Friday, September 30, 2005

Some Thoughts on Evolutionary Theory in Philosophy

In the notes below, I am glossing and commenting on a text by Bence Nanay, "The Structure and Significance of Evolutionary Explanations in Philosophy."

Evolutionary theory has become the ur-explanatory theory in many branches of philosophy. In philosophy of mind, evolutionary explanations are used to explain the development and nature of mental content and consciousness; in ethics, they are used to explain altruism, care, and responsibility; in epistemology, they are used to explain the development of doxastic practices and justificatory schemes; in aesthetics and political philosophy, they are used to explain the development and dissemination of "memes." Evolutionary theory, it seems, can be used to explain almost anything. Regardless of the explanandum, the explicans remains evolutionary theory.

What is evolutionary theory, then, apart from its explanandum? That is, what is essential to all of these explanatory patterns independent of the content which they purport to explain? The essence of evolutionary explanation is selection. The selection process can most generally be defined as repeated cycles of replication involving interaction with an environment.

We can distinguish two types of selection processes, and we will need to decide whether each is appropriate for philosophical explananda. The first type is cumulative; the second is non-cumulative. We are familiar with cumulative selection processes from biology where the explanandum is the gene pool of an organism. As organisms with a favorable trait survive and reproduce while those without it do not, the successive replications cumulatively alter the genes in the direction of those with the favorable trait. Thus, the selection process is cumulative by offering adaptation-explanations. (Note: explanation shifts from the individual level at which the adaptation is relevant, to the population-level at which the selection process is operative. For some, this is a flaw in the argument, but it seems clear, protests the contrary notwithstanding, that selection processes can and do offer the best explanation for adaptations in individuals.)

Another way to put the point is that cumulative selection processes explain why an adaptation occurred by showing its purpose. Whether "purpose" is defined as real or a primary quality "in" the adaptation or as a heuristic tool, some notion of purpose is operative in explanations involving cumulative selection. (This is complex point that Banay sidesteps altogether.) The same may not be so easily said of questions like, why is there more oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere than in Mercury's? If selection processes were at work in those cases, it would be non-cumulative because, as far as we can say, there is no evidence of an adaptation involved in that outcome.

Thus, if philosophy aims to employ evolutionary explanations to explain why such things as mental content or altruism came to be and what they are for, it will need to invoke a cumulative (not a non-cumulative) selection process.

Another point to keep in mind is that evolutionary explanations in philosophy should not be reductive. For example, if the evolutionary explanation replaces the philosophical explanandum (e.g., consciousness or doxastic practice) with a non-philosophical explicans (physics or biology), then the explanation will cease to be philosophy and will be unsatisfactory as a philosophical explanation.

Let's consider some examples. First, evolutionary psychology. According to evolutionary psychology, our mental capacities have to be analyzed with reference to the environment in which they evolved. Such a claim is common for explanations of the evolution of eyes and hands, and so it should be relevant for mental capacities as well. For example, the preference for sugar is an adaptation to the environment of the Pleistocene era, and so it would be a mistake to view it as necessarily connected to our present environment. While this mental capacity does figure centrally into philosophical debate, evolutionary psychologists also deal with many capacities that do, e.g., consciousness itself, language, and ethics. One problem with this form of explanation is that the environment in which the adaptation is purported to have occurred cannot be known directly. Instead, it must be stipulated. Thus, evolutionary psychology uses stipulated selection processes as explicans in lieu of known selection processes. (Is the distinction between stipulated and known selection processes as stark as Banay suggests? There is surely more than mere stipulation involved here.)

Next, let's consider Richard Dawkins' meme theory. A "meme," according to Dawkins, is any unit of cultural transmission. Thus, a meme can be anything from a catchy tune or flashy style of dress to the ideas of democracy or God. Some memes survive in memory, while others fade to oblivion. Using an evolutionary model to explain culture and even political philosophy, Dawkins argues that memes function like genes by competing with one another for survival in the minds of the population rather than its gene pool. One difficulty with this analogy of meme and gene is that there is no counterpart to the alleles of genes in meme theory. That is, in sexual reproduction genes compete with their alleles--the rivals for the one chromosomal slot. Memes, however, do not have such a structure with predesignated slots and binary options for filling them. While there are some relations among memes, their selection process is not strictly cumulative. It is true that the fading from collective memory of memes relating to medieval life have cumulative effects on other memes, such as the memes for feudal authority relations (e.g., phrases like "my lord" or the supplicant posture of serfs) or the chivalric code or warfare practices and weapons. In other words, losing touch with some memes may make others likely to lose their sense (place with the linguistic system) and significance (capacity to refer to the world). Still, the point is that this becomes very murky and not at all universal. The notion of competing memes cannot be defined systematically because the relations among memes are not binary or direct. Thus, meme theory is an evolutionary theory that is non-cumulative, and for this reason it fails as explanation of adaptation because it cannot say how these memes came to survive while others did not. Since the competitors of memes are not well-defined, meme theory cannot claim to show what the memes are for such that the selection process would favor them over the competitors.

Next, evolutionary epistemology. According to evolutionary epistemology, all thinking is continuous replication with blind variation and selective retention. Environmental interactions with thoughts will survive amidst the mental flux. The problem with this theory is the term "blind." The variation needs to be blind in the sense that environmental interactions do not have an impact on the next variation of thoughts. Otherwise, the process would have to be understood as directed in which case the evolutionary model would not work. However, the blindness, if granted, prevents the environmental interactions from affecting the next variation. Thus, the selection process is not cumulative. (This is just a bizarre use of evolutionary theory, as far as I can see.)

Finally, teleosemantics employs evolutionary theory to explain the intentionality of thought and language. We come to have content in our thoughts and meaning in our words by way of an evolutionary process. To put it abstractly, "a mental state R of an organism O has content X if the fact that R indicates X has contributed to the survival of the evolutionary ancestors of O." Banay notes the reductionism of this approach. Even if it is cumulative, it reduces the philosophical question of intentional content to an evolutionary history. If we cloned a person, this theory could not explain how the clone (i.e., one without such history) could be said to have mental content. (I don't know if I buy that counterargument, but the point about reductionism is correct.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005


From today's Post:
Going into next year's midterm elections, the second most powerful person in the House is under indictment, and the most powerful person in the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), is being investigated by both the Securities and Exchange Commission and federal prosecutors. In addition, a special prosecutor is investigating whether top White House officials may have leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters.

On top of that, the White House's top procurement officer, David Safavian, was arrested last week on charges of lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with the federal government. And Abramoff, once one of Washington's top lobbyists, is being investigated for his lobbying activities on behalf of Indian tribes and his role in paying for overseas trips for DeLay. DeLay has said he didn't know Abramoff paid the expenses.

What's that phrase, "power corrupts..."?

DeLay Indicted, Steps Down as Majority Leader

Some headlines are too good not to reuse, don't you think? See details from CNN here.

Brad DeLong Gets Hot Under the Collar--For Good Reason

DeLong writes:

I have not yet figured out why so much of our elite press--the Crowleys, the Kakutanis, the Isikoffs, and the Kosovas--is so... what should I call it? Feckless. Corrupt (in the sense of well-rotted). Decadent. Why does William Saletan find it funny that Kerry tries hard to give nuanced, reasonably-complete answers to questions about issues with nuances? Why do Weston Kosova and Michael Isikoff cover the government--rather than, say, cover something like advances in bartending--if they find debates over policy the equivalent of crossing the Gedrosian Desert? Why does Michiko Kakutani think it pointless and boring to wake up early to watch the inauguration of the first democratically-elected president in sixteen years in a country [Nigeria] of 130 million people?

It is a mystery to me.

It is, however, one reason that we are saddled with an incompetent president like George W. Bush. As David Frum writes, it has long been clear to insiders that Bush is not a "diligent manager of the office of the presidency, [or] a close student of public policy, [or] a careful balancer of risks and benefits"--that, in short, George W. Bush is totally unqualified to be president, totally unprepared to make the decisions a president has to make. But by and large the elite press has simply not cared about the necessary qualifications to be a good president, and fears a president who is qualified to be president. For, after all, it strikes them as bizarre and weird for somebody to actually know where Lesotho is.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Housing Discrimination

According to the Charlotte Observer, a new study of mortgage lending practices shows a country-wide racial bias in the industry, though it is particularly severe in the South:

Blacks who bought homes in communities across America last year were four times as likely as whites to get high interest rates for mortgage loans, according to an Observer analysis of records from 25 of the nation's largest lenders.

Even blacks with incomes above $100,000 a year were charged high rates more often than whites with incomes below $40,000.

President Bush is quoted as saying, "Prejudice and discriminatory practices in housing still exist in America. These practices are wrong." If he really believes that, he'll allow the Section 8 voucher plan for the displaced citizens from Hurricane Katrina instead of moving forward with the idea of building gigantic trailer parks for the evacuees. (There are still people--poor people--living in the trailer parks after Hurricane Charley last year because their original communities decided not to rebuild low-income housing.) The point is that these people could be integrated into existing communities with available housing. Here's a description of Section 8 (via Kevin Drum):
Fortunately, no new federal program is required to match families suddenly needing housing with an existing stock of vacant apartments. The United States government already operates a program that would enable low-income families to pay the rent for these units. The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program currently serves about two million families throughout the country. It enables participants to occupy privately owned units renting for up to, and somewhat above, the local median rent. Enormous numbers of vacant units could be occupied immediately by families with these housing vouchers.

....To avoid delays in getting assistance to these families, the vouchers should be allocated to housing agencies on a first-come-first-served basis and any low-income family whose previous address was in the most affected areas should be deemed eligible. We should not take the time to determine the condition of the family’s previous unit before granting a voucher.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Bruce Bartlett Says What Other Republicans Won't

Bruce Bartlett, who served in senior political positions in Ronald Reagan’s White House and George H.W. Bush’s Treasury Department, and as executive director of the Joint Economic Committee, a cosponsor of this hearing, spoke to Senate Democratic Policy Committee recently. Here's an excerpt (via MaxSpeak):
My principal concern, however, is not with today’s deficits—even if they are swollen by Katrina and Rita-related emergency spending. What worries me is the retirement of the baby boom, the first of which turns 62 in 2008. I’m not saying that we are close to driving off a fiscal cliff, but clearly the implications of this event have not impacted on policymakers in any way whatsoever.

I have struggled with a way to illustrate the consequences of an aging population and its effect on the budget. This is the best I have been able to do. Social Security’s unfunded liability comes to 1.2 percent of GDP in perpetuity (1.4 percent without the trust fund)—about what is raised by the corporate income tax—according to that program’s actuaries. The comparable number for Medicare is 7.1 percent of GDP—about what is raised by the individual income tax. And remember that these figures are for the unfunded portion of these programs, so they are over and above payroll taxes.

The chilling conclusion, therefore, is that virtually 100 percent of all federal taxes, on a present value basis, do nothing but pay for Social Security and Medicare. Unless there are plans to abolish the rest of the federal government, large tax increases are inevitable.

...I am often criticized by friends on my side of the aisle for implicitly endorsing tax increases. I do no such thing. I am simply adding two and two and getting four while my friends seem to think there is some way of only getting three.

...I don’t need to remind anyone here that the biggest spending increases in recent years passed Congresses with Republican majorities largely without Democratic votes. Nor do I need to remind anyone here that during the Clinton years we not only went from budget deficits to budget surpluses, but did so to a large extent by cutting spending—something my conservative friends seldom acknowledge.

Here’s the basic accounting. Defense spending fell by 1.4 percent of GDP between 1993 and 2000, and domestic discretionary spending fell from 3.8 percent to 3.3 percent. Even spending on entitlements fell for temporary demographic reasons, from 10.2 percent of GDP to 9.8 percent. Finally, interest on the debt fell, largely because of falling interest rates, from three percent of GDP to 2.3 percent. The result was an overall decline in spending of three percent of GDP, from 21.4 percent to 18.4 percent, the lowest level since 1966, before the Great Society geared up.

On the revenue side, individual income taxes rose by 2.5 percent of GDP, mainly as the result of rising incomes that pushed people up into higher tax brackets and higher capital gains taxes from the booming stock market. Corporate income taxes and payroll taxes added another 0.8 percent, for a total revenue increase of 3.3 percent of GDP. Thus lower spending and higher revenues constituted a fiscal turnaround of 6.3 percent of GDP, which explains how a deficit of 3.9 percent of GDP in 1993 became a budget surplus of 2.4 percent by 2000.

...Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think the American people are a bunch of children who only want hand-outs from the government and will only reward the party that promises them something for nothing. Experience and academic research confirm that they are more likely to support the candidate who treats the public purse with prudence and trust and not as a piggy bank to be routinely broken on a whim. In short, I think there is a political market for the party and the candidate who speaks honestly about the nature of the fiscal crisis that is looming. The payoff may not be immediate and the public trust has to be earned by more than just rhetoric. But if, as I believe, some event will eventually change the political landscape, voters will remember who spoke the truth and who mouthed the platitudes.

It’s dirty work, but someone has to do it. Since my party won’t do it, yours is going to have to. If it’s done right, your party will gain at the expense of mine and you will deserve the benefits and my party will deserve the electorate’s disdain.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Our Leader

This tickled my funny-bone when I saw it this morning.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Your "Successes" Are Killing Us, Mr. Rumsfeld

The usually circumspect Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, is fed up:
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld maintains that the US government can both take care of New Orleans and pursue the "global war on terror."

Uh, Donald, let's look at this situation. First, much of New Orleans is under water. You stole money that should have been spent on its levees for the Iraq War, and you stole state national guards from Louisiana to fight in Iraq. (The state national guards hadn't signed up to fight foreign wars and were surprised when you kidnapped them, sometimes for a whole year at a time.) So you haven't actually done a good job with the effects of Katrina in New Orleans. In fact, the job has been so bad that some wags are saying they can't believe you personally were not in charge of the recovery effort.

Then let's consider the war against al-Qaeda. You may have noticed that Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a videotape late last week. It was bundled with the farewell suicide tape of Muhammad Siddique Khan, the mastermind of the 7/7 bombers in London. It now appears that your inability to capture al-Zawahiri has allowed him to intrigue with Pakistani jihadi groups to recruit British subjects to bomb their own country. Bin Laden and Zawahiri are at large and free men, which is your failure.

Then there is the war in Iraq. I don't need to tell you that that isn't going very well. In fact, what in hell are you doing in the godforsaken Turkmen city of Tal Afar? Is it really a big threat to the United States? Is it likely to be friendly to us if you drop 500 pound bombs on its residential districts?

You left out the fourth war Bush is fighting, on the US poor. The average wage of the average American work fell last quarter, amidst rising corporate profits. Bush cut billions in taxes on the rich, and then gave $300 checks to some poor people, who didn't seem to realize that by taking it they were giving up all sorts of government services and maybe even their social security payments.

So, Donald, maybe it is true that you can save New Orleans, occupy Iraq and fight a global war on terror all at the same time. But you, at least, cannot actually do these things successfully. Which is why you should have resigned a long time ago.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

This Makes Me Mad

Reading Josh Marshall's description of the latest White House efforts to avert responsibility for the crisis in recovery efforts in New Orleans, I went from denial to anger to despair--but mostly just anger. Marshall advises to check out this article from the Salt Lake Tribune
which tells the story of about a thousand firefighters from around the country who volunteered to serve in the Katrina devastation areas. But when they arrived in Atlanta to be shipped out to various disaster zones in the region, they found out that they were going to be used as FEMA community relations specialists. And they were to spend a day in Atlanta getting training on community relations, sexual harassment awareness, et al. This of course while life and death situations were still the order of the day along a whole stretch of the Gulf Coast.

It's an article you've really got a to read to appreciate the full measure of folly and surreality.

But the graf at the end of the piece really puts everything in perspective, and gives some sense what the Bush administration really has in mind when it talks about a crisis. The paper reports that one team finally was sent to the region ...

As specific orders began arriving to the firefighters in Atlanta, a team of 50 Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew's first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas.

You can't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Larger Shame

Nicholas Kristof reminds us of the "larger shame" taking place in our country:
The wretchedness coming across our television screens from Louisiana has illuminated the way children sometimes pay with their lives, even in America, for being born to poor families.

It has also underscored the Bush administration's ongoing reluctance or ineptitude in helping the poorest Americans.

...But Hurricane Katrina also underscores a much larger problem: the growing number of Americans trapped in a never-ending cyclone of poverty.

...The U.S. Census Bureau reported a few days ago that the poverty rate rose again last year, with 1.1 million more Americans living in poverty in 2004 than a year earlier. After declining sharply under Bill Clinton, the number of poor people has now risen 17 percent under Mr. Bush.

...The national infant mortality rate has risen under Mr. Bush for the first time since 1958. The U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in infant mortality, according to the C.I.A.'s World Factbook; if we could reach the level of Singapore, ranked No. 1, we would save 18,900 children's lives each year.

So in some ways the poor children evacuated from New Orleans are the lucky ones because they may now get checkups and vaccinations. But nationally, 29 percent of children had no health insurance at some point in the last 12 months, and many get neither checkups nor vaccinations. The U.S. ranks 84th in the world for measles immunizations and 89th for polio.

...the U.S. - particularly under the Bush administration - has systematically cut people out of the social fabric by redistributing wealth from the most vulnerable Americans to the most affluent.

It's not just that funds may have gone to Iraq rather than to the levees in New Orleans; it's also that money went to tax cuts for the wealthiest rather than vaccinations for children.

Ivan to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov:
Tell me yourself, I challenge you--answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature--that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance--and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

FEMA's Decline

This is disturbing (from Kevin Drum):
FEMA THEN AND NOW....So what does James Lee Witt, former director of FEMA in the 90s, think of his agency's response to Hurricane Katrina?
In the 1990s, in planning for a New Orleans nightmare scenario, the federal government figured it would pre-deploy nearby ships with pumps to remove water from the below-sea-level city and have hospital ships nearby, said James Lee Witt, who was FEMA director under President Clinton.

Federal officials said a hospital ship would leave from Baltimore on Friday.

"These things need to be planned and prepared for; it just doesn't look like it was," said Witt, a former Arkansas disaster chief who won bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill during his tenure.
Read the rest of the story for a blow-by-blow indictment of the weak federal response to Katrina. FEMA just isn't what it used to be.

UPDATE: Here's a story on Bush's mismanagement of FEMA that ran in the Independent Weekly last September:
Among emergency specialists, "mitigation" — the measures taken in advance to minimize the damage caused by natural disasters — is a crucial part of the strategy to save lives and cut recovery costs.
But since 2001, key federal disaster mitigation programs, developed over many years, have been slashed and tossed aside. FEMA's Project Impact, a model mitigation program created by the Clinton administration, has been canceled outright.

....[In 2001], President Bush appointed a close aide, Joe Allbaugh, to be the agency's new director....The White House quickly launched a government-wide effort to privatize public services, including key elements of disaster management. Bush's first budget director, Mitch Daniels, spelled out the philosophy in remarks at an April 2001 conference: "The general idea — that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided — seems self-evident to me," he said.

In a May 15, 2001, appearance before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Allbaugh signaled that the new, stripped-down approach would be applied at FEMA as well. "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management," he said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."
...Read the whole thing to get a sickening sense of the disastrous effect that the Bush administration's glorification of conservative ideology over managerial competence has had on FEMA's workforce, its morale, and its ability to get things done.