Saturday, November 12, 2005

Evolution and Subjectivity (3291 words)

In contemporary philosophy, we are finding more and more attention being paid to evolution as the principle of explanation. Evolutionary theory is now frequently applied to many branches of philosophy. In philosophy of mind, evolutionary theory is used to explain the development and nature of mental content and consciousness; in ethics, it is used to explain altruism, care, and responsibility; in epistemology, it is used to explain the development of doxastic practices and justificatory schemes; in aesthetics and political philosophy, it is used to explain the development and dissemination of "memes"; and so on. Evolutionary theory, it seems, can be used to explain almost anything. Regardless of the explanandum, the explicans remains evolutionary theory. This trend in philosophy represents the latest chapter of a longer trend of naturalization and disenchantment. Lately, however, there has been a revival of a Post-Kantian idea: inner teleology. Kant’s retrieval of Aristotle’s teleology in the form of “purposiveness without a purpose” became a guiding theme for many post-Kantian philosophers, and now it seems to be resurfacing in the complexity sciences, including in particular Stuart Kauffman’s work on self-organization. Where evolutionary theory once occupied the position of ur-explanatory theory, emergence is now usurping that ultimate explanatory role. In the following, I plan to situate Kauffman's suggestion in the context of Charles S. Peirce's work, then follow up on the Hegelian echoes present in it, and finally offer some concerns about how emergence theory might function in contemporary philosophy of mind.

In Peirce's essay "The Architecture of Theories," he claims there that "the only possible way of accounting for the laws of nature and for the uniformity in general is to suppose them results of evolution." This is an interesting claim--that the laws of nature are the results of evolution. To see laws as the product of evolution is to presuppose that they are not absolute. This allows for the aleatory which is observed in the minute discrepancies involved in any application of the laws to reality. As Peirce claims, there is always a "certain swerving of the facts from any definite formula," and this is not always and only due to the imperfections of our techniques of observation.

The consequence of this view is that the laws of nature cannot be absolute (true in every instance of reality) or deterministic (based on mechanical principles). Peirce's reasons for this are: 1. purely mechanical laws presuppose an extraneous cause beyond the process; 2. law results from evolution, not the other way around; 3. mechanical laws can only explain homogeneity, not heterogeneity; and 4. mechanical laws are reversible, but growth is not.

Let me focus on the third and fourth points for a moment because they are especially relevant to a discussion of Stuart Kauffman.

According to Peirce’s third point, it would be illogical to treat natural laws as absolute and deterministic because doing so would fail to address the heterogeneity of the universe. Only homogeneity can result from exact law, whereas experience shows us an abundance of arbitrary heterogeneity. In Darwinian terms, we need accidental variations with each iteration of the selection process. In another sense, Kolmogorov complexity seems to be involved here: that the complexity of information (in the form of a string) can be--and mostly is, according to Gregory Chaitin--as complex as the program which generated it. That is to say, there is much heterogeneity in the world which cannot be captured by anything simpler than a program of equivalent "heterogeneity" or complexity.

According to the fourth point, the conservation laws amount to the reversibility of mechanical operations; thus, growth would not be explicable by such operations. This connects to one of Peirce’s arguments against strict determinism. According to the determinist, Peirce writes, chance is unintelligible because it demands the acceptance of arbitrary givens without disclosing "to the eye of reason the how or why of things." In response to this charge, Peirce argues that determinism requires no less swallowing of arbitrary givenness in the form of "immutable and ultimate facts" for which no account can be offered. The only difference is that in this case the facts are all given up front at once--a bitter pill that can be swallowed and then forgotten only at the expense of self-delusion. Instead, Peirce suggests we acknowledge the immense amount of change in the universe and recognize the implications of it: "the history of states, of institutions, of language, of ideas . . . paleontology . . . changes in stellar systems. Everywhere the main fact is growth and increasing complexity." Peirce cites Hegel in this connection: “Hegel,” he writes, “discovered that the universe is everywhere permeated with continuous growth (for that, and nothing else, is the ‘Secret of Hegel’).” (I’ll return to the Hegel connection in a moment.) From these facts of change and growth all around us, Peirce infers that "there is probably in nature some agency by which the complexity and diversity of things can be increased; and that consequently the rule of mechanical necessity [determinism] meets in some way with interference." This agency in nature that interferes with strict mechanical necessity can be understood as Kauffman’s addition to Darwinian evolution. The random mutations involved in the process of natural selection are important. As we have seen from Stuart Kauffman’s work, however, such processes require a further agency beyond random mutations to explain the growth and increasing complexity of the universe, and so Kauffman introduces self-organization in order to explain the emergent properties of a complex system.

Kauffman’s explanation of this idea hinges on the notion of the “adjacent possible.” The adjacent possible in a complex system consists of those states which are not members of the actual system but are one reaction step away from the actual. Once a new state has been achieved in the system by realizing one member of the current adjacent possible, a new adjacent possible, accessible from the expanded actual that now includes the additional member, becomes available. Thus, the adjacent possible is indefinitely expandable, but each stage has a definite framework within which new novelties may appear (Stuart Kauffman, Investigations, p. 142).

Kauffman qualifies the difference between the adjacent possible in classical physics and his use of it in describing biospheres. In the former case, e.g., in the case of a jar of atoms, all states in the adjacent possible can be easily described in principle. However, in the case of a biosphere, there is no finite way to pre-describe all the adjacent possible states. “We cannot say ahead of time all the possible constellations of matter, energy, process, and organization that is a kind of ‘basis set’ for a biosphere in the sense that the atomic chart of the elements is a finite basis set for all of chemistry” (131). We could never finitely pre-state the adjacent possible adaptations for any configuration space of a biosphere. As a consequence, Kauffman claims that the task of biology has changed:
Biologists tell stories. If I am right, if the biosphere is getting on with it, muddling along, exapting, creating, and destroying ways of making a living, then there is a central need to tell stories. If we cannot have all the categories that may be of relevance finitely prestated ahead of time, how else should we talk about the emergence in the biosphere or in our history—a piece of the biosphere—of new relevant categories, new functionalities, new ways of making a living? (134)
Thus, stories must take the place of, or at least supplement, the traditional form of scientific explanation, i.e., subsumption under laws of causal necessity.

Kauffman, it seems, is not alone in this view. The neuroscientist and complexity scientist J. A. Scott Kelso implicitly agrees with this point and claims as a result that it is not useful to “talk about the laws of physics as if the workings of our minds and bodies are controlled by well known fundamental laws.” Thus, Kelso contends that with the emergence of new levels complexity, “entirely new properties appear, the understanding of which will require new concepts and methods” (J. A. Scott Kelso, Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior, 24). In self-organizing complex systems, Kelso explains that novel content emerges from the “systemic tendency of open, nonequilibrium systems to form patterns,” and he concludes that “intelligent behavior may arise without intelligent agents—a priori programs and reference levels—that act intelligently” (34).

Getting back to Peirce, he uses the term “habit” to capture much of what these contemporary scientists are describing as self-organization. Where Kauffman and Kelso might discuss the “laws of self-organization,” Peirce discusses the “law of habit.” For Peirce, the universe is an evolutionary development in which habits successively emerge. The term "habit" here denotes regularities or patterns not simply in nature but already in conceptual form; thus, it is an idealist term, as I will explain further below. In any case, Peirce claims that everything is part of an ongoing process and can be explained as the outgrowth of an earlier stage. This all happens according to the laws of evolution, but, of course, even these laws are habits which have been forged (or self-organized) within the process. In rejecting deterministic physical laws, Peirce instead opts for the idealist position according to which matter is "effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws." Peirce goes on to argue for objective idealism. Thus, he can write elsewhere, "My philosophy resuscitates Hegel, though in a strange costume" (Peirce, 1.42).

* * *

Before we get carried away with the idealist notion of “effete mind” and begin thinking of a “re-enchanted nature” or start making comparisons to Hegel’s occasional flirtation with the understanding of nature as implicit or “sleeping” spirit, we should consider the following. About Hegel, it should be noted that he also sometimes calls nature “spiritless.” More importantly, spirit or Geistis not simply a product of nature even if it is also not non-natural or immaterial. That point would take some considerable time to unpack. Let me just quote two passages that would get us started. First, Hegel states, “Spirit is usually spoken of as subject, as doing something….” Second, Hegel claims to the contrary that “it is of the very nature of spirit to be this absolute liveliness, this process, to proceed forth from naturality, immediacy, to sublate, to quit its naturality, and to come to itself, and to free itself, it being itself only as it comes to itself as such a product of itself.” There is a lot being said in this passage, and much of it is rather mysterious. Spirit “proceed[s] forth from naturality” and yet is “a product of itself.” Let me try to offer two alternative readings of this claim by turning to John McDowell and then Robert Brandom.

If, as Kauffman suggests, biologists must tell stories now, so too are philosophers of mind offering narratives to explain how spirit or mind can “proceed forth from nature.” Such stories can take evolutionary theory to be sufficient, as is the case with Daniel Dennett, for example. However, for philosophers of the post-Kantian type, the key is to state how the human spirit can eventually free itself from a self-understanding wholly tied to nature. For the philosopher John McDowell, the discussion follows this latter path, but not all the way to the end. Instead of leaving nature behind altogether, McDowell’s analysis of the problem terminates in what he calls second nature. Let me explain. For McDowell (and Peirce as well as Kauffman would agree), the root of the problem is our inveterate conception of intelligibility, understanding, and explanation as tied to subsumption under deterministic causal law. McDowell argues that this conception of nature as the “realm of law” is too restricted. It makes the development of what Wilfrid Sellars calls “the space of reasons” seem, prima facie, impossible. How could the natural beings that we are come to act as purposive and reason-giving agents as we do? According to McDowell, this is really the Kantian problem of finding a way to fit together our receptivity with spontaneity and so see the coordination of sensibility and understanding.

According to McDowell, this starting point of viewing nature as the realm of law forces us to oscillate between two undesirable positions: the first McDowell terms “bald naturalism” and the second he calls “subjectivism” or sometimes “frictionless coherentism.” If our receptivity becomes controlling and the world simply determines what we can say about it, our agency is reduced to differential responsiveness to external stimuli—all subsumed under the realm of law. Then the immediacy of our sensibility can only play a causal role in our claims rather than justifications. To reference Sellars again, the "Myth of the Given" yields mere exculpations rather than reasons. That is the upshot of bald naturalism—“to domesticate conceptual capacities within nature conceived as the realm of law” (John McDowell, Mind and World, 73). On the other hand, if we abandon the notion of “world-directed” normative constraints, we may end up with a coherent conceptual scheme spinning in the void, unanchored by the way the world is—in Hegelian terms, autonomous spirit being “the product of itself.”

McDowell’s solution to this problem is less a solution than it is an “exorcism,” a diagnosis which rids us of an unhealthy conception. If we can cure ourselves of the limited conception of nature as the realm of causal law, we may begin to recognize something like what Peirce was calling the “law of habit.” For McDowell, we must recognize and make use of Aristotle’s notion of “second nature,” i.e., the socialized development of practical wisdom. Instead of needing to appeal to some non-natural property or capacity as the source of conceptual capacities, McDowell offers a “reminder” of the “partially re-enchanted” nature we live in, whereby our sensory contact with the world is “already conceptual.” Thus, we have some overlap of the space of reasons and the realm of nature. By way of our second nature, our responsiveness to the world is always already a responsiveness to reasons. In the language of emergence theory, the emergence of second nature makes possible the emergence of what McDowell calls "objective purport," i.e., meaningful content in thought.

Robert Brandom takes this point further, arguably too far for McDowell. Brandom articulates a semantic theory based on inferential practices which themselves are established by a prior normative pragmatics. His theory turns the direction of supervenience on its head: “the facts about having physical properties are taken to supervene on the facts about seeming to have such properties” (Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment, 292). Brandom qualifies the pragmatist’s commitment to this phenomenalist position by noting that semantic content is not exhaustively accounted for by the assertional uses of such “facts about seeming,” but he nevertheless endorses a reorientation of supervenience so that “natural facts” (along with the concomitant treatment of truth as a property of them) do not ground the discussion of them in all discursive practices. This is not simply a reversal of Galileo’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities but a deeper understanding of the social constitution of both types and of that distinction itself. In Hegelian language, the distinction between nature and spirit is itself a geistig distinction; in other words, it is a distinction that spirit makes possible.

Brandom’s pragmatist approach is to treat the discursive practices of a society as primary and to treat semantic theory as the secondary task of making explicit the norms embedded in the discursive practices by drawing out the implicit inferential practices operating in those discursive practices. Thus, Brandom’s approach offers a “deflationary” theory of truth. First and foremost, this theory is deflationary in so far as it denies that there is a property of truth or a relation of reference. It also denies that there is a way to state the “semantic facts” in a formal way independently of the way in which they are deployed in social practices. Such normative features of linguistic practices derive from and are embedded in the proprieties of social practices so that the only way to make them explicit is for them to “precipitate” out of the social practices. Thus, Brandom’s fundamental insight is that “semantics must answer to pragmatics” (83).

Brandom, therefore, argues for the “ontological primacy of the social” (Robert Brandom, “Heidegger’s Categories in Being and Time,” The Monist 66 (1983): 387-409). He follows a post-Kantian trajectory in understanding the peculiar status of the human being not in ontological terms but in deontological terms. Brandom contends that Hegel, similarly, argues for the possibility of meaning as arising from a form of “sociality,” namely, the participation in spirit or Geist. In avoiding the use of ontological terms (traditionally construed) for understanding spirit, Brandom chooses to define Geist in the Kantian idiom of deontic statuses. Thus, Geist is “the emergence of [a] peculiar constellation of conceptually articulated comportments” (Robert B. Brandom, Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism, 33). Thus, like McDowell's account of "second nature," spirit names the dispositions and potentialities which can be actualized only by a process of socialization, but this process goes far beyond anything that might be explicable by reference to natural events and properties even as it involves nothing non-natural or supernatural.

In juxtaposing McDowell and Brandom this way, we see that McDowell’s concern to retain our answerability to the world now shifts to Brandom’s emphasis on answerability to each other. The constraint of the world on our space of reasons shifts to collective self-constraint. For McDowell, this may raise the specter of frictionless coherentism, but Brandom’s social pragmatism avoids the possibility for the bald naturalist to theorize McDowell’s story of the development of second nature as a mere process of training and self-organization so that second nature finally can collapse back into first nature. To be sure, McDowell acknowledges that there needs to be a distinction between a description of what the species does under particular circumstances, the way in which it flourishes and avoids dangers, on the one hand, and, on the other, that which could function as reasons for an individual when facing such circumstances. In other words, the individual needs to be able to disobey the dictates of nature, e.g., the evolutionary process, and so fail to meet the natural tendencies. This is the burden of Kantian self-legislated autonomy. If second-nature becomes an account of merely habituating certain dispositions and potentialities to respond to such situations with what practical wisdom dictates, then we have not yet told a story about spirit “quitting its naturality” or “freeing itself,” much less being “a product of itself.” We only have a story about the development of means-end reasoning. For Hegel (as for Kant), autonomy means that we subject ourselves to laws (or reasons) so that we can thereby "stand behind" them and thereby mean them. Only by telling such a story would we have narrated the arrival of McDowell's "objective purport." While Brandom’s reversal of supervenience goes a long way to achieve this narration, the question for Brandom’s social pragmatist theory is whether the “precipitation” out of social practices also vitiates the Hegelian account of spirit’s freedom.

In any case, both McDowell and Brandom offer emergence accounts of semantic content that avoid, or at least attempt to avoid, the reductionism prevalent in many applications of evolutionary theory to philosophy of mind or ethics. A broader question raised by their story-telling is whether and how the story of the emergenge of second nature or Brandom's conceptually articulated comportments is aided by Stuart Kauffman's notion of self-organization or Peirce's notion of habit. Furthermore, what ought to count as a sufficient explanation now that some story must be told in place of a more traditional scientific account?


Post a Comment

<< Home