Friday, November 02, 2007

Cognitive Revolution & Objectivism, Part 2

Behavioral Genetics. From the modular theory of the mind, we proceed to behavioral genetics. It is here that the first really serious challenge to Rand's man-as-self-creator view of human nature commences. Steven Pinker outlines behavioral genetics as follows:
[T]he findings of behavioral genetics are highly damaging to the Blank Slate and its companion doctrines. The slate cannot be blank if different genes can make it more or less smart, articulate, shy, happy, conscientious, neurotic, open, introverted, giggly, spatially challenged, or likely to dip buttered toast in coffee. For genes to affect the mind in all these ways, the mind must have many parts and features for the genes to affect [i.e., the mind must be modular]. Similarly, if the mutation or deletion of a gene can target a cognitive ability as specific as spatial construction or a personality-trait as specific as sensation-seeking, that trait may be a distinct component of the psyche.
Moreover, many of the traits affected by genes are far from noble. Psychologists have discovered that our personalities differ in five major ways: we are to varying degrees introverted or extroverted, neurotic or stable, incurious or open to experience, agreeable or antagonistic, and conscientious or undirected.... All five of the major personality dimensions are heritable, with perhaps 40 to 50 percent of variation in a typical population tied to differences in their genes. The unfortunate wretch who is introverted, neurotic, narrow, selfish, and undependable is probably that way way in part because of his genes, and so, most likely, are the rest of us who have tendencies in any of those directions as compared with our fellows.
It's not just unpleasant temperaments that are partly heritable, but actual behavior with real consequences. Study after study has shown that a willingness to commit antisocial acts, including lying, stealing, starting fights, and destroying property, is partly heritable.... People who commit truly heinous acts, such as bilking elderly people out of their life savings, raping a succession of women, or shooting convenience store clerks lying on the floor during a robbery, are often diagnosed with "psychopathy" or "antisocial personality disorder." Most psychopaths showed signs of malice from the time they were children. They bullied smaller children, tortured animals, lied habitually, and were incapable of empathy or remorse, often despite normal family backgrounds and the best efforts of their distraught parents. Most experts on psychopathy believe that it comes from a genetic predisposition, though in some cases it may come from early brain damage. (Blank Slate, 50-51)
If behavioral genetics is largely correct, than Rand's tabula rasa view of human nature is wrong. Man is not a being of a self-made soul; his volition is in fact saddled with tendencies; and his emotions are not entirely the product of his conclusions. Now the evidence for behavior genetics is very compelling. "The effects of differences in genes in minds can be measured, and the same rough estimate — substantially greater than zero, but substantially less than 100 percent — pops out of the data no matter what measuring stick is used," writes Pinker. Whether we're talking about identical twins raised apart or experiments involving isolation of genes, it all points to one conclusion: that genes influence (though they don't determine!) the mind and the behavior that emerges from it.

27 comments:

PhysicistDave said...

Greg,

Jerry Fodor, one of the godfathers of the modularity approach, wrote an interesting book critical of the ultra-modularists such as Pinker titled “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way.” Of course, the modularity issue is still an ongoing research program.

Recently, I had a fun debate with an Objectivist (well, it was fun for me – he didn’t seem to enjoy it!) at http://ergosum.wordpress.com/2007/10/16/the-target-of-ideological-outreach/#comment-20935 .

The Objectivist in question became very angry at me because I pointed out that children are more intellectually capable, specifically on the issue of concept formation, than Rand (and apparently her contemporary followers) thought.

Objectivists take great pride in Rand’s theory of concept-formation. For example, Lisa VanDamme has written
http://www.capmag.com/article.asp?ID=4819 );
>A child looks out at the world, perceives entities, and integrates his perceptions into these first-level concepts—concepts such as “cat,” “dog,” and “horse.”
[snip]
>From these early concepts and generalizations, and with further observation, he is then able to form more abstract concepts (concepts further removed from the perceptual level) and to make more abstract generalizations. For example, noting the essential similarities between cats, dogs, and horses, he is able to form the concept “animal.” He does not look at the world and see “animals”; he looks and sees cats and dogs and the like—from which observations he is able to form the corresponding first-level concepts. Then, having formed these abstractions, he is able to form the broader abstraction of “animal.”

Lisa is giving the Randian gospel here.

Unfortunately, cognitive scientists have done extensive research in this area, and it turns out that Rand and her contemporary acolytes are wrong.

For example, Jean Mandler, a well-known researcher in the field has investigated in detail how kids actually arrive at concepts of animals: she has found that they first arrive at high-level concepts (animals) and then differentiate lower-level concepts (dogs, cats, etc.). This is the precise opposite of what Lisa explicitly claims.

As Mandler sums up her work in her essay “Conceptual Categorization” (published in
“Early Category and Concept Development: Making Sense of the Blooming, Buzzing Confusion” edited by David H. Rakison, Lisa M.Oakes, 2003):

>infants initially form broad, relatively undifferentiated concepts of animals, vehicles, furniture, and plants…infants generalize broadly on the basis of abstract conceptualizations at first and only with experience learn to pay attention to perceptual detail…

Since Rand’s theory of concept-formation is often given by Objectivists as Rand’s most important contribution to philosophy, the facts are quite damning.

I think this shows even better than your examples of behavioral genetics that Rand was simply wrong is some of her central ideas.

Does this matter?

Rand was just a human being – right on some things, wrong on others.

Only those who have deified her should be bothered by proof that some of her central ideas were wrong.

All the best,

Dave

gregnyquist said...

physicistdave: "Jerry Fodor, one of the godfathers of the modularity approach, wrote an interesting book critical of the ultra-modularists such as Pinker titled “The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way.” Of course, the modularity issue is still an ongoing research program."

I strongly suspect that whatever theory of mind emerges from cognitive revolution, it will be modular in some way, since the brain is modular and because the theory does a good job of modeling the immense complexity of the mind. So on the broad outlines, the modular theory probably represents a good approximation of the truth. Whether Pinker's or Fodor's theory is better, we'll see in time. The only criticism I would make of Pinker's theory is that I think he overplays the computational card. As a metaphor, computationalism is compelling; as literal description, it strikes me as too reductivist (in the bad sense of the word) to be entirely plausible.

physicistdave: "For example, Jean Mandler, a well-known researcher in the field has investigated in detail how kids actually arrive at concepts of animals: she has found that they first arrive at high-level concepts (animals) and then differentiate lower-level concepts (dogs, cats, etc.). This is the precise opposite of what Lisa explicitly claims."

Thanks for the heads up on this. I had not come across this research before. It's compelling and makes a lot of sense. However, I am not aware that there actually is a broad consensus on this issue in cogsci, so I am still willing to entertain the possibility that a view closer to Rand's might prove more plausible.

physicistdave: "I think this shows even better than your examples of behavioral genetics that Rand was simply wrong is some of her central ideas."

Well, that may be because you don't agree with the critique of Objectivism that I'm carefully setting the groundwork for. Because let us say that Rand's theory of concept-formation is radically flawed. That doesn't necessarily mean that her ethics or politics are flawed as well. But if her theory of human nature (or more precisely, her view on what motivates people) is flawed, that's another matter entirely. If human beings aren't what Rand thought or expected them to be, then the wisdom of her ethics and politics can be called into question.

PhysicistDave said...

Greg,

I agree (and I think Fodor agrees) that the final theory will have some reasonable degree of modularity. What he objects to is postulating modules willy-nilly without any neurophysiological evidence.

Also, I (and, I think, Fodor) think that Pinker is too much of an adaptationist, to steal Steve Gould’s term. Surely, some features of the human mind are “spandrels,” again using Gould’s term.

I agree with you about computationalism – good metaphor, nice inspiration to start a research program, not the final word.

I learned about Mandler’s work recently and am still looking into it – it looks solid, but time will tell.

I’m probably more sympathetic to Rand on ethics and politics than you. I think her main sins were claiming more certainty than achievable (isn’t it cool how she always claimed to prove empirical facts through logical deduction?) and her resulting willingness to ignore empirical knowledge that is clearly relevant to ethics and politics – evolution, history, anthropology, etc.

In particular, any sort of biocentric ethics is going to have to say a good deal about reproduction – keeping the genes going. Her theory of sexuality was, literally, unworldly, and she paid for it in her bizarre behavior with old Blumenthal.

I’ll be curious to see where you are going in ethics and politics.

I don’t know where I’ll agree with you – but I can promise you one thing: I will not purge you from the movement (as I have no movement to purge).

All the best,

Dave

Daniel Barnes said...

Dave:
>Also, I (and, I think, Fodor) think that Pinker is too much of an adaptationist, to steal Steve Gould’s term. Surely, some features of the human mind are “spandrels,” again using Gould’s term.

Hi Dave,

Interestingly Pinker used just this term, "spandrel", to describe the human brain's musical abilities, as they are hard to attribute to evolutionary ends.

>I agree with you about computationalism – good metaphor, nice inspiration to start a research program, not the final word.

I'm down with that too.

>(isn’t it cool how she always claimed to prove empirical facts through logical deduction?)

It's cool to have your own version of logic, full stop..;-)

PhysicistDave said...

Dan,

Yes, music is an interesting question -- there are some recent books on that I mean to read if/when I have time.

Incidentally, Pinker seems like a wonderful guy -- bright, honest, willing to admit what he does not know. When I criticize some of his ideas, I really am criticizing those ideas alone, not Pinker the man. I think he is overwhelmingly a force for good in the intellectual world. And I have no sense that Fodor dislikes Pinker either: I think he sees himself and Pinker as pursuing a common goal and just hashing out how to best reach that goal.

All the best,

Dave

Daniel Barnes said...

Greg writes:
>Because let us say that Rand's theory of concept-formation is radically flawed. That doesn't necessarily mean that her ethics or politics are flawed as well.

No, but it still presents a major problem for Objectivism. This is because Rand - weirdly, given its lightweight, almost college-dorm bull-session-type rambling presentation - considered her epistemology her most important contribution. (She even referred to herself occassionally as "an epistemologist"). She makes some pretty big claims for it, as you know. Basically everything in Objectivism is supposed to follow from her original epistemology.*

So it's likely that if the epistemology is wrong, the rest is likewise wrong. Sure, you can draw true conclusions from false premises, but this would be at the cost of admitting the philosophy is not integrated after all, and was simply lucky to hit on those conclusions. I doubt Objectivism would survive such a a discovery.

*(a fanboy trys to lay it out here
http://importanceofphilosophy.com/Chart.html)

Daniel Barnes said...

Dave:
>Yes, music is an interesting question -- there are some recent books on that I mean to read if/when I have time.

I can recommend Daniel J Levitin's "This Is Your Brain On Music."

When you have time...;-)

PhysicistDave said...

Dan,

I actually think that Rand’s whole system does not depend on her epistemology. All she really needs is some sort of vague empiricism (mixed with a very mild rationalism to handle math and logic). And something of that sort of course has to be true to explain the phenomenal (in both senses of the word) success of natural science.

And I even think her “measurement-omission” theory of concept-formation helps to clarify some issues. But the emphasis has to be on “some.” Obviously, further research would elaborate on this, correct it, expand it, etc. I myself was a bit surprised to see Mandler’s results on concept formation, although it does make sense. For example, my own knowledge of birds is about at the early infant level: I recognize generic birds but am quite unclear on more than two or three individual species.

Anyone knowledgeable in intellectual history would have known that stuff like Mandler’s work would come up that would challenge (and enhance) Rand’s ideas.

Unfortunately, Rand herself really did seem to think her whole system rested on her epistemology and that the whole system was rigidly built in such a way that nothing would survive if any part were altered, corrected, or changed. Even math, which most closely approximates that idea, is not quite that rigid – when Bertrand Russell pointed out a logical contradiction in Frege’s painstaking logical construction of math, Frege did not throw up his hands and give up on 2+2 = 4!

Perhaps the best way of putting it is that Rand herself “mummified” her own ideas, preserved them in formaldehyde, and thereby killed them.

And the most prominent of her current followers have treated her ideas to far worse treatment than she herself did.

Have you seen the nonsense ARI is touting now in physics? One of their top staffers, Dave Harriman, claims to have philosophically disproved Einstein’s theories of relativity. It’s utter nonsense, but since Harriman knows how to quote all the appropriate Randian mantras, recite all the right magic spells, the bigwigs at ARI (and many not–so-bigwig Objectivists) are blindly going along with the farce.

As a physicist, I find this particularly annoying – it’s as bad as the “Intelligent Design” fraud. Is there no one at ARI able and willing to expose this? Or have they purged everyone unwilling to blindly mouth the party line?

All the best,

Dave

Daniel Barnes said...

Dave:
>As a physicist, I find this particularly annoying – it’s as bad as the “Intelligent Design” fraud. Is there no one at ARI able and willing to expose this? Or have they purged everyone unwilling to blindly mouth the party line?

Dave, you are making a very interesting point both here and over at Dawkins' site. It does seem as tho Objectivism is cultivating its own version of "Intelligent Design" in physics. If you ever felt the urge to write a little about this intriguing phenomenon we'd be only to happy to run it here at ARCHNblog.

Anonymous said...

that's funny..
i guess Rand's "unpleasant temperaments that are partly heritable, but actual behavior with real consequences" was inherited then..

anonymous coward said...

How would you critique the following?

----------------
The media are filled with stories about how the brain, as shaped by natural selection in evolution, "explains" human action and motivation.

There's the pheromone nonsense I posted on a couple of weeks ago. There's John Tierney's column in the New York Times claiming an evolutionary explanation for men being more competitive than women. There's a big story in Tuesday's Times, "Watching New Love as It Sears the Brain," which reports on brain studies about which areas of the brain "light up" (get more blood flow) when a person first falls in love.

All these reports are either false or utterly misleading due to being on wrong philosophical premises. It's pointless to argue against them on factual grounds. And sometimes the literal facts are right, as (I assume) in the case of discovering what areas of the brain get more blood flow when one falls in love.

I feel a weary helplessness about trying to combat these ideas, but they are dangerous--only one step away from racism and fascism.
Those are ugly social implications of the view that man's actions are
dictated by biology. Once the role of the mind has been displaced
by evolutionary forces, the consequences are the rejection of the
concepts of "justice," "earning," "self-esteem," and "freedom."
Instead, "social outcomes" appear as deterministic results of innate
mechanisms, so who needs "justice" and the rest?

The irony is that man's brain *is* the product of evolution and is,
qua physical organ, caused to have the *general* nature it does by
natural selection. But what these materialists and determinists can't
seem to grasp is that the selection pressure governing the evolution
of the human brain is: the survival value of *reason.*

Reason--the conceptual level of functioning--is a faculty that has
evolved because it makes possible volitionally governing one's
behavior by an incalculably wider scope of information than is
available on the perceptual level. It is abstract ideas--whose grasp is
made possible, but not necessary, by the inherited, general structure
of the human brain--that explains love, competitiveness, and all the
rest. It is not the brain as such, but the ideational content stored in
that brain that explains why individuals act and feel as they do. And
that ideational content, the conclusions one has reached, is shaped
by the degree to which one has *chosen* to think rationally or not.

Regardless of what areas of the brain are doing what, when people
believe in God, it is not because there's a God-believing gene, or a
hyper-developed "faith-center" in the brain; it is because they chose
not to use their evolution-given faculty of thought, but instead to
latch on to the ideas mouthed around them. When people fall in
love, or experience sexual lust, certainly there are brain areas
*involved* in the process, but the causal explanation lies with their
view of themselves and of existence: their ideas.

But, in contrast, let me quote from the Times article:

"[Romantic love] is closer in its neural profile to drives like hunger,
thirst or drug craving, the researchers assert, than to emotional
states like excitement or affection. As a relationship deepens, the
brain scans suggest, the neural activity associated with romantic
love alters slightly, and in some cases primes areas deep in the
primitive brain that are involved in long-term attachment."

First of all, hunger, thirst, and drug-craving are not "drives." The
term "drive," which was rightly in disfavor even in the early 60s
when I took psychology courses, is an improper concept. "Drive" is
the more modern form of "instinct," and both terms imply the
existence of innate ideas that force a person into behavior. Hunger
and thirst can be described as affective sensations. They do make
one feel that action is necessary--as, indeed, it is. But, as Ayn Rand
wrote,

"For man, the basic means of survival is reason. Man cannot
survive, as animals do, by the guidance of mere percepts. A
sensation of hunger will tell him that he needs food (if he has
learned to identify it as "hunger"), but it will not tell him how to
obtain his food and it will not tell him what food is good for him or
poisonous. He cannot provide for his simplest physical needs
without a process of thought."

And the sensations of hunger and thirst do not go through man's
emotional mechanism; the emotion of romantic love is not a
physiologically produced state like hunger or thirst. Love is a
response to values not hormones, genes, or evolutionary selection-
pressures favoring reproduction.

Secondly, the article, by saying "the neural activity associated with
romantic love ... primes areas deep in the primitive brain," subtly
suggests that "long-term attachment" is not a consequence of
understanding that one's life would be enhanced by living with the
valuable person one loves, but because brain area A "primed" brain
area B. Yes, sure it does: *because* one came to a certain
realization in one's mind.

It is not that love is non-biological. If man were like AR's
hypothetical immortal robot, if man did not face the alternative of
life or death, he could not experience romantic love. That's because
he could have no values at all; nothing would affect him or mean
anything to him.

The alternative to materialism is not the spiritualist, religionist view
of man as a soul independent of the body. Man's brain is definitely
involved in his overall functioning--as a means of storing and
integrating his conclusions. Man is not a pure, disembodied
consciousness. In fact, I have argued that the subconscious *is* the
brain (qua its potential to store conscious conclusions and supply
them again to the conscious mind). Man's brain is, of course,
essential to him. But the brain is the instrument of his mind. The
mind runs the brain--or should!

To understand man, you need three points: 1. man is a biological
organism, facing the alternative of life vs. death, 2. reason is man's
basic means of survival, 3. reason operates volitionally, by choice.
The current trend is to hold onto the first point while being blind to
the other two.

The correct context for understanding man, unthinkable for today's
materialists, is that man's means--his *biologically given means*--
of coping with the problem of survival is his volitional reason. Or,
as Galt put it:

"... the choice is still open to be a human being, but the price is to
start from scratch, to stand naked in the face of reality and,
reversing a costly historical error, to declare: 'I am, therefore I'll
think.'"


Harry Binswanger, 5/31/2005, HBL
--------------

Daniel Barnes said...

Many thanks, AC, I'll take a closer look at this when I get a moment.

gregnyquist said...

HB: "All these reports are either false or utterly misleading due to being on wrong philosophical premises. It's pointless to argue against them on factual grounds."

But if we're talking about matters of fact, then it seems fairly obvious that "factual grounds" have to play an important role in any debate over conclusions. Indeed, if the facts suggest one hypothesis and philosophical premises another, that's a red flag suggesting that something's wrong with the philosophical premises.

HB: "It is abstract ideas--whose grasp is
made possible, but not necessary, by the inherited, general structure of the human brain--that explains love, competitiveness, and all the
rest."

Abstract ideas may influence whether people are competitive or not or how or whom they love, but they cannot "explain," in the causative sense, these things in their entirety. Thinking is a method or a tool of understanding. But how does one derive motivation from a method or tool? At some level, there has to be a desire or emotion or drive or sentiment — call it what you will — in the absence of which there would be no competitiveness, love, etc. Even the process of thinking itself requires motivation from the affect system.

HB: "'Drive' is the more modern form of 'instinct,' and both terms imply the existence of innate ideas that force a person into behavior."

I'm not aware of any scientists who believe that drives or instincts imply the existence of innate ideas. Why should they? Desires like hunger and thirst are obviously innate; do they then also imply the existence innate ideas? And if people can have an innate desire for hunger, why can't they have innate desires for power or fame or God? (Now whether people have such desires (or drives or instincts, or whatever you want to call them) is a question best settled by empirical science, which, when it comes to getting at the truth, has a much better track record than speculative philosophy.)

Do instincts or drives really "force" people into behavior. No, not at all. To say this is to miss the point entirely. People experience their free will as occurring within the context of an affect system, i.e., in the context of feelings, emotions, sentiments, desires, etc. Their very thoughts are influenced by this affect system, by their emotions, feelings, desires, etc. Nor would Rand have necessarily disagreed with this. She would simply insist that the content of the affect system is in no respects innate, that it is all a product of good or bad thinking. And that's really the main point of contention here. Are the emotions which can affect our thinking and willing solely the product of thinking? Or are they at least partially affected by innate factors? The scientific evidence, at our current level of knowledge, strongly supports the partially innate view.

Now it's important to understand that merely because emotions and other products of the affect system can influence our thinking and willing doesn't mean they necessarily will. People have the free will to act against their inclinations; the problem is, that many people don't in fact act against their inclinations on a consistent basis, so that any moral or social ideals that expect them to do just that are likely to come to grief.

HB: "Regardless of what areas of the brain are doing what, when people believe in God, it is not because there's a God-believing gene."

I'm not aware of any scientist who believes that there is a God-believing gene. Genes don't work that way. What there may be is a combination of genes that predisposes people to believe in God, so that 70% of people with that combination of genes end up believing in God, whereas, say, only 20% of people without those combination of genes also are theists. (What those genes or percentages might be, if such do in fact exist, is up to empirical science to discover.)

Now these percentages may be fluid up to a point, but still, if people are in fact genetically predisposed to believe in God (or other "non-experimental" entities, as Pareto once put it), then that would indicate that religion is something which, like the poor, will always be with us in some degree or measure.

HB: "Once the role of the mind has been displaced
by evolutionary forces, the consequences are the rejection of the concepts of 'justice,' 'earning,' 'self-esteem,' and 'freedom.' Instead, 'social outcomes' appear as deterministic results of innate mechanisms, so who needs 'justice' and the rest?"

I'm not aware of any scientists, even the most materialistic evolutionary psychologists, who want to replace the mind with evolutionary forces. In fact, all that they are arguing for is the notion that genetic factors potentially can influence (as opposed to determine) behavior, that, in other words, genes are one factor among several (or many). Nor is this a very controversial assertion. It accords with the traditional view of human nature accepted, among others, by the founding fathers. When Madison writes that "The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man," he is assuming the existence of innate tendencies. That doesn't make him a fascist or a denier of justice. It simply makes him a shrewder defender of liberty, because he understands the potential threats that innate inclinations pose to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and he seeks countermeasures against those threats, such as constitutional checks and balances. Wise human institutions mitigate the bad effects, and magnify the good effects, of human nature, so that an open society with free markets can become a persisting reality.

Anonymous said...

I have not read the Mandler study, but I need to comment on the way Dave uses it to allege that AR's theory is false. Here is the only quotation we get from Mandler:

"Infants initially form broad, relatively undifferentiated concepts of animals, vehicles, furniture, and plants…infants generalize broadly on the basis of abstract conceptualizations at first and only with experience learn to pay attention to perceptual detail…"

I am the same Anon who posted on the topic of conceptual development some time ago, when the same quotation from Lisa van Damme was called into question. My response to the latest criticism is much the same.

The evidence described above, if I interpret it correctly, is fully consistent with AR's theory. It is obviously true that children do not begin with the narrowest possible concepts. I even quoted from the ITOE appendix to show AR herself saw this as a *necessary* consequence of her theory. Children begin at the level at which things are most obviously perceptually similar. That level is more general than some suspect, but also narrower than other possibilities. We do not begin with "oak tree," instead we begin with something more like "tree." We probably don't begin with "plant."

Now suppose that AR and I are wrong and really children begin with "plant," an extremely wide conceptualization. And now suppose psychologists tell us that really children start with plant and that AR and I are wrong. This is not a refutation of AR's theory of concepts. It's a correction about the details of the application of that theory. The theory *predicts* that first-level concepts are almost never the narrowest level. What level is first-level is determined by whatever psychological mechanisms determine what we find perceptually similar. So it is entirely possible that there may be disagreement about where that level is, since we don't always remember which concepts we ourselves formed first, and adults also have the tendency to project too much knowledge onto children.

I should also add that it is hard even to determine what Mandler's evidence means, given the short description quoted here. She says "infants initially form broad, relatively undifferentiated concepts of animals, vehicles, furniture, and plants," but this is equivocal. What are "undifferentiated concept of animals." In one reading, she's talking about an undifferentiated concept ANIMAL. But consider another reading: DOG, MAN, CAT are also "concepts of animals." So which does she mean?

Last but not least, I should also emphasize that there is a lot of research in developmental psychology that purports to discover that children form concept X way earlier than we think, when in fact what the research describes is children's use of the *term* X, or children's ability to recognize Xs *perceptually,* without yet having a concept. It all turns on how you define a concept. And here, my naturalistically-oriented friends, is where you cannot dismiss philosophy. How would you propose to define a concept as abstract as "CONCEPT" itself, without first having a prior theory in the philosophy of mind about what scientists will count as concepts? You can't just say, "concepts" are whatever scientists say concepts are, because scientists themselves have no consensus about this. I'll say more on the relationship between science and philosophy in another comment,

Anonymous said...

The statistical evidence quoted in this passage from Pinker is ENTIRELY irrelevant to the philosophic question about free will.

(I know that the authors of this site have a penchant for dismissing the distinction between philosophy and science, but I challenge them to offer an argument against this distinction which is *not* itself motivated by philosophical preconceptions.)

Might there be a genetic basis for certain personality traits? It is entirely possible--and it can be possible even if people have free will. Free will is about the choice to think or not to think about the options suggested by our subconscious. It is entirely possible that the options our subconscious feeds us may be determined in part by our genetics.

For example, a gloomy person may have a tendency to think gloomy thoughts, even if he has the choice to suppress these thoughts and try to focus on something else instead. Since most people are passive-minded, it would not be surprising if most people act on their personality tendencies rather than actively directing their minds. This is a phenomenon AR wrote a great deal about, not only in her nonfiction, but her fiction too. The passive-minded person permits himself to become the caricature of the determinist's theories. By abandoning control of his mind, he really does become a product of his genetics and his environment. Most people are passive in this way, to one extent or another, and given that fact, AR's theory would predict that you will find people clumping together statistically.

Anonymous said...

Here are some optical illusions with great explainations of how & why they work.

http://www.michaelbach.de/ot

How it applies to the present topic, I don't exactly know. I guess, it shows how the brain has a tendency to interpret its inputs according to prior assumptions (probably genetically designed assumtptions about how the world must behave).

Anonymous said...

HB: "The irony is that man's brain *is* the product of evolution and is,
qua physical organ, caused to have the *general* nature it does by
natural selection. But what these materialists and determinists can't
seem to grasp is that the selection pressure governing the evolution
of the human brain is: the survival value of *reason.*"

HB: "It is not the brain as such, but the ideational content stored in
that brain that explains why individuals act and feel as they do. And
that ideational content, the conclusions one has reached, is shaped
by the degree to which one has *chosen* to think rationally or not."

What was the evolutionary reason for us to face a fundamental choice between thinking and not thinking? Wouldn't creatures that engaged in thinking ALL THE TIME without having to choose it, do better then us humans which must choose to do think rationally?

And is Binswanger rewritting rand when he now says free will is, "the choice to think RATIONALLY or not"? What would it be like to choose to thinking non-rationally?

It seems like he's saying: free will is the choice to be an objectivist or not.

ken stauffer said...

HB: "I feel a weary helplessness about trying to combat these ideas, but they are dangerous--only one step away from racism and fascism. Those are ugly social implications of the view that man's actions are dictated by biology. Once the role of the mind has been displaced by evolutionary forces, the consequences are the rejection of the concepts of "justice," "earning," "self-esteem," and "freedom." Instead, "social outcomes" appear as deterministic results of innate mechanisms, so who needs "justice" and the rest?"

Yeah, such an outcome would suck. But what about Rand saying that those people who chooe not to think rationally are essentially functioning as animals do. And that the only way to deal with animals, since they lack reason, is through physical force. Couldn't these Randism's be misused by a fascist to enact mass murder?

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>(I know that the authors of this site have a penchant for dismissing the distinction between philosophy and science, but I challenge them to offer an argument against this distinction which is *not* itself motivated by philosophical preconceptions.)

We at ARCHNblog enjoy these Incredible Intellectual Challenges (TM) regularly offered us.

Anon, I am a Popperian. I am not a positivist, who denies the importance of "philosophical" ideas. In fact , I argue that all scientific ideas take place within what Popper called a "metaphysical research programme" - a broad, speculative view of the world that we use science to examine piece by piece. You oddly seem to think that Ayn Rand is the only person who ever defended the importance of philosophy in modern human thought, and that such a defense is some kind of automatic concession to Rand's philosophy. This is naiive.

Having noted that other thinkers have defended the relationship between philosophy and science, I will now note the differences between Rand and Popper's view.

Popper held that the basis of science lay in the critical tradition; that our metaphysical conjectures may be wrong, and it is the business of science to test and improve them. As such, discovering one small piece of scientific evidence can completely alter a metaphysical world view; for example, the shock caused by the discovery that the earth went around the sun, as opposed to the "self-evident" previous theory. With this approach, there is no intellectual authority that cannot be challenged. I contrast this critical approach with the Objectivist idea that somehow "true" science flows from "true" premises, with the philosophy of Ayn Rand as those true immoveable premises. Here, despite lipservice paid to science, Rand's various abstract "self-evident" speculations are basically treated as holy writ, with the shape-shifting form of "contextual certainty" there to provide an appearance of infallibility. The point becomes to provide a "science" that conforms as much as possible to Rand's metaphysical speculations, when the whole critical tradition of science is to challenge such. Hence the increasing stunted shape of Objectivist "science".

Daniel Barnes said...

Ken:
>But what about Rand saying that those people who choose not to think rationally are essentially functioning as animals do. And that the only way to deal with animals, since they lack reason, is through physical force.

Yes. The strong version of this argument is that Objectivists are the only fully rational people (i.e. truly human). This view was suggested by Rand on occassion; for example, when she remarked about "The Fountainhead" that Howard Roark was the only real human in the book. So Binswanger is hardly immune from such "one step away" criticisms himself.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>How would you propose to define a concept as abstract as "CONCEPT" itself, without first having a prior theory in the philosophy of mind about what scientists will count as concepts?

Hello Same Anon Who Posted On The Topic Of Conceptual Development Some Time Ago (shall I call you SAWPOTTOCDSTA to differentiate you from all our other Anons?...;-))

Why do you think a precise definition of the concept "concept" is important? What's the matter with just the conventional meaning ie "a general idea"? How would you go about proving your definition of concept is the right one? What about the precise definition of "definition"? How do you know what you precisely mean by "meaning"? And so forth.

We here at ARCHN argue, following Karl Popper, that this whole methodology is an intellectual mistake called "essentialism," and leads to the pointless, irresolvable type of disputes like the above. You assume that a theory of "concepts" must be fundamentally established before scientists can say what "counts" as a concept or not. But this assumption turns out to be fatally flawed. For arguments over the meanings of words, which is what "conceptual analysis" always reduces to, are not logically resolvable. They must take the form of a mutual agreement or convention if discussion is to continue. Just because theories are composed of words does not mean that it is important to debate their meanings; for words are composed of letters, should we then debate spelling? We argue that "concepts" are similarly trivial. Yes, yes we know that this flies in the face of how philosophy is traditionally thought to be conducted. So what? This tradition is logically erroneous, and needs to be corrected.

Popper's classic essay which beautifully outlines the problems of the traditional method, "Two Kinds of Definition" stands as the ARCHNblog policy statement in this regard.

http://aynrandcontrahumannature.blogspot.com/2007/05/aristotles-secret-revolt-against-reason.html

For further details consult his "The Open Society And Its Enemies" Book 2 Chapter 11, from which this essay was adapted, and the extensive footnotes thereof.

Neil Parille said...

"HB: I feel a weary helplessness about trying to combat these ideas, but they are dangerous--only one step away from racism and fascism. Those are ugly social implications of the view that man's actions are dictated by biology. Once the role of the mind has been displaced by evolutionary forces, the consequences are the rejection of the concepts of "justice," "earning," "self-esteem," and "freedom."
Instead, "social outcomes" appear as deterministic results of innate
mechanisms, so who needs "justice" and the rest?"

But isn't this an argument based on pragmatism, which Objectivists reject?

Incidentally, what of Rand's hyper-optimistic view of human nature? If we take the view that you can (as Rand said) raise someone's IQ from 110 to 150 and some people decide they would rather sit around watching reruns of Miami Vice, might we conclude that these people are not human? Rand, incidentally, speculated that we are living in the midst of people who look human but are in fact "pre-humans."

Accepting the fact human beings are subject to conflicting drives provides a justification for limited government and separation of powers, as Greg mentioned. For example, Leonard Peikoff may be the greatest Objectivist next to Rand, but would any Objectivist trust him to have complete power, even if he promised he would only reduce the size of government? Maybe, just maybe, "LP" would be subject to the same temptations as the rest of us.

Binswanger worries about fascism, but his view of human nature is quite similar to that of the far left.

Daniel Barnes said...

Neil:
>If...some people decide they would rather sit around watching reruns of Miami Vice, might we conclude that these people are not human?

Depends if they went to the stage of taking fashion cues from it...;-)

>Binswanger worries about fascism, but his view of human nature is quite similar to that of the far left.

Yes, which has been pointed out by others as well as Nyquist.

Robert Campbell said...

SAWPOTTOCDSTA,

I am not familiar with the recent piece by Jean Mandler that Dave cited on this thread. However, I have read some of her previous work and have a pretty good idea where she is coming from.

Studies of categorization in babies (particularly, babies older than 6 months) are now a staple of the infant development literature. These pose some problems for Rand's theory from the git-go, because they attempt to determine whether babies are using categories that they don't have words for. (Although Rand used a notion of "implicit concept," she thought of each concept as needing a word to go with it.)

All of that said, Mandler has not been one of the more careful infant cognitive development researchers out there. She assumes without argument (or apparent thought about the matter) that if a baby knows something, the baby's knowledge must take the form of a concept or other symbol structure. Close attention to the procedures used in her studies, and to the arguments she makes for the conclusions she draws from her data, is definitely indicated.

All of that said, Mandler is not the only researcher to suggest that human babies make an overall distinction between animate and inanimate before they begin to sort out dogs from cats from cows and so forth. Rochel Gelman has done it, and by now some others probably have as well (I have some catching up to do in this literature.)

Robert Campbell

Robert Campbell said...

SAWPOTTOCDSTA,

You ask:

"How would you propose to define a concept as abstract as "CONCEPT" itself, without first having a prior theory in the philosophy of mind about what scientists will count as concepts? "

My answer will not please the Orthodox Objectivists. The Popperians may not go for it, either.

But I think that the relation between philosophy of mind and psychology is dialectical.

What I mean by this is that there is an ongoing exchange between the disciplines.

Theorists in either discipline can propose a notion or a theory about, say, concepts that can then be elaborated, tested with empirical, challenged or supported via argument, and so forth, in the other. (Well, psychologists are in a better position to collect and analyze empirical data.)

A philosopher may propose a theory that is then examined and tested by psychologists, who may uphold the theory, suggest modifications to it, or push for its outright rejection; philosphers may then respond; psychologists may then respond, in turn; and so on.

Or the process may begin with a proposal by psychologists.

If all inquiries into concepts must begin with a definition in philosophy (and psychologists may not challenge the definition, or the theory that is implicit in it), then the assumption is being made that only philosophers know, and only philosophers can know, how human beings go about the business of knowing anything. Is this assumption true? Why should anyone accept it?

After all, one possible outcome of this inquiry that moves back and forth among disciplines is that the philosopher's notion of a concept is, well, misconceived.

There are some psychologists who deny that human generalizing and categorizing involve concepts as traditionally understood. There are others, like the late Jean Piaget, who consider concepts to be a relatively unimportant form of knowledge. A philosopher who accepts Ayn Rand's formulation of strict one-way traffic (philosophy has things to tell psychology; psychology has nothing to tell philosophy, except maybe, "Hurray!) will presumably be required to reject these views out of hand, regardless of their scientific merits.

Robert Campbell

Daniel Barnes said...

Robert:
>My answer will not please the Orthodox Objectivists. The Popperians may not go for it, either. But I think that the relation between philosophy of mind and psychology is dialectical. What I mean by this is that there is an ongoing exchange between the disciplines.

The Popperians will go for it...;-) This version of "dialectical" (ie "an ongoing mutually critical exchange between the disciplines") we are all in favour of. The other foggier, more Hegelian flavours, where contradictions are somehow embraced as fertile, we are not keen on.

For a full critique of "dialectic" from the Popperian perspective his "What is Dialectic?" essay is handily available on line (also in "Conjectures and Refutations):

http://www.vordenker.de/ggphilosophy/popper_what-is-dialectic.pdf

Neil Parille said...

One of the anons (can't you guys use "handles" to make it easier?) made the point that it's not clear whether a child's ability to perceive differences is the same thing as having a concept.

That makes sense to me. My cat reacts in a simlar fashion (fear) toward eveyone he doesn't know. Does that mean he has the concept of "stranger"? I would say not, but it seems to be a kind of "abstract" knowledge.

If a child is able to organize objects by length or color, does that mean he has the concept of length or color? Again, I'm not sure. Rand talks in ITO (p. 164 or so) about "firming up" concepts and perhaps this is what she has in mind.