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Subjects of the WorldReview - Subjects of the World
Darwin's Rhetoric and the Study of Agency in Nature
by Paul Sheldon Davies
University Of Chicago Press, 2009
Review by Ed Brandon
Feb 16th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 7)

This is an ambitious and radical book.  Davies wants philosophers to recognize and reject a general and conservative myopia that sets their agenda.  He came too late to use "everything must go" as a title, Ladyman and his friends having already borrowed it for their naturalizing of metaphysics.  But it is equally appropriate. 

Davies' distinctive position is a matter of taking seriously the non-existence of pre-scientific knowledge.  A good number of philosophers would endorse a picture in which one of their main concerns is to reconcile in some way what science tells us with our "common sense" beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.  Reconciliation comes in various forms, but they all suppose that our pre-scientific notions have some claim upon us intellectually.  If they are contradicted by science, there is considerable regret in rejecting them, and some ersatz is usually sought.  But Davies has no compunction: we have no reason to think we know anything about ourselves, except what is the outcome of rigorous scientific, particularly biological, enquiry.  And that, in his view, tells us that most of our fondest beliefs about our nature are simply untenable.

Davies organizes his work in three parts.  The first sets out his program for radical naturalism, the second rehearses objections to accounts of purpose or function in biological theory (summarizing and extending arguments he had offered in an earlier book, Norms of Nature, that I reviewed here), and the third extends the rejection of anthropomorphic thinking to free will and moral responsibility.  Darwin earns his place in the structure of the book, not merely as the guiding light of the biology that Davies appeals to for such insight as we do possess about ourselves, but also for his own invocation of the frailty of human thought confronted with the immense time span of life on earth.  Human animals are not formed to deal with millions, nor to confront the harsh facts of the Malthusian struggle for survival.  Davies insists we have several other in-built obstructions to recognizing the truth.  We must struggle to overcome the limits of our imaginations.

Davies' general attack on the conservatism of most philosophy starts by considering some remarks of the Protestant theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, and in particular his confidant assertion of human "self-transcendence".  For Davies this reveals the blithe uncritical assumption that "we begin the process of inquiry already knowing what we are like" (p. 23).  He associates that with what he calls the concept location project, the attempt to reconcile our initial conceptual framework with developed science, and with two unwarranted commitments of most philosophizing: the preservation of concepts that seem important in some well-developed scientific theory, and the preservation of concepts that seem important in our general worldview.  Both reflect an idea that historical survival counts for something cognitively.  But Davies wants us to be on guard against some at least of our traditional apparatus: anything that is linked to intellectually dubious origins, concepts "dubious by descent" (from romantic theologizing, say) or "by psychological role" (p. 25), where we are apt to generate false positives (attributing causes, or mentalistic features, for instance).  Ideas that might make sense if you think you are created in the image of a god serve no useful purpose when you recognize your kinship with earthworms.  Our cognitive systems were shaped by the context of animals struggling to survive, not contemplating transfinite ordinals.

Davies offers a curiously labeled pair of strategies that offer us the possibility of "progress in our knowledge of natural systems:" analyzing inward, and synthesizing laterally.  The first is a matter of identifying "low-level systemic mechanisms and interactions that instantiate high-level capacities", the second is the search for "coherence among taxonomies of mechanisms postulated in associated areas of study" (p. 36).  Davies stresses that as we follow these two paths our understanding of the high-level capacities is likely to change – one example is the progress in understanding biological systems that made earlier suppositions of a "life force" idle.  His practical recommendations for our study of ourselves implement these injunctions by requiring that we seek to understand our ways of working in an evolutionary framework and as prominently exemplifying "the function of anticipating some feature of the organism's environment" (p. 47).  Evolutionary considerations make it "highly likely that all, or nearly all, our affective and cognitive capacities are highly oriented toward the organism's future.  This even applies to capacities such as memory and dreaming that we typically conceptualize in ways that are not particularly anticipatory" (p. 48).  So much for les neiges d'antan!

In a useful summary of his overall argument, Davies observes that traditionally living things have seemed distinctive on three counts: "they can incorporate external elements, both living and nonliving, into their own form; they can perpetuate their specific form over time; and they exemplify an extraordinary degree of functional interdependence of parts.... An adequate theory of life, in consequence, was driven to posit some sort of internal, form-giving power to all living things.... What distinguishes the living from the nonliving is, in very general terms, the existence of an internal center of command and control" (p. 48).  Or so we supposed.  Analyzing inwards and synthesizing laterally have revealed "living things as devoid of a center of command, as transient ensembles of fragmented, scattered, and contingent causal factors,... explicating 'purpose' in terms of agency is no longer a viable option" (p. 49).

What drives Davies' attacks in part two on several well-known philosophers of biology (Ruse in particular comes in for extensive criticism) is the belief that their accounts of biological functions, however sanitized they may appear, still cling to these outmoded notions of active form that Aristotle and Kant explicitly proposed and that have now been  superseded.  "Other theorists—advocates of the theory of proper functions, in particular—substitute the shaping powers of natural selection for the formative power of an agent, and they offer this as progress.  But ... it is a mistake to conceptualize natural selection as a surrogate center of command and control.  As important as it is to understanding life, not even natural selection acts as a centralized source of power capable of creating and perpetuating forms of life" (pp. 49-50).  As in his previous book, Davies makes a powerful case for the superiority of the Cummins' style systemic account of function over the selective account that gives pride of place to the history of (natural) selection, though one sometimes feels that his opponents could never intend the archaic commitments Davies attributes to them.  Of course, Davies can reasonably say, it's not what they intend but rather what alone makes sense of their position that counts.

Chapter six is a transition from the general argument about the best construal of functions in biology to the more speculative rejection of traditional notions of agency in our own case.  In it Davies looks at some of the evidence for a human tendency to think generally in terms of agency and intention, in cases of artifacts and other items we know do not exhibit those features.  We are disposed to see almost anything in Dennett's "intentional stance".  Davies' moral is "we ought to suspect the ... capacities that cause us to conceptualize the parts of plants and animals as purposive" (p.116).  In this chapter too, Davies glances at the anticipatory role of vision and dreaming.  The main aim here is to argue that our initial commonsense thoughts about ourselves and our capacities have no authority in themselves. "No longer can we take the apparent purposiveness of living things at face value" (p. 131).  Davies also wants us to agree that the motivations of his opponents flout all of his directives for advancing understanding, and so, for all their apparent naturalism, are profoundly out of touch with genuine scientific enquiry.

The last three chapters will probably resonate most with readers of this website, since it is here that Davies turns fully to confront our thinking about our own mature selves.  He admits that his conclusions are more tentative, the science is not as secure as Darwinian biology, and it is the science alone that tells us what to accept, and more pertinently, what not to accept.  We may not know much positively about how we operate, but, on Davies' reading, we do know enough to know that our traditional views are radically misguided.  Davies' strategy is to argue, in chapter seven, that our supposition that we know we are agents (he starts from Dr Johnson's assurance that we directly experience the freedom of our will) is in error – the causes of our action are not revealed to introspection.  Then, in the remaining two chapters he takes the main philosophical positions on free will, libertarianism and compatibilism, and argues that neither is plausible: "we have in consequence no satisfactory account of human freedom.... we are forced to conclude that at present we do not know what kind of agents we are" (pp. 138-9).

In a way, the position defended in chapter seven is the most radical: we agonize about free will because it seems to everyone that they know they originate certain actions; I know I can adjust the volume of the music I am currently listening to, whether or not I actually do so.  If this wasn't so obvious, the fact that it cannot be reconciled with further reflection on the nature of causation and so on would hardly matter.  But Davies wants us to agree that "as psychologists analyze into the low-level mechanisms that implement our felt experiences of authorship and as they synthesize across related theories, it is increasingly clear that much of what we take ourselves to be experiencing is an illusion inflicted upon us by various infirmities of our minds" (p. 141).  We mistakenly think our grasp of reality is unmediated; we are inclined to mistakenly suppose greater consensus than there actually is; your causal interpretive system (an idea he takes from Nisbett and Wilson) generates "an inference regarding the cause of your action, and the inferred cause, if it rises to conscious awareness, appears to you as the reason why you acted.... The reason why you acted seems to appear ... quite suddenly in conscious awareness, and this absence of effort may encourage the thought that, when you give reasons for your actions, you are directly introspecting a reason that must have been present and efficacious prior to performing the action" (p. 147).  We find ourselves doing something, and retroactively supply an explanation.  Davies allows that in simple unambiguous cases these processes might actually get things right, but in the more complex situations we face day to day, "we cannot justifiably claim to know the real reason for our actions" (p. 149).  Davies throws in Wegner's work on "apparent mental causation," with its curious examples of getting people to believe they are responsible for happenings that have nothing to do with them, or conversely are not causing things that do.  The mechanisms, he suggests, are there to facilitate social interaction, not to endow us with free will.

Chapter eight, on libertarianism, is an extensive critique of the work of Robert Kane and his notion of self-creation.  Given his framework, it is not a surprise that Davies rejects this kind of romanticism.  But the last chapter is more interesting in that it tries to show that compatibilists about free will, like many function theorists, are caught up with outmoded notions that undermine their plausibility.  In particular, it is moral responsibility that Davies singles out as the Achilles' heel of the compatibilists.  He proceeds by distinguishing views that focus on deliberation from those that focus on social emotions and attitudes.  For the former Davies takes Fischer and Ravizza to task for their account of learning to take responsibility and its requirement of authenticity.  While we usually assume that we know what is going on and the reasons why people, including ourselves, act as they do, Davies has already argued that this is mostly bravura, so we should recognize that "we cannot, for any given action, claim to know that we (our conscious thoughts or intentions) were the salient causes" (p. 203).

The alternative compatibilist strategy is exemplified by P.F. Strawson's famous account of the reactive attitudes, and his belief that this area of our life can be kept compartmentalized from our scientific understanding of things.  Here Davies invokes the work of Panksepp to provide an alternative account of why we have these attitudes and reactions, an account that apparently gets by without any invocation of moral notions.  What the compatibilist wants to reconcile can be simply dispensed with. Davies concludes the book by criticizing one of his allies, Daniel Wegner, for seeking to preserve too much by way of moral responsibility. 

I hope I have given some sense of the range and interest of Davies' claims.  Let me end with a couple of doubts.  I am not sure Davies has said enough to defuse the suspicion that he is falling for some sort of genetic fallacy in refusing "concepts dubious by descent".  He admits that refusing concepts imbued with theological baggage is not ipso facto to assume all theological claims are false, "only that none has shown itself relevant to the enormous progress in knowledge since the rise of modern science" (p. 25), but he downplays what seems the utility of these pre-scientific concepts and the true positives we hit upon using causal or mentalistic concepts.  While I am sympathetic to the thought that more must go than most philosophers would wish to countenance, it seems we require more than a blanket slogan to undermine the legitimacy of concepts whose games are still being played.  The more so, since it is not all that clear that Davies can appeal here to a scientific consensus in defense of his particular exclusions.  Whereas those of us inclined to wish standard interpretations of relativity theory away know that we are very far out on a limb, Davies' exclusion of agency and some sort of freedom is by no means so unanimously supported by the scientific establishment.  He himself has to criticize one of his own exemplary scientists for being too conciliatory about free will, and the social psychological work he reports on attitudes and beliefs floating free of discoverable causes does not itself underwrite a wholesale rejection of the folk psychology we use to make sense of ourselves.  To an outsider, at least, the sciences of humankind seem too diverse and often pre-paradigmatic, in Kuhn's terms, to support the radical conclusions Davies wishes to build upon some of their practitioners.  But it is good to have this sketch of where we may be headed.


© 2010 Ed Brandon


Ed Brandon is, by training, a philosopher, and now is working in a policy position in the University of the West Indies at its Cave Hill Campus in Barbados.


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