Monday, July 19, 2010

Re: The Irrationality of Physicalism

A response:

"And in either case the counter argument is the same, c.f. "The Evolution of Reason" by William S. Cooper."

AND, my response to the response:

Maybe. But it’s not a very good counter argument.

A long-ish response, but there are several quotes from the book that add up in length.

So logic reduces to biology. Fine. And biology reduces to...what? Initial conditions and causal laws, that’s what.

So, from the "The Evolution of Reason":

“Evolution is not the law enforcer but the law giver - not so much a police force as a legislature. The laws of logic are not independent of biology but implicit in the very evolutionary processes that enforce them. The processes determine the laws.

If the latter understanding is correct, logical rules have no separate status of their own but are theoretical constructs of evolutionary biology. Logical theory ought then in some sense to be deducible entirely from biological considerations. The concept of scientific reduction is helpful in expressing that thought. In the received methodological terminology the idea of interest can be articulated as the following hypothesis.

REDUCIBILITY THESIS: Logic is reducible to evolutionary theory.”

So obviously evolution is not a law enforcer or a law giver. It isn’t a causal law, but rather a consequence of causal laws.

Cooper claims that logic reduces to evolutionary theory. And what does evolutionary theory reduce to? Initial conditions and fundamental causal laws acting on fundamental entities.

Assuming physicalism, the causal laws of our universe applied to a suitable set of initial conditions will, in time, exhibit features that we categorize as “evolutionary”. Some of these evolutionary processes may give rise to entities that have conscious experiences, and some of those conscious experiences will be of holding this, that, or the other beliefs about logic. But those beliefs are a result of fundamental laws acting on fundamental entities, and not associated with any sort of independently existing platonic standard of “logical reasoning”.

This is the gist of my post, and seems to be the main gist of his book. We do part company eventually though. I’ll save that part for last.


“‘How do humans manage to reason?’ Since the form of this question is the same as that of the first, it would be natural to attack it in a similar two-pronged fashion. [...] Somewhere in the latter part there would be talk of selective forces acting on genetic variation, of fitness, of population models, etc. [...] The laws of Reason should not be addressed independently of evolutionary theory, according to the thesis. Reasoning is different from all other adaptations in that the laws of logic are aspects of the laws of adaptation themselves. Nothing extra is needed to account for logic - only a drawing out of the consequences of known principles of natural selection.”

Selective forces? What would have caused those selective forces? What do these selective forces reduce to? Why these selective forces instead of some others?

Natural selection? Well, there are causally neutral “filters” (metaphorically speaking), but these metaphorical filters are as much a consequence of the universe’s initial conditions and causal laws as the organisms that are (metaphorically) selected.

Evolution is a consequence of causal laws, not a causal law itself. In this it is like the first law of thermodynamics - which is a consequence of the time invariance of the causal laws, not a causal law itself. Evolution and the first law of thermodynamics are descriptions of how things are, not explanations.

So as I said, if physicalism is true then the arguments that we present and believe are those entailed by the physics that underlies our experiences, and by nothing else.

In this view, evolution is also just a manifestation of those same underlying physical forces. And logic is merely an aspect of the experiences generated by the more fundamental activities of quarks and electrons.

In this vein, he says:

“If evolutionary considerations control the relevant aspects of decision behavior, and these determine in turn the rest of the machinery of logic, one can begin to discern the implicative chain that makes Reducibility Theory thinkable.


If the evolutionary control over the logic is indeed so total as to constrain it entirely, there is no need to perpetuate the fiction that logic has a life of its own. It is tributary to the larger evolutionary mechanism.”

All we have to do is add that the universe’s initial conditions and causal laws control the evolutionary considerations, and my point is practically made.

The main point of contention between my argument and Cooper’s is:

“In this way the general evolutionary tendency to optimize fitness turns out to imply, in and of itself, a tendency for organisms to be rational. Once this is shown there is no need to look for the source of logical principles elsewhere, for the logical behavior is shaped directly by the evolutionary forces acting on their own behalf. Because the biological processes expressed in the population models wholly entail the logical rules, and are sufficient to predict and explain rational behavior, no separate account of logic is needed.”

Optimize fitness? Again, evolution isn’t something imposed from outside the system, and it’s not a causal law. If fitness of some group is optimized over time, that’s just a consequence of system’s initial conditions and causal laws.

In a deterministic system, the rise of that group was destined to happen. In an indeterministic system, the rise of that group was a result of the interplay between the initial conditions, the deterministic part of causal framework, and the outcome of the random coin flips.

So, he seems to imply that initial conditions and causal laws must give rise to rational actors. But as he says, there is no independent standard of rationality. Rationality is relative to the rules of the particular physical system. So the behaviors that a system most commonly gives rise to are, by definition, “rational”.

So rational is a meaningless label. In his formulation above it just means “whatever ends up being the most commonly manifested behaviors.”

But it’s not commonly manifested because it’s rational. Rather, it’s labeled rational because it’s commonly manifested.

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