Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Bonobo & the Atheist by Frans de Waal

On my way back from New Orleans, I picked up Frans de Waal’s new book: The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.  Anyone who is familiar with de Waal’s work will anticipate the thesis.  The building blocks of human morality are older than humanity and are observed, at least in primitive forms in other animals.
I read the first chapter on the plane.  I note only a couple of very interesting things that show up there.  One is the fact that chimpanzees are as good as we are at facial recognition and even at recognizing which individuals are related to one another.  Keeping track of which individual is which is an indispensable requirement for morality even if it does not indicate some level of moral consciousness. 
He also has some fascinating comments about bonobos.  These apes, near relatives of ourselves and the chimpanzees, have achieved a level of harmony and reduced violence that shames both man and chimp.  The secret to their success seems to be female coalitions, cemented by homosexual engagement.  The primary function of these coalitions seems to be to protect their sons against aggression by other males. 
Frans de Waal says that zoos keeping populations of bonobos originally made a disastrous mistake.  They would exchange males between colonies, the opposite of what happens in the wild.  In the wild, males stay in their native groups while females occasionally move to new groups.  A male bonobo moved from one zoo to another arrives with no mother or other female relatives to protect him.  Such an individual is often the victim of male aggression and has to be isolated for his own survival. 
What this tells us, as de Waal puts it, is that bonobos are not “angels of peace.”  All the aggressive instincts that characterize men and chimpanzees are still there in bonobos.  The bonobos are not more peaceful because they lack violent instincts but because they have evolved a system of managing those instincts.  That is interesting. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Physical Reductionism, Greedy & Generous

I return here to the topic of a previous post: two distinct types of reductionism.  Critics of evolutionary ethics frequently argue that the latter involves both types of reductionism without often distinguishing them.  Here is Andrew Ferguson arguing in defense of Thomas Nagel’s book (see previous posts on this book), in the Weekly Standard:
Naturalism is also called “materialism,” the view that only matter exists; or “reductionism,” the view that all life, from tables to daydreams, is ultimately reducible to pure physics; or “determinism,” the view that every phenomenon, including our own actions, is determined by a preexisting cause, which was itself determined by another cause, and so on back to the Big Bang. The naturalistic project has been greatly aided by neo-Darwinism, the application of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to human behavior, including areas of life once assumed to be nonmaterial: emotions and thoughts and habits and perceptions.
Ferguson squeezes a lot of “isms” very tightly together when in fact they need to be moved apart.  I don’t doubt his view that many modern Darwinists fancy themselves to be materialists and determinists.  However, while they may all or mostly be the latter, very few are really the former.  A genuine materialist would have to believe that life is dependent upon soul particles and heat upon particles of phlogiston.  Does anyone believe that anymore?  Today “materialism” generally means only that one does not believe in substance dualism. 
I would argue at any rate that physical reductionism is tenable in modern science or indeed any science in one sense but not in another.  Consider this analogy: when you are watching a DVD, what are you seeing?  It looks as though you are watching and listening to human beings interacting with one another.  In fact, you are watching an image produced by pixels on a screen.  They human beings you seem to be watching are not really there.  The motives and emotions they seem to present are fictions.  Even the actors themselves may be dead and gone.  Only the pixels are real. 
Greedy reductionism would attempt to reduce all phenomena to the motion of molecules in the radical sense that only the particles are real; the larger realm of human beings and human action would not really exist anymore than the faces on TV.  This kind of reductionism is held by some theorists, as in the theory of eliminative materialism.  According to the latter, mental states are fictions just as phlogiston was a fiction; only physical brain states are real.  This view is radical and has not seemed plausible to very many philosophers or scientists. 
A second kind of reductionism (let us call it generous reductionism) argues only that all phenomena including human beings and their minds, subsist in matter and can, for some purposes of analysis, be reduced to the level of molecules.  To see what this means, let us take the example of a baseball moving through the air from the pitcher’s mound toward home plate.  I think that even the most romantic baseball fan (I am such a fan) will concede that the ball consists entirely of molecules.  There is no immaterial spirit, malevolent or otherwise, in the ball (however much a superstitious batter might think otherwise).  Reducing the ball to the molecular level for analysis may tell us something interesting about the object: why it weighs what it does and how it interacts with the flow of air.  Such reduction, however, tells us very little about the physics of the pitch.  The ball would behave very differently if the very same constituents were arranged in the form of a cube and rolled rather than pitched.  I could hit that. 
To understand the pitch, one has to ignore the molecular level and consider the ball as a much larger whole, thrown by a human arm, moving through the air.  Anyone trying to analyze the ball as a cloud of molecules would have to come around to viewing that cloud in the same way that a fan views it and his molecular-eye view would be mere baggage. 
If the flight of a lively ball is irreducible to the molecular level, so much more is the action of lively human beings.  The ball as an intact physical object, the pitcher and the batter and the fans, are all entirely real and are irreducible to their molecular components.  So also with evolutionary theory.  While genes may be no more than complex molecules, their phenotypical vehicles are robustly real and the subsistence of the former over long periods of time cannot be explained by chemical analysis.  To understand why I share genes with a very wide range of organisms, I must consider the sturm und drang of fully expressed organisms competing and proliferating on land, sea, and air.  Biology is legitimately subject to generous reductionism, but not to greedy reductionism. 
I suppose, then that modern materialism, naturalism, and reductionism pose no threat to the common sense understanding of human beings and their actions.  Our brains, like our bodies, are made up of organs; the organs of cells; the cells of complex molecules and those in turn of simpler molecules and atoms.  I hold, with Aristotle, that all form is the form of something and that moving down the chain of suborganization leads to material constituents.  Likewise, Aristotle and I suppose that form is irreducible to material and must be understood in all its robust complexity. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Utility & Beauty of Virtue

Long time reader and very dear friend Miranda left a comment on earlier post and I thought it deserves a prominent response.  As usual, Miranda poses such penetrating questions that only a rash and presumptuous man would attempt to answer them.  Here are her questions with my answers. 
First, you write, "Virtuous actions are those mostly likely to be provisional in the sense that they are the actions most likely, in most situations, to achieve the best outcome. The virtuous person will be best able to achieve the best human life. She will provide for herself, her family and friends, and her polis."
I would like this to be true - but is it? If so, how do we know? Many of the people in society who seem to be able to best provide for their families, friends and cities do not seem particularly virtuous - unless the version of morality you are writing about is Machiavelli's.
There is actually a great deal of literature on this question in evolutionary science.  It appears that communities of human beings in which there are a lot of virtuous persons (= honest cooperators, willing to subordinate or even sacrifice their own interests for those of their fellows) do much better than communities in which such virtues are rare. 
It is true that in a generally honest community, a con artist will sometimes do very well precisely by exploiting the appearance of virtue.  On the whole, however, it seems clear that virtuous persons do better than less virtuous ones and partnerships between virtuous persons do better still. 
As for Machiavelli, he rehabilitated Callicles’ view from Plato’s Gorgias.  True virtue and vulgar virtue are quite distinct.  The truly virtuous man must appear virtuous in the vulgar sense (honest, trustworthy, generous, etc.) but must be the opposite when circumstances require it.  The person able to do that is truly admirable but can only be admired by the truly discriminating view (i.e., Machiavelli).  This view results from his fundamental disagreement with the ancients.  Machiavelli thought that all law and order was the result of an original act of ruthless power in resistance to nature.  Aristotle believed that law and order were more consonant with human nature, in the sense that we have both cooperative and competitive instincts.  The ancients were right and the moderns wrong. 
Second, what exactly is "beauty?" and is it of more, less or equal value than usefulness?
Some years ago I was listening to Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on a Walkman and a short passage stopped me in my tracks.  The violin was going along in a merry, dancing way, and then suddenly plunged downward into a more serious mood.  It was like a dance party that suddenly turned into the Council of Elrond.  I found it utterly delicious and it occurred to me at that moment that something like what I perceived must have been perceived also by the composer, if from the other side.  It must also have been perceived by Anne Sophie Mutter who wove it out of her instrument.  That is beauty.  It is part of the design space opened up by the individual capacity of three people to compose, play, and listen and thus come to inhabit a common place.  I think that Plato is a better guide to this design space than Aristotle. 
We learn to appreciate beauty by exposure to beautiful things.  As we do, we usually discover that others have been there before us.  What is true of music is true of virtue, if Rudyard Kipling is to be believed.  I am going from memory here:
East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet
Till both shall stand alike before God’s great judgment seat.
But there is neither east nor west, border nor breed nor birth
When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth. 
That stanza, which bookends his marvelous story poem ‘The Ballad of East and West’, suggests that virtuous men recognize each other even when they come from the most distinct cultures.  Moreover, even those who are incapable of virtue or perhaps only modestly capable can recognize the beauty of it.  You don’t have to be any kind of hero to be stirred by the story Kipling weaves. 
Kamal is out with twenty men to raise the border side
and he has lifted the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride,
lifted her out of the garden gate between the dawn and the day
and turned the calkins upon her feet and ridden her far away. 
Then up and spoke the Colonel’s mare that is the Colonel’s pride,
is there not a man of all my men can say where Kamal hides?...
You get the idea.  The beautiful is that which is it is good to look at, hear, and appreciate. 
Socrates held that the beautiful is rooted in the useful but is not quite identical to the useful.  In Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Socrates interviews an armor maker.  He admires a suit of bronze that seems so exquisitely fashioned that one could imagine the body of the man it is designed to fit.  The armor is obviously useful to the fellow who put down the deposit but it is not at all useful to Socrates.  It is however beautiful to Socrates.  Thus the beautiful achieves independence from the useful. 
I think Socrates was, as usual, dead spot on.  Our appreciation of beautiful instruments, gorgeous music, gourmet meals, and heroic deeds is rooted in what is biologically functional.  Our basic pallet of appetites (see Southern pulled pork) and emotions (see Thelonious Monk’s ‘Round About Midnight’) have their origins in functional motives that promoted survival and reproduction in our ancestors.  However, evolution works by endowing some animals with the ability to pursue their own agendas.  Human beings are the products of our evolutionary history but we do not serve that history or our genes.  Aristotle says that while the polis came to be for the sake of mere life, it exists for the sake of the good life.  We do not eat and love merely to survive; we survive in order to eat and love. 
I hold, therefore, that the beautiful is primary and the useful, only useful in so far as contributes to the beautiful life. I would note, in closing, that Winston Churchill stood up to Hitler successfully and Abraham Lincoln saved the union.  I would also note that both of these perfect examples of virtue would be beautiful even if chance had prevented success.  Virtue can never guarantee victory; it can only guarantee that one deserves it. 
I am deeply grateful for your excellent comments.  Please post more of them. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Moral Molecules & Moral Emotions

Aristotle may have been the most dedicated opponent of reductionism in the history of philosophy.  He stoutly attacked the view that form could be reduced to matter or teleological processes to chance.  I am with the Philosopher on this sort of thing. 
It is interesting to note that Aristotle was nonetheless a bit more materialistic in his analysis than is modern Darwinian biology.  Aristotle believed in spontaneous generation.  Lacking a robust experimental apparatus, he supposed that life was routinely generated from lifeless matter under special conditions of temperature, moisture, etc.  For that to be true, a lot more of the basic information that makes up organic structures would have to be pre-loaded in the material constituents or would be provided by chance than is supposed by modern biology.  According to the latter, for most of the history of life, you first have to have a living organism to get another living organism. 
I have been reading a very interesting review essay by Iain Dewitt: “Moral Matter”, from the American Interest.  Dewitt reviews recent books by Patricia Churchland, Jonathan Haidt, Robert Kurzban, and Michael Gazzaniga.  He begins with Churchland’s Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality. 
Churchland addresses morality from several perspectives, but her main interest is in the neurobiological foundation of morality. This centers on discussion of oxytocin, a hormone traditionally appreciated for its role in the female reproductive cycle, especially in milk letdown. Beginning in the 1970s, interest grew in this hormone as a regulator of maternal and mate bonding—a love hormone, as it were. In recent years, interest has grown as research has established oxytocin’s role in bonding and its concrete linkages to trusting behavior.
That is the kind of that most disturbs many critics of “scientism.”  If there is a molecular basis for morality, does this not indicate the complete victory of materialism over the soul? 
Parallel to this neurobiological analysis is a simplification (if not a reduction) of the moral emotions that underwrite cooperation between groups of unrelated individuals. 
Churchland describes her project as examining the platform upon which morality is constructed. Her thesis is that the platform is maternal attachment to young. The largest single factor in human brain evolution is our exaggerated juvenile phase, during much of which we are helpless. This surely exerted strong selective pressure for parental behavior, care for kin. Churchland argues this is the forerunner of care for kith and strangers.
Here, the larger set of moral emotions is seen as dependent upon a simpler, more general motive.  We can care about strangers because we can extend our attachment to our young beyond the limits of this most basic community. 
It occurs to me that there are two very different kinds of analysis going on here.  One is the connection between mental states and the molecular constituents of brain states.  The other is the connection between less self-interested motives and more self-interested ones.  The two types of analysis are not necessarily dependent upon one another and neither necessarily implies reductionism. 
Unless there is a ghost in the machine, all states of soul and mind must have a basis in matter.  It may well turn out that there are a few key molecules that play a very large role in the neurological processes that are the substratum of changes in consciousness.  Those molecules supply part of the information that makes up a soul; however, they supply only part of it.  The level of matter is the level of the medium in which the information that makes up the soul is substantiated.  This suggests precisely that the soul cannot be reduced to matter. 
Whether complex social emotions are indeed refined and enlarged versions of simpler ones is an entirely independent question.  If there is indeed a Moral Molecule, as Paul J. Zak argues in the title of his recent book, then the material substratum of emotions is simpler than we might have expected.  That tells us nothing about whether or which one emotion is the biological ancestor of another. 
Churchland’s thesis that maternal attachment is the “platform upon which morality is constructed” is plausible enough.  We can see why it is not reductionist by considering Aristotle’s analysis in the beginning of the Politics.  He held that the community of man and woman and the parental community are the most basic human communities.  He denies that the more complex communities of clan, village, and the complete political community are only larger versions of the former.  The larger associations have their own distinct functions that cannot be reduced to those of the most basic associations and accordingly they require very different kinds of government. 
Churchland’s evolutionary account of the social emotions is perfectly compatible with Aristotle’s argument.  Evolution indeed works by working on pre-existing biological structures and pathways.  It does so by frequently adapting them to new functions.  What was once a second set of wings in beetles becomes something very different: a retractable set of armored plates.  If what was once a simple mental schema for child care is refined and enlarged to work for partnerships with strangers, the latter is now a new schema with a function that certainly cannot be reduced to the functions of its ancestral schema. 
Evolutionary biology is reductionist only in the sense that it allows for an analysis of biological phenomena on the level of chemistry as well as on higher levels.  It is anti-reductionist in the sense that it resists reducing the latter to the former.