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).