Fiction, Fact, and Science

 

Fiction, Fact, and Science

 

 

A library divides its books into two sections: fiction and non-fiction. The assumption is that fiction is concerned with fictions while non-fiction is concerned with facts. Science books will appear in the non-fiction section, being concerned with facts. Novels will appear in the fiction section, being concerned with fictions. Works of fiction are fictitious—they consist of falsehoods; works of science are “factitious”—they deal in truths. This is a neat arrangement and it facilitates the finding of books. But it is seriously misleading, if not downright erroneous. The obvious point is that so-called works of fiction contain a lot of truth, especially if they are good.[1]Not everything said or implied by a novel is fictitious, i.e. untrue; much may be profoundly true. Standard dictionary definitions make room for this point: thus the OEDdefines “fiction” as “prose literature, especially novels, describing imaginary events and people”. This is compatible with accepting that novels alsoconvey important truths—they are only partlyfictitious. Indeed, they convey truths byconstructing fictions; and that, arguably, is their main point. About what do they convey truths? About, as we like to say, human nature: human emotion, action, morality, mortality, stupidity, virtue, etc. When you read a novel you learn about human behavior, human motivation, human experience, the human heart. If a novel were completely false to human nature, it would not interest us. So we read fiction (in part) to learn facts: much of fiction is non-fiction. It would not be wrong to place novels in the non-fiction section away from the astrology books or alternative medicine tracts or religious tomes.

Can we define fiction in terms of imaginary events and people? A novel presents an imaginary world of people and things undergoing various changes, while a work of non-fiction like a science book deals only in real things. But this would be wrong, because the imagination does enter into the content of works of non-fiction. Consider the thought-experiment, that staple of philosophy and science: this is an imaginary scenario designed to convey truths (e.g. Einstein riding on a beam of light, a Gettier case). We engage in counterfactual suppositions and ask what to say about them. We thus traffic in fictions. They are not put forward as descriptions of reality, but they help us know reality better; no one is misled or complains of falsehood masquerading as truth. In this they resemble the sentences of a novel. So we could say that works of science can contain fictions as well as facts—just like novels. Both contain both. The imagination is employed in both contexts.[2]And it serves an instrumental purpose: to convey truths. Indeed, I think it is illuminating to say that a novel isa thought-experiment: it constructs an imaginary scenario and spells out its consequences as they are manifested over time. Suppose persons A, Band Cto be in situation S; then such and such would or might ensue. As a result of this exercise of imagination we gain a better insight into human nature (I’m not saying this is allwe get from reading a novel). So science and literature can be said to employ thought-experiments, which is to say imagination. If so, we cannot distinguish between the two by saying that fiction uses imagination while non-fiction (e.g. science) does not. Nor can we distinguish them by saying that fiction is not concerned with truth while non-fiction is, since both are.

My thesis is that fiction is a kind of science in which the thought-experiment plays a particularly prominent role. The novelist is a type of scientist. Recent trends in literary studies have played with the idea that science might be a type of fiction; I am suggesting that fiction is a type of science. What is it a science of? Of human nature obviously: it is a concerted effort to arrive at general truths of human nature, based upon observation and analysis. It looks for causes and laws, hidden mechanisms, deep truths. It is a branch of human psychology and sociology and anthropology—the branch concerned with specific people in specific situations. So novels belong in the science section of the library, the section containing physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, etc. They are works of scientific exploration directed towards describing and understanding human beings in situ. They are not pseudo science or supernaturalism or myth or fairy tale (though those forms can have scientific aims too): they are naturalistic studies of a certain natural phenomenon—the human animal in its natural niche (society). As such they tend to be concerned with particular human types and how these types interact. The form of the novel—a lengthy thought-experiment—is designed to elucidate human types and their characteristic interactions. And when a novel succeeds it enlightens us about matters of fact. Thus there is no deep reason to separate works of fiction and works of fact—literature from science. All are in the same basic business.

Let me cite three classic authors to illustrate this position: Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and George Eliot. All wrote at the beginning of the nineteenth century when the “realistic novel” took shape, and all lived at a time of critical scientific importance. I am talking particularly about Charles Darwin, but there were other scientific developments that coincided with this period in English letters. This was the age of naturalism. I won’t discuss these authors in detail but just make some general observations. Jane Austen writes about romantic passion and its relation to marriage during a particular period of British history; and she explores the many types of personality that populate this fraught socioeconomic landscape. She is particularly concerned with human error about the feelings of other people, but also with the fleeting period during which “attachments” may form and marriage becomes possible and necessary (notably for women). She minutely examines the interplay between money and marriage, with special attention to manners and class. Thackeray is also much concerned with human types, but dwells more on human weaknesses of various kinds, and the unlimited possibilities of human suffering. His landscape (“Vanity Fair”) captures the injustice and randomness of human happiness and misery, especially in the matter of inheritance and money. He casts a beady eye on human vanity and social striving, sharply distinguishing the types with which he is concerned. He is a naturalist of the human condition as it then obtained, often tracing adult behavior back to childhood experience. Heroism is sacrificed to unblinking accuracy in his narrative. His world is ruthlessly Darwinian (in the vulgar sense): it is all about survival in a hostile environment. George Eliot is overtly interested in science and makes frequent mention of it (microscopes and telescopes); she refers to John Locke, one of the early scientists of human nature. It is known that she read and was influenced by Darwin; his mark is clearly present in her pages. She adopts a scientist’s perspective on her subjects, again concerned with human types and their characteristic behavior. She is analytical and objective, quite unsentimental. The reader feels she is doing for human society what Darwin did for the animal kingdom. The naturalistic scientific attitude pervades her work.

The nineteenth-century novel thus enters a scientific phase similar to that of the natural sciences, particularly biology: close impartial observation, shunning of the supernatural, descriptive precision. The novel is simply the linguistic form that the scientific impulse took at that time (psychology and sociology as we now know them did not exist then). So these novels can be regarded as the works of naturalists of human nature—hence as scientific studies. They are not sermons or recitations of divine providence or the repetition of traditional pieties; they come from keen observation of the natural world. One thing that stands out in all three novelists is the dialogue: it is scrupulously naturalistic, not biblical or Homeric or Shakespearean. People are described as speaking exactly as they actually do speak, as if recorded by the author—which is a source of verisimilitude as well as amusement. Here we have the field linguist setting down his data without preconception or prejudice. This is pure anthropology. There is thus no deep discontinuity between what the novelist does and what a scientist might do: both are concerned with the truth, and empirical observation is the preferred method of arriving at it (not consulting tradition and ancient texts).

I think what I am saying would have been found very reasonable at the time these novels were written, but since then lines of demarcation have been more starkly drawn. The concept of science has hardened and rigidified–now conjuring up images of labs and particle accelerators, with heavy infusions of mathematics. Then too, we have the institutional divisions of a modern university (with its library arrangements). But that was not the conception of earlier scientists, for whom the roving naturalist was the paradigm (hence “natural philosopher”). The naturalistic novelist was simply taking this one stage further: he or she is a scientist of human society. The fictional form seemed the obvious way to express the insights gleaned. Scientists and philosophers had adopted the dialogue form to add drama to disquisition (Plato, Galileo), so it was natural to use drama as a way to express insight into human affairs. There is just no sharp line here. Literature and science are not opposed to each other; both have the same ultimate goal. The bifurcation into fiction and non-fiction is therefore superficial and spurious. This is why Freud found it plausible to suggest that works of fiction predate some of his ideas—precisely because they contain insights into human psychology. He was expressing in discursive theoretical form what they expressed in literary dramatic form: the same truths are being communicated.[3]So if Freud was a scientist of the human psyche, then so were the novelists who preceded him.

Suppose that what you took to be fiction turned out to be fact: the novel you just read was actually reporting real events happening to real people. And suppose it contained some startling insights into human psychology, perhaps of a general nature. The same insights might be discovered by a psychologist who chooses to express them in non-fiction form. Wouldn’t that be enough to warrant describing the novel as a scientific work? But any novel could turn out to be factually true—that is always an epistemic possibility. So, if the novel contains information that would count as scientific outside of the novel form, wouldn’t that make it count as scientific itself? The fact that a standard novel uses a thought-experiment to establish general factual truths should not detract from its status as a scientific work—any more than thought-experiments in physics render physics non-scientific. I would say that the three novelists I mentioned were not only scientists but great scientists—right up there with Darwin and company. They delved deep into the human soul.[4]

 

Colin

[1]Of course, if novels describe possible worlds, and possible worlds are real, then novels describe reality, so that everything they say is literally true of somepossible world. But I will put this on one side and consider only what they say about the actual world.

[2]The imagination is also involved in the creation of scientific theories, as has often been noted. Science also employs idealizations and “useful fictions”. It is not just the bare recording of fact.

[3]I don’t mean to suggest that I think Freud’s theories are true (on the contrary), but it was not wrong of him to find in literature a fund of psychological knowledge. The idea that academic psychology will never overtake literature as a source of psychological insight is also not wide of the mark, suggesting that literature constitutes a superiortype of science.

[4]Part of the point in insisting on the scientific status of the novel is the honorific connotations of the word “science”—we shouldn’t let them accrue only to certain speciesof scientist.

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Against Family Resemblance

 

Against Family Resemblance

 

 

After the well-known section on games in Philosophical Investigations(section 66), Wittgenstein writes: “I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, color of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.”[1](67) He then goes on to suggest that the kinds of numbers “form a family in the same way”. He gives no further examples, though he employs the concept to characterize language: “I am saying that these phenomena [linguistic phenomena] have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all, but that they are relatedto one another in many different ways.” (65) There is not much to go on here, given how important the notion of family resemblance is to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, but I think we have enough to raise some serious objections to what he says. I am going to argue that the concepts in question are not family resemblance concepts, and indeed that there are not and cannot be any such concepts.  The whole idea is a mistake—and not for any particularly profound reasons. Wittgenstein’s laconic remarks are full of errors, confusions, and non-sequiturs.

The first point I want to make is that the concept of a family resemblance concept is not itself a family resemblance concept. Consider the class of family resemblance concepts—say, game, number, languageand art(not mentioned by Wittgenstein): do they have any common feature? Yes, they are all such as not to be defined by a common feature but by a series of overlapping similarities—that is the common feature they all share. Wittgenstein has given us a general definition of the term “family resemblance concept” such that anything denoted by it satisfies that definition; it is not just that the concepts are similar in certain ways, as games are said to be. So we know there is at least one non-family resemblance concept, viz. family resemblance concept. This is a bit ironic and certainly not noted by Wittgenstein: it should make us wonder about the generality of the idea. It renders contradictory the claim (not made by Wittgenstein) that all concepts are family resemblance concepts, since thatconcept isn’t a family resemblance concept. It also raises the question of how widespread family resemblance is according to Wittgenstein, and why it has the extension it does. Does he think it is limited to the examples he mentions? And what is it about these examples that requires the use of family resemblance concepts instead of common feature concepts? It would be odd if such a heterogeneous group were the only instances of the phenomenon, with all other concepts proudly possessing uniting common features. The notion doesn’t seem to have been systematically thought out and looks suspiciously ad hoc.

Now consider what is meant by “family resemblance” (elsewhere Wittgenstein speaks of “family likeness” and we could also say “family similarity”). This is not the same notion as that of belonging to the same family: that is a matter of parentage and genetic transmission, and is presumably not counted by Wittgenstein as a family resemblance concept. He is talking about various observable traits typically shared by members of the same biological family, as his list suggests. He doesn’t confine the notion to visual appearances, since he includes temperament, and he could have included aptitudes, intelligence, religious beliefs, etc. There are a great many respects of similarity between human beings. Nor does the notion coincide with membership in a biological family: some members of a family are not similar to any other members, and some people from outside the family look just like people in it. The class of people who are notably similar to members of a given family is distinct from the class of people actually making up the family. These are really completely different concepts. In fact, Wittgenstein need not have invoked familyresemblance at all; he could have just spoken about similarity in general. Take three cars, a,b, and c, where aand bhave the same color but are not the same model, while band care the same model but not the same color. Car a is similar to car bin respect of color but not similar to car cin that respect, whileband care similar in respect of model but not color.[2]Thus we see the non-transitivity of similarity: ais similar to band bis similar to c, but ais not similar to c. The same could be true of individuals exhibiting family resemblance. So Wittgenstein is really drawing attention to the way the concept of similarity works—not a very startling insight. The question is whether similarity relations can ground a unified concept.

Notice that there is no unified (non-disjunctive) concept that corresponds to the list Wittgenstein offers. What concept do we have that expresses likeness of eyes, mouth, gait, and temperament? We might try to manufacture a concept, say Smith-ish, to characterize a certain family’s appearance, where not all members of the Smith family are Smith-ish and some non-members are Smith-ish: but this a pretty feeble concept with little internal unity. And the reason for that is that mere similarity in a respect is no basis for a concept, since everythingis similar to a given thing in somerespect. The class is simply too heterogeneous to be worth picking out. This is not so for the concept of a family, which is far more constrained; and one can’t help suspecting that Wittgenstein’s choice of familysimilarity illicitly trades on this other source of conceptual unity. For familyis a unified (common feature) concept while family resemblanceis not—it could include members of (say) my family as well as assorted people distributed across the globe who look or behave like me in some respect or other. To look like someone that looks like Winston Churchill is no basis for a usable concept (it includes certain breeds of dog or even clouds). That is why there simply is no concept that corresponds to Wittgenstein’s list. It amounts to an uninteresting disjunction: xlooks like a member of family Fif and only if xeither has the eyes of For the nose of For the mouth or the gait or the temperament or the size or the color or the religious beliefs of F, etc.

Then what are we to say about Wittgenstein’s alleged examples—aren’t theyexisting unified concepts that are characterized merely by non-transitive similarity? The question is whether games are linked by nothing butfamily resemblance: is there really nothing they have in common? Two points may be made. First, Bernard Suits’ analysis of the concept of a game refutes this contention: a game is a rule-governed activity in which the player voluntarily chooses an inefficient means to achieve the goal of the game. I won’t go into this here; it has been amply discussed elsewhere.[3]What I will say is that the existence of such an analysis is entirely predictable, given the unity of the concept of a game and the complete lack of unity exhibited by the pattern of similarities and dissimilarities to which Wittgenstein draws attention. Second, why can’t we say that what is in common to all games is that they are all games? That is, we treat the concept of a game as primitive and unanalyzable (we might add that all games are played). Consider the concept of a line: there are all sorts of lines—long, short, squiggly, curved, straight, open, closed, etc.—and it is hard to find one such feature that all lines share. So is the concept of a line a family resemblance concept? Why not say—what seems obvious—that the concept of a line is primitive and cannot be explained in other terms? Wittgenstein appears to be presupposing that if a concept isn’t analyzable it must be a family resemblance concept—he conveniently forgets about the possibility that it is indefinable. Compare color and shape concepts: here too we have a great variety of things that fall under these concepts and no possibility of unifying them by citing a specific color or shape. So what? Why not accept that the concepts colorand shapehave no non-circular definition, yet apply to very heterogeneous extensions? The same goes for animalor particle: these come in great variety too and it is hard to define the concepts in non-circular fashion—but why leap to the idea of family resemblance instead of accepting indefinability? And notice that Wittgenstein never cites such examples, presumably because it is obvious that the indefinability response is plausible. So we are certainly not compelled to accept the family resemblance theory—even if it were coherent—in order to handle the case of games. In fact, the concept of a game has sources of unity quite other than that (dubiously) provided by family resemblance.

The case of numbers is even more glaring, and it seems distinctly odd for Wittgenstein to choose this example to illustrate his thesis. What do cardinal numbers, rational numbers, and real numbers have in common? Well, we could just say they are all numbersand admit that the concept cannot be defined; or we could note that all numbers are subject to mathematical operations such as addition, subtraction, and division–or that they come in different sizes, belong in number series, and can be used for measuring and counting. There is actually a lotthey have in common. More adventurously, we might also add that they all admit of set-theoretic construction. You might as well say that organisms have nothing in common or chemical compounds or trees or houses. True, there is a lot of variety in those classes, but that doesn’t preclude a common feature—either expressed by the concept in question or by some analysis of it. Wittgenstein never makes a convincing case for the thesis that any of these concepts mustbe treated as family resemblance concepts. Nor can such a treatment confer the kind of unity possessed by these concepts. How, say, can Wittgenstein explain the fact that golf is a game but hitting stones with sticks to clear a patch of land is not? There is an obvious similarity between these activities, yet one is clearly a game and the other is definitely not.[4]Similarity in some respect is a hopelessly weak relation to ground a concept, because it is so cheaply obtained. A different principle of grouping is needed.

What about language? There are certainly different dimensions of similarity among words: words can sound alike but not mean alike and vice versa, for example. But is there really nothing they have in common? Don’t they all contribute to forming sentences, and don’t all sentences have meaning and grammar? By all means let’s recognize the variety of linguistic forms, but why deny that anything can be said more generally? Aren’t all words and sentences usable in acts of communication? Isn’t human language a species-specific biologically given trait with infinite potential? There is plenty we can say generally about language. True, it is a mistake to suppose that every sentence expresses a proposition, as the Tractatusclaimed, but there is no need to go to the other extreme and declare that there is no common feature at all to language. Moreover, many things that don’t belong to language are similar to things that do, so similarity alone cannot be grounds for inclusion under the concept. The screeching of tires could sound like a cry for help, but it isn’t a part of language. The humming of a bee’s wings is not part of its language, though its dances are; and our dances are similar to theirs but not part of our language. Mere similarity to a paradigm in some respect is nothing to the point.[5]

In sum: there are no good examples of family resemblance concepts; the notion is incoherent; and the concept itself is not an instance of itself.

 

Col

[1]Why he puts the word “games” in inverted commas here I don’t know, since he clearly means to be talking about games not the word “games”: but let that pass.

[2]He might also have spoken of racial resemblance where much the same pattern of similarities and differences obtains.

[3]See Bernard Suits, The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia(1978). I discuss the matter in Truth By Analysis: Games, Names, and Philosophy(2012), chapter 2.

[4]Compare Suits’ remark: “For if family resemblance were the reason they are nearly all called games, then it would be puzzling, I submit, why a cop chasing a robber is notcalled a game.” (173)

[5]It is notable that when Wittgenstein is trying to explain his notion of a family resemblance concept he falls back on metaphors in order to capture conceptual unity, specifically the metaphor of a thread made up of overlapping fibers. But this does nothing to render his theory intelligible, since it is just a metaphor.

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Modal Objectivism

 

 

 

Modal Objectivism

 

 

It is now almost fifty years since Kripke made his celebrated distinction between epistemic and metaphysical necessity.[1]He pointed out that not all necessary truths are known a priori: for example, it is not a priorithat this table is made of wood, but it is a necessary truth—this very table could not have been made of plastic. Similarly for water and H2O, heat and molecular motion, a person and his origin, an animal and its species, etc. Since these necessities are not a priorithey are not analytic, i.e. a consequence of the concepts involved. Thus it follows that they do not depend on our concepts: they do not arise from the content of our thoughts or the meaning of our words. To that extent they are not mind-dependent. It would be tempting to conclude that Kripke established the objectivity of necessary truths: he established that there are necessary facts obtaining independently of minds. This table would necessarily be made of wood even in the absence of human beings and their minds (or any other form of intelligence). Kripke certainly talks this way, without making explicit that he is affirming modal objectivity. If necessity doesn’t depend on our concepts, but on “the world”, doesn’t it follow that it obtains independently of minds? And isn’t it intuitively obvious that water is necessarily H2O whether or not anyone refers to or thinks about water?Likewise, isn’t it obvious that water is only contingently found on earth whether or not anyone talks about water? Aren’t these objective modal facts once we distinguish them from analytic and a prioritruths? So doesn’t Kripke’s distinction establish modal objectivity? I certainly have assumed as much for the last fifty years.

But the matter is not so obvious on reflection: for there are other ways to formulate modal subjectivism than by equating necessity with analytic or a prioritruth. So the correctness of Kripke’s distinction does not entailmodal objectivism. For instance, one might claim that modality consists in dispositions to produce impressions of modality—as color consists in dispositions to produce impressions of color.[2]Thus for this table to be necessarily made of wood is for it to be disposed to cause in subjects the impression that it is necessarily made of wood. If that were so, the necessity would not be mind-independent; in the absence of minds there would be no such modal fact (compare colors). In other words, if modal properties were secondary qualities they would not be objective. And to be a secondary quality is not to be a priorior analytic: it is not a priorior analytic that this table is brown, but being brown is mind-dependent (assuming the dispositional analysis of color). Thus modal subjectivism is logically compatible with accepting Kripke’s distinction. For all Kripke has said, modality is entirely in the mind not in the world, de mentenot de re. Similarly, someone who believes that necessity arises from our practices of individuation will also reject strong modal objectivism, since necessity will then depend on the human agent. Suppose it is claimed that we individuate the table by means of its composition not by its location (since it moves around) and that is why we rate its composition as necessary. Such a theorist would be committed to a mind-dependent view of so-called metaphysical necessity. The impression of necessity is a function of our practice of identifying and re-identifying objects; there is no more to it than those practices. Or again, suppose the theorist is an expressivist in a variety of domains (ethics, aesthetics, probability) and wishes to apply this doctrine to modality, holding that “This table is necessarily made of wood” merely expresses an attitude about the table not a fact about it. It is a fact that the table is made of wood but not a fact that it is necessarilymade of wood—that is no more an objective fact than the “fact” that torture is wrong. Both are expressions of human sensibility. Such a view implies that modality is not an objective matter—a matter of facts obtaining independently of human sensibility. But it is not the doctrine that all necessity is a priori. Modal subjectivism can take other forms.

Now it is not that I take any of these views seriously: I am a convinced objectivist about the metaphysics of metaphysical necessity. I am merely indicating a gap in the argument for modal objectivism. The question is how to close this gap, given that Kripke’s distinction isn’t sufficient. And here the matter grows murkier—more profound, if you will. For it is not clear how to argue for the objectivist position: we have here a clash of basic intuitions. The modal subjectivist can’t see how objective reality could contain modal ingredients to be set beside tables, piece of wood, particle and planets–as she can’t see how values can exist objectively alongside facts. The modal objectivist prefers a more expansive view of reality and recoils at the idea of consigning necessity to the subjective world. How can we decide between these views? It is no use appealing to intuitions about what reality would contain in the absence of minds, because those intuitions are likely to conflict according to philosophical predilection. However, there is a type of argument that can at least focus the issue—and which to my mind settles it in favor of objectivism. This is what we can call an inversionargument, familiar from discussions of color. What if Martians see as green what we see as red—would they be wrong? Intuitively the answer is no: they would simply see the same objects differently. Objects have color only relative to a chosen class of perceivers, not in themselves. By contrast, if Martians see as circular what we see as rectangular, one of us would have to be wrong—because shape is objective. Where does modality fall? What if Martians were under the impression that the table is contingently made of wood and necessarily located in a certain place—would that just be a matter of their subjective response, true relative to them? I think not: they would be wrong so to suppose. Clearlylocation is not an essential property of the object, and clearlycomposition is. Likewise, it is not a relative matter whether water is necessarily H2O and contingently in my cup—anyone who thought otherwise would be wrong. The same point can be made about the expressivist and the enthusiast of individuation: inversion does not preserve truth. Modality does not track response; it can falsify response. Modal truth is not response-dependent. So now we have an argument in favor of modal objectivism and can relax into the mode of speech Kripke found so natural, in which we speak of necessity as de re, in the world, an aspect of objective reality. The table in itself is necessarily made of wood no matter what anyone thinks, and water is necessarily H2O irrespective of anyone’s impression. Even if no intelligent beings had ever existed de renecessities would still exist, and contingencies too. Not only is necessity independent of concepts; it is independent of anything mental. Not only are there metaphysical necessities; there are objective metaphysical necessities.[3]

 

[1]Naming and Necessity(1972); originally given as lectures in 1970.

[2]Hume provides the locus classicusof this type of view: causal necessity consists of nothing more than our habit of moving mentally from cause to effect when exposed to constant conjunctions—we project causal necessity onto the world. At least that was the traditional interpretation of Hume, which I reject (along with many Hume scholars): the correct view is that he believed in objective causal necessity but thought we could have no adequate idea of it, though we do have a kind of surrogate idea deriving from our inner inclinations. At any rate, the traditional interpretation gives a model for the type of subjectivism I am interested in describing (but not endorsing).

[3]It is completely unclear to me from Kripke’s text whether he subscribes to modal objectivism as a piece of metaphysics, since he says nothing explicitly on the question; but his general style of talking indicates that he would accept it.

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Generative Economics

Darwin’s theory of evolution includes two generative components: mutation and natural selection. Mutation generates genetic variants and hence phenotypes; natural selection operates on these to produce differential survival. Neither of these generative processes involves intention or intelligence. Thus we have biological novelty without intentional intelligent design. Both processes are blind and driven by non-mental causes. We have creativity without a creator. But Darwin also recognized what he calls artificial selection, as with the selective breeding of dogs (or horses and flowers). Here human beings intentionally direct the course of evolution according to their own preferences, producing dog breeds that would not arise by natural selection. This is not selection by nature but selection by human design and desire. Of course, the process of generation is still natural not artificial: dog breeders rely on the genes to generate dog variants. They don’t make poodles from scratch; they just interbreed dogs and let the genes do their work. So here we have a case of natural generation and artificial selection to be added to the far more common case of natural generation and natural selection. Dog breeders don’t even know how to generate dog variants artificially; they depend upon natural reproduction.

In principle there could be artificial generation combined with natural selection: a type of intelligence creates an organism and then turns it loose in the world to the tender mercies of nature. You could genetically engineer organisms and then let nature select the good from the bad. In effect that is what happens with many human artifacts: they are intelligently created but left for nature mindlessly to destroy or preserve (as with architectural ruins and plastic bags). What about artificial design combined with artificial selection? Can there be intelligently created entities that are then intelligently selected? Of course, there can: machines created by humans and selected by humans to be used as they see fit. Motorcars are propagated by these two modes of generation: first they are designed and manufactured by the use of intelligence; then they are bought and sold in the marketplace by a process of intelligent selection, intentionally and consciously. So there are four logical possibilities in all: natural generation and natural selection, natural generation and artificial selection, artificial generation and natural selection, and artificial generation and artificial selection. Entities can come into existence and reproduce (or be reproduced) by any of these four methods.

There is something strange in Darwin’s terminology, because so-called artificial selection is itself a natural process. The mind is natural and it is what directs selective breeding; there is nothing super-natural going on here.[1]Bees select flowers and hence direct the course of flower evolution: this is not “artificial”. When humans selectively breed animals for their own purposes this is an aspect of their species-specific nature. It would be better to speak of intentional intelligent selection versus selection that is neither. For intelligence is part of nature too. Still, we can keep the terminology for convenience. The question I am interested in is the nature of economic activity; and what I want to maintain is that economic activity is continuous with biology. It is just another form of biological generation. Now it is true that (so far as I know) other animals don’t engage in economic activity, though it would serve my purpose if they did; but that doesn’t prevent us from imagining such activity in animals. So suppose we encountered a species of bird that manufactures nests that it exchanges with other birds for food. Instead of just building a nest for its own use, it builds nests “for sale”. This has become part of its genetic make-up, as much as nest-building itself. We can think of it as instinctual and automatic, like birdsong, and not as reflective and flexible: birds that exchanged nests for food in the past (as a result of some mutation) did better than birds that kept their nests to themselves. Thus a primitive bird economy develops. In such a case we would say that the entire process is part of the bird’s biological endowment. The “buyer” birds would select nests according to their own criteria and a form of competition might develop, which would lead to a selection process. In just such a way human commerce might have originated: humans capable of exchange do better than humans incapable of it. This would also be as biological as digestion and sexual reproduction, whatever the later elaborations (banks, money). It is a form of social behavior rooted in biological imperatives.

So there are two principles of generation at work here: generating the nests and their being selected. Both are “artificial” in Darwin’s strained sense, since they involved goal-directed action. The bird makes the nest not its genes and other birds do the selecting not brute nature. But this doesn’t exclude the phenomenon from the realm of biology. Or again, consider those ants that enslave other ant populations: these “brood parasites” seize the eggs of other ants and bring them back to their own nest where they carry out the work of their “slave-owners”.  Again, I don’t know of any documented cases of ants that then trade their slaves with other ant slave-owners, but the idea is not beyond reason. What if we encountered an ant species that did just that, perhaps because they were better raiders than their potential trading partners? The “buyers” exchange food for slaves, which they find a bargain. This would be an entirely biological arrangement, not introducing any new non-natural principle into biology. Some ants are natural-born slave-traders! No doubt this is deplorable of them, but it is biologically possible. They thus have a nice little economy going here—a system of exchange trading one sort of good for another.

I don’t think it is farfetched to suggest that human economies are analogous. Perhaps they even arose from some such primitive beginnings way back with our ancient ancestors in Africa. In any case, we can say that human productivity and the capacity for economic exchange are part of our biological nature. It turns out that the biological realm includes more than just natural generation and natural selection (in Darwin’s restricted sense); it includes the kind of intentional intelligent design and exchange that we find in human social groups. We can imagine our remote ancestors exchanging primitive tools for other tools or for food; we now do it with computers and cars. Thus from a lofty philosophical perspective economics is a branch of biology involving the basic twin generative processes: first make the product, then sell the product (ensure it is selected by purchasers). There is no discontinuity between genes and nature, on the one hand, and products and purchasers, on the other. There is a smooth transition from natural selection through artificial selection through economic selection. Darwin also included sexual selection in his list of types of selection; I am adding economic selection. Both of these are selection by conscious agents (peacocks and purchasers), but that doesn’t make them beyond the range of biology. Minds are a part of biology too. The dichotomy of culture and biology is artificial and misleading; economics belongs with both.[2]That is, economic culture is just another type of biological phenomenon. It is the same with business culture: that too is continuous with biology. Specifically, it involves the two generative components I have identified: creating the product and then marketing it, i.e. offering it up for selection by purchasers. The structure is the same. Markets are arenas of voluntary action, to be sure, but that doesn’t put them outside of biology or nature. In particular, economics is a generative science in the sense that biology is: it involves the generation of entities from raw materials and the generation of further entities by means of market forces. Production is like embryogenesis and buying and selling is like the selective survival of the fittest. Products go extinct if no one buys them, as animals go extinct if nature stops selecting them. We might even say that the Darwinian notion of natural competition is modeled on the notion of economic competition. Animals compete with each other in much the same way that products do. And of course the two intersect, as when animals are bought and sold (some breeds do better in the marketplace than others).

Just as Darwin’s theory is a theory of evolutionary change, so too economics is concerned with economic change—with how goods and services succeed each other in time. It is a dynamic science not a static science. The idea of a purely structural economics is a misguided one: economies are changing evolving structures just like animal species. The change can be slow judged by human standards, but the entire biological world is in constant flux; so too is the economic world. Supply and demand are forever changing. From a meta-economic point of view, then, economics shares the basic structure of biology (the same is true of linguistics and psychology—and even philosophy). In linguistics we are used to the idea that a grammar generates an infinite array of sentences—it is not merely a structural description; in economics too we should also think of economic mechanisms as generative—of products and of their adoption. A successful product is very like a thriving organism: there will be many instances of them and they will outperform the competition. This is the theoretical framework to adopt when considering the foundations of economics as a science. Economics is a generative biological science (so it is not like mathematics or logic). Capitalism, say, is a species of economic system that replaced feudalism, as mammals replaced dinosaurs. And it is still evolving into variant forms.

Let me suggest another analogy: verbal communication. A speaker is engaged on two generative tasks: (a) producing a grammatically well-formed sentence and (b) ensuring that she is understood by the hearer. The former does not entail the latter, which requires an additional generative effort—sufficient volume, getting the hearer’s attention, saying something interesting, etc. Similarly, the genes must produce an anatomically well-formed organism and one that will survive the pressures of natural selection—particularly, those arising from competition for resources and mates. Similarly again, a product must not only be functionally well designed but must also achieve market penetration in a competitive economic environment. The entrepreneur is like a speaker striving to be heard in a cacophonous world: she needs a sound product but also the means to be heard by potential consumers. It is necessary to generate supply and demand (hence advertising etc.). Whether an animal will survive depends on the world it confronts as well as on its internal structure; but the same is true of a product. A speaker faces the same problem: first produce a good sentence but then ensure it is heard and understood. You have to create understanding as well as what is understood. These are different (though connected) tasks. So economics is not just a generative science; it is a doubly generative science.[3]

 

[1]I discuss this in “The Language of Evolution”, Philosophical Provocations(2017).

[2]I defend this view in “Biology and Culture: an Untenable Dualism”.

[3]This essay is a sequel to my earlier essay, “Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist”.

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Drumming Tutorials

Let me give this more prominence: my demonstration of two new drumming techniques on Youtube. Just go to “Colin McGinn drumming tutorials” on Youtube. My drumming is a bit ropey but you will see the lessons I’m trying to impart.

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Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist

 

 

Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist

 

 

I want to bring these three concepts together to create a meme that will be contagious and contribute to the zeitgeist.[1]First a quick introduction to our principal players: a meme is an idea or action that spreads analogously to the gene; behavioral contagion is the process whereby the actions of some members of a group are copied by other members of the group; the zeitgeist is the sum of all ideas and patterns of behavior prevalent at a given time in a culture. For example, a meme may be a melody or a catchphrase or a fashion; behavioral contagion occurs when yawning spreads from one person to another or mass hysteria grips a mob; the zeitgeist could be the belief system of medieval Europe or the mind-set of industrial capitalism. I want to say that memes are transmitted by behavioral contagion to form the zeitgeist: that is the basic structure of cultural (ideational) formation. I will generalize the concept of behavioral contagion to include not just behavior but also attitudes and ideas—psychological contagion.[2]Emotions can be propagated through a group as well as actions. The notion of contagion is taken from epidemiology: ideas can spread like a disease caught by social contact. Ideas can “go viral” in the sense that they leap from one mind to another, as bodies are invaded by a virus, leaving their mark as they disseminate. Thus the meme is the unit of transmission, psychological contagion is the method of transmission, and the zeitgeist is the totality of items transmitted. The three concepts all belong together.

We can take the gene as our basic model. The gene is the unit of inheritance, the focus of natural selection, and the driver of embryogenesis; it is fundamental to biology. As we know, it consists of DNA molecules—a certain type of physical structure. The gene is transmitted across generations, passing from one organism to another, somewhat like a germ (indeed biologists call this transmission the “germ-line”). Thus genes have the power to combine in one organism and spread to others. They are “contagious”. Inheritance is therefore the analogue of behavioral contagion—the way items replicate and multiply. Genetic transmission is a copying process just like the spread of fads and fashions, theories and obsessions. There is also the so-called gene pool—the totality of genes characterizing a species at a given time (along with the mega gene pool that includes all the genes on the planet at a given time[3]). This is the biological zeitgeist—the analogue of the “Spirit of the Times”. Thus we can map our three concepts onto concepts drawn from genetics: gene and meme, inheritance and psychological contagion, gene pool and culture pool. This provides a theoretical framework for thinking about cultural formation (as theorists have observed). What I am adding is the completion of the analogy to include means of transmission and to the sum-total of what is transmitted (psychological contagion and zeitgeist, respectively).

There is an abstract theoretical structure here: a replicating entity, a method of transmission from one host organism to another, and a repository of all the items capable of such transmission. Memes and genes are special cases of this abstract structure. Are there any other domains in which the structure applies? Written language appears to exemplify it. Words are the replicating units, which combine into larger units (phrases, sentences); writing is the means by which words are disseminated through the population; and libraries are the totalities that result from this dissemination. Words pass from one mind to another by a process of copying (e.g. “To be or not to be”) and books contain totalities of words. Thus we have word units, word transmission, and word pools. Reading and writing (and publishing) are the means by which words propagate and multiply and fill libraries. Indeed, inverting the analogy, we can describe the genome as a library of genetic verbiage, and embryogenesis as a process of “reading” the books of this library. Words produce copies of themselves by being transmitted between people; and a dictionary is a compendium of all the words of a language at a given time (a “lexeme pool”). As there is a spirit of the time, so there is a biosphere of the time, and a language of the time: replicating units that get transmitted through a population. And these three types of “pool” can have a characteristic shape at a given time—say, a religious shape or a dinosaur shape or an eighteenth-century British shape (see Thackeray and Austen). Certain words and styles of speech can be in vogue, or a certain type of organism dominant, or a particular system of thought communally received. These can mutate and be selected for or against, yielding to new formations (e.g. scientific thought, mammals, contemporary American English). Different domains have different categories of zeitgeist and different units of transmission, but the broad structure is common to all—replicating units, a means of spread, and a currently existing totality of favored items.

Is there anything else that exemplifies this structure? Yes: commodities, products, artifacts, bits of technology, machines. I mean to include a broad range of items here, ranging from motorcars to furniture, clothes to life-styles, food to computers. Things that can be bought and sold: these too can be analyzed in the tripartite way outlined. Take computers (or their parts): these are the units, the economic system is the way they are propagated, and the collection of them at a given time is the technological zeitgeist. The units are manufactured and sold, and they form the state of technology at a given time (the zeitgeist shifted when Apple came along). Behavioral contagion explains their widespread adoption. They are selected for or against in the marketplace. They reflect a given stage of technical and business evolution. Books fill libraries as genes fill genomes; commodities fill warehouses in the same way (and homes and offices). Genes, memes, words, and products: all are subject to the same overarching structure, the same logic. If products can’t be replicated or can’t be distributed, they won’t survive in the marketplace—just like genes or memes. Reproduction and transmission are essential, as is intrinsic quality (lousy TVs are as bad as lousy genes or lousy ideas). And the state of contemporary technology (in the broad sense) reflects the state of the world at that point in time—products come and go, as civilizations do, or animal species, or words. The zeitgeist is perishable and may be superseded by a superior zeitgeist (there are plenty of extinct zeitgeists). Thus we can subsume the business world under our general schema. The entrepreneur is swimming in a sea of replicators, contagion, and time-bound constraints—just like the biologist, the librarian, and the historian of ideas. Survival depends on navigating these waters, and it’s good to know what sea you are floating on and how the current flows. The successful entrepreneur needs to be aware of the conceptual structure that underlies and shapes his or her activities.[4]

 

Col

[1]The literal translation is “time-spirit”; apparently Hegel preferred “Geist der Zeiten”, i.e. “Spirit of the Times”.

[2]Behavioral contagion belongs with other forms of social influence such as suggestibility, conformism, imitation, social facilitation, copycat behavior, and the like. What I want to emphasize is the more or less automatic absorption of social trends whereby something comes to permeate a population without any rational deliberation. It is sub-rational, below the radar, and sometimes insidious. Often it occurs by the release of inhibition triggered by an aberrant individual, as in copycat shootings or suicides. At the other extreme we have the general adoption of a particular accent. The human mind seems especially susceptible to this kind of subliminal influence. Memes need it to get off the ground and colonize a population—mere reproducibility is not enough. The channel must exist as well as the replicators that flow through it.

[3]The cosmic gene pool would be all the genes existing in the universe.

[4]I intend this to be the first of a series of essays about the theoretical model described, with special reference to the business world.

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Against the Argument from Design

 

Against the Argument from Design

 

I have a parakeet, Emma, who developed a rather nasty infection about a year ago. Her feet became encrusted with some horrible-looking growth and her beak was discolored and deformed. I took her to the vet who diagnosed a parasite quite common in parakeets (but only in parakeets)—a tiny mite that lives in the feet and beak. A series of injections cured Emma of this ailment by exterminating the invading parasite. This made me think about the argument from design. That argument celebrates the beauty and ingenuity of design found in plants and animals, and argues that only an intelligent designer could explain this excellence of design. It’s like finding a watch in nature and inferring the existence of an intelligent and mighty watchmaker. But don’t parasites put a crimp in that argument? Who would design a creature susceptible to what Emma went through? I don’t mean ethically (though that is a question); I mean rationally. Isn’t it just bad design to make something so vulnerable to breakdown—why not create a parakeet that can’t be hijacked in this way? Suppose the watchmaker constructs a watch that is vulnerable to invasion by a common fungus that clogs up the works when it would be perfectly possible to build in a device that keeps the fungus out. Wouldn’t that be a better design? It is simply unintelligent to design a watch with such a flaw. True, the parakeet itself exhibits excellence of design, but making it the prey of a parasite is a design weakness. It is not that the designer can’t avoid such a flaw because it is an inevitable side effect of good parakeet design; it would be perfectly easy to keep the parasite at bay (after all, no other bird suffers from it). It looks like sloppy workmanship, sheer oversight, rank incompetence. It would be reasonable to infer that there wasno intelligent designer, given the lack of intelligence displayed by the alleged design product. Of course, we know that to be the case, given Darwinian theory—this is just a case of evolved inter-species competition. But what is striking is that the argument from design overlooks such failures of intelligent design, concentrating instead on traits that are good for the animal and beautiful in themselves. There is nothing good or beautiful about the deformed beak and feet suffered by Emma—if that were intentionally installed by a designer, we would think he or she an exceptionally incompetent designer (assuming good intentions). So really the argument from design proves that that there isno intelligent designer of nature—just as Darwin teaches us. From good design we might infer an intelligent designer (except for the alternative explanation provided by Darwin), but from bad design we can only infer the non-existence of an intelligent designer such as God is supposed to be. We might try to refurbish the argument to deliver only sometype of designer, albeit an inept and careless one; but clearly that would not get us to the conclusion envisaged by the classic argument from design. If God designed Emma in such a way as to be susceptible to the mite that plagued and deformed her, he is not the God we had supposed him to be. He is a watchmaker who should be banned from the watchmaking profession. Even if we didn’t have Darwin’s theory to fall back on, the argument from design is therefore flawed on its own terms; if anything it proves that nature is unintelligently designed.[1]

 

Colin M

[1]Of course, that is just what it is: the process of natural selection is not an intelligence-driven process. It may mimic intelligent design in some respects, but if you look deeper there are signs of the lack of intelligence everywhere (e.g. human anatomy).

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Doomed

Doomed

 

I’m getting the distinct impression that we’re doomed. I can feel it in my bones. First, philosophy in America is doomed; indeed, it is now more or less defunct (relative to earlier times). Once the older generation dies off in five to ten years we will be left with a desert of mediocrity and infighting, which will probably invite institutional elimination (no one will want to study it to start with). Second, democracy is doomed: it was never well thought out to begin with and has obvious structural weaknesses. Already it is fraying and fracturing (Trump, Brexit, China), and young people are no longer the hope for redemption (see Euphoriaand the general state of the Internet). Third, the human race is doomed by its stupidity and selfishness (climate change, nuclear war): there is no way the people of the world will make the sacrifices they need to in order to avert catastrophe. It’s only a matter of time till global warming leads to all-out war, not to mention the eruption of simmering conflicts. Fourth, the planet is doomed—at least many animal species are. The rate of species extinction is already alarming and will only increase; this will lead to ecological catastrophe on a grand scale. Some species will probably survive, but planet earth will be a much-reduced place. This to me will be the greatest tragedy. I see in human nature as it is manifesting itself today an unprecedented level of hysteria and foolishness, coupled with moral blindness and sheer greed. Once evil gets a grip it is hard to stop it, till the final collapse puts an end to everything. It takes a lot to create something, but destruction is easy.

 

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