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Against Instinct: From Biology to Philosophical Psychology.

If, as is now commonly believed, there are no impenetrable fences separating science from philosophy, there seems no good reason why scientists and philosophers should not cultivate each other's gardens. It is in this spirit, and not as a mere servant, that Senchuk works to bring down the theory of the instinctive in its various guises and replace it with his own account of conscious flexibility. His primary concern is, I think, with the explanation of human behavior (towards the end of the book his angry impatience with Edward O. Wilson's entomology of the human breaks out), but frogs, geese, and other beasts are also given their day. The result is a very good book which is densely packed with argument relieved by (usually good) humor.

In the first two parts Senchuk makes use of "a Pyrrhonian sceptical critique" (p. xv) whereby possible, plausible nonnativist explanations are given of behavioral facts that ethologists such as Lorenz and Tinbergen have presented as requiring the postulation of instincts. Besides giving a notably imaginative "phenomenological" description of the tribulations of an intelligent mother greyleg goose, Senchuk undertakes the critical investigation of several important theoretical issues, including the interpretation of deprivation experiments (in which animals are supposedly denied opportunities for learning) and of Lorenz's notion of innate informational content resident in the nervous system. By the end of this section, only readers whose nativism is hard-wire imprinted will remain unmoved.

In the second part Senchuk develops his account of what it is to be an animal possessed of a prehensile consciousness, an awareness initially barely informed but grasping. In fact, he shifts the focus of the debate from the traditional controversy over the relative contributions of nature and nurture to the issue of flexibility. There is something mechanically set about instincts, if any such exist, whereas consciousness, even when settled into habits, is, paradoxically, inherently flexible. Here we are fairly clearly in the philosophical rather than the scientific garden, even though the gate between the two stays open. For Senchuk, flexibility cannot be given a deterministic explanation in terms of feedback mechanisms and such, and so flexibility is not to be confused with the mere plasticity of some machines. Nor is the consciousness which is thus flexible in any way reducible to the physical, even though he thinks complex macroscopic objects such as brains also show indeterminacy. Senchuk tries to answer the obvious metaphysical questions arising from all this by espousing emergentism and a double-aspect theory of the mental and the physical. There are, I think, problems with both these positions that need to be taken up in more detail than he attempts. For example, just how do we distinguish the double-aspect theory from, on the one hand, the epiphenomenalism into which it seems about to degenerate or, on the other, the dualistic interactionism into which it appears poised to expand? How do we answer the "How lucky!" response to the theory of the emergence of the mental? It may be that Senchuk has such questions in mind for answering in future publications.

Whether or not one accepts Senchuk's conclusions, his way to them contains many valuable discussions--of teleology, the "mindedness" of computers, and so on--that should prove independently interesting to students of philosophical psychology and the philosophy of biology. His book might encourage some peering over garden fences.--Alan Olding, Macquarie University, Australia.
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Author:Olding, Alan
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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