A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On the pile

What Flynn is Reading
  1. Game of Thrones, etc.  Just finished the 4th volume of George RR Martin's Game of Thrones series.  Mr. Martin cannot write a bad story, but after a time I did become weary of the interminable comings and goings of various characters, and the odds-on bet that whatever a character sets out to do, he/she will fail at doing it.  There are actually multiple novels going on simultaneously, but many are not linked thematically, and the whole lacks the Aristotelian unity.  A little remorselessness goes a long way, I find.  
  2. The Scarecrow (Michael Connelly).  A thriller.  Mr. Connelly writes competently and creates well-realized characters in a common milieu, for example, his detective Hieronymus (Harry) Bosch.  I am about a quarter into it, and find it uses a trope I invented for In the Country of the Blind; viz., someone using the National Datanet Internet to watch for people who get interested in a Certain Topic.
  3. From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again (Etienne Gilson).  This book explores the inherent teleology of Darwinism and evolution.  It provides a wonderful opportunity for folks to utterly misunderstand teleology.  But striving to reproduce to the utmost and the struggle for existence, the two pillars of natural selection are inherently teleological, as both striving and struggling implies an end or goal, a "towardness."  Just started. 
  4. Dogs (Nancy Kress).  Another thriller.  This was the book that was too distressing for the original publisher.  Ms. Kress is another who cannot not write well.  Just received; not started. 
  5. The Message in the Bottle (Walker Percy).  A series of linked essays addressing the role of language, sign, and symbol.  It's the sort of topic that gets people saying "But what about Koko!"  "What about Alex the Parrot!"  Or perhaps even "What about Clever Hans the Arithmetical Horse!"  
What Flynn is Writing
  1. "Places Where the Roads Don't Go."  One of a pair of old college friends wants to create AI and his philosopher friend does not think it is possible.  Turing tests and Chinese rooms and a dollop of topology...  What could be more exciting?  Currently undergoing major narrative surgery, removing some cancerous lumps of exposition.  This is intended for a collection of novelettes and novellas, #4.  
  2. "Buried Hopes." Rann Velkran is weepy and emotional and upset over the recent de-orbiting of the old International Space Station.  So he begins to dig a swimming pool in his back yard.  Currently steeping to await a re-read.  Also intended for the collection, #4.  
  3. "Hopeful Monsters." It was a brilliant spring day when Karen Sorklose brought home her perfect baby.   She had used a very reputable firm of baby designers.  Currently steeping to await a re-read. Maybe the collection; maybe I'll send it to ANALOG.  
  4. Captive Dreams.  This is the title for the collection consisting of "Melodies of the Heart," "Captive Dreams," "Remember'd Kisses," plus "Places Where the Roads Don't Go," "Buried Hopes," and/or "Hopeful Monsters."  The conceit of the collection is that the main character in each story lives along the same oval road encircling a woodland. The stories will be available in ebook format, collectively (and probably individually).  
  5. "The Journeyman."  Teodorq sunna Nagarajan is on the run, having killed the son of the Serpentine clan chief in a fair fight.  The Serps see matters differently.  In progress.  Teodorq has left the long grass prairie and entered the short grass prairie and is shortly to find a strange artifact supposedly from the days of the First Men on World.  His journey will eventually take him most of the way across World.  Readers of Up Jim River, if any there should be, will recognize the Wildman. 
  6. The Chieftain.  The world has a shortage of medieval Celtic fantasies.  No, really.  This one is set in Ireland in AD 1225, and is the same milieu as the alternate history short "The Iron Shirts," except it is straight, not alternate.  It was written long ago, in and shortly after college, as an historical, the market for which can best be described as multiples of SQRT(-1).  The writing is sucky because I was younger; but it is as capable of rewrite as The January Dancer was.  A bit of medieval magic should pepper it right up.  Don't usually see prayers instead of spells, or saints instead of imps to answer them; so we shall see.  And calling on God may not be quite as simple as calling on gods....
  7. The Shipwrecks of Time.  Back in the early 1340s, Heinrich of Regensburg was brutally murdered over a now-lost manuscript known as "The Peruzzi Papers."  In AD 1968, an historical researcher in Milwaukee becomes interested in the contents.  What could have been so dangerous to know that the author was so brutally killed?  Why did House Peruzzi keep the papers secret for 600 years?  Inquiring minds want to know.  But maybe they should not be so inquiring?  Later, a documentary film-maker in 1980s Denver and a small town police detective in the fictional 2010s Neston PA are also entangled in the mystery.  Some mss. are better left unread, it seems. 
  8. In the Lion's Mouth. 
    It’s a big Spiral Arm, and the scarred man, Donavan buigh, has gone missing in it, upsetting the harper Mearana's plans for a reconciliation between her parents. Bridget ban, a Hound of the League, doubts that reconciliation is possible or desirable; but nonetheless has dispatched agents to investigate the disappearance. 
    The powerful Ravn Olafsdottr, a Shadow of the Names, slips into Clanthompson Hall to tell mother and daughter of the fate of Donovan buigh. In the Long Game between the Confederation of Central Worlds and the United League of the Periphery, Hound and Shadow are mortal enemies; yet a truce descends between them so that the Shadow may tell her tale. There is a struggle in the Lion’s Mouth, the bureau that oversees the Shadows—a clandestine civil war of sabotage and assassination between those who would overthrow Those of Name and the loyalists who support them. And Donovan, one-time Confederal agent, has been recalled to take a key part, willingly or no.

    This is written and the uncorrected page proofs have been circulating.  The third book in the Spiral Arm series, it picks up where Up Jim River left off.   Scheduled for January 2012
  9. On the Razor's Edge.  This is written, but awaits editorial action and rewrites.  It is the finale to the Spiral Arm series that began with The January Dancer.   And you thought you knew what was going on.....


  1. Ooh, #6 sounds nice-- I can only think of one author with prayers instead of spells, Christopher Stasheff. (And his is an AU.)

  2. This book explores the inherent teleology of Darwinism and evolution.... But striving to reproduce to the utmost and the struggle for existence, the two pillars of natural selection are inherently teleological, as both striving and struggling implies an end or goal, a "towardness."

    I agree that striving and struggling imply final causation/intentionality/goal-directedness. But as I understand it, Darwinism isn't supposed to literally involve striving to reproduce or struggling to maintain one's existence.

    It simply posits that some organisms do reproduce while others don't, and that some do continue to exist while others don't, and that the ones that do end up outnumbering the ones that don't. Whether or not they wanted to do so, or were trying or struggling to do so, or had doing so as a goal, is supposed to be superfluous to Darwinian evolution.

    Now, I agree that organisms do have teleological ends. I also think that this is obviously true, and that it's simply impossible to describe biology without talking about functions, purposes, goals, and other teleological concepts. The impossibility of doing so is the reason why Darwinists continue to make liberal use of such concepts despite claiming that such talk is metaphorical and that it's possible to do away with it in principle.

    However, the takeaway from this isn't that therefore Darwinism is inherently teleological after all despite its non-teleological definition, but rather that *evolution* is teleological, and that strict Darwinism is an incoherent account of it.

  3. @Deuce
    Don't confuse the scientific notion of Darwinism with the social/psychological program of Darwinists.

    It simply posits that some organisms do reproduce while others don't, and that some do continue to exist while others don't

    Would make the theory tautological, rather than teleological. What the theory posits is that every species strives to reproduce to the utmost: i.e., that every species produces as many young as it is capable of doing. But the young are "born into a land already possessed." There is not enough niche-space to accommodate all the young, even allowing for the die off of the older members. Therefore, the vast majority of the young will die. In this remorseless struggle for existence, those that are better at the job will survive more often than those that are inept, or less ept. Every living thing will try to keep on living - by sending out roots, by hunting for forage, by seeking new worlds and new civilizations... oh, wait. But you get the idea. Both strokes of the Darwinian engine involve striving for an end. It just needn't be conscious striving.

  4. I have Percy's "Signposts in a Strange Land." Can you tell me, is "Message" a completely separate collection of essays, or do they overlap, or what? Thinking about picking it up...

  5. Don't confuse the scientific notion of Darwinism with the social/psychological program of Darwinists.

    I don't believe it's correct to say that striving and struggling are part of the "scientific notion of Darwinism" proper. Let's say you watch a bacteria split under a microscope. On a purely scientific basis, how can you distinguish whether that bacteria merely reproduced, or whether it *strove* to reproduce? I submit that, scientifically, you can't, and that whether or not that bacteria was also striving while reproducing is irrelevant to Darwinian theory.

    That's not to say that organisms don't strive and struggle. I believe it's obvious that they do. But striving and struggling are fundamentally intentional acts, and intentionality can't be accounted for in scientific terms. Because there is no way to scientifically distinguish between an organism that is striving and one that isn't, that distinction can't form the scientific basis of Darwinian theory.

    Your mention of the "social/psychological program of Darwinists" brings me to another point. Clearly, most Darwinists themselves believe that the theory is non-teleological, and that the idea that "every species strives to reproduce to the utmost" is at best only a metaphor and not a literally true scientific claim. If they truly believed that the theory was teleological, they wouldn't be able to use it as part of their social/psychological program to bash teleologists and promote materialism. I'm pretty confident that the large majority of them would agree that whether or not organisms are literally striving is not pertinent to their theory. Does this mean that most Darwinists aren't really Darwinists after all, and that you are? At the least, it implies that what most Darwinists mean by "Darwinism" is different (and logically incompatible) with what you mean by it.

    Would make the theory tautological, rather than teleological.

    Well yes, but that doesn't mean that the theory doesn't in fact say that. That's exactly my contention: that the theory is supposed to be non-teleological and materialistic, but that renders it incoherent and tautological, so in practice Darwinists are forced to use teleological concepts, which are inconsistent with the theory, in order to even speak coherently.

    The correct takeaway from this isn't, "So Darwinism is teleological after all", but rather "Evolution is teleological after all, and Darwinism is incoherent".

    This is something that bothers me about the common teleologist's approach to Darwinism, in comparison to how we deal with other materialistic theories. When it comes to eliminativism, for example, we have no trouble saying "The belief that there are no beliefs is contradictory nonsense, and so eliminativism is incoherent". We don't say, "The belief that there are no beliefs is contradictory and would render eliminativism incoherent, and eliminativists themselves are constantly using terminology that implies the existence of beliefs, so therefore eliminative materialism doesn't hold that there are no beliefs after all, despite what its proponents claim!" But when it comes to Darwinism, we suddenly get this urge to give our own teleologized definition of it, and to act as if this is simply THE definition (even though most Darwinists would disagree), so that we can count ourselves as Darwinists.

  6. @Josh
    Don't know about Signposts...

  7. @Deuce
    Compare Darwin, in The Origin of Species, (1st ed., 1859), p. 66: "every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers"; and again, pp. 78-9, "each organic being is striving to increase at a geometrical ratio". Both passages are repeated in all five subsequent editions in Darwin's lifetime. But whether he used the words or not, the concept is utterly central to his "engine."

    Also regarding reproducing to the utmost, Darwin writes in the Origin, p. 61: "of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive"; or p. 5, "many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive". Again, these passages are repeated in all later editions; and again, they are central.

  8. Would make the theory tautological, rather than teleological.

    It's not tautological because there is a difference between A) fitness, defined by biologists as the probability the phenotype corresponding to a given genotype (or individual allele) will survive and reproduce in its environment, and B) actual rate of surviving+reproducing. As someone knowledgeable about statistics you are presumably familiar with the frequentist notion that "probability" can be defined in terms of the frequencies that would occur in an ideal infinite set of repetitions of the same experiment (which is why, for example, it makes sense to say that the probability a fair coin lands heads is 0.5 even if you only flip it 10 times and get 7 heads); so for any given genotype, even if only one example of that precise genotype ever occurs in the real world, one can imagine a vast set of possible worlds where an organism with the same genotype is born into the same type of environment, and consider in what fraction of these the genetically identical organism will pass on their genes. Likewise for individual alleles, you can consider a set of possible worlds where organisms have that allele plus all the other possible genes at other sites present in the gene pool, and define fitness in terms of how that allele would contribute to survival and reproduction, all else being equal. Those genotypes/alleles corresponding to phenotypes with structural features that aid the organism's survival would have a greater probability of surviving and reproducing and thus a higher "fitness", and so natural selection will tend to favor fitter genotypes/alleles, though this is a statistical matter so in smaller populations it's less of a sure thing ("founder effects" can end up preserving less fit variants). Whether this statistical sorting process can be called "teleological" is really a matter of how you define that word, but it is at least compatible with the sort of "reductionist" view of nature I discussed on the earlier comments thread (and one can design A-life simulations on similar principles, I wonder if you would say that these simulated critters are literally "striving" to pass on their genetic code in a teleological way)

  9. "Fitness as defined by biologists" tends to be ex post facto, applied to species that have already survived. At best, I have seen fitness described as 'more of X' where X is already being employed by the species in some productive manner.

    A useful test is the youngest offspring test. Announce to the Usual Suspects that "research shows" that mothers devote more of their attention to their youngest offspring than to their older offspring and you will be enlightened with a just so story of how this enhances fitness for reproductive success.

    Then, oops, announce that you were mistaken and that the "research shows" that mothers devote more of their attention to their oldest offspring than to their younger offspring. This falsifies nothing, since an adaptation story will now be forthcoming that shows conclusively that this behavior enhances reproductive fitness.

    Any behavior or train whatsoever can be explained in this manner, making the whole thing unfalsifiable. Survivors survive, and because they survive they are deemed 'fitter.'

  10. Are you talking about actual evolutionary biology papers, as opposed to pop sci articles and books? Pretty sure that a typical peer-reviewed paper does not just consist of some sort of just-so story to "explain" something already observed, to get published there would need to be some testable predictions based on a hypothesis about the selection pressures involved, or statistical observations about gene frequencies which can be compared to mathematical models from darwinian population genetics (for example, googling "effect of selection on gene", one of the first results was this paper whose analysis seems a little more detailed than just telling a just-so story).

    Anyway, if you want to engage in real philosophical discussion rather than just rhetoric, you have to be willing to separate out logically separate issues in your criticisms (for example, on the other comments thread you seemed unwilling to separate the issue of whether reductionism was plausible to you from the issue of whether you think there are any definitive philosophical arguments that rule it out). In this case, the question of whether the traditional biological definition of "fitness" is tautological, which is what you said before, is logically separate from the question of whether biologists are justified when they claim the empirical evidence shows one variant is "fitter" than another. Even if biologists didn't have any good way of deciding empirically which genes are fitter (I don't think that's the case but I can grant it for the sake of argument), the idea that some genes do indeed correspond to features in the phenotype that grant a higher probability of survival, and that these "fitter" versions tend to be more likely to be passed on than others, is a non-tautological theoretical picture of how random mutation and natural selection might shape organisms in functional ways. If you disagree I'd like to hear your theoretical argument as to why this is tautological or otherwise incoherent, without reference to real-world evidence.

  11. the idea that some genes do indeed correspond to features in the phenotype that grant a higher probability of survival, and that these "fitter" versions tend to be more likely to be passed on than others, is a non-tautological theoretical picture of how random mutation and natural selection might shape organisms in functional ways.

    What I said was that absent telos, the notion becomes tautological. Your argument is that some mutations "point toward" survival. This is the basic idea of telos. I happily concede that teleological evolution is not tautology precisely because it "points to something beyond itself."

  12. OK, but my explanation (which was just my summary of the mainstream neo-darwinian explanation) was phrased specifically in terms of probabilities rather than telos, so you seem to be saying that in this context, telos can be understood as a synonym for probability (defined in the frequentist sense I mentioned, imagining the limit of an arbitrarily large number of trials where we control for other factors like the external environment the organism is in). So by the same token one could say that certain mutations in the code of the A-life organisms from the simulation I linked to have a telos that points to being passed on to the next generation, or that a die which has been weighted to have a higher probability of rolling a 6 has a telos pointing towards that roll. I don't have a problem with this definition of telos, but please clarify if you don't mean it to be interpreted this broadly.

  13. @Jesse
    No, telos is not a probability. It is the end toward which anything natural points. The end may be a simple termination, as the telemere divides a number of times, then stops and does not divide indefinitely or not at all; or a perfection of the form, as a tiger cub matures into an adult tiger and not into a tiger lilly or a hippo; or as purpose, as when a tiger goes in search of prey or a mate, and does not wander around at random on the off-chance of encountering something she can eat or mate with.

    Simil atque, inanimate bodies move toward an equilibrium point or attractor basin.

  14. But my definition of the theory of evolution was specifically based on the notion of fitness-as-probability (see the phrase "features in the phenotype that grant a higher probability of survival"). When I asked you if you thought it was incoherent or tautological, I was asking you about that definition--simply substituting your own definition doesn't really answer the question of whether you think there is something incoherent about the mainstream view (which is logically distinct from the question of whether you personally believe the mainstream view is actually correct in the real world--plenty of non-incoherent, non-tautological theories don't happen to be true). So please, do you or don't you think the definition I gave, which makes no reference to any notion of "telos" other than probability-of-being-passed-on, is incoherent or tautological?

  15. JesseM,


    Isn't probability subjective and a measure of our ignorance?

    The best argument that the man is not exhausted by material aspects is the Argument from Reason. There are essential differences between thinking and computer operations.

    And would you answer Haldane's paradox that the theory of evolution is a product of chains of reasoning but if man is entirely a product of evolution, then we have no justification to assume that the chains of reasoning are valid and thus no reason to believe that the theory of evolution is true.

  16. Isn't probability subjective and a measure of our ignorance?

    There are multiple ways of defining the notion of probability, see this article and this one; some are subjective, but I specified above I was using the "frequentist" definition in which the probability an event will occur under conditions X is defined as the frequency it would occur in an infinite series of trials where conditions X occur. This is an objective definition, an ideal which our measurements can only approximate (though it can be demonstrated theoretically that the larger the number of trials that actually occur, the smaller the probability that the observed frequencies will depart significantly from the "true" probability defined above, this is the law of large numbers).

    And would you answer Haldane's paradox that the theory of evolution is a product of chains of reasoning but if man is entirely a product of evolution, then we have no justification to assume that the chains of reasoning are valid

    Are you sure that's "Haldane's paradox"? That sounds like a creationist argument, which Haldane definitely wasn't, and this book and others use "Haldane's paradox" to mean something entirely different. In any case the argument doesn't make much sense to me, it's not as if every aspect of our reasoning is a "product of our evolution" in the sense of being determined by genetics, our cultural training plays a huge role in our mode of thinking. I won't claim to have a detailed philosophical theory of what "truth" is or why we should expect people to converge on it if people's actions are ultimately a product of physical laws, but the above argument based specifically on biological evolution doesn't work.

  17. If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of [physical materials] in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of [physical materials]."
    J. B. S. Haldane Possible Worlds, page 209.

    "it would occur in an infinite series of trials "
    But evolution is contingent and I don't know how much sense it makes for 'trials' here. Perhaps the mathematical geneticists use this language but the applications to real situation appears doubtful.

    I have similar problem with quantum cosmologies. The quantum mechanics was devised and formulated for small systems interacting with measuring instruments. The extrapolation to the entire universe always seemed a big leap to me.

  18. Note that Haldane's formulation has nothing specifically to do with evolution, it's just about the brain obeying physical laws, which mirrors what I said in the last sentence of my previous comment. Looking on google books for discussion of the quote, it seems to be mentioned almost exclusively as part of Christian apologetic arguments, though this book notes that Haldane later disowned the argument; googling around a bit, I found this article where he explains his reasons (personally I find neither the original argument nor his reasons for abandoning it particularly convincing).

    But evolution is contingent and I don't know how much sense it makes for 'trials' here.

    What does contingency have to do with it? The outcome of a roll of dice is contingent too but that doesn't mean we can't talk about the probability of getting a given result. Also, this is a theoretical definition, not an outline for a practical experiment, so it needn't involve a repeated series of trials in real history where the surrounding environment would change over time (perhaps this has something to do with what you meant by "contingency"?) The "fitness" of the same genome or the same allele is usually defined in such a way that fitness can vary geographically or temporally, so if you want to know fitness at a particular place and time, I think you ideally would imagine an infinite set of copies of the environment at that place and time, into each of which is born a copy of an organism with the same genome or allele, and then you'd look at the fraction of copies that survive and reproduce in their environment. This is my own account of the "propensity interpretation of fitness", and according to this article there is a "wide consensus" among philosophers of biology that fitness should be defined in terms of probabilistic "propensities", though not all would define the meaning of the probabilities exactly as I have (the article notes that some think of it in terms of the probabilities of quantum mechanics "percolating up" to the level of biology, so perhaps instead of a hypothetical set of copies of the same environment, they would imagine taking the initial quantum state of the organism + environment and using it to get an exact probability that, years later, the organism's genes had been passed on to later generations). The definition is an "objective" ontological one that could really only be put into practice by God, though if we're wondering about the fitness of an allele, we can probably get something that approximates the "true" value by looking at a large (but finite) population with many copies of that allele, in a relatively confined time period and geographic region so that each organism with a copy of the allele is born into a qualitatively similar environment.

  19. I'm currently reading "Up Jim River" and I'm really happy to know there will be another book in the series soon, and one more to follow!


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