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.  The 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 tempted 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 somethings 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.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

ISIS doesn't need Trump

For many years I blogged on politics at South Dakota Politics.  I put it away because it took too much time away from my research interests.  It was a wise decision.  In the interest of making biopolitics relevant to right now politics, I will begin offering a few more explicitly political posts here. 
I begin by saying that I am no supporter of Donald Trump.  I think that his nomination is the worst decision the Republican Party has made in my lifetime.  I think that his nomination (like the strong run of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side) is a sign of the loss of confidence in traditional institutions that is evident on both sides of the Atlantic.  It is not hard to see why that loss occurred.  (I suppose I will have to put that paragraph at the head of every explicitly political post I make). 
David Ignatius begins his recent piece with this bit:
Even by Donald Trump's standards, his comments about the Orlando shooting have been reckless and self-serving. They are also dangerous for the country.
This is the exasperation of the political/media elite.  He can’t understand why all the villagers (instead of a very few of them) aren’t headed to Trump Towers with torches.  This is the way you think when you can’t understand how anyone could think any other way.  To see what a more reasonable approach looks like, try Meagan McArdle
Ignatius has some good news and some bad news.  Here’s the good news. 
Trump's polarizing rhetoric on this issue may be the best thing the Islamic State has going for it, according to some leading U.S. and foreign counterterrorism experts. The group's self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq is imploding. Its Syrian capital of Raqqah is surrounded and besieged; the gap in the Turkish-Syrian border that allowed the free flow of foreign fighters is finally being closed; Sunni tribal sheikhs who until recently had cooperated with the Islamic State are switching sides. The group's narrative is collapsing -- with one exception.
Maybe this good news is the real news; but if it is, is it really that the ISIS narrative is collapsing?  Isn’t the important thing that its battlefield position is collapsing? 
Here is the bad news:
The strongest remaining force that propels the Islamic State is the Islamophobia of Trump and his European counterparts, argue senior intelligence strategists for the U.S.-led coalition. Inflammatory, xenophobic statements about Muslims reinforce the jihadists' claims that they are Muslim knights fighting against an intolerant West. Trump unwittingly gives them precisely the role they dream about.
One wonders what evidence Ignatius has for the strength of this force, or how strongly “the Islamophobia of Trump and his European counterparts” really “propels” the Islamic state.  Is it really Trump that warms the heart of Muslim knights as they sing themselves to sleep?  Finally we get this:
Trump doesn't seem to understand that the real danger for the West is not the isolated acts of terror by disaffected youths, such as Mateen's massacre in Orlando. That's a threat to Americans, but one that can at least be mitigated some with better security and intelligence. The bigger nightmare happens if Muslims, as a whole, conclude that their community is under threat and respond as a group.
This is nonsense on stilts.  To see that, just apply the same reasoning to other animosities.  Do white people join the Klan because they think that Black people don’t like them?  No.  They join the Klan because they don’t like Black people.  Do anti-Semites because they think that the Jews really threaten them?  No.  They say that the Jews are a threat because they don’t like Jews.  Does ISIS rise and flourish because Muslims worldwide are deeply invested in the Republican primaries?  Ignatius gets it ass backwards. 
There is nothing that African Americans or Jews could do or not do that would satisfy their enemies.  To say otherwise is to buy into the race slander.  The position of the radical Islamists and their enemies (pretty much every living thing and a lot of non-living things like ancient statues) is exactly the same. 
The best analysis of prejudice is found in Plato’s Apology of Socrates.  On trial for his life, Socrates has to explain why so many people want him dead.  I interrogate them daily, he explains, and ask them about justice and truth and piety.  I expose them as ignorant about the most important things.  That is why they hate me.  But they can’t admit that, so they invent stories about me that aren’t true. 
I used to drive frequently through a little town in Arkansas.  On one side of the road was a well-tended graveyard.  On the other was a graveyard with overgrown grass hiding old stones.  Want to guess which was the White graveyard and which the Black?  What was the point of that?  The folks on one side lived and died believing that they could only keep what they had if they could keep the other side down.  That isn’t true, but it is what they thought.  So they make up stories about the other side: they are simple minded, they are just animals, etc.  That is how prejudice works, is Socrates’ time and ours. 
ISIS doesn’t depend on Trump or anyone else for their narrative.  They are capable of constructing it all by themselves.  Human political communities, from the earliest tribes, arose for purposes of offense and defense against other human beings.  As human cultures became more sophisticated, so did the narratives.  Our people are the people; our gods are the right gods.  As Nietzsche observed in The Genealogy of Morality, such narrative construction becomes much more problematic when your group is for a long time dominate by others.  The relative economic and political weakness of Islamic populations is one such problem.  ISIS is an attempt to build an empowering narrative under these conditions.  It is the underlying political and economic realities that drive the narrative, not the Donald. 
I close by noting that Ignatius view is just as insulting to Muslims, American and otherwise, as is Trump’s. 
The bigger nightmare happens if Muslims, as a whole, conclude that their community is under threat and respond as a group.
Why, exactly, should that be a nightmare?  American Jews have long had the sense threat their community is under threat and they have long responded as a group.  They organize, lobby, and vote accordingly.  The same is true of many other American communities, such as the Italians or my Irish ancestors.  The Chicago Irish may send a dollar to Sinn Fein now and then, but the only thing that gets bombed locally is the Chicago Irish.  Why does David Ignatius think that American Muslims are less civilized than that? 


Aristotle's Priorities


In Aristotle’s Politics, he says this:
κα πρότερον δ τ φύσει πόλις οκία κα καστος μν στιν. [20] τ γρ λονπρότερον ναγκαον εναι το μέρους: ναιρουμένου γρ το λου οκ σταιπος οδ χείρ, ε μ μωνύμως, σπερ ε τις λέγοι τν λιθίνην διαφθαρεσαγρ σται τοιαύτη), πάντα δ τ ργ ρισται κα τ δυνάμει, στε μηκέτιτοιατα ντα ο λεκτέον τ ατ εναι λλ μώνυμα.
The polis is prior to the family and to each of us, since a whole is by nature prior to its parts.  For if the whole is destroyed, [a person] would not exist, nor would a foot or hand, except equivocally, as if someone were speaking of the stone.  For all [the parts] are defined by their powers, so it should not be said to be or to be such, except equivocally.
That overly literal translation is a bit murky.  I will clear it up momentarily.  For now just notice the first, italicized sentence.  In the Nicomachean Ethics, he says this:
νδρ δ κα γυναικ φιλία δοκε κατ φύσιν πάρχειν:νθρωπος γρ τ φύσει συνδυαστικν μλλον πολιτικόν, σ πρότερον κα ναγκαιότερον οκία πόλεως, κα τεκνοποιία κοινότερον τος ζοις.
The friendship appears to belong to man and woman by nature, for [the human being] is by nature more a coupling [animal] than a political one, in so far as the family is more prior and more necessary than the polis and the production of offspring is more common to the animals. 
Here we have, at first glance, an obvious contradiction.  Is the polis prior to the family or vice versa?  In the first example, Aristotle’s meaning is textbook functionalism.  We cannot understand what a hand or foot really is except by understanding its power, which is to say its function.  We cannot understand the latter without understand how it contributes to the greater whole that is the human body.  If the family and individual cannot function properly except as part of a complete political community, the polis is logically prior to the family and individual. 
I confess that, until tonight, I had careless assumed that in the second example Aristotle was speaking of temporal priority.  Perhaps there were families before there were cities.  There is no contradiction involved when logical and temporal priority are reversed.  A craftsman might fashion a doorknob before the door; however, the former still makes sense only if you understand what the latter is. 
Wolfgang Kullmann set me straight in his essay “Man as a political animal in Aristotle,” in A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics (David Keyt and Fred D. Miller, Jr., 1991).  Kullmann is trying very hard to demonstrate that Aristotle did not believe in any pre-political period in human history.  Aristotle’s anthropoi cannot exist (at least as a species) apart from political life any more than lions can exist without hunting.  I am pretty sure that is right about that. 
He argues that the first statement belongs to political science and the second to biology.  The second statement is biologically correct in so far as coupling is a more common and therefore more basic characteristic of animals than political behavior.  That strikes me as correct.  The first statement belongs to political science which, Kullmann says is more precise than biology for Aristotle.  I am pretty sure he is wrong about that. 
His argument does point the way to resolving the two statements by separating out two senses of logical priority.  When we are doing functional analysis, wholes are clearly logically prior to parts.  Human bodies are logically prior to human lungs.  When we are doing cladistics, more universal traits are logically prior to more specific traits.  Lungs generally are logically prior to mammary glands generally. 

The great innovation of evolutionary biology in general was to map the second type of logical priority onto temporal priority.  For the most part, the one is the other.  The great of innovation of Darwinian biology in particular is to understand how functionality emerges over time. 
My interpretation saves Kullmann’s more important point.  When Aristotle speaks of political animals he means creatures that are not only gregarious but are capable of cooperating for some common purpose.  This involves a dimension of morality or justice in so far as the goods achieved by cooperation can be more or less equally distributed among the cooperators and some cooperators may be tempted to take a share in the spoils without joining in the common effort.  Whether Aristotle recognized the dimension of morality among other political animals isn’t clear to me; however, modern sociobiology leaves no doubt about this.  Cooperation is not evolutionarily viable unless there are mechanisms in place to ensure basic fairness.

What distinguishes human beings from all other animals is logos: the conscious communication of views about what is in the common interest and what is just.  If political nature is logically prior to logos in the cladistic sense and if this trait is also temporally prior, then our ancestral tree branched into political nature long before it budded into human nature.  We were political animals before we were human.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A defense of Aristotle

A response to my last entry was posted at the International Political Science Association Research Committee #12 Facebook page. 
As you implied, the quote from Aristotle of man, in the role of husband and father, as a ruler of a household opens the discussion to controversy. Your first paper did not do this. Plato's views on women are less offensive to those whose social and political views are more gender egalitarian even though his political model is subject to criticism for other reasons.
This is a fair criticism and it comes from a friend and frequent interlocutor.  I reply that it is a sign of the immaturity of our academic culture that we need to be afraid of controversy.  Controversy ought to invite reasoned even if spirited conversation.  Instead, today, it frequently results in accusations and scarlet letters. 
I will offer here a reasonable defense of Aristotle for reasonable readers.  Aristotle got a lot of things wrong.  His physics (in the modern sense) is largely useless.  He thought that the function of the brain was to cool the blood.  He thought that the female provided only the matter for her offspring while the father provided all the formal elements.  He states that the father has natural authority over the mother and her children, and he provides what certainly looks like a defense of slavery. 
On the other hand, he got a lot more right.  His biology is astonishingly close to contemporary theory, as I have argued in many previous posts and will defend in this one.  Even his mistakes lend support to what we know see as the correct view.
Consider his defense of slavery in Book 1 of the Politics.  To understand the context of that argument, one must know that Aristotle distinguished three types of rule: political, royal, and despotic.  The second type of rule may be best understood as a special case of the first.  Both political and royal rule are exercised for the sake of the governed and only accidently for the sake of the governor.  For example, the father provides for the family and decides how the provisions will be used; however, he benefits from these decisions only in so far as he is one more member of the family.  His superior authority does not entitle him to a greater share. 
Aristotle recognizes a range of political animals and only says that human beings are the most political animals.  He tells us in the History of Animals, Book 1, that politics animals are those that engage in some one and common work.  This means that such animals cooperate in ways that benefit the community of cooperators.  As David Depew argues (rightly, in my view) Aristotle was less interested in sorting animals into kinds that in understanding the traits that distinguish kinds of animals. 
He thought that the traits were intelligible by their function in their natural contexts.  Animals live and move through three great natural realms.  Some swim, some walk, some fly, and some (like seals) move between these realms.  These are what we now call environmental niches.  In the niches in which they operate, their traits are largely determine by how each creature gets its food.  This is, obviously, and adaptationist approach.  Bears hunt alone.  Elk need not cooperate much to eat grass; however, wolves must cooperate to eat elk.  In all or almost all cases, cooperation requires a division of labor.  When chimpanzees hunt monkeys, the hunters must adopt one of three distinct roles.  Obviously I am not limiting myself to Aristotle’s examples, but that makes my point.  Aristotle got a lot right. 
The relationship between the members of a group of political animals must involve justice.  While the “citizens” of a chimpanzee hunting party must subordinate themselves to the whole by accepting their roles, each must also expect to benefit.  By contrast, the relationship between the predators and prey is ruthless exploitative. 
In this context, we can understand Aristotle’s analysis of despotic rule.  When one human being takes command of another, and not at all for the other’s sake but purely for self-interest, this is despotic rule.  When is slavery just?  He is very clear.  If one human being differs from another to the same degree that a man differs from an animal or the soul differs from the body, the superior person may with justice enslave and exploit the inferior person.  He notes that many Greeks are comfortable with enslaving barbarians but uncomfortable with enslaving other Greeks.  This indicates that they understand, more or less dimly, his distinction. 
That is the condensed version of Aristotle’s defense of slavery.  The problem is that it doesn’t justify any actual instances slavery for the simple reason that no two human beings stand in the relationship that Aristotle describes.  If anthropos is the political animal, then all anthropoi are capable of participation in political life and cannot, therefore, be justly enslaved.  Both Plato and Aristotle interpret Homer’s Cyclopes as a version of a primitive, isolated, and violent stage of human life.  Both understand this case as the result of some apocalyptic destruction of civilization or, perhaps, the condition out of which civilization first emerged.  Circumstances, not nature, make a Cyclopes. 
Aristotle made of a defense of slavery that is, according to his own reasoning, a condemnation of all slavery.  Was he aware of this?  I think so.  But then I am in love with Aristotle and you probably should be wary of anything I say about him. 
I cannot so thoroughly acquit Aristotle of political incorrect views with regard to his account of the natural structure of the family.  He clearly thinks that the father is the natural ruler of the family, with authority over both his wife and his children.  It won’t do to point out that his view is in consonance with most human cultures both in his own time, in the times between, and today.  Whether the world is round or flat doesn’t depend on how many people think the one or the other.  As another friend and frequently interlocutor put it at the same location:
I like to revise Aristotle’s views of FRIENDSHIP between husbands and wives based on female access to education. Husbands and wives are TRUE FRIENDS.
I concur.  The natural flowering of the marital relationship requires equality.  I would point out, however, how little needs to be adjusted to bring Aristotle’s view in accord with this. 
In the Politics he argues that it is barbaric for a man to treat his wife the same way as he treats his slave.  This is true for two reasons.  One is that the slave is a beast of burden, exploited for the sake of the master and not all for the sake of the beast.  Whereas the slave is chattel, the wife is a member of the family and the responsibility of the father is to serve the family and not vice versa. 
The other is that the relationship between the father and mother is political rather than royal.  A parent commands his children as a king commands his subjects.  Any parent who has ever said “because I say so” understands the point.  In Aristotle’s view, the father and mother are partners in the governance of the family.  They both want the same thing, for the family to flourish; in accord with this aim, their relationship must be based on persuasion and consent.  The only difference between the marital relationship and a genuinely political relationship is that in the latter, the citizens are equal and rule or are ruled by turns. In Aristotle’s family, the father is the permanent ruler.  Make the marital relationship genuinely political, and you have the possibility of genuine friendship. 

I had a friend and colleague who was from Nigeria.  He once told me that he thought it was acceptable for a man to slap his wife as a way of settling a marital dispute.  I disagreed vehemently.  I think that this is just as excuse for abuse.  I could not persuade my friend of this.  Aristotle was not always right.  I still think he was ahead of my friend. 
ps.  The argument for gender equality in Plato comes from the Republic.   In Socrates' "best regime" the men and women in the warrior class will be raised and trained the same.  Socrates' interlocutors regarded this suggestion as if he had proposed that we all put on wings and fly about.  The Greek view of women was not progressive.  This may be the reason that sex in Plato is almost always about sexy men.