My intellectual career began with the reading of two books under the guide of an excellent teacher: Jeffrey Wallin. The Crisis of the House Divided, by Harry Jaffa, convinced me that the principles of the Declaration of Independence, as articulated by Abraham Lincoln, provided a solid foundation for an understanding of justice. All human beings are in fact created equal, endowed by the laws of nature to certain unalienable rights.
Natural Right and History, by Leo
Strauss, convinced me that the account of justice articulated by the Socratic
philosophers-Socrates, Plato and Xenophon, and Aristotle, was superior to the
relativism and historicism that then still dominated the historical and social
sciences. At the bottom of this choice
was a fundamental metaphysical question: are human beings part of the natural
order, such that human nature can be understood in the way that the nature of other
living things can be understood? Or are
the human things-individual psychologies and collective cultures-somehow sequestered,
walled off from our biological nature?
There was never any good reason
to believe the latter. It has become
increasingly untenable. By contrast, the
Socratic approach now has compelling support from modern biology. Just as human beings share much of our
natural endowment with other living organisms, so those organisms should present
at least elemental forms of our highest spiritual capacities. If anything unifies the Socratic approach it
is the idea that the nature that surrounds, if not possessed of logos, is at
Powerful support for that idea is
found in recent research into the humble slime mold. Slime molds are republics of amoebae. The citizens of that republic are single
eukaryotic cells. As they grow they form
clusters and then tubes that squeeze columns of their brethren alone, like
tooth paste squeezed out the nozzle. These
tubes grow out in search of food.
The current episode of NOVA is a
marvelous account of how intelligent these slime mold colonies are. They can navigate a maze. They can explore corridors and quickly abandon
fruitless routes. They can learn where
they have been before and learn that certain unpleasant routes (a salt covered
bridge for example) are nonetheless the routes to plentiful food sources. How they do all this is the next mystery, but
they do it.
I am hesitant to call this
behavior intelligence, as the scientists interviewed are tempted to do. For my part, that is a translator’s bias. I translate the Greek nous as
intelligence, and nous indicates an understanding of what something
really is. That requires a conscious
mind. Slime mold amoebae have no brains or
nervous systems. It is unlikely that
they are conscious.
I have no hesitation in saying that
the slime mold colony presents a mind.
The colony acquires information about its environment and processes that
information into action strategically. If
that’s not mind, I don’t know what is.
I am, I would like to tell
myself, capable of nous. This is
because my brain is a much more sophisticated thing than a slime mold
colony. In one respect, it is much the
same. My brain has about eighty-six
billion neurons. These are just single
cells capable interesting electro-chemical reactions, but they are wired
together in such a way as to allow me to read Plato’s Republic. This doesn’t mean that my thinking is reduced
to mere slime. It means that the slime
had the potential for philosophy.