Friday, July 24, 2015

On Nietzsche

I have been thinking about Nietzsche of late, in the process of editing a submission.  He is one of three philosophers whose work was expressed largely through poetry.  Plato, obviously was the first and Heidegger the last.  I think it is true that Nietzsche was one of the greatest opponents of Socrates in the canon.  His work should be considered alongside the poet Aristophanes, who was not an enemy of Socrates but a well-meaning critic.  Another poet, Wallace Stevens, was more hostile. 
Nietzsche’s point of departure was a rejection of a basic assumption that the Socratics (Plato and Aristotle) shared about the motive for philosophizing.  What is it that drives some human beings to depart from the common wisdom and begin to ask genuine questions about being?  The Socratics had supposed it was a desire to know.  Nietzsche thought otherwise.  From Beyond Good and Evil 4.77:
With his principles a man seeks either to dominate, or justify, or honour, or reproach, or conceal his habits: two men with the same principles probably seek fundamentally different ends therewith.
This is a typical N-aphorism, digesting a big argument into a pithy few lines.  We might read “principles” here to be restricted to moral principles.  The idea here is that principles are weapons deployed in order to advance one’s position vis-à-vis other human beings.  The fundamental motive for all moralizing is not the will to know but the will to power, the desire to bend other human beings to one’s own will. 
Extend that insight to include all systems of thought, including the whole of philosophy and the sciences as well as all religions, and you have pretty much grasped Nietzsche’s work.  The second part of the aphorism means that we have to ground each argument in a particular historical circumstance.  Biblical morality, for example, becomes a brilliant (if pernicious, in Nietzsche’s view) stratagem to maintain their political integrity under slavery. 
One a personal level, I am reminded of a young man I knew when I was a young man.  I’ll call him Pete.  He had converted to Christianity.  The longer I hung around him the clearer it became that his religion was just a way of condemning other people.  He was a profound misanthrope.  Religion gave him one more standard by which to convict pretty much everyone he encountered.  I suspect a lot of people come to religion because they want to be loved, to fit into some community, and so adopt the same principles that Pete adopted.  Hence Nietzsche’s point. 
Consider aphorism 150 from the same chapter:
Around the hero everything becomes a tragedy; around the demigod everything becomes a satyr-play; and around God everything becomes--what? Perhaps a "world"?
The power of this gem cannot be overstated.  Human beings tell stories.  The stories work by bringing actors and events into orbit around some central figure.  See Oedipus the King or Hamlet, or, I dare say, Aristophanes Clouds. 
Nietzsche’s brilliance here is displayed in extending literary interpretation to grand history.  What is a god?  Lots of peoples have them.  Some have one; others have many.  Nietzsche is assuming that gods, like heroes, are literary creations.  He gives us a way to distinguish a god from a hero or anything else.  Heroes turn the chaos of particular events into a coherent story.  A god turns the chaos of the earth, sea and sky, and other people, into a coherent world.  A god is an artifact.  It is created in order to make sense of the world in such a way as to make it possible for the creator to impose his will on it. 
It has to be said that there is a lot to this.  When someone begins to prophesize or philosophize, he or she will by that very fact be trying to organize listeners and thinkers into a coherent community that accepts that basic theological or philosophical doctrine.  There is always some measure of self-esteem involved.  There is a big payoff for the person who comes up with the next great idea. 
For a case in point, see Barry X. Kuhle’s article “The Social Construction of Evolutionary Biology.” 
When I was a graduate student in the 1970’s, the big names in ecology, evolution, and behavior included Robert MacArthur, Larry Slobodkin, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, and E.O. Wilson. Their books and articles commanded attention because they were trying to place ecological and evolutionary theory on a mathematical foundation. Little did I know that these giants in the eyes of someone just entering the field were deliberately trying to construct their disciplines, although not always in agreement with each other.
In this sense, science is political and Nietzschean. 
Nonetheless, I think that Nietzsche’s fundamental position rests on a fundamental mistake.  Just because some human activity has a specific function doesn’t tell you what the motive for that activity is.  A mother’s love for her children has a biological function: it promotes the reproductive success of the mother.  That doesn’t mean that the mother’s motive in nurturing her offspring is to secure her genetic heritage.  Her motive is love. 
Likewise, a great philosopher may gain status and wealth from his success in bringing others around to his point of view.  That may explain some of the satisfaction of academic success.  Nonetheless, his basic motive may well be (and usually is, in science and philosophy) the desire to know what is really going on in the world.  By way of analogy, a great painter may gain wealth and fame through his art, but that has nothing to do with painting.  In so far as he paints, he is concerned with understanding the beauty in what he sees.  Aristotle made this distinction in regard to medicine.  In so far as a doctor is concerned with profiting from his practice, he is an entrepreneur and not a doctor.  In so far as he is a doctor, he is concerned with health.  Nietzsche is worth reading, but the Socratics were closer to the truth. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Apples & Bonobos

One of the most interesting and, I dare say, marketable findings in recent primatology is the difference between chimpanzees and bonobos.  The two species are so much alike that they were at first called “pygmy chimpanzees”.  The differences, once they were recognized, are profound.  Chimpanzees kill each other.  They do so within groups and between groups in organized raids that amount to wars.  So far, there is not a single recorded case of one or more bonobos killing another conspecific. 
Another difference is that bonobos use sexual stimulation as a social lubricant.  Females stimulate females and form social bonds by this means.  Coalitions of sexual partners defend each other and their sons against other aggressive males.  This seems to have largely short circuited the political violence and sexual aggressive that we see among chimpanzees.  Males stimulate each other in the same way, though without the same networking.  Male dominance is largely missing from bonobo societies.  Oh, and they often have intercourse face to face. 
There have been a number of challenges to this view of bonobos.  I have posted on this topic before, but for several reasons I return to it now. 
As far as I can tell, the challenges amount to two claims.  One rests on the discovery that bonobos, like chimpanzees, hunt.  They do.  They chase small animals and, when they can catch them, they eviscerate them and share the meat as do chimpanzees.  Okay, so they aren’t exactly Buddhist monks.  This finding has important implications, as it means that male dominance and hunting are not necessary for one another. 
The second claim is that bonobos experience the same social tensions as chimpanzees.  A bonobo male has to assert himself against other males and worries about that.  Social friction is just as much a part of bonobo life as it is among their chimp cousins.  Okay. 
It remains the fact that bonobos don’t kill bonobos and that is a very robust difference between their species and the other two homo species, chimpanzees and human beings.  Somehow Pan paniscus has not shed the tensions and instincts that lead to violence in our species and in the Pan troglodytes.  Instead, Pp has found a way to resolve those tensions without violence.  Nothing I have seen requires a significant revision of the view that bonobos are really different. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Defending the Humanities

It is generally agreed that the humanities are in crisis.  James McWilliams sums up the evidence at The Hedgehog Review. 
Nationally, the number of students majoring in the humanities has fallen substantially since 1970.5 At Stanford, 45 percent of the faculty is trained in the humanities, but only 15 percent of students major in humanities fields.6 At Yale, between 1971 and 2013 the proportion of humanities majors dropped from 53 percent to 25 percent among women, and from 37 percent to 21 percent among men. Meanwhile, economics has skyrocketed as a preferred major, with the number of economics majors growing almost threefold at traditionally humanities-inclined institutions such as Brown University.7 The acronym STEM—science, technology, engineering, mathematics—is now part of every university’s lingua franca.
I have read a lot of pieces recently that defended the value of the humanities and found them all reasonably convincing to someone who values the humanities.  That was good enough over the last two or three centuries, during which time the universities did the work that was once done by the Church: deciding what was worthy thinking about.  The authority of universities has been eroded by a number of factors, but the most important is the pressure from two directions: outside support (donors and state legislatures) and the market for students. 
I am pretty sure I know how not to defend the humanities in this situation.  One should not argue, as McWilliams does, for the value of not knowing everything.  He is worried in particular about the value of not knowing how the brain produces consciousness.  If we did know, he supposes, the humanities would lose all purpose.  
Knowing that there are things we don’t know—and may never know—has a humbling effect on the human mind. Humility is a form of modesty that asks us to accept ambiguity. Ambiguity, in turn, is ultimately what brings us together to explore the mysteries of existence through the wonder-driven endeavors we lump under that broad umbrella known as the humanities. If we knew it all, if we understood what it was like to be a bat, probably even Logan Sander would not be a comparative literature major.
In a way, to catch consciousness, to close the mind-body gap, would be to eliminate that humility. It would be to answer most of the big questions—to collapse the umbrella and move into a post-human world. And that might sound great to logical positivists and atheists and neurobiologists. But as the essayist Charles D’Ambrosio reminds us, “Answers are the end of speech, not the beginning.”
I share McWilliams’ concern for humility; however, the “STEM” disciplines are quite capable of humiliating themselves.  All one has to do is consider the recent epidemic of scientific scandals and the never ending number of cases where some very well-known scientific fact (dietary cholesterol is bad) turn out to be blunders.  Science doesn’t need Shakespeare for that. 
If the humanities are to survive in a STEM heavy environment, it won’t be by building walls between the physical brain and consciousness.  It won’t be by teaching people to value dumbstruck awe more than the thrill of aha!  It will be by philosophers and other readers engaging with the best science available. 
Allow me to demonstrate.  In a marvelous piece at Aeon, “Last hominin standing,” Dan Falk opens with a fundamental question.
In the movie Sliding Doors (1998), a woman named Helen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, rushes to catch a train on the London Underground, but just misses it, watching helplessly from the platform as the doors slide shut. The film explores two alternative universes, comparing the missed-train universe to a parallel reality in which she caught the train just in time. It wasn’t a cinematic masterpiece but it vividly confronts a question that many of us have asked at one time or another: if events had unfolded slightly differently, what would the world be like?
This question, applied to the history of life on our planet, has long beguiled thinkers of all stripes. Was the appearance of intelligent life an evolutionary fluke, or was it inevitable? This was one of the central themes in Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989). If we re-played the tape of evolution, so to speak, would Homo sapiens – or something like it – arise once again, or was humanity’s emergence contingent on a highly improbable set of circumstances?
Falk, author of The Science of Shakespeare, begins with a bit of movie criticism and moves quickly to grand evolutionary theory.  Everyday human drama and the most profound questions about the earth and the kosmos are not found in separate realms; they are, as every Zen master will tell you, the same things. 
Falk pits Gould against Simon Conway Morris.  
To Gould, the late Harvard paleontologist, evolution was deeply contingent, an endless series of fluke events, the biological equivalent of just-caught and just-missed subway trains. By contrast, Conway Morris, a professor of paleobiology at the University of Cambridge, focused on convergence: evolution, he argued, is not random, but strongly constrained; where environmental niches exist, evolution finds a way to fill them, often with similar creatures.
If Gould is right, a vast number of accidents both large and small determine the forms of living organisms on planet earth.  If this asteroid that veered a bit or that tiny proto-mammal hadn’t made it across a short, shallow stretch of water, then someone other than us would be looking at an altogether different catalog of creatures.  Or no one would be looking at all, because the existence of intelligent lookers is one more sheer accident. 
If Conway Morris is right, run the algorithm back to the dinosaurs and hit play.  You will get a lot of the same organic forms as we have now.  That is because evolutionary pathways are highly constrained.  Eyes and wings are useful relatively easy to produce in the evolutionary history of many branches of life, so we have their independence emergence (called convergence in evolutionary theory) about four times.  Eyes emerged independently about 40 times that we know of.  Here is my favorite example. 
Everywhere Conway Morris looked, he saw convergence. He points, for example, to the appearance of tiger-like animals in both North and South America – animals that arose along separate evolutionary paths (the North American version was a placental mammal, the ancestors of today’s wild cats; in South America, they were marsupials)
What this means is that there was an evolutionary niche, a certain condition (meaning plentiful large and small prey) available for a certain type of predator (a cat to be specific). 
I am not at all sure that these two interpretations of evolution are all that much at odds.  I am sure that they recapitulate one of the original arguments in the history of philosophy.  Aristotle argued that these here animals have the forms that they have because they happened to descend from similar groups of animals.  Aristotle only toyed very briefly with the idea of evolution, but if you add natural selection and evolutionary history to his view, you get something like Gould’s view. 
Plato argued that the forms of actual things exist apart from those things and determine how those things come to be and what they are.  Human beings are intelligent because intelligence as an idea is always waiting to shape humans into being.  If we interpret evolutionary niches as Platonic forms, we get pretty much what Plato was talking about. 
Worrying about knowing everything is a very silly worry and an even sillier way to defend the humanities.  If you want to understand how such actual creatures as Shakespeare and such fictional creatures as Romeo and Juliet come to be, you have to read Shakespeare.  If you do, you will be able to tell evolutionary biologists something they will want to know.  That is the way to defend the humanities.