Behe and Radical Embodied Cognitive Science?

Cover of Radical Embodied Cognitive Science

Not the likeliest of pairings, of course, whatever the latter is supposed to be, but bear with me while I explain. Language Log, one of the few blogs that I read for pleasure, was founded by two linguists, Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum, features posts by them and a handful of additional linguists, and now is, deservedly, one of the most popular linguistics blogs around. I try to visit at least once a week. On my latest visit, there was a post, dated May 7, 2014, by Mark Liberman, entitled “Philosophical arguments about methodology,” which began with a long and funny passage from Anthony Chemero’s book Radical Embodied Cognitive Science (2009). He quoted Chemero as saying, “Jerry Fodor is my favorite philosopher. I think that Jerry Fodor is wrong about nearly everything. Knowing these two facts about me should be helpful for those who wish to understand what this book is all about,” and then culminated in a funny anecdote about Liberman’s own first meeting with Fodor.

That was mildly interesting, especially for anyone like me who relishes Fodor’s writing, but what caught my attention was a comment indicating that the chapter of Chemero’s from which Liberman quoted the long passage was entitled “Hegel, Behe, Chomsky, Fodor.” It’s been a while since my Sesame Street days, but I was inclined to start humming the “One of these things is not like the others” song. Why, I wondered, would Chemero—a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Cincinnati, whose book argues for describing cognition in terms of the dynamics between agents and environments rather than in terms of computation and representation—be interested enough in Behe to discuss him in a book not obviously devoted to discussing creationism or even evolutionary biology, let alone to the point of enshrining his name in a chapter title, let alone of the point of associating it with such philosophical and psychological luminaries as Hegel, Chomsky, and Fodor?

Well, Behe shouldn’t feel flattered. He is discussed in a section “describing four famous philosophical arguments against empirical approaches,” of which the first is Hegel’s. Hegel is often misrepresented as arguing that there are necessarily only seven planets, and to add insult to injury, he is also often patronized for his bad timing, too, since the argument appeared in his docent thesis Dissertatio philosophica de orbitis, published in 1801—the year in which the asteroid Ceres was discovered. Chemero avoids that misrepresentation, but describes Hegel as arguing that “there was necessarily no planet between Mars and Jupiter”; this strikes me as a less than charitable reading of Hegel, who was not so much arguing that there could be no planet between Mars and Jupiter as arguing that the reason (namely, Bode’s Law) that impelled some astronomers to think that there must be a planet there was not compelling. (See, e.g., Craig and Hoskin’s 1992 article in the Journal for the History of Astronomy.)

But the details of Hegel’s argument aren’t important here, since Chemero says, “Although formally dissimilar, Michael Behe’s argument for an intelligent designer has the same a priori flavor as Hegel’s.” Quoting a definition of irreducible complexity and the claim that irreducible complexity is unevolvable by natural selection from Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box (1996), Chemero then renders Behe’s argument as follows:

  1. Irreducibly complex systems cannot have evolved by natural selection.
  2. Many biochemical systems are irreducibly complex.
  3. Therefore, many biochemical systems cannot have evolved by natural selection.
  4. Therefore, many biochemical systems have been designed [by] an intelligent agent.

(emphasis in original)

He adds, “As in the case of Hegel’s argument, the initial conclusion [i.e., 3] follows if the premises are true, but the final conclusion [i.e., 4] does not. And, again, as with Hegel’s argument, the argument is conceptual: Behe defines a class of systems, claims that they must have certain properties, and then (contrary to empirical evidence) claims that certain biological systems are members of the class.”

Chemero’s rendering of Behe’s argument is accurate, I think, although incomplete. To my mind, the interesting part of the argument occurs between the definition of irreducible complexity and the claim that irreducible complexity is unevolvable by natural selection, and Chemero completely elides it. That’s understandable, of course; there’s no reason that he should be interested in “intelligent design” midrash here, and even among people who are interested in it, there’s confusion about whether unevolvability is supposed to be part of, or merely a consequence of, the definition of irreducible complexity. (I favor the latter approach, so I am happy to concede that there may be biological systems and structures that are irreducibly complex, arguing that there’s no reason to suppose that they are ipso facto unevolvable by natural selection; those who favor the former approach will, if they wish to resist Behe’s conclusion, claim that there’s no reason to suppose that there are any irreducibly complex biological systems and structures.)

“Behe’s argument is ridiculed by scientists, philosophers of science, and (thankfully) federal judges,” Chemero writes, the 2005 decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover evidently fresh in his mind though uncited. More important for his purposes, though, is the fact that “logical or conceptual arguments against empirical propositions and research programs, such as Hegel’s or Behe’s” are generally regarded as having no place in science—with the conspicuous exception of cognitive science, “where conceptual arguments against empirical claims are very common.” He then proceeds to criticize two such arguments due to Chomsky and to Fodor, thus completing the quartet of his chapter’s title. Behe surfaces a few times in passing through the rest of the book, but the adjective that Chemero bestows to the class of “arguments, based on little or no empirical evidence, to the conclusion that some scientific approach (observational astronomy, evolutionary biology, behaviorist psychology) will fail” is Hegelian. Poor Behe: slighted again.