earth a living thing? Some have supposed so and one can understand why, but again the suggestion seems metaphorical given that the earth itself lacks goals and goal-directed activity. The universe looks to have a birth (the big bang), a mature period, and then an end (the big crunch), but to call it living is stretching the concept given that it lacks goal-directed activity. It is perhaps an epistemic possibility that it has goals we know nothing of, and might even be one of a multitude of other goal-directed universes, in which case it is one exceedingly large organism; but that is not our usual conception of the universe, so as far as we know it is not alive. The concept of life may not be precisely defined but it is quite restrictive. It is important to get right what it does apply to and what it does not apply to.[1]

 

[1] A note about the connection between consciousness and life: the former is neither necessary nor sufficient for the latter. Not necessary because many living things are not conscious (plants obviously), and not sufficient because we can conceive of non-living robots that are conscious. In the case of conscious robots we have a curious hybrid in that while their bodies may not be living things their minds may be: the body may lack organic development (being born as “adults”) but they could be designed so as to develop and grow mentally. They would thus be physically lifeless but mentally alive. Isn’t this just how some fictional robots appear?

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Phenomenological Knowledge

Phenomenological Knowledge

 

 

There is debate concerning our ability to know the nature of alien consciousness, but there is no debate concerning our ability to know the nature of our own consciousness. It is argued that we can’t know what it is like to be a bat, but accepted that we can know what it is like to be a human, since human is what we are.[1] Similarly, it is doubted that a blind person can know what it is like to see, but it is not doubted that a seeing person can know what it is like to see. Some maintain, to the contrary, that it is possible to grasp the nature of a consciousness that one does not have: but no one questions whether we can know the consciousness we do have—we assuredly know what thatconsciousness is like. The thought is that one knows consciousness from one’s own case, so of course we know what it is like to be us. I know what it is like to be a normal conscious human since I am one, though it is doubtful that I can grasp other types of consciousness. But is this really so obvious—do I unerringly grasp what is like to be me? Do I occupy such a privileged position with respect to knowing my own phenomenology? Do I, for example, really know what it is like to see? Do I know what it is like to see red, say? Is this alleged knowledge infallible, complete, and unassailable? Is the character of my consciousness transparent to me?

Does a bat know what it is like to be a bat? The answer is surely not: the bat has echolocation experiences but it doesn’t have knowledge of those experiences. It doesn’t have the kind of reflective introspective knowledge that we have of our experiences. It doesn’t have concepts of its experiences, though it has the experiences. Certainly bats have no words for their experiences. There is something it is like to be a bat but bats don’t know what that is (no true justified belief about it). Generalizing, animals don’t tend to know what it’s like to be them, though there is something it’s like. Maybe our close primate cousins know what it’s like to be them, but if so they are the exception in the animal kingdom. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we are the only animals on earth that know what is like to be themselves: only we have the cognitive sophistication necessary to form concepts of our own experiences, and hence have the phenomenological knowledge that we have (as we suppose). That kind of knowledge is by no means an automatic consequence of possessing the experience; it is not a package deal. The fact is one thing; knowledge of it is another. Phenomenological knowledge is superimposed on phenomenology not written into it. Seen from this perspective, it is surprising that we have the kind of phenomenological knowledge we have (or seem to have)—shouldn’t we be as ignorant of our phenomenology as other animals are of theirs? Why then do we uncritically assume that our phenomenological knowledge is so inerrant? Phenomenology is quite hard to know, if other animals are anything to go by, so why assume that we have it down pat? We are pretty bad at grasping the phenomenology of other species, so why assume we are so brilliant at grasping our own?

You might reply that we have an introspective faculty and they don’t. That is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t answer the question: for how does this faculty generate the knowledge in question? Philosophers have spoken of “knowledge by acquaintance”, but no explanation is given of how this works exactly. The thought appears to be that we perceive our own conscious states with the introspective faculty and then somehow derive the concepts and accompanying knowledge from this perception. But perception alone is neither necessary nor sufficient for knowledge, and anyway this whole story is notoriously rickety. What is this “derivation”—is it some kind of “abstraction” in the manner of Locke and Hume? And why should it yield the kind of fullness and infallibility that we tend to ascribe to our phenomenological knowledge? Isn’t it possible that our self-knowledge in this respect should be partial, fallible, superficial, and erroneous? Why should the phenomenological facts be transparently given to us? No doubt the phenomenology evolved first, so why should the later cognitive ability perfectly match the facts it seeks to represent? Maybe the facts exceed what we can know of them, so that we don’t fully grasp even what it is like to see red. Or maybe we misattribute qualities to our experience that they don’t really have. Maybe we only imperfectly grasp what it’s like to be us. Just as we might know more about bat experience than the bat, given its limited cognitive abilities, so a possible being might know more about our experience than we do, given our cognitive limitations. We are certainly not too impressive at saying what it’s like to be us. We can’t put it into words. Our so-called knowledge seems notably inarticulate, purely ostensive, and suspiciously private. Maybe a superior being would disdainfully remark, “Those humans have no idea what it’s like to be a human!”—just as we say the same about bats. A skeptic might even insist that we could be completely wrong about our phenomenology, stressing the distinction between phenomenological facts and knowledge of those facts. So we can’t just assumethat we are omniscient with respect to what it’s like to be us. A human child presumably undergoes a transition from merely possessing a phenomenology to knowing that it does, and it is not to be supposed that this is a move from complete ignorance to complete knowledge; more likely, it is piecemeal and partial, possibly flawed. Curiously, though, it strikes us that we have a kind of godlike insight into our phenomenological make-up, whereas we have no such insight into our bodily make-up. But that would be peculiar given the nature of the facts and our generally feeble grasp of phenomenology (even those little bats defeat us!). When God looks into our visual consciousness he might see there a lot more than is evident to us, with blind spots and areas of error, or even wholesale ignorance. We have some idea of what it’s like to be us, as perhaps chimps have some idea of what it’s like to be them, but that is not to say that we have the kind of superior penetrating knowledge that we tend to assume. For example, there might be phenomenological similarities between vision and hearing that we are oblivious to (as the case of bats would suggest). Or maybe perceptions of shape and color are more distinct than our phenomenological knowledge indicates: what it is like to see the two might be more disparate than we suppose (their difference of objectivity might be clearly etched into the phenomenology). At the extreme a skeptic could hold out the possibility that we are quite wrong about what it’s like to be us—maybe we are much more like bats than we suppose! Maybe our visual experience is not really as we believe it to be. It is not that we are wrong to make the self-ascriptions that we do—we really do see red and feel pain—but when it comes to grasping the natureof our experience our knowledge might be quite defective. If so, our self-knowledge is closer to our knowledge of others than we uncritically suppose: we partially grasp the nature of bat experience but we also only partially grasp the nature of our own experience. It is not that we are totally inept in the alien case but magically flawless in the home case; it is more a matter of degree. If our introspective eye could be magnified tenfold, we might be surprised at how our phenomenology looks: it might look a lot richer and stranger than it does now. It might indeed strike us as undeniably alien.

Suppose we came to the conclusion that we don’t know what it’s like to be us—to see, hear, smell, taste, feel, etc. We could then argue that our consciousness can’t be reduced to the brain because we have no such cognitive limitation with respect to the brain: our ignorance of our phenomenology is not matched by our ignorance of the brain. This would be an anti-materialist argument of the same form as the classic bat argument, but without the bats. If we can’t know what it’s like to be us but we can know all about our brain, then facts about what it’s like can’t be facts about the brain. We would be more ignorant of our phenomenology than materialism can explain.[2]

 

Colin McGinn

 

 

 

 

[1]Thomas Nagel argues thus in “What Is It Like to be a Bat?” and many others too.

[2] We could call this the “ignorance argument”: just as we are more ignorant of a bat’s mind than materialism can explain, given that we can have complete knowledge of a bat’s brain, so we might be more ignorant of our own mind than materialism can explain, given that we can have complete knowledge of our brain. This provides a new twist to a familiar line of thought.

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Is Biology a Normative Science?

 

 

Is Biology a Normative Science?

 

 

At first sight biology would appear to be steeped in normative concepts. Animals act for their own individual good or for the good of their offspring or for the good of the species,[1] and their organs are designed to promote these goods. Biologists speak of adaptations, where an adaptation is a trait that benefits an organism, or possibly other organisms—it is a trait that contributes to wellbeing in some way. The OED defines “adaptation” thus: “a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment”: the phrase “better suited” is normatively loaded (as normally understood). Adaptive traits contribute to fitness, health, survival, flourishing, robustness—all these are normative notions. It is a good thing to be adaptive. We might naively suppose that adaptations help ward off death, which is a bad thing, so that makes them things of value. We might even suppose that adaptations promote the happiness of organisms (in those organisms capable of happiness): they make the animal less prone to disease or injury or hunger or loneliness. Evolution produces, by means of mutation and natural selection, organisms that are constituted so as to live longer and do better than their evolutionary rivals—the “survival of the fittest”. The fitter the organism the better it will perform in the race to reproduce and pass on its genes, so evolution favors the good—health, wealth, and happiness. It favors strength, speed, agility, beauty, intelligence, and the absence of neurosis—all those good things. So we might suppose that biology as a science is concerned to study the means and mechanisms that contribute to something of value: life, health, and fitness. Its theme song is “I Will Survive”.

But this naïve picture is apt to make the professional biologist wince, precisely because it interprets biology as centrally concerned with questions of value. Physics and chemistry don’t deal with value, so how can biology be a “natural science” if it does deal with value? Worse, isn’t value really a subjective matter? We like to say that life is good (and death bad), and that happiness is better than misery, but these are subjective value judgments not reports of objective fact. What if other intelligent beings made different judgments of value—wouldn’t that mean that biology is only relatively true? No, biology must be purged of all such subjective normative notions, on pain of not being an objective science. Admittedly, it may be conceded, the vocabulary of biology might naturally be interpreted in a normative manner, but that is merely superficial; all these terms can be defined without reliance on normative notions, which are merely heuristic. Thus we can define an adaptation as a trait that maximizes the number of an organism’s offspring, or a trait that ensures the maximal propagation of genes into future generations. There is nothing normatively good about this property; we define it in strictly mathematical and descriptive terms. Evolution produces organisms that outperform their rivals at causing a certain outcome—offspring creation or gene propagation. We don’t say whether this is good or bad, merely a fact. The biologist quabiologist is not concerned with the value of life in the way we are concerned with it as moral beings that make value judgments; he or she is normatively neutral about life and death, merely regarding them as biological facts that affect the power of organisms to generate copies of themselves or their genes. Thus biology is an objective science as “natural” as physics and chemistry, and not mired in the subjectivity of the normative. It is true that the facts it describes and explains are correlated with things we treat as having value–being alive for longer (surviving) is correlated with producing more offspring than your rivals—but biology is not concerned with value as such. It is no doubt good to be healthy, but health is only relevant to biology as a fact that can contribute to offspring generation. Medicine cares about health in the normative sense—doctors strive to realize an admittedly valuable thing—but biology as a science is not concerned with such matters. Doctors are ethical beings by profession, but biologists are scientists—they deal only in facts. Any appearance to the contrary can easily be removed by appropriate redefinition.

Let’s consider some thought experiments. Suppose that a certain trait has the property that it increases procreative productivity but decreases wellbeing in the ordinary sense: it makes the organism have more offspring but at the same time it makes it less healthy, less long-lived, less happy. Picture this as an odd kind of disease that causes all the organism’s energy resources to go into its reproductive organs. Conspecifics that lack this trait live longer, are healthier, and enjoy life more, but they don’t produce as many children; maybe their reproductive years are simply fewer, while their sicklier comrades go on reproducing to the bitter end (fewer kids, good life; lots of kids, rotten life). According to the objective conception of biology, the latter organisms are more adaptive, fitter, and more biologically successful than their healthier counterparts. Or suppose that the sicklier organisms produce sicklier offspring compared to the less procreative but healthy organisms: there are more of them but they are not as robust and full of the joy of life. Then they are more reproductively “successful” than their rivals, if we define success numerically, simply because there are more of them. Suppose that intelligence causes animals to restrict the number of their offspring, the better to take care of the kids they have, so that intelligence acts counter-reproductively: that would lead to less intelligent animals having more kids. So intelligence wouldn’t be an adaptation in the biologist’s objective sense: it wouldn’t lead to comparatively higher reproductive productivity. So what we regard as good when making value judgments is not “good” in the biologist’s austere sense. Suppose that a species has two sorts of member, the sort that retain consciousness throughout life and the sort that have consciousness only up to an certain age, after which they become zombies. However, the loss of consciousness has no impact on reproductive fitness; in fact it enhances it because it allows more resources to be directed to the reproductive organs. Then whatever value life has in the ordinary sense evaporates when the age of unconsciousness begins, though in the biologist’s sense these zombie organisms are a roaring biological success—look how many of them there are! If you are a biologist member of this species, you might relish the loss of consciousness because it will enable you to outdo your rivals in the reproduction stakes—though of course you will derive no pleasure from this victory, since you are a zombie. What these thought experiments all illustrate is that the objective non-normative notion of adaptation (and allied notions) can logically come apart from the ordinary normative notions we bring to biological understanding. What is bad in the ordinary sense becomes “good” in the stipulated sense, and what is good becomes “bad”.

Now it is not that this stipulation is impossible or contradictory, but it is instructive to see how far it departs from ordinary notions of fitness, success, adaptation, etc. In order to make biology like physics and chemistry we have to detach it from the ordinary understanding of the form and function of organisms. We normally think that the form and function of organisms contributes to their wellbeing, health, happiness, and life expectancy—all regarded as valuable things—but we are told that this is of no concern to biology as a science, which deals only in causal relations between traits and their reproductive consequences. As things actually stand, these two levels coincide, more or less, but this is not a necessary truth; and once we separate the two we see how far the official conception of biology departs from our ordinary conception of organisms. What I want to suggest now is that we should not accept the elimination of commonsense biology, indeed that it is quite wrong to suppose that a normative biology is somehow unscientific or lacking in objectivity. The first, and weaker, claim I want to make is that there is room for both sorts of biology, properly distinguished: we can do objective biology in the sense outlined and we can do a normatively loaded type of biology closer to common sense. There certainly are facts of the kind identified by the austerely objective type of biology, so it is possible to study these facts; but there are also facts of the kind the second type of biology recognizes—facts of health, flourishing, happiness, etc. There is nothing to stop us from studying how these facts are produced and what their consequences are. We can investigate what traits are adaptive with respect to these facts—what traits are apt to lead to their obtaining. Strong muscles, an effective immune system, efficient digestion—these all help to produce valuable states of organisms (life, pleasure, vigor). The imaginary organisms I described will have adaptive traits in this sense, though not perhaps in the other sense, since their health, happiness, and continued life depend on their biological make-up. So we can envisage two types of biology, each focusing on a specific kind of fact—reproductive fecundity or valuable states of conscious beings. These subjects can coexist and are not in competition with each other. We could call them “normative biology” and “non-normative biology”. A given biologist might identify as a normative biologist, while others are proud non-normative biologists (compare social and physical anthropology).

But it may still be insisted that the normative type of biology is not objective, not scientific, and not factual. To this I make two replies: the first is that this is a substantive stance in philosophical value theory, not a datum we are required to accept. According to value objectivists, the value of life and happiness (etc.) is objective, absolute, and incontrovertible—not subjective, relative, and disputable. So we can’t just assume as a dogma that where there is value there must be subjectivity; nor that value and science are incompatible. This may be a philosophical opinion common among biologists, but it is not an opinion we are obliged to endorse. I certainly don’t, but I won’t pursue the matter now. The second, and more telling, reply is that it is a biological process that has caused value to come into the world: evolution by natural selection is a value-generator, an engine of the normative. For evolution is what has led to the thing we call life, to consciousness, to freedom, to knowledge, even to virtue: these are biological phenomena, i.e. results of biological processes—as much as hearts and kidneys, species and genes. For example, pain is an adaptation brought about by mutation and natural selection—a biological trait built into the genes—and pain has a normative dimension, i.e. it is bad. It hurts, it is not something we desire, it is connected to death; a life with it is worse than one without. So actually it is the duty of a biologist to be interested in value: it is part of his subject matter. It is an aspect of the evolutionary process.[2] Not that the evolutionary process aimed at value, but it did bring things of value into the world—they are a biological outcome, like teeth and flesh. Evolution caused there to be things of value in the world (this is not to say that it caused them to be valuable). And aren’t biologists supposed to be interested in the products of evolution? Darwin’s great book is called The Origin of Species, but he could have also written a book called The Origin of Value. According to the rival theory, God is behind the origin of value since he intentionally created beings about which value judgments can be made—and God was generally supposed the origin of all value. Darwin tells us that value was created by a natural process beginning with value-neutral materials (inorganic matter): that is, the traits of animals that have value (positive or negative) arose by a process that had no value at its origin or in its mode of operation. That is a highly significant claim, and one that every biologist should heed. So the biologist must study the organism as an entity laden with value; and part of that is recognizing that its traits contribute to the value of the organism’s life. When we say that organs of the body and mind are adaptive we mean (or should mean) that they contribute to valuable states of the organism. These can vary from hedonic states to cognitive states to moral states, depending on the organism. Granted that it is good to he happy, good to know things, and good to be virtuous, we can say that biology is properly concerned with the value of these products of the evolutionary process. If eyes lead to knowledge, then eyes are good, because knowledge is good; if taste buds lead to pleasure, then taste buds are good, because pleasure is good; and so on. Traits enable good things and hence are adaptive with respect to those things. They may also be adaptive in a non-normative sense by producing an outcome that lacks any normative dimension, such as the sheer number of offspring or the volume of genes that get passed on. I would regard the latter as a derivative notion of adaptation; the primary notion relates to facts with normative significance. Likewise, when we speak of “fitness” we primarily mean it in the ordinary normative sense; the non-normative use is a derivative sense. There is really nothing wrong with accepting that biology is steeped in normative notions, and we may as well acknowledge that fact. Biology is more like medicine than physics.[3]

 

C

[1] Actually animals never act “for the good of the species”, but people talk this way clearly intending a normative assertion.

[2] I hope it is clear that this claim is not tantamount to some sort of biological reductionism about value, as that “good” is definable as “what natural selection selects”. It is merely the claim that the things that are valuable are precisely the things that have evolved by biological processes, particularly states of mind. So the biologist is unavoidably studying things that have intrinsic value. It is a good question whether any evolutionary process will inevitably lead to things with value built into them.

[3] Medicine is really applied biology, so the notions it works with (notably health) need to be grounded in biological fact; and so they are because biology deals with facts that have value. Psychology is a branch of biology, and psychological facts are the locus of value.

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