Saturday, November 23, 2013

Natural Right and Natural History

This essay has appeared in the fall 2013 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.


The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson. 

Liveright Publishing, 331 pages, $27.95

Paul Gauguin's most famous painting shows some human figures set in a Tahitian landscape.  They display the human life cycle from infancy to adulthood to old age.  One corner of the painting has three questions: Where do we come from?  What are we?  Where are we going? 

To answer these fundamental questions about our human place in the cosmos, Edward O. Wilson suggests in his new book, we need to unify all our knowledge of nature by combining the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.  Traditionally, we have looked to religion, philosophy, or the creative arts to answer these great questions.  Wilson argues that these three ways to understand the human condition have failed.  This leaves science--in its quest for a complete knowledge of nature--as the only way to understand the human story. 

Wilson separates philosophy from science, because he assumes that philosophy must rely purely on introspection and logic without any of the empirical research that is done by scientists.  He thus turns away from what he said in an earlier book—Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge--where he recognized that the search for consilience, understood as the unification of all knowledge of nature,  began in Greek antiquity with Thales of Miletus and Aristotle.  Until recently, there was no separation between philosophy and science, and what we call "natural science" today was previously called "natural philosophy."  Aristotle was particularly important as a biologist who saw moral and political philosophy as a biological science.  Wilson acknowledged this in Consilience, when he identified his biological science of ethics and politics as continuing the empiricist tradition of Aristotle, David Hume, and Charles Darwin, as opposed to the transcendentalist tradition of Plato, Immanuel Kant, and John Rawls.

If Wilson's project for a Darwinian unification of knowledge is to succeed, it must revive that Aristotelian tradition of natural philosophy that includes Thomas Aquinas, Hume, and Adam Smith.  Darwin understood himself as part of that intellectual tradition, particularly in adopting ideas from Hume and Smith about the natural moral sentiments.  Even Darwin’s fundamental idea of the evolutionary emergence of life as an unintended order was derived from Smith and other Scottish philosophers. 

Recently, evolutionary moral psychologists like Jonathan Haidt have recognized that they are reviving the empiricist moral philosophy of Aristotle and Hume.  Some contemporary philosophers have embraced "experimental philosophy" as a way of putting their ideas to the test of empirical scientific research.  A few political scientists have begun to argue that their science needs to become a biopolitical science of political animals.  All of this contributes to a modern renewal of the ancient quest for a philosophical science of nature through a Darwinian natural philosophy.

We must wonder, however, whether such a Darwinian natural philosophy can be defended against the many criticisms that it faces.  Two of the most prominent criticisms are the charges of reductionism and nihilism.

Wilson’s reductionism is suggested by his statement in Consilience about reducing all knowledge to physics: "all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the working of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.”  This strong reductionism is so implausible that even Wilson cannot consistently embrace it.  In most of Consilience, he actually rejected "physics envy," and he insisted that biologists must "invariably encounter emergence, the appearance of complex phenomena not predictable from the basic elements and processes alone.”  He identified human beings as “emergent animals” who have capacities that are constrained, but not specifically determined by the laws of physics.  In The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson never argues for reducing everything to the laws of physics, and he implicitly endorses the idea of the irreducibly emergent traits of life.

Biologists recognize emergent phenomena as those complex wholes with properties that we could not explain or predict from our knowledge of the parts.  The emergence of novelty occurs throughout the evolution of the universe.  Passing through levels of complexity, new properties emerge at higher levels that are not fully reducible to the lower levels.  When chemicals in the early universe formed the first living cells, that was emergence.  When the first multicellar organism arose, that was emergence.  When the human mind arose from the evolution of the primate brain passing over a critical threshold of size and complexity (particularly, in the prefrontal cortex), that was emergence.  Although the human mind is constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry, we cannot fully explain or precisely predict the workings of that mind through the laws of physics and chemistry.

One ground for emergent complexity in Wilson's science is genetic plasticity.  Wilson is often accused of genetic determinism, even though he has repeatedly affirmed genetic plasticity as allowing for individual and cultural variation.  He repeats that idea in Social Conquest in explaining gene-culture coevolution: there can be plasticity in the expression of genes that allows for a wide but still constrained flexibility in response to the cultural and individual contingencies of life.  Our human genetic nature constrains but does not determine our cultural traditions and individual judgments.

How does the coevolution of genes, culture, and judgment explain human morality and politics?  Some critics of Wilson’s project worry that any evolutionary account of morality and politics must deny that there can be any objective or fixed standards of right and wrong, which is nihilism.

Is Darwinism nihilism?  If you are a Platonist, yes.  If you are not a Platonist, no.

Most Platonists today are disappointed Platonists—people with Platonic expectations that are unfulfilled, because they accept Darwinian evolution as true, and therefore since all living forms have evolved, they cannot be eternal in conforming to Plato’s intelligible realm of eternal Ideas.  If everything has evolved, this must include moral and political order, and thus there is no eternally unchanging Idea of the Good by which we can see absolute standards of right and wrong.  Consequently, there are no moral absolutes, and we must accept moral relativism or nihilism.  Darwinism is “true but deadly” (as Friedrich Nietzsche said).  And thus these disappointed Platonists become nihilists.

But if you do not have Platonic expectations, you will not be disappointed by the Darwinian conclusion that everything has evolved, and therefore human beings have evolved.  Without the Platonic assumption that morality must be grounded in a moral cosmology, you will be satisfied with a Darwinian explanation of morality as grounded in a moral anthropology.  Even if morality has no eternal grounding in a cosmic God, a cosmic Nature, or a cosmic Reason, human morality  still has an evolutionary grounding in human nature, human culture, and human judgment.  You can say, with Leo Strauss, that “however indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions.”  And thus in contrast to the disappointed Platonists, the satisfied Darwinians are not nihilists.

Satisfied Darwinians like Wilson see at least four mechanisms for the evolution of social cooperation and human morality: kin selection (cooperating with relatives), direct reciprocity (tit-for-tat exchanges), indirect reciprocity (having a good or bad reputation), and multilevel selection (individual selection and group selection).

The most controversial part of Wilson’s new book is that while he had previously embraced kin selection theory, he now argues against it.  Kin selection is the idea that animals have evolved to serve not only their personal fitness (the number of their surviving offspring) but also their inclusive fitness (including the fitness of their collateral relatives), and consequently animals tend to be altruistic towards closely related kin with whom they share genes.  Wilson argues that as long as multilevel natural selection (individual or group selection, or both) works generally to explain social evolution, there is no need for a theory of kin selection. 

But multilevel selection theory is not an alternative to kin selection theory; rather, they are complimentary to one another.  Kin selection cannot be the whole story, because we need to explain how unrelated individuals can cooperate.  But kin selection must be part of the story, because we need to explain the tendency for individuals to be more cooperative with close relatives than with distant relatives or strangers.  This idea was developed by Aristotle:  the natural sociality of animals originates as an extension of parental care and affiliation to ever wider groups.  Aristotle also saw that this natural sociality reached its peak among the social insects and human beings, and thus again Aristotle anticipated Wilson.

In Sociobiology, Wilson identified four pinnacles of social evolution:  the colonial invertebrates (such as the corals, the Portuguese man-of-war, and sponges), the eusocial insects (ants, bees, wasps, and termites), nonhuman mammals, and humans.  Although this sequence seems to move from more primitive to more complex forms of life, it also moves from more cohesive or cooperative societies to more discordant or competitive societies.  Colonial invertebrates can be seen as "perfect societies," because colonies consist of genetically identical individuals, and consequently they show absolutely altruistic cooperation.  But with sexually reproducing organisms, no two individuals are genetically identical, which creates conflicts of interest even among related individuals.

In Social Conquest, Wilson moves from four pinnacles of social evolution to two.  He identifies two paths to the social conquest of the earth--the insect path and the human path.  The social insects rule the invertebrate land environment.  Humans rule the vertebrate land environment.  Like the social insects, humans are "eusocial" in the technical sense that multiple generations of individuals live together, caring for dependent offspring and cooperating in a social division of labor.  While the social insects organize their colonies largely through pure instinct, with the insect queen producing robotic offspring guided by instinct, humans must organize the cooperation of individuals through personal relationships based on social intelligence, which requires navigating through a tense social network balanced between the selfish interests of individuals and the social interests of groups.  Wilson explains this tense balance in human social life between selfishness and sociality as showing the countervailing evolutionary forces of individual selection and group selection.

The unsteady balance between the individual and the group in human societies constitutes what Wilson identifies as the "iron rule" of social and moral evolution: "Selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.  The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme.  If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve.  If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies.”  So if we ask whether human beings are innately good or innately evil, we should answer that they are both.  And for that reason, "human beings and their social orders are intrinsically imperfectible.”  Here is the scientific basis for the tragic realism of evolutionary ethics. 

The ultimate mechanisms of moral evolution are enforced through the proximate mechanisms of moral emotions.  For example, Wilson identifies the human sense of honor as crucial for moral experience.  This sense of honor includes the moral emotions of indignation and resentment in response to injustice.  This sense of injustice might express what Leo Strauss called "those simple experiences regarding right and wrong which are at the bottom of the philosophic contention that there is a natural right."   It is this that allows us to derive rights from wrongs: our moral history is a history of resistance to injustice from which we derive standards of fair treatment.  But if those “simple experiences regarding right and wrong” are the purely human experiences of an animal species shaped by evolutionary history, and if that evolved human species is enduring but not eternal, do those experiences support the philosophic claim that there is a natural right?  The Darwinian natural philosopher says yes.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Death Is Nothing to Us

Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning" belongs to a tradition of "wisdom literature" that began thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Israel.  Alongside the ancient tradition of fearing death and longing for immortality, there was an equally ancient tradition of finding wisdom in the joyful living of mortal life with no fear of death or expectation of immortality.  This tradition of seeing the wisdom in the acceptance of mortality is seen not only in pagan texts like the Epic of Gilgamesh but also in Biblical texts such as Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

For example, Ecclesiastes teaches us: "For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other.  Both have the same breath.  Humans are in no way better off than animals" (3:19).  There is nothing after death: "The dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost" (9:5).  Knowing that we must all die should teach us  how to live: "Go your way, eat your bread with joy, drink your wine with a merry heart . . . Let your garments be always white; and let your head lack no ointment.  Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of the life of your vanity" (9:7-9).  Because of this kind of teaching, Thomas Aquinas identified the author of Ecclesiastes--Solomon--as an Epicurean (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 27).

Indeed, Epicurus himself elaborated the thought that "the dead know nothing" to show that the fear of death is nonsensical:
Get used to believing that death is nothing to us.  For all good and bad consists in sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience.  Hence, a correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality of life a matter of contentment, not by adding a limitless time to life, but by removing the longing for immortality.  For there is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in life for one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life.  Thus, he is a fool who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when present but because it is painful when it is still to come.  For that which while present causes no distress causes unnecessary pain when merely anticipated.  So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.  Therefore, it is relevant neither to the living nor to the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist.  But the many sometimes flee death as the greatest of bad things and sometimes choose it as a relief from the bad things in life.  But the wise man neither rejects life nor fears death. (Letter to Menoeceus, in The Epicurus Reader, translated and edited by Brad Inwood and L. P. Gerson [Hackett Publishing, 1994], 29).

We rightly fear the loss in death of those we love, and we rightly fear the possibility that the process of dying can be painful.  But to fear being dead is nonsense, because no living being can ever be dead.   If we do not suffer from the thought that we did not exist before we were born, why suffer from the thought that someday we will not exist?  As Michel de Montaigne put it, death "does not concern you dead or alive: alive, because you are; dead, because you are no more."

This remark by Montaigne comes from his essay "That to Philosophize is to Learn to Die," and that title reminds us that learning not to fear death may require a philosophic attitude that is not characteristic of most human beings.

Oddly, however, there is disagreement among the philosophers as to whether they should teach us that death is nothing to us, because our death is our total extinction.  Those philosophers in the Epicurean tradition have thought they should teach us this publicly.  But those philosophers in the Platonic tradition have thought they should teach us, rather, to anticipate an afterlife with eternal rewards and punishments.  And while the Christian theologians embraced the Platonic tradition, they feared the Epicurean tradition (found even in some books of the Bible) as the greatest threat to Christendom.

Although it may be hard for many human beings to accept the Epicurean teaching, that teaching has become widely acceptable at some points in history.  In ancient Rome, for example, it became common for some Romans to inscribe on their tombstones Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo.  "I was not.  I was.  I am not.  I don't care."

Some previous posts on what Leo Strauss called "the most terrible truth" of Epicureanism can be found here, here, here, here., and here.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Death Is the Mother of Beauty

I have often endorsed Thomas Aquinas's claim that the good is the desirable, and that our natural good is the satisfaction of our natural desires (ST, I, q. 5, a. 6).  But Aquinas also claims that our natural desires reach out to a supernatural end--to eternal life with God in the afterlife--and only that can fully satisfy our natural desires and thus give us true happiness (ST, I-II, q. 2, aa. 7-8; q. 3, a. 8; q. 69, aa. 2-4).

We might explain this desire for eternal life as rooted in our evolved human nature.  We have an instinctive desire to preserve our lives, and our powerful imaginations allow us to project our lives into an endless future.  But what if the four possible ways of achieving immortality--staying alive forever, being resurrected after death, living forever as a disembodied soul, or living forever through one's legacy--turn out to be illusory?  Could we learn to live with the inevitability of death without that knowledge ruining our lives?

We could, if we could see that living forever is not as good for us, and death is not as bad for us, as we might think.  We would have to see that living forever is not really desirable.  And we would have to see that fearing death makes no sense.  The first point is beautifully conveyed in Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning", which was first published in Poetry Magazine in November of 1915.  The second point has been developed by Epicurus, Lucretius, and Montaigne.

Consider the first stanza of Stevens' poem:
Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.
She dreams a little, and she feels the dark
Encroachment of that old catastrophe,
As a calm darkens among water-lights.
The pungent oranges and bright, green wings
Seem things in some procession of the dead,
Winding across wide water, without sound.
The day is like wide water, without sound.
Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet
Over the seas, to silent Palestine,
Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.
A woman is relaxing in her dressing gown, enjoying coffee and oranges on a sunny Sunday morning with her green cockatoo, and her simple morning pleasures dissipate any thought of the holy ceremonies usually performed on a Sunday morning.  But then her feelings turn dark as she dreams of the transcendent realm conjured up by Christian teachings about ancient sacrifices in Palestine.  In the second stanza, a speaker tries to persuade her that she is mistaken to allow her dreaming about ancient Palestine to darken her day.
Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations when the forest blooms; gusty
Emotions on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measure destined for her soul.
The speaker advises her to cherish the bountiful experiences of the earth--all pleasures and all pains--as superior to any thoughts about divinity or heaven that exist only in her dreams.  He reminds her of the beauty of the earth as she has known it in all of her transient moods evoked by the changing seasons and weather.  Even her suffering--"grievings in loneliness"--can be affirmed as part of the poignancy of being alive.

In the third stanza, the speaker explains the evolution of religion.
Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth.
No mother suckled him, no sweet land gave
Large-mannered motions to his mythy mind.
He moved among us, as a muttering king,
Magnificent, would move among his hinds,
Until our blood, commingling, virginal,
With heaven, brought such requital to desire
The very hinds discerned it, in a star.
Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be
The blood of paradise? And shall the earth
Seem all of paradise that we shall know?
The sky will be much friendlier then than now,
A part of labor and a part of pain,
And next in glory to enduring love,
Not this dividing and indifferent blue.
First there was an inhuman Jove.  Then he became half-human, God incarnated in human flesh, commingling with our human blood, because only in becoming human could he find "requital to desire."  Finally, we have moved to a fully human time.  And if we can someday learn to see the earth as all of paradise that we shall ever know,  we will then see the sky as much friendlier to us than it now seems.

In response to these thoughts of the speaker, the woman speaks in the fourth stanza for the first time.

She says, "I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?"
There is not any haunt of prophecy,
Nor any old chimera of the grave,
Neither the golden underground, nor isle
Melodious, where spirits gat them home,
Nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm
Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured
As April's green endures; or will endure
Like her remembrance of awakened birds,
Or her desire for June and evening, tipped
By the consummation of the swallow's wings.
The woman says she can't be fully content with the natural beauty of earthly life, because she desires a permanence that this life does not have, a permanence found only in a heavenly paradise.  The speaker responds by arguing that conceptions of heavenly permanence are actually themselves impermanent: none of the imagined visions of heaven are as enduring as our experiences of the earth.  Even if the earth is not permanent, at least it is enduring; and that real earthly endurance is better than any imaginary heavenly permanence that has no enduring reality.

Indicating that she is still not fully persuaded by the speaker, the woman speaks in the fifth stanza for the second time.
She says, "But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss."
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams
And our desires. Although she strews the leaves
Of sure obliteration on our paths,
The path sick sorrow took, the many paths
Where triumph rang its brassy phrase, or love
Whispered a little out of tenderness,
She makes the willow shiver in the sun
For maidens who were wont to sit and gaze
Upon the grass, relinquished to their feet.
She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plate. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves.
So the speaker's response to the woman's wish for "imperishable bliss" is: "Death is the mother of beauty."  This is the most famous line in this poem, and it is repeated twice in stanzas five and six.  It's often quoted in essays on the meaning of death.  For example, Leon Kass quotes it in his elegant and incisive essay on death, which appears first in his Towards a More Natural Science (1985) and then again, slightly revised, in his Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity (2002).  Kass attributes the line to "the poet," without identifying its source.  He suggests that the line could have at least three different meanings.   It could mean that our awareness of our mortality moves us to make beautiful artifacts that will live on after our death.  Or it could mean that natural beauty depends on the poignant transience of peak experiences that cannot last--the beauty of flowers is deepened by the fact that they must wither.  Or it could mean that our mortality enhances our appreciation of human beauty--that one human being's love of another is intensified by the recognition that both of them must decay and die.

Although all of these meanings might be implied in what the speaker says in the poem, what is said in stanza 5 suggests another meaning as well:  death allows for an enduring renewal of life through maidens and boys.  Children replace the older generation, and then they procreate and thus produce their own replacements.  When Stevens was questioned about the meaning of the boys piling "new plums and pears on disregarded plate," he indicated that "disregarded plate" should be understood as a family plate passed on to the children.

The woman thinks she wants an alternative to this enduring natural cycle of life, death, and renewal of life--an alternative promising eternal life without death.  But the speaker suggests in the sixth stanza that this makes no sense.
Is there no change of death in paradise?
Does ripe fruit never fall? Or do the boughs
Hang always heavy in that perfect sky,
Unchanging, yet so like our perishing earth,
With rivers like our own that seek for seas
They never find, the same receding shores
That never touch with inarticulate pang?
Why set pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.
A deathless life in paradise would not satisfy us, because it would not be a human life at all.  Eternal life would be eternal boredom--"our insipid lutes"!  Living timelessly and changelessly would not be really living.  Augustine and Aquinas explained that when our bodies are resurrected for eternal life, we will have the perfect bodies that we had, or would have had, at age 30, and we will never age.  But my ageless 30-year-old body would seem to be more dead than alive.  And would this really be me?

What exactly would we be doing during this eternal life?  As the speaker suggests, we tend to project our earthly life onto heaven--we imagine "our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly."  But this indicates that we have no conception of human happiness as anything other than what we have experienced in this life.  Would heavenly life, then, be just the continuance of what we have done in this life?  The speaker forces the woman to consider how nonsensical this would be.

The speaker doesn't consider the theocentric conception of heaven advanced by Augustine and Aquinas, which is the idea that the only fully satisfying activity of eternal life would be the beatific vision, contemplating God forever.  If the speaker had taken up this idea, he might have argued that this beatific vision is still an imaginative projection of our earthly experience of intellectual understanding into heaven, and he might have wondered whether the idea of perpetual but timeless thinking makes any sense as a living human activity.

Notice that neither the woman nor the speaker consider the possibility that the afterlife might include divine judgment and eternal punishment in hell.  The woman seems to be part of that modern movement towards believing that all human beings go to heaven, and there is no hell.

Now the speaker in the seventh stanza turns in a new direction that is somewhat confusing.
Supple and turbulent, a ring of men
Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn
Their boisterous devotion to the sun,
Not as a god, but as a god might be,
Naked among them, like a savage source.
Their chant shall be a chant of paradise,
Out of their blood, returning to the sky;
And in their chant shall enter, voice by voice,
The windy lake wherein their lord delights,
The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills,
That choir among themselves long afterward.
They shall know well the heavenly fellowship
Of men that perish and of summer morn.
And whence they came and whither they shall go
The dew upon their feel shall manifest.
This stanza seems odd to many readers, because the speaker seems to be suggesting a new religion--a Dionysian orgy?--that contradicts the generally atheistic message of the speaker.  Is this Nietzsche's new Dionysian religion?  If this is a religion, it's a religion of the earth that celebrates earthly mortality.  The men are devoted to the sun "not as a god, but as a god might be."  Whatever paradise or heavenly fellowship they have belongs to them as "men that perish."  And their determining "whence they came and whither they shall go" will be set by how they walk on the dewy earth.  They are part of the earth, and they claim no transcendence of that earth.

Now the woman hears another voice in the last stanza.
She hears, upon that water without sound,
A voice that cries, "The tomb in Palestine
Is not the porch of spirits lingering.
It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay."
We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.
The voice tells her that God is dead--that her dreaming travel to Palestine reveals the grave of Jesus.  From this, the speaker draws conclusions both about our position in the universe and about the innocence of nonhuman nature.  We live "unsponsored" by any divinity or intelligent designer who cares for and about us, because our life on earth emerged from the ancient "chaos of the sun."  We live surrounded by plants and animals that share that earthly life with us.  And all of that life is destined to die--"downward to darkness, on extended wings."

What Stevens says here about our human place in nature as the evolved mortal animals that we are is close to what I have said in the last paragraph of Darwinian Natural Right:

"We are neither mindless machines nor disembodied spirits.  We are animals.  As animals, we display the animate powers of nature for movement, desire, and awareness.  We move to satisfy our desires in the light of our awareness of the world.  We are a unique species of animal, but our distinctively human traits--such as symbolic speech, practical deliberation, and conceptual thought--are elaborations of powers shared in some form with other animals.  Our powers for habituation and learning allow us to alter our natural environments, but even these powers are extensions of the behavioral flexibility shown by other animals.  So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it.  We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away.  We come from nature.  It is our home."

Some of my thoughts here are elaborated in my post on "Darwin's Understanding of Love and Death."

Friday, November 15, 2013

Nietzsche, Hitler, and Wagner's "Parsifal"

The first picture is from the final scene of Richard Wagner's Parsifal as it was first performed at the Bayreuth Festival in 1882.  The second picture is a poster showing Hitler as a Parsifal-like figure.  The third picture is from the final scene of Lyric Opera's new production of Parsifal.

At the end of this opera, Parsifal has become the prophesied savior--the innocent fool who has been "made wise through compassion"--who restores the ceremony of the Holy Grail.  As the Grail knights declare "redemption to the redeemer," the Grail begins to glow and a white dove descends.

Nietzsche was disgusted by Parsifal because it showed that Wagner had become a Christian, and thus he had betrayed his earlier promise to use his art to form a new German culture free from Christian values.  And yet Nietzsche was ambivalent about this, because he also wanted to create a new religion that would satisfy his own religious longings for redemption. 

"In the art of seduction," Nietzsche confessed, "Parsifal will always retain its rank--as the stroke of genius in seduction.--I admire this work; I wish I had written it myself; failing that, I understand it."  In its religious language and imagery, and in its quest for religious redemption, Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra is his alternative to Parsifal.  In his later writings, Nietzsche presents himself as the disciple of Dionysus and of a new Dionysian religion that will satisfy his religious longing for some eternal meaning to life.

It was only in Human, All Too Human, in the middle period of his career, that Nietzsche was free from the Wagnerian seduction of musical art appealing to religious longings for redemption.  As shaped by his devotion to Darwinian science in Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche suggested that the religious need for redemption might be an artificial need created by thousands of years of Platonic and Biblical culture, a need that might now be disappearing through the influence of modern liberalism and modern science.

In Human, All Too Human, Nietzsche warned that the delusional expectation of redemptive leadership could make people receptive to tyrants.  And that's what happened with the rise of Hitler.  1933 was the fiftieth anniversary of Wagner's death and the year that Hitler came to power.  In that same year, Alfred Lorenz's book on Parsifal was published; and in his preface, Lorenz declared that Parsifal was Wagner's prophecy of Hitler:  "Wagner conveyed his prophetic thoughts about leadership of the Fuhrer and redemption in his work and bequeathed thereby an exalted mission."  Lorenz explained that the end of Parsifal shows "not a reactionary reestablishment of the old, but a unity of the people, helmet-clad and confident in their future, with a religiously anchored merciful kingship at the radiant peak."

Indeed, beginning in the early 1920s, Cosima Wagner and others in the Bayreuth Circle of Wagnerites had looked to Hitler as the Parsifal-like redeemer of Germany.  Hitler was reported to have said: "From Parsifal I build my religion, a sacred service in ceremonial form without theological trappings.  With a brotherly foundation of genuine love without any theatrical show of humility and empty formalistic babbling.  Without those disgusting gowns and effeminate attire.  Only in heroic dress can one serve God."

Not all the Nazis agreed with this, however.  In The Myth of the 20th Century (1930), Alfred Rosenberg generally praised Wagner as a mythmaker for the Nazis, but he criticized Parsifal because of its teaching about the primacy of compassion.  He complained that "Parsifal represents a church-influenced enfeeblement in favor of the value of renunciation."

Now it is precisely this theme of universal human compassion that is emphasized in many of today's productions of Parsifal, which move the opera away from its Christian teaching about the need for religious redemption and towards a liberal democratic teaching about the need for humanitarian sympathy.  This is evident in Lyric Opera's production, which ends with the entire cast of men, women, and children coming together in and around a giant golden hand, apparently as an expression of universal care for one another. 

John Caird, the Director of Lyric's production, has said that for him the opera's message is that "one human being's compassion for another is in the end all we have."  He has also said that he and the costume and set designer (Johan Engels) decided "let's not do crucifixes," because that would exclude half of the audience.  As a consequence, the distinctly religious theme of redemption fades away, and we are left with a purely human morality of  mutual sympathy and tolerance.  This moves us towards the teaching of Nietzsche's Human, All Too Human and Wagner's Die Meistersinger.

My posts on Lyric Opera's production of Die Meistersinger last spring can be found here and here.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Music, Politics, and Liberalism

Can music move the soul in ways that shape politics by shaping the way of life of a people?  Some political philosophers--such as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, and Nietzsche--have said yes.  But others--such as Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu--have been largely silent about music, thus implying that music is not important for politics.  As Carson Holloway has argued, we see here the split between the "musical political philosophers" and the "amusical political philosophers."  His intriguing study of music in the history of political philosophy has been published as All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics (Spence Publishing Company, 2001), which was originally his dissertation in political theory at Northern Illinois University.

In Plato's Republic, Socrates insists that "the rearing in music is most sovereign," especially in childhood, because it forms the emotional dispositions of the soul that incline it towards virtue or vice (401d).  Consequently, changes in musical rearing bring changes in political laws; and for that reason, Socrates teaches, the rulers in his best city would have to carefully supervise the musical education of the young and prohibit those kinds of music that would be corrupting (423e-24).  Aristotle seems to agree with this in his account of the education of the young in the best regime (Politics, 1339a11-40b17).

Rousseau and Nietzsche agree with Plato and Aristotle about the political importance of music in shaping human character, Holloway argues, but while Plato and Aristotle want musical rearing to promote a character of rational moderation favorable to moral and intellectual excellence, Rousseau and Nietzsche want music to promote the spirited rule of passion over reason in ways that will foster a noble politics that transcends the ignoble materialism and comfort-seeking life of liberal modernity.

Holloway agrees with Rousseau and Nietzsche that liberal modernity--as represented by thinkers that Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu--is degrading in its teaching that the purpose of politics is only to secure the peaceful pursuit of comfortable self-preservation.  He agrees with them that this low liberal view of human life will not satisfy the deepest longings of the human soul for moral, spiritual, and intellectual excellence.  But Holloway warns that Rousseau and Nietzsche are wrong in trying to promote a new nobility through inflaming the spirited passions: "One wonders whether a nobility so founded can be kept from turning into a kind of admirable barbarism--admirable because of its transcendence of the petty desires for security and comfort which animate modern politics, but barbaric because separated from the restraining reason of the ancients" (142).  The barbarism of this new modern nobility is expressed in the "illiberal modernity" that one can see in Nietzsche's writings (183).  Holloway concludes, then, that we should turn back to Plato and Aristotle in their correct understanding of how the right kind of music can moderate the passions in ways that foster the rule of reason and satisfy the longings of the soul for moral and intellectual excellence.

But if we were to turn back to Plato and Aristotle, we would have to agree with them that music needs to be politically supervised through legal censorship, and most people in modern liberal democratic regimes will not accept this.  Holloway recognizes this problem, and his answer is that because of the "practical impossibility of censorship" in liberal regimes, we must rely on "public persuasion while pointedly shunning the use of governmental coercion" (172).  In support of this, he quotes Aristotle as saying that "when cities utterly neglect the public care, it would seem appropriate for each individual to contribute to the virtue of his own offspring and friends" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1180a31-32). 

So here Holloway embraces the liberal distinction between the state and civil society or politics and culture.  The purpose of a liberal political regime is to protect individual liberty by securing the conditions for peaceful cooperation, which allows for a free society in which the moral and intellectual virtues are cultivated through the largely spontaneous orders of family life and voluntary associations (such as churches, schools, clubs, and business enterprises).  Holloway doesn't seem to realize that in accepting this he is contradicting what he says about the necessarily ignoble character of liberal modernity--its "lowness and banality" and its "timid bourgeois pleasure seeing" that cannot satisfy the "longings of reason for moral nobility and philosophical insight" (178-79).

If Holloway is right that we are by nature "hungry souls" with natural longings for moral and intellectual excellence that might be sustained by certain kinds of music (114-18, 177-84), then won't people in a liberal society seek out the food that will naturally satisfy their hunger?  Doesn't classical liberalism assume that a free society provides the liberty that permits this to emerge as a largely spontaneous order in civil society?

Although Holloway rejects "illiberal modernity" as barbaric, he actually gives support to the illiberal alternatives to liberalism by accepting the illiberal claim that liberalism is necessarily low, banal, and degrading, and by not emphasizing how a liberal society secures the conditions for human excellence.

These thoughts about music, politics, and liberalism were in my mind last Saturday night as I saw the opening night performance of Wagner's Parsifal at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  That will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Can We Live Forever Through Our Glory or Our Genes?

In choosing to fight in the Trojan war, Achilles faced a choice.  "If I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans," he says in Homer's Iliad, "I shall not return home, but my glory shall be everlasting; whereas if I return home to the beloved land of my father, my glory will be gone, but there will be long life left for me."  He chose to fight and die in the war to win his everlasting glory, even though that meant forgoing a long and happy life at home.  He thus became the model of Greek glory-seeking heroism. 

Alexander the Great emulated Achilles.  It is said that on his campaigns of military conquest, Alexander carried with him a copy of the Iliad annotated for him by Aristotle.  Alexander died young, at age 32, but like Achilles, he lives on through the fame of his extraordinary deeds.

Achilles and Alexander are examples for Stephen Cave of how human beings can pursue immortality through the Legacy Narrative:  they can hope that if they do something glorious, they will be remembered after they die.  This often seems to be the motivation for politically ambitious people who are moved by what Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist called "the love of fame, the ruling passion of the noblest minds."  Similarly, Augustine thought that the greatness of the Roman Empire was due largely to the desire of citizens and rulers to do great things that would make them famous, so that they would be remembered after death for their glorious deeds (City of God, V.12-21).

One might even argue--as Ernest Becker does in The Denial of Death (Free Press, 1973)--that the history of civilization is a history of human beings striving for immortality through cultural achievements.  As Becker writes, "heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death."  Through what Cave calls "the technology of cultural reproduction," we do things that will win us some social recognition in the shared space of cultural symbols.  Politicians want to earn a name for themselves in political history.  Artists want to be known for their art.  Authors want to be famous for their books.  Celebrities want to be celebrities.  Millions of people want to spread the news of their personal lives on social media websites.  Bloggers want to be known to people around the world who visit their websites.

Thus, cultural immortality is one form of the Legacy Narrative.  The other is biological immortality:  we might hope to live on after death in our children.  In one of his biological writings, Aristotle observed: "For any living thing . . . the most natural act is the production of another like itself, an animal producing an animal, a plant a plant, in order that, as far as its nature allows, it may partake of the eternal."  Modern evolutionary genetics suggests another way of expressing this.  Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene writes: "the genes are the immortals . . . we, the individual survival machines in the world, can expect to live a few more decades.  But the genes in the world have an expectation of life that must be measured not in decades but in thousands and millions of years."

But does either of these two forms of the Legacy Narrative give us true immortality?  I think Cave is right in arguing that whatever immortality one might have through one's cultural or biological legacy is not a personal immortality of one's individual consciousness.

Woody Allen is famous, and his fame will surely live on after his death.  But that's not the kind of immortality he wants.  He once wrote: "I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment."

The first problem with everlasting glory is that it's never everlasting.  Most of us will be completely forgotten a few decades after our deaths.  A very few of us might be remembered for thousands of years, but even that memory cannot be eternal, because human cultural memory is not eternal.

The second problem with everlasting glory is more fundamental: cultural fame is not personal immortality.  The symbolic replications of a person do not constitute a real person.  A famous dead person is just as dead as a forgotten dead person.

It's natural for us to be pleased by our imagining that we will be remembered after we die, or to be pained by our imagining that we will be forgotten after we die.  But our imagination is tricking us if we think that we will somehow be around to enjoy our fame after death.

Even Homer knew this.  In his Odyssey, he tells the story of Odysseus descending into Hades and meeting Achilles.  Odysseus is shocked to hear Achilles regret his choice of a glorious but short life.  Achilles declares: "I would rather work the soil as a serf to some landless impoverished peasant than be king of all these lifeless dead."

The same problems arise for genetic immortality.  Our genes can live on after our death, but they will not live forever.  And whatever life my genes have after my death will not be my life.  Even if I can live on in some sense through the propagation of my genes after my death, I will no longer exist as a separate conscious being.

If all four of the immortality narratives are illusions, if we cannot live forever, can we live without any hope of immortality and without our lives being ruined by the fear of death?

To be continued . . .

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Do We Want to Live Forever as Immaterial Souls?

According to Stephen Cave, there are four possible ways that we might achieve immortality.  The Staying Alive Narrative says that we could become immortal if we could find a way to postpone death indefinitely.  The Resurrection Narrative says that even if death is unavoidable, we might be brought back to life.  The Soul Narrative says that even if our bodies must die, our souls can live forever because they are immaterial and thus not subject to bodily decay, and our souls are the most essential part of us.  Finally, the Legacy Narrative says that we can live on after death through those that live after us--either because they remember us or because they carry our genes.  Having considered the first two narratives, I turn here to the third--the Soul Narrative.

In pondering the Resurrection Narrative, it's hard to see how the dead individual and the risen individual can be the same person.  The Soul Narrative overcomes this problem by positing that the most essential part of us is an immaterial soul that does not die.  Recent public opinion surveys suggest that most people around the world believe they have souls that are immortal.  Although orthodox Christianity--through the influence of Augustine--has combined the Soul Narrative (coming from Plato) and the Resurrection Narrative (coming from Paul), most Christians today accept the immortality of the soul but reject bodily resurrection.

Darwin thought that the anthropological record suggested that the earliest human beings were led by the experiences of dreams and visions to see themselves as combining corporeal and spiritual parts (Descent, Penguin Classics, 116-19).  Many cultures have ritualized these experiences by imagining journeys to the spirit world.  In ancient Greece, the mystery cults used such rituals to transport their participants to the afterlife where their disembodied souls could be united to the divine.

Plato transformed these ideas of soul from the mystery cults into the philosophical conception of the soul as the most essential part of us--separated from and superior to our bodies, and thus immortal in being free from the physical decay afflicting our bodies. Plato grounded this immortality of the soul on intellectual activity: philosophical contemplation as the highest activity of the soul brought us closest to the divine.  Consequently, the highest life for human beings was a philosophic life.  Moreover, in Plato's afterlife, the souls would be judged, the good rewarded and the bad punished.

Christian theologians like Augustine adopted these Platonic conceptions of the immortality of the soul into Biblical theology.  (This story is well told by Alan Segal in Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion [New York: Doubleday, 2004].)  Just as for Plato, eternal happiness would come from the eternal contemplation of the Ideas; for Augustine, eternal happiness would come from the eternal contemplation of God in Heaven--the beatific vision.

But while the Platonic conception was aristocratic in the sense that only a few human beings were capable of the contemplative life, the Biblical conception was at least potentially egalitarian and democratic, in that all human beings as created by God with immortal souls were equally capable of eternal happiness.  That's why Friedrich Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil could say that Christianity was Platonism for the common people, and that Christian Platonism was the beginning of the modern democratic movement.

The Christian Platonist Soul Narrative supports Western individualism by giving cosmic significance to each individual:  as the Creator of our immortal souls, the Creator of the universe cares for each one of us and wants us to be redeemed for an eternal life with Him.  This is, I think, Peter Lawler's point, when he says that Lockean liberalism is founded on the Christian teaching that the life of each individual person has infinite worth as created and cared for by God.

The Buddhist conception of immortality through karma and reincarnation is an Eastern version of the Soul Narrative.  By contrast to the Christian version, the Buddhist version of the soul is largely stripped of individual personal traits and becomes something like pure awareness.  And yet, if each reincarnation is to provide reward or punishment for how each soul has lived its previous life, then each soul must have enough individual identity to be held responsible for its deeds.

There are two kinds of problems for the Soul Narrative: the problem of psychological discontinuity and the problem of minds without brains.

My soul in Heaven or Hell will have to be radically different from my soul on earth.  So how can I be sure that my soul in the afterlife is the same as my soul in this life?  Is that disembodied eternal soul really me?  If that soul in the afterlife is totally immaterial, how will it look like me and act like me if it does not have my body?

And what exactly will my soul in the afterlife do for eternity?  Augustine says that the souls in Heaven will contemplate God.  Won't they eventually grow tired of this beatific vision?  If the answer is that these souls will never experience tiredness or boredom, then they will not be like the human souls we know in this life--souls that do grow tired and bored.  But, again, how can we be sure that our personal identity will be preserved if these beings in the afterlife are so different from human beings in this life?

In contrast to Augustine's theocentric view of Heaven, in which the only activity will be the eternal contemplation of God, most human beings would probably prefer a more anthropocentric view.  Most people who believe in heavenly immortality express desires for being reunited with their loved ones--family and friends--and perhaps also having an eternity for continuing their most pleasurable activities.  This looks like simply extending what we already do in this life.  But if that's so, wouldn't this include all of the pain and conflict that we experience in this life?  Marriage and family life produce satisfying love, but they also bring tense frustration and disagreement.

Proponents of the Soul Narrative might tell us that in Heaven people will show only love and cooperation without any hate and conflict.  But then it's hard to see how these people would be real human beings.  The reality of human nature cannot be abolished without abolishing our human personal identity.

The second big problem for the Soul Narrative is the problem of minds without brains.  As Cave indicates, we can recognize this problem from our common experience.  We can also recognize it more precisely from our modern knowledge of the brain and neuroscience.

By common experience, we know that we can lose consciousness from physical injury, and we know that we can alter consciousness from the effects of drugs (such as alcohol).  Thus it seems that our conscious minds are so dependent on our healthy bodily functioning that our minds could not survive bodily death.

Modern neuroscience reinforces this common experience by explaining how specific kinds of injuries or malfunctioning of the brain can cause loss or disturbance of mental activity, which thus casts doubt on the doctrine of the soul as immaterial.  Cave observes: "The crux of the challenge is this: those who believe that the soul could preserve these abilities after the total destruction of the brain in death must explain why the soul cannot preserve these abilities when only a small portion of the brain is destroyed" (186).  For example, "if blind people have a soul that can see, why are they blind?"

The most common objection to this kind of reasoning is that the emergence of mind in the brain is fundamentally mysterious, because the subjective experience of self-conscious awareness is not objectively observable.  I have direct access to my subjective mental experience but not to yours.  With the help of neuroscience and neuroimaging, I might observe the neural activity of your brain.  But I will never directly observe your subjective mental experience--what you are thinking, feeling, desiring, or remembering right now.  Consequently, it is great mystery to explain how matter can think.  And this leads some people to conclude that thinking is essentially immaterial and thus not completely dependent on the brain.

As Cave suggests, the proper response to this objection is to say while a brain producing a mind is mysterious, an immaterial soul moving a material brain is even more mysterious.  And an immaterial soul producing all of our mental activity without any bodily support is utterly baffling.

If the Soul Narrative is just as dubious as the Staying Alive Narrative and the Resurrection Narrative, then we might wonder whether the only way to achieve immortality is to live on in the minds or bodies of our posterity--the Legacy Narrative.

To be continued . . .

Some of the points in this post have been elaborated in other posts here, here, here, here, here, here, and here,.