Friday, April 22, 2016

The meaning of leadership

Some years ago, when I presented a paper at a meeting of the Association of Politics and Life Sciences in Lubbock, Texas, I submitted the following definition of leadership:
When one or more human beings take command of others, thus forming a human community capable of acting for the good of the whole, that is leadership. 
I like that definition because it ties together the various kinds of rule‑parent over child, captain over army, government over the governed, while incorporating Aristotle’s definition of good rule.  The father rules the family as the good king rules the city: for the common good. 
I would argue that “the common good” can be understood functionally in a way that is consistent with evolutionary theory but also extends beyond mere biological imperatives.  Aristotle states that the polis, or political community comes to be for the sake of mere life but exists for the sake of the good life.  “Mere life” means that the political community satisfied biological imperatives better than they could otherwise be satisfied.  “The good life” is an indirect rather than a direct product of evolutionary processes.  Human beings can be successful in a biological sense while being utterly miserable.  Very fortunately for us, our evolutionary history makes it possible for us to live satisfying lives, which is to say, that we can enjoy a life that is both beautiful and good. 
My definition was challenged on the grounds that a single definition of leadership is neither possible nor necessary.  Might we not mean a variety of things when we use the term “leadership”?  It is certain that we do give leadership awards to people merely because we admire them, without checking in with my definition. 
My instincts in these matters is platonic.  I like universal definitions.  I am, however, willing to allow an Aristotelian critique.  Aristotle pointed out that when we use the same word on more than one occasion, there are three possibilities.  One is that the word is a homonym.  We say “vampire bat” and “baseball bat”, the two uses of bat have only the letters and sounds in common. 
A second possibility is that we use the same word in different senses but that the different senses branch out from a single, complex phenomenon.  If I say that cardinals are red and that cardinals are birds and that there are cardinals, the “to be” verb means very different things.  The first states that cardinals present a certain visual aspect when I see them.  The second, that this observed creature falls into a species class.  The latter indicates that, unlike dragons, which may be said to have color and fall into a class of creatures, cardinals actually exist.  While these uses of the verb are distinct, they all represent distinct dimensions (or aspects if you prefer) of a single actual bird on my lawn. 
Finally, we may use a word to indicate something that is exactly the same thing even though it appears in a variety of contexts and colors.  When bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics and finches adapt to changes in weather by a change in the structure of their beaks, this is natural selection.  The term means exactly the same thing in both cases, despite the enormous difference between the organisms to which it is applied.  I won’t claim here that this is an example of a Platonic form.  Not yet. 
I will say that a word is useful in the third sense when it expresses our recognition of a fundamental phenomenon.  The genuine meaning of “heat” is the energy in the vibrations of molecules in a substance.  All other uses of the word, as for example hot peppers or a lot of uniformed policemen, are metaphors that derive their literary force from the original.  The genuine meaning of natural selection is the deferential reproductive success of distinct forms in a given environment. 
I think that my definition of leadership identifies a fundamental phenomenon.  I was brought back to this topic by a recent piece on capuchin monkeys.  When these primates forage, how do they decide which way to go?  The answer is that individuals break off in different directions.  As the pathbreaker moves away from the group, she looks behind her to see who is following.  If no one follows, she will give up and rejoin the group.  If her entourage includes two or three, or four or more… .  The more of her troop that follow, the more likely she is to persist in her chosen direction.  Likewise, the more that follow, the more likely the rest of the troop will follow suit.  That is leadership in a basically democratic community.  Individuals compete for the position of archon, and so the group can act as a unit working for the advantage of all. 
Something the same can be seen in the waggle dance of honey bees, where returning hunters make their case for this or that patch of flowers.  It can be seen also in the function of an animal mind.  How does the rabbit in my back yard decide what to do when I step off my deck?  Different mental schema compete.  One says “freeze”.  Another says “run like hell”.  As long as I am moving at a tangent and my course is not too close, the animal is a statue.  I have seen a cat walk right by a frozen rabbit.  If I stop and move toward the rabbit, the “run” schema takes command.  This is leadership. 
I am pretty sure that this is how the human mind works as well.  My consciousness is, at best, a prime minister managing various constitutencies.  My desire to lose weight addresses the ministry while my appetite screams from the gallery about chocolate eclairs.  Meanwhile my fellow Republicans seem about to nominate a chocolate éclair to run for president.  This leads me to thinking about my paper for the IPSA in Poland.  I will be there when the Republican convention is happening.  I may come back. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Lockean Monkeys

Locke was closer to the truth than Hobbes.  That is not a surprising sentiment coming from an American; even less so coming from an American patriot.  The United States is a Lockean regime.  It was founded on principles derived explicitly from Locke’s political thought and more or less explicitly on a rejection of Hobbes’ account of politics.  I would argue, however, that modern biopolitical research is backing up John more than Thomas. 
Both Hobbes and Locke began with the early modern assumption that human beings are by nature individual animals and that human society is largely an historical artifact.  All our instincts, in so far as we have any, are those of a creature as naturally asocial as a bear.  Human social life is as artificial as umbrella: it is something we cobbled together to meet our needs.  This is a mistake.  We were social long before we were genuinely human. 
Hobbes supposed that we were and remain perfectly amoral and selfish in our motivations.  What makes us dangerous to one another, when we come together in social groups, is precisely that selfishness combined with a distrust of one another.  Government is necessary to force us to suppress these selfish mutually hostile inclinations and cooperate with one another.
Locke recognized that we also possessed a sense of justice.  When someone transgresses on my rights I am offended.  I am offended even when I observe some transgressing against a third party in a case where my own interests are not involved.  It is this sense of righteous indignation that makes us most dangerous to one another.  We may pursue retribution beyond any selfish interest and, if the perceived offender believes he is the one who has been wronged, we become locked in a cycle of retribution.  That is what necessitates the formation of governments.  Only by turning over such disputes to an arbitrator can we resolve them without perpetual war. 
This question, whether pure selfishness is the motivation or whether there is a moral or proto-moral motivation has been playing out in primate studies.  I have been digesting a lot of research on capuchin monkeys.  Brown capuchins are “known to engage in rich cooperative behaviors… and more consistently exhibit other-regarding tendencies in donation tasks than chimpanzees.”  That is, in experiments where one individual must cooperate with another to reap a reward (food), capuchins seem more concerned with what the other partner is getting or not getting. 
In experiments modeled on the ultimate game, the capuchin subject must decide whether to pull a lever that will distribute food to herself and a conspecific partner.  When the distribution is unequal-the subject receives less food or a lower value food, the subject will often refuse the distribution.  At first glance, the subject appears to be acting out of sense of fairness.  If I can’t get what’s coming to me, then no one gets anything.  But is this right?
The subject may be motivated by inequity aversion, a distaste for unfair distributions.  Let us call that the Lockean motive.  However, a lot of research indicates that the real motive may be simple frustration.  The subject wants the greater share or the better reward and rejects the distribution because of a frustrated desire.  Let us call that the Hobbesian motive. 
Capuchin researchers have parted along the Lockean/Hobbesian divide.  Franz de Waal and his associates began the argument with a series of studies that pushed the Lockean interpretation.  In response, other researchers made the case for the Hobbesian-frustration interpretation.  I thought that the balance was tilting against the Lockean side until today. 
Kristin L. Leimgruber et. al., have a report in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior [37 (2016) 236-244] that tells for the Lockean view: “Capuchin monkeys punish those who have more.”  Here is the abstract:


Punishment of non-cooperators is important for the maintenance of large-scale cooperation in humans, but relatively little is known about the relationship between punishment and cooperation across phylogeny. The current study examined second-party punishment behavior in a nonhuman primate species known for its cooperative tendencies—the brown capuchin monkey (Cebus apella). We found that capuchins consistently punished a conspecific partner who gained possession of a food resource, regardless of whether the unequal distribution of this resource was intentional on the part of the partner. A non-social comparison confirmed that punishment behavior was not due to frustration, nor did punishment stem from increased emotional arousal. Instead, punishment behavior in capuchins appears to be decidedly social in nature, as monkeys only pursued punitive actions when such actions directly decreased the welfare of a recently endowed conspecific. This pattern of results is consistent with two features central to human cooperation: spite and inequity aversion, suggesting that the evolutionary origins of some human-like punitive tendencies may extend even deeper than previously thought.
These findings present a decidedly Lockean monkey.  It isn’t just that I, capuchin that I am, am not getting what I want.  It’s that the other hairy fellow is getting more, dammit.  
Capuchin monkeys are more distantly related to John Locke than chimpanzees.  Spite and inequity aversion are part of our emotional pallet that go beyond self-interest.  A purely selfish individual doesn’t care what others get; she only cares what she gets.  An animal who is genuinely offended when a distribution is unfair is a moral animal.
I think it is clear that human beings are Lockean animals.  If capuchin monkeys are as well, that suggests that morality is older than we are.  As the trajectory of evolution pushed into primate design space, it opened up the dimension of genuine moral consciousness. 


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Late Night Thoughts on Being

We live at a moment of embarrassing riches.  I won’t try to catalog our blessings, but I will point out one particular blessing.  Someone who wants to think and knows how can find a lot of new ways to think about interesting things, just a few key strokes away.  Three online journals deliver bite sized brilliance for free: Aeon, This View of Life, and Nautilus.  All three feature consistently provocative, thoughtful, well written, articles that are easily accessible to anyone well-informed enough to be interested. 
I have been feasting on the third tonight.  Chip Rowe lists the “Top 10 Design Flaws in the Human Body.”  These design flaws count, in my view, as some of the strongest pieces of evidence for human evolution.  Take number one, for example.  The human spine, with its double curve, puts a ridiculous amount of stress on the lower back.  My beagle’s spine, by contrast, seems perfectly engineered: a curve that distributes wait evenly between two sets of limbs.  Of course, that was the cost of freeing our forelimbs to do such tasks as checking our Facebook pages.  Rowe’s opening sentences express what is marvelous about these new journals.
The Greeks were obsessed with the mathematically perfect body. But unfortunately for anyone chasing that ideal, we were designed not by Pygmalion, the mythical sculptor who carved a flawless woman, but by MacGyver. 
Yes.  The sculptor begins with a hunk of material but designs from scratch.  MacGyver has to work with what he has and can exploit but is limited by the design already present in whatever he can pull out of the crashed plane.  Like MacGyver, natural selection must rig solutions to present problems.  If you wanted to design a bipedal spine from scratch, maybe you could get perfection.  If you have to start with a quadruped and raise it off the ground, then compromises are inevitable. 
On a level closer to the metaphysical marrow, Gregory Laughlin asks “Can a Living Creature Be as Big as a Galaxy?” 
William S. Burroughs, in his novel The Ticket That Exploded, imagined that beneath a planetary surface, lies “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal.” 
As it happens, I have been reading William S. Burroughs lately‑his letters and his novels Naked Lunch (like Moby Dick, an almost impossible read) and Junky (so good you won’t need heroin).  Laughlin thinks Burroughs is onto something.  Consider the speed of thought. 
The speed of neural transmissions is about 300 kilometers per hour, implying that the signal crossing time in a human brain is about 1 millisecond. A human lifetime, then, comprises 2 trillion message-crossing times (and each crossing time is effectively amplified by rich, massively parallelized computational structuring). If both our brains and our neurons were 10 times bigger, and our lifespans and neural signaling speeds were unchanged, we’d have 10 times fewer thoughts during our lifetimes. 
This explains what happened to the Amazing Colossal Man. 
If our brains grew enormously to say, the size of our solar system, and featured speed-of-light signaling, the same number of message crossings would require more than the entire current age of the universe, leaving no time for evolution to work its course.
Maybe our brain size, like Baby Bear’s porridge, is just right: bigger than a chimp but small enough to efficiently cohere. 
It may be that human brains specifically and living organisms generally must occupy a particular niche in the scale of physics.  Allison Eck puts the general point in “How Do You Say “Life” in Physics?
The arrow of time points in the direction of disorder. The arrow of life, however, points the opposite way. From a simple, dull seed grows an intricately structured flower, and from the lifeless Earth, forests and jungles. How is it that the rules governing those atoms we call “life” could be so drastically different from those that govern the rest of the atoms in the universe?
In 1944, physicist Erwin Schrödinger tackled this question in a little book called What is Life?. He recognized that living organisms, unlike a gas in a box, are open systems. That is, they admit the transfer of energy between themselves and a larger environment. Even as life maintains its internal order, its loss of heat to the environment allows the universe to experience an overall increase in entropy (or disorder) in accordance with the second law.
I was insufficiently amazed by Erwin Schrödinger’s book when first I read it many years ago. 
Schrödinger pointed to a second mystery. The mechanism that gives rise to the arrow of time, he said, cannot be the same mechanism that gives rise to the arrow of life. Time’s arrow arises from the statistics of large numbers—when you have enough atoms milling about, there are simply so many more disordered configurations than ordered ones that the chance of their stumbling into a more ordered state is nil. But when it comes to life, order and irreversibility must reign even at the microscopic scale, with far fewer atoms in play. At this scale, atoms don’t come in large enough numbers for their statistics to yield regularities like the second law. A nucleotide—the building block of RNA and DNA, the basic components of life—is, for example, made of just 30 atoms. And yet, Schrödinger noted, genetic codes hold up impossibly well, sometimes over millions of generations, “with a durability or permanence that borders upon the miraculous.”
Living organisms are dependent upon physical processes that are small enough that they are not subject to the laws of averages.  This sequestering from larger physical processes is the first sequestering.  Before life could begin, there had to be a small space for it to begin.  Once it does begin, it sequesters itself in successively more effective ways.

But what can account for the “arrow of life”, that is, the direction of organic processes towards greater order (less entropy)?  Well, I guess I’ll blog on that tomorrow.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Progress & Evolution

The International Political Science Association has picked Poznań, Poland as the site for this year’s conference, after pulling out from Istanbul.  While I dearly wished to visit Turkey, I think this will be a wonderful place to visit.  It is close, by rail, to Berlin. 
Meanwhile, I have been reading a very interesting book.  On the Origins of Autonomy: A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution documents the thinking of Bernd Rosslenbroich, whose essays I relied heavily on when I presented a paper on autonomy at the IPSA two years ago. 
Rosslenbroich addresses a problem at the center of my attention as a modern representative of Plato: understanding the forms of organisms.  Here is his point of departure.  Modern evolutionary biology models the history of life on earth as a steadily branching tree.  At the root of the tree are the simplest, UR organisms: the first living things successfully replicating their forms by communicating information to successive generations and adapting successfully to their environments.  To present the model as a two dimensional image, the vertical dimension represents time and the horizontal dimension represents diversity.  Thus the tree branches out as more and more diverse organic forms emerge in evolutionary history. 
The tree metaphor is misleading in one fundamental respect.  The growth of a real tree is teleological in the sense that the mature oak is already contained in the acorn and its growth is constantly corrected according to that organic program.  The sapling progresses toward the oak.  Evolution is rather a mechanical process.  As the lineage of life extends through time, it pushes into new environmental niches and thus produces increasingly diverse forms. 
Rosslenbroich’s central idea is that evolutionary history cannot be understood without the idea of progress.  Just because the forces of selection and adaptation are mechanical and hence not goal directed doesn’t mean that there is no progression from lower to higher forms.  He argues that evolutionary history cannot be understood without some notion of progress and that all attempts to purge such notions from the language of biology inevitably fail. 
Consider that the tree of life might, conceivably have produced an increasing diversity of prokaryotic cells, differing only in the traits by which they adapt to diverse environments.  Obviously that is not what happened.  Eukaryotic cells, with a defined nucleus emerge and then later multicellular creatures.  Eventually the plants, reptiles, and mammals appear.  To articulate the difference between the fanciful and the actual scenarios, we need some coherent account of progress from lower to higher forms. 
As usual, Aristotle was way ahead of us.  His account of organic progress was based on the idea of the incorporation of simpler forms of organic processes within more complex forms.  Plants have only nutritive soul.  They feed and produce waste; grow, flourish, and then wither and die.  Animals have these same capacities, but also the powers to perceive at a distance and move about.  Human beings enjoy all the organic powers of plants and animals, but add the power of logos.  We are aware of the difference between perception and reality, what looks good and what is good. 
Rosslenbroich looks to ground the idea of evolutionary progress in increasing autonomy.  The essence of the organic lies in the resistance to the external environment.  All organisms are organized so as to maintain their internal states in shifting environmental conditions by finding sources of materials and energy and, always, by building walls against the environment within which these processes can work.  Over time, progressively more effective means of resisting the environment emerge.  Eukaryotic cells sequester their DNA within a more protected nucleus.  Warm blooded mammals can maintain their body heat and so forage at night. 
I think that this is dead spot on.  When I first read the work of the great philosopher Hans Jonas, I have thought that increasing dimensions of freedom was the key to understanding evolution.  I am gratified to find this same language in Rosslenbroich.  As Aristotle argued, human beings are more than just animals but we are at least animals.  Even if a group of chimpanzees could produce a copy of Richard the Third by random typing, and they can, given impossibly vast resources and time, they still couldn’t appreciate the play. 
Those who are afraid of evolutionary explanations of the human origins fear that such explanations reduce us to mere animals or worse to mere matter in motion.  Rosslenbroich shows us that such reduction is unwarranted and in fact impossible.  I am going well beyond his purpose here, but I submit that the freedom of the human soul, on which all the beautiful and noble things depend, is supported rather than undermined by an evolutionary account of the human being. 
ps.  I would point out that I wrote this post sitting on my deck in my tent.  It was a bit too chilly to sit out uncovered and I wanted to smoke a cigar while I wrote.  I can't do so inside because I am married.  That is how organisms seek autonomy.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Evolution of Fairness

I have been very interested of late in the logic of justice.  Plato’s Socrates assumed that justice was an idea, which is to say a logically coherent form.  Just as you know that a triangle has three angles and that the angles add up to 180 degrees, regardless of the dimensions of the plane figure,  if you understand what a triangle is, so you will know what the right thing to do in any context if you understand the logically idea of justice. 
My field of research involves the historical dimension of this idea.  How is that the dimension of justice emerged in the evolution of the human soul?  That it did emerge is not in doubt.  Even if you think that claims of justice are always or almost always confidence games, you might want to know why they work.  What are human beings charmed by the idea of justice?  To put that question in a more useful form: how did human beings become the kind of creatures that could be so charmed? 
Game theory, paired with evolutionary psychology, has come a long way toward answering that question.  The ultimatum game presents justice in a simple, logical dilemma.  In this game, two individuals (the Proposer and the Responder) must come to an agreement over the division of a benefit.  The one proposes a distribution: 90% me, 10% you, 50/50, etc.  The other must accept the distribution, or neither of them gets anything. 
Simple economic theory predicts that the responder will accept any distribution above 100/0, for something is better than nothing.  However, when the game is played with real persons, the proposer usually offers considerably more than the minimum and the responder usually rejects any offer that is not close to parity.  This is evidence that the human mind is robustly aware of the logic of fairness. 
So why does the partner at an advantage offer more than the minimum and why does the partner at a disadvantage refuse to accept an unfair distribution at the price of nothing?  It might make perfect sense to do so if the tables might be turned next time.  If I am generous to the responder now, he may be generous to me when he gets to be the proposer.  If he screws me now, just wait until next year.  I’ll get that bastard. 
That makes sense if proposers and responders are randomly assigned their roles with each turn.  Stéphane Debove, Nicholas Baumard, and Jean-Baptiste André move this logic one essential step forward in their essay “Evolution of equal division among unequal partners.”  Find it in Evolution 69-2: 561-569. 
Debove et. al. point out that a random assignment of roles in natural encounters is not plausible.  In nature, stronger individuals will find themselves in the role of proposer again and again, and vice versa.  If the stronger individual doesn’t have to fear that he will end up in the responder role, what incentive does he have to be generous? 
The answer is that the stronger individual is not competing only with the weaker ones for prizes; he is competing also with stronger individuals for partners.  If weaker partners are readily available, the cost of choosing any one partner is low.  It is in the advantage of the stronger individual to make as many partnerships as fast and as often as possible.  The easiest way to close those deals is to be generous. 
Our authors calculate that the generosity of the stronger proposers will decline as the supply of weaker responders goes down.  When fewer deals are possible, it pays to be choosy.  But even when weaker responders are few, and the cost of choosing is greatest, generosity will increase over time. 

This piece of research is not based on empirical evidence.  It is based on simple logic.  It makes the case that nice guys finish first, eventually, regardless of the particular situations.  Plato was right.  I note that the authors opened with a mention of Plato and Rousseau. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

In the Beginning was the Word

My apology for the long hiatus.  I like to blog on my deck with a small glass of scotch and a cigar.  Two of those three items are for all practical purposes unavailable from September until... today.  

I am teaching "Human Nature and Human Values" again and that always means consuming a lot of recent research.  One study I just digested into PowerPoint slides concerned the development of language by infants.  Back when I was (briefly) a psychology major (late 1970's), I was taught that language is acquired by mere power of association.  When an infant is exposed to one auditory stimulus (a word) in frequent conjunction with another (an object), then the infant learns that word for that object.  That is the Standard Social Science Model.  All social behavior is explained by reference to other social behavior.  

For that model to be confirmed, it should be the case that any sufficiently recognizable auditory stimulus would do.  For example, a buzz or buzz and click should be learned as a word for nose, if that is what the infant is taught.  

A recent study indicates that only certain kinds of auditory stimuli trigger the learning of words and that these stimuli in conjunction with visual examples triggers categorization in infants as young as three months old.  I find that very exciting.  

The study is "Nonhuman primate vocalizations support categorization in very young human infants" by Alissa L. Ferry, Susan J. Hespos, and Sandra R. Waxman (PNAS | September 17, 2013 | vol. 110 | no. 38 | 15231–15235).  Ferry et. al. exposed infants to images of dinosaurs in conjunction with a range of auditory signals, including tones and backward human speech.  Then they showed the subject two images, one of which was a new dinosaur and the other a fish.  They measured learning by whether the infant gazed at the dinosaur rather than the extra-categorical image.  




It turns out that tones and backward speech had no effect.  The infants did not associate these auditory stimuli with categories of objects.  Nor did they respond to the visual stimuli alone, in the absence of any auditory stimulus.  However, when the infants were exposed to coherent human speech or nonhuman primate vocalizations along with the images in the first stage of the test, then they recognized the novel dinosaur in the second stage of the test.  

That the infants responded to human vocalization in the first stage but not to tones or backward speech suggests that they are primed to tune in to certain stimuli but not others.  This indicates an evolved psychological mechanism for learning language.  That they recognized a new member of a previously presented category after only a very brief exposure indicates that this mechanism, far from being a mere power of association,  includes a power of forming mental categories.  At three months of age.  That their power of categorization was triggered both by human speech and nonhuman vocalization indicates that this mechanism has deep evolutionary roots, going back well before the emergence of human beings on this planet.  

The Socratic philosophers were onto this more than two thousand years ago.  Plato knew that human beings could form altogether artificial categories, such as "all numbers except 17".  That capacity exists, however, because it reflects and exemplifies something essential about the world we live in.  The world sorts itself into categories: rocks and living creatures, plants and animals, dinosaurs and mammals, horses and cows.  

Evolutionary theory wonderfully enriches the Socratic idea.  The ability to recognize categories of things is not only a consequence of evolution is part of the dynamic of evolution.  One theory of what a biological species is turns precisely on species recognition.  Horses are horses and not cows because they recognize horses as potential mates.  That horses can breed with donkeys indicates that the two species have split but remain just close enough to produce mules.  

The Greek word logos was pregnant with meaning.  It meant first the human power of speech.  It was extended to include human reason and the truths that reason could reveal.  Later, it came to mean the coherence of the intelligible kosmos.  Philology recapitulates metaphysics, in Greek philosophy and evolutionary psychology.  In the beginning was the word.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Facts and Values

I was educated in a hotbed of Western Straussians led by the hero of that school, Harry Jaffa.  No idea so roused our temper as the infamous “fact-value dichotomy.”  This is the idea that statements of fact (e.g., electricity can kill people) are fundamentally different from statements of value (e.g., it was wrong to electrocute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg).  The former are either true or false and one can attempt to tell which is which by means of argument and evidence.  The latter can be judged as true or false only in so far as they are logically consistent with other value judgments (e.g., it is wrong to kill as a punishment for a crime).  All such logical analysis, however, can only link one value judgment to another and must ultimately come to rest in some basic value (human life is sacred, etc.).  Such basic values can be held but they cannot be argued for nor is there any evidence that would tell for or against them.  The fact-value dichotomy seems to reduce moral judgements to irrational beliefs.  To believe in genuine justice is like believing in fairies. 
For Strauss, and especially for the Western Straussians, this amounted to offense against all moral and political philosophy.  Why think carefully about what justice is or what a just political order would be, as Plato and Aristotle did, if justice is just some idea that can never amount to anything more than an idea one is fond of without reason?  On the contrary, we argued, Socrates in Plato’s Republic and Gorgias offers profound arguments in favor of a coherent account of justice and his account is solidly based in evidence and logic.  Moreover, Socrates derives his logical proofs precisely from the testimony of those who argue against the existence or at least the worth of justice. 
The fact-value dichotomy is usually traced back to David Hume’s discussion of the naturalistic fallacy.  One cannot derive an ought-statement, which describes what one should or should not do, from an is-statement, which describes some set of facts.  For example, one cannot derive the claim “Athens shouldn’t have made Socrates drink hemlock” from the claim that “hemlock is poisonous.”  One can only derive the former from some other ought-statement such as: “you shouldn’t execute good men who will later be both famous and popular”. 
For a long time I thought that Hume’s distinction was silly.  I thought one could easily derive the claim that “one ought not to stick one’s tongue in a light socket” from the claim that “the socket is turned on”.  I now regard that thought as naïve and apologize to Mr. Hume. 
This occurred to me as I have been teaching logic and yesterday began a section on moral logic.  I have also been (belatedly) revising my chapter for The Handbook of Biology and Politics.  Both of these activities directed my attention to this question.  Modern logic generally accepts the naturalistic fallacy as a fallacy and hence presents coherent moral arguments as resting on two sorts of claim.  At least one premise of the argument must state some set of facts and another premise must state some value judgement.  For example:
  1. Current carbon emissions are causing global warming and global warming will have dangerous consequences for human beings and other creatures. 
  2. One ought not to do things that are dangerous to human beings and other creatures. 
  3. Therefore: we ought to reduce our carbon emissions. 

I think that the distinction between these two types of statements is logically correct, but I would point out two things that are frequently overlooked in discussion of facts and values.  
The first is that the category of values includes not only moral judgments but all judgments involving such concepts as right and wrong, better or worse, etc.  Thus “I shouldn’t eat what is unhealthy” is as much a value judgment as “I shouldn’t steal candy from a baby.”  What I and my Straussian friends and teachers objected to was the claim that moral judgments were in effect irrational.  Including value judgments about self-interest tells against that claim.  There is nothing irrational about ought-statements when they apply to matters of health.  For the same reason, there is nothing necessarily irrational about such statements when they apply to matters of right and wrong. 
My second point is more important.  The real distinction here is not between facts and values but facts about the living and the dead.  Recently I watched a NOVA feature on North America.  In the second segment we were presented with a line drawn along a hill side in the North Dakota Badlands, which I know well.  The line represented evidence of an asteroid strike.  Below the line (earlier in time) one finds dinosaur bones.  Above the line one finds fossils, but no dinosaurs.  Conclusion: the asteroid strike killed off the dinosaurs.  This kind of analysis is all facts and no values.  The reason for that is that, whatever killed the off, the dinosaurs are just plain dead.  Fossils are not more involved in values that volcanic rock. 
By contrast, living animals, including human beings, always have something at stake.  They are subject to flourishing and withering, surviving and perishing.  That includes all of them, from the giant popular tree I walked around in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, down to the littlest bacterium.  Some organisms are also subject to pain and pleasure.  That includes all (or perhaps almost all) of the animals.  One species is capable of happiness, defined as a self-conscious appreciation of a satisfying life.  Value judgments, far from being products of human culture, or “social construction”, or irrational emotive artifacts, are simple features of organic life.  Every time a slime mold amoeba decides to congregate with its fellows or a snow leopard turns down a trail to follow a scent, a value judgment is made.  Since such efforts can succeed for fail, value judgments can be objectively true or false. 
Aristotle that to understand simple things one must recognize a number of irreducible dimensions.  To understand how a table can be both wide and narrow, taller than a chair but shorter than the kitchen wall, one must recognize that width cannot be reduced to length nor to height.  The world exists in a three dimensional space.  To understand organic life, one must recognize the dimension of value.  Unlike rocks, house plants, horses, and human beings can succeed or fail.  The latter two have good days and bad. 
Moral arguments require value judgments as premises for the same reason that arguments about individual and collective interests do.  If you can’t reduce an is to an ought, that is because human beings are not rocks.  It is nonetheless true that slavery requires telling lies about the slaves and the masters and that tyranny is bad for human beings in general.  Moral and political philosophy is viable because it recognizes facts about human nature. 


Friday, November 13, 2015

Paris and What It Means

The scariest short story I ever read (and I, a fan of horror, have read some doozies) was Stephen King’s “Quitters Inc.”  In the story, a man who wants to quit smoking is referred to a program with that title.  He is guaranteed that not only will he quit but he will not gain weight.  After he has signed an agreement form, the program is explained to him.  If he lights up another cigarette, his wife will be tortured.  He quickly finds out that this is real and that he will live the rest of his life in fear of that one extra bite of cheese cake.  It turns out that the founder was a gangster who suffered from lung cancer.  His last act was to turn all of his power to curing people of the habit that killed him. 
What was terrifying about the story was that the ruthless violence of a gangster could be divorced from self-interest and turned to abstract and potentially arbitrary ethical principles.  If left unchecked, such a social trajectory could turn the entire human population into prisoners and wardens. 
I thought about this story tonight as I watched the horrific news from Paris.  As I write this, the fatalities are reported to be well over a hundred.  There were a number of well-coordinated attacks and the terrorists used conventional automatic weapons.  The contrast between the killers and ordinary gangsters is instructive.  Gangsters are social parasites.  They feed on the host of some larger society, depleting its wealth and doing a great deal of harm.  The damage they do is limited, at least in a robust regime.  Like all biological parasites, they have to make some concessions to their hosts if they are to remain in business.  Parasitic fungi that prey on ants need the supply of ants to continue and thieves need the stuff of honest men to steal. 
The French mass murderers are like organized criminals in so far as they occupy a niche in a society, exploit the social structures that benefit the larger population as well its openness, and depend on illegal trade (e.g., AK-47s).  Unlike gangsters, they are not pursuing their own long term self-interest.  They are acting out of a poetic ideal, a story that gives the lives meaning. 
That story is almost certainly incoherent.  I mean that it unlikely to function as the basis for viable political institutions, though they dream of such things.  In its current presentation, in France, it seems aimed at nothing higher than destruction.  Whether or in what sense the attacker turn out to represent ISIS remains to be seen.  While the latter presents as an organization and promises the establishment of a new Caliphate, it also seems to want to hasten the apocalypse.  Here is how Graeme Wood put it in the March issue of Atlantic:
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
It seems unlikely to me that such a movement can really coalesce into a coherent state, Islamic or otherwise.  It is rather what happens when a Branch Davidian cult is supplied with a large number of cultists and is able to expand into territories that cannot be defended by the disintegrating states that claim them.  Isis exploits all economic production under its control and no doubt benefits from the largess of dreamers in still coherent states.  Without an internal revolution, it can only destroy. 
If biological parasitism is a good analogy for organized crime, cancer is the best analogy for militant Islam.  It is a product of the DNA of social and political culture, broken beyond coherent function but not beyond dangerous effect.  Today’s atrocity in Paris is another reminder that the cancer can metastasize.  
Our global civilization is an invaluable achievement.  To say that is not perfect, that it has victims as well as beneficiaries, is to say what is trite because true of any human institution.  People are still starving around the world, but we live in the first period of human history in which more people suffer from obesity than from malnourishment.  We live in the first period in which millions of human beings enjoy both prosperity and liberty.  Progress means the survival and continued expansion of that civilization. 

We will have to summon enough industry, courage, and genius to meet its greatest threat, or else the darkness.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

Political Climate

On the same day that President Obama finally made a decision about the Keystone Pipeline (he killed it) we learn that the New York State Attorney General is launching an investigation targeting Exxon, on the theory that the oil company lied to its investors about the risks of climate change.  Both stories should chill the hearts of anyone who believes that economic policies should be made for economic reasons and that science requires that scientific theories be open to challenge. 
After seven years of dithering, including a State Department approval of the project, the President decided to nix the Keystone approval on political grounds.  From the New York Times:
Mr. Obama said that the pipeline has occupied what he called “an overinflated role in our political discourse.”
“It has become a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” he said. “And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”
Yes, the pipeline would not have been a “silver bullet.”  It would just have been the most efficient and safest means of moving the oil from the tar sands where it was extracted.  Those are economic reasons for approving the pipeline.  It would not have been, as the President admits, “the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”  Why not? 
Environmentalists had sought to block construction of the pipeline because it would have provided a conduit for petroleum extracted from the Canadian oil sands. The process of extracting that oil produces about 17 percent more planet-warming greenhouse gases than the process of extracting conventional oil.
But numerous State Department reviews concluded that construction of the pipeline would have little impact on whether that type of oil was burned, because it was already being extracted and moving to market via rail and existing pipelines. 
So approving Keystone would have been economically indicated and denying it would have paid no environmental dividends.  The only difference is now we are moving it by rail through urban centers where an unfortunate event would kill lots of people. 
So why did the President kill it?  Poetry. 
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” Mr. Obama said in remarks from the White House. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”
The move was made ahead of a major United Nations summit meeting on climate change to be held in Paris in December, when Mr. Obama hopes to help broker a historic agreement committing the world’s nations to enacting new policies to counter global warming. While the rejection of the pipeline is largely symbolic, Mr. Obama has sought to telegraph to other world leaders that the United States is serious about acting on climate change.
Mr. Obama wants to “telegraph” world leaders that we are serious about acting on climate change.  The rejection of the pipeline is not “largely” symbolic.  It is altogether symbolic. 
Politics trumping economic policy is a dog bites man story.  Politics attempting to strangle science is a different kettle of canines.  Again from the Times:
The New York attorney general has begun an investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how such risks might hurt the oil business.
According to people with knowledge of the investigation, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a subpoena Wednesday evening to Exxon Mobil, demanding extensive financial records, emails and other documents.
The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research.
The notion that Exxon could know how future climate change might hurt the oil business is utterly ridiculous.  It’s hard enough to predict the oil business a year in advance.  The best climate science can only give you a range of possibilities (1.4 degree to 4 degrees by the end of this century).  Is it really possible that Exxon lied about what this will to do to their portfolios eight-five years from now?  No.
What this is really about is that Exxon funded both “good” climate research (i.e., that supported the climate change alarmist agenda) and groups that criticized the alarmist view.  The purpose of the investigation is to punish Exxon for funding the heretics and thus starve the latter.

Good science need critics.  Environmental policy needs real solutions, not symbolic ones.  Precisely if you believe that climate change is a real danger, you should welcome challenges to your view.  If you are right, your view will be confirmed.  That means, however, that you have to be open to the possibility that your view is wrong.  Neither the President nor the Attorney General of New York are interested in that. c 

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Problem of Myself 2

Friend and intrepid reader Miranda raised some questions about my earlier post on the problem of self-identity
I am struggling with the idea that an identical twin might be closer to being the same individual than two people who shared the same memories. Your suggestion makes me think of Abigail and Brittany Hensel, conjoined twins who share a body, but who are, nevertheless, very distinct people. Their personalities quite different, with one girl being more extroverted than the other. I think it would be a mistake to think that the fact that the two share most of their limbs and, of course, DNA, meant that they were not two separate individuals. 
I think that this raises a lot of interesting questions, some of which I will address now. 
I do not hold that twins, identical, conjoined, or otherwise, are in any significant sense the same person.  They are no more the same person than two distantly related strangers; or at least that is true past a certain point in development. 
If you hold that personhood begins at conception (as I do), then identical twins were at some stage precisely the same person.  Then that person split into two.  To escape that conclusion, one would have to adopt a more or less medieval view of ontogeny, with a soul flying into the womb after the biological process was underway.  I am not convinced that any such view is coherent. 
If consciousness depends on a functioning nervous system, then I assume that any such division occurs prior to the emergence of consciousness.  This would be the major difference between me and a clone produced by one of my cells.  There is no question of whether the undivided zygote will “wake up” in either or both embryos since it isn’t awake yet.  Existential continuity will begin after two separate individuals have emerged. 
Miranda goes on to note this:
I also think that if a man were to receive multiple transplants and thus was made up of parts that originated from different DNA than his original parts had come from he would still be the same individual as he had been before.
This is the famous “ship of Theseus” problem.  The ship that Theseus rode back to Athens after he slew the Minotaur was preserved in that city (according to legend).  Over time parts of it were replaced as it weathered.  Eventually all the original parts had been replaced.  Is it still the same ship?  I say yes.  At every point in its history, new parts were integrated into old ones according to the original form.  That continuity of replacement grounds identity in the ship just as it does in us.  Our parts are being constantly replaced with new cells and materials.  Over the course of a single lifetime, all the material constituents are replaced about three times.  Yet I seem to be the same boat I was at birth. 
Finally:
But I am not sure what measure the amount of individuality in a person can be measured. How would you measure it? I look forward to reading more about the continuity of expected futures problem, should you choose to write about it in the future.

I look forward to that as well, for right now I have no idea what I will say.  It seems to me that individuality is not a matter of degree.  I will either have to bear the burdens and get to reap the benefits of my life tomorrow or not.  That will be true regardless of how many parts have been replaced.  I am pretty sure that if I am cloned and my memories downloaded to KB2 I will not taste his breakfast.  I remain convinced that my existential continuity is grounded in this embodied mind.  Beyond that, I am at a loss.  All modern philosophy turns on the mind/body problem.  Consciousness is indeed the hard problem.