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Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Fishy Case Against the 'New Atheists'

Brad DeLong points to Adam Kotsko, who not only liked Stanley Fish's "Atheism and Evidence," but indeed lamented that the Times Select paywall keeps it from a broader audience. So let me expand on my previous reaction to Fish.

Fish criticizes Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for their confidence that natural explanations will be found for currently not-well-understood phenomena of human behavior and consciousness. He invokes Francis S. Collins to name a scientist who would
argue that physical processes cannot account for the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism, “the truly selfless giving of oneself to others” with no expectation of a reward. How can there be a naturalistic [i.e., evolutionary] explanation of that?
Fish, let alone Collins, shouldn't need an economist to answer, "easy." Behaviors that don't seem to maximize individual fitness but may improve the population fitness aren't a problem for evolutionary explanations. (Elaboration of this concept, I gather, is Dawkins's major contribution to evolutionary theory.) Taking the politically charged subject of human behavior out of the picture, evolutionary accounts explain how, for instance, the gene that causes sickle-cell anemia can persist in populations at high risk for malaria despite the fatal consequences for individuals who get two copies of it.

(If I wanted to be snarky, I would say that writers inclined to lofty phraseology like "the universal presence of moral impulses like altruism" should read more anti-"death tax" polemics. I'd also wonder why Kotsko's postmodern allergy to overarching meta-narratives isn't aggravated by such questionable assertions of universality in human motivation.)

What Fish's argument really does is lays down a bet against future achivement of science:
Of course one conclusion that could be drawn [from hitherto limited progress in obtaining naturalistic explanations of human behavior] is that the research will not pan out because moral intuitions will not be reducible to physical processes. That may be why so few of the facts are in.
It's not good when you're trying to make the case that others are making logical leaps to leap to a conclusion that purportedly limited progress in a relatively new field of scientific research implies a problem beyond naturalistic explanation. Fish may offer the argument in the (not totally unreasonable) expectation that there will remain uncertainty over the physical processes that might be responsible for "moral intuitions" for the remainder of his life and thus that he won't be around to suggest that this explanation for the limitations of present knowledge is facially foolish.

Younger folks might not want to risk too much of their wealth on the anti-materialist position, for there's already evidence suggesting that behavior not totally unlike "moral intuitions" are in fact emergent properties of physical processes. For example, many people who are more-or-less miserable find themselves not as miserable while taking SSRIs. This suggests that "misery" is, at least in part, a property that's mediated by the chemical reactions SSRIs interfere with. A non-materialistic alternative explanation would seem to imply that SSRIs have some mystical effect on the "soul" or "spirit" despite being the products of scientific research that makes no appeal to mysticism, not to mention being manufactured in non-magical labs by secular corporations.

Yet this is likely a pillar of Kotsko's affection for Fish's essay, since Kotsko dislikes "reductionism." It is Kotsko's own business if he finds the set of all explanations from the in-principle effable world inadequate. But labeling "naturalism" in this sense as "reductionism" of the bad sort does some violence to much-less-innocent forms of reductionism, such as reducing people to reified utility functions and enacting policies that are sensitive to the assumptions one places on H. Economicus. (Cf. Waldmann's Wager.)

Kotsko starts quoting Fish in what is little more than a "past performance is no guarantee of future results" argument:
[Fish:] A very strong assertion is made – we will “undoubtedly discover lawful connections between our states of consciousness [and] our modes of conduct” – but no evidence is offered in support of it; and indeed the absence of evidence becomes a reason for confidence in its eventual emergence.
I'm inclined to call this as the first of a couple of flagrant fouls, insofar as I don't think this fairly characterizes the basis for confidence in future scientific progress. First, there is plenty of evidence of "lawful connections" between natural processes and "states of consciousness" and/or "modes of conduct" (q.q.v.) which frankly are obvious enough that it's inappropriate to criticize the Harrises and Dawkinses for not reciting them. Second, it takes something like willful blindness to suggest that science doesn't have an excellent track record in developing naturalistic explanations for natural processes. Third, also on the obvious side, the toolkit available to would-be students of the brain-ethics link has been rapidly expanding — think of the prospects for a computational biology research program based on 1980s technology. Last, the system under consideration is rilly rilly complex and it stands to reason that such "facts" as may be teased out of naturalistic explanations will take time to develop.

Kotsko also quotes what, to me, is Fish at his most infuriating:
[Fish:] [Dawkins says there] are “good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.”
So there's the answer to the "how can there be a naturalistic explanation" question.
[Fish, continuing directly:] Exactly! They are good Darwinian reasons; remove the natural selection hypothesis from the structure of thought and they will be seen not as reasons, but as absurdities. I “believe in evolution,” Dawkins declares, “because the evidence supports it”; but the evidence is evidence only because he is seeing with Darwin-directed eyes. The evidence at once supports his faith and is evidence by virtue of it. [Emphasis added.]
That's flagrant foul #2. Note the demotion of "natural selection" to a "hypothesis" as opposed to a natural mechanism that can be demonstrated empirically in the wild and/or simulated in a variety of lab-type settings (not least, the human body). The Darwinian explanation is that the behavior makes the group better off despite (maybe) having cost to some individuals, which frankly doesn't sound facially absurd under, say, a Divine Selection Hypothesis where "good works" facilitate more pleasant after-lives. (An economist might argue that it's not necessarily true that altruism necessarily is "costly" to the individual; at a minimum, I would argue specifically that it narrows the real scope of source-of-moral-behavior conundrums.) More to the point, Dawkins makes no claims that obviously can't be explained in terms of neuron interconnections and brain chemistry.

Fish carries this idea of circular reinforcement of belief systems to the point of gross misrepresentation:
The reasoning is circular, but not viciously so. The process is entirely familiar and entirely ordinary; a conviction (of the existence of God or the existence of natural selection or the greatness of a piece of literature) generates speculation and questions, and the resulting answers act as confirmation of the conviction that has generated them.
Even if you believe that the exsistences of God and of natural selection are "convictions" of equal stature — I doubt you'd get buy-in from either the theist or the atheist directions — the claim that answering "speculation and questions" necessarily reinforces the foundational convictions is just so much bullshit. Kotsko (presumably with Kuhn and/or Feyerabend in mind) criticizes falsificationism as the "Newtonian mechanics" of the philosophy of science, suggesting that scientists should better represent how the process of science really works. But science does not tell us that Newtonian mechanics are useless. Neither Kuhn nor Feyerabend is correctly read as demonstrating that scientific theories are inherently self-reinforcing. The actual dynamics might not be "maverick researcher proves the establishment wrong to universal acclaim," but convictions leading to scientific theories that ultimately explain stuff badly aren't renowned for their social-Darwinistic fitness. Falsification doesn't have to be the whole story to be a useful concept.

Part of the problem seems to be that Fish and Kotsko go at least a bit off the anti-empirical deep end. This is especially evident in Kotsko's claim that "[t]heological claims are also falsifiable within any given theological community -- it's not as if people can just say any old thing and be accepted." [Emphasis added.] Since theological claims aren't empirical, it could be argued that he really means something other than "falsifiable." To swipe a thought from Robert Waldmann, theological "facts" may be derived in logically correct ways from theological axioms, but since those facts not only are non-empirical, but often claimed not to be subject to empirical validation (i.e., they constitute "articles of faith" independent of empiricism). This renders them something other than testable theories in the scientific usage.
Kotsko makes a valid point that it's wrong to treat theological dogma as immutable.
[D]ogma does change over time. If everything was unequivocally "set" for all time in some indisputable set of revealed propositions, then the history of Christianity, with its many controversies and many moments of genuine uncertainty as to which side would win, would literally make no sense at all.
But this, too, undermines another contention of Fish's:
[Fish:] Asking that religious faith consider itself falsified by empirical evidence is as foolish as asking that natural selection tremble before the assertion of deity and design. Falsification, if it occurs, always occurs from the inside.
At best, this depends on what you mean by "religious faith." Looking at a document such as the 1950 encyclical Humanae Generis (a Ground Zero for religion-science interactions), it's clear enough that a core of Catholic faith is put beyond the reach of empirical falsification. But it would seem to demand evidence that there isn't pressure on aspects of religious faith from emprical science. It seems beyond credulity that the processes by which many religions dropped (or diminished) tenets that the solar system is geocentric, that mental illnesses are not caused by demonic possession, or that the creation of the universe was according to the accounts in Genesis were generated "from the inside."

Ultimately, Fish warns that his own beliefs can't be inferred from his arguments and he may think the entire preceding argument is total bullshit and he won't say. ("Despite what some commentators assumed, I am not taking a position on the issues raised by the three books; readers of this and the previous column have learned nothing about my own religious views, or even if I have any.") So maybe the whole exercise has been an extended masturbation or devil's advocacy session; Fish isn't telling. My guess is left as an exercise for the reader.

(Cross-posted at Marginal Utility.)

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Blogger jeremy said...

I don't know if Dawkins has a major original contribution to evolutionary theory. But the Selfish Gene, his most famous book, is not about how "behaviors that don't seem to maximize individual fitness but may improve the population fitness aren't a problem for evolutionary explanations." It's about the opposite, how these behaviors are harder to explain than evolutionary biology up to the mid 1960's took them to be, for reasons analogous to the free rider problem.

Friday, June 22, 2007 6:43:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Bozzo said...

By "problem," I mean lack of an explanation (as Fish argues, via Collins, there might be), not intricacy of the explanation.

Appeal to The Selfish Gene rather emphatically does not rescue arguments along the lines of "X makes an individual (organism) worse off so X must have a supernatural explanation" that Fish is peddling.

Sunday, June 24, 2007 6:22:00 AM  

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