Wednesday, June 23, 2010

From February: Leiter on Fodor on Darwin.
He linked to a review by Ned Block and Philip Kitcher, calling it "a judicious and utterly devastating assessment." I made a couple of comments at the time on rationalists' fear of the uncertainty, I wrote "instability", of empiricism, but I played it safe and didn't wade in too deep.

I missed this last month. A review by Lewontin. The conclusion
Even biologists who have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of what the actual genetic changes are in the evolution of species cannot resist the temptation to defend evolution against its know-nothing enemies by appealing to the fact that biologists are always able to provide plausible scenarios for evolution by natural selection. But plausibility is not science. True and sufficient explanations of particular examples of evolution are extremely hard to arrive at because we do not have world enough and time. The cytogeneticist Jakov Krivshenko used to dismiss merely plausible explanations, in a strong Russian accent that lent it greater derisive force, as “idel specoolations.”

Even at the expense of having to say “I don’t know how it evolved” most of the time, biologists should not engage in idle speculations.
A judicious assessment. Also well written and with his usual sense of humor. Lewontin was always one of best reasons to have a subscription to the NYRB.

More from a "rejoinder" by Lewontin to a response to the paper linked to on monday. [PDF]. All published in Questions of Evidence: Proof, Practice, and Persuasion across the Disciplines
Bill Wimsatt's "Lewontin's Evidence (that There Isn't Any)" made me think about a lot of questions in my paper. I would like to point out that the rhetoric of this conference has undergone a sudden change. Up until Bill's presentation and mine, everyone read his or her paper. In the tradition to which I belong that would be considered very bad form. That rhetorical difference is a mirror of the differences that I want to talk about. The words that all of the rest of you use are conceived of as being the matter, and so you must choose them carefully, and, therefore, you have to compose your papers and read them. I, on the other hand and perhaps Bill as well, but especialy I, as a natural scientist, am nothing but the oracle of Delphi, sitting here on my stool with eyeballs rolled upwards, and through me Nature speaks. That explains, in my view, the difference in rhetorical tradition between a meeting like this and the ones at which I spend my time. No one in my tradition believes that the words are very important. After all, if I misspeak someone else will say the right thing because we are both talking about the same things and ultimately the gods will speak through us. So words are not the matter. It is extremely important to understand the origin of that difference in rhetorical tradition because it represents a very great difference in what scientists believe to be the nature of evidence in natural science. A conference on the questions of evidence is really a conference on the questions of theory and metatheory. We cannot begin to talk about the evidence until we talk about what it is we are trying to produce evidence of. And the very method which we use is itself a form of evidence.
The paper itself has examples of oversimplification and "just so stories."

All this reminds me that I didn't grow up reading "Theory" I grew in a culture of the humanities, and reading Lewontin, where the foundation of his arguments not specific to genetics were assumed.
I'll repost the Panofsky [PDF] as well.

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