Friday, February 21, 2014
Hobbes' Materialism & His Political Agenda
Thomas Hobbes begins his magnum opus with one of the most materialist accounts of mind in the history of philosophy. The obvious question that confronts any reader of Hobbes is why this is appropriate in a work on political science. A less obvious question is what it says about Hobbes’ view of man and God. Here is the opening of the second chapter, “On Imagination”. I have added additional paragraph breaks.
THAT when a thing lies still, unless somewhat else stir it, it will lie still for ever, is a truth that no man doubts of. But that when a thing is in motion, it will eternally be in motion, unless somewhat else stay it, though the reason be the same (namely, that nothing can change itself), is not so easily assented to.
For men measure, not only other men, but all other things, by themselves: and because they find themselves subject after motion to pain and lassitude, think everything else grows weary of motion, and seeks repose of its own accord; little considering whether it be not some other motion wherein that desire of rest they find in themselves consisteth.
From hence it is that the schools say, heavy bodies fall downwards out of an appetite to rest, and to conserve their nature in that place which is most proper for them; ascribing appetite, and knowledge of what is good for their conservation (which is more than man has), to things inanimate, absurdly.
The first two sentences introduce the concept of inertia and grounds it in the claim that “nothing can change itself”. This principle is fundamental, as I think that it constitutes a deliberate rejection of Aristotelian biology. Aristotle supposed that nature was precisely a motion that originated in the organism; for what is life, except something that can move itself, either in space or by development over time? If nothing can move itself, then everything is moved by something else. If that is so, then whence comes the source of all motion? This seems to suggest a perfectly determined, mechanical Kosmos consisting of matter and motion alone.
The second part explains why the principle of inertia seems contrary to common sense experience. We are used to the idea that a rock will not leap up into the sky and that a rock thrown into the air will return to earth and remain there. We base the idea that motion requires an explanation whereas rest does not on our own lethargy.
The third part is a direct attack on Aristotelian physics. Aristotle and the Aristotelians seem to have supposed that basic substances (earth, air, fire and water) had a natural place to which they naturally return. Of course, Aristotle also recognized that the place of some things such as the heavenly bodies included motion, so Hobbes is being a little bit unfair here.
What is the point of this physical reference? The second paragraph explains.
When a body is once in motion, it moveth (unless something else hinder it) eternally; and whatsoever hindreth it, cannot in an instant, but in time, and by degrees, quite extinguish it: and as we see in the water, though the wind cease, the waves give not over rolling for a long time after; so also it happeneth in that motion which is made in the internal parts of a man, then, when he sees, dreams, etc.
For after the object is removed, or the eye shut, we still retain an image of the thing seen, though more obscure than when we see it. And this is it the Latins call imagination, from the image made in seeing, and apply the same, though improperly, to all the other senses. But the Greeks call it fancy, which signifies appearance, and is as proper to one sense as to another. Imagination, therefore, is nothing but decaying sense; and is found in men and many other living creatures, as well sleeping as waking.
Hobbes presents us with a model of internal human experience. All the contents of the mind originate in the external world. External motions collide with the senses, which transfer the motion to the nerves and then to the brain. There the internal motions result in images of external objects. The internal motions do not maintain their original force, which is why our memories of things are less vivid than direct observations. When new motions come in they frequently overwhelm the decaying motions that constitute the mind’s present contents. Within the mind, such motions are constantly competing with one another. Yet clearly, some motions received from outside keep going for long periods of time, which explains long term memories.
What Hobbes is after is an explanation of ghosts. He has a theory of dreaming.
And seeing dreams are caused by the distemper of some of the inward parts of the body, diverse distempers must needs cause different dreams. And hence it is that lying cold breedeth dreams of fear, and raiseth the thought and image of some fearful object, the motion from the brain to the inner parts, and from the inner parts to the brain being reciprocal; and that as anger causeth heat in some parts of the body when we are awake, so when we sleep the overheating of the same parts causeth anger, and raiseth up in the brain the imagination of an enemy.
This gives rise to the belief in ghosts.
We read of Marcus Brutus (one that had his life given him by Julius Caesar, and was also his favorite, and notwithstanding murdered him), how at Philippi, the night before he gave battle to Augustus Caesar, he saw a fearful apparition, which is commonly related by historians as a vision, but, considering the circumstances, one may easily judge to have been but a short dream. For sitting in his tent, pensive and troubled with the horror of his rash act, it was not hard for him, slumbering in the cold, to dream of that which most affrighted him; which fear, as by degrees it made him wake, so also it must needs make the apparition by degrees to vanish: and having no assurance that he slept, he could have no cause to think it a dream, or anything but a vision.
The confusion caused by dreaming gives rise to a false belief that the dead can reappear. Such beliefs are important politically because unscrupulous men can exploit the fear of such things.
And for fairies, and walking ghosts, the opinion of them has, I think, been on purpose either taught, or not confuted, to keep in credit the use of exorcism, of crosses, of holy water, and other such inventions of ghostly men. Nevertheless, there is no doubt but God can make unnatural apparitions: but that He does it so often as men need to fear such things more than they fear the stay, or change, of the course of Nature, which he also can stay, and change, is no point of Christian faith.
But evil men, under pretext that God can do anything, are so bold as to say anything when it serves their turn, though they think it untrue; it is the part of a wise man to believe them no further than right reason makes that which they say appear credible. If this superstitious fear of spirits were taken away, and with it prognostics from dreams, false prophecies, and many other things depending thereon, by which crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people, men would be would be much more fitted than they are for civil obedience.
That last part, I think, explains the political function of Hobbes materialist science. If men did not believe in ghosts, if they were not subject to confusion about the nature of reality, then they would be more fit for civil obedience.
Hobbes lived at the end of a long period of terrible religious wars. It was not, however, the belief in personal ghosts (like Hamlet’s father) that made so many men ungovernable. It was their belief in the Holy Ghost. Hobbes has to be careful. He cannot explicitly the Christian faith. He does, however, give us clues as to his inexplicit thoughts.
Whatsoever we imagine is finite. Therefore there is no idea or conception of anything we call infinite. No man can have in his mind an image of infinite magnitude; nor conceive infinite swiftness, infinite time, or infinite force, or infinite power. When we say anything is infinite, we signify only that we are not able to conceive the ends and bounds of the thing named, having no conception of the thing, but of our own inability. And therefore the name of God is used, not to make us conceive Him (for He is incomprehensible, and His greatness and power are unconceivable), but that we may honour Him.
Also because whatsoever, as I said before, we conceive has been perceived first by sense, either all at once, or by parts, a man can have no thought representing anything not subject to sense. No man therefore can conceive anything, but he must conceive it in some place; and endued with some determinate magnitude; and which may be divided into parts; nor that anything is all in this place, and all in another place at the same time; nor that two or more things can be in one and the same place at once: for none of these things ever have or can be incident to sense, but are absurd speeches, taken upon credit, without any signification at all, from deceived philosophers and deceived, or deceiving, Schoolmen.
So Hobbes tells us that we can have no concept of God because we can have no concept of the infinite. So far, so good; as this is nothing that Aquinas or Maimonides would not say. Then he goes on to say that any words not grounded in sense perception are absurd speeches from deceived philosophers and deceived, or deceiving, Schoolmen. I think we can put two and two together.
As evil men exploit the superstitious fears of their fellows in order to encourage civil disobedience, so Hobbes intends to exploit modern science to make men more governable. His materialistic account of the human being is introduced to wean men, by degrees, from belief in external powers and heavenly rewards. If this life is all we have, then the best that most of us can hope for is comfortable self-preservation. That is a person more fit for civil obedience.
I end by noting that, while Hobbes’ physics are sound, it is sound only at the level of physics. His materialism can account for matter alone; it cannot account for biological wholes. Aristotle’s view that living organisms are self-moving beings is altogether viable and essential for a science of biology. I suggest also that the notion of self-moving organisms is the metaphysical ground of human autonomy, something that is certainly diminished in Hobbes political philosophy.