Superstar philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini have recently published a controversial book, What Darwin Got Wrong. They argue that “Darwinism,” specifically the theory of natural selection, is not just false, but even incoherent and therefore couldn’t be true. A summary of their argument is here. Elliott Sober debates Fodor in a diavlog on Bloggingheads.tv here. If you watch the diavlog (perhaps best to start about 6 minutes in: here) you’ll quickly notice that Sober doesn’t think Fodor’s argument works. In that respect I think Sober represents the vast majority of philosophers and scientists.
This brief clip from the diavlog is interesting in its own right even apart from its context within the debate over Fodor’s views of evolutionary theory. There seems to be a deep disagreement between Fodor and Sober about how philosophers of science ought to regard the considered judgments of scientists. I am sure that Sober would deny that scientists’ opinions should be uncritically accepted at face value, and I am sure that Fodor would deny that scientists’ opinions should be written off entirely. But Sober and Fodor apparently occupy different points on the line between those two extremes. I wonder how much of Fodor’s view of evolutionary theory would be left if Fodor switched to a Sober-style view of the value of what scientists have to say about matters of philosophical interest.
On a different note there’s John Basl’s reaction to the commenters on the Fodor/Sober diavlog. Some of the commenters were annoyed by the existence of a couple of philosophers horning in on scientists’ turf. Basl:
The thought is probably something like “What the [supervenience] does this philosopher who sits in a chair all day have to say about something that consists in doing stuff that involves anything but sitting in a chair all day? It’s like getting advice about my health issues from an accountant.” Except it isn’t like that at all. Philosophers of science often are or were scientists. At the very least they have significantly more training than science fan boys. At most, they’ve got more than enough training to comment competently on the empirical matters that they study (the same can probably not be said about most scientists regarding the philosophical matters they brush up against).
I agree with all of this but (as I said in a comment that was apparently eaten by WordPress over at Normal Science) I also think people should have a thick skin about this kind of thing. It’s good for non-philosophers to talk about philosophy. It’s bad for non-philosophers to say ill-informed things about philosophy. Unfortunately you can’t have the good without the bad: the more people talk about philosophy, the more ill-informed things are going to be said about philosophy. So the only real options are (a) to keep philosophy segregated from the wider culture, or (b) to get used to hearing people say a lot of dumb things about philosophy. I think (b) is vastly better than (a). Of course none of this is inconsistent with the basic complaint here. The unavoidability of dumb comments doesn’t make them non-dumb.
The Levels of Selection Debate: Philosophical Issues By Samir Okasha, University of Bristol (February 2006) Philosophy Compass
Laws of Biology, Laws of Nature: Problems and (Dis)Solutions By Andrew Hamilton, Arizona State University (April 2007) Philosophy Compass
Computationalism in the Philosophy of Mind By Gualtiero Piccinini, University of Missouri – St. Louis (April 2009) Philosophy Compass
Causal Theories of Mental Content By Robert D. Rupert, University of Colorado, Boulder (February 2008) Philosophy Compass