Reductive Anti-reductionism

William Flesch


     1. It's so much fun to read Hawkes. He's a stylish, exuberant polemicist. As with Gore Vidal, you really want the people he takes down to be saying the things he claims they're saying. But, generally, we're not.

     2. There's no real percentage in demonstrating where he misrepresents me, and I imagine other respondents will feel the same way. Who's got time or inclination to check what he says except the person misrepresented? It can't matter very much to many other people. It matters to me -- his misrepresentations of me do -- because I still feel a loyalty to the ideas I am committed to, and so I need to say for the record that he's as wrong here in what I claim to be doing as he was in the original piece. So he writes, here:

Flesch claims that I have wrongly described him as an evolutionary theorist, whereas in fact his work criticizes and refutes the central tenets of the evolutionary approach.

Not so much. I criticize what I think is the shallow and thoughtless interpretation of fictional events as though they are motivated by behavior supposed to have evolved in the Pleistocene, as though fictional characters were real human beings. Since these fictional characters do not descend from real people, nothing justifies such an interpretation. I argue that any evolutionary theory that purports to cast light on anything deep in human thinking and experience would have to deal, among other things, with what literature is, or with how literature is possible. So evolutionary theorists would have to take literature as it is, not as they think it ought to be. If they did that, as I try to do, they might learn something new about what we're like, and therefore something new about how we might have evolved. Neither the Literary Darwinists nor their anxiously sentimental critics are willing to think about what deep, difficult literary experience is really like. The situation is exactly analogous to that of psychoanalysis a generation ago. It was clear to those who took psychoanalysis seriously that vulgar Freudianism (where characters are treated as though they are real people) was just as bad as anti-intellectual anti-Freudianism (which alas has won the day). A really deep psychoanalytic approach to literature (rare indeed as it was, and yet part of the atmosphere those days) could only be possible if you had a really deep sense of literature. And a deep sense of literature could and did inform your sense of psychoanalysis. I think the same should be true of evolutionary arguments, and that means that I think you'd better have, and had better be committed to, a deep sense of literature before you start making them. And then you should make them, hoping to get the same kind of bidirectional insight psychoanalysis offered (and still offers).

     3. I won't multiply examples of Hawkes's genial carelessness with what I did write -- I'll just give one more instance in a footnote.1

     4. What I really want to talk about is reductionism. Hawkes purports to be against it, despite giving a very reductionist account of reductionism: there are two poles, and reductionism is when one is collapsed into the other. We use to call this erecting a binary opposition, and we saw it as reductionist. It leads to overexcited but dubious claims. Here's a typical example of Hawkes's reductionist argumentation, where he seems to be able to locate the "'default position' in Western society as a whole." He asserts:

Today, most educated Western people have arrived at the conviction that they simply have no soul: no essence, no purpose. This has become the 'default position' in Western society as a whole, and even people who may identify themselves as 'religious' to opinion pollsters often live, in practice, on the assumption that they are identical with their bodies. This is a recent way of conceiving of the self; both anti-essentialism and widespread monist materialism are postmodern phenomena, far more popular today than they have ever been before. There must therefore be some powerful inducement at work, specific to today's Western society, that leads masses of people to believe that they are purely physical creatures with no essence, purpose or coherent core of identity.

Really? Really? This goes completely against my sense of the society I live in, completely against my sense of my friends and colleagues, completely against my sense of myself. So what's his evidence? Well much later he presents some, I suppose:

I'd also point to the commercial success of books like Dawkins's The God Delusion and Hitchens's God Is Not Great as evidence that the general Western public finds the crudest form of eliminativist materialism to be an accurate and convincing account of the human condition. That is a historically anomalous, indeed a completely unprecedented state of affairs, and it demands explanation.

I pass over in silence that he's making an argument, one that would do the rational choice economists I imagine he deplores proud, about what people think on the basis of the "commercial success" of some books, and content myself with noting that "commercial success" means success in a niche. All markets for books are niche markets. Even the most wildly successful books -- you know, something like the fundamentalist Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins -- have been purchased by only a small fraction of the population of the U.S. Having read a Harry Potter novel, any Harry Potter novel, is something the majority of literate westerners have not done. What are Dawkins's and Hitchens's sales figures? Well, an order of magnitude less (that means: a lot less). And how many of their purchasers have read those books? I feel confident in saying that each copy of Harry Potter that's been sold has been read more than once, on average, but that you could confidently bet against the proposition that for every ten copies that Hitchens or Dawkins sold, at least one was read. So the fact that maybe one in every couple of hundred people has read their work hardly seems a "historically anomalous . . . completely unprecedented state of affairs [that] demands explanation." If I were Hawkes I wouldn't worry about the soul: Chicken Soup for the Soul and its spinoffs are wildly more popular than The God Delusion. So, reading evidence the way Hawkes does, it looks like a huge number of educated people do believe in the soul!

     5. Kierkegaard offers a parable, at the end of Either/Or:

Heraclitus the obscure said, "One cannot pass twice through the same stream." Heraclitus the obscure had a disciple who did not stop with that, he went further and added, "One cannot do it even once." Poor Heraclitus, to have such a disciple!

You could call what the disciple does a kind of wild reductionism. By its nature reductionism seems opposed to wildness, which is why it's important to point this phenomenon out. Here's an example of it. Hawkes, in his reply, cites his notorious review of Stephen Jay Gould's last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Thinking, which (the review) appeared in the Nation ten years ago. (I'd forgotten he'd written it till I read his forbearing remarks in his explanation to us benighted slaves of ideology as to why Darwinism was just wrong.) It's a highly favorable review -- rightly so, since Gould is one of the deepest and most thoughtful thinkers about evolutionary theory. But not quite deep enough or thoughtful enough for Hawkes, who wants to use Gould as a club against all those naïve biologists working in the field. Now, one of Gould's points is that you cannot pass twice through the same stream, that everything flows, even in evolution, that evolution is completely unpredictable since it's the product of the extraordinarily complex repercussions of random variation on many different levels. But Gould, who also worked in the field, unlike me and (I am going to guess) unlike Hawkes, still sees Darwin's insight as breathtakingly fundamental. That insight being: the central and overwhelming importance of natural selection (with the interesting wrinkles of sexual and signal selection, to which I'll return below). Gould and his contemporaries understood the word "natural" in natural selection to include events that Darwin could not have known of. The crucial point is that there's no selection for, or in view of, some later outcome. That's what's central to Darwin. There is no final cause. Formal cause, yes. Efficient cause, yes. Material cause, yes. Final cause? No, no, no.2

     6. Ah, but Hawkes doesn't want him going into the Darwinian stream even once, and so he notes, in the midst of acres of praise, that Gould will "argue, again and again, that his own work is merely an 'addition' to Darwin.That is rubbish, and Gould must have known it."3 So Gould and Hawkes know that Darwin is dead, but only Hawkes will say so. You can't enter the same stream even once. Well, we can join Kierkegaard in remarking that the disciple, in trying to "go further" than the master only succeeds in going "back to the position Heraclitus had abandoned" -- in this case, as we shall see, intelligent design.

     7. So how does this matter? I think Hawkes closes off inquiry rather than opening it. I would therefore like to say a little more about what I think is wrong with his reductive view of reductionism, what intellectual consequences it has, how it can lead thinking astray.

     8. 1) Lumpers and splitters. Most philosophical arguments are terminological. When people disagree, it's almost always about terminology, not about substance. The great philosophers did disagree with each other, but saying how they did requires, well, dialectical patience. I suggested in my original response, and I will assert again, that there's very little to disagree with in Hawkes's ground level assertions except perhaps in terminology. Lumpers like me want to show how often different terminologies are radically translatable into each other (to use Quine's genuinely new philosophical idea); splitters like Hawkes want to deny such fundamental or essential agreement. Burton Dreben says that there are no philosophical arguments, in the sense of philosophers being able to establish what they disagree about so that they can have an actual debate, because every great philosopher speaks in her own idiolect and not the idiolect of any of the others. This is a doctrine like Harold Bloom's idea of strong misreading: the price and the glory of originality is strong misreading. As I say, the great philosophers do differ, but their major disagreements are unpredictable and while basic may also be extremely subtle. That's why the Plato of the middle and some of the later dialogues could put his own ideas into Socrates's mouth -- because his interpretation of Socratic skepticism was consistent with his own idealism.

     9. Splitting is good polemics. If you can assert a formulation that seems to differ from what others are saying, you can then castigate or ostentatiously patronize them for that difference. This is what Hawkes does, over and over. To take a simple example, he objects to Michael Booth's use of the word "mind" when he, Hawkes, prefers the word "soul." This is an example of how splitting may take the form of differential lumping. Hawkes lumps the soul of an individual human being together with the idea of the soul of humanity, which is not the element in Hawkes's argument that Booth was addressing, nor what any philosopher today would mean by using the terminology of the soul (not even someone as radically committed to Catholicism as Elizabeth Anscombe who objects very strongly, on religious grounds, to what she sees as the strongly prejudicial terminology of analytical philosophy). Why don't we use Hawkes's terminology when talking about humanity? Mainly because we use new terminology, not because we think very differently. Such terminological disagreements aren't basic, even though Hawkes treats them as though they are.

     10. Their consequences can matter though, since splitters look for disagreement and therefore tend to polarize intellectual debate. This can be useful in getting you to think, but it can also be dangerous in getting you to imagine that the other side is thinking something ultimately trivial or wrong. Well, any great philosophical insight means an insight that's not trivial, which means that whatever it really does disagree with is also not trivial. Hawkes doesn't see things this way. He debates against caricatures. Despite his declared allegiance to dialectical thinking, there's no sense of dialogue in his writing, only disagreement. He takes philosophers as providing right or wrong answers, not as asking deep and thought-provoking questions. This is to ignore Quine's "principle of charity" in interpretation, which asks you to think of arguments as meaning what (by your lights) it would make most sense for them to mean, not what you could most easily castigate. Castigation is the polemicist's art, not the philosopher's.

     11. Just to be clear: I say most, but not all, philosophical disagreement is terminological. The really hard work for the historian of philosophy is understanding what the disagreements among the great philosophers are. Reading charitably can lead to deep insight, through dialectic interaction with ideas that you commit yourself, first of all, to taking seriously, rather than simply castigating. Hoc opus, hic labor est.

     12. 2. Where Hawkes is wrong. And yet, lumper though I am, I find that I can disagree with Hawkes on some fairly basic things. He's just wrong about Marx's most fundamental idea, for example, though reading according to my own principles I can see him recovering somewhat when he ventriloquizes Marx's moral tone. It's useful to establish how clearly wrong he is since he's just as wrong about Darwin, and in not dissimilar ways.

     13. A. Marx. Here's what he says about Marx: that Marx thought

'labor-power' [ . . . ] the ultimate source and true referent of all value. Labor-power is thus not a materialist concept, because it consists in a mental act of abstraction imposed upon material acts of labor. Labor-power is the conceptualization of labor, and concepts are not material but ideal. The labor-power that is incarnated in money, and which rules the world thereby, has no material existence whatsoever. As Marx explains in Capital:

Because all commodities, as values, are objectified human labour, and therefore in themselves commensurable, their values can be communally measured in one and the same specific commodity, and this commodity can be converted into the common measure of their values, that is into money. Money as a measure of value is the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labour-time.

Indeed Marx did take labor-power to be the "ultimate source" of all value, but did not say that labor-power was its "true referent." This is as basic a mistake as you can make in reading Marx, and he's misunderstood the passage he quotes.

     14. Marx saw as his single most important economic insight his discovery of the origin of surplus value in the difference Hawkes ignores between labor-power and labor-time. Labor-power is a commodity. But the value of a commodity is determined by the (abstract, average, statistically smoothed) labor-time that goes into producing it. Laborers accordingly sell a commodity -- labor power -- whose exchange-value can be measured by the labor time it took to produce that power: the labor-time it took for the laborer and his family to afford the food, shelter, clothing, training, etc. (all also valued by labor-time) needed to give him the labor-power he now sells as a commodity. The central and deep point Marx is making is that labor-power is able to produce more than the labor that goes into producing it. This is where the surplus value that the ruling classes exploit from the working class comes from. The sleight of hand is that we sell all our labor-power, but only get paid in value measured by the labor-time not that we work but that is needed to give us the capacity to work. We work eight hours in a day, say, but get paid with six hours' worth of commodities, because that's all we need to produce another eight-hours worth of labor power.

     15. This is why the fetishism of commodities is such an important element in capitalist ideology. As long as we think in terms of commodities, and not in terms of the labor time taken to produce them, it will seem fair to trade labor-power for other commodities that take as much labor-time to produce as it took to produce our labor-power. The surplus value will be hidden -- in the pockets of the 1%. This difference between labor ("sensuous human activity") and alienated, commodified labor-power is the point of the thesis on Feurbach that Hawkes quotes but misunderstands, sentimentalizing it in ways that are fine and even moving but are not the main part of the story. Despite Hawkes's claims, Marx actually is a Marxist.

     16. B. Darwin. His understanding of Darwinian evolution, my particular concern, is no better. Since I am disturbed by the misuses of Darwin by literary critics and theorists, both those who promote and those who attack a caricature of Darwinian thinking, I must insist on defending Darwin before saying anything about Hawkes's views.

     17. Here's Hegel in a nutshell: the discovery of the dialectic is itself an example of the dialectical transition from quantity to quality. Absolute spirit experiences a sufficient quantity of dialectic "sublations," Aufhebungen, assimilative breakthrough syntheses, that it comes to realize the importance of the dialectic itself. That's what being open-minded is; that's how charitable reading leads to advances in thought. Now there was no one more open-minded than Darwin, even to the extent that when he didn't see how his theory could work, he became ready to give it up. It took Mendel's discovery of the gene to explain what Darwin couldn't, namely the fact that traits do not belong to individuals as quantity but are themselves a quality. But a quality that can change over time. The modern synthesis (as it's Hegelianly called), and the work done after that synthesis, is consistent with Hegelian dialectical progress as well: the theory of sexual selection and of signal selection was another dialectical breakthrough, since signals become autonomously valuable and valued in themselves and not as epiphenomena of some material or materialistic base (pure, rational, maximalization of survivability) independent of their dynamic. This means that neither Darwin nor Darwinian theory is materialist (in Hawkes's terminology); it means that Hawkes's Manichean history doesn't apply, since Hawkes neglects to see the openness to modification and unexpected results to be found in Darwin.

     18. What else is Darwin arguing for but the idea of dialectical change of quantity (accumulated variation) into quality (speciation)?

     19. I accept that scientists are not particularly great philosophers of science, or of epistemology in general. But it's a losing polemic for philosophical literary critics like Hawkes (or me) to think that we really get the science better than the scientists. Or, you know, remotely as well. It's one thing to historicize Darwin's ideas, as Hawkes does and as a real scientist like Gould does (though Hawkes's patronizing contempt for Adam Smith is, well, unearned). It's another to think that this shows that scientists working with those ideas, and developing them, working out what's essential to them and what isn't, are just deceived because they don't know the lightly historicized, rather diluted intellectual background that people like Hawkes and me have studied. (No one can be adequate to the history of thought: the map would have to be as big as the territory it covers.) As Stephen Jay Gould says, "The social and psychological contributions of a Zeitgeist to the origin of hypotheses bear no logical relationship to any subsequent defense and validation of the same hypotheses" (Structure of Evolutionary Thinking, p. 31). To take an example: Newton's theory of gravity is often traced back to Nicholas of Cusa's revival of Neoplatonism in the fifteenth century. There are lots of reasons that might happen, including Newton's own interactions with the Cambridge Platonists, and his experience of Puritanism, but it's also true that Newton's theory is essentially correct, whatever its "ideological" source. "Essentially correct": there's that terminological issue again. Yes, Einstein changes everything, just as Mendel did to Darwin (to yield the modern synthesis) and (you could say) as some evolutionary game theorists did to the modern synthesis. But what Newton got right was this: that every object in the universe attracts every other object; that this attraction is an exact function of the mass of each object and the distance between them, and that falling is what all objects are always doing. Einstein showed (against Newton) that neither mass nor the measurement of distance was immutable, and that they were related to velocity and acceleration in ways that Newton didn't dream of. But none of this proves Newton wrong: it only affects the way you calculate the relations Newton discovered.

     20. Having forgotten Hawkes's authorship of the Nation review of Gould, I was wrong, in my original response, to "assume that Hawkes doesn't doubt the truth of Darwinian evolution either," or at least (as I said) of the "basic truth" of the "modern synthesis." But Hawkes is a lot more literal-minded than I had charitably thought. He quotes Gould as a cudgel against Darwin:

In Gould's words, Darwin identified the cause of evolution with "the most reductionistic locus then available" -- the material actions of individual organisms. This is not an argument against intelligent design; it is a methodological decision to ignore it. ("Inheriting the Wind," an exchange in The Nation, 275.12 [Oct. 14, 2002]: p2, retrieved from Expanded Academic ASAP, March 25, 2012)

Actually, these don't seem to be "Gould's words;" Gould wrote, with more nuance, that "classical Darwinism follows standard reductionist preferences in designating the lowest level then available -- the organism for Darwin -- as an effectively unique locus for causation" (p. 31). So this level is a locus for causation in Gould's view -- of course it is! -- just not the only one. Gould's point is that causation is dialectical: there's a feedback loop between and among causes and effects, between and among different hierarchies of phenomena. The modern synthesis is all about those feedbacks. Gould's remarks about Darwin's basic insight and the way it can be expanded have nothing at all to do with intelligent design, and should not be twisted into some bad-faith "methodological decision to ignore it." Indeed one of the large arguments that Gould makes for Darwinian evolution is based on the fact that so much of organismic structure is not what an intelligent designer would come up with. Evolutionary changes are constrained by their history, and they therefore tend to be improvised and jury-rigged solutions to the demands they meet.

     21. This is why Gould argues that Darwin, pace Hawkes's paraphrases, was not a panselectionist (where natural selection always selects for elegant design) but a pluralist (Gould, p. 216). Hawkes is against reductionism, but reduces Darwin to a panselectionist, whereas it is Gould's purpose to show how Darwinian evolutionary thinking is radically dialectical. Hawkes claims that Darwin

instituted what Gould calls a "panselectionist paradigm" and employed a "microevolutionary extrapolationism" to argue that natural selection, based on random genetic variation and guided by the competitive adaptation of individual organisms to their environments, was effectively the exclusive cause of evolutionary change.

This is simply not true. Gould does use the term Hawkes quotes, "panselectionist paradigm," but not to describe Darwin; he uses it to characterize what he calls his own "juvenile" and "conventional" view of Darwin (p, 41), which he came to realize was a radically reductionist account of Darwinian thinking. I will note here, in particular, that Darwin's highly dialectical idea of sexual selection is deeply opposed to the idea that natural selection is "the exclusive cause of evolutionary change." Sexual selection, and its generalization in the theory of signal selection, is so spectacularly at odds with the purely natural selection Hawkes ascribes to Darwin (after misleadingly claiming that it's not a new idea anyhow), and so central to ecological and biological thinking, that Hawkes's view of Darwin is almost as bad a caricature as Governor Rick Perry's.

     22. Does Hawkes believe in intelligent design? Is his invocation of the soul, however incoherent his use of the word, ultimately a literal appeal to mythological explanation? I have no objection at all to saying, with Gould, that real scientific and philosophical inquiry can coexist with religious belief. But it's only real scientific or philosophical inquiry if religious belief makes no difference to its practice. Appeals to religious categories when doing science or philosophy are flags of distress, and an abrogation of intellectual vocation. (I'm simplifying a little here: I accept that there are fascinating hypotheticals that arise within a system of belief, and that they can lead to interesting philosophical discussion. E.g.: the Euthyphro dilemma, which can be couched as the question: does God have free will? But that's not what Hawkes is doing.)

     23. So I am troubled by remembering that Hawkes argued, in his original review of Gould, for intelligent design:

Gould cites recent paleontological evidence to suggest that there are internal, formal or structural constraints within species that exert an influence on their evolution. We can sense here the return of immanent teleology -- an approach to science that, of course, assumes intelligent design. ("The Evolution of Darwinism." The Nation 10 June 2002: 29. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. March 25, 2012)

Let's leave aside the polemical trickery here (are "internal," "formal" and "structural" in apposition to each other? Are they different kinds of constraints? What difference would that difference make? What does "internal" add to "formal" and "structural"?). No sane biologist denies such constraints. They have nothing whatever to do with an assumption of intelligent design. Constraints are not the same thing as teleology, immanent or otherwise. No matter how charitably I try to read this, I can't see Hawkes as meaning anything but the idea that if there are internal constraints on evolution, God put them there. But no, what put them there was their prior history.

     24. So I fear that Hawkes's really important question, in his original piece -- "Is it true that human beings have no soul?" -- turns out to be meant in a hopelessly parochial way. I think humans do have souls. And I think evolution explains how that happened. I don't think you need to appeal to God to think that humans have souls. Indeed I think any such appeal trivializes what it means to have a soul and locates its source in just the empirical externalism that Hawkes professes to deplore. I had read Hawkes as asking a deep question: can we talk about human beings without talking about the kind of genuinely subjective experience that a lot of literalist reductionists seem to deny exists? I don't think we can. I think this fact tells us something of scientific importance about how humans evolved. I am unhappy to discover that Hawkes is guilty of the same reductionism he ascribes to his opponents, when he promotes the idea (however deniably) that if you don't believe in God you can't believe in the soul.



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1 Hawkes writes:

Flesch also invokes Richard Dawkins's pseudo-Darwinian concept of 'memes.' He has the impression that I 'equate them with the theory of mirror neurons,' which I don't. . . .

It's surprisingly unsubtle, or perhaps subtle, of Hawkes to turn my phraseology -- I wrote of Hawkes that "he seems to equate them with the theory of mirror neurons" (emphasis now added) -- into the claim that he is diagnosing an inaccuracy in my writing. There's no inaccuracy there: I said I had that impression. By using the words "He has the impression . . ." he's engaging in a rhetorical trick, saying something literally true but with a specious and unearned snarkiness of tone, as if he were reporting a belief I was committed to and which he can loftily correct, rather than my own declaration of how things seemed. Really not cricket. I was the one who used the word "seems" to indicate my puzzlement with his vibrant vagueness here:

Although he concedes that Dawkins himself 'only half-intended' his theory of 'memetics', which suggests that culture operates in an evolutionary fashion analogous to biology, Egan readily employs it in his analysis of literary texts. He finds it confirmed by cognitive neuroscience, and he argues for example that the 'mirror neurons' of our brain account for the empathy we feel for Hamlet or Lear. . . .

I used that word because Hawkes, well, seems to equate memes with the theory of mirror neurons, though I don't know how, when he writes that Egan finds the theory of memetics confirmed by the cognitive neuroscience which imagines that "mirror neurons" account for empathy. But, no, on second thought I withdraw what I have just said. There are so many examples of Hawkes's surreptitiously changing the subject in the middle of a sentence that I have to concede this is just one more: the "it" (the theory of memetics") that Egan employs in the first part of the last sentence I quoted here has nothing to do with the mirror neurons that are exemplary of Egan's argument. I am enough of an intentionalist when it comes to meaning that I am obliged to accept Hawkes's account of what he meant and so I am happy to ignore therefore the clear and straightforward language in which he failed to say it.

2 You could argue that sexual selection and signal selection do depend on final causes: reasons why something is done. But these are still local reasons, to which the term "final cause" is not appropriate on any grand scale, as in talk of intelligent design: organisms aim at reproductive success down two generations at most, and even in Dawkins's theory, no competitive gene could reasonable "hope" to survive more than seven generations or so, depending on the number of chromosomes of the reproducing organism.

3 Hawkes, David. "The Evolution of Darwinism." The Nation 10 June 2002: 29. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.



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Content copyright © 2012 William Flesch.