Saturday, March 29, 2014
The concept of autonomy opens up an existential space in the human being. It is possible to lay down the law for oneself if an only if one can be both the regulator and the regulated person. Two other key terms frequently employed by Plato have the same force: αὐτάρκεια, which means literally “self-rule” but more often indicates independence or self-sufficiency, and ἐγκράτεια, which means “self-control”.
In the Republic, Socrates demonstrates that the soul is not one simple thing but is divided into parts; or how else is that someone can simultaneously want to do something and not want to do it? For example, we may want to avoid looking at something horrible, say a pile of corpses dead from the plague, and yet something in us wants to look and so we feast our eyes in spite of ourselves.
Evolutionary psychology recapitulates this line of thought with such theories as the modular theory of mind: the mind is composed of a number of distinct, problem-solving engines that involved in the context of persistent problems that confronted our ancestors. Somewhat less daring is the concept of evolved psychological mechanisms. These are mental schema that process information (clues and contexts) into behaviors or into information that can be used by other mechanisms. For example, if I pick up something hot, I drop it. If I get the signal that others around me are turning hostile, I grow fearful; in turn I may respond with aggression or retreat. The simplest model presents mind as constant competition between evolved psychological mechanisms for control of behavior.
This is no doubt true at some level and on some occasions, but it is obviously superficial. The human mind is capable of generating a coherent self. The self may be indeed composed of a wide number of mental and ultimately neural mechanisms; however, it exists to the degree that the whole can exercise command over the parts. When I deliberate, I consciously manage the debate between the various wills that Flannery O’Connor speaks of in the quote in my previous post.
I have long suspected that two of the most profound problems in modern philosophy‑the problem of consciousness and the problem of free will, are really the same problem. Consciousness is free will; it is the human self as a causal agent in thought and behavior. The problem for evolutionary thought is how to explain the emergence of this phenomenon in the history of life.
Without going deeper into that problem, I think that Plato points the way forward. In the Gorgias, Socrates argues that self-government means that the higher part of the soul rules the lower parts. In the Republic, the philosopher is presented as the person in whom intelligence rules the passions which in turn rule the appetites. Elsewhere, the Protagoras I think, he acknowledges that, for most people, the role of intelligence is played by the nomoi. The nomoi are the collective written and unwritten moral rules that define a particular human community.
It seems likely that the human capacity for self-government emerged from the necessity of keeping track of the number of other human minds in our first communities and the subsequent necessity of internalizing the rules that governed our interactions. Individual and collective self-government made for a dynamic that drove human evolution. If this turns out to be correct, Plato will not be surprised. He always suspected that the key to everything intelligible is the idea of the good.