Sunday, January 22, 2012

Is Tim Maudlin An Idiot?

Well, probably not, since he has apparently just been hired by the world's top philosophy department. Physicists of my generation often have a deep distain for philosophy, especially, perhaps, for philosophy of science. I thought maybe we might have caught that from our hero, Feynman, but I remember debates and recriminations with my philosophy of science prof well before I knew much about Feynman.

Be that as it may, why does Prof Maudlin say something this stupid:

What people haven't seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It's not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that's not true. Obviously it doesn't matter that much if you're a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there's a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence. ...

This argument is foolish on many levels - especially because it is neither new nor true. Lots of clever people, notably Ernst Mayr, have made it, but it's not true that no other species have developed technology - ants, bees, termites, and beavers have, even if they haven't gotten so far as we have, probably because they aren't smart enough. By his logic, if you had landed on Earth two billion years ago, you could have concluded that cellular organelles were not useful, and one billion years ago you could have concluded that multi-cellularity was not useful, and 500 million years ago that life on land was not feasible for multicellular animals.

Even a very clever fellow like Mayr was reluctant to concede that evolution is a cumulative business, but the molecular data is unambiguous on that count. High technolgical intelligence was one of the latest inventions of evolution, and it has demonstrated its power by taking an extremely obscure species and sweeping it across the planet and beyond, driving millions of other species extinct in the process.

Arguing that high technological intelligence is not very useful because beetles didn't develop it is the same type of error as arguing that tanks (or metal body armor) aren't very useful in warfare because the Aztecs didn't have them.