Miscellany: on evolutionary theory, knowledge, and ethics

On evolutionary theory:

Let’s take your example of the eye: you rightly pointed out that it is easily intelligible to conceive of the eye as an organ ordered to the purpose of sight. Imagine that you had to arrive at a seeing eye purely by way of chance mutations and without any “foresight,” which is to say, no idea beforehand of what an eye or seeing itself was. Darwin had the idea that this would be possible if natural selection was conceived of by analogy with the selective preference of dog-breeders. But this is not a helpful analogy at all because it conceals the most fundamental issue that is at stake: namely, that natural selection is supposed to operate without foresight while foresight is precisely and utterly the means by which dog-breeders can guide the micro-evolution of their breeds with any success. Thinking about the eye again, not only is it insufficient that the eye achieve the proper physical and physiological parameters, but it must also function in an integral way together with the rest of the organism. A person might say, “sure, but natural selection takes care of this because only the reproductively functional organisms pass on their genetic material. And it might be a slow process but what is the hurry? Millions of years pass.” But this is the wrong argument to make because in the conjectured (i.e. lacking evidence in the fossil record) intermediary phenotypes between (a) having no eyes and (b) having functional eyes, any development towards sight would actually almost certainly represent a decrease in fitness because it would distract cognitive and metabolic resources away from functioning organs of sense. More time, in this case, would not improve the likelihood of an eye emerging from random mutations and would in fact diminish it. Suppose, despite the unfathomable unlikelihood that an eye did emerge in this way, in order to maintain the theory of evolution as it is currently promulgated, one would still have to account for every other feature of the organism by a similar excruciatingly improbable series of events, which everywhere present the veneer of being guided by an immanent logic and yet which one’s professed theory demand that one explain away with recourse to statistical miracles. 


It makes sense to attempt to maintain fidelity to the theory in the way we describe the phenomena that the theory purports to explain. As you suggested, in the case of evolution through natural selection, it is exceedingly difficult to avoid talking as if organisms are purposeful and not merely purposive. The term “natural selection,” as such, already implies teleology: either (1) nature is defined as operating blindly and without purpose and thence the term is an oxymoron since it is hard to imagine how something of this kind could select anything,* or (2) “natural” is understood to refer to an intelligent agent (i.e. “Nature”) that is the subject which performs the selection. This is like the so-called “Gaia theory.”

Among other things, I think the above difficulty demonstrates the limits of the mechanistic metaphor that Collingwood any many others have identified as the operative paradigm over the centuries since the Scientific Revolution. To wit, a mechanism implies a designer of it. That might seem superstitious but one should pause to consider whether it is more superstitious to imply that machines spontaneously appear for no reason and with no design. A person might say, “well, nature does the designing,” but this just draws one back to the dilemma above and the argument falls either on the horn of unintelligibility or of contradiction. In the beginning of the currency of the mechanistic metaphor, the designer was understood to be God. As I indicated on a prior occasion, the notion of a divine intelligence responsible for ordering creation was effaced in the centuries to follow and yet the paradigm, which only made sense in the first place when it included such an intelligence, was retained. 

If I may be permitted to make a personal comment, this strikes me as a paradigm—of which the theory of evolution as it is presently understood is part and parcel—is really bursting at the seams in its attempt to enclose the patent intelligence, purpose, value, meaning etc. of all of nature within a framework that can only explain these in terms of unintelligent, purposeless, valueless, etc. matter.** It strikes me as somewhat absurd to advocate a view that denies the existence of these manifestly qualitative elements of our experience except insofar as they can be described in quantitative terms. It seems to me self-evident that this universe is an intelligent, purposeful, value-laden, meaningful, etc. kind of place, if for no other reason than human beings—most of them anyway—are these things and it is nonsense to exclude human beings from our concept of the universe as though we were somehow looking in out of a view from nowhere. The moment these things “get their foot in the door,” so to speak, and scientists have the permission to study qualities and meanings as well as quantities and matter, I am convinced that they will discover them everywhere, even down to the smallest atom and a so-called “paradigm-shift” will be at hand. Collingwood suggested this with his “historical metaphor,” since it is impossible to conceive of history except in qualitative and teleological terms. Like I suggested, to describe Ceasar’s assassination on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. in any meaningful way, it was necessary to select out of infinite different events, the single sequence to portary. And to offer any coherent description of it, it was necessary to do this in teleological and qualitative terms. In this way, the historical approach is tailored to describe a universe made not of matter (and anti-matter and Dark Matter and whatever new particles the theoreticians invent tomorrow) but of “stories.”

*The word “select” is of Latin and ultimately Greek origin—lect being the past tense of legere, which in turn derives from the Greek lego or logos. Intellect demonstrates a similar derivation. An origin in the Greek word logos only highlights the paradox of selection that is without purpose. 

**Whitehead writes:

The state of modern thought is that every single item in this general doctrine is denied, but that the general conclusions from the doctrine as a whole are tenaciously retained. The result is a complete muddle in scientific thought, in philosophic cosmology, and in epistemology. But any doctrine which does not implicitly presuppose this point of view is assailed as unintelligible. (Modes of Thought, 1937)

On truth and knowledge:

I agree, and to my mind, Rudolf Steiner has offered the most adequate response to this question, which many philosophers appear to have failed even to understand. I will try to summarize his theory of truth and knowledge. Consider in everything that exists, there is a “what” (i.e. what that thing is) and a “how” or “what it is made of.” The former is given to our intelligence and the latter to our senses. The first thing is consists in a concept or idea and the second in a percept or observation. To recognize the concept that the percept represents and embodies—or to unite theory and observation in our perception—is attain insight into the truth. Sense perception divides two things which are actually one. Knowledge consists in restoring this union. If these aspects of reality (i.e. concept and percept) were not divided by sense perception, we would experience things without really experiencing them; perceptions would just stream through us like sunlight through diamonds or clear water. The fact that we “dam up” this flow in our experience and must become inwardly active to restore it is the origin of both error and truth. Inanimate objects cannot err and for the same reason, they cannot reach the truth. Incidentally, spatial objects are also incapable of cognition in this sense and that is why it makes no sense to propose statements like “the brain thinks” unless the brain is seen as a spatial object that represents a mind or soul, which does the thinking. If this is confusing, I recommend reviewing Leibniz’s famous “Mill argument for the immateriality of the mind.” I’m happy to discuss this further if you have interest.

It’s a difficult issue and to really grasp it, it is necessary to keep a number of distinctions in mind simultaneously. I think you are doing a fantastic job and I am confident that your efforts will bear fruit. I noticed that you began to fall into the old theory of truth but then preempted yourself. I think it is helpful to think of truth in respect to inter-subjectivity. At the same time, I don’t think that actual intersubjectivity is a necessary condition for truth, despite that potential intersubjectivity might be. I say this because if the former were the case, then any single person would be incapable of knowing anything other than what everybody else already knows and this is manifestly falsified by the evident fact the people possess varying degrees of knowledge. What stops you from saying that what is real is simply what is? 

I see what you are getting at here by pointing to the limits of language: “the Tao that can be spoken/trodden is not the Tao.” At the same time, “Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος,” or “In the beginning was the Word/Logos” (John 1:1). Somehow both of these things are true. Think of the Word or the Logos not as any particular word or even any particular language, but the origin and possibility of language as such. Put another way, it can be understood as the intelligibility of the world. To take the “certain experiences and feelings” which have “no words to describe” them: the fact that you can identify these experiences and feelings at all points to this primordial language-before-language. Think of this as what gives things identity and thereby intelligibility. Something that has no identity has no intelligibility and no existence altogether as a result; “being and thinking are the same,” or “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be,” to quote two iterations of a statement from Parmenides which lends itself to caricature and misinterpretation but which I believe can be perceived as self-evident in light of the proper understanding. If you can think of any examples of something that has no identity and no intelligibility and yet exists, then I will be exceedingly curious to hear. 

It is an interesting historical note that modern science represents a confluence of two distinct traditions: the philosophical tradition, which values wisdom for itself, and the tradition of magic, which values to ability to exert power over nature. We see the influence of the philosophical tradition in the technological aspect of scientific discovery. This corresponds with the instrumentalist view. Bacon is perhaps the figurehead and among the primary and most eloquent exponents: “And as for its utility, I must openly declare that this wisdom, derived mainly from the Greeks, is what might be called the boyhood of science and, as with boys, it is all prattle and no procreation. For productive of controversies, it is barren in works.” Somewhat tendentiously (and ironically, in my estimation), Bacon proposes that concern for wisdom as such and not only for utility is somehow immature. Instrumentalists will be inclined to agree with him but realists will not. You seem to be sympathetic with the instrumentalist view. You mentioned the word “practical” twice in a single paragraph on an earlier occasion. Here is my question for you: how do you recognize something to be “practical” when you encounter it? In other words, what is your theory of utility? I encourage you to take this as far as you can see.

On information versus knowledge:

You observed that the internet provides greater ease and accessibility to information and also a greater quantity of information. It makes me wonder, however, what the actual relation is between ease of access to information and knowledge. Obviously, information per se is not knowledge. And yet, some people seem to conflate the two. The result seems to be a sort of Platonic prison in which people inadvertently vitiate their ability to learn through the tacit belief that they already know. 

Short commentaries on Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative:

First, by analogy with the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant, Kant saw the three formulations below as different aspects of a single principle.

—“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”

“Is the maxim, which is to say, the motive by which my will orders itself to act, behind my action such that I could simultaneously will that everyone should act from this same maxim?” If “yes,” then good because it is consistent with, and befitting of, my rational nature. If “no,” then I am making an exception of myself from all other human beings and this is immoral because it is irrational. I think this is very insightful on Kant’s part because he seems to have succeeded in codifying an operative principle in the activity of conscience. The conscience protests whenever it perceives, despite our best efforts to conceal this hypocrisy, that we are making exceptions for ourselves and therefore living in contradiction and not in truth.

—“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”

“Is the motive behind my action one that accounts for the absolute value of every person involved or am I regarding someone as merely an instrument in my design?” In the context of erotic love, the greatest risk is to objectify the other person and see her merely as a means to achieve something that I am regarding as beneficial like pleasure, emotional gratification, or social status.

—“Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends.”

“With my motive for acting, am I taking into account my nature and responsibility as a rational being amongst other rational beings?” This is in some ways a synthesis of the first two aspects. The three formulations are supposed to indicate a common meaning or essence that must be anatomized into discrete formulations in order to be expressed.

Push Button Poetry: In Blue Eyes

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