Monday, October 22, 2007

The Problem of the Will

Will is actually a profoundly difficult issue in Western philosophy. It comes into the foreground, then recedes again. Lately it has been badly tainted by recent history. It invariably raises memories of "Triumph of the Will" and that leads us straight to Nazism, the one unabashed evil we call recognize and agree is "evil." It's last great promoter was Nietszche (Nazis, again), and before him, Schopenhauer. That's one problem with it. The other is that will necessarily entails volition; so in science, any "natural process" is necessarily unwilled, because to declare it a product of volition is to posit a metaphysics that science no longer countenances. What, then, to do about something like evolutionary biology, which posits a "selfish gene" which tries to pass on its phenotypes to the next generation? If the gene has no will, how does it determine to even be "selfish"?

Aye, there's the rub.

The present worry is that the explication of natural selection by appeal to selective breeding is seriously misleading, and that it thoroughly misled Darwin. Because breeders have minds, there’s a fact of the matter about what traits they breed for; if you want to know, just ask them. Natural selection, by contrast, is mindless; it acts without malice aforethought. That strains the analogy between natural selection and breeding, perhaps to the breaking point. What, then, is the intended interpretation when one speaks of natural selection? The question is wide open as of this writing.
Well, I will assume it is. I'm not a scientific expert, but I have learned a thing or two about reasoning, and the reasoning behind evolutionary biology has always bothered me. It's nice to find I'm not alone in that:

The answers that have been suggested so far have not been convincing. In particular, though there is no end of it in popular accounts of adaptationism, it is a Very Bad Idea to try and save the bacon by indulging in metaphorical anthropomorphisms. It couldn’t, for example, be literally true that the traits selected for are the ones Mother Nature has in mind when she does the selecting; nor can it be literally true that they are the traits one’s selfish genes have in mind when they undertake to reproduce themselves. There is, after all, no Mother Nature, and genes don’t have, or lack, personality defects. Metaphors are fine things; science probably couldn’t be done without them. But they are supposed to be the sort of things that can, in a pinch, be cashed. Lacking a serious and literal construal of ‘selection for’, adaptationism founders on this methodological truism.
The delicious irony here is the question of objectivity. Yeats famously asked: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" As Wittgenstein pointed out later, we can't separate what we know from how we know (Hume reached much the same conclusion). Which means we can never truly see the world outside of our place in it, and our experience of it.

Which brings us back to the problem of the will. This limitation is, of course, the favorite cudgel taken up against religious belief, usually by people with a very poor knowledge of what religious belief actually is. But it underscores the "log in your eye, splinter in mine" problem. Or rather, the problem of metaphor.

Natural selection, we like to say, is a "mechanism," as if that makes it both (a) scientific and (b) therefor true (because "machine" is not a religious metaphor). But before the Industrial Revolution, the metaphor of "machine" would not have seemed, well, "natural." It was only after the "Computer Revolution" that we began to speak of the "mind" (whatever that is) as a "computer." It isn't, of course. The computer I am typing on now can no more think than the half-eaten scone sitting in front of me. It is merely a device which produces output based on certain limited inputs. It doesn't draw the amount of knowledge from its environment that a spider is capable of doing, or a cockroach. It no more seeks knowledge than the coffee I drink "seeks" to cool off. It isn't even proper to say it 'responds' to input. This computer does no such think. It functions, like the car I drive. It is a mechanism, and nothing more. It certainly is not, in any true manner, "human."

Yet when faced with a complex process that seems to follow some guidance, that seems to respond at least to environmental factors (if no other factors are allowed play in the explanation), we fall back on the metaphor of "mechanism." This is not a weakness, unless we fail to see that metaphor is what we are using. The medieval mind was quite comfortable with metaphor, especially in the form of allegory. Stained glass windows in the Gothic cathedrals which mean little to us because we lack the context of the original audience, were as profound and meaningful to the original audience as a movie or a novel is today. Dante's profound allegory of life reflected in his Divine Comedy was understood as a window on reality, not a portrayal of it. Those who made the mistake of taking it as a travelogue of the afterlife were as guilty of counting angels dancing on the heads of pins as those today who think there actually is an identifiable "mechanism" which science can uncover. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, our paradigms are not revelations of the reality we examine; they are products of the way we look. And when enough data is assembled to make the current paradigm useless, to render it unable to answer the questions being put to it, it collapses, and a "paradigm shift" occurs. But what does not occur is a progressive step away from ignorance and toward deeper understanding of some Platonic reality.

Metaphor is our way of organizing information so that we can examine it; but it is not linked to reality itself. It is the stuff dreams are made on, not the stuff of the cosmos itself. "Mechanism" is already a dangerous metaphor to put our faith in. We come perilously close to the discredited "cosmic watchmaker" attempt to prove God's existence, when we explain the ways of the world by relying on terms like "mechanism." That proof runs like this: if you find a watch in a field, you don't need to see the watchmaker build it, to posit that the watch is indeed a product of design, not merely of "blind" natural forces. Where there is design, there must be a designer, and so if the watch is a metaphor for the cosmos and it's fantastically intricate systems, then the designer must be God. There are several problems with this "proof," but the one that's interesting now is the mistake of the metaphor. The watch, after all, is designed to serve a single purpose. The purpose of the universe, if it has one, is not so obvious. It is as likely to be the product of random physical forces as to be the product of purposeful design. A watch has a telos, and from that a designer can easily be proposed; but what is the telos of the universe? You can't answer that question without first assuming there is, or is not, a designer; and so your argument becomes no argument at all, but merely a tautology. In the end, the "proof" proves nothing.

So is evolution a "mechanism," a device for, say, propagating genes? If so, who designed the mechanism? No one, you say. Well then, it has no purpose, and cannot be purposeful, except as we attribute purpose to it. So, then, can genes, for example, be "selfish"? Can they seek to propagate themselves? From where do they derive this will, this desire, this telos? Isn't telos a function of consciousness? The Greeks certainly thought so. They set us on this path of discerning purpose by conceiving the nature of the cosmos as chaos, chaos upon which the logos imposed order. The logos, of course, is reason; it is the most human of human functions. But the nature of this philosophy is profoundly tragic, in precisely the sense Aristotle meant about Sophocles' plays. It is tragic because chaos eventually overcomes logos, and order disappears again into disorder. If the universe moves toward purpose in any way, even if only for living things to propogate their own genes, that is an idea derived from Christianity, from the belief that the Second Coming of Christ will restore the cosmic order promised by the prophets during the Babylonian Exile, that human history is therefore moving toward that final, apocalyptic moment. The validity of that interpretation of the teachings of Paul and Jesus is another matter entirely, but its impact on Western civilization, for better or worse, is beyond argument. We come back, in rather abrupt fashion, to where we started: with the question of will. Is it possible to be selfish without a sense of will? Is it possible to understand the world without looking in the mirror of ourselves, of how we know the world?

Philosophers have tackled this question; what is interesting is how few scientists understand it. There is, as Hume pointed out, a gap between data and interpretation, and we continue to founder on Hume's distinction between synthetic and analytical statements. Analytical statements about reality are pointlessly trivial, and synthetic statements are either true and meaningless, or false and, also, meaningless. We have, in other words, the data; but we can abstract nothing significant from it. Kant, of course, would disagree; but to follow Kant you have to allow idealism into your thinking, and then we are back to wrestling with metaphysics. Something the medieval mind had no trouble with doing, of course; but that highlights the problem for the modern mind more neatly than any metaphor could do. The medieval mind understood it was thinking in metaphor, and accepted it. We run the constant risk of confusing our metaphors with reality, and concluding we understand far more than we actually do.

Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?

The "log in the eye" problem is that we are, as fundamentally as we are anything, self-centered creatures. We can never quite imagine that what we experience is not universal, is not a profound reflection of the nature of the cosmos. We never quite stop being the infant who can make no distinction between self and other, or even all that is beyond our immediate grasp. So we see in the cosmos what we know in ourselves. Our metaphors reflect this: "mechanism" and "computer" are shorthand for complex issues we can't, or won't, think properly about, and we assure ourselves they are "true" pictures of the world because they are examples of our masterly "progress," by which we mean nothing more than the exertion of our power in the physical world. Funny how it all comes back to power, isn't it? At one time, we are told, we felt powerless, and so we attributed to nature the characteristics and conditions of our human psyches. Now, having attained enough power to reshape the climate of the planet (albeit unintentionally), to turn the materials of the earth into tools and energy, to raise crops in places that, left to nature, would be deserts, we say we have withdrawn our anthropomorphization from the deities we presumed and projected, and declared ourselves lords of creation. Oddly, however, despite these "advances," the anthrophomorphism goes on. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Isn't it ironic? Don't you think?

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