Archive | October 29, 2007

A Dark Faith

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Selwyn Duke thinks that those who question the biological basis of various psychological and behavioural differences among races are “practitioners of a dark faith” (pun intended?) incompatible with the teachings of science:

It seems especially odd when you consider that most of these inquisitors [Duke’s term for the antiracist left] are secularists who subscribe to the theory of evolution. Yet, despite their belief that different groups “evolved” in completely different parts of the world, operating in different environments and subject to different stresses, they would have us believe that all groups are identical in terms of the multitude of man’s talents and in every single measure of mental capacity. Why, miracle of miracles, all these two-legged cosmic accidents, the product of a billions-of-years journey from the primordial soup to primacy among creatures, whose evolution was influenced by perhaps millions of factors, wound up being precisely the same. It’s really the best argument for God I’ve ever heard, as such a statistical impossibility could only exist if it was ordained by the one with whom all things are possible.

Duke’s argument as stated is flailing at a straw man, since few of the people he’s criticising have made the extreme claim that different races are “precisely the same” in “every single measure.” But Duke’s claim can be restated in a more moderate form: given the different evolutionary histories of existing races, isn’t it plausible to suppose that more of their differences are genetically based than the antiracist left is prepared to recognise?

eugenics chart The answer is no. Even staying at the level of empirical considerations, we might say that skepticism toward attempts to base behavioural differences among groups on biological grounds is inductively justified for the same reason that skepticism toward attempts to defend astrology is justified: because such attempts have been made over and over for centuries and have all proved spectacularly wrong. Asking us to consider the latest iteration of such theories in dewy freshness and innocence without attention to the long embarrassing history of such claims and their subsequent refutation is, well, unscientific, like asking Charlie Brown to trust Lucy to hold the football one more time. (Such history goes back a long way. Aristotle, for example, thought the failure of the Celtic and Germanic peoples to rival the cultural achievements of Greece was a sign of an innate intellectual defect. It’s ironic that the chief proponents of this type of argument in the 19th and 20th centuries were themselves of Celtic and/or German descent.) And this is before we even get to the social horrors that this sorry history of scientific failure has been used to justify.

Here’s an analogy: suppose that the next time a child goes missing, I say, “hey, maybe the child was kidnapped by Jews who wanted to use its blood to make matzohs.” When criticised for this suggestion, I exclaim indignantly, “Isn’t it possible that this is what happened? Shouldn’t we consider every possibility? Don’t you politically-correct inquisitors care about truth?” Well, of course my suggestion is possible in some abstract sense. But in light of the actual history of such speculations – their empirical ungroundedness, plus their horrific results – such a suggestion on my part would properly be assigned to the “pointlessly offensive provocation” file rather than to the “serious scientific hypothesis” file. And the fact that I find such hypotheses salient, despite their empirical weakness, reveals my own biases. (Of course all this applies to gender as well – which is why I was glad to see Larry Summers booted out of the presidency of my alma mater.)

But there is more involved here than empirical considerations, because empirical science deals only with the enabling conditions of mind, not the constitutive conditions. (For this distinction see here, here, here, and here.) In short, there are truths about what mind is that are accessible only to philosophical inquiry, not to empirical inquiry; and such truths place constraints on what sorts of empirical hypotheses about mind, and differences among minds, are admissible. Different races may indeed have reached mindedness by somewhat different evolutionary paths, but as long as it is mindedness they have reached, then whatever is philosophically knowable about mindedness will apply to all races equally. (It’s certainly not an astonishing statistical anomaly, calling for appeal to divine intervention, that widely separated and diverse cultures have converged on, for instance, the proposition that 7 + 5 = 12.)

As an example, it used to be popular in racist circles to say that certain races lacked a moral sense. Duke might say, “well, that’s an admissible empirical hypothesis – there’s no evolutionary guarantee that all races will have the same capacities – let’s do some tests and find out.” But suppose that it turns out, via philosophical analysis, that having a moral sense is part of having a mind – that mental and moral capacities are conceptually linked. In that case the suggestion will not be an admissible empirical hypothesis; its coherence has already been ruled out on conceptual grounds.

There is thus a sad irony in the fact that Duke’s argument is receiving favourable press among some praxeologists, because Duke’s complaint that antiracists’ dismissal of evolution-based arguments is an expression of “faith” is strikingly similar to the frequent mainstream characterisation of Austrian praxeology as a “cult” for dismissing empirical approaches to economics in favour of a priori considerations. From the materialist/empiricist/psychologistic/scientistic standpoint, any appeal to philosophical rather than empirical considerations counts as “faith” rather than science. But this simply evinces a lack of understanding of the nature of philosophical reasoning. Praxeologists recognise such critiques as bogus when directed at praxeology; they should recognise that such critiques are equally bogus when directed at the antiracist left.

I’ve argued in previous posts (see here, here, and here) that a number of popular hypotheses about genetically grounded behavioural differences are simply ruled out by philosophical considerations. In addition, there are cases where although certain hypotheses are not absolutely ruled out, their a priori probability is lowered. For example, one reason for stressing environmental (as opposed to biological) determinants of mentality as much as antiracist thinkers do is that mentality itself consists to a significant degree in transactions with the physical and social environment rather than merely what is going on inside the skull. This discovery, however, was reached by philosophical/conceptual rather than empirical means (the “externalist revolution,” as we may call it, of which Wittgenstein was the principal herald), and has gone largely unrecognised by those working in the empirical sciences – which is one reason that empirical researchers continue to proceed as though everything relevant to mentality were located in the brain. The externalist dimension of mentality does not absolutely rule out innatist hypotheses, but it does give us a reason we would not otherwise have had to look more closely at environmental determinants of mental features than we otherwise might.

In short, then, when a hypothesis is either impossible or relatively unlikely for a priori reasons, has a poor track record a posteriori as well, and has the inferiority of certain groups as its principal upshot, the suggestion that the hypothesis might have been prompted more by prejudice than by fearless scientific inquiry seems less like the “political correctness” about which Duke wails than it does simple common sense.

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