Saturday, 19 September 2009

Mere Science

“The aim of life is to pass on one’s genes”, says Mr Worstall, adding that “we are told by the scientists” that it is so. [1] Well, randy scientists might tell him such things, but science — as knowledge only of the empirical-mechanical aspects of the world — does not. Aims, goals, purposes, etc, of any kind are outside its scope. To say that life itself has an aim of any kind is to impute to it a teleological nature, upon which science by itself is utterly silent. It ought to be obvious that the claim, to wit, that the aim of life is to pass on one’s genes, is not a scientific hypothesis, since it is not in any way verifiable or falsifiable. It is a metaphysical view in that it draws from the data of the physical world a conclusion which is not itself verifiable or falsifiable by the data thereof. [2] As a metaphysical view, it is open to rational disputation, wherein one may take into consideration whether it helps us, or is necessary for us, to make sense of the world, whether it accords with our experience, whether it is rationally coherent with our other claims, whether it leads to the denial of inconvenient facts, and so forth.
.....In speaking merely scientifically of so-called natural causes and laws, we are speaking only of the routines of sense-experience, as Karl Pearson phrased it, and not of some necessity or enforcement. All scientific laws and described regularities, taken merely scientifically without metaphysical insight, describe simply how things have behaved according to past sense-experience. Science, in the ideal-empirical state of having been stripped bare of all metaphysical insights, cannot claim any knowledge outside of the empirical-mechanical aspects of the world: “chaos is all that science can logically assert of the supersensuous”. [3] But if we are to think of order, causation, rationality, intentionality, teleology, and so forth, whereby we make sense of the world, then we must accept that our understanding of the world is something above a mere regular sequence of sense-impressions.
.....It is the spirit of positivism, however, which has the ideal-empirical state as its end for human thought as a whole. If a man ever achieved that state, he would become at that moment a brute. Perhaps then, having renounced his rational nature, his sole aim in life would be to pass on his genes, perhaps even as does the lowest life-form; and, having achieved his aim, he would spend his later years aimlessly writing popular-science books.

[1] Tim Worstall, “This is Absurd”, Tim Worstall (weblog), 19th September 2009.
[2] Even Richard Dawkins seems to be aware that his gene-centric view is not a scientific hypothesis: “I doubt that there is any experiment that could be done to prove my claim.” The Extended Phenotype: Gene as the Unit of Selection (London: W.H.Freeman & Co Ltd, 1982), p.1.
[3] Karl Pearson, The Grammar of Science (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1900), p.108.


Thras said...

I rarely come across misguided posts here, but this is one.

The idea that evolution is wholly gene-centric and that we are products of evolution is a fairly good scientific conclusion.

Now the difficulty arises in assuming that the seat of motivation in our squishy gray brains is an ally of evolution rather than a product of it.

We aren't motivated "to pass on one's genes." We are motivated to do things that pass on our genes (on average) under the conditions with which we evolved. Some of those motivations make us do pretty stupid things under non-standard (modern) conditions.

Deogolwulf said...


It depends on whither you think this post is guided --- but I can say that it is not guided to a denial of evolutionary science so far as it goes. The gene-centric claim, however, is not a scientific hypothesis, since there is no way for it to be empirically tested. It is a conclusion that some draw from the data, and others do not. (Denis Noble, for instance, does not.) As for motivations, I can see few good reasons why I should choose to be a materialist-determinist, and many good reasons why I should not, but then, if your view is correct, it must be the case that I lack the right sort of motivations to see it. Rational choice, of course, would be nowhere in sight.

xlbrl said...

Von Hayek was very exited about advances in evolutionary biology, but being fascinated by something did not lead him to the conclusions others easily draw. He pointed out that since the beginning of modern science, the best minds recognized that the range of acknowledged ignorance would grow with the advance of science; but that what he was seeing in his own time was an unfortunate belief that scientific advance diminished ignorance.

James Higham said...

Oh good - I was hoping someone would take Tim to task for that but it would have involved a post and I prefer this one to mine.

dearieme said...

“The aim of life is to pass on one’s genes” seems to me to be fair old tosh. There might be mileage in saying "Suppose we assume that all living things have a purpose and that that purpose is, universally, to pass on their genes; what would follow?" - but I wouldn't be surprised if that turned out to be a sterile line of enquiry.

Bruce Charlton said...

Natural selection does not work by implanting a desire to pass on one's genes, but (in a nutshell) by modifying the hedonic axis of pleasure/ pain (positive/ negative emotions) such that (on average and in a stable environment over many generations) - the organism will behave as-if it were trying to optimize its reproductive success.

It is an interesting paradox, that the knowledge of natural selection has done nothing whatsoever to increase the reproductive success of those with such knowledge - since (as is well known) this group have very low fertility - well below replacement levels.

The main observable effect of a philosophy of life based on a belief in the primacy and sufficiency of natural selection is a libertarianism of lifestyle - especially sexual (at least, that is what modern atheists seem to get most militant about).

In other words, atheists seek to maximize pleasure and to avoid pain as their primary goal in life (and this is perhaps the key aim of left wing politics, also). Secular culture based on knowledge of natural selection therefore has a primary hedonic and individually-focused calculus, and basically ignores genes and gene-pools.

It is ironic, in a superficial way.

This is my most recent explanation for how it might have happened:

Religion is 'natural' for humans - the question is therefore whether the artificial exclusion of religion is an improvement. Well, atheism almost certainly harms biological fitness - so in a scientific sense maybe that refutes it.

In terms of hedonism the surveys show that devout and supernaturalist religion is probably modestly happiness promoting over the long term (even though it does not aim for maximum happiness but instead for 'salvation') - so atheism doesn't look good there either.

But, in general, supernaturalist Christianity (or indeed other religions) is (or at least can be) something *added-to* knowledge-of and belief-in natural selection.

This is rational, since all supernaturalist elements are deliberately excluded from science as a matter of basic assumption. Rightly so, since this was probably a major factor in the effectiveness of science in the past.

However, since these explanation are excluded in principle, science is in principle incapable of evaluating supernaturalist claims in religion or elsewhere.

So - the advantage of atheism is probably mainly in the early days of science, and among scientists - in establishing the autonomy of science.

But in developed countries the corrupters of science are now, and have been for many decades, politics (eg. massive state funding of Big Science, political correctness), management and legalism.

Atheists who are fighting religion to ensure the autonomy of science are fighting a battle they won several generations ago. But where was the secular scientific outcry when James Watson was destroyed by the forces of political correctness? ...crickets...