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. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Liberal Education & Bad Pop Psychology

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have an excellent piece in The Atlantic: “The Coddling of the American Mind”.  Lukianoff is a constitutional lawyer and Haidt is a social psychologist.  Their topic is the recent movement on college campuses to create an environment where no one can be offended, let alone traumatized, by anything that anyone says.  They provide a lot of familiar examples, but perhaps the most telling concerns the efforts of some law students to suppress the teaching a rape law in their classes.  After all, someone in the room might have been subject to this terrible crime and might well be traumatized by the discussion. 
The current movement is largely about emotional well-being. More than the last, it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into “safe spaces” where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable. And more than the last, this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally. You might call this impulse vindictive protectiveness. It is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.
The authors make some traditional arguments on behalf of a liberal education and critical thinking‑they mention the Socratic Method, for example‑but their primary argument seems to be based on cognitive psychology. 
For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The Buddha said, “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Marcus Aurelius said, “Life itself is but what you deem it.” The quest for wisdom in many traditions begins with this insight. Early Buddhists and the Stoics, for example, developed practices for reducing attachments, thinking more clearly, and finding release from the emotional torments of normal mental life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a modern embodiment of this ancient wisdom. It is the most extensively studied nonpharmaceutical treatment of mental illness, and is used widely to treat depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and addiction. It can even be of help to schizophrenics. No other form of psychotherapy has been shown to work for a broader range of problems.
Having practiced Zen Buddhist meditation for many years, I can testify that it indeed works like cognitive psychology as they describe it.  It also just plain works.  The strategy is to avoid avoiding.  When someone suffering from distress and trauma tries to avoid the source of the trauma, it only makes it stronger.  Gentle persistent exposure (or mindfulness, as current Buddhist language has it) is the best way to work through the human problems.  Norman Fisher’s Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong is an excellent introduction to the Zen method.  In a nutshell, it teaches you to move toward rather than away from what is causing pain. 
So I am, as it were, primed to receive the message that Lukianoff and Haidt deliver.  I can’t speak about cognitive psychology but I know something about liberal education.  I suspect that it is impossible without trauma.  Socrates only became Socrates when he experienced a moment of deep crisis.  The philosophical method he was practicing (that of pre-Socratic science) brought him to a point of intellectual collapse.  Out of that trauma, he became the most influential personality in the history of philosophy.  His trauma is recorded in the Phaedo.  I don’t think he had another, but his students certainly did.  The story of their traumas is written throughout the Platonic corpus.  Aristotle must have had the same experience when broke away from Plato. 
I have had two such experiences.  One in my second year of college, when I realized that I was a conservative.  My friends thought I had been captured by aliens.  All the way through graduate school and into the early years of my teaching career, I rejected Darwinian explanations.  I thought they were inconsistent with Plato and Aristotle.  I still remember sitting on my deck reading Larry Arnhart when I realized that this was not the case.  It was a traumatic moment.  Maybe two is enough for anyone. 
Liberal education is inseparable from trauma and discomfort.  If the universities try to isolate students from these, it is not only bad pop psychology, it is a deep betrayal of their mission. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Adendum One to Two Cultures

My friend Ron White has an interesting comment on the last post at Facebook. 
Other than oppressive/oppressed..."Culture" is IMAGINARY... it's a disease of the mind... It's an objective that we all know who's who. Gender, Race, Tribe, Ethnicity, Nationality are all subjective, malleable, and designed to create "have's" and "have-nots." And (of course) everyone would rather "have" than "have-not."
I replied:
I don't think that "culture" is imaginary. I just think that the only non-arbitrary distinction between one culture and another is the one that I identified. That said, I very much agree that all the demographic distinctions you mention are almost always Nietszchean inventions: they are framed not for understanding but for manipulation.
I think a clarification is in order.  A culture may be non-arbitrarily defined by a trait.  There is a population of dolphins off the coast of Florida who corral their prey by using their tails to fan up circular walls of sand.  So far as is known, this is the only population of dolphins in the world to use this strategy and it apparently has to be learned by each new generation.  That marks out this population as a distinct culture. 
Likewise past human cultures have often been defined by a particular technology, as for example a style or technology of pottery.  This kind of cultural classification can be very useful but it is an altogether artificial classification.  Just because these two sites feature the same kind of pottery doesn’t tell you whether they shared other cultural traits or considered themselves to be somehow the same people. 
This kind of cultural classification is non-arbitrary because it looks for a common feature that can be documented.  It is useful precisely because the classification is artificial: the observer is corralling the phenomena. 

Adendum Two

Some years ago when I was discussing illegal immigration in American Government I unwisely asked this question: “Why do these people come here?”  I was speaking of undocumented workers from Mexico and I knew, but momentarily forgot, that “these people” was a politically incorrect phrase. 
One of my students called me out on it, after class.  The young man was Native American and he explained that he considered Latin Americans in general to be his people, i.e., to share a common lineage, because their populations had a large share of Native American ancestors. 
I acknowledged my faux pas, but I also pointed out something that had never occurred to either of us until that moment.  Inca and Aztec are, I suspect, rather far removed from the Lokota people in the history of their tribes.  Are modern Mexicans to be viewed as Native Americans because all Native Americans are in some sense one people?  If so, then I can make the same argument that the Mexicans are my people.  After all, they also have Spanish ancestors and the Spaniards, like my English, Irish, French, and German ancestors, are all “Europeans”.  You see the problem. 
Native American tribes have identities that are clearly pre-Columbian.  The concept of Native Americans, however, is post-Columbian.  It makes sense only to distinguish the aboriginal populations from European Johnny-Come-Lately colonials.  These distinctions, like all nationalities, are mythological.  There is nothing wrong with this, so long as one recognizes what is really going on.  One need only consider the current power of Hindu Nationalism in India to recognize that the power of such concepts to unify one group is usually part and parcel of what sets that group in opposition to another.