Mukherjee’s error and his critics’

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I can’t help but take a moment to comment on the heated response to Siddharta Mukherjee’s New Yorker piece.  Theral Timpson summarizes the kerfuffle very well, provides the appropriate links, and gives it its needed context.  The two posts by Jerry Coyne are worth reading, if only as a good education about what’s at stake.

The only interjection I will make is to say that neither side is getting it right or can get it right.  This is an example of the inevitable confusion that arises when one adopts the wrong metaphysical framework or, more precisely, when one pretends that metaphysics doesn’t matter because empirical science will tell us all we need to know.

As a case in point, despite going over the New Yorker article with a fine comb, the critics have failed to identify what, in my opinion, is the glaring error is Mukherjee’s piece, namely, the following highlighted passage:


For Mukherjee’s critics, that the identity of a cell is due to “actions of specific DNA binding proteins (and, more rarely, RNA molecules) that regulate gene transcription” is old news and not worth fretting about.

Except, of course, that the proposition begs the question, and it will not be settled by looking at genes, the proteins, or any “layer hovering, ghostlike, above the genome.”

To know that a thing (e.g., a neuron) is that kind of a thing as a result of a particular configuration of certain material parts (genes, proteins, whatever) is reasoning in a circle.  For how would we know that if we didn’t recognize the thing to be that kind of a thing to begin with.  We could just as well say that a particular configuration of genes and proteins is present because the cell is a neuron.

Incidentally, Theral Timpson gets it, since he frames the debate correctly: “How do we know what we know?  Does science now have an edge on any other discipline for being able to create knowledge?”

The problem of specific identify is as old as the ages.  It is reducible to the problem that pitted the Eleatics against the Heracliteans until Aristotle provided the correct solution.  But Aristotle’s metaphysics has been unwelcome in modern scientific circles since Descartes dismissed the Stagyrite and his inconvenient insistence on act and potency.

In the eyes of many, the ensuing successes of empirical science validate the rejection of Aristotelian metaphysics.  That point of view, of course, commits the uncontroversial error that correlation is causation.

PS: Before I get trounced by the hylomorphic community, I’ll clarify that I fully realize that a neuron is not a “thing” or substance in the philosophical sense.  I am simply considering it as such for illustrative purposes.

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2 thoughts on “Mukherjee’s error and his critics’

  1. Thanks for the mention, Michel. Great point about “identity”: that much of biology is in naming (remember reductionist Rutherford’s line that all science is either physics or stamp collecting?) and these names (or identities) are often suspended in tautologies.

    Which tautology is in vogue is perhaps what is being fought over. Are scientists afraid of writers because they have the power to make one tautology more popular than another?

    I have to read more Aristotelian philosophy. You seem to suggest there’s something there that will give one the power to break free from the tautologies inherent in biological naming.

    • The stumbling block for many is the thought that Aristotelian philosophy is incompatible with a theory of descent of species, but that’s incorrect. In fact, it saves that theory from itself (Darwin killed the species concept).