Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lawlessness in Biology and the Social Sciences

For many years, I taught a graduate course on the philosophy of the social sciences for students in my political science department. One year, as I was preparing to teach the course, I sent out a survey to all the faculty in the department. I asked them whether political scientists had discovered any general laws of political behavior. And if they believed there were such laws, I asked them to identify the laws. Remarkably, most of those who responded said that there were no such laws. Those who thought there were could identify only a few examples, and the only example that was mentioned more than once was Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchy (the claim that any large organization will tend to be dominated by a few leaders).

This points to an obvious problem. If science is judged by its success in discovering general laws, then political science is not a science. Actually, by comparison with the physical sciences--that apparently have uncovered many general laws of nature--not only political science but all of the social sciences have failed to show any progress at all in formulating and testing general laws of human action. If one agrees with the criteria for science set forth by the logical positivists or logical empiricists in the first half of the twentieth century, the absence of lawlike generalizations in the social sciences shows that they are not really sciences at all.

But doesn't this indicate that in contrast to the physical sciences, the social sciences are similar to the life sciences in their lawlessness? Many biologists and philosophers of biology have noted that there seem to be no laws of biology comparable to the exceptionless laws of the physical sciences. The lawlessness of biology seems to be a consequence of the variability, particularity, contingency, and historicity of living phenomena, which separate the science of biology from physics and chemistry (Beatty 1997; Brandon 1997; Keller 2007). It is possible to formulate a conceptual framework for biology based on well-confirmed generalizations, but these generalizations must allow for the exceptions that arise from the contingencies and variations of life (Scheiner 2010).

I take this as support for the argument that the social sciences can become true sciences by becoming branches of biology. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection provides the only general scientific theory that could sustain the social sciences as empirical sciences. This evolutionary theory includes both genetic evolution and cultural evolution as historical processes that include human action. In a Darwinian social science, there would be no general laws, but there would be contingent generalizations holding true for greater or lesser periods of time (Rosenberg 1980, 2007).

So, for example, what I have identified as the 20 desires of evolved human nature might be true for most of human evolutionary history. But the cultural evolution of liberal capitalism might depend on the historical contingencies of the last two centuries. Moreover, within the constraints of natural history and cultural history, human individuals will exercise judgment about what is best for them in their particular circumstances. Within such an evolutionary framework, we can explain and predict intentional human action as caused by human beliefs and desires, but our explanations and predictions will never have the certainty or precision attainable through the general laws of the physical sciences.

As an illustration of this Darwinian social science, we could explain Abraham Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as shaped by the universal political history of the human species, the cultural political history of the American regime, and the individual political history of Lincoln. This would be similar to the kind of scientific explanation of animal behavior that we see in the work of primatologists like Frans de Waal or Jane Goodall, who explain the behavior of their chimpanzees as showing the unique life history of each individual chimpanzee, the natural history of the species, and the cultural history of the group.


Beatty, John. 1997. "Why Do Biologists Argue Like They Do?" Philosophy of Science, 64 (Supplement): S432-S443.

Brandon, Robert N. 1997. "Does Biology Have Laws? The Experimental Evidence." Philosophy of Science, 64 (Supplement): S444-S457.

Keller, Evelyn Fox. 2007. "A Clash of Two Cultures." Nature, 445: 603.

Rosenberg, Alexander. 1980. Sociobiology and the Preemption of Social Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rosenberg, Alexander. 2007. Philosophy of Social Science. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Scheiner, Samuel M. 2010. "Toward a Conceptual Framework for Biology." The Quarterly Review of Biology, 85: 293-318.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

So What Do Your Little Chimps Want for Christmas?

This Christmas, my wife and I will be giving one of our little nieces furniture for her doll house. Are we reinforcing the sexist stereotypes of our culture? Or are we rightly judging that this is her natural preference, and that it's different from her brother's preference for toys?

Why is it that little girls are more inclined to play with dolls, while little boys are more inclined to play with trucks and toy weapons? Some people say this is purely cultural, and so if the cultural practices were different, we could teach our little girls to throw away their dolls and play with trucks and guns. Others see this as showing a naturally innate difference, because girls tend to have a greater interest in caring for infants.

Remarkably, a similar nature-nurture debate must now be extended to chimpanzees. Sonya Kahlenberg and Richard Wrangham have written an article reporting a sex difference in the use of play objects among chimpanzees in Kibale National Park, Uganda, and the difference matches the human case.

Juvenile chimpanzees in this group tend to carry sticks in a way that suggests they're playing with dolls, and this is more common among females than among males. Female chimps are more likely than males to care for infants, and when a female becomes a mother, she no longer carries stick-dolls, because now she has the real thing. So carrying the stick-dolls seems to be a form of play-mothering.

But while the greater female interest in infant care has been observed in all chimpanzee groups, this pattern of play-mothering with sticks has not yet been reported for any group except those in Kibale. So this seems to be an example of chimpanzee culture. This group in Kibale has a cultural tradition of stick-doll play.

Is this nature or nurture? Or some combination of both? There seems to be some kind of social learning. But it's not that the females are learning this from their mothers, because mothers don't play with the stick-toys. So if it is socially learned, the youngsters are learning it from one another.

Here, then, is another illustration of how the complex interaction of natural inclination and social learning that we see among human beings can also be seen among our primate relatives.

Some related posts can be found here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Thomas Aquinas's Neuroscience of the Soul

One of my graduate students--Paul Vasholz--is writing a dissertation that argues for the compatibility of free will with modern neuroscience. In developing his argument, he builds on the work of Walter J. Freeman, a neuroscientist who defends the reality of human freedom, while also showing how neuroscience supports Thomas Aquinas's philosophical psychology.

Freeman's research has led him to formulate what he calls "nonlinear brain dynamics" as an alternative to the linear causality that is assumed in much neuroscientific research. Moreover, he argues, this nonlinear brain dynamics supports Aquinas's teaching about the unity of mind, brain, and body. Freeman's position catches my interest, because it seems to sustain my argument about the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain and the freedom of the human soul as the product of that emergent evolution.

For Freeman, the key question is whether perception is passive or active. While Plato views perception as a passive acceptance of eternal forms or ideas, Aristotle views perception as an active exploration of the world. Aquinas follows Aristotle in explaining perception as an active process of assimilation. The body does not absorb stimuli, but rather it changes its own form to grasp those aspects of the stimuli that are relevant to the goals in the brain. Knowledge is not driven by external powers, as suggested by Plato, but rather knowledge is driven by the brain's internal strivings and ends, as we explore the world and, by trial and error, assimilate ourselves to our physical and social world in a manner that satisfies our desires.

But then where do these self-generated actions into the world--our strivings to search and observe the world--come from? Aquinas's answer is that the ultimate source of our striving is nature and nature's God. Freeman's answer is that the ultimate source is natural evolution. Through evolutionary history, human beings have inherited a natural set of desires or inclinations that guide their intentional behavior.

I agree with Freeman that there is much in Aquinas's philosophical psychology that supports this understanding of the emergent evolution of the soul or mind as the activity of the brain. But Freeman fails to confront the incoherence in Aquinas's reasoning on this point, which manifests a fundamental problem in Aquinas's Aristotelian science of human nature. This is not just a problem for Aquinas, but a general problem in reconciling Biblical religion and evolutionary science. (See Freeman's "Nonlinear Brain Dynamics and Intention According to Aquinas," pp. 211-12, 211, 230-31, 233.)

The problem is the incoherence in both affirming and denying a radical dualism of body and mind. On the one hand, Aquinas agrees with Aristotle's biological psychology that the mind is the form of the living body, and thus mind and body are inseparable, so that the death of the body is the death of the mind. On the other hand, Aquinas's commitment to the Christian teaching about the afterlife forces him to say that the human mind or soul is immaterial and thus capable of existing without the living body supporting it. The situation becomes even more confusing when we see that Aquinas's commitment to the Christian teaching about the resurrection of the body forces him to say that the human mind or soul cannot exist in its perfection unless it is the activity of a living body.

Aquinas recognizes that in adopting Aristotle's biological psychology, he has to reject Plato's dualistic psychology. For Plato, the immortal soul rules over the mortal body like a pilot of a ship, and thus the soul can live on after the death of the body. Many early Christians (like Augustine) saw this Platonic dualism as the closest pagan approximation to Christian theology. After all, Plato's dialogues offer elaborate arguments for the immortality of the soul in an afterlife with eternal rewards and punishments. Plato's Timaeus looks enough like Biblical creationism that it became the primary text for medieval Christian cosmology. And yet orthodox Christians cannot be Platonic dualists, because Christians must believe in the resurrection of the body in the afterlife, which suggests that the perfection of the soul depends on the body. Moreover, Aristotle's criticism of Plato's theory of the eternal Ideas, with its dualism of mind and body, and Aristotle's teaching that the mind is the functional activity of the body denies Platonic dualism.

To defend the doctrine of the resurrection of bodies to eternal life, Aquinas thinks he needs to reject Platonic dualism and embrace Aristotelian mind-body unity. But it's not at all clear that an Aristotelian biological psychology can allow for living bodies to become immortal. Moreover, traditional Christian doctrine teaches that there's a period between death and resurrection in which human souls exist without bodies, just as angels exist without bodies. But it's hard to see how this is reconcilable with the inseparable unity of mind and body.

Aquinas is thus caught in a contradiction. He must say that "the soul is the form of the animated body," and "forms dependent in being upon matter do not themselves have being properly, but being properly belongs to the composites through their forms" (Summa Contra Gentiles, II, 51, 57). This would be compatible with neuroscientific research showing that the mind is the emergent activity of the brain. But then Aquinas also says that the human mind is an immaterial form that is not necessarily the form of a living material body. This suggests a radical dualism contrary to neuroscience.

The confusion is deepened, however, when Aquinas teaches that since "the soul is united to the body as form to matter," the perfection of the soul after the death of the body requires a resurrection of the body and its reunion with the soul. Thus must be so, because "the state of the soul in the body is more perfect than outside the body" (Summa Theologica, suppl., q. 75, a. 1).

Furthermore, according to Aquinas, this resurrected body must be a real living body. And since all living bodies are ageing bodies, the resurrected bodies must have a specific age. Since Jesus rose again at about age 30, that age must be the perfect age for the body, and so, Aquinas reasons, when human beings are resurrected, they will all have bodies of the same age--30 years old. Those who died as children will be moved up to age 30, and those who died in old age will be moved back to age 30 (ST, suppl., q. 81, a. 1).

But then we must wonder, when people wish for immortality, is this what they're wishing for--to be frozen eternally at one moment in time?

Shouldn't we say that this kind of immortality would be death?

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Group Selection, Kin Selection, and Moral Tragedy

From Aristotle to Darwin to E. O. Wilson, how one understands human morality and politics seems to depend on how one understands the social insects. The importance of this line of thought in explaining social evolution has recently been highlighted by Wilson's attack on kin selection theory and his defense of Darwin's group selection theory in explaining social evolution from insects to humans.

To explain the biological nature of human beings as political animals, Aristotle compared human beings to other political animals--and particularly, ants, bees, and wasps. The great size and complexity of social insect colonies are comparable to that of human communities.

Darwin saw the same resemblance between human communities and social insect colonies--particularly, in their intricate division of labor. But for Darwin, the existence of sterile female castes of workers among the social insects was "by far the most serious special difficulty which my theory has encountered," as he wrote in the chapter on "Instinct" in The Origin of Species. The obvious problem is that this seems to contradict evolution by natural selection, because the sterile females are sacrificing their reproductive fitness for the reproductive advantage of the queen. Darwin's solution was to propose that "selection may be applied to the family, as well as to the individual, and may thus gain the desired end." He thus implied that natural selection could favor the altruistic sacrifice of individuals for the reproductive good of their group. Moreover, in The Descent of Man, he clearly claimed that human moral and political evolution depended on group selection in war, so that some of the highest moral virtues arose as dispositions that conferred advantages on human groups in violent conflict with other groups. But he left it unclear as to how exactly natural selection could do this.

In the 1960s, William D. Hamilton set out to solve Darwin's problem by developing the ideas of "inclusive fitness" and "kin selection." The basic idea is that individuals can evolve to show altruistic behavior--behavior that is costly to the animal but beneficial to others--if the cost to the actor brings sufficient benefit to sufficiently closely related recipients. Evolutionary selection should favor my acting not only for the sake of benefiting my direct offspring, who share some of my genes, but also for benefiting the offspring of my close relatives, who share some of my genes and therefore might carry my genes for altruistic behavior. In the case of sterile female worker castes, Hamilton argued, this extraordinary altruism could be explained by the fact that the workers are sisters who are more closely related genetically to one another that they are to their offspring, and consequently, it better enhances their inclusive fitness to serve the reproductive activity of the queen in producing more sisters than to have offspring of their own. This happens because among the Hymenoptera, the order of ants, bees, and wasps, the sex-determining mechanism is haplodiploidy, in which fertilized eggs become females, and unfertilized eggs males.

There are serious problems with this theory. One is that some of the eusocial species--such as termites and naked mole rats--don't use haplodiploid sex determination, and therefore Hamilton's theory can't explain the sterility of worker castes among them as it does for Hymenoptera.

But despite such problems, Hamilton's theory of kin selection has been widely accepted among many biological theorists of social evolution over the past 50 years, and especially since the publication of Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975, which adopted Hamilton's theory.

In recent years, however, E. O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson have been criticizing kin selection theory and defending group selection theory as superior. Most recently, E. O. Wilson co-authored an article with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita in Nature (vol. 466, August 26, 2010, pp. 1057-1062) that summarizes some of the reasoning against Hamilton's theory. This article has provoked an intense controversy in the whole community of biologists and psychologists studying the biological evolution of sociality.

Much of the publicity surrounding this controversy turns on the perception that E. O. Wilson has undergone a radical change of mind--from promoting to rejecting Hamilton's theory. But anyone who reads Wilson's Sociobiology carefully (for example, pp. 30, 129) will see that he was never convinced that Hamilton's theory was superior to group selection theory. Over the years, Wilson has given encouragement to proponents of group selection such as David Sloan Wilson; and in recent years, the two Wilsons have co-authored some articles.

It's hard for me to see that one has to choose between kin selection and group selection in explaining social evolution. I suspect that this is a false dichotomy that obscures their complementarity. In fact, one can even argue that kin selection is a form of group selection where the group is constituted by kinship. Here I agree with Samir Okasha, who makes the argument for complementarity in a recent article in Nature (vol. 467, October 7, 2010, pp. 653-55.)

Regardless of whether one favors kin selection, group selection, or some combination of both, there is a deeper moral and political issue here. All of these kinds of Darwinian explanations of social evolution point to the inevitability of tragic conflicts in moral and political life that cannot be resolved by ideal principles of universal love and cooperation.

There is a tendency among modern moral and political philosophers to assume that moral and political life can and should be governed ultimately by some ideal conception of disinterested humanitarianism. One can see this, for example, in John Rawls' appeal to the ideal situation of people agreeing to universal, rational principles of justice in the "original position," where human beings would act as if they were disembodied spirits. One can also see this among religious believers who assume that the teaching of universal love in Jesus' Sermon on Mount is the moral ideal for all human beings, or among secular philosophers like Peter Singer who assume that morality and politics should be guided by an impartial concern for the interests of all sentient creatures.

If our moral and political dispositions have not been created by some cosmic order of the good and the just to conform to some eternal values of love and cooperation, if these dispositions have been created, on the contrary, by natural evolutionary selection, then we can expect that our moral and political lives will be torn by tragic conflicts of interest that cannot be resolved by universal principles of ethics.

E. O. Wilson refers to this as the problem of "moral ambivalency," and it runs through his writing in his book Sociobiology, beginning with the epigram from the Bhagavad Gita. The passage Wilson quotes shows Arjuna doubting the justice of leading his family in a war against another family competing for political dominance, but Lord Krishna (the Lord of the Universe) teaches him that this is his sacred duty. Wilson suggests that an evolutionary theory of social evolution would explain this tragic conflict as arising from a natural history of counteracting pressures on the units of natural selection. Wilson writes:

What is good for the individual can be destructive to the family; what preserves the family can be harsh on both the individual and the tribe to which the family belongs; what promotes the tribe can weaken the family and destroy the individual; and so on upward through the permutations of levels of organizations. Counteracting selection on these different units will result in certain genes being multiplied and fixed, others lost, and combinations of still others held in static proportions. According to the present theory, some of the genes will produce emotional states that reflect the balance of counteracting selection forces at the different levels. (p. 4; cf. pp. 129, 563)

Here, then, is the scientific basis for the tragic realism of evolutionary ethics. We see the evolved moral and political nature of human beings as shaped by countervailing levels of selection, which have created tragic conflicts in our moral emotions that cannot be resolved by rational appeals to universal moral principles. Such moral realism is repugnant to moral utopians who assume that moral and political order must be ultimately guided by universal rules of love and cooperation that can in principle resolve all conflicts.

Oddly enough, while E. O. Wilson accepts this moral realism as a conclusion from his evolutionary account of morality as shaped by group selection, David Sloan Wilson rejects this conclusion while trying to hold on to some utopian vision of universal cooperation.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Two Peaks in Aristotle's NICOMACHEAN ETHICS: Friendship and Philosophy

As I look back on my graduate seminar on Aristotle this semester, one point stands out: how one interprets Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics depends crucially on whether one sees the peak of the book in the account of friendship in Books 8 and 9 or in the arguments for the supremacy of the philosophic life in Book 10.

If Book 10 is the peak, then one will see the whole book ascending steadily to the teaching that the contemplative life of philosophy is the highest good, because it is the activity of the intellect as the most divine part of human beings. The moral virtues and practical reasoning will be seen as inferior to the intellectual virtue of philosophy as the dominant end or summum bonum for all human beings. Since most human beings cannot live a philosophic life, they are condemned to live a less than fully human life.

This leads one to conclude that the best moral and political order would be ruled by, or at least in the service of, philosophers; and this moral and political order would conform to the cosmic order of the universe as ruled by the divine Mind and the eternal Ideas.

This reading of the Ethics would assume that Aristotle's ethical teaching is ultimately Platonic in its conformity to the moral and intellectual cosmology of Plato or Plato's Socrates, particularly in Plato's Republic and Timaeus. This Platonic Aristotelianism would contradict my argument for the biological character of Aristotle's reasoning and the compatibility of this biological Aristotelianism with Darwinian science.

In contrast to this reading, if one sees the peak of Aristotle's Ethics in his books on friendship, then one will see the Platonic arguments for the philosophic life as a solitary and divine life of pure intellect as dubious, because these arguments contradict what Aristotle teaches in Books 8-9 about the natural sociality of human life and the primacy of friendship as rooted in human biology.

The philosophic life does appear in Books 8 and 9. But here it appears as activity that is cultivated by friends as a social activity of those who find their deepest existence in philosophizing together with their friends. By contrast, the word "friendship" (philia) never appears in the Platonic account of philosophy in Book 10, which depicts philosophy as a life of god-like solitude separated from social life. The only concession to social activity in Book 10 is that the philosopher is said to perhaps benefit from having "co-workers."

In Books 8 and 9, philosophy as an activity of friends is activity of embodied minds in social interaction, which can be explained biologically as an activity of human beings as rational and political animals by nature.

And while Book 10 suggests a dominant end conception of the human good, in which all goods are ranked below philosophy, Books 8 and 9 suggest an inclusive end conception of the human good, in which philosophy is one good among many. The thought here is that different human beings will rank the natural human goods in different ways to conform to their natural temperament and their social circumstances.

At the end of his account of friendship, Aristotle writes:
Is it then the same way with friends as with lovers, for whom seeing the beloved is their greatest contentment, and the thing they choose over the other senses, since it is especially through seeing that love is present and comes to be present, so that for friends too, living together is most choiceworthy thing? For friendship is a sharing in common, and one has the same relation to a friend as to oneself, while in relation to oneself, the awareness that one is is something choiceworthy, and thus it is so in relation to the friend as well; but the being-at-work of this awareness comes about in living together, and so, naturally, friends aim at this. And whatever being existence consists in for any sort of people--whatever it is for the sake of which they choose to be alive--this is what they want to be engaged in with their friends. This is why some friends drink together, others play dice together, and still others engage in athletic exercise together and go hunting together, or engage in philosophy together, each sort spending their days together in whatever it is, out of all of the things in life, that they are most contented by; for since they want to share their lives with their friends, they do those things and share those things that they believe living together consists in. (1171b29-72a8)

One can see here why Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl look to Aristotle's study of friendship as supporting their Aristotelian defense of liberalism. It seems that although the generic goods of life are universally the same for all human beings by virtue of their human nature, the ranking and organization of those generic goods is individualized for the life of each human being. Moreover, this pluralism of good lives is cultivated in civil society, where moral character is shaped through natural and voluntary associations.

Some related posts can be found here, here, and here.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Sex, War, and Malthusian Doom

In 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh after winning a 9-month war of independence from West Pakistan. Shortly after the end of the war, Malcolm Potts led an international team of doctors into Bangladesh to help the women who had been raped and made pregnant. They offered abortions to the women. In a conservative Muslim society, women who have been raped are shunned as unclean by their families and society generally. To have an abortion only adds to their humiliation. Over 100,000women were raped during the conflict, which made it perhaps the largest systematic rape of women in the history of the world.

The horror of this experience--and of similar experiences with warfare--led Potts to want to explain the cruelty of organized aggression in human history. The final product of his thinking is his book (co-authored with Thomas Hayden) entitled Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World (BenBella Books, 2008).

Reading this book in my course on "Biopolitics and Human Nature" has stirred a lively discussion among the students.


Potts offers an evolutionary explanation for the causes of war and terrorism and for how such violence can be reduced. His argument turns on three claims.

His first claim is that young men have an evolved predisposition to "team aggression," which he identifies as the intentional coordination of young males in launching lethal attacks against members of their own species. He believes that there are only two species of social mammals showing this behavior--human beings and chimpanzees--and he explains this as showing an evolutionary history in which humans and chimps shared a common ancestral species in which young males practiced team aggression.

The primary insight for this claim came a few years after the war in Bangladesh, when Jane Goodall observed the chimps in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania waging a war between two chimp communities, in which young males organized themselves into raiding parties to attack individuals in the opposing community. Through a series of ferocious attacks, the Kasakela troop eventually conquered the territory of the rival Kahama troop.

Potts offers various kinds of arguments and evidence to support his claim that such team aggression among young males has shaped human evolution. There is fossil evidence that many hominid ancestors died from warfare. There is archaeological evidence that warfare is pervasive in human history. And there is anthropological evidence that foraging bands (like the Yanomamo, for example) have engaged in such team aggression. Moreover, there is also evidence for the "warfare hypothesis" in explaining human evolution as shaped by group-against-group violence that drove the evolution of human intelligence, religion, and state-formation.

Potts' second claim is that women do not have this evolved predisposition to team aggression. Of course, women are capable of aggressive violence. But they do not generally organize themselves into raiding parties for lethal violence against their enemies.

This leads to his third claim, which is that the best way to promote peace is to empower women so that their peacemaking tendencies can counter the warmaking tendencies of men. To achieve that, women need to have equal access to political power, and they need to have control over their lives.

Most importantly, women need to have freedom in controlling their reproduction through family planning, which requires access to contraception and abortion. If women are free to choose how many children they will have, Potts believes, they will generally choose to have small families. This will increase their social and political influence, because this will lessen the burdens of child care. This will also slow population growth, which will have the advantage of reducing the number of young males in proportion to older males, which reduces the likelihood of young male violence.

Potts is a life-long proponent of family planning. In 1968, he became the first doctor employed on the staff of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. This has led him to travel around the world promoting family planning.

He argues that family planning is the key to reducing population growth, which is the key to reducing war and terrorism. In over-populated societies, there are too many young males who lack economic resources and who cannot find sexual mates, which creates conditions favoring young male team aggression. Potts thinks this is evident in the societies that foster terrorism. Terrorists tend to be young, unmarried males with few opportunities for success in life, who become vengeful towards dominant outgroups, and who band together to attack their enemies.

I have identified courage in war as one of the 20 natural desires that shape human nature in all societies throughout history. That's the one desire on my list that has provoked the most criticism from people who don't like the idea that war is natural for human beings and a stage for the moral virtue of courage. While I have never written enough to support my evolutionary view of war, Potts' book provides a good survey of the reasoning and evidence for war as a natural desire--particularly, among young men--that manifests both the best and the worst in human beings.

But despite my general agreement with Potts, I do see at least eleven problems with Potts' position.


Most men will never kill anyone. In most men, there probably is a natural inhibition against killing. Even soldiers in war are often reluctant to kill the enemy, which is why special training is required to break down this inhibition. This point is elaborated in Dave Grossman's book--On Killing--which surveys the psychology of killing in war.

But if there is such a natural inhibition against killing, then how can Potts argue that young men are predisposed by their evolved nature to team aggression? Potts' answer is that evolution has given us an "empathy switch," so that "we seem to have an innate mental ability to treat our fellow humans with either great compassion or cold disregard, depending on whether we've assigned them to ingroup, or out" (70). The difference between men and women is that for young men, on average, it's easier to turn off the empathy switch when they think they're confronting an outgroup.

Potts notes the many historical examples of female violence in war. There are female suicide bombers and "warrior Amazons." Women have fought in military units. And in the American military, women are taking ever larger roles that take them into combat. Although this might seem to deny Potts' claim about sex differences in team aggression, he can answer by arguing that women engaging in team aggression are exceptional cases. We might see the behavioral profiles of men and women as two overlapping bell-shaped curves, so that despite the overlapping, we can still see the difference in their central tendencies.

Of the four extant great ape species--gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos, chimps are the only species that shows male coalitional violence like that of human beings. The contrast is especially evident with bonobos, who have never been observed engaging in lethal violence, and who seem to show a "make-love-not-war" policy enforced by the females banding together to dominate over the males. That's why some feminists and pacifists suggest that if bonobos are closely related to humans, this should deny the claim that human violence is an evolved trait.

It's not clear to me that Potts has an adequate answer to this. He asserts that "team aggression died out in bonobos, while persisting in Pan troglodytes and Homo sapiens" (129). But this remains mere speculation. The problem here is that there is too little known about bonobos to reach clear conclusions on this issue.

The most common criticism of Potts is likely to be that his biological explanation of war and terrorism does not recognize the importance of cultural circumstances in shaping violent behavior. But, actually, Potts emphasizes that while the behavioral predisposition to team aggression is an evolved trait of men, the expression of that predisposition is determined by economic and social circumstances. So, for example, when there is a high proportion of young males in a society who lack resources and lack access to sexual partners and feel resentment towards a dominant outgroup, this is a social breeding ground for terrorism or street gangs. Consequently, we can control the predispositions to some degree by controlling the circumstances.

Modern military organizations don't look much like the raiding parties of chimps or human foragers. It was not until the emergence of the state as based on an agricultural economy about 5,000 years ago that mass armies were made possible, and this is too recent in human history to be a biological adaptation.

Potts' answer to this objection is that even modern armies are based on small units--squads (9-15 men) and platoons (45-70 men)--because the the psychology of team aggression still requires that young men see themselves as a "band of brothers" with a sense of camaraderie that can only arise in small units comparable in size to a chimp raiding party. This is true even though modern bureaucracy allows these small units to be organize hierarchically into massively large military organizations.

As a proponent of family planning, Potts sees himself in the tradition of Margaret Sanger, who was the founder of the modern family planning movement. But in his praise of Sanger, he is silent about her dark side: she was a proponent of eugenics and sterilization for the "unfit." Although this might seem like a minor point, it's important as an indication of Potts' failure to be candid about the historical connections between family planning and eugenics.

Potts is disdainful of religious belief, and particularly, fundamentalist religious belief, because he see religious fundamentalism as opposed to modern science, which is, for him, the voice of reason in the world. But there's a problem here that he doesn't acknowledge. He likes to think that modern scientific rationalism will prevail in its battle with religious fundamentalism. And yet, he notes that religious believers tend to have much higher birth rates than secular people. If that's the case, doesn't that mean that eventually fundamentalist religious believers will prevail, just by virtue of their greater growth in population? Potts never confronts this problem for his argument.

Potts' argument for family planning to reduce population is based on the reasoning of Thomas Malthus that population growth must lead to a social collapse from the exhaustion of scarce resources. Malthusian doom pervades Potts' book, because he sees all of life as governed by competition over scarce resources. In taking this position, Potts never confronts the serious criticisms of the Malthusian view of the world. In particular, Potts never explicitly responds to the arguments of those like Julian Simon who insist that, on the whole, population growth is more a boon to humanity than a burden, because human beings add to resources through their productivity and their ingenuity. In his book The Ultimate Resource, Simon showed how the data of history refute the gloomy predictions of the Malthusians.

As far as I can see, there is only one paragraph on this point in Potts' book. He writes:

Free-market economists make up yet another important force from the right, arguing that population growth is good because growing markets create prosperity. They tend to believe that as young people reach working age they will contribute to the economy, even though the empirical evidence, as we have seen, is that in countries with rapid population growth young people merely join the lines of the unemployed. Many economists also claim that natural resource scarcities can be compensated for by technologies and price adjustments, and they too have been influential in reducing U.S. political interest in international family planning assistance. (327)

This is all he has to say. He is silent about the extensive evidence provided by Simon (and by others like Bjorn Lomborg and Matt Ridley) supporting the claim that when markets are free, population growth is generally beneficial.

Potts should at least say something about Simon's famous bet with Paul Ehrlich. In 1980, Simon bet Ehrlich $10,000 that the prices of a list of scarce metals would be lower by 1990, while Ehrlich predicted that the growing scarcity of these metals would produce much higher prices. Simon won the bet.

Potts shows how "Stone Age emotions" govern politics. For example, he argues, the "war on terror" as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was an irrational expression of those "Stone Age emotions." The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not in the national security interests of the United States. But they were justified by President Bush who appealed to the natural emotional predisposition to team aggression in response to threats from a dangerous outgroup. Instead of yielding to such emotions, Potts claims, we should act by a "cool, objective analysis of risk" like a "dispassionate super computer" (174).

But how is this possible, if "an unemotional response is impossible" (113)? Although Potts often recommends that pure, dispassionate reason should suppress our "Stone Age emotions," he also says that we need to extend our evolved emotions of empathy from the ingroup to the outgroup (166-67, 238, 258). Moreover, in a few passages, he agrees that "the building blocks of human morality are emotional as well as cognitive" (361). Isn't it more realistic to appeal to the moral emotions of empathy, while extending them to ever wider groups, than to try to totally suppress the emotions under some dispassionate Kantian Reason? Isn't this extension of empathy (or "sympathy" as Hume, Smith, and Darwin called it) the psychological basis for "human rights" and humanitarian concern? This would seem to be more compatible with Darwin's view of the moral sense based on sympathy and with the moral psychology of the emotions developed by Darwinian psychologists today.

Potts gives some attention to the historical movements for abolishing slavery, for standards of just war, and for humanitarian conceptions of human rights, which have put some limits on the cruelty of war. But he does not comment on the fact that these movements have been led by men as well as women. Doesn't this show that the extension of empathy beyond narrow ingroups can be rooted in male moral psychology? Can't we see the traditional standards of just war as expressions of the manly love of honor and the desire to elevate warrior honor above brutish cruelty? If so, then this shows how the taming of manly aggression might come not just from womanly compassion but also from manly chivalry.

Potts appeals to modern science as promoting a cosmopolitan community of rational understanding that can check the parochial predispositions of male team aggression. He writes: "Science, with its intrinsic honesty and its rejection of the supernatural as an answer to real world events, has proved the only medium in history capable of linking women and men of all cultures and all races in a common understanding of the real world" (360). But Potts doesn't ponder the fact that, for most of its history, modern science has been dominated by men. Doesn't this show another way in which the natural dispositions of some men--in this case, the Socratic desire for intellectual understanding--can be turned against male violence?

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Intersex and the Natural Desire for Sexual Identity

In my course "Biopolitics and Human Nature," we have had a lively discussion of Anne Fausto-Sterling's essay on "The Five Sexes." That there might be more than two sexes appears to deny my claim that human beings naturally desire to identity themselves as male or female. But in a previous post, I responded by indicating that even as I stress the dualism of sexual identity as male or female, I recognize the variation from this strict bipolarity--hermaphrodites, who combine both sexes, or those who cross from one to the other.

In that earlier post, I noted that Aristotle recognized this in his biological works. In one sense, he reasoned, hermaphrodites are "contrary to nature," because they deviate from what naturally happens "for the most part." In other sense, however, hermaphrodites are "natural," because they arise from natural causes.

Deciding how to handle those cases that deviate from the central tendency of sexual bipolarity is a matter of cultural tradition and prudential judgment. But the fact that biological nature gives us such exceptional cases should not obscure the fact that the central tendency of nature is to clearly distinguish male and female.

Since the original publication of Fausto-Sterling's article in 1993, there has been a vigorous debate over the medical treatment of intersexuality. Intersexual individuals are those whose sexual development has deviated in some way from that of a typical male or typical female. This includes various disorders of sexual development that create anomalies in the sex chromosomes, the gonads, the reproductive ducts, and the genitalia.

For example, those with Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (CAIS) show at birth a disjunction of internal and external sex anatomy. In the womb, a male fetus with XY chromosomes develops testes that secrete testosterone, which then usually has a masculinizing effect on the body and brain of the developing fetus. But those with CAIS have a molecular disorder that causes the cells of their body to be insensitive to testosterone. Consequently, an XY male might look like a girl from birth. Other disorders can produce a child having both an ovary and a testis.

For some time, it was common for many doctors in North America and Europe to advise the parents of intersexual children that genital surgery and hormonal treatments were necessary to assign children clearly to either a male or a female gender. Babies with penises considered too short for a male would be assigned a female gender identity. Babies with clitorises considered too long for a female would be assigned a female gender identity, but the clitoris would be shortened or cut off.

This medical approach was promoted in the 1950s by John Money and others at Johns Hopkins University. Arguing for an "optimum gender of rearing" model, they claimed that "gender" was socially constructed as opposed to biological "sex." Consequently, parents should decide to rear their child as a boy or a girl, and this social construction of gender could then be supported by medical procedures (surgery and hormonal treatment) that would design the body of the child to conform to the socially constructed gender identity. Many feminists adopted this model, because they liked the idea that gender was socially constructed and thus malleable, and so biological sex could be manipulated to serve the socially constructed gender identity.

But, then, in the 1990s, some people with intersex began to challenge this model by publicizing its harmful effects. In many cases, doctors and parents had lied to them, and they did not discover until they reached puberty or adulthood what had happened to them. Some of them were so uncomfortable with the sexual identity they had been given that they wanted to change to the other sex. Many of them suffered a loss of sexual pleasure that impeded their desires for sexual mating and conjugal bonding.

This led to an intersex rights movement. The history and arguments associated with this movement are surveyed at the website for the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA). The people in this movement argue that parents and doctors should tell the truth to their children about their intersex condition, and that there should be no medical intervention (such as surgery or hormonal treatments) except in cases where this is necessary for the physical health of the child. Then, when the child is old enough to decide, the child can decide whether to have medical treatments to support whatever sexual identity the child finds most comfortable.

There are some points of disagreement in the intersex rights movement. Fausto-Sterling argues that cultural attitudes should be changed so that we accept a multiplicity of sexual identities beyond the two-sex system of male or female. Against this, ISNA recommends that the cultural tradition of male-female bipolarity is so strong, and so deeply rooted in the biological propensity to create males and females, that parents and doctors should assign children to one sex or the other based on their best judgments as to which sexual identity will fit the child over the whole life span. They concede that mistakes are unavoidable: sometimes children raised as one sex will grow up to discover--perhaps at puberty--that this is not what they want, and then they can choose to change. But parents and doctors can allow for this freedom for children to decide for themselves by fully informing them as to what has happened to them, and by refraining from any medical interventions during their infancy that children might later want to reverse.

I agree with the ISNA's position. And I draw three lessons from this.

First, the gender/sex dichotomy is false. There is no sharp separation between culturally-constructed gender and biological sex. The cultural traditions of rearing boys as boys and girls as girls are certainly crucial factors in shaping our sexual identity. But human culture is constrained by human nature, so that the cultural assignment of sexual identity fails when it contradicts an individual's biological propensities. Parents and doctors must exercise prudential judgment in deciding the sexual identity of a newborn based upon their predictions of what will be most satisfying for the child as shaped by both natural propensities and cultural learning.

Second, a Platonic moral cosmology cannot account for sexual identity as an individualized human good. Many moral and political philosophers assume that the human good is determined by some eternal normativity as set by a cosmic standard of the good--cosmic God, cosmic Nature, or Cosmic reason. But this moral cosmology cannot handle the variability of the human good that comes from sexual identity. If there is an Idea of the Good that applies universally to all rational beings, does this mean that the human good is sexless? If so, doesn't this deny the empirical reality of the human good in sexual identity, in our experience that what is good for us varies according to our identity as men, women, or something in between? As a biologist, Aristotle could recognize the individual variability of the human good coming from the variability of sexual identity, but Plato could not. While many moral philosophers have followed the Platonic tradition, the recent emergence of Darwinian moral psychology supports a renewal of the Aristotelian tradition of empirical ethics.

Third, a Darwinian liberalism offers the best way to handle the moral and legal issues of sexual identity. We can recognize that by nature most human beings will be born as clearly male or female, and that sexual identity will be nurtured through parental care and cultural traditions. But we can also recognize that a few human beings will be born sexually ambiguous, and in this case, we will have to rely on parental judgment and civil society to decide the best assignment of sexual identity. The final standard will be what is most satisfying for children as they grow up and reach the age when they can decide for themselves whether their parents have made the right decision, or whether they want to change their sexual identity. The continuing debate over the treatment of intersex people illustrates how the spontaneous order of civil society generates moral standards of the human good shaped by human nature, human culture, and human judgment.

Another lesson that might be drawn from the experience of intersex people is how sexual identity depends on whether one has a "female brain" or a "male brain," which denies the idea of the "unisex brain." Some previous posts on this can be found here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Philosophy and Theology in Raphael's "Stanza della Segnatura"

In his book God and Morality: A Philosophical History (2009), John Hare argues that morality is impossible without religious belief--particularly, some kind of theism. In developing his reasoning, he tries to show the importance of theism for the moral philosophy of Aristotle, Duns Scotus, ImmanuelKant, and R. M. Hare. In doing that, he criticizes me for not seeing the theism in Aristotle's teaching. I have responded to this criticism in a previous post.

Hare also argues in this book that Raphael's frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura--particularly, the School of Athens and La disputa del sacramento--illustrate his view of the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christian theology.

A good website for viewing these frescoes can be found here.

Since I have long been fascinated by Raphael's frescoes, I would like to offer an alternative reading of Raphael's artistic rhetoric in these frescoes. I will lay out my thinking in four steps. First, I will raise four general questions. Second, I will offer a brief survey of the frescoes in their political, philosophical, and theological circumstances. Third, I will summarize Hare's interpretation. Finally, I will answer the general questions, while also answering Hare.

There are at least four general questions that we might raise about Raphael's frescoes.

1. How do we judge the rhetorical persuasiveness of a painting as a visual argument?

2. Can such painting teach us something that we could not learn in any other way? Or is painting at best only an illustration of ideas derived from intellectual activity outside of the art of the painting?

3. How persuasive is Raphael's visual argument about Greek philosophy?

4. How persuasive is Raphael's visual argument about the relationship of Greek philosophy to Christian theology?

Raphael arrived in Rome in 1508 at the age of 25. The frescoes were painted between 1508 and 1511. These were originally designed to adorn the walls of the personal library for Pope Julius II. It is unlikely that Raphael's education in philosophy and theology was extensive enough for him to design the Stanza della Segnatura by himself. He probably followed a program designed for him by a humanist scholar. Hare thinks this was Egidio da Viterbo, a prominent orator and Augustinian in the papal court. But I think Christiane Joost-Gaugier makes a good case--in Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura (2002)--that Raphael's program was designed by Tommasio Inghirami, the papal librarian. In any case, whoever helped Raphael was deeply influenced by the Renaissance humanist thought of Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino, and other Christian Platonists who were trying to unify Platonic philosophy and Christian theology.

Julius II was Pope from 1503 to 1513. He was one of the Renaissance popes during the period of moral and political corruption in the Vatican that provoked the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Church at Wittenburg in 1517. The gross decadence of the Church became especially apparent with the pope before Julius--Alexander VI, the father of Cesare Borgia, who turned the Vatican into a personal source of wealth, power, and mistresses.

One dramatic example of those calling for moral and religious reform of the Church was Girolama Savonarola, a Dominican friar in Florence. His sermons moved the Florentines to establish a Christian Republic. But when he called for a Church Council that would remove the Pope, because he was no longer a true Christian, the Pope excommunicated him and demanded that he be punished. In 1498, he was hanged and burned. He thus became Machiavelli's best example of an "unarmed prophet" who was ruined because he relied on religious belief without military power to enforce his religion.

Julius II came to power with the promise of reforming the Church, but he never fulfilled his promises. He was preoccupied with expanding the political power of the Papacy by fighting wars to secure the power of the Papal States in Italy, which brought factional violence to his fellow Christians.

Machiavelli spoke of Julius as showing "impetuosity and fury" in his military leadership (Discourses, III.9). He was also impressed by Julius's boldness in removing Giovampagolo Baglioni as tyrant of Perugia so that he could replace him with a ruler who would support the Vatican. Julius showed his furious courage in walking into Perugia with his Cardinals, but with only a single guard. Baglioni could have killed the Pope and all his Cardinals. Baglioni was a vicious man who had murdered his relatives and taken his sister as his incestuous lover, but, amazingly, he did not dare to kill the Pope, and he allowed the Pope to lead him away. For Machiavelli, this illustrates how "very rarely do men know how to be altogether wicked or altogether good." Baglioni was wicked, but not wicked enough to secure the glory that would have come from killing the Pope (Discourses, I.27).

Machiavelli lamented that the "wicked examples" of the Papal court had destroyed the Roman religion by not preserving the religion as established by Jesus, and this had ruined Italy by depriving it of its religious support for political order (Discourses, I.12).

In this situation, Raphael's art became a tool of papal propaganda in promoting the glorious display of Julius's grandeur.

The ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura is divided into patterns of four (a divine number for the Pythagoreans--four elements, four directions, etc.). Over the four walls of the room are four female personifications of philosophy, poetry, jurisprudence, and theology, which indicate the four divisions in the books of the library. Over the School of Athens, the motto is "knowledge of causes." Over the Disputa, the motto is "knowledge of divine things."

The School of Athens represents philosophy on the east wall, while on the west wall, the Disputa represents theology.

The perspectival center of the School of Athens highlights Plato and Aristotle, posed so as to suggest that they are opposed to one another--Plato being more "vertical," while Aristotle is more "horizontal"--and yet the balanced symmetry of the painting suggests that they are complementary sides of the same dualistic reality.

In the center of the Disputa, the Host is at the center of the Eucharist.

Some of the human figures in the paintings are easily identified, but many are not. There are 44 books in the paintings, some clearly identified by their titles, while others are untitled.

Plato's vertical gesture seems to be fulfilled by the vertical movement in the Disputa from the Host through the Holy Spirit dove to Jesus to God the Father and the highest Heaven--as if to suggest that the ascent to Heaven and return to God is the fulfillment of Platonic philosophy.

The Church's theologians had been divided over Plato and Aristotle. Among many of the early Church fathers--especially, Augustine--Plato was seen as the pagan philosopher who foreshadowed Christian theology by his teaching that philosophy was a contemplative activity of ascent to the divine. Plato's Timaeus was combined with the Bible to support the Cosmic Model of the Middle Ages ("The Great Chain of Being").

Aristotle's writings were largely lost in medieval Christendom. But in the 13th century, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas led a revival of interest in Aristotle.

Renaissance philosophers like Pico della Mirandola argued for Plato and Aristotle as unified in their complementarity--Plato stressing the immortal side of human beings as contemplators of the divine, while Aristotle stressed the mortality of human beings as embodied animals. Christianity could then be seen as the fulfillment of Greek philosophy through the incarnation of Jesus and the ascent to Heavenly contemplation of God.

Hare uses his interpretation of the Stanza della Segnatura to support his argument for a divine command theory of morality. He claims that we need to bridge the "moral gap" in our experience: we have an intuition of our moral duty, but we are unable to fulfill that duty without God's assistance.

For Hare, the School of Athens suggests the theistic longings of the Greek philosophers, which unites Plato and Aristotle. Plato's theological cosmology in the Timaeus is echoed in Book 10 of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, where the highest human life is said to be the contemplative beholding of the divine.

According to Hare, this theistic morality and philosophy of the Greeks finds its completion in Christian theism. Christian theism as depicted in the Disputa improves upon Greek philosophic theism in three ways. First, the two semicircles in the Disputa depict a clear separation between the supernatural and the natural realms. Second, we see that God cares for human beings and moves toward them through the Son and the Holy Spirit. Third, what we see most clearly is Jesus as the visibly incarnate union of the divine and human.

Here's how I would answer the four general questions.

1. How do we judge the rhetorical persuasiveness of a painting as a visual argument?

We might consider painting as employing the rhetorical technique of metaphor--an artistic "likeness" of something. Then we would have to judge the truthfulness of the "likeness."

Don't we often see visual metaphors in philosophic texts? Consider, for example, Plato's "divided line" and his image of the cave in the Republic or his "ladder of love" in the Symposium.

In the case of Raphael's frescoes, we have visual references to many philosophers and theologians, and so we can judge the accuracy of these references.

We also have references to 44 books, some of which are clearly identified--Plato's Timaeus, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Euclid's Elements, Augustine's City of God, the Bible, and others. So we can judge the plausibility of how these texts are presented. (Books became especially important in the Renaissance because of the new technology of printing presses.)

2. Can painting teach us something that we could not learn in any other way? Or is painting at best only an illustration of ideas derived from intellectual activity outside of the art of painting?

I'm not sure how to answer this question. But it does seem hard to me to see how painting teaches us anything that we couldn't learn from other sources.

3. How persuasive is Raphael's visual argument about Greek philosophy?

Raphael's depiction of the relationship between Plato's teaching in the Timaeus and Aristotle's teaching in the Nicomachean Ethics as showing both conflict and complementarity is defensible, and it certainly was a historically influential reading of these books.

But doesn't this overlook Aristotle's criticisms of Plato at the beginning of the Ethics? And doesn't this overlook the subtlety of the books? In the Timaeus, Timaeus gives a long speech without any questioning from Socrates (although Socrates does say that Timaeus represents the "peak of philosophy"). In the Ethics, the arguments in Book 10 for the divinity of the contemplative life are remarkably strange and contradictory (as I have indicated in some recent posts).

4. How persuasive is Raphael's visual argument about the relationship of Greek philosophy to Christian theology?

To me, this teaching is utopian in a way that fails to resolve the moral, political, and intellectual problems left to us by Greek philosophy. Let me offer just a few examples of what I have in mind.

At the center of the Disputa, we see the doctrines of Transubstantiation and the Trinity. But why should we expect that Greek philosophers would accept such miracles without skepticism? Don't even Christians disagree about these doctrines? After all, within a few years after Raphael's death, Christendom will be divided over such issues, and they will begin slaughtering one another in religious wars.

In Heaven, we see Abraham with a knife, which reminds us of his faith in being willing to obey God's command to kill his son Isaac. Doesn't this cast doubt on the moral teaching of the Bible? Don't we have to invoke a natural moral sense to correct this biblical story? Hare speaks about this "terrible story" (80). He refers to Duns Scotus, who tries to read Genesis 22 in the light of Hebrews 11: Abraham believed that Isaac would be resurrected if we were killed. But this is not clearly said in the Old Testament text. Moreover, there are other places in the Old Testament where human sacrifice is endorsed (Judges 11:29): Jephthah sacrifices his daughter to Yahweh to fulfill a pledge he had made to Yahweh to secure victory over the Ammonites. Here, then, is the classic problem for divine command theory. (Kierkegaard used the Abraham and Isaac story as an example of the "suspension of the ethical.")

Raphael depicts Heaven, but not Hell. Why not? Does he mean to imply that there is no Hell? If so, he would be denying a fundamental doctrine of orthodox Christianity, and he would be adopting the heresy of Origen.

If Raphael believes in Hell, and if he believes that most human beings will be eternally condemned to Hell, does this mean that the Greek philosophers and all those in the tradition of Greek philosophy will be in Hell forever? If so, doesn't this deny his attempt at reconciling pagan philosophy and Christian theology? Or would Raphael incline towards Dante's solution to the problem by putting the philosophers in Limbo?

Why does Raphael allow himself to be used as a propagandist for Julius II, as a time when the Church was morally and politically corrupt, and Julius failed to act to reform the Church? Is Raphael's utopian vision blind to the corruption of religious authority?

Hare thinks the face of Savonarola appears in the Disputa. But Hare doesn't acknowledge that Julius II failed to support the reforms called for by Savonarola.

Why doesn't Raphael give us some warning about what's to come with the Protestant Reformation? In 1512, at the first meeting of the Fifth Lateran Council, Edigio da Viterbo gave the opening oration in the presence of the Pope. He pointed to the bloodiness of Julius's wars, and he warned that the corruption of the Church had provoked scorn for the Christian religion and a split among believers. Why doesn't Raphael show the same courage in challenging Julius?

Greek philosophy offers us no escape from our moral, political, and intellectual imperfection as human beings. Plato's Republic attempts to construct a utopia in which we could escape our imperfections. But it fails. Any attempt to put the Republic into practice would promote tyranny.

Raphael presents Christian theology as fulfilling Plato's utopia in a supernatural utopia beyond the natural world. But it's hard to see how Christian utopianism is any better than Platonic utopianism.

Maybe Nietzsche was right: Christianity is Platonism for the common people.

Some related posts can be found here, here, and here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hayek and Science: A Liberty Fund Conference

Recently, I received approval to direct a Liberty Fund conference on "Hayek and the Scientific Study of Economics, Politics, and Morality."

If you have ever been to a Liberty Fund conference, you know that it's great fun. I think it's the most intellectually stimulating way to organize an academic conference.

15 participants are invited to a resort hotel in a beautiful setting. They are given a set of readings related to a specified topic prior to the conference. The conference lasts for two and a half days. The participants meet for six discussion sessions. They also have all of their meals together. Some of the best conversations arise over good food and drinks. The afternoons are free for relaxation. Liberty Fund pays for all of the expenses and also pays each participant an honorarium. All that's required is that each participant study the readings in advance and then contribute to the discussions.

The purpose is to provoke a lively discussion of important topics related in one way or another to the idea of liberty. There is no predetermined outcome. Participants are free to follow the conversation wherever it leads.

Some of the most satisfying intellectual activity of my life has come from Liberty Fund conferences.

The topics for my upcoming conference will center on Friedrich Hayek and science. Much of the power of modern science comes from the dream of a complete unification of all knowledge through the scientific method. Fulfilling this dream might require a science of social life and human conduct that would have the same mathematical precision and predictive power as is now achieved in the physical sciences. And yet Hayek and other critics of this dream have warned that this is not true science but "scientism"--the false presumption that social phenomena can be known by the methods that prevail in the physical sciences.

According to people like Hayek, scientism is not only an intellectual mistake but also a moral and political problem, because it assumes that a perfected social science would be able to rationally plan social order, which denies the individual liberty necessary for the spontaneous orders of social life.

The participants in this colloquium will investigate this Hayekian argument through reading some writings by Hayek alongside some writings by Michael Oakeshott and Leo Strauss, which argue that social and political knowledge requires practical judgment and common-sense understanding that cannot be reduced to the sort of technical knowledge sought in the physical sciences.

We will also consider the suggestion of Ernst Mayr that evolutionary biology avoids this mistakes of scientism and provides an intellectual bridge between the physical sciences and the social sciences.

We will conclude with some essays by Hayek and Paul Zak on the evolution of markets and morality.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

A Conference on the Science of Virtue at Berry College

The past few days, I have been at a conference at Berry College, in Mount Berry, Georgia, on the "Science of Virtue" at Berry College. The conference directors were Peter Augustine Lawler of Berry College and Marc Guerra of Ave Maria University. The major funding for the conference came from the "New Science of Virtues Project" at the University of Chicago. The title for this conference was "The Scientific Foundations of the Modern World: Descartes, Locke, and Darwin."

Berry College is a beautiful campus with some very bright students. President Stephen Briggs and others at the College were gracious in their hospitality.

There were four lectures on the main themes of the conference. I spoke on "The Darwinian Science of Aristototelian Virtue." Thomas Hibbs (Baylor University) spoke on Descartes. James Stoner (Lousiana State University) spoke on Locke. And Jeffrey Bishop (St. Louis University) spoke on "Science, Virtue, and the Birth of Modernity."

There were three panels: "Walker Percy on Science and the Soul," "Being More Cartesian than Descartes," and "Tom Wolfe, Technology, and Greatness."

This conference and the sponsoring "new science of virtues" project at Chicago testify to the growing awareness that modern science offers new ways to understand virtue. The pervasive theme running through this conference and almost every one of the presentations was that modern science corrupts our morality, because science subverts the traditional philosophical understanding of virtue (coming from Plato and Aristotle) and the traditional religious understanding of virtue (coming from biblical religion). Of all the participants in the conference, I and Lauren Hall (Rochester Institute of Technology) were the only ones who argued that modern science--and especially Darwinian science--supports a healthy understanding of virtue.

I am so accustomed to being in a minority of one--or, at this conference, a minority of two--that it does not bother me, because I expect it. But it does bother me to see how many of the moral critics of modern science have no interest in actually studying the science that they are criticizing.

In the case of this conference, the assumption of almost everyone was that whatever they needed to know about science they could learn from reading Rene Descartes, Walker Percy, and Tom Wolfe. They assumed that all of modern science was nothing more than a working out of the philosophical program of Descartes (and maybe Francis Bacon, as well). They also assumed that the view of science taken by literary critics of science like Percy and Wolfe is so obviously accurate that one does not need to actually study contemporary science for oneself.

Descartes' philosophical science is an incoherent combination of materialist reductionism, on the one hand, and radical dualism, on the other. Most of the participants at the this conference assumed that for the past four hundred years, modern science has simply been trying to work out the details of Descartes' project. No one showed any curiosity about whether modern science might actually depart from Descartes in many ways.

What's at work here is a school of thought about the philosophy of science dominated by German phenomenology and Martin Heidegger that came to the United States through the influence of Leo Strauss and people at St. John's College. This school of thought promotes a deep fear of modern science as based on a desire for mastery of nature through technology that corrupts the the moral and intellectual traditions of Western Culture. One can see this clearly, for example, in the work of Leon Kass.

One of the assumptions of this school of thought is that all of modern science is based on Cartesian mathematical physics. There is no interest in Darwinian biology or modern biology in general as perhaps showing the emergent complexity and immanent teleology of life. All of these folks have read Descartes, but almost none of them have read Darwin. (Kass is an exception here. At least in some of his early writing, Kass did read Darwin, and he saw that Darwinian science was not a reductionist threat to human dignity.)

Also running through this school of thought is a romantic existentialism that sees the artist--embodied in literary artists like Percy and Wolfe--as exposing the dehumanizing effects that modern science has on the human soul. And, again, there is no interest in studying science to see if this caricature of science is really accurate.

For example, those contributing to the panel on Wolfe restated Wolfe's fears about modern science without questioning Wolfe's depiction of science. Wolfe argues that modern biology and neuroscience promote a reductionistic determinism that denies the human freedom that comes from the human capacities for language, social life, and cultural learning. No one on the panel noticed the inaccuracy of Wolfe's view. Contrary to what Wolfe claims, one of the most deeply researched areas of evolutionary science today is language and cultural evolution. In neuroscience, much of the research centers on neural plasticity, cultural learning, and "social neuroscience." As far as I could tell, no one on the panel had any knowledge of this research.

I don't believe that modern science is beyond criticism. I agree that modern science should be exposed to critical scrutiny by proponents of premodern science and religion. But shouldn't this criticism be based on an accurate knowledge of what is being criticized?

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., and here.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Republican Victory and the Future of Limited Government

The American conservative proponents of limited government might be pleased by the electoral victories of the Republican Party. But now the question is whether the Republican leaders will revive their traditional allegiance to limited government and constitutionalism.

A lot might depend on John Boehner, who will become the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. In opposition to President Obama, Boehner has stressed the need to renew the tradition of limited government. But, of course, the Republicans must bear some blame for supporting George W. Bush's "big government conservatism." Boehner has admitted this in some speeches, and he has suggested that the Republicans will be judged by how well they can return to their limited-government roots.

Two years ago, I wrote a post predicting that if the government interventions into the economy continued to follow the direction taken by Bush, that we could expect a prolonged economic depression. I have no reason now to withdraw that prediction. If the Keynesian policies of the Obama administration continue, we can anticipate falling into a long period of economic stagnation like that experienced by the Japanese.

Whether the Republicans can exert any influence in slowing or reversing this slide into economic statism is the great question coming out of this election cycle.

I agree, then, with Marco Rubio who said in his victory speech in Florida that this election creates "a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."

Friday, October 29, 2010

John West's God

Here I add to my previous post on John West's article in The Intercollegiate Review.

At the end of The Origin of Species, Darwin writes: "Authors of the highest eminence seem to be fully satisfied with the view that each species has been independently created. To my mind it accords better with what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator that the production and extinction of the past and present inhabitants of the world should have been due to secondary causes, like those determining the birth and death of the individual."

Then, in the final sentence of the book, he writes: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

In this last sentence, Darwin is echoing the language of the Bible in Genesis (2:7): "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

Darwin thus suggests that a theistic belief in God as Creator of the first forms of life could be consistent with accepting an evolutionary account of natural history as due to "secondary causes." This is the position taken by theistic evolutionists--including people like C. S. Lewis and Francis Collins.

John West casually dismisses this possibility:

Strictly speaking, Darwinian evolution begins after the first life has developed, and so Larry Arnhart is correct that it does not necessarily refute the claim that there is some kind of "first cause" to the universe that stands outside of "nature." But this "first cause" allowable by Darwinism cannot be a God who actively supervises or directs the development of life. Such an absentee God is hard to reconcile with any traditional Judeo-Christian conception of a God who actively directs and cares for His creation. In the end, the effort to reconcile Darwinism with traditional Judeo-Christian theism remains unpersuasive.

But why should we accept West's assumption that God was unable or unwilling to execute His design through the laws of nature? Why shouldn't we read the Bible as presenting the Divine Designer as having fully gifted His Creation from the beginning with all the formational powers necessary for evolving into the world we see today?

Of course, any orthodox Biblical believer must believe that God has intervened into nature in miraculous ways. The Christian must believe, for example, that the dead body of Jesus was resurrected back to life in a way that could not be explained by natural causes. But notice that in the Bible, once God has created the universe in the first two chapters of Genesis, God's later interventions into nature are all part of salvational history. God intervenes into human history to communicate His redemptive message to human beings, but he does not need to intervene into natural history to form irreducibly complex mechanisms that could not be formed by natural means. The Bible suggests that God created the world at the beginning so that everything we see in nature today could emerge by natural law without any need for later miracles of creation.

Moreover, the miracles of salvational history--such as the resurrection of Jesus--add nothing to the natural morality required for earthly life. Rather, these miracles of salvation confirm the supernatural morality required for eternal life.

Theists believe that God designs every living being either through the ordinary laws of nature or through extraordinary miracles. So if Darwinian biologists can explain all living beings as products of a natural evolutionary process, theists can ponder this as a wondrous display of God's designing power working through natural laws.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John West in "The Intercollegiate Review"

The Fall 2010 issue of The Intercollegiate Review has two articles on the debate over Darwinian conservatism. My article is entitled "Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism." John West's article is entitled "Darwin, Scientism, and the Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism." This issue of the journal is available online.

West works at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, where he leads the campaign for "intelligent design theory" as the alternative to Darwinian science. In response to my book Darwinian Conservatism, West wrote Darwin's Conservatives: A Misguided Quest (Discovery Institute Press, 2006). I have written many posts responding to his criticisms. Some of them can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Since West's article adds nothing to his earlier book, I see no need to add much to my earlier responses to his book. But I should make a few points.

West's main idea is that conservatives should reject Darwinian science because it represents "scientism," which he defines as "a credulous belief that modern science can answer all important questions about human life and that scientists have the right to dictate public policy merely because of their presumed technical expertise" (34). More specifically, he says that Darwinian scientism "refers primarily to the claim that the mechanism of evolution is an undirected material process of natural selection acting on random mutations, and furthermore to the reductionist corollary of this view that seeks to understand mind, morality, and religion as fully explicable by such a blind material process" (35).

West does not cite any passage in Darwin's writings that would support such a reductionist view of "mind, morality, and religion." In fact, West ignores Darwin's extensive comments on how cultural evolution, rational judgment, and religious belief shape moral history in ways that cannot be reduced to evolution by natural selection. In The Descent of Man, Darwin repeatedly indicates that although natural selection has shaped the social instincts of human beings, the primary causes of moral progress are "the approbation of our fellow-men--the strengthening of our sympathies by habit--example and imitation--reason--experience, and even self-interest--instruction during youth, and religious feelings" (Penguin edition, p. 163). This doesn't look like reductionism to me.

Moreover, throughout my writing, I have emphasized how explaining moral and political order requires a complex interaction of genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and deliberate judgments. West ignores all of this in his claim that Darwinism requires genetic reductionism.

West's article is organized around five questions: "(1) Does Darwinism support or subvert traditional morality? (2) Does it erode or reinforce the basis of capitalism? (3) Does it promote or undermine limited government? (4) Does it nurture or weaken religious faith? (5) Finally, is the evidence for Darwinism so overwhelming that all rational people must accept it?" (35).

(1) TRADITIONAL MORALITY. "According to Darwin," West claims, "specific moral precepts develop because under certain environmental conditions they promote survival. Once those conditions for survival change, however, so too do the dictates of morality" (36). West doesn't cite any passages from Darwin to support this sweeping assertion.

Survival surely is important for morality. Or does West deny this? Whenever Moses has to give a reason for the people of Israel to obey his laws, he says that obeying the law will allow them to live and propagate themselves (Deuteronomy 4:1, 4:40, 5:29, 6:1-3, 24, 8:1, 11:8-9, 20, 22:7, 23:9-14, 25:15, 30:15-20). Does West disagree?

Of course, survival is only a minimal condition of morality. I argue that the natural desire for life is only one of 20 natural desires that constitute the natural standards for moral order.

Through experience and reasoning, Darwin declares, we can conclude that the Golden Rule--doing unto others as we would have them do unto us--"lies at the foundation of morality" (Descent, 151). West doesn't comment on this claim or explain how it can be part of a crudely reductionist view of morality.

West complains that Darwin recognizes that polygamy has been practiced in many societies, which West interprets as an attack on monogamy. Would West say that that the Old Testament and the Koran are immoral because they teach the propriety of polygamy? Thomas Aquinas noted that polygamy was "partly natural," although it was "partly unnatural" in that the sexual jealousy of the co-wives promotes disorder. A Darwinian view of marriage would support this same conclusion in favoring monogamy over polygamy, while acknowledging that in some circumstances polygamy might be justified. It's not clear to me why West rejects this.

Like many of Darwin's critics, West is deeply disturbed by Darwin's suggestion that if bees had morality, their morality would differ from human morality. But does West mean to suggest that bee morality should be exactly the same as human morality?

(2) CAPITALISM. West claims that Darwinism cannot support capitalism, because a Darwinian understanding of commerce would require a Malthusian view of economics as a zero-sum game. But in making such a claim, West has to ignore all of the Darwinian research on the evolutionary benefits of cooperation and reciprocity. Robert Wright's book Nonzero summarizes much of this research.

(3) LIMITED GOVERNMENT. West argues that Darwin promoted a utopian eugenics, which subverted the conservative principles of limited government. To do this, West has to denigrate Darwin's insistence that utopian eugenics (like that proposed by Francis Galton) violated our "sympathy," which is "the noblest part of our nature" (Descent, 159). The only form of eugenics that Darwin ever endorsed was laws against incestuous marriages.

Darwin observes that in civilized societies, we "check the process of elimination" by protecting the weak and disabled. This "must be highly injurious to the race of man." This is what West quotes as evidence that Darwin favored the sort of eugenics that would later be practiced by the Nazis.

But West acknowledges that this passage is immediately followed by Darwin's warning that we should not practice such eugenics. Darwin writes:

"The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind."

This seems to be a clear rejection of eugenics--to "neglect the weak and the helpless" would be "evil," because it would violate that "sympathy" that is "the noblest part of our nature." Amazingly, West dismisses this casually with the comment that "such misgivings represented a lame objection at best." "A lame objection"? How could it be a "lame objection" to see eugenics as violating "sympathy," when Darwin insists, again and again, that "sympathy" is the foundation of our natural moral sense? Here we see West straining in his effort to distort Darwin's text to get the conclusions he wants.

(4) RELIGION. I have argued that Darwinian science leaves open the question of religious belief. In searching for the unexplained ground of all explanation, we can either invoke "Nature" as the final ground, or we can look beyond Nature to "Nature's God." Darwin suggested this when he spoke about the "two books"--the Book of God's works, and the Book of God's words--as the two sources of understanding. He ended the Origin of Species with a vivid image of God as the Creator of Nature's laws. It is possible, therefore, to be a theistic evolutionist.

West rejects any possibility of being a theistic evolutionist. He doesn't even mention that Michael Behe--the leading biologist supporting "intelligent design"--suggests the possibility of theistic evolution in his book The Edge of Evolution. Behe says that treating the Bible as a science textbook would be "silly" (166), and he insists that there should be "no relying on holy books or prophetic dreams" (233). If one does not read the Creation Story literally as six-days-of-creation, then it is possible to combine belief in an intelligent designer with belief in the natural laws of science. "The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of natural laws" (232).

West concedes that Darwinian science leaves open the possibility of God as "first cause." "But this 'first cause' allowable by Darwinism cannot be a God who actively supervises or directs the development of life. Such an absentee God is hard to reconcile with any traditional Judeo-Christian conception of a God who actively directs and cares for His creation" (40).

But notice that West here is silent about something he acknowledges in some of his other writing: the "intelligent designer" of "intelligent design theory" is not the Biblical God. That's why many "creationists" have rejected "intelligent design theory" as a new form of atheism. After all, West rejects "biblical literalism" (41). As Behe says, intelligent design theory does not tell us "whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity" (238).

(5) SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE. In claiming that scientific evidence denies Darwinism, West cites an article by Douglas Axe, who is an employee of the Discovery Institute. West doesn't tell his readers that some biologists have disputed the way West uses Axe's article. For example, in one analysis of the article, the author concludes: "the claims that have been and will be made by ID proponents regarding protein evolution are not supported by Axe's work. As I show, it is not appropriate to use the numbers Axe obtains to make inferences about the evolution of proteins and enzymes. Thus, this study does not support the conclusion that functional sequences are extremely isolated in sequence space, or that the evolution of new protein function is an impossibility that is beyond the capacity of random mutation and natural selection."

I have debated John West on various occasions. A few years ago, one of our debates received coverage in the New York Times, which can be found here.