Wednesday, August 17, 2016
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
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
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.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
This post is a report on the panel I chaired at the 24th World Congress of Political Science. We met in Poznan, Poland from July 23 to 28. I begin by saying that, however much I regret missing Istanbul (the original site of the conference), Poznan was simply wonderful. The town boasts a large square bristling with restaurants at the base of colorful buildings. The buildings are narrow (a consequence, I was told, of old tax laws) which increases the variety and ornamentation. In the center is a town hall built in Renaissance times. It is hard to tell how old anything is because the square was largely rebuilt after WWII. The exchange rate was about four zloty to the dollar, which was very favorable. My wife, my friends Ron and Tamina White, and I had each a superb main course lubricated with two liters of red wine for about 35 bucks. I should also mention that a bar in the Northwest corner of the square had marvelous lemon vodka shots for 4 zloty each. If you want a charming European vacation just now, I recommend Poland.
My panel for Research Committee 12 was Biology and Politics. Jerzy Wiatr (your-zee vie-at) was cochair and discussant. I presented a paper-The Darwinian Dynamic of Aristotelian Political Animals. Ron White presented Evolutionary Leadership, Evolutionary Ethics, and Redistribution. Christoph Meisselbach presented some of the work from his dissertation: The Evolution of Cooperation and Cohesion: Social Capital Theory and Its Anthropological Foundations. Janna Merrick presented The Politics of Death: The impact of Agenda Setting, Media Framing and Negative Campaigning in Mobilizing Political Recognition of Physician Assistance in Dying.
Janna Merrick’s paper was, I believe, orphaned from a canceled panel. It was a very interesting explanation of why a “right to die” initiative passed in California but not in Massachusetts.
The other three papers fit together very well in that way that sometimes happens at such panels. Ron, Christoph, and I were all interested in how evolutionary biology can enrich established branches of political science. Ron did what he does very well: he linked together the topics of leadership, ethics, and redistribution and showed how biopolitics could make better sense of each than more established approaches. Christoph showed that the field of social capital research was based on contradictory premises and pointed the way toward a more coherent approach based on evolutionary anthropology. I would really like to see more of his work. I might have to learn German, since that is the language of his dissertation. I tried to show how a question that has structured modern political philosophy-which is primary in political science: the human individual or the human society?‑is better articulated in Aristotle’s political science and that Darwinian biopolitics supports and completes Aristotle’s account.
The room was almost half full and the audience participation was very strong. I got almost all the questions which might mean that Aristotle is more interesting to Central European graduate students. To mention one question: Aristotle sees eudemonia (blessedness or happiness) as the supreme human good; so how can this be reconciled with the Darwinian focus on mere survival? I noted in reply Aristotle’s claim that the polis (political community) comes to be for the sake of mere life but it exists for the sake of the good life. Aristotle supposed that the fact that something was good was a sufficient explanation for its existence; however, he recognized that meeting the basic biological needs was a force driving the emergence of human communities. Evolution is not a teleological process. It is not end-directed. In so far as it has any direction, it is to push into new ecological niches by pushing into new areas of biological design-space. The area of design space that human beings occupy allows for the possibility of genuine happiness.
I won’t try to remember the other questions. I will only say that if I had planted questions in the audience, I would have received the same questions. This was one of the best panels I have had the privilege of sitting on. I add that Professor Wiatr did his job with intelligence and grace.
I am very grateful to Steven Peterson for his labor on behalf of Research Committee 12.