Richard Dawkins on “genetic determinism”

Misleading German cover of The Selfish Gene

Dawkins mentions (p. 17) how this German cover picture for The Selfish Gene is completely missing the point.

Some time ago, a year or so back, evolutionary psychology was established as a separate subject at the University of Turku. This immediately raised controversy, at least from a few people trying to shout loudly. Some were apparently religiously motivated, but never mind them. Others were afraid of a reductionist program enforcing existing power structures by explaining them as biologically determined. That, I know, can be a real thing.

After that hassle, it was sobering to now read what Richard Dawkins had written about the myth of genetic determinism as far back as 1982 in The Extended Phenotype. Because some people still haven’t got the memo — and I’m not sure to what extent these are found among evolutionary psychologists and to what extent their critics, although in this last controversy it seemed like critics were missing the point more — I want to quote some of this to make it easily available. I will add a little commentary of my own. Continue reading

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Why Bob is always right

Meet Bob. He could be anyone, certainly including a woman, but I want to call him Bob.

Bob is a flat character and  pretty boring, but his life story is fascinating. His history is such that, no matter what, he always knows he’s right.

First, Bob was born. After that, he started learning stuff. First, he learnt it from his parents. As he grew up, he may have even rebelled against their teachings. But anyhow, as he grew up, he learnt a lot of things and a certain world view.

Now, Bob was living in a world where people had lots of different views and disagreed about a lot of things. Continue reading

“But is it really an X?”

Consider non-human animals and language. Does any other species have language?

To start with, what we pretty much know is that various non-human animals do have ways of communicating with each other (and some have been taught sign language, about which we could ask another similar question, “do they really use language?) — and that other species don’t have complicated languages like we do. (Putting aside Cetaceans — dolphins and whales — whom there may be some actual uncertainty about.)

Now, suppose some people are arguing about whether “animals” really have language or not. They may be so vague about it that we don’t know, based on the above, which one is right; when they say “language”, what does it mean? Is a system of communication enough? Does it have to be just like human language? Is the line somewhere between, and where? If you don’t know, what’s the point of the whole discussion? Continue reading

Dr. Manhattan 2: Reductionism, life, and miracles

A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles. Structurally, there’s no discernible difference. Life and death are unquantifiable abstracts. Why should I be concerned?

Introduction

Dr. Manhattan 2

In a previous post, I discussed the metaphysical questions about time, causality and free will raised by Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. In this article, I will examine his relationship to matter and life. There are some spoilers again.

After becoming a superbeing capable of manipulating matter at will, Dr. Manhattan has largely lost touch with what the rest of humanity considers important. He feels more at home with inanimate matter, and indeed he shows genuine interest in its impersonal beauty in spite of his disinterest otherwise. He can directly observe at least atomic structures, if not even smaller particles. Meanwhile, he shows indifference even to matters of life and death at a human scale. Life and death are just unquantifiable abstracts.

In other words, Dr. Manhattan’s view of the world is thoroughly reductionist by nature. Continue reading

Review: Spectre

A climactic conclusion to Daniel Craig’s James Bond arc that uses every James Bond cliché but doesn’t manage to do a lot with them that’s interesting.

Towards the end of last year, I got persuaded to see the newest James Bond movie, Spectre, even though I had not seen any of the previous movies since Casino Royale. Since Spectre ties heavily to the earlier installments, I’m obviously not the best person to review it, and I can’t discuss everything… but I do want to say a few things.

The obvious first: If you haven’t seen the other Daniel Craig films, you can watch this one, but it’ll be missing something. As in, “Who the heck are all these people?” Eventually you’ll roughly figure it out, and I was actually informed later on that I wasn’t supposed to know as many things as I thought. This movie makes references back to all the others and ties them all under the theme of “Spectre”, the classic criminal organisation, being behind everything. Of course, this leaves the question of whether it actually makes sense, which I can’t comment on much. I know I didn’t get any sense of “Ohhh, now it all makes sense” about how Casino Royale was tied in. Anyway, you certainly get the feeling that they were going for an epic conclusion. They also make the stakes high in other ways such as having the whole MI6 being threatened.

This movie really uses every Bond cliché: Continue reading

Dr. Manhattan: Time, causality, and freedom

“Everything is preordained. Even my responses.”

“And you just go through the motions, acting them out? Is that what you are? The most powerful thing in the universe and you’re just a puppet following a script?”

“We’re all puppets, Laurie. I’m just a puppet who can see the strings.”

Introduction

Dr. ManhattanThe graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons is rightly considered a masterpiece. It explores the question of what it would really be like if there were “superheroes”, and does this as well as many other things with thought-provoking depth.

One of the characters in Watchmen is Dr. Jonathan Osterman, who becomes the only “superhero” to gain actual superpowers — the ability to manipulate matter at will and observe its microscopic structure as well as to see the future — and whose new identity is called “Dr. Manhattan”. The comic explores his alienation from humanity as his powers and altered perception of reality move him away from the world as seen by everyone else.

In this article, I want to look at some of the philosophical questions around Dr. Manhattan in more detail. I will focus on questions posed by his non-linear experience of time and its implications for freedom of the will. I will write a second post about his view of physics and life as a phenomenon later. Continue reading

A more ambitious 2016

I’ve been writing on this weblog just whenever, and in many ways that’s fine. It’s not like it’s my job or anything… I just want to get some thoughts out occasionally, and a few people will even read them.

But I’m conscious that I could do more. I could even try to attract readers. I have also considered branching out to more than one weblog, such as a second one for reviews. But the first thing to do is probably to post more often.

I have a million things to do. I always do. So I’m not sure I will have the time for this; we’ll have to see. But starting next week, my goal will be to put out one more theoretical post and one review (or something similar) every week. Note that they could be the same post, if I analyse something in a piece of fiction. Meanwhile, there’s also a Twitter account being set up. Not really finished yet.

See you next week, then, and hopefully most weeks after that.