6 stupid things done by natural selection

When we think of evolution, guided by natural selection, we tend to think it leads to “better” organisms. And in some sense, it often does. Forget the idea of a ladder where you always get “higher” organisms as you go up. It’s way more complicated than that. But even putting that aside, even if we just consider organisms adapting to new environments rather than becoming “better”, it seems natural selection guides things in a purposeful direction.

That does happen, but it’s easy to get the wrong impression. If you look at some feature of an organism that’s well adapted to its environment, like a monkey’s hands and tail used for climbing or a flower’s colours that attract insects, you’ll get an explanation like this: In these circumstances, it was useful for the species to have that trait, so natural selection favoured that trait and the species developed in that direction. Those who had the trait could outcompete those who didn’t, so they had more descendants, and so natural selection gave the species that trait.

It seems like this is the very basis of evolution by natural selection. Well, kind of. But it’s oversimplified. The problem is that it often leads to the reasoning “If trait A is good for survival and its alternative trait B is not, then natural selection must end up choosing trait B.” But if you ask real evolutionary biologists, there are a number of ways in which it does the opposite, and those make perfect sense once you look at the details too… Continue reading

Freedom, responsibility, and higher-level laws

In this post, I present an argument for the following thesis: When determinism holds, a person’s action is free and the person is responsible for the action if determinism does not hold on the relevant higher level on which the action is being described.

Let’s start by unpacking what that means: Continue reading

Three philosophies: Knowledge, wisdom and… money?

money-or-somethingI’ve talked before about Nicholas Maxwell’s criticism of current practice and philosophy of science. I’ve written about it in Finnish here and here; here is the website of the group dedicated to this idea.

To put it shortly, Maxwell’s idea is this: Science commonly takes the idea of objectivity too far and in the wrong direction. Its underlying philosophy is what he calls the philosophy of knowledge. This emphasizes that only empirically testable claims have a place in science, as opposed to metaphysics or values.

This may sound like a good idea, and it would be, given the right interpretation. But it’s being given the wrong interpretation. Values or ideologies must not affect the results obtained from science, but they should guide what resources are spent on. When you are not allowed to consider values even at this point, you often end up spending resources on something useless or harmful. So developing countries may have much more need for new technologies or researched solutions, but there’s more money in solving first-world problems. Similarly, metaphysics must not be more important than empirical results, but every theory has background metaphysics anyway, so acknowledging those would allow scientists to understand better what they’re doing. Continue reading

Basic actions?

actionWe do many things by doing something else. You might move across the room by walking and walk by moving your legs. But do you move your legs by doing something else? You might think, yes: by sending nerve impulses from your brain. And maybe you do that by sending around other such things in your brain? But are “you” really doing those things that happen in parts of you?

The priest and philosopher Nicolas Malebranche argued that no-one can really do anything themselves because in order to do something, you need to know how to do it — and we don’t know how to cause all that neural stuff that needs to happen for our bodies to do anything. (He thought God is really the one who does everything.) This isn’t a good argument. To know how to do something must mean knowing how to do that something by doing other things (eg. how to move your hands and fingers while playing the piano). So if you must always know how to do everything, then you must know how to do the things by which you do that other thing: how to make your fingers move, and then probably how to send those neural signals, and then how to do whatever you do to do that; it’s an infinite regression. To make the regression stop, there must be some things we just can do, so that we can do more complex things by doing those things. Continue reading

A dialogue on the shape of the Earth

EarthI haven’t read too many philosophical works in the form of dialogues, but what I have seemed to tend too much towards “everyone nods as one character explains the author’s views.” More realistically, it might go something like this…

Protagonius: So, my dear friend Simplexitus, we are here to discuss our theories of the shape of the Earth.

Simplexitus: Yes, or your theory, anyway. I know that you say that the Earth is round, though so large we do not notice the curve.

Protagonius: Yes. This is based on scientific observations.

Simplexitus: That may be so, but it cannot be correct. Your view has absurd consequences.

Protagonius: What would those be, Simplexitus? Continue reading