Friday, February 28, 2014
I am working on a paper on autonomy. Here are some preliminary reflections.
This essay concerns the biological origins of human autonomy and thus involves the intersection of biology and political science. My point of departure is the assumption that the two fields of inquiry are interdependent. It is not possible to fully understand human autonomy, individual or collective, without understanding its biological origins. Likewise, to recognize that genuine autonomy emerges from the evolutionary history of life on earth is to understand how metaphysically robust the phenomenon of life really is. This approach avoids both reductionism and any hint of vitalism; it allows biology and the human things to reveal themselves for what they are in the context of the natural world as a whole.
One thing that the Socratic philosophers understood better than their modern counterparts is that the possibility of science rests on the assumption that human intelligence (or Nous, as the Greeks called it) operates on the same principles by which nature is ordered; otherwise, nature is forever unintelligible. Accordingly, I begin with a consideration of the intelligible meaning of the word autonomy.
The philosopher Ernst Mayr famously argued that biology is an autonomous science. He meant by that not that biology contradicts or is free from the principles of physics, but that biology has more principles than physics. I take that as the first clue that autonomy emerges as a space between two realms of laws. This turns out to reflect the history of the term.
The term autonomy is a classical Greek word built on two important roots. Auto means self, as in Socrates himself. It is a very basic word that functions both as a pronoun (him or it) and as an adjective, as in autoagathos, which means “good in itself”.
The second root word is nomos. This word is usually translated as “law.” Like a lot of Greek words, it is borrowed from an earlier use. It originally meant an enclosed pasture. A nomos was boundary imposed by human beings that confined the movement of herd animals but allowed them to move freely (according to their own natural laws) within that boundary. It was adopted to indicate both explicit, codified law and the unwritten moral rules that bound the citizens together into a polis. I am pretty sure that Nietzsche’s phrase “herd instinct” derives from this Greek root.
Herodotus uses the term when he describes the history of the Medes. When they threw off the rule of the Assyrians, they achieved autonomy. They later lost it when they allowed a man known for his fair judgment to establish a tyranny over them.
Herodotus 1.95  Ἀσσυρίων ἀρχόντων τῆς ἄνω Ἀσίης ἐπ᾽ ἔτεα εἴκοσι καὶ πεντακόσια, πρῶτοι ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν Μῆδοι ἤρξαντο ἀπίστασθαι, καὶ κως οὗτοι περὶ τῆς ἐλευθερίης μαχεσάμενοι τοῖσι Ἀσσυρίοισι ἐγένοντο ἄνδρες ἀγαθοί, καὶ ἀπωσάμενοι τὴν δουλοσύνην ἐλευθερώθησαν. μετὰ δὲ τούτους καὶ τὰ ἄλλα ἔθνεα ἐποίεε τὠυτὸ τοῖσι Μήδοισι. 96.  ἐόντων δὲ πάντων ἀνὰ τὴν ἤπειρον, ὧδε αὖτις ἐς τυραννίδα περιῆλθον.
The Assyrians ruled Upper Asia for five hundred and twenty years, and from them the Medes were the first who made revolt. These having fought for their freedom with the Assyrians proved themselves good men, and thus they pushed off the yoke of slavery from themselves and were set free; and after them the other nations also did the same as the Medes: and when all on the continent were thus , they returned again to despotic rule as follows:--
Thucydides uses the same term to indicate the self-government of Greek cities and Xenophon follows suit when he continues the history of the war between the Athenians and the Spartans.
Xenophon also uses the term in his Republic of the Lacedaimonians to indicate the practice in most Greek cities of emancipating children when they become adults. They are then allowed to be autonomous, which means that they are self-governed with respect to their own families.
Xenophon, The Republic of the Lacedaimonians, 3.1 Ὅταν γε μὴν ἐκ παίδων εἰς τὸ μειρακιοῦσθαι ἐκβαίνωσι, τηνικαῦτα οἱ μὲν ἄλλοι παύουσι μὲν ἀπὸ παιδαγωγῶν, παύουσι δὲ ἀπὸ διδασκάλων, ἄρχουσι δὲ οὐδένες ἔτι αὐτῶν, ἀλλ’ ἀφιᾶσιν·
When a boy ceases to be a child, and begins to be a lad, others release him from his moral tutor and his schoolmaster: he is then no longer under a ruler and is allowed to go his own way.
This does not mean, of course, that the young adult is free from the laws of his city; it does mean that he is in some sense free within the bounds of those laws.
Autonomy then literally means “self-law”. It indicated both individual and communal independence: a person or a political community that lived under its own laws. A political community is free when it is free from the authority of other communities and lords. A man enjoyed autonomy when he could act of his own free will.
However, and more revealing, a poet enjoys autonomy when he exercises poetic license and an animal enjoys autonomy to the extent that it can range freely. Poetic license frees the poet from some convention but it frees him to institute boundaries of his own. Without boundaries, his poetry cannot have meaning, as all meaning binds. An animal that ranges freely will nonetheless range within a boundary set by its nature. It will not go where there is likely to be neither food nor mates nor comfort, but it will turn aside on its own and not for any fence.
The idea of autonomy extends along three dimensions. One opens up a space between the natural laws of animal instinct and the artificial boundaries imposed by human husbandry. The second opens a space between some human community and a larger community seeks authority over it. The third opens between the individual human being and some larger human community of which he or she is a member.
Autonomy means liberty rather than freedom. Freedom is freedom from. It is simple release. Liberty is self-government, which is to say, self-legislation. The topic of this essay is the biological origin of that space within which autonomy is possible. I will argue that this space opens up with the emergence of human beings as moral and political animals.
We were social animals before we became human animals. Social animals must learn to live together. In a harem species, this is achieved by the dominion of an alpha male whose rule, while he rules, is unchallenged. In our own species, like our chimpanzee cousins, the position of the dominant individual was never so secure. Our ancestors evolved into self-legislating creatures. We were able to internalize rules that allowed us to live within the group but that also allowed the group to resist the domination of would-be tyrants. We needed to cooperate, as cooperation was the key to social power. At the same time, cooperation opens up the possibility of cheating and exploitation. These tensions open the space for human autonomy.
Friday, February 21, 2014
Thomas Hobbes begins his magnum opus with one of the most materialist accounts of mind in the history of philosophy. The obvious question that confronts any reader of Hobbes is why this is appropriate in a work on political science. A less obvious question is what it says about Hobbes’ view of man and God. Here is the opening of the second chapter, “On Imagination”. I have added additional paragraph breaks.
THAT when a thing lies still, unless somewhat else stir it, it will lie still for ever, is a truth that no man doubts of. But that when a thing is in motion, it will eternally be in motion, unless somewhat else stay it, though the reason be the same (namely, that nothing can change itself), is not so easily assented to.
For men measure, not only other men, but all other things, by themselves: and because they find themselves subject after motion to pain and lassitude, think everything else grows weary of motion, and seeks repose of its own accord; little considering whether it be not some other motion wherein that desire of rest they find in themselves consisteth.
From hence it is that the schools say, heavy bodies fall downwards out of an appetite to rest, and to conserve their nature in that place which is most proper for them; ascribing appetite, and knowledge of what is good for their conservation (which is more than man has), to things inanimate, absurdly.
The first two sentences introduce the concept of inertia and grounds it in the claim that “nothing can change itself”. This principle is fundamental, as I think that it constitutes a deliberate rejection of Aristotelian biology. Aristotle supposed that nature was precisely a motion that originated in the organism; for what is life, except something that can move itself, either in space or by development over time? If nothing can move itself, then everything is moved by something else. If that is so, then whence comes the source of all motion? This seems to suggest a perfectly determined, mechanical Kosmos consisting of matter and motion alone.
The second part explains why the principle of inertia seems contrary to common sense experience. We are used to the idea that a rock will not leap up into the sky and that a rock thrown into the air will return to earth and remain there. We base the idea that motion requires an explanation whereas rest does not on our own lethargy.
The third part is a direct attack on Aristotelian physics. Aristotle and the Aristotelians seem to have supposed that basic substances (earth, air, fire and water) had a natural place to which they naturally return. Of course, Aristotle also recognized that the place of some things such as the heavenly bodies included motion, so Hobbes is being a little bit unfair here.
What is the point of this physical reference? The second paragraph explains.
When a body is once in motion, it moveth (unless something else hinder it) eternally; and whatsoever hindreth it, cannot in an instant, but in time, and by degrees, quite extinguish it: and as we see in the water, though the wind cease, the waves give not over rolling for a long time after; so also it happeneth in that motion which is made in the internal parts of a man, then, when he sees, dreams, etc.
For after the object is removed, or the eye shut, we still retain an image of the thing seen, though more obscure than when we see it. And this is it the Latins call imagination, from the image made in seeing, and apply the same, though improperly, to all the other senses. But the Greeks call it fancy, which signifies appearance, and is as proper to one sense as to another. Imagination, therefore, is nothing but decaying sense; and is found in men and many other living creatures, as well sleeping as waking.
Hobbes presents us with a model of internal human experience. All the contents of the mind originate in the external world. External motions collide with the senses, which transfer the motion to the nerves and then to the brain. There the internal motions result in images of external objects. The internal motions do not maintain their original force, which is why our memories of things are less vivid than direct observations. When new motions come in they frequently overwhelm the decaying motions that constitute the mind’s present contents. Within the mind, such motions are constantly competing with one another. Yet clearly, some motions received from outside keep going for long periods of time, which explains long term memories.
What Hobbes is after is an explanation of ghosts. He has a theory of dreaming.
And seeing dreams are caused by the distemper of some of the inward parts of the body, diverse distempers must needs cause different dreams. And hence it is that lying cold breedeth dreams of fear, and raiseth the thought and image of some fearful object, the motion from the brain to the inner parts, and from the inner parts to the brain being reciprocal; and that as anger causeth heat in some parts of the body when we are awake, so when we sleep the overheating of the same parts causeth anger, and raiseth up in the brain the imagination of an enemy.
This gives rise to the belief in ghosts.
We read of Marcus Brutus (one that had his life given him by Julius Caesar, and was also his favorite, and notwithstanding murdered him), how at Philippi, the night before he gave battle to Augustus Caesar, he saw a fearful apparition, which is commonly related by historians as a vision, but, considering the circumstances, one may easily judge to have been but a short dream. For sitting in his tent, pensive and troubled with the horror of his rash act, it was not hard for him, slumbering in the cold, to dream of that which most affrighted him; which fear, as by degrees it made him wake, so also it must needs make the apparition by degrees to vanish: and having no assurance that he slept, he could have no cause to think it a dream, or anything but a vision.
The confusion caused by dreaming gives rise to a false belief that the dead can reappear. Such beliefs are important politically because unscrupulous men can exploit the fear of such things.
And for fairies, and walking ghosts, the opinion of them has, I think, been on purpose either taught, or not confuted, to keep in credit the use of exorcism, of crosses, of holy water, and other such inventions of ghostly men. Nevertheless, there is no doubt but God can make unnatural apparitions: but that He does it so often as men need to fear such things more than they fear the stay, or change, of the course of Nature, which he also can stay, and change, is no point of Christian faith.
But evil men, under pretext that God can do anything, are so bold as to say anything when it serves their turn, though they think it untrue; it is the part of a wise man to believe them no further than right reason makes that which they say appear credible. If this superstitious fear of spirits were taken away, and with it prognostics from dreams, false prophecies, and many other things depending thereon, by which crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people, men would be would be much more fitted than they are for civil obedience.
That last part, I think, explains the political function of Hobbes materialist science. If men did not believe in ghosts, if they were not subject to confusion about the nature of reality, then they would be more fit for civil obedience.
Hobbes lived at the end of a long period of terrible religious wars. It was not, however, the belief in personal ghosts (like Hamlet’s father) that made so many men ungovernable. It was their belief in the Holy Ghost. Hobbes has to be careful. He cannot explicitly the Christian faith. He does, however, give us clues as to his inexplicit thoughts.
Whatsoever we imagine is finite. Therefore there is no idea or conception of anything we call infinite. No man can have in his mind an image of infinite magnitude; nor conceive infinite swiftness, infinite time, or infinite force, or infinite power. When we say anything is infinite, we signify only that we are not able to conceive the ends and bounds of the thing named, having no conception of the thing, but of our own inability. And therefore the name of God is used, not to make us conceive Him (for He is incomprehensible, and His greatness and power are unconceivable), but that we may honour Him.
Also because whatsoever, as I said before, we conceive has been perceived first by sense, either all at once, or by parts, a man can have no thought representing anything not subject to sense. No man therefore can conceive anything, but he must conceive it in some place; and endued with some determinate magnitude; and which may be divided into parts; nor that anything is all in this place, and all in another place at the same time; nor that two or more things can be in one and the same place at once: for none of these things ever have or can be incident to sense, but are absurd speeches, taken upon credit, without any signification at all, from deceived philosophers and deceived, or deceiving, Schoolmen.
So Hobbes tells us that we can have no concept of God because we can have no concept of the infinite. So far, so good; as this is nothing that Aquinas or Maimonides would not say. Then he goes on to say that any words not grounded in sense perception are absurd speeches from deceived philosophers and deceived, or deceiving, Schoolmen. I think we can put two and two together.
As evil men exploit the superstitious fears of their fellows in order to encourage civil disobedience, so Hobbes intends to exploit modern science to make men more governable. His materialistic account of the human being is introduced to wean men, by degrees, from belief in external powers and heavenly rewards. If this life is all we have, then the best that most of us can hope for is comfortable self-preservation. That is a person more fit for civil obedience.
I end by noting that, while Hobbes’ physics are sound, it is sound only at the level of physics. His materialism can account for matter alone; it cannot account for biological wholes. Aristotle’s view that living organisms are self-moving beings is altogether viable and essential for a science of biology. I suggest also that the notion of self-moving organisms is the metaphysical ground of human autonomy, something that is certainly diminished in Hobbes political philosophy.