Saturday, September 21, 2013

George Gilder, Evolution, & Science

This post started life as a review of George Gilder's recent book, Knowledge and Power. But the book is unreviewable, at least in a short post. Don't get me wrong--it's a fabulous read. Mr. Gilder is a superb writer, very literate, extraordinarily entertaining, and there is a surprise on almost every page (that last being a compliment Mr. Gilder will especially appreciate). However, it is nothing if not complicated, and the author promiscuously crosses and re-crosses that fine line between visionary and crackpot. Parsing it all apart is a task beyond me.

When one goes through a dramatic change in world view--as I did in my transition from Trotskyist to Republican--certain books become very influential. First for me was Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom. Second place is a longer list, including two by Mr. Gilder--Wealth and Poverty and Men and Marriage. The former was the first serious book about economics I ever read, and it inspired a life-long interest. Even today, were Mr. Gilder to read this blog, I doubt there is much about economics where he would disagree. I also read Microcosm, a book that I thought was silly.

I subsequently learned that Mr. Gilder is co-founder of the Discovery Institute, an organization I associated with know-nothing religious objections to evolution. (These days I argue against the know-nothing Marxist objections, which are actually nearly the same thing.) So I approached the current tome with trepidation.

It's mostly about economics, and indeed he makes the strongest case for capitalism I have ever read. He borrows from Claude Shannon's information theory, and the analogy to economics is enlightening and convincing. But beyond economics, he proposes information theory as a theory of everything (my term), employing it, at one point, even to dispute the second law of thermodynamics. The subplot of the book is a philosophy of science, and a sub-subplot of that concerns Darwinism. Specifically, he takes issue with Daniel Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Dennett extends Darwinism to memes and elevates that to a theory of everything. He calls natural selection "the universal solvent," i.e., everything (literally) is just a series of selected, random permutations.

Astonishingly, I agree with Mr. Gilder in this dispute, despite being an avid a fan of Darwinism. I do not think Darwinism is a theory of everything. As a unifying concept in biology it is absolutely compelling. Insofar as human beings are biological critters, evolution rules. Both religious and Marxist objections that evolution somehow stopped the instant humans came along is completely wrong. Evolutionary psychology is indisputably a valid approach to understanding human instinct and much of human behavior.

But Mr. Gilder correctly notes that evolution cannot account for new technology. While our sexual, culinary, social, and child-rearing urges likely have biological roots, there is no way that the invention of a jet aircraft or an iPad can be predicted by evolutionary psychology. Simple-minded reductionism will not do--some other factor comes into play.

Mr. Gilder falls into the trap of saying that science only describes the material world, and that the extra-scientific world of ideas must also be considered. (This oddly echos Marxist complaints about idealism. It also revisits the similar debate around the turn of the last century between Ludwig Boltzmann and Ernst Mach.) In this he disagrees with authors like Stephen Pinker and Steven Landsburg, who come down strongly on the "materialist" side, contending that people don't have free will. Mr. Landsburg even makes the silly argument that (since mental processing is obviously done in parallel) because we begin muscle movements milliseconds before we're aware of them, therefore free will is a myth. (I can plan things months in advance, but never mind.)

I personally reject the material-ideal distinction. My working definition of science is this: Science is the study of reproducible phenomena. Reproducible means that all normal human beings perceive the phenomena in ways that they describe similarly. Normal people will see a red book and a red table and verify between themselves that they are the same color. Normal in this case does not include folks who are colorblind (or just plain blind). Nor does it include cats, which even if they were intelligent enough to communicate with us, have a completely different visual physiology and don't see things the same way. Reproducibility is common at the level of human perception (which is why arguments that science is merely a cultural artifact fall flat with me).

All normal human beings have a sense of free will, normal in this case excluding small children and schizophrenics. The phenomenon is as reproducible as the color red. Therefore when people like Pinker and Landsburg say we have no free will, they are just flat-out wrong. Of course we do.

Though that's not the end of the story. Color perception, for example, depends as much or more on eye and brain physiology than it does on the science of optics (Google the word metamer for more information). One could very reasonably argue that our color sense is just an illusion--the colors aren't really there. That's the kind of argument that Messrs. Pinker and Landsburg make for free will. But it's ultimately solipsistic--since all perception depends on physiological states, then one can't believe any of it. Everything is an illusion.

So it's true that free will, like color perception, requires explanation and elaboration. It clearly has something to do with brain physiology. But that doesn't make it less real. It may be that free will is an epiphenomenon of evolution, or perhaps an emergent phenomenon, or something else altogether. But it is very unlikely that it can be satisfactorily described by evolutionary psychology. There is some other constituent--call it a soul if you want--to the human being that exists beyond Darwinism.

Many, possibly including Mr. Gilder, argue that the soul exists independently of the brain, perhaps even out-living the brain. There is no reproducible evidence for this--millennia of seances, ancestor worship, praying to the saints, ghost stories, etc., have yielded no consensus among normal people. The scientific conclusion, therefore, is that the soul and brain are inextricably linked. I, for one, have no trouble with the fundamental assumption of neuroscience--that for every mental state there corresponds a physical state. But the direction of the causal arrow is not determined. Of course changing the physical state--seeing a big truck while standing in the middle of the road--will alter my mental state. But free will implies that the causal arrow goes the other way as well, and it most assuredly does.

Mr. Pinker argues against the ghost in the machine, i.e., against the existence of scientifically unsupported, irreproducible causes of mental states. In this he is certainly correct. But he counterposes a rigid, Newtonian determinism, for which there is also no scientific evidence. There is a huge gap between those two poles. There is no ghost in the machine, but free will is also not a straightforward product of physics or evolution. There is, instead, a third way. Looking for emergent phenomena might be a place to start.

In my dreams I imagine that some comrade some day will read this blog and say "Aha! Marxism is wrong. I'm going to be a Republican." If it ever does happen, it won't be because of evolutionary psychology.

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