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: ατάρκεια, which means literally “self-rule” but more often indicates independence or self-sufficiency, and γκράτεια, 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. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Flannery O'Connor on Integrity and Freedom

I spent spring break this year in New Orleans and when I am in New Orleans I always find myself reading Flannery O’Connor.  I won’t bother to explain.  Anyway, since I have been thinking about autonomy, I was struck by the author’s note to the second of edition of her novel, Wise Blood.  Here is most of that note:
Wise Blood was written by an author congenitally innocent of theory, but one with certain preoccupations.  That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think that it is a matter of no great consequence.  For them, Hazel Motes integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind.  For the author Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to.  Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?  I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.  Freedom cannot be conceived simply.  It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen. 
For “an author congenitally innocent of theory”, O’Connor writes with astonishing clarity and penetration about the presuppositions underlying her fiction.  Integrity is a term often used loosely to mean a sense of moral rectitude, but its precise meaning indicates that one is in possession of one’s self.  It is the essential requirement for moral responsibility.  That integrity is more a matter of what one cannot do that what one can is an insight that goes back at least to Plato’s Gorgias.  Self-government, the virtue focused on in that dialogue, means that the self imposes limits the self.  For that to be possible, the self cannot be conceived simply; it must be sense as the integration of its various parts. 
Thus “free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man.”  That extraordinarily powerful line encloses the peril of O’Connor’s century.  The greatest threat to human autonomy that the world has ever known came from those who insisted on a singularity of will (do we need to add the triumph of the singular will?).  Genuine freedom indeed means many wills in conflict whether in an assembly of persons or that assembly that constitutes a natural person. 
Her insistence on the element of mystery implies, I suggest, that the capacity for freedom is ultimately miraculous.  She may be right about that.  Belonging as I do to the tribe of philosophers, I am not entirely convinced.  But I do believe that this implication is vital for philosophy.  The philosopher may try to explain and hence demystify the human capacity for freedom of thought and action.  Unless he takes seriously the possibility that such freedom depends on the intervention of a creator God, his speculations degenerate into mere dogma.