Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On Debunking (by guest blogger Tamler Sommers)

Not too long ago, I was one of those people who found the children of my friends annoying and the endless discussions about how fast they were growing unbearable (really, babies grow???!! Amazing!!). Then my daughter Eliza was born and I was smitten from the day one. Teaching her to ride a bike, watching Charlie Chaplin movies with her, I feel like I’m in heaven. Now, if an evolutionary biologist comes along and tells me: “yes, but these feelings of “love” are really just a bunch of neurons firing—these feelings have been naturally selected for so that parents would care for offspring long enough for them to pass along their genes,” I’d shrug my shoulders or perhaps ask for more details. But this mechanistic/evolutionary explanation wouldn’t in any way undermine my love for my daughter or debunk my belief that I truly love her. Why? Because I’m a naturalist and never presumed that love wouldn’t have this type of explanation.

However, I know people who don’t feel this way about love—someone named Ashley for example. For Ashley, real love cannot just be neurons firing because it was adaptive for her ancestors to have those neurons firing. Real love must have its source in something completely unrelated to the struggle for survival and reproduction. Naturalistic explanations terrify Ashley precisely because they do undermine her belief that she truly loves her children or partner.

But would/should these explanations debunk her belief that she loves her children? Well, that depends. It certainly seems strange (for Ashley) to think that she loves her son because it was adaptive for her ancestors to love their children. That doesn’t seem like real love. On the other hand, it also seems strange to her, given what she now knows, to say “it’s false that I love my son.” She still adores him, loves to play with him, would kill anyone that tried to harm him. So what, in the end, does/should Ashley think about her belief in the existence of her love—is it (a) false or (b) just in need of revision? The answer seems to depend in large part on which option, upon reflection, seems stranger, more counterintuitive. It also seems to be the case that whatever she chooses will be the result of her personal history, the particular ways in which Ashley acquired the concept of love (as opposed to, say, the way I acquired the concept.)

I bring this up because lately I’ve been thinking that we have no agreed-upon method for determining when a belief has been explained and when it has been explained away. The above example makes me think that the success of debunking strategies is (a) tied to our preconceptions about the origins of the belief in question, and (b) indeterminate. In my next post, I’ll give my thoughts about how these considerations relate to specific naturalistic debunking strategies in metaethical debates (by Josh Greene, Richard Joyce, and Peter Singer). But first, I would love to hear others’ thoughts on the criteria for evaluating the success of debunking strategies in general, or debunking strategies in metaethics in particular.

Oh, and for a classic case of debunking (and a look back at one of Bob Barker’s lesser known enterprises) check this out. (Note that Randi would be providing an explanation rather than a debunking explanation if the preconception about what was causing the pages to move were different…)


AnlamK said...

I don't have anything substantial to add but my father was really annoyed when I suggested (as an explanation for his interest in me) that biological organisms had an innate need to preserve their offspring. He sort of let out a mediocre grunt and called that "bullshit".

Jordan said...

I would guess that part of the problem for Ashley is that she sees an evolutionary explanation of her motherly love as "too scientific," which in many people's minds is equated with cold, hard facts– things that don't seem to line up with our human conceptions of love. I think she may reverse her stance if she considers how mind-blowing and beautiful the evolution of love was– how we gradually and oh-so-slowly went from mindless creatures competing for survival to ones with conscious experience, ones who love. Think of all the "proto-loves" that existed prior to what we now conceive of as love. Think of the sheer quantity of organisms who have loved, each with their own distinct experience. I find this view much more beautiful, much more satisfying.

Anonymous said...

Humans have such developed cognitive capacities that if we didn't love our children, we'd never have them or raise them.

Manuel Vargas said...

I sometimes think that the explaining vs. explaining away thing has to do with where the causal force is located. Roughly, if the causal properties show that the stuff you were pointing to don't do any work at all, you've explained away something. If the causal explanation you offer does show that the stuff you were pointing to does some work, then even if the mechanisms by which it does that work turn out to be vastly more complicated or different from what you thought, then you've explained something.

So, on love, so long as one's feelings, desires, values, regard for the person and so on do real work in explaining love (even if they can be analyzed into smaller components), then we've just explained love. If, on the other hand, the explanation shows that those feelings don't do any work, then we've debunked love.

This is where things get tricky. People are threatened by naturalistic explanations in part because they sometimes understand these explanations to reveal that the high level stuff wasn't doing anything. In the love case, the idea is that the evolutionary stuff shows that my feelings aren't mine, that they aren't doing any work. But, the hard part for people to see with naturalistic explanations is that they don't necessarily entail that. Just because an explanation may point to radically different mechanisms doesn't mean it has debunked, so long as that explanation is an explanation of the how and the why of the things that are doing work (in this case, feelings of attachment, caring, and on on.)

I think that lots of time people get distracted by origin stories (as in evolutionary cases) and thereby forget the reality of the proximal stuff that the origin stories are attempting to explain. So, whether my feelings are products of evolutionary forces, fairy dust, or the decisions of some creator, it looks like my feelings are still at least proximal causes of what is going on. So, explanation and not debunking.

Of course, one can be threatened by the idea that we aren't ultimate causes of things, but that's another ball of wax . . .

Tamler Sommers said...

Jordon, you put that nicely. I agree with you and that's what I would tell Ashley. But I wonder if she could still reasonably insist that it was nevertheless is not real love.

Manuel, thanks, that's helpful. I hate to get all thought-experimenty on you but what if I learn that I was hypnotized to feel love for someone. I still have all the feelings, desires, regard for the person--they are doing the proximal causal work--but doesn't that origin story debunk my belief that I TRULY love her?

If the answer is yes, I'd suggest it's because my preconception about the origin of my love was completely different from what the origin turned out to be. But then, couldn't the same be said for Ashley?

Michael Metzler said...

This is a great way to approach the recent clash between the new atheism (e.g. Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens) and the Christian responses. Both sides focus on the problem of which practice and view mitigates genuine morality. The atheist has taken the offensive. Not only does biological evolution (and absent God) not debunk morality, such a view helps get genuine morality right. Religion, and all the delusional narrative frameworks supporting religious morality, is in fact a moral poison, rather than a necessary moral framework. The theist claims (in a way similar to C.S. Lewis' version of the moral argument) that the atheist has unwittingly debunked morality (including 'love') altogether, now lacking the assumptions that make morality intelligible.

The threat and fear that theists feel when considering natural explanations is ubiquitous, as evidenced in this contemporary clash (I went through this myself), and so I very much look forward to this series!

Eddy Nahmias said...

Tamler, your hypnosis case adds another factor that may explain why it would debunk your love in a way that the evolutionary story need not. Hypnosis presumably works "around you" in the sense that we assume you would not love the person on your own. The evolutionary story works "through you" in the sense that we should recognize that it helps to explain why you do love the person on your own. It may take a revision of Ashley's theory of the underlying nature of her love, but learning that the underlying nature is natural rather than supernatural does not seem to take away anything essential about her love--i.e., the relevant feelings, beliefs, and (importantly) reasons it involves and the behaviors it motivates. This account gets trickier if Ashley rejects that she and her feelings are the product of biological processes as much as she would reject her feelings being the product of hypnosis.

Tamler Sommers said...

Eddy, thanks. It'll be interesting to see if those criteria work for moral beliefs and intuitions, many of which might also be a product of natural selection working "through" the agent. I'm going to think about that before my next post.

Michael, another connection between this and the theist/atheist debate involves recent attempts (e.g. by Dennett) to explain away the belief in God by appeal to mechanistic evolutionary accounts. My sense is that this type of debunking strategy is more promising in the theism case than it is in the metaethics case. But I need to figure out exactly why.

Brandon said...

One thing that I think that's worth keeping in mind is that an explanation can be more or less generic and more or less complete. For instance, the claim that A loves B because of the particular group of neurons firing leaves a lot out -- e.g., the fact that B exists, has such-and-such relationship to A, etc. -- and the claim that A loves B because it is a feeling that has been naturally selected for is a very generic explanation, applying to a massive numbers of things that are, in their particular details, fairly diverse. Ashley's particular love for her child or partner is bound up in all sorts of experiences with her child or her partner, and none of these get dealt with at all in explanations like these.

So I think one could view Ashley's protest as coming from a view of the situation in which it looks like the more generic explanation is being put forward as if it were a competitor to the explanation that deals with the particulars. Depending on the context, this could be an accurate assessment of what someone is trying to do; or it could be a mere confusion on Ashley's part.

(Although my intuitions here might be skewed by the fact that I have difficulty seeing natural selection as an explanation for someone's actual love for someone; it seems to me to be an explanation of why Ashley has the biological capacities required for love, i.e., of her being able to love, but not of her actual loving. So I think Ashley is broadly right on this particular point; essentially what she is doing is protesting a category mistake, and I think there's some case to be made that this would often be a category mistake. -- I say 'often' because I think it would depend very much on very particular details about how the explanation was actually applied.)