Monday, October 29, 2012

The Evolutionary Politics of Minimal Winning Coalitions: On the Work of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

The apparent closeness of the American presidential race between Obama and Romney is a reminder of the fundamental principle of human politics--the political survival of leaders depends on their having the support of a minimal winning coalition. 

No ruler can rule alone.  Even an absolute dictator needs a small coalition of powerful people who are loyal to him, and to win and maintain that loyalty, the dictator must buy them off with money and status.  Once a dictator is abandoned by his loyalists, he loses his power.  But as long as he has the support of that small winning coalition, he can rule successfully even when he oppresses the great majority of the people under his rule.  The private interest of his small coalition of supporters is advanced at the expense of the public interest of the people at large.

A democratic leader differs from a dictatorial leader in that the democratic leader depends on a larger coalition of supporters.  Because of the large size of a winning democratic coalition, democratic leaders must persuade a large number of supporters that he will advance public policies that serve the general welfare of this big coalition.  But still this large democratic coalition is less than the whole community, and it does not have to be a majority of the citizens.

In the American electoral college system for the presidency, the minimal winning coalition requires the support of those voters in various states who will give a candidate at least 270 of 538 electoral votes.  As we know, the winner in the Electoral College does not necessarily need to win the majority of the popular votes.  Moreover, if neither Romney nor Obama wins at least 270 electoral votes, perhaps because they have evenly split the electoral votes (269 for each), then the election will be decided by a vote of the House of Representatives, with each state delegation casting one vote.  In that case, the minimal winning coalition would be 26 state delegations, which could represent a minority of the voters.  To avoid this outcome, the tie in the Electoral College could be broken if one or more of the electors could be persuaded to betray their party commitment and vote for the popular vote winner.  There is a very slight possibility that this could happen in this election.

According to Frans de Waal, this principle of minimal winning coalitions holds true not only for human politics but also for chimpanzee politics.  The natural drive of male chimps for dominance leads them to compete for rule over each chimp community.  Success in this competition depends on the exercise of strategic intelligence in which chimps must form coalitions that will support them as the alpha chimp in the hierarchy (see chapter 5 of de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics). 

This suggests that the human political principle of minimal winning coalitions could be rooted in an evolutionary history of politics shared with our primate ancestors, and thus it would be grounded deep in our natural history as political animals.

That all of politics can be explained through the principle of minimal winning coalitions is the argument of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith in The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (PublicAffairs, 2011).  They have summarized the argument of their book in an article for Foreign Policy--"A Dictator's Handbook for the President"--in which they suggest that if Obama is to win reelection, he will have to act more like a dictator.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith assume that "politics is about getting and keeping political power" (xviii).  To explain how that is done, one needs to understand one fundamental fact about political power:  "No one rules alone; no one has absolute authority.  All that varies is how many backs have to be scratched and how big the supply of backs is available for scratching" (4).

They explain the variability of political life by explaining how leaders handle three groups of people--the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition.  "Fundamentally, the nominal selectorate is the pool of potential support for a leader; the real selectorate includes those whose support is truly influential; and the winning coalition extends only to those essential supporters without whom the leader would be finished.  A simple way to think of these groups is: interchangeables, influentials, and essentials" (5).

In the United States, the nominal selectorate or interchangeables for the presidency are those legally qualified to vote; the real selectorate or influentials are those who actually vote in any particular election; and the winning coalition or essentials are the smallest group of voters scattered properly across the states to win a majority in the electoral college.  By contrast, in North Korea, the nominal selectorate includes all the voters, although the elections are rigged; the real selectorate includes a tiny group of people who actually select the leader; and the winning coalition is probably no more than a few hundred people whose support is essential for sustaining the power of North Korea's leader.

Consequently, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith argue, there is no difference in kind between types of governance throughout political history, because they differ only in the relative size of their nominal selectorates, real selectorates, and winning coalitions.  Nevertheless, it is convenient to distinguish between dictatorships as small-coalition regimes and democracies as large-coalition regimes. 

In every regime, politics is about the leader paying off the right people--those who constitute the minimal winning coalition.  A dictatorial leader must pay off a small coalition of people.  A democratic leader must pay off a large coalition of people.  Thus, all politics is about "pay to play"--"Paying supporters, not good governance or representing the general will, is the essence of ruling" (25).  Consequently, all governments are corrupt, and they differ only in the level of their corruption.  "If corruption empowers, then absolute corruption empowers absolutely" (127).

In elaborating their theory, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith formulate 5 basic rules for all leaders (17-18):
Rule 1:  Keep your winning coalition as small as possible.
Rule 2:  Keep your nominal selectorate as large as possible.
Rule 3:  Control the flow of revenue.
Rule 4:  Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.
Rule 5:  Don't take money out of your supporter's pockets to make the people's lives better.
I find much of what they say persuasive.  I am particularly impressed by some of the insights that come from their theory.  One example is how they explain the remarkable stability of a dictator's rule when he has steady access to valuable natural resources (like oil, natural gas, gems, and forest products) that provide all the income he needs to pay off his small coalition of supporters.  If a dictator has this, he doesn't need his people to be economically productive, and so he doesn't need to limit his oppression in order to motivate them to work.  This explains the dictatorship of Senior General Than Shwe of Burma and others with control over vast oil resources.  By contrast, a dictator like Hosni Mubarak, who did not have access to steady income from natural resources, was exposed to revolt once the decline in foreign aid revenue and a faltering economy weakened his ability to pay off his small coalition of supporters.

Another example of the insights from Bueno de Mesquita and Smith is how they explain the failure of foreign aid to foster democracy and economic development:  foreign aid for countries ruled by dictators will inevitably be diverted to the benefit of the dictators, and by saving them from financial crisis, foreign aid takes away from dictators any need to expand their coalition of supporters.

But despite my general agreement with Bueno de Mesquita and Smith, I see five main problems with their argument:

(1) Following the traditional assumptions of game theory, they assume that all human beings are rational maximizers of their self-interest.  But they don't respond to recent research in behavioral game theory that shows human beings as moved by some moral concern for others.

(2) They denigrate political philosophy.  But then one notices that their ideas add little to the ideas of Aristotle, Machiavelli, and James Madison.

(3) They adopt the traditional stance of value-free social science, because they assert that they are concerned with studying what is and not with what ought to be the case in politics, and consequently they disparage any appeal to "good governance" or the "general welfare."  But then they endorse the values of liberal democracy as the regime that most closely approximates the ideal of good government.

(4) They assume that history is progressive in moving towards liberal democracy.  But they never explain or justify their theory of historical progress.

(5) They assume that there is a "natural order governing politics" (279).  But they never explain the ground of that "natural order."

(1) The axiom of self-interest
Bueno de Mesquita and Smith advise us to reject "fuzzy ideas like the national interest, the common good, and the general welfare."  Rather, we should see that "politics, like all of life, is about individuals, each motivated to do what is good for them, not what is good for others" (xix).  Thus, we should assume that all politicians are "self-interested louts" (xxv).  As one can see in his TED talk, Bueno de Mesquita is following the traditional assumptions of Rational Choice Theory about human beings as rational egoists. 

I agree that it is reasonable to assume that most human beings most of the time are moved by individual self-interest.  But it is unreasonable to assume that human beings never care for others, and that other-regarding behavior is never important for social and political life.  As products of natural and cultural evolution, we are both selfish and social beings.  We cannot explain our moral and political lives if we don't see this complex combination of selfishness and sociality.  Adam Smith was correct in the first sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it."

Moreover, as I have often noted on this blog, research in behavioral game theory (for example, in experiments with the Ultimatum Game) indicate that not all human beings act as rational maximizers of their selfish interest, because many people show sympathy or "fellow-feeling" for the experiences of others, just as Adam Smith said.  And this sympathy leads them to respect norms of fairness and social concern, even to the point of punishing violations of those norms at some cost to themselves.

Furthermore, scientific research in evolutionary psychology and neuroscience suggest that normal human beings are moved by moral sentiments or emotions such as guilt, shame, indignation, and love.  Perhaps the only people not moved by such emotions are pure psychopaths, who might be the only people who fully satisfy the assumptions of rational choice theory.  In fact, the most brutal and callous dictators are probably people with psychopathic personalities.  To explain all this, we need not just Rational Choice Theory, but also Emotional Choice Theory.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith contradict themselves on this point.  On the one hand, they assume that human beings never care about others.  On the other hand, they concede that at least some human beings show benevolence and concern for others, because there are some "benevolent dictators" (like Singapore's Lee Kwan Yee) (104), and there are some "benevolent leaders" in democratic regimes (127).

They recognize that dictators are exposed to assassination and revolutionary violence, but they say nothing about the willingness of assassins and revolutionaries to sacrifice their lives in the attempt to overthrow a dictator.  For example, they mention the assassination of Anwar Sadat, but they don't reflect on the fact that the assassins were killed.  Rational self-interest cannot explain the willingness of people to sacrifice their own lives for what they regard as a just cause.  Machiavelli was astute enough to notice that any ruler can be killed by anyone willing to give up his life in assassinating him.

(2) Political Philosophy
In a section of their book entitled "Great Thinker Confusion," Bueno de Mesquita and Smith assert that while "politics is not terribly complicated," "history's most revered political philosophers haven't explained it very well" (xix).  They indicate that people like Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Madison all failed to explain politics because they "lacked modern tools of analysis (which we, luckily, have at our disposal)" (xxi).

But anyone who has read those political philosophers might notice that there is almost nothing in the explanations of Bueno de Mesquita and Smith that were not laid out by those philosophers.  In fact, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith occasionally admit that what they say is very close to what Madison said about democracy and what Machiavelli said about dictatorship (xx-xxi, 11).

But since Bueno de Mesquita and Smith believe that "politics is not terribly complicated," they generalize about "leaders" without distinguishing the different motivations of politically ambitious people.  By contrast, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Madison recognize that the greatest statesmen are moved by a love of fame, honor, or glory that sets them apart from ordinary politicians.  People like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Winston Churchill are moved by "the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds."  One might say that this is still self-interest, and yet it's an expansive self-interest that moves magnanimous statesmen to serve the public good on a grand scale for the sake of a kind of immortality through glory.  (Consider, for example, what Lincoln told Joshua Speed about how issuing the Emancipation Proclamation would satisfy the longing for glory that he had sought his whole life.)  But the crudely simplified political psychology of Bueno de Mesquita and Smith cannot recognize magnanimous statesmanship, because this would make political science too complicated for them, and they are confident that "politics is not terribly complicated."

What Bueno de Mesquita and Smith say about dictatorship adds nothing to what Aristotle and Machiavelli said about what tyrannts have to do to preserve their rule.  For example, what Bueno de Mesquita and Smith say about the two ways that dictators can respond to revolutionary threats corresponds closely to what Aristotle says about the two ways of preserving tyranny (198).  What they say about democracy adds nothing to what Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Madison said about republican government as a mixed regime that balances the power of one, few, and many.

This distinction in political philosophy between one, few, and many corresponds to what Bueno de Mesquita and Smith identify as the three groups of people in political life--"leaders," "essential supporters," and "masses."  As opposed to a dictatorship, a modern liberal democracy is a mixed regime in which some large portion of the minimal winning coalition includes the "many" or the "masses."

(3) Value-Free Social Scientists Supporting Democratic Values
Unlike the political philosophers, who were concerned with "'the big questions'--what the highest nature of man ought to be, or what the 'right' state of government really is, or what 'justice' truly means," Bueno de Mesquita and Smith indicate that their concern is with what really is not what ought to be (xxii). 

But then, throughout their book, they assume that liberal democracy is the ideal regime, or at least the best approximation to the best regime, because while "autocratic politics is a battle for private rewards," "democratic politics is a battle for good policy ideas" (44).  While a small-coalition regime promotes the interests of the few, a large coalition regime promotes the interests of the many.

This creates contradictions in their writing.  They say that "paying supporters, not good governance or representing the general will, is the essence of ruling" (25).  But they also say that "paying off the right people is the essence of good government" (31).  So it seems that paying supporters both is and is not good government.

If "good governance" is identified with "representing the general will" or promoting "the general welfare," then, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith conclude, "democrats are closer to this good governance ideal than autocrats" (75), because in a democracy, politicians compete in offering good policy ideas about how best to secure the public good (43-44).  This "good governance ideal" corresponds to what Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Madison recognized as the common good or the "general and aggregate interests of the whole" (Federalist number 10).  They would agree with Bueno de Mesquita and Smith that "working out what makes people do what they do in the realm of politics is fundamental to working out how to make it in their interest to do better things" (xxii).

So while Bueno de Mesquita and Smith set out to be value-free social scientists, they recognize that political life is value-laden, and therefore a purely value-free social science cannot explain the reality of politics.

(4) The End of History
Implicitly, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith have a philosophy of history as a progressive movement towards liberal democracy as the best regime.  But they never fully explain or justify this philosophy of history.

They assert: "Until recently, and with very few exceptions, small-coalition systems have been the dominant form of government" (226).  But there is "hope for the future," they say.  "Every government and every organization that relies on a small coalition eventually erodes its own productivity and entrepreneurial spirit so much that it faces the risk of collapsing under the weight of its own corruption and inefficiency.  When those crucial moments of opportunity arise, when the weight of bad governance catches up with despots, then a few changes can make all the difference" (281).  Consequently, "sooner or later every society will cross the divide between small-coalition, large-selectorate misery to a large coalition that is a large proportion of the selectorate--and peace and plenty will ensue" (282).

But they never explain why there has been such a sudden and unprecedented shift in recent history from small-coalition regimes to the large-coalition regimes.  After all, if Rule 1 of politics is "Keep your winning coalition as small as possible," why would politicians suddenly, for the first time in history, turn to large-coalition arrangements in a way that would make this the wave of the future?

To begin to explain this, we need to see that Bueno de Mesquita and Smith are wrong when they say that small-coalition systems have dominated human history until recently.  In fact, through most of human history, human beings lived in foraging bands of hunter-gatherers that were large-coalition regimes, because they were largely egalitarian societies in which leaders were severely limited in their power by popular resistance to exploitative dominance.  It was not until about 5,000 years ago that the emergence of states based on agricultural production made it possible for leaders to rule in small-coalition regimes in which the majority of people were exploited by the ruling elite.  The emergence of modern liberal democracies over the past two or three centuries is in some ways a revival of the popular constraints on power that prevailed in ancient foraging societies.

This points to a scheme of historical progress that moves through three epochs.  Recently, Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast (in Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History [Cambridge University Press, 2009) have explained this as a history of three social orders--"the foraging order," "the limited access order," and the "open access order."  In the open access order, prohibitions on the use of violence or coercion allow for open entry and free competition in the formation of social, economic, and political organizations.  This allows for a vibrant growth in social, economic, and political life beyond any previous social order.

To fully understand this movement of history, we would need to understand it through an evolutionary science of natural selection and cultural selection.

5. The Natural Order
If there is a "natural order governing politics" (279), as Bueno de Mesquita and Smith say, how do we explain that "natural order"?

As I have just suggested, the only comprehensive science of natural order in political life is a Darwinian science of evolution.  This Darwinian science could explain the evolution of the complex interaction of selfishness and sociality in human nature.  It could explain the evolved human nature studied by political philosophers.  It could explain the value-laden character of politics as a moral order.  And it could explain the history of political order as passing through an evolutionary process of trial and error-- from the foraging order of hunter-gatherers to the limited access small-coalition regimes of agrarian states to the open access orders of large-coalition liberal democracies.

As Bueno de Mesquita and Smith indicate, freedom is the greatest public good.  Freedom is the natural condition for human flourishing, materially and spiritually (120-21, 124-25, 180, 214, 273-74, 278-82).  Although the evolutionary path to free societies is not predetermined, because evolutionary history is an undesigned, contingent process of trial and error, the greater wealth, inventiveness, and happiness of the free society make it likely that it will eventually prevail. 

The evolutionary historical logic of this trend towards a free society has been elaborated in recent books by Robert Wright (Nonzero), Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist), and Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature).  It's an evolutionary logic that leads to expanded cooperation, greater prosperity, and less violence.

Here we see the argument for a new political science of Darwinian liberalism, according to which the minimal winning coalition in a mixed regime is broad enough to promote the general welfare of the one, the few, and the many.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?

Debbie Duncan.  You surely remember her.  She was the beautiful blonde voted Best All-Round Girl in 1967 at Big Spring High School in Big Spring, Texas.  I was secretly in love with her.  But it was hard to compete with Kenny Hamby the handsome quarterback for the football team.  I sat next to her in Dan Shockey's speech class.  I tried to get her attention by bringing into class the philosophy books I was reading.  One day, I showed her that I was reading Martin Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics, and I pointed out to her the deep questions that Heidegger raises at the beginning of the book:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why are things as they are and not different?  She was not impressed.

In his new book Why Does the World Exist?, Jim Holt says that he also read Heidegger's book in high school, and that started a life-long quest to answer Heidegger's question--Why is there something rather than nothing?  (Holt doesn't tell us whether this made him more successful with the girls.)

As Heidegger indicates, his questions were first clearly stated by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz in 1714 in his Principles of Nature and Grace, and his answer to those questions was clear: For everything there must be a sufficient reason or explanation.  To explain why there is something rather than nothing, and why things are as they are and not different, the only sufficient reason is God.

If one thinks that human beings have always had to ponder such fundamental questions about the universe, it's surprising that no one stated the questions clearly until Leibnitz did it in 1714.  But even if the questions were not so clearly stated, they were clearly implied in the religious idea of creation ex nihilo, which raises for the first time in history the possibility of nihilism or absolute nothingness, and thus the problem of explaining why there is anything at all.

This thought of creation out of nothing was first formulated by the early Christian theologians (such as Augustine).  Although they presented this as a Biblical doctrine, the Bible never clearly teaches this.  Even in the Genesis account of Creation, God seems to work with formless matter, and thus He begins with something rather than nothing.   Similarly, in the ancient Greek mythic and philosophic accounts of the origins of the cosmos, the eternal existence of some kind of primordial matter was taken for granted, and the idea of absolute nothingness as a possibility was inconceivable.

I now think the ancient Greeks were right.  Why is there something rather than nothing? is not a reasonable question.  The question arises from the theological imagination of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition without any grounding in the empirical evidence of ordinary human experience.

Holt is an atheist who looks for an atheistic answer to this question.  But he was reared as Catholic who was told that God had created everything out of nothing.  Although he has given up that religious answer, he is still so captivated by the religious question that he refuses to give up.  This is evident in his book.

Holt was trained as a philosopher who now writes for The New Yorker and other major magazines and newspapers on the philosophic issues raised by mathematics and natural science.  His book is written in an engaging journalistic style.  It's organized around a series of interviews with some philosophers (such as Adolf Grunbaum, Richard Swinburne, John Leslie, and Derek Parfit), some scientists (such as David Deutsch, Steven Weinberg, and Roger Penrose), and the novelist John Updike.  He tells us the stories of his travels--from New York City to Paris to London to Oxford to Pittsburgh to Austin--with anecdotes about the often eccentric thinkers he's interviewing.  He thus combines abstract philosophizing with evocative story-telling.  It's something like an extended Platonic dialogue with a large cast of characters arguing about one question and with Holt acting as Socrates. 

Like Socrates, Holt never gives us a clear answer to the question.  Or I should say that he gives an answer that I find hard to follow.  Thinking through a line of reasoning suggested by Derek Parfit, he concludes that while moving from nothing to something is impossible, it is possible to start with something--the world as we know it--and reason backwards to its explanatory origin.  So instead of moving from the question of why the world is to the question of how it is, we should move in reverse and infer from how it is to why it is.  If we do that, and if we assume certain explanatory principles such as simplicity, we can explain our world as showing a "generic reality" that is "thoroughly mediocre."  He concludes that this would explain "why the actual cosmos seems to be so disappointingly average: an indifferent mixture of good and evil, of beauty and ugliness, of causal order and random chaos; inconceivably vast, yet falling well short of the full cornucopia of possible being.  Reality is neither a pristine Nothing nor an all-fecund Everything.  It's a cosmic junk shot" (236).  He points to this conclusion in a brief YouTube video.

Holt never doubts that Leibnitz's question is a good question, and so he is not persuaded by Grunbaum's argument that the question should be rejected.  And he never doubts that there must be in principle an answer to the question that provides a final explanation for the existence and order of the universe, and so he is not persuaded by Swinburne's argument that it is not logically possible to explain everything.  On these points, I agree with Grunbaum and Swinburne.

Why is there something rather than nothing? is an meaningless question, because it rests on two false assumptions.  First, it falsely assumes the possibility of absolute nothingness.  Since human beings have no experience of absolute nothingness, whereas all of our experience confirms the being of things, there is no empirical evidence for absolute nothingness.  Even the very idea of nothingness as a product of the theological imagination pondering the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is dubious, because in the absence of any empirical evidence, I doubt that people even understand what they are saying when they ask why the world arose out of nothingness.

Holt's response to this objection is to assert that the scientific theory of the Big Bang shows that we have scientific evidence of absolute nothingness, because the theory tells us that before the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago, the universe did not exist.

But there are lots of problems with this interpretation of the Big Bang theory.  First, there is disagreement among cosmologists as to whether the Big Bang was a "singularity"--a sudden appearance of space/time and physical laws from nothingness.  Some believe the Big Bang was a lawful emergence of the present universe from a previous one.  Second, as Grunbaum argues, if we see the Big Bang as a singularity, then there was no time prior to the Big Bang, and therefore there were no earlier moments of time in which nothing existed.  Third, if we use the principles of quantum mechanics to infer that the universe arose from nothing as a quantum fluctuation, then we assume the existence of quantum mechanics, which is not absolute nothingness.  Finally, any interpretation of the Big Bang as something coming from nothing can only be a work of wildly speculative imagination without any basis for empirical testing.

The second false assumption in the question of why the universe exists is that the principle of sufficient reason can apply to the whole universe.  Our experience of finding reasons or causes to explain things applies to events in the universe as governed by natural laws.  But this makes no sense as applied to the universe as whole. 

This is what I have called the problem of ultimate explanation.  All explanation depends on some ultimate reality that is unexplained.  All explanation presupposes the observable order of the world as the final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained.  To the question of why nature exists or why it has the order that it does, the only reasonable answer is that we must accept this as a brute fact of our experience.  That's just the way it is

Now, of course, we might argue, as Swinburne does, that we can reason to the existence of God as the simplest way of explaining the existence and the order of the natural world that is presupposed in all scientific explanations.  But those like Grunbaum and David Hume can insist that there is nothing in our ordinary experience of the world that would make it likely, or even comprehensible, that something would have the power to create everything in the world out of nothing.  Moreover, Swinburne admits that he cannot explain why God is the way He is.  Thus, in looking for ultimate explanation, we must stop somewhere with something that is unexplained--either an uncaused or self-caused Nature or an uncaused or self-caused God.

So if I knew where Debbie Duncan was today--she's probably a grandmother by now--I would have to tell her that she was right not to be impressed by Heidegger's questions.  My pretentious display of deep philosophizing was really only a nerdy high school boy's awkward expression of romantic longing.  That's not much.  But it's not nothing.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Abraham Lincoln, Classical Liberal

On this blog, I have often written about the fundamental agreement between Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.  Darwin agreed with Lincoln that slavery violated the natural liberty and equality of all human beings.  And Lincoln agreed with Darwin that science could explain all life, including human life, as shaped originally by a history of natural evolution.  Both Darwin and Lincoln can be rightly understood as classical liberals, who saw all human beings as having an equal natural right to liberty rooted in the evolved natural disposition of all individuals for self-ownership and self-defense against arbitrary power.

And yet some American libertarians have denounced Lincoln as a despotic enemy of liberty and as the founder of the Progressive tradition of big government.  Amazingly, some of these libertarians have even defended the Lost Cause of the Confederacy as the last bastion of republican liberty in the world, and thus they lament its defeat by the superior arms of Lincoln's military.  Recently, this neo-Confederate libertarianism has received publicity through the campaigning of Ron Paul, because Paul has a long history of criticizing Lincoln and lamenting the loss of the Confederacy.  Moreover, Barack Obama's claim that the Progressive ideology of big government is in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln has been cited by some libertarians as confirmation for their loathing of Lincoln.  (Some of my thinking about this has been influenced by my reading of John Barr's book manuscript--Loathing Lincoln: An American Political Tradition, 1858-2012--which I hope will be published sometime soon.)

We now have two good refutations of this libertarian critique of Lincoln that show why he should be seen as a classical liberal defender of individual liberty and limited government.   Timothy Sandefur has written "How Libertarians Ought to Think about the U.S. Civil War."  And Allen Guelzo has written "Abraham Lincoln or the Progressives: Who Was the Real Father of Big Government?"  Another important work along these lines is Jason Jividen's book Claiming Lincoln: Progressivism, Equality, and the Battle for Lincoln's Legacy in Presidential Rhetoric, which shows how the Progressives had to distort Lincoln's political thought and practice to appropriate him to their cause.

Sandefur refutes those libertarians who argue that the Confederate states were justified by a constitutional right to secession or a natural right to revolution.  In fact, the Constitution does not provide for secession; and there is no natural right to revolt for the sake of enslaving human beings.  While some neo-Confederate libertarians argue that Southern secession had nothing to do with slavery, Sandefur rightly points to the Southern declarations of secession as clear and authoritative statements that preserving slavery was the primary reason for secession.

Guelzo offers a good survey of the evidence against the libertarian claim that Lincoln was the father of big government.  He shows that the growth of the federal government during the Civil War was mostly a temporary response to the extraordinary emergency of the war.  Libertarians or classical liberals should agree with Lincoln that protecting liberty against the initiation of violence by slaveholders is a proper purpose of government.

As both Sandefur and Guelzo indicate, Lincoln was clear and consistent in his devotion to what he called "the principle of self-government"--"each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as he in no wise interferes with any other man's rights" (CW 2:493).

The neo-Confederate libertarians are confused in their understanding of liberty.  Lincoln explained:
We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.  With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor.  Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name--liberty.  And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names--liberty and tyranny.  The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one.  Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty. (CW 7:301-302)
The neo-Confederate libertarians have mistakenly adopted the wolf's definition of liberty.  Lincoln and Darwin rightly defended the shepherd's definition.

Lincoln's Aesopian imagery in this passage suggests all the major questions that have arisen in the debate over Lincoln's words and deeds.  If Lincoln believes that all human beings are created equal, why does he divide them into sheep, shepherds, and wolves?  Does the liberty of the sheep depend on the shepherd’s protecting them from wolves?  Why can’t the sheep protect themselves?  What motivates the shepherd?  Ambition?  If so, might not the shepherd be tempted to create a fear of wolves in order to satisfy his ambition?  Are local shepherds more or less trustworthy than national shepherds?  Is the national shepherd justified in arguing that he must suspend civil liberties in order to liberate the sheep?  Must the shepherd deny the liberty of wolves in order to liberate the sheep?  Should the sheep trust the shepherd when he says that the wolves have the constitutional liberty to keep the sheep in slavery?  If the shepherd believes that the sheep are all black does that show his racism—his belief that black sheep cannot govern themselves without the help of shepherds?  Does this cast doubt on the possibility of having government of the sheep, by the sheep, for the sheep?

Some of my pertinent posts can be found here, here. and here.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The Evolution of Mind and Mathematics: Dehaene Versus Plantinga and Nagel

Today the leading philosopher defending religious belief is Alvin Plantinga.  He is a theistic evolutionist, who argues that theism is not just compatible with, but absolutely necessary for evolutionary science, and indeed for all of science.  As I have indicated in a previous post, I agree with him about the compatibility of theism and evolution, because evolutionary science leaves open the question of whether nature might ultimately depend upon God as First Cause.  But I disagree with his claim that theistic belief is absolutely necessary for evolutionary science.

In his evolutionary argument against naturalism, Plantinga has argued that atheistic naturalism is self-defeating, because if we believe that our minds evolved by natural selection unguided by God's divine mind, then we have no reason to trust our mind's capacity for grasping the truth, and thus we have no reason to trust our belief in atheistic naturalism.  In some previous posts (here and here), I have suggested that Plantinga's argument fails because it assumes a radical Cartesian skepticism that is implausible, by assuming that human beings could be naturally evolved for being in a state of complete and perpetual delusion.

Plantinga has now elaborated his reasoning in a new book--Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011).  His general claim in this book is that "there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism" (ix).

Thomas Nagel has written a favorable review of this book in The New York Review of Books (September 27, 2012).  (In a previous post, I have written about Nagel's review of David Brooks' The Social Animal.)  This might seem surprising since Nagel is an atheist.  But it's understandable if one has read Nagel's new book--Mind & Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012).  Nagel criticizes what he takes to be the "reductive materialism" of Darwinian naturalism for failing to explain the reality of mind as manifested in human consciousness, cognition, and morality.

I agree with Nagel that a strongly reductionistic science--reducing all phenomena to physics and chemistry--cannot explain mental experience.  But what are the alternatives?  To explain the history of the appearance of mind in the universe, there are, he suggests, at least three alternatives: the historical account must be either causal (law-governed efficient causes), teleological, or intentional.  The causal account will be reductive, if one believes that the most elementary particles of nature are somehow mental, or emergent, if one believes that at some point in the evolution of natural complexity mental capacity arose as an irreducibly complex phenomenon.  In some previous posts, I have argued for the evolutionary emergence of the mind in the brain.  Nagel rejects this without much explanation because it "seems unsatisfactory" or "seems like magic" (55-56).  Although I agree that there might be some natural mystery in the emergence of mind in body, I don't see why we cannot accept this as a natural phenomenon that can be plausibly explained through an evolutionary science of the brain.

What Nagel calls the "intentional" account is the theistic explanation of Plantinga and others (including the proponents of "intelligent design"):  the universe was created by a Divine Mind that created human beings in His image as having minds like His.  According to Plantinga, God has created human beings with a sensus divinitatis--the gift of faith--so that most human beings believe in God's existence without any need for rational proof.  Atheists like Nagel suffer from a form of spiritual blindness.  In his article for the New York Review, Nagel explains: "My instinctively atheistic perspective implies that if I ever found myself flooded with the conviction that what the Nicene Creed says is true, the most likely explanation would be that I was losing my mind, not that I was being granted the gift of faith."

This leaves Nagel with the "teleological" explanation for the place of mind in the universe.  He favors this explanation although he admits that he does not yet understand how to fully develop it.  His idea is that from the very beginning of the universe there was an end or purpose inherent in things that would inevitably lead to the appearance of mind.  It's as though there was a cosmic mind from the beginning guiding the entire history of the cosmos towards the human mind.  He calls this natural teleology, and he insists that there is nothing supernatural or theistic about it.  But what he says about it sounds religious to me.  He writes: "Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself" (85).  What does this mean?  The Cosmic Mind was asleep, but then it woke up in our minds? 

If Nagel rejects my belief in the emergent evolution of the mind in the brain because it "seems like magic," then I will reject his belief in the sleeping Cosmic Mind that wakes up because it seems like mysticism.

Consider the case of mathematics.  How do we explain what physicist Eugene Wigner called "the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences"?  How do we explain the amazingly precise fit between the mathematical abstractions developed in the human mind and the natural regularities of the external world, which makes natural science possible? 

Plantinga explains this as an example of the "deep concord" between theism and science (284-91).  He quotes Paul Dirac: "God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used advanced mathematics in constructing the universe."  We cannot trust our mathematical knowledge of the world, Plantinga argues, unless we believe that God is a mathematician who created the world mathematically and created our minds to grasp its mathematical order.

Nagel's alternative explanation would manifest his Platonic idealism: the whole universe is somehow ruled by an impersonal Cosmic Mind that is mathematical, which "wakes up" in the mind of the human mathematician.

The Darwinian view that I embrace is open to Plantinga's theistic explanation as conceivable: it is possible that the Divine Mathematician created the world so that the human mind would arise from a natural evolutionary process with a capacity for mentally grasping the mathematical order in the world.  But even if one is skeptical of such beliefs, because one lacks the gift of faith (the sensus divinitatis), one can still explain mathematics as a purely natural product of the emergent evolution of the mind in the brain.

A good elaboration of this position is Stanislas Dehaene's The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics (Oxford University Press, 1997).  Dehaene is a mathematician who became interested in the evolution of mathematics as a product of both genetic evolution and cultural evolution.  In particular, he set out to explain the evolution of the "number sense."  Summarizing his reasoning, he writes:
That the human baby is born with innate mechanisms for individuating objects and for extracting the numerosity of small sets.
That this "number sense" is also present in animals, and hence that it is independent of language and has a long evolutionary history.
 That in children, numerical estimation, comparison, counting, simple addition and subtraction all emerge spontaneously without much explicit instruction.

That the inferior parietal region of both cerebral hemispheres hosts neuronal circuits dedicated to the mental manipulation of numerical quantities.

Intuition about numbers is thus anchored deep in our brain.  Number appears as one of the fundamental dimensions according to which our nervous system parses the external world.  Just as we cannot avoid seeing objects in color (an attribute entirely made up by circuits in our occipital cortex, including area V4) and at definite locations in space (a representation reconstructed by occipitoparietal neuronal pathways), in the same way numerical quantities are imposed on us effortlessly through the specialized circuits of our inferior parietal lobe.  The structure of our brain defines the categories according to which we apprehend the world through mathematics. (244-45)
According to Wigner, "the miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics to the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve."  And according to Johannes Kepler, "the principal object of all research on the external world should be to uncover its order and rational harmony which were set by God and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics." 

By contrast, Dehaene denies that there is any need to see a miracle in the correspondence between mathematics and nature if one explains this as the outcome of natural evolution.  Even nonhuman animals show a number sense that has evolved to help them survive and reproduce because it helps them to track the regularities in the natural world.  The same is true for human beings, except that human beings have a unique capacity for symbolic abstraction that allows them to develop mathematical symbolism far beyond the capacity of other animals.  The cultural evolution of mathematical symbolism in human history is an evolutionary process of trial and error in which some mathematical systems are more effective than others, and some of those mathematical ideas turn out to be useful for understanding the natural world.

To which Plantinga responds:
     Of course it is always possible to maintain that these mathematical powers are a sort of spandrel, of no adaptive use in themselves, but an inevitable accompaniment of other powers that do promote reproductive fitness.  The ability to see that 7 gazelles will provide more meat than 2 gazelles is of indisputable adaptive utility; one could argue that these more advanced cognitive powers are inevitably connected with that elementary ability, in such a way that you can't have the one without having the other.
     Well, perhaps; but it sounds pretty flimsy, and the easy and universal availability of such explanations makes them wholly implausible.  (287)

On the contrary, such explanations seem very plausible to me, especially when one realizes that the correspondence between mathematics and nature is not exact but only an approximation.  The discovery by Pythagoras that irrational quantities were required to express the incommensurability of the diagonal of a square was deeply disturbing to the ancient Greeks.  But this is not surprising if one sees that mathematics has evolved in the mind as only an approximation of the order in nature.  Similarly, while Kepler thought that the elliptic trajectory of planets in the solar system manifested the mathematical genius of God, the fact that these trajectories are only rough approximations to ellipses might make us doubt the exactness of God's mathematics.