Darwin’s letter to a critic

Julia Galef has been a bit quiet lately. Her YouTube channel has been dark for along time, and even her podcast, Rationally Speaking, has slowed down for a while, so it’s good to see this from her. In it, she discusses a letter from Charles Darwin to one of his critics, one that actually thanked the critic for fairly representing his work and for making valid points.

Julia Galef: My favorite letter in the history of science

In some ways, it’s reassuring that debates from 1860 were just as contentious as many today. F. J. Pictet de la Rive’s critique sounds like it met the standard I noted in the epiphany post, one that’s also been advocated by Daniel Dennett and many others. There’s a lot to be said for describing your opponent’s position well enough that they see it as fair. And the idea that Darwin could agree with all his criticisms, but honestly note that it came down to how they weighted those factors, probably resonates with a lot of our modern debates.

20 thoughts on “Darwin’s letter to a critic

  1. Though I hadn’t previously seen Julia Galef in a video, that’s exactly who I’ve come to know in her Rationally Speaking podcast. It’s always been about getting the structure of an argument down right first. Furthermore she even used to give her original partner philosopher Massimo Pigliucci trouble for his dedication to philosophy as inherently important, and even though it provides humanity with with no generally accepted understandings.

    I do find fault with many public intellectuals, and I suppose she’d refer to herself more as an interviewer than intellectual. But as I see it she’s very much on the positive side of things, or helping to distinguish “reason from nonsense”. As I see it there’s plenty of nonsense out there given the state of philosophy and our mental and behavioral sciences.

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    1. I miss the days when Massimo was her partner. Not because I think she needs him. She does fine solo. But I found most of the selected subjects more interesting.

      There’s nothing wrong with finding fault in the ideas of public intellectuals. Truth is I’ve never seen one that I don’t have at least some disagreements with. The key is to show we understand their ideas, and then clearly identify what we disagree with, and the specific reasons for disagreeing.

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      1. Yes Mike, that is the key. I seem to be more critical of various popular theorists than you, and so have developed certain heuristics from which to challenge suspect positions such as my four principles of meta science and thumb pain thought experiment. This all gets back to the same end however, or providing effective reductions of various ideas so that their implications may effectively be explored.

        It could be that one or more of the big names in our mental and behavioral sciences does have certain very good ideas. If so however then why don’t these ideas ever seem to become mainstream, and even given the benefit of a given popular theorist’s fame? This could be because a full paradigm shift is needed to reform these fields. I personally doubt they’re naturally soft, but rather continue to exist this way through structural failure.

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        1. Eric, I’m not sure what you mean by “become mainstream”, or which ideas in particular you’re referring to. But we’ve talked before about how simply holding sciences like psychology to the standards of, say, physics, isn’t productive. Social sciences have epistemic burdens that the more physical sciences don’t face. Even biology, due to its complexity, has limitations that physicists and chemists can avoid to a large degree, even though biology and psychology are all special cases of physics and chemistry.

          Any effective petition for those sciences to become “harder” has to grapple with the fact that they if they hold out for the 5-sigma certitude of particle physics, nothing will be able to be established. (It’s worth nothing that not even all of physics can hold out for that standard. )

          Just something to consider mixing into your heuristics.

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          1. Mike,
            By “mainstream” I mean consensus understandings by a respected community of associated professionals. You must have noticed that the ideas of various popular figures in our mental and behavioral sciences, such as Daniel Dennett, seem never to get their ideas actually instituted, and even given the virtue of their fame. I consider the problem here to be structural, or that science does not yet have good enough founding principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology from which to effectively explore topics that are more closely related to us. I’m not talking about getting 5-sigma here. I’m talking about progress figuring things out in general rather than the situation we have today, or where there are all sorts of popular people with contrasting ideas that remain in limbo. Thus I not only propose theory regarding our nature itself (as they do), but state that we’ll need various agreed upon principles to better found science in order for any such theory to become established. Furthermore I provide four such principles from which to potentially better found science so that such progress might be made in any case.

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          2. Eric,
            Dennett’s ideas are definitely a minority view, in philosophy. However, they are pretty widely held in neuroscience, and by scientists in general. (I’ve seen physicists, writing about physics, cite his ideas.) “Mainstream” is, of course, a relative concept. Overall mainstream for the mind is dualism. Even in the philosophy of mind, a lot of it is implicit dualism of one type or another. But in science, it’s the minority view.

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          3. Mike,
            Dennett was not the point, though of course you know that I think he stupefies people with his charisma and word play. The point is that even a man with his talents has made no progress hardening up our soft sciences. Professionals do not consider him to have “explained consciousness”, or anything else. He’s just another guy on a very troubled stage. And given his prominence I think it’s safe to say that he’ll never be “a Darwin”. He’s had his chance, and beyond becoming quite famous, has failed. It’s harder to confidently make that assertion for the ideas of nobodies with potentially paradigm shifting ideas, though you can try…

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          4. Eric,
            I think it’s safe to say that Darwin’s (or Newton’s, or Einstein’s) are very rare, so saying any one figure today isn’t one doesn’t seem like much of a strike against them. At least unless they were claiming to be the next Darwin. I think Dennett sees himself as applying the paradigm that Darwin discovered to the mind, not breaking into a new one.

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          5. Alright fine Mike. Dennett is quite correct to consider himself nothing like a potential “Darwin”. But this is still not about him. I’m saying that at least as much of a paradigm shift is needed today as Darwin’s to help our mental and behavioral sciences progress. Do you not agree?

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          6. Mike,
            Neuroscience is mostly anatomy and biology. They’re quite different from psychology and so according to my premise should do reasonably well already. But what about when neuroscience seeks to get into “qualia”? Perhaps it’s reasonably “hard” regarding anesthesia and such, given that science can both end qualia and let it come back (not that it grasps much about why). Explaining how neuroscience translates over to psychology remains just as speculative as the psychology field itself remains however. This is to say that there are theories all over the place, or the reason that these sciences are referred to as “soft”. Right? And so the need for a paradigm shift?

            I suppose you’ll say that I’m over reacting because the problems I see actually concern the natural state of our mental and behavioral sciences. Conversely I think things here remain similar to the way they were before the rise of Darwin regarding the creation of species. But why look for a solution where you see no problem? Sure. But is that actually the case?

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          7. Eric,
            I find it interesting that you chose to quote “qualia”. That’s basically the hard problem, which I think neuroscience, including cognitive neuroscience, would do best to ignore. They should focus on things like the Chalmers “easy” problems, which of course aren’t really easy, but they are scientific, and the real questions that need to be answered. Qualia and the hard problem should be left to philosophers to continue arguing about.

            I’m not saying the cognitive sciences are perfect. Far from it. But just telling them they need to be harder accomplishes nothing. They’re already well used to catching grief about not being “real science”. Finding actual rubber meets the road solutions to it is a whole other matter.

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          8. Mike,
            Unlike David Chalmers, I’m not as substance dualist. When I say “qualia”, I mean something “of this world”. It could exist in the way that I suspect, which neither of us consider supernatural, or it could exist in the way that you suspect, which I consider supernatural, or it could exist some other way, though the point is that none of this should lead you to bar science from the realm of what’s felt. You do realize that when your thumb gets whacked that it “hurts”. Most of us refer to that hurting as a variety of “qualia”, or something which you cannot deny the existence of without also claiming to be a philosophical zombie. Scientists don’t yet grasp much about what causes qualia’s existence, but naturalism does mandate it to be causal. So try not to let a dualist like Chalmers to mess you up when you’re talking with an extreme naturalist like myself. Or is it people like Dennett and Frankish who have influenced you to deny the existence of that which shouldn’t otherwise be deniable?

            I don’t just say that our mental and behavioral sciences need to improve. I present a specific path from which they might do so. This is to say that they need effective principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology from which to become better founded. Furthermore I present four specific principles of my own from which to potentially do that job, and love when others seek to grasp the associated details. I’m primarily here to help rather than criticize.

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          9. Eric,
            The problem with qualia isn’t that it’s non-physical (although many philosophers do insist it is), but that it’s vague. Try to be more specific and someone will say “That’s not what I mean by qualia!” Science trying to study it would be like trying to study love. Better not to play that game, and study more concrete things and let the philosophers decide what those findings mean for qualia.

            Principles and axioms are fine, as far as they go. I doubt many would dispute yours much. (Although many would likely say they don’t want to complicate scientific investigation with philosophical tests.) The problem is translating them into real solutions, where things get far messier.

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          10. Mike,
            I used the “qualia” term here to help emphasize what I specifically mean by “consciousness”. I haven’t noticed it being used in all sorts of ways that I wouldn’t also use it. Though unfortunately for science today the “consciousness” term may remain “in the eye of the beholder”, and thus your development of a hierarchy illustrating various ways that the term is used, could you also build a useful “Hierarchy of qualia”? I perceive people in general to present examples of this which essentially revolve around how existence feels (yes as in “Being in love”). Have you noticed the term used in various ways that you doubt I’d use it?

            It’s heartening that you don’t think many would dispute my four principles of meta science very much, and especially since in practice I notice them to commonly be violated. (Actually I think you’re forgetting that my single principle of axiology presents us as self interested products of our circumstances, and thus the institution of morality essentially exists as an evolved social tool of self interested persuasion.) If we had a respected community of professionals advancing these principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology (or perhaps with certain improvements), then I believe that our long suffering mental and behavioral sciences would gain a far more solid platform from which to build, and so they should finally begin to make true progress.

            If science were to gain such formal structuring, would things get messy? Oh hell yes they would! My perception is that paradigm shifts are never clean. And if I do happen to be correct here, I’m pretty sure that historians will ultimately consider this one to surpass Darwin’s.

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          11. Eric,
            On associating qualia with how existence feels, I’ve had plenty of people push back when I tried to make the association between qualia and affects. I think your meaning would be clearer if you just used “feeling”. But in any case, the word “feel” is itself ambiguous. What counts as a feeling?

            Referencing the next post, many insist that it’s already present in layer 2 (for biology, but not for technology). Others might wait until 4 or 5. Some would say you can’t have a feeling until you know your mental self is having it, which situates it in 7. Before summarily rejecting that last position, bear in mind you are always a level 7 system, although you may have been a level 5 or 6 one as an infant. All in all, using the word “qualia” is, I think, useless for scientific discourse. It’s cleaner to focus on much more specific mechanisms.

            I don’t think the cognitive sciences are as besot with moral realism as you take them to be. The tougher audience for that message are philosophers, particularly moral philosophers. The vast majority of them are moral realists. In my experience, far more scientists are comfortable with moral irrealism than philosophers.

            If you want to be the next Darwin, Newton, or Einstein, you have to provide solutions. Identifying problems is easy. People do it all the time. Copernicus didn’t just rant about the Ptolemaic system. He provided an alternative (albeit one that was really far less wrong than right). Solving intractable problems by seeing farther or deeper than anyone else ever has? That is the key, and it’s extremely rare.

            Liked by 1 person

          12. Mike,
            People pushing back when you associate qualia with affects is very different from the qualia term being so broadly construed that a hierarchy is needed to categorize the many ways the term is used. Can you provide some examples of it being used in diverging ways? Of course there’s nothing exceptional about different people using a given term in different ways, but I dispute your assertion that qualia today has many standard meanings, or at least among educated people familiar with it.

            If it turns out that you can’t effectively refute me here then you might go back and look for a common thread. This might provide an effective reduction for the term in general. Hopefully like me you’ll find something specific.

            (Here I fancifully picture the Grinch looking down on Whoville expecting to have spoiled their Christmas. Then there’s an amazing realization which causes his tiny heart to grow three sizes bigger! 😇)

            On your hierarchy post, I’d rather wait to see if we can straighten this out first.

            I don’t quite mean that the cognitive sciences are besot with moral realism. I mean that the social tool of morality affects us all, somewhat like gravity affects us all. Physicists should nevertheless be able to explore physics amorally since the implications of their subject matter does not challenge common notions of rightness and wrongness. Conversely people who study the human (and centered on psychology), should find it difficult to do so amorally given the applicability of their work.

            I don’t consider myself to simply identify potential problems (though the identification part should be at least half the battle given how we shouldn’t be able to fix what we don’t grasp needs fixing). Beyond describing what specifically I consider problematic, I also propose coherent potential solutions if so.

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          13. Eric,
            On qualia, the hierarchy is needed because the phrase is ambiguous. You can see some diversity just in the primary examples used for it: the redness of red. Discuss visual processing, and someone concerned about qualia will ask why it feels like something to experience redness. Talk about affects, and they’ll say that’s not what they mean. I’ve had these types of conversations numerous times, but I’d have to mine my comment threads and Peter Hankins’ to find them, which is more effort than I care to exert. I do think it’s worth taking a look at the Wikipedia article on qualia to see the different meanings people assign to it.

            But even if we just accept your version, you didn’t address my questions about what you mean about “feeling”, except to say you hope we work this out before then. But that’s my point. Digging into the details puts us into the territory of that hierarchy, or at least something like it. (Such as Birch’s dimensions.)

            (Characterizing your conversation partner as the Grinch isn’t very persuasive for that conversation partner. I could do the same for a number of positions you hold. But not really a productive path.)

            Liked by 1 person

          14. Mike,
            Perhaps there’s been some confusion. I don’t dispute the need for your hierarchy of consciousness. It’s needed because people tend to define the consciousness term in many different ways. Hopefully soon a useful standard will emerge in science, and so those who want to discuss other ideas will be able to do so under separate terms. Unfortunately until then however, consciousness will remain “in the eye of the beholder”.

            What I was asking you for are various definitions that you’ve come across that people use for “qualia”. I only just now read the wiki account, though it seems to conform pretty well with my current unitary conception. It’s quite plausible to me that various bloggers would challenge you about affects existing as qualia, since affect is a reasonably esoteric term. And hey, these are merely blog discussions! Anyway it would seem that you haven’t noticed all sorts of separate ways that the qualia term is effectively used, and thus you won’t need to also develop a hierarchy of qualia. Great!

            That Wikipedia article does go into various other issues however, such as whether or not qualia is supernatural, or even whether it exists. That’s fine. And unlike “consciousness”, at least here people should be talking about a reasonably common idea.

            As for “feeling”, to me this sounds like a reasonable term for the three varieties of input to the conscious processor that I propose. This is to say “valences” that drive the system in terms of motivation, “senses” which are potentially informative to that motivated entity, and present occurrences of valences and senses from the past which tend to be evoked in a degraded way, or “memory”.

            As you read I presume you’re experiencing all three varieties of such “feelings”, as well as that you’re interpreting them and constructing scenarios in the quest to understand how to promote your own valence based interests. I call this additional stuff “thought”, and though I don’t consider it appropriate to be represented by the “feelings” term, the “qualia” term works great for everything here as I see it. I consider qualia useful to define as the entirety of any medium by which existence is experienced. Though an objective world must exist, my own world is purely subjective — nothing but qualia. I also consider it useful to define “consciousness” directly as “qualia”, and place it around 1.5 of your new 1 to 7 hierarchy.

            I do hope that you grasp “qualia” as I’m now using the term, not that you should grasp my consciousness model itself yet. If so then I’d love to get on with your new hierarchy post.

            I’m sure you’re right that I can be a Grinch looking down at all the Whos in Whoville from time to time. It strikes me now that I could get a good laugh from Eric Schwitzgebel with a timely crack about Frankish being “The Grinch Who Stole Consciousness”. 🤩

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