The Philosopher's Eye

News and brain candy for the philosophy community

Jerry Fodor’s critique of “Darwinism”

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.

Related articles

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

One comment on “Jerry Fodor’s critique of “Darwinism”

  1. erpiu
    May 21, 2010

    according to F&PP, game theory (GT) would not be a theory either, because whenever you look at a GTal system that can be “understood” using GTal analysis and principles, you cannot say anything about who will win unless you are told say what symbols the cards have, how many cards there are, what the specific rules of the game are, etc….

    and indeed game theory is not a “scientific theory” like that of gravitation since most GT phenomenology depends crucially on the arbitrary (or non-unifiable natural-historical) details of each case.

    natural selection (NS) narratives fall between these two extremes: to explain short-term events they mobilize a firework of circumstantial natural-historical details that are GTally crucial, but abstractly speaking the winners are always “the result” of the Bauplan’s potential to be altered (due to mutation, etc, and accidents) and thereby deliver modified “units” that deal with the specific selective agent/regime better than existing units do.

    this Bauplan’s potential is part of the “gravity-like” force driving evolution by natural selection (EBNS) and GT has nothing “ontologically” comparable to offer (i.e., GT has no obligate links to natural entities and quantities).

    but these Bauplan potentials are not the central element of this “gravity-like” force. the deepest driver of EBNS must be something along the lines of what van valen’s “3rd law of natural selection” (1976) was meant to describe (van valen meant EBNS when he wrote “natural selection”).

    no need to say that the “gravity-like” force driving NS (as opposed to that driving EBNS) cannot be studied in the same way and time scales as the “gravity-like” force driving EBNS.

    all in all, most of the phil.of biol and evol.biol establishment frauds who have commented on the book show a trailer-park-level understanding of what a scientific theory should be, one rivaling with that of the peddler of puerilo-retarded animistico-suggestive anthropomorphizations, r.dawkins; and their arguments are barely better informed and heuristically positive that the latter’s pernicious syllogistic imbecility about “DNA with intentionality”.

    F&PPs missed much if not most of the petty details they included about NS and EBNS as well as about what students of NS and EBNS can and cannot disentangle; but they got the most important thing right:

    the unifying “gravity-like” forces driving NS and EBNS remain unknown and available stories “different for each case” (let’s celebrate diversity!) are ontologically truncated.

    truly, it’s shocking to see such ignorance of deep epistemological canons among “professional” philosophers of science, and of evolutionary biology among “professional” evolutionary biologists.

    this whole debate shows one more time what kind of debacle is the american system of promotion of self-complacent paper churners…

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