I’m reading the Fodor/Piatelli-Palmarini book now, but John Wilkins is not impressed.

Jerry Fodor is a smart guy in his field, but if this is his argument, it is childish. This, which is called “referential opacity” in philosophy (“You know your father. You do not know the Masked Man. Therefore the masked man is not your father.”) is a comment or fact about us the theorisers, not about the way the world works. It is about (as I italicised above) what we can say. The masked man might very well be your father, and the disconnect is in your words, not the world. Likewise natural selection works on whatever class of properties happen to confer differential fitness on their bearers; that we may be unable to identify what those properties are is a fact about us not about the organisms.

3 thoughts on “

  1. Fodor's point, as I understand it (I haven't read this book, but I've read his arguments elsewhere), is a lot deeper than that. He's not saying that we can't tell what natural selection is selecting for, but that it can't even be coherently said to be selecting for one thing or another without attributing intentionality to it.

    Our inability to say whether a frog is adapted to catching flies or moving black objects isn't an empirical problem that could be solved by gathering more data. Both are equally compatible with any possible physical evidence, since, as they relate to a frog, they are physically identical. It's a conceptual problem, and for *any* thing that natural selection has supposedly "selected" you could pose a similar conceptual problem.

    The problem is that the only logically possible way to answer the conceptual problem is to attribute intentions to natural selection. You must say that natural selection actually had flies in mind as opposed to black moving things, or that it simply intended black moving things rather than flies specifically. But that answer contradicts the claim that natural selection has no mind or intentions (since that claim is part of natural selection's definition, that's a pretty big problem).

    To select something is to intend it. The idea that some process selects things without having intentions, therefore, is incoherent. That's the problem that Fodor is pointing out.

  2. You must say that natural selection actually had flies in mind as opposed to black moving things, or that it simply intended black moving things rather than flies specifically.

    No. You should read Block's and Kitcher's recent review of the book.

  3. Hmm, I think that Block and Kitcher's argument is more on target that Wilkins'. I will grant that *if* "Property X was naturally selected for" is simply identical in meaning to "Property X caused organisms that had it to out-exist organisms without it" then there is a non-intentional definition of "natural selection" that makes sense.

    But, while you *could* define natural selection that way, I don't think that's how it's actually defined. If it were, the term wouldn't be necessary – we could just use causal terms instead of intentionally-loaded terms, like we do in other areas of science, and our thoughts would be clearer for it.

    The authors state that there is a non-intentional definition of "biological function" as well, but they don't give one, and I've seen biologists and philosophers of biology flail away at the problem enough to know that the question isn't answered and that there really isn't one that doesn't sneak intentionality in somewhere.

    And that's the real reason that "natural selection" was coined. It's an attempt to explain something intentional (function) using a pseudo-intentional explanation. If you sheer it of its intentional content, and use causal terminology instead, you no longer have a conceptual explanation for the appearance of intentionality.

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