I had been looking forward to Jerry Fodor’s What Darwin Got Wrong (co-authored with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini), not because I have anything against Darwin but because Fodor is a superb writer, the well-respected cognitive scientist who “laid the groundwork for the modularity of mind and language of thought hypotheses,” and a worthy opponent of the idiocy of evolutionary psychologists who seem to think that every phenotypic trait must have been subject to selective pressure (no).
The book is extremely disappointing, and I don’t have the heart a the longer post analyzing it. It’s enough to read Ned Block (fantastic philosopher of mind guy) and Philip Kitcher‘s review–that is, complete dismantling of a thesis that just seems bizarrely wrong. F&PP’s response and B&K’s reply are also very interesting. I will say that B&K’s accusation that the book shows “no detailed engagement with the practice of evolutionary biology” is an ad hominem overreach. The book gives a competent (and extremely informative) overview of the field, even if it is mistaken about its implications. Earlier in the review, F&K merely call it “biologically irrelevant”–an accurate claim if the relevance is to F&PP’s philosophical argument. But this merely highlights the fact that the book’s problems are philosophical, not biological.
(I’m going to apologize in advance for the intemperance of the rest of this screed).
These claims are particularly unfortunate in that they have encouraged an outpouring of zealous and anti-intellectual scientism by reviewers (not to mention comment section trolls) who make no claims even to have read the book and assume its flaws must be scientific rather than philosophical. The they-just-don’t-understand-science claim has become a rationale for berating philosophers for their pie-in-the-sky impracticality (historically inducing in a certain species of self-hating philosopher the kind of it’s-not-science insecurities that lead to patently self-inconsistent theories as verificationism, not to mention the bevy of other views amounting to: “I’ve found the solution to all philosophical problems! There are none!” (Premise: any problem that threaten to limit the domain of scientific inquiry must not be a problem for science)).
So let me say this (first thesis): that you are a scientist does not mean he understands what your endeavor entails, any more than being a soccer player means understanding the physics and anatomy involved in the playing of soccer. That understanding requires reflection on the doing of science, not merely the accumulation of laboratory hours. Further, Ruse and others seems not understand or even be curious about issues in the philosophy of science or mind about which they are emboldened to spew by virtue of a kind of diplomatic immunity involved in calling themselves “scientist” (Ruse absurdly accuses Nagel, for instance, of being a “vitalist,” and assumes that physicalism is an easy solution to the mind-body problem–it would help him to familiarize himself with the literature and the fact that Nagel wrote the seminal anti-reductionist paper on the subject, What is it Like to be a Bat? If he thinks its claims are absurd, he ought to produce an argument, not a mere “that don’t sound scientific.”). So, second thesis: being a scientist does not immunize you from the requirement to think. Nor is being a scientist relevant to the soundness of your claims--it is not a slam-dunk in every science-related dispute. The (ad hominem) concept of that immunization is itself highly anti-rational (many scientists, of course, make no bones of their anti-intellectualism beyond the boundaries of the petri dish–and arguably this motivates some reductionist accounts).
I’m now going to apologize again for the intemperance of my screed, and I’d like to point out that I have a longstanding love of science (one of my undergraduate majors is the history of science). I have no truck with creationists/intelligent design adherents on the one hand or post-modern relativists on the other. But just as love of country entails honest self-critique … well you get the picture. This sort of credential-offering shouldn’t be necessary–it’s just a kind of preparation for being called the kinds of names that members of a loyal opposition get called. Suffice it to say that I simply believe scientism and anti-philosophical zealotry do nothing for science, any more than teabagging with a sign saying “freedom” does something for freedom. And in general, reductionism is just bad philosophy and has no bearing on the everyday practice of science or its esteemed status, except insofar as recognizes a limit to the domain of empirical scientific inquiry based on … whether or not the relevant data is susceptible to empirical scrutiny. Whether or not a neuroscientist believes that brain states are identical to mental states (as opposed to having some other sort of relation) will make no difference to his everyday work; but it will be relevant to his extra-curricular spoutings on God and Mind and Free Will and the rest–spoutings which which lead the dumb reductionist mythologies that pervade popular culture.