Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Reply to Scott James

I was honored to have Scott M. James comment on my paper.  I thoroughly enjoyed and profited from his book on Evolutionary Ethics.  I only wish that more commenters took their job as seriously and did as competent a job as he did in this case.  I especially liked the way that Scott suggested that he agreed in some unspecified respects with my paper (I think I heard him say that at the panel) but was less than persuaded on other counts.  He then put the larger part of his criticisms in the mouth of “less sympathetic critics,” which allowed him to be as snarky as he wanted without having to take responsibility for that.  Do not suppose that I am complaining about this.  I am in the presence of genius!
We certainly agree on the problem.  It is increasingly difficult to ignore the evidence that the higher human capacities‑morality and politics, art, poetry, and religion, have a basis in natural phenomena.  All of these capacities depend on the human brain and brains are biological in origin.  At the same time, if we try to naturalize these capacities, that is to explain them in terms of “the same biological forces that shaped all organismic life” we run the risk of explaining them away. 
If we happen to succeed in leaving the non-naturalistic behind, in formulating hypotheses in exclusively naturalistic terms, won’t we be abandoning the very thing we sought to explain, viz., our normative nature? 
This problem is behind the pious fears that are perennially expressed in criticisms of “scientism.”  If we let the scientists come into the parlor with their lab coats on, they’ll ruin the carpet, deconstruct the portraits, undermine the architecture, and murder the gods. 
I respect these concerns but I do not share them.  I was trained by Straussians in the interpretation of Socratic political philosophy.  I see the world much as Plato and Aristotle saw it.  From this point of view, nature and the human things are not in opposition.  As Hans Jonas put it, if Darwin showed that human beings and all living things emerge by way of the same forces that move nonliving matter, he simultaneously showed that nonliving matter was always potentially alive. 
So when Scott cautions me about “confusing science with…the ideology of science” and “read[ing] ideologies into the natural record, rather than read[ing] observations out of it,” I would say only that I look at the natural record with some mode of interpretation in mind.  If there is any other way to approach nature, I do not know of it. 
When he accuses me of essentialism, I am reminded of the old story about Satan caught cheating at cards.  I’m the Devil.  What did you expect?  Having confessed to Platonism at the beginning, should you be surprised if I commit essentialism?  Essentialism was rightly rejected by modern biology in so far as “essences” seemed to be something like little ghosts in the biological machine.  If evolutionary biology is correct, Amy the Amoeba and Andy from Amherst differ only in degree; they are not, essentially, different.  This doesn’t prevent species from being real.  Amy and Andy are unlikely to have offspring.  Nor does it prevent rather Platonic patterns from appearing at every point.  The law of gravity is the same on earth as on Mars, as is the periodic table of elements.  Natural selection is the same for the mongoose as for the snake.  I argue that autonomy is the same for the slime mold amoeba as for the scientist looking at it down a microscope. 
I relied heavily on a biological concept of autonomy that is prominent in the philosophy of biology: “the property of a system that builds and actively maintains the rules that define itself, as well as the way it behaves in the world.”  Organisms are individuals that have an agenda.  They are trying to maintain themselves and reproduce.  In the case of most organisms, this does not at all imply conscious intent.  It means only that you have to recognize the agenda to understand the organism.  Scott responds with this challenge:
It’s not hard to identify an individual with an “agenda of its own”—that’s “up to something,” “trying to maintain itself”—but that fails to count as either biological or autonomous, at least in light of my own intuitions.  My refrigerator, my laptop, my car.  As complex systems, they are designed to process information in quite sophisticated ways and respond intelligently.
I am tempted to point out that the autonomy of these machines is as derivative from the autonomy of their maker as a beaver’s dam is from the beaver.  The dam is, in certain respects, self-maintaining; but the agenda is visible only in so far as the system includes the furry fellow. 
However, there is a logical error in this criticism.  To say that autonomy is a necessary condition for organic life doesn’t mean that it is sufficient.  This is best illustrated by reference to a similar problem (it may be the same problem!) in the philosophy of mind.  Functionalists interpret mind as an information processor.  Information comes in.  It is processed and the output is either more useful information or behavior.  This is a plausible account of animal minds, but it seems to be too broad.  What about a thermostat?  It processes information about temperature and turns on the furnace.  The functionalist is happy to admit this, but then he confronts the zombie problem.  A person who is sleep walking can walk, engage in conversation, or even drive a car, thus being fully functional but, apparently, without being conscious.  Doesn’t that mean that consciousness, which is mind writ large, is more than just function?
The obvious solution (as it seems to me) is to say that human minds are more than mere information processors but they are at least information processors.  Consciousness is a feature of the minds of a vast range of animals, or so I suppose.  This means that such animals may enjoy their lives or not, independently of whether they flourish and reproduce.  However, functionality is a necessary feature of organic minds at all levels.  It is difficult to do anything human if you can’t wake up or distinguish your wife from a hat. 
Human autonomy surely involves much more than the mere resistance to external conditions that is all that the Amy the Amoeba has to contend with.  But at the very least it involves the same kind of resistance: the preservation of the individual against the outside world. 
Scott poses this object to my argument:
Bioethicists routinely invoke a patient’s autonomy in justifying the right to refuse medical assistance or even to secure assistance in dying prematurely.  We think that individuals in such cases have the right of self-rule to determine what counts as a minimally acceptable quality of life, and some will choose not to maintain themselves, not to resist dissolution.  But these decisions are plainly grounded in an individual’s autonomy.
There are two issues here, one shallow and one deep.  To address the shallow one, I merely note that adaptive behaviors are frequently maladaptive in certain circumstances.  If you don’t believe me, ask any mouse caught in a mouse trap.  Human beings, like other animals, often destroy themselves by behaving in ways that generally led to successful reproduction for their ancestors.  Otherwise, natural selection would not work. 
The deeper issue is that natural selection produced animals that are reproductively successful precisely because they pursue agendas of their own.  A bull elk isn’t trying to get his genes into the next generation; he is trying to beat the snot out of some other bull, following which he will mate with all the cows.  Like the elk, we human beings are not primarily interested in our genetic heritage.  We want to live satisfying lives.  Individual autonomy has kept our species in business; otherwise, it would not exist.  That doesn’t keep us from making the kind of choices described above, especially since they often come after Darwin has had his due. 
I will address one final objection:
Blanchard maintains, based on the work of the biological anthropologist Chris Boehm, that “individual human autonomy is the driver of [the evolution of human morality]”.  Unless I have failed to fully grasp Blanchard’s central conception of autonomy (and that is undoubtedly possible), I think Boehm’s work shows just the reverse: early hominids were driven to autonomy or self-rule by the intense moral sanctioning of conspecifics within a group. 
Boehm argues that hunter gatherer societies are egalitarian because the group polices the behavior of bullies and big men.  When some member of the tribe gets too big for his loin cloth, the others collectively discourage him.  Eventually, all the members of the group internalize the rules: don’t be boastful, don’t take more than your share, share when you bring back a big kill. 
Does this mean that the “early hominids were driven to autonomy?”  Driven by whom?  The group is just a lot of sets of asses and elbows.  Before individuals could learn to fear the group, they had to become the group.  Individuals had to resist the bully and learn to join together to resist him.  What was their motive in that dangerous business?  They were trying preserve their own autonomy. 
Whenever a group of individual organisms joins together, the problems of justice arise.  I will contribute so long as I get a share.  Cheaters must be discouraged.  Precisely because individual autonomy is involved, moral rules are required.  Why must bullies be suppressed?  First, because each individual wants to benefit from the association.  Second, because the group can only act as a unit if cheating is suppressed.  As I said in my paper, the drawing of boundaries, internal and external, is how autonomy evolves.  Me and everyone else becomes us and them only if us has a place for me.  If morality emerges because the members of the group internalize the rules of the game, that is a perfect example of self-legislation. 
Scott urges me to distinguish between autonomy and smautonomy, the autonomy of the amoeba and the autonomy of human beings, thus preserving the dualism that so much of modern thought labors under.  I am grateful for his shrewd comments, but I must decline.  I think that the moral and political autonomy that concerns human beings is more than the autonomy that is present in every genuine organism.  But I also think that it is at least the same autonomy that is what it means to be alive. 


  1. This exchange was a delight to read. I find many of your arguments convincing; however, like Mr. James, I am a little uncomfortable with your description of autonomy. You describe it as "the property of a system that builds and actively maintains the rules that define itself, as well as the way it behaves in the world." He points out that this description might fit his refrigerator or a thermostat. You suggest that these things are like a beaver dam, which is self-maintaining, but is “autonomous” only because its autonomy is a derivative of the beaver's autonomy.
    I think that this may also be true of many living organisms. An amoeba may follow an agenda, but it is probably not one that it sets. It does not create its own rules. Those rules are created either by a creator or by natural forces. Might not a beaver dam have as much autonomy as an amoeba?

    1. Welcome, Miranda. This blog would be a lonely place without your occasional visits and provocative questions. There are two questions here: does autonomy require that the agent originate the rules that the agent maintains and do such creatures as amoeba set their own agendas?

      Regarding the first, I do not think that origination is a requirement. When I refuse to commit an act of theft even though it would seem to profit me to do so, I am acting autonomously. It doesn't matter that I did not invent the rule "thou shalt not steal"; it matters only that I make that rule my own and keep it for myself. Even if I inherit some portion of my moral agenda biologically, it is up to me to read off those rules from whatever biological substratum they are transmitted by and make them rules of action. Amy the amoeba has to do the same and because she can do so she can be a self-maintaining organism, operating under very different constraints that govern the inorganic material over which she crawls. The rules of dam building do not come from the sticks, mud, and water in which the beaver works, nor from the molecules of DNA that the beaver inherits. It comes from the information embedded in those nucleotides and information requires an informant. It is this that makes living organisms autonomous in a way that non-living things are not.

      I also suspect that the dichotomy between inheriting rules set by someone or something else and rules originated by oneself is misleading. If the amoeba is not the one who "sets" the rules, who is? It isn't the natural forces that shape the external environment nor the molecular forces that shape the internal environment, since those same forces act on other creatures with very distinct agendas. If you say the Creator, you are doubtless right; however, this answer doesn't help us understand what is going on.

      In fact, the rules that the amoeba follows are delivered to it only by its biological predecessor. Its amoebae, all the way back to some Ur organism. The rules were set in the process of amoeba evolution, as generations of these critters explored their environments. The process by which the biological agenda is passed from one generation to the next and the process by which the individual amoeba reads and follows the rules is one and the same. So I think that, at least collectively, the amoebae do set their own agenda. And a lineage of amoebae is just a bunch of amoebas.

      Human beings are far more than amoeba not just because we are complex in a linear way, as if amoeba complexity could expressed as some large number n and human complexity could be expressed as n times some very large factor. Human beings are dimensionally more complex, so that one kind of autonomy is laid on another and then another is laid on that. Just as there is room to walk around a house but not a blueprint, so there is nothing in amoeba (I suppose) that resembles the existential space that we call human moral autonomy. Yet just as houses emerge from blueprints (with the help of autonomous carpenters), so individual human beings emerge from single cells and the species emerges over the course of evolutionary history. So I think its autonomy, all the way back.

  2. Dr. Blanchard:

    Thank you, once again, for taking the time to answer my questions. I am sorry to have been such a sporadic visitor. In spite of this, this remains my favorite blog.
    Much of what you argue here is easy for me to accept. Certainly I can accept that amoebas and humans share characteristics and that the human form of these characteristics may be more advanced. I can also accept the idea that autonomy may have different layers. But I am not quite sure I understand how what you are referring to as autonomy in the amoeba differs from the "autonomy" of a thermostat. Or can we say that the thermostat also has autonomy and that the amoeba just has more complex autonomy?