Thursday, July 21, 2016

Lucretius in the Evolution/Creation Debate

From ancient Greece and Rome to the present, one of the fundamental debates in human history has been over a deep question: Is our universe mindful and purposive or mindless and material?  Do we live in a cosmos that was intentionally created by a divinely intelligent designer who cares for us and judges us by his moral law?  Or do we live in a cosmos that arose unintentionally by natural evolution through chance and necessity with no concern for us or any moral law?

Today, this debate is between the creationists or intelligent design theorists, on the one side, and the Darwinian evolutionists, on the other side.  Some theistic evolutionists (like Francis Collins or Owen Gingerich, for example) have tried to take a third position: that the Creator has designed the parameters of certain natural constants so that cosmic evolution is fine-tuned for producing intelligent human life as the fulfillment of the Creator's purposes.

In ancient Greece, some of the pre-Socratic natural philosophers (like Empedocles and Democritus) developed materialist or mechanist explanations for how the world and all living beings in it could have emerged by natural causes without any divine design or purpose.  In some of Plato's dialogues--particularly in book 10 of the Laws and in the Timaeus--this anti-teleological cosmology was rejected as a dangerous atheism that would subvert the moral and political order of human life. Plato's Athenian Stranger (in the Laws) argues that everyone in the political order he proposes must believe that the gods exist, that the gods think about and care for human beings, and that the gods enforce justice by rewarding the good and punishing the bad.  Those people who openly question this cosmic theology should be imprisoned, and if they cannot be persuaded to accept this theology, they will be punished with death.  Plato's Timaeus argued that people should be taught that everything was created by a divine Demiurge or Craftsman assisted by other gods according to a model of an eternally enduring nature, so that the cosmos could be seen as the best of all possible worlds.

Later, Epicurus challenged this Platonic cosmic teleology by developing his own anti-teleological cosmology based on the atomistic science of Democritus.  Everything could be understood as the patterns of order arising from the combining and dissolving of atoms moving in a void, so that all possible combinations of these atoms would arise as worlds coming into being and passing away.  All life is mortal, so there is no afterlife, and no divine judgment of human beings after death. The gods exist, but they live outside the world of human experience, and they do not care for or intervene in human affairs.  All of the organized religions that teach that the gods have created the world and judge human beings both in this life and in the afterlife deprive human beings of happiness by promoting a fear of death and of divine judgment that creates unnecessary and unreasonable anxiety.

Epicureans can be happy because they don't fear god, they don't worry about death, they know that the goodness of pleasure is usually easy to get, and they know that the badness of pain is usually easy to endure.  This is possible because their freedom from religious fears and their understanding of how everything is ultimately explained by natural causes allows them to live out their mortal lives with tranquil minds.

Although Epicurus wrote many books, most of his writing has been lost, and we now have only fragments quoted by other writers.  The most extensive text of Epicurean philosophy is the Latin philosophical poem of Lucretius--De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things)--which he wrote sometime before his death in 55 B.C.  Although he does not mention Plato by name, Lucretius can be seen as defending the Epicurean anti-teleological cosmology against the Platonic teleological cosmology, particularly as it was reformulated by the Stoics.

Christian theologians were able to accept modified forms of the Platonic and Stoic cosmology of divine creation as compatible with Biblical creationist theology, which became the predominant model of the cosmos in Christendom for over 1,500 years.  But Christians had to scorn the Epicurean/Lucretian cosmology of materialist atomism as promoting a dangerously atheistic view of the universe. 

The texts of Lucretius' book were either destroyed or hidden away, until a text was rediscovered in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini.  Many early modern philosophers and scientists could then see the Lucretian materialist and anti-teleological model of the cosmos as the alternative to the creationist and teleological model of Christian cosmology.

Finally, with the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species, the Darwinian theory of the evolution of species by natural selection in the struggle for survival seemed to provide a modern scientific version of Lucretian cosmology as an alternative to Christian creationism.  If so, then the debate between evolutionists and creationists today continues the debate between Platonists and Epicureans over whether the cosmos has been intelligently and purposefully designed or not.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, this cosmological debate is also a moral and political debate, because while the Platonic/Christian cosmology of order as a top-down imposition of intentional planning seems to support moral and political authoritarianism, the Epicurean/Darwinian cosmology of order as a bottom-up emergence of spontaneous order seems to support moral and political liberalism.

 But is it really true that the Epicurean cosmology of Lurcretius' book conforms to a Darwinian evolutionary conception of the universe?  Gordon Campbell (a classics scholar) has helped me to think about this through one of his papers--"Zoogony and Evolution in Plato's Timaeus: The Presocratics, Lucretius, and Darwin" (2000)--and one of his books--Lucretius on Creation and Evolution (2003).  Campbell's writing illuminates Lucretius' place in the evolution/creation debate from ancient Greece to the present.

And yet I do disagree with Campbell on four points.  First, I disagree with his claim that the only "fully evolutionary theory" of the cosmos in the ancient world is in Plato's Timaeus (Campbell 2003, 2).  He distinguishes between two kinds of evolution (Campbell 2000, 14).  "Inter-specific evolution" is "the Darwinian model of the origin of species by the gradual accumulation of variation over time leading to the formation of new species."  "Intra-specific evolution" is "the accumulation of variation within a species that stops short of crossing species boundaries."  He claims that Plato is the only ancient proponent of Darwinian inter-specific evolution, because Plato's Timaeus describes an evolutionary process in which the Demiurge first creates human beings and then morally degenerate human beings evolve into four kinds of animals--birds, footed land animals, footless land animals, and fish--with the animals ranked from the more thoughtful animals to the thoughtless animals.

The first problem with Campbell's claim is that what Timaeus describes is not a natural evolutionary process at all, because he asserts it to be the work of divine creation by the Demiurge and the other gods (Timaeus 41a-d, 92c).

The second problem is that it's not clear that Plato or Plato's Socrates endorse Timaeus's story of cosmic creation.  Timaeus's story is so utterly ridiculous that many readers have doubted that Plato takes it seriously.  A. E. Taylor, for example, made this point, but Campbell casually dismisses this and insists that Timaeus's story must be seen as a serious teaching of Plato (2000, 158).  But Campbell doesn't explain the many strange features of this dialogue.  First of all, it's not much of a dialogue.  After some brief exchanges between Socrates and Timaeus, Timaeus launches into a long lecture that takes up most of the book.  Socrates remains silent, which suggests that Timaeus's story cannot withstand any Socratic questioning. Timaeus says that his story will be a "likely myth."  Socrates says that it will be a nomos--a song, a custom, or a law (Timaeus 29d).  So Timaeus's story is not a reasoned account of the cosmos.

Moreover, what Timaeus says is often self-contradictory.  For example, Timaeus says that the best account of astronomy depends on sight--looking at the stars and the Sun--and this shows the primacy of our eyes for our knowledge of the world (47a-c).  But then he condemns as "light-minded" the empirical astronomers who believe that our knowledge of astronomy must begin with what we can see with our own eyes.  Such people are punished by being turned into birds (91d-e).

My point here is that Campbell does not consider the possibility that while Plato might have thought that a teleological cosmology of divinely intelligent design could be a salutary belief for many people, it could not be a rational account of the cosmos for natural philosophers.  Aristotle suggested this in observing that such cosmic myths were little more than traditional folk tales (On the Heavens, 270b1-25, 283b26-284b5, 291b24-292a20, 298b6-299a2; The Movement of Animals, 699b12-31; Metaphysics, 1050b20-25, 1074b1-14).

Not only do I think Campbell is wrong in identifying Plato as an evolutionist, I also think he is wrong in denying that Lucretius was an evolutionist.  This is my second point of disagreement.  Although Campbell is right in noting that Lucretius never explicitly affirms the "inter-specific evolution" of a new species from an ancestral species, Lucretius does at least implicitly suggest that human beings have evolved from an earlier species that was human-like but not fully human, because it did not have the human digestive system that requires food cooked with fire.  Lucretius could not explicitly elaborate this idea, because he lacked the evidence for human evolution that is available today--including the fossil record, the archaeological record, human physiology, and comparative primatology.

In Book 5 of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius explains the origin of all living beings as the spontaneous generation of life from the Earth (5.785-1012).  Just as today we can see the spontaneous generation of worms and cicadas from the Earth, Lucretius claims, we can imagine that at the beginning the Earth was so fertile that it could generate all forms of plant and animal life (2.871-72, 898-901, 928-29, 3.719-36, 5.797-98).  For this reason, Lucretius observes, the Earth has rightly been called the Mother of all life.

At first, the Earth experimented with many monstrous animal bodies with grotesque appearance--such as animals that were both male and female, animals without feet or hands or mouths.  These forms of life "were created in vain," because nature extinguished them.  They died from starvation. Or they could not reproduce. Or they could not compete with other animals.  Only those species adapted for survival, reproduction, and competition were naturally selected for preservation.  Those human beings who lived in these early days were tougher and larger than human beings today.  They lived as solitary foragers and like savage beasts, with no families, no farming, no customs or laws, no use of fire or clothing.  Men and women came together for sexual copulation and then separated with no enduring attachment.  (Here is where Rousseau found his first "state of nature" of "nascent man" for his Discourse on the Origin of Equality.)

Some modern commentators have argued that this Lucretian account of the origin life is refuted by modern science.  One criticism is that Lucretius speaks mythically of Mother Earth as a teleological creator.  Another criticism is that the belief in the spontaneous generation of life was refuted by Louis Pasteur's famous experiments showing that living organisms cannot arise spontaneously from lifeless material.  A third criticism is that the modern fossil and archaeological record shows an evolution from simple forms of life to more complex forms, including a human fossil record showing human evolution over millions of years, which denies Lucretius's claim that all forms of life originated simultaneously and his claim that the first human beings lived as utterly solitary animals who lived on raw food without fire for cooking.

Campbell rightly defends Lucretius against the first two criticisms.  But he cannot defend Lucretius against the third criticism.  Against the first criticism, Campbell can point to clear statements from Lucretius that he uses teleological metaphors--like Mother Earth--to aid his anti-teleological message (2.655-60).  In doing this, Lucretius is like Darwin, who explained that in personifying "survival of the fittest" as "natural selection," he was employing a metaphorical expression that was not to be interpreted literally as suggesting some intentional agency or deity (see Chapter 4 of the second edition of The Origin of Species).  For Darwin, nature "selects" only in the sense that those traits that impede survival, reproduction, and competition tend to go extinct.  Similarly, for Lucretius, those forms of life that cannot survive, reproduce, or compete successfully tend to go extinct.  There is no teleological cosmic plan guiding this evolutionary process.

To answer the second criticism--that Pasteur refuted the belief in the spontaneous generation of life--Campbell rightly points out that while Pasteur's experiments showed that at present life cannot arise from lifeless material, this does not show that originally life could not have been spontaneously generated in the earlier conditions of the Earth.  Indeed, any scientific account of the origin of life from non-life through natural evolution rather than intelligent design would have to be a spontaneous generation of life.  There is today no generally accepted theory for explaining the natural origin of life, and so it remains one of the great mysteries in modern science.  But there is general agreement among scientists that any successful theory for resolving this mystery will have to find a natural mechanism for the spontaneous generation of the most primitive form of life.  For example, one popular theory today is that life originated from 3.2 billion to 3.8 billion years ago in very hot geothermal vents at the bottom of ancient oceans.  Even if this does not prove to be the correct theory, it illustrates the search for a spontaneous generation of the first life forms like that sought by Lucretius.

Campbell does not defend Lucretius against the third criticism--that his assertion that all forms of life that we see today arose fully formed simultaneously at the beginning is contrary to the evidence for the evolutionary history of life as we know it today.  Here, Campbell argues, we see why Lucretius is not truly an evolutionist in the modern Darwinian sense, because here we see that Lucretius believes in the fixity of species: although Lucretius allows for some evolutionary change within a species, he does not allow for evolutionary change by which one species evolves into another.  Species can go extinct, but all of those species that have survived to the present are essentially the same species as they were at the beginning.

Although there is good evidence for this interpretation of Lucretius, there is some ambiguity here, particularly in what Lucretius says about the origins of fire and cooking (5.955-58, 1012-20, 1091-1104).  Lucretius says that the first primitive human beings were tough enough to live on raw food like other animals.  They had no knowledge of how to use fire for cooking.  But then from observing the effects of wild fires and the warming of the Sun, they learned how to cook their food, which was part of a suite of changes that allowed them to live in family settlements that made them fully human for the first time.  In his comments on this section of Lucretius's poem, Campbell observes: "Humans become truly human, and finally civilized when they have been mastered by fire, marriage, and love, and when they in turn master nature with new technologies.  Fire and cooking were chief among these" (2003, 329).  This shows the "process of becoming fully human" (2000, 154-55).

Doesn't this imply that those first primitive human beings who lived totally on raw food were not "truly human" at all, and so what we see here is evolution from a non-human but somewhat human-like animal species to a fully human species?  If so, then this points to human evolution as inter-species evolution.  Lucretius could not elaborate this idea explicitly because he did not have all of the empirical evidence available today for human evolutionary emergence from primate ancestral species.

That evidence--from fossils, archaeology, primatology, and evolutionary anthropology--confirms the truth of Lucretius's insight about the importance for human evolution of controlling fire for cooking.  Richard Wrangham has surveyed this evidence in support of his "cooking hypothesis" for explaining human evolution (Wrangham 2009; Gowlett and Wrangham 2013).  No human societies have ever relied on raw food for most of their diet.  And no human beings have been known to survive for more than a few weeks by eating only wild raw food.  Unlike every other animal, human beings need a large portion of their food to be cooked.  Compared with the great apes, human beings have a reduced digestive system--small molars, mouth, stomach, and large intestine--that is adapted for digesting cooked food.  Moreover, the brain is a metabolically expensive organ that requires lots of energy; and therefore the increase in the size of the brain that characterizes human evolution required a reduction in gut size and energy costs and the consumption of higher quality cooked foods to reduce the metabolic constraints on brain size by delivering increased energy to enlarged brains.  The evidence of the hominin fossils indicates that Homo erectus had such enlarged brains that would have required digestive systems needing cooked food.  There is also some archaeological evidence for the controlled use of fire appearing at around 1.5 million years ago, at the time of the first major increase in the brain size of early Homo.  All of this evidence suggests that what Lucretius describes as a transition from primitive humans living "in a manner like wild animals" (more ferarum) (5.932) without fire and cooking to fully human beings living with fire and cooking was actually an evolutionary transformation from a pre-human species to a truly human species.

According to Campbell, "Lucretius' early humans evolve in response to their changing environment, but they are still unable to cross the species barrier imposed by the atomic laws of nature (foedera naturae); they evolve but remain within their own species" (2000, 155).  Does this mean that there can be a major change in the physiology and anatomy of the digestive system without a change of species?  Or should we say, in the terminology of modern taxonomy, that there has been a change of species but not of genus?

Campbell says that the evolution here in Lucretius is not Darwinian evolution but Lamarckian evolution, because it's the evolution of acquired characters.  Contrary to what Campbell assumes, Darwin accepted Lamarckian evolution.  Today, some evolutionary theorists would say that there are at least four levels of evolutionary inheritance--genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic (Jablonka and Lamb 2014).  Could we explain what Lucretius describes here as genetic/behavioral coevolution?

Oddly, while Campbell argues that Lucretius was not a Darwinian evolutionist, he also argues that Lucretius was a better evolutionist than was Darwin!  This is my third point of disagreement with Campbell.  According to Campbell, Lucretius suggests that evolutionary adaptation in the struggle for life can occur at five levels--survival, reproduction, competition, competition avoidance, and cooperation.  Campbell thinks that Darwin recognizes the first three levels but not the last two (Campbell 2003, 119-23, 129, 252-61).  I disagree.  Lucretius claims that human beings could not have survived if they had not learned to cooperate: "It was then that neighbors, in their eagerness neither to harm nor be harmed, began to form mutual pacts of friendship, and claimed protection for their children and women, indicating by means of inarticulate cries and gestures that everyone ought to have compassion for the weak" (5.1019-23). 

Campbell sees this idea as confirmed by recent work (by Robert Axelrod and others) on the evolution of cooperation, but he does not see this idea was first elaborated by Darwin in his account of the evolution of the "moral sense" in The Descent of Man.  All of the recent thinking about the evolution of cooperation through kin selection, reciprocity (direct and indirect), and group selection is building on Darwin's thinking in Descent.

Lucretius also recognizes the human domestication of animals as mutually beneficial for the animals and human beings (5.862-78).  Campbell identifies this as "extinction avoidance through symbiosis and the survival advantages of becoming tame" (2003, 129).  This also was well studied by Darwin, particularly in his Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication (1868).

My final point of disagreement with Campbell concerns his understanding of teleology.  He is right in seeing that modern Darwinian biology agrees with Lucretius and the Epicureans in their anti-teleological view of the cosmos as a spontaneous order that has not been designed to serve any purpose.  But only obliquely does Campbell recognize that modern biology can affirm immanent teleology while denying cosmic teleology (Campbell 2000, 152, 170-71).  Although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.  Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care for offspring--these and many other activities of organisms are goal directed.  Biologists cannot explain such phenomena unless they ask about ends or purposes immanent in the evolved nature of the species.  This allows for a biological understanding of morality as natural right or natural law rooted in the immanent teleology of evolved human nature.


Campbell, Gordon. 2000. "Zoogony and Evolution in Plato's Timaeus: The Presocratics, Lucretius, and Darwin." In M. R. Wright, ed., Reason and Necessity: Essays on Plato's Timaeus, 145-80. Swansea, UK: The Classical Press of Wales.

Campbell, Gordon. 2003. Lucretius on Creation and Evolution: A Commentary on De Rerum Natura, Book Five, Lines 772-1104. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gowlett, John A. J., and Richard W. Wrangham. 2013. "Earliest Fire in Africa: Towards the Convergence of Archaeological Evidence and the Cooking Hypothesis." Azania: Archaeological Research in Africa 48: 5-30.

Jablonka, Eva, and Marion J. Lamb. 2014. Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life. Revised edition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wrangham, Richard W. 2009. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Some of these points are elaborated in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., and here.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Does Moralistic Religion Promote Human Sacrifice and Other Moralistic Violence?

At the beginning of On the Nature of Things, Lucretius promises that his teaching of Epicurean atomism, according to which the world is governed by natural laws and not by the gods, will liberate human beings from the suffering caused by religion.  He recognizes that many people will see this teaching as promoting impious wickedness, because the gods are not understood as enforcing a moral law in human affairs.  Lucretius's answer to this objection is to argue, on the contrary, that the religious belief in moralistic gods will support the most impious and wicked crimes, and he illustrates this with the story of Agamemnon sacrificing the life of his first-born daughter Iphigeneia to appease the anger of the goddess Artemis, who had sent unfavorable winds to detain the Greek fleet at Argos.  Thus, a father's natural love for his daughter was overcome by the religious belief that the gods could intervene into human affairs and command the killing of his innocent daughter.

Lucretius concludes: "Such evils could religion prompt" (1.101).  This is one of the most famous lines in Lucretius's book.  Voltaire praised this as one of the most insightful ideas in the book.

The fearful evils of religion arise, Lucretius believes, from the fear of the gods, and particularly the fear of eternal punishment by the gods after death.  Such fear is dispelled by seeing that the gods exist in some realm beyond our world, and that they live a self-sufficient life in not caring for us and not intervening in our world.  The natural world in which we live is governed by natural laws, and so "all things happen independently of the gods" (1.159).  By nature we are mortal, and so we must die.  But death is not fearful, because death is nothing to us, since we cannot suffer anything when we don't exist.  Death becomes fearful only when we have a religious belief in an afterlife with eternal divine judgment.  Such religious fears weaken our natural moral sense and promote unjust violence, such as human sacrifice, when we think we are obeying divine commands.

But is this true?  Wouldn't most religious believers today say that the belief that God demands the human sacrifice of innocent people is a false superstition rather than true religion?  And haven't some evolutionary scientists shown that the religious belief in moralistic gods--gods who enforce moral conduct by rewarding the good and punishing the bad, in this life and the next--was necessary to sustain human cooperation in the large agrarian states that began to emerge for the first time about 4,000 years ago?

Lucretius might have found some confirmation for his argument in some recent research on the evolution of ritual human sacrifice (Joseph Watts, et al., "Ritual Human Sacrifice Promoted and Sustained the Evolution of Stratified Societies," Nature 532 [2016]: 228-31).  This study examined 93 traditional Austronesian cultures (in parts of Asia and the South Pacific).  The scholars found that 40 of these cultures had practiced ritual human sacrifice, and that the practice of human sacrifice seemed to create and preserve social hierarchies.  Through human sacrifice, ruling elites could legitimize their power by claiming supernatural authority and by enforcing obedience by the intimidation of human sacrifice.  So while some evolutionary scientists have seen evidence that moralistic religions have supported cooperative behavior in large states, the scholars in this study suggest that there is a dark side to this that is evident in the religious practice of human sacrifice.

Even the Bible shows some evidence of human sacrifice, which must trouble Biblical religious believers.  The most famous example of this is in Genesis 22, where God decides to test Abraham's obedience by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Abraham obeys, although an angel intervenes to stop his hand from plunging a knife into Isaac.  He has passed the test by showing that he was willing to engage in the ritual human sacrifice of his son.  According to Soren Kierkegaard, this shows the "teleological suspension of the ethical" in the Bible--that the faithful believer must obey any command of God, even when it is immoral.

Another example of human sacrifice in the Bible is Jephthah killing his daughter.  He had promised to God that if God gave him victory over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice as a burnt offering to God the first person coming out of his house on his return.  The Ammonites were defeated, and when Jephthah returned, his daughter came out of his house to greet him.  According to his vow, Jephthah sacrificed her, and the Bible says nothing to indicate that this was mistaken (Judges 11:29-40).

The most prominent example of ritual human sacrifice in the Bible is the crucifixion of Jesus.  God demanded the ritual sacrifice of His only son, who was both fully human and fully divine, as atonement for human sin.

More generally, one might see the Biblical teaching of capital punishment for violating divine law as human sacrifice.  Blasphemy, apostasy, witchcraft, homosexuality, and many more crimes are to be punished by death.  Up to the middle of the 19th century, many Christian legal systems dictated capital punishment for hundreds of crimes.  Islamic sharia law continues this tradition of divinely commanded capital punishment.

Remarkably, even Thomas Aquinas upheld God's command to Abraham to kill his son, and he also upheld the killing of apostates in the Inquisition.

In recent history, most Christians, Jews, and Muslims have rejected divinely commanded human sacrifice or capital punishment.  Does this show the influence of a Lucretian natural science that denies or minimizes divine intervention into nature?  Today, if parents think God has commanded them to kill their children, we assume they are insane.

We are also less inclined today to believe in an afterlife with divine judgment and eternal rewards in Heaven and eternal punishments in Hell.  Even the most fundamentalist Christians have largely given up any belief in Hell.  As indicated in a previous post, Dante's cosmic model of the universe with Heaven above and Hell below was replaced in the 17th century with a cosmic model that had a Heaven but not a Hell.  Increasingly, it seems that even devout Christians agree with Charles Darwin that eternal punishment in Hell is a "damnable doctrine."

Friday, July 01, 2016

Cosmic Teleology in Big History?--Owen Gingerich's Response

In an email message, Owen Gingerich has replied to my previous blog post on cosmic teleology in big history.  He has permitted me to post it here:

"Thank you for sending your thoughtful blog post, including a cogent critique, not of what is in my books, but rather, what is not in them.  It is difficult to contemplate the beginning of time; without meaningful change there is no way to measure the existence of time.  Likewise it is difficult to contemplate the end of time.  The closest I come to this in my two books is the quotation from Dorothy Sayers on p. 114 of God's Planet.  Hoyle notes there is an interesting but insoluble problem here concerning the future of time.  Sayers doesn't really solve it, but indicates that there is something different that surely exists.  It would take a book in deep philosophy to tackle this issue.  Just as palaeontologists can reconstruct the past without ourselves being present, astronomers can construct the future in plausible ways long after Homo sapiens is extinct, but they will run into a problem if they start to think about the end of time.  The Bible has some hints about "many mansions" in the afterlife but these do not give a coherent picture of what to expect.  Perhaps one must observe Wittgenstein's advice, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."    --     Owen Gingerich
He has asked me to include the quotation from Dorothy Sayers.  She was responding to a radio talk by Fred Hoyle.  He had observed: "Here we are in this wholly fantastic Universe, with scarcely a clue as to whether our existence has any real significance."  He went on to say, "It strikes me as very curious that the Christians have so little to say about how they propose eternity should be spent. . . . Now what the Christians offer me is an eternity of frustration."  He added that he thought 300 years would be enough.
Writing under the heading "The Theologian and the Scientist," Sayers noted that "when modern scientists begin to discuss religion, I often wish that some kindly soul had thought of sending them to Sunday School.  For they do not seem to know the meaning of the words that Christians use.  Here, for example, is Mr. Fred Hoyle.  He finds the idea of immortality 'horrible' because he himself would not care to live more than 300 years.  And he complains that Christians 'have so little to say about how they propose that eternity shall be spent.'"
She went on to say: "Christians have, in fact, said a good deal about the nature of eternal life--in particular that it does not consist (as Mr. Hoyle seems to think) of endlessly prolonged time of the kind we know.  They insist that, although we are often obliged to picture eternity in terms of time, the two things are really incommensurable."
"Sayers went on," Gingerich notes, "to use the analogy of a novelist, over an undisclosed length of time developing a character, whose entire trajectory is then on display simultaneously, the difference between eternity and immortality."
I do wonder, however, whether Sayers accepted the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, as taught by Paul.  Thomas Aquinas interpreted this to mean that people in the afterlife would have real bodies, although in some perfected form, like the body of Jesus.  And since Jesus was about 32 years old when he was crucified, Aquinas reasoned, that suggests that when we are resurrected, we will have the body that we had when we were 32 years old, or, if we die earlier than that, we will have the body that we would have had at age 32, if we had lived longer.  But does that mean that that 32 year old resurrected body will never age?  Would such a body frozen in time be a truly human body?  Wallace Stevens raised such questions in his poem "Sunday Morning," which was the subject of a blog post.

I do see Gingerich's point about being silent about that whereof we cannot speak.  The questions we are raising here might be what he calls "questions without answers," because they are questions about that of which we have no experience.  Why is there something rather than nothing? is one such question.  Since no human being has any experience with everything arising from nothing, it's not clear that the question is even comprehensible to us.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin write: "What existed before our universe appeared remains unknown.  We simply have no evidence, so we cannot say anything scientific about the moment when our universe appeared" (19).

And just as it's hard to say anything sensible about the beginning of time, it's hard to say anything about the end of time or the eternity outside of time. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Cosmic Teleology in Big History?

Here are two models of the universe.  The first is Dante's Christian model, which was generally accepted in Christendom until the 18th century.  Dante's model has the Earth at the center.  Circling around the Earth are the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Beyond that are the fixed stars, and then finally the chrystalline sphere of the Primum Mobile and the Paradise of Heaven.  Beneath the Earth are Purgatory and Hell.

The second model is by Thomas Digges, originally published in 1576.  Digges was an English mathematician and astronomer, who was the first person to explain the Copernican heliocentric model in English, although he modified the Copernican model in two ways.  Like Copernicus, Digges has the Sun at the center.  Circling around the Sun are Mercury, Venus, and the Earth, with the Earth identified as "the great orb carrying the globe of mortality, his circular period determining our years." Beyond the Earth are the orbits of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  Unlike Copernicus, Digges described the orbit of fixed stars beyond Saturn as including Heaven: "This orb of stars fixed infinitely up extends itself in altitude spherically, and therefore immovable the palace of felicity garnished with perpetual shining glorious lights innumerable, far excelling over the sun both in quantity and quality the very court of celestial angels, devoid of grief and replenished with perfect endless joy, the habitacle for the elect."  He also departs from Copernicus in that beyond the fixed stars are stars scattered throughout endless space.  Remarkably, unlike the Christian model of Dante, Digges's model does not include a place for Hell.

Both of these models assume that the cosmos is the created and purposeful design of God, who cares for the destiny of human beings as intelligent beings created in God's image, who are mortal in their earthly life, but who will live eternally in the afterlife, either enjoying eternal bliss or suffering eternal punishment.  Both of these cosmic models show a cosmic teleology in that human beings find themselves in a universe purposefully created with them in mind, and in the light of which human life has some cosmic meaning.

Does modern scientific cosmology allow for such cosmic teleology?  And if it does not, does that mean that modern science cannot support any natural teleology that can give some meaning to human life?

Early modern scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton were theists who thought the cosmic laws of nature studied by scientists were the laws of God, and thus the cosmic order manifested God's purposeful direction.

But today, many (perhaps most) natural scientists think that science must be atheistic, and so it cannot affirm the cosmic teleology of the divine creation stories.  In short, human beings can find no cosmic meaning for their lives, because the cosmos as understood by modern science is utterly pointless.

Recently, however, the proponents of Big History have argued that while the modern scientific account of human history within the history of the whole cosmos cannot support the cosmic origin stories of the Bible and other religious traditions, modern scientific cosmology can tell a scientific origin story that will allow human beings to understand the meaning of human life in the cosmos. 

In Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (2014), David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin argue that the scientific origin story of Big History can "give us a powerful sense of meaning" (2), and if this new origin story is taught to high school students around the world, this could provide us with a shared global understanding of our human place in the universe that could help us confront the greatest threats to human existence on earth today--such as nuclear war and global warming.  Bill Gates has supported their project for providing material for high school teachers to teach Big History.  So that, while previously children were taught the religious origin stories of their various societies, which explained the cosmic meaning of their lives within their social order, the new scientifically grounded Big History can teach children around the world an origin story that depends on scientific evidence rather than religious faith, and which can sustain a global ethics comprehensible to human beings in all societies, who otherwise disagree in their religious beliefs.

By contrast, some scientists today claim that science and religion are compatible, and that the modern scientific understanding of the cosmos, and of the human place within the cosmos, supports the cosmic teleology of the theistic origin stories.  For example, Owen Gingerich is Professor of Astronomy and of the History of Science, Emeritus, at Harvard University and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and he argues that a scientific history of the cosmos shows evidence of divine purposefulness, because the physical and chemical constants of the universe seem to be fine-tuned for the emergence of a world hospitable to intelligent life.  Thus, science can sustain a cosmic teleology in which human life gains meaning as the fulfillment of God's purposes.  He has laid out his reasoning in two books--God's Universe (2006) and God's Planet (2014). 

Many other prominent scientists have made similar claims about how the fine-tuning of the universe supports a theistic view of human life as the fulfillment of divine purposefulness.  This is a new version of the old argument from design (first stated by Plato)--that if nature looks like it has been intelligently designed, then this must point to a divinely intelligent designer.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin do not mention such scientific theism as an alternative to their position.  Although they do not explicitly say so, they imply that modern science must be atheistic.  They certainly make it clear that the Biblical origin story must be rejected as false (12-13, 57-58, 60, 64).

My position falls somewhere in between Gingerich and the Big History folks.  I agree with Gingerich that modern science does not dictate atheism, because scientific answers to questions about how things work fall short of answering questions about why they work that way, which are the questions that open up the possibility of divine purposefulness.  Questions about first causes point to the problem of ultimate explanation--that all explanation depends on some ultimate reality that cannot itself be explained.  All explanation presupposes the observable order of nature as the final ground of explanation.  To the question of why nature exists, or why it has the order that it does, there are only two possible answers.  Either we say this is a brute fact of our experience: that's just the way it is! Or we move beyond nature to nature's God as the creator of nature, but then we cannot explain why God is the way He is.  In looking for an ultimate explanation, we must stop somewhere with something that is unexplained--either an uncaused or self-caused nature or an uncaused or self-caused God.

Here, Gingerich says, we move from scientific physics to philosophical or theological metaphysics.  The practice of modern science, Gingerich observes, requires a methodological naturalism that looks for purely natural causes to explain everything, but it does not require a metaphysical naturalism that denies that there is any supernatural reality beyond nature.  And while the scientific account of the cosmos cannot prove the cosmic teleology of divine purposefulness, the scientific discovery that the cosmos is fine-tuned for the emergence of intelligent life makes it at least plausible to believe that this shows a divine purpose at work in the cosmos.

To reach this conclusion, however, Gingerich's view of cosmic history must stop at the present moment, with human intelligent life dominant over the Earth, and thus he refuses to reflect on the cosmic future and the likelihood that in the distant future all life will almost certainly be extinguished, because in that case we might as well conclude that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for eternal death.

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin do reflect on the likelihood that in the remote future the cosmos will be dead, and thus the emergence of life, including intelligent life, can be seen as only one short moment in the early history of the cosmos.  But they do not reflect on how this subverts their claim that Big History is the story of progress in increasing complexity that reaches its highest complexity in the intelligent life of human beings and human collective learning.

My argument is that rather than looking for some cosmic teleology of the universe, we should be satisfied if we can see the immanent teleology of living species, including the human species.  Cosmic teleology is the conception of all of nature as a whole in which all beings serve a cosmic purpose set by an intelligent designer or creator.  By contrast, immanent teleology is manifest in the internal purposiveness of organisms in their generation, their structure, and their activities.  Darwinian biology rejects any cosmic teleology by which the universe as a whole would be seen as ordered to some end or purpose.  Evolution by variation and natural selection explains the purposiveness of species without reference to any forces guiding nature to secure some cosmic scale of perfection.  And yet, although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.  Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care of the young--these and many other activities of organisms are goal directed.  Biologists cannot explain such processes unless they ask about ends or purposes immanent in each species. 

Human beings show such immanent teleology in that the evolved human nature of Homo sapiens includes natural desires and inclinations that are directed to goals or ends, and we can judge the happiness of a human life by how well those goals or ends are satisfied.  I have argued that there are at least 20 natural human desires, and that we judge societies as better or worse depending on how well or how poorly those societies provide the conditions for the harmonious satisfaction of those desires.  This is not a cosmic standard of the good, because this standard of the good is relative to the human species.  Nor is this an eternal standard of the good, because the human good exists only as long as the human species exists.  And modern scientific cosmology teaches us that human beings will exist for only a brief moment in cosmic history.  But for as long as that human species exists, even if it seems fleeting in the huge expanse of cosmic history, the human good is a natural reality.

This is not enough for Gingerich.  He rejects the Biblical literalism of the scientific creationists who claim that science confirms the six-days-of-creation story in Genesis, because he doubts that this poetic story was meant to be a literal history of the origin of the cosmos, and because he doubts that any empirical science could confirm such a story.  He also rejects Intelligent Design Theory (like that promoted by the Discovery Institute), because he sees no scientific evidence that God had to intervene miraculously to create each form of life that could not have arisen by a natural evolutionary process,  And yet he is a theistic evolutionist, who believes that God did have to act as First Cause of the laws of nature: He knew how to make a universe that could make itself.  So he agrees with the Intelligent Design theorists that the evidence of design in nature points to divine final causes.  But he does not see that they have provided any mechanisms for the efficient causes necessary for any scientific explanation (God's Universe, 73).  I have made the same point against the Intelligent Design theorists: what they offer is not a scientific explanation unless they can explain exactly when, where, and how the Intelligent Designer created all the irreducibly complex forms of life.

Although Gingerich does not believe that science can prove the existence of God as First Cause, he does believe that there is evidence of fine-tuning or the anthropic principle that becomes comprehensible only if one believes that this fine-tuning is the purposeful work of a Creator.  There are many parameters of physics and cosmology that are set at precise values, such that if there were even a slight deviation from these values, the universe would not be hospitable to any form of life or to intelligent life.  There can be as many as 34 of these finely tuned parameters.  For example, if the expansion rate of the universe had been slightly larger, no stars and planets could have formed; and if it had been slightly smaller, the universe would have collapsed before any stars and planets could have been formed.  The nuclear energy level ratio of carbon to oxygen is set precisely, so that if it had been larger, the universe would contain insufficient oxygen for life, and if it had been smaller, the universe would contain insufficient carbon for life.  If the earth were closer to the Sun, it would be too hot to sustain life.  If it were farther away from the Sun, it would be too cold to sustain life.  Just as Goldilocks found the bowl of porridge that was neither too hot or too cold but just right, it seems that the universe is just right for the emergence of intelligent life. 

Gingerich sees only two possible ways to explain why the universe is so precisely fine-tuned for the evolution of intelligent life on Earth.  We either say that this all happened through an astonishing sequence of accidents.  Or we say that it was intentionally planned by the Creator.  Gingerich thinks the latter is much more plausible, because it is easier to believe that the Creator intentionally set the finely-tuned parameters of the universe to make it inevitable that not just life, but intelligent human life would emerge on a planet just like the Earth.  He endorses the statement of Paul Davies "that the laws of nature are rigged not only in favor of complexity, or just in favor of life, but also in favor of mind.  To put it dramatically, it implies that mind is written into the laws of nature in a fundamental way" (God's Universe, 38).  It's as though nature has been designed so as to be hospitable to minds that can contemplate nature.

It is easier to believe that the universe's being finely tuned for intelligent life is purely accidental if one believes in the multiverse theory accepted by some scientists today.  If our universe is only one of many universes, and if each of those universes has a different set of natural laws and natural physical and cosmological parameters, then we might imagine that through a random evolution of universes, at least one universe could have arisen like ours hospitable to intelligent life.  The problem with this, however, as Gingerich and other scientists have observed, is that this is a purely imaginary conception, for which we have no observational evidence, because we have no way of stepping outside our own universe.  For this reason, many scientists think the theory of multiverse is not a scientific theory at all, because it is not empirically testable.

Even if from the standpoint of the present moment, we as intelligent beings can look back on 13.8 billion years of cosmic history and see ourselves as the purposeful peak of that fine-tuned evolutionary history, which is what Gingerich does, we might wonder about the remote future of the cosmos.  Is the cosmos so fine-tuned for life and intelligent life that such life will continue forever?  Gingerich never asks that question or considers what scientific cosmology would suggest about the distant future of the cosmos.

Although Gingerich quotes from Paul Davies as saying that the universe seems rigged to favor the emergence of not just life but intelligent life, he does not quote Davies' remarks about what the universe will look like in the very remote future.  He imagines "an inconceivably dilute soup of photons, neutrinos, and a dwindling number of electrons and positrons, all slowly moving farther and farther apart.  As far as we know, no further basic physical processes would ever happen.  No significant event would occur to interrupt the bleak sterility of a universe that has run its course yet still faces eternal life--perhaps eternal death would be a better description."

So if we look at the entire history of the cosmos, we see that during the first 10 billion years, there was no life; and then after a few billion years of life, the universe became eternally dead again.  So now life, including intelligent life, seems to be only a momentary event in cosmic history.  Now, it seems that the cosmos has been fine-tuned for an eternity of mindless death.

Or would Gingerich dispute this scenario of the universe as eternally expanding into an utterly dead universe?  Would he defend what John Barrow and Frank Tipler, in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), call "The Final Anthropic Principle (FAP): Intelligent information-processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, it will never die out."  Or would Gingerich agree with Martin Gardner's flippant remark that this should be called the "Completely Ridiculous Anthropic Principle (CRAP)"?

Of course, one way to preserve human intelligent life forever would be for human beings at death to pass into an afterlife, going either to Heaven or Hell.  Gingerich recognizes that Heaven is included in Digges's Copernican model of the universe, but Gingerich does not say whether this could be compatible with modern scientific cosmology.  He does suggest, however, in one of his articles, that if one accepts the multiverse theory, then one might imagine that Heaven could be located in one of those alternative universes. Dinesh D'Souza, in Life After Death: The Evidence (2009), has elaborated this idea.  But as I have argued in some other posts, it is hard to imagine how any of the traditional conceptions of human immortality--such as the mind living separated from the body or the resurrection of the body to eternal life--make any sense.

Gingerich writes: "I accept as a final cause that the physical constants have been fine-tuned to make intelligent life in the universe possible and that this is evidence for the planning and intentions of a Creator God" (God's Planet, 152).  The planning and intentions of the Biblical God include not just making intelligent life in the universe possible, but divine judgment of human intelligent life in the afterlife so that the saved are eternally rewarded in Heaven and the damned are eternally punished in Hell.  This is conveyed in Dante's cosmic model.  It is only partly conveyed in Digges's cosmic model, which has a place for Heaven, but not for Hell, which shows the modern decline in the belief in Hell.  Does Gingerich's modern cosmic model have places for both Heaven and Hell in the afterlife, and if so, can this be compatible with the modern scientific conception of the cosmos?

Christian, Brown, and Benjamin offer no prospects for eternal life in the afterlife, and they actually see the remote future of the universe as eternal death.  Relying on the work of Nikos Prantzos, in Our Cosmic Future: Humanity's Fate in the Universe (2000),  they paint a bleak picture:
"In the very remote future, countless billions of billions of billions of years from now, the universe will start getting more and more boring.  The gaps between galaxies will increase so that observers will see fewer objects in the skies until eventually each galaxy will seem to be a self-contained universe of its own.  Star formation will cease, and the number of stars will start diminishing until finally there will no longer be any stars at all.  And no stars will surely mean no planets, no biospheres, and no living organisms.  The universe will be dead again, and any complex structures will be slowly broken down, beginning with living organisms, progressing to planets, and eventually to stars.  The Goldilocks conditions that made it possible to create planets and life will no longer exist.  The universe will become a place inhabited by clouds of chemicals, including, perhaps, great lumps of iron.  Where there are clumps of matter, they will either form black holes or eventually get gobbled up by black holes, which will graze on the slim pickings left in an increasingly empty universe.  Eventually, gazillions of gazillions of years from now (gazillions is not a technical term, by the way, but we hope you know what we mean), even the black holes will leak energy and begin to evaporate.  The universe will get simpler and simper and bigger and bigger forever and ever and ever and . . ." (304)
They say that this "bleak picture" should actually be "quite satisfying" to us if we see that what this means is that "we have the good fortune to live in the springtime of the universe," before it collapses into perpetual disorder without complexity or life.

What they call the "Goldilocks conditions" seem to correspond to what Gingerich and others call "fine tuning."  But here the finely tuned conditions for the emergence of ever greater complexity in cosmic history, culminating in the complexity of intelligent life, disappear in the remote future.  This seems odd, because after Christian, Brown, and Benjamin have organized all of their Big History of the universe around the theme of increasing complexity leading to intelligent human life, they point in the last three pages of their book to an endless future history with no complexity or life. 

In David Christian's TED lecture, he concludes his "big history of everything in 18 minutes" with the "near future" (the next 100 years), and he is silent about the "remote future" (the death of the universe many billions of years in the future).  Does this show that the proponents of Big History would rather ignore the remote future of the universe, because that contradicts their story of progress towards complexity and intelligent life?  Is this myth rather than science?

Now it seems that there is no cosmic teleology of progress, because it all ends in perpetual dead disorder.  If this Big History gives us any "powerful sense of meaning," it must be not a cosmic meaning but the immanent meaning inherent in the striving of living beings including ourselves.

Bertrand Russell expressed this thought well:
"That all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction . . . and the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins--all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand"
"I am told that that sort of view is depressing and that if people believed it, they would not be able to go on living. . . . But nobody really worries about what is going to happen millions of years hence.  Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out . . ., it is not such as to render life miserable.  It merely makes you turn your attention to other things."
So how do we explain the powerful but illusory appeal of the cosmic teleology of fine tuning the universe for intelligent life?  Perhaps the best way of explaining this comes from Douglas Adams's account of "puddle theory":
"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact, it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'  This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be all right, because this World was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."
And, indeed, Christian, Brown, and Benjamin argue that Big History should teach us about the fragile vulnerability of human life in its dependence on life-sustaining ecological conditions, and thus we need to be on the watch out for threats like global warming.  But they also suggest that no matter what we do, we might survive for a few more centuries, or even thousands of years, if we're lucky, but as billions of years pass, the Sun will begin to expand, and the Earth will be too hot for any kind of life.

But if we could imagine ourselves somehow being there to observe the end of all life and the approaching darkness of cosmic death, we could say: Well, it was good while it lasted.

Some of my other posts on Big History can be found here, here, here, here, here., and here.

Some posts on teleology can be found here, here, and here.

Some posts on immortality can be found here, here, here., here, here, and here.

Some posts on Intelligent Design Theory can be found here, here, and here.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Is Gary Johnson Manly Enough to Make a Libertarian Argument?

I have expressed some hope that Gary Johnson could be remarkably successful as the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party, particularly given the unpopularity of Clinton and Trump with many voters.  But I have also expressed a doubt about Johnson's rhetorical ability for making his case for libertarianism in a sharp, incisive, and engaging way.  As many people have noted, Johnson is not a vigorous speaker.

This doubt about Johnson's rhetorical style was deepened by his poor performance at the "Libertarian Town Hall" last Wednesday on CNN.  Justin Raimondo's assessment of this as a "missed opportunity" for libertarianism is the same as mine.  It was painful to watch, particularly when Johnson passed up so many good chances to make libertarian arguments in ways that would engage viewers. 

As Raimondo indicates, one of the best examples of this is when Johnson was asked whether he agreed with Clinton's charge that Trump "is not a legitimate businessman."  Johnson's answer? "You know, I leave that to others."  What kind of an answer is that? 

He could have so easily said that yes, Trump is a crony capitalist, who is happy to use the legal power of eminent domain to coercively take away a little old lady's home for building one of his casinos. Libertarians recognize such abuse of eminent domain as a violation of the individual right to property.  It's hard to understand why Johnson refused to make such an argument.

It's also hard to understand why Johnson takes on the appearance, as Raimondo observes, of being a "beta male."  He's not assertive in taking on the appearance of a dominant male, which is important in politics, especially in competing for the highest political office in America.

For example, when Chris Cuomo asked Johnson what first comes to mind when he hears the name "Donald Trump," Johnson's answer was "I'm sure there's something good to say about Donald somewhere, I'm sure . . ."

I have commented on Trump's bombastic rhetoric as "chimpanzee politics."  Johnson shouldn't imitate Trump's style.  But maybe he should read Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics and then think about how he might display some of the rhetorical style of an alpha male.

Johnson's passion for mountain climbing and strenuous athletic activity suggests that he could become a libertarian Teddy Roosevelt.  But somehow he cannot find a way to display that manly passion in his rhetoric.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Republican Convention Delegates Can Dump Trump

Contrary to what has been asserted generally in the news media, the majority of the delegates to the Republican Party Convention in Cleveland are not bound by either state laws or party rules to vote for Donald Trump.  In fact, at every Republican Party convention, since the first one in 1856, with the sole exception of the convention of 1976, the delegates have been free from the first ballot onward to vote as they wish in their selection of a presidential nominee. 

Since it's clear that many of the delegates, perhaps a majority, believe that nominating Trump would be a disastrous mistake for the Republican Party and for the nation, they have the right, under the rules of the Republican Party, to deny the nomination to Trump and select someone else.

The historical evidence and reasoning for this conclusion is laid out in a recent book--Unbound: The Conscience of a Republican Delegate by Curly Haugland and Sean Parnell.  An article in the New York Times by Jeremy Peters (June 27) reports that many of the delegates have accepted Haugland's argument for a "conscience exemption," and that Trump and his people will have to control the convention to suppress any delegate rebellion.

At the first Republican Party convention in 1856 in Philadelphia, a Mr. Coale, a Maryland delegate, declared: "We will vote as we please, and we will not vote in any other way."  As Haugland and Parnell show, this same idea was expressed by other delegates in 1856 and at later conventions.

When the right of delegates to vote freely was challenged by proposed rules to bind the delegates, these rules were voted down.  State Republican parties have enacted rules for binding their delegates at the national convention, but the National Republican Party has always asserted that the National Party Convention enacts its own rules as superior to the state organizations.

At the 1912 convention, for the first time, a delegation cited not instructions from their state party, but instructions based on a state law requiring that they vote as determined by a primary election.  Those instructions were ignored at the national convention, and the individual preferences of the delegates were recorded.  Later, decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court declared that it was unconstitutional for state laws to override the rules of a national political party, because a political party is a private organization with a constitutional right of freedom of association, which includes the right to set the rules of the organization.

The one exceptional case is the Republican Convention of 1976.  Incumbent Gerald Ford seemed to have a majority of the delegates pledged to him, but he faced a serious challenge from Ronald Reagan.  Fearing that some of the Ford delegates might switch to Reagan, the Ford people pushed through the convention a "Justice Amendment" saying that in those 18 or 19 states that had clear laws binding delegates to follow the state primary results, that those delegates would be bound by those laws.  And yet the Ford people admitted that those state laws were unconstitutional, according to the Supreme Court, and so the convention was under no legal obligation to follow those laws.  Moreover, everyone agreed that all of the delegates from states without such laws were free to vote their conscience, even in states with primaries but without state laws to bind the delegates to follow those primary outcomes.  At the 1980 Republican Convention, the rules committee refused to accept this novel rule from the 1976 convention and returned to the long-established rule that delegates were free to vote as they wished.

It is true that some Republican Party rules adopted at and following the 2012 convention do mention the "binding" of delegates in rules governing the election and selection of delegates.  But there is evidence that what looks like a radical change to a long-established principle was an error that arose through misunderstanding.  In any case, it is clear that each convention has the power to set its own rules and is not bound by any change in the rules enacted by a previous convention.  So unless the 2016 Convention enacts rules that bind delegates, this convention will follow the traditional rule (in 39 out of 40 conventions) that delegates are free to vote according to their individual consciences.

Of course, if delegates at the convention in Cleveland do vote for someone other than Trump, even though their state party rules or state laws say they are bound to Trump by his primary victories, Trump will angrily declare that this is an undemocratic disenfranchisement of the millions of people who voted for him.  He has already made that argument.

But this only shows Trump's mistake in assuming that the United States is a direct democracy.  It is not.  It is a representative democracy or a democratic republic, in which citizens elect representatives to exercise their judgment in deliberating for them.  That's true for the national Congress, for the 50 state legislatures, and for the Republican National Convention.  These are all deliberative bodies, who respect the opinions of the people they represent, but who have the duty to exercise their own deliberative judgment about the public good, even when this sometimes goes against the opinions of some of those they represent.

We should notice that neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution say anything about "democracy."  But the Constitution does endorse "the Republican form of government."

Of course, elected legislators and political party delegates must take seriously the demands of the people they represent.  Legislators and delegates must give good reasons for going against public opinion, and if their reasons are not persuasive, they cannot expect to have a successful political career.  But their moral and political duty is to deliberate about the public good--the good of the country and the good of their party--and sometimes what they recognize as the public good is contrary to what the momentary passions of the people they represent might demand.

So if the delegates to the 2016 Republican Convention conclude that Trump is not qualified to run for President of the United States, that he lacks the moral and intellectual virtues necessary for being a good president, because he suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder, and if nominated, he is likely to lead the Republican Party into a disastrous defeat that might disable or even destroy the Party, then they will have the duty to nominate someone else.

I say this even though as a libertarian, I know that the success of Gary Johnson's campaign depends on his running against Clinton and Trump.

Or perhaps the Republican delegates could select Gary Johnson and William Weld as their nominees, so that Johnson and Weld could run for both the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party.  After all, both Johnson and Weld have served as Republican governors.

The "Delegates Unbound" group has a website.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Brexit Vote: Ethnic Nationalism versus Commercial Cosmopolitanism in Big History

Arriving at one of his golf courses in Scotland, Donald Trump praised the British vote to leave the European Union: "They took their country back, just like we will take American back."

Back to where? Protectionist trade barriers? Xenophobic nationalism? Back to the first half of the 20th century, when the global trading system was broken up, the world fell into economic depression, and the world fought the two bloodiest world wars in human history?

The fundamental debate here is over the costs and benefits of free trade and of the commercial societies based on free trade.  To see what is at stake in this debate, we need to understand the history of trading as part of the Big History of human societies from the Paleolithic Era (200,000 to 10,000 years ago) to the present.  One good text for this is Big History: Between Nothing and Everything by David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin (McGraw-Hill Education, 2014).  The story I tell here is elaborated in this book.

Like all animals, human beings must find a way to make a living so that they can extract and use the energy necessary for their survival and reproduction.  Most of that energy comes from sunlight as captured by photosynthesis and stored in plants, animals, and fossil fuels.

There are at least four different ways that human beings can make a living--by foraging, farming, herding, or trading.  Throughout the Paleolithic Era, human beings lived mostly by foraging--hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  But they also engaged in trading.  There is archaeological evidence for trade going back as far as 140,000 years ago.  For example, obsidian (a naturally occurring volcanic glass) has been found at human sites that are over 300 km from the sources of the obsidian, which suggests that the obsidian was being traded between human groups.  In the Upper Paleolithic (50,000 to 10,000 years ago), there is extensive evidence that raw materials such as elk teeth, mammoth ivory, amber, marine shells, and fossils were obtained from distant sources and transformed into decorative objects.  So here we see that what Adam Smith identified as the psychological motivation for exchange and specialization--"the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another"--arose early in human evolution.  (As I have argued in other posts, this contradicts Frederick Hayek's argument that the evolved instincts of human beings favor socialism rather than capitalism, and that the modern extended social order based on trade requires a suppression of our natural instincts.)

By about 10,000 years ago, there is evidence that some foragers were harvesting wild grains, and some were combining the cultivation of some plants with the gathering of wild plants and hunting of wild animals (similar to what anthropologists have seen among semi-nomadic horticultural foragers like the Yanomami in the Amazonian rain forest).  Starting about 5,500 years ago (3,500 BC), we see evidence for the first agrarian cities and states in Mesopotamia.  Later, agrarian civilizations, linking villages and cities into communities of millions of people, appeared in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, in Egypt, in the Indus River Valley, in China, in Mesoamerica, and in Peru.

From 4,000 years ago (2,000 BC), there is evidence for extensive trade networks connecting Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus agrarian civilizations in commercial relationships.  A few years ago, archaeologists discovered a sunken trading ship off the southwestern coast of Turkey.  In the hold, they found ingots of copper and tin, cobalt-blue and turquoise glass; terebinthine resin (an ingredient for perfume), ebony logs from Egypt, elephant tusks, hippopotamus teeth, ostrich feathers, tortoise shells, exotic fruits and spices; pottery from Cyprus; and Mycenaean weapons.

Around 100 BC, the decision of the Han Chinese to engage in long-distance trade began the development of the Silk Roads trade routes that stretched from China through Central Asia to India, Arabia, and finally to Rome. 

In 65 A.D., the Roman Senator Pliny the Elder complained that the importation of Chinese silk and spices was draining Rome of its money.  The Donald Trump of Rome!

We should keep in mind that this international trade was a trade not only in goods but also in ideas, and thus an exercise in the distinctive human capacity for collective learning through the exchange of information.  The flourishing of ancient Athens depended on its being a commercial city embedded in extensive trading networks, which promoted the intellectual life of philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who exchanged ideas.  Thus, the philosophic life flourishes in commercial societies.

During the third century A.D., China and the Roman Empire withdrew from the Silk Roads trade.  But then during the Tang Dynasty (618-903 AD) and the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD), the Chinese renewed trade over international trading routes (both land and sea).  Muslim, Byzantine, Indian, and Southeast-Asian merchants migrated to the Chinese trading cities.

By the thirteenth century AD, the entire Afro-Eurasian world was connected by trading networks stretching from Genoa to Timbuktu to Bagdad to Beijing.  Unfortunately, not only goods and ideas but also diseases were transported along these trading routes.  In the fourteenth century, the Black Death plague brought devastating reductions in population and economic activity.

But, then, by 1500, the Chinese and European voyages of exploration began to create the first truly global exchange networks, which eventually brought the Modern Industrial and Commercial Revolution.  Previously, the world had been divided into four world zones that had little or no contact with one another: Afro-Eurasia (Africa and the Eurasian landmass, and the islands like Britain and Japan), The Americas (North, Central, and South America), Australasia (Australia, Papua New Guinea, and other islands), and the Pacific island societies (New Zealand, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Hawaii).  For the first time, in the 16th and 17th centuries, these four world zones were joined in trading networks that encompassed the entire Earth, for the first time in human history.

Finally, the full emergence of the Modern Revolution came with the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain in the 19th century, which depended upon Great Britain being in the center of a global trading system.  Over the past 200 years, the Modern Revolution of Commercial Cosmopolitanism has produced a stunning increase in human population and prosperity that now extends around the world.

But there also have been periods of resistance in which societies have turned against the principle of free trade and the virtues of commercial society.  At the beginning of the 20th century, many people in the major industrialized societies rejected the argument of Adam Smith and the classical liberals that free trade and the bourgeois commercial life would promote economic growth and individual liberty in ways that would benefit everyone.  Many people argued that the nations of the world were in conflict over scarce resources, and therefore each nation must protect its own interests against other nations.  Protectionist restrictions on trade and immigration were put in place.  Some people (like the Nazi theoretician Carl Schmitt) argued that politics was ultimately about the violent conflict between friends and enemies.  This kind of thinking led to economic and military warfare.

There was a sharp decline in international trade.  While the total value of world exports increased at an annual rate of about 3.4 percent between 1870 and 1913, this fell to 0.9 percent between 1913 and 1950.  This was linked to declining rates of growth.  Global GDP per capita rose by 1.3 percent each year between 1870 and 1913.  But it rose only 0.91 percent each year from 1913 to 1950.

After 1950, North America and Europe moved towards a world system of cosmopolitan liberalism based on free trade and free migration.  As a result, both international trade and economic growth increased at the highest rates in all of human history.  This has also been a time of peace--the longest period in which the Great European Powers have not fought one another.  Thus, we have seen all the benefits of what Montesquieu called "gentle commerce."

Big History shows that trading has always been part of the evolved psychology of human nature, beginning in the Paleolithic Era.  But the modern move to fully commercial societies based on trade has allowed for the fullest expression of that "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange" that has been latent in human nature for hundreds of thousands of years.

If we are persuaded by people like Donald Trump, we can choose to move away from this era of commercial cosmopolitanism and turn back to the era of protectionism and ethnic nationalism.  But why would we want to do this?