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Thursday, March 06, 2014


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Hello, Bill. In addition to “cosmic accident” and “design” there is a third explanation for the apparent fine-tuning of the human cognitive apparatus: physical necessity. I don’t think necessity is plausible, but I mention it for the sake of a fully extended design argument.

Can we bolster the argument to exclude panpsychism as follows?

The panpsychist says “Nature herself is immanently intelligible and unfolds according to her own immanent teleology.” However, “nature unfolding” is a process. At the end of A Realistic Theory of Categories, Chisholm writes that “Evolution is a process, and processes are not the kinds of things that can be said to think or to have plans and designs.” (pg. 131) Chisholm seems right. So, if panpsychism is the case, then teleology is a process. But a mere process simply can’t be teleological. So we can eliminate pansychism, accident, and necessity as explanations of the human cognitive apparatus. We are left with design by an intelligent designer.

P.S. I really like the hiking analogy.

I am sympathetic to these sorts of design arguments, but you have left the combox open, and I feel compelled to take advantage of the opportunity.

Perhaps one could deny (2) of your aporetic triad with the following reasoning. Given that natural selection selects for fitness, it is actually more likely that natural selection would give rise to reliable cognitive faculties because reliable cognitive faculties are more fit than unreliable faculties.

The response is probably to argue in a similar fashion to Plantinga. That is, argue that there are unreliable cognitive faculties that are equally as fit as the reliable ones, such as a cognitive faculty that just so happened to respond to its environment in mostly adaptive ways, but it's reasons for doing so were wildly mistaken. One might wonder if such a cognitive faculty is as likely as a reliable one, given evolution by natural selection.


Thanks for the comment. I am not confident about this topic, but I'll venture the following. I wonder whether reliable faculties are more conducive to reproductive fitness than unreliable ones. You will agree that reliability cannot be defined in terms of fitness. One cannot say that cognitive faculties are reliable just in case they lead to reproductive success.

As I understand it, reliable faculties are those that can be trusted to deliver truth more often than not. It may well be that false beliefs are more adaptive than true ones.

Hi Elliot,

Thanks for reminding me of the closing pages of Chisholm's book which I have just now re-read.

It would be the fallacy of hypostatization and also a category mistake to think of Nature or Mother Nature or Evolution or the Evolutionary Process, etc. as a purposive agent with plans and designs. And the same goes for "Nature herself" which I used in glossing Nagel. That talk presumably can be cashed out in terms that involve no hypostatization. And so it needn't be taken at face value. am unclear, however, how that works in detail. That is for the panpsychist to explain!


The practical implication of this strikes me as absurd. Let's say that such a rock formation did occur at an ambiguous fork in a trail, and had been taken to mean a signal for where to turn, even though it was unclear who put it there. People talking back around town came to refer to these rocks as "the trail path marker" when explaining the route to new folks. Let's say that at some future point it was "found out", as you put it, that these rocks were in fact a natural fluke. What then? It might make an interesting discussion at the bar for a night, but would you really expect folks to formally disavowal "the trail path marker" from their local lingo? I don't expect you to take issue with this hypothetical, because it is so obvious as to be almost silly to imagine otherwise, but I find it curious how the pragmatic consequences of teleological claims don't always seem to maintain a consistent cash value exchange rate (to impose a painful play on James). We would consider it the height of silliness to imagine people running around town scolding others of "trail marker" talk in light of our discovery, but there were many instances in the past where scientific/empirical findings that made useful sense were suppressed on the basis of violating some preconceived intention. Often, and not coincidentally, they go hand in hand with superstition and other forms of vulgar dogma. In fact: I define superstition as the moment where abstract notions of the transcendent are retrofitted onto naturalistic phenomena to fulfill some emotional, political or ideological need, often expressed in loaded terms like "intention". (Basically, everything Kant tried painstakingly for us to avoid doing.) We might smirk at primitive notions that fly in the face of our contemporary framing of the natural world (i.e. the earth's "geocentric intentionality"), but we don't seem to learn any lessons from them. There was an exceptional amount of foot-dragging concerning the basics of evolutionary biology throughout much of the 20th century, and still today there are still some evolution holdouts building epicycles that would make Ptolemy blush.

Since you were charitable in leaving your comment box open, I want to briefly give my response to your aporetic triad:

I take (3) at face, because of the empirical findings of evolutionary biology coupled with a naturalist predisposition in general, and materialist concept of mind in particular.

I would express (1) as:
(1a*) It is rational to rely on our cognitive faculties to provide access to states of nature external to them, and name them. (truth deflationary)
(1b*) It is rational to reply on our cognitive faculties to make reflections on (form judgments about, etc.) these named states of nature external to us.

I would reject (2).

Lastly, re. your response to JS, true beliefs (at least as I frame them in 1a/1b) are decidedly favorable to false ones in matters of brute evolutionary survival. Of course, we can all imagine counterexamples where ignorance is useful (even crucial), but the mechanism of natural selection is not concerned about individuals and therefore not about individual agency as such. It just so happens that true belief works more often than not, big picture. To see how, we need only consider how matters of life and death are generally asymmetrical with respect to rationality: Take a stick and a snake. Mistaking the former for the latter would be of negligible concern; mistaking the latter for the former is of major concern. Multiply this asymmetry over billions of decision across millions (billions?) of agents in a given population, and it is easy to see how being mistaken in the wrong way will prove much more detrimental, on average, than being mistaken in the right way.

[apologies for commenting randomly here, but I found your blog following 'David Stove', some of whose works I am reading, and you have reviewed. But ID v evolution is a favourite topic, so I couldn't resist].

This design argument seems relatively easy to defeat. This statement:

"It would clearly be irrational to take the piles as evidence of the trail's direction while at the same time maintaining that their formation was purely accidental"

isn't supported by evidence. There are numerous examples of natural (i.e. accidental) features in the landscape that become way markers precisely because they are prominent. Knowing this generality, a nomad or hiker could reasonably expect to find a trail near a megalith in an otherwise fairly featureless area.

With respect to eyes and such, they can't be likened to natural rock piles as 'accidental', since the first is a result of a geological system in which the rocks are part of the stable state of the environment, while eyes are the result of the 'winnowing' effect of external influences over millennia on organisms already primed to survive. The rocks are an accident; the eye is something that survived a punishing filtration process. Not at all the same in terms of e.g. entropic or other properties.

But in any case, there is no logic at all in item 2 of the anti-logism: there is no reason to think that a mechanism that is clearly effective in its function (seeing, hearing etc) is untrustworthy because of how it came into being.

I think the theist will need to find more credible arguments, or else a pretty debating opponent, armed only with this argument!

You are missing the point. Sure, a prominent feature of the landscape, a massive outcropping say, could be chosen as a point to put a route by.

But if the hiker is unsure as to which way the trail goes, and he sees a cairn but believes it to have come about by nature causes, then he is obviously irrational to take it as conveying information as to the direction of the trail.

I agree that the panpsychist should explain his case without hypostatization or category mistake. I’d note, however, that avoiding concrete and personalized terms might not be enough. Abstract ideas, such as “nature” or “evolution”, can take on an implicitly concrete sense even when not represented in explicitly concrete terms. Perhaps the case can focus on specific objects in nature. An argument for the entelechy of natural things might be a start.

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