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Famous last words

Crossing swords with a professional philosopher can be a dangerous thing. I’m not one, of course; I simply happen to have a Ph.D. in philosophy. But Professor Edward Feser is a professional philosopher, and a formidable debating opponent, as one well-known evolutionary biologist is about to find out.

In a recent post of mine, entitled, Minds, brains, computers and skunk butts, I took issue with a recent assertion by Professor Jerry Coyne, that the evolution of human intelligence is no more remarkable than the evolution of skunk butts. (To be fair, Coyne was not trying to be offensive in his comparison: apparently he really did have a pet skunk for several years, and the simile was the first that sprang to mind for him, as a biologist.) In my post, I cited a philosophical argument put forward by Professor Feser, that the intentionality or “meaningfulness” of our thoughts cannot be explained in materialist terms, as thoughts have an inherent meaning, whereas physical states of affairs (such as brain processes) have no inherent meaning as such. However, Professor Coyne was not terribly impressed with this argument. He replied as follows:

I’ll leave this one to the philosophers, except to say that “meaning” seems to pose no problem, either physically or evolutionarily, to me: our brain-modules have evolved to make sense of what we take in from the environment. And that’s not unique to us: primates surely have a sense of “meaning” that they derive from information processed from the environment, and we can extend this all the way back, in ever more rudimentary form, to protozoans.

He shouldn’t have said that.

Professor Edward Feser has just issued a devastating response to Professor Coyne over at his Website. I’d like to invite readers at Uncommon Descent to have a look at it for themselves, here. It’s a very entertaining read. Feser concludes:

… if one is going to aver confidently that “‘meaning’… pose[s] no problem,” he had better give at least some evidence of knowing what the philosophical problem of meaning or intentionality is and what philosophers have said about it.

Wise words, indeed.

Now, it occurs to me that Professor Coyne, upon reading Professor Feser’s post, might attempt to argue as follows: “When I wrote about our ancestors’ brains ‘making sense’ of their environment, I didn’t mean that they needed to affirm certain propositions about it. I simply meant that they could discriminate between different states of affairs (e.g. friend vs. foe; safe vs. poisonous food) in a way that accrued to our ancestors’ biological advantage. All our higher-level senses of ‘meaning’ subsequently evolved from that ability.”

However, what this response overlooks is the fact that Coyne’s earlier argument contained a subtle but illicit equivocation. Being able to discriminate between A and B is quite different from being able to understand the definition of what it means to be A or B. Likewise, explaining how the human brain came to be able to distinguish safe from poisonous food is not the same thing as explaining how human beings came to be able to talk to each other (using the vehicle of language) about the idea of putting poison in someone’s food in order to kill them. To do that, you need words that have a pre-agreed meaning, and you need to be able to put your thoughts into words that other people can understand. And if that sounds easy, take a look at the previous sentence, and ask yourself how many words have a meaning that you could communicate to a clever chimp by pointing and gesturing. Try communicating the meanings of “to,” “that,” “need,” “word,” “have,” “a,” “agreed,” “and,” “able” and “into” to a chimp, using sign language. Finally, try communicating the meaning of “thought” and “meaning” using nothing but sign language. Somehow I don’t think the attempt is going to work.

So when Professor Coyne asserts in his latest reply that “the brain is a meat machine that cranks out thoughts and emotions, and when the brain dies, so do its products,” it is he who is begging the question. He is assuming that brains can do something that no physical object can do: namely, generate propositions that have a meaning in their own right, despite the fact that brain processes that do the generating are utterly devoid of meaning in their own right.

Regarding Professor Coyne’s other major assertion, that a chimp-sized brain would require a growth rate of only 0.00056% per generation, over a five-million-year period, to attain a human brain size: I don’t dispute his mathematics for a moment. What I do dispute, however, is the implicit claim that growth in volume, or some other incremental quantitative change, is all you need to get from a chimp-sized brain to a human brain. In my earlier post, I cited various experts (e.g. Professor Bruce Lahn, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher at the University of Chicago), who had argued that human evolution would have required a large number of mutations happening in a large number of genes, that the changes which generated the human brain were “categorically different from the typical processes of acquiring new biological traits” and that human evolution was not just a matter of spontaneous advantageous mutations arising within the human lineage. (See here for Lahn’s preferred explanation of the unique traits of the human brain.) Unlike Lahn, I believe that the changes that eventually gave rise to the human brain were intelligently guided; but like Lahn, I believe that the question of the human brain’s origin should be resolved by scientific research and experimentation. Mathematical calculations about growth rates won’t help us much, as the human brain is not merely a scaled-up version of a chimp’s.

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23 Responses to Famous last words

  1. “Professor Jerry Coyne [believes] that the evolution of human intelligence is no more remarkable than the evolution of skunk butts.”

    With respect to Coyne’s own intelligence, I would have to agree, hehe.

  2. “Regarding Professor Coyne’s other major assertion, that a chimp-sized brain would require a growth rate of only 0.00056% per generation, over a five-million-year period, to attain a human brain size:”

    Sophomoric adolescent thinkers like Coyne would be well served to take some engineering classes.

  3. …. for example, if I have a computer that runs Microsoft Word and I quadruple the memory, I will be able to enter four times the amount of words before the system needs to start swapping out to virtual memory, etc. Simply scaling the memory up is not going to suddenly give Word the power to compose symphonies or design rockets. For that, major software changes would be necessary.

    I would ask Coyne: exactly what are the specific “software” differences in humans that gives us the powers thought, meaning, speech and creativity that chimps obviously don’t have?

    He doesn’t know. He has no clue at all. He’s just bloviating based on his ideology. Yawn. Time to turn off the old hearing aid.

  4. mike1962,

    I don’t doubt Professor Coyne’s scientific competence for a minute, even if I disagree vehemently with his criticisms of Intelligent Design. But in this instance, Coyne’s mistake lay in not doing his philosophical homework before commenting on the subject of intentionality.

  5. But in this instance, Coyne’s mistake lay in not doing his philosophical homework before commenting on the subject of intentionality.

    Likewise with regard to the steps required to get from chimp-brain to human-brain. He just seems to have grabbed some numbers and done a little manipulation without having done any real homework.

    Anyone else see a pattern here?

  6. LOL.

    I took Coyne of saying something far simpler than what Feser seems to be reading into Coyne’s post.

  7. 7

    I predict that soon one of the regular commentors from the opposition will show up on this thread and offer a dismissal of Fesner’s argument without engaging it.

  8. If it’s anything like Coyne’s take on free will, it will be something along the lines of, “It can’t exist given my worldview, but that’s maddening to think about. So, I won’t think about it.”

  9. Famous last words

    It’s just a pinprick. Nothing to worry about.

  10. 10

    null#8

    Or perhaps it will be a positioning statement; such that Fesner has over-reacted to Coyne’s limited comment, so Fesner may be ignored without consequence. This over statement by Fesner will no doubt be positioned as a humurous mis-step. Funny is always good.

  11. vjtorley: I don’t doubt Professor Coyne’s scientific competence for a minute

    Is he ignorant, stupid, or wicked? When someone makes a many stupid statements as he does, I’m not so sure. It shows a clear pattern of mental blindness that it gives me no confidence in the rest of his productions.

  12. vj

    On your previous post on this subject this we got into some detail. I was arguing that meaning can be explained in materialist terms. This came down to whether beliefs can be explained in terms of dispositions to behave in certain ways and I was disappointed that you never responded to my last comment. For convenience here is the key point:

    You seem to accept the pigeon’s belief that it is about to be fed can be seen as a behavioural disposition. So presumably a person’s belief that he is about to be fed can also be cashed out behaviourally. How about these beliefs:

    That tigers are dangerous
    That it will rain soon
    That it will rain tomorrow

    I am trying to pin down why some beliefs require a “proposition” whereas others don’t.

  13. 13
    Elizabeth Liddle

    vjtorley: I agree that the key to the human brain’s very remarkable powers lies in its language capacity.

    Have you read Edelman’s book The Remembered Present? He argues that the key linguistic development was the verb, which gives us the capacity for what is often called “mental time travel”, including Theory of Mind capacity.

  14. markf,

    You think pigeons have beliefs about who and what they are?

    What if the pigeon is about to become food, rather than be fed. You think it has beliefs about that?

  15. Markf (#12)

    Thank you for your post. You asked:

    You seem to accept the pigeon’s belief that it is about to be fed can be seen as a behavioural disposition. So presumably a person’s belief that he is about to be fed can also be cashed out behaviourally. How about these beliefs:

    That tigers are dangerous
    That it will rain soon
    That it will rain tomorrow

    I am trying to pin down why some beliefs require a “proposition” whereas others don’t.

    I would say that all of the above beliefs can be cashed out behaviorally. If I believe that tigers are dangerous, then of course, I’ll take a rifle with me if I’m ever in a situation where I’m obliged to venture outside alone on foot, while I’m in “tiger territory”, just in case I am attacked. Hopefully, my warning shots will scare off the tiger. (Of course, it would be far more sensible – and safer for both the tiger and myself – to ride in a jeep with the windows wound up while I’m in “tiger territory”.)

    If I believe it will rain soon, then I’ll take my umbrella with me when I go outside. If I believe it will rain tomorrow, then I’ll take my umbrella with me tomorrow. And if I believe that it will rain at some future date, then I’ll be unwilling to part with my umbrella.

    In these cases, the behaviors described would (in their proper contexts) be regarded as sufficient evidence for my entertaining the beliefs in question. That’s because the beliefs in question are all practical (as opposed to theoretical), and because none of them make reference to other individuals’ mental states.

    But if I believe that you don’t think tigers are dangerous, then no amount of mere behavior on my part can constitute sufficient evidence that I have a belief about your beliefs. For instance, I might take great care to prevent you from being harmed, while you are in tiger territory, but all that demonstrates is my solicitude. It doesn’t show that I have a belief about your beliefs.

    Typically, if I think someone’s beliefs are mistaken, I would be inclined to argue them out of their beliefs. But arguing does not qualify as “behavior”, because it cannot be adequately described without some proposition, stating what the argument is about.

    If I believe that someone’s desires are inappropriate (e.g. a desire to take mind-altering recreational drugs) then once again I will resort to rational argument in an effort to dissuade them – which means I’ll have to invoke propositions.

    Hope that answers your query.

  16. Elizabeth Liddle (#13):

    Thank you for your post. I haven’t read Edelman’s book The Remembered Present, but it sounds very interesting. I do agree that Theory of Mind is part of what makes us different as human beings from other animals. Autobiographical memory (or “mental time-travel”) is another distinguishing feature of human beings. I’d be very interested to hear about how Edelman ties the two together with his theory about the invention of the verb, if you’d care to offer a synopsis of his views.

    I do not, however, believe that the capacity to generate meaningful language, or theories about other minds for that matter, is a capacity of the brain as such, although I’d happily accept that people access (content addressable) memories in their brains when retrieving information about words or other people.

  17. vj – some interesting examples there.  I think I could give accounts of all these beliefs in terms of dispositions to behave in certain ways – bearing in mind that by behaviour I include internal versions of external behaviour e.g. words or images in my head (that is exactly what I observe myself doing at the moment).  But my main question is what are the criteria that distinguish beliefs that have inherent propositional meaning from beliefs that tigers are dangerous. Why is it some beliefs are propositional and others are not?

  18. #14 Mung

    You think pigeons have beliefs about who and what they are?

    No I don’t think this. What made you think I did?

  19. I don’t suppose many people here are reading Pharyngula – but if you do you will have seen his link to this on the subject of philosophers versus scientists.

  20. Markf (#17)

    Thank you for your post. You write:

    But my main question is what are the criteria that distinguish beliefs that have inherent propositional meaning from beliefs that tigers are dangerous. Why is it some beliefs are propositional and others are not?

    Good question. I would say that beliefs that relate to the attainment of some practical goal (e.g. food) by performing some physical action which can be adequately described in perceptual (e.g. “Press the red button”), biological (e.g. “Kill that animal”) or purely mechanical (e.g. “Jump!”) terms, are beliefs that do not require their possessors to formulate propositions.

    Beliefs that necessarily involve reference to some proposition held by oneself (e.g. a belief that one’s previous belief about something was incorrect) or some other person (e.g. a belief that A’s belief that P is mistaken), or which involve reference to some abstraction (e.g. a belief about the concept of “dog”, as opposed to a belief about dogs, or a belief about natural numbers, or a belief about some non-material object such as angels), are beliefs that do require their possessors to formulate propositions.

    I hope that answers your question.

  21. Beliefs that necessarily involve reference to some proposition held by oneself (e.g. a belief that one’s previous belief about something was incorrect) or some other person (e.g. a belief that A’s belief that P is mistaken), or which involve reference to some abstraction (e.g. a belief about the concept of “dog”, as opposed to a belief about dogs, or a belief about natural numbers, or a belief about some non-material object such as angels), are beliefs that do require their possessors to formulate propositions.

    vj – thanks for this.  This is one of the more interesting little discussions arising from UD. 

    I guess I find this a bit circular. 

    Q: What characterises a belief that has inherent propositional meaning? 

    A: Beliefs that require their possessors to formulate propositions.

    But anyway, I think I can account for such beliefs as a disposition to behave in certain ways.  Suppose I believe that you are not frightened of tigers (to take one example).  This would manifest itself in behaviours such as:

    * saying to myself “vj isn’t frightened of tigers”, “better make sure vj doesn’t wander into a tiger’s cage” etc.

    * preventing you from exposing yourself to the risk of tigers

    * explaining to you some of the attributes of tigers that make them dangerous

    I think we get confused by two things:

    * Some beliefs are conscious whereas others are unconscious.  In the case of conscious belief we can articulate why we believe something i.e. why we flee from tigers, warn others about them etc.

    * The massive role of language in increasing the complexity and range of behaviour available to us.  It is language that allows us to believe that something will happen in two days time, as opposed to just believing it will happen.  Without language it there would be no behaviours corresponding to this belief.

  22. Famous last words

    Could someone call my mistress?

  23. Famous last words:

    My twitter account was hacked.

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