I am back from Philly. I had a veggie-cheese steak and saw the Liberty Bell.
As for the SPP, it seemed to be doing quite well. I missed the first day of the conference, which I was bummed about. I wanted to see Devitt’s talk on ‘The “Linguistic Conception” of Grammars’. From what I know of Devitt’s recent work I would guess that the talk was an attack on the assumption that the rules of grammar are explicitly or implicitly represented in the mind of a typical language user. I am sure that would have been interesting to see.
I did catch Jerry Fodor’skeynote speech on Friday. He was there giving a version of a talk that I have heard a couple of other times at various conferences around the New York area. The basic theme of his latest work has been an attack on standard formulations of adaptationism of the Darwinian variety. This theory aims to explain how it comes to be the case that animals come to be adapted to their environment. This is a question that has puzzled biologist for some time. The Darwinian answer is in terms of natural selection. The basic idea is as follows. The traits that are useful for the species (cashed out in terms of reproductive success) are selected for and the traits that are detrimental to reproductive success are selected against.
Fodor’s argument againts this well established view proceeds in a couple of steps. The first step is to look at intentional actions and point out a certain kind of problem. Take the frog. It snaps at flies in order to survive. Now consider the intentional state of the frog itself. Is it intending to snap at flies? Or is it intending to snap at ‘ambient black dots’? These are twp different properties. It happens to be the case that whichever one the frog is doing will help it in the environment it finds itself in, so in a sense natural selection cannot distinguish between these two very different properties. Since it can’t distinguish between them it cannot select between them.
This problem generalizes, according to Fodor. Consider the Polar bear. The standard story that is supposed to explain why the polar bear is white involves selection for white polar bears. But ‘selection for’ as an intensional context. What this means is that we do not get truth preservation with substitution of co-referring terms. So, in the case of belief attribution which are the exemplars of what happens in an intensional context. So, I can believe that 50 cent is a great rapper without believeing that Curtis JAckson is an excellent rapper even though 50 cent and Curtis Jackson are the same person. Now consider ‘selection for’. Say that white is my favorite color. Being white and being my favorite color are different properties and selection for one is not selection for the other. The problem then becomes of explaining how we can say that white polar bears were selected for, as opposed to polar bears that are my favorite color. There are an indefinate number of properties which are distinct from yet coextensive with being white. If you don’t like that of being my favorite color Fodor’s example is ‘being the same color as the environment’. Which of these properties were selected for? To answer that question you would need a selector, but the Darwinist is not allowed to this claim. So then, the traditional adaptionist theory fails to do what it promises to do.
As usual, the scientist in teh room were very upset with Fodor, and it was quite entertaining. Lot’s of people have been upset with Fodor recently. Dennett says that Fodor’s argument is good for two things. Providing a reductio of the Fodor-inspired Representational theory of Mind in cognitive science. And demonstrating how NOT to do philosophy. I worry that this is half right. It seems to me that if one does approach the problem in the way that Fodor does, which whether or not correct is one of the most widely held views about the mind in current cog sci, then you do have this problem.
How much of a problem it turns out to be remains to be seen. Fodor thinks that it is no big deal. He certainly doesn’t think that this should provide comfort to the intelligent design folks.