Individually Unintelligent but Collectively Brilliant

by Mario Rizzo

Today on CBS Sunday Morning there was a very interesting program about ants. In the aggregate inept creatures create amazing structures. And what’s more they do it without central direction. However, they are extremely specialized. They follow, in effect, fairly rigid rules, involving imitating the actions of other ants of like kind. They do complicated things with simple rules. Arguably, one of the scientists interviewed said, humans are too smart. From the point of view of society, it pays to have mostly ignorant individuals making “stupid” choices but leaving the overall order unplanned.

There are fairly obvious connections between this story and the discussions about economists of zero-information traders that produce efficient social outcomes.

I have two main reactions.

  1. What is human intelligence for? The story of the ants gives the impression (through the program’s discussion about certain human parallels) that intelligence gets in the way. Why has evolution produced the conscious deliberately choosing mind?
  2. I hate the ants and their society. This was a visceral reaction in part but also in part a reflective society. I would not like to live in a society in which people did not reflect on themselves and on the social order.

While I think we can learn much from studying ants and their societies, I think we need to think more deeply about what is relevant to human societies. And why.



Moral Trial and Error

by Mario Rizzo

The recent discussion-thread at the blog Coordination Problem regarding a Hayekian case for same-sex marriage got me thinking more generally about moral evolution.

In a market there is a process of trial and error. New products or methods of production come into existence. Some fail; others succeed. Some speculators make successful predictions of the future course of prices; others make mistakes. In general, the filter for these decisions is the profit and loss mechanism.

F.A. Hayek famously argued that the evolution of institutions, including moral and legal rules, follows a similar course, that is, trial and error. And yet the analogy with market processes is far from perfect. How do we view the trial and error process of moral rules? What is the filtering mechanism?

Right off, let me say that I do not have definite answers to these questions. I simply have some relevant thoughts. Continue reading

Attributing Agency

by Gene Callahan

In C. Mantzavinos’s Philosophy of the Social Sciences there is a paper by Philip Pettit entitled “The Reality of Group Agents.” (He decides, by the way, that sometimes it makes perfect sense to attribute agency to a group, but that’s a topic for a different day.) What I wish to talk about today is the following passage, a preliminary to the issue of group agency, which discusses when it is sensible to posit agency for an individual creature such as, say, a wasp: Continue reading

Evolutionary Epistemology

by Gene Callahan

“This [is] an objection to evolutionary epistemology in all of its forms—that there is no reason whatever for supposing that the web of belief which has emerged via natural and cultural evolution mirrors nature or tracks reality. It will do so, according to evolutionary theory itself, only in so far as such mirroring or tracking enhances survival chances. There is, in fact, nothing a priori to tell against the possibility that false belief systems may sometimes give their holders a competitive edge in survival stakes, if unreasonable optimism, or false religious or other hopes are useful in sustaining them in adversity.” – John Gray, Liberalisms, 248.

It seems to me that Gray’s point is indisputable: the mere fact that, say, our brains or our scientific enterprises evolved as “spontaneous orders” gives them, contra Hayek, no warrant of epistemological reliability whatsoever. (Gray, in fact, specifically notes Hayek as someone committing the error he is criticizing.) In any case, while thinking about Gray’s passage above, I was struck by an amusing illustration of the principle in question, which I thought I’d share. Continue reading

Against Magical Thinking

by Roger Koppl

The term “magical thinking” has different meanings, most of them involving something like extrasensory perception or the efficacy of spells.  Here I define it as an argument, one of whose steps requires something impossible.  (Larry White helped me with this definition, but gets no blame for it or anything I say here.)  It is not magic thinking if your argument has an unexplained piece.  Darwin knew didn’t have anything like Mendelevian genetics as a mechanism.  That was a hole in his theory, eventually filled by others.  No magic there.  Magical thinking exists when one fills the gap with something that is logically or physically impossible.

If you can show I have engaged in magical thinking, you have overturned my argument.   Continue reading

It’s Just a Trick of Evolution!

by Gene Callahan

In a blog discussion, I recently ran across, yet again, an extremely odd and quite empty argument against morality being objective. “Ha,” the poster proclaimed, “morality is just a product of evolutionary selection!” At this point, it’s supposed to be obvious that moral principles aren’t “real” but are merely some sort of illusion fostered on us by natural selection to promote survival of the species.

Well, no doubt evolution had something to do with our ability to formulate and comprehend moral principles. But so what? Evolution also selected for our ability to both build and perceive chairs! Does it somehow follow from this that chairs are “just an illusion” foisted on us by evolution?