Sunday, February 10

The philosophical implications of Darwinism

If human knowledge is the evolving production of an evolved being, what kind of knowledge could that plausibly give us ? Beings subject to evolution are perpetually harassed. Everything about them is patched-up, provisional and just-good-enough. They grope, they try, and fail. If they manage anything approaching rationality, it’s only local and myopic.

What does that suggest ? As evolved beings we have no chance of acquiring anything by way of knowledge that could be constant or certain. Nothing shiny, or pure, or transcendent. Only messy, fleshy, incarnate truth.

The knowledge evolved beings like us possess is bound to be drastically fallible.

Even among people who nominally accept the theory of evolution some believe that more is at work. They believe in a telos, a transcendent goal towards which the process of evolution is pulled forward. An Omega Point, as Teilhard de Chardin calls it.

This is either a confused way of stating the obvious, or a devious strategy for reintroducing God and infallible purposes through the backdoor.

If we can think of our beliefs as instruments, as pieces of mental software, then it is easy to see how their use value tends to rise over time. This happens for the same basic reasons that manufacturing productivity steadily rises. People are not normally motivated to discard good tools for worse. So barring cataclysms, if the productivity moves at all, it should move up.

Even though productivity rises, there needs to be no continuity in the way it is achieved. No continuity in the content of our beliefs is implied; if it serves productivity every last bit of content is liable to be exchanged. Today’s best practice raises the bar for any later practices but has no power to determine the principles on which the future will operate.

The value of our knowledge can be thought of as an abstraction similar to productivity in this crucial sense: The expectation that productivity will rise is reasonable; the expectation that modes of production will be retained is not.

All trends, even long-term trends, can come to an end. The only permanent trend worth betting on is the rise of productivity in our knowledge, stripped of any commitment to permanence of content. In the contents, continuing threads abound; but none could be relied on to go all the way.

There is a harmless way of interpreting talk of a teleology inherent in the process of human evolution: We can take the telos to be simply a placeholder for “whatever will be thought most productive at a given point in history” or “wherever the process decides to take us”. The “telos” here is a misleading nominalisation, introducing an object where there is nothing object-like. It may not be the most elegant way of speaking, but it is not actually wrong.

What would be wrong is this: To claim that the telos is more than purely formal, that it has substantive content. To claim that the process allows us to accumulate truth, allows us to fix substantive content in approaching the telos; that there are parts of presently known content not subject to being revised at any time. The purpose behind this move is to restore infallible truth as the limit of ever fuller approximation. It amounts to a sneaky denial of the open-ended nature of knowledge discovery. As more and more content is assumed to be settled, the window for discovery shrinks and shrinks. This cock-eyed view of teleology is tantamount to an expectation for history to shut down, eventually.

Yet the historical process is and remains radically open-ended: No one has a less than radically fallible way of predicting the future, including in particular the content of people’s future beliefs. And it is meaningless to claim that God has traced a course for history when we have no way of knowing what that course might be.

I prefer my Anti-Darwinians honest; I prefer Protestant literalists who flatly reject the theory of evolution to certain others, Catholics especially, who want to wreck it with screwball additions.

Darwinian theory has no room for divine intervention or guidance, ie substantive teleology by any name, in any way, shape or form. All who believe otherwise should have the courage to move beyond the pale of science and declare themselves Anti-Darwinian outlaws.

When some secularists fall into the trap of teleology, they are also tempted by the prospect of claiming the authority of the ideal limit for today’s actual claims. Certain European discourse theorists like to define truth as the progressively less impaired limit of societal consensus; certain American pragmatists – e.g. some statements by Peirce – can be read as positing an ideal (and very “unpragmatist”) limit towards which the search for truth converges. These ideals are thin and unconvincing secularisations of religious fantasies. Passing from the Holy Spirit to Hegel’s Spirit hardly counts as an improvement.

We have seen how the theory of evolution as a whole can lend plausibility to an evolutionary, strictly non-teleological account of knowledge. We now want to look at what individual inquiries within the evolutionary paradigm can amount to.

An empirical inquiry can only tell us what is possible to do; not what we ought to do. It can help us restrict our moral choices to only practicable moral systems.

That, however, is almost no constraint at all. It is very hard to imagine anything an empirical inquiry into evolutionary biology could prove to be impossible for people to do. And if it’s not literally impossible, just very, very hard and costly to do, then moral philosophy still has all the freedom in the world to say: ‘Bite that bullet. We don’t care how hard it is, it’s right anyway.’

In other words, empirical inquiries into human nature provide no constraints at all on moral philosophies. Only other moral philosophies can do that.

This is then a battle between two types of moral philosophy: On the one hand, there are “with the grain” philosophies asserting that an empirical finding, e.g. “Humans find X hard to do”, provides a reason not to force people to do X. Perhaps not by itself a conclusive reason, but at least a prima facie reason. On the other hand there are “transcendentalist” philosophies that assert that such a finding would provide no, or next to no, reason not to try and get people to do X.

An example should make it clearer: Suppose a scientist were to document that humans find it for such-and-such evolutionary reasons hard to live monogamously. They like sleeping around. (Well, doesn’t take a scientist to discover that.) A “with the grain” moral philosophy would conclude from such a result that we should perhaps think about changing our mores in the direction of polyamory/polygamy, or at least allow for unbiased competition among models of intimacy. A “transcendentalist” philosophy would conclude that we should try even harder to drum the standard of monogamy into people.

This is a debate purely within moral philosophy, between different conceptions of moral philosophy. No empirical finding does have, or should be allowed to have, any bearing on the outcome.

It is too glib to say that an ‘ought’ never follows from an ‘is’. Under a “with the grain” philosophy, an ‘is’ can at least strongly suggest an ‘ought’. This suggestion is defeasible, there is indeed no strict logical implication. We remain morally free to take any attitude we like to whatever life decides to throw at us. That does not, however, make the wisdom of always taking the path of maximal resistance, as “against the grain” philosophies would have us do, any less questionable.

How high we want to make the hurdle from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is a moral philosophical question. “With the grain” philosophies say: Not so high. “Against the grain” philosophies say: As high as we possibly can.

That something feels good is a prima facie reason doing it. It may not be a sufficient reason because the value of the good feeling could be outweighed by a reason not to chase the thrill. So far, so commonsensical. What is difficult to credit is the line some “against the grainers” take – that a good feeling could by itself be a reason not to do something. Feelings are surely fallible indicators, but to deny them all validity as pointers to a good life seems excessive.

Only the “with the grain” philosophies have a motivation to learn about nature and are interested in the results of empirical inquiries. “Against the grain philosophies” do not care, are often not even interested in discovering the relative cost of various options.

On the philosophical merits, it is looks clear to me at least that there is – generally speaking, with proper exceptions – more sense in going with the grain of nature than against it. We have good reasons to respect the grain of the timber out of which we are trying to build our societies. The presumption should be in favour of going with the grain; we need a strong countervailing reason in order to ignore the grain. Before we decide to go against the grain we need an argument for assuming the costs this moral choice carries.

One example of a valid countervailing reason could be that the practices suggested by empirical findings contradict current practices which work well, and deserve to be preserved. In such a case, the usual conservative cautions about changing successful traditions apply. (What is to count as “successful” could of course quickly lead to another debate between moral philosophies.)

In contrast to what certain zoological inquiries might suggest as normal, closed marriages – closed by norm if not in fact – are currently the rule among humans, and concurrent polygamy is rare as a model of the family in developed countries. The only form of polygamy that is frequent is serial monogamy.

The generic conservative argument against any and all change is valid as far as it goes, but not very interesting. One has to look at the specifics, and balance the risks and opportunities of change in each case. Every time we change a running system that is not obviously broken we are taking a risk. But the risk of unexpected complications and unknown side-effects can be managed to some extent and finally outweighed by the promise of improving the system.

Fallibilism is a good basis from which to acknowledge that the process could be smarter than we are, that norms and institutions may work for reasons that we do not fully understand. We tinker with them at our peril, yet we also have an obligation to correct what, in the light of more recent evidence, seems to merit correction. After all, that's what our predecessors did.

A Burkean/Hayekian conservatism blends very well with a Darwinian account; reactionary ancestor worship does not. (As a matter of fact, Hayek chose not to call himself a conservative, so we should perhaps call this stance conservative liberalism/ liberal conservatism, something close to the philosophy of the framers.)

Nothing prevents people of a sceptical, anti-authoritarian mindset from respecting the impressive rigour of the evolutionary process, and the generally high quality of products it produces. A muted and critical respect, for sure, but that's very different from a generalised loss of all authority.

Knowledge, even if not shiny, is useful. The evolutionary view does nothing to undermine the standing of our knowledge claims – if you’re a fallibilist. For infallibilists the very idea of introducing evolution into epistemology spells disaster.

Humanity’s adolescent fantasy about knowledge of the shiny variety may once have served an inspirational purpose; today it has become a bore. Today we’ve grown up, and should be ready to accept the limitations of our knowledge.

No comments: