Prep for "New Trends in Evolutionary Biology" conference

Review of “The Meaning of Science” by Tim Lewens

September marked the start of a 3-year $8 million John Templeton Foundation project, “Putting the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis to the Test” involving 50 experts at 8 institutes who will study and report on “empirical and theoretical research.” Evolutionary theory seems once again to be catching the spotlight. In London November 7-9 evolutionist Denis Noble will preside over a joint conference of the Royal Society and the British Academy titled “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Biological, Philosophical and Social Science Perspectives.” How can members of the British Academy use this opportunity to explore what evolutionary theory implies, or could imply, for the arts and the humanities?

They might start by familiarizing themselves with how scientists think. One of the John Templeton Foundation’s project’s four themes is “Conceptual Issues.” The leader of that theme is Tim Lewens. In his recently-published “The Meaning of Science” he describes for non-scientists some of the lines of thinking through which scientists influence social policy and inspire sensational news stories. Through simple writing and down-to-earth examples he defines these lines of thinking unusually clearly. In fact, he defined them clearly enough for me to recognize them as barriers cutting across how I think. I saw my thinking as like a dinghy trying to cross a series of booms to contain oil spills set at right angles to my path.

The book is generally fair and informative. I’ll focus only on those particular lines of thinking that I experienced as barriers to my own way of thinking. Those lines of thinking deal with free will, consciousness, and evolution. What they act as barriers to is thinking about an issue that I expect to be foremost for artists and members of the humanities, the issue of creativity—can we, through our conscious thinking, be genuinely creative? For me, this is fundamental—I cannot doubt that through conscious experience I can be creative. It is in pursuit of that conviction that I experience Lewens’ lines of scientific thinking as barriers.

One barrier to my way of thinking is alternatives being presented in terms of lop-sided dualities--what scientists assume and a straw man alternative. Disposing of the straw man is then taken to confirm the soundness of what scientists assume. Lewens does this now and then. Rebuttal, of course, consists of rejection of these simplistic dualities and the posing of further alternatives.

Here is Lewens’ line of thinking about free will: Science has established that the universe consists of only matter acted on by physical forces. Science tells us that matter and physical forces obey invariable physical laws, which means all happenings in the universe are determined by prior physical events. So “Either our actions are causally determined, or [straw man] they take the form of [random happenings] that might take us entirely by surprise.” Ditching this straw man leaves only the alternative that we are determined. How then to account for our experience of seeming to arrive at decisions consciously? Only something physical, like our brains, can apply physical forces to make us do anything, so it has to be in the brain that our decisions are arrived at. Our consciousness, being no more than a kind of shadow cast by our brains, registers decisions only after the brain’s come up with them. To console those who can’t abandon belief in “the far more spooky, scientifically intolerable idea that human action is independent of prior causal influence,” they are offered the consolation that the world’s far too complex for anyone to actually prove they don’t have free will, so they can go on believing they have free will if they want to. But for those of us in the know, that sense of having free will is nothing but an illusion. Implied is, that must go for creativity too—as behavior driven by the brain it too must be determined and can’t really be novel.

There it is, the now familiar argument denying free will and, along with it, creativity. The argument is usually delivered at greater length but essentially involves this same sequence of claims. Fortunately it is easily rebutted. Here goes: You can apply the methods of science to only what happens the same way each time you study it, in other words to what’s determined. Anything that isn’t determined like that, such as creativity that’s different every time you study it, science can find no evidence for and dismisses as “non-physical”—resistant to further study. The physicalist line of thinking takes science’s inability to study creativity and free will as proof they aren’t “real,” and brands them illusions. This argument is obviously full of holes.

How about conscious experience? Since we all experience it physicalists have to admit it exists. But operations within consciousness such as free will and creativity they deny reality to by making a simplistic division of mental operations into a physical part, our brains, and a non-physical part, our minds. While admitting interaction can proceed from brain to mind, as when we feel pain from a physical blow or when photons register as sight, it is argued that interaction can’t go the other way, from anything non-physical like consciousness to something physical like the brain, to drive our behavior. In fact, the brain-mind duality is purely hypothetical, mental operating may not divide like that at all, it may be all one, of a nature we haven’t yet divined, involving interactions we’ve no clue to.

Let’s give this physicalist line of thinking a name, and simply refer to it as the “already falsified argument based on a misconceived physical reality” or whatever. It would be tedious to have to repeat all the separate rebuttals each time this argument reappears.

Clearly, the meaning of science as Lewens reports it involves a notion of human nature unlike that common in the arts and the humanities. So which version of human nature should artists and members of the humanities ask that theories of evolution be able to account for? How different is that likely to be from what scientists’ theories offer?

Lewens traces how scientists are likely to think about this issue. In his epilogue Lewens says conscious sensations can be studied only as either facts and skills! Of someone imagined to be seeing something colored for the first time he says “Mary’s vast theoretical knowledge of color and color perception was not sufficient for her to know what it is like to see red, because knowledge of what it is like to see red is a skill”! Not a conscious sensation, but either a fact or a skill! This example should warn us that no matter how authoritative scientists may sound, they may be making distinctions imposed on them by limits in how you can apply scientific thinking. So a theory of the evolution of consciousness need account for only the creation of facts and talents, not anything whooshy like “sensations.” Elsewhere, in a chapter titled “Nature Beware,” Lewens reduces the burden that human nature imposes on evolution even further. He quotes philosophers David Hull as being “suspicious of continued claims about the existence and importance of human nature,” and Michael Ghiselin: “What does evolution teach us about human nature? It teaches us that human nature is a superstition.” Why, asks Lewens, are philosophers doubting the propriety of the very notion of human nature? His answer: “They think that the ubiquitous role of variation in the biological world means that no species has a nature… they point out that it is in the nature of evolutionary processes to make rare traits common, and common traits rare, as new mutations are favored by selection and replace previously dominant traits.” Of another philosopher of science he says “In his view, human nature is nothing more than a set of traits made common in our species by evolutionary processes.”

For me consciousness and creativity are fundamental properties of human nature. Accounting for how they evolved I think calls for a mechanism able to transact in terms of things and processes both physical and non-physical. But for these philosophers of science a theory of evolution need account for nothing more than traits that rise and fall in frequency in response to changes in the environment, alternative versions of genes for traits like texture of hair or color of skin that help creatures adapt to a different climate, say, or a higher elevation. They’ll be satisfied by mere extensions to the modern synthesis’ combination of purely physical processes, genetic mutation and natural selection. Ask how purely physical processes can account for the evolution of such processes as consciousness and they may reply that consciousness consists of nothing more than facts and talents, easy to express in terms of traits. No problem.

The John Templeton Foundation project is titled “Putting the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis to the Test.” What extensions would you suggest adding to a theory like that to make it account for consciousness and creativity, as those in the arts and humanities experience it? If scientists ask you for tests you’d want applied to a theory to see if it works, what would you suggest?

The two sides in this debate seem far apart but there’s no point in raising unnecessary barriers. Insisting that something non-physical can be as real as what’s physical does not necessarily amount to dualism. It’s simply a realization that our acquaintance with the real world happens through two separate channels, science, and consciousness. Physics applies to what happens the same way each time you do an experiment, and consciousness is how we experience and create novelty. Human nature employs both channels. And so may evolution.

Timothy Lewins is a professor of philosophy of science at Cambridge University and a fellow of Clare College. In his book he is reporting current thinking in his field. It’s hard to know what he himself believes. But he is a determinist. Decisions that we feel are driven by free will may actually be determined for us by unconscious physical cues. Of them he says, “All of these things involve forms of free will, all are compatible with determinism. It is not clear why we should require anything more.” Not clear to him, perhaps, but clear to those of us for whom creativity is a daily reality that we want taken into account in any theory of evolution.


Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
The Meaning of Science evolution