Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Evolution and Free Will

So far, I've talked in vague generalities about politics and morality. I dont plan to stop, but I have found this article by D.A. Ridgely on another of my interests. I will reproduce the article here.

“It is time, I think,” said the arrow to itself at the exact zenith of its flight, “to start my descent.”

D.A. Ridgely on Apr 7th 2009

There is a problem with the phrase “natural selection” and it is the word “selection.” It is the sort of problem that more often than not arises when scientific theory adopts or co-opts words already present in our natural language and, in doing so, unintentionally introduce all the richer senses and uses of the word that existed beforehand. In true Humpty Dumpty fashion we believe we can be the masters of the word against the world. Perhaps in the carefully circumscribed circles of academic usage in general or scientific usage in particular, we can. But often we seem to struggle even there and when it comes to explaining to the general public what a scientific or philosophical theory does and does not mean or entail, the prospects for success are even more abysmal.

Selection, after all, is a concept implying intention: a deliberate choosing from among alternatives as when one picks an entrĂ©e from a menu. To be sure, intentional language does not require that we commit in our more philosophical moments to the existence of free will, but it sure as hell makes it hard to deny it. (If you don’t believe in the existence of even limited free will, does it bother you at all that you reached that conclusion involuntarily?)

My point here, however, isn’t to argue about free will and determinism but to point out the sort of having our cake and eating it too that one so often reads in the popular press. Brian Boyd, a professor of English at the University of Auckland, hopes to appease Darwin’s critics but gets off to the following bad start:

Evolutionary thinking has lately expanded from the biological to the human world, first into the social sciences and recently into the humanities and the arts. Many people therefore now understand the human, and even human culture, as inextricably biological. But many others in the humanities—in this, at least, like religious believers who reject evolution outright—feel that a Darwinian view of life and a biological view of humanity can only deny human purpose and meaning.

Does anyone seriously deny that human beings and all that they do, at least in this world, are at least in part inextricably biological? Isn’t the question whether the human condition, arts and humanities and religious belief included, can be understood exclusively in biological terms? Are there still, for example, any Absolute Idealists lurking about? I haven’t run into any, and I frequent some pretty obscure philosophical circles from time to time.

Anyway, Boyd proceeds by distinguishing between Darwinian explanations for the emergence of creatures such as you and me over millions of years and William Paley’s classic watchmaker analogy in support of his teleological argument for God as the Grand Watchmaker. So far, so good. In fact, Boyd does a fairly good job of explaining how the inference of a watchmaker from the existence of a watch does not carry to the existence of a Creator from the existence of the universe in all its physical, chemical and biological complexity. But then things go a bit sour. He writes:

Life could become established only when matter organized itself in a way complex enough to sustain and reliably reproduce itself. Maintaining such a highly improbable and functional arrangement of matter became life’s first purpose.

No. Matter doesn’t arrange itself. There is no trial and error involved in elements bonding with other elements as though they thought it might be useful to share electrons. Complex molecules don’t purposefully sustain and reproduce themselves. Selfish genes aren’t really selfish, they just act as they do because they are what they just happen to be and we anthropomorphize their unintentional ‘behavior’ as though they were behaving intentionally. Nature doesn’t select; variations happen, most of which would be deemed abysmal failures if they were, in fact, intentional. But they are not. Oxygen using organisms evolve in oxygen atmospheres, if they do evolve at all (and at least here they did) because breathing oxygen works in the strict sense that they survive where alternatives wouldn’t survive. But survival of the fittest is just a way of saying that things that do in fact work work better than things that don’t in fact work. Not even survival, in this sense, is purposeful unless you want to say that organic survival and reproduction are per se purposeful, and where is the evidence for that?

Assuming for the sake of argument that human beings can and do act purposefully, it is certainly true that they could not have done so in any meaningful or interesting sense until fairly late in the evolutionary process of our species. The cognitive capacity to weigh alternatives purposefully and act accordingly (again assuming that humans aren’t deluded in believing they possess such a capability) certainly doesn’t exist among the most primitive of life forms and may not exist in any other life form on earth, at least as some of us understand or believe it to exist for humans.

But none of that evolutionary process occurs by virtue of motives, reasons, purposes, etc. Boyd repeatedly falls back on such intentional language, however, as in “Purposes evolve, and Darwinian processes extend them.” I have no idea what that could possibly mean such that it would come anywhere close to satisfying the concerns of those who claim, correctly, that Darwinism does not require the existence of free will to explain human behavior insofar as it is capable so far of doing so. Indeed, at least most of the Darwinists I know believe that any lingering lacunae in their account of the human condition will eventually be fleshed out, as it were, without any such need.

And they may well be right. On the other hand, explaining, for example, how human beings could behave exactly as they do in fact behave without invoking the metaphysically perplexing existence of consciousness wouldn’t suffice as proof that consciousness doesn’t exist. Neither does showing the fatal flaws in the teleological argument for the existence of God equal proof of God’s nonexistence. Occam’s Razor is an aesthetic preference for elegance, desirable but neither necessary nor conclusive. Plato is as entitled to his beard as, well, as Darwin is.

I wouldn't add anything else

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