Recently quite a few stories have appeared in the media touting new explanations for such diverse things as altruism, generosity, and music. These complex matters, we are told, can be traced to the brain, which is dependent upon genes, and genes in turn dependent upon evolutionary biology. Thus one reads articles with headlines like "Are You a Giving Person? Your Brain Tells Why" and "Music on the Brain: Why We Are Hard-Wired to Rock." There's a great air of confidence in these stories, generated by new developments in the related sciences being covered. What's left untold is how atrophied the opposite worldview is becoming. Explaining why someone is a giving person used to come down to culture, human values, religion, and philosophy.
As someone who cherishes that endangered worldview, but who at the same time wants to see valid scientific progress, let me take one issue, the claim of evolutionary biology to explain something as complex as generosity, altruism, or music. Such claims are thoroughly bogus. They do not invalidate the whole field of evolutionary biology. They simply step over the boundary of believable explanations.
What evolutionary biology and genetics cannot deal with is the philosophical order of explanation. You cannot obtain a true answer to any question unless you know the proper category of explanation. Let's say a stray cat comes to my door, and my wife asks me what it wants. If I say "world peace," my order of explanation is skewed. That seems simple enough. Now let's say that a man loses his job, becomes depressed, and wants a prescription for Prozac. What made him depressed isn't the imbalance of serotonin in his brain but the loss of his job. Yet science continues to offer this kind of wrong explanation all the time. It mistakes agency for cause. The brain is serving as the agent of the mind, it isn't causing mind. The primordial soup served as the agent for creating life, it didn't cause life.
Reductionism-which too many scientists are guilty of, as are their opponents, the creationists--tries to smoosh all questions to fit one explanatory mold, that of physical matter. Creationists, for their part, try to smoosh all questions into being acts of God. Nietzsche, an expert at disdain, rejected what he called the doltish assumptions of materialism. In a kinder vein let me offer an example of how explanations can be correctly arrived at:
A car driven by a drunk driver swerves off the road in a blizzard. Several kinds of people show up at the scene, and each one is asked "What caused this accident?" A car mechanic points to the steering wheel and the drive train, which turned the car off a straight line. A driving instructor says that the driver lacked the skill to negotiate a slippery road. A doctor says the driver's reflexes were impaired by alcohol. A psychologist says that the driver had a fight with his wife at a party and therefore drank too much out of anger. The driver himself says that he must have dozed off for a moment.
It's obvious that all these answers fit the worldview of the person answering. They each occupy a different order of explanation. Theories power perceptions. But it's also obvious that the car mechanic is furthest from giving a cogent answer. By confining himself to the steering wheel and drive train, he can provide an explanation that is mechanically correct but totally wrong-headed. In our hyper-technical world today, we can add some experts at the accident scene who are wrong-headed in a more impressive way. A neurologist holds up an MRI of the driver's brain and locates impaired activity in the motor cortex. A cell biologist detects minute alterations in sugars and enzymes in the liver. A quantum physicist calculates the amplitude of the probability curve that collapsed to produce neurotransmitters in the synaptic gaps of the driver's cerebrum.
Does the addition of ultra-specificity on any of these planes offer an answer better than the driver's "I must have dozed off"? Actually, no. The key element is intuitive. You must intuit the correct order of explanation before you can sensibly offer the correct answer. Otherwise, you aren't finding truth; you are just filling in a conceptual map that you brought to the scene beforehand. When a devout Christian asks God to heal her instead of going to the doctor, rationalists feel frustrated because in their eyes she is stubbornly relying on the wrong order of explanation (i.e., attributing disease to sin and cures to God's mercy), but they rarely see the same flaw in themselves.
In the next post I will apply this critique to evolutionary biology in specific terms.