December 17, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Philosophy on the Phringe

Some philosophy is just common sense.  Some is abstruse, recondite, and technically challenging.  But when employed against common sense, such as to support the belief that everything came from nothing, philosophy can get downright weird.

Old moat’s gotta go:  Ernst Mayr was a key figure in 20th century evolutionary theory.  His method of evolutionary explanation was to create a philosophical distinction between proximate causation and ultimate causation.  Why does the male peacock grow an elaborate tail?  Because peahens like it.  It’s not necessary, he thought, to explain the development of the peacock tail from an embryo to understand why evolution selected the male’s tail.  Five guys writing in Science this week think his distinction is hindering progress.1 A moat can keep the bad guys out, but also hem the good guys in.  Here’s how they wrote about the situation:

Fifty years ago, Ernst Mayr published a hugely influential paper on the nature of causation in biology, in which he distinguished between proximate and ultimate causes. Mayr equated proximate causation with immediate factors (for example, physiology) and ultimate causation with evolutionary explanations (for example, natural selection). He argued that proximate and ultimate causes addressed different questions and were not alternatives. Mayr’s account of causation remains widely accepted today, with both positive and negative ramifications. Several current debates in biology (for example, over evolution and development, niche construction, cooperation, and the evolution of language) are linked by a common axis of acceptance/rejection of Mayr’s model of causation. We argue that Mayr’s formulation has acted to stabilize the dominant evolutionary paradigm against change but may now hamper progress in the biological sciences.

The five guys want to be able to extend evolutionary storytelling to include plots about niche construction, cultural evolution and other things.  The old gray Mayr’s principle ain’t what it used to be.  Fill in the moat and get the old goat off the drawbridge, where he’s blocking progress. “The commonalities of the above debates also raise rich issues concerning the history and philosophy of science, for instance, over how conceptual frameworks channel thinking and hinder paradigm shifts,” they said with homage to Kuhn.  “It would seem that the manner in which biologists think about causality has acted like a meta-theoretical conceptual framework to stabilize the dominant scientific paradigm.”

Democracy for dummies:  Want to improve democracy?  Dumb down the public.  That’s the idea of two guys in Science who asked, “Can Ignorance Promote Democracy?” (expecting “yes” to that rhetorical question).2  This strange article compared human society to the animal herds and the arrangement of stomata on a leaf.  They had good things to say about a paper by Couzin et al. in the same issue,3 who purported to “show how the presence of uninformed agents can promote democratic outcomes in collective decision problems.”  The fact that the Princeton-led team came to this conclusion with experiments on fish, according to the write-up on PhysOrg, may reveal quite a bit about how elitist academics feel about their fellow man.

Contra Thomas Jefferson, who advocated education for the masses, the Princeton eggheads put forth the counter-intuitive idea that an intransigent minority can provide protection against a manipulative minority by amplifying the majority opinion, since uninformed individuals tend to take on the views of those around them. “In this way, adding uninformed individuals to a group can facilitate fair representation during the process of information integration.”  The reader can ponder what this might entail, such as in trucking in masses of people across the border and giving them the right to vote.  (They did realize one problem: too many uninformed citizens leads to loss of function.)  Group leader Couzin appealed to evolutionary theory for his conclusion: survival of the witless.  In the PhysOrg article, he said, “These experiments indicate there is an evolutionary function to being uninformed that perhaps is as active as being informed.”  Riddle: if knowledge is power, what is ignorance?  PhysOrg gave the answer right in the headline: "Less knowledge, more power: Uninformed can be vital to democracy, study finds.”  Don’t laugh.  That’s a “finding” of science.

What works for some elitist academic’s model system may have very different consequences in the real world.  The authors defined democracy as majority rule, and outcomes of their model as a “naturally occurring decision making process” that can be seen in the dynamics of a herd of buffalo, a school of fish, or a dish of bacteria.  Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the American republic were not only concerned for the rights of the majority, but the rights of minorities against a tyrannical majority – and they recognized a fundamental distinction between humans and animals.  The distinction is lost in university science departments where evolutionary ideology rules.  Man is but a fish (evolutionary soothsayers exempted).

Something from nothing:  Evan Thompson liked his newest read a lot: Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter, by Terrence W. Deacon.  Writing in Nature,4 he had no problem with Deacon’s basic idea that something comes from nothing – even his own mind.  Even more strange, Thompson and Deacon agree that emergence of self-organizing systems comes as much from the absence of things as their presence:

Deacon takes his guiding idea from one of my favourite chapters of a classic Chinese philosophical text from the fourth century BC, the Tao Te Ching: “Pots are fashioned from clay/But it’s the hollow that makes a pot work.” Similarly, Deacon sees the ‘constitutive absence’ as functional, a defining property of life and mind. Living things are dynamically organized around ends, such as finding nourishment; and minds are dynamically organized around meanings, such as anticipated future events. And like the hollowed interior of the pot, these ends and meanings are both functional and absent, in the sense that they affect a system’s behaviour, yet are not material parts of it.

It’s good to be absent-minded, in this view.  That hole in your head where your brain should be serves an important function.  Unfortunately, Thompson couldn’t sustain his glee over the book indefinitely, because it left some gaping holes of its own:

Deacon stumbles at two crucial junctures — his explanations for the emergence of meaning and for the emergence of consciousness. The problem of meaning is the problem of how it is possible for certain physical phenomena, such as brain states, to have content or to be ‘about’ something beyond themselves.

Deacon’s answer is not easy to decipher. Roughly, he seems to be saying that certain states of a self-generating system acquire content when they correlate reliably with features of the environment that are useful to that system. For example, a system that needs molecules from the environment in order to reproduce ‘interprets’ the presence of these molecules as meaning that the environment is conducive to reproduction. But this seems little more than metaphorical. As many philosophers have shown, meaning cannot be reduced to such processes.

With consciousness, Deacon says that sentience — the capacity to feel — arises from a system being self-sustaining and goal-directed. So he sees individual cells as sentient. But, as he explains, an animal’s sentience is not the sum of the sentience of its individual cells: the nervous system creates its own sentience at the level of the whole animal. Yet Deacon doesn’t get to grips with the hard problem of explaining why and how we and other animals have conscious experience.

Other than that, it’s a great book, Thompson thinks.  Deacon wouldn’t understand the criticism.  Your nerve cells got together and created their own sentience.  From that, conscious experience “emerged”.  What’s the problem?

Everything from nothing:  While we’re getting something from nothing, why not extend the principle of self-emergence and self-organization to everything?  That’s what Lawrence Krauss did in his book A Universe from Nothing, given good press by PhysOrg.  According to the article, it’s OK to toss out the principle established since antiquity that “out of nothing, nothing comes.” 

Many people hold fast to the philosophical expression that something cannot come from nothing. They claim that since we live in a universe that has something this confirms or at least supports the theological doctrine that a divine creator, or some external force, created the universe. However, many physicists disagree, Krauss included. Against the claim, they cite recent scientific advancements.

Since it would be distasteful for these unnamed “many physicists” to pursue the theistic implications of the evidence, Krauss has found a way to imagine pulling the cosmic rabbit out of the nonexistent hat.  His secret is to redefine nothing as pregnant with virtual particles emerging from the void.  But readers may well ask if this really starts with nothing, and if not, whether the starting point exhibits the attributes of God.  PhysOrg was apparently not concerned about those difficulties.  Instead, it trotted out the usual archbishops to grant the imprimatur to this evolutionary cosmology: “As he demonstrates, it is possible, and in fact suggested by observation that our universe arose through entirely natural processes, just as Darwin demonstrated that the diversity of life on Earth could arise by natural processes,” the article ended, failing to define natural, since it would seem quite unnatural to expect something from nothing. “Indeed, Richard Dawkins, in the afterword of the new book compares Krauss’ book in significance to Darwin’s ‘Origin of the [sic] Species.’”  Well, then, that settles that.

Hear ye, here yeast:  If you visit the University of British Columbia, you can bow in the presence of a genius.  “Sarah (Sally) Otto is a MacArthur ‘genius’ award winner who uses models and yeast to improve our understanding of the evolutionary process,” reported Live Science, with Sarah’s smiling face adorning the adoring article.  If you can’t travel there, you can at least watch her speak in the embedded video produced by the National Science Foundation.  It begins with her fascination with Darwin’s Origin of Species.  Her view of science is not just experimentation, but the divination of patterns behind the observations.  Listeners might be puzzled by her list of qualities that make a good scientist, wondering how they differ from the qualities needed for any other profession.  As for societal benefits to her work, she feels looking into the yeast gives her special insight to tell the world “how we came to be… how organisms evolve” (not whether they evolve), and learning about “the world, and our place in that world.”  It’s all tied in together, she indicated; wanting to know the origin of the universe, stars, planets, and life.  What better person to preach about this than a certified genius skilled at divination in yeast?  Would Live Science ever allow the likes of Dr. Stephen Meyer or Dr. Dr. William Dembski to pontificate on these subjects?  Never in 3.4 billion years.

Whoops, reproducibility is an unreached ideal:  All of the above claims rely implicitly on the supremacy of science to express knowledge because of its superior methodology – including verification by reproducibility.  “The importance of replication and reproducibility for scientists is unquestioned,” an introductory article on scientific reproducibility in Science reminded us all.5 Too bad the ideal is often not attainable in the real world.  Many interdisciplinary projects are too complex to be reproduced.  And what about field observations?  How do you reproduce a unique, one-time event?  You can’t command a bat to eat a frog on cue, or a comet to disintegrate, or a God particle to appear at another facility lacking the expensive equipment to find it.  It goes without saying that historical events, whether the Permian Extinction or The Flood, are not reproducible.  Besides, most scientists are too busy with their own research to try to replicate someone else’s claim.  Worst of all, reproducibility can have undesirable effects: “it can also indicate fraud,” the article warned.

Assignment: Replicate the origin of the universe from nothing.

1. Laland, Sterelny, Odling-Smee, Hoppitt, and Uller, “Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful?”, Science, 16 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6062 pp. 1512-1516, doi: 10.1126/science.1210879.

2. Jevin D. West and Carl T. Bergstrom, “Can Ignorance Promote Democracy?”, Science 16 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6062 pp. 1503-1504, doi: 10.1126/science.1216124.

3. Couzin et al., “Uninformed Individuals Promote Democratic Consensus in Animal Groups,” Science 16 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6062 pp. 1578-1580, doi: 10.1126/science.1210280

4. Evan Thompson, “Philosophy: Life Emergent,” Nature 480 (15 December 2011), p. 318,     doi:10.1038/480318a

5. Jasny, Chin, Chong and Vignieri, “Again and Again, and Again…,” Science 2 December 2011: Vol. 334 no. 6060 p. 1225, doi: 10.1126/science.334.6060.1225.

We hope your understanding of modern evolution-drunk science has been refined by this philosophical tour.  Are you convinced that secular atheist scientists are worthy of priesthood in today’s culture?  Who are you going to trust, the experts or your own eyes?

Scientists have become modern soothsayers.  They try to sell us a bill of sooth (truth) based on their own presumptive authority.  Some of them, unfortunately, have become sooth-slayers, operating with sleuth ruthlessly on the uncouth.  Don’t read science without a lot of couth – and teach the youth where to get it.

(Visited 33 times, 1 visits today)


  • morfar says:


    Guess I don’t understand.

    I hope these authors (something from nothing, being ignorant is good for me –  etc)
    are sharing whatever they are smoking.

    Dennis Willman

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.