Articulating the Goals of My Theoretical Project More Clearly

My theoretical project is broad enough that I'm not always sure how to distill it into a single overarching target or program. This post is really for me, since I feel this write-down is finally the one that makes the direction I'm heading in more explicit so that I can know what my next steps should be. What I will say is that, generally, I seem to be in the midst of trying to combine various different research paths, those being the following:

  1. The relationship between function and selection in the philosophy of biology
  2. Developing a normative ethics of “hedonic coherentism”¹
  3. Looking into expressivism & prescriptivism within meta-ethics
  4. Attempting to revamp teleology/teleonomy in metaphysics and the philosophy of history²
  5. Using meontology as a foundation for conducting any further metaphysics

For now, I don't think I'm missing any other major ones. The general impetus behind all of these research paths seems largely unconscious or at the very least subconscious to me. I can try a rather vague articulation, however. What runs across all these research paths is a concern with praxis. Even my metaphysical research is related to a concern about praxis insofar as metaphysical theories impact the philosophy of history, and therefore constrains or expands our practical imagination and clarifies the limits of deliberate action, whether in relation to what can be done or is to be done about the past, what can be or is to be done about the present, or what can be or is to be done about the future. After all, philosophy of history has a dependence on our philosophy of time, and, insofar as time and space have been shown to be connected at least phenomenally within physics, a dependence on the philosophy of space. Indeed, even without these empirical connections, it would nonetheless have been the case that philosophy of space too would be relevant given the way time is spoken of through spatial analogy in natural language (which presents problems of logical clarification).

The issue of praxis also drives the ethical and philosophy of biology research paths, as, given my Marxist background, the material conditions of a span of time—which includes biology if one goes into deep time and not the shallower time of history—are also relevant in determining the degrees of freedom afforded to moral agents on the stage of time and history. And, perhaps also due to my Marxist background, I have a recognition that Marx left nature as a neutral background input within his explanation of capitalist dynamics, though his language—that language in particular of the “organic composition of capital”—suggest that the exploitative dynamics of capital extend over and against nature as a whole. However, this lacks any kind of formal analysis—it is left as an assertion, made possible only by an argument of analogy which draws from Marx's recognition of the exploitation of the human body. This argument of analogy would seem easy to digest at first, if not for the fact that within Das Kapital Marx draws a division between humans and nature within the flow of value. Namely, Marx posits the economy as a closed system of valuation, which does not follow the laws of conservation qua value except within circulation, due to the ontological necessity of human action for value's existence and persistence. Other factors of production are not seen as necessary for value.

Some (like Steve Keen) have decided to completely reject this move. I disagree with rejecting it. I think there is something more important going on here that has to do with the way Marx relates different systems to each other. For Marx, systems are open when it comes to interaction, but they are functionally closed. This is easy to see in an ecological context: the living conditions and base resources that are essential to a bacterium's fitness is not the same as that essential to a chicken or human's fitness. Niches and habitats are precisely networks of local functions that are differentiated at the global scale. “Value” can then be seen in this light as a way of simultaneously connecting and differentiating the economic system with natural ecology. On the one hand, these two systems do not sit easy with each other in some kind of pre-ordained harmony or “equilibrium”—at least not in the sense where there is no possibility for systems to become mutually exclusive, to the detriment of either. Rather, since they are functionally closed, they are capable of conflicting with each other, and thereby producing higher-order “dysfunction.” On the other hand, the systems are otherwise connected, because without any kind of connection, functional specification would not even be possible. Not to digress too much, however, as what is important here is that the idea of “function” is essential to Marx's story about capitalism, which itself also happens to suggest (some argue misleadingly) a teleological interpretation of some kind. Since practical action is judged under this account of historical development in relation to a concrete resolution of “contradictions” within all particular historical periods (albeit engaged with and represented abstractly in the present), this would seem to point to systemic function restricting what kinds of actions can actually be more or less successful in relation to their consciously posited goals.

This theme of function is then what brings into relevance the philosophy of biology. Does function come prior to selection or posterior to it (the usual answer is, it comes posterior, but it seems that function could bias evolutionary change given how, for example, organisms' features can lead to higher or lower rates of mutation)? This is a crucial question when we interpret biological phenomena, but also for a 21st-22nd century teleology that does not rely on intentionality or anthropocentrism. It also allows us a pathway into integrating the social and natural sciences with biology as mediator, because we can start to think about the ways interactions between biological factors and social action impact function of either social groups or organisms comprising those social groups. This might require taking a more critical look at the theory of natural selection, expanding or modifying aspects or parts of it. This probably puts me on board as highly sympathetic to those advocating for an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.

The relevance of the ethical research path, or meontology in particular, to praxis would take too long to elaborate. At the end of the day, integrating all this research might allow an attempt to at least narrow (not solve) the gap found in the is-ought problem by producing a more robust kind of praxeology, together with a minimalist ethical proposal for use of a criterion of hedonic coherence in ethical decision-making. The latter defended by demonstrating an instrumental albeit uneasy relationship between the abstract agent and nature (their being mutual “tools” of each other), that ties them together functionally. I could even consider calling this a more environmental or ecological axiology.

  1. For purposes of flexibility, I define “hedonic coherentism” as a normative ethic that tries to find coherence among pleasures, or a normative ethic that tries to find coherence among (concrete) desires.
  2. I will be using teleology and teleonomy interchangeably for a few reasons that may become clear in a future post, but as a preview: First, humans only experience desire or will based on a fundamentally ambiguous internal experience of teleonomy—ambiguous due to functional variance at different scales and among different parts under increased specialization. This suggests that there's not much being added by this distinction in explanatory terms. All it does is specify a subset of teleonomy (e.g., one that occurs under the “consciousness” program of the brain). An act which would only be theoretically helpful in some other context that wasn't precisely trying to explain the emergence of goal-oriented behavior. Second, most of the actions humans take which indeed do not need or necessitate this knowledge for deliberation cannot be said to be “goal-oriented” because they are not oriented by such knowledge. Yet many of these actions are called “goal-oriented.” One could argue that action can be guided by a representation of some outcome (a “goal”) without needing to have knowledge of it, so that in this sense one can be both goal-oriented and ignorant to one's goals—but if one is in fact ignorant of whether it is true or not that one has a goal, one cannot make other knowledge- claims that require this knowledge (such as “I am goal-oriented,” and even more-so “people are goal-oriented”). Now I am aware that people do do so, and I am not going to dismiss people's knowledge claims about themselves based on philosophical skepticism—the point is if people can claim this knowledge, it needs to be accounted for. And if the claim is merely a belief-claim, it doesn't dissolve the problem but simply backs down from making a stronger claim: it no longer matters to claims about goal-orientation whether it is in fact true that people have goals or not! This is a practical approach, but a theoretically problematic one. So either (a) cognition is not required for goal-orientation and teleology is thereby just a subset of teleonomy, or (b) cognition is required for goal-orientation and it's nothing but a combination of teleonomic phenomena and knowledge of that teleonomy, or at least knowledge of a subset of that teleonomy (which makes the distinction between teleology [“goal-orientation”] and teleonomy trivial).