Saturday, July 11, 2015

Review of Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True

Jerry Coyne, biology professor at University of Chicago, is a vocal and popular advocate of neo-Darwinian evolution (what he himself often refers to as "Darwinism").  He is likewise severely critical of Darwinism's theoretical rival, intelligent design.  His 2009 book Why Evolution is True sets out to make a case for Darwinism and against intelligent design.  Coyne puts his thesis this way:
"This book lays out the main lines of evidence for evolution. For those who oppose Darwinism purely as a matter of faith, no amount of evidence will do--theirs is a belief not based on reason. But for the many who find themselves uncertain, or who accept evolution but are not sure how to argue their case, this volume gives a succinct summary of why modern science recognizes evolution as true" (p.xiv).
Coyne indeed accomplishes his goal of laying out lines of evidence in favor of evolution in his book.  In the first chapter, he lists six predictions of Darwinism.  The first three of these predictions are related to the fossil record and describe the features we should expect to see if organisms slowly changed over time from simpler forms to more complex forms.  For example, Coyne says we should find simpler organismal forms in older layers of rock; we should find cases of speciation in the fossil record; and we should find links (or transitional forms) between groups that diverged from common ancestors.  Unrelated to the fossil record, Coyne says we should observe a wide range of genetic variation in organisms (i.e. random mutations); we should find examples of "imperfect" biological systems, because evolution is blind or unguided; and we should see natural selection occurring in the present-day in the wild.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review of David Chalmers' The Conscious Mind

In The Conscious Mind, David Chalmers systematically examines the philosophical puzzle of consciousness. Chalmers comes through as an exceptionally well-read theorist in the philosophy of mind; he's also gifted at explaining complex concepts in a reasonably transparent way. His overall thesis in the work is that consciousness is best explained through a variety of property dualism: specifically, he argues for a position very similar (if not identical) to the philosophical position called epiphenomenalism. Briefly, this position holds that consciousness is a property or feature of the world over and above all the physical facts, but also that consciousness is causally irrelevant to the physical world.

Here, in Chalmers' words, we can see his claim to a form of dualism--that consciousness is in some sense "beyond" the physical:
"Consciousness is a feature of the world over and above the physical features of the world. This is not to say it is a separate 'substance'; the issue of what it would take to constitute a dualism of substances seems quite unclear to me. All we know is that there are properties of individuals in this world--the phenomenal properties--that are ontologically independent of physical properties" (p.125, Chalmers' italics).

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review of Alex Tsakiris' Why Science is Wrong...About Almost Everything

I am familiar with Alex Tsakiris through his very interesting Internet podcast show Skeptiko.  I have been a listener for about five or six years now, and I have always been impressed with both the quality of the guests and Tsakiris's forthright interviewing style.  The show is essentially an investigation into the nature of consciousness with experts from differing points of view.  Given the show's penchant for controversy, many of the interviews are thickly laced with debate, which in my opinion is one of the greatest methods of weighing competing positions.

Tsakiris's new book, Why Science is Wrong...About Almost Everything, is largely a collection of excerpts from interviews from Skeptiko.  Although the title of the book targets "science" as what's wrong about almost everything, I think Tsakiris really ends up targeting "materialism" or "scientific materialism" as what's really wrong.  Science is essentially a method of systematic empirical study, and that method--properly understood--has no vested interest in what turns out to be true (or possibly true).  By contrast, materialism is a global philosophical position or paradigm.  As such, materialism definitely has a vested interest in what is (or can be) true.  That is, materialism is a universal claim about all of reality: specifically, materialism claims that all of reality is completely reducible, without remainder, to "matter in motion."  One candid advocate of this view is Alex Rosenberg who wrote in The Atheist's Guide to Reality (2011) the following:
"All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another" (p.21).

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review of The Rediscovery of the Mind by John Searle

John Searle--presently at Berkeley--wrote The Rediscovery of the Mind back in 1992. The book attempts to explain how the philosophy of mind has gone wrong in the last century or so and how Searle thinks it can be corrected. In this review, I'll argue that Searle's criticisms of popular forms of materialism are persuasive, that his criticisms of dualism are thinly developed, and that his own proposal--biological naturalism--is conceptually flawed.

I will begin with contemporary materialism. Searle levels a pretty serious offensive against materialist theories of mind in the first half of the book or so. Versions of materialism have been dominating the philosophy of mind (and much of academic philosophy generally) for the bulk of the 20th century and into the 21st, so Searle's going against the grain here was no way to guarantee popularity with his contemporaries. Searle is confident in his position though, and says with characteristic candor, "How is it that so many philosophers and cognitive scientists can say so many things that, to me at least, seem obviously false?" (p.3).

Friday, March 14, 2014

Analysis of William Lane Craig versus Sean Carroll February 2014 Debate

Philosopher William Lane Craig and Physicist Sean Carroll debated the subject of God and Cosmology on February 21 in New Orleans.  Out of all the debates of Dr. Craig's that I have seen (which are many), this one was definitely one of the best.  Both debaters carried themselves professionally, made a reasonable effort to respond to each other's arguments, and managed to keep the debate both informative and entertaining.

I will confess at the outset that I generally find Dr. Craig's arguments to be sharp and persuasive, though I do not sympathize with his Christianity.  Although I do end up mostly defending Dr. Craig's position and criticizing Dr. Carroll's position in this analysis, I attempted to do so fairly and with attention to arguments.  I believe this is in alignment with the spirit of debate and also makes for an enjoyable exercise of philosophy.

Given the debate structure and my interests in the topics discussed, I've divided this analysis into three main parts: Dr. Carroll's positive case, Dr. Craig's Positive Case, and Dr. Carroll's Negative Case.  The positive cases comprise each debater's arguments in favor of their preferred world views: naturalism and theism, respectively.  Those who are familiar with Dr. Craig's debates may wish to skip my discussion of his positive case because they are likely familiar with it.  Dr. Carroll's Negative Case comprises his arguments against Craig's theistic arguments.  I finish the article with a few concluding remarks.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review of Naturalism: A Critical Analysis (Amazon Review)

In a 2012 debate entitled The Great Debate: Has Science Refuted Religion, physicist Sean Carroll made a rather bold claim in his opening remarks (at about the 12:30 mark):
"The argument is finished.  The debate is over.  We've come to a conclusion.  Naturalism has won. If you go to any university physics department, listen to the talks they give or the papers they write--go to any biology department, go to any neuroscience department, any philosophy department, people whose professional job it is to explain the world, to come up with explanatory frameworks that match what we see--no one mentions God.  There's never an appeal to a supernatural realm by people whose job it is to explain what happens in the world.  Everyone knows that the naturalist explanations are the ones that work."
Naturalism: A Critical Analysis edited by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland is essentially a direct challenge to Carroll's claim.  The book is a collection of essays by academic philosophers in university departments that do not "know that naturalist explanations are the ones that work."  They instead level a host of ontological, epistemological, ethical, and theological arguments against the veracity of naturalist explanations.  In this review I will attempt to explain what some of those arguments are.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Review of Naturalism: A Critical Analysis edited by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Part 5)

This is part 5 of my series of essays on Naturalism: A Critical Analysis. This essay will focus on Stuart Goetz's chapter, which discusses the implications of libertarian free will on naturalism.  You can follow the following links for the other essays in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

Chapter 7: Naturalism and Libertarian Agency
by Stuart Goetz 

Goetz's primary argument against naturalism is that libertarian free will falsifies naturalism.  If free will exists, then naturalism is false.  Formally, we can put the argument like this:
(1) If libertarian free will exists, then naturalism is false
(2) Libertarian free will exists
Therefore (3) Naturalism is false
I will clarify a few terms then discuss the argument.

Libertarian Free Will
Libertarian free will is the idea that choices are not predetermined or fully coerced by law-like forces.  Libertarian free will (or libertarianism for short) entails that those who have free will are agents--they are self-directing entities who make choices for reasons.  In Goetz's words, "According to libertarianism, a choice is an undetermined mental action which is explained teleologically in terms of a purpose or goal of its agent" (157).