Monday, February 25, 2008

Who is that Masked Philosopher? Is neoDarwinism nihilistic--Part II

The Masked Philosopher over at Vulgar Morality has done it again with another great post on how neoDarwinism rationally undermines morality, and yet goes on making moral judgments anyway. The newest installment discusses another prominent neoDarwinist who has just as much trouble as the others in reconciling his materialist views to his moral positions.

Now we've been having just the nicest discussion in the comments section of my post on the part in this series, and the defenders of the neoDarwinists have been having a hard time understanding the masked philosopher's arguments. Maybe this post will clarify things for them.

Or maybe not.

In any case, I notice Adum Gurri has jumped into the fray here with some salient points about what Vulgar Moralist actually said (as opposed to what his critics on this blog misinterpreted him as saying), and I wanted to point out his own very excellent blog, Sophistpundit, which I just discovered after Googling his name. I'll be putting it (along with a few other things) on my blogroll shortly.

And by the way, this discussion brings to mind the BBC debate between Catholic philosopher Frederick Copleston and atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, a materialist from an earlier era. Here is a sampling of the discussion on morality:
Copleston: ...Yes, but what's your justification for distinguishing between good and bad or how do you view the distinction between them?

Russell: I don't have any justification any more than I have when I distinguish between blue and yellow. What is my justification for distinguishing between blue and yellow? I can see they are different.

C: Well, that is an excellent justification, I agree. You distinguish blue and yellow by seeing them, so you distinguish good and bad by what faculty?

R: By my feelings.

C: By your feelings. Well, that's what I was asking. You think that good and evil have reference simply to feeling?

R: Well, why does one type of object look yellow and another look blue? I can more or less give an answer to that thanks to the physicists, and as to why I think one sort of thing good and another evil, probably there is an answer of the same sort, but it hasn't been gone into in the same way and I couldn't give it [to] you.

C: Well, let's take the behavior of the Commandant of Belsen. That appears to you as undesirable and evil and to me too. To Adolf Hitler we suppose it appeared as something good and desirable, I suppose you'd have to admit that for Hitler it was good and for you it is evil.

R: No, I shouldn't quite go so far as that. I mean, I think people can make mistakes in that as they can in other things. if you have jaundice you see things yellow that are not yellow. You're making a mistake.

C: Yes, one can make mistakes, but can you make a mistake if it's simply a question of reference to a feeling or emotion? Surely Hitler would be the only possible judge of what appealed to his emotions.

R: It would be quite right to say that it appealed to his emotions, but you can say various things about that among others, that if that sort of thing makes that sort of appeal to Hitler's emotions, then Hitler makes quite a different appeal to my emotions.

C: Granted. But there's no objective criterion outside feeling then for condemning the conduct of the Commandant of Belsen, in your view?

R: No more than there is for the color-blind person who's in exactly the same state. Why do we intellectually condemn the color-blind man? Isn't it because he's in the minority? ...
Russell seems to be a little more honest than some of the neoDarwinists about the shifting sand upon which their moral position is built.


Unknown said...

Hey, thanks for the plug!

That's a very interesting debate; I'm surprised to see Russell made his case in just that way. I myself am more inclined to agree with the Moral Sentiments theories of Hume, Smith, and the other figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. I disagree with Russell's spin on the subject, but find it interesting that he was groping down an essentially similar line of thinking.

One Brow said...

Since I read of the post here, I will discuss it here, with all due respects to Vulgar Morality.

Proving the compatibility of evolution and morality, the authors observe, proves nothing. "Darwinism must do more than merely reconcile morality and natural selection," they write. "Darwinism must underwrite morality and work to justify its claims." An appreciation of human nature, after all, is perfectly compatible with gross immorality, yet does nothing to justify immoral claims.

Humans are a profoundly social species as well as an intelligent species. We congregate to an unparalleled degree. Any real appreciation of human nature needs to account for that trait, and the implications this trait has on the morality that must be inherent to human nature in order to maintain these aggregations.

Yet instrumentality is central to neodarwinist theory. Its underlying -- and scientifically sound -- principle is that any organic or behavioral feature that has endured must have benefited its owner's ancestors in some way.

This is indeed a difficulty for the adaptationists, who so often seek to explain everything in terms of natural selection, but there are many other equally scientifically sound notions, such as process structuralism, that are highly receptive to non-beneficial features.

But the fact remains that a neodarwinist account has yet to be crafted which explains the actions of (say) the 9/11 firefighters or our soldiers in Iraq, who sacrificed their lives on behalf of unrelated strangers.

There are quite simple evolutionary accounts, of course. They are merely not neoDarwinist (by which Vulgar Morality presumably means adaptationist).

Russell seems to be a little more honest than some of the neoDarwinists about the shifting sand upon which their moral position is built.

There is an unfortunate tendency by all sorts of people to assume that people whose positions they oppose, and whose words most closely matched their own assumptions of the opponent’s positions, are being more honest. It is a self-delusion.

Anonymous said...

scientifically sound -- principle is that any organic or behavioral feature that has endured must have benefited its owner's ancestors in some way.

I would say that any such feature couldn't be a serious disadvantage, which is quite a different claim.

Composed entirely of English speakers (and writers), the neodarwinists

It's hard to get past this oddball statement.


Martin Cothran said...

Maybe Jah could explain what is oddball about that statement.

Anonymous said...

I assume "neodarwinists" refers to most modern evolutionary scientists. Is there some other definition in effect here? The idea that only English speaking (and writing) scientists are neodarwinists is nonsense. [Of course neodarwinism is a term more frequently used by nonscientists than scientists.] While this phrase does not affect the validity of the subsequent arguments, it does suggest that the writer has some odd ideas.

At the bottom are a couple of links to what neodarwinism might be.

Here are some non English results of searching the ISI Web of Knowledge for neodarwinsim:

1) l: 1 Review: 0
1: Zh Obshch Biol. 2004 Jul-Aug;65(4):334-66.
Related Articles, Links
Comment on:
* Zh Obshch Biol. 2004 Jul-Aug;65(4):278-305.
[Foundations of the new phylogenetics]
[Article in Russian]
Pavlinov IIa.

2) Camus, P. "On neodarwinism and structural determinism in Chile: A comment on the book ''Modern theory of evolution''." Revista chilena de historia natural 70.1 (1997):9-22.

If you want, list some biology journals that are considered "neodarwinist" and I will look up more articles by foreign, non English speaking scientists.

The International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design
encyclopedia/Neo-Darwinism states "Neo-Darwinism is the modern version of Darwinian evolutionary theory: the synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinism."

and links to
"Some scientists continue to refer to modern thought in evolution as Neo-Darwinian. In some cases these scientists do not understand that the field has changed but in other cases they are referring to what I have called the Modern Synthesis, only they have retained the old name."


Unknown said...

It's hard to get past this oddball statement.

Hard, perhaps, if you're not into Neodarwinist scholarship. Again, he's referring to a very specific bunch, which includes Pinker, Dawkins, and Dennett, who all became prominent around the same time and, as it happens, are British.

Anonymous said...

Hi Adam,

Perhaps you could explain to me the meaning of "neodarwinist" then? And what "Composed entirely of English speaking ..." adds to the discussion? If he wants to refer to a specific handful-sized subset of scientists, why use the seemingly more general term "neodarwinist"? Is the point to confuse people or enlighten them? What is "neodarwinist scholarship"? Why is the term hard to find in scientific citation indices?

This is a blog, not a specialist journal. Why not explain words or provide links for those of us who are not experts?

Scientists, for example, are more than happy to explain the scientific meaning of "theory", for what good that does.