Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroplasticity (Brief Entry)

Recently, I became interested in Evolutionary Psychology, specifically a research program proposed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. Cosmides and Tooby propose several principles for their research program (I will mention a couple): (1) The mind is a computational system organized into many domain-specific modules, (2) These modules are adaptations to adaptive problems during the Pleistocene  environment. Obviously, what follows from (2) is that these modules are naturally selected and then passed on to offsprings through reproduction. What makes this research program appealing to me is that it incorporates Computational Theory of Mind into an Evolutionary (or an adaptationist) framework.

Despite this appeal, Evolutionary Psychology remains controversial, especially among Evolutionary Biologists and Philosophers of Biology. One of the main objections is whether or not Evolutionary Psychology is testable. After all, it’s very easy to come up with any untestable story about how some module became an adaptation via natural selection. However, there is another objection that some people think is a deadly blow to Evolutionary Psychology: Neuroplasticity. Why would anyone think that Neuroplasticity counts as a counter-example to Evolutionary Psychology?

Evolutionary Psychology states that the mind is massively modular and these modules are adaptations via natural selection. What these claims seem to imply is that if these modules are heritable adaptations, then they are stable or fixed features of the mind resistant to influences from the environment. However, Neuroplasticity seems like an example in which the modules are not fixed or stable features of the mind. Consider the specific example of Hemispherectomy. In some cases, hemispherectomy patients retain most of their cognitive functions despite losing one of their cerebral hemispheres. The remaining hemisphere reorganizes itself to perform cognitive functions normally performed by the missing hemisphere. So, perhaps modules are not stable features of the mind.

However, I don’t think Neuroplasticity counts as a genuine counter-example to Evolutionary Psychology. I think the reason why some people think otherwise is because of two reasons. First, people initially understand modules to be localized physical features of the brain. On the contrary, modules are distributive features of the brain individuated by their domain-specific functions (see Peter Carruthers’ Philosophy of Psychology). So, even if the localized features of the brain changes, the distributive features that implement domain-specific functions remain intact.

Second, people forget the distinction between the physical implementation of domain-specific functions and the domain-specific functions. This distinction is important because while physical implementations are plastic it does not follow that domain specific functions are plastic. Just because you can implement a software in a different hardware, it doesn’t follow the the software radically changes. In other words, domain-specific function X may originally be implemented by some distributive feature Y, but its implementation changes from Y to Z. So, Y no longer implements X, but Z implements X. What is implementing the domain-specific function changes, but the domain-specific function remains intact. So, perhaps Neuroplasticity (specifically Hemispherectomy) only shows that the physical implementations are plastic, but not necessarily the domain-specific functions.

To sum up in a crude manner, Neuroplasticity only shows that the hardware is plastic, but the software remains stable. Domain-specific functions can be implemented in several ways via neuroplasticity, but they remain domain-specific. Someone may deny domain-specificity and this is fine. The purpose of this blog entry is not to argue that domain-specific modules exist. Instead, its purpose is to argue how Evolutionary Psychology is compatible with Neuroplasticity.

Why Searle’s Biological Naturalism Is Chauvinist Functionalism

John Searle is a well known critic of the Computational Theory of Mind (CTM) or Strong A.I. due to his Chinese Room thought experiment. Naturally, he is also a critic of Functionalism given CTM’s popularity among many functionalists sympathetic to it. At one point, Searle expressed contempt towards Functionalism by saying: “If you are tempted to functionalism, I believe you do not need refutation, you need help” (Searle, 1992). Clearly, Searle is hostile towards both CTM and Functionalism. Moreover, Searle also eschews dualism of any kind from Cartesian Dualism to Property Dualism. So, if Searle is neither a property dualist nor a functionalist, then what is his position?

Searle proposes what he considers to be a genuine alternative to both Functionalism and Property Dualism. He calls it Biological Naturalism . What exactly is Biological Naturalism? To put it crudely, Biological Naturalism states that mental states are the right kind of causal powers that can be realized in an appropriate biological organism. This shouldn’t be confused with Type Materialism which states that any type of mental state is identical to any type of neurological state. Unlike Type Materialism, Searle allows that in principle non-carbon life forms can possess an analog to a complex nervous system with mental states. 

Searle often compares mental states to phase states such as liquid and solid. The point of his comparison or analogy is that just as phase states consist of emergent properties of water our mental states are states of matter with emergent biological properties. In other words, mental states cannot be reduced to the simple constituents of neurons, but rather they emerge as a complex pattern from an overall interaction among them. In this sense, mental states are not ontologically reducible to the biological organism, but it is causally reducible insofar as they are causal byproducts of our nervous system. 

However, it is unclear to me how this is suppose to be a genuine alternative to Functionalism. One argument was raised by Georges Rey who points out that the idea that mental states are the “right causal powers” of the brain can be described in Ramsified Sentence that is congenial to David Lewis’ Functionalist theory. In fact, David Lewis uses Ramsified Sentences to formulate his Functionalist theory (A.K.A. Analytic Functionalism). Moreover, David Lewis would agree with John Searle that mental states can be realized in biological organisms, but not necessarily computational systems. Similarly, D.M. Armstrong, who proposes the Causal Theory of Mind, would agree that mental states are causal states of the central nervous system. 

What both David Lewis and D.M. Armstrong have in common is that they would be considered Chauvinist Functionalists. The term is coined by Ned Block in Troubles With Functionalism. In this context, a strict chauvinist is a functionalist who believes that mental states are causal roles of biological organisms, but does not believe that such a state can be realized by anything else. A liberal is a functionalist who believes that mental states are causal roles or realizers that can exist in any system as long as it is loosely similar to the causal input-output structure of our mind. So, a chauvinist emphasizes on the fine grain description of mental states such that it exclusively applies to biological organisms, but not the nation of China.

So, if Lewis and Armstrong are chauvinists, would Searle’s Biological Naturalism count as another version of chauvinist functionalism? After all, Searle thinks that mental states are the right causal powers of the central nervous system, but this phrase is ambiguous. It’s sufficiently ambiguous such that it is open to several interpretations, including a chauvinist functionalist interpretation. In other words, the “right causal powers” are causal states that exist exclusively among biological organisms with a central nervous system of some sort. 

Searle might argue that there is one huge difference: mental states are emergent biological properties causally produced by our central nervous system. The key term here is “emergent”, because if it is emergent then it can’t be reduced to individual neurons. Moreover, it can’t be reduced to the input-output structure among neurons. Perhaps this is what Searle has in mind. However, the problem is the term “emergent”. If I understand the term correctly, it is often used to refer to the phenomena of self-organization.

For example, a snowflake has an emergent crystallized structure that cannot be reduced to H2O molecules. A functionalist might ask “why can’t the sophisticated internal input-output structure also be an emergent causal pattern among neurons?”. After all, the mind could just be an emergent pattern that consists of input-output structure that cannot be exhaustively described in terms of individual neurons. Let’s use an analogy: our human biology cannot be reduced to the number of our genes, but rather it is more or less appropriate described in terms how genes interact with each other, including the level of epigenetics. Likewise, our mind cannot be reduced to the number of neurons (approximately 86 billion neurons), but also the causal interaction among them. This causal interaction among neurons can be described in terms of a very complex  input-output structure. 

Searle might argue that such causal powers cannot be explained in terms of computation or algorithm. So, his theory is not an instance of functionalism. This may not be a charitable interpretation of Searle, but it is plausible given that in the past he has conflated both computationalism and functionalism together as if they were synonymous. However, being a functionalist does not entail that one is a computationalist (see Piccinini, 2009 who explains the difference and David Chalmers (1992) who briefly points out that they are not synonymous). A functionalist who is not a computationalist may argue that while mental states can be characterized in terms of their causal roles in relation to an entire causal system (mind), they are not computational (again, look up Piccinini where he explains the difference between functionalism and computationalism). 

So, again, why isn’t Searle’s Biological Naturalism just another chauvinist version of Functionalism? After all, he hasn’t provided an explicit non-functionalist interpretation of “right causal powers” incompatible with every form of functionalism. That being said, I don’t think Searle has provided a genuine alternative to Functionalism. At best, Searle is against liberal functionalism or CTM. I could be wrong, since many philosophers like David Chalmers and Edward Feser believe that Searle is a property dualist. I think this means one thing: Searle hasn’t provided a clear and articulate alternative philosophical account. It’s ambiguous to the point that it is open to a functionalist or dualist camp. Even though Searle has explicitly rejected both functionalism and property dualism, he hasn’t provided a theory that is genuinely different from either camp. 

A Rant on “Philosophers”

When I first heard the word “Philosopher”, I thought it meant someone with a profound or interesting insight about reality or the “human condition”. However, when I studied philosophy, it eventually became apparent to me that philosophers don’t merely have profound insights; they also engage in a rational inquiry about foundational issues. In other words, philosophers think critically about fundamental issues via reason and argumentation. It’s much easier to have a profound insight than arguing for it. In fact, it’s not very hard to have an epiphany, but it’s much harder to critically examine one’s intuitions, assumptions, and beliefs.

After I learned what philosophers actually do, I took it for granted until I come across a common phenomenon that I use to be a part of. People start calling notable figures “philosophers” simply because they made some insightful remarks. For example, I remember someone calling the comedian Louis C.K. a philosopher, because he said something insightful about a young generation’s obsession with selfie and social media. I also remember the speaker of my graduation commencement regarding Dr. Seuss as a philosopher for writing insightful books dedicated to children.

I want to emphasize that I’m not claiming that Dr. Seuss and Louis C.K. lack profound insights; i’m not claiming that they aren’t important figures who had an important impact on contemporary culture. Remember, the term “philosopher”, as I understand it, doesn’t merely mean someone with profound insights about the human condition. The term “philosopher” means someone who engages in a rational inquiry by applying reason to fundamental issues like “consciousness”, “intentionality”, “knowledge”, “morality”, “justice”, “truth”, etc. This means that a philosophers does more than have an interesting insight: he or she systematically develops or critiques arguments. A philosopher also poses hard questions that usually begin with a “why” or “what”.

Someone could reply that as long as people like Louis C.K. and Dr. Seuss make a philosophical claim through literature or comedy, then we should at least consider them to be philosophers. However, my problem with that reply is that it’s very easy to make a philosophical claim. Claims like “All people are equal”, “Capital Punishment is unjust (or just)”, “God exists”, “The scientific method works”, “I know myself better than you!”, “I know what that person is thinking”, and such are all philosophical claims that we find to be relatively common in every day conversation from the most controversial political issue to ordinary conversations. They all make some kind of basic assumption worth examining. However, what makes someone a philosopher is that he or she critically thinks about these claims.

A philosopher would usually ask the following kind of questions about those claims: “What does that claim really mean?”, “The claim uses a key term (i.e. God, Equality, Unjust, Scientific Method, Know, etc.)  but what does that term mean exactly”, “What is the justification for the claim (or why is that claim true)?”, and more. After a philosopher poses those kind of questions, he or she would proceed to develop some arguments. If another person makes an argument, a philosopher would examine it to consider if it’s a good or bad argument. If the argument is good, but has some flaws, then a philosopher would consider what would improve that argument.

Someone could just shrug and dismiss my concern as a semantic issue. After all, what a “philosopher” means would vary among people. However, I think this more than just a “semantic” issue. Suppose a large segment of our population believes that a scientist is someone who invents new technology to improve our lives. Consequently, people who believe that scientists are inventors would believe that Thomas Edison is a scientist. An actual scientist would be somewhat annoyed, since he or she rightfully thinks that a scientist is more than just an inventor. Generally, a scientist is someone who makes an observation, considers a hypothesis, and then test it through rigorous experimentation. Afterward, a scientist should record an experimental result and then submit it for peer review. In other words, a scientist is someone who tries to understand the world and engages with a scientific community to facilitate that understanding.

We normally would agree that people who think that scientists are technological inventors are not entirely being accurate. Likewise, I think we should agree that people are misguided into thinking that philosophers are simply people with profound insights. Someone might object that “philosopher” and “scientists” aren’t analogous, because the former strictly isn’t a profession whereas the latter is. Again, I’m afraid that I have to disagree. Most philosophers nowadays are professional philosophers who are academically trained to do philosophy. There are some people who I call “lay philosophers” who are familiar with various philosophical topics, but pursued alternative careers. What professional and lay philosophers have in common is that both of them do think about the same problems.

Someone could point out that in the past great philosophers like Hume, Plato, Leibniz, Descartes, Stuart Mill, and others weren’t philosophers in the professional sense given that a “philosopher” wasn’t a profession back then. This is true, but I think one could make a similar argument about scientists. A long time ago, during Galileo’s time, science wasn’t as professionalized like today. A scientist back then would just be any educated person who wants to advance knowledge. Over a hundred years ago, there use to be independent scientists who could easily do science outside the confines of academia. Nowadays, it’s virtually impossible to do science outside of academic research institutions.

A more sophisticated critic would point out that my definition of the term “philosopher” seems to exclude some people like Nietzsche who is widely acknowledged to be a philosopher. After all, someone could argue that Nietzsche reads more like a poet than an average professional philosopher who systematically develops arguments. There are two possible replies. First, Nietzsche might not be a typical philosopher who makes clear arguments, but one could argue that he has implicit arguments that could be reconstructed by a Nietzschean scholar. Second, Nietzsche is familiar with the philosophical literature and he does criticize (though somewhat dismissively) some well known philosophers like Kant and John Stuart Mill.

In the end, I think this common yet benign misunderstanding could be resolved through education. I take it somewhat personally because I don’t like it when people misunderstand a discipline that I care so much about. I don’t entirely blame them for misunderstanding philosophy. After all, philosophers are not great at Public Relations. That’s part of the reason why I developed this blog in the first place.

Are Children Scientists?

Allison Gopnik , who is a psychologist and philosopher, is known for arguing for the controversial thesis that children are scientists. You may not take her position seriously, since her claim could be metaphorical. However, when Gopnik says that Children are scientists she means it literally. Gopnik argues that scientists and children are using the same cognitive processes that are required to do science; both scientists and children are using the same cognitive processes when it comes to developing a theory, making predictions,  testing them, providing an explanation, and revising a theory. Gopnik appeals to the evidence such as the development of folk-psychology and folk-biology among children. According to Gopnik, children develop theories (i.e. folk-psychology and folk-biology), make predictions, provide explanations, and revise theories. For example, Children possess a theory of folk-psychology that enables them to use concepts of mental states to predict people’s behaviors and explain them. Children may predict that John goes into the fridge to find an ice cream and then explain his behavior by appealing to his beliefs that the ice cream is in the fridge and he desires it. Moreover, children eventually learn that there are false beliefs and upon that discovery they revise their theory of folk-psychology.

Gopnik addresses several objections. It is important to keep in mind that Gopnik is committed to the view that theories like those of folk-psychology and folk-biology are entirely acquired; she rejects the idea that these theories are innate. Philosophers and cognitive scientists argue that if that were the case, then it would be a matter of sheer coincidence on a global scale that virtually every children acquire the same kind of mental state concepts in spite of being in different environments. Gopnik points out that as long as there is an initial condition that determines the outcome, then her theory remains plausible.

Another objection is that science is a social enterprise that requires a group of scientists to cooperate through institutional practices from peer review to laboratory experimentation. So, being a scientist means participating that enterprise. However, children do not seem to partake in that kind of enterprise. Gopnik points out that while children are not literally part of the academic institutions, they are born into an environment with parents and other children. So, children are part of some social environment that enables them to develop a theory.

Philosophers and scientists naturally point out that children do not reflect like scientists. Scientists reflect on an observable phenomenon and then consciously develop a theory. However, children do not seem to consciously develop a theory; even if children do develop some kind of theory, they are not aware of what they are doing. Gopnik responds that scientists do not know what are the underlying cognitive processes of scientific reasoning, so they aren’t really in a better position than children in that respect.

So far, I think Gopnik does well in defending her position. However, there is one potential problem with Gopnik’s theory: If children are scientists, then they should be able to falsify any theory. Falsification amounts to abandoning a theory in favor of an alternative theory. However, we normally do not observe children abandoning a theory in favor of another theory later in their early adulthood. Let me elaborate: later in life, in adolescence, people are able to learn that folk-biology is wrong. For example, contrary to their theory of folk-biology, the theory of evolution undermines our folk notion of biological essentialism. In other words, members of any species are not individuated or defined in terms of their essence, but rather in terms of their evolutionary history. A member of any species is understood in terms of its evolutionary relation to its ancestors. Nonetheless, even after learning evolution in high school biology, people will continue to (unconsciously) think as essentialists. People will continue to attribute essences to themselves, their friends, domestic animals, and wild animals without necessarily being aware of doing so. Likewise in folk physics, people will unconsciously think that an object will continue to fall straight down even after a person dropping it moves along.

Gopnik could argue that through rigorous training people can eventually replace their theory with an alternative theory from modern science. She does appeal to an example in which children who are trained to learn the concept of false beliefs acquire it faster than those who are not trained. However, this argument is implausible. There is an experiment, conducted by Deborah Kelemen, which shows that professional scientists are unable to escape their implicit teleological biases. Professional scientists such as physicists, geologists, chemists, and such are trained to favor mechanical explanations over teleological ones. However, in an experimental condition, where professional scientists are pressured by limited time to answer scientific questions, they tend to give answers that are laden with teleology. The experimental result indicates that there is an underlying implicit preference for a teleological explanation over a mechanical explanation. Moreover, I think that the result suggests that our teleological theory has never been replaced by our modern scientific theories. When a theory is falsified, scientists replace it with another theory. However, if children are unable to replace their theory in the long run, then they aren’t very close to being scientists.

However, Gopnik could find a way to circumvent my objection. She could point out that physicists never really abandoned classical mechanics, after discovering Quantum mechanics. Physicists (and astronomers) continue to use classical mechanics when it is much more feasible to use it for calculation than if they were to use Quantum mechanics. If astronomers or physicists want to predict and calculate a future trajectory of large objects (i.e. asteroid, rocket, comet, etc), then classical mechanics is a feasible and relevant tool. Despite the fact that classical mechanics (as originally intended) was falsified, it was never replaced because it remains useful. Likewise, teleology remains useful in dealing with our ordinary lives, especially when we are constantly surrounded by designed artifacts. Falsification does not necessarily amount to abandonment of a theory, since many aspects of a theory remains useful for scientists. So, even though someone may find out that teleology is largely false, he or she may continue to use it for practical use.

I think this is a very plausible response, but I want to see if it works. It appears that there is an analogy between scientists and children insofar as both will continue to use falsified theories. Scientists continue to use classical mechanics even though it is falsified. Likewise, even after children grow up to learn that teleology is false they still use it. However, I think there is an important disanalogy between them. In general, scientists are able to abandon a theory if it is both falsified and rendered obsolete. Consider the example from the history of Chemistry: the theory of classical elements was the theory that the basic elements were fire, earth, air, and water. This theory was prominent in many cultures, especially in the ancient Greek culture, for centuries. However, by the time Antoine Lavoisier discovered the elements that constitute water, the theory of classical elements was both falsified and rendered obsolete. We no longer find modern Chemists using the theory of classical elements to understand the nature of matter. There aren’t any chemists using that theory to make any useful predictions or calculations in the way physicists are using classical mechanics. However, children are unable to do this with both folk-biology and folk-psychology.

In the end, the objection from falsification probably isn’t a deadly blow to Gopnik’s conclusion. Gopnik can still maintain that for the most part the cognitive process of scientific reasoning exists in both children and scientists. She doesn’t have to insist that scientific reasoning between children and scientist is the same in every aspect. She can concede that there are a few major differences, but continue to argue that the similarity remains significant.

Cartesian Materialism Vindicated?

Gray_718-emphasizing-claustrum

I have a confession to make: I haven’t read Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (I am reading Dennett’s Brainstorm and so far I’m enjoying it). So, I’m not exactly in a position to argue against Dennett’s Consciousness Explained. However, I think there is a plausible evidence against one of Dennett’s argument. Let’s begin with Dennett’s argument. Dennett argues against what he calls “Cartesian Materialism“, which is the view there is a central region that integrates all conscious experience. One of Dennett’s argument against Cartesian Materialism is that neuroscientists discount it given the overwhelming evidence that different conscious experience is stored at different areas of the brain. For example, visual experience happens in the visual cortex, but there’s no the center of consciousness that stores that experience. Dennett might be correct that there is no central region of the brain for consciousness, but there is recent evidence that appears to contradict his claim.

The evidence I’m referring to is one that appears in recent news. In one news outlet Business Insider, it reports that neuroscientists may have found some region in the brain that they can “switch” on or off. Specifically, neuroscientists from George Washington University were experimenting with an epileptic patient by switching off her consciousness (and then switching it back on). A few years before this experiment, Francis Crick and Christof Koch proposed a hypothesis that the region of the brain known as the Claustrum is the center of consciousness that integrates different informational inputs. In the experiment, neuroscientists place an electrode between Claustrum and anterior-dorsal insula. When they stimulated an electrode, the patient lost consciousness. The experimental result indicates that the Claustrum could be the center of consciousness, which supports Koch and Crick’s hypothesis. I think their hypothesis is a version of Cartesian Materialism. If their hypothesis is supported by recent evidence, then there is evidence for Cartesian Materialism. This could mean that Dennett was wrong that there is no center of consciousness. So, does this mean that Cartesian Materialism is vindicated from Dennett’s critique? Probably not.

While the experimental result is interesting, it is only a single case study that hardly qualifies as a sufficient representative sample. Moreover, there needs to be an experiment that accounts for both epileptic and non-epileptic patients to ensure that this isn’t a unique case for an epileptic patient (unless there is an ethical issue with that kind of experiment). Nonetheless, one could reasonably expect that the same thing that happens for an epileptic patient could happen if one places an electrode in the same region for non-epileptic patients and then stimulates it.

Another thing to consider is that there is another experiment four years ago that suggests an alternative hypothesis that isn’t committed to Cartesian Materialism: the Claustrum consists of distinct “zones” with “unimodal” neurons that respond to specific kind of sensory inputs. The visual “zone” consists of neurons that respond to the visual stimuli, but not the auditory stimuli. Likewise, the auditory “zone” consists of neurons that respond to auditory stimuli, but not visual stimuli. In other words, the auditory and visual experience may not be integrated in one conscious experience, but rather they remain isolated from each other in different “zones” of the Claustrum. So far, there has been an experiment with primates as test subjects that produces a result that supports the alternative hypothesis. Given that both homo sapiens and their close cousins share a common ancestry, it is not unreasonable to think that their Claustrum has similar functions. One could infer that if our close cousins’ Claustrum does not integrate multiple sensory information, then likewise our Claustrum may not be the center of consciousness (there is another evidence that the function of Rats’ Claustrum is an interhemispheric coordination of whisker representations from both the somatosensory and motor cortical areas. So, the function of the Claustrum may not necessarily have to be the center of consciousness for all non-human animals). It could be the case that the experimental result from the epileptic patient could support the alternative hypothesis. Perhaps all zones of the Claustrum were turned off simultaneously by an electrode. Consequently, the evidence is underdetermined between two available hypothesis. So far, it appears that Cartesian Materialism is not vindicated, but it is also not ruled out.

Some Thoughts on Sam Harris’ Response to Ryan Born’s Critique

A while ago, Ryan Born won the award for writing the best essay against Sam Harris’ position that science answers moral questions. Sam Harris wrote a reply to Born’s critique and I must say that I’m not very impressed. I read his reply two-thirds of the way until I grew tired of the rudimentary mistakes. Some of the mistakes in Harris’ reply are worth discussing, which is what I’m intending to do in this blog entry. I’m not going to write an exhaustive criticism of Sam Harris’ response to Ryan Born’s critique. Instead, I’m going to focus on Harris’ arguments for his definition of “Science”.

Harris appears to understand the meaning of the term “Science” in a very broad manner. In fact, it’s so broad that Harris doesn’t think there is that much of a fundamental difference between a plumber and a professional scientist. The boundary between a plumber and a professional scientist is merely conventional kind that is there for a practical purpose. What a plumber and a professional scientist have in common is that they use the same kind of processes of thought and observation:

“For practical reasons, it is often necessary to draw boundaries between academic disciplines, but physicists, chemists, biologists, and psychologists rely on the same processes of thought and observation that govern all our efforts to stay in touch with reality.”

Elsewhere, Harris thinks that anyone who does “Science” is relying on empirical and logical intuitions, which is why he expresses surprise at his critics’ reaction:

“To my surprise, many people think about science primarily in terms of academic titles, budgets, and architecture, and not in terms of the logical and empirical intuitions that allow us to form justified beliefs about the world.”

What is really unclear to me is whether or not the processes of thought and observation are the same as the “empirical and logical intuitions”. I will mention this perplexity later in the essay. Harris sums up his view as follows:

“I am, in essence, defending the unity of knowledge—the idea that the boundaries between disciplines are mere conventions and that we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world. “

Harris thinks that this claim “remains a controversial thesis”. However, his thesis makes two claims. The first claim is that the boundaries between disciplines are merely conventional. I agree that this claim is controversial for his critics. The second claim (i.e. “we inhabit a single epistemic sphere in which to form true beliefs about the world”), on the other hand, is quite uncontroversial. If “a single epistemic sphere” means common processes of thoughts and observations that we apply to the world, then it is trivially true that we inhabit the same universe and apply our thinking processes to it. Unless one is a relativist or a philosophical skeptic of some sort, there is little or no reason to reject the second claim. However, to be charitable, I think what Harris has in mind is that the second claim is suppose to explain the feature of unity that underlies all knowledge in spite of conventional boundaries. If this is the case, then there are some objections.

First, Harris does not explicate what kind of processes of thought and observation are being used. He does say that we use “logical and empirical intuitions”, so perhaps these are the processes he has in mind, but he doesn’t clarify the meaning of “logical and empirical intuitions”. Again, to be charitable, perhaps these processes are reasoning processes that use induction, deduction, and abduction. If this is the correct interpretation, then Harris needs to argue why these processes are necessary and sufficient conditions for doing science. After all, Harris does think that anything that consists of using these processes (e.g. plumbing) qualifies as doing science.

Second, Harris’ term “Unity of Knowledge” is unclear. The term “Unity of Knowledge” has a technical meaning in Philosophy of Science. Unity of Knowledge (a.k.a. Consilience) means connecting different facts across different disciplines together based on a common theoretical groundwork or explanation. In others, there is a unity of knowledge if one has a theory that explains a variety of facts from different disciplines. For example, Newton’s theory of gravity explains a variety of facts from tidal waves on Earth (Oceanography) to the planetary motions (Astronomy).  Darwin’s theory of evolution also explains a variety of facts from diversity of organisms in the animal kingdom (Zoology) to the development of viruses (virology). What both theories have in common is that they have a wide explanatory scope that can account for a variety of phenomena studied by different disciplines. In this sense, these theories bring unity among scientific disciplines. However, the unity of Knowledge that Harris proposes is nowhere interesting or deep like one I just explained. Instead, Harris merely states that what bring unity to knowledge is that we all live in the same universe and acquire true beliefs about it by using reasons and observations. Unless one is a philosophical skeptic or a radical relativist (very few people fall under those labels), no one would reasonably deny that claim. It’s just trivially true that we live in the same universe and acquire some true beliefs about it with at least some effort of thought and observation. The “unity of knowledge” in Harris’ sense is trifling and uninteresting. It’s so uninteresting that I have a hard time understanding how that justifies the first claim that the boundaries are merely conventional.

Third, Harris seems unaware of the concept of levels of descriptions. What makes these disciplines different from one another is that they are different levels of description of the universe. Quantum mechanics is the lowest level of description that describes or explains sub-atomic particles. Chemistry explains or describes the elements from the periodic table, which is slightly above Quantum Mechanics. Biology explains or describes carbon-based living organisms (for now), which is above Chemistry. Neuroscience describes or explains the structure and operation of the brain, which makes it a subset of biology. Psychology goes a bit higher to explain how cognitive processes work. Above psychology we have Economics and Sociology to explain how individual cognitive agents interact with each other to form a society with an economic system and complex set of cultural norms/values. Concepts or vocabularies that we find in quantum mechanics simply don’t extend beyond it to Economics. This is because Economics describes human agents (a.k.a. consumers and profiteers) with preferences (i.e. Rational Choice Theory), whereas Quantum mechanics describes sub-atomic particles.

Fourth, Harris’ understanding of the meaning of “science” exacerbates the demarcation problem. The demarcation problem is the problem of finding a principled way of identifying a fundamental difference between science and pseudoscience. It’s kind of like finding a principled difference between Art and soft pornography (both consist of visual representations of nudity). If science just means that we apply observation and reason, then a pseudoscience like  Phrenology is on a par with a science like Neuroscience. After all, the founder of phrenology did try to apply reasoning and observation (no matter how flawed) to come to his conclusion about the structure of the mind to explain personalities. Likewise, neuroscientists apply observation and reasoning (with the help of the MRI scan) to come to their own conclusions about the mind. If Harris’ definition of science is correct, then both phrenology and neuroscience qualify as science. Harris could argue that what makes something a pseudoscience is the application of poor reasoning and observation. Phrenology is just a case of poor reasoning and observation, so it is a pseudoscience. However, any honest scientist will tell you that there are plenty of poor reasoning and observation in their field. That is why scientists have peer review and meta-analysis to assess the quality of their scientific research. However, even meta-analysis and peer-review can suffer from cases of bad reasoning and observation too.

What is essentially wrong with Harris’ theses is that they are both trifling and false. It is trifling because the unity of knowledge that Harris mentions is so broad that it isn’t as deep as the consilience of knowledge. It is false because the boundaries between disciplines can be explained by appealing to the concept of the levels of descriptions. If Harris learns about W.V. Quine, he would probably avoid the mistake of broadening his definition of science. Ironically, Harris’ notion of science is almost Quinean. However, Quine did add a qualification: “The scientist is indistinguishable from the common man in his sense of evidence, except that the scientist is more careful” (The Scope and Language of Science, 1957). In other words, science is different from ordinary knowledge insofar as it systematizes knowledge by adding more rigor to reason and observation. This may seem like it supports Harris’ view of science, but in fact it does not. At the very least, Quine wouldn’t consider ordinary knowledge to be a science. Harris, on the other hand, does not shy away from calling ordinary knowledge a kind of science. In this sense, Harris is barely half right.

 

Should We Abandon the term “Free Will”?

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language”- Wittgenstein 

Recently, Daniel Dennett decided to abandon the term “Free Will” in favor of “Moral Responsibility”. His decision, however, has more or less to do with terminology of “free will” than the more substantive concept of “free will”. So, to avoid a possible misunderstanding, he really hasn’t abandoned compatibilism, but slightly reformulated a motivation for it. The motivation is by reformulating the question from “Do we have free-will” to “Do we have moral responsibility”. I think I agree with Dennett’s decision to reformulate the question. When the first question is asked, the philosophical community would most likely answer “yes, we do have free will in a compatibilist sense”, however the public would give polarized reactions between hard determinism and libertarianism. When one tries to present compatibilism to the public, most dismiss it as not really being committed to free-will or accuse it of reducing the free-will debate into a terminological issue. The second question (“Do we have moral responsibility?”),  on the other hand, probably won’t elicit the polarized reactions, since it appears to be asking a slightly different question.

I think Dennett’s decision to abandon the term “free will” is understandable and tactically sound. By “tactically sound”, I mean that Dennett’s rhetorical strategy to get his audience to consider the compatibilist concept behind the term “free will” is probably on the right track. However, while I’m inclined to agree with Dennett’s approach from a pragmatic or tactical point of view , I’m also concerned whether or not his abandonment of the term “free will” is warranted in a philosophical sense. One of Dennett’s reason for abandoning the term “free will” is that it connotes a libertarian notion of free will. When you hear the word “free will”, the  first thought that most likely comes to your mind (assuming that you haven’t studied the philosophical debate about free will) would be a libertarian intuition of free will. Moreover, its very hard to convince someone that the term “free will” need not be about that intuition. When you try to convince people that the term “free will” can also refer to a non-libertarian conception of free-will, many would insist that it’s not really “free will” at all. The association between the term “free will” and the libertarian intuition about it is very much ingrained into most of our minds. It’s hard to convince them to think otherwise (no pun intended…). So, someone like Dennett, who wants to convince his audience about the truth of compatibilism, would abandon the term “free will” in favor of another term “moral responsibility” in order to get people to think about the debate a little differently.

This is all well and good from a pragmatic standpoint, but there are some things I want to point out. Firstly, abandoning the term on the basis of its connotation doesn’t seem like a very strong reason. After all, there is a difference between a connotation and a definition of any word. A connotation elicits initial reaction or thought about a meaning or idea associated with the word, whereas a definition of a word is the actual meaning or concepts that constitute that word. Connotations have little or no philosophical relevance, since it’s really the definitions that is important to consider. “Consciousness”, for example, has this popular connotation that ranges from new age woo woo to dualistic intuition about mental states. However, in philosophy of mind, philosophers are debating about the theoretical definition  of “consciousness”; connotations are beside the point. Should we abandon the term “consciousness” to a bunch of dualists and adopt another term? So far, Dennett hasn’t abandoned the term “consciousness” simply because of its connotation.

To use another example, the term “morality” connotes conventional absolutist morality taught by religions. This connotation is quite popular among many people, but should atheists abandon the term “morality” for the religious populace in favor of another term? I don’t think so, since many atheists do think that there are right” and “wrong actions independently of God’s command. Many atheists will simply deny that popular connotation as a definition of morality. Furthermore, should atheists stop using the term “atheist” due to its negative connotation that is popular among people who know little about atheism? Perhaps some would like to, but I like to keep the term “atheism” since I think its definition is a rejection of the belief of the existence of God, rather than a sociopathic killer who lacks a moral compass.

Perhaps we can use a political example. I have a friend who is a liberal (i.e. he’s critical of U.S. foreign policy, loves to listen to Chomsky, opposes capital punishment, likes diversity, etc.) but grew to hate the term “liberal”, because for him it connotes a bunch of white liberals and the media that pay lip service to liberal values, but end up doing very little for minorities and women. So, he stopped calling himself “liberal” in favor of the term “reformed”. It’s really his decision about what to call himself, but it doesn’t seem warranted to abandon the term “liberal” due to how many self-professed liberals act anymore than someone abandoning the term “Christian” due to how many self-professed Christians act.

Lastly, I think Dennet’s question “Do we have moral responsibility” is very different from “Do we have free will”. Dennett said that he only changed the “verbiage” than the subject, but in some subtle sense I think there is a difference between two questions “Do we have free will” and “Do we have moral responsibility”. The former is asking a metaphysical question, whereas the latter is asking a basic normative question. So, abandoning the term “free will” to replace it with another term “moral responsibility” seems to do more than just replace the verbiage. However, Dennett could argue that the question “Does moral responsibility exist?” is in fact a metaphysical question at the level of social ontology. In other words, he thinks that moral responsibility is a social construct (i.e. like President of the United States or the Constitution) that derives from our natural capacity to participate in society as competent rational agents. However, I think this possible reply misunderstands what “moral responsibility” means. “Moral responsibility” has little to do with what exists in the fabric of society, but more or less predicated on what one ought to do if one wants to be moral. So, I think changing the question from “Does Free Will exist?” to “Does Moral Responsibility exist?” potentially changes the subject.

Someone could complain that this entire blog post is meddling in terminological issues or semantics. I think there is a point to that complaint insofar as my blog entry does dispute about terminologies, but I don’t think it is entirely fruitless. Moreover, I don’t think this dispute it merely terminological. If a term “X” refers to an observable phenomenon “A” and two parties want to know what constitutes that phenomenon “A”, but they have contrary conceptions about it, can they still use the term “X”? I think so. After all, what is not at dispute is the use of the term “X”, but the phenomenon “A”. For example, in the past biologists obviously agreed that life exists, but there use to be two opposing views: materialism and vitalism. On one hand, you had people who thought that life can be explained in a mechanistic biochemical terms. On the other hand, you had people who thought there was an essence or vital spirit that constitutes the intrinsic nature of life. Eventually, the materialists ultimately won when they discovered the DNA. Nonetheless, both materialists and vitalists could use the term “life” to refer to a phenomenon of living organisms, but dispute about their nature. Likewise, I think compatibilists and libertarians can agree that “free will” refers to an introspective or first person phenomenon of what looks like choosing or deciding an option among others, but disagree about the nature of that phenomenon.

For many people, this introspective phenomenon really looks like a compelling case of libertarian free will just as an observable phenomenon of the sunrise or sunset looked like a case of the Geocentric model of the solar system. Even after Galileo showed that the geocentric model is false, people nonetheless continued to think that it’s appropriate to call the phenomena “sunset” or “sunrise”. Likewise, I think  the term “free will” remains appropriate even after we show that this introspective phenomenon is not really the case of libertarianism.

I think the term “free will” may be worth keeping. Moreover, I don’t think compatibilists and libertarians are talking past each other. Both agree that there is an introspective phenomenon of what seems like (from a first person point of view) choosing or deciding an option among other possible options. The disagreement lies in what actually constitutes or underlies that phenomenon.