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Agents Under Fire

Materialism and the Rationality of Science Original Article

Agents Under Fire defends a robust notion of intelligent agency and intentionality against eliminative and naturalistic alternatives. Working with a Discovery Institute research grant, philosopher Angus Menuge tries to rescue the traditional conception of selfhood from the attacks of Darwinian psychologists.

Following the reductionist logic of Darwinism, evolutionary psychologists attempt to portray the mind as a collection of isolated genes and memes (discreet memorable units) that have been selected and groomed by millennia of evolution. With this atomistic understanding of the mind, Darwinian psychologists lose sight of the traditional understanding of the mind as an integrated place of reasoning and reduce the individual-self to a bundle of isolated ideas and behaviors favored by evolutionary processes. Menuge concludes that this argument from Darwinian psychology is untenable in light of the integrated nature of human reason, the human capacity to form points of view, and the continuity and unity of the human psyche. Evolutionary psychology cannot account for the level of integration necessary to produce the irreducibly complex function of human reason. Arguments that psychological unity can result from the random selection of memes are no more than vague gestures toward the mysteries of evolution. But like the vague gestures of alchemists could not make gold from copper, so the vague gestures of Darwinian psychologists cannot discover an atomistic mind in an integrated one.

Menuge also analyzes intelligent agents to see what they do when they produce designs. For example, Menuge observes that intelligent agents “exhibit intentionality” with “reasons for action” which are “reasons for the individual to do” that action. (pg. 27) Menuge even tackles Behe’s irreducible complexity arguments providing insight into the common evolutionist objection that irreducibly complex systems can be produced via exaptation (i.e., co-option). Menuge finds five problems that co-option-based accounts of the origin of irreducible complexity cannot overcome:

For a working flagellum to be built by exaptation, the five following conditions would all have to be met:

  • C1: Availability. Among the parts available for recruitment to form the flagellum, there would need to be ones capable of performing the highly specialized tasks of paddle, rotor, and motor, even though all of these items serve some other function or no function.
  • C2: Synchronization. The availability of these parts would have to be synchronized so that at some point, either individually or in combination, they are all available at the same time.
  • C3: Localization. The selected parts must all be made available at the same “construction site,” perhaps not simultaneously but certainly at the time they are needed.
  • C4: Coordination. The parts must be coordinated in just the right way: even if all of the parts of a flagellum are available at the right time, it is clear that the majority of ways of assembling them will be non-functional or irrelevant.
  • C5: Interface compatibility. The parts must be mutually compatible, that is, “well-matched” and capable of properly “interacting”: even if a paddle, rotor, and motor are put together in the right order, they also need to interface correctly. (pg. 104-105)

Menuge also forays into Darwinian explanations for the origin of mind. According to Menuge, the Darwinian psychology produced by Dawkins, Dennett, and Pinker is unable to explain the integration, unity, direction, and reliability of rational thought. For example, “if it is assumed that the human brain evolved gradually from an ape’s brain, then the vastly superior psychological ability of the former would require a long and gradual series of changes resulting in a much more complex brain.” (pg. 135) But since — at the anatomical level, human brains are very much like ape brains — Menuge argues that “relatively small alterations of brain structure must have produced very large behavioral discontinuities in the transition from the ancestral apes to us.” (pg. 135, quoting Fodor) Menuge further concludes that “[i]f that is the case, cognitive capacities are not Darwinian adaptations that developed gradually” but are either “remarkable flukes of nature, by-products of changes that were selected for other reasons” or, as Menuge believes, they “require some nonnatural explanation.” (pg. 135)

Drawing on his experience as both a philosopher and computer scientist, Menuge shows the reader that the materialist’s attempts to rid science of all commitment to teleology can only result in incoherence. Instead Menuge presents his own unique argument for the legitimacy of intelligent design.