*Note from the Author: If you actually finish this essay, please e-mail me at email@example.com and tell me how exactly you did it. It just kept going and going as I wrote it. The only way I could get someone to edit it was by forcing the person who kept stealing my Jell-O pudding snacks to read it. If you like Jell-O pudding snacks or couldn’t make it past Part I, well, you can drop me a line, too.
Matthew P. Kundert
Mechanistic Philosophy and the Yellow Brick Road of Science
There has been much debate in the 20th century about the role of science. While at the end of the 19th century, many science fans saw the expansion of science into the social realms of our lives, many people now at the end of this past century are quite skeptical about the existence of a truly scientific social theory. We have also witnessed in the past few centuries a much-publicized “battle” between religion and science, both tussling over where each other’s jurisdiction begins and ends. Many commentators have pointed the finger, either directly or indirectly, at reductionism in science as being the source of conflict. Many see science as having a built-in “conquer and assimilate” directive. Reductionism does seem to imply this, but these commentators choose to cordon off certain areas of knowledge as being outside of science, thus violating one of its own values.
To reach the question of why these commentators would do this, we must pass through the question, “Is reductionism really the problem?” Reductionism is simply one of many values that science holds. Even though most of the scientific community does not acknowledge values within science, they are there at the metaphysical level. The foundations of science are on methods that it values. The types of methods science has valued has changed over the course of history. Some of the methods science values now are logical consistency, agreement with experience, economy of explanation, mechanistic explanation, and reductionism.[i] In this essay my goals are as such: Part I will expand on these current values of science. Part II will elucidate what reductionism is. Part III will look at Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory and highlight the confusion of reductionism being the problem rather than mechanistic explanations. Part IV will explain Michael J. Behe’s biochemical attack on evolutionary theory and why it points to, not design in particular, but simply an alternative to mechanistic explanations. Part V will set Dawkins’ theory in a nicer metaphysical home (Robert M. Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality). And Part VI will seek to understand the two reasons teleological explanations are ignored: fear of anthropomorphism and loyalty to mechanistic explanations.
Let me say this before I move to the essay: I have tried very hard to not make the case for teleological explanations, but only to open up the case against mechanistic explanations. Sometimes it is helpful to see what teleological explanations have to offer. I have tried to do so in the sections on Pirsig. But I must emphasize that this essay is a leaping off point. It is not an airtight argument for teleology or against mechanistic philosophy. I merely want to open up our perspective to more than modern mechanistic models. I want to point out that mechanistic explanations may not be the “end all, be all” of explanations; our value rigidity concerning mechanistic explanations may not be helpful or explanatory. This is the point of the essay. It is an investigation, not a solution. Keep that in mind.
Part I: The Values of Science
The five scientific values pointed to in the introduction (logical consistency, agreement with experience, economy of explanation, mechanistic explanation, and reductionism) almost seem to be commonsensical. But nothing within nature or within the values themselves points to their being any more “right” than other methods. Nothing within logic points to it being better than non-logical thought. Logic is simply a closed system of relationships that seems to model the world and our thought patterns effectively. Logic is the language reason speaks in. Without a common language discourse would be near impossible. Socrates/Plato made one of the greatest rhetorical arguments of all time: that for dialectical reason. But there is no logical or rational reason for dialectical reason or logic to be the language in which we converse. It’s just been the most useful. The entire Western tradition, if it has done anything, has proven its usefulness.
It seems silly to question experience, but many famous philosophers, like Plato and Descartes, have done just that by pointing out that our senses are flawed and, given that, we have no right to trust them. For instance, say I’m in my lab and I read a thermometer in a beaker of water at 26°C. Normally, I would believe my senses, but how am I to know whether the light is not being refracted through the water? What if the water boils over at 98°C and onto my hand? For the sake of my hand, how will I know if water boils at 98°C or 100°C? Or, say, I’m in a desert and I see water on the horizon. I would normally be inclined to be believe that empirical data. But how am I to really know if the water on the horizon is real or just a mirage? And how are we to know if we are not really in a dream? Our dreams seem real, but they are really just in our head; when we wake up, that reality is gone. What if all of our sense experiences are just being given to us by a mad scientist or evil genie? If they are, then all we know is not real, just an image from an outside source. Unfortunately, experience is all we have. Experience and observational data by themselves may be flawed, but when used in conjunction with the other values (like logical coherence) the data can be cleaned up and made useful.
The economy of explanation is a value that encapsulates devices like reductionism, theoretical elegance, and a technique called Ockham’s Razor. All of these simply describe the tendency to value the simple few over the complex many. While reductionism will be expanded upon later, theoretical elegance is the aesthetic beauty some scientists feel when looking upon a simple theory as opposed to a complicated one. Ockham’s Razor is a tool used to cut off any superfluous parts of argumentation or explanation. For instance, if Spinoza makes an air-tight argument for the existence of the Universe, equates the Universe with God, and then expounds upon the helpfulness of having God around to explain things (like morals), then one could pull out the Razor and cut off the God part because God is just a tag along to the argument for the existence of the Universe. Spinoza didn’t prove the existence of God, only the existence of the Universe. But nature certainly doesn’t lend itself to the economy of explanation with its wide array of phenomena. Just because a theory looks prettier doesn’t necessarily make it more true. Just because Spinoza didn’t prove the existence of God doesn’t necessarily mean that God really isn’t the same thing as the Universe or that he, in fact, exists. Who’s to say that the world really isn’t irreducibly complex, that you must take it at “face value” to truly understand it (one must “save the appearances”)? No one, but an irreducibly complex world doesn’t get us anywhere in the business of explanation. And that’s exactly the business a scientist is in.
Mechanistic philosophy has three platforms, all derived from the ancient Greek Atomists: 1. Nature is nothing but matter and motion. 2. This matter is totally passive. 3. Causation occurs only by contact. As the American philosopher Richard Rorty says,
Galileo and his followers discovered, and subsequent centuries have amply confirmed, that you get much better predictions by thinking of things as masses of particles blindly bumping each other than by thinking of them as Aristotle thought of them—animistically, teleologically, and anthropomorphically. They also discovered that you get a better handle on the universe by thinking of it as infinite and cold and comfortless than by thinking of it as finite, homey, planned, and relevant to human concerns. Finally, they discovered that if you view planets or missiles or corpuscles as point-masses, you can get nice simple predictive laws by looking for nice simple mathematical ratios.[ii]
But mechanistic explanation is another value that rests on a historically disputed claim: the claim of causation. If the Universe is to function like a clock, then the gears of the clock have to be able to cause the other gears to move. Hume rightly contended that we have no logical or rational basis for belief in causation. Theoretical physicist Paul Davies says,
…the workings of nature exhibit striking regularities…. On the basis of such experiences, scientists have used inductive reasoning to argue that these regularities are lawlike.[iii]
But these regularities, theoretically, could be a long string of coincidences. So, because Hume blew the cover off of inductive reasoning and causation, we will never know if A really caused B, but it is helpful to think that way.
So the question that now can be asked is, “If the values of science lead to unhelpful practical consequences, does it pay to stick to them? And which ones?” There is a truckload of evidence to support all five of these values, but the fact is, many scientists will still not, in good conscience, go all the way down the Yellow Brick Road of Reductionism, all the while sticking to the other values without a second thought. So there is either something wrong with reductionism or with one of the other values.
Part II: The Yellow Brick Road
Pinning down exactly what reductionism entails is a fairly difficult endeavor. In one sense it is the activity that scientists engage in to reduce one theory into that of another. In another sense, reductionism refers to the unification of the sciences. In yet another it implies the reduction of one branch of knowledge into another. In all three, the shared goal seems to be to find the fewest total number of principles to explain the widest amount of phenomena.
All three definitions of reductionism are, in fact, compatible with each other. They can be seen as micro and macro definitions of reductionism. While one could adhere to the micro definition of theory-reduction without the other two, it would be difficult to adhere to the macro definition of branch-reduction without theory-reduction. In essence, when you apply the goal of reductionism (fewest principles to explain widest phenomena) to the three definitions, you get the third, branch-reduction, because it encompasses all knowledge.
Not all academics adhere to all three definitions, however. For one, many do not concern themselves with the broad theoretical framework for which reductionism writ large speaks to. The two macro definitions are less a method of doing science and more a part of the philosophy of science. But the common goal that all three definitions share link them in a way that implies that branch-reduction is the logical extension and consequence of the goal of theory-reduction. Now whether or not this logical extension is truly “logical” is beside the point. We can call this extension the Yellow Brick Road of Reductionism as, if you follow the goal to its implied end, it suggests the reduction of all knowledge into a single branch of knowledge that contains a set of principles from which one can describe all observable phenomena, i.e. the Emerald City of Knowledge.
Science has to a large extent hijacked the Road and made us believe that science has the only rights to “true” knowledge, thereby changing the Yellow Brick Road of Reductionism into the Yellow Brick Road of Science—that science can be the only Dorothy off to see the Wizard and holds the only keys to the Emerald City. Any and all other Dorothys are illegitimate. Some scientists (typically atheist) claim that the only kind of knowledge is scientific knowledge, neatly reducing the macro definition of branch-reduction into the macro definition of science-unification. (Ah, reductionism in action.) This, then, is a very good reason for not following the Yellow Brick Road of Reductionism all the way to its very end. Believing in the Emerald City of Knowledge would then imply one way of knowing, namely scientific. Many scientists are not willing to reach this extreme, as they believe that morals and religion are outside the bounds of scientific knowledge. Therefore, they reject sustained reductionism, i.e. following the Yellow Brick Road all the way to the Emerald City.
What is important to do at this point is to locate reductionism within the framework of science. If some scientists only follow the Yellow Brick Road halfway down, it can be questioned as to what reductionism’s role is in the method of science. The answer is that reductionism isn’t intrinsic to science; it’s only a value that scientists subscribe to. As a value, reductionism’s role is determined by its usefulness. For instance, when Copernicus offered his heliocentric model of the universe, he wasn’t offering a model that made any better predictions of planet movements. He was offering a model that, on the surface, was simpler and more elegant. Copernicus was revolutionary in placing high value on theoretical elegance. What was found after Kepler, Galileo, and Newton was that this theoretical elegance had practical consequences: better predictions and a cohesive view of the universe.
But at the time of Copernicus, his theoretical elegance did not pay off. It wasn’t until Kepler shook off the last vestiges of Ptolemaic astronomy, Galileo began a new physics, and Newton synthesized them that the Copernican world-model (which was by that time only Copernican in the heliocentric sense) became useful in predicting planetary movements. It can be asked then, “If a value leads to unhelpful practical consequences, does it pay to stick to that value?”
It is helpful to look to the past for help with these questions. In the case of geocentrism vs. heliocentrism, theoretical elegance proved a fruitful value 150 years later. Only after observational evidence was logged in could it be said that theoretical elegance had earned a place within science. An analogous case to geocentrism vs. heliocentrism is a case in the history of the social sciences: phrenology vs. psychology. Without getting into any dirty details, it can be said that phrenologists and psychologists valued different things in their scientific explorations of the mind/brain. The analogous part is that psychology (or at least parts of it) panned out as an academic field only after significant amounts of observational evidence was thrown into the mix. But during their time, both phrenologists and psychologists were helpful to society.
The point of the two cases is that a value’s usefulness is difficult to determine while a transition between values is taking place. Fortunately, we have up to 2,500 years or more worth of evidence for some of these values. The culmination of this evidence is in contemporary scientific theories. I will take one area, evolution, and shine a light on it. By looking at two competing theories, Dawkins (evolutionist) and Behe (non-evolutionist), we will find that both have hazy conclusions. Both fail to follow the Yellow Brick Road. The problem is that both could have followed the Yellow Brick Road if they had sacrificed mechanistic explanations.
Part III: Dawkins
By the time Dawkins finishes his book, The Selfish Gene, his Selfish Gene theory isn’t so much a theory about genes as it is about replication. His theory could more appropriately be called the Replicating Life theory. The reason for this is that, during his last chapter, Dawkins extends his theory of genetic evolution to encompass cultural evolution. By doing this Dawkins is being a good reductionist. He took his one principle (“…the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.”[iv]) and extended it to cover the widest amount of phenomena. So the question is, “Does it work?”
The replicating entity that Dawkins proposes for culture is the meme.[v] This idea-meme can take the form of “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”[vi] The meme propagates through its medium by imitation and is subject to all the rules of natural selection. Therefore, memes that display higher survival value last longer in the meme pool. The meme pool that memes coagulate in is the brain and they seem to coalesce in the Lockean fashion of simple-to-complex ideas.
It is important to see here that Dawkins is describing culture in a purely mechanistic fashion. No meme, be it democracy or equality, has any intrinsic value to it, aside from its survival value in the meme pool. Democracy’s only value, according to meme theory, is its ability to “convince” brains to think about it.[vii] Many people would object to this point in Dawkins’ theory. Like the scientists who only go halfway down the Yellow Brick Road, some people do not want to fit morals into a mechanistic, valueless theory. They prefer to keep morals out of the theory all together and so opt to stop Dawkins’ Selfish Gene theory at the gene, thereby only going halfway down the Yellow Brick Road with theory-reduction (the reduction of Darwin’s Natural Selection into Dawkins’ Selfish Gene).
Dawkins defends himself by saying that two unique features of man, that may or may not have been created memically, are man’s “capacity for conscious forethought” and his “capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism.”[viii] He even refuses to speculate over their possible memic evolution. This is a stunner, as Dawkins seems to be shooting himself in the foot. If these two features were not created memically, how were they created? If they were, wouldn’t they then simply be mechanistic memes without any intrinsic value to mankind?
Dawkins has been called on this before. Dawkins describes Rose, Kamin, and Lewontin as having “a private bogey called ‘reductionism’; and all the best reductionists are also supposed to be ‘determinists’, preferably ‘genetic determinists’.”[ix] The three of them basically accuse Dawkins of sneaking free will in at the buzzer. Dawkins lashes out at them by saying:
…it is perfectly possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human behaviour while at the same time believing that this influence can be modified, overridden or reversed by other influences.[x]
Wonderful, that takes care of the “genetic determinism” part, but what about determinism itself? These “other influences” Dawkins alludes to can only be assumed to be environmental influences: society, family, school. These influences can all be summed up as memes. In a sense, the nature-nurture controversy that struggles over which type of determinism will reign supreme can be described as the gene-meme controversy. Dawkins subscribes to an interplay between the two influences, but this does not get him out of the determinist doghouse.
Rose, Kamin, and Lewontin wrongly accused reductionism as leading to determinism when it is really mechanistic explanations that lead to determinism. Dawkins is sneaking in free will by leaving it open to whether conscious forethought and true altruism are memes or not. If the two features are memes, then any free will we may think we have in “rebelling against the tyranny of the selfish replicators”[xi] is illusory and merely part of the large mechanical clock that is the universe. If they are not memes, then Dawkins needs to explain how and locate where this free will to rebel against the selfish replicators occurs.
This is where Dawkins would run into the old philosophical paradox of free will vs. determinism. If Dawkins leaves conscious forethought and true altruism out of the meme picture and somehow allows humans to exert “free will,” how does he account for simple reductionistic science? If all genes and memes have to follow the Laws of Nature, why don’t humans? If all atoms have to obey the Laws of Nature, then it should follow that chemical compounds have to follow them and DNA, cells, and organs, too. And when we get to the end we have a perfectly functioning body that should follow the Laws of Nature, yet has the gall not to by somehow exerting free will. In the same respect, it should follow that if the body has this ability to exert free will, then the organs do too, along with the cells, DNA, chemicals, and atoms. Yet no scientist (in particular Dawkins) would respectably say that they have free will.
If we look back at Dawkins’ theory now, we can assess where it failed in its endeavor. Some critics have located its failure as being too reductionistic. This, however, is a misplacement of blame. Dawkins wasn’t being reductionistic enough. Dawkins, by leaving out conscious forethought and true altruism from his model, does not travel down the Yellow Brick Road. These two principles could be seen as the basis for both free will and moral behavior. The reason he does this is because, as we have seen, his theory is not equipped to handle free will, let alone morals. But he posits them anyway because agreement with our experience says that they do exist. The question is now, “How does Dawkins become fully reductionistic?” The answer is that he cannot in his present form. Free will, conscious forethought, and true altruism don’t make sense in a mechanistic model.
Dawkins, in fact, makes his case against the perennial opponent to mechanistic explanations, teleological explanations, quite plainly. In his essay Universal Darwinism he uses six distinct theories of evolution proposed by Ernst Mayr and goes through them one by one, attacking their theoretical foundations, until he is left with Natural Selection. Number one on the list? Teleology.
Theory 1. Built-in Capacity For, or Drive Toward, Increasing Perfection
To the modern mind this is not really a theory at all, and I shall not bother to discuss it. It is obviously mystical, and does not explain anything that it does not assume to start with.[xii]
That’s it. Nothing more at all. Dawkins apparently thinks that’s all that needs to be said. He doesn’t explicitly say “Teleological explanations are stupid”, but “Built-in Drive” is a red flag for teleology that clues you into what exactly he’s disbarring. There are two problems as I see it. One, how is teleology mystical? And two, how does it not explain anything that it does not start out with?
As to teleology’s “obvious” mysticism, I’m not quite sure where to start. If he means mystical in the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that mysticism usually holds, then teleology passes that test. The easiest example is Aristotle. He had quite a lot to say about teleology.[xiii] If Dawkins had asked him, I’m sure Aristotle would have been quite happy to tell him all about it. If Dawkins is implying that teleology is supernatural, then, once again, I’m sure Aristotle would have given him an earful on how teleology is quite natural. The notion that teleology is supernatural, quite obviously, misses a lot of the history of science where the line between natural and supernatural has moved. If the line is between observable causes (natural) and unobservable causes (supernatural), then quite a few scientific theories look quite supernatural, namely, Newton’s theory of gravity and most of current physics.[xiv]
As to teleology not explaining anything that it does not assume, I think Aristotle would finally get fed up with Dawkins and shove one or two of his books down his throat. Aristotle’s system is quite comprehensive in its explanations. It’s one of the first metaphysics. It is the first if you consider the fact that he coined the word and named the book on it Metaphysics. Dawkins isn’t writing a metaphysics, but he makes a lot of metaphysical assumptions about what can and cannot count in explanations.
The point of this is that Dawkins completely and explicitly ignores teleological explanations because he fervently believes that science implies mechanistic explanations. Any other type of explanation gets lumped together under “supernatural” and thrown out. But as I, hopefully, have shown, Dawkins’ theory doesn’t function too hot when reductionism, another scientific value is applied, a value that Dawkins himself attempts to apply. So which one is more important? Reductionism or mechanism?
Part IV: Behe
Mechanistic explanations, in conjunction with evolution, don’t just have problems from a reductionistic standpoint. In this next section I will investigate the standpoint of Michael J. Behe. Behe is a biochemist who wrote in favor of intelligent design, as opposed to evolution, in Darwin’s Black Box. The attack is purely on biochemical grounds—ground that evolution should have covered. The central theme of Behe’s book is that gradual Darwinian evolution affected by the principle of Natural Selection (or Dawkins’ Selfish Gene) cannot, by itself, account for the construction irreducibly complex systems. As Darwin himself knew,
If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely breakdown.[xv]
An irreducibly complex system is
a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.[xvi]
An irreducibly complex system cannot be created by “numerous, successive, slight modifications” because “any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.”[xvii] Behe then spends the next one hundred pages of his book claiming that irreducibly complex systems do exist in the guise of (to name the four Behe argues from) cilia, blood clotting, intracellular transport, and our immune system. I am not very concerned about this portion of his book. It is not my place, as a biochemical layperson, to refute the research done by a scientist. I’m granting Behe the benefit of the doubt, even though I’m in no place to make such a judgment call. I leave that particular refutation to more capable hands. The portion of Behe’s reasoning that I do question is the conclusions that he draws from his evidence. Behe says “intelligent design” where I believe you can only say “alternative to mechanistic explanations”. I believe the reason for this is that Behe is another example of a scientist (along with Dawkins) who ignores teleology (as the most notable alternative) because of his commitment to mechanistic explanations.
Many would balk at my assertion that Behe has a commitment to mechanistic explanations. Doesn’t he throw them out and replace them with an argument for intelligent design? Others are quite sure that intelligent design arguments are not science. Well, let’s start simple: Which one of our values of science does Behe run afoul of? Not logic (he infers), not observations (from evidence).
One might think mechanistic explanations, but Behe wants to make it quite clear that science itself reached the conclusion of design. Behe, like Dawkins, seems to think mechanistic explanations are implicit to science. It appears that design replaces mechanistic explanations, but only in one specific respect: origins. Intelligent design steps in when mechanistic explanations break down in trying to explain how the machine got started. And Behe has shown that they have broken down.
Let’s take a closer look at intelligent design as non-science. Intelligent design is certainly an atypical theory, but why? Why would people reject design arguments as non-science, even if they flow directly out of observations and comply with mechanistic explanations? As Behe says,
The conclusion of intelligent design flows naturally from the data itself—not from sacred books or sectarian beliefs. Inferring that biochemical systems were designed by an intelligent agent is a humdrum process that requires no new principles of logic or science. It comes from the hard work that biochemistry has done over the past forty years, combined with consideration of the way in which we reach conclusions of design every day.[xviii]
But Behe is wrong about one thing. Intelligent design does require something new: an outside intelligent agent. As Behe says, we do not need to specify who or what the intelligent agent is to determine intelligent design, but we do need to posit the existence of an intelligent agent. This is something new. Something new that seems somehow very old—old because the intelligent agent usually attached in the West to design arguments is God. Behe, in fact, devotes his last chapter to why science ignores intelligent design. He offers three reasons: chauvinism, history, and The Rule.
Chauvinism and history are relatively unimportant to my considerations. Behe’s argument from scientific chauvinism is very simple and persuasive as far as it goes. “People who dedicate their lives to a noble pursuit often become fiercely loyal to it.”[xix] True, but Behe then makes the mistake of cutting a hard line between philosophy and science. Many forget that, up until 300 years ago (not such a long time), science was considered “natural philosophy”. In fact, all academic disciplines originally had their home under philosophy’s good name; all disciplines are fundamentally philosophical. Time and circumstance just blurs the edges and makes them look cleanly separated.
This blurring affect is caused by history. Behe’s argument from history is equally simple and persuasive as far as it goes. Behe simply points out the disagreements that individuals who practice science and those who practice religion have had over the years. This is the very public (and still continuing) “battle” between science and religion, often painted as a battle between “faith and reason”. People tend to get hot under the collar in these so-called battles. But let’s face it: people fight these wars. Not science, not religion and particularly not faith or reason. The point here is that chauvinism and history may be a good excuse for why particular individuals (in the past or present) ignore intelligent design, but it’s not good enough for this particular individual and this particular investigation.
Behe’s third reason is philosophical and is the important one to us. It revolves around The Rule, which Richard Dickerson, a prominent biochemist, elucidated:
Science, fundamentally, is a game. It is a game with one overriding and defining rule:
Rule No. 1: Let us see how far and to what extent we can explain the behavior of the physical and material universe in terms of purely physical and material causes, without invoking the supernatural.
Operational science takes no position about the existence or non-existence of the supernatural; it only requires that this factor is not to be invoked in scientific explanations. Calling down special-purpose miracles as explanations constitutes a form of intellectual “cheating.” A chess player is perfectly capable of removing his opponent’s King physically from the board and smashing it in the midst of a tournament. But this would not make him a chess champion, because the rules had not been followed. A runner may be tempted to take a short-cut across the infield of an oval track in order to cross the finish line ahead of his faster colleague. But he refrains from doing so, as this would not constitute “winning” under the rules of the sport.[xx]
Behe, rightly, identifies this barrier between science and the supernatural as philosophical—a barrier that we have already seen in Dawkins. Why is this barrier here? I’ve already given one ad hoc definition of this barrier: observable (natural) causes vs. unobservable (supernatural) causes. This simplistic definition broke down with a minor consideration of physics. So, to comply with current scientific theories, here’s another one: the supernatural posits the existence of something that transcends the “laws of nature.” That’s not good for the laws of nature (whatever they are). The implication of the existence of the supernatural is that the universe will act normally except in certain particular instances that cannot be predicted. If they could be predicted, then they would be a part of the laws of nature because (remember Davies) laws of nature are simply regularities in nature.
The barrier, then, would seem to exist because if you invite one supernatural explanation, you invite a host of them. If you’ve posited a supernatural being that can transcend the laws of nature, but in no regular way, why does this being stop with any particular transcendence? And if you stop with one particular instance (say, origins), then who says which other supernatural causes are valid? Why not explain the whole world with supernatural causes?
By my estimation, The Rule is a valid one. Science’s rejection of supernatural causes is already explained by two of our existing values: agreement with experience and economy of explanation. We may experience the supernatural, but not in a scientific way. Science demands a high degree of corroborative evidence to have it included as evidence. As was mentioned before in Part I, science realizes that the senses are flawed and that what one senses can be wrong. To compensate for this, scientific evidence needs to be repeatable or predictions need to be made that can be invalidated. Specific instances of transcendence (so-called miracles) are by definition non-repeatable and unpredictable. So science does not count such evidence. It cannot take such evidence into account unless it wants to invite a whole host of other “observations” such as water that boils over at 98°C and deserts that have disappearing oases. The economy of explanation (specifically Ockham’s Razor) then cuts loose the now extraneous supernatural parts. Since they take no part in explanation, science does not need to take a position as to their existence.
Let’s recap. Behe hasn’t violated the value of logic. He hasn’t violated the value of mechanistic explanations. Earlier I had said that he hadn’t violated the value of experience, but just now I said he had. So why does the incongruity show up?
It comes up because Behe believes the evidence implies “intelligent design”, when all it really implies is “alternative to mechanistic explanation”. Behe, in fact, unwittingly points in the direction of our very conspicuous alternative, teleology. Right after Behe proposes intelligent design he goes into why we should think so and tries to make it look like a short leap. He asks, “What is ‘design’? Design is simply the purposeful arrangement of parts.”[xxi] (italics his) Hmm, that sounds familiar—like part of a teleological explanation. “Purpose”, like “Built-in Drive”, is a red flag phrase for teleology. Why doesn’t he see it? I have no idea, but like I’ve said, I have a feeling it has to do with his adherence to mechanistic explanations, which are typically quite opposed to teleological explanations. Behe looks like a 17th century deist at heart and, like a good reductionist, likes to get his money’s worth out of his posited assumptions.
I will conclude Behe’s section by stating why “teleological design” is better than “intelligent design”, even though, as I’ve stated many times already, all we can say from Behe’s data is “alternative to mechanistic explanation”. Both are positing the existence of something extra: the former an “inside extra”, the latter an “outside extra”. Teleological explanations are preferable because, contrary to popular scientific belief, they are not supernatural. Teleological explanations, like mechanistic explanations, simply represent regularities in nature. Intelligent design posits something outside of nature.
Part V: Pirsig
My summary of Pirsig will be short and rapidly developed. I will go through the steps of his metaphysics, but mainly to highlight the pieces that are important. The pace will be quick, probably demanding that you have read him, and it will only be a skeletal framework of his metaphysics. The reason I am including him is to show what an inclusion of teleological explanations can do, especially towards the Yellow Brick Road of Reductionism.
What is important to realize at this point is that the Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) differs from science proper in one major respect that colors the entire system: the fundamental stuff of the universe is Quality. Instead of atoms blindly bumping around in a mechanical, deterministic accident, we have static patterns of value that like to bump around the way they do. For instance, causation, which took a philosophical beating in Part I, but nevertheless subsists because it is useful in explaining mechanistic behavior, is changed to “preconditional valuation”. It sounds horrible, but it’s not. Instead of “A causes B,” which we will never really know, we have “B values precondition A”. The change is completely linguistic. As Pirsig says,
Instead of saying “A magnet causes iron filings to move toward it,” you can say “Iron filings value movement toward a magnet.” Scientifically speaking neither statement is more true than the other…. The term “cause” can be struck out completely from a scientific description of the universe without any loss of accuracy or completeness.[xxii] (italics Pirsig’s)
Reality as Quality is the first link between the “valueless” world of science (which has already been shown to be not so valueless) and the value-laden world of everyday life. If everything is value, then they at least have something in common.
According to the MoQ, the world is made up of two kinds of Quality: Dynamic Quality and static patterns of quality. Dynamic Quality is the “pre-intellectual cutting edge of reality.”[xxiii] It is the primary experience, the first intimation with Quality. After several intimations with Quality (read: reality/universe/all sensations and empirical data) a pattern of quality is set up. Pirsig gives the example of a baby’s first experience outside of the womb:
…if [the baby] is normally attentive to Dynamic Quality he will soon begin to notice differences and then correlations between the differences and then repetitive patterns of the correlations. But it is not until the baby is several months old that he will begin to really understand enough about that enormously complex correlation of sensations and boundaries and desires called an object to be able to reach for one. This object will not be primary experience. It will be a complex pattern of static values derived from primary experience.[xxiv] (italics Pirsig’s)
Connection with Dawkins
The first place of contact with Dawkins is with the static patterns of values. Static patterns of value can be split into four separate levels: Inorganic, Biological, Social, and Intellectual. Every single static pattern is included in these four levels from the path of an electron around a hydrogen nucleus to the DNA’s double helix to the recitation of the American Pledge of Allegiance to the use of subjects and objects to describe the world (so-called Subject-Object Metaphysics). All are covered in four almost entirely independent, discretely interacting levels. While each level is discrete and mainly independent of function, each level, in ascending order, is dependent on the one below it for existence (biological patterns are dependent on inorganic patterns for existence, social on biological and inorganic, etc.).
These four levels are essentially the same ones that Dawkins has, except that he only has three: non-replicating “stable things”[xxv], genes, and memes. Inorganic, Biological, and Social/Intellectual. The levels are also discrete in Dawkins’ system. The difference between Pirsig and Dawkins, besides the extra Intellectual level in Pirsig, is that Dawkins’ three types empty the box of reality. Theoretically, you can fit every single thing that claims existence under the categories “stable things”, genes, or memes. For Pirsig, there is one extra box of existence besides the static patterns of quality: Dynamic Quality, the primary experience.
The first thing this does is clean up Dawkins’ little bout with determinism. Pirsig says simply,
To the extent that one’s behavior is controlled by static patterns of quality it is without choice. But to the extent that one follows Dynamic Quality, which is undefinable, one’s behavior is free.[xxvi]
It’s as simple as that. And the “one” stands for any “thing” that follows static patterns of quality. An oxygen and two hydrogen molecules are exerting their freedom by making water. The reason Dawkins cannot do this is because all of reality fits into only three boxes (“stable things”, genes, and memes), all of which follow the law of cause and effect and are therefore deterministic. Pirsig dissolves the whole problem by getting rid of causation in favor of preconditional valuation and by having an extra box for reality.
The second thing to see is that, in Dawkins’ system, the universe evolves in no particular direction and according to Laws of Nature that are either waiting around to be lawful over something or are emergent with the phenomena that they have jurisdiction over. A gigantic debate exists in the philosophy of science over whether laws are fundamental and eternal or phenomenological and emergent. For instance, is Dawkins’ principle of replication (“all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities”) just hanging around at the dawn of time, waiting to rule over replicators, or did the principle emerge when the first replicator emerged? As Davies says about superconductors,
…does it make sense to think that the laws of superconductivity existed in the primeval universe, waiting, so to speak, for the first superconductor to come along? I think most physicists would answer no to this question. But then it would be equally absurd to suppose that a new law comes into existence, and instantly propagates itself throughout the cosmos, when the relevant hardware appears.[xxvii]
The debate does not concern us directly here. The MoQ is explicitly emergent by its very nature and Dawkins’ system works either way. In the MoQ, the emergence of lawlike regularities is Dynamic Quality at work. The emergence is the Dynamic Quality and the regularities are the static patterns of quality that follow. The entire system is an argument in favor of emergent laws of nature. So, the MoQ would have Dawkins’ universe evolving in the direction of Dynamic Quality, like a train pulling forward its boxcars.
A synonym for “evolving in the direction of Dynamic Quality” is Pirsig’s assertion that “All life is a migration from static patterns of quality toward Dynamic Quality.”[xxviii] This assertion is, essentially, the reductive principle that everything in the universe follows. While “reality as Quality” first established a link between science and the rest of the world, “life as a migration toward Dynamic Quality” makes it solid. Life as a migration gives us a teleological evolutionary model that functions as Behe’s “alternative to mechanistic explanations”. And it’s not just evolution. It’s all of reality. Pirsig’s model gives us an evolutionary ethics. An ethics that is teleological and not mechanistic. Pirsig says,
The Metaphysics of Quality says that if moral judgments are essentially assertions of value and if value is the fundamental ground-stuff of the world, then moral judgments are the fundamental ground-stuff of the world.
It says that at even the most fundamental level of the universe, static patterns of value and moral judgments are identical. The “Laws of Nature” are moral laws. Of course it sounds peculiar at first and awkward and unnecessary to say that hydrogen and oxygen form water because it is moral to do so. But it is no less peculiar and awkward and unnecessary than to say chemistry professors smoke pipes and go to movies because irresistible cause-and-effect forces of the cosmos force them to do it.[xxix]
This is what Pirsig’s platform gives us. It gives us an ethics where there was none before. That has been the continuing crisis of the 20th century: science has not been able to give us an ethical system. As I made light of way back in my introduction, reductionism tells us that science should be able to give us a system, yet most people don’t want it to. “Science is valueless, cold, and mechanistic,” come the cries. “We don’t want a machine to tell us what to do.”
Yet, where else will the ethics come from? Both sides of the 20th century split in philosophy, both Continentals and Analytics, say that ethics does not have a foundation. The Analytics, specifically logical empiricist/positivists, hold that values, morals, religion, and art are all unverifiable and, therefore, are not areas in which we can have legitimate knowledge. This is the position I elucidated before in Part II as being reductionistic in reducing all knowledge to scientific knowledge. But, like I said, not all scientists (or other people) believe this. So we are still left wondering where the foundation comes from.
Enter the Continentals. Existentialists and Post-Modernists vary the attack on ethics slightly. After Nietzsche knocks down any outside interference from God, the attack is that morals and values are given by society. This makes morals and values arbitrary and relative to the particular society you are born into. They call ethics a habit that is formed, like Einstein’s common sense, by the age of 18.
There have been attempts to resurrect a foundation in the vacuous hole left by society's morals. All of the people who have made these attempts fully understand the implications of modern science, which is partly responsible for the intellectual hole. These include utilitarianism and Simone de Beavoir's Ethics of Ambiguity. They also include attempts at ethics by scientist/philosophers. They are written in books with titles like The Philosophy of Biology and The Metaphysics of Evolution and Biology and the Foundation of Ethics. None of them, however, quite work. Why? Because they use the wrong language. They are valueless, cold, and most importantly mechanistic.
Where do our two exemplars, Behe and Dawkins, fit in? Behe seems to fit the mold of scientists who don’t want to think about the connection to or the foundation for ethics. Behe says:
In a very real sense, the separateness of the spheres of science versus philosophy and religion is as it should be. Every person has available the data of his or her senses and, for the most part, can agree with other people on what that data is. To a large extent people of different philosophical and theological bents can also agree on scientific theories, such as gravitation or plate tectonics or evolution, to organize the data (even if the theories are ultimately incorrect). But the fundamental philosophical principles that underlie reality and the theological principles, or lack of principles, that can be garnered from philosophy and historical experience are at root chosen by the individual. A man or woman must be free to search for the good, the true, and the beautiful.[xxx]
This position speaks volumes about the separateness of faith and spirituality from reason and science. Behe likes both. He essentially says, “We can all agree on the application of reason (the result being data and science), but we cannot agree on fundamentals. That takes faith.” The above may not sound like faith, but it specifically is not any faith-in-particular. It is the position taken by pluralists (and many non-pluralists) who say, “You stay out of my yard and I’ll stay out of yours.” But they can’t offer us an ethics because there isn’t a uniform platform (especially with pluralism).
Dawkins and a freelance writer named Ed Sexton expound on a position that will remind you of the Analytics. Dawkins has this to say about faith:
Faith is such a successful brainwasher in its own favour, especially a brainwasher of children, that it is hard to break its hold. But what, after all, is faith? It is a state of mind that leads people to believe something—it doesn’t matter what—in the total absence of supporting evidence….
I said ‘it doesn’t matter what’ the faithful believe, which suggests that people have faith in entirely daft, arbitrary things…. I don’t want to argue that the things in which a particular individual has faith are necessarily daft. They may or may not be. The point is that there is no way of deciding whether they are, and no way of preferring one article of faith over another, because evidence is explicitly eschewed.[xxxi]
Dawkins doesn’t want to have faith in anything.[xxxii] He wants to dispense with morality completely. Sexton, defending the Dawkian position in his short book Dawkins and the Selfish Gene (written for a series called Postmodern Encounters), says:
…morality is built on tradition and precedent, and a sense of ‘being right for all time’. It is the same thinking that leads landowners to bar access to their estate every so often, lest the pathways on it become public rights of way by default. In this case, surely, the fact that we judge our ancestors’ actions as ‘wrong’ undermines our faith in morality?[xxxiii]
Okay, then where are we to get our ethics? How are we to know what is right or wrong action?
To start with, Sexton attacks the same point that I did in Part III (that Dawkins is a genetic determinist), claiming, like Dawkins, that
Humans, more than any other species on the planet, have the capacity to ‘rebel’ against the interests of their genes, and in any case, a large part of human psychology results from cultural influences.[xxxiv]
I won’t rehash my argument against Dawkins, but I think it is important to see the emphasis on psychology. Sexton further says, “…it would be wise to understand the extent of genetic influences on human psychology before proposing any radical social change.”[xxxv] This is where the Analytics turn to! They turn to the social sciences, which all started as a scientific study of human nature. They are the ones who have claimed that science will be our savior. They’ve given us things like cultural anthropology without human values and behaviorist psychology without the psyche. But, as many others have seen, if one has no values and the other is explicitly deterministic, I fail to see how these things can enlighten us on right action. This is the failure upon which I took up this investigation.
Enter Pirsig. He gives us a system that both conforms to science and to our value-filled world of everyday life. It all revolves around Quality and the assertion that “All life is migrating towards Dynamic Quality.” An assertion that is teleological.
Part VI: Mechanistic Philosophy and Anthropomorphism
Why does everybody ignore teleology? That may be a broad generalization, but it pretty well sums up science’s view of teleology. There are two reasons that, though caught in a tailspin together, can be separated out. One is the fear that teleology is anthropomorphic (and therefore bad); the other is our loyalty to mechanistic philosophy. Mechanistic philosophy, at its inception, was championed by such major figures in the history of science as Galileo, Descartes, and Pierre Gassendi. But to get to the mechanistic philosophy we must first deal with the fear of anthropomorphism that usually spurs on continued loyalty for mechanistic explanations. And for this we most delve into the social sciences.
Fear of Anthropomorphism
Anthropomorphism is a mortal sin in science. But why? A lot of the stigma has to do with the early development of Darwin’s theory in conjunction with the burgeoning social sciences. The stigma certainly wasn’t there during Galileo, Descartes, or Gassendi’s time. During the time before the Scientific Revolution there were two dominant ways in which to reduce the world’s phenomena: reduce Inorganic to Organic (Plato’s way) or reduce Organic to Inorganic (Aristotle’s way). Both of these ways were teleological. The Scientific Revolution was in most ways a revolution against Greek intellectual oppressors. But the change had nothing to do with a fear of anthropomorphism. As I’ve already quoted Rorty saying, “…you get much better predictions by thinking of things as masses of particles blindly bumping each other….”
The original stigma arose from positivist views of knowledge (created by Auguste Comte in the early 19th century) that said that true knowledge was being reached in physics and chemistry, so all an academic field had to do to be true knowledge was become more like physics and chemistry: cold, valueless, and mechanistic. The notoriety I think, however, comes from the development of scientific racism in fields such as phrenology, sociology, psychology, and anthropology, all in conjunction with Darwinism’s growing acceptance in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Darwin’s theory, in many ways, seemed to be teleological. It was hocked into many social theories that are now said to be “naïve evolution” theories. These are theories that use words like “progress”, “direction”, and “levels of evolution”. Most of these theories were created under the now defunct comparative method a.k.a. evolutionary anthropology. But biological evolution (that looked like teleology, though adherents were violently opposed to it being so) is only part of naïve evolution’s story. There are three parts: evolution, the cultural ladder, and psychic unity. Evolution is simply Darwin’s contribution. The cultural ladder is the part that gets tagged with “progress”, “direction”, and “levels of evolution”. Psychic unity is an historical part that no longer survives today in naïve evolution, but at the outset of evolutionary anthropology it played an important role and gave a foundation for the conclusions that were drawn from the use of a single culture.
To gain a foothold here, a brief history of naïve evolution (and consequently evolutionary anthropology) must first be developed. This history is largely derived from the history of the social sciences. Between the 1840s and the 1870s writing in and on academic subjects went from “modern” to “contemporary”. The change is similar to the change that occurred between “medieval” and “Renaissance” and then to “modern”. Each of those transition periods can be marked by particular events, say the discovery of the New World and Newton’s Principa, respectively. One of the events that marks the transition from “modern” to “contemporary” is Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. And as George W. Stocking, Jr., a prominent historian of anthropology, said, “Turn-of-the-century social scientists were evolutionists almost to a man….”[xxxvi]
Before Darwin there had been earlier speculations about how creation could be understood by purely natural causes. Robert Chambers in Vestiges of Creation (1844) said that you could see that changes have occurred. He called this a developmental process. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck developed a theory of inheritance that asserted that modifications occurred to an animal’s survival ability over its lifetime and that these modifications were transmitted to the animal’s offspring. Herbert Spencer had been publishing on evolution during all of the 1850s. Spencer viewed Darwin’s work as a specialized sub-set of his search for the origins of life and society. Indeed, it was Spencer who, after reading a particular passage from the Origin of Species, coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”. But it was Darwin who developed (or at least published) the first full-blown theory of biological evolution that had a mechanism that worked: Natural Selection. It stunned the academic landscape.
Probably the most important idea in evolutionary anthropology (and the part that people think is naïve) was the cultural ladder. Every civilization fit on this ladder and was evolving upward. E.B. Tylor coined the word culture and thought there was one culture in the world and we were all at different points on the ladder. C.S. Wake drew an analogy of this upward movement to the different stages of human development. The child stage represented the Australian aborigine, the boy stage the American Indian, all the way up to the mature stage, which represented the European. The more a civilization developed, the more “mature” (empirical, rational, i.e. more like Europeans) they became. But it wasn’t just anthropology that thought this way. Darwin himself drew from this “common knowledge”. Stocking says,
When Darwin turned to the problem of The Descent of Man in 1871, there was no generally accepted fossil evidence to support the hypothesis of man’s evolution from anthropoid forms. Although in general inclined to dismiss such gaps in the fossil record as adventitious, Darwin did try to fill this one. To fill it, he drew on various currents of anthropological thought.
One of these was the notion of a hierarchy of human races which, although it had roots in such ancient intellectual orientations as the “Great Chain of Being,” was largely the product of the early nineteenth-century milieu that nourished polygenism in anthropology. By Darwin’s time, a rough sort of hierarchy of human races was an accepted part of conventional anthropological wisdom. Darwin simply thrust it into the fossil gap…. But a racial hierarchy was not all that Darwin borrowed from anthropology. He borrowed also from the social evolutionary theories of his contemporaries E.B. Tylor, John McLennan, and Sir John Lubbock, who had shown that man had risen to civilization “from a lowly condition to the highest standards as yet attained by him in knowledge, morals, and religion.” [from The Descent of Man][xxxvii]
Both biological Darwinism and the cultural ladder are separable pieces from the whole. It’s partly because they are separable that “smart” evolutionists call any linking of progress and evolution “naïve”. They say that linking evolution and progress is anthropomorphic; it’s just “us” humans placing our values on scientific data. If this is all there was to the argument, I might be inclined to agree. But the argument has a lot of history.
The person that came along and threw evolutionary anthropology off its horse was Franz Boas. Boas came onto the scene of anthropology from the field of physics. He was used to running controlled experiments, collecting data, and proving hypotheses beyond a shadow of a doubt. Boas specifically did his work in psychophysics and on finding out why people saw the colors they did. This is where he got the idea of traveling out into the field, in this case to find if different people in different places perceived different colors.
In 1880 Boas traveled to Baffinland in Canada to study the Inuit. He came back from his travels with a great sense of complexity. From here he became involved in American colleges and opened his famous Eskimo exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1896 Boas published The Limitations of Comparative Anthropology. In it he argued that evolutionary anthropologists mistook things of similar appearance as having similar origins, but that there was simply no evidence for this at the level of culture. He argued instead for his historical method. Each culture must be studied individually and each history of a particular culture must be gathered as evidence. Only after gathering all the histories of the world can an anthropologist construct the process of history.
Boas is said to have destroyed the armchair anthropologist in his insistence of field experience being a prerequisite for an anthropologist. He believed that the parts of a culture that could be seen and catalogued were the proper topics of anthropology. Concepts such as “cultural values” had no place because an anthropologist cannot infer any meaning into a ritual or custom he sees, he only has what he sees. While Boas did not think it was possible to construct a process of history during his lifetime, he did think it would be possible.
Boas invented the plural form of culture and the current cultural relativity that we have today. He applied the cold, valueless, mechanistic, positivistic values of hard science on the social sciences. It is because of Boas’ destruction of evolutionary anthropology, of “naïve evolution”, that we cannot tell other cultures if they are being unethical or not or if they are making “progress”. And God forbid if we tried placing ethics or progress on other species.
I may sound a little negative towards Boas at this point. Boas did in fact exterminate the validity of scientific racism. That was very important. I also think it would be a big mistake to try and say whether or not certain cultures are making “progress”, as if up some cultural ladder. The real fear of anthropomorphism stems, not from simple, cold science, but from the misuse of science to validate racism and cultural imperialism. It was making Europeans the center of the universe that was the mistake. But while Boas was purging the social sciences’ misuse of science, he purged the use of values in the social sciences. People now refuse to place anything at the center of the universe for fear of either being unscientific or for invalidating a particular culture. It is important to keep this all in perspective when Pirsig (as my representative teleology) locates an attack on anthropology and specifically at Boas.
The whole field seemed like a highway filled with angry drivers cursing each other and telling each other they didn’t know how to drive when the real trouble was the highway itself. The highway had been laid down as the scientific objective study of man in a manner that paralleled the physical sciences. The trouble was that man isn’t suited to this kind of scientific objective study. Objects of scientific study are supposed to hold still. They’re supposed to follow the laws of cause and effect in such a way that a given cause will always have a given effect, over and over again. Man doesn’t do this. Not even savages.
The result has been theoretical chaos.
Phaedrus liked a description he read in a book called Theory in Anthropology by Robert Manners and David Kaplan of Brandeis University. “Scattered throughout the anthropological literature,” they wrote, “are a number of hunches, insights, hypotheses, and generalizations. They tend to remain scattered, inchoate, and unrelated to one another, so that they often get lost or are forgotten. The tendency has been for each generation of anthropologists to start afresh.
“Theory building in cultural anthropology comes to resemble slash-and-burn agriculture,” they said, “where the natives return sporadically to old fields grown over by bush and slash and burn and plant for a few years.”
Phaedrus could see the slash and burn everywhere he looked. Some anthropologists were saying a culture is the essence of anthropology. Some were saying there isn’t any such thing as a culture. Some were saying it’s all history, some said it’s all structure. Some said it’s all function. Some said it was all values. Some, following Boas’s scientific purity said there were no values at all.
That idea that anthropology has no values Phaedrus marked down in his mind as the “spot.” That was the place where the wall could best be breached. No values, huh? No Quality? This was the point of focus where he could begin an attack.
What many were trying to do, evidently, was get out of all these metaphysical quarrels by condemning all the theory, by agreeing not to even talk about such theoretical reductionist things as what savages do in general. They restricted themselves to what their particular savage happened to do on Wednesday. That was scientifically safe all right—and scientifically useless.[xxxviii]
Pirsig goes on, in the rest of his book, to describe his Metaphysics of Quality, which I have already partially described in Part V. It is important to see, though, that Pirsig, while developing his theory in the ashes of evolutionary anthropology, is not erecting a hierarchy of races in the vein of scientific racism. He is, however, erecting a “Great Chain of Being” (in the Heideggerian/ontological sense). It is important to ask then, “Why can Pirsig get away with it?”
Why Pirsig Can Get Away with It
The reason depends upon an important historical piece of evolutionary anthropology that is forgotten when simply considering naïve evolution. The comparative method didn’t hang together simply because of convenience (like Darwin’s thrusting of the “hierarchy of races” into the fossil record). It hung together logically because of the last piece of evolutionary anthropology that I mentioned, but held back until now: psychic unity.
Psychic unity. Something that appears to be so completely mystical seems a tad strange in a field that calls itself a social science. But it has important philosophical roots; roots that were soon cut off, but for which most people don’t notice. When this important assertion was taken away evolutionary anthropology lost its glue and it only needed a man like Boas to come along and point it out. As Stocking says,
Although the phrase is of much later origin, the idea is a manifestation of the eighteenth-century view that reason was “the same in all men and equally possessed by all,” regardless of differences of race. [from A.O. Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being (1936)] It was of course this uniformity of human nature which was the basis of the regularity of human social development.[xxxix]
This 18th century view that reason was “the same in all men and equally possessed by all” is a direct descendent of René Descartes’ thought.
Descartes’ view arose out of the skeptical crisis of the 16th century when competition between Platonic and Aristotelian theories scorched the academic landscape. Before this time there were essentially two types of statements: knowledge and opinion. Knowledge required absolute certainty, otherwise it was mere opinion. To understand what happened in the 16th century, it is convenient to break certainty into three kinds: logical, moral, and psychological. Logical certainty is strict, absolute necessity; it couldn’t be any other way. Moral certainty is at such a high probability that we can live our lives believing it to be true.[xl] Psychological certainty is personal intuition, a gut feeling. The ancients, like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and all the rest, believed that true knowledge had to be absolute, logical certainty. If it fell short, it was opinion and therefore pretty useless. Beginning in the 16th century, many scholars began to loose confidence that humans would ever be able to reach true knowledge, partly because Plato and Aristotle both thought they had it.
There was a divergence of opinion at this point. Some, like Francis Bacon and Gassendi, believed that logical certainty was not possible, but moral was and that that was good enough for true knowledge. This was a true split from Greek philosophy. Descartes did believe logical certainty was possible and continued to believe that moral was still not good enough. These are essentially the historical roots of epistemological inquiries.
Descartes then devised a method for establishing a foundation upon which could be erected true, logically certain knowledge. This method was also a true split from Greek philosophy. He decided to push the skepticism of his age as far as it would go, doubting everything he could. This is where we get “cogito, ergo sum”. It was Descartes’ Archimedian point, the foundation upon which he could not doubt. But for Descartes’ provisional skepticism to work, he had to establish that all people would come to this same truth. In Part I of his Discourse on Method Descartes argues,
Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed for everybody thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters do not commonly desire more of it than they already possess. It is unlikely that this is an error on their part; it seems rather to be evidence in support of the view that the power of forming a good judgment and of distinguishing the true from the false, which is properly speaking what is called Good sense or Reason, is by Nature equal in all men. Hence too it will show that the diversity of our opinions does not proceed from some men being more rational than others by solely from the fact that our thoughts pass through diverse channels and the same objects are not considered by all. For to be possessed of good mental powers is not sufficient; the principal matter is to apply them well. The greatest minds are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues, and those who proceed very slowly may, provided they always follow the straight road, really advance much faster than those who, though they run, forsake it.[xli]
Descartes didn’t just make this up, though. He was playing on the sympathies of ancient Greek thought, particularly Socrates/Plato’s argument for dialectical reason (which first tried to establish the “Truth”) and Aristotle’s “rational animal” conception of humans. But Descartes was setting the stage for a new philosophy and his conception of psychic unity gave a foundation for his argument. Now he could establish real knowledge that everyone would have to agree on because, though particular people may reason badly, Reason itself is the route to Truth and the if properly done will point to exactly the same Truth.
Now, this psychic unity was controversial from the very beginning. Empiricists like John Locke, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that man was born tabula rasa. Through the course of time this view eventually became dominant in fields such as sociology, psychology and anthropology. But, as should be obvious, not fully until close to the 20th century.
Without psychic unity evolutionary anthropologists didn’t have a leg to stand on. The climate of opinion had been changing for years and it finally caught up to the comparative method in the form of Boas who changed evolutionary anthropology into naïve evolution. But if the reason evolutionary anthropology became naïve is because it didn’t have a platform to stand on, then all we need to do is find a platform to stand on. As it just so happens, Pirsig has a platform ready and waiting.
The platform is Quality. Everything in the universe has Quality in common because everything in the universe is Quality. All reality is Quality. Pirsig placed reality at the center of the universe. Quality is what we have in common with water, bacteria, animals, and other humans. Because of the conjectured historical creation of each of these patterns of Quality, we can place an arrow of development pointing towards the cause of their development: Dynamic Quality. Dynamic Quality is the teleological goal of existence. That is the Great Chain of Quality. The ancient Great Chain of Being may have been chauvinistic. But that is only because there was no common platform for which one could subscribe higher values upon some things than others. With Pirsig’s Great Chain of Quality, the platform is given, and values are derived.
The platform that Descartes gave in the form of psychic unity wasn’t just a platform for evolutionary anthropology. Obviously Descartes had no idea it would become one. If Descartes’ importance were only reflected in his originating modern psychic unity, I wouldn’t have expounded so long on the circumstances around him. What Descartes was doing was creating an epistemological foundation for his metaphysics. The crisis in the 16th century was, “If we can’t be certain of what we know (epistemology), how can we know anything about the world (metaphysics)?” Descartes created modern philosophy by departing from Greek philosophy and creating his own method of certainty, which, in turn, created a whole new set of problems that philosophers could harass each other about. But then Descartes set on top of his certainty mechanistic explanations of the world. Descartes wasn’t just a philosopher, he was also a natural philosopher.
Unfortunately, Descartes’ certainty is “void where prohibited” and it’s pretty much prohibited in all of the Western world. It was only a matter of time before the “high probability” belief of moral certainty that Bacon, Gassendi, Hooke, and Newton championed in their mechanical natural philosophy would develop into the relativity of knowledge. Boas was a harbinger of sorts with cultural relativism. Thomas Kuhn simply extended the relativism further by noting that science is apart of culture. He proposed a historical view of science where, while a particular paradigm of thought dominated, “normal science” was done. When enough anomalies arose that the current paradigm could not explain, a paradigm shift would occur. Without an absolute platform that tells us which values of science are needed and which ones are dispensible, science, its values, and all attempts at explanation are conventions of the culture that they grew out of. Useful conventions, but conventions nevertheless. As Rorty says,
Kuhn and Dewey suggest we give up the notion of science traveling towards an end called “correspondence with reality” and instead say merely that a given vocabulary works better than another for a given purpose. If we accept their suggestion, we shall not be inclined to ask “What method do scientists use?” Or, more precisely, we shall say that within what Kuhn calls “normal science”—puzzle-solving—they use the same banal and obvious methods all of us use in every human activity. They check off examples against criteria; they fudge the counter-examples enough to avoid the need for new models; they try out various guesses, formulated within the current jargon, in the hope of coming up with something which will cover the unfudgeable cases. We shall not think these is or could be an epistemologically pregnant answer to the question “What did Galileo do right that Aristotle did wrong?”, any more than we should expect such an answer to the questions “What did Plato do right that Xenophon did wrong?” or “What did Mirabeau do right that Louis XVI did wrong?” We shall say that Galileo had a good idea, and Aristotle a less good idea; Galileo was using some terminology which helped, and Aristotle wasn’t. Galileo’s terminology was the only “secret” he had—he didn’t pick that terminology because it was “clear” or “natural,” or “simple,” or in line with the categories of the pure understanding. He just lucked out.[xlii] (italics Rorty’s)
Don’t mistake Pirsig’s platform as any more “right” than Descartes’. Pirsig’s platform doesn’t “correspond to reality” any more than Descartes’ does. Pirsig’s however is more useful. It allows for an ethics. It dissolves problems of philosophy and science like determinism vs. freedom. Our terminology, in large part, creates the reality we perceive. The reality we perceive is the only one we can know.
There is a lot contained in this essay, but there is one overriding message: the values of science need to be useful. Reductionism as a value has given us the entire Western tradition of science. I don’t think it would be useful to discard the whole edifice of Western thought. In comparison, mechanistic explanations are an untested, spring chicken. The Yellow Brick Road of Reductionism is a goal. Call it the goal of knowing. Mechanistic explanation, on the other hand, is a tool. It is a linguistic tool. The only difference between mechanistic explanations and teleological explanations is in the jargon used. In causation, it doesn’t matter if you say “A causes B” or “B values precondition A.” Nothing empirical changes. A change in jargon simply wipes out the anomalies between our empirical data and our theory. Nature keeps on going as it had been or, to put it another way, keeps on being perceived as it had been until new anomalies arise.
What I am proposing is that maybe it is time to open up the door for teleological explanations. Its not like it has never been done before. The only reason science became mechanistic is because it was useful to do so. Some would say that teleological explanations are anthropomorphic and that is why they don’t yield “good” explanations in regards to scientific phenomena. Well, in response, I would flip the problem on its head. It could be said that mechanistic explanations are physiomorphic[xliii] and that is why they don’t yield “good” explanations in regards to human phenomena. In essence, it may be helpful to think teleologically or mechanistically depending on the situation, just as it is helpful to think of light as a wave or a particle, depending on the situation.
Cornman, James W., Keith Lehrer, and George S. Pappas. Philosophical Problems and Arguments: An Introduction. 4th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1992.
Lambert, Karel, and Gordon G. Brittan, Jr. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. 4th ed. Atascadero: Ridgeview Publishing, 1992.
Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Morris, Richard. “How to Tell What Is Science from What Isn’t.” Doing Science. Ed. John Brockman. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991.
Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: William Morrow, 1974
I would like to specially thank Professor Lindberg and Professor Hilts for lectures in the History of Science by David C. Lindberg and in the History of the Social Sciences by Victor L. Hilts.
I would also like to thank the Jell-O pudding thief, Gina Rivera, for reading and editing this enterprise. Though we disagree greatly on style, she went ahead and tried to “spruce up” my writing. Unfortunately, I’ve disregarded most of her corrections in grammar and mechanics. I think most of it would have made me look like a technician. So, because we disagree greatly on style, she asked me to tell you (the reader) to direct all disagreements on prescriptive rhetoric, or indeed any of my rhetoric, to me and not to her, the person who was supposed to clean it up.
I’m just happy she feigned enthusiasm while discussing it with me.
And my deepest thanks go to my fiancé, who put up with me as this essay stretched from a weekend into a month.
[i] The first three (logical consistency, agreement with experience, and economy of explanation) are from Robert M. Pirsig in his description of the tests of truth. (Pirsig, Robert M. Lila. (1991) Paperback ed. New York: Bantam, 1992. p. 113)
[ii] Rorty, Richard. “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope.” Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1982. p. 191
[iii] Davies, Paul. “What are the Laws of Nature?” Doing Science. Ed. John Brockman. New York: Prentice Hall, 1991. p. 48
[iv] Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. (1976) New Ed. New York: Oxford University, 1989. p. 192
[v] As a side note, while Dawkins noted with optimism that meme was on the official list of candidates for the Oxford Dictionary in 1988, meme was picked up by my spellchecker as a misspelled word in 2001. Maybe meme isn’t as good a meme as Dawkins thought.
[vi] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 192
[vii] Ibid., p. 197
[viii] Ibid., p. 200
[ix] Ibid., p. 331
[x] Ibid., p. 331
[xi] Ibid., p. 201
[xii] Dawkins, Richard. “Universal Darwinism” The Philosophy of Biology. Ed. David L. Hull and Michael Ruse. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 18
[xiii] Ancient Atomists said that there was no organizing principle in the universe, just atoms randomly hitting each other. Aristotle, arguing against the Atomists, said that there was an organizing principle and that it was telos. He argued that every “particular” has, inherently, a purposeful nature. For instance, the Atomists version of causation matches up fairly close to the modern conception, atoms bouncing around with causation occurring by touch. Aristotle had four causes: material, formal, efficient, and final. The material cause is what the particular is made of. The formal cause is the collection of properties that make up the particular. The efficient cause is how the particular came to be, by what agent. The final cause is what the particular is for, the telos. A classic example of Aristotle’s teleology is his description of why a rock falls. We now refer to gravity, but for Aristotle the rock fell because earth’s (the rock’s material cause) natural place was at the center of the universe.
[xiv] The line, in fact, has been cut in other ways. For instance, right after Newton published the Principia in 1687 Newton became embroiled in a scientific controversy as to what gravity actually was. Mechanistic philosophy needs contact for causation. Newton’s contemporaries thought he was abandoning mechanistic philosophy and returning to Neo-Platonism, which most regarded as supernatural. Newton, for his part, said that it wasn’t his problem, but his adversaries said he had an obligation to solve it. Newton dabbled for a time with the idea that matter was active, but for the most part he decided that there must be a non-material source of activity: active principles, light, an electric spirit, but mainly God. Newton, in his spare time, was a biblical scholar, having written several treatises on the subject, and was eager to find causes of divine intervention: he thought he found one. Essentially, though, Newton was casting about for an answer for a problem that the 17th century didn’t have the resources to answer. Newton gave up on the exclusivity of mechanical causes thinking that there are a few phenomena that are outside mechanistic explanation. Newton was showing the inadequacy of 17th century mechanistic philosophy; I’m hoping to open up the case against 20th century mechanistic philosophy. Newton’s problem was with passive matter that looked active. Well, my problem is, why can’t we have active matter that looks passive, telos that looks mechanistic?
[xv] Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species. (1859) Facsimile of 1st Ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964. p. 189
[xvi] Behe, Michael J. Darwin’s Black Box. New York: Free Press, 1996. p. 39
[xvii] Ibid., p. 39
[xviii] Ibid., p. 193
[xix] Ibid., p. 234
[xx] Dickerson’s essay can be found in Journal of Molecular Evolution, 34, 277 (1992), and Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith, 44, 137-138 (1992).
[xxi] Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, p. 193
[xxii] Pirsig, Lila, p. 119
[xxiii] Ibid., p. 133
[xxiv] Ibid., p. 137
[xxv] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p.12
[xxvi] Pirsig, Lila, p. 180
[xxvii] Davies, “What are the Laws of Nature?”, p. 60
[xxviii] Pirsig, Lila, p. 160
[xxix] Ibid., pp. 180-181
[xxx] Behe, Darwin’s Black Box, p. 250
[xxxi] Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 330
[xxxii] It is interesting to point out, but not functional to go into, that Dawkins doesn’t want to have faith in anything, despite the fact that some honest intellectuals (especially post-modernists and some philosophers of science) say we have to faith in science and reason. Pirsig himself says in Zen… that we have to have faith in the Church of Reason. His lack of faith is what plunges him into an investigation of the institution of Reason, the same type of investigation that is taking place in this essay. Dawkins lumps all faith together into one category, but Dawkins’ faith in science and reason is faith, just not blind faith (though it certainly looks that way). At the end of his tirade on faith, Dawkins briefly goes into the terrible things that faith has done. He says, “What a weapon! Religious faith deserves a chapter to itself in the annals of war technology, on an even footing with the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb.” (p. 331) It is interesting to note that reason created “the longbow, the warhorse, the tank, and the hydrogen bomb,” and science, especially, created the H-bomb.
[xxxiii] Sexton, Ed. Dawkins and the Selfish Gene. Cambridge: Icon Books, 2001. p. 66
[xxxiv] Ibid., pp. 63-64
[xxxv] Ibid., p. 69
[xxxvi] Stocking, George W. Jr. “The Dark-Skinned Savage: The Image of Primitive Man in Evolutionary Anthropology” Race, Culture, and Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968. p. 112
[xxxvii] Ibid., p. 113
[xxxviii] Pirsig, Lila, p. 61-62
[xxxix] Stocking, “The Dark-Skinned Savage…”, p. 115
[xl] As a side note, my use of moral here has an undeveloped connection to the moral in common usage and Pirsig’s philosophy. I don’t have the time or energy to trace it’s usage or origin in this particular analytical knifing of certainty, but rest assured it has something to do with “It’s good to believe that the sun will rise everyday.”
[xli] Descartes, René. “Discourse on the Method.” The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdock. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985. p. 111
[xlii] Rorty, “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope”, p. 193
[xliii] i.e. the representation of humans, society, and culture as having natural or physical attributes and characteristics.