Thursday, July 10, 2014

Natural Right & Natural Selection

Some years ago I was presenting on a panel during some conference or another and I was asked a simple question: why bother with all this Darwin stuff?  That is more or less how I remember the question, but I don’t remember it clearly enough to name the person.  Suffice it to say that he was a prominent figure among the Western Straussians.  If you don’t recognize that term, Leo Strauss was a very influential political philosopher.  In a nutshell he argued that all political regimes are grounded in cherished opinions whereas philosophy is the attempt to opinions with knowledge of the most important things.  For that reason, philosophy is always potentially destabilizing.  That is the essential meaning of the life and death of Socrates. 
The key word there is “potentially”.  The philosopher may conclude, as result of his investigations, that the cherished opinions on which our community is based are false.  Perhaps we believe that we are the best community and our ways are best because we worship the right god: Zog.  If the philosopher concludes that Zog does not exist, this obviously undermines the laws and the regime of his community. 
On the other hand, the philosopher might come to the opposite conclusion.  There is no way to tell in advance, since philosophy is the quest for wisdom and not the possession of wisdom.  It is possible, at least, that the philosopher will more or less confirm the cherished opinions of his own people. 
If I understand the Eastern Straussians correctly, they think that the cherished opinions of all political communities are false.  Since some political communities are better than others, at least from the point of view of the philosopher, the philosopher will take some care to support them.  However, philosophy is inconsistent with any genuine, as opposed to merely strategic, patriotism. 
The Western Straussians think that at least one political community cherishes opinions that are philosophically defensible.  The founding document of the American regime, the Declaration of Independence, speaks of the laws of nature and of nature’s God.  It goes on to say that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.  This language was adopted by Thomas Jefferson from the modern philosopher John Locke, but most Western Straussians follow Harry Jaffa to defend the principles of the regime in terms of the classical natural right doctrines of Plato and Aristotle.  Human beings are, by nature, self-governing creatures, both individually and collectively.  A regime is philosophically defensible if and only if it incorporates both kinds of self-government.  It must be both democratic and liberal. 
Here I lay my cards on the table.  I am a Western Straussian.  I think that Strauss’s reading of the classical and modern political was the right one.  I also think that Jaffa is right.  I can still remember the excitement I felt when I first read The Crisis of the House Divided, where Jaffa demonstrated that Lincoln was right and Stephen Douglas was wrong about slavery.  I think that Lincoln was right to argue that the people of Kansas had a right to govern themselves but that no man had a right to govern another without his consent. 
I noticed, however, that while my fellow WS’s talked incessantly about natural right, they didn’t seem to be interested much (or to know much) about nature.  Strauss himself suggested that classical natural right seemed to depend on a teleological view of the Kosmos as a whole, but that that view seems to have been refuted by modern natural science.  That much seems to be correct.  The movements in the heavens, not to mention the physical processes on the terrestrial plane, would seem to be mechanical rather than teleological, and so provide no support for human ideas of the just and the good. 
The life sciences are another story.  If the driving forces of evolutionary history are merely mechanical, they have given rise to possesses that are genuinely teleological  If the molecules of which all living cells are composed are as lifeless as grains of sand, yet the cells are busy maintaining themselves and thus succeeding or failing.  Here is a metaphysical ground for the principles of classical natural right. 
I will close with one example.  In the Gorgias, Plato’s Socrates argues that the good is self-government.  When the better part of the self governs the less better parts, then the person governs himself.  Modern biology can tell us a lot about this.  One of the basic transitions in evolutionary history occurred when the nervous system of some animals began to bifurcate.  One part of the nervous system specialized in governing process like breathing, circulation, and digestion.  Another part was dedicated to perception and the movement of the limbs.  The latter part became the seat of sentience and, at least in human beings, of reason. 
That is the evolutionary history behind the emergence of Plato’s soul.  If the metaphysics of physics and astronomy do not support classical natural right, the metaphysics of biology may well do so.  And that is the answer to the question I was asked.  That is why we should bother with this Darwin stuff. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

From Biological to Moral Autonomy

What follows is a new section I added to my paper on the biology of autonomy.  In that paper I argue that autonomy is a platonic idea: it is a rationally coherent pattern that is key to understanding a wide range of phenomenon.  Autonomy presents whenever one individual or system begins to operate under its own laws, distinct from some other system the laws of which is its potentially or actually subject to.  Thus the individual man emancipated from his parents and free under the laws of a republic is an example of autonomy.  The first organisms, maintaining themselves by a metabolism increasingly protected against the external environment is another.  In my paper, I try to connect the two examples by showing that evolutionary history can be understood as a history of increasing autonomy.  This history does not proceed smoothly, but involves a number of emergent levels or leaps or transitions, if you will.

The section included below describes three takes on the evolution of autonomy, all of which support my account.  I would add here that this is not a reductionist account.  Higher levels of autonomy must be consistent with lower level laws but they involve new laws of their own that are not reducible to the lower levels.  At some point, increasing dimensions of autonomy allow for increasing degrees of freedom.  

From Biological to Moral Autonomy

In The Natural Selection of Autonomy, Bruce N. Waller argues that “autonomy requires open choices, alternative possibilities, viable options.”  What makes an option viable is more than the existence of alternative paths, choices, etc.  It also requires that the chooser be able to evaluate the outcomes, either before or after making them.  Waller cleverly uses the example of the white-footed mouse which will occasionally take the wrong path in a maze, even though the mouse has learned the correct path to the food.  While this seems counterproductive, in the natural environment always taking the same path may mean missing something even better than the usual reward.  If the mouse finds no food down the alternative path it will quickly revert to its learned behavior.  If it does, it will learn the new route.[1]  

Waller is making a point against the moral theory known as “deep-self compatibilism.”  Human autonomy is not about using reason to discover the true or authentic through life, but about choosing between more and less attractive outcomes.  By using the mouse as an example he indicates that this business of autonomous choosing is not unique to human beings.  Daniel Dennett presents a model of the evolution of mind as “tower of generate and test”, with each new floor of the tower built on top of existing ones[2].   

The ground floor is the home of Darwinian Creatures.  Such creatures are individually hardwired, without the capacity to change in response to their environments; however, they vary from one another and so the better adapted phenotypes will proliferate in a given environment.  So, while individuals may have little or no autonomy, the species (if we may speak of species here) can handle the evolutionary work of autonomy.  
The second floor is home to Skinnerian Creatures.  The individual Skinnerian organism carries around a repertoire of behaviors that can be tested, one after another, against changes in the environment.  The creature will stick with the response that is most successful.  Here we see the emergence of the individual “autonomy as alternatives” that Waller was talking about.  On the third floor we find Popperian Creatures which are capable of modeling the external environment internally, thus reducing some of the risks and investments involved actually trying out possible alternatives.  The model may be partially preloaded in the form of instincts (a chick’s fear of hawk-shaped shadows, etc.) and in more sophisticated creatures may be developed in response to information.  
In Dennett’s account of the evolution of mind, we see natural selection exploring the design space opened up by autonomous organisms and occasionally making quantum leaps to new levels of autonomy.   

Alvaro Moreno and Asier Lasa argue that this evolution depends upon the emergence of internal autonomy or the decoupling of various organic systems from one another.[3] 
Like Dennett, they offer us three stages (or “bifurcations on the evolution of adaptation”).  The first stage, prior to the emergence of nervous systems, involves a decoupling of the metabolism of a living system from its environment.  This is the most basic form of biological autonomy.  The second involves an internal decoupling of the nervous system from the metabolism so that the former can operate independently of the latter, according to its own rules.  This internal autonomy of the nervous systems increases the overall autonomy of the living system.  The third bifurcation involves the decoupling of the autonomic nervous system from the somatic nervous system, so that such systems as circulation and immunity change independently of sensorimotor interactions.  Moreno and Lasa argue that the evolution of mind proceeds as one dimension of the general evolution of more complex animals and that such traits as increasing size, motility, the emergence of skeletons and circulatory systems.  Autonomy may be the single most important concept in macroevolution.

If these accounts of the evolution of mind are correct, then the capacity of human beings to make autonomous choices, individually or collectively, is a result of the emergence of increasingly sophisticated dimensions of autonomy over the course of evolutionary history.  A human person can decide to run before ever she begins to run.  She can begin to run before the autonomic process that control her inner nervous system can anticipate or begin to react to her decision.  However, to understand human autonomy in its full meaning, we must recognize another decoupling or bifurcation.  Just as biological evolution advances by the increasing autonomy of systems internal to the individual organism, so the evolution of social behavior advances by an increasing autonomy between and within social groups.  So one cannot fully understand moral autonomy without coming to grips with the tension between the autonomy of the individual and the autonomy of the tribe. 

[1] Albany, State University of New York Press, 1998: 7. 
[2] Kinds of Minds: Toward and Understanding of Consciousness, New York, Basic Books 1996: 83-90.
[3] “From Basic Adaptivity to Early Mind: The Origin and Evolution of Cognitive Capacities” in Evolution and Cognition (2003) vol. 9, no. 1: 12-24.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Autonomy & the Souls of Organisms

Here is another part of my paper, to be delivered at the annual meeting of the International Political Science Association this July in Montreal. 

Autonomy & the Soul of Organisms

The question “what is a living organism?” does not belong to biology, strictly speaking, at least according to Aristotle.  Though he used the term physics to indicate the subject matter of biology, he argued that this science assumes a common sense understanding of plants and animals: things that come to be and change from an internal source of motion.  To ask what is life comes later, with metaphysics.  We could scarcely ever address the question if we did not know, in some sense, that there were such things as live, grow, and move.  In On the Soul, he argues that the soul (psyche) is what distinguishes living organisms and the soul is the actuality of life in a body with the potential for life.  This distinction between the body as potentiality and the soul as actuality is right on the mark, for it recognizes the astonishing difference between living and nonliving things. 
In a magnificent paper, Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo and Alvaro Moreno point out just how astonishing this is:

Almost nobody will nowadays dispute that: (i) living systems are organized in a radically different way than nonliving systems and (ii) living systems change in time in a radically different way than nonliving systems.  

 In what, exactly, does this radical difference consist?  Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno begin with the concept of individuality.  While all organisms exist within and depend upon “a global network of similar systems,” this does not blur “the key role of individuality.” 

Without a strong idea of individual metabolic organization, it would be very difficult to provide a naturalized account of concepts like functionality, agency, unit of selection, etc., or to make a clear-cut distinction between organisms and other forms of cooperative or “ecological” networks. 

In other words, we must begin, as Aristotle recognized, with the individual organism as it presents itself to common sense.  A living organism is an individual.  Its existence is marked by “preferential partitions,” including especially a boundary between inside and outside, self and not-self.  For a rock, the distinction between inside and outside is a mere matter of a change in molecular density.  For a rock lobster, the difference between inside and outside is a matter of a defended border. 
To defend the word “defended” in that last sentence, allow me a simple joke.  A fellow was trying to discourage his parrot from using profanity.  When it continued to swear despite his admonitions, he put it in the freezer for ten minutes.  When he took the shivering bird out, it exclaimed: “what the Hell did the turkey do?”  The difference between the live parrot and the dead turkey is that the one shivers and the other does not.  To shiver is to try to resist the local environment for the sake of maintaining oneself. 
That tendency toward resistance is what Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno mean by “autonomy”. 

We mean the property of a system that builds and actively maintains the rules that define itself, as well as the way it behaves in the world.  So autonomy covers the main properties shown by any living system at the individual level: (i) self-construction (i.e., the fact that life is continuously building, through cellular metabolisms, the components which are directly responsible for its behavior) and (ii) functional action on and through the environment (i.e., the fact that organisms are agents, because they necessarily modify their boundary conditions in order to ensure their own maintenance as far from equilibrium, dissipative systems). 

What is key here is that autonomy means the establishment of a new set of regulations within the existing ones laid down by the environment.  The organism cannot violate any physical laws; however, it can successfully beat the odds set by the house. 

Apart from a particularly cohesive organization, organisms display a particularly marked impulse or urge to persist in their state of being (Spinoza’s conatus).  It is, therefore, important to understand life at that individual level, and analyze carefully the implications of the emergence in the natural world of systems with that capacity to act for their own benefit, to constitute identities that distinguish themselves from the environment. 

The living organism is an autonomous individual with an agenda of its own.  The slime mold amoeba slouching toward a fruiting body has decided not to accept the script imposed by a bit of decaying log that no longer offers enough sustenance.  The spider crawling across the basement wall is up to something. 
None of this means that the simplest organisms are self-aware or even conscious at all.  It seems very unlikely that a creature without a nervous system, let alone a brain, knows what it is up to.  That it is in fact up to something, that it is trying to maintain itself, that it can succeed and flourish or fail and decay, means that the logic of autonomous agency appears well before the emergence of sentient animals.  It is a Platonic idea, implicit in inorganic matter and expressed in the emergence of life on earth. 
I think that Ruiz-Mirazo and Moreno need not have worried that autonomy was “too heavy a word to be part of a definition of life.” 

Originally used in the context of law and sociology (in the sense of self-government, from the Greek polis) or human cognition and rationality (in the sense of a cognitive agent that acts according to rationally self-generated rules, cf. Kant), for many it will sound like a high-level concept, with too many non-strictly-biological connotations.  Broadly speaking, autonomy is understood as the capacity to act according to self-determined principles. 

To argue that applying the term autonomy to simple organisms is anthropomorphic gets the cart before the horse.  Human beings may be more than animals but they are at least animals.  Whatever is special about the human being, it isn’t the capacity for autonomous agency.