Sunday, April 17, 2005

Evolutionary Psychology and Experience

The application of Sociobiology (the study of the evolutionary basis of behaviour) to humans has received a boost in recent times through the rise of Evolutionary Psychology (‘EP’). EP has numerous critics, from accusations of genetic determinism to claims it uncritically reflects prevailing political values (in much the same way that Social Darwinism and the ‘survival of the fittest’ reflected the values of 19th Century industrialised capitalism). Yet, human beings are part of the natural world and their must surely be a place for explaining human behaviour as the outcome of evolutionary processes.

Having said this, I am not sure if EP in its current form has much to contribute to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. I have not read widely in the field, but if Steven Pinker is taken as a representative spokesman, things do not augur well, as per the following excerpt from this interview:

Pinker: Since we can imagine a robot that, behaviour-for-behaviour and state-for-state, is identical to a human, but in which there's "no one home" -- no one actually feeling the pain or seeing the red -- there can't be an adaptive explanation of sentience, because we've defined it as something that can have no external consequences.

the evolutionist: So it's not just a case of the adaptive explanation of sentience forever eluding us, but rather that there cannot be one?

Pinker: That's right. Something that has no consequences can have no adaptive consequences. We can imagine a robot or a zombie or an android that has no consciousness, but otherwise interacts with the environment in the same way a sentient human does.”

Thus, it seems that EP does not have anything significant to say as to how and why human’s feel and experience differently from dogs or sea-slugs, let alone differently from each other (although it will have a lot to say about differences in behaviour).

The direction in which EP tends to verge in relation to the subjective is a consequence of it’s physicalist and reductionist assumptions, which deny emergent levels of causation and the causal efficacy of experience. I do not agree with these assumptions, but by way of an immanent critique, I think they lead EP towards the following alternatives regarding experience:

1. The reality of subjective experience is denied. This could be along the lines of eliminative materialism or the theories of Daniel Dennett (as Pinker discusses in the above interview).

2. Subjective experience is the result of random factors not related to natural selection that became fixated in the human genome (and possibly that of other species). As an example of how this might have occurred, genetic drift is a phenomenon whereby mutations which do not have any selective advantage can become permanent features of small populations.

3. Experience is a primitive, fundamental feature of the natural world which existed prior to the evolution of life - the panexperientialist alternative.

Of the alternatives, in my view Option 1 is a denial of the obvious and immediate and Option 2 is stretching credulity beyond reasonable limits. Thus, I think that by it’s own internal dynamic EP tends towards a panexperientialist outlook.

Of course, the inferred differences in the richness of experience between sea-slugs, dogs and humans would remain to be explained under Option 3. This could be accommodated within the framework of EP by postulating a correllation of physical complexity with experiential complexity.

So although on the face of it EP does not seem to have anything useful to say about the ‘hard problem’, it’s own premises arguably drive it towards an epiphenomenalist form of panexperientialism.

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