Domain Level Error and the Problem of Scientism

Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are correct to presume we are animals. But they have little to say about who we are as persons. As persons, we operate on basis of meaning and interpretation. This ability is not found in our animal nature, but in our social history and in our cultural development. The brain may be like a computer in that it processes data; it is a natural machine that organizes inputs from the environment and carries out action (if it has a body). But the computer doesn’t interpret the empirical world. It doesn’t have a mind. Nor are its actions as a robot intentional. The mind is a real and emergent phenomenon that depends (so far) on brains, but is not reducible to brains any more than the meaning of a video playing on a computer is reducible to the CPU. We don’t know how to make a computer from which a mind will emerge. We don’t know if such a computer is possible. We are not even sure we could know whether we had actually built such a computer.

The application of evolutionary theory to the level of reality that encompasses interpretation and meaning commits a fallacy, a domain level error, by falsely applying a logic induced from observations of the natural domain to a domain that operates on a different logic, the logic that forms the basis of sociology and anthropology, disciplines both dependent upon natural history in an ultimate sense (though not needing to always take account of it), that nonetheless operate according to emergent logic as different from biology as biology is from physics. We recognize that the emergent level of reality we call the biological domain cannot be reduced to physics. An ecosystem, despite having a physical dimension, is not a physical system. The relations are not governed by the same forces. Ideas in physics can be used metaphorically to describe observations in biology, but they are always metaphors. And the process by which metaphors are generated and used remain explicable only in terms of the mental lives of persons, which, without a social environment where language is present, are not even possible.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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