Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Biopolitical Analysis of the Election 2

Teams of three male dolphins will occasionally raid other pods of dolphins.  The object of the raid is to separate a female from the pod in order to mate with her.  As she is an unwilling participant, two of the team will wedge her between them while the third swims up underneath to mate.  If you are thinking that this sounds like rape, you are probably right; though there is some question about this
This is not unusual behavior among animals; however, what is unusual about the dolphin drama is that it often involve alliances between teams of individuals
Dolphins organized themselves into three different kinds of groups that could overlap. One group, usually in pairs or threes, was tasked with gathering fertile females during mating season.
In a "second-order alliance", the animals form "teams" of between four and 14 males which mount attacks on other groups to take their females, or to defend against attacks.
The third group maintained “friendly relations” with all dolphin groups and helped out various teams when additional forces were needed.
The team found the males made a series of alliances with the same sex. They only observed one group of females forming a temporary coalition against young males.
Reciprocity between individuals within a group or even individuals in different species, such as cleaner fish and predator fish, is common enough.  The third kind of dolphin group doing something rather different.  It is available for offensive and defensive alliances.  It hardly seems likely that such assistance would be offered unless there is some prospect of recompense.  I can’t think of any other example of this kind of behavior outside of human societies. 
This may be the thing that separates the most political animal from all the other political animals.  While chimpanzee groups may be governed by an alliance between an alpha and beta male, I have not heard that such groups divide into competing subgroups with more than one individual on each side.  This may have been true of human groups until very recently (meaning the last twelve thousand years).  Since that time, human political communities frequently divide into groups that compete for dominion over the larger group.  That is what we call politics in italics. 
How does this division occur?  The most obvious answer is that the divide occurs along family lines; however, most human societies consist of numerous families.  Isolated human individuals (free radicals?) and third and four rank families must decide which side to back.  How does this happen?
I have quoted this passage from an earlier post before. 
When these capuchin monkeys forage, how do they decide which way to go?  The answer is that individuals break off in different directions.  As the pathbreaker moves away from the group, she looks behind her to see who is following.  If no one follows, she will give up and rejoin the group.  If her entourage includes two or three, or four or more… .  The more of her troop that follow, the more likely she is to persist in her chosen direction.  Likewise, the more that follow, the more likely the rest of the troop will follow suit.  That is leadership in a basically democratic community.  Individuals compete for the position of archon, and so the group can act as a unit working for the advantage of all. 
I think it rather likely that this is not only how politics works but how the human mind works. 
My consciousness is, at best, a prime minister managing various constituencies.  My desire to lose weight addresses the ministry while my appetite screams from the gallery about chocolate eclairs.  Meanwhile my fellow Republicans seem about to nominate a chocolate ├ęclair to run for president. 
Now that the chocolate ├ęclair is the president elect, we may bring the analysis to bear.  Political alliances form on the basis of two decisions: which allies will form a winning coalition and which coalition will give us what we want.  In addition to getting a better share of the common resources, what we might want is revenge against those who have offended us.  That motive has been around at least since the common human-chimpanzee ancestor. 
Why did primate Trump win over primate Clinton?  The election was determined, as I have written before, by who showed up at the polls.  President Obama was reelected in 2012 with a smaller electorate than showed up for him in 2008.  I believe that is unprecedented in the post war period.  He won because Mitt Romney could not convince enough on his allies to come to the polls.  Secretary Clinton inherited Obama’s declining support and saw further decline.  Mr. Trump, meanwhile, held onto Romney’s coalition.  That decided the matter in the states where it counted. 
Individual human beings are extraordinarily complex the creatures.  The factions into which they sort themselves and others are vastly more complex.  Yet the latter are only the result of a lot of the former deciding which way to forage and who to back.  It was not a good thing for Secretary Clinton that a very large portion of the electorate knew that she, and most of the Washington establishment and pretty much all the journalist and pundits in the mainstream press thought were contemptuous of them.  It is not clear, however, that this increase Mr. Trump’s margin much.  What is clear is that a lot of the folks who followed President Obama down the path last time didn’t follow Ms. Clinton. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A biopolitical analysis of the election part 1

I suppose no one will object if I use primate studies to understand Donald Trump.  I voted neither for him nor for Secretary Clinton, which gives me a small feeling of existential freedom in this matter. 
At the moment there are all too many explanations for Trump’s election.  The most popular on the left are racism and misogyny among the voters or, as Nate Silver put it:
America hasn’t put its demons — including racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny — behind it. White people still make up the vast majority of the electorate, particularly when considering their share of the Electoral College, and their votes usually determine the winner.
I have no idea on what the anti-Semitism charge is based.  Is Secretary Clinton a Marrano Jew?  To be certain, Silver is demonizing the majority of the electorate, which seems to be on the side of the dark lord merely because they are a majority.  I beg to differ and I will do so in this post. 
Among the problems with the racism charge are that Trump won several states that voted twice for Barack Obama and that Trump seems to have done slightly better with African American and Hispanic voters than did Mitt Romney.  The explanation and the facts just don’t fit very well.  The problem with the misogyny charge is that Secretary Clinton has never been in a very good position to press the case.  She and her party acted as enablers for her husband’s boorish behavior.  Suppose for a moment that the Republican candidate had been an African American woman who otherwise spoke and acted exactly as Trump does.  I think she wins by 5% points. 
Genuine landslide elections are determined by a lot of voters choosing one candidate over another.  LBJ over Goldwater and Nixon over McGovern come to mind.  For the most part, that is not what happens.  Election are instead determined by voters deciding whether to vote or not.  Mr. Obama won the nomination and election in 2008 and was reelected in 2012 in part because African American voters came out in large numbers to support him.  We have only the exit polls to go by, but it appears that Trump did only slightly better among white voters than Romney.  Secretary Clinton lost because she did not get the same support from Democratic constituencies that Mr. Obama did. 
Human beings are not the only political animal but we are, as Aristotle observed, the most political animal.  Among non-human political animals, politics is based primarily on kinship bonds and secondarily on close personal alliances.  An alpha male chimpanzee governs his group by means of personal strength and aggression backed up by a strong beta male and frequently will lead his group in a lethal war against other chimpanzee groups.  Human beings took a great leap forward when they were able to expand kinship bonds to include large groups of allies.  Though those fighting with me are not in fact biological kin, we are nonetheless a band of brothers.  This remarkable, unprecedented ability to attach kinship instincts to non-kin results in enormously complex relationships both within and between mutually hostile groups. 
The result is that human politics have always been tribal, or more accurately, familial in nature.  Political groups form by individuals deciding whether these or this one is one of us.  The criteria for the decision may be class, location, religion, ethnic or racial identity, or ideology.  However important those criteria may be to the individual, the political significance of the criteria lies in the group identity.  If an Irish Catholic lad hates an Irish Protestant lad, the religious identities function as uniforms.  The Catholic lad believes that his people are the original people, the true Irish; the other guy is just one of the invaders.  When an American progressive accuses a Republican of being a global warming denier, the same thing is going on. 
Winning in a political struggle might appear to be determined merely by which group of primates is larger.  In human politics, what really matters is whether the leader on either side is able to rally his foot soldiers or, in larger scale confrontations, whether he or she can assemble a coalition of groups that is willing or able to provide support at the critical moment.  Members of her loyal core may have different reasons for supporting her (she is a woman, a Democrat, a liberal, etc.) and so do the different groups that she is hoping will coalesce behind her.  If she fails, it is because too many of the folks on the other side moved and too few on her side did the same when both leaders yelled “charge!” 
Donald Trump is a primate and so is Hillary Clinton and so are the voters who sided with the one and the other.  Upwards to 90% of African Americans vote for Democrats.  A lot more moved for Mr. Obama than for her.  It would be silly to accuse these voters of racism because of this.  They calculated their loyalties, more or less consciously, just as everyone else does.  The same is true of Trump voters.  It might be wise to recognize them as just people making choices, instead of victims of demonic possession.  

Friday, November 4, 2016

Evolutionary Vectors

I have been reading Bernd Rosslenbroich’s book again: On the Origins of Autonomy: A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution.  Rosslenbroich notes that Darwin himself confronted the paradox of progress in evolutionary history and attempted to solve it 
A paradox occurs when the same phenomenon appears to present two, logically irreconcilable faces.  On the one hand, common descent from an Ur organism seems to produce only an increasingly diverse number of branching lineages.  As we survey the tree from bottom (earliest) to the top (presently existing organisms), each fork (plants fork from animals, mammals branch from reptiles, etc.) each new branch represents only the extension of original lineage into available ecological niches.  The driving force is natural selection, which is altogether undirected.  Evolutionary history flows, as flood waters do, around obstacles and into the next available plain.  Okay, I am mixing metaphors; the point is, in this account, slime mold amoebas and certified public accountants are equal in ontological status in so far as they both made it to the present moment. 
On the other hand, it seems obvious that multi-cellular organisms represent an advance beyond their single-celled ancestors, animals an advance beyond plants, mammals an advance beyond reptiles.  If evolution is driven by an undirected, efficient causation, how can we understand these apparent advances?  Darwin attempted to account for this by appealing to the idea of increasing fitness.  More advanced organisms are better able to survive and reproduce; why else would they have emerged in the first place? 
This explanation is untenable.  Cockroaches are more fit in terms of natural selection than elephants, slime molds than slimy politicians.  Darwin’s explanation fails.  Many biologists have been tempted to try to give up the idea of progress altogether; however, they have been unable to do so.  Ignoring the distinction between higher level and lower level organisms means ignoring a conspicuous feature of biological reality. 
Rosslenbroich demonstrates that this is a persistent problem in the philosophy of biology.  Biologists can’t do with and can’t do without a theory of progress.  Among the attempts to model progress in evolutionary history are: increasing complexity, increasing division of labor among cells, increasing efficiency or energy intensive activity, increasing genetic information, and increasing body size.  All seem to come up short of a satisfactory account of what distinguishes the lower levels of biological activity from the activities of the higher levels.  Without that, how can we understand how sentient moles and heartbroken playwrights emerged from the primordial soup?
Rosslenbroich’s answer is increasing autonomy.  The most basic feature of living organisms is that they build a barrier between themselves and their environment.  The simplest living cell builds a wall around itself.  Within that wall it maintains itself and controls interactions with the environment in order to resist equilibrium with its environment.  If the external environment is too salty, the cell blocks the admission of salt and so maintains its less salty interior.  If the internal self is polluted with waste, paste is passed on to the external environment. 
The efficient cause of the movements of a fallen leaf are external to the leaf: the autumn wind.  The efficient cause of the movements of a mouse or of the cat stalking the mouse, are internal to the one and the other. 
Rosslenbroich argues that what distinguishes higher from lower organisms is increasing autonomy.  The simplest cell builds a wall between itself and its environment and maintains the one against the other.  More complex cells build internal walls, protecting the nucleus against the rest of the cell.  Animals build walls around their organs and walls protecting brains and sex cells against the flow of energy and materials within the body.  The walls don’t have to be material.  A hive of bees distinguishes its social self from other insects. 
I think that this is dead spot on.  It explains the difference between the primitive and advanced organisms without any need to suppose a directed force in evolution.  Just as tectonic plates collide to rise up into mountains, so the forces of evolutionary history pushed up in the direction of increased autonomy.

I also think that it holds the answer to a number of basic philosophical questions.  To mention only one: the problem of personal identity.  The psychological self is one more advance in the expansion of biological autonomy.  

Friday, October 28, 2016

Good News about Evolution and Classical Political Philosophy

I was a student of the late Harry V. Jaffa.  One of the seminal moments in my intellectual career took place over two days, when I read Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided.  Anyone who has read that amazing book will sympathize with my experience.  When I went to bed on the first night, I was convinced that Stephen Douglas was right in his argument with Lincoln.  When I finished the second half of the book the next day, I was persuaded that Lincoln was right: slavery is by nature always and everywhere unjust.  I have never revised that opinion, and I have been a natural right thinker ever since. 
Another seminal moment came many years later when I was reading a primer on evolutionary psychology.  It had occurred to me that, if we want to talk about natural right, we might want to know something about nature.  Sitting on my deck one grey afternoon, I realized that Darwinian evolution was not opposed to Aristotle and to the classical natural right that Jaffa championed.  On the contrary, evolutionary theory can provide powerful support for the thought of Aristotle.  I later concluded that the same was true for Plato. 
Most of those who take the writings of the classical philosophers seriously, not as mere historical artifacts but as guides to the truth about morality and politics, see evolutionary thought as utterly opposed to classical thought.  A good example of this is the first two paragraphs of a 2013 conference paper written by Steven Forde. 
As a political theorist by training, I avoided tackling the problem of Darwin for many years. I suspected that the theory of evolution would call into question the very enterprise of political theory, as traditionally understood. My fears have largely been borne out, as the following indicates. Yet it is impossible in this day and age to deny that evolution is the truth—that human beings, like all existing life forms, evolved out of prior, typically simpler life forms. Our organs, including our brains, are all descendants of organs found in earlier primates. Certain key intellectual capacities, such as the capacity for language, are “hard wired” into our neural makeup. Certain emotional responses appear to be so as well, including some closely tied to our sense of morality. These include such natural responses as empathy and indignation, emotions that have analogues in other primates today, and presumably in our evolutionary ancestors.
These facts, along with findings of neuropsychology concerning gratification received from cooperative and other putatively moral behavior, suggests that morality is hard wired into us. This is good news and bad news. The good news is that it seems we are destined to remain a moral, cooperative species regardless of intellectual or cultural trends. The bad news is that this morality has no grounding of the sort that ordinary human beings believe it does, and that traditional political philosophy sought. It is simply an artifact of our evolutionary heritage. This is the conclusion I dreaded all the years I avoided this topic of study.
This is an example of what I would call a pious dread.  It reminds one of the famous quote from the wife of the Bishop of Worcester who, when informed of Darwin’s theory, supposedly said:
My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.
The most significant passage in that quote is this one:
Morality has no grounding of the sort that ordinary human beings believe it does, and that traditional political philosophy sought. It is simply an artifact of our evolutionary heritage.
My question, which I do not think was addressed in Forde’s piece, is what kind of grounding do ordinary human beings think morality has?  What kind of grounding does traditional political philosophy seek?  Human beings, ordinary or otherwise, are moral animals.  We are endowed with moral emotions, including guilt, righteous indignation, and admiration.  Perhaps what we seek is an account of moral right that satisfies those emotions.  What sort of account might that be?
The most satisfying account is this: justice is what God demands and human beings must choose, or else.  Divine law provides powerful support for moral emotions; however, as such, it doesn’t provide much that the philosophically inclined can work with.  What does provide that material is the fact that a lot of moral rules seem to be socially functional.  Prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, and incest, are all defensible by rational argument. 
The strongest defense of justice without direct appeal to divine law is found in Plato’s Republic.  In the first book Thrasymachus argues that justice is no more than a confidence game played by the strong in any political community in order to persuade the weak to accept their lot.  The weakness in that argument is that it can’t explain why the con job works.  If all of us want the same things, power, prosperity, revenge, why are moral admonitions useful to the strong? 
Socrates argues that even a gang of thieves must observe some rules of justice among themselves if they are to effectively exploit others.  In the second book, Glaucon and Adiemantus challenge that answer.  Glaucon presents a view of justice that he himself finds repulsive.  Most people would like to exploit everyone else but know that they are not powerful enough to do so.  Principles of justice are then a mere compromise: we agree not to exploit others so that others will not exploit us.  Adiemantus argues that people do genuinely value justice, but what they care about is not the thing itself but the reputation for it.  A man who appears just will attract good friends and arrange good marriages for his offspring. 
Why are the two brothers unsatisfied with their respective accounts of justice?  While these accounts provide objective grounds from justice, they are vulgar rather than noble or, what is the same thing, beautiful.  Apparently, only a beautiful account of justice will be genuinely satisfying. 
In the body of the Republic, Socrates presents an account of justice as an element in a well ordered soul.  In such a soul, intelligence rules the passions and the passions rule the appetites.  An ideal regime would reflect that order, with the philosopher (Socrates or someone like him) ruling, the exquisitely trained military class obeying his commands, and the producer class minding its own business by producing. 
This account provides a beautiful and coherent solution to the problem.  If an individual behaves unjustly, he feeds the worst part of himself and that means that he cannot have the kind of soul that makes for the best possible life.  The same is true of political communities.  Thucydides supplements this account.  Cities that behave unjustly toward other cities encouraged injustice among their own citizens, thus undermining the cooperation upon which their strength depends.  What is most beautiful is the human being who lives the most admirable life and the city that governs itself and its foreign policy in a way that makes for the most admirable civil life.  If justice contributes to that, then justice is indeed beautiful. 
Socrates takes the moral emotions of his interlocutors for granted.  He does not try to explain how we became such creatures for whom a beautifully ordered soul and a beautifully ordered regime might be possible.  He does suggest that the most natural political community is one that provides for the minimal physical needs of human animals with the least effort.  For justice to be genuinely beautiful, it has to provide for a life that includes more than that: noble deeds and, last but not least, the leisure for some to pursue philosophy. 
Evolutionary theory explains how we became the kind of animal that Socrates examines.  Our moral emotions were shaped by eons of natural selection.  They made it possible for us to cooperate on a level far beyond that of other animals.  At some point, they made it possible for us to satisfy our basic biological needs and then seek satisfactions beyond those needs.  The rise of civilization made it possible for some people (and eventually most people) to stop worrying about the next meal and look instead for something interesting to do. 
The best human lives are ones that are not merely physically and emotionally satisfying.  They are interesting.  What interests us is rooted in our evolutionary heritage but necessarily goes beyond that heritage.  We inherit preferences for color, symmetrical lines and objects, and landscapes including mountains and water.  That doesn’t mean we have genes for liking a J. M. W. Turner painting.  An appreciation for great art depends on evolved dispositions; however, it explores new existential space that cannot be reduced to those dispositions.  We inherit preferences for fat, sugar, texture, and color in foods.  That doesn’t mean that we have genes for liking a four star Michelin meal.  We inherit preferences for certain kinds of sounds and harmonies.  A William Parker jazz composition builds on those evolved dispositions to produce something that will not advance the interests of my genes but is simply beautiful. 
A house is an artificial product.  Houses do not grow as trees do.  It is nonetheless natural in so far as it satisfies natural inclinations for a safe, warm, and dry shelter.  Political communities are artificial.  As Aristotle recognized, we have to build them more or less deliberately.  They come to be, he said, for the sake of mere life.  That is Darwinian thinking.  Political communities emerged in a long history of human beings trying to survive in as comfortable a way as possible.  They exist, Aristotle said, for the sake of the good life.  Once a political community has achieved self-sufficiency, its citizens can turn to explore the benefits of existential freedom. 

This is the ground for morality that Forbes craves.  Cooperation based on reciprocity is central to every code of moral behavior.  It not only allows individual human beings to form communities that secure the most basic needs; it also allows for the production of surpluses that allow us to live beautiful lives.  His pious fear is unfounded.  

Friday, October 21, 2016

On Free Will

One thing that occurs to me after years of teaching Introduction to Philosophy is that the central problematic of modern thought is the mind/body problem and that the various subdivisions of modern philosophy‑ epistemology, philosophy of mind, free will, personal identity, ethics, etc.‑will be solved by viewing them all as aspects of the same problematic or they will not be solved at all.  It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that I also think the solution lies in the phenomenon of life. 
As a case in point, I offer the topic of freedom.  The various approaches to this topic may be organized around the answers to two questions. 
  • 1.       Is determinism true? 
  • 2.      Are free will and determinism compatible? 

Depending on whether you answer those two questions as yes or no, four possibilities present. 
Determinism means the doctrine that the past rigidly determines the future.  Given the state of the Kosmos at any point in time, one and only one state is possible at any subsequent time.  Here “state of the Kosmos” indicates everything in the physical universe, down to the smallest detail.  So the position and momentum of every object, every molecule and atom and subatomic particle rigidly determines the state of the same at all points in time. 
Free will means that the actions of a human being are determined by the deliberate choices that the human being makes, so that the actor is in some significant sense responsible for those actions. 
If you say that determinism is true and that free will and determinism are incompatible, you are a hard determinist.  Determinism means that all events are rigidly determined by previous events.  Human decisions are events.  Since the past is not something over which individuals have control, for no one has control over the past, decisions are not something over which individuals have control.  Consequently, no human being can be responsible for his or her actions. 
If you agree that free will and determinism are incompatible but you insist that free will is real, then you must reject determinism.  That makes you a libertarian, in the lingo of the tradition.  Libertarians will allow that some causation is event causation, where each event rigidly determines the next event.  Think of billiard balls striking one another.  However, there are special cases of agent causation.  Human beings are agents, capable of initiating chains of causation by making uncaused decisions.  We have something like a clutch, which disengages us from the chain of causation and allows us to act with genuine, metaphysically robust free will. 
Because these two positions agree that free will and determinism are incompatible, they are described as incompatibilist positions.  Soft determinists agree with hard determinists on one point: determinism is true.  Our decisions were determined in advance, from the very beginning of the coherent Kosmos.  They argue that free will is nonetheless genuine.  How so?  Free will does not depend on why I want what I want.  That is indeed determined by forces beyond my control.  Instead, free will depends on whether I can do what I want to do.  Am I free to leave the room I am sitting in now?  The answer is yes, if the door is unlocked. 
Compatibilists argue that I have acted out of genuine free will if the following criteria are met:
  1.  If I had chosen otherwise, I would have done otherwise.
  2. The choice is unforced.

Someone offers me vanilla or chocolate ice cream.  I choose vanilla, but if I had chosen chocolate I would have gotten chocolate.  Nobody put a gun to my head or tortured me.  My choice of vanilla was an act of free will, regardless of the fact that my genes predispose me to like vanilla or that I got sick when eating chocolate ice cream when I was a child. 
Let’s arrange the positions in a nice, four box chart. 

Are free will and determinism compatible?


Is determinism true?


soft determinism

hard determinism



You will notice that one box is unoccupied.  That happens to be my position.  I agree with the soft determinists that freedom turns on whether I can do what I want, not on why I want one thing rather than another.  What matters is whether I am the one doing the choosing.  All the forces acting on me, from my past and my present, have to act through me.  Here we can draw from another field of investigation: the mind/body problem.  Functionalists argue that the mind is an information processor.  Information gathered from the environment (the ice cream vendor) is processed into better information or directly into behavior.  The human mind is almost certainly more than that but it is at least that. 
On the other hand, I regard determinism as one of the myths of modern thought.  It is like Santa Claus.  Einstein wanted to believe in it (God does not play dice with the universe!) but there is no reason to believe in it.  Science requires that the past influences the future, but only within some margin of error.  It might be that we could determine the outcome of any experiment with perfect precision if only we could incorporate all the relevant factors with perfect precision.  There is no reason to suppose that we can ever do the latter, so there is no reason to suppose the former. 
Moreover, quantum mechanics indicates that Kosmos may be, at very small levels, fundamentally indeterministic.  In a deterministic world, everything is at one place at one time.  In the quantum world, a single photon may pass through one slit in a barrier and through the other slit, and both, and neither, all at the same time.  A particle may decay at this moment or not, without anything causing it to so the one or the other. 
When we put aside the myth of determinism, what are we left with?  The human mind is, at the very least, a decision generator.  In this respect, it is no different from the minds of similar creatures such as chimpanzees or beagles.  We are conscious, in our choosing, of sensations (it hurts or it feels good), passions (I love this or fear this) and concepts (this is just and that is unjust).  Why have such existential states of mind emerged over the course of evolutionary history?
The only reasonable answer is that at some point in the evolution of animals, they became free in a metaphysically robust sense.  They no longer responded mechanically to environmental stimuli but got to pick and choose.  This capacity was selected for because it dramatically expanded the creativity with which animals could respond to their environments.  Animals can explore their world, looking for opportunities that their genetic inheritance could not predict. 
The flip side of that freedom was an existential stake in their existence.  Freedom could only be selected for if it secured reproductive success.  Sensations and later emotions are means by which existentially free creatures can be bribed to pursue the paths that secure the latter. 
We do not know how biological organisms can achieve genuine, metaphysically robust freedom.  Neither do we know how it is possible for moist robots, consisting of cells consisting of molecular mechanisms, to achieve consciousness.  We don’t even know how to begin asking the question in a way that might lead to an answer.  We do know that consciousness was achieved, for we sense and feel.  We know that we are free because we are faced with choices. 

We can only make progress on these central question of modern philosophy if we look for the answers in our nature as living creatures.  

Friday, September 9, 2016

On the Soul and the Afterlife

Dear friend and former student Miranda always thanks me for responding to her comments.  The debt is all mine.  No one else comments here.  She not only leaves comments, but poses the best kind of questions.  In a recent post I stated this:
I find it difficult to see evolutionary theory as anything but beautiful. I don't think that understanding the evolutionary roots of the beautiful and noble things detracts in any way from their beauty, any more than understanding the science of optics detracts from the beauty of a Canaletto perspective. I have to try hard to see why it seems otherwise to so many people.

So far, I cannot think of a single cherished idea that I held before I began to take Darwinism seriously that I had to give up. On the other hand, I can't think of one that seems exactly the same to me as it did before. I hope that means that my idea are richer. 
Miranda had mentioned the allegory of the cave from Plato in her first comment.  She responded to the above:
If [Plato’s] cave is only full of shadows and there is only light outside, it is easy to see why someone on the outside would have trouble understanding what people in the shadows saw in being inside. But suppose that, inside the cave, there were shadows of all the people you had once loved, who had died and that this was all you had left of them. Suppose there was a good chance that you might never see them again if you were to step into the light. Wouldn’t you be more reluctant to step out of the cave? I would be.

Those of us who grew up believing that the soul was a ghost in the machine, that could survive apart from the body and live forever - and that this meant that perhaps we could reunite with the souls of those we had loved, but who had died - have a difficult time seeing the idea of the soul as a set of nutritive processes, dependent on the body.

To believe that the soul depends on the body, which is clearly not eternal, means having to consider the idea that the soul is not eternal. It may mean having to accept that the dead are dead and that there is no chance of seeing them again. Whether this is true or not, I think it is a less beautiful idea than the idea of eternal life and the chance to see those you have lost again. That is not to say that something is truer just because it more beautiful, but I don’t think it is hard to see why someone might be reluctant to leave such an idea behind.
I have been blogging for decades and I cannot remember ever receiving so powerful and beautiful a response.  I will try to do it justice. 
Yes, I can imagine that it would be hard to move from a world of shadows to a world of real things, visible in the light, if one is in love with shadows.  I am well acquainted with the longing that Miranda skillfully presents here.  I lost my father a few years ago and I would pay dearly to see him again.  I am not, however, the least bit interested in seeing his shadow. 
The shadows in Plato’s [or Socrates’] cave are two dimensional representations of things that may or may not exist in the real world.  The shadows may be comforting but you can’t hug them or converse with them.  That is the problem with the “ghost in the machine” view of the soul: all it can offer you is vapor, intangible and anything but warm. 
I am pretty certain that the notion of a disembodied soul is incoherent.  If you want evidence, consider how ghosts are represented in movies.  They are more or less transparent, but they have arms and legs and are usually wearing clothes.  As Bierce put in his Devil’s Dictionary, it’s one thing to believe in the survival of a human being after death; but textile fabrics
It is evidence of the weakness of the Christian churches that they have allowed this Cartesian dualism, the Gospel According to Disney as I like to put it, to displace the doctrine of all the major churches for the last thousand years.  I remember repeating that doctrine in the church of my youth.  Here is the 3rd stanza of the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
 the holy Catholic Church,
 the communion of saints,
 the forgiveness of sins,
 the resurrection of the body,
 and the life everlasting. Amen.
The resurrection of the body is the promise of the Gospel.  No vaporous floating or shadowy flickering; I will get my body back.  Hopefully, I will be taller.  This is consistent with the emphasis in the wee books of the New Testament on Christ coming in the flesh.  He didn’t float out of the tomb.  He swung his legs off the slab and walked out. 
Human souls are not conceivable apart from human bodies.  That doesn’t mean that there can’t be an afterlife.  It just means that if there is, we have to get a body back.  There is nothing incoherent about that.  If the original tapes of Jesus Christ Superstar were destroyed, I would still have the rock opera on my IPod.  Information is always embodied. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

On the Beautiful and the Good 2

Intrepid reader and friend Miranda poses two good questions to my last post on the beautiful and the good. 
If the good is what is worth choosing, then couldn't something immoral be good? For instance, New Gingrich chose to cheat on his cancer stricken wife with his mistress. This benefited him in a number of ways. He gained a partner who he said understood him better and who was younger, more attractive and more energetic than his wife. He does not seem to have regretted his choice and, indeed, seems to have lived happily with his new partner ever since. His choice, then, seems relatively choice-worthy. But was it good?
I think that this question teases out the distinction between moral and non-moral goods.  If I choose to eat an apple rather than an orange, this is a non-moral choice.  If I choose to break a promise that turned out to be more costly than I anticipated, that is a moral choice.  What is the difference? 
I hold that the moral is a subset of the good.  Any time I am faced with a choice between something that seems better and something that seems worse, I am obviously exercising the capacity to distinguish between the two.  All living organisms have this capacity; animals, but not plants, can exercise it at the level of sentience. 
At least one animal (and probably a few more) can also distinguish between what looks good and what is good.  Whenever a human being is tempted to choose the first and not the second, the dimension of moral choice has opened up.  I think that even when such a choice is limited to pure self-interest it is still moral; otherwise, why do people often feel ashamed and guilty when they choose things (donuts and cigarettes) that they know aren’t good for them?  Why do they feel the same emotions when the doctor gives them the bad news? 
You explain well why the choice to dump one spouse and pick up another looked like a good choice.  To show that it was a bad one, you would have to show some set of criteria that is more authoritative or more comprehensive than the ones you mention.  Since I think that some grounds for divorce are legitimate (one of my relatives divorced a man who was abusing her sons) I would be hesitant to pass judgment without knowing more than I care to know about Newt Gingrich.  I would point out that any hope he had of appearing as a noble statesman (something I think he desperately graved) went out the window with his choice. 
Both Plato and Aristotle divided goods into three categories: those that are good in themselves (philosophy, for example); those that are good only in so far as they contribute to some other good (a visit to the dentist); and those that are both (noble actions on behalf of a republic).  Because we are talking about the good, we are always in the realm of calculation and action taken without full knowledge of the consequences.  This is why most moral choices involve judgment calls. 
Regarding beauty: If beauty is good, what do we call the quality we usually refer to as beauty when it describes something bad? Deadly storms or poison dart frogs come to mind.
Poison dart frogs are easy.  They are indeed good, to look at.  I have no trouble in calling them beautiful for that reason.  They are also beautiful, I expect, to a hunter who needs to whip up some poison darts to bring down a monkey from high up in the canopy. 
A harder question for my Socratic theory of the beautiful is why so much of our fiction (Shakespeare comes to mind) is about bad choices.  I am tempted to say that we sometimes acquire a taste for what is initially bad (bitterness comes to mind).  That is clearly insufficient.  It is better to say that the human soul is beautiful in its potential, at least, and such poetry reveals it to us better than anything else.  We become deeper by our witness.  In the best cases, it teaches us what choices not to make.  Lincoln said, I believed, that he learned about tyranny from Macbeth. 
As for storms, they are indeed beautiful from a distance and very ugly when you are in their path.  It is not hard to explain the latter.  As for the former, there is nothing so grand as the sight of a hurricane moving in with a clear sky behind it.  Light and towering force are a composition to be reckoned with.  If we want to get some good out of it beyond the awe of the view, it teaches us how small our powers are even in this shallow skin of air we call an atmosphere.  That is good to know. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

On the Beautiful

I will be presenting a talk on concepts of the beautiful in Plato and in modern biology to an English class at Northern.  This post is a version of my talk. 
Plato presents all or almost all of his thought in a series of dialogues.  The central figure in each of these is either Socrates or someone who sounds just like Socrates.  Most of what we know about Socrates comes either from Plato or from another student named Xenophon, or from the playwright Aristophanes.  My discussion will present a concept of the beautiful that is based on the first two sources. 
Socrates was fond of “what is” questions: what is beauty, truth, justice, etc.?  In the Greater Hippias he raises the question: what is the beautiful?  The sophist Hippias first tries to answer the question the way most people would answer it, by naming beautiful things.  The beautiful is a beautiful girl, he offers.  I could offer Catherine Zeta Jones (in Zorro) and Brad Pit (in A River Runs Through It) as examples, though I am more confident of my answer in the first case.  By contrast, my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Fezer and Donald Trump stand as examples of the ugly. 
The problem with such an answer, according to Socrates, is that it doesn’t tell us what puts these items in the same category.  What does a beautiful man and a beautiful sunset have in common?  Consider the following by way of analogy. 
Red powder plus oil makes red paint.
That is a materialist explanation of the latter.  This stuff plus that stuff.  It answers the what is question so long as we are confident that we understand the materials.  
Heat plus iron equals red, hot, iron. 
For a long time science offered a materialist explanation: heat was a substance that can be transferred from one sponge to another, as when heat leaks out from a hot plate into the dinner table.  Today we understand heat to be molecular energy, which is a formalist explanation.  That’s more like what Socrates is looking for. 
A hemispherical shape plus a ceramic material makes a bowl. 
Here we have a perfect Socratic answer.  Fix a point, draw a circle around it and draw a line through the diameter.  Rotate the circle a full turn around the diameter, and you have a sphere.  Cut the sphere in half, and you have a hemisphere.  That, in geometrical precision, is what is added to the material to make a bowl.  So:
X plus a maiden makes a beauty.
Solve for X. 
Socrates’ answer is that the beautiful is the good.  This looks plausible.  The good plus a human body makes a beautiful person.  The good plus something edible makes a beautiful meal.  The good plus writing makes a beautiful book.  It raises, however, a number of difficult questions. 
Perhaps the least difficult is this: what is the good?  The answer is easy: the good is the choice worthy.  The good road is the one we choose over the bad road.  The good man is the one we choose as a friend and/or ally, etc.  This answer obviously doesn’t tell us what to choose, but it explains how we sort out the examples.  The beautiful maiden is the one he would choose if he were faced with a choice.  We still need to know why this maiden is more choice worthy than that one. 
A more difficult problem is distinguishing the beautiful from the good.  If they were exactly the same thing, why do we need two words?  A still more difficult problem is the fact that some things that seem to be beautiful are not good at all.  A cruise looks beautiful if you don’t know that the boat is going to sink.  To an addict, nothing is more beautiful than a lump of black tar heroin dissolving in a heated spoon. 
Socrates’ answer is that genuine beauty arises from the accurate perception of what is genuinely good and that the latter is good from all angles.  If something looks good before we choose it and then looks bad afterward, the former was not the perception of a genuine good.  I think of the demonic hag in horror movies.  He sees her as a beautiful maiden when she is in fact a withered beast who is going to eat his soul.  If you want a less colorful example, think of junk food or blood money.  Just ask Judas about the value of that thirty bucks just before he hangs himself. 
Socrates understood intelligence as the capacity to see things for what they really are.  The ability to appreciate the beautiful is the ability to appreciate what is genuinely good and will be seen to be so before and after a choice, even if the observer is not involved in the matter.  Someone who can make good choices for himself in each situation can usually recognize good and bad choices made by others. 
This fact, that intelligence can recognize good choices available only to others, is key to understanding that the beautiful is larger than the good.  The good for me is not the same as the good for someone else.  This is not so because the good is the selfish.  A father may choose to sacrifice himself to save his children or his spouse or his country.  The good for me is restricted to choices I can make.  I can and must choose how to vote in this next election.  I cannot choose to stand in defense of ancient Rome against barbarians but I can appreciate and enjoy the story of those who did so. 
The capacity for appreciating what is beautiful enlarges and enriches the human soul.  I can love the crews of American torpedo planes as they heroically and fatally charged Japanese carriers at the battle of Midway because I know that they attracted the Japanese fighters down and left the carriers defenseless against American bombers from above.  I can do so precisely because I wasn’t there.  I can admire Simone Biles as she went from one perfect routine to another, with a body full of power and grace, doing something I cannot chose to do. 
Beauty is the honey in the stories we tell.  When Jean Valjean steals a pair of candlesticks from his benefactor, Bishop Myriel, only to be brought back by policeman who are sure of his crime, the Bishop informs them that he gave these as a gift to Valjean.  By this gift, the Bishop buys back the soul of a wretched man.  This of course, is fiction.  It is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  One of my best students, Miranda, noted that when I described this scene in a lecture my eyes filled with tears. 

The beautiful is rooted in the good, as Socrates supposed.  It flowers larger than the most basic good and becomes something good in itself.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Chauvinism of Michael Le Page

Since the late 1990’s, I have been teaching a course called Human Nature and Human Values.  Every year I get exactly one very bitter complaint on my student evaluations.  I don’t know why it is so consistently just one.  This year was no exception; however, in this case the student was unusually honest and articulate.  She or he complained about the material.  I am paraphrasing here. 
The professor talked about human beings and animals raping and abusing and killing one another; about women’s reproductive value and men being horny and greedy.  I was uncomfortable with this. 
I can only plead that I was doing my job.  College is about becoming a grownup.  To do that, you have to have some awareness of how the world really works and have some idea what the people who shape the human world (including, especially, scientists) are thinking.  This sometimes means finding out things that you don’t want to know.  I warn students at the beginning of every class: if you don’t want to know that your parents had sex, you might have a problem with this material. 
I am genuinely sympathetic to the author of the above comment, in large part because of the honesty and self-knowledge evident in it.  Usually the one bitter complaint focuses on something other than the real issue: the tests were unfair, he misspelled words on the board, oh, and he talked about lesbian monkeys.  This student laid the real problem on the table: he or she did not like to watch a film clip of a male lion killing the cubs of his predecessor. 
One of the first times I taught the course and young woman visited my office after the final and confessed that, every day after she left the classroom she would go to her car and cry.  She thought I was telling her that, because there are evolutionary explanations for maternal love, that her mother didn’t really love her.  I belatedly corrected that error (see the previous post) and have been mindful about it ever since. 
On the other hand, the class is very popular and I always get a lot of favorable comments.  This is so despite the fact that most of my students come from traditional religious backgrounds.  I explain that what they believe is none of my business.  I make it clear that I respect them even if they disagree with me on really important things. 
I also try to show them that even if they cannot accept certain fundamental parts of evolutionary theory, for example the common ancestry of human beings and chimpanzees, they can still recognize how natural selection works on a daily basis and appreciate how our similarity with chimpanzees can help us understand ourselves.  My favorite teach phrase is this: human beings may be more than mere animals, but we are at least animals.  That’s all they want. 
One of the great obstacles to this kind of approach is the chauvinism of many Darwinian apostles.  Recently I have been reading a collection of articles from the New Scientist magazine.  Life on Earth: Origins, Evolution, Extinction is great reading.  Michael Le Page leads off the chapter on evolution with a list of misconceptions and myths about the theory.  I found almost all of the items on his list convincing: no, everything is not an adaptation (#1); no, evolution is not disprovable (#2); no, natural selection is not the only means of evolution (#8). 
At #6 (It doesn’t matter if people don’t grasp evolution), I was appalled.  This misconception has nothing to do with evolution; it has only to do with Le Page’s political bias. 
If a Republican wins the 2016 US election the world’s biggest superpower will be run by a man who rejects evolution, thanks to the support of millions of people in the US who also cannot accept reality. 
I happen to be a Republican.  My chances of winning the 2016 are slim, I grant you; however, if I did win, this superpower would be run (in so far as Presidents run anything) by someone who does not reject evolution.  I swim in it.  This is how prejudice works.  All those people are the same. 
I suspect that some significant Democratic constituencies are also hostile to evolution, but that aside: does it really advance the cause of science to wed the theory of evolution to the claim that all Republicans are stupid?  Even if you believe that the latter is true, is this good strategy?  It gets better. 
The success of western civilization is based on science and technology, on understanding and manipulating the world… Any leader who thinks that evolution is a matter of belief is arguably unfit for office. 
The first part of that quote is at best only partly true.  Modern science and technology are largely available to poor countries.  What they lack, among other things, are the elements of western political culture: individual liberty, property rights, democracy, religious tolerance, the rule of law, etc. 
The second part of the quote is the kind of non sequitur would cause whiplash in any rational person who tried to accept it.  How many leaders of any western nation over the course of the last century had a good grasp of Newtonian physics, the laws of thermodynamics, let alone quantum physics or Einstein’s relativity?  Yes, technology and science are fundamental elements of the strength of Western civilization; however, that is not because we have been ruled by engineers or scientists. 
It is true that “evolution is directly related to many policy decisions”.  Le Page mentions infectious diseases.  He might be surprised to learn that neither chief executives nor members of Congress or of a parliament routinely make decisions on a level at which such a theory is relevant.  They generally trust experts to make those decisions.  Might it not undermine that trust to tell a Republican Senator that she is not fit for office? 
If the recent Brexit vote in England or the rise of Donald Trump in America shows anything, it shows what happens when elites are routinely contemptuous of their constituents.  Scientists (and science writers) are necessarily among the elites.  If there should ever be a republic where more than a small percentage of the population is deeply invested in science, it won’t appear soon. 
All things considered, I would like to have a president who has a good grasp of modern science, including evolution.  I would be much more concerned to have a chief executive who has a general grasp of economics and a common sense understanding of foreign policy.  Meanwhile, I would like to see more scientists and science writers who are less contemptuous of people who do not fall into either of those categories.  I humbly suggest that this might advance the cause of science more than the former spiting on the latter. 

Perhaps Le Page should come to Northern State University and sit in on my class.  He might learn something. c 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Evolutionary Explanations 3

I have been thinking more about the concept of play in animals.  I wrote this in a recent post:
The rabbits in my backyard sometimes leap at each other and seem to dance.  This may have some adaptive function, but it looks like simple fun.  A cat toying with a mouse is another example.  Good training for hunting, most likely; but a lot more fun for the one than the other.
Modern biology follows Aristotle’s lead in carefully distinguishing the explanations we offer in response to why questions.  If I am interpreting the behavior of the rabbits correctly, it is easy to answer the question “why do they behave this way?”  Because it’s fun.  In the case of the cat playing with a mouse, this seems almost certain.  Letting the mouse go and catching it again, over and over, isn’t something the predator does because it’s hungry.  Letting it go would risk losing a food resource, something the cat can afford because it is well fed.  It is playing for the sheer joy of it. 
Evolutionary explanations need be deployed when we ask a very different why question.  Why are these activities fun?  Here again the cat example seems unambiguous.  The animal is in training.  In the case of rabbits, I can only guess.  It didn’t look like mating behavior and I have no idea what the sex of the players was.  It probably has some social function, but I don’t know anything about social behavior among hares.  Almost certainly it has some evolutionary roots because I assume that what animals like always have such roots.  Why do we like vibrant colors?  The coevolution of herbivores and oranges explains that.  Why do we like the smell of cooking meats? 
The distinction between the evolutionary origins of our likes and dislikes and the motives for our actions is a very powerful one and it helps avoid one of the most frequent confusions when thinking about Darwinian explanations.  To say that my love for my wife and my children is an expression of adaptive dispositions is often interpreted to mean that my motives aren’t genuine.  What I really want is to get my genes into the next generation.  Even Ernst Mayr, one of the geniuses of the philosophy of biology, was guilty of this.  When a bird pretends to be injured in order to lead a predator away from her offspring, this is ultimately selfish.  She is promoting her own reproductive success. 
This is nonsense.  Were I not descended from a very long line of sexually reproducing animals, I would be very unlikely to be capable of any kind of love.  Because I am so descended, I am capable of such motives.  The latter serve their evolutionary purpose so effectively precisely because they are genuine.  Whatever I was thinking about when I invited a young lady to a James Taylor concert, several decades ago, it wasn’t genetics.  When I tenderly cradled my infant son and daughter in my arms for the first time, I was acting entirely out of love. 
Evolutionary biology is not reductionist.  It is expansionist.  It interprets human and non-human behaviors by reference to a number of robust dimensions, none of which can be reduced to the others.  Those dimension include psychology and physiology, neurons and neurosis.  Some of those dimensions extend backward into the deep past.  Rabbits breed like rabbits and that is why there are so many of them.  This afternoon in my back yard they were just having a rocking good time.