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Book Review: Daniel Lieberman’s The Story of the Human Body

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In The Story of the Human Body Daniel Lieberman builds a strong case that making fully informed decisions about diet and lifestyle is only possible through the lens of evolutionary history. If you want to know where your body comes from, you need to understand its evolutionary history. Why do humans stand and walk on two legs? Why are we weak compared to other primates of comparable size? Why are our legs and feet shaped the way they are, with springy tendons and arched feet? Why does our spine have a special S-curve? The answer to these questions lies in the the evolutionary history of our species.

Now ask, why do people in modern societies suffer from “diseases of affluence” like obesity, type-2 diabetes, tooth decay, metabolic syndrome, flat feet, nearsightedness, lower back pain, and sleep disorders? Daniel Lieberman argues that these questions can only be fully answered by understanding the evolutionary history of our species. Lieberman argues these diseases are examples of “mismatch diseases” i.e. a disease that is primarily caused by our bodies not being sufficiently adapted to novel gene-environment contexts. We know they’re mismatch diseases primarily because they used to be rare, are largely preventable, and are almost unheard of in hunter-gatherer populations.

Lieberman argues that all of these diseases are in some sense a result of cultural evolution speeding ahead of natural evolution with the result that have humans manufactured a psychologically comfy and satisfying environment that is paradoxically unhealthy without fundamentally affecting our reproductive fitness. Lieberman calls this this paradoxical unhealthiness “dysevolution”. It turns out that surrounding ourselves with unlimited sources of cheap junk food is a bad idea because humans are genetically wired to crave food with dense amounts of fat, sugar, starch, and salt.

Lieberman is no luddite, and certainly doesn’t advocate a return to the caves and giving up on modern science and technology. His position is more nuanced than many of the extreme black and white positions out there, as befitting the complexity of gene-environment interaction. In many senses, the agricultural and industrial revolutions have propelled humans to new heights of health and longevity, with modern science curing diseases and fixing people better than ever before. At the same time, we are living longer but spending many of those years suffering from chronic, preventable diseases. The paradox of the modern world is reduced mortality but greater morbidity i.e. living longer, but spending more of those extra years with an illness of some sort. Lieberman argues that too often the incentives of modern medicine aim at fixing symptoms but not the underlying structural causes: the toxically comfortable environments we built for ourselves.

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Book Report 2013 – What I’ve Read This Year

The following is a list of all the books I’ve read from front to cover in 2013, starting from the most recently finished. The books in bold are ones that were most influential to my thinking, or particularly fascinating.

  1. The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals – Thomas Suddendorf
  2. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
  3. A Manual for Creating Atheists –  Boghossian, Peter 
  4. Simulation and Similarity: Using Models to Understand the World – Weisberg, Michael
  5. The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History – Gould, Stephen Jay
  6. Brain Imaging: What It Can (and Cannot) Tell Us about Consciousness – Shulman, R G
  7. Consciousness and the Social Brain – Graziano, Michael S A
  8. Wired for God?: The Biology of Spiritual Experience – Foster, Charles
  9. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman – Gleick, James
  10. The Unpredictable Species – Lieberman, Philip
  11. The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism – Grayling, A.C.
  12. Stumbling on Happiness – Gilbert, Daniel
  13. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why – Nisbett, Richard E.
  14. Civilization and Its Discontents – Freud, Sigmund
  15. The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature – Miller, Geoffrey
  16. Radicalizing Enactivism: Basic Minds Without Content – Hutto, Daniel D.
  17. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength – Baumeister, Roy F.
  18. Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  19. Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules – Haag, Pamela
  20. Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking – Hofstadter, Douglas R.
  21. The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home – Ariely, Dan
  22. The Future of an Illusion – Freud, Sigmund
  23. Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  24. How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed – Kurzweil, Ray
  25. On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic – Nietzsche, Friedrich
  26. The Mind-Body Problem – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  27. The Marvelous Learning Animal: What Makes Human Behavior Unique – Staats, Arthur W.
  28. Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order – Strogatz, Steven H.
  29. The Cultural Animal: Human Nature, Meaning, and Social Life – Baumeister, Roy F.
  30. Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False – Nagel, Thomas
  31. The Social Construction of What? – Hacking, Ian
  32. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction – Goldstein, Rebecca Newberger
  33. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Roach, Mary
  34. Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety – Smith, Daniel B.
  35. The Minds of the Bible: Speculations on the Cultural Evolution of Human Consciousness – Cohn, James
  36. Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness – Cahalan, Susannah
  37. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses – Chamovitz, Daniel
  38. Reconstruction in Philosophy – Dewey, John
  39. Against All Gods: Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness – Grayling, A.C.
  40. The Logic Of Modern Physics – Bridgman, Percy W.
  41. The End of Christianity – Loftus, John W.
  42. Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress – Chang, Hasok
  43. The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World – Goldberg, Elkhonon
  44. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America – Hitchens, Christopher
  45. Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief – Barrett, Justin L.
  46. Brains: How They Seem to Work – Purves, Dale
  47. A Man Without Words – Schaller, Susan
  48. Beyond Morality – Garner, Richard
  49. Hallucinations – Sacks, Oliver
  50. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t – Silver, Nate
  51. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder – Taleb, Nassim Nicholas 
  52. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood – Gleick, James
  53. Ubik – Dick, Philip K.
  54. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution – Dutton, Denis

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A Critical Review of Thomas Nagel’s latest book Mind and Cosmos

MindandCosmoscoverThomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos has garnered a lot of attention since its publication, with the reaction being intense, heated, and of largely mixed opinion (For a nice overview and response to negative views, see here). Not surprisingly, those sympathetic to naturalism have been harsh in their assessment, and those not so sympathetic have been full of praise. My assessment is ultimately negative, but I think both the defenders and critics of Nagel’s book have relied on a set of shared assumptions that are deeply problematic and masked by ambiguity. By exposing the hidden assumptions framing the debate between “reductionism” and “non-reductionism”, I show that Nagel’s criticism of “reductionism” is sound, but this is no reason to reject physicalism, only an outdated and confused version of physicalism.

1. The Problem of Hierarchy: Two Views of Reduction

The controversial subtitle of Mind and Cosmos is “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False”. Quite the claim! But what exactly is “Materialist Neo-Darwinism” and who really holds this view? More precisely, Nagel’s target for criticism is what he calls:

“A particular naturalistic Weltanshauung that postulates a hierarchical relation among the subjects of those sciences.”

I have a lot to say about this notion of a “hiearchical relation”, so bear with me! I propose Nagel’s invocation of a “hierarchy” is ambiguous between two senses of the term. First, there is a hierarchy of scale that is compositional e.g. Society is composed of individuals, which are composed of cells, which are composed of molecules, which are composed of atoms, etc. I take compositional hierarchy to be non-controversial.

The second sense of “hierarchy” is what John Heil calls a “hierarchy of being” or “hierarchy of reality”. On this view, you have lower-level “realizer bases” out of which higher-order properties “emerge”, in the sense of “strong” emergence where the whole is non-compositionally greater than the sum of the parts (whatever that means). For example, on the hierarchical view of reality, the mind “emerges”, “arises”, or is “generated” as a higher-order property “out of” the lower realizer bases, and is said to “supervene” on that lower base. Nagel is perfectly right to think this is a mysterious process, but that’s a good reason for physicalists to reject the entire hierarchical view of reality, not give up on physicalism.

The alternative picture is that reality is flat. There is one level of reality: it’s called reality! Within that level we can find hierarchies of scale and composition, but ultimately there are not two different levels or types of “being”, one physical and the other mental, with the latter “emerging” or “arising” out of the former. Nagel seems to think that physicalism is committed to this view, but ironically the problems he locates with reductionist physicalism stem from his own dualist intuitions about the existence of “higher” levels of reality. However, an ontologically serious physicalism has no room for different “levels” of reality, and thus it is not a “problem” to try and reduce the mental “level” to the physical “level” because that view of reduction relies on the problematic notion of there being a hierarchy of reality in the first place. In his book From an Ontological Point of View, John Heil recommends that

 …[W]e abandon the notion that reality is hierarchical. We can accept levels of organization, levels of complexity, levels of description, and levels of explanation, without commitment to levels of reality in the sense embraced by many self-proclaimed anti-reductionist philosophers today.The upshot is a conception of the world and our representations of it that is ontologically,but not analytically,reductive.

Agreed! This result generalizes to the entirety of Nagel’s critique of physicalist reductionism. While Nagel is right to argue that reductionism is problematic, the entire problematic of reducing higher levels of reality to lower levels of reality is a product of the dualist worldview, not the physicalist one. It bears repeating that on the physicalist view, there is no problem of “reducing” the mental to the physical because setting the problem up like that buys into the traditional dualist framework of reality as hierarchically layered. In a nutshell, Nagel is criticizing a dualistic view of physicalism, and thus his critique of physicalism says more about how Nagel views the world than it does about how physicalists do.

To be fair, many physicalists have unwittingly bought into the same “levels of being” view that is problematic, but insist that the “reduction” of the highest levels to the lowest is tractable. I agree entirely with Nagel that this project of reduction is doomed to failure, but not for the same reason Nagel does. My problem with the project of reduction is that it sets up the problem wrong, whereas Nagel think it reveals the truth of dualism (or at least the falsity of physicalism).

Nagel claims that his book is

“…[N]ot just about acknowledging the limits of what is actually understood but of trying to recognize what can and cannot in principle be understood by certain existing methods.”

Having cleared up the ambiguity of hierarchies, we can now analyze Nagel’s conclusions about what can and cannot be understood by the physical sciences. If the project is to say it is impossible for the physical sciences to “reduce” the “mental level” to the “physical level” then I agree entirely. But not because I doubt the truth of physicalism. The mental level cannot be reduced to the physical level because the whole idea of there being different levels is a product of the traditional dualist worldview where reality is divided into base terrestrial materials and higher spiritual realms.

Thus, when Nagel criticizes the project of “materialist reductionism,” he kind of has a point, but it’s impossible to see this unless we clear up ambiguities about how physicalists can think about reductionism. I propose there are essentially two types of materialist reductionism: call them Reductionism and Eliminativism. Reductionism is the confused view we have been discussing, where it’s acknowledged at the start there are two levels of being, and the problem is to reduce the mental level to the physical level or provide psycho-physical “bridge laws” between the two levels. In contrast, Eliminativism says all that exists is the physical level. Rather than starting with two levels, Eliminativism starts with one level and all phenomena as well as explanations of phenomena are framed in terms of this level of reality.

As I see it, Nagel is right to criticize Reductionism, but his arguments don’t apply to Eliminativism. Unfortunately, Nagel doesn’t make this distinction clear and doesn’t engage with the alternative one-level view of reality, which is the true competitor to the traditional dualist worldview. I can imagine what Nagel would say if he heard about this distinction. He might say it’s completely counter-intuitive because it denies the reality of “first person subjective experience”. But again, this talk of “denying reality” is ambiguous between denying that psychological phenomena “live” in the higher-realm of a two-level reality or denying that it exists at all. Physicalists don’t have to deny that psychological phenomena exist; they will just say that, whatever they are, they “are” just like everything else: existing in the complex, flat ontology that is our physical universe. Thus, physicalists only deny the reality of mental phenomena if it is assumed that mental phenomena “live” in a higher plane of existence in the two-level picture of reality.

Of course, given the complexity of the universe, physicalists have no expectation that humans will be cognitively comfortable (or even capable) of accounting for everything they want to explain in terms of the lowest compositional scales (atoms, quarks, etc). Rather, we abstract to higher compositional scales to deal with complex phenomena like human civilization. But all this abstraction is abstracted within a single level of reality. The psychological necessity of parsing the world into higher and lower scales is not a metaphysical proof of separate planes of reality. In fact, a physicalist understanding of human cognition would predict that humans would not be capable of handling reams of data without compressing it with language, graphs, equations, simulations, models, etc.

Thus, the following statement by Nagel is actually a prediction of the naturalistic concept of human cognition:

“For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe.”

Of course such a massively complicated proposition is “hard to believe”. A lot of things are hard to believe because we are forced to use our puny primate brains to understand a large, scarily complex physical universe with weird things like black holes, quarks, and gravity. Why would we expect it to be easy to imagine abiogenesis? Essentially, Nagel’s argument that not-P is: “I don’t understand P, therefore not-P.” But if P is physicalism, and physicalism predicts that humans will have a hard time understanding complicated things, our lack of understanding (especially of nonscientists) is surely not a refutation of physicalism, merely a recognition of its cognitive complexity.

2. Flubbing the Facts

Ontology aside, I do think Nagel makes some empirical gaffes exposing his ignorance of mainstream biological science, especially when discussing the state-of-the-art materialist conception of abiogenesis. He says, incredibly:

“The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical account becomes”

If history has taught us anything, believability by non-scientists is not a good metric for the truth of scientific claims. For many non-scientists, Einsten’s theory of relativity is unbelievable, but that obviously has no bearing on its truth. Nagel continues:

“[Abiogenesis] flies in the face of common sense…

“….It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection

“…When we go back far enough, to the origin of life – of self-replicating systems capable of supporting evolution by natural selection- those actually engaged in research in the subject recognize that they are very far from even formulating a viable explanatory hypothesis of the traditional materialist kind”

It would behoove Nagel to google the phrase “hydrothermal origins of life” to find proposed models of abiogenesis that start from recent discoveries of deep-sea heat vents. A quick search on Wikipedia and you can find the “iron-sulfur world theory” of abiogenesis. There are probably other rival hydrothermal theories, and I have no idea whether any of them are true, but the point is that they seem, to me, like a “viable explanatory hypothesis of the traditional materialist kind”.

Perhaps there is an ambiguity in Nagel’s use of “formulation”. Maybe he means “nobody has formulated a complete explanation established to be almost certainly true”. This would be true, but that’s simply an argument from ignorance. You can’t infer from the fact that we haven’t yet formulated a “complete” explanation that there isn’t a complete explanation.

However, if Nagel means “nobody has even formulated a viable educated guess” about the origins of life, this is almost certainly false, unless he can show why hydrothermal models aren’t “viable” as possible explanations.

3. Good Darwinians vs Bad Darwinians

Another thing that confused me is who Nagel considers to be a “bad Darwinian materialist” and who is a “good” materialist. Right after harshly criticizing Richard Dawkins for explaining the evolution of the eye “merely as a result of chemical accident, without the operation of some other factors determining and restricting the forms of genetic variation”, Nagel gives an example in a footnote of presumably “good”, non-reductionist Darwinians, “who insist that the evidence calls for a more restricted account of the sources of variation in the genetic material.” Surprisingly, Nagel cites Stuart Kauffman has a “good” non-reductionist, saying in that same footnote “Stuart Kauffman suggests in several books that variation is not due to chance, and that principles of spontaneous self-organization play a more important role than natural selection in evolutionary history.”

This is confusing on multiple levels. Is Nagel implying that Kauffman is “on his side” merely because he denies that all variation is due to chance alone and not chance in addition to other factors like the material property of spontaneous self-organization? If big, bad “Darwinian materialism” is supposed to be the claim that chance alone is the full story, then Nagel is making a stink about a view that few biologists actually hold. It might be convenient to treat chance has the primary operator, but this is because dealing with the entire material evolution of cellular matter is absurdly complicated, and would require a ridiculous amount of computing power to simulate.

I can’t speak for Kauffman’s own ontological views, but Kauffman-esque “non-reductionism” is ambiguous between materialist Reductionism and materialist Eliminativism. It’s conceptually possible that all the “spontaneous” self-organization of matter is a property of the single level of reality that is the physical universe. This might be wildly complex, but why shouldn’t it be? It’s the universe itself we’re talking about here, not a toy model of it. But nothing about wild and strange self-organizing properties of matter is inconsistent with materialist Eliminativism. Thus, Nagel’s appeal to Kauffman has a counter-example to reductionism is ineffective as a genuine criticism of the physicalist worldview.

Conclusion

As a card-carrying “Darwinian materialist” who wears his naturalistic credentials proudly, I am sympathetic to the received criticisms of Nagel’s book. However, unlike other naturalists who have criticized Nagel’s book, I think Nagel’s criticism of Reductionism is sound: it is impossible to reduce the mental level to the physical level. Nagel’s critics have mistakenly limited their options to either joining Nagel in attacking Reductionism or accepting Reductionism as formulated by Nagel.

I reject both options in favor of Eliminativism. The reason why it’s impossible to reduce the mental level to the physical level is that this very way of setting up the problem belies the traditional view of reality as composed of “levels of being”, with the mental level “emerging out of” or “arising from” the physical level. For eliminativists, there is a single level: physical reality, and humans exist only on this level. But we certainly don’t talk or write this way. For good reason: we have puny primate brains with finite memory and processing power. It’d be futile to try to understand WWII in terms of Schroedinger’s equation, but this cognitive inability does not entail the falsity of quantum mechanics. Likewise with psychology.

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Book notice: Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness

This is the kind of popular psych tome that journalists wish they had the scholarly knowledge to write but can’t and the kind of scholarly book that psychologists wish they had the wisdom and wit to write but don’t. Gilbert is easy to read, hilarious, insightful, and generally sounds like the kind of person you’d like to either take a class or drink beer with. Scientific yet down-to-earth, Gilbert guides the reader through exciting psychological research in the social sciences while sharing analogies from his own, often funny and relatable life experience . Did I mention this book is full of wisdom? It’d be easy to dismiss Stumbling on Happiness as just another pop psych book reporting on the newest glut of psych experiments, but it’s so much more than you’d expect from the New York Times Best-seller Title © and dust-jacket blurbs. A rare gem. 5/5

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Book Notice: Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why

Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought is a fascinating exemplar of cultural psychology that does exactly what its subtitle suggests: tells you how Asians and Westerners think differently and canvasses the best available explanations why. The book is a glorified research report covering dozens of laboratory experiments in social psychology, but the writing is in plain English and you aren’t overwhelmed with methodological details.

In a nutshell, Nisbett and colleagues have generated mountains of empirical evidence that’s consistent with the popular but anecdotal idea that Westerners are “analytic” and Asians “holistic”, and that these differences are in part due to culture and language. When stating his central thesis, Nisbett is at pains reminds the reader that some Asians think more like Westerners than Westerners do and vice versa, and that everyone utilizes both analytic and holistic thinking styles and that we are all liable to cross-cultural influences. Nevertheless, Nisbett claims that if you compare population averages, East Asians are more likely to think holistically in everyday situations and Westerners are more likely to think analytically.

Nisbett’s central thesis fits my own experience, and corroborates what Western popularizers of Asian thought like Alan Watts have been emphasizing for decades: There is a Zen monk inside us all, but Western culture makes us jump through several hoops to discover this, and sadly many people never do. 4.5/5

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