Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Facts and Values

I was educated in a hotbed of Western Straussians led by the hero of that school, Harry Jaffa.  No idea so roused our temper as the infamous “fact-value dichotomy.”  This is the idea that statements of fact (e.g., electricity can kill people) are fundamentally different from statements of value (e.g., it was wrong to electrocute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg).  The former are either true or false and one can attempt to tell which is which by means of argument and evidence.  The latter can be judged as true or false only in so far as they are logically consistent with other value judgments (e.g., it is wrong to kill as a punishment for a crime).  All such logical analysis, however, can only link one value judgment to another and must ultimately come to rest in some basic value (human life is sacred, etc.).  Such basic values can be held but they cannot be argued for nor is there any evidence that would tell for or against them.  The fact-value dichotomy seems to reduce moral judgements to irrational beliefs.  To believe in genuine justice is like believing in fairies. 
For Strauss, and especially for the Western Straussians, this amounted to offense against all moral and political philosophy.  Why think carefully about what justice is or what a just political order would be, as Plato and Aristotle did, if justice is just some idea that can never amount to anything more than an idea one is fond of without reason?  On the contrary, we argued, Socrates in Plato’s Republic and Gorgias offers profound arguments in favor of a coherent account of justice and his account is solidly based in evidence and logic.  Moreover, Socrates derives his logical proofs precisely from the testimony of those who argue against the existence or at least the worth of justice. 
The fact-value dichotomy is usually traced back to David Hume’s discussion of the naturalistic fallacy.  One cannot derive an ought-statement, which describes what one should or should not do, from an is-statement, which describes some set of facts.  For example, one cannot derive the claim “Athens shouldn’t have made Socrates drink hemlock” from the claim that “hemlock is poisonous.”  One can only derive the former from some other ought-statement such as: “you shouldn’t execute good men who will later be both famous and popular”. 
For a long time I thought that Hume’s distinction was silly.  I thought one could easily derive the claim that “one ought not to stick one’s tongue in a light socket” from the claim that “the socket is turned on”.  I now regard that thought as naïve and apologize to Mr. Hume. 
This occurred to me as I have been teaching logic and yesterday began a section on moral logic.  I have also been (belatedly) revising my chapter for The Handbook of Biology and Politics.  Both of these activities directed my attention to this question.  Modern logic generally accepts the naturalistic fallacy as a fallacy and hence presents coherent moral arguments as resting on two sorts of claim.  At least one premise of the argument must state some set of facts and another premise must state some value judgement.  For example:
  1. Current carbon emissions are causing global warming and global warming will have dangerous consequences for human beings and other creatures. 
  2. One ought not to do things that are dangerous to human beings and other creatures. 
  3. Therefore: we ought to reduce our carbon emissions. 

I think that the distinction between these two types of statements is logically correct, but I would point out two things that are frequently overlooked in discussion of facts and values.  
The first is that the category of values includes not only moral judgments but all judgments involving such concepts as right and wrong, better or worse, etc.  Thus “I shouldn’t eat what is unhealthy” is as much a value judgment as “I shouldn’t steal candy from a baby.”  What I and my Straussian friends and teachers objected to was the claim that moral judgments were in effect irrational.  Including value judgments about self-interest tells against that claim.  There is nothing irrational about ought-statements when they apply to matters of health.  For the same reason, there is nothing necessarily irrational about such statements when they apply to matters of right and wrong. 
My second point is more important.  The real distinction here is not between facts and values but facts about the living and the dead.  Recently I watched a NOVA feature on North America.  In the second segment we were presented with a line drawn along a hill side in the North Dakota Badlands, which I know well.  The line represented evidence of an asteroid strike.  Below the line (earlier in time) one finds dinosaur bones.  Above the line one finds fossils, but no dinosaurs.  Conclusion: the asteroid strike killed off the dinosaurs.  This kind of analysis is all facts and no values.  The reason for that is that, whatever killed the off, the dinosaurs are just plain dead.  Fossils are not more involved in values that volcanic rock. 
By contrast, living animals, including human beings, always have something at stake.  They are subject to flourishing and withering, surviving and perishing.  That includes all of them, from the giant popular tree I walked around in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, down to the littlest bacterium.  Some organisms are also subject to pain and pleasure.  That includes all (or perhaps almost all) of the animals.  One species is capable of happiness, defined as a self-conscious appreciation of a satisfying life.  Value judgments, far from being products of human culture, or “social construction”, or irrational emotive artifacts, are simple features of organic life.  Every time a slime mold amoeba decides to congregate with its fellows or a snow leopard turns down a trail to follow a scent, a value judgment is made.  Since such efforts can succeed for fail, value judgments can be objectively true or false. 
Aristotle that to understand simple things one must recognize a number of irreducible dimensions.  To understand how a table can be both wide and narrow, taller than a chair but shorter than the kitchen wall, one must recognize that width cannot be reduced to length nor to height.  The world exists in a three dimensional space.  To understand organic life, one must recognize the dimension of value.  Unlike rocks, house plants, horses, and human beings can succeed or fail.  The latter two have good days and bad. 
Moral arguments require value judgments as premises for the same reason that arguments about individual and collective interests do.  If you can’t reduce an is to an ought, that is because human beings are not rocks.  It is nonetheless true that slavery requires telling lies about the slaves and the masters and that tyranny is bad for human beings in general.  Moral and political philosophy is viable because it recognizes facts about human nature. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Paris and What It Means

The scariest short story I ever read (and I, a fan of horror, have read some doozies) was Stephen King’s “Quitters Inc.”  In the story, a man who wants to quit smoking is referred to a program with that title.  He is guaranteed that not only will he quit but he will not gain weight.  After he has signed an agreement form, the program is explained to him.  If he lights up another cigarette, his wife will be tortured.  He quickly finds out that this is real and that he will live the rest of his life in fear of that one extra bite of cheese cake.  It turns out that the founder was a gangster who suffered from lung cancer.  His last act was to turn all of his power to curing people of the habit that killed him. 
What was terrifying about the story was that the ruthless violence of a gangster could be divorced from self-interest and turned to abstract and potentially arbitrary ethical principles.  If left unchecked, such a social trajectory could turn the entire human population into prisoners and wardens. 
I thought about this story tonight as I watched the horrific news from Paris.  As I write this, the fatalities are reported to be well over a hundred.  There were a number of well-coordinated attacks and the terrorists used conventional automatic weapons.  The contrast between the killers and ordinary gangsters is instructive.  Gangsters are social parasites.  They feed on the host of some larger society, depleting its wealth and doing a great deal of harm.  The damage they do is limited, at least in a robust regime.  Like all biological parasites, they have to make some concessions to their hosts if they are to remain in business.  Parasitic fungi that prey on ants need the supply of ants to continue and thieves need the stuff of honest men to steal. 
The French mass murderers are like organized criminals in so far as they occupy a niche in a society, exploit the social structures that benefit the larger population as well its openness, and depend on illegal trade (e.g., AK-47s).  Unlike gangsters, they are not pursuing their own long term self-interest.  They are acting out of a poetic ideal, a story that gives the lives meaning. 
That story is almost certainly incoherent.  I mean that it unlikely to function as the basis for viable political institutions, though they dream of such things.  In its current presentation, in France, it seems aimed at nothing higher than destruction.  Whether or in what sense the attacker turn out to represent ISIS remains to be seen.  While the latter presents as an organization and promises the establishment of a new Caliphate, it also seems to want to hasten the apocalypse.  Here is how Graeme Wood put it in the March issue of Atlantic:
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
It seems unlikely to me that such a movement can really coalesce into a coherent state, Islamic or otherwise.  It is rather what happens when a Branch Davidian cult is supplied with a large number of cultists and is able to expand into territories that cannot be defended by the disintegrating states that claim them.  Isis exploits all economic production under its control and no doubt benefits from the largess of dreamers in still coherent states.  Without an internal revolution, it can only destroy. 
If biological parasitism is a good analogy for organized crime, cancer is the best analogy for militant Islam.  It is a product of the DNA of social and political culture, broken beyond coherent function but not beyond dangerous effect.  Today’s atrocity in Paris is another reminder that the cancer can metastasize.  
Our global civilization is an invaluable achievement.  To say that is not perfect, that it has victims as well as beneficiaries, is to say what is trite because true of any human institution.  People are still starving around the world, but we live in the first period of human history in which more people suffer from obesity than from malnourishment.  We live in the first period in which millions of human beings enjoy both prosperity and liberty.  Progress means the survival and continued expansion of that civilization. 

We will have to summon enough industry, courage, and genius to meet its greatest threat, or else the darkness.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

Political Climate

On the same day that President Obama finally made a decision about the Keystone Pipeline (he killed it) we learn that the New York State Attorney General is launching an investigation targeting Exxon, on the theory that the oil company lied to its investors about the risks of climate change.  Both stories should chill the hearts of anyone who believes that economic policies should be made for economic reasons and that science requires that scientific theories be open to challenge. 
After seven years of dithering, including a State Department approval of the project, the President decided to nix the Keystone approval on political grounds.  From the New York Times:
Mr. Obama said that the pipeline has occupied what he called “an overinflated role in our political discourse.”
“It has become a symbol too often used as a campaign cudgel by both parties rather than a serious policy matter,” he said. “And all of this obscured the fact that this pipeline would neither be a silver bullet for the economy, as was promised by some, nor the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”
Yes, the pipeline would not have been a “silver bullet.”  It would just have been the most efficient and safest means of moving the oil from the tar sands where it was extracted.  Those are economic reasons for approving the pipeline.  It would not have been, as the President admits, “the express lane to climate disaster proclaimed by others.”  Why not? 
Environmentalists had sought to block construction of the pipeline because it would have provided a conduit for petroleum extracted from the Canadian oil sands. The process of extracting that oil produces about 17 percent more planet-warming greenhouse gases than the process of extracting conventional oil.
But numerous State Department reviews concluded that construction of the pipeline would have little impact on whether that type of oil was burned, because it was already being extracted and moving to market via rail and existing pipelines. 
So approving Keystone would have been economically indicated and denying it would have paid no environmental dividends.  The only difference is now we are moving it by rail through urban centers where an unfortunate event would kill lots of people. 
So why did the President kill it?  Poetry. 
“America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action to fight climate change,” Mr. Obama said in remarks from the White House. “And, frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership.”
The move was made ahead of a major United Nations summit meeting on climate change to be held in Paris in December, when Mr. Obama hopes to help broker a historic agreement committing the world’s nations to enacting new policies to counter global warming. While the rejection of the pipeline is largely symbolic, Mr. Obama has sought to telegraph to other world leaders that the United States is serious about acting on climate change.
Mr. Obama wants to “telegraph” world leaders that we are serious about acting on climate change.  The rejection of the pipeline is not “largely” symbolic.  It is altogether symbolic. 
Politics trumping economic policy is a dog bites man story.  Politics attempting to strangle science is a different kettle of canines.  Again from the Times:
The New York attorney general has begun an investigation of Exxon Mobil to determine whether the company lied to the public about the risks of climate change or to investors about how such risks might hurt the oil business.
According to people with knowledge of the investigation, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman issued a subpoena Wednesday evening to Exxon Mobil, demanding extensive financial records, emails and other documents.
The investigation focuses on whether statements the company made to investors about climate risks as recently as this year were consistent with the company’s own long-running scientific research.
The notion that Exxon could know how future climate change might hurt the oil business is utterly ridiculous.  It’s hard enough to predict the oil business a year in advance.  The best climate science can only give you a range of possibilities (1.4 degree to 4 degrees by the end of this century).  Is it really possible that Exxon lied about what this will to do to their portfolios eight-five years from now?  No.
What this is really about is that Exxon funded both “good” climate research (i.e., that supported the climate change alarmist agenda) and groups that criticized the alarmist view.  The purpose of the investigation is to punish Exxon for funding the heretics and thus starve the latter.

Good science need critics.  Environmental policy needs real solutions, not symbolic ones.  Precisely if you believe that climate change is a real danger, you should welcome challenges to your view.  If you are right, your view will be confirmed.  That means, however, that you have to be open to the possibility that your view is wrong.  Neither the President nor the Attorney General of New York are interested in that. c 

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Problem of Myself 2

Friend and intrepid reader Miranda raised some questions about my earlier post on the problem of self-identity
I am struggling with the idea that an identical twin might be closer to being the same individual than two people who shared the same memories. Your suggestion makes me think of Abigail and Brittany Hensel, conjoined twins who share a body, but who are, nevertheless, very distinct people. Their personalities quite different, with one girl being more extroverted than the other. I think it would be a mistake to think that the fact that the two share most of their limbs and, of course, DNA, meant that they were not two separate individuals. 
I think that this raises a lot of interesting questions, some of which I will address now. 
I do not hold that twins, identical, conjoined, or otherwise, are in any significant sense the same person.  They are no more the same person than two distantly related strangers; or at least that is true past a certain point in development. 
If you hold that personhood begins at conception (as I do), then identical twins were at some stage precisely the same person.  Then that person split into two.  To escape that conclusion, one would have to adopt a more or less medieval view of ontogeny, with a soul flying into the womb after the biological process was underway.  I am not convinced that any such view is coherent. 
If consciousness depends on a functioning nervous system, then I assume that any such division occurs prior to the emergence of consciousness.  This would be the major difference between me and a clone produced by one of my cells.  There is no question of whether the undivided zygote will “wake up” in either or both embryos since it isn’t awake yet.  Existential continuity will begin after two separate individuals have emerged. 
Miranda goes on to note this:
I also think that if a man were to receive multiple transplants and thus was made up of parts that originated from different DNA than his original parts had come from he would still be the same individual as he had been before.
This is the famous “ship of Theseus” problem.  The ship that Theseus rode back to Athens after he slew the Minotaur was preserved in that city (according to legend).  Over time parts of it were replaced as it weathered.  Eventually all the original parts had been replaced.  Is it still the same ship?  I say yes.  At every point in its history, new parts were integrated into old ones according to the original form.  That continuity of replacement grounds identity in the ship just as it does in us.  Our parts are being constantly replaced with new cells and materials.  Over the course of a single lifetime, all the material constituents are replaced about three times.  Yet I seem to be the same boat I was at birth. 
But I am not sure what measure the amount of individuality in a person can be measured. How would you measure it? I look forward to reading more about the continuity of expected futures problem, should you choose to write about it in the future.

I look forward to that as well, for right now I have no idea what I will say.  It seems to me that individuality is not a matter of degree.  I will either have to bear the burdens and get to reap the benefits of my life tomorrow or not.  That will be true regardless of how many parts have been replaced.  I am pretty sure that if I am cloned and my memories downloaded to KB2 I will not taste his breakfast.  I remain convinced that my existential continuity is grounded in this embodied mind.  Beyond that, I am at a loss.  All modern philosophy turns on the mind/body problem.  Consciousness is indeed the hard problem.  

Friday, October 16, 2015

Justice is beautiful because it is good and good because it is beautiful

The following is the beginning of the essay I will present next week at the annual meeting of the Association of Politics and Life Sciences.  We are meeting in Madison, Wisconsin.  

In Book 1 of Plato’s Republic, Socrates silences the sophist Thrasymachus with his famous “honor among thieves” argument.  Thrasymachus argued that justice is merely the interest of the stronger, i.e., that right actions are what subordinates must do in the service of their superiors.  Socrates responded that the “stronger” are so because they are able to cooperate with one another in their drive toward dominion; and so, they must be just at least toward one another.  Justice is then superior injustice even if you accept the view that all human actions are motivated by selfish desire. 
At the beginning of Book 2, the spirited brothers Glaucon and Adiemantus announce their dissatisfaction with this argument and each issues a challenge to Socrates.  These challenges come in the form of claims about what “the many” believe about justice and injustice.  The former argues that, in the view of the many, justice is a mean between the greatest evil and the greatest good.  The greatest evil is to be exploited by someone else.  The greatest good is to be able to exploit others.  The many realize that without restraints on human behavior, they would be the victims rather than the perpetrators of injustice.  They value justice only as a lesser evil.  Glaucon wants Socrates to show him that this view of justice is not correct, that justice is something good in itself.
Adiemantus’ view is more sophisticated.  He grants that the many do speak and act as if justice really were something good in itself; however, what they genuinely desire is the appearance and not the substance of justice.  Justice is like paper money.  It is valuable only because it is valued.  Righteous men value their reputation because it wins them partnerships and good marriages for their children.  Were it not for such commerce, they would not bother about it.  Adiemantus too wants Socrates to show him that justice is something good in itself and not something that is merely instrumental to some selfish end. 
The remainder of the Republic is devoted to Socrates’ efforts to satisfy the two brothers.  I believe that Socrates’ account of justice is convincing.  Socrates argues that justice is in fact the order in a well-ordered soul.  When intelligence governs the passions and the passions govern the appetites, each part of the tripartite soul doing its own proper business, that is justice.  This account succeeds because it presents justice as something not merely good, but beautiful; or more precisely, it is good because it is beautiful.  That is what the brothers crave. 
In this paper I will be making something of a defense on his behalf; however, I will do so by focusing on the simple fact that Glaucon and Adiemantus make their challenges in the first place.  Were Socrates wrong, neither brother would bother to seek an argument in support of justice.  Were Socrates wrong, the popular explanations of justice that the brothers articulate would not make sense, even in their apparently diminished forms. 
This is important because modern political theory and philosophical ethics largely accepts the popular views of justice much as they are articulated by Thrasymachus, Glaucon and Adiemantus.  Justice is indeed valuable in so far as it advances the interests of a population strong enough to defend it.  Even then, it is valued only as a token.  He who carries the token advertises himself as a good partner in cooperative ventures. 
This view has received important support in recent years from evolutionary accounts of morality.  In the work of Christopher Boehm, Michael Tomasello, and David Sloan Wilson, morality emerges in the history of human evolution because it protects the weaker members against the stronger, encourages mutual obligations, and thus allows small groups of humans to effectively compete with other, equally rapacious bands of brothers.  All of human history over the last twelve thousand years or so represents a innovation built out of evolutionary components.  When one group assimilated another rather than annihilating it, bending the assimilated group to its service, much as one organism occasionally assimilates and exploits another, civilization was born.  For this to work, the dominate group must effectively cooperate and to do that competitive behavior within the dominate group must be controlled.  We are back to honor among thieves. 
I will argue that the moral (or the just) could only have functioned in that way because human beings are naturally inclined to see it as beautiful.  The beautiful thing is good because it is noble, beautiful to behold.  In turn, Socrates argues on many occasions in both Plato’s works and the Socratic dialogues of Xenophon, that the good is beautiful.  Socrates admires a beautiful set of armor because he can see that it was exquisitely tailored to some individual other than himself.  It was good for the armorer’s client in so far as it fit him.  It was good for Socrates only in so far as it was beautiful.  Beauty transcends the good which gives it birth.
To take another example from evolutionary psychology, imagine a beautiful house.  Now imagine that there is a verdant forest just behind it, and beyond that a range of hills.  Large picture windows at the front give views of a plain dotted with trees.  Not too far in the distance is a river or lake.  That is a valuable piece of real estate.  Why?  Our ancestors needed access to water and to the occasional prey that gathered there.  They also had to fear predators and other human beings.  They liked to be able to see what was coming and to have somewhere to retreat to.  Our notion of what is a beautiful home was forged as our ancestors moved about and succeeded in finding places that allowed them to flourish and thus become our ancestors.  A Montana ranch house I once visited has all of these elements but none of them were necessary for survival.  It was good because it was beautiful. 
We like to tell stories in which the wicked are defeated and the just triumph.  These stories are beautiful to us because we have a taste for justice.  That taste was a product of evolution because it promoted the successful reproduction of our great great… grandmothers and grandfathers.  That the taste for justice was selected for in our evolution doesn’t change the fact that the object of the taste often has nothing to do with our own reproductive success.  We admire justice even when it has nothing to do with us just as we admire a beautiful painting of a beautiful house that we can never live in.  In that way the taste for the noble transcends the good from which it was born. 

In this essay I will show that inequity aversion, the human distaste for injustice in both two party exchanges and in observations of third party exchanges, show that Socrates was right.  

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Living and the Dead

I have been lecturing on the mind/body problem in my Philosophy 100 course and I took time to describe Hans Jonas’ account of the history of human thinking about life and death.  Jonas was far ahead of his time on these questions, and should be better known and read. 
According to Jonas, substance dualism was a midway between two poles: animism and materialism.  Substance dualists hold that the human being consists of two distinct kinds of substance.  A substance (see Aristotle) is something that can remain the same while it undergoes (hence: substance) change.  So an iron bar can be heated from cold and black to red hot while remaining iron all the while.  Likewise, bricks and boards can be shaped into a church or a bank while remaining bricks and boards.  Substance dualists explain the existence of human consciousness by supposing that the body consists of material substance and the mind (or soul) consists of immaterial substance.  The former is shaped into bones and organs; the latter, into sensations, emotions, and ideas. 
Substance dualism is nothing recent.  The Roman philosopher Lucretius (perhaps the only genuine Roman philosopher, with the possible exception of Cicero) thought that the soul was a subtle kind of material enclosed in the body that escaped when the body was cut open.  Death is like a collapsing balloon.  René Descartes, however, is the philosopher most associated with this theory. 
Jonas argued that the most common view, when human beings first began to think about nature, was animism.  Animists suppose that everything in the Kosmos is alive.  Not just human beings, other animals, and plants, but rocks, mountains, and the heavenly lights.  After all, the moon waxes and wanes just as the crops flourish and wither with the seasons.  Ice crystals grow, don’t they?  Mountains sometimes have inner, molten cores, just like spouses. 
This view is common sense and accords with everyday observations but it confronted one big problem, a scandal as Jonas put it.  The problem was death.  Living things die.  How is the animist to understand a corpse?  This problem never goes away and confronting it led in time to a distinction between body and soul.  That led in much more time to dualism. 
Dualism turned out to be incoherent.  If the soul is immaterial, how does it interact with material substance?  Surely the mind can move the body, as any notes who reaches for a glass of beer.  Just as surely, the body can influence the mind, as anyone knows who drank too much beer.  Material interacts with material.  That is essential to its definition.  Billiard balls collide with billiard balls.  If the soul were immaterial substance, then it could not interact with material substance.  If a ghost can walk through walls because it is composed of immaterial ectoplasm, then how can it push against the floor to walk at all? 
Descartes’ substance dualism gave way in short order to materialism.  Everything in the Kosmos is dead.  Dead particles collide with other dead particles.  Biological organisms appear to be alive, but this is only a pretense.  They are puppets, the strings of which are pulled by their molecular constituents.
If the scandal for animism was death, which it tried furiously to deny, the scandal for materialism is life.  Living things do not merely move, they move with agendas.  A rock doesn’t care whether it remains intact or shatters, but a spider moving across a kitchen floor is up to something.  It will succeed or fail, and that is not something that materialism can allow. 
Jonas argued, paradoxically but correctly, that Darwinian Theory refutes rather than confirms materialism.  If living organisms with agendas and consciousness are indeed material things that emerged by mechanical processes, then the dead material in a prebiotic earth was potentially alive.  The potential for soul was present in the primordial soup. 
I think that the pendulum is swinging back toward animism.  No, crystals are not alive in the same sense that we are, but neither are plants.  Yet the subtle growth of crystals is not unrelated to the growth of a child.  Both the one and the other are growing.  Growth in all cases involves the exploitation of the potential already present in material substance.  This, at any rate, is what I have learned. 

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Problem of Myself

Three of the most basic problems in modern philosophy are different approaches to the same problematic: how can the human individual be part of the physical world around her and separate from that world at the same time.  This is most explicit in the mind/body problem (what is the relationship between consciousness and unconscious matter?).  It is just as fundamental to the problem of free will.  Is my consciousness of choosing and acting the cause of my actions (given the fact that it seems to depend on physical processes) and, if so, how is it the cause?  These two broad topics, difficult as they are, seem easy compared to the third.  What does it mean to say that I am the same person over time when both my physical and mental self are constantly changing? 
There are three general approaches to this question: illusion theory, substance theory, and continuity theory.  The spread is typical of modern philosophy.  You get a null answer (there is no persistent identity or self), a grounding in common sense (self is substantiated in the body or the soul), and an attempt to redefine the question (the self is a continuous series of memories). 
The most prominent defense of the illusion theory comes from two basic principles of Buddhist doctrine.  According to the principle of impermanence, all compounded things will eventually decompose.  This is true of mountains as it is true of human bodies and human minds.  It is true not only “eventually” but persistently.  Everything that exists now has emerged as something else fell the Hell apart.  This is true moment to moment; so my self then is constantly fallout apart into my self now. 
The second principle is interdependence.  There are in fact no individual objects or beings.  When we recognize a tree or some other person as an individual thing, we are abstracting from (which is to say, forgetting) a vast number of other things on which it depends.  The tree is only a tree because it is rooted in a ground that provides moisture and reaches up, through obliging space, to take in the sunlight and air.  Birch trees and Terry Bertrams are like waves on the ocean: temporary ripples riding on an ocean of causation. 
So there is really no persistent me to take responsibility for my actions or to be important enough to worry about.  There is a lot of truth to this view and I think that it is liberating in the way that my Zen teachers have said.  It is not, however, the whole picture.  I am saving for retirement.  At the present rate, I expect to stop working sometime in the next century (assuming that Social Security is intact).  I also expect that it will, in some important sense, be me who retires.  I think that I will be disappointed if I have not saved enough.  Illusion theory offers nothing to comfort me. 
Substance theory is based on Aristotle’s account of change.  For something to change it must become other that it is (or else here has been no change) and remain what it is (or else it has not changed but been replaced).  To account for this you need one substratum and two opposite qualities.  An iron bar becomes hot and red from being cold and black when it is heated.  It remains what it is (iron before and after) but becomes what it is not (hot when it was cold).  So I am the same person because there is something that is me that has not changed (my body or my soul) despite the fact that I changed in many ways. 
The two candidates for individual substance (body and soul) both seem to be lacking.  My body is not the same from moment to moment, let alone through my life.  It seems likely that all my material constituents are replaces once or twice during my lifetime.  Matter and energy flow in and out.  As for the soul, if it’s the same as my consciousness and memories, then it changes along with my body.  If it is something else, what is it?  See this previous post for the difficulties. 
The last approach, continuity of memory theory, is compelling enough that it seems to grab some of my students before I get to it in Introduction to Philosophy.  It was pioneered by John Locke.  I am the same person I was when I was 5 years old because I can remember things that happened to me when I was five.  In the live size photo of me on my mother’s wall I am wearing a sweater.  The photo is black and white but I remember that the sweater was red.  You can't remember what happens to someone else. 
That’s a pretty good answer, but there is a problem.  Suppose that my memories could be downloaded and uploaded by someone else.  Now that guy remembers wearing the red sweater.  Does that mean that he is me?  No.  Tomorrow, when he eats breakfast, he will enjoy it.  I will not. 
Biology offers something useful here.  I began life as a single, fertilized cell, half mommy, half daddy.  All of the specifically human cells in my body (a minority interest among a lot of bacteria, as I understand) trace back their lineage to that Ur cell.  When the cell multiplication formed a blastocyst, there was then established an existentially robust distinction between inside and outside, self and other.  That distinct remains as long as I live. 

Biological continuity is probably the best foundation for a theory of self.  Any philosophically coherent account of soul will have to be grounded in that, as Aristotle argued in his De Anima.  But I am not sure that it answers the most important question.  Tomorrow when I swing my legs out of bed, will that be me that contemplates the event tonight, or a newly regenerated me that only remembers typing this blog.  That is a haunting question.  

Friday, September 25, 2015

On the human thing

I am about to propose a paper for the IPSA next year in Istanbul.  What follows are some reflections that I will distil into that proposal.  
Aristotle reflected that the various branches of philosophy often took their essential subject matter for granted.  A mathematician might never bother to ask what a number is and someone investigating physics (all motion and change, as the philosopher understood it) might never address the question whether motion and change are real.  Modern philosophy, having divorced itself from science, is almost exclusively devoted to topics which other fields take for granted. 
In the case of political science, someone studying voting behavior, for example, will probably feel little need to explain what government is and what politics is, let alone what human beings are.  Political philosophy, my racket, can and must address these questions. 
Politics in its full expression is an exclusively human activity and if the human being is the political animal, as Aristotle says, we cannot understand either the human or the political apart from one another. 
I have long thought the beginnings of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics offer a clue to this puzzle.  Here is how the former opens:
πσα τέχνη κα πσα μέθοδος, μοίως δ πρξίς τε κα προαίρεσις, γαθο τινς φίεσθαι δοκε: δι καλς πεφήναντο τγαθόν, ο πάντ φίεται.
Every technology and every methodical inquiry, and similarly both practice and deliberate action, are regarded as aiming at some good; wherefore the good beautifully presents as that at which everything aims. 
I often ask my students in ancient political philosophy to tell me what “the good” is.  They are always stumped.  Aristotle makes it clear.  The good is some goal that explains some deliberate human activity. 
It is important to note that these activities‑technique, method, practice, and action‑are activities of individual persons.  In the most primary sense, politicians politic and deliberate; regimes do so only in a secondary if not a metaphorical sense.  If we take the Nicomachean Ethics to be an account of the human being, and it is certainly at least that, then it would seem that the human being is the natural person, the individual. 
Here is how the Politics begins:
πειδ πσαν πόλιν ρμεν κοινωνίαν τιν οσαν κα πσαν κοινωνίαν γαθο τινος νεκεν συνεστηκυαν τοῦ γρ εναι δοκοντος γαθο χάριν πάντα πράττουσι πάντες, δλον ς πσαι μν γαθο τινος στοχάζονται, μάλιστα δ [5] κα το κυριωτάτου πάντων πασν κυριωτάτη κα πάσας περιέχουσα τς λλας.  ατη δ στν καλουμένη πόλις κα κοινωνία πολιτική.
Since we see every polis to be some community and every community is established for the sake of some good (for the good is regarded to be that for the sake of which everyone does everything) as it is clear that as all communities aim at some good, the one that aims especially at the most authoritative good is the most authoritative of all of them and embraces all the others.  This is called the polis, is the political community. 
If the Politics is an account of the human being, and it is surely at least that, then it would seem that the human being is the assembly of natural persons, self-organized in a political way. 
The two points of departure point to one idea.  The human being is not the individual nor is it the social group; it is instead the dynamic that involves both of them.  A person can live apart from other persons, as do hermits; however, to the extent that he lives off the culture baggage that he carries (does he take books with him into the woods?) he is not really alone and to the extent that he does not the life he lives is more animal than human.  If you don’t believe me, read Rousseau’s Second Discourse. 
Likewise, human beings can attempt to integrate themselves and others into a social whole so completely that their individuality disappears.  This latter trajectory is more limited than the former.  It is possible for one human being to become completely feral; it is not possible (at least not yet) for two or more human animals to become one human being.  Only the most awesome force can suppress human individuality and that only so long and so thoroughly as the force is applied.
Biopolitical theory, based on Darwinian evolution, can turn the two dimensional spectrum defined by the poles of human persons and human communities into a three dimensional and very real structure reaching backward into time.  Evolution is not goal-directed.  In so far as it has a direction, it teleomatic rather than teleonomic.  It is a mechanical force, pushing organic forms into new environmental niches.  It is not trying to do anything anymore than a balloon is trying to get high.  At any one point in time a biological lineage can branch toward simpler organisms or more complex ones or both.  That one or more branches moved into new niches by the emergence of more and more complex organisms is the reason that human beings (and bovine beings and canine beings, etc.) exist on this planet. 
Single celled organisms can combine into multicellular organisms and eventually their individuality can be entirely (or almost entirely) submerged into the whole.  Multicellular organisms can go the other way or parts of them can go their own way (viruses?).  Some, as the scarecrow says, do go both ways, as in the case of slime molds.  Multicellular individual organisms can also coalesce with other individuals into larger social wholes, though here complete assimilation is more challenging.  Eusocial insects combine into colonies and hives that act more or less like biological individuals.  A sterile cast of ant workers is a sign that individuality has been reproductively submerged in a social whole.  For the most part, social animals are more individual than social.  Sociobiology is all about the ways that individual interests are managed in a way that maintains social integration. 

Human beings are capable of a degree of social integration that is greater than anything other than the eusocial insects and is much deeper than that.  We are almost certainly the only animal that can try to submerge its individual self in a larger whole, only to fail.  I propose that this is the temporal dimension of Aristotle’s great dichotomy.  I also suspect that group selection is the key to understanding this existential dimension of the human being.  That is what I will present in Istanbul, if my paper is accepted.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

How Group Selection Works

To say that a human being must breathe, eat, and defecate, all on a regular basis, in order or write poetry, does not reduce poetry to respiration and digestion; it simply reminds us that poets are biological beings.  Biological processes such as these may rarely be relevant to the interpretation of poetry but they are constantly relevant to an historical interpretation of households and cities.  Caesar cannot recline and enjoy his feasts if food does not come in and poop go out and neither can Rome. 
If you want to understand the idea of justice, as Plato’s Socrates sets out to do in the Republic, you will sooner or later have to account for the existence of human souls and human communities and that cannot be accomplished without evolutionary theory.  My position (big surprise) is that the latter completes Socrates’ account. 
I have been reading David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist?  It reminded me of a fairy tale I composed some time ago to illustrate group selection.  I offer it here. 
Consider a group of imaginary primates living and hunting in small groups in an area covered by tall grass.  I’ll call them puds.  Some of the primates in each group are taller than the grass.  Others are smaller than the grass. 
Now consider that this population of puds is subject to two selection pressures.  The puds are preyed upon by a large avian animal.  I’ll call it a dragon.  Dragons cannot spot a single tall pud but can easily spot more than a handful when the group is moving.  When a dragon descends on a pud group, however, it can feed on large and small with equal ease.  Groups with a lot of tall puds are at a disadvantage, so that is selection against those groups
Within each group, tall puds have an advantage.  They are stronger and can forcibly mate with more females than their shorter male pud compatriots.  So in any group with both tall and short males, the taller will proliferate over time.  So that is selection against small puds
If the groups remain isolated from one another, the species is on the road to extinction.  Every group will eventually have enough basketball stars to attract a dragon and so every group will be eaten and the dragons will go on disability.
What will save the puds is that some of them will survive a dragon attack.  The survivors will find other survivors and form new groups.  Groups with more short pud fellows will survive longer and grow larger, increasing the supply of small puds in the total population.  If, however, every group has at least a few tall guys, the cycle will continue. 
One thing that might alter the trajectory is if the puds are smart enough to figure this out.  A bunch of small puds might realize that the two tall puds who made it to the founding council are a problem and vote them off of the island.  This rule, whether a product of pud culture or a slowly evolving disposition, would tilt the playing field in favor of puds against dragons.  How bad it would be for the latter depends on how tall genes are distributed in the population. 
I thought this up before I knew a lot about the research into group selection.  I intended it only as a demonstration that group selection was logically possible.  D.S. Wilson’s book gave me an example that neatly matches my fairy tale.  Pond skaters (Gerridae) are insects that skate across water in search of prey.  The males come in two flavors: rapists and gentlemen.  The former force themselves on any female they meet.  The latter wait until a female approaches to mate. 
Within groups of skaters, the rapists have an advantage.  They mate more often and produce more offspring.  So their sons proliferate in the group.  However, their appalling behavior doesn’t leave the females with enough time to feed, so they lay far fewer eggs than they would if they were well fed.  The result is that groups with more gentleman grow faster than those with more rapists. 
What keeps the gentleman in business is that females have some choice.  When groups are forming, females are more likely to join a group with more gentlemen.  That simple, biologically trigger preference, rewards chivalry with the precious coin of reproductive success. 
This explains so much.  It explains why cooperation is so difficult and how it is possible.  It explains why rules of justice are necessary among human beings and other social organisms and how justice is possible. 
Something more important now occurs to me.  The balance between group selection and individual selection can tilt either way.  When it tilts toward the group, eventually you get the assimilation of individual organisms into a new whole, as when a multi-cellular animal emerges from a cooperation of cells.  When it tilts the other way, the community with its social interactions disintegrates into individual competitors. 

Human beings are social animals but we are also individuals.  The entire field of justice and morality emerges from this fact.  All human activity, including poetry and politics, is possible because within group selection and between group selection balanced out, over a long period of our life on this earth.  

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Spiritual Evolution of Homo naledi

Whatever it means to belong to the genus Homo, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with brain size.  If Homo is more than an artificial category (like Socrates’ “all the numbers except 17”), if the homonini are a large trunk branching off from the chimpanzees, one branch of which led to Homo sapiens, the question arises whether all the homonini are indeed members of the human clade in some essential sense.  Are (or were) Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis human? 
This question occurred to me today as I listened to news of the discovery of a new hominid species, Homo naledi.  A treasure trove of naledi bones were discovered deep in a cave 30 miles from Johannesburg, South Africa.  Listening to one of the explorers describing how they reached the bones affected me so strongly I had to pull off the road.  I have explored a number of wild caves and suffered once from an almost disastrous case of claustrophobia.  She had to insert herself, pretzel-style, through a crack that was only seven inches wide.  She’s a better man than I am Gunga Din.  
Here is the creature they brought back:
Their feet were incredibly similar to those of modern humans, says Harcourt-Smith, who led the study of the newly discovered creature's feet. Homo naledi stood about 5 feet tall, and yet they had a skull whose volume was only about one-third of ours, a tiny brain in comparison with that of the modern human. Despite their ability to walk upright, with stiff feet and toes that couldn't grasp things as easily as more primitive animals, they had shoulders and hands indicating they would have been quite comfortable climbing through trees and, perhaps, through caves.
This is astonishing.  It has been generally assumed that as our ancestors evolved they maintained a more or less even aspect ratio‑feet getting bigger along with the ass and the elbows and the earlobes.  These critters seem to have been evolving from the ground up.  They had to buy size 9 shoes and hats that would fit a cabbage patch doll. 
And yet…  They were admirably fit for climbing up into trees or down into caves, but why the latter?  It must have easier for them to negotiate the narrow passage than it was for our modern day cavers but they had to do it in the dark.  So what the hell were they doing down there? 
Geological features show that the bodies arrived in the cave over a period of time, meaning this wasn't a one-off event or catastrophe of some sort. Teeth show that the remains come from individuals of many different ages, from young children to teenagers to elderly adults. There aren't signs of violence, falls, or cannibalism. And there are almost no remains from any other creature, indicating that this was a place that had to be sought out deliberately — not a place that some kind of creature dragged its prey.
The only explanation that stands at present is that this was a burial chamber.  They were going to a great deal of trouble to hide their dead. 

To crawl that deep into the dark in order to inter the remains of their loved ones suggests a consciousness of mortality that is fully human, despite their small brains.  Whatever changed when we and our nearer relatives branched off from the chimpanzees, it was more than just bigger or smarter brains.  It involved a much more sophisticated self-awareness.  We evolved not just into more sophisticated physically and mentally subtle forms.  We evolved in the direction of more sophisticated ideas.  That is spiritual evolution and it may yet be the next frontier in evolutionary theory.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Of Ape and Apparatus

David Sloan Wilson has a fascinating discussion with Evolutionary Psychologist Debra Lieberman at This View of Life.  If you are interested in cutting edge discussions of evolution and biology as these areas of research focus on human concerns, this site belongs in your bookmarks. 
I had the honor of joining Debra at a couple of Liberty Fund colloquiums, during which we engaged with other scholars in long, wonderful conversations.  I can tell you that she is someone worth listening to. 
As I read the interview, I remembered one exchange between the two of us.  I remarked that chimpanzees were not machines and she asked me why I thought that this was so.  I don’t remember what I said in reply but I do remember (this is how emotions and memory works!) that I found my reply to be inadequate.  Just right now I will indulge in the temptation to say what I should have said then. 
Machines are material objects, substantiated (made real over time) by the persistence of the material.  They function to allow work to be done more efficiently (i.e. with less energy required).  To take a simple example, consider a ramp at the entrance to a parking garage.  The ramp allows cars to go up and down at an angle rather than vertically, just as stairs do or switchbacks on a trail.  Cars flow in even motion up and down the ramp and it is this flow that explains the existence of the ramp; however, the ramp remains materially the same over time.  If the owner were to replace the material of which the ramp is composed with new material he would say, perhaps with some pride, that the old ramp had been replaced.  He would be speaking accurately. 
A chimpanzee is the very opposite of a machine.  She is constantly recreating herself by exchanging material and energy with her environment.  This self-recreation or self-maintenance, is what substantiates her and all living organisms.  Aristotle would say, and I say with him, that her substance is a soul (or psyche).  The soul is what makes materials that are potentially alive into a real, living organism.  The soul is not a material thing but something (an activity?) that uses material to maintain itself.  To be sure, living organisms deploy a vast number of machines.  From the muscular pulley that works the forelimb down to the molecular conveyer belts that move material inside the cells, machines are indispensable. 
Machines in the most basic sense are not exclusive to human beings or even to organisms.  The formation of mountains as two plate push against one another or the generation of a tornado as a column of twisting air moving parallel to the ground begins to right itself, are good examples.  Organisms, however, can only be properly understood as astonishing processes that employ machines to maintain themselves.  There is no magic here.  The metabolism of the chimpanzee’s digestion is a distant cousin of the heat and moisture that berths the storm.  The ape, however, is trying to do something and the twister is not. 
To properly understand living organisms in general and human organisms in particular, one must steer between two temptations.  One is to view human beings as distinct and unrelated to inorganic, material and mechanical nature.  Just as we are distantly related to the chimpanzee so we are more distantly related to the purple mountain and the blazing stars.  The other is to view us mere machines, no different from dust swirling in the wind.  Nothing is physics or astronomy could allow one to predict an infant that clings to her mother’s breast and cries when they are separated.