Friday, January 31, 2014

Can Nature Calculate?

Philosophy was born in dialogue and perhaps consists in nothing more, even if that dialogue is sometimes internal.  I am very grateful to Miranda Flint for engaging me in these posts.  In the comments to the last post, Ms. Flint poses two significant questions. 
I’m not sure I agree with your suggestion that participating in rituals like sacrifice and circumcision is a calculated risk - calculated by natural selection. I think that these things contradict each other. If we are dealing with natural selection, then there is no calculation. By definition, calculation is “to determine or ascertain by mathematical methods” or to “determine by reasoning, common sense, or practical experience”. I don’t think nature does these things. A god or a man might.
When I said that costly signaling involves a calculated risk, I only meant to indicate that there are both costs and benefits involved and that it makes sense as a strategy only if the latter outweigh the former. 
However, I think Ms. Flint is rather stingy her extension of calculation.  I can determine the proper output of my furnace by mathematical methods but so can my thermostat.  Surely we must add calculators and other machines to the list of beings capable of calculation.  What about nature?  Allow me to suggest a thought problem.
What if you had the power to modify the design of a certain creature on a certain island, let’s say it’s a bird.  Your goal is to preserve the species.  You design the birds to feed on seeds, which are abundant.  As the seeds are very small and must be frequently picked out of rocks and crevices, you give the birds beaks shaped like tweezers: long and thin.  For a while you see that your design is good. 
Then the climate begins to change and with so does the vegetation (I haven’t granted you control over either).  You notice that the population of shrubs changes and seeds with large, thick shells begin to proliferate.  Your tweezer-beaked birds cannot crack them and their population plummets.  You calculate that what your birds need now are shorter, thicker beaks, like the blades on a pair of garden shears.  That does the trick, and your flock gradually recovers.  Such is what a calculating person, human or divine, might do to keep a population going across time.  Can nature do the same work as intentional calculation?
It manifestly does do so.  Darwin’s finches, as Peter and Rosemary Grant documented over several decades of study on one of the Galapagos Islands, require frequent adjustment.  Long periods of wet years followed by periods of dry years result in a fluctuation of beak design, as surely as if a calculating warden were constantly redesigning the birds.  As the foliage changes, the most adaptive beak design changes in response.  There is no reasonable doubt that this same force, natural selection, molds, maintains, and adjusts the traits of every living organism. 
Natural selection is not goal directed.  It is a mechanical process, just like my thermostat or the salt and water regulation in each cell of my body.  All of these things are, however, quite capable of calculation.  They are constantly calculating.  Good thing, that.  It makes it possible for creatures that do have goals, like birds and Baptists, to exist.  

I will address the second question in the next post. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Machiavelli & the State of Nature

Ms. Flint, as is her habit, asked a provocative question in reply to my last post on Machiavelli.  I suspect she already knows the answer, but it is worth commenting on here.  My post ended with this:
Machiavelli [in contrast to Aristotle]… does not believe in any order that emerges from nature.  He supposes that all order is imposed by human will.  That, ultimately, is what he means by virtue.  Whereas the ancients had supposed that virtue lay in the perfection of natural human propensities, Machiavelli supposes that it lies in certain human characters that enable their possessors to impose their will on their surroundings. 

There is then a state of nature theory implied here.  The state of nature is all disorder and chaos.  Order and hence justice and the common good can be achieved by conquering fortune. 
Ms. Flint then asks:
But is Machiavelli really proposing something different from the state of nature, then? As I understand it (and perhaps my understanding is wrong) in the state of nature, "might makes right". If that is what naturally happens, what is Machiavelli proposing that is different?
This is a very good question.  If the prince (or the republic) must act without any moral restraint in order to preserve law and order, can the state of civil society that results be said to be different from a state of nature?  I submit that Machiavelli would say “yes, and no”. 
What makes it possible for two human beings to genuinely trust one another?  Perhaps the only thing that can do that is fear of a higher power.  That would explain the ancient customs of swearing an oath before the gods, putting one’s hands on a Bible before testimony, or retreating into a temple for sanctuary. 
Interestingly, evolutionary psychology has done a lot of work on this.  Many ancient religions involve what are called signaling costs.  Sacrifices to the gods, painful rituals (circumcision comes to mind) have a profound social function: they demonstrate to others that you genuinely fear the invisible powers.  That makes you look like a trustworthy candidate for partnerships.  It is possible that one can only leave the state of nature by means of accepting a state of grace, or to put it less poetically but more precisely, if everyone believes that transgressions will be punished by divine sanction. 
Machiavelli does not believe in invisible powers and he does not believe that belief in such powers is enough to render men civil.  All law and order are imposed by the ruthless power of some prince and it is maintained in the same way.  Machiavellian virtú is the capacity, present in some human beings, to impose dominion on human beings.  So it is true to say that “might makes right” for Machiavelli, in the sense that human might alone can literally generate right or justice and so necessarily comes before and is not restrained by justice.  However, the virtue of princes is not the same as the virtue of subjects and citizens.  The prince must frequently act without faith, charity, pity, or religion, but he must seem to observe all of these things for he wants his subjects to observe them.  He wants to impose the king’s peace on the people, for a law abiding and prosperous society is a source of his wealth and power. 
Machiavelli’s disciple, Thomas Hobbes, set out to legalize Machiavelli’s thought.  Hobbes held that the state of nature and likewise the state of civil society are nothing more than relationships between two or more human beings.  If you and I have fear nothing of gods nor princes, we can get away with anything we might do to one another.  Thus we have to fear one another, and that is the state of nature.  If we can trust one another, it is only because there is a prince standing over us who can hurt either of us if we step out of line.  That is a state of civil society. 
It follows that whenever two human beings are under the authority of a prince, then they are in a state of civil society vis-à-vis one another.  That state of civil society is indeed different from the state of nature.  However, each of us remains in a state of nature vis-à-vis the prince.  There is no higher power keeping him in line.  Likewise, all princes are in a state of nature vis-à-vis one another.  They cannot but mistrust one another and are always in a state of war, hot or cold. 
Hobbes anticipates Miranda’s question and offers an answer.  He believed that all government was by definition absolute, since moral restraint was possible only by people under such a power.  Both Hobbes and Machiavelli believed that human beings are by nature amoral.  Morality and justice are necessarily artificial, imposed by a ruthless will. 
They got it wrong.  Locke got it right.  Human beings are moral animals.  Our sense of justice is just as much a part of our nature as our capacity for language.  We have a natural inclination to recognize and punish transgressions.  I think that modern biopolitical theory backs up Locke.  All human government requires violent power; however, that power works precisely because of human nature and not against it.  The origin of government lies not (or not merely) in mutual fear and desire for dominion; it lies in our capacity for righteous indignation. 
I think that this explains why Locke’s political thought is more decent, more productive of genuine civility, than that of his predecessors.  I will have more on this later. 

Friday, January 10, 2014


Machiavelli has been called the first modern and the last ancient.  I hold with the former view, which was advanced most forcefully by Leo Strauss.  Like Hobbes and Locke, Machiavelli’s thought is embedded in the politics of his time.  At first glance it would appear to be simply political.  After all, The Prince is presented as a job application.  Nonetheless, its structure is that of a general meditation on the nature of politics and it implies a comprehensive view of man on earth. 
This is evident in the very beginning of The Prince, where Niccolò offers a cladogram of regimes.  This is, again at first glance, a very classical thing to do.  Nothing is more classical than to begin with a very broad category and then break it down into a cascade of subcategories.  Another strategy is to organize something according to two variables (or two questions, as it were). 
Take for example Aristotle’s classification of regimes.  He asks two questions: who rules and is the rule exercised for the sake of the whole or for the sake of rulers alone?  We get the following structure:
            Private interest        Public interest
One     tyranny                      kingship
Few     oligarchy                   aristocracy
Many  democracy                 republic
In this scheme, regimes are divided into two sets (good and bad) and distributed according to how wide the franchise is.  It allows Aristotle to draw a very interesting conclusion.  The worst regime is tyranny and the best is kingship, assuming the best ruler.  Aristotle more or less agrees with Plato in this regard.  However of the good regimes, aristocracies are more stable than kingships and the republic is most stable of all, if stability increases as the base widens.  This reminds one of the saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good. 
Aristotle’s classification is a natural order that emerges from the facts of human society (what kinds of authority are possible) and the human need for government.  It implies, as all ancient philosophy did, that the natural order is authoritative.  What is good may be recognized and adopted, but not created, by human beings. 
Now consider what Machiavelli does. 
All states, all dominions that have had and have empire over men, are either republics or principalities.  Principalities are either hereditary, in which the blood of the lord has been prince for a long time or they are new.  The new are either altogether new, as was Milan for Francesco Sforza, or they are as members attached to the hereditary state of the prince who acquires them, as was Naples to the King of Spain.  Dominions thus acquired are either accustomed to living under a prince or are used to being free.  They are acquired either with arms of others or one’s own, either with fortune or with virtue. 
It cannot be overemphasized how shattering this is.  Machiavelli’s first division seems to preserve the classical approach.  In a republic, the state is public property.  The dominion belongs to the thing created by the dominion.  In a principality, the state is private property.  Is the one good and the other bad?  Machiavelli clear prefers republics, but he does so because they are more robust in preserving their power and exercising dominion over others. 
Machiavelli proceeds to divide principalities, the object of his inquiry, not according to who rules or how, but according to how they are acquired.  His chief interest is in the origins of human order and the human powers that make it possible.  He does not believe in any order that emerges from nature.  He supposes that all order is imposed by human will.  That, ultimately, is what he means by virtue.  Whereas the ancients had supposed that virtue lay in the perfection of natural human propensities, Machiavelli supposes that it lies in certain human characters that enable their possessors to impose their will on their surroundings. 
There is then a state of nature theory implied here.  The state of nature is all disorder and chaos.  Order and hence justice and the common good can be achieved by conquering fortune.