Thursday, February 12, 2009

Darwin the Empiricist

On the occasion of Darwin's 200th birthday, I'd like to put Darwin in his philosophical context. Most of the time we think of the empiricism of Anglophone philosophy as the doctrine that knowledge is gained through observation and experiment, an epistemological formulation that was stressed by the greatest empiricist, David Hume. But there is another important aspect to empiricism that is often overlooked, partly because empiricists themselves have tended to spurn the idea of metaphysics (Hume aimed to do away with metaphysics altogether, and the early 20th century "positivists" such as A. J. Ayer also explicitly embraced that program). Empiricism (using that label broadly: liberal Enlightenment thought, English-language philosophy since Hobbes) represents a revolution in systems dynamics: the model of transformative processes in nature, which is ultimately a cosmological topic. Explaining the persistence of the identity of a thing across changes to the properties of that thing was a basic issue for the Greeks. Heraclitus simply denied persistence, Parmenides simply denied change. The Platonic solution was to bifurcate the world into an eternally unchanging component (form) and a transient polymorphic component (matter). (And I'm not so sure whether this is all wrong, by the way.) Thus change was explained as the (metaphysically problematic) interaction of the earthly with the divine (to put it in neoplatonic Christian terms). This model persisted beyond the Christian era in the Rationalist tradition through Descartes and Spinoza to Kant and Hegel. I call this the "top-down" model: the particular states of affairs at the micro level are explained by appeal to a macro transcendental force (Platonic universals, the Christian personal God, Kant's noumenal rationality, Hegel's Absolute Spirit, etc.).
Modern empiricism's development of an alternative model (the "bottom-up" model) is, I think, one of the most important developments in the history of philosophy, perhaps the greatest revolution in thought since Plato's metaphysics. The idea is that complex systems organize themselves through the iteration of simple algorithms at the micro level. In Locke this was the organization of society through the repetition of consensual behavior of self-interested individuals (democracy). In Hume this was the organization of a system of knowledge through regularities of observation (science). The kinship between Enlightenment democracy and science cannot be overstressed. One of Darwin's principal influences was Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Smith argued that complex economies organized themselves through the iteration of exchanges between individuals. His economics is an example of an application of the law of effect: actions resulting in negative consequences tend to be extinguished, actions resulting in positive consequences tend to be reinforced (Note: I think that one of Daniel Dennett's best articles is "Why the Law of Effect Won't Go Away"). Of course this is also the basis of behaviorist and other operationalist approaches to psychology. It is also the premise of Pragmatism, a thoroughgoing empiricist development of a theory of truth. Darwin's theory of natural selection is another application of the law of effect.
What did Darwin "discover," or what "theory" did Darwin develop? He pointed out that a proof in mathematical logic applies to all transformative processes in nature: given a set of replicators, the members of that set will have an average probability of reproductive success. That goes for conspecific breeding animals, flea market swaps and jokes. Any individual member with an above-average probability will tend to have more descendants in the next generation. That's not circular reasoning, because it leaves open the question of the reasons for the above-average probability. Selection of the fittest (most adaptive) from a variegated set. This is a proof that can be formalized. It's logically valid, which is not the same thing as empirically true. That is, it's not the kind of argument that can even potentially be false. Darwin did not develop a "theory." He simply pointed out the indubitable operation of a homely truth about the world, the law of effect, and in doing so he is coming straight out of the Scottish Enlightenment thought of Hume and Smith.
One more point: the law of effect operates on all levels. That is, genes, actions, beliefs, species, tribes, nations, come-on lines, ecosystems and all manner of replicating things, biological, cultural, and otherwise, come under this principle. Thus group selection and indeed selection at any level of organization whatever occurs, as Darwin himself recognized (for example in his discussion of the altruistic warriors of Tierra del Fuego). Thus the "selfish gene" doctrine of Dawkins is false. Not a question of science, it is a question of logic.
Happy birthday Charlie!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Teaching Contemporary Philosophy and the Continental/Analytic Distinction

Every spring I teach the Contemporary Philosophy course that concludes our four-part history sequence (Ancient, Medieval, Early Modern, Contemporary) here at UPR/M. I've been struggling with it for a couple of years, having trouble finding a text, organizing a coherent narrative and so on. Two big problems are 1) if "Contemporary" is philosophy since Kant, or since 1800, there's just too much to cover, and 2) modern philosophy diverges and branches into several different narratives; the question emerges as to what "philosophy" even is. Adding to my frustration was my conviction that the distinction between "Analytic" and "Continental" was overstated, divisive and misleading (and further complications such as doubts about whether anything like "Analytic" philosophy really exists any more. The Spanish-speaking academics around me, with all due respect, simply use the blanket term "positivism" and haven't paid any attention since, say, A. J. Ayer). I try to get my students to see the reductive limitations of dividing things up ideologically between "Rationalist" and "Empiricist" or "Continental" and "Analytic." This taxonomy mostly just closes minds I think. Still and all, I have some very bright students here and some of them are curious enough to ask me to explain what "Analytic" philosophy is.
This semester I have developed a curriculum that covers the 19th and 20th centuries in "two movements," with the goal of uncovering and examining the roots of what I call "so-called Continental" and "so-called Analytic." What is happening for me (a good professor is always Student #1 in the class) is that I'm seeing that there is indeed a fundamental parting of the ways, and it does indeed have its roots in the arguments of Hume and Kant. I know that to some this will seem like a banality, perhaps it is, but the project here is to introduce, explain and interpret both of these strains. The main distinction textually speaking is between German-language philosophy and English-language philosophy, with an appreciation of the achievement of French-language philosophers of commuting between the two. Many important philosophers and topics are left out, but this is due to the fact that this is the outline of a one-semester class, after all, and we're blazing along as it is. Also the material at the very end reflects my own interest in philosophy of mind; there are any number of other directions one could take for the late 20th century.
Here is my outline of this semester's Contemporary Philosophy course:

Anderson Brown, Contemporary Philosophy, Spring 2009

I. So-called “Continental”: From German Idealism to Deconstruction

A. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Critique of Pure Reason, 1781-1787

B. German Idealism: J. G. Fichte (1762-1814); G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807; Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854)

C. The Metaphysics of Politics: Hegel, Karl Marx (1818-1883), Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1848; Friedrich Engels (1820-1895)

D. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), The World as Will and Representation, 1819-1844

E. The Invention of the Unconscious: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1883, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886; Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

F. Phenomenology and Existentialism, The Germans: Edmund Husserl (1859-1938); Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), Being and Time, 1927

G. Phenomenology and Existentialism, The French: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness, 1943; Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), Phenomenology of Perception, 1945; Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986), The Second Sex, 1949

H. Critical Theory (The Frankfurt School): Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), One-Dimensional Man, 1964; Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929), Knowledge and Human Interests, 1968

I. Structuralism: Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Archaeology of Knowledge, 1969; Jacques Lacan (1901-1981)

J. Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Of Grammatology, 1967

II. So-called “Analytic”: From Enlightenment Liberalism to the New Metaphysics

A. David Hume (1711-1776), A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739

B. The Law of Effect: Adam Smith (1723-1790), The Wealth of Nations, 1776

C. The Revolution in Systems Dynamics: Charles Darwin (1809-1882), The Origin of Species, 1859

D. Empiricist Ethical Theory: John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Utilitarianism, 1861

E. The Pragmatists: Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914); William James (1842-1910), The Will to Believe, 1897; John Dewey (1859-1952)

F. The New Logic: Gottlob Frege (1848-1925); Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947); Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Principia Mathematica, 1910-1913

G. Logical Positivism: A. J. Ayer (1910-1989), Language, Truth and Logic, 1936

H. “Ordinary Language” Philosophy: J. L. Austin (1911-1960), Sense and sensibilia, 1959

I. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921, Philosophical Investigations, 1951

J. The New Philosophy of Mind: Hilary Putnam (b. 1926); John Searle (b. 1932), Minds, Brains and Science, 1984; Jerry Fodor (b. 1935), The Language of Thought, 1975; Daniel Dennett (b. 1942)

K. The New Metaphysics: Alvin Plantinga (b. 1932); David Lewis (1941-2001), On the Plurality of Worlds, 1986