Tuesday, 03 June 2008

Fun and Games from Mind & Language; or, What Arguments with Stakes Look Like To misquote Henry Kissinger: "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue—that is why academic politics are so bitter."[1] Academic politics, absolutely, but the same doesn't obtain in academic publications (at least not in the humanities). Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before.[2] I understandably relish the rare opportunities to watch as knives slide from their sheaths in preparation for battle. None of this "Building X upon the contradictory theories of Y and Z by resolving an irrelevant debate between A and B on the important but unrelated matter of C to demonstrate the significance of D in the context of E to the mutually exclusive discourses of F and G without falling into the easily avoidable trap set by G and H that I and J mistakenly attribute to K but which is actually based on the misinterpretation of L by M in his slavish devotion to N's conception of an O mediated by the P that Q insisted to R was all that maintained S's theory of T in light of the contributions of U and V to the marginalized discipline of W" stuff. As entertaining as it may be to watch such material collapse under the weight of its own absurdity, it lacks the visceral pleasure afforded by an old-fashioned academic knifing. To wit: Jerry Fodor steps into the circle: When [adaptationist explanations of the evolution of heritable traits] work it's because they provide plausible historical narratives, not because they cite covering laws. In particular, pace Darwinists, adaptationism doesn't articulate the mechanisms of the selection of heritable phenotypic traits; it couldn't because there aren't any mechanisms of the selection of heritable phenotypic traits (as such). All there are is the many, many different ways in which various creatures manage to flourish in the many, many environmental situations in which the do so. Diamond remarks that Darwin didn't just present 'a well-thought-out theory of evolution. Most importantly, he also proposed a theory of causation, the theory of natural selection.' Well, if I'm right, that's exactly what Darwin didn't do; a 'theory of causation' is exactly what the theory of natural selection isn't. Well, if he's right, I'm a scientist. If he's right, we all ought to write totally informally like all the time. Furthermore, if he's right, well, Daniel Dennett must be wrong: As often before, Jerry Fodor makes my life easier, this time by (1) figuring out a persuasive reductio ad absurdum argument for my views, (2) absolving me of any suspicion that I'm creating a straw man by resolutely embracing the absurd conclusion, and (3) providing along the way some vivid lessons in How Not to Do Philosophy. The only work left for me to do is (a) draw attention to these useful pedagogical aids, (b) point out the absurdity of Jerry's expressed position and (c) remind you that I told you so. [...] Now this really is absurd. Silly absurd. Preposterous....

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