Friday, February 8, 2013

Plato, Aristotle, Virtue, & Baseball

It occurs to me that the section of Annas’ Intelligent Virtue that I last commented on can be interpreted to strengthen both Aristotelian and Platonic frameworks. 
Consider this passage from Annas, Chapter 5. 

From the Aristotelian point of view, this raises the familiar distinction between the good citizen and the good man.  The good citizen is good relative to the regime.  Someone who is a good citizen in a democracy may not be a citizen at all in an aristocratic or oligarchic regime, since Aristotle defines citizenship in terms of eligibility for some level of public office.  A good citizen in the latter will necessarily defend aristocratic standards which would be bad form in a democracy.  However, a good man is the same in every regime. 
Aristotle points to reality as it is observed in any time and place and tends to regard the invisible and the intangible as abstractions.  Plato, by contrast, tends to regard the invisible and intangible as more real than the concrete observables.  I hold that thinking of evolution in terms of “design-space”, as Daniel Dennett famously does in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, is Platonic rather than Aristotelian. 
Design space indicates all the possible arrangements that a given system allows.  Consider a simple, sequential toss of two coins.  The design space of this system allows for four possibilities: heads, heads; tails, tails; heads, tails; and tails, heads.  Only one of these positions in the system’s design space can be realized in a single action, but all are equally possible. 
While these possibilities can be conceived of as mere abstractions from the coins actually in hand, this seems metaphysically stingy.  The four possibilities are as real as the four routes stretching away from a crossroads.  They are extensions of the time/design space that open up from the ontological character of the coins and the practice of coin-tossing.  They are intangible and invisible to be sure, but so is the potential energy of the coins held above the ground; yet the potential energy is real and so are the positions in design space.

Annas’ skill analogy suggests something much more complex but equally real about a wide range of human activities.  Consider baseball for an example.  There are, perhaps, alternative ways that the rules of the game might be designed.  That does not mean that the rules are arbitrary or that the arrangement of the game is merely conventional.  The time it takes for a ball to be delivered from the pitcher to the catcher and again from the catcher to the second baseman is very nearly the same as the time it takes to run from first to second base.  From that the rules governing base stealing emerge.  There might be other arrangements of the diamond that would preserve the play; however, there are very many arrangements that would ruin it.  Baseball design space is rather narrow in what it allows if the game is to be realized.  I happen to think that is a case of perfection that resulted from a close attention to Platonic forms. 
Likewise with the development of virtue, a rather narrow design space opens up out of human ends (flourishing) and human capacities.  Virtue is no more selected for in evolutionary history than baseball; however, both are the result of evolved capacities and inclinations.  Only so many games are possible and only one virtue is possible, regardless of the wide diversity of human cultures.  Here Plato seems to me to be more informative than Aristotle. 
I would add a larger reflection.  Evolutionary cladograms in the sense that they can be rearranged depending on what traits one is focusing on.  Yet the claim that these cladograms reflect the actual history of organisms means that something very invisible and intangible is nonetheless very real.  That every organism is the offspring of successful breeders is an ontological fact about every organism, regardless of the fact that the ancestors are mostly all gone.  The fact that design space contains certain possibilities for future evolution but not others (we probably aren’t getting wings) is equally real.  This looks to me like a case of Platonic forms. 

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