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On The Inadequacy Of The Empiricist Tradition In Western Philosophy

by Stuart Kauffman
Jan 30, 2012

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Stuart Kauffman

I find myself beginning to realize that the philosophy that I studied, from Descartes to Hume to Kant to Russell to logical positivism and the early Wittgenstein, and perhaps the late Wittgenstein of the Investigations, is seriously inadequate.

It starts with Descartes who conceived of his task to be a lone mind who would doubt all that could be doubted to find that which could not be doubted about what that single mind can know about the world. The emphasis is on "knowing."

Then we come to Hume of the Scottish Enlightenment, essaying to understand "Human Understanding." How can we know the world? By sense impressions, welded together in "bundles," in which the "self," or "I," itself disappears as just a bundle of perceptions: roughly, "all I am aware of is a jumble of sequential awareness," I am aware of no 'I'."

Kant seeks the conditions of knowing in the inner conditions of the mind, categories of perception such as space and time. He considers the phenomenal world we can know and behind it the noumenal world we can never know.

Russell brings us sense data such as "red here" and the tone, "A flat now," then sense data statements, "For Kauffman, 'red here' is true," and hopes that his recently developed predicate calculus working on sense data statements will allow philosophers to build a maximally reliable way of knowing the world, constructed out of sense data statements linked by logic, including quantifiers such as "there exists" and "for all."

To early Wittgenstein's famous "Tractatus": "The world is the collection of true facts" about that world.

On to logical positivism: "Only those statements (about the world) are meaningful which are empirically verifiable," which, ironically drove Western philosophy, yet whose founding statement just noted is not itself empirically verifiable.

The "empiricist tradition" sought and seeks to elucidate how we know the world.

What is wrong?

In the beginning, 5 billion years ago, no life existed on the forming planet. Either life started here or arrived from elsewhere. Let's assume the former. As a concrete working hypothesis let's take collectively autocatalytic sets of polymers like peptide sets, RNA sets, or DNA sets, all realized experimentally, in some bounding membrane like a liposome. For example Gonen Ashkenazi has a 9 peptide (small protein) collectively autocatalytic set reproducing happily in his Ben Gurion University lab.

So what?

So existing as a self reproducing system in a universe that is non-ergodic, (not repeating) above the level of atoms, where most complex things will never exist, is the first condition of life. "Knowing" is not yet a condition.

But that protocell typically lived in an environment with toxic and food molecules. By hook or crook, say by semipermiable membranes, the protocell "discriminated" poison from food and admitted only the latter, thanks to natural selection on evolving protocells.

We now have the rudiments of agency and knowing. The protocell evolved to do something, i.e., discriminate and admit food and block poison. This discrimination required rudimentary "knowing" and hence "semantics", without invoking consciousness.

What the empiricist tradition entirely misses is living existence and agency. Without the existence of the protocell, there is no evolutionary point in knowing. Without agency there is no use in knowing. Suppose, per contra, that the protocell could discriminate poison from food, but could not selectively block the first and admit the second. It would fail natural selection's harsh sieve.

Without being and doing, no knowing could have emerged in evolution. The empiricist tradition misses this central issue, thus is deeply inadequate.

In summary of this first point: Without being and agency, knowing is both pointless and would not arise in evolution.

Not only do we not know what will happen, we often do not even know what can happen.

But the empiricist tradition runs into a still deeper problem. In past posts I have discussed Darwinian preadaptations, where we cannot prestate their emergence in evolution. This has led my colleagues, senior mathematician, Giuseppe Longo, his post doctoral fellow, Mael Montevil, both of the Ecole Polytechnique, Paris, and myself to submit a paper also posted on ArXiv, entitled, "No entailing laws, but enablement in the evolution of the biosphere."

This article is radical. It claims that no law entails the evolution of the biosophere. The grounds for this include the fact that we cannot prestate the ever newly emerging relevant variables in evolution that selection reveals, therefore the very phase space of evolution changes in ways we cannot know beforehand, so we can write no laws of motion for the evolving biosphere, nor, lacking knowledge of the boundary conditions, could we integrate those laws of motion even were to to have them.

These deep issues mean that often not only do we not know what will happen, as when we flip a fair coin 10,000 times and do not know how many heads will come up, but here know all the possible outcomes, so can construct a probability measure. In evolution we do not even know what can emerge in the Adjacent Possible of the becoming of evolution, so can construct no probability measure for we do not know the sample space of all the possibilities, thus not only do we not know what will happen, we do not even know what can happen.

The empiricist tradition is ignorant of this profound limitation to knowledge "beforehand" as the biosphere "becomes."

Even pragmatism, which seeks to unify knowing and doing, falls prey to this last issue: We often do not even know what can happen. Pragmatism takes no account of this feature of our living world.

Hume famously argued that one cannot deduce "ought" from "is." This is the naturalistic fallacy. But Hume is thinking only of a knowing subject, firmly in the empiricist tradition started by Descartes. Hume ignores agency.

I wrote an entire book, Investigations, attempting to define agency. My try: "A molecular autonomous agent is a self-reproducing system able to do at least one work cycle."

A bacterium swimming up a glucose gradient for food is an agent, reproduces and the rotating flagella is just one of the work cycles the bacterium does. All living cells fulfill the above definition.

But once there is agency, ought enters the universe. If the bacterium is to successfully get food, it "ought" to e.g., swim up the sugar gradient. Without attributing consciousness, one cannot have "actings" without "doing them wisely or poorly," hence ought.

In short, the empiricist tradition, in ignoring agency, wishes to block us from "ought," when we cannot have doing without "ought." The root of the issue is "doing" versus merely "happening," a topic in a near future post.

We need to rethink many problems in philosophy to take account of the issues above.

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