Saturday, March 14, 2015

Science & Politics



It is generally assumed that religion is a cause of political conflict.  That assumption is wrong.  Politics is the cause of political conflict.  Religious controversies drive politically controversies only when theological doctrine and religious practices become part of the self-identification of some political faction and/or, more importantly, when some faction comes to regard certain doctrines or practices as definitive of its enemies.  
Much the same thing is true when we consider the politicization of science.  The political left in the United States often accuses the right of being “anti-science” and the left is right, if you mean that conservative political views often determine what scientific evidence a conservative is willing to accept.  However, according to Erik C. Nisbet and R. Kelly Garrett.  They conducted a recent study of how political bias leads conservatives and liberals to distrust science.  The study is published in the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and they summarize their findings in The New Republic. 
Nisbet and Garrett found that “Conservatives are no more biased about science than liberals are,” to cite the title of the TNR piece.  The authors consider two explanations for the ideological divide between conservatives and liberals over scientific issues. 
The first explanation assumes that conservatives are inherently anti-science as they tend to be more dogmatic and close-minded compared to liberals. They are therefore more “motivated” to reject scientific information that clashes with their world view and distrust its sources (in other words, scientists).
In contrast, the second thesis argues that though there are some nuanced psychological differences between liberals and conservatives, it would be a mistake to overstate them. Liberals are viewed as no less likely to respond to scientific information in biased manner than conservatives.
For instance, liberals and conservatives are equally likely to reject fact-checking messages that contradict misperceptions or believe in false political rumors about candidates they oppose.
I am inclined to accept the second explanation, whether because of brain design or because it happens to confirm my thesis, stated above.  
Unsurprisingly, we found that conservatives who read statements about climate or evolution had a stronger negative emotional experience and reported greater motivated resistance to the information as compared to liberals who read the same statements and other conservatives who read statements about geology or astronomy.
This in turn lead these conservatives to report significantly lower trust in the scientific community as compared to liberals who read the same statement or conservatives who read statements about ideologically neutral science.
Significantly, we found a similar pattern amongst liberals who read statements about nuclear power or fracking. And like conservatives who read statements about climate change or evolution, they expressed significantly lower levels of trust in the scientific community as compared to liberals who read the ideologically-neutral statements.
Biased attitudes toward scientific information and trust in the scientific community were evident among liberals and conservatives alike, and these biases varied depending on the science topic being considered.
As is the case for religious ideas, some scientific ideas are politically significant and some are not.  The former are those around which genuine political factions coalesce. 
There is probably no way to remedy this.  Religious wars in the West were ended not so much by deciding that religion was politically irrelevant as by a collective decision that politics was religiously irrelevant.  We discovered that we are not such fools as to believe that God needs us to save Him.  It will be harder to work that same strategy for science and politics.  Evolution is the right theory or not, regardless of whether a school board in Texas likes it.  Deciding what to do about climate change requires a lot of judgment calls on scientific questions and those calls must be made in political, not scholarly forums. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Platonic Biology



Theodosius Dhobzhansky famously wrote that “nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.”  I gather that Dhobzhansky, an Orthodox Christian, was arguing against creation scientists and other critics of Darwinian Theory.  I agree with him and will add one more step.  Nothing in Darwinian Theory makes sense except in light of Plato. 
Plato’s Socrates more famously advanced a theory of forms or ideas as a way of making sense of human perception and intelligence.  In a nutshell, the theory goes as follows.  When we perceive a physical object, say a tree, our perception only captures one possible perspective on that object.  Thus the tree looks small from a distance and large up close.  Likewise we see only one side of it at a time.  It is our intelligence, not our perceptions, that informs us that the tree is one object that has not changed as we approach it and circle around it.  That one tree is in fact invisible to the eye and visible only to the intelligence. 
We also notice that the tree itself does seem to change over time‑gray and leafless in November but green and flourishing in June.  Yet it is still this same tree: an object that is one thing and another as it extends across the dimension of time.  Likewise, we recognize this tree and another tree as one and the same kind of thing because our intelligence informs us of a pattern that is more persistent that any individual tree.  Plato (or his Socrates) supposed that the pattern was more real than the example because it was more persistent and more knowable. 
Plato’s many critics as well as his misguided disciples (Neoplatonists, for example) neglected to notice that Socrates usually qualified his speculations by saying that it is only “something like this”.  I think that it is indeed something like this and that a qualified but genuinely Platonic approach is necessary to make sense of Darwinian biology. 
I am working on revising a paper I presented last year in Montreal.  You can see critical comments on the paper by Scott James here and my reply to those excellent comments here.  Some sections of the paper and my argument can be found here, here, and here. 
In this post, I will present some examples of Darwinian ideas that are in fact Platonic ideas.  To begin with, consider this argument: if it’s a mammal, then it’s an animal; it’s a mammal, therefore it’s an animal.  That simple, biological modus ponens recognizes this here organism as an expression of a larger object that extends across time and space.  Individual mice and men come to be in dependence on larger forms that are more persistent across evolutionary time and more pervasive across evolutionary niches at any one time.  That is “something like” what Socrates had in mind. 
Evolutionary theory works exactly the same way that Plato’s theory worked: by recognizing that the caterpillar and the butterfly as well as the butterfly and the moth are, in a very real sense, the same things.  What is real is mostly invisible to the eye but visible indeed to the properly educated intelligence. 
To take another example, natural selection is a robust, Platonic idea.  Although we have no Platonic writings about mathematics, he clearly thought that training in math was essential for philosophy and regarded mathematical concepts as among the most important ideas.  Natural selection is a logical rather than strictly mathematical principle, but it works the same way as such explicit Platonic ideas as justice and the good.  Natural selection is the same thing whether it is shaping pathogens or pacifists, liver cells or lush barflies. 
I will close here with one final example: the pied flycatcher.  The male of this avian species attracts females with the implicit promise he will help provide for her and her young once they are hatched.  He often makes the same promise to a second female, but there is only some much time he can invest and the second female will find that she is cheated.  The female that he supports will spend more time warming eggs and chicks with a payoff of four or five healthy progeny.  The cheated female will be lucky if one or two survive.  The logic of fidelity and adultery are the same whether we are talking about avians or apes.  I am not sure whether Plato would be pleased to admit adultery among the ideas, but this Platonist has no problem. 
In my paper, I argue that political autonomy is another expression of biological autonomy.  All living organisms build walls between inside and outside, self and not-self, and maintain what is inside in resistance against what is outside.  Life is a Russian doll of coalitions, cells in organs, organs in bodies, individuals in tribes.  At every level, the Platonic idea of autonomy is expressed. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Contra Egoism

I have been thinking a lot about altruism over the last few years: its nature, evolutionary origins, and relationship to classical virtue in particular.  I turn here to consider the null hypothesis regarding altruism.  Egoism holds that there is no such thing as genuine altruism.  It strikes me that there are three obvious versions of egoism (there may be more) and that all of them are interesting and wrong. 
The most naïve of the three we may call impulse egoism.  According to this version of egoism, human beings are only moved to act by sensations and emotions, either pleasant or painful.  When we feel pleasure, we are moved to act in order to keep the pleasure coming and when we feel pain we act to eliminate the pain.  So I keep eating as long as I enjoy eating and drop a hot object when it burns my hand.  Likewise, if I act altruistically, say to rescue a child from some danger or pain, it is only because the sight of the child in distress causes me pain.  This view is hardly absurd.  We often do act under such impulses, even in cases where we act altruistically. 
It is naïve and wrong because I am just as obviously capable choosing courses of action which cause myself more pain or cost me more pleasure in the short run than were otherwise available at the moment.  If I sit quietly while the dentist pushes a needle into my gums, I am feeling pain right then in order to avoid pain that I am not and do not wish to experience in the future.  The naïve egoist might plead that I am acting out of an impulse of fear over future pain, but that clearly won’t do.  I am much more likely to be more afraid of what is just about to happen to me than what might happen later.  I get up to attend to my infant daughter even though all I am feeling right then is the agony of interrupted sleep and perhaps no small measure of irritation. 
The second version of egoism we may call motive egoism.  It acknowledges that we often act contrary to the impulses of pain and pleasure but insists that we always do so from selfish motives.  If I go to the dentist now it is to avoid pain that I might experience in the future.  If I act altruistically by tending to the hungry infant, it is not for the infant’s sake but to avoid the emotional pain that I anticipate I will feel if and when something bad happens to the infant.  The problem with this view is that it gets Descartes before de horse.  I tend to the infant or help out a friend because I genuinely care about the one and the other.  The pleasure that I will feel when my loved ones flourish is a consequence not the cause of my acting according to altruistic motives. 
It may be that the pleasures I feel when I benefit others are part of the process whereby altruistic motives are strengthened in my psychology.  Evolved inclinations toward altruism are responsive to experience because that makes them more flexible and adaptive.  Just as the absence of love may damage an infant’s psychology in more or less permanent ways, so our natural inclination toward altruism can be unlearned.  Nonetheless, in a health person altruistic motives are quite genuine.  It were simpler for evolution to design a creature that acts out of such motives and then is rewarded for it by emotional satisfaction than to design a creature that must calculate its own selfish interests in advance of every altruistic act. 
The third version of egoism we might call rational egoism.  This is the view that we should act selfishly.  The only rational motive for my actions is my benefit.  If I act to benefit others, even at my own short term expense, it can only be a rational action if it benefits me in some long range bottom line way.  Once again, I think that this gets it backwards.  I like fine wine and a properly cooked leg of lamb because these things please my palate.  There are all sorts of evolutionary explanations for these appetites, but the pleasure follows from the objects of my appetites and not the appetites from the pleasures.  If I like protein and fat and sugar, etc., it is because such appetites promoted the interests of my ancestor’s genetic success and make it more likely that I will leave offspring to pass on my genes.  What happens to my distant progeny will not benefit me, but I care about it nonetheless. 
The fact of the matter is that I do care about my family and my friends and my Republic.  I may care about them enough to sacrifice myself for the one or the other, though there is no way to tell until the moment of truth.  If caring about others in that way is part of the most satisfying human life, and I think that it is so, then it is simply wrong to say that I should act selfishly. 

Human beings are capable of acting from deliberation and not merely from impulses of pain and pleasure.  We are capable of caring as much or more about others than we do about ourselves.  The best human life is a life lived not only for selfish ends but also for the sake of other people.  Egoism says nothing much that is useful to say, except as a series of illuminating errors.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Larry Arnhart's Biopolitical Philosophy

In the essay “On Classical Political Philosophy?” Leo Strauss distinguished between the definite activities of the political philosopher, the legislator, and the statesman, in the following way. 
“Political science” as the skill of the excellent politician or statesman consists in the right handling of individual situations; its immediate “products” are commands or decrees or advices effectively expressed, which are intended to cope with the individual case.  Political life knows, however, a still higher kind of political understanding, which is concerned not with individual cases but, as regards each relevant subject, with all cases, and whose immediate “products”‑laws and institutions‑are meant to be permanent...
Every legislator is primarily concerned with the individual community for which he legislates, but he has to raise certain questions which regard all legislation.  These most fundamental and most universal political questions are naturally fit to be made the subject of the most “architectonic,” the truly “architectonic” political knowledge: of that political science which is the goal of the political philosopher. 
I still remember the wonder with which I first encountered this progression from the immediate, to the long term, to the universal.  It came to mind when I read the following conclusion to Larry Arnhart’s essay: “The Grandeur of Biopolitical Science.” 
Biopolitical science would thus explain politics as the joint product of natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual judgments. The natural propensities as shaped in the genetic evolution of political animals constrain but do not determine the cultural traditions of politics. These natural propensities and cultural traditions constrain but do not determine the practical judgments of political actors about what should be done in particular cases, as in Lincoln’s decision about the Emancipation Proclamation. 
To explain this complex interaction of nature, culture, and judgment, biopolitical science would draw knowledge from all fields of traditional political science and from intellectual disciplines across the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.
There is grandeur in this view of political life, as originating through the laws of nature for the emergence of irreducibly complex wholes from the cooperation of simple parts, so that, from ants and bees to chimps and humans, endless forms of political order most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
The emphasis is mine.  This essay comes from the June 2013 issue of Perspectives on Politics.  It is one of a series of responses to John R. Hibbing’s article: “Ten Misconceptions Concerning Neurobiology and Politics.” 
The emphasized words constitute one of the most concise and powerful arguments for biopolitical science and, one may go farther here, biopolitical philosophy.  This is evident in the comparison between Strauss’s political philosophy, legislation and statesmanship, and Arnhart’s “natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual judgments.”  The objects of political philosophy are the political things in the broadest possible sense: those that do not change or change the least with place and time.  Culture traditions are the products of more or less conscious legislation, as the Greek word nomoi indicates.  Finally, statesmanship is only a special case of individual action, which every citizen necessary participates in. 
The point in Arnhart’s statement is that while nature constrains both culture and individual action, it leaves open a space within which both communities and individuals are able to move, innovate, and make deliberate choices.  That addresses one of the most common objections to biopolitical science: that it amounts to determinism. 
I would add three points here.  One is that nature constrains culture and individual action in two ways.  One is that it limits what is possible.  Someone who believes that she can survive without consuming physical nutrients is mistaken, and no amount of faith or spiritual awareness will supply this limitation. 
Another way that nature constrains the human action is that it limits what is desirable.  It is possible for a person to live the solitary life of a hermit, since hermits occasionally do it; however, human beings being social animals, such a life will never be desirable for most of us. 
The second point is that nature constrains individuals in two ways that can, for some purposes, be distinguished.  Human beings are mammals and mammalian nature is a broad universal.  Individual human beings are also individuals and individuals vary not only by environment but also by biological inheritance.  John Hibbing’s work presents powerful evidence for the inheritance of a wide range of character traits that were, not long ago, assumed to be entirely acquired. 
My last point is that causation works both ways.  Christopher Boehm argues (Cross-Cultural Research, November 2008, 319-352) that
Purposive social selection at the level of phenotype can have parallel effects at the level of the genotype, and that social control has shaped human genetic nature profoundly.
In other words, human cultures, operating within that free space that our natural propensities allow, can bring selection pressure to bear that is sufficient to change those natural propensities.  Boehm begins by reference to the fact that Serbian mountain pastoralists are the tallest “Caucasians” in the world.  He argues that this is in part because of a cultural preference for taller women.  This example, if it holds up, suggests that more or less conscious social selection (the Serbs presumably didn’t know they were breeding for stature) can act relatively quickly.

Boehm’s central target is the evolution of human morality.  He thinks that our capacity for altruism and (my terms) our pallet of moral emotions are the result of selection pressure that originated in the free action of individuals, living in small groups, and over time acting more and more collectively.  I think he is right.