Omni Brain

There’s an interesting debate happening at I believe, Cognitive Science, this year. Jerry Fodor has come out with a full force denial of evolutionary psychology and in the process has managed to piss off Daniel Dennett who has responded with a very nasty paper of his own.

I’ll give you a couple snippets of the exciting debate as well as the papers concerned.

Fodor:
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This started out to be a paper about why I am so down on Evolutionary Psychology (EP), a topic I’ve addressed in print before. (see Fodor, 19xx; 19xx). But, as I went along, it began to seem that really the paper was about what happens when you try to integrate Darwinism with an intentional theory like propositional attitude psychology. And then, still further on, it struck me that what the paper was really really about wasn’t the tension between Darwinism and theories that are intentional (with a `t’), but the tension between Darwinism and theories that are intensional (with an `s`).1 The latter is more worrying since Darwinism, or anyhow adaptationism, is itself committed to intensionally individuated processes like `selection for.’ So the claim turned out to be that there is something seriously wrong with adaptationism per se. Having gotten that far, I could have rewritten this as straightforwardly a paper about adaptationism, thereby covering my tracks. But I decided not to do so. It seems to me of interest to chart a route from being suspicious of Evolutionary Psychology to having one’s doubts about the whole adaptationist enterprise. The central claim of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is that heritable properties of psychological phenotypes are typically adaptations; which is to say that they are typically explained by their stories of selection. In particular, this is claimed on behalf of heritable phenotypic properties that involve intentional states like believing, desiring, and acting (or being disposed to act) in one way or another.2 It is possible to doubt that the empirical evidence for claiming this is, so far at least, overwhelmingly persuasive. (See, eg. Buller, 19xx). Be that as it may. In the first part of this paper, I want to argue for something much stronger: that the whole idea of an evolutionary psychology is very likely ill-conceived.. Much of the main line of argument I’ll pursue is already to be found in the philosophical literature, especially the literature on evolutionary semantics. So my strategy is to start by reminding you of some of the morals of that discussion and to contend that they apply quite generally to selectionist accounts of the cognitive psychological phenotype.

The edifying fable of the frogs and the flies
Frogs snap at flies; having caught one, they then ingest it. It is plausibly in the interest of frogs to do so since, all else equal, the fitness of a frog that eats flies (and hence the likelihood of its contributing to the local gene pool) exceeds the fitness of a frog that doesn’t. It is likewise plausible that the frogs’ penchant for catching flies is an adaptation; which is to say that it was established in the frog’s behavioral phenotype by a process of natural selection. If so, then perhaps it follows that the function of the behavior (and/or of the physiological mechanisms by which it the behavior is implemented), is precisely to mediate the catching of the flies by the frogs. Maybe, that’s to say, some selectionist story about the phylogeny of fly-snapping can provide, at the same time, an account of the teleology of that response. I don’t believe much of that, but never mind; let’s assume for now that it’s all true.

And this goes on for many more pages at which point he manages to anger Dennett who replies with this smart ass rebuttal:


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Fun and Games in Fantasyland
As often before, Jerry Fodor makes my life easier, this time by (1) figuring out a persuasive reductio ad absurdum argument for my views, (2) absolving me of any suspicion that I’m creating a straw man by resolutely embracing the absurd conclusion, and (3) providing along the way some vivid lessons in How Not to Do Philosophy. The only work left for me to do is (a) draw attention to these useful pedagogical aids, (b) point out the absurdity of Jerry’s expressed position and (c) remind you that I told you so.
The reductio, nicely indented and numbered (though step (v) seems to have vanished), has the startling conclusion:
Contrary to Darwinism, the theory of natural selection can’t explain the distribution of phenotypic traits in biological populations.
Now this really is absurd. Silly absurd. Preposterous. It is conclusions like this, built upon such comically slender stilts, that give philosophy a bad name among many scientists. Fodor’s argument really does follow from his premises, though, so far as I can see, so I am prepared to treat it as a classic reductio. A useful reductio, as we all learned in our first logic course, has just one bad premise that eventually sticks out like a sore thumb, but in this case we have an embarrassment of riches: four premises, all of them false. I will leave as an exercise for the
reader the task of seeing if any presentable variation of Fodor’s argument can be constructed in which some or all of these are replaced by truths.
Fodor has great fun putting his ducks in a row, airily helping himself to his assumptions without extended argument, ignoring the complications that I and others have raised for them, complications that can apparently be dismissed with a jocular flourish, usually in a footnote.
(Hey, no sense wasting valuable space in the body of the text on these silly considerations!)

Fodor PDF
and
Dennett Response

Comments

  1. #1 Brian
    March 29, 2007

    I’d say Dennett’s response is more worthwhile than the original PDF (since he simultaneously summarizes and refutes Fodor.. no sense in reading it twice).

    Fodor essentially makes the mistake of forcing imaginary dichotomies on the natural world, and these are exposed by Dennett pretty easily. I’m not sure why such arguments are still used as a philosophical rebuttal in scientific debates, as they’re so easily refuted with actual evidence. If your argument has a bearing on the real world, then it has to follow the same rules.

  2. #2 MattXIV
    March 29, 2007

    I got to the 6th page of Fodor and I’m going to call this one for Dennett. I’m not going to endure another 20 pages of someone who doesn’t get that if set A and set B have the same memembers, then references to sets A and B are interchangable.

  3. #3 Francesco Franco
    March 30, 2007

    Dennett seems pretty desperate to avoid a real debate/discussion with Jerry Fodor on this, obviously. His constant ad homs and name-calling in this article would get him a failing grade in any undergraduate philosophy course. He doesn’t directly respond to a single ONE of Fodor’s arguments, but invokes “creationism”, “Mary Midgley”, “preposterous” and “absurd”. It’s the same sort of shit they used to pull against S.J. Gould and others who challenged the “Darwinian fundamentalist” orthodoxy among non-philosophically educated scientists.

    Dennett prefers to ride on his relative fame and celebrity, coming out of his shallow books on religion, to speak for him, rather than engage is argument. Well, anyway, it should be fairly clear soon enough that “evolutionary psychology” is about as well-founded a science as phrenology was in the 19th century; another fleeting fad and passing paradigm with great sex appeal but very little, if any, substance behind it.

  4. #4 Brian
    March 30, 2007

    I’m not sure that we read the same Dennett response…

  5. #5 MattXIV
    March 30, 2007

    Francesco,

    Did you read Fodor’s piece? Dennett does get over the top sometimes when he disagrees with something strongly, but Fodor’s argument is hopelessly confused. The whole flys vs bee-bees thing is absurd unless you attach some kind of essential significane to the word “fly.”

  6. #6 Chris
    March 30, 2007

    The sad thing is, Fodor has some of the best arguments against EP, just not in that paper (which has been floating around the internet since someone put it on the OPP site about a month or so ago).

    Fodor’s m.o., as everyone knows, is to do just what he’s trying to do in this paper: take the premises of his opponent (say, the functionalists), follow them to their absurd but logical conclusion, and then accept the conclusion. It leads him to some obviously false conclusions (conceptual atomism, anyone?), and often shows that he’s actually using distorted versions of his opponents’ premises, but he accepts the absurd conclusion anyway. In this paper, it seems as though he took the premises not from any actual opponent, but from a magical one, who, in Fodor’s mind, has transparent wings and lives on top of a giant gumdrop mountain where he hosts parties with Buss, Cosmides, Pinker, and Dennett.

  7. #7 windy
    March 30, 2007

    Jerry Fodor has come out with a full force denial of evolutionary psychology

    Where’s the argument against EP? I just see railing against adaptationism. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    Dennett does get over the top sometimes when he disagrees with something strongly, but Fodor’s argument is hopelessly confused. The whole flys vs bee-bees thing is absurd unless you attach some kind of essential significane to the word “fly.”

    And amusing, since Dennett made exactly the same point about frogs catching flies vs. any black flying things in ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’, just to show that essentialism is false. Is Fodor attempting to parody that argument or did he happen on the same example by chance?

  8. #8 steve
    March 30, 2007

    “Jerry Fodor has come out with a full force denial of evolutionary psychology

    Where’s the argument against EP? I just see railing against adaptationism. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

    Uhh… I didn’t actually read past the section where I quoted.. I just guessed ;)
    hahah

  9. #9 Francesco Franco
    March 31, 2007

    “Where’s the argument against EP? I just see railing against adaptationism. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

    Umm….obviously, EP is the most radical form of adaptationist panselectionism there is. Any argument against the set is an argument against the proper subset.

    The “frogs vs. block dots” example is an extremely common in discussions of the so-called “problem of disjunction”. It is an especially for teleosemantic and informational theories such as those of Fred Dretske and Ruth Millikan. The problem extends to things like cows and horses, in the case of humans. I’m not sure, but I’m fairly certain it was first brought up by Ruth Millikan. But I’m sure you all knew that. (;

    As to Fodor’s weird “conceptual atomism”,I agree. But, then, how about “qualia eliminativism” (my first person phenomenology does not exist!!), propositional attitude instrumentalism (basically a form of eliminativism, as shown by Fodor elsewhere and rejected by almost everyone), consciousness as dependent on language for its existence (LOL!!). Come on, folks.

    In the case at hand, Dennet goes so far as to identify evolutionary biology with natural selection and adaptation. Saying “you either agree with him or reject evolutionary biology”. Rather unscientific to say the least. He is a simplistic Darwinian extremist who believes that everything in the universe can be expalined by natural selection, If you disgree, he gets upset and starts calling names. What else do I need to read?

  10. #10 Francesco Franco
    March 31, 2007

    Since we’re on it, I almost forgot “heterophenomeology”, “first-person operationalism” and other neo-behaviorist notions. I don’t underetand how Dennett can be talen seriously by anyone. In the philosophy of mind, he generally isn’t.

  11. #11 windy
    March 31, 2007

    Umm….obviously, EP is the most radical form of adaptationist panselectionism there is. Any argument against the set is an argument against the proper subset.

    And since we know that the larger set (adaptations) definitely exist and are a *major* factor in evolution, isn’t it rather stupid to try to discredit the whole set?

    Fodor concludes:

    “It is, in short, one thing to wonder whether evolution happens; it?s quite another thing to wonder whether adaptation is the mechanism by which evolution happens.”

    Nothing about panadaptationism or panselectionism. Those who would discredit natural selection as one of the main mechanisms of evolution are essentially saying that it all fell together by chance.

  12. #12 Francesco Franco
    March 31, 2007

    Good!! You’ve got a definite point here. I was waiting for someone to point out the real problem with Fodor’s article: he seems to be going way beyond criticism of adaptationism as an exclusive sort of ideology and seems to be denying that it is at all useful or accurate in general. He also (delibarately?) confuses “Darwinism” (whatever that means exactly) with adaptationism. This is extremely dangerous and distrubed me when I originally read this article (about a month ago actually!!). As Gould pointed out many times, Darwin himself did not claim that natural selection was all there was to biological evolution, just a major mechanism.

    I can’t continue to defend Fodor at this point. These “errors” are inexcusable. I’ve been an admirer of Fodor for a long time. But I’m beginning to fear that he’s going over to the Dembski or Alvin Plantinga quarters here. It’s shocking and pisses me off with philosophy in general, to be honest.

  13. #13 Chris
    March 31, 2007

    Francesco, I’m not sure what the hell you’re talking about at this point. For example, heterophenomenology is still pretty widely discussed in the philosophy of mind literature (and Dennett is still a big player in that field). Granted, I’m not a fan. I always liked Nagel’s description of Dennett as Gilbert Ryle meets Scientific American, but don’t exaggerate. Also, while I think what Fodor has done here (what he always does, and really, you won’t find a kookier theory in mainstream analytic philosophy than conceptual atomism) is to take an idea — hardcore adaptationism — and extend it and twist it in ways that ultimately make it untenable. That’s his m.o., and it often works, but in this case (as in the case of atomism), it just ends up looking absurd. There’s no indication whatsoever, however, that he’s going over to the Dembski/Plantinga camp.

  14. #14 Francesco Franco
    April 1, 2007

    There’s no indication whatsoever, however, that he’s going over to the Dembski/Plantinga camp etc..

    Well, goddamn you, how is one supposed to get an interesting blog discussion going over these matters if I’m not even allowed to engage in hyperbole!!

    Hmm….I’m beginning to seriously consider this idea of “universal chance” though. It appeals to my nihilistic instincts. Too many Darwinians seem terrified of the concept of absolute randomness for fear that the religious folk will attack this as nihilistic and absurd. It is. So what??

    Anyway, I don’t think Fodor has committed himself to the notion that natural selection and adaption ism is completely irrelevant to evolutionary biology. If you read further into the article, he basically characterizes explanations based on natural selection as “historical narratives”; that is, he allows to such explanations a scientific/epistemological status very similar to historiography r other social sciences. Hence, he is not denying the value and scientific status of natural selection explanation, nor even of adaptationism. He is just saying that there are other mechanisms beside natural selection at play and that natural section explanations are not as epistomologically strong as, e.g., physical science explanations. We must make room for exaptation, genetic drift, and other purely chance processes. These factors may, in fact, be so important that it becomes extremely difficult, of not impossible, to determine when something is an adaptions and when it is not. This seems to me an entirely reasonable position to take on the matter.

  15. #15 Francesco Franco
    April 1, 2007

    you won’t find a kookier theory in mainstream analytic philosophy than conceptual atomism)

    Are you serious? I mentioned several above: qualia eliminativism, propositional attitude instrumentalism, hetero-phenomenology (either a contradiction in terms, something like the study of inter-subjective first person experiences…the study of inter-subjective subjective experiences….the study of objective subjective experiences…or simple old introspective psychology without real mental states. HMMMMM???) Also, intelligent design. Hell, William Lane Craig defends the physical resurrection of Jesus and other such madness. Analytic philosophy has gone wackier than its continental counterpart.

    As to conceptual atomism, the real problem is when it is attached to radical concept nativism. If you detach the two, atomism in itself, though I don’t agree with it, is not all that wacky given the almost infinite troubles with holism and avoiding the analytic/synthetic distintion.