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Neil Tyson And The Value Of Philosophy

Reprinted from Scientia Salon. You can read the original here.It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse...

What Does It Mean For Something To Be Metaphysically Necessary?

I mentioned before, this semester I’m teaching a graduate level seminar on David Hume, and having...

David Hume And The Missing Shade Of Blue

This semester I’m teaching a graduate level course on “Hume Then and Now,” which aims at...

Is Theologian Alving Plantinga For Real? Alas, It Appears So

I keep hearing that Notre Dame philosopher and theologian Alvin Plantinga is a really smart guy...

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Massimo PigliucciRSS Feed of this column.

Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York.

His research focuses on the structure of evolutionary theory, the relationship between science and philosophy

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David Chalmers is a famous philosopher of mind. His fame rests in great part on his 1996 book, The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory. It’s too bad that the crucial idea behind the book, dualism, is hopelessly flawed, and -- more surprising yet -- that Chalmers got away with one of the most idiotic thought experiments ever, which a lot of people inexplicably seem to think is oh-so-very clever. This all came back to (my) mind because of a recent article in Philosophy Now by Rebecca Hanrahan (an assistant professor of philosophy at Whitman College in Washington state), who’s finally got the chutzpah to point out the obvious, telling it like it is about Chalmers’ famous “zombie argument.”
Since people have asked, here is my take on Stuart Kauffman’s ideas on reductionism and emergence. Kauffman distinguishes between two types of emergence, “epistemological” and “ontological.”

Epistemological emergence is the idea that complex systems cannot be described, as a matter of practice, in terms of their component units because of our epistemic limitations, that is our inability to do the computations. According to ontological emergence, on the other hand, a full understanding of complex systems in terms of their components is not possible in principle, not just because of practical considerations, because new levels of causality appear at higher levels of organization.
Below is the final statement emerging from the Altenberg workshop, agreed upon by all 16 participants. Individual commentaries about the workshop will be posted on the KLI web site, and MIT Press will publish the full proceedings by the end of 2009.

A group of 16 evolutionary biologists and philosophers of science convened at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg (Austria) on July 11-13 to discuss the current status of evolutionary theory, and in particular a series of exciting empirical and conceptual advances that have marked the field in recent times.

The new information includes findings from the continuing molecular biology revolution, as well as a large body of empirical knowledge on genetic variation in natural populations, phenotypic plasticity, phylogenetics, species-level stasis and punctuational evolution, and developmental biology, among others.
Creationists and their intellectual cousins, intelligent design proponents, keep saying that scientists disagree as to “the truth” of evolution, and that the field is therefore in crisis, despite official attempts by scientists to deny any problem and unite under the evil cause of fighting “the truth” about Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. As is common in these circumstances, some creationist claims are in fact correct, but trivially so, while the use that creationists attempt to make of the claims themselves is highly (and possibly willfully) misleading. As a case in point, I am about to leave the United States for a trip to Vienna where I will be chairing a workshop on the status and future of evolutionary theory, the anticipation of which has been providing delight to creationists for the past several months.

The so-called “Woodstock of evolution” (not my term, and a pretty bad one for sure) will see a group of scientists, by now known as “the Altenberg 16” (because there are sixteen of us, and we’ll meet at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for theoretical biology in Altenberg, near Vienna) has been featured on blogs by a variety of nutcases, as well as the quintessential ID “think” tank, the Discovery Institute of Seattle. They have presented the workshop that I am organizing in collaboration with my colleague Gerd Müller, and the proceedings of which will be published next year by MIT Press, as an almost conspiratorial, quasi-secret cabala, brought to the light of day by the brave work of independent journalists and “scholars” bent on getting the truth out about evolution. Of course, nothing could be further from the (actual) truth.
Here we go again, this time it is Stuart Kauffman’s turn to write silly things about science and religion. Kauffman is a serious and brilliant scientist, best known for his work on complexity theory and its application to evolutionary biology. But he has now joined an increasingly long and embarrassing list of scientists who write really silly things about religion and how it relates to science.

Kauffman’s latest book is entitled Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. It is a view that is bound to fail on a variety of levels, but I think it is instructive to see why. Let’s start with the good news: Kauffman, unlike, say, authors like Paul Davies (author of questionably ambiguous stuff like Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life) or -- worse -- Frank Tipler (author of the downright nonsensical The Physics of Christianity) -- is pretty clear that there is no way to recover any classical version of god, not even the deist one. For Kauffman, for instance, morality emerged out of the biological and cultural evolution of humanity. Still, Kauffman seeks to “find common ground between science and religion so that we might collectively reinvent the sacred.”
Creationists and intelligent design proponents have scored an important victory in Louisiana this week, at least for now. In its appalling lack of wisdom, that State’s legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill that requires teachers to introduce to their students material that “promotes critical thinking skills.” The Republican Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, predictably said that he will sign the bill into law because “the way we are going to have smart and intelligent kids is exposing them to the very best science,” according to an article in (a real) Science magazine.

What’s wrong with that?, the naive reader may reasonably ask. Surely the main point of education is in fact to instill critical thinking skills into students, just like the bill says. Precisely, and since this is what every teacher in the country is already striving to do, do we need a law for it? It would be like passing a law directing all physicians to do their best to save people’s lives, or mechanics to repair cars. Duh. No, the new bill is the handiwork of the infamous Discovery Institute, the Seattle so-called Think Tank that has been pushing intelligent design creationism for more than a decade now (and who suffered a spectacular defeat two years ago in the Dover, PA case).