Tuesday, May 30, 2006

David Brooks tending toward a humanistic naturalism

In the latest edition of the CFN newsletter, I congratulated NewYork Times columnist David Brooks for taking a causal view of children's capacity for self-control, compared with his anti-naturalistic take on the Columbine massacre (see "Brooks, Reconfigured"). Now Brooks has written "Of Love and Money" in which he looks at the big picture of human capital and social inequality, again from a causal perspective. That he feels concern about inequality and fairness is progress for a conservative, and that he's so interested in causes and admits that human capital is fully physical (based in brain capacities) is of course laudable from a naturalist's perspective.

Since his avowed goal is greater equality, and since he's basically a naturalist (at least in this piece), then the question becomes: what works best to address the causes of inequality? He recognizes that healthy brain development is one key factor, and that this requires stable relationships early in life. He thus asks: "How do we inculcate good brain functions across a wider swath of the 3-year-old population?" and "How does government provide millions of kids with the stable, loving structures they are not getting sufficiently at home?" Not surprisingly for a conservative, he plays down the role of government, and ends up with the rather banal observation that "Kids learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between love-hungry children and love-providing adults."

But having said this, the next question Brooks needs to address is what can help establish these relationships. Since loving relationships are primarily a matter of healthy, non-punitive families, schools and communities, the question then becomes how best to encourage the development of such families, schools and communities. Are strictly market-based solutions the best, or intentional, targeted, science-based policies (see "Causes of violence" below), or perhaps a mix of both? Once you start taking human welfare as a primary good, and then accept a fully causal, physical view of the person, then there's at least a chance that laissez-faire ideology might be questioned. This is to say that being a humanistic naturalist militates against thoughtlessly buying into unchecked free-marketeerism. I detect in Brooks signs of both humanism and naturalism, although he probably won't ever come out and say so, since that would alienate his conservative constituency.

Causes of violence

"Violent developments: disruptive kids grow into their behavior" at Science News is about the complex causation of violent behavior, including gene/environment interaction. No mention of free will, as one would expect from a science magazine. This quote was interesting, connecting forgiveness with understanding causality: "Henry's feelings of rage abated as he grasped that his father struggled with his own deep-seated problems."

And "Home remedy" in the New York Times magazine is about helping violent kids using something called multi-systemic therapy (MST), an evidence-based intervention which operates on the assumption that "all of the causes of anti-social behavior should be attacked at once" and that "behavior is shaped by multiple aspects of the environment." So the emphasis is on changing the environment the kids are exposed to, especially in improving parental and peer influences.

If we put resources into such interventions the way we do into Iraq...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Doubting naturalism

There’s an interesting piece by Anthony Matteo at Science and Spirit, “Reasonable Doubt”, which raises objections to naturalism on grounds which will be familiar to those who know Alvin Plantinga’s work. Among them are 1) an evolutionary-adaptive account of human reasoning is insufficient to ground the reliability of our theorizing about the world, and 2) naturalistic explanations can’t secure the causal efficacy of consciousness (mental causation) upon which having true beliefs supposedly depends. These considerations suggest that on a naturalistic account of ourselves we can’t trust our own reasoning. Since naturalism fails us, we have to assume some sort of supernatural basis to account for our capacities for reliable knowledge: “deeper ordering principles in nature that have to be added to the explanatory mix to account for their emergence” and those ordering principles might be conferred on nature by a “Cosmic Mind.” In less a theistic but equally dualist vein, Matteo concludes that “the emergence of consciousness and rationality require a more expansive metaphysical vision in which the mental dimension is in some way a fundamental feature of the nature of things, not simply an epiphenomenal derivative of the physical.”

A few comments, for those with the time and inclination:

Matteo worries that a strictly physical, causal story of the brain as being sufficient for rationality somehow undercuts the idea that we can have true conscious beliefs. But I don’t think this necessarily follows. Why can’t true beliefs, occurently experienced as the conclusion of conscious deliberative processes, supervene on deterministic physical processes going on in the brain? Seeing exactly how the correspondence is established is of course a fascinating problem, but there’s no a priori reason to suppose this can’t be solved. That there is such correspondence means we can see how the capacity to form true conscious beliefs was subject to selection pressure: selection operated on their neural correlates. Our beliefs “hook on to external reality” because our brains were selected to reliably track our environments. Whether a purely physicalist account (no spooky stuff, but taking advantage of all explanatory levels) renders consciousness causally epiphenomenal, as Matteo worries it might, is a separate question, ultimately to be decided by arriving at the best explanation of our cognitive capacities.

Matteo also conflates the “hard problem” of explaining conscious phenomenal qualities (qualia) with the problem of being rational, which again is quite a separate matter. After all, we’ve built at least the beginnings of a proto-rationality (having goals, following logical rules, and sensitivity to contingencies) into our computers, which we assume don’t have qualia (yet). And regarding the hard problem, Matteo’s far too pessimistic, quoting Jerry Fodor that “Nobody has the slightest idea how anything material could be [phenomenally] conscious” and Ned Block: “In the case of [phenomenal] consciousness we have nothing—zilch—worthy of being called a research program, nor are there any substantive proposals about how to go about starting one.” Fodor was writing in 1992, and since then there’ve been significant advances both in clarifying what we mean by phenomenal consciousness as an explanatory target, and in adducing full blown, empirically grounded theories (e.g., Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One). So I think Block is simply wrong about research programs.

Regarding our cognitive capacities, Matteo writes:

“If they are of a nonpurposeful origin, have we good grounds for assuming their reliability? If we could provide a nonpurposeful explanation of a contrivance such as William Paley’s famous watch, would we then go on to contend that it was nonetheless a reliable time-telling device?”

Well, how do we determine reliability in the first place? In this example, it gets determined independently of the watch’s origins, namely by how well it tells time. Do criteria for reliability require anything more than the consistent corroboration of predictions? If so, what are these? And if we want to invoke teleology we can always think of our cognitive capacities as having a purpose from evolution’s “point of view,” namely winning the game of survival. Reliable cognition at higher and higher levels of abstraction quite obviously results from the “arms race” generated by natural selection.

Near the end of his piece, Matteo writes:

“The theistic argument of Lewis and Plantinga does not seek to overcome some self-induced Cartesian brand of global skepticism, but to provide a more adequate basis for our inevitable reliance on the fundamental validity of our cognitive capacities. It seeks via “inference to the best explanation” to move beyond mere pragmatism.”

The difficulty, of course, is that there is no explanation forthcoming of how the god of the theistic argument sees to it that our cognitive capacities are reliable and that our beliefs are true. Any purported gaps in naturalistic explanations have to be filled explicitly by supernaturalistic explanations if they are to have any appeal to inquiring minds. Generally, supernatural accounts can’t meet the basic requirements of explanatory transparency since they leave god and his workings a mystery. Naturalists are happy to admit gaps in our understanding, but don’t paper them over with possibly comforting pseudo-explanations.