Thursday, December 27, 2012
In Chapter 4, Section 6 of Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel adds a fourth kind of explanation for the existence of organisms, consciousness, reason, and value. The first three I have considered in previous posts: chance, non-intentional biasing, and intentional biasing.
Nagel considers all three to be inadequate. He accepts the apparent consensus that the appearance of the original, proto-biological self-replicators cannot be explained by random processes. He accepts Robert White’s argument that non-intentional biasing is not indicated because, while it can explain non-random patterns, it cannot explain a bias “towards the marvelous.” This is to say that non-intentional biasing is no more likely to produce creatures or traits of creatures that look designed than mere chance. Finally, he rejects intentional biasing in large part because he is an atheist.
So what is left? Nagel proposes a naturalistic teleology
that is distinct from all three of the other candidate explanations: chance, creationism, and directionless physical law.
What does a “naturalistic teleology” mean? When we try to understand any natural event, we look for ways in which the initial state of the system limits subsequent states. A beaker of water can be frozen or heated to a boil, but not transformed into gold. Lava under the earth can produce a volcano, but not Godzilla.
Given any initial state of a system, some subsequent states are more likely than others. It is rare, but not unprecedented, for mammalian evolution to move toward the development of wings and flight. Some mammals returned to the sea and began to look a lot like fish; however, they did not develop gills. This is what Daniel Dennett meant when he talked about “design space”. At any point in the history of life on earth, a range of future organisms is possible. As environments change, evolution will explore the possibilities in design space. A population of lizards may change color to blend in better with new local vegetation, but the lizards will not acquire the power of genuine invisibility.
Nagel proposes that the laws of physics underlying the appearance of life are biased towards “the formation of more complex systems”.
Teleological laws would assign higher probability to steps on paths in state space that have a higher velocity toward certain outcomes.
In other words, there is something in inorganic matter that is biased toward the development of something like human beings. It smoothed the path toward the appearance of the Ur-replicators, and then toward the development of genuine organisms. It has operated in evolution up to the appearance of philosophers.
All I would add at this point is that Nagel has become an Aristotelian, if not a Platonist. The Socratics clearly believed in an embedded teleology. It is not, or not so much, that some God intervenes to govern the course of organic development. It is that mind is already present in the forces that mold living things.
That is a shockingly bold proposal. How it can be maintained and/or squared with a scientific scheme seems to me to be a challenging question. I don’t know if we can make sense of such an embedded teleology without a divine intention biasing the cosmos; however, if we forget about that question for a moment, this is a plausible picture of the history of life on earth.
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Here is a philosophical question appropriate to the season: was Scrooge A (pre-Christmas spirit Scrooge) a man of modern virtue? Modern virtue is here defined in the Machiavellian sense of effective virtue, that is, a set of habits that is efficiently productive. The answer, within the confines of that definition, is obviously yes. This is largely the conclusion of Stephen Lansburg's defense of Scrooge A in Slate. Scrooge A was about as efficiently productive as it is possible for a human being to be, as least when it comes to cold, hard, cash.
Dickens's Christmas Carol is one of the most powerful short stories ever composed. This is due in large part to his sublimation of Christianity. The story is, to be sure, full of ghosts; but, apart from the word Christmas itself, I think there is not the slightest mention of the Holy Ghost. Dickens writes as if he were trying to smuggle the Gospel onto the courthouse grounds under the watchful eyes of our contemporary Supreme Court. This has the paradoxical effect of making the Christian message of redemption all the more compelling.
A second aspect of its perfection lies in the marvelous splitting of time into past, present, and future spirits. All three ghosts are, of course, one and the same ghost: Christmas itself, a religious festival incarnate (or almost incarnate, the ghosts remaining a bit vaporous if no less visible and powerful for that). But Christmas appears differently from the three temporal points of view, thus grounding itself in the most basic existential fact of human life. The past and present are history. Only the future may be redeemed.
Last, but not least, Dickens shows the fatal flaw in modern virtue without rejecting modern virtue. Anyone can see that there is something desperately wrong with the way that Scrooge A lives. Sipping warmed up broth in his cold chambers, without the comforts of love, friends, or family, what is the point of being rich? On the other hand, it is precisely the efficiency of Scrooge A that makes his transformation so wonderful. After all, Scrooge B can afford to send the Cratchits a gargantuan turkey. He can afford to redeem his sister's love by changing his nephew Fred's circumstances. And he can afford to save poor Tim. It is worth mentioning that he can also afford to make his place of business and his home a good deal more comfortable.
I have heard it said that Dickens more or less revived and profoundly shaped our later celebration of Christmas. It is certainly part of an interesting shift in the Christian calendar. The most important Christian festival ought to be Easter, for Christ's resurrection constitutes the essential promise of the Gospel: as Christ walked out of the tomb, those who believe in Him may do likewise. But Christmas has overshadowed Easter, even among the most pious Christians in the modern world. Because of Scrooge A-like modern virtue, we can afford to be very generous when a Scrooge B-like mood hits us. And say what you want about the evils of capitalism, it has done more to warm the hearths of the poor than dropping alms into collection plates ever did. The Tiny Tims of the developed world have been saved by the power and prosperity of modern civilization. But A Christmas Carol is not about their salvation. It is about Scrooge's salvation.
I have seen a lot of versions of A Christmas Carol, and I like many of them. My favorite is the version starring Patrick Stewart. No one has presented the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed Scrooge so well. When he finds himself alive on Christmas morning, he suddenly seems to strangle and cough. He is trying to laugh, for the first time in so long that he has to remember how to do it. It also adds a scene in which Scrooge attends a Christmas morning church service. He is so unaccustomed to the venue that he has to be reminded twice to take off his top hat. As he squeezes into a pew, he tries to sing but doesn't know the words. The man next to him kindly shares his hymnal. When he shows up, very unexpected, at Fred's for Christmas dinner, he knows that the person who has to accept him is not Fred but Fred's wife. He says to her: "can you forgive a stupid old man who doesn't want to be left out in the cold any more." I tear up just typing those words.
All this reminds us that modern virtue, for all its power, would be a very poor thing without Christian virtue. Merry Christmas.
Friday, December 21, 2012
I will deliver a paper this spring at the Southwestern Political Science Association meeting in New Orleans. My topic is the evolution of virtue. I was trained in political philosophy at Claremont Graduate School. My teachers were Harry Jaffa, Bill Allen, and Harry Neumann among others. Claremont, when I was there, was home to a hotbed of Straussians.
Most Straussians are very resistant to Darwinian explanations. They suppose that Darwinian thought is rigidly reductionist in a greedy sense, which is to say that it reduces the high to the low. All things that are apparently noble and free are in reality base and mechanically determined. Like my friend Larry Arnhart, I disagree.
Classical virtue is prominent in the political thought of both Plato and Aristotle. Virtuous actions are noble and nobility is defined in contrast to the vulgar. Recently, virtue has enjoyed something a renaissance under the heading of “virtue ethics”. Is it possible to deploy Darwinian explanations of the evolution of virtue without denying the nobility of the virtues? I think that it is possible. Here I will lay out the classical view.
What is virtue? Our word is built on the Latin term which indicated manliness. The Greek term was areté. This word is most clearly translated into English as “excellence”. Whenever something can exist in states that are recognized as better or worse or perform an action in a way that is better or worse, the best state or performance can be called excellent. A pasture that is best for horses and a horse that is best at running or some other task might both be described as possessing areté. The better and the worse are defined according to some concept of the good.
What is the good? The good is the choice worthy. If I choose something to eat or someone to be friends with or decide to take some action, it is because I judge all these to be worthy of choosing. The good in them is what makes them worthy of choice. Aristotle said in the Nicomachean Ethics that everyone does everything for the sake of what is good.
Both Plato and Aristotle divided the good things into three categories: things that are good in themselves (pleasure and happiness); things that good merely because they are instrumental in securing the former (paying bills or taking unpleasant medicines); and things which are both (an act which is satisfying to two lovers and productive of the children that they want).
Areté does not mean simply being in the condition that makes something choice worthy. It implies a power to produce or to assume that condition. Thus a virtuous horse possesses inherent speed, stamina, etc., which make it good at running or pulling or whatever. A virtuous man is inherently loyal, honest, and whatever else is good in a friend or fellow citizen.
It would be a mistake to define virtue in direct relation to the good. The finest horse might not win the race if an unfortunate accident occurs. The best person may come to ruin or bring his friends to ruin for the same reason. Accordingly, virtue must be defined in direct relation not to the good but to the beautiful.
What is the beautiful? According to the classical philosophers, the beautiful is that which tends toward the good. The beautiful horse is the horse that deserves to win the race because it is strongest and fastest. The beautiful man deserves success and the beautiful deed ought to have the best outcome because both are inherently oriented toward the good. The beautiful body may be hit by a truck, but that possibility does not detract from its beauty.
What then is virtue? To focus on the most important case, it is a power in human beings that is productive of beautiful actions. The virtuous woman or man is someone whose character makes it likely that she or he will do the best thing in every situation. Because of the role of chance, virtue may or may not achieve the best outcome. However, it is always choice worthy in this one respect: it inspires admiration.
Can we understand the evolutionary origins of the beautiful and good without diminishing that admiration? I think that we can.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Roger White distinguishes three types of phenomena, illustrated by “pebble patterns.”
The Chancy Explanation: Pebbles scattered randomly on a sidewalk require no other explanation than chance.
Unintentional Biasing: Pebbles arranged in order of diminishing size as they a near the shoreline.
Intentional Biasing: Pebbles arranged in the shape of a fish (without legs).
I altered the last one in a way that I hope will be amusing. According to White, all but a few of those who write with expertise on the problem of the origin of life believe this phenomenon must fall into the second category. Some natural forces must bias the Kosmos toward the emergence of life, just as the tides bias the pebbles toward a coherent pattern.
The third explanation is ruled out as unscientific. The first is ruled out because it is wildly implausible that the conditions upon which the emergence of self-replicators depends should have come about, in the time allotted, merely by chance. Unintentional biasing must therefore be true by default.
White argues that the reason that the origin of life is not at all like the unintentional biasing of pebbles by size on the beach.
The numerous steps required for life to exist are quite unlike this. It is not a matter of the same event-type or property being instantiated many times without exception. The conditions required for the emergence of life have little at all in common.
Adding a bit to what White says, the emergence of life on earth seems to have been a single event (however long it took), not a repeated pattern.
Why then are most scientists so reluctant to allow too much chance into their accounts of life’s emergence? I will offer a speculative diagnosis. The conviction that life couldn’t have arisen by chance is typically a gut reaction to the data, not a conclusion arrived at on the basis of a theory about when it is plausible to ascribe something to the work of chance.
What makes this event seem so implausible to so many is that it seems to suggest unmistakable evidence of design.
Again adding to White, I would contrast the origin of life problem with the problem that Darwin addressed. Why do so many different organisms exist, all of them more or less well adapted to their respective ecological niches? That is a pattern that is persistent historically and geographically. Natural selection then can be seen as the unintentional biasing mechanism analogous to the motion of water acting on the pebbles.
Interestingly, unintentional biasing would be a much more likely explanation for the origin of self-replicators if Aristotle had been right about spontaneous generation. If the emergence of living organisms from non-living matter under predictable conditions were a persistent feature of nature, as Aristotle, for understandable reasons, believed that it was, then unintentional biasing toward the emergence of life would be very likely indeed. Of course, this is not the case.
White makes a strong case that unintentional biasing in nature is not a well-grounded explanation for the origin of life. That leaves chance and intentional (or intelligent) design. I would suggest, however, that his dismissal of the gut reactions of so many scientists is premature. To use one of his analogies, if a tornado picked up a pile of spare parts and assembled it into a working 747 airliner, no one would interpret this was the work of mere chance. If even the simplest molecular self-replicators as well-designed as the airplane (which may be the case) and unintentional biasing is not a plausible interpretation of the former, then…
I am not making an argument for intelligent design here. I am not particularly interested in it only because I don’t know what to do with it when thinking philosophically and scientifically about the phenomenon of life. I do think that White’s argument could be turned almost as easily (perhaps just as easily) into an argument for intelligent design as for the origin of life by chance. That fact may tell us something about the phenomenon. If so, it would be unscientific to ignore it.