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Posted by on Jan 12, 2014 in Skepticism | 10 comments’s annual question: What scientific idea is ready for retirement?

The prehistoric bison carving at the Tuc D’Audoubert caves in FranceAs usual, John Brockman and Edge have come up with an annual question that’s sure to generate some fascinating answers. While the full set of answers will only be available from the 14th of January at, The Guardian today published a preview that includes answers from Richard Dawkins and others.

Jonathan Gottschall’s answer uses the example of something pretty amazing to raise questions about a “science of art” and why we’ve seen so little progress in that regard. As he writes:

Fifteen thousand years ago in France, a sculptor swam and slithered almost a kilometre down into a mountain cave. Using clay, the artist shaped a big bull rearing up to mount a cow, and then left his creation in the bowels of the earth. The two bison of the Tuc D’Audoubert caves sat undisturbed for many thousands of years until they were rediscovered by spelunking boys [cavers] in 1912.

The preview contains entries on addiction, arrogance, binary logic, infinity and more – so if you’re looking for some thought-provoking Sunday reading, I commend it to you.

  • I was alerted to Richard Dawkins contribution by Jen McCreight, who praised his takedown of essentialism. I enjoyed it as well, but I do think it odd that he laid the blame primarily at the feet of a single philosopher. Surely the human tendency to succumb to the “tyranny of the discontinuous mind” is cross-cultural and to some degree inborn?

    • I understand your reservations, but Plato was pretty darn influential – and one of a small number of groundbreaking thinkers that have survived to be present in modern consciousness – that the attribution isn’t completely baseless. It’s inborn, sure, but Plato was one of the loudest voices reinforcing the idea.

  • Richard_Wein

    Hi. I agree with you Damion. I think you can take “essentialism” to mean either a particular philosophical position or a mere tendency of people to think in a certain way. In the latter sense, I think it’s a normal human tendency which we have to work hard to overcome. I would say that philosophical essentialists are then (roughly speaking) putting that tendency into words, reinforcing a misguided way of thinking, but are not the ultimate source of it. In any case, I doubt there are many philosophers (let alone scientists) taking an avowedly essentialist position today, so it seems odd to make this one’s “idea” (let alone “scientific idea”) most ready for retirement. I think it would be better to call it a way of thinking in need of retirement. Better still, I would call it a cognitive tendency to be fought against, though one which we will never completely overcome, because it’s so ingrained in our use of language.

    Wittgenstein famously wrote that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intellect by our language. And I would say that in large part it’s language which bewitches us into seeing things essentialistically, or discontinuously. Dividing things into categories is an inherent and useful part of our language use, and having so divided things, we naturally tend to see the categories as separate and discontinuous. It requires active work and vigilance to overcome this tendency.

    I agree with Dawkins that essentialist thinking causes a lot of problems, though I doubt it’s that big a problem in science itself. On the whole the sciences (at least the harder sciences) deal in much less fuzzy concepts than do other areas of discourse. Problems do arise with regard to species and particularly in evolutionary biology, but I expect most scientists today manage to avoid thinking about these issues in essentialist ways. It’s more of a problem for the public understanding of evolutionary biology. But generally I would say that essentialist thinking is much more of a problem outside science than inside. And I would say it’s very much a problem in philosophy, with philosophers often looking for excessively neat demarcation lines between science and non-science, knowledge and not-knowledge, etc.

    That said, I think Dawkins is a little too critical of arbitrary lines, like poverty lines. Problems can arise if we treat such measurement lines too essentialistically, but with caution they can be useful. And when it comes to laws and other lines that trigger action (such as election rules), we often have little choice but to draw a line somewhere.

    • I agree that it is a tendency to be fought against, more specifically, to be replaced with scientifically informed methods which allow for the same sort of inferences that essentialism allows us to perform rapidly even in ignorance of the actual physical causes which link together all of a given “kind” e.g. the shared ancestry of felids, the chemical composition of water.

      H. Clark Barrett wrote a fairly dense short essay on the functional origins of psychological essentialism as a sort of adaptive cognitive shortcut which allowed for rapid inferences about salient features of the environment during the era of evolutionary adaptation. It is beyond my expertise to analyze his hypotheses, but it seems likely to me that he is barking at the right grove of trees. He also takes care not to essentialise essentialism itself, making it into a single unified inferential process rather than a disparate collection of related heuristics.

      Regardless of whether essentially can be firmly rooted in evo-psych, as skeptics with an interest in promoting rationality, we should take care to point out (at least to ourselves) whenever bright conceptual lines are being drawn across phenomena which are continuous rather than discrete. Poverty is a good example, personhood is another.

  • Richard_Wein

    P.S. I like Dawkins’ expression “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind”:

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Did you notice the entry by Douglas Rushkoff?

    The Atheism Prerequisite

    But science’s unearned commitment to materialism has led us into
    convoluted assumptions about the origins of space-time, in which time
    itself simply must be accepted as a byproduct of the big bang, and
    consciousness (if it even exists) as a byproduct of matter.

    “Unearned”? materialism is not a presupposition of science, but a reasonable conclusion to be drawn from half a millenium of pregress in understanding our world.

    It’s entirely more rational—and less steeped in storybook logic—to work
    with the possibility that time predates matter, and that consciousness
    is less the consequence of a physical, cause-and-effect reality than a

    By starting with Godlessness as a foundational principle of scientific
    reasoning, we make ourselves unnecessarily resistant to the novelty of
    human consciousness, its potential continuity over time, and the
    possibility that it has purpose.

    Once again with the “foundational principle” bit. Science most certainly did not start out as an atheistic enterprise, and God(s) has had 500 years to show His hand. Rushkoff also seems really determined to hold onto dualism, despite the (so far incomplete) success of materialistic explanations and the failure to demonstrate consciousness free of a material manifestation.

    Also the focus on “human consciousness” shows a tendency towards anthropocentrism which can only impede progress.

    • J. Polanco

      And “if all you have is a hammer , everything looks like a nail .” -Maslow

      Stated more explicitly , your Scientism or just Radical Positivism is an awfully parochial or small-minded philosophy of knowledge . On this opinion there is certainly absolutely nothing good or evil , right or wrong , exquisite or hideous . Even so, can it be tenable to believe that experimental truth is the one and only truth that exists ? That simply no aesthetic , moral , metaphysical or otherwise putative facts obtain ?

      Abiding by this view , for starters , the Atheist who rapes a little kid to death ( or engages in this: is doing absolutely nothing wrong . Exactly why ought we agree to such a conclusion resulting from an epistemological limit ? Isn’t this an indication that you ought to unlock the ambit of your beliefs so that you can incorporate all the other different types of truth that abound?

      Withal , the basic principles of Gödel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem altogether gainsays Radical Positivism’s primary assumption . In fact , Science is suffused with assumptions that can never be scientifically verified . The epistemology of radical positivism , as a result , abrogates science itself . Take for instance , the concept of induction. It simply cannot scientifically defended . Attempting to render a solid inductive line of reasoning for radical positivism is ridiculous as this automatically begs the question by presupposing the legitimacy of inductive reasoning to begin with !

      All the more devastating to your beliefs is the fact that radical positivism is self-refuting . At its heart , this pernicious conviction declares that we must not consent to any concept that cannot be scientifically tested . Yet what about that very supposition ? It can’t per se be scientifically tested out much less corroborated . As a result we ought not believe it . Your trusty Radical Positivism, as a result, asphyxiates itself .

      Or alternatively , as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem made evident , ‘Whatsoever may be bounded cannot explicate itself without referring to that which is without itself – some postulate whose certainty is unobtainable .’

      This is just what famed Physicist and Mathematician James Clerk Maxwell alluded to when he came to the conclusion , “Science is incompetent to reason upon the creation of matter itself out of nothing . We have reached the utmost limit of our thinking faculties when we have admitted that because matter cannot be eternal and self-existent it must have been created .”

      Demonstrably , then , your current opposition to as well as distaste for the idea of God’s presence is not evidentiary, just philosophical . It is actually your ethos – and only your ethos – that occludes your way to grasping your Creator’s truths .

      Having said that , the day you at long last choose to unshackle your epistemology of truth is the day the bounteous ken of God Almighty can finally be within your reach . At that moment , with terrific shock and piercing remorse , you’ll recognize you’ve always been needlessly depriving you and your family of a whole world of simply astonishing and precious truths .

      • It seems to me there are a few intermediate steps missing between the affirmation that methodological naturalism has proven itself time and again over the last five centuries and “the Atheist who rapes a little kid to death is doing absolutely nothing wrong.”

        I’m guessing that one of the steps is to define right and wrong exclusively in theistic terms, but who knows?

        • J. Polanco

          How so?

  • f_galton

    Regarding Dawkins’ essay, I don’t find the electoral college “preposterous”, but even if one does it’s not a “manifestation of essentialist thinking”. He doesn’t understand American race issues, either.