Sunday, November 15, 2015

Matt Ridley's Evolutionary Science of Lucretian Libertarianism

Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui meme.  "Let do and let  pass, the world goes on by itself." 

This was the declaration of the French physiocrats in the 18th century that was adopted by the proponents of free-market economics and classical liberalism.  Notice the suggestion that the unplanned spontaneous order of free markets manifests the naturally self-organizing order of the world.  Order emerges mostly not by deliberate design but by unguided evolution.  And such evolution explains how change happens not just in markets, but in the human world generally, and in the natural world.

This is the theme of Matt Ridley's new book--The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge.  In sixteen chapters, he gives evolutionary explanations of the universe, morality, life, genes, culture, the economy, technology, the mind, personality, education, population, leadership, government, religion, money, and the internet. 

Each chapter begins with an epigram from Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which reminds the reader that in explaining the evolution of everything, Ridley is appealing to the dissident tradition of Lucretian evolution rather than the more dominant tradition of Platonic intelligent design.  In doing this, Ridley shows how classical liberalism or libertarianism arises from the evolutionary science of Epicureanism that was expounded by Lucretius.

In some previous posts (here, here, and here), I have argued that while Western thought has long been dominated by Plato's intelligent-design cosmology, and by his teaching that the moral and political life of human beings must imitate the intelligent order of the cosmos, this provoked skeptical questioning from Socrates, and an alternative Epicurean cosmology defended by Lucretius, Cicero, Hume, Smith, and Darwin, which supports the libertarian view of social life as arising from the spontaneous order generated by individuals pursuing their happiness in cooperation with others.

A Lucretian evolutionary cosmology allows us to see how a purposeful human nature can arise within a purposeless cosmic nature.  We can judge the moral and intellectual virtues as contributing to the flourishing of evolved human nature, even when we think those virtues have no correspondence to any cosmic order of intelligent design.  We can recognize that there is a natural law for human beings rooted in their evolved natural inclinations, without any need to see this natural human order as the fulfillment of some intentionally designed cosmic order.

Ridley rightly sees how the modern Darwinian science of evolution is rooted in the ancient Lucretian science of atomism.  He does make one mistake, however, in his interpretation of Lucretius.  According to Epicurus, the infinite universe consists of atoms and the void.  The atoms fall downward in a straight line.  But sometimes by chance an atom swerves, and the atoms collide.  This swerve is important for two reasons.  First, the swerve allows the atoms to combine to form all of the compounded objects that we see in nature.  Second, the swerve explains free will in that human freedom can be understood as an arbitrary swerve from the causal determinism of the atoms.

Ridley interprets Lucretius as saying that the atoms swerve unpredictably "because the gods make them do so" (14).  Ridley sees this as showing a "failure of nerve," when someone like Lucretius seems to be explaining everything through spontaneous evolution rather than intelligent design, but then stops at some point and mistakenly posits an intelligent designer. 

In explaining the "Lucretian swerve," Ridley employs Daniel Dennett's metaphor of "skyhooks" and "cranes."  A skyhook is an imaginary device for hanging something from the sky.  Metaphorically, it denotes some explanation of order in the world as coming from some higher intelligence.  By contrast, a crane is a machine planted firmly on the ground for raising things from the ground to construct high buildings; and a metaphorical crane is any explanation of order in the world as evolving from the bottom up without any need for design by a higher intelligence.  Lucretius generally explains everything through evolutionary cranes.  But he fails to go all the way with this, when he invokes the swerve as the intervention of a divine skyhook.  Similarly, Isaac Newton extended the Lucretian tradition of science in explaining the evolution of nature through the laws of mechanistic atomism, but then Newton posited that these laws were ultimately created by the mind of God.  There is no need for this Lucretian swerve, Ridley insists, because there is no need to doubt that all of the order in the world can be fully explained by evolutionary cranes without intelligent skyhooks.

Ridley might have noted that the deus ex machina (god from the machine) plot device is named for Greek plays that used gods played by actors suspended on cranes to suddenly solve problems for the characters.  What appear to be skyhooks are actually suspended on cranes.  Or as Ridley says in his chapter on the evolution of religion, "man creates God" (256).

It is not true, however, that Lucretius thinks the swerve of the atoms is caused by the gods.  In fact, Lucretius argues, the gods exercise no causal power over the universe.  He explains:
"Nothing ever springs miraculously out of nothing.  The fact is that all mortals are in the grip of fear, because they observe many things happening on earth and in the sky and being at a complete loss for an explanation of their cause, suppose that a supernatural power is responsible for them.  Therefore, as soon s we have seen that nothing can be created out of nothing, we shall have a clearer view of the object of our search, namely the explanation of the source of all created things and of the way in which all things happen independently of the gods." (1.150-160)
Oddly, Ridley quotes this, but without seeing that this denies his interpretation of the swerve as an act of the gods (299).

And yet, if Lucretius denies that the gods have any causal power over the universe, then we might wonder why he needs to posit their existence.

In some previous posts (here, here, here, and here), I have presented the evolutionary explanation of religion as supporting my claim that one of the 20 natural desires is the desire for religious understanding.  As animals with evolved social brains that are adapted for reading the minds of the human agents around us, we are naturally inclined to detect rational agency; and consequently, we are prone to imagine that we see supernatural minds acting in our world.

Ridley adopts this theory in explaining the evolution of religion, and in arguing that this evolutionary explanation shows that religion does not have to be seen as a miraculous product of divine intervention in the world.  In fact, man has created God, because in the marketplace of religious beliefs, those beliefs that evolved by trial and error to be adapted to the human mind and human society survived and reproduced better than those beliefs that were less well adapted.

One might infer from this, as Ridley does, that gods exist only as fictional beliefs in the human mind.  But one might also say that the evolutionary explanation of religion is compatible with believing that God really exists, and that He has allowed the evolutionary process to endow human beings with the natural capacity for knowing Him.  Ridley recognizes this: "Neuro-theology is actually rather popular among believers, who take the view that it emphasizes the futility of atheism, rather than that it means gods are made up" (268).

I am reminded of the lectures by Father Robert Sirico and Leda Cosmides on the evolution of religion at the Mont Pelerin Society meeting in the Galapagos Islands in 2013.  I asked them whether they thought that atheism was unnatural in being contrary to the evolved nature of the human mind.  They both answered yes.

Part of the natural evolution of religious belief was the evolution of moral gods who were seen as the intelligent designers of morality.  That supported the belief that government needed to coercively enforce religious belief as the only way to sustain the moral order of society.  But if we can explain morality as itself spontaneously evolved through the social interaction of individuals seeking the mutual sympathy of sentiments, as Adam Smith and Charles Darwin argued, then we can accept the libertarian argument for tolerating religious pluralism and even atheism, because we can see moral order as a spontaneously evolved phenomenon that does not depend on enforcement by a divine intelligent designer.

But if we conclude from this that all social order arises best from unplanned and unpredictable spontaneous evolution, we have to wonder whether there is any need for government.

In some previous posts (here, here, and here), I have commented on the debate between classical liberals and libertarian anarchists as to whether a self-regulating society without government is possible.  Traditionally, classical liberals like Locke and Smith have said that yes, we need government, but only a limited government, to secure the conditions of liberty--to protect the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to provide some public goods that cannot be provided by private groups.  In response to this, libertarian anarchists have argued that limited government fails, because there is a natural tendency for the powers of government to expand.  The liberal idea that society is an evolved, self-organizing order should lead to the anarchist idea of society without government.

Ridley is unclear as to where he stands in this debate.  On the one hand, he embraces Smith, and he sees that Smith "was no anarchist" (112).  Like Smith, Ridley believes that "there is a vital role for government to play" (101).  On the other hand, in explaining the evolution of government as originating as "a mafia protection racket," Ridley scorns "the government skyhook" (150, 238-241); and he is fascinated by historical examples of societies without much government in which multiple private law enforcers emerged.  He recognizes, however, that these were not anarchic societies, if by anarchy one means absence of any government at all, because what they had was decentralized self-governance (235-36).

At times, Ridley seems to suggest that the evolution of history is a progressive movement towards increasing liberty and declining violence in spontaneously organized societies where the state withers away.

In some previous posts (here, here, here, and here), I have worked through the debate over whether the evolution of classical liberalism shows that history is progressive.  Evolutionary liberals like Herbert Spencer saw history as an inevitable movement towards a fully free society based on spontaneous cooperation without any need for state coercion.  But it's hard to reconcile this progressive view of history with the unpredictable contingency of history.

In arguing that evolutionary history has no direction or goal, Ridley seems to deny that history has any predetermined path of progress (1-2).  But he also says that the Darwinian evolution of human practices and institutions is "in some vague sense progressive" (78).

Ridley concludes his book by declaring:
". . . Bad news is man-made, top-down, purposed stuff, imposed on history.  Good news is accidental, unplanned, emergent stuff that gradually evolves. The things that do go well are largely unintended; the things that go badly are largely intended.  Let me give you two lists.  First: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Versailles Treaty, the Great Depression, the Nazi regime, the Second World War, the Chinese Revolution, the 2008 financial crisis: every single one was the result of top-down decision-making by relatively small numbers of people trying to implement deliberate plans--politicians, central bankers, revolutionaries and so on.  Second: the growth of global income; the disappearance of infectious diseases; the feeding of seven billion; the clean-up of rivers and air; the reforestation of much of the rich world; the internet; the use of mobile-phone credits as banking; the use of genetic finger-printing to convict criminals and acquit the innocent.  Every single one of these was a serendipitous, unexpected phenomenon supplied by millions of people who did not intend to cause these big changes. . . .
". . . Letting good evolve, while doing bad, has been the dominant theme of history.  That is why the news is full of only bad things being done, but we find when they are over that great good has happened unheralded.  Good things are gradual; bad things are sudden.  Above all, good things evolve." (318)
Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui meme.  Let the good things evolve.

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