Evolution challenge

In his book Diary of a Bad Year J.M. Coetzee challenges believers in evolution to answer this question:

Why is it that the intellectual apparatus that has evolved for human beings seems to be incapable of comprehending in any degree of detail its own complexity? Why do we human beings typically experience awe—a recoil of the mind, as if before an abyss—when we try to comprehend, grasp, certain things, such as the origin of space and time, the being of nothingness, the nature of understanding itself? I cannot see what evolutionary advantage this gives us—the combination of insufficiency of intellectual grasp together with consciousness that the grasp is insufficient.
He also states that he finds the notion that evolution is responsible for the emergence of complex species 'preposterous' I have [url=http://markwiddicombe.wordpress.com/2009/10/16/on-intelligent-design/]attempted to answer his question[/url] and would be interested in reading any fresh perspectives from the denizens of this forum.

A well thought out and clearly written response, St0nes. I hope JM Coetzee gets to read it pronto.

Mintaka

A very good response, and a delight to read.

Something that may be worth pointing out is that a complex brain, as found in humans – a brain that is capable of abstraction, reasoning and inference – confers indirect but obvious survival advantages when coupled to a certain level of manual dexterity because it allows manipulation of the environment in directed and consequent ways. These manipulations, when aimed at enhancing the safety of individuals, cannot do other than increase overall survivability – i.e. brain complexity will, overall, increase over generations. Thus, it may well be that our apparently innate desire to comprehend the world in increasing detail, our basic inquisitiveness, is a striving that derives from evolutionarily advantageous roots. On these premisses, it is reasonable to deduce that at some point where a sufficient degree of complexity is to hand (in other words, when self-awareness occurs), the brain (or mind) will turn its attentions onto its own nature in a bid to satisfy its curiosity about the world.

If there is any merit in the abovementioned view, then Coetzee’s question is actually irrelevant for being somewhat misguided: It assumes that there is in fact an evolutionary advantage to be had from such introspection when, really, it is merely an ability that is an attendant artefact or natural outgrowth of a sufficiently complex brain.

This, of course, doesn’t address the rather more perplexing question of principle whether a brain can ever be sufficiently complex to apprehend its own complexity in a significant way.

'Luthon64

Interesting post.

I liked this paragraph:

Whether or not such a view is philosophically retrograde is a question for philosophers. As an ordinary person, I regard the statement as nonsensical. Why would anyone ascribe intelligence to the universe as a whole rather than, say, a grain of sand, or a pine tree, or a 1967 Valiant Safari? All are collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.

I do believe your list to be incomplete though. I think it would have been more accurate if it read as follows (you have no reason to leave it out :P):

Whether or not such a view is philosophically retrograde is a question for philosophers. As an ordinary person, I regard the statement as nonsensical. Why would anyone ascribe intelligence to the universe as a whole rather than, say, a grain of sand, or a pine tree, or a 1967 Valiant Safari, [b]or the collection of matter in my and your body and brain?[/b] All are collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.
And then say:
So far, so bad.... for all of us

The second part I liked was:

Secondly, not every attribute of humans confers an evolutionary advantage. Take as an example the mess that is the human upper respiratory tract, which is still optimised for an animal that moves on all fours. Bipedalism has conferred more of an advantage than the disadvantage of a flawed, dangerous respiratory system. The flaws in human design are some of the strongest arguments against intelligent design.
A few interesting points here. [b]1)[/b] Is the human upper respiratory tract in fact still optimised for an animal that moves on all fours? I have not seen research that has confirmed this. I am interested to hear where you got this from. An intriguing question can arise from this though. If it is indeed the case that the human upper respiratory tract is still optimised for an animal that moves on all fours (like you say), is there anything that is optimized for any bipedal animals like ourselves? How is something optimal btw in the things you describe?

2) You say the flaws in human design argue against intelligent design. Fair enough. However I feel that arguing for flaws in human design in order to try and make a point is a bit self-refuting and silly.

Here is why.
You make the case that the human upper respiratory tract is an evolutionary left-over and not specifically optimised for bipedalism. Fair enough, but this is also obviously true for the human brain with regards to reasoning, logic and doing science.
The human brain is an evolutionary left-over and not specifically optimised for reasoning, logic and doing science either. Now, unless you believe it is specifically optimised for reasoning, logic and doing science (which I think normal people believe just to do their day to day thing), it makes one of the strongest arguments against the idea that anything intelligently designed can come from the human brain. And that includes your interesting post :P.

There is every reason to leave it out.

That same line of reasoning would preclude champion athletes or, for that matter, anything extraordinary being achieved by any human. Some people are not very good at “reasoning, logic and doing science” or designing intelligently, just as others are not very good at thinking. Others again are very good at constructing a slew of convenient fictions that are on occasion quite entertaining.

'Luthon64

Whew! Cutting stuff! ;D ;D

Great blog entry, st0nes.

Why is it that the intellectual apparatus that has evolved for human beings seems to be incapable of comprehending in any degree of detail its own complexity?

One might as well ask why is it that the intellectual apparatus that has evolved for dogs seems to be incapable of comprehending in any degree of detail its own complexity?

Why do we human beings typically experience awe—a recoil of the mind, as if before an abyss—when we try to comprehend, grasp, certain things, such as the origin of space and time, the being of nothingness, the nature of understanding itself?

I find it strange that he associates awe with fear of an abyss, I have always associated awe with wonder leading to curiosity.

I cannot see what evolutionary advantage this gives us—the combination of insufficiency of intellectual grasp together with consciousness that the grasp is insufficient.

Neither can I, but I can see how awe inspired curiosity might be advantageous.

Let’s see:
J.M. Coetzee said:

It does not seem to me to be philosophically retrograde to attribute intelligence to the universe as a whole, rather than just to a subset of mammals on the planet Earth.

Let’s see what st0nes wrote:

Whether or not such a view is philosophically retrograde is a question for philosophers. As an ordinary person, I regard the statement as nonsensical. Why would anyone ascribe intelligence to the universe as a whole rather than, say, a grain of sand, or a pine tree, or a 1967 Valiant Safari? All are collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.
There is a list, let's use it and compare the two people's philosophical outlook: J.M. Coetzee ascribes intelligence as a whole to the following: 1) The universe (The result of intelligence. Nowhere was it implied that it is intelligent in itself) 2) Grain of sand (It is part of the universe, therefore also the result of intelligence. Nowhere was it implied that it is intelligent in itself) 3) Pine tree (It is part of the universe, therefore also the result of intelligence. Nowhere was it implied that it is intelligent in itself) 4) 1967 Valiant Safari (It is part of the universe, therefore also the result of intelligence. Nowhere was it implied that it is intelligent in itself)

st0nes on the other hand does not ascribe intelligence as a whole or any other form of intelligence to the following:

  1. The universe (collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.)
  2. Grain of sand (collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.)
  3. Pine tree (collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.)
  4. 1967 Valiant Safari (collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.)

Let us for consistency’s sake add to the list for both these people the following:

  1. The thoughts coming from the human brain.

Now compare the two philosophical outlooks:

  1. J.M. Coetzee ascribes intelligence as a whole to the thoughts coming from the human brain. Nowhere was it implied that it is intelligent in itself.
  2. st0nes does not ascribe intelligence as a whole or any other form of intelligence to the thoughts coming from the human brain. They are collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws.


Please provide an argument why thoughts are sometimes intelligent and sometimes not? Thoughts are also nothing more than matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws, unless of course you want to posit that they are something else, in which case I am all ears.

So much for the 'strongest argument against intelligent design". Just remember to preclude a holistic line of reasoning instead of a myopic one ;).

If intelligence is attributed to something, it means that something is intelligent in itself.
If something is attributed to intelligence, then it doesn’t follow that the something is intelligent.

So, interpreting JM Coetzee’s passage

It does not seem to me to be philosophically retrograde to [b]attribute intelligence to the universe [/b] as a whole, rather than just to a subset of mammals on the planet Earth.

as meaning

is IMHO, wrong. Sorry. :’(

Mintaka

LOL Why argue about something that is self-evidently true. Does the existence of stupid people prove there’s a God? I wouldn’t necessarily attribute intelligence to the Post Office, never mind the universe as a whole.

Fair enough, after rereading that line, I think JM Coetzee does seem to imply the universe is intelligent in itself. Perhaps there is something we might agree on disagreeing (thinking the universe is intelligent in itself). However, if it is indeed the case that JM Coetzee actually attributes intelligence TO the universe, how coherent would such a notion be?

Correct me if I am wrong:
JM Coetzee attributes intelligence to the universe like you attribute intelligence to your thoughts.
In other words:
Person X attributes intelligence to structure Y.
Replace:

  1. “X” with JM Coetzee and “Y” with the universe.
  2. “X” with you and “Y” with the your brain.

If this is the case, then perhaps st0nes missed the plot a little. st0nes should have asked the same question (below) to those who attribute intelligence to their thoughts and brain as a whole:
Why would anyone ascribe intelligence to their thoughts coming from their brain as a whole rather than, say, a neuron, or a GABA receptor, or a blood cell? All are collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.

(P.S. I don’t necessarily agree that intelligence can be attribted to the universe as a whole, just saying)

Back to the question:
Please provide an argument why thoughts are sometimes intelligent and sometimes not?
Thoughts are also nothing more than matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws, unless of course you want to posit that they are something else, in which case I am all ears.

So far one argument/statement has been:

  1. It is self-evidently true.

No disagreement at all.

The dictionary calls intelligence the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Since both the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills involve thinking, may I be permitted to rewrite the formal definition a bit more robustly: Intelligence is the capability to think.

I don’t see any reason why the universe as a whole should be considered capable of thought, as if it is some sort of giant brain.

I don’t really attribute intelligence to my thoughts at all. I attribute intelligence to my brain. Thoughts are merely products of intelligent organisms or organs.

Yes. That seems to be what was meant.

I suppose the smallest physiological structure that can be demonstrated to produce a thought, could arguably be called intelligent. So what you’ll to have to do, is pull out one of those neurons, and somehow recognize in it a thought that is indistinguishable from one generated by an entire brain.

I honestly don’t understand your question. Again, I take “intelligence” to mean capable of thought. In that sense there are no unintelligent thoughts. But in the context of your question “intelligent” appears to be used as a synonym for “clever”. Is this your intent? Is your query aimed at the subjective quality of thoughts, i.e. why are some thoughts clever and other thoughts daft?

Mintaka

Both disagreeing with JM Coetzee?

Substitute thoughts for brain.

If you think all thoughts are intelligent, no problem. The question can then be rephrased as:
Please provide an argument why thoughts are intelligent ?
Thoughts are also nothing more than matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws, unless of course you want to posit that they are something else, in which case I am all ears
.
Or, if you want, why does the collection of matter that you refer to as brain and thoughts show signs of intelligence while other collections don’t? What is special about those clumps of matter, what makes it scientifically different?

Both disagreeing with JM Coetzee?

Sure.

Please provide an argument why thoughts are intelligent ?

There is no need to argue the point, because intelligence is effectively the capability of producing thoughts. So every thought springs from intelligence by definition. See my previous post.

I think a more interesting question would be, How can a thought be recognised in an entity other than oneself? In other words, how do we recognise other individuals, organisms or organs (or cells, or organelles, or proteins, or atoms if you insist) as intelligent?

Any thoughts?

Mintaka

You say:

  1. Intelligence is effectively the capability of producing thoughts.
  2. Every thought springs from intelligence.

What is intelligence then if thought springs from intelligence?
Your brain has the capability of producing thoughts. Brain = intelligence? If so, why all of a sudden does this clump of matter show signs of intelligence while other collections don’t? What is special about those clumps of matter, what makes it scientifically different?

Analogy? Too subjective perhaps?
Belief? You belief in the existence of other minds/intelligence even if there is no scientific evidence that these minds/intelligence do in fact exist? Too subjective perhaps?
Perhaps scientific detection of top-down causation?

If so, why all of a sudden does this clump of matter show signs of intelligence while other collections don't?

Because the brain generates thoughts, whereas the clump of matter belonging to say, a penis, has never demonstrated any sign of what we consider thoughtfulness. Anyway, it seems we’ve reached the point where we are going to start chasing around in circles rather early in the discussion, and frankly, I have a room to paint. ::slight_smile: :wink:

Cheers,

Mintaka

Speak for yourself Mintaka - my penis is very thoughtful ;D