Tag Archives: Philosophy

HOW HISTORY GETS THINGS WRONG – Alex Rosenberg (2018)

How History Gets Things WrongDarwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology – a book Alex Rosenberg published in 2006 – was one of the best books I read in 2019. It tries to marry physics & chemistry with biology, and successfully so. It’s a very dense text, and extremely interesting.

So when I learned Rosenberg had written a book about our addiction to stories, I couldn’t resist and bought it. These 291 pages are a very different read than Darwinian Reductionism: a whole lot more accessible, written for a somewhat larger audience – although this is still no pop science book. While not without problems, it is very much worth your time if you have a serious, academic interest in human behavior, theory of mind, and narrative – Rosenberg’s scope is both broad and deep.

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories biggest shortcoming is its title. It’s great from a marketing point of view, but it is a bit misleading. Yes, history features, as do stories, but in the end, they are a sideshow. Rosenberg uses the fallacies of narrative history to frame his central argument, which is a refutation of the most commonly held (folk) ‘theory of mind‘. He does so mainly with recent findings from neuroscience. Let me quote Wikipedia to give you an idea of Rosenberg’s basic line of reasoning:

This work develops the eliminative materialism of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, applying it to the role ‘the theory of mind’ plays in history and other forms of story telling. Rosenberg argues that the work of Nobel Prize winners, Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe and May-Britt Moser along with Edvard Moser reveals that the “theory of mind” employed in every day life and narrative history has no basis in the organization of the brain. Evidence from evolutionary anthropology, child psychology, medical diagnosis and neural imaging reveals it is an innate or almost innate tool that arose in Hominini evolution to foster collaboration among small numbers of individuals in immediate contact over the near future, but whose predictive weakness beyond this domain reveals its explanatory emptiness.

It has been over a decade since I read something truly substantial on the neurological working of our brain, and I was surprised by the detail in the discoveries of Kandel, O’Keefe and the Mosers. Their findings about the nature of brains – ‘place cells’, ‘grid cells’ and especially the functioning of ‘sharp wave ripples‘ in how decisions happen – strengthen a materialistic, reductionist viewpoint of behavior. The chapter in which Rosenberg describes the research is truly fantastic, eye-opening and worth the prize of the book alone – but I’m sure there are other good texts about that if you only want to read about that subject. In 2000 and 2014 the research was awarded a Nobel Prize, so this is not some obscure theory – as such, it might be old news to some, but it was not to me.

It’s refreshing to read a whole lot more than the typical stuff on the experiments of Benjamin Libet and John-Dylan Haynes on the fact that our brains make decisions before our consciousness registers it – a staple in popular texts on free will and similar subjects. Mind you, this is not a book on the non-existence of free will. Rosenberg says that free will doesn’t require consciousness, indicating he sees the term a bit differently than most. Although the book doesn’t deal with it explicitly, there is a lot between the lines.

It’s also of note that the book deals extensively with representation, as a big part of Rosenberg’s argument hinges on the fact that there are no representations of desires or beliefs to be found in our brains. These play a crucial role in how we generally perceive how humans act: we do stuff because we desire something and we act on those desires based on certain beliefs about how to attain them. We think somehow representations of these beliefs and desires are found in our brains, and that our brains somehow process these desires and beliefs, and make decisions based on that. Not so, it turns out.

One more remark before the jump, a crucial one. Neural circuits in the brain do not have content or represent something indeed, but it is obvious that their material output (our speech, our writing, to a certain extent maybe our conscious thoughts as well, …) does. The brain lacks content, sure, but it forms content. I would think that you cannot treat the brain as a closed system, and that we need to take its extensions so to say into account as well.

I’m not sure what this means for Rosenberg’s overall theory. Maybe it is not much more than a matter of sharper definitions. Rosenberg talks about cell circuitry that does not ‘represent’ or ‘interpret’ etc. – but again, what about their output? Is that part of the brain as well? Or part of its representation/interpretation/aboutness?

Or maybe his main beef shouldn’t be with narrative history and the folk theory of mind that puts computation of representations in the brain, but narrative history and the folk theory of mind that presupposes rational, non-causally determined agency of human actors. The neuroscience and other points raises could easily support that. Or maybe it doesn’t have an effect on his logic at all.

In the rest of the review, I’ll talk a wee bit about the book’s most important formal problem, and end with a list of a few of the nuggets of wisdom I found.

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DARWINIAN REDUCTIONISM – Alex Rosenberg (2006)

Darwinian Reductionism

Darwinian Reductionism, Or, How to Stop Worrying and Love Molecular Biology must be one of the toughest books I’ve read. Luckily, it’s fantastic.

Alex Rosenberg is a professor of both Philosophy and Biology at Duke University. He has written about the philosophy of science before, like a book about the non-validity of economics as a science. Rosenberg is a true intellectual powerhouse, and to watch his mind work over the course of this book’s 238 pages (+ about 30 pages of references and index) is one of the pleasures of reading this book.

Kim Sterenly sketches what it’s about on the back cover:

“Over the last twenty years and more, philosophers and theoretical biologists have built an antireductionist consensus about biology. We have thought that biology is autonomous without being spooky. While biological systems are built from chemical ones, biological facts are not just physical facts, and biological explanations cannot be replaced by physical and chemical ones. The most consistent, articulate, informed, and lucid skeptic about this view has been Alex Rosenberg, and Darwinian Reductionism is the mature synthesis of his alternative vision. He argues that we can show the paradigm facts of biology – evolution and development – are built from the chemical and physical, and reduce to them. Moreover, he argues, unpleasantly plausibly, that defenders of the consensus must slip one way or the other: into spookiness about the biological, or into a reduction program for the biological.”

But for many people, including scientists, there are problems with materialistic reductionism, as Elliot Sober explains on the back cover, before pointing out how Rosenberg tackles those problems.

“For most philosophers, reductionism is wrong because it denies the fact of multiple realizability. For most biologists, reductionism is wrong because it involves a commitment to genetic determinism. In this stimulating new book, Rosenberg reconfigures the problem. His Darwinian reductionism denies genetic determinism and it has no problem with multiple realizability. It captures what scientific materialism should have been after all along.”

I will not get into the nuts and bolts of every argument. Aside from a general appraisal of the book, I’ll elaborate a bit on two small – yet fundamental – elements of critique, and end with a list of nuggets of wisdom I found while reading – a list that is probably of interest to those readers not interested in the general content of this book, yet who do have a healthy interest in science.

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WHAT KIND OF CREATURES ARE WE? – Noam Chomsky (2016)

What kind of creatures are weI’m always puzzled when I read statements like Howard Gardner’s “Noam Chomsky is arguably the most influential thinker of our time”, or the Observer’s “[Chomsky is t]he world’s greatest public intellectual”. He may indeed be the “most prominent critic of imperialism”, as the Guardian put it. But if you look at the real world effect Chomsky has, his influence seems meager and pathetic: the Western world is still heavily involved in warfare in the Middle East, and the inequality gap has been widening since the 1980s, and still very much is – both within the Western world, as globally.

Chomsky’s powerful critique of the current crises our world faces is even published by a mainstream company as Penguin Books (like the excellent 2013 Power Systems, or 2011’s Making The Future), yet not a lot seems to change for the better.

There’s a very big rift between what some intellectuals and activists think and read, and their ability to influence policy. The existence of a ‘real’ democracy worthy of that name is an illusion, as The New York Times recently reported – a fact that Chomsky also points out in What Kind of Creatures Are We?, using different data from a different study. Nicholas Kristof wrote the following on January 22nd, 2016:

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University found that in policy-making, views of ordinary citizens essentially don’t matter. They examined 1,779 policy issues and found that attitudes of wealthy people and of business groups mattered a great deal to the final outcome — but that preferences of average citizens were almost irrelevant.  (www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/…)

But I digress…


What Kind of Creatures Are We? is marketed by Columbia University Press as a kind of summary of Chomsky’s work, spanning over half a century. Chomsky first gained worldwide respect as a linguist, publishing groundbreaking work on the innateness of language and universal grammar, but has been a scholar and a vocal critic of imperialism and capitalism from the onset too. I know of no other thinker with such a broad and erudite knowledge.

This book is divided in 4 parts: What is language?, What can we understand?, What is the common good? and The mysteries of nature: How deeply hidden? It has 127 pages of actual text, and – indicative of Chomsky’s wide-ranging research – 15 pages of reference notes, plus an index of 20 pages. Although the third part deals with politics – there is little new to be found here for the reader familiar with the political Chomsky, with a slight emphasis on John Dewey this time – the book is mainly an epistemological work, tracing its origins to the advent of modern science. Newton, Hume and Locke are featured a lot. Really, a lot. There are 39 references to Newton in the index. That’s roughly one mention on every third page.

I found the first 3 parts very interesting, and at times even thought-provoking. I don’t claim to have understood everything, let alone to be able to formulate critique on what Chomsky wrote. It is not light, easy reading, although I must say most is indeed written in “clear, precise and nontechnical language”, as promised on the dust jacket. The latter half of part 4 was a bit too much for me, as I had reached my saturation point, and things became a bit too dense.  Continue reading