View Full Version : Circularity: for Fred & Carey

James Brody
June 3rd, 2006, 06:51 PM
I shouldn't meddle in their tiff...but.

Fred thinks that "selection" rests on circular definitions: "I think, therefore I am" kinds of reasonings. (Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype" as a neat chapter on five kinds of fitness, relevant because I think that it is and not because fitness as the same denotive problems as "selection"!) Anyhow, science often thrives on such things and "logic," the mother of mathematics, rests on tautologies.

From Fred's view, "If it's alive, it was selected" has problems and he's correct. On the other hand, if it's alive, it may simply mean that nothing killed it.

Or, if it's alive, it may have been created not by emergence but by an entity that shares core features with human awareness.

Fred and I may part company here because I see intelligence and awareness as an almost inevitable outcome from emergent processes. Conway Morris took a similar creation in his latest book, (2003) Life's Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe. NY: Cambridge University Press. That is, dolphins act as if they think and so do whales, elephants, and sometimes a teacher in our public schools.

I'm glad you guys care enough to fend your very best!


Fred H.
June 5th, 2006, 08:20 AM
JimB: Or, if it's alive, it may have been created not by emergence but by an entity that shares core features with human awareness . . . Fred and I may part company here because I see intelligence and awareness as an almost inevitable outcome from emergent processes….
From Wiki:
. . . emergence is a central concept in complex systems yet is hard to define and very controversial. There is no scientific consensus about what weak and strong forms of emergence are, or about how much emergence should be relied upon as an explanation in general. It seems impossible to unambiguously decide whether a phenomenon should be considered emergent.

Further, "emergent" is not always a deeply explanatory label even when it is agreed on: the more complex the phenomenon is, the more intricate are the underlying processes, and the less effective the word emergence is alone. In fact, calling a phenomenon emergent is sometimes used in lieu of a more meaningful explanation. See also: self-organization.
Nevertheless, I’m inclined to agree, JimB, that “emergence,” like “selection,” certainly does seem to happen, both results of the low entropy at the beginning (unless one believes that such things can also materialize from the high entropy of, say, black holes), wherein, I suppose, some of us may also see Einstein’s spirit vastly superior to that of man manifest in the laws of the universe, and/or Planck’s conscious and intelligent Mind that is the matrix of all matter, and/or Penrose’s universe that has a purpose and that’s not here somehow by chance.

James Brody
June 5th, 2006, 04:14 PM
Circularity is part of our common sense, of our faiths, and of empiricism. It's also a part of evolution...that is "repeat what works." And a critter knows what works because he's still alive!

Religions (and other kinds of cultures, perhaps including that of language) reinforce whatever works. Variation is suppressed except for very small steps and taken by deviants.

Science is the weird culture...a deliberated exploration rather than one that occurs only by undirected trial and error. But even science starts with "replication": can I repeat what works and what are the range of circumstances and what are the strings and levers for systematic variation?

But maybe, I'm a little full of caffeine and have tender knuckles right now, the costs of a delightful manic episode...


Fred H.
June 7th, 2006, 08:49 AM
From Wiki, “a tautology is a statement containing more than one sub-statement, that is true regardless of the truth values of its parts—for example, the statement "Either all crows are black, or not all of them are," is a tautology, because it is true no matter what color crows are.

Also noted in Wiki, “A circular definition is one that assumes a prior understanding of the term being defined—for instance, we can define "oak" as a tree which has catkins and grows from an acorn, and then define "acorn" as the nut produced by an oak tree . . the definition is fairly useless.”

Natural selection is essentilly “survival of the fittest,” so long as “fitness” means the reproductive success of a genotype (and I suppose also with the implicit understanding that parlaying “survival of the fittest” into a “survival of the fittest” social Darwinism is obviously taboo).

Over the years I’ve read many, many comprehensive explanations of natural selection (and all the related terminology) by many “experts,” and the circularity and/or tautological aspects are unavoidable—which is fine, but let’s have a little intellectual rigor and honesty, and/or let’s call an acorn an acorn.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, Russell & Whitehead, at the beginning of the 20th century, attempted to establish that “math is tautology” in, among other things, their Principia Mathematica (ca. 1910), but their wet dream got a wakeup call from, among other things, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem (ca. 1930).

So the objective truth of mathematics is neither circular nor a tautology, and neither is real science—e.g., Newton’s laws of motion & gravity and/or Einstein’s general relativity equations are not tautologies, but rather provide us with equations and utilize objective mathematical truths to give us a noncircular view of how things actually work—and b/c they aren’t circular/tautological, they actually are falsifiable, and that is why it later could be shown that in fact Newton’s law of gravity was incomplete and that Einstein’s general relativity provided us with a more complete/realistic understanding and picture of how the universe actually works.

All that being said, I’d nevertheless agree that as surely as acorn trees come from acorn nuts, natural selection happens . . . although, frankly, if anyone thinks that tells us much, well, I’d say they’re nuts.

June 7th, 2006, 01:10 PM
I agree with your general principle here, Fred. It seems insane to expect a definition by itself to do much useful work toward understanding a topic. Having different definitions obviously impedes mutual understanding and coming up with good consensus definitions is a useful activity at times. But there is a lot more than that involved in understanding a topic in order to apply and learn from the underlying principles. It is just a first step to knowledge and understanding.

It seems very likely to me that complex subjects require us to accumulate fairly sizable domain-specific knowledge bases before we understand them, and can't be argued sensibly without that, even with a good grasp of the basic definitions and formulae and a lot of general knowledge and good thinking skills and talents.

In addition, based on recent discoveries in learning theory, I think there is good reason to believe that gaining an understanding of the models in science often requires us to identify our intuitive concepts and bridge to new scientific concepts that are entirely different in explaining the same phenomena.

There is both knowledge and skill involved in applying the concept of selection to natural history and recognizing how and what it explains form and function in the modern biological paradigm. All the fuss and nonsense that some like to brew over natural selection being a tautology seems to be something that most of us think about at some point and sometimes argue for a while, but eventually get over as we understand the topic better. Just like the bizarre notion that centrifugal force is an illusion, and so on. That usually gets argued for a while in a good freshman physics class, but eventually fi the lesson is successful, people learn to see the picture in a different way, even though they still have their intuitions. One of the things that makes science interesting to me is the way it challenges our intuitions for a while.

Vannevar Bush (1890 - 1974) :

If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get very far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability.

I recently came across David Stove's collection called "Darwinian Fairytales." Stove has a clever critique of Darwinism as a general explanatory mechanism, and I agree with a lot of it. The most interesting thing about it is that like Steve Gould's essays, it attacks various implications and applications of selection while acknowledging that the basic mechanism is clearly a correct scientific model. Stove accomplishes this by describing specific contexts where selection is relevant and others where it is not.

An intro to his thinking from the Wikipedia entry on Stove:

[From Wikipedia 6/7/2006 on David Stove:]


In his final years Stove turned his critical glare on Darwinism. This surprised and dismayed many of his supporters who were Darwinists and thought Stove was as well, judging from the way he sometimes spoke. However, Stove's attack on Darwinism was not as radical as it appeared - he accepted evolution was true of all living things, and said he had no objection to natural selection being true of more primitive organisms. What he wanted to attack was the distorted view of human beings put about by some Ultra-Darwinists. For example, W. D. Hamilton, the Oxford biologist and (Richard Dawkins' mentor) famously said that no-one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers, a claim for which Stove thought was false, or at the very least, unverified. These sorts of strong claims are often made by hard-line sociobiologists, yet they are seldom pointed out even by many of their opponents.

Stove also pointed out that leading Darwinists were confused about altruism, often talking as though altruism didn't really exist and was some sort of sham. What they should have said was that they had explained the origins of altruism. But the damage has been done, Stove wrote: many people now share this suspicion about altruism and this has, at least to some degree contributed to the growth of cynicism and selfishness.

Darwinists have always had difficulties in trying to reconcile the supposedly universal nature of their theory with the fact that there appears to be no Darwinian fight for survival in modern times, and Stove makes sport out of the attempts to patch these holes up. What he calls the 'Cave Men' theory - a view that T. H. Huxley often resorted to - says that while the Darwinian struggle no longer occurs it did so amongst cave-men. The 'Hard Man', though, says that there is still a Darwinist struggle for survival going on all around us, only we are blind to it (Stove claimed that Herbert Spencer was a Hard Man). The 'Soft Man' on the other hand never notices the inconsistency.

Stove also claimed that the simple Malthusian view of population that many Darwinists accept is not true of humans - humans do not continue expanding in population until they have eaten up all of their food supplies which then results in massive deaths from starvation. In fact, the population growth of richer nations is typically slower than that of poorer nations. (This sort of view has been defended in more recent years by population economists such as Julian Lincoln Simon.)

His essays on Darwinism were collected in the book Darwinian Fairytales.

Fred H.
June 7th, 2006, 03:45 PM
[Todd’s Vannevar Bush (1890 - 1974) quote:] If scientific reasoning were limited to the logical processes of arithmetic, we should not get very far in our understanding of the physical world. One might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability.

OTOH, as noted in Wiki, from The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences, by the physicist Eugene Wigner in 1960, regarding the “The miracle of mathematics in the natural sciences”:

Wigner begins his paper with the belief, common to all those familiar with mathematics, that mathematical concepts have applicability far beyond the context in which they were originally developed. Based on his experience, he says "it is important to point out that the mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena". He uses the law of gravitation, originally used to model freely falling bodies on the surface of the earth, as an example. This fundamental law was extended on the basis of what Wigner terms "very scanty observations" to describe the motion of the planets and "has proved accurate beyond all reasonable expectations." Another oft-cited example is Maxwell's equations, derived to model familiar electrical phenomena; additional solutions of the equations describe radio waves, which were later found to exist. Wigner sums up his argument by saying that "the enormous usefulness of mathematics in the natural sciences is something bordering on the mysterious and that there is no rational explanation for it". He concludes his paper with the same question he began with:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

July 9th, 2006, 09:56 AM
> Natural selection is essentilly “survival of the fittest,” so long as “fitness” means the reproductive success of a genotype (and I suppose also with the implicit understanding that parlaying “survival of the fittest” into a “survival of the fittest”

I thought... Natural selection was a process which resulted in 'survival of the fittest' sure, but the process was spelled out both in a natural language (3 or controversially 4 clauses on variation, heritability, mutation, and arguably differential fitness) and also in the math (which i'll leave to you).

I had a psych lecturer who said it was unfortunate that people talked about 'survival of the fittest' as it was (according to him) more about 'elimination of the unsuccessful'. As you pointed out just because something is alive doesn't mean it is perfectly adapted, it just means that nothing has killed it.

I do have sympathy for the circularity idea, however. Sometimes I think that explanation is just one big circle really and an ideal explanation just makes the circle so big that it is hard for beings with tiny little finite brains like ours to grasp it in one fell swoop. For instance...

(I don't think we have sympathy for the reductionist program but lets humour them and see where it gets us)

Mind can be reduced to Psychology
Psychology can be reduced to Biology
Biology can be reduced to Chemistry
Chemistry can be reduced to Physics
Physics requires an observer
Which brings us back to Mind.