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James Barham at Best Schools ‘fesses up III: Biology (like the social sciences) is guilty of massive and systematic equivocation


Barham, the philosopher who runs The Best Schools, got collared by friends recently, and had to answer some questions. Like, why is he an atheist but not a Darwinist? Now, he says #III:

It is almost impossible to flip a page of any biology textbook open to any random page, without finding talk of “needs,” “purposes,” “goals,” “functions,” “the reason why,” “good for this,” “bad for that,” “healthy,” “normal,” “flourishing,” “well-being,” “appropriate,” “useful,” “efficient,” “correct,” “right,” “successful”—together with their contraries—and a host of other blatantly normative terms. And that is without even mentioning the mentalistic, or intentional, vocabulary that has crept into biology over the past few decades, so that now the previously mentioned teleological and evaluative language is overlaid with talk of “information,” “codes,” “signs,” “signals,” “messages,” “transcription,” “translation,” “editing,” “proofreading,” and so forth, and so on.

Here’s #2 James Barham at Best Schools fesses up II: Folk psychology is basically correct

None of these normative concepts, I remind the reader, has any counterpart within the physical sciences, considered in themselves (not in relation to human intentions and interests). For example, physicists do not speak of the “efficiency” of the sun. True, physicists do speak of a concept, “efficiency,” that is the ratio of the useful work done by a system divided by the total work done by the system (where “work” = the force applied to an object times the distance the object is moved). The concept of “efficiency” in this sense may then be applied to two pumps, for example, to determine which one will be cheaper to operate. But “usefulness” is a clearly normative concept. It obviously refers to human intentions and interests, and has no counterpart in the physical world, considered in itself. Therefore, “efficiency” is a normative concept, as well, clearly referring to human intentions and interest.

It might be objected that physics and chemistry, too, are permeated with seemingly normative and intentional terms that are in fact nothing more than metaphors. For example, physicists certainly speak of a magnet’s “attraction.” Presumably, the term “attraction” in physics ultimately derives from the erotic attraction between the sexes, but that is no objection to the way the term is used in the study of the phenomena of electricity and magnetism. So, why can’t we think of the normative vocabulary of biology as merely metaphorical in the same way?

The difference is that the biological terms are not obviously merely metaphorical in the same way. Rather, they seem necessary for a full and accurate description of the phenomena of life. In any event, they are clearly indispensable as a practical matter. We cannot even talk about living things at all without constantly resorting to such language. This fact is prima facie evidence that our normative concepts refer to real properties of biological phenomena themselves.

To summarize, biologists are constantly basing nearly all their work on an unspoken assumption of the “usefulness” or “efficiency” or “rationality” or “intelligence” of biological systems, even if they would strenuously deny the fact. In philosophical terms, the discipline of biology (like the social sciences) is guilty of massive and systematic equivocation throughout its length and breadth, with respect to the source of normativity.

Next: But wouldn’t a mainstream biologist simply say that the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution has demonstrated once and for all that teleology and normativity are illusions?

See also: #I: He’s an atheist but he thinks reality is real.


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