There I suggested that any (normal) human-like creature is capable of Kantian judgements of taste. Today, I want to consider the appreciation of beauty without restriction to the rigorous Kantian ideal. My concern here is the simple sense of beauty–the gobsmacked reaction that people have to gorgeous sunsets, magnificent mountain ranges, the starry sky, and also (my ultimate quarry) to great artistic creations. Obviously, SOB–I apologize for the rebarbative acronym, but perhaps some demystification is healthy–is universal among humans, and apparently not so among other animals. It must, therefore, be an evolved characteristic, something that sprung up in some hominin species and inherited by us. (Million year old handaxes are meticulously symmetric, and dubiously functional; so it seems likely that SOB is pre Homo sapiens.)The question is: why did it evolve?
I have been writing an entry on “Art and Evolution” for the Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (3rd edition), and I am going to try out some ideas in a series of posts. On the main points that you might expect to hear about, my positions are (in ascending order of logical strength):
Art is culturally universal.
Art is evolved.
Art is selected for.
I won’t get to 3, the most contested of these theses, for a while.
I want to start by considering the question: “Is the appreciation of beauty culturally universal?” I also want to touch on whether it is evolved and/or selected for. (To be clear: this is just a preliminary to the above questions about art.)
We had a vigorous discussion last week about the merits of Bernard Suits’s definition of game. Of course, we did not reach agreement. But Tom Hurka and I argued that there is a difference between defining concepts and defining words. Our position was that Suits’s definition focuses on a valuable concept that fits most games, even if it is not precisely coextensive with the vernacular use of the word ‘game’.
Today, I want to work with a Suits-like game-concept, setting aside worries both about correspondence with the vernacular and about precise details. The idea I want to explore is that games have a reflexive structure shared by art. I also want to suggest that they might share something significant at the base level of the reflexive structure.
In the context of the controversy sparked by the article published last week comparing infanticide (which it refers to as 'after-birth abortion') to abortion, I thought it might be useful to highlight Sarah Hrdy’s work on infanticide, both among humans and among other animals (see here for example). Some attempts to refute the analogy between abortion and infanticide presented in the polemic paper (see here for example) argued that infanticide is unnatural among humans, and hardly ever practiced.
Now, in her book Mother Nature Hrdy argues convincingly that infanticide is much more widespread among humans than we like to think. One need not agree with her attribution of a fitness-enhancing component to the practice of infanticide (criticized for example in this paper) to be convinced by the data she presents, indicating the ubiquity of the practice among humans. My point here is not to argue that, since humans practice it, it must be a legitimate practice (I did take ‘Is-ought fallacy 101’ after all), but simply to point out that there is a lot of misconception out there concerning actual occurrences of infanticide among humans (and other species). Everyone interested in the topic would benefit from a closer analysis of Hrdy’s work, even from a ‘purely philosophical’ point of view (i.e. the ‘ought’ side of the story).
By way of contrast, let me just mention a very sensible proposal I heard the other day: a vibrator should be offered to every young woman reaching a certain age (which age exactly is at this point still under debate), in a government-funded project in the interest of public health. The owner of this great idea does realize that even in a fairly liberal country such as the Netherlands, this might be a bit hard to sell, but he is confident that at least some political parties will see the merits of the proposal.
Many readers will have already seen Jess Prinz’s recent blog post criticizing a psychological study defending the Male Warrior hypothesis, according to which men are evolved to seek out violent conflicts in order to get women. He now has a reply to the objections raised by two other bloggers, one of them one of the authors of the study (H/T Feminist Philosophers). I’m not sure this is appropriate language for blogging, but I just can’t help myself: Prinz is really kicking ass, there is no better way to describe it. Some excerpts:
In the early 1990s I was an undergraduate at Tufts, and took an exciting seminar with Dan Dennett on his manuscript that became Darwin's Dangerous Idea. After graduation and some travel I ended up alone on a Greek Island, where captivated by the memetic theory, I wrote a very long (80 pages?) ms on how to turn memetics into a science. I sent it to Dennett and received a very kind, encouraging response. (All of this aided by Greek mail.) I went to Chicago to work with Bill Wimsatt on the science of memetics in a weekly reading group with Bill and Betty Van Meer. Bill was skeptical, but open-minded. So, we decided to focus on technology as a species of cultural evolution and try to build a science of memes out of a collection of case-studies. After relentless discussion and debate, I gave up on turning memes into a science just as the Journal of Memetics was founded (ca 1997). Bill wrote a lovely, much cited piece about memes, and that was the end of the memetic matter for me.
So, I read the this review of a book bashing memetics with a touch of bemusement; the reviewer agrees with the book (and also bashes neo-classical economics). The following paragraph astonished me:
The Fibonacci numbers are those in the following sequence of integers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 etc. By definition, the first two numbers are 0 and 1, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. The sequence is named after Fibonacci, aka Leonardo of Pisa, who introduced the sequence (known already in Indian mathematics) to Western audiences in his famous book Liber Abaci (1202) – which, by the way, is also one of the main sources for the dissemination of Hindu-Arabic numerals in Europe, no less. (Fibonacci had learned ‘Eastern’ mathematics while studying to become a merchant in North Africa -- see an earlier post on the importation of Indian and Arabic mathematics into Europe through a sub-scientific, merchant tradition.)
In the spirit of the recent dueling posts here at NewAPPS, here’s a rejoinder to posts by my esteemed co-bloggers Helen de Cruz and Mohan Matthen. I am a big fan of the work of both, but disagree quite a bit with their take on evolutionary psychology, as I am no fan of most of the work done under this heading. (Ok, that’s a massive understatement.) What I don’t like about it is not only the fact that it is often much too speculative to my taste (Cosmides’ ‘cheating module’ being a good example), but also the fact that it takes the ‘wrong’ conception of evolution as its starting point. I am a staunch partisan of the anti-ultra-adaptionist conception of evolution of S. Jay Gould and others, and thus reject both the idea that phenotypic traits in organisms are primarily adaptations, and the related thesis of massive modularity. Gould emphasized in particular the constraints connected to the internal architecture of the organism, and the mutual influence of its different aspects (hence a rejection of massive modularity and a more holistic conception of organisms).
Helen De Cruz recently floated the idea that if our moral beliefs are produced by evolution, they are unlikely to be objectively true. “The prospects for an evolutionary-informed moral objectivism are grim, for here we stumble on the problem of the familiar Humean is/ought gap. . . It seems then that as we offer a plausible causal story of moral norms, we will be unable to make mind-independent moral truths figure in the explanation.”
Here I offer three arguments to counter what Helen calls “evolutionary debunking arguments” against moral objectivism.
Bolivia will become the first McDonald’s-free Latin American nation ... Bolivians are not against hamburgers per se, just against ‘fast food,’ a concept widely unaccepted in the Bolivian community.
Fast-food represents the complete opposite of what Bolivians consider a meal should be. To be a good meal, food has to have be prepared with love, dedication, certain hygiene standards and proper cook time.
Here we see a close connection of political affect and political economy. You can resist neoliberal atomization just by paying attention to food production and consumption -- put more simply, eating food you make with people you love makes you feel less lonely and more connected and hence more aware that all social life bathes in the waters of "everyday communism."
[UPDATE 1 Jan 2012: commenters note below that the events of the story occurred in 2002. I think my comments in the above graf retain their relevance.]
This shows something very important, I think. One of the things most objectionable to the powers-that-be in the Occupy movement is communizing the biological necessities of life, because that attacks the privatization of the material means to support life, and thus threatens one of their most powerful anxiety-producing tactics by bringing the homeless into the commune. So giving away food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and even toilets, must be crushed. Even giving away the chance for shared joy -- come share this space and dance -- that cannot be tolerated.
The great biologist Lynn Margulis, one of the foremost scientists of the 20th Century, died yesterday. This Spanish language obituary is the only one available so far. I'll add links to others as they become available.
I usually start this talk with a joke that the title page needs more hyphens, since I'm really talking about "geo-bio-neuro-political-techno-affective assemblages." The slides are here. The text of the paper is here. My thanks to Andrew Marzoni, Joe Hughes, and everyone with the Literary Theory Reading Group at the University of Minnesota for the invitation.
At a few occasions here at New APPS, Jon Cogburn and I have respectfully disagreed on the usefulness of literature for becoming a better philosopher, and in fact a better person more generally. He views literature as contributing significantly towards one’s philosophical development, while I have my doubts (to put it mildly). More generally, I believe that even great literature can have a rather negative effect on one’s personal development, in particular with respect to emotions and love, for many of the reasons discussed by Alain de Botton in this surprisingly good essay. According to de Botton, the wide majority of books on the topic focus on unrequited love, thus not preparing readers for what to do when you happen to hit upon a real-life relationship.
Suddenly, literature ceased to be any useful guide to what to expect. All that my books had prepared me for was an image of continuous perfection, a "happy love" that was essentially without any movement or action.
But from time to time, I come across a novel which truly reveals something about real-life experiences, and as it turns out this often happens when I read Philip Roth’s books. Rather than starting with a story and then filling it in with bits and pieces of reality, my impression when reading his books is that he actually starts with reality and then finds a story to go with it. As is well known, Roth relies extensively in his own life experiences, in such a way that many of his books are seen as essentially semi-autobiographical. Now, while on holiday a few weeks ago I read his latest novel, Nemesis, which is in the fourth and last installment in a series of short novels, known as Nemeses.
---- What is the relationship between life and thought? Are all living organisms capable of thinking? Or is thought restricted to animals with nervous systems and brains? Or is it restricted only to human beings, or to us and a few of the other ‘higher’ animals? In any case, what is the relation between thought (which takes place, we like to say, in the mind) and the actual physical processes that take place in the brains of animals and human beings when they are thinking? For that matter, what does it mean to say that thinking, like other forms of organic activity, is subject to, and determined by, physical laws? Is it meaningful to ascribe ‘free will’ to human beings and other organisms? Or are thought processes strictly deterministic, so that ‘free will’ is just an illusion?
These are all speculative, metaphysical questions, which philosophers have been actively discussing for at least several thousand years. They cannot be answered by science alone. But at the very least, biological research of the past several decades has given us vastly more information about cognition and thought, in human beings and in other organisms, than we ever possessed before. In what follows, I would like to look briefly at some of this research, and ponder its implications.
Video of my talk at a one-day memorial conference on the work of Francisco Varela. The conference was held in London, organized by Valeria Bonnardel of Winchester University, on the ten-year anniversary of Francisco's untimely death in 2001. My talk is based on this paper.
In discussing the political transpositions of vitalism, Canguilhem writes on p 124 of the French (my translation):
Certainly the thought of Dreisch offers a typical case of the transplantation onto the political terrain of the biological concept of an organic totality. After 1933, the entelechy became a Führer of the organism. [Canguilhem provides the original in a note: Die Ueberwindung des Materialismus, 1935: "Eine Maschine als Werkzeug für den Führer -- aber der Führer ist die Hauptsache," p. 59.] Is it vitalism or the character of Driesch which is responsible for this pseudo-scientific justification of the Führerprinzip?
A very Important example, but what I thought worth a post is the following, which testifies to the greatness of Canguilhem, who, writing in 1946, after heroic service in the Resistance -- which he joined at the encouragement of his colleague Jean Cavaillès, later tortured and killed by the Nazis -- does not rest with a denunciation of recent examples, but drives deep into history to find the bio-political conceptual field -- the field of political physiology -- that authorizes these transpositions.
Could one not think that politics takes from [retire de] biology that which if had first lent it? The Aristotelian notion of a soul that is to the body what the political or domestic ruler [chef] is to the city or the family... [is] a prefiguration of the theories of Dreisch. Thus, in Aristotle, the structure and functions of the organism are set forth by analogies with the intelligently directed tool and with human society unified by rule. What is in question, in the case of the exploitation by Nazi sociologists of anti-mechanistic biological concepts, is the problem of the relations between organism and society.
One of the sources for Canguilhem's claims about Aristotle is the following passage from the Politics, which completes the analogy: the soul as despotic ruler rules over an enslaved, slavish, body:
At all events we may firstly observe in living creatures both a despotical and a constitutional rule; for the soul rules the body with a despotical rule, whereas the intellect rules the appetites with a constitutional and royal rule.... When then there is such a difference as between soul and body ... the lower sort are by nature slaves ... (Politics 1.5.1254b4-6; translation from the Barnes edition)
A famous old bridge player—was it Charles Goren?—once said: if you always make your contracts, you’re underbidding. Actually what he said was a bit more technical: if you always defeat contracts you double, you're not doubling often enough. Slightly different, because when you double, you create a resource--a store of points that was hitherto not up for grabs--simply by claiming it. Boldness is creative.
This is the idea behind an interesting new analysis of “The evolution of overconfidence,” by Dominic Johnson and James Fowler in Nature today (doi:10.1038/nature10384).
Suppose you have a resource for which two players A and B are competing. If only one claims it, she gets it. If neither claims it, neither gets it. If both claim it, they compete for it. The question is whether to be prepared to compete.
You might think you should compete if and only if the cost of doing so is compensated by the reward of winning (all weighted by probability, of course). But when one doesn’t know exactly how strong her opponent is, how should she decide?
The parameters are: the value of the resource claimed, r, the cost of competing, c, and the perception error. Johnson and Fowler computer-simulated evolutionary outcomes—a method that has become familiar to philosophers thanks to Brian Skyrms’ work.
Sexual Conflict (Princeton 2005) is a mind-expanding book by Göran Arnqvist and Locke Rowe.
Arnqvist and Rowe begin by recounting blood-curdling examples of war between the sexes: female robber flies playing dead in order to avoid sex; female penduline tits hiding their eggs from their partners and attacking them violently to protect the hiding place; male funnel spiders anesthetizing their sexual partners in order to avoid being killed and cannibalized by them.
...the evolutionary story behind female orgasm, that is. A month ago I had a post on female sexuality and the sensory cortex, where I also mentioned that my favorite theory on the evolution of female orgasm is the 'by-product' theory: "Women simply happen to share biology with men, for whom orgasm is important. It’s an accidental byproduct, like men’s nonlactating nipples." (source of the quote here)
But now a new study was published which offers evidence against this theory -- see here and here for details. As described in the Wired article:
So Zietsch and Santtila [the authors of the new study] devised a test. They surveyed 1,803 pairs of opposite-sex twins and 2,287 pairs of same-sex twins, asking them how often and how easily they reached orgasm. If female orgasm is evolutionarily connected to male, opposite-sex twins should have similar orgasmic function.
In other words, if the by-product theory is correct, being more or less orgasmic should 'run in the family', both among male and female individuals (since it's the male biology that has been 'selected for' and bestowed to the female kin). But... that's not what came out of the study:
Instead, while orgasmic function was genetically shared in same-sex twins — brother tended to share function with brother, or sister with sister — the relationship vanished in opposite-sex twins, though both share the same amount of genetic material. The underlying genetics, and thus the underlying evolutionary pressures, thus appear to differ.
That is, the mechanisms behind the selection of female orgasm may simply not be the same as those behind male orgasm, contrary to the basic idea of the by-product theory. But then what is the evolution of female orgasm? The new study does not have a positive story to tell.
Of course, even the researchers themselves warn that their results are not definitive; but this is the first empirical study that clearly goes against the by-product theory of female orgasm, which so far was considered by many (myself included) to be the strongest contender in the market. So now it looks like we know even less than we did before; the mystery deepens...
Many NewAPPS bloggers (Helen, John, Mohan, myself) are favorably disposed towards analyses of human cognition which could be described as ‘naturalized’ in that data from empirical sciences (psychology, biology, cognitive science) play an important role.
Now, one crucial aspect in analyses of this sort in general is the issue of continuity and discontinuity between human and non-human animals. We are all familiar with Darwin’s idea that the difference between ‘us and them’ (Pink Floyd, anyone?) is “one of degree and not of kind”, and this seems to be the basic assumption underlying much of the work on non-human animal cognition that has the goal of producing a better understanding of human cognition. (Naturally, there is also the independent project of studying non-human animal cognition and behavior as a goal in and of itself.)
The two main camps are: those who marvel at the complexity of non-human animal cognition and deplore our tendency towards species chauvinism (fondly referred to as ‘monkey-huggers’ sometimes); and those who emphasize the abysmal distance between human and non-human cognition (whom I will refer to as ‘people-huggers’). (I’m using ‘cognition’ in a broad sense here, meant to include also work on e.g. sociability by someone like Frans de Waal.) And among people-huggers, at least some (but not all) end up defending a position that smacks of “We humans are so damn special and unique! There’s really nothing like us.” (also known as 'humaniqueness')
One aspect that is often (though not always) overlooked is the fact that there have been a bunch of closely-related cousins of ours roaming around the Earth at different times, but as it turns out they are all gone now: the missing hominids.
Last week I alluded to a view about evolution that motivates some to sympathize with sensorimotor theory, and more generally, with the view that perception is for bodily action, and not (except incidentally) for the detection of states of affairs independently of their relevance to bodily action.
One version of the argument goes something like this.
Selection cares only about (what Patricia Churchland has raffishly called) the “4 Fs”—Feeding, Fighting, Fleeing, and Reproduction. Since 4F success does not depend on apprehending the truth, selection cannot explain a truth-seeking organism, much less an abstract-truth seeking one.
Arguments like this have considerable currency. Alvin Plantinga takes them to show that God is needed to explain the reliability of human thought. From Stephen Gould’s perspective, they show that non-4F thought is a “spandrel”—a non-adaptive by-product of natural selection. And Tyler Burge writes that false perception “is not a failure of biological function”, since it is response not detection that is biologically functional.
Today, I continue my discussion of actionist theories of perception and thought by taking issue with this anti-intellectual view of human evolution. The 4F view is not mandated by evolutionary theory.
UPDATE: I've changed the term used to describe the fourth category in the taxonomy below from 'conceptual analysis' to 'conceptual reflection'. I hope the new term is better able to cover the many approaches suggested by commenters which did not seem to fit the original description in a straighforward way.
In light of the very interesting methodological discussions we’ve been having here at New APPS on the relations between physics and metaphysics, I’d like to put forward a tentative taxonomy of different strands within philosophical methodology. I suspect it can also be useful for discussions on the analytic vs. continental divide and its overcoming, which is also a recurrent theme in this blog.
Indeed, looking at past and present work in philosophy (and trying to be as encompassing as possible), it would seem that we can identify four main strands of methods used for philosophical analysis:
Formal methods – these correspond to applications of mathematical and logical tools for the investigation of philosophical issues. As examples one could cite the development of possible world semantics for the analysis of the concepts of necessity and possibility, applications of the Bayesian framework to issues in epistemology (giving rise to so-called formal epistemology), Carnapian explication, and many others.
Historical methods – they rely on the assumption that, to attain a better understanding of a given philosophical concept/problem, it is useful (or even indispensable) to trace its historical origins in philosophical theorizing. Of course, the study of the history of philosophy has intrinsic value as such (emphasis on ‘history’) but at this point I’m interested in what Eric Schliesser has once described as ‘instrumental history of philosophy’ (emphasis on ‘philosophy’).
Empirical methods – these are the methodological approaches that systematically bring in elements from empirical sciences, such as the sciences of the mind (particularly relevant for philosophy of mind, epistemology, but to my mind also for philosophy of logic and mathematics), physics (possibly relevant for metaphysics), biology (arguably relevant for ethics, and everywhere else where evolutionary concepts come into play) etc. Sometimes this approach is described as ‘naturalistic’, but as we know there are (too?) many variations of the concept of naturalistic philosophy (many self-described naturalistic approaches are not sufficiently empirically-informed to my taste).
Conceptual reflection – arguably the most traditional philosophical method, consisting in unpacking concepts and drawing implications, introducing new and hopefully useful concepts, problems, conceptual frameworks etc.
So we seem to have a plurality of methods actually being used for philosophical theorizing. Are they all equally legitimate and adequate, both in general and in specific cases? I submit that the correct response to this plurality is methodological pluralism.
The summer holiday is officially over for me, but I haven’t been able to resume blogging on account of being in lovely Ljubljana for ESSLLI this week (today I gave a talk at the logical constants workshop). So still not much time for blogging, but there is one article which I came across last week and would like to talk about, with the admittedly not so felicitous title "Sex on the brain: What turns women on, mapped out". (Quite a change from London riots!) Here is how it starts:
It's what women have been telling men for decades: stimulating the vagina is not the same as stimulating the clitoris. Now brain scan data has added weight to their argument. The precise locations that correspond to the vagina, cervix and female nipples on the brain's sensory cortex have been mapped for the first time, proving that vaginal stimulation activates different brain regions to stimulation of the clitoris.
The draft is here. (Updated with a section on "evolution and involution" as of 5:20 pm CDT.)
It's forthcoming in the Cambridge Companion to Deleuze, edited by Henry Somers-Hall and Daniel W Smith. As it's intended for a reference work it's more of an overview rather than original argumentation. Still, comments welcome here or by email at protevi AT lsu DOT edu.
Here are the introductory remarks, with accompanying notes below the fold:
“Life” was a major theme for Deleuze, so much so that he would say at one point: “Everything I’ve written is vitalistic, at least I hope it is…” (N, 143). But before we get out the pitchforks at this uttering of a forbidden word, we should remember Deleuze’s love of provocation, and read the beginning of the passage to see his idiosyncratic notion of vitalism: “There’s a profound link between signs, life, and vitalism: the power of nonorganic life that can be found in a line that’s drawn, a line of writing, a line of music. It’s organisms that die, not life. Any work of art points a way through for life, finds a way through the cracks.” (N, 143)
In this article we will skirt the relation of life and art,[i] however, and instead focus upon Deleuze’s writings that are aimed at life as it is understood in the biological register.[ii] We’ll begin with a guide to some key biophilosophical investigations in Deleuze’s single-authored masterpiece, Difference and Repetition: Chapter 2 on organic syntheses and organic time, and Chapter 5 on embryogenesis.[iii] Then, in the second part of the article, we will consider several biophilosophical themes in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, addressing “vitalism,” “life,” “nature,” “content and expression,” “milieus, codes, territories,” “nonorganic life,” “body without organs,” and “organism.”
I have been unable to put together a post the past few weeks due to a busy travel schedule to, among other places, the Deleuze Studies Conference in Copenhagen. As one of the instructors at this year's Deleuze Camp (or workshop as I'd prefer to call it to avoid thoughts of boy scouts, letters home to mom, etc.), I was given ample time to develop some thoughts associated with what is certainly one of the central projects of Deleuze's thought - if not the central project - which is to account for the emergence of identifiable beings without presupposing a predetermining identity. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was much overlap between my lectures and those of the other Deleuze scholars who participated in this year's camp - Dan Smith, Ronald Bogue, and Ian Buchanan.
Alva Noë has a recent post on gender, commenting on some of the experimental results described in Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender (some readers may recall that John Protevi and I are huge fans of her work, and of this book in particular). (Btw, Noë’s post even got linked by Leiter – it’s great to see Leiter drawing attention to gender issues.) I quote from Noë’s post:
Conjure before your mind the image of a physics professor. Imagine what his life is like. Now pretend, for a few moments, that you are that person. Try to get a feel for what it is like to be him.
Now let's start anew. This time think of a cheerleader. Picture her; imagine what her life is like. Now pretend to be her. Imagine what it is like to be her.