Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Doing the experiment   posted by Razib @ 2/21/2006 04:37:00 PM

Over at The American Scene Ross Douthat offers his commentary on Daniel Dennett's new book. He states:

...fortified by the dubious insights of evolutionary psychology, on the efforts of earlier debunkers like Sigmund Freud and H.G. Wells....

I'm a bit frustrated by this. Over on my other weblog one reader offered a chesnut of wisdom in regards to religion from James Frazer. If you don't follow the wiki link, Frazer died in 1941. Freud and Wells are long dead.

Now, no one would appeal to Lord Kelvin or William Bateson to "debunk" new ideas in physics or genetics, but in the human sciences novel paradigms are often dismissed by comparison with the theories which have lost their luster. In Religion Explained the cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer spent the first chapter dealing with the fact that most people walking around assumed that they could explain religion rather well. "Religion is about ethics," "religious is about the afterlife" or "religion is about social control." Many of these reflections seem plausible and derive from some inner intuition we have shaped by our hardware and software parameters. Because Dennett is something of a polemicist the fact that he is riding on the crest of a research program that was birthed by the cognitive revolution is totally ignored.

Social science is hard. The study of humanity as a natural phenomenon has been fraught with dead-ends. But before modern chemistry there was phlogistan. Paradigms like Connectionism and dynamicism stand against computationalism in attempting to understand "how the mind works." The problem with understanding humanity is that everyone assumes that they are experts (excluding autistics). Discourse on how and why humans behave as they do even among intellectuals tends to live in an age before Galileo, that is, we all "know" that more massive objects fall faster, no need to test this via controlled experimentation.

I am not saying that the insights of the new human sciences are rock-solid, that they will stand the test of time. Rather, they are all we have to go beyond the expectations of our intuitions, which are often faulty outside banal and conventional social contexts. I recall going to a lecture once where a researcher in molecular systematics exposited on the virtues of the hypothetico-deductive model. He explained that systematics before the revolt of the cladists consisted of long-winded debates by "experts." In response to a criticism of a particular cladistic tree an "expert" would simply state that this tree was valid because "I said so." Myself, I don't bow to the Cult of Popper, and good science does exist outside the hypothetico-deductive model. After having endured a diatribe from a good friend on the parsimonious tyrannies of the Hennigians in systematics, I'm not laying down any dogma of How Science is Done. But too much of reflection on the human condition consists of I Said So.

Preemptive response to Michael: Art, ethics, virtue, beauty, light, music, dance, sport, etc. etc. can exist in their own domains. Science is not the True Way to Conquer All, and all men are not created in mine image, nor do I wish them to be, let a thousand flowers bloom.. I'm just saying that there are people who are actually rolling the balls down the ramp when it comes to the human mind, the reach of I Said So is coming to an end and "cultural critics" should start burnishing their opinions about the arts as opposed to the social sciences. God willing, soon they will look as ridiculous talking about the human mind as they do commenting on evolution.