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James Barham at Best Schools fesses up II: Folk psychology is basically correct

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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? Also, now, he says #II: Folk psychology is basically correct.

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

UD: So, you claim the right to believe in your first-person experience unless you can see for yourself how and why it’s mistaken. But setting aside the sort of scientist – whether wearing the philosopher’s hat or not – who denies that the conscious self even exists, there are still a multitude of other, more specific beliefs that we ordinarily take for granted that are called into question by modern science. Take, for example, the idea that something called “purposes” really exist in nature. What would you say is the status of these beliefs in science today?

JB: I believe that what is condescendingly referred to as “folk psychology” is basically correct – that what we call “beliefs” and “desires” correspond to objective properties of human nature, and hence of the world. Moreover, I believe that human psychology – while vastly more sophisticated than that of any other organism (we can go into that later) – rests on a biological foundation that we share with all other living things. This will require some elaboration.

One of the great strengths of natural science – perhaps the secret of its success – is it willingness to tackle problems piecemeal. Therefore, it is no criticism of science itself when I say that biology systematically begs all the crucial questions having to do with teleology and normativity – the questions that are of greatest interest to the philosopher. The biologist makes progress – or at least, has done so until recently – by picking living systems apart to see what they are made of and how the individual pieces work together. He assumes that once he knows all the details, then the whole organism will make sense to him.

As a working assumption, reductionism is unobjectionable. Perhaps, it is even a historical necessity. But it’s only an assumption. It has been by no means demonstrated that knowledge of the individual parts of a living system and their local physical interactions is sufficient to explain the apparent striving and purposiveness of the whole. On the contrary, biologists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and others presuppose a backdrop of purpose, meaning, and value – in short, of normativity – without which they could not even specify the objects of their research, much less make sense of them.

In other words, biology and the social sciences pretend to be full-fledged natural sciences like physics and chemistry. And they go about their business quite complacently and with great self-satisfaction, based on that assumption. But all the while, they commit the grossest equivocations and petitiones principii, with respect to the theoretical concepts of physics and chemistry and the entities posited by those sciences. Let me give an example.
In the fourth century B.C., Diogenes the Cynic observed that donkeys walk in a straight line to their food because that is the shortest path.(1) In our day, it has been demonstrated that the slime mold Physarum polycephalum, when placed in a agar maze, will “solve” the maze by probing into and withdrawing from dead-end paths, eventually settling on the shortest path linking the maze’s entrance and exit points.(2)

This general ability of organisms to behave “efficiently” or “rationally” or “intelligently” is a universal property of living systems that biologists and social scientists implicitly rely upon almost at every moment of their waking existence qua biologists and social scientists. (Because the point is blindingly obvious with respect to social scientists, and is far more controversial as it applies to biologists, I will henceforth speak only of “biologists” for the sake of brevity.) The result is that biological language is shot-through with teleological and evaluative vocabulary of every imaginable description.


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