Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Animal At Odds With Itself

Aristotle wrote two fundamental books about the human being: the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics.  I have long thought the two works are based on contrary assumptions.  The one proceeds on the assumption that the human thing is the action of an individual person.  The other proceeds on the assumption that the human thing is the action of a regime or a political community.  So which is it?  Is the human thing the individual or the group?
I think that the answer to that question emerges precisely from the fact that Aristotle found it necessary to take the two points of departure.  The human thing is the dynamic relationship between the moral person and the moral/political community.  It is in that dynamic relationship that one sees most clearly what the human being really is. 
The current issue of The New Atlantis has four pieces on “the evolution of human nature”.  I just finished two of them: “The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson” by Whitley Kaufman and “Moderately Socially Conservative Darwinians” by Peter Augustine Lawler.  Both are well worth reading and both confirm at least this much of my view of the human thing: to say what we are is to describe a tension or even a conflict between two distinct modes of being. 
Kaufman takes issue with E. O. Wilson’s argument that
our best chance at understanding and advancing morality will come when we “explain the origin of religion and morality as special events in the evolutionary history of humanity driven by natural selection.
Kaufman presents the weakness of Wilson’s biophilia.  This is the idea that we should love the earth and all the beings who live on it.  I think that this is not a bad idea at all.  Gratitude might be the better part of piety.  I agree, however, that Wilson has not done the hard work necessary to turn biophilia into a coherent ethical position. 
The problem is that Wilson seeks to bring about a revolution in ethics without doing ethics — that is, without making any prescriptions, only predictions. He has painted himself into a corner: biophilia in his theory can only be a personal preference, not an objective value.
What interests me here is the tension that Kaufman identifies in Wilson’s work.  On the one hand, Wilson
celebrates the infinite capacities of man to increase knowledge, breathlessly predicting that “humanity will be positioned godlike to take control of its own ultimate fate.” In On Human Nature, he holds that our biological tendency for aggression and war will be “brought increasingly under the control of rational thought.”
That makes it sound like we are more or less in control of ourselves and capable of taking some measure of control over human nature and nature in general.  On the other hand
Wilson’s reductionist commitments lead him to insist that free will is only an illusion. Though “some philosophers still argue [it] sets us apart” — and one would have to include Wilson among these philosophers! —nonetheless free will is no more than a “product of the subconscious decision-making center of the brain that gives the cerebral cortex the illusion of independent action.” So Wilson is at once a moralist… and a moral determinist, holding that moral decisions are causal and impulse-driven rather than rational and free. He cannot resist trying to have it both ways: we are free and determined; rational and instinctual; autonomous and mechanistic…
Not surprisingly, Wilson is unable to reconcile these contradictory conceptions of free will and human nature, the humanistic and the scientific. But it is, in a way, a tribute to his breadth of mind that he recognizes and embraces both of them, in contrast to the prevailing trend in evolutionary ethics towards simple moral determinism and nihilism.
That seems to me to be right.  The human being is at once a physical being, composed of organs, cells, and molecules that obey physical laws, and a moral being capable of freedom.  No one has yet escaped from the problem that presents. 
Peter Lawler focuses on a tension that is closer to the one I pointed out in Aristotle.  On the one hand there is the position that seems to originate with Descartes. 
Sophisticated Americans these days think of themselves, or at least talk about themselves, as autonomous beings — free from old-fashioned social restraints, and free even from the limitations of nature. Men and women both feel free to define who they are for themselves, without being saddled by the imperatives of their biology, their bodies.
That is the position of radical individual autonomy, divorced from nature in general and biology in particular. 
Lawler presents a sympathetic account of the Darwinian alternative, as argued by Larry Arnhart, Jonathan Haidt, and E. O. Wilson.  Human beings are animals.  We are conditioned by our biological nature to be selfish but also to seek to belong to larger groups. 
Darwinians think of our cultural evolution as an extension of our natural evolution, and they see both as having an equally social and biological foundation.
Wilson sees members of our species as much more like bees and ants — the insects that he studied during his distinguished career as an entomologist — than even our fellow primates. These insects achieve their unrivaled social cooperation, which includes a complex division of labor and shared responsibility for taking care of the young, through robotically perfect obedience to social instinct; these instinctual traits define what Wilson and other entomologists have termed “eusociality.” We human beings much more consciously employ our intellects in the service of social instinct to reach our own heights of cooperation. The social intelligence of human beings — the self-aware animals with complex speech — leads to a tension between the selfish desires created by individual-level selection and the social impulses created by group-level selection, a tension that hardly exists for the instinctively self-sacrificial eusocial insects.
Lawler is wrong to say that the tension between individual interest and collective interest “hardly exists” for the eusocial insects.  In fact it is pervasive and must be managed in a variety of ways.  Honey bee workers can lay their own eggs and will tend them, unless the queen polices the system by eating them. 
The Darwinians, I am surely among them, think that human beings are by nature political animals, as did Aristotle. 
It is true that we are selfish and struggling by nature. But, as [Haidt] argues in The Happiness Hypothesis, we are also “hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger.” The only thing that gives us a sense of purpose worth dying for — that saves us from what would otherwise be our lonely and self-destructive personal obsessions — is the group, or our relations with members of the group. We cannot live well without knowing that there is something that makes self-sacrifice significant. We are unable to achieve what the bees and ants have — complete instinctual self-surrender. But our happiness is still fundamentally about having the “right relationships.”
Again, this seems to me to be right.  The individual human being presents itself as both autonomous and part of a larger whole.  We are selfish and selflessly committed to others.  We are persistently at odds with ourselves and that is what we are. 
I highly recommend Lawler’s essay.  He believes, I think, that human beings are more than animals.  He takes the possibility of the immortality of the human soul more seriously that I do or than Aristotle did.  I would only add that human beings are at least animals.  Our animal nature contains the fundamental tension that drives so much of moral and political philosophy. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Hot News on Global Cooling

A young man from Africa who went to study in the Soviet Union, back when there was a Soviet Union and young men from Africa did that sort of thing, was asked about the winter in Russia.  He replied that the green winter wasn’t so bad but the white winter was terrible. 
As much of the world, including my part of it, is currently enjoying a green winter, I chanced to listen to an episode of This American Life devoted to global warming: Hot In My Backyard.  TAL is one of my favorite podcasts.  I rarely miss and episode.  While I expect quirky and entertaining fare and occasionally something that challenges my biases, what I don’t expect is manifest stupidity.  That is what I got from Julia Kumari Drapkin’s contribution to the episode. 
Colorado, we learn, got an early spring last year and a very dry summer with lots of fires.  While Drapkin’s story acknowledges the obvious caveat that no single year tells us anything about long term climate trends, the whole point of it is that we ought to ignore that caveat.  Colorado’s bad summer is what every summer will look like, pretty soon, according to climate models.  We learn that Colorado’s State Climatologist, Nolan Doesken, changed his mind about climate change because of what happened to a neighbor’s daughter. 
Probably, because of the pump clogging, probably because of the ash from the wildfire in their irrigation system, the young girl was electrocuted.  That was about as painful as anything from that fire season, knowing that their daughter was lost to a situation beyond their control. 
That is a tragedy, to be certain.  A state climatologist ought to have a solid grasp of what abstract concepts like “wildfire season” mean to real human beings.  That chain of possibilities doesn’t mean that an irrigation pump failure tells us anything about the climate. 
The TAL episode resolutely insists that we face the facts while remaining oblivious to the facts.  This year, spring came late across the northern hemisphere.  Does that tell us that global warming is on hold?  No.  What tells us that is the fact that there has been no significant warming for the last fifteen years. 
Despite recent increases in global CO2 emissions, world temperatures have been steady rather than warming.  As Peter Ferrara explains at Forbes, recent winters across the globe have been colder than any on record.  Ferrara presents the case that climate trends are much better explained by cyclical forces and that CO2 is a weak factor in climate. 
I recommend his piece but I have to say that I hope he is wrong.  If CO2 emissions can really heat up the globe, that is a very good thing.  It means we have a lever on global climate.  Sooner or later we will get control of our emissions and can ratchet them down if we need to.  Likewise, sooner or later, the world will enter another cooling period as it has many times before.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could mitigate or even cancel the next ice age just by leaving our cars running all night?  Maybe the rise of industry across the globe will keep us from shivering as we drive our carts across frozen rivers. 
If, on the other hand, Co2 is a weak force, then what are we going to do when the next little or big ice age begins? 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Platonism of Benoit Mandelbrot

One of the joys of the present era is the cross pollination between realms of thought and expertise that electronic communications have enabled.  I get the New York Review of Books on my kindle.  I have read NYRB for many years.  While I am frequently infuriated by its ridiculous and irresponsible biases, it is still one of the best journals for accessible and penetrating articles on history, literature, and science. 
Tonight I read a review of The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick, by Benoit Mandelbrot.  Jim Holt’s review gives us an excellent explanation of Mandelbrot’s contribution to mathematics.  There is a lot in this review to encourage the Platonist who is need of encouragement, but I would focus on this simple explanation of Mandelbrot’s ground breaking insight:
Benoit Mandelbrot, the brilliant Polish-French-American mathematician who died in 2010, had a poet’s taste for complexity and strangeness. His genius for noticing deep links among far-flung phenomena led him to create a new branch of geometry, one that has deepened our understanding of both natural forms and patterns of human behavior. The key to it is a simple yet elusive idea, that of self-similarity.
To see what self-similarity means, consider a homely example: the cauliflower. Take a head of this vegetable and observe its form—the way it is composed of florets. Pull off one of those florets. What does it look like? It looks like a little head of cauliflower, with its own subflorets. Now pull off one of those subflorets. What does that look like? A still tinier cauliflower. If you continue this process—and you may soon need a magnifying glass—you’ll find that the smaller and smaller pieces all resemble the head you started with. The cauliflower is thus said to be self-similar. Each of its parts echoes the whole.
I am going to have to plug that back into my reading of Aristotle’s biology, but one thing strikes me as very important right now.  It provides a new reading of the age old argument between reductionists and non-reductionists. 
Reductionists argue that the more basic levels of any phenomena are the most fundamental and real levels.  Thus a human being is really just a conglomeration of cells and cells.  Organisms are just vehicles for molecules called genes and molecules are really just atoms in motion.  Anti-reductionists (Aristotle comes to mind) argue that this blinds one to the most important phenomena.  Looking at a pond at the level of molecules may be useful, but it is scarcely possible in this view to distinguish between a fish and the water it swims in.  If you want to understand what is going on, you have to resist reduction and pay attention to the trout. 
Both of sides of this old debate agree on one thing: that the whole and the parts are fundamentally different.  An elk doesn’t look anything like or behave much like the cells of which it is composed.  A car doesn’t have a lot in common with a break pad.  This makes for an easy either/or choice when it comes to looking for the fundamental reality. 
The opposite is true of something that is self-similar.  If you have flown over a beach and then walked along it, and you pay attention to what you see, it may have occurred to you that a yard of shore line up close looks pretty much like miles of it from the air. 
Other self-similar phenomena, each with its distinctive form, include clouds, coastlines, bolts of lightning, clusters of galaxies, the network of blood vessels in our bodies, and, quite possibly, the pattern of ups and downs in financial markets. The closer you look at a coastline, the more you find it is jagged, not smooth, and each jagged segment contains smaller, similarly jagged segments that can be described by Mandelbrot’s methods.
What I find immediately interesting about this notion of self-similar phenomena is that it doesn’t allow for reduction or anti-reduction.  The parts of the whole recapitulate the whole and vice versa. 
As Holt indicates repeatedly in his review, this points to Platonism.  In certain phenomena, at least, elegant mathematical forms are persistently expressed in both structure and behavior.  Our conception of the cauliflower is engendered by the image of that thing.  One of the Platonic Socrates’ terms for the form is just another word for image.  Socrates recognized that the form went much deeper than that but was, somehow, contained in the initial, common sense grasp of what was on the table.  The form that is expressed in the head of cauliflower is expressed again in the floret and yet again in the subfloret. 
Socrates would be fascinated by Mandelbrot’s fractals; indeed, he would eat them up.  He would also remark that “I always said it was something like this”. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Genuine Morality 3

I have a paper slowly taking shape in my thoughts, many of which are in these posts.  The paper would argue 1) that Darwinian explanations of cooperative behavior can support a genuine conception of morality and 2) that such a conception will be Aristotelian and perhaps even Platonic in character. 
Here I am thinking a bit more about the question of what constitutes genuine morality.  I can see three approaches to the question that focus entirely on the moral action without regard to moral consciousness. 
One holds that an action is genuinely moral if it accords with a prescribed list of moral actions.  The prescription presumably requires some authority.  The authority may come from tradition or from the fact that it is held sacred by the tribe or is issued from the members of the tribe that speak with authority.  It may come, of course, from some more or less divine legislator.  Thus it is moral to obey my father because “honor your father” is an authoritative prescription and obedience is a necessary form of such honoring. 
In this view, all that matters is the consonance between the action and the prescription.  Thus someone might be considered a perfectly observant Jew if he perfectly keeps the commandments, even if he is an atheist and keeps the commands out of some kind of ethnic pride.  Likewise, Oedipus is in deep trouble because his actions violate proscribed rules even though he himself had no idea that he was doing wrong. 
A second view is that of utilitarianism, which holds that an action is right if its beneficial consequences outweigh any harmful consequences.  Returning a wallet full of money to the proper owner is right if it is better for each of us if people behave that way.  It is largely irrelevant whether the person returning the wallet does so because he has a sense of personal honor or because he hopes to be admired for his display of honorable behavior. 
Third is my argument concerning the moral logic of an action.  In a case where a number of actors will benefit from cooperation but are tempted to cheat, cooperating is the right thing to do.  It doesn’t matter in this account whether the actors are conscious of the moral import of their actions or whether they are conscious at all.  Cleaner fish and the predators whose jaws they clear of parasites are involved in a relationship which is logically moral, though I doubt that they experience anything like guilt or righteous indignation.  Even computer programs can play games which are logically moral. 
I think that all three of these accounts bring something to the table.  We often judge behavior solely by a set of rules, if only for practical reasons.  Morality is surely utilitarian, as much of moral behavior is necessary for the smooth functioning of social interaction and cooperation.  Likewise I regard moral logic as something like one of Socrates’ ideas: a pattern that is written up, if not in heaven, at least in a larger ledger than human law. 
It seems obvious, however, that something is lacking in all three.  If the first were a complete account, then someone who doesn’t eat shellfish because he is allergic to it would be just as moral as someone who declines because of God’s commandment.  The person who saves someone from a burning house solely because he hopes to build a reputation that will serve him in the next election seems scarcely moral in the same way as someone who acts because he cares about other people more than himself.  A computer program can behavior morally only in the most robotic sense. 
Here the notion of genuine morality helps make sense of Divine Command theory and supports the Biblical notion of God.  Why, one might ask, should we do as God or the gods command?  The most obvious answer is that we should do so for the same reason that we ought to drive the speed limit when we are being followed by a state police vehicle: guns and dungeons.  The obvious problem with that answer is that it reduces moral behavior to merely self-interested exchange and all of us to well-policed scoundrels.  If I do the right thing only because I desire heaven and fear hell (even if the right thing involves merely a silent confession of faith) I am simply making a deal with a powerful partner. 
In the Biblical view, God is by definition the perfect lawgiver.  I may win an eternal reward by faith, but I believe and act in accord with that belief because what God commands is necessarily the right thing to do.  Doing what God commands solely because God commanded it, and not for any benefit that may come to me or others thereby, strikes me as a more mature version of the Jewish faith.  St. Paul was willing to sacrifice his own salvation for the salvation of the gentiles, or so he wrote. 
A satisfying account of human morality needs to be consonant with our moral emotions.  These tell us that the motive for an action is key to its moral character.  We want our spouses and parents and children and friends to provide us with attention but we also want them to genuinely love us.  We are more suspicious of apparently moral behavior when it has an ulterior motive than we are of openly immoral behavior. 
Understanding the evolutionary origins of the moral emotions can help us understand why motives are essential to morality.  A partner who is genuinely motived by a sense of justice will be more reliable than one who acts out of mere expediency.  A community of people who nurture and enforce moral rules out of a genuine moral consciousness will inherit the earth. 
While Darwinian theory can explain why we are capable of and admire genuine moral behavior, it cannot quite tell us why such behavior is genuinely admirable.  That will require some consultation with Plato and Aristotle.