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Many current philosophers, even ostensively naturalist ones, are rightly accused of doing philosophy in a way that actually keeps it hermetically closed against science. In Wimsatt's hands, however, philosophy becomes part and parcel of science. The resulting book, even if aimed at philosophers (who are sorely in need of Wimsatt's counsel), may therefore be read with benefit by, among others, theoretically inclined biologists and psychologists.
Near the start of the book, Wimsatt brings up Feynman's distinction between the Euclidean and Babylonian methodological approaches. The first requires that we start from a minimal set of axioms and deduce the rest of the theorems using elegant arguments. The second has a much less ordered approach, with the various theorems being richly interconnected in ways that do not favor any of them other than that some are more richly connected to others. Just like Feynman, it is this second approach that Wimsatt favors. Wimsatt's reason is that, to work, the Euclidean approach requires that all error be eliminated while the Babylonian approach allows for errors by offering ways to work around them. And, as Wimsatt points out, error is a given when considering human abilities. Thus, only the Babylonian approach "can be practiced (not in principle, but in fact) by real human beings with the real instruments we can bring to bear, now and in the future" (320). And it is that approach to philosophy of science that interests Wimsatt – who works in the tradition of bounded rationality that Herbert Simon gave rise to, and whose philosophy is enriched by ideas from the biology that is his main subject of study.
Clearly valuing self-reflection in philosophy, Wimsatt structures his book according to the precepts he argues for: the same ideas re-appear numerous times but connected in different ways and exemplified in different contexts. The effect is doubly challenging for someone with a traditional philosophical upbringing; not only is it difficult to grasp all of the connections within what is a 'conceptual thicket' but it is also hard to accept the profound practical implications Wimsatt's approach has for how philosophy ought to be done (a rejection of the normative status of idealizations being just one). Recognizing this, Wimsatt does everything he can to make the going easier: he includes several levels of extensive introductions as well as a number of appendices that contain such things as glossaries of key concepts. None-the-less, this is hardly an introductory text.
The chapters are a mix of old articles that have been adapted and updated, and of completely new texts. Apart from the relatively easy-to-read introductory and epilogue chapters, they fall into two central sections. The first develops three general ideas that are vital to Wimsatt's approach; robustness, heuristics, and generative entrenchment. Robustness and entrenchment are mirror notions (both dealing with interconnectedness) in that where robustness concerns the variety of ways that a particular theorem or entity may be arrived at, entrenchment concerns how important that theory or entity has become to the complex system due to how many other elements of the system rely upon it. As Wimsatt makes clear through numerous real-life examples, the concepts apply very broadly within all manner of complex systems. Thus, Wimsatt sees robustness as exemplified in the use of a range of senses to detect the same entity or the use of different assumptions to arrive at the same result, as well as in the use of mismatches between different theoretical descriptions of a single phenomenon to general new hypotheses. Entrenchment, on the other hand, is seen by Wimsatt in, for example, the way that early developmental stages are common across many species because later stages rely upon them.
Heuristics, the last of the concepts listed above, lie at the very centre of Wimsatt's conception of how humans deal with the world. The idea of heuristics was originally developed by Simon and is often used in artificial intelligence. Wimsatt's use of the term is more general, however, as he would apply it to any procedure of limited applicability which does not guarantee success. Thus, for example, he considers biological adaptations to be heuristic procedures. Not wanting to leave the idea vague, however, Wimsatt is careful to enumerate the properties of heuristics, as he understands them. These include their lack of guaranteed success, their cost-effectiveness, their systemic bias and three others, whose implications are followed up. Wimsatt's examinations of how false models are used to further science and the varying uses of evidence provide two extended examples of heuristics at work.
The second of the two central sections of the book deals with the twin topics of reduction and emergence. Here, Wimsatt is applying the tools and approach he has developed to a classical philosophical issue, even though his points apply beyond that context: as usual. He approaches the issue from the point of view of considering "the architecture of complex systems" (160). For this reason, before considering reduction and emergence, themselves, he examines how both the world and our theories of it can be structured in terms of levels, allow for different incomplete perspectives, and sometimes devolve into 'causal thickets'. Having developed these tools, Wimsatt is able to show that emergence is a very common phenomenon whose basis is ontological rather than merely epistemic. On the other hand, three kinds of reduction are to be distinguished. The closest to traditional eliminative reduction is aggregative reduction, which is as rare as emergence is common. Its difference from mechanistic reduction is that for the second kind of reduction the way in which the lower level mechanisms are organized together is vital, making mechanistic reduction compatible with emergence. Finally, successional reduction concerns the relationship between theories that actually function on the same level, with one theory being replaced by another. Unusually for the work of a philosopher, Wimsatt's methodological conclusions concerning the kinds of reductions scientists can expect or work towards are practical and sensible enough for scientists to usefully consider. For naturalistically inclined philosophers, however, Wimsatt's recommendations are vital, if they are to put their practice where their claims are.
In a memorable phrase Wimsatt describes nature as "a reconditioned parts dealer and crafty backwoods mechanic, constantly fixing and redesigning old machines and fashioning new ones out of whatever comes easily to hand" (10). As Wimsatt shows this is a good description of not just biological evolution but of science and even of philosophy of science: with heuristics being the common factor. Perhaps the most important lesson, however, is that all three are to be understood in the same terms – a profoundly naturalist view of philosophy as part of nature.
© 2007 Konrad Talmont-Kaminski
Konrad Talmont-Kaminski was educated in Australia and Canada but is working in Europe, at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Vienna, Austria, and at the Marie Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, Poland. His work has focussed upon understanding rationality from a pragmatist, naturalist perspective. It is in that context that he is examining superstition as a natural, cognitive phenomenon.
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