Saturday, 26 September 2009


It is hoped under the impress of the mechanical philosophy that men will one day be able to look upon the world and explain all of its aspects in mechanical terms without the slightest reference to functionality or intentionality, including the very apparent and conscious intentionality of trying to explain all of the aspects of the world in mechanical terms. It seems, however, that this vain hope has not filtered down into the lower and less sophisticated reaches of reductionistic belief; for therein is taken for granted not only the existence of mere teleology in the microbiological world, but also the existence of strategic ability. An example follows:
“Of course, human environments consist mainly of other people, and the genes of those alive today contain many strategies for dealing with those other people . . . some of them are very good at manipulating other people.” [1]
The belief that bits of nucleic acid have strategies is so fantastic that I am baffled by how a man could hold it. No superstition of this age or any other is so deeply unreasonable. Nevertheless, if we were to entertain it for a moment, we should rightly wonder what dastardly strategy genes have in store for us in their tendency to reveal their dastardly-strategic natures to seemingly naïve and impressionable men.

[1] Anonymous, commenting on Dennis Mangan, “Social sciences as branches of biology”, Mangan’s (weblog), 24th September 2009. (Also: “as far as living things are concerned, genes are everything”. I once heard a man likewise claim that he was merely a genebot, and I must admit that, in view of his moronic character, I was very inclined to agree with him.)


James Higham said...

To observe what strategy genes have for you, Deogolwulf, you'll need to procreate some more.

dearieme said...

The first time I stuck my nose in a genetics book, I was struck by the absence of a clear definition, or description, of what a gene was.

As for the odd comment, I think you're being a bit naughty, pretending to take literally what was presumably meant to be figurative.

Deogolwulf said...

Not at all, Dearieme. (One of my peeves is literalism.) If this were the first such comment that I had come across, then I might be inclined to believe that the maker of it had got a little confused, or mangled what he meant, or had chosen an inappropriate figuration. But it is the umpteenth such claim and declaration of belief that I have encountered, in line with the rather odd and increasing trend of a belief in genetic determinism amongst those who think it makes them appear to be hard-headed scientific realists rather than just nihilist-irrationalists witlessly committed to bad metaphysics. The claim may of course be largely due to their taking literally what biologists have meant figuratively either as easy illustrations or because those biologists have not been able to find a way to cash in their teleological terms for proper mechanical ones.

Sometimes people do claim incredibly weird things, and mean to claim them, even if they don’t actually believe them. I would say that taking claims such as “genes have strategies”, “we are merely genetic robots”, etc in a figurative sense would be falsifying what those making them mean by them. I cannot even see what the figurative sense would mean.

The broader point is that if mechanism is ever to look respectable, then at some time it is going to have to stop relying on teleological figurations and scare-quotes around teleological terms, and show that the apparently teleological aspects of the world reduce with no remainder to apparently mechanical aspects, and can be explained solely in those terms. (Not that I think any such reduction is possible. The claim that everything is in fact a purely mechanical system is incoherent; for it is the claim about the world, and yet, if it were true, then there could be no claims about the world, since purely mechanical systems are not about anything; for they are by conceptual definition purely non-intentional.) Needless to say, claims that genes have strategies is going in the wrong direction if the goal is mechanistic reduction and the avoidance of teleological terms — and “strategy” is not even merely a teleological term. Still, there is actually some sense in the claims of these people. They are an implicit recognition — and a natural understanding — that, since teleology exists, it must be placed somewhere in our accounts and cannot be explained away.

xlbrl said...

Human opinions form only an intellectual dust which swirls in every direction, unable to settle or find stability. Man alone of all created beings shows a natural disgust for existence and an immense longing to exist; he despises life but fears annihilation, and is finally persuaded to conceive an instinctive disbelief in the supernatural and a very lofty, often exaggerated, conception of human reason--A.T.

Sean said...

The philosophical doctrine of scientific realism finds its own structural realism, and structural realism is fundamentally a claim about mathematical structures: The sole invariant feature of scientific theory change is mathematical. If that is so, then questions about the extent of scientific judgment become questions about mathematical judgment. Is mathematics relevant to telos? It depends on whether you deem logic to be a branch of mathematics or vice versa, for there are certainly well-developed branches of deontic, preference, modal, and tense logics.

And, contrary to "A.T.", as given by xbrl, there is no need to elevate human reason. Surely it is obvious that humans, even brilliant humans, are just plain stupid (or playin' stupid, as you wish), but a few of us plain stupid types have found good grounds to regard our rational capacities with not quite that much hostility. Consider Herbert Simon's "bounded rationality" and its broad spawn, including a Nobel Prize in economics to Daniel Kahneman.

Sean said...

Damnit. That first clause should read "The philosophical doctrine of scientific realism finds its own in structural realism". Note the "in".

Does signing up for this thing allow me to edit my comments? Anyone know?

Apologies to my kind host for this foofaraw.

xlbrl said...

It does not require a leap, Sean, to see that Tocqueville saw human reason not as impossible--or he would not have been able to write on the subject--but rather that it was comonly employed more as a means in fueling vanities than it was in discovering truths. Most often, the greater the intellect, the greater the vanity, the greater the intellectual dust.

Bruce Charlton said...

There is a legitimate use of gene teleology as a shorthand technical jargon among consenting biologists (the line of reasoning being, as it were, surrounded by invisible "scare quotes").

However, this evolutionary description of human reality gets you only as far as what a Christian might think of as the state of 'original sin'.

I mean, a human being as described by natural selection is pretty much a human being in a state of original sin (i.e. a creature that has been set-up by natural selection to be a mere pleasure-seeking, gene-replicating robot).

The Christian regards this natural man as a terrible thing, incorrigable in its multifarious selfishnesses. It is fundamentally pride-full - and lacks the biological resources to become anything else.

It is precisely this vile Darwinian creature from which Christ came to offer humankind the chance of (undeserved) salvation.

JP said...

Such blatant reification strikes me as a sort of new age animism.

Anonymous said...

David Stove had some fun with genes, or rather with Dawkins's ideas about them -- see your links.