Sunday, April 01, 2007

Wheels within wheels

Today is April 1, which (for the benefit of those from distant locales, spambots or no) we in the U. S. of A. celebrate by playing practical jokes on each other. (I believe that in France they have "poisson d'avril" or some such.) So today I was interested to read of an elaborate stunt that some wiseacres have played on us.

I need to back up a bit. I haven't commented on it, but one extended skirmish in the evolution wars over the past few weeks has been between one Dr. Michael Egnor, a purported neurosurgeon, on the ID side, and various interblogutors on the other, many from scienceblogs (see here and here, for example).

But today it was revealed that the whole thing was a joke:
Over the past month I [i.e., "Egnor"] have engaged in what my friend Bill Dembski ludicly refers to as "street theatre". My posts here [i.e., on the Discovery Institute blog] have been an outlandish parody of the bona fide Intelligent Design position, liberally injected with many of the more simplistic errors of the Young Earth Creationists. My purpose was to see how far we could go before the gullible Darwinists realized they were being taken for a ride. The Discovery Institute has graciously aided (and abetted!) by allowing me a voice on this weblog and by giving me valuable feedback on my comedic output. Together, we have succeeded in duping the Darwinists (like the foul-mouthed duncecaps at the Panda's Thumb and Scienceblogs).
At The Panda's Thumb we find a sporting tip of the cap to the prankster(s), and PZ at Pharyngula is equally red-faced.

So, ha ha? Not so fast. If this is a joke by the Discovery Institute, it's hard to see the point of it. As Mark CC's post (first scienceblogs link above, at Good Math, Bad Math) shows, "Egnor's" misunderstandings of the relevant concept of information are sadly typical and not at all susceptible to the "you actually thought I believed that? Whatta maroon!" treatment. In fact they pretty much hew to the standard ID line on the matter; as does a lot of the rest of what "Egnor" says. And as commenters at PT/PZ point out, if it's hard to tell deliberate balderdash from arguments in earnest, that could just as easily say something about those arguments in earnest as it was supposed to say about those too dense to tell them apart.

Other commenters at these pages – more suspicious, more sharp-eyed, or at least more awake than the rest of us – tell us to take a closer look at the page on which the hoax is revealed. It sure looks like the DI blog ... but instead of "Discovery Institute" it says "Discover"; the trackback URL is to ""; the page is called "Evolution Views & News" instead of "News & Views"; and, at bottom below the trackback, the blurb says "Evolution Views & News presents analysis of that coverage, as well as original reporting that accurately delivers misinformation [!] about the current state of the debate over Darwinian evolution" ... although the subsequent link is indeed to the real DI blog (, that is, rather than Lastly (or is it?), the figure in the logo seems to be wearing an eyepatch (and may thus, if I am up to date on these matters, be a closet Pastafarian).

So, what we have here is in fact (as Maxwell Smart would say), the old fake hoax trick. Unless it itself is a hoax too (the old ersatz fake hoax trick?). In any case, the real entry for Evolution News & Views is here, credited, as it happens, to Dr. Michael Egnor. So is he spoofing us too? Let's take a look.

The post begins with a swipe at materialism. Not surprisingly, Dr. Egnor is not an advocate of this position (i.e., physicalism). Amazingly enough, we agree on this point. Physicalism is a form of metaphysical substance monism: everything that exists is composed of a single substance type -- matter. Its natural opponent is substance dualism, most famously in Descartes. But as I've said before, substance dualism is only the most superficial manifestation of Cartesian subject/object dualism. Once we resolve to stop plucking the dandelion and go for the roots (whether or not we go on to trade them for a rhizome), physicalism is no longer well-motivated. In fact it preserves the dualistic opposition in its negative form (as, similarly, do most forms of several other doctrines: skepticism, empiricism, anti-realism, and a bit further away, consequentialism). The actual dualistic error is the urge to ground the manifest qualitative difference between normative and causal explanations of everyday facts in a corresponding metaphysical difference between types of substance. In resisting this error in the way they do – by affirming a single substance-type and grounding the appearances in it and its various manifestations, it seems to me that physicalists themselves succumb to the pernicious urge.

What this post needs now, I feel, is (hold onto your hats) a lengthy quotation from John McDowell. As he puts it in his awesome paper "Functionalism and Anomalous Monism" (originally from Actions and Events, the second volume of papers from a marathon Davidson conference in 1985, which is out of print, but the paper is now available here as well):
It is quite intelligible [he says in response to an argument of Brian Loar] that [substance dualism] should seem to be [the] basic flaw [of the Cartesian picture], and consequently that a "physicalist" conception of the inner should seem to be exactly what we need instead. But [...] I think this account of the Cartesian picture does not go deep enough; and if we go deeper, this apparent recommendation for "physicalism" disappears.

What is fundamentally at issue is the pull of the idea that reality is objective, in the sense of being fully describable from no particular point of view. [footnote: Nagel's article "Subjective and objective"] This idea is in tension with a natural intuition to the effect that the mental is both real and essentially subjective [in the relevant sense]. Cartesian [substance] dualism results from trying to put these forces in equilibrium: the subjectivity of the mental is (supposedly) accommodated by the idea of privileged access, while the object of that access is conceived, in conformity with the supposed requirement of objectivity, as there independently – there in a reality describable from no particular point of view – rather than as being constituted by the subject's special access to it. [footnote: B. Williams's book on Descartes] Since there is no plausibility in the idea that one could have the appropriate kind of special access to something "physical," the upshot is the notion of a non-"physical" substance.

This account of what generates the Cartesian picture of the inner suggests that to recoil from Cartesian dualism into "physicalism" may be to avoid only a superficial defect; it may be that the fundamental flaw is the attempt to force the mental into an objective mould, something still plainly operative in the supposedly healthy position in which this recoil leaves one. (pp. 394-5 in original; [fetches other volume] 335-6 in the McDowell collection, from which see also "Aesthetic Value, Objectivity, and the Fabric of the World," another corker)
But as you might imagine that's not Dr. Egnor's route (remember him?) to the rejection of physicalism. Here's sentence four of his post:
[M]aterialism is nonsense, because if matter and energy are all that exist, then truth doesn't exist (it's neither matter nor energy). If truth doesn't exist, then materialism can't be true.
Wow. Now let this be a lesson to you (should you need same): a true conclusion does not a non-ridiculous argument make.

But wait! Perhaps he too is joking. Sadly, I believe that he is not. Once again, this is too close to the actual ID line on the matter for the joke to have much point. I think Alvin Plantinga (a philosopher, even, to the shame of our guild) says something like this in his review of Dawkins's book. I'll stop now, but maybe we can pick this up again some time, like when there is no question of spoiling the joke.

UPDATE [4/6]: I missed this accompanying post at the Panda's Thumb, which either does or does not confirm my verdict about Egnor's post.

1 comment:

Matthew J. Brown said...

Keen eye! Seems like you're the only person who has noticed it, too.