Population Thinking for Epistemology

June 8, 2009 at 1:29 pm 1 comment

One of my first posts on this blog was about essentialism. For some reason, Google has since picked up the keywords in the article, and it is a popular result for people looking for “essentialism” “philosophy” and “biology”. This has mystified me, because it simply is not a very informative post. If people were looking for a reference on any of those subjects, they would do better to look elsewhere.

For a long time, I have been vowing to write a better and more original post on essentialism in philosophy. This is that post, but it is still not a reference on philosophy, essentialism, or biology. For more information on essentialism, I would encourage everyone to check out John Wilkins’ brief discussion of the subject over at TalkOrigins, here.

This post concerns essentialism not in biology, but in philosophy. And I do not mean Platonic or Aristotelian essentialism; although the roots of essentialism in biology lie in part with the ancient Greeks, I think few philosophers today would say they consider truth in the same way as Plato or Aristotle. I want to discuss essentialism as the term has come to have meaning in biology in the 1930s and 40s, and in philosophy since philosophers have decided to turn their interests to modern biology. Ernst Mayr contrasted essentialist or typological thinking with population thinking in biology, as I mentioned in my previous post, but in discussing essentialism I think philosophers have failed to do the same.

What do I mean? Well, essentialism is primarily about identity, truth, and our capacity to recognize truth in a world in transition. Essentialism concerns knowledge of the characteristics that identify something, whether that thing is a species, a concept, or a person. In contrast to this, Mayr placed population thinking, whereby there is no one single organism that is a perfect model of a species, because that was not what a species is. A species consists of a population of organisms with varying traits. This makes life difficult, but not as difficult as looking for the perfect Gazelle and accordingly classifying all other Gazelles as flawed, but close enough.

Of course, philosophy doesn’t usually work in terms of Gazelles or other organisms. Philosophy deals in concepts, explanations, and other such abstractions. Because of this, I think that philosophers have traditionally focused more on essentialism than population thinking. Philosophers of biology bring both up at the same time, as I have, but when essentialism is discussed in other philosophical contexts population thinking is not mentioned. As in my original post on essentialism, philosophers in more traditional fields like epistemology and metaphysics discuss essentialism as something to be avoided, perhaps, as a pitfall or a fallacy. Sometimes, it seems as if “essentialism” is just to be equated with “oversimplification”.

Population thinking should be involved when essentialism is discussed, however, because it is an alternative to essentialist/typological thinking. How, then, should population thinking figure into the minds of, say, epistemologists? On the one hand, there is what the concept of population thinking actually consists of, which is interesting for sure. On the other, perhaps population thinking has something to say about how we should go about seeking knowledge. In most accounts of knowledge, truth is the goal, the primary ingredient, always an essential part. But truth itself resists explanation; it is what is accurate to the world, intuitive, plausible, and correct. The other bits of knowledge should be truth-seeking or conducive to finding the truth. And, unlike the populations of organisms that make up a species, there can be only one truth. There are arguments for truth pluralism, to be sure, but I can’t say they convince me. A problem for epistemologists and humans everywhere is that finding the truth, singular and perfect, is extremely difficult.

Extremely.

My proposal, then, is this: we should certainly not stop looking for truth, but perhaps we need some waystations before we arrive at it. Population thinking may be able to help us find these way stations. As has been pointed out and rehashed by many philosophers, relying on natural selection to find the truth may not be the best way to go about the search, because fitness ensures survival, not necessarily knowledge. Natural selection alone has not shaped humans into the ultimate truth-seekers. But, to paraphrase one of Karl Popper’s famous metaphors, perhaps humanity is lost on an endless, darkened plain. About this plane are scattered lanterns, all with different ranges of illumination. We can only pick up one at a time, and it is difficult (although not impossible) to tell if one we come upon provides more light than the one we hold. So we go about picking up lanterns and sometimes, after a short or long distance, we have to go back to one we dropped back along the way.

So we are lost in a population of lanterns. But perhaps some may be judged, on sight, as better in some ways than others. We might not be able to judge for truth (as I am not sure we know truth when we see it), but perhaps we can specify the fitness criteria of the better lanterns before we set ours down and pick a new one up. Perhaps, given the range of theories scientific and philosophical, it would be best to leave aside truth for a while and set our energies towards defining new optimums and examining our populations of theories for those.

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Entry filed under: Biology, Epistemology, Essentialism, Philosophy.

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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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