Sunday, August 23, 2009

Darwinism, Reductionism, and the Socratic Turn

One of the most common criticisms of a Darwinian political science is that it must assume a materialist reductionism that denies the freedom of the mind. I often hear this criticism from my colleagues in political philosophy who sometimes cite the famous account in Plato's Phaedo of why Socrates turned away from natural philosophy to moral and political philosophy.

Speaking to some of his friends the day before his execution in Athens, Socrates recounts that as a young man he studied natural philosophy. He was particularly attracted to the teaching of Anaxagoras that everything in the cosmos is ordered by Mind (nous). Socrates thought it was good that Mind should be responsible for ordering all things in just the way that would be best, so that to explain the cause of anything--why it exists or why it comes into being or passes away as it does--one should discover why it is best for it to be as it is, as fulfilling the intention of the cosmic Mind. Socrates thought he had discovered "a teacher after my own mind" (97a-d).

But later Socrates discovered that he was wrong about Anaxagoras. Instead of explaining how each thing in the universe is ordered by Mind for what is best, Anaxagoras explained things through material causes such as air and water. For Socrates this can't be right. He observes:

"To me this seemed most similar to that of somebody who--after saying that Socrates does everything he does by mind and then venturing to assign the causes of each of the things I do--should first say that I'm now sitting here because my body's composed of bones and sinews, and because bones are solid and have joints keeping them separate from one another, while sinews are such as to tense and relax and also wrap the bones all around along with the flesh and skin that holds them together. Then since the bones swing in their sockets, the sinews, by relaxing and tensing, make me able, I suppose, to bend my limbs right now--and it's through this cause that I'm sitting here with my legs bent. And again, as regards my conversing with you, he might assign other causes of this sort, holding voices and air and sounds and a thousand other such things responsible, and not taking care to assign the true causes--that since Athenians judged it better to condemn me, so I for my part have judged it better to sit here and more just to stay put and endure whatever penalty they order. Since--by the Dog--these sinews and bones of mine would, I think, long ago have been in Megara or Boetia, swept off by an opinion about what's best, if I didn't think it more just and more beautiful, rather than fleeing and playing the runaway, to endure whatever penalty the city should order" (98c-99a).

The explanations through physical causes correctly describe the necessary material conditions for what Socrates is doing. But they don't explain the true cause of his actions here, which is his opinion about what it's best for him to do.

Socrates goes on to report that his frustration with Anaxagoras led him to undertake a "second sailing" in search for the causes of things. Instead of looking directly into beings, like those who blind themselves by trying to look directly at the sun during an eclipse, he decided to study the accounts or arguments (logoi) that people make about being, like those who look at the sun's reflection in water. This is what some have called the "Socratic turn" away from studying natural science to philosophical conversations about what people think about the world, which includes a turn towards moral and political philosophy.

But many modern biologists would agree with Socrates in criticizing the inadequacy of materialist reductionism. Consider, for example, Ernst Mayr, one of the leading evolutionary biologists of the last century, who writes:

"The conceptual framework of biology is entirely different from that of the physical sciences and cannot be reduced to it. . . . The courtship of a male animal, for instance, can be described in the language and conceptual framework of the physical sciences (locomotion, energy turnover, metabolic processes, and so on), but it can also be described in the framework of behavioral and reproductive biology. And the latter description and explanation cannot be reduced to theories of the physical sciences. Such biological phenomena as species, competition, mimicry, territory, migration, and hibernation are among the thousands of examples of organismic phenomena for which a purely physical description is at best incomplete if not irrelevant" (Toward a New Philosophy of Biology [1988], p. 18).

One of the irreducible features of biological explanations, Mayr argues, is teleology--or at least the kind of teleology that Mayr identifies as "teleonomy." Mayr observes:

"Goal-directed behavior (in the widest sense of this word) is extremely widespread in the organic world; for instance, most activity connected with migration, food-getting, courtship, ontogeny, and all phases of reproduction is characterized by such goal orientation. The occurrence of goal-directed processes is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the world of living organisms" (p. 45).

"Teleonomy" is Mayr's term for the idea that such goal-directedness is guided by a genetic "program" that has ultimately been shaped by evolutionary history.

For animals with nervous systems and brains, some of this goal-directed behavior can be steered by cognition. Some animals can act voluntarily in so far as they are conscious of their goals. Human beings can act deliberately in so far as they have the cognitive capacity to aim at their goals in the light of past experience and future expectations. As Darwin saw, human beings are moral animals because they can deliberately act under the guidance of their moral sense of what is best for them.

Modern Darwinian biology is not reductionist, because it recognizes the irreducible, emergent complexity of the living world, which shows teleological behavior and mental causality. And yet there is no basis in this biology for cosmic teleology--for the idea that the cosmos as a whole is directed by some intelligent cause to some goal or purpose.

As Socrates indicates in the Phaedo, the idea that Mind rules the cosmos and orders it to good ends is an inference from our introspective human experience of mental deliberation and intentional choice. While Darwinian biologists can accept the idea of intentional order in the behavior of animals with some cognitive capacity for intentional behavior, they cannot accept the projection of this intentionality onto the whole universe.

As I have suggested in some previous posts, it's not clear whether Plato (or Plato's Socrates) endorses cosmic teleology. That Socrates was so attracted to the idea of Mind ruling the cosmos suggests an inclination in that direction. And the Timaeus would seem to lay out the cosmic teleology--the ordering of the cosmos by a divine craftsman looking to the eternal ideas of perfection--that Socrates had hoped would come from Anaxagoras. But the silence of Socrates during Timaeus's speech and the ridiculously implausible assertions in Timaeus' "likely story" leave careful readers wondering whether Plato endorses any conception of the cosmos as ordered by Mind for some cosmic purpose.


Kent Guida said...

I appreciate your taking on this question of cosmic teleology in Plato and the charge of reductionism. It's fundamental, and it appears to be the main reason darwinian conservatism is met with such resistance.
I think you have shown that
Aristotle did not depend on cosmic teleology for his psychology,. ethics and politics, and if the case is equally strong for Plato, it will be increasingly hard for your critics to maintain their argument.

Troy Camplin said...

If you haven't read it yet, I recommend Stuart Kauffman's "Reinventing the Sacred," wherein he addresses non-reductionism. I also deal with it in my book "Diaphysics."

Emergence solves the problem of reductionism, because you have behaviors that cannot be explained by summing the parts. More, the emergent behavior in turn affects the parts. Biochemical systems give rise to the emergent properties of the cell, and the cell in turn affects the biochemical systems and their actions. Our neural architecture and interactions give rise to the mind (or, the minding of the brain, since it is active), and the mind, in turn, affects the neural architecture and interactions.

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, emergence has frequently been a topic for this blog.

Troy Camplin said...

I'm not surprised. You did make a reference to it in this posting. I'm new here, though, so I wasn't sure to what degree you thought about or used the concept.