Wednesday, August 17, 2016

On the Beautiful

I will be presenting a talk on concepts of the beautiful in Plato and in modern biology to an English class at Northern.  This post is a version of my talk. 
Plato presents all or almost all of his thought in a series of dialogues.  The central figure in each of these is either Socrates or someone who sounds just like Socrates.  Most of what we know about Socrates comes either from Plato or from another student named Xenophon, or from the playwright Aristophanes.  My discussion will present a concept of the beautiful that is based on the first two sources. 
Socrates was fond of “what is” questions: what is beauty, truth, justice, etc.?  In the Greater Hippias he raises the question: what is the beautiful?  The sophist Hippias first tries to answer the question the way most people would answer it, by naming beautiful things.  The beautiful is a beautiful girl, he offers.  I could offer Catherine Zeta Jones (in Zorro) and Brad Pit (in A River Runs Through It) as examples, though I am more confident of my answer in the first case.  By contrast, my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Fezer and Donald Trump stand as examples of the ugly. 
The problem with such an answer, according to Socrates, is that it doesn’t tell us what puts these items in the same category.  What does a beautiful man and a beautiful sunset have in common?  Consider the following by way of analogy. 
Red powder plus oil makes red paint.
That is a materialist explanation of the latter.  This stuff plus that stuff.  It answers the what is question so long as we are confident that we understand the materials.  
Heat plus iron equals red, hot, iron. 
For a long time science offered a materialist explanation: heat was a substance that can be transferred from one sponge to another, as when heat leaks out from a hot plate into the dinner table.  Today we understand heat to be molecular energy, which is a formalist explanation.  That’s more like what Socrates is looking for. 
A hemispherical shape plus a ceramic material makes a bowl. 
Here we have a perfect Socratic answer.  Fix a point, draw a circle around it and draw a line through the diameter.  Rotate the circle a full turn around the diameter, and you have a sphere.  Cut the sphere in half, and you have a hemisphere.  That, in geometrical precision, is what is added to the material to make a bowl.  So:
X plus a maiden makes a beauty.
Solve for X. 
Socrates’ answer is that the beautiful is the good.  This looks plausible.  The good plus a human body makes a beautiful person.  The good plus something edible makes a beautiful meal.  The good plus writing makes a beautiful book.  It raises, however, a number of difficult questions. 
Perhaps the least difficult is this: what is the good?  The answer is easy: the good is the choice worthy.  The good road is the one we choose over the bad road.  The good man is the one we choose as a friend and/or ally, etc.  This answer obviously doesn’t tell us what to choose, but it explains how we sort out the examples.  The beautiful maiden is the one he would choose if he were faced with a choice.  We still need to know why this maiden is more choice worthy than that one. 
A more difficult problem is distinguishing the beautiful from the good.  If they were exactly the same thing, why do we need two words?  A still more difficult problem is the fact that some things that seem to be beautiful are not good at all.  A cruise looks beautiful if you don’t know that the boat is going to sink.  To an addict, nothing is more beautiful than a lump of black tar heroin dissolving in a heated spoon. 
Socrates’ answer is that genuine beauty arises from the accurate perception of what is genuinely good and that the latter is good from all angles.  If something looks good before we choose it and then looks bad afterward, the former was not the perception of a genuine good.  I think of the demonic hag in horror movies.  He sees her as a beautiful maiden when she is in fact a withered beast who is going to eat his soul.  If you want a less colorful example, think of junk food or blood money.  Just ask Judas about the value of that thirty bucks just before he hangs himself. 
Socrates understood intelligence as the capacity to see things for what they really are.  The ability to appreciate the beautiful is the ability to appreciate what is genuinely good and will be seen to be so before and after a choice, even if the observer is not involved in the matter.  Someone who can make good choices for himself in each situation can usually recognize good and bad choices made by others. 
This fact, that intelligence can recognize good choices available only to others, is key to understanding that the beautiful is larger than the good.  The good for me is not the same as the good for someone else.  This is not so because the good is the selfish.  A father may choose to sacrifice himself to save his children or his spouse or his country.  The good for me is restricted to choices I can make.  I can and must choose how to vote in this next election.  I cannot choose to stand in defense of ancient Rome against barbarians but I can appreciate and enjoy the story of those who did so. 
The capacity for appreciating what is beautiful enlarges and enriches the human soul.  I can love the crews of American torpedo planes as they heroically and fatally charged Japanese carriers at the battle of Midway because I know that they attracted the Japanese fighters down and left the carriers defenseless against American bombers from above.  I can do so precisely because I wasn’t there.  I can admire Simone Biles as she went from one perfect routine to another, with a body full of power and grace, doing something I cannot chose to do. 
Beauty is the honey in the stories we tell.  When Jean Valjean steals a pair of candlesticks from his benefactor, Bishop Myriel, only to be brought back by policeman who are sure of his crime, the Bishop informs them that he gave these as a gift to Valjean.  By this gift, the Bishop buys back the soul of a wretched man.  This of course, is fiction.  It is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  One of my best students, Miranda, noted that when I described this scene in a lecture my eyes filled with tears. 

The beautiful is rooted in the good, as Socrates supposed.  It flowers larger than the most basic good and becomes something good in itself.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Chauvinism of Michael Le Page

Since the late 1990’s, I have been teaching a course called Human Nature and Human Values.  Every year I get exactly one very bitter complaint on my student evaluations.  I don’t know why it is so consistently just one.  This year was no exception; however, in this case the student was unusually honest and articulate.  She or he complained about the material.  I am paraphrasing here. 
The professor talked about human beings and animals raping and abusing and killing one another; about women’s reproductive value and men being horny and greedy.  I was uncomfortable with this. 
I can only plead that I was doing my job.  College is about becoming a grownup.  To do that, you have to have some awareness of how the world really works and have some idea what the people who shape the human world (including, especially, scientists) are thinking.  This sometimes means finding out things that you don’t want to know.  I warn students at the beginning of every class: if you don’t want to know that your parents had sex, you might have a problem with this material. 
I am genuinely sympathetic to the author of the above comment, in large part because of the honesty and self-knowledge evident in it.  Usually the one bitter complaint focuses on something other than the real issue: the tests were unfair, he misspelled words on the board, oh, and he talked about lesbian monkeys.  This student laid the real problem on the table: he or she did not like to watch a film clip of a male lion killing the cubs of his predecessor. 
One of the first times I taught the course and young woman visited my office after the final and confessed that, every day after she left the classroom she would go to her car and cry.  She thought I was telling her that, because there are evolutionary explanations for maternal love, that her mother didn’t really love her.  I belatedly corrected that error (see the previous post) and have been mindful about it ever since. 
On the other hand, the class is very popular and I always get a lot of favorable comments.  This is so despite the fact that most of my students come from traditional religious backgrounds.  I explain that what they believe is none of my business.  I make it clear that I respect them even if they disagree with me on really important things. 
I also try to show them that even if they cannot accept certain fundamental parts of evolutionary theory, for example the common ancestry of human beings and chimpanzees, they can still recognize how natural selection works on a daily basis and appreciate how our similarity with chimpanzees can help us understand ourselves.  My favorite teach phrase is this: human beings may be more than mere animals, but we are at least animals.  That’s all they want. 
One of the great obstacles to this kind of approach is the chauvinism of many Darwinian apostles.  Recently I have been reading a collection of articles from the New Scientist magazine.  Life on Earth: Origins, Evolution, Extinction is great reading.  Michael Le Page leads off the chapter on evolution with a list of misconceptions and myths about the theory.  I found almost all of the items on his list convincing: no, everything is not an adaptation (#1); no, evolution is not disprovable (#2); no, natural selection is not the only means of evolution (#8). 
At #6 (It doesn’t matter if people don’t grasp evolution), I was appalled.  This misconception has nothing to do with evolution; it has only to do with Le Page’s political bias. 
If a Republican wins the 2016 US election the world’s biggest superpower will be run by a man who rejects evolution, thanks to the support of millions of people in the US who also cannot accept reality. 
I happen to be a Republican.  My chances of winning the 2016 are slim, I grant you; however, if I did win, this superpower would be run (in so far as Presidents run anything) by someone who does not reject evolution.  I swim in it.  This is how prejudice works.  All those people are the same. 
I suspect that some significant Democratic constituencies are also hostile to evolution, but that aside: does it really advance the cause of science to wed the theory of evolution to the claim that all Republicans are stupid?  Even if you believe that the latter is true, is this good strategy?  It gets better. 
The success of western civilization is based on science and technology, on understanding and manipulating the world… Any leader who thinks that evolution is a matter of belief is arguably unfit for office. 
The first part of that quote is at best only partly true.  Modern science and technology are largely available to poor countries.  What they lack, among other things, are the elements of western political culture: individual liberty, property rights, democracy, religious tolerance, the rule of law, etc. 
The second part of the quote is the kind of non sequitur would cause whiplash in any rational person who tried to accept it.  How many leaders of any western nation over the course of the last century had a good grasp of Newtonian physics, the laws of thermodynamics, let alone quantum physics or Einstein’s relativity?  Yes, technology and science are fundamental elements of the strength of Western civilization; however, that is not because we have been ruled by engineers or scientists. 
It is true that “evolution is directly related to many policy decisions”.  Le Page mentions infectious diseases.  He might be surprised to learn that neither chief executives nor members of Congress or of a parliament routinely make decisions on a level at which such a theory is relevant.  They generally trust experts to make those decisions.  Might it not undermine that trust to tell a Republican Senator that she is not fit for office? 
If the recent Brexit vote in England or the rise of Donald Trump in America shows anything, it shows what happens when elites are routinely contemptuous of their constituents.  Scientists (and science writers) are necessarily among the elites.  If there should ever be a republic where more than a small percentage of the population is deeply invested in science, it won’t appear soon. 
All things considered, I would like to have a president who has a good grasp of modern science, including evolution.  I would be much more concerned to have a chief executive who has a general grasp of economics and a common sense understanding of foreign policy.  Meanwhile, I would like to see more scientists and science writers who are less contemptuous of people who do not fall into either of those categories.  I humbly suggest that this might advance the cause of science more than the former spiting on the latter. 

Perhaps Le Page should come to Northern State University and sit in on my class.  He might learn something. c 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Evolutionary Explanations 3

I have been thinking more about the concept of play in animals.  I wrote this in a recent post:
The rabbits in my backyard sometimes leap at each other and seem to dance.  This may have some adaptive function, but it looks like simple fun.  A cat toying with a mouse is another example.  Good training for hunting, most likely; but a lot more fun for the one than the other.
Modern biology follows Aristotle’s lead in carefully distinguishing the explanations we offer in response to why questions.  If I am interpreting the behavior of the rabbits correctly, it is easy to answer the question “why do they behave this way?”  Because it’s fun.  In the case of the cat playing with a mouse, this seems almost certain.  Letting the mouse go and catching it again, over and over, isn’t something the predator does because it’s hungry.  Letting it go would risk losing a food resource, something the cat can afford because it is well fed.  It is playing for the sheer joy of it. 
Evolutionary explanations need be deployed when we ask a very different why question.  Why are these activities fun?  Here again the cat example seems unambiguous.  The animal is in training.  In the case of rabbits, I can only guess.  It didn’t look like mating behavior and I have no idea what the sex of the players was.  It probably has some social function, but I don’t know anything about social behavior among hares.  Almost certainly it has some evolutionary roots because I assume that what animals like always have such roots.  Why do we like vibrant colors?  The coevolution of herbivores and oranges explains that.  Why do we like the smell of cooking meats? 
The distinction between the evolutionary origins of our likes and dislikes and the motives for our actions is a very powerful one and it helps avoid one of the most frequent confusions when thinking about Darwinian explanations.  To say that my love for my wife and my children is an expression of adaptive dispositions is often interpreted to mean that my motives aren’t genuine.  What I really want is to get my genes into the next generation.  Even Ernst Mayr, one of the geniuses of the philosophy of biology, was guilty of this.  When a bird pretends to be injured in order to lead a predator away from her offspring, this is ultimately selfish.  She is promoting her own reproductive success. 
This is nonsense.  Were I not descended from a very long line of sexually reproducing animals, I would be very unlikely to be capable of any kind of love.  Because I am so descended, I am capable of such motives.  The latter serve their evolutionary purpose so effectively precisely because they are genuine.  Whatever I was thinking about when I invited a young lady to a James Taylor concert, several decades ago, it wasn’t genetics.  When I tenderly cradled my infant son and daughter in my arms for the first time, I was acting entirely out of love. 
Evolutionary biology is not reductionist.  It is expansionist.  It interprets human and non-human behaviors by reference to a number of robust dimensions, none of which can be reduced to the others.  Those dimension include psychology and physiology, neurons and neurosis.  Some of those dimensions extend backward into the deep past.  Rabbits breed like rabbits and that is why there are so many of them.  This afternoon in my back yard they were just having a rocking good time.  

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Research Committee 12 Panel at Poznan

This post is a report on the panel I chaired at the 24th World Congress of Political Science.  We met in Poznan, Poland from July 23 to 28.  I begin by saying that, however much I regret missing Istanbul (the original site of the conference), Poznan was simply wonderful.  The town boasts a large square bristling with restaurants at the base of colorful buildings.  The buildings are narrow (a consequence, I was told, of old tax laws) which increases the variety and ornamentation.  In the center is a town hall built in Renaissance times.  It is hard to tell how old anything is because the square was largely rebuilt after WWII.  The exchange rate was about four zloty to the dollar, which was very favorable.  My wife, my friends Ron and Tamina White, and I had each a superb main course lubricated with two liters of red wine for about 35 bucks.  I should also mention that a bar in the Northwest corner of the square had marvelous lemon vodka shots for 4 zloty each.  If you want a charming European vacation just now, I recommend Poland. 
My panel for Research Committee 12 was Biology and Politics.  Jerzy Wiatr (your-zee vie-at) was cochair and discussant.  I presented a paper-The Darwinian Dynamic of Aristotelian Political Animals.  Ron White presented Evolutionary Leadership, Evolutionary Ethics, and Redistribution.  Christoph Meisselbach presented some of the work from his dissertation: The Evolution of Cooperation and Cohesion: Social Capital Theory and Its Anthropological Foundations.  Janna Merrick presented The Politics of Death: The impact of Agenda Setting, Media Framing and Negative Campaigning in Mobilizing Political Recognition of Physician Assistance in Dying
Janna Merrick’s paper was, I believe, orphaned from a canceled panel.  It was a very interesting explanation of why a “right to die” initiative passed in California but not in Massachusetts. 
The other three papers fit together very well in that way that sometimes happens at such panels.  Ron, Christoph, and I were all interested in how evolutionary biology can enrich established branches of political science.  Ron did what he does very well: he linked together the topics of leadership, ethics, and redistribution and showed how biopolitics could make better sense of each than more established approaches.  Christoph showed that the field of social capital research was based on contradictory premises and pointed the way toward a more coherent approach based on evolutionary anthropology.  I would really like to see more of his work.  I might have to learn German, since that is the language of his dissertation.  I tried to show how a question that has structured modern political philosophy-which is primary in political science: the human individual or the human society?‑is better articulated in Aristotle’s political science and that Darwinian biopolitics supports and completes Aristotle’s account. 
The room was almost half full and the audience participation was very strong.  I got almost all the questions which might mean that Aristotle is more interesting to Central European graduate students.  To mention one question: Aristotle sees eudemonia (blessedness or happiness) as the supreme human good; so how can this be reconciled with the Darwinian focus on mere survival?  I noted in reply Aristotle’s claim that the polis (political community) comes to be for the sake of mere life but it exists for the sake of the good life.  Aristotle supposed that the fact that something was good was a sufficient explanation for its existence; however, he recognized that meeting the basic biological needs was a force driving the emergence of human communities.  Evolution is not a teleological process.  It is not end-directed.  In so far as it has any direction, it is to push into new ecological niches by pushing into new areas of biological design-space.  The area of design space that human beings occupy allows for the possibility of genuine happiness. 
I won’t try to remember the other questions.  I will only say that if I had planted questions in the audience, I would have received the same questions.  This was one of the best panels I have had the privilege of sitting on.  I add that Professor Wiatr did his job with intelligence and grace. 
I am very grateful to Steven Peterson for his labor on behalf of Research Committee 12. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reply to Bonnie on Evolutionary Explanations

Bonnie’s recent comment involved more than the topic of the last post.  To provide the context for the rest of the comment, my friend Ron posted this:
The problem with all teleological explanations is that many natural phenomena pursue multiple purposes. Although the "purpose" of the human eye is to see... we all look at each other's eyes to form judgments about personality... especially reproductive judgments. The Roman Catholic Church is especially intent on assigning reproductive purpose to monogamous marriage while ignoring friendship as a goal. THUS the question of whether one purpose is more "ultimate" than another purpose is often contingent upon contextual considerations.
This was in response to my recent post explanation and teleology2. I replied as follows:
If by ultimate we have in mind the proximate/ultimate distinction, it seems easy to sort out in case of eyes. Their ultimate function is clearly vision. This is powerfully reinforced by the observation that eyes are temporally and genetically prior to human eyes. Our ancestors had eyes long before the human species emerged.

That we have large whites around our corneas may be an adaptation. It allows us to tell when we are looking into one another's eyes and so facilitates communication. Since chimpanzees don't have such eyes, it is very probably a recent adaptation as runaway selection for intelligence and cooperation shaped our species. At any rate, it seems quite easy to assign these various features to primary and secondary functions.

I won't speak for the Catholics, but Aristotle (who has some purchase with them) also recognized reproduction as the primary function of marriage. This seems to me to be obviously true. It doesn't obviate (in fact it may comprehend) the function of friendship.
Bonnie in turn as this:
On eyes the ultimate (why) final cause of eye as vision could include seeing material objects and forms in the world. If one has an affinity with the poetic understanding of eyes as windows to the soul there are other questions. The ultimate evolutionary purpose of the white of eyes as an adaptive mechanism is purely speculative theory unless tested by scientific method. The science that studies sight at the most refined level is neuroscience.
I reply that the final cause of eyes as vision devices obviously includes seeing material objects and forms in the world.  Cats are looking for prey and prey are looking about for cats.  To test this, I need merely observe the cats and rabbits in my back yard.  The cat moves very slowly, because sudden movement is more visible to rabbits.  The rabbit responds to the cat by freezing, because movement is more visible to cats.  I am sure that the eyes of cats and rabbits are windows to their souls.  Most of what their souls are about is eating and not being eaten. 
What happens in human beings is a lot more poetic, I suspect; but then I am not a rabbit.  When I look at a painting by Joseph Turner, I am not trying to survive or mate.  I am pursuing beauty, which my evolutionary heritage has allowed me to pursue because all the necessary things have been provided.  My agenda is not the same as the agenda of my genes.  Much the same thing is happening when I watch the rabbits play with one another.  They leap at each other and seem to dance.  This may have some adaptive function, but it looks like simple fun.  A cat toying with a mouse is another example.  Good training for hunting, most likely; but a lot more fun for the one than the other. 
Yes, it is speculative that the large whites of human eyes may function to facilitate communication.  It is much easier to tell if a human being is looking at me because I can see the direction of her gaze.  Evolutionary explanations can rarely be tested in the same way that water can be tested for bacteria.  Mostly we have to make do with reverse engineering.  Why the large whites of the eyes?  It might be an accident of eye evolution.  Even if it is, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t adaptive for another purpose once it was in place.  It might be adaptive for another reason, but the same holds.  All we can say for sure is that it doesn’t look like a complete accident that a species that benefits from interpersonal cooperation has eyes that allow one individual to tell when another is paying attention to her. 
Finally, there is this comment:
If the Greek translation of Aristotle’s ultimate theory carries any weight one might leap to conclusions about the composition of genes. In this era of biotechnology that is a big deal. The courts have wrestled with the question AMP v. Myriad 2013 and have settled upon a kind of genes are like chemistry analogy. It serves Occam’s Razor to simplify its work in resolving disputes between corporate and others interests. According to this analogy the simplest explanation is that genetic information is linear and their coded information is deterministic. Research scientists whose motives exclude the allure of profit and fame as primary incentives, increasingly theorize that a better analogy for the behavior of genes is more quantum physics. Their actions are less predictable than the simplified linear understanding that applies to chemistry. If I am correct, this fits Ron’s remarks about contextual influences.
I have been aware of this for a long time.  Since the discovery of genes, it has been tempting to believe that genes are legible: each codes for one trait and the code can be deciphered.  Once we decipher it, we can edit the code to produce the traits we desire.  I don’t think that anyone in the relevant fields believes that there is a simple, deterministic relation between genes and traits.  A single gene may code for many traits in the body, from the brain to the brawn.  Moreover, many genes depend on environmental inputs for their operation. 

Our genes code for flexibility.  When a cat decides whether to chase a rabbit or a fisherman whether to cast his line, each is making choices.  As I have argued in these posts, evolution works through animals by allowing each to pursue its own agenda.  A bull elk in a rut is not trying to produce the next generation of elk.  He is trying to beat the snot out of other bulls.  When I make dinner for my wife, I am not trying to get my genes into the next generation.  I am trying to make her happy.  That is how the beautiful emerges from the merely necessary.  

Reply to Bonnie on the Aristotelian Soul

Dear friend and frequent interlocutor, Bonnie, posted a long comment connected with this blog at the International Political Science Association Research Committee 12 Facebook page.  I am replying here. 
Others whose scholarship has focused on Aristotle propose that the Latin version of Aristotle differs from the Greek in ways that are significant for biology. For instance the concept of soul (psyche) about which Aristotle wrote in De Anima in Greek means breath (or life). The Latin Aquinas proposed that soul is autonomous and independent of the body. Thus a shift of that kind implies dualism in Aquinas translation of Aristotle that was not included in the Greek. Ken you know far more than me so correct any misunderstanding…
John Herman Randall, a great scholar of Aristotle who taught at Columbia where another friend of mine studied philosophy, taught that the Greek version of Aristotle is a kind of process philosophy. One small example of a translational conundrum is that the concept of soul (psyche) in Greek means breath (or life). The Latin Aquinas understood soul as autonomous and independent of the body. Thus, Aquinas’ translation of Aristotle leads to a dualism that, according to Randall, does not appear in the Greek Aristotle.
I cut and pasted out of order to focus on this central point.  I am marginally competent in classical Greek.  I have no Latin.  For a number of reasons however I do not think that the translation of Aristotle’s word for the soul‑ψυχή‑into the Latin anima was responsible for a more dualistic concept of soul. 
All words for soul are grounded in the distinction between the external, visible aspects of beings and the internal, invisible dimensions of those beings.  The soul explains two basic phenomena: why some things are alive rather than dead and how human beings and animals (and perhaps even trees or fresh springs) can have an internal consciousness and intention.  That these phenomena are real in the case of human beings we know firsthand.  That they are real in animals we know from analogy.  As for plants and sacred mountains, I remain agnostic. 
As soon as a culture becomes aware of this distinction between the visible and invisible aspects of the human being, it is almost inevitable that someone will imagine that they can exist apart from one another.  What, after all, is a corpse but a body from which the soul has departed?  If the soul departs, where does it go?  Perhaps it is as the Buddha suggested with his powerful question: where does the candle flame go when it is blown out?  The Greeks and the Romans certainly imagined that there were realms where souls exist without bodies.  I seem to recall Achilles complaining about the lodging in Hades.  Moreover, ghosts are ubiquitous in all cultures that are aware of the body/soul distinction. 
Philosophical accounts of dualism are another thing.  To my knowledge, the closest one comes to dualism in classical philosophy is Lucretius’ reading of Epicurus.  Lucretius is one of the rare examples of a genuine materialist.  All aspects of real beings are the consequence of their atomic components.  The soul, he supposed, was fine, invisible cloud of particles that escapes from the body at death like air from a balloon.  I suppose you will find more in the Neoplatonists; however, whatever they were, they weren’t Platonists. 
Aristotle’s account of ψυχή is not at all dualistic.  He says that the soul is the actuality of a body with potential for life.  To unpack this, ask yourself “what is a church?”  It’s not the bricks and boards, for these could have easily been assembled into a bank or a brothel.  It’s not the completed building, for a church has to have people and the building could be just as easily used by the bankers or the working girls.  The church is a group of human beings gathering together to do something, in this case, to worship.  Likewise, an Aristotelian animal is a specific kind of matter, organized in a certain way, and actually doing certain kinds of activity: breathing, metabolizing, sensing, etc. 
Aristotle’s soul is quite complex.  It encompasses three distinct explanatory causes: the species form (it’s a cat and not a catfish), efficient causation (the form is constantly pushing it to grow, feed, etc.), and final causation (the form directs the growth and activities of the organism towards certain ends).  It is very difficult to imagine how this kind of soul could exist apart from a material body.  To deploy a simpler analogy, a bowl has to have a convex shape; that means, however, that something must exist to be shaped into a bowl.  You can’t pour milk over cereal contained in an abstract geometrical form. 
I have read enough Aquinas to be astounded at the power of his thought.  I don’t know him nearly well enough to comment on his view of this matter.  I do know the New Testament and I read in the wee books at the end that Jesus was come in the flesh.  This was the result of a long struggle between the early church and the Gnostics.  The latter believed that all material was vulgar and bad; what was spiritual and good could exist only in the spirit.  So if Christ was the son of God, then he must have existed in spiritual form alone.  To this 1st John 4:3 says:
κα πν πνεμα  μ μολογε τν ησον Χριστν ν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθτα, κ το Θεο οκ στιν κα τοτ στιν τ το ντιχρστου, ὃ ἀκηκατε τι ρχεται, κα νν ν τ κσμ στν δη
And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
I find it fascinating that the early church was fighting explicitly against the dualism of the Gnostics.  Furthermore, to my knowledge, all major Christian churches confess the resurrection of the body.  Our souls don’t float off to heaven.  When we gain resurrection, we get our bodies back.  I am hoping for two things.  One is that the standard of admission, when it comes to opinions about these things, is lax.  The other is that I will be a bit taller and that I can sing. 
I don’t know what the nature of life after death might be but I agree with Aristotle’s model of the soul and I think that it is incoherent to imagine a human being without a human body.  The notion that the soul is a vaporous self that can float away from the body after death (or maybe from time to time during life) is probably what most contemporary Christians believe; however, that owes more to Descartes and his dualism than to the history of the Church or its doctrines.  The soul as milky, transparent self is what I like to think of as the Gospel according to Walt Disney.  It is easy to imagine a dog soul with tiny wings and a halo just as it is easy to imagine a centaur.  Both are logically incoherent. 

Nor am I convinced that all dogs go to heaven.  My mother-in-law had a dog that came straight from Hell and, gracefully, went back.  I am pretty sure that most dogs go to heaven.  

Friday, July 15, 2016

Explanation and Teleology 2

Teleological explanations are appropriate when some process can be understood only by the end at which it aims.  Such a process necessarily involves the possibilities of success or failure: the end may be achieved or not.  The most obvious examples are those of human production.  A farmer plants seeds in order to produce a crop.  It may rain just enough, or too little or too much. 
Yet much the same thing seems to be true of the seed itself.  It sprouts and the sapling breaks the soil.  It is obviously trying to do something, to reach the sun.  If it is strong and conditions are favorable, it will flourish; if not, it will wither and die. 
The great philosopher of biology, Ernst Mayr drew a distinction between teleomatic and teleonomic processes.  As an example of the former, drop a stone into a well.  The beginning predetermines the end.  The stone will end up on the bottom.  That doesn’t mean that the stone is trying to get there.  Its irregular course is entirely determined by its weight and shape and the accidents of the water.  That is a teleomatic process. 
The growth of a plant is very different.  Consider a vine growing up a wall.  If you watched it in stop motion you would see that it is very deliberately climbing.  It twists around this way and that looking for a purchase.  When it finds one, it takes hold and climbs again.  The vine has a program that determines its action.  The program directs it toward something: the sun, perhaps.  That is a teleonomic process. 
Is it possible that we are only anthropomorphizing?  Perhaps we are only projecting our own purpose driven actions back onto nature, as when people think that the volcano blew its top because the gods are angry.  Here is a counter example: years ago when I walked up to campus I noticed snowflakes falling on my arm.  They were perfect little six point stars made of two intersecting triangles.  I paused to wonder if God were telling me something.  The Jews are right! 
Maybe they are.  About a lot of things.  I think, though, that the “program” that determined the form of the snowflake was nothing other than the structure of the water molecules behaving according to the circumstances.  That is a teleomatic process, nothing more.  How then does the climbing vine differ?  It too takes form according to the complex molecules that it inherited. 
Here evolutionary theory kicks in.  Snowflakes do not give birth to other snowflakes.  The production of a six pointed star on a winter day does not result in a lineage of six pointed crystal stars with parents and grandparents.  By contrast, the vine has parents and will, if it is successful, have offspring.  Without understanding that, you cannot understand what a vine is. 
I suspect that the lineage is an essential element in the definition of life.  If this were all there were to it, teleological explanations would be reduced to the successful extension of biological lineages.  That may indeed be true of most of the organisms on our world.  However…
At some point evolution produced sentient organisms.  This kind of creature can respond to its environment in a much more flexible way than vines.  It has a robust kind of freedom: it can move this way or that, snatch or flee.  Natural selection favored those creatures that acted in ways that promoted successful reproduction.  Since they had an element of freedom, it had to work by bribing them with pleasure and punishing them with pain.  These existential elements function to select behaviors that promote successful reproduction without paying the cost of death. 
Now we have a telos that is distinct from the simple evolutionary telos.  A plant either flourishes or withers.  Its only rewards are saplings; its only punishment, no saplings.  An animal can flourish and yet be miserable.  Animals act for the sake of what pleases them and to avoid what displeases them.  They have an existential stake in their lives. 
Human beings represent the most advanced stage of this evolutionary trajectory.  Whereas all the other animals can tell the difference between what they like and what they do not like, human beings alone can distinguish between what they like and what is really good for them.  This capacity is amazing, but not without robust biological roots.  It arises out of a capacity for building internal, mental models of the external world.  This feature of animal life is ubiquitous. 
There is a species of spider that makes its living by feeding on other spiders.  To hunt it climbs high by spider standards among leaves, or at least high by spider standards, and looks out for prey.  In order to attack its prey safely, it has to come up behind it.  To do that, it has to climb back down to the floor and climb up again in a route that will allow it to come up in a strategically favorable position.  To do that, it has to build a map of the general route. 
Internal mapping of the external environment is a very profitable strategy.  Very simple organisms have to try the same trick every time and live or die depending on whether it works this time.  More complex organisms can try different tricks, but only find out what works by testing it in perilous conditions.  Creatures capable of internal mapping can try it first in the safe environment of the map, thus avoiding a lot of dangers and saving precious energy. 
Anthropoi are, if nothing else, very sophisticated internal mappers.  It is one reason that we spend some much of our time living in our own imaginations.  It allows us to build pyramids and send probes to see whether the planet Jupiter has a solid core or not.  It also allows us to choose not to eat a big bag of pork rinds even though we would really enjoy that.  The moral dimension emerges when we began to distinguish between what we want to do and what we ought to do.  That, almost certainly, was a product of our evolution as political animals.  We became very effective cooperators because we were able to resist the temptation to cheat one another, more or less, enough for government work.  Our mapping software includes a lot of prepackaged apps for getting along with other people, for demonstrating that we are good partners, for detecting when someone else is not. 
Teleological explanations applied to human technology and those directed toward biological phenomena are in one sense the same and in another different.  They are the same in the sense that they emerge in evolutionary history due to the same dynamics.  We learned how to build dwellings for the same reason that ants and bees did: to survive.  They are not the same in the sense that we are pursuing ends that are not reducible to mere biological lineages.  Like any other animal, we pursue comfort and satisfaction directly and serve our Darwinian interests only indirectly.  Unlike any other animal, we are capable of genuine happiness.  We can achieve a life that is consciously satisfying, in a broad awareness of who we are and what we want. 

It was long assumed that Aristotle was illegitimately anthropomorphizing when he introduced teleological explanations to his science of nature.  Darwinian biology shows that he was legitimately anthropomorphizing.  Because human powers of thought are the products of evolutionary history, they are the best information we have about evolutionary history.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Explanation and Teleolgy 1

I have been reading Mariska Leunissen’s Explanation and Teleology in Aristotle’s Science of Nature.  I am just getting into it, but it looks to be the best book on the Philosopher I have read in years. 
What got me thinking tonight is Leunissen’s discussion of the analogy between teleological explanations applied to natural and artificial production.  An example of the former would be the production of an oak tree out of an acorn.  An example of the latter, the production of a table out of oak boards.  Leunissen points out three aspects of this analogy:
First, in both cases the means or intermediate steps are complementary and adjusted for the sake of producing the end product.  The sprouting of the sapling and the planning of the wood are both guided by the end that the processes is aiming at. 
Second, both are cases of specialization.  Acorns produce oaks and not oats; wood wrights, acting in that capacity, may produce tables but not tablet computers. 
Third, production is reliable in both cases.  When supplied with all the necessary conditions (there is plenty of room for failure and accident), both the acorn and the wood wright will achieve their purposes. 
What is most interesting to me in this is the second point, for it connects Aristotle’s understanding with the evolutionary account of the history of life.  The diversity of life is largely a result of specialization of function.  Indeed specialization is a synonym for adaptation in this case.  Some creatures are very specialized.  They can exist in only very specific environments and perhaps eat only one kind of food.  Other creatures are extraordinarily flexible, able to respond in distinct and adaptive ways to a wide range of environments.  Human beings are, very probably, on the extreme end of this scale. 
It is probably the case that the earliest forms of life were very specialized.  Each reproductive act resulted in an almost identical organism adapted to a very local environment.  Such organisms could respond to changes in the environment or migrate to different environments only when their lineages diverged into new forms by means of mutation and natural selection.  Organism A for environment A; organism B for environment B, etc.  All organisms must be responsive to their environments; however, the only means such organisms as these had to test their forms was by life and death. 
At some point organisms emerged that could alter their behavior and even their forms in more significant ways in response to changes in the environment.  Such organisms could find the successful behavior by trial and error, rather than simply perishing or not.  That means that they became capable of multiple specializations.  I see the result of this in my backyard.  When I walk out, a rabbit will respond first by freezing.  That’s one specialization.  If that doesn’t seem to work, she will run like Hell.  That’s another. 
I think that this allows us to place human arts within (or at one extreme of) the spectrum of evolutionary history.  A wood wright specializes in wood work; however, he specializes in a lot of other things as well.  He specializes in communication with other human beings, in living in a particular climate, etc.  He may specialize in physical fitness if he spends a little time in the gym.  We are generally good at specializing. 
Natural reproduction is much more restricted.  Human couples specialize in producing human infants more or less like themselves.  To be sure, environmental factors will affect the offspring, even in the womb.  Some of these responses may be adaptive, though most that we know of are not.  For the most part, with respect to natural production, we are in the same boat as the Ur organisms: our offspring survive or they don’t. 

The value of joining Aristotle’s approach with that of modern biology is that it breaks down the barrier between the arts and sciences and the flowering of natural organisms without reducing the one to the other.  Culture and nature are not two distinct realms.  Culture is a product of the human capacity for multiple specializations and that is the most remarkable result of the evolutionary expansion of organismal forms into the design space that was available for them.  Aristotle’s analogy shows why we need not draw a wall of protection between the human things and nature.  

Friday, July 8, 2016

Aristotle Saves Biology

I confess that I did not know, until tonight, that Aristotle understood precisely what a lunar eclipse is.  This is rather significant, because I had generally assumed that Aristotle’s physics was entirely indefensible.  While I am now on solid ground in holding that is biology is mostly solid ground, what of his view that a pitched falls back to earth because its earthy nature compels it to return to its natural place?  Aristotle did not have a reliable theory of momentum.  But then I came across this passage in the Posterior Analytics
τί ἐστιν ἔκλειψις; στέρησις φωτὸς ἀπὸ σελήνης ὐπὸ γῆς ἀντιφραξεως
Pretty straight forward, no?  Here it is in English.
What is an eclipse?  A deprivation of light against the moon due to the obstruction of the earth.
That is dead spot on, which is astonishing for his time.  He even goes on to say that this explanation, which relies on speculation, would be directly apparent if we were standing on the moon.  We would see the earth moving across the sun.  I am not going to try to rehabilitate Aristotle’s astronomy; however, I can’t help pointing out that, in considering the same event from two different points in space, he is perilously close here not only to Newton but to Einstein. 
I was reading the PA because I read a very fine paper by Lucas Mix: “Nested explanations in Aristotle and Mayr,” in Synthese (2016) 193: 1817-1832, and Mariska Leunissen’s book Explanation and Teleology in Aristotle’s Science of Nature.  Leunissen points out that Aristotle’s explanatory strategies may help us resolve certain fundamental problems in the modern philosophy of biology.  This is what Mix tries to do in joining Aristotle with Ernst Mayr, two of my favorite philosophers of biology. 
Modern biology involves a host of evolutionary and organismal explanations that cannot be generated by physics and chemistry alone.  Chemistry can tell you a lot about the DNA molecules but it cannot explain what a gene is, let alone make sense of organisms, adaptation, end-directed processes, etc.  At the same time, all biological phenomena depend on the mechanical laws of physics.  All organic activities, from metabolism to mental gymnastics require the expenditure of energy and fail when the energy runs out; yet only organisms can succeed or fail at anything.  How are we to understand the relationship between these two domains of science?
Here is how Mix puts it:
Nested explanations provide the most utility for biology. Good evolutionary explanations involve natural selection acting on replicating physical systems; therefore, the fullest biological knowledge will appeal to an evolutionary explanation nested within a mechanical explanation (or series of explanations). The evolutionary explanation is etiologically prior; it defines the categories in question (functions, organisms, genes). The mechanical explanation is temporally prior; it includes the material from which they are made and the rules by which they interact.
To say that evolutionary explanations are nested with mechanical explanations is to say they are a very special case of mechanical explanations.  Some physical systems have nothing to do with the former, as in the case of volcanoes.  Other physical systems like redwood trees cannot be understood without the former.  To say that the evolutionary explanation is etiologically prior to the mechanical explanation is to say that one must approach the study of living organisms with a basic understanding of what they are and that this is something that mechanical explanations cannot provide. 
Here is my take, for which Mix bears no responsibility.  The relationship between the mechanistic sciences, which ask only how something happened or is what it is, and the life sciences, which ask why something happened or why it is as it is, is analogous to the relationship between the Oxford English dictionary and a good English grammar, on the one hand, and Shakespeare’s Richard the Third on the other hand. 
Ignoring poetic license for the moment, Shakespeare was limited to a specific number of letters, a large but finite vocabulary, a large but finite number of grammatical rules, as well as a brevity dictated by the realities of the stage.  Given those restraints, an astronomically vast but finite number of plays was possible.  If you don’t believe me, read Jorge Luis Borges’ famous story, “The Library of Babel.”  It’s a good but sad joke to say that all one needs is a dictionary because all the other books are in it.  To get Dickey Three out of the OED, among the vast alternative populations, you need Shakespeare. 
To get William Shakespeare out of the vast possibilities that the physical kosmos offers, you need what?  It is hardly clear.  We have no good idea how life arose out of the chemical soups, sunlight, and lightening scoured landscapes that the earth offered just before it began to fruit.  Fruit it did, and the playwright known as natural selection has been scribbling furiously ever since. 
Just as an interpreter of Shakespeare must begin with the play and not the dictionary, so a biologist must begin with living organisms and not with the periodic table of elements.  Organic chemistry is organic first and chemical second.  Of course here the analogy breaks down.  The dictionary doesn’t tell you much about the play.  Chemistry and physics tell you a lot about living organisms.  Why are there a lot of animals here and not so many there?  Sunlight and temperature tell you a lot about why there are trees with certain kinds of leaves and that tells you why there are a lot of creates that eat the leaves and predators that eat the leaf eaters. 
I like the notion of nested explanations because it seems to reflect the most basic human reality.  We are nested within the biosphere on the surface of this planet.  We thrive on certain geographies and not so much or at all on others.  The biosphere is also nested in a larger range, but still only a sliver of the world.  Outside, there is the too cold or too hot and the empty silence. 
As Mix observes, Aristotle was good at nesting one kind of explanation within another.  He saw no contradiction between material and mechanistic causation, on the one hand, and the power of organic forms and teleological processes on the other.  He might have been the last great philosopher to be altogether comfortable with all the ways that science could offer for understand the physical and existential realities of our life on this world.  I must admit that I am a little uncomfortable with that. 

Discomfort drives the history of philosophy and science.  Still, both must continue to pursue the final view that will integrate and resolve all the problems.  Just right now, I am feeling some of Aristotle’s confidence.  

Friday, June 17, 2016

Kinds of Political Minds

In his best book, Kinds of Minds, Daniel Dennett presents a marvelous account of the evolution of mind based on increasingly sophisticated mechanisms by which organisms can modify their responses to their environments.  Going from memory here, in the first stage a population of organisms diversifies, and the forms that respond best are the ones that flourish.  Each individual has only one trick.  In the second stage, single organisms acquire a diversity of responses and try each one to see if it works.  The organism can decide to approach or retreat, etc.  In the third stage, organisms acquire the capacity to make internal maps of the external environment, and more or less safely test each one prior to trying it out in the real world.  When last I tried X, it worked.  That is the first case of something that everyone might recognize as a mind. 
Finally, in the fourth stage, organisms find ways of uploading information into their environments to be used later, thus expanding the information that they can use beyond the storage capacity of their own brains.  A bird may decorate the area around its nest to make it easier to find.  Since others of its own kind can read the same information, this allows communication.  A dog may urinate on something to remind it that it has been here before and to inform other animals that this is its territory.  My daughter once remarked, as our dog was inspecting our fence post just after another dog had passed by, that he was reading his pee-mail. 
Aristotle’s division of animals into solitary, social, and political is relevant here.  Social animals merely congregate but political animals coordinate their behavior for a common purpose in which all share.  There are a lot of political animals.  When elephants arrange themselves in a circle, with the adults on the outside protecting the young in the center, that is political behavior. 
Here I present a section from a previous post on leadership.  The passage concerns a piece I read 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. 
For social animals to become genuinely political, they upload information to the herd and download information from the same.  This makes for a collective mind.  Each time a capuchin moves off from the group in one direction or another, she is making a proposal.  The other monkeys then vote with their feet.  That is politics. 
The individual human mind is extraordinarily good at creating and manipulating internal models of the external world.  That is what its consciousness is doing almost all of the time.  When the young man stands up in the town meeting exquisitely depicted by Norman Rockwell, he is trying to lead the other members of his group in some direction.  Human beings are more political than the other political animals, as Aristotle says, because we can make a case for this direction or that one.  We go beyond merely liking or disliking this way or that.  We can recognize that we like one way, but that the better way for us lies in some other direction.  We can distinguish between what looks good and what is good, what is tempting and what is right. 
Aristotle understood that the more developed organisms are not simply different from the less developed ones, as red is different from blue.  Instead, the more developed organisms add new capacities to those that they share with the less developed, as purple is different from red.  Plants grow, flourish, and wither.  Animals do the same, but also move about and are aware of things distant.  When we add modern biology to that model, human beings are still primates but they are more than primates. 

This points to the thesis I am developing.  What is the human thing?  Is it the individual, as the early modern philosophers supposed?  Or is it the society, as the later historicists and socialists supposed?  The answer is yes.  Or to put it more accurately, the human thing is the dynamic relationship between the individual and the community of which he is a part.  One cannot reduce either to the other.  Were human beings to be entirely subsumed by their societies (as the Borg collective in Star Trek), they would no longer be, in any significant sense, human.  A human being who lives entirely alone is human only in so far as she continues to draw on the cultural and linguistic store that she acquired from others.  If Aristotle could not imagine the first, he could imagine the later.