an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 12, January - April 2015, ISSN 1552-5112


Disenchanted Naturalism


Alex Rosenberg





Naturalism is the label for the thesis that the tools we should use in answering philosophical problems are the methods and findings of the mature sciences—from physics across to biology and increasingly neuroscience. It enables us to rule out answers to philosophical questions that are incompatible with scientific findings. It enables us to rule out epistemological pluralism—that the house of knowledge has many mansions, as well as skepticism about the reach of science. It bids us doubt that there are facts about reality that science cannot grasp. It gives us confidence to assert that by now in the development of science, absence of evidence is prima facie good grounds for evidence of absence: this goes for God, and a great deal else.

     I think naturalism is right, but I also think science forces upon us a very disillusioned “take” on reality. It forces us to say ‘No’ in response to many questions to which most everyone hopes the answers are ‘Yes.’ These are the questions about purpose in nature, the meaning of life, the grounds of morality, the significance of consciousness, the character of thought, the freedom of the will, the limits of human self-understanding, and the trajectory of human history. The negative answers to these questions that science provides are ones that most naturalists have sought to avoid, or at least qualify, reinterpret, or recast to avoid science’s harsh conclusions. I dissent from the consensus of these philosophers who have sought to reconcile science with common sense or the manifest image or the wisdom of our culture. My excuse is that I stand on the shoulders of giants: the many heroic naturalists who have tried vainly, I think, to find a more upbeat version of naturalism than this one.


1.  Life’s Persistent Questions

There is a set of persistent philosophical questions that keep ordinary people up at night. They all have simple answers, ones we can pretty well read off from science. Because the answers are not the ones we want, taking science’s word for them will be accused of “scientism”—the unwarranted and exaggerated respect for science. I plead guilty to the charge, while taking exception to the ‘unwarranted’ and ‘exaggerated’ part. Like a few others, I take a page out of the PR of the gay and lesbian community and (mis)appropriate the word ‘scientistic’ the way they did words like ‘gay’ and ‘queer.’ Scientism is my label for what any one who takes science seriously should believe, and scientistic is just an in-your face adjective for accepting science’s description of the nature of reality. You don’t have to be a scientist to be scientistic. In fact, most scientists aren’t. Why not? 

Most scientists are reluctant to admit science’s answers to the persistent questions are obvious. There are more than enough reasons for their reluctance. The best reason is that the answers to the persistent questions are not what people want to hear, and the bad news may lead them to kill the messenger—scientific research. It’s people who pay for science through their support of the NIH, the NSF, in the US, the Medical Research Council in the UK, the CNRS in France, the Max Planck Institutes in Germany, and the universities where most research happens. So, scientists have an incentive to cover up. They have a couple of other reasons too: science is fallible and scientists are taught never to be definitive even about their own conclusions; the persistent questions are so broad that no scientist’s research program addresses them directly, and few are prepared to stick their necks out beyond their specialty when they don’t have to.  For scientists staying mum about science’s real answers to the persistent questions is prudentially over-determined.

Even if scientists came clean however, most people wouldn’t accept the answers science gives to the persistent questions, because they can’t understand the answers. The reason is that the answers don’t come in the form of stories with plots. What science has discovered about reality can’t be packaged into whodunnit narratives about motives and actions. The human mind is the product of a long process of selection for being able to scope out other people’s motives. The way nature solved the problem of endowing us with that ability is by making us conspiracy theorists—we see motives everywhere in nature, and our curiosity is only satisfied when we learn the “meaning” of things—whose purposes they serve. The fundamental laws of nature are mostly timeless mathematical truths that work just as well backwards as forward, and in which purposes have no role. That’s why most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around physics or chemistry. It’s why science writers are always advised to get the science across to people by telling a story, and why it never really works. Science’s laws and theories just don’t come in stories with surprising starts, exciting middles and satisfying dénouements. That makes them hard to remember and hard to understand. Our demand for plotted narratives is the greatest obstacle to getting a grip on reality. It’s also what greases the skids down the slippery slope to religion’s “greatest story ever told.”

The long-term advance of scientific understanding has shown why we are suckers for a good story. It has also shown why such stories never provide real understanding about the nature of reality.


2.  The physical facts fix all the facts

What is the world really like? It’s fermions and bosons, and everything that can be made up of them, and nothing that can’t be made up of them. All the facts about fermions and bosons determine or “fix” all the other facts about reality and what exists in this universe or any other if, as physics may end up showing, there are other ones. Another way of expressing this fact-fixing by physics is to say that all the other facts—the chemical, biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural facts supervene on the physical facts and are ultimately explained by them. And if physics can’t in principle fix a putative fact, it is no fact after all. In effect, scientism’s metaphysics is, to more than a first approximation, given by what physics tell us about the universe. The reason we trust physics to be scientism’s metaphysics is its track record of fantastically powerful explanation, prediction and technological application. If what physics says about reality doesn’t go, that track record would be a totally inexplicable mystery or coincidence. Neither science not scientism stands still for coincidence. The no miracles/inference to the best explanation arguments for scientific realism are on the right track. Their alternatives are obviously mistaken.

     Physics is by no means finished, and it may hold out even more surprises for common sense than it already has provided. In addition it faces several problems—the nature of dark matter and dark energy, superstring theory v. quantum loop gravity or even some other way of unifying the standard model of particle physics and general relativity. Finally, there is the problem of attaching a coherent interpretation to quantum mechanics’ basic notion of a superposition. We need only to grasp just enough about these problems to see that no matter how things turn out in physics, they won’t make any difference for science’s answers to the persistent questions. All we need to answer these questions are two things pretty well fixed in physics: first, the 2nd law of thermodynamics—that entropy increases almost everywhere almost all the time; second, the repudiation of future causes, current purposes, or past designs. And these were purged from science by the Newtonian revolution in the late 17th century.


 3: How physics fakes design

Ever since Newton, physics has ruled out purposes in the physical realm. If the physical facts fix all the facts, however, then in doing so, it rules out purposes altogether, in biology, in human affairs, and in human thought-processes too. Showing how it could do so was a tall order. Until Darwin (1859) came along things looked pretty good for Kant’s (2007, p. XVII) pithy observation that there never would be a Newton for the blade of grass—that physics could not explain living things, human or otherwise, because it couldn’t invoke purpose. But the process that discovered--random, or rather blind variation, and natural selection, or rather passive environmental filtration--does all the work of delivering the means/ends economy of biological nature that shouts out ‘purpose’ or ‘design’ at us. What Darwin showed was that all of the beautiful suitability of living things to their environment, every case of complementarities between organism and niche, and all of the intricate meshing of parts into wholes, is just the result of blind causal processes. It’s the foresightless play of fermions and bosons producing, in us conspiracy theorists, the illusion of purpose. Of course, that is no surprise to scientism; if physics fixes all the facts, it could not have turned out any other way.

It’s not easy to put together the details of how purely physical processes have produced adaptation. But the broad theoretical description is clear and unsurprising. The thermodynamic noise among the molecules present on the Earth about 3 billion years ago every so often randomly produced molecules that combine stability with replication—the first sliver of an adaptation, produced from zero adaptation. Eventually it produced some molecules with enough stability and replicability to be themselves subject to more thermodynamically random variation that piled new adaptation on the earlier ones, and also locked the earlier ones in, since the process driven by the 2nd law is temporally asymmetrical—entropy can’t go home again. Repeat the process enough times and the rest is history—natural history. That’s how physics fakes design.

Some philosophers think that this process produces real purpose, not merely the appearance of it. They think, with the 19th century biologist, Assa Gray (1976) , that Darwin’s discovery “naturalized” purpose, made it safe for physical science. It’s evident from the resistance of creationism and common sense, that this is not a widely shared view. And it is not the first time disenchanted naturalists find themselves waking up with strange bedfellows. Did Darwin expunge purpose from nature or tame it? If the products of blind variation and passive environmental filtration—the processes Darwin realized produces adaptations, are really the way purpose is realized in the world, and not just its simulacrum, then everything that 2d law processes produced has a purpose and the Aristotelian worldview was correct. For natural selection is just the 2nd law at work.


4. IKEA didn’t make natural history: Good design is rare, expensive and accidental

It’s not just that 2d law processes can power the appearance of adaptations through natural selection. In fact, if the physical facts fix all the facts, natural selection is the only way adaptations can emerge anywhere in the universe, or any other universe governed by the 2nd law. That is because there are at least three criteria that physical fact fixing imposes on any mechanism that produces adaptations. And the only way to satisfy them is via the process Darwin discovered--natural selection. The not-entirely-independent criteria are:

1) The process producing adaptations must begin with zero adaptation. A process that requires prior existence of the merest sliver of an adaptation to get itself started begs the question, since we will need to know how that sliver of adaptation came to be.

2) That first merest sliver must appear by random chance alone and very infrequently. Further adaptations will have to be built from prior adaptations in the same way they were.  This is because physics excludes purpose or any hint of it.

3) The process that produces adaptations has to harness the 2nd law. It is the sole source of temporally asymmetrical processes in the universe and the process of building adaptations is an asymmetrical one. For that reason the process that produces adaptations has to be energetically expensive, indeed wasteful, since the 2nd law which mandates the persistence of disorder and demands that increases in local order be paid for by net increases in global disorder.

If the starting point for building adaptations is zero adaptation, then the only way the very first, smallest, slightest sliver of an adaptation could have appeared is by the ‘deck-shuffling” of thermodynamic processes—atoms and molecules just bumping into each other in large enough numbers over long enough time so that a few stable replicating molecules will emerge as just a matter of random chance, like tossing a fair coin heads 10 times in a row. In a world of objective chance it happens, but not often. The 2nd law makes this a world of objective chance.

Adaptational evolution is an asymmetrical process. But, except for one law, all the laws of nature—including the quantum mechanical ones--are temporally symmetrical: they don’t specify an earlier/later order to events. The only one that gives sequences a temporal order from earlier to later is the 2nd law. That brings us to the third requirement: adaptational evolution has to be expensive, indeed wasteful, profligate in its dissipation of order.

     The first adaptation will have to be a chance event, and all improvements on it will have to be chance events—just as Darwinian theory says. The preservation of local order will have to use up more global order than what is preserved: of course nothing can do that better than sexual reproduction, the engine of Darwinian processes. In fact, without replication and mortality, 2d law entropy increase, on Earth, at any rate may grind to a halt. The only things in the universe that don’t dissipate order are diamond crystals and the like, things which reach a structural energy minimizing order and remain there almost for ever.

Entropy also drives the global and local changes in the environmental filters that shift the direction of adaptational evolution—whether it’s the shift from a carbon-dioxide atmosphere to an oxygen one, or the arrival of a dinosaur-killing asteroid. Adaptational evolution will have to be wasteful. That can’t be avoided since the process is asymmetrical and therefore can only be driven by the 2nd law.

     This makes the mechanism Darwin discovered for building adaptations the only game in town for adaptational evolution in a 2nd law-governed universe. Physics is enough to fake design and physics is the only way to do so. This is why Darwinism rules out purpose. If Darwinian processes were just emergent, it might be alright to describe his discovery as naturalizing it, instead of annihilating it.


5.  Nice Nihilism: The Bad News About Morality and The Good News

     If there is no purpose to life in general, biological or human for that matter, the question arises whether there is meaning in our individual lives, and if it is not there already, whether we can put it there. One source of meaning on which many have relied is the intrinsic value, in particular the moral value, of human life, primate life, mammalian life or biological life in general. People have also sought moral rules, codes and principles which are supposed to distinguish us from merely biological critters whose lives lack (as much) meaning or as much value (as ours). Scientism must reject all of these straws that people have grasped. It’s not hard to show why. Science has to be nihilistic about ethics and morality. All we really need to show this are two premises:

1. All cultures, and almost everyone in them, endorse most of the same core moral principles as binding on everyone.

2. The core moral principles have significant consequences for human biological fitness—for our survival and reproduction.


It’s obvious that in a world where all the facts are fixed by physical facts, there can be no set of free floating independently existing norms or values (or facts about them) that humans are uniquely equipped to discern and act upon. So, if we hope to scientifically ground the core morality that every one (save some psychopaths and sociopaths) endorses, as the right morality, we face a very serious problem. The only way all or most normal humans could have come to share a core morality is through selection of alternative moral codes or systems, a process that resulted in just one winning the evolutionary struggle and becoming “fixed” in the population. If our universally shared moral core were both the one selected for and also the right moral core, then the correlation of being right and being selected for couldn’t be a coincidence. Scientism doesn’t tolerate cosmic coincidences. Either our core morality is an adaptation because it is the right core morality or it’s the right core morality because it’s an adaptation, or it’s not right, but only feels right to us.  Notice this is a problem very similar to the one Plato identified for religious sermonizing about morality in the Euthyphro: either morality is right because it’s beloved by the gods, or vice versa.

 It’s easy to show that neither of the two alternatives a scientific justification of morality faces can be right.  Just because there is strong selection for a moral norm is no reason to think it right. Think of the adaptational benefits of racist, xenophobic or patriarchal norms. You can’t justify morality by showing its Darwinian pedigree. That way lies the moral disaster of Social Spencerism (better but wrongly known as Social Darwinism. See Spencer, 1851). The other alternative—that our moral core was selected for because it was true, correct or right--is an equally far-fetched idea.  And in part for the same reasons. The process of natural selection is not in general good at filtering for true beliefs, only for ones hitherto convenient for our lines of descent. Think of folk physics, folk biology, and most of all folk psychology. Since natural selection has no foresight, we have no idea whether the moral core we now endorse will hold up, be selected for, over the long-term future of our species, if any.

If we are going to limit ourselves to the resources of science to ground knowledge, then there can't be any moral knowledge. Whence nihilism.

     This nihilistic blow is cushioned by the realization that Darwinian processes operating on our forbearers in the main selected for niceness! The core morality of cooperation, reciprocity and even altruism that was selected for in the environment of hunter-gatherers and early agrarians, continues to dominate our lives and social institutions. We may hope the environment of modern humans does not become different enough eventually to select against niceness. But we can’t invest our moral core with more grounding than this: it was a convenience, not for us as individuals, but for our genes. There is no meaning to be found in that conclusion.

     How can we be confident that we were selected for niceness? Because it was the only solution to the design problem from hell that faced us on the African savanna, and it capitalized on two features we shared with some other primates and mammals. The design problem was a “triple whammy”: by the time we found ourselves forced out of the rain forest and pretty far down the food chain in the veldt, we were producing too many off-spring, having them too close together, and these off-spring required a long child hood, owing to the need for postnatal brain development. Compared to other primates our birth spacing was much closer, and we were living much longer: so that we kept having offspring for longer. Additionally the birth canal was too narrow to allow for much prenatal neural development. Meanwhile the only source of protein was scavenging whatever the top predators might leave. Unless Mother Nature found a way to turn large populations of young children with long periods of dependence, these three traits were bound to carry us to extinction. Of course we came out of the rain forest with three advantages: the use of stone tools that we learned could break into marrow and brain inaccessible to predators; a theory of mind—or rather a capacity to predict the behavior of conspecifics. Both of which we shared with other primates. Plus, we had a third trait they lacked but we shared with a few other species—dogs, tamarinds, dolphins—a tendency to cooperative child-rearing. Who knows why we lucked out with this one, but it was crucial.

     Theory of mind and cooperative child-rearing synergize to free individuals for the division of labor, hunting, gathering, child-rearing; long childhood and large brains can be exploited for teaching the labor specializations. The result is a co-evolutionary cycle that improves them and selects for improvements in those traits—improved theory of mind and greater inclination to cooperatively rear children, until we get morality and technology.

     After enough cycles the result is nice bell-shaped distribution of niceness, with a small number of people at the extreme ends of unconditional altruism and egoistic sociopathy. It can’t be helped of course. Variation is the rule and there is really no way to stamp out the sociopathy. All we can do is protect ourselves from it.

     The survival of puny animals like us depended so much on being able to scope out other people’s and other animals tactics and stratagems that Mother Nature had to glom on to the first device that came along, no matter how quick and dirty, to do the job. As with many other such circumstances, it overshot and made us into conspiracy theorists: seeing motives everywhere instead of just in the behavior of complex animals. In fact, the ability we call theory of mind eventually spawned the illusion of intentionality, and with it plans, plots, and the love of narratives. It was probably a cheap price to pay for survival. It doesn’t begin to do serious damage till well after we hit upon science.


6. Never let your conscience be your guide

     Understanding our own psychological make-up and our thought processes are among the most daunting of problems facing science. That’s why less progress has been made in psychology than understanding the rest of the universe. On the other hand, because we have immediate introspective access to our minds, most people think they really understand their minds better than anything else. Descartes got sucked into this delusion 500 years ago and made introspective certainty the foundation of knowledge instead of the most tempting distraction from it.

     Neuroscience will eventually enable us to understand the mind by showing us how the brain works. But we already know enough about it to take nothing introspection tells us about the mind on trust. The phenomenon of blindsight—people who don’t have any conscious color experiences can tell the color of a thing—is enough to give us pause about the most apparently certain conclusion introspection insists on: that when you see a color you have a color experience. Then there is the fact, discovered by Benjamin Libet, that actions are already determined by your brain before you consciously decide to do them! (As for determinism and the denial of real free will, that is a conclusion which, so to speak, goes without saying for scientism.) We have to add to the discovery of these illusions of the will and of sensory experience, robust experimental results which reveal that we actually navigate the world looking through the rear-view mirror! We don’t even see what is in front of our eyes, but continually make guesses about it based on what has worked out in our individual and evolutionary past. Along with so much more that neuroscience is uncovering about the brain, uncovering the illusion that we are looking through the windshield instead of the rear-view mirror, reveals that the mind is no more a purpose-driven system than anything else in nature. This is just what scientism leads us to expect. There are no purposes in nature; physics has ruled them out, and Darwin has explained them away.


7. The brain does everything without thinking about anything at all

The human brain is probably the most efficient information storage device that has ever appeared in the universe. But it doesn’t store or utilize information in anything like the way conscious introspection reports. According to introspection we have original underived intentionality, and everything else—speech, writing, everything we use as symbols—gets its derived intentionality from original intentionality in the brain. The trouble is that we have good reasons from physics to see that original intentionality is impossible and better reasons from neuroscience and AI to see that the brain doesn’t need any original intentionality to do its job. The remaining mystery is to explain where the illusion came from and why we are stuck with it.

“Original intentionality” is John Searle’s useful way of designating the fact that for anything else in nature to be a symbol, to be about stuff, there have to be brain states—sets of neural circuits wired together—that confer intentionality on it: that is, there have to be clumps of matter, presumably in the brain, that, just in virtue of their composition, are about clumps of matter outside the brain: If I believe that Paris is the capital of France, there has to be a clump of matter—some wet stuff in my brain—that is about Paris, that refer to it, point to it, indicate it, that is ‘about’ it just in virtue of the neuron’s shape, size, wiring, and their other purely physical features. But physics fixes all the facts, and it assures us that there cannot be clumps of matter—combinations of fermions and bosons—that just are,  in virtue of their constitution, about other clumps of matter. So, no original intentionality.

You will doubtless be tempted to reply that it’s not just the clump of matter—the bit of porridge in the brain--that is, by itself, about Paris; it’s the neural circuits plus other clumps of matter causal connected to it in the right way. Original intentionality is causal role with respect to other clumps of matter (remember that science only recognizes clumps of matter and fields of force). But piling up clumps of matter without original intentionality, and having them participate in complex causal processes with one another won’t produce original intentionality—it’s still just fermions and bosons. There is no better proof of this than the limitations of teleosemantics.

Teleosemantics isn’t just the best naturalism can do to provide an account of original intentionality. It is the only possible account of it if the physical facts fix all the facts. Brain states and the behavior they bring about are among the most purposefully appearing things and events in the universe. The only way they can discharge their appearance of purpose in a world where physics has banned real purpose is via a Darwinian process of blind variation and natural selection. The essence of intentionality is purpose, as Dennett (1969), Bennett (1976), Dretske (1988) , Millikan (1984), Papineau (1993), Neander 2006), Matthen (1988), and Loyd (1989) have shown. But teleosemantics can’t individuate intentional content. No amount of environmental appropriateness of a neural state or its effects is fine-grained enough to give unique propositional content to the neural state, to confer on it the sort of specific aboutness that original intentionality requires. Teleosemantics can’t solve what Fodor calls the disjunction problem. So much the worse for original intentionality! If Darwinism about the brain can’t give us unique propositional content, then there is none. Because if Darwinism can’t give us content, nothing can. The conclusion to draw is that the brain does acquire, store, or deploy its information propositionally, in ways that require original intentionality.

One way to see this is to follow the developments in neuroscience since Kandel (2009) first figured out the molecular biology of learning in the Sea Slug. What he figured out was the sequence of changes in synapses that produce short-term memory learning and the changes in somatic gene expression that produce long-term memory. It turns out to be just a matter of either organizing extant synaptic circuits in new wiring patterns, or switching on genes in neurons that produce new synapses. No intentionality in Sea Slug memory storage, just new circuitry responding with new outputs to new inputs. Then Kandel turned to mammals and found exactly the same synaptic changes and somatic gene expression in short and long term memory in the rat hippocampus: the difference between rats and sea slugs is that what goes on in the former is just a lot more of exactly the same as what goes on in the latter. No matter how tempting it is to accord propositional knowledge to the rat--brain states that are about the rat’s environment—there is no neural scope for it, unless you want to go back and say that the neural ganglia of the Sea Slug have some original intentionality. More of the same research showed Kandel that storage of information in the human hippocampus was no different a process: it involves the same neurotransmitters making exactly the same short term changes and the same somatic genes as operate in the sea slug churning out the same signals that direct production of the same new synapses in long term information storage. The difference between humans and rats and sea slugs is of course, proportionately larger numbers of neurons involved in more complicated circuits. But there is still no room for original intentionality. What is going on in all three cases is just input/output wiring and rewiring. The brain does everything without thinking about anything at all. And in case you still had any doubts there is Watson, the Jeopardy-playing computer, storing as much information as we do, without any original intentionality.

But consciousness is screaming at us almost from the cradle to the grave that thought is about stuff. That this is one thing we can’t be wrong about, Descartes (1641) insisted. So, the real problem is to figure out where illusion comes from. That conscious intentionality is an illusion is something scientism can be sure of. The reason is obvious: all the arguments that one clump of matter—no matter how complicated--can’t just by itself be about another clump of matter goes for the clumps of matter that are our conscious thoughts too! The mind is the brain. Conscious thoughts; just like unconscious ones are complex combinations of neural cells, along with ions and macromolecules moving between them. The tokens or markers being put together and moved around in consciousness can no more have original intentionality than anything else that is purely physical. All they can do is confer the illusion of it. What we need to explain is how the illusion arises.


8. Farewell to the Purpose-Driven Life

     Solving the puzzle of where the illusion of intentionality in consciousness comes from is not much less formidable a task than figuring out what the function of consciousness is to begin with. Most probably, consciousness is too big a deal to have just one function. But one of its functions is not constituting or containing original intentionality. And fostering the illusion of original intentionality can’t be one of its functions either.

The illusion of original intentionality has its origin in the fact that while the brain stores information in non-propositional data structures of some kind, it extracts and deploys the information in temporally-extended processes, such as noises and marks—and eventually speech and writing; and it is these together with the conscious states that they result in, that generate the illusion of propositional content.

The interior monologue that introspection carries on is a silent version of the play (the tokening) of noise, ink-marks and pixels that passes for public communication. Like public speech and writing, our introspective stream of consciousness doesn’t record or report what the brain is actually doing, because the brain can’t store or manipulate information in thoughts about stuff. That requires aboutness. Conscious introspection is not just wrong about sensory experience, it’s no guide to cognition either. Whatever the brain does, it doesn’t operate on statements that are “about” things, facts, events that are outside of the mind. The sentences in speech, writing and thought do not express unique determinate or even small numbers of determinate statements or propositions that constitute their content, or what they are about. The illusion that they do gets built up in each brain anew during the developmental ontogeny of every language-learning child, and has been built up in hominid evolution from grunts, shrieks, eventually clicks and gestures coordinated with behavior, all the way to Chinese characters and Kanji calligraphy. The emergence of generative, transformational, syntactic, phonological and morphological features of those noises and marks that constitute language have great adaptive value and were crucial to moving our ancestors from the bottom of the savanna food chain to the top in a matter of less than a million years. It’s even possible that the silent version of those noises and mental version of those marks had a role to play in our eventual supremacy and were therefore selected for. But it wasn’t because they bear original intentionality.

If the brain cannot be the locus of original intentionality, then original intentionality just doesn’t exist. But without intentionality, we have to recognize that most of our conceptions about ourselves are also illusions. If plans, projects, purposes, plots, stories, narratives and the other ways we organize our lives and explain ourselves to others and ourselves, all require intentionality, then they too, are all illusions. And if the meaning of life is a matter of our thoughts and actions being imbued with propositional content, then a scientistic view is not going to be able to take the meaning of life seriously except as the symptom of illusion—deep and powerful, pervasive and impossible to surrender except very intermittently, but an illusion for all that.

On the other hand, it will come as no surprise that our beliefs and desires, our plans and projects, our hopes, fears, prejudices, commitments, ideologies and the purposes we espouse are so bad at explaining what we do, either as individuals or in groups. Folk psychology has been struggling without success for literally thousands of years to enable us to improve the understanding of human affairs, while science needed only a few centuries to enable us to understand everything else to great precision. The reason is obvious: biography and history, even when they get their chronologies right, stitch them together using the thread of words—sounds and inscriptions that are supposed to express thoughts about things in the heads of human agents. But there are no thoughts about things—no distinct statements or propositions—in people’s heads. What we attribute to people in the idiom of folk psychology as the beliefs and desires that actually move them to action, does a vey imprecise job of identifying the real causal variables in human brains. When we pile on folk psychological explanations into human histories that comport the lives of dozens or thousands, the result must be even less precise.

All this goes even more so for the interpretative humanities. The demand of the humanities, that we account for works of art and artifacts, in terms of their meanings, is part of the insatiable hunger for stories with plots, narratives, and whodunnits that human kind have insisted on since natural selection made us into conspiracy theorists a half a million years ago or so. This is a taste it will be too hard to shake in everyday life. The fiction best-seller list will always be with us. But we need to move most of the works now on the non-fiction list to their rightful places among the magical realist romances, the historical and biographical novels, and the literary confessions. For they secure their meretricious appeal on the back of our love for narratives, and these in turn report transactions in the illusory realm of original and derived intentionality.


9. Life’s illusions I recall, but I really don’t know life at all.

If the mind is the brain (and scientism can’t allow that it is anything else), we have to stop taking consciousness seriously as a source of knowledge or understanding about the mind, or about the behavior the brain produces. And we have to stop taking our selves seriously too. We have to realize that there is no self, soul or enduring agent, no subject of the first-person pronoun, tracking its interior life while it also tracks much of what is going on around us.

The self, person, soul, transcendental unity of apperception, the “I” in the mind has to be numerically identical over time.  Stages of consciousness or seeming-memories that are causally connected in the “right way” or a succession of selves that are qualitatively similar to their near neighbors, or ship-of-Theseus replacements over time, are just not going to cut it. To see why just think about the films Freaky Friday or Trading Places: even 6 year old kids have no trouble understanding these movies, even though mom and daughter, dad and son, don’t exchange so much as a fermion or a boson, and switch bodies while remaining numerically identical. None of the substitutes for the self that naturalists and neuroscientists have contemplated to solve the problem of personal identity either last long enough or are composed of the right sort of numerically unchanged stuff to do the work of enabling us to understand these movies.

There seems to be only one way we make sense of the person whose identity endures over time and over bodily change. This way is by positing a concrete but non-spatial entity with a point of view somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears in the middle of our heads. Since physics has excluded the existence of anything concrete but non-spatial, and since physics fixes all the facts, we have to give up this last illusion consciousness foists on us. But of course Scientism can explain away the illusion of an enduring self as one that natural selection imposed on our introspections, along with an accompanying penchant for stories. After all it is pretty clear that they solve a couple of major design problems for bodies like ours that have to hang around long enough to leave copies of their genes and protect them while they are growing up. Maybe we can find one of the functions of consciousness in the way it helps foster the illusion of self and so keeps us investing in future pay-offs that our current and occurent selves won’t be around to collect.

The multiple substitutes for the numerically identical, enduring self that Damasio (2010), for example, hypothesizes, or the causal chain that David Lewis (1976) invokes, just change the subject, instead of solving the problem that has daunted us at least since Locke. Changing the subject and providing an improvement on the impossible conception that common sense saddles us with may be an admirable achievement of naturalism. But it is no more a scientific vindication of received wisdom than teleosemantics without propositional content. It’s eliminativism, slightly sugar-coated. 


9. History is bunk (and the social sciences are myopic)

     Having come this far, science now has the resources to explain the frustrations and the failure of the social sciences and history, and to provide a firm basis on which to establish reasonable expectations about the prospects for the human sciences, qua sciences.

     Intentional content being an illusion, the weakness of content-driven explanations of human action—our own and others—is obvious. The limitation it imposes will be exacerbated when we come to explain the behavior of historical agents and even worse, when we attempt to explain the results of their interactions with one another. Meanwhile, the taste for plots, stories and whodunnits that Mother Nature instilled, will make it impossible ever to shake the attractions of narrative. So history and biography will always be with us, but they will never provide much more than diverting stories, and post hoc rationalizations.

But there is a much deeper reason for naturalism to be pessimistic about the uses of history: reason enough to conclude that Santayana’s (1905) or Churchill’s (1947) argument for taking history seriously—to know the future--will never be borne out. Recall the stirring phrases: “those who do not learn the lessons of history are suffered to repeat them,” and “The further back you look, the farther forward you can see.” Bunk.

Human history is the process of coordination, accommodation, and competition of adaptations—initially, genetically encoded ones, and eventually, culturally transmitted ones. The process results in local equilibria of varying lengths of time, punctuated at an accelerating rate by arms races. The result is the irrelevance of the distant past to the distant future and the ever-increasing myopia of the recent past as a guide to the near future.

 As we know from the biological case, nothing is forever: arms races will eventually break up the most long lived cases of accommodation, cooperation and even break up live-and-let live neutrality between traits. What is more, the space of variations in which natural selection searches for ways to break up these local equilibria is vast beyond even the dreams of the evolutionary biologist. Who would have thought of the arrangement whereby the male of a species lives on the tongue of the female?

Now, why suppose that the unpredictability of Darwinian trajectories in biology also bedevil human affairs?

Two reasons:

 1. Almost all significant features of human affairs—historical actions, events, processes, norms, organizations, institutions, etc.—have functions—i.e. adaptations, or else they are the direct results of such adaptations.

2. The only source of functions or adaptations in nature—including human affairs--are Darwinian processes of blind variation and environmental filtration.  All regularities among adaptations (or their direct results) are local equilibria, which are eventually broken up by arms races. Such restricted regularities have limited explanatory power underwritten by unrestricted Darwinian regularities.

Premise 1 may seem dubious at first blush. How could almost everything in human affairs be an adaptation? That sounds like an idea worthy of Pollyanna or Voltaire’s (1947) Dr. Pangloss. Even in biology, not everything turns out to be an adaptation. Much of evolution is a matter of drift—the play of chance on small and sometimes even large populations that leads to changes in the distribution of adaptations, and even to the persistence of non-adaptive and maladaptive traits. Moreover, important biological traits are themselves either the result of physical constraints or were acquired as adaptations early enough in evolutionary processes to remain fixed long after they ceased to be adaptations. Surely all the same must be said of the course of human affairs. Indeed, for obvious reasons, there may well be a greater role for drift and constraint in human affairs than biological processes.

     Of course premise 1 does need to be understood as qualified by the reality of drift and constraint in human affairs. In fact the plausibility of the claim that premise 1 makes about the adaptedness of most features of human affairs relies a great deal on the qualification ‘significant.’ There will be many features of human affairs that are the result of drift, and yet few historians or social scientists will accept the suggestion that what particularly interests them about human affairs is the result of random drift alone or even mainly. Similarly, social scientists will recognize constraints of many kinds as forcing subsequent features of human affairs to adapt to them. But few social scientists accord such constraints the fixed character that constraints—especially physical ones—have in biological evolution. In fact, the most revolutionary social changes in fact break down the oldest, firmest, and most pervasive social constraints, as a result of processes of variation and selection. The real issue is whether such variation is blind and the resultant selection natural.  

Reflection on human affairs does suggest that even more than in biology, significant features of social life are largely or even wholly adaptations for some one, or some group, or some practice. To begin with almost all the vocabulary and taxonomy of common sense, history and the human sciences are themselves thoroughly functional. As a consequence it would be difficult for history and social science even to notice or describe anything except in terms that attributed effects to it that are beneficial for some one or something!

Human social life consists of adaptations constructed—“intentionally” or otherwise--by individuals and groups to cope with an environment that has mostly come to consist of other individuals and groups and their adaptations.

Then there are the features of human life that no one designed, that didn’t emerge unintentionally from actions and events people did “design” or intend, but that are best thought of as symbionts, or parasites, or sometimes combinations of both, living on human life, and changing it for the better or for the worse, but always adapting to ensure their own survival.

Chinese foot-binding is a nice example of how this works. Foot-binding persisted for about a 1000 years in China. It got started because women with bound feet were more attractive as wives. So, at first, when the practice arose, foot-bound girls had more suitors. Pretty soon every family that could afford it was binding daughters’ feet to assure they’d get married. Result: when every girl’s feet were bound, foot-binding no longer provided an advantage in the marriage market, and all foot-bound girls were worse off. But once every one was doing it, no one could get off the foot-binding merry-go-round. Here we have a tradition, a norm----Bind daughters’ feet!--that by the time it was widely adopted, ceased to be an adaptation for the people whose behavior it governed. Why did it persist despite its maladaptive effects on foot-bound girls? For whom or for what were its features adaptations? The practice persists, like any parasite, because of its adaptations, those of its features that exploit the “weaknesses” of humans and their institutions—marriage, the desire for virgin-brides and large dowries and the desire to control women before and after marriage.

Once we widen our focus, the claim that almost everything of interest in human affairs has functions or adaptations becomes far less Panglossian.

      Human history, like natural history is composed of a sequence of events, states, processes and individuals, all of which have adaptive traits or are themselves adaptations of various sorts. In the human case some have been contrived by human design (or so the narratives of folk psychology tell us).  But most, including most artifacts, humans have “invented” through the same process of blind variation and environmental filtration that produces adaptations in the biological realm. Of course the mechanism of transmission of these adaptations in the human case doesn’t involve genetic transmission; what it requires and in fact utilizes is cultural transmission, a highly unfaithful transmission channel. Moreover, cultural evolution is unlike biological evolution, where the relevant selective environment mostly changes with geological slowness. In human cultural evolution, the relevant selective environment is ever-increasingly other people, other families, other groups, other cultures, societies, their mores, norms, institutions, technologies, etc. Since the environment in which humans operate is largely one created by humans, it changes with accelerating rapidity over time. Once we entered the Holocene, if not before, human history became a Darwinian process in which the adaptative traits began to vary at accelerating rates while the environment filtering among them for local improvements began to change at the same or an even greater rate. The result was to interrupt, break down and put an end to local equilibria, islands of stability, periods of tranquility and historical epochs, with ever increasing rapidity. And the mechanism of this process of (sometimes creative) destruction is the arms race that natural selection makes inevitable.

If most historically interesting traits are adaptations and the process by which they interact is Darwinian, then human history is not the blind leading the blind. It’s the blind wrestling with the blind. It’s a fight in which neither side can see the other side’s current moves clearly, nor reliably predict their next move or the outcome. Human history is a nested series of arms races that never attain more than a temporary and unstable equilibrium. And once unanticipated changes in science and technology begin to take a hand in the destiny, eruption and direction taken by arms races – the outcomes become as unpredictable as the growth of knowledge. The lesson of history is that there are no lessons for the future; the further back you look the more irrelevant your knowledge of the past to the future. It’s rather funny to think that what Winston Churchill overlooked in his defense of history were, of all things, arms races!

 The obstacle to useful knowledge from history that is posed by the arms race character of human affairs is not avoidable by social science, no matter how scientistic (in the old pejorative sense) it aims to be.

All the social sciences face exactly the same explanatory problem that Darwin faced in biology: how do adaptations arise, persist and change. Since, as physics, and in particular the 2nd law of thermodynamics shows, Darwin’s explanation is the only one possible in biology, and it must be the only one possible in social science. Almost everything in human affairs has a function—either for everybody, or for some favored class of people, or for a group, or an institution that people participate in; or else it is something like foot-binding, which survives by “creating” and adapting to niches composed of people and their beliefs.

If almost everything of interest to the human sciences is a function or has a function or components with functions, then naturalism must be Darwinian about them. Once purposes are ruled out of nature—biological, social, psychological--there is only one way that something with functions can be brought about, maintained, or changed over time: the process that Darwin discovered--blind variation and environmental filtration. And that is a process in which arms races, and the reflexive, nested instability they cultivate, make human sciences only a little less myopic than the history that has been familiar to us since Thucydides.

The only advantage the non-historical social sciences have over history is that they seek to explain the present, and predict the near future, instead of explaining the more distant past with alleged payoffs for the future. There are local equilibria that last longer than a day or a week, and so produce local regularities—about TV ratings or voting or interest rates or marriage rules or suicide rates. They may even last long enough for social scientists to have enough time to uncover them. But they never last long enough to be refined into tools for reliable prediction that could confer confidence on explanations that cite them. When it comes to seeing the future, history is blind and the social sciences myopic.


10. Is this what the optimistic naturalists have been saying all along?

Could it be that the difference between disenchanted naturalism and the more widespread view about its implications is a matter of emphasis or seeing the cup half empty vs. half full? For example, what is the difference between treating Darwin’s achievement as expunging purpose from nature vs. treating it as making purpose safe for causality? What’s the difference between being a nihilist about value and morality and being a Darwinian moral realist? What is the difference between being an eliminativist about intentional content and claiming that there are real patterns in the brain that the intentional stance captures? What’s the difference between denying there is a person, self or soul and admitting that numerical identity is too much to ask for personal identity? What’s the difference between denying the possibility of a human science and maintaining that the boundary conditions change too rapidly to make any real-time use of it? I think the differences must be real, and I have already hinted at why I do so above.

To begin with, almost all naturalists adopt a variety of physical anti-reductionism: about biology, about psychology, about social, political and economic processes. As an epistemic reflection of temporary and even long-standing barriers to our ability to see how the physical facts fix all the facts, physical anti-reductionism is a live possibility. But most naturalists treat it as a metaphysical thesis about levels of organization in biology and psychology. They do so in order to make room for the causal power of mental events and the real autonomy of biological processes from molecular ones. None of these naturalists have a convincing explanation of how metaphysical emergence is possible, but none are satisfied with a merely epistemic emergentism. I think that Jaegwon Kim’s argument concerning overdetermination vs. explanatory competition is enough to show why physicalist reductionism won’t work. But at any rate, the difference between the disenchanted naturalist and the one who hopes to leave most of what we believe untouched, starts with this real difference. But it doesn’t end there.

And where the difference takes off is in the implications physics has for purpose in the universe. If the 2nd law makes Darwinian natural selection inevitable, then the notion that Darwinian natural selection naturalizes purpose has to be surrendered! Physics and especially the 2nd law expunge purpose from the universe, and they do it not only in physics and chemistry, but in biology and all the biological sciences—including the sciences of man. That must include even the cognitive processes that we think of as the home base of purpose, planning, intention, design, deliberation, and action. Long before the Churchlands (1986, 2012) dreamed up eliminativism, its truth was on the cards from physics. The only way to pretend that Darwinism made purpose safe for causation is to change the subject, to redefine purpose and all the other teleological notions so that they are just façon de parler, to use a bit of positivist jargon, for processes foreordained by the almost invariable increase in entropy almost everywhere almost all the time. Changing the subject by redefining crucial terms seems to me to be the stock in trade of optimistic naturalism, and it is what conveys the impression that the differences between it and disenchanted naturalism are merely matters of emphasis.

Consider the widespread attempts to ground ethics naturalistically. Almost all of them have rightly recognized that any effort to do so must exploit the theory of natural selection. That there is no other scientifically available resource for this project is a view I share. But even the most optimistic of naturalists recognizes that natural selection always tracks adaptations and rarely tracks truths. The most, therefore that a naturalistic account of core morality can do is to reveal its prudential or instrumental value for us. Even that is probably not on the cards, since a 400-year-old research program that starts with Hobbes and continues to Gauthier has tried to do just this without success. If there is any more to core morality than prudence, if in addition to be being prudent for creatures like us there is some further right-making fact about core morality, naturalism faces a massive and inexplicable coincidence: core morality is an adaptation and it is the correct morality, and these two facts bear no explanatory relation to one another. Disenchanted naturalism refuses to countenance massive coincidence. Its only alternative is nihilism: that there is no fact of correctness about morality to explain. Here too, reducing moral rightness to prudence produces a naturalistic grounding of morality by changing the subject.

Most radical of all is the divergence between disenchanted naturalism and optimistic naturalism about the mind. The latter holds out the hope of a causal account of at least some human propositional knowledge, perhaps a teleosemantic account, perhaps some other theory of “real [intentional] patterns” in the brain. Disenchanted naturalism holds that all the neural facts (including conscious introspection) underdetermine unique propositional content, and there is no fact of the matter even about which finite set of propositions a neural state “contains”.

 Giving up original intentionality is the easy part for disenchanted naturalism. The hard part is crafting an alternative account of how the brain acquires, stores, and deploys information non-propositionally. It’s easy to go dispositional about beliefs and desires. Maps store information non-sententially and so perhaps non-propositionally, and these may provide a model for how the brain does it. But the question remains whether a radical eliminativism about intentionality has to get along without truth or falsity altogether.





an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 12, January - April 2015, ISSN 1552-5112



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