Fodor and Sober talk natural selection

March 21, 2010 • 7:51 am

I haven’t yet watched this, but Bloggingheads.tv has a discussion of natural selection (and the incoherence thereof) with Jerry Fodor (co-author of What Darwin Got Wrong) and philosopher of science Elliott Sober.  You can find the link here (note, video starts most of the way in; scroll back to beginning).

p.s.  If the health care bill passes I’ll give away another copy of WEIT (after a contest, of course) on this site. Go Obama!

30 thoughts on “Fodor and Sober talk natural selection

  1. Odds on that Fodor is a Templeton call-girl wannabe!

    Doesn’t he come across as rather disingenuous and pompous?
    The title of that book of his and P-P’s doesn’t really help much to remove the impression of their self-aggrandising.

  2. Jerry Fodor starts off with his own definition of natural selection and it is wrong and doesn’t include reproduction success. He then rambles on and on about non-issues and general vague objections to straw man issues. He has “nothing to say about statistical issues” even though it is the heart of the subject. Elliot Sober, on the other hand spoke plainly and made sense with his points. Fodor does not understand anything.

  3. I think Fodor’s wrong, but I would feel more comfortable if I could compare notes on the errors I think he’s making.

    His point about how in the extreme case that he sets up in his thought-experiment, free-riders v. pairs-that-are-selected-for cannot be distinguished by Darwinism. They can only be intuitively distinguished. So we create thought-experiments that involve statements like, “Suppose X is a free rider for Y”, assumed by hypothesis and by intuition. But what’s the status of the thought-experiment and the intuition that does the pumping?

    The intuition doesn’t come out of nowhere. If there is a difference between selection-for and selection-of, it arises against the backdrop of real variations in the historical record. So it’s entirely reasonable (though optional) for a person to say, in reply to Fodor’s counterfactual thought-experiments: there is no reason to distinguish between free-riders and selected-for-pairs for those cases where you posit that no variation can happen that is capable of distinguishing them. But we can still make the distinction when evidence or prediction warrants it.

    The deeper problem appears to be the aprioristic philosopher’s happy-go-lucky attitude towards counterfactual-talk. We’re often talking about how things “could have been otherwise”, but a moment’s reflection tells us how vapid that phrase is. You must always ask, “what sense of ‘could'”? Fodor is thinking about logically possible counterfactuals, while everybody else is interested in realistically possible ones.

    What do you folks think? Did I get this right or wrong?

    1. Yes. I think what it boils down to is that Fodor thinks that evolutionary biology cannot predict, like astronomers can (Popper, some time ago, had a similar, though equally wrong criticism). I mean even laws of physics (except for astronomy) are not asked to do what Fodor is asking biologists to do. Physicists cannot explain or predict accurately what is happening, or what will happen outside your window right now. laws of physics are literally true only in laboratories (Nancy Cartwright has made the this point very well in philosophy). Now Newton’s laws can predict well because the universe itself represents a very good model. Anyways, I think the real argument here is about their respective notions of what counts for a “causal” explanation.

      1. Fodor’s stringent criteria for “scientific” explanation wouldn’t just jettison evolutionary explanation, but would also vitiate the notion of geological explanation (“What universal laws can we invoke to explain the Grand Canyon?”), sociological explanation, developmental psychological explanation, astronomical development explanation, and essentially any science that involves contingency and historicity. In a nutshell, his argument is too powerful, and the actual implications would wipe out a huge chunk of current scientific disciplines.

      2. Physicists cannot explain or predict accurately what is happening, or what will happen outside your window right now. laws of physics are literally true only in laboratories

        You would be laughed out of a physics conference trying to make such a point.

        Most physicists are realists, and with a few exceptions acutely aware that physics wouldn’t work if it couldn’t accurately predict what happens outside laboratories.

        For example, theory and all observation says lightspeed is constant and universal. (Note that this doesn’t mean that you don’t need to check, ever more thoroughly.) Laws of physics are literary true everywhere they apply – or they wouldn’t be a law.

        What you are trying to say, I think, is that we can’t ever know and predict everything that is happening. Well, whoopi-de-doo, already deterministic chaos with its exponentially divergent phase space volumes tells us that. It is not like it is a secret.

        Nor can it be a goal of science. The goal of science can be to in ever increasing detail elucidate the laws of nature (theories, actually), not to model the universe at large. Only a universe can model a universe.

        1. Coincidence you mentioned c as a physical constant. Joao Magueijo and others have pondered many questions raised regarding VSL (variable speed of light)cosmological landscapes, which are more or less “debated” with more or less elegance-than our ravins and rantings about evolutionary mechanisms-in many physics blogs lead by more or less sane scientists. And OF COURSE, creationists, john templeton, and harry potter and the lord of the rings have crept unto the discussion, well, to call it something, of a perfectly decent question about c.

  4. After so much blood under the bridges, SJ Goulds’ and R. Lewontins’ view on how current evobiologist thinking deals with natural selection is sorely missed-well I miss it. I was rereading a splendid review-“piece”-which was not a review after all, which Dr Lewontin published last year may 28 in the NYT review of books. There he provides lucid insights about aspects of natural selection science .

  5. I still think I was robbed when you didn’t choose ‘Godlycoddlers’ to replace ‘accomodationists’. Bring on the new contest. I look forward to failing misserably (hmm, what’s with my glass half empty attitude today?).

    1. Don’t worry, I use ‘godlycoddlers’ in preference to ‘faitheists’ most of the time.
      To where should I send the royalties?

  6. Although I agree that Jerry Fodor is wrong, wrong, wrong about the explanatory power of natural selection, his approach to the topic makes a lot more sense* when viewed in the context of his work in philosophy of mind and theories of meaning (or content). It’s not an easy field to wade through (and you’ll also want to read his critics, such as Dan Dennett and Ruth Milikan), but it’s darn interesting stuff in it’s own right. And, as I say, it sheds light on his odd approach to natural selection.

    *Not that his arguments become more convincing, just that you will begin to see why he would be motivated to say what he says – he’s not simply a moron, or a Templeton wannabe. He’s one of the most improtant philosophers of mind in the later 20th, and I don’t think he’d consider a Templeton Prize to be the crowing achievement of his academic career.

  7. I guess the thing that surprised me most – and I didn’t and couldn’t watch straight through to the end – is the degree to which Fodor is simply inarticulate. In fact, as I listen to him, it astonishes me rather that he has ever written anything worthwhile.

    But I was being constantly embarrassed for the man. It was quite clear that he did not really know what he was talking about, nor did he know very much about biology. He really should take a look at what biologists do before coming to conclusions about the success or failure of their project. Since the evidence seems to point so strongly to their success, can’t he see that he simply must be wrong? In cases like this, it’s time for philosophers, if they want to work with the concepts, to start over and see where they went wrong. Normally, philosophers find it worthwhile doing this with what other philosophers do, but I have a feeling that the errors here are so fundamental, and so fundamentally simple, that not many will find this worth the bother.

    Of course, Pitcher and Block have already done this, and they show, I think, decisively, that Fodor and M-P’s argument is based on a very simple confusion, imagining that selection-for is an intensional and not a causal relation. This leads them to the idea that there is no way that natural selection can work, since, as a blind process, natural selection cannot distinguish between features which are extensionally, but not intensionally identical. Thus natural selection (according to Fodor) cannot distinguish between comouflage and (say) white-coatedness. But this is simply crazy, as Pitcher and Block show, and as the practices of biologists demonstrate daily. If Fodor can’t see this, then perhaps he is suffering from a case of semantic dementia.

    Fodor may, of course, have his sights on Templeton, but surely even Templeton, undiscriminating as they can be, can see through this.

    1. “Sometimes I wonder what’s the point of philosophers, and then I remember Dan Dennet”
      Richard Dawkins.

      I often wonder what’s the point of philosophers, they seem to just make shit up and have no concept of testing their ideas. Very frustrating to listen to, I’m always thinking “why don’t you go and FIND OUT instead of yabbering endlessly?”

      1. Ah, I half-sympathise.

        Still, I think it’s fair to say that the point of philosophy is to give reasonable debate a place in the culture. Granted, we’ve not had much success at that lately, judging by how trivialized debate has become. Still, still.

        In that spirit, it’s wonderful and empowering for us non-professionals to be able to take a look at exotic and obscure views like Fodor/P-P’s, and be able to say, “Look, here’s what you’ve gotten wrong, it’s plain to see that you reject these premises I accept (or vice-versa), and so now I shall go about my business, comforted by the fact that I have treated you fairly.”

      2. wait..isnt D.Dennett an experimental philosopher So is R Dawkins? memory brings back a “quote”-absolutely non literatim-maybe from the catcher in the rye: “it takes an economics professor to teach how to make a million bucks…”

    2. Well, there is some point in achieving conceptual clarity, for one thing. That is just what Pitcher and Block do for Fodor’s work. But there are a lot of good philosophers working in the field, and worthwhile even for scientists to read. The one that I think of immediately is Susan Haack. But some of the work of Ian Hacking on Bayesian probability is very interesting.

      After all, sceintists are suggesting that scientific ways of knowing are in some sense special, and more defensible than other forms of enquiry. While I am certainly favourable to that appeal, how exactly science does operate, what its conclusions amount to, and what kind of a world they describe, are still questions of the greatest interest. Scientists, themselves, may not be particularly interested. They have work to do, but it is important for the general culture to know just what it is that scientists are up to, and what this implies about the world we live in. Fodor is a rather sad example of someone who seems to have got the order of things all wrong. Philosophy doesn’t start with the concepts, and try, in a vacuum, to explain how or why they will work or not; they start with the success of science, and try to explain what kind of a world such kinds of success imply.

      And don’t forget, it was a scientist playing philosopher who started of the big “paradigm shift” gig that practically everyone seemed to buy into for awhile, though arguably Thomas Kuhn was not precise in what he meant by revolutions in science, and how they supervened upon existing “normal science”. But even that was an attempt to understand how science ‘hooks’ onto the world. The strange thing is that Kuhn’s theories were simply tailor-made for obfuscaters, like theologians et hoc genus omne.

      1. I am wondering if Kuhn, in the end, made any positive contribution to anything. I have read only his “Revolutons” book, but all I see is the coopting of his ideas (which didn’t seem that right to me anyway) by second raters who don’t have their own ideas but want to explain “paradigm shifts”.

        1. from the stanford encyclopedia of philosophy (concise and documented, good source)One of Kuhns contribution is…”…theories from differing periods suffer from certain deep kinds of failure of comparability..” Very obvious but someone got to say it.

        2. Oh, absolutely. I’m not sure that Kuhn ever did contribute anything of lasting value, and the way his ideas have been hijacked — I think is the appropriate word — by theologians and culture vultures is a sign that something was amiss in the basic conception. If you read something like Hans Küng’s massive Christianity: Essence, History, Future, where he describes all the “paradigms” that exist side-by-side in the Christian world today, and it seems clear that something is wrong.

          Kuhn tried to back-track in some later additions to the book, where he claims not to have wanted to defend the idea that science is somehow simply conceptual or cultural — as opposed to descriptive of something independent of its conceptualisation — but by then the theologians were making hay, and no one really paid a lot of attention to the qualifications that Kuhn added. Of course, by that time deconstruction and postmodernism were all the rage too. I suspect that there may be something of substance left in Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions, but you probably have to dig a bit to find it.

          The people who talk about paradigm shifts wouldn’t recognise a paradigm if they saw one, because Kuhn’s point was that new paradigms are not something one recognises so much as something that simply pulls you along, conceptually, because you come to see the world differently. And there probably is something of value in this notion. Take the shift from the pre-Darwin world to the world post-Darwin. There is something here that deserves to be called a paradigm shift. The world looks very different after Darwin. There are hints of that world in Hume’s Dialogues on Natural Religion, but he didn’t have the evidence. And this is why (in very simplistic terms) it’s not just a matter of conceptual paradigms.

  8. This irritates me to no end that people argue as if population genetics doesn’t even exist.

    You can’t read through your weekly dose of CNS without running across population geneticists using selection theory to infer selection based on genetic (as opposed to phenotypic) data. Yes yes, phenotype is crucially important, but so is the hereditary basis of phenotype.

    Fodor (and Sober appears to concede this fact!) acts in that divlog as if natural selection theory can only be applied in a top-down manner (Phenotype -> Selection). And oddly he stops at “selection” as if that’s the endpoint. No attention whatsoever is given to bottom up approaches (Genotype -> Selection -> Phenotype).

    This is why philosophers shouldn’t debate the merits of fields they aren’t familiar with. Sure, given Fodor’s mistaken impression of the field of evolutionary biology, you might make a coherent and interesting (if ultimately wrong) case about the limitations of selection theory. And he may even be right that most scientists can’t articulate what it is that they are doing.

    But in that divlog, he clearly neglects what I think to be the most “law-like” applications of selection theory on the market because of his exclusive fetish and starting the game from phenotype and from nowhere else.

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