I’ve seen a fair amount of buzz about an Opinionator column in the August 5 New York Times, “Anything but human,” by Richard Polt. Polt is a professor and chair of philosophy at Xavier University, specializing in Heidegger and in Continental and Greek philosophy.
Polt’s beef is that, as a human, he resents biologists’ notions that we are simply highly evolved animals, have computers in our heads, and that our ethics can be reduced to changes in our neurons produced by evolution. I’ve put Polt’s quotes in bullet points, and comment about them after each one.
- “I have no beef with entomology or evolution [he's talking about E. O. Wilson's own Opinionator column here], but I refuse to admit that they teach me much about ethics. Consider the fact that human action ranges to the extremes. People can perform extraordinary acts of altruism, including kindness toward other species — or they can utterly fail to be altruistic, even toward their own children. So whatever tendencies we may have inherited leave ample room for variation; our choices will determine which end of the spectrum we approach.”
Well, almost no biologist thinks that learning how morality evolved, or develops as a cultural phenomenon, tells us what is the right thing to do. I do think that the rudiments of human morality come from our ancestors, for our relatives show some strikingly moral-like behaviors, but clearly morality has a strong cultural overlay, and what is hard-wired can be overridden by social norms. If that weren’t the case, what is considered moral wouldn’t change so quickly. As Steve Pinker shows in Better Angels of our Nature, our moral attitudes toward violence, slavery, and the treatment of women, animals, children have undergone huge changes in the last few centuries. Nevertheless, there are common aspects of human morality, such as the aversion to gratuitous killing or torture, that do have genetic underpinnings.
- “Next they tell me that my brain and the ant’s brain are just wet computers.”Evolution equipped us … with a neural computer,” as Steven Pinker put it in “How the Mind Works.” ‘Human thought and behavior, no matter how subtle and flexible, could be the product of a very complicated program.’ The computer analogy has been attacked by many a philosopher before me, but it has staying power in our culture,and it works in both directions: we talk about computers that ‘know,’ ‘remember,’ and ‘decide,’ and people who ‘get input’ and ‘process information’. . . None of these devices can think, because none of them can care; as far as we know there is no program, no matter how complicated, that can make the world matter to a machine. Without a brain or DNA, I couldn’t write an essay, drive my daughter to school or go to the movies with my wife. But that doesn’t mean that my genes and brain structure can explain why I choose to do these things — why I affirm them as meaningful and valuable.”
True, no current computer can think like a human, or feel pain, or show compassion, but it’s only a matter of time. And if our brains aren’t complex information processing machines, what are they? Of course we do think in far more complex ways than do other animals, and attribute meaning in ways they don’t either, but what does that mean but that we have evolved a more complex brain that is adapted to interacting with our group-mates, learning language, and so on?
- “But concepts from information theory, in this restricted sense, have come to influence our notions of ‘information’ in the broader sense, where the word suggests significance and learning. This may be deeply misleading. Why should we assume that thinking and perceiving are essentially information processing? Our communication devices are an important part of our lifeworld, but we can’t understand the whole in terms of the part.
Given that our brains evolved, why shouldn’t we assume that thinking and perceiving are essentially information processing. Yes, it’s a complicated form of processes, but what else could it be. And maybe now we can’t understand the whole in terms of its parts, and maybe aspects of our mentality, like consciousness, are emergent properties, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t ultimately, or in principle, be reduced to the interaction of parts. As far as we know, in all sciences emergent properties, like the behavior of gases or fluids, must be consistent with lower-level properties. There are no “top-down” properties that are not consistent with the interaction of parts.
At this point, with his strong anti-reductionist bias, one might ask whether Polt is some kind of dualist: that he thinks there’s some non-physically-based aspect of humans not present in other species. This, of course, is consonant with religious views. But Polt takes care to distance himself from those:
- “By now, naturalist philosophers will suspect that there is something mystical or ‘spooky’ about what I’m proposing. In fact, religion has survived the assaults of reductionism because religions address distinctively human concerns, concerns that ants and computers can’t have: Who am I? What is my place? What is the point of my life? But in order to reject reductionism, we don’t necessarily have to embrace religion or the supernatural. We need to recognize that nature, including human nature, is far richer than what so-called naturalism chooses to admit as natural. Nature includes the panoply of the lifeworld. . . The call to remember the lifeworld is part of the ancient Greek counsel: “Know yourself.” The same scientist who claims that behavior is a function of genes can’t give a genetic explanation of why she chose to become a scientist in the first place. The same philosopher who denies freedom freely chooses to present conference papers defending this view. People forget their own lifeworld every day. It’s only human — all too human.”‘
I’m not sure, then, in what sense Polt is rejecting reductionism. If his claim is that we must at present study emergent phenomena on their own terms since we don’t fully comprehend their components, then I’m with him 100%. But already things like volition, emotions, and other mental phenomena are beginning to give way to reductionist analysis, and there’s every reason to suspect this trend will continue. In the meantime, yes, we can act as though we have free will, we can appreciate Mozart or Dylan without understanding what about our brains, evolution, genes, or upbringing leads to “musicophilia,” and we can revel in our humanity, which I guess is what Polt means as “the lifeworld.” But in the end, it still comes down to molecules, genes, and our environment. (I can’t give a genetic explanation of why I’m a scientist, but I can give a pretty good one based on my environment. And what does Polt mean by “freedly chooses to present conference papers”? He may appear to freely choose things, but that could be an illusion perfectly consistent with determinism.)
In the end, this denigration of reductionism is a denigration of science, and though Polt argues that we needn’t embrace woo, his antiscientific views do buy into that kind of antimaterialist and antinaturalistic thought. Of course we have human needs that have been addressed by religion, but I’m convinced that a properly constructed secular society can also meet those needs, and we don’t have to reject the principle of reductionism to do that.
But most of all I wonder why Polt wrote this column in the first place, unless it’s yet another defense of philosophy’s turf against the incursion of science.
p.s. Polt published a further explanation of his anti-reductionism in an August 16 Opinionator column, and I may take that up later.
h/t: Miss May