Friday, May 23, 2014
Autonomy Biological and Political
Modern philosophy, like its ancient predecessor, is haunted by a central problematic. The ancients had a great deal of trouble with the concepts of coming-to-be and change. For something to change, it must become other than it already is; yet if it does so, how has it not been destroyed and replaced by something new? For something to come to be, it must come to be out of what it is or out of what it is not; yet both are impossible. It cannot come to be out of what it is, for what already is cannot come to be. It cannot come to be out of what it is not, for there is nothing there for it to come to be out of.
That these problems seem rather silly to us‑mere word games, as it were‑is because Plato and Aristotle largely resolved the problematic, albeit in somewhat different ways. Plato’s Socrates resolved it by supposing a distinction between visible objects and invisible but knowable ideas. As a tree seems to grow from small to large as we approach it from a distance, without that particular tree actually changing at all, so we recognize a variety of trees coming into being and changing because there is one knowable thing, the idea of a tree, standing behind all of them. That or something like that, Socrates insisted, is how things are.
Aristotle resolved by positing three things necessary for change and coming to be: a quality or formal identity, its opposite or privation, and a substratum. Thus a cold, blue metal becomes what it is not‑hot and red‑when you heat it, and yet remains what it is‑iron‑through the process. Likewise, a living organism comes to be from what it is not‑whatever it is eating‑and yet remains what it is because it incorporates the preexisting materials. While Aristotle’s solution is much more palatable to modern thinkers, both he and his teacher worked essentially the same strategy: resolving an irresolvable tension by assuming that the thing to be explained exists along at least two dimensions: one of form and one of material.
The modern problematic is perhaps best stated in its original, Cartesian form. The human being seems to be two things at once: res extensa, a body, extended in time and space, and res cogitans, a mind, invisible, intangible, and weightless. Cartesian dualism is pervasively taught by philosophy teachers but almost never accepted. This is because it seems impossible to resolve the problem of interaction: if mind consists of a non-physical substance, whatever that might mean, how does it interact with matter? Similarly, while it is easy to understand how one physical thing emerges out of another, from what and how does the non-physical mind emerge? However, if modern thought largely rejects Cartesian dualism, it has not freed itself from the Cartesian dilemmas. To take but one case, consider identity theory in the philosophy of mind. According to this position, mind states are brain states. Thus my pleasure as I eat an ice cream sundae (with my special bourbon chocolate sauce!) just is a particular pattern of neurons firing in my brain. The more or less obvious problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anything in my brain that looks, tastes, or smells like an ice cream sundae.
Almost all modern theories of mind remain trapped in these confines. Just as ancient monists tried to resolve the dilemma by arguing that change and diversity were illusions, so modern eliminative materialists have argued that mental states do not actually exist. Such theories are, I submit, symptoms of frustration.
In this essay, I will attempt something similar to Socrates’ strategy in the Republic. There he presents an account of justice in the soul by articulating justice in a political regime. This is legitimate, on the supposition that justice is the same thing, the same idea, in an individual mind as in a political community. I will focus on the idea of autonomy, proceeding under a similar supposition. Autonomy is a vital concept both in biological and political thought. It is the focus of some philosophers of biology who propose that it is essential to explaining what living organisms are and how they differ from non-living matter. It is obviously important to descriptive political science and normative political theory.
I will argue that autonomy is best understood as a Platonic idea. Whether in a single cell, resisting the influences of its environment, or in a group of hunter gathers, resisting the influence of a bully, it is the same idea. My Platonism will be grounded in evolutionary history. I submit that this approach will point us toward a resolution of the modern problematic and hence toward a richer and more robust understanding both of mind and matter. I will also suggest that it helps us towards a healthy and substantial understanding of political liberty.