Friday, January 12, 2018

Does Trump's Bad Character Matter? Michael Wolff and the Claremont Straussians

Why should he accept immigrants from "shithole countries" like Haiti and African nations rather than places like Norway? 

That's what Donald Trump said yesterday in a meeting in the White House with Congressional representatives gathered to discuss a proposal for immigration reform.

This language of vulgar racism has shocked many people, including Representative Mia Love, who represents a congressional district in Utah, and who is the first Haitian-American representative in Congress, and the first black female Republican elected to Congress.  She is the daughter of Haitian immigrants, who first arrived in the United States on a tourist visa, because they were fleeing from political violence in Haiti.  She is a pro-life conservative Republican.

Why would conservative Republicans want to denigrate someone like this as unworthy of American citizenship because her parents came from a "shithole country"?

Well, of course, this is just the latest display of Trump's disgustingly bad character.  In speaking of character, I have in mind what Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics identifies as the moral and intellectual virtues.  So Trump's bad character is that he lacks both the moral and intellectual virtues of a good human being.

The disastrous consequences of Trump's lacking those virtues are clear in Michael Wolff's book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.  Wolff's account of the first ten months in the Trump White House shows how Trump's vicious character has made it impossible for his people to execute any coherent public policy agenda.

But then some of Trump's supporters--and particularly the Claremont Straussians--seem to say that Trump's bad character doesn't matter, because all that matters is that the people brought into the government by Trump can carry out his good policies--particularly, for dismantling the administrative state.

One can see this, for example, in the "Statement of Unity" of the "Scholars and Writers for Trump," which includes many of the leading Claremont Straussians.  They explain their support for Trump by identifying the good policies he will promote in the areas of "Constitutional Governance," "Corruption in Government," "Economic Stimulus," "Religious Liberty," and "Education."  But they are completely silent about Trump's character, as though this is of no importance.

This is strange, because the Claremont people have learned about the importance of character in politics from their mentors Leo Strauss and Harry Jaffa, who pointed them to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and who also pointed to the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln as displaying the Aristotelian virtues.  Can anyone imagine Lincoln denigrating Haitian immigrants as coming from a "shithole country"?

And yet the Claremont people can point to evidence that the first year of Trump's administration has indeed shown some progress in attacking the administrative state put in place by progressives over the past century.  If so, does that show that Trump's bad character really doesn't matter?

The chaos that Trump's character has created in the White House is evident in Wolff's book.  And although critics have rightly questioned the truth of some of Wolff's stories, I haven't seen any evidence that would challenge the fundamental themes of Wolff's overall story. 

One can see that Wolff relied heavily on interviewing Katie Walsh, the White House deputy chief of staff, and Steve Bannon, who becomes in some ways the central character of the story.  But Wolff knew that he had to balance conflicting stories coming from people fighting a factional battle within the White House.

Wolff admits that many of the stories he was told are either "baldly untrue" or incoherent, as one should expect from a Trumpian White House (xii-xiii).  But most of what Wolff reports is consistent with the public record of the words and deeds of Trump and of those around him in the White House.

I see three fundamental themes in Wolff's book that seem plausible.  The first theme is that almost everyone in the Trump campaign--with the exception of Steve Bannon--did not expect Trump to win, and therefore they were not prepared to deal with Trump's unfitness for the presidency: "The unspoken agreement among them: not only would Donald Trump not be president, he should probably not be.  Conveniently, the former conviction meant nobody had to deal with the latter issue" (10).  "Donald Trump and his tiny band of campaign warriors were ready to lose with fire and fury.  They were not ready to win" (11).

But then, once they unexpectedly entered the White House, they were forced to deal with Trump's unfitness for his office.  He could not or would not read anything, not even a one-page briefing statement.  His attention span was so short that he could not listen to anyone for more than a few minutes.  He was so impulsive that he could not follow any consistent plan of speaking or acting.  Above all, he needed to be loved by everyone, and so he was easily seduced by flatterers, and easily slighted by any suggestion that someone did not love him as much as he loved himself.  He had no sense of shame or propriety, no sense of decorum, or concern for doing what is right for the circumstances one is in.  This is what a person looks like who has neither moral nor intellectual virtues.  (This bleak picture of Trump's character has been confirmed by others who know him well--for example, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter who wrote Trump's book The Art of the Deal.)

Trump's lack of any moral or intellectual coherence leads to the second theme of Wolff's book--Trump's dependence on Steve Bannon as the one person who was a somewhat coherent thinker about the meaning of Trumpism and how it might be put into public policy.  Bannon joined the campaign in August of 2016, and he seems to have been largely responsible for the campaign strategy that led to Trump's victory.  He also seemed to be the brains for Trumpism understood as alt-right economic nationalism, tight borders and restricted immigration,  and isolationism in foreign policy.

People in the White House joked about "President Bannon," and Bannon himself took this seriously by speaking to some people about how he was using Trump to prepare the way for Bannon's presidency.  This arrogance eventually provoked Trump, Bannon's enemies in the White House, and even some of his supporters.  Bannon's firing in August and his recent fall from prominence confirms Wolff's depiction of his own moral and intellectual defects.

On February 23 of last year, at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Bannon famously promised the "deconstruction of the administrative state," which is exactly what the Claremont Straussians are hoping for.  Does Bannon's fall threaten that agenda?  Or is the attack on the administrative state going to be carried out by others in the Trump administration?

Bannon could never prevail in the White House, because he was opposed by rival factions, which is the third theme of Wolff's book:  the White House was thrown into chaos by the war between three factions.  With the help of Katie Walsh's analysis, Wolff saw that Trump's bad character make it impossible for him to sustain any coherent plan of public policy, because he became "something of a blank page--or a scrambled one," and the three leading people in the White House--Bannon, Kushner, and Priebus--each had a radically different idea about what should be written on that page.  "Bannon was the alt-right militant.  Kushner was the New York Democrat.  And Priebus was the establishment Republican."  Thus: "As Walsh saw it, Steve Bannon was running the Steve Bannon White House, Jared Kushner was running the Michael Bloomberg White House, and Reince Priebus was running the Paul Ryan White House.  It was a 1970s video game, the white ball pinging back and forth in the black triangle" (117).

Of course, rivalry in the White House is nothing new.  One might remember Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which relates the history of the factional fighting within Lincoln's White House.  But unlike Trump, Lincoln's moral and intellectual virtues allowed him to channel this rivalry towards promoting the good policies that Lincoln formulated.

Is it possible that the Claremont Straussians are correct in thinking that Lincoln's virtues are no longer necessary--that the good policies of Trumpism can be promoted without Trump having any of Lincoln's virtues?

Recently, Ryan Williams, the new President of the Claremont Institute, has suggested this possibility. He cites evidence that the first year of the Trump Administration has successfully begun to roll back the administrative state.  For example, he refers to the recent controversy over Trump's appointment of  Mick Mulvaney to be the Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).  The CFPB was created in 2010 as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, and it's the model of what progressives want for the administrative state.  The CFPB is not accountable to either the Congress or the President, because the President cannot  remove the director of CFPB, the director appoints the inferior officers of the agency, and the funding of the agency is not controlled by Congress.  Richard Cordray was appointed the Director of CFPB by Obama, with a term expiring in the summer of 2018. To  avoid having Trump appoint a new director this summer, Cordray resigned in October and appointed his own successor, Leandra English, who refused to leave when Trump appointed Mulvaney.  Eventually, Mulvaney prevailed.  So, here, Williams suggests, we see Trump enforcing the constitutional principle that administrative agencies should not be so independent as to be unaccountable to the Congress, the President, and the Courts.

Williams also points to a recent article in the Washington Post on "How the Trump Era Is Changing the Federal Bureaucracy."  The article reports a significant reduction in the size of the federal bureaucracy, moves to punish bureaucrats who are not doing good jobs, and eliminating waste and bad spending. 

Consider these remarks in the article:

"Many chafed as supervisors laid down new rules they said are aimed at holding poor performers and problem workers to account." 

"Conservatives who have long pushed for smaller government are cheered by the developments." 

"And some civil servants said they welcome the focus on rooting out waste and holding federal workers to high standards." 

"Agencies have told employees that they should no longer count on getting glowing reviews in their performance appraisals, according to staff in multiple offices, as has been the case for years."

Amazingly, these Washington Post journalists report this in a tone that suggests this is bad for the country!

If this Trumpian attack on the administrative state is happening, despite the moral and intellectual emptiness of Trump himself, does this show that the bad character of the President does not matter?

I am not convinced of this.  As I reported in an earlier post (here), even some of the Trump supporters (for example, Stephen Balch of Texas Tech University) have admitted that Trump's bad character might ultimately prove more damaging to American conservatism than anything that Hillary Clinton might have done as Preside;nt.

I don't see how the conservative policy agenda of the Claremont Straussians can survive the damage that comes from the bad character of Donald Trump.

What happens to the Trumpian policy agenda when Trump's bad character provokes people into voting in November for a Democratic control of the Congress?

How can that agenda survive when the President overseeing that agenda takes malicious pleasure in the vulgar racism that insults people like Mia Love?

Polls indicate that the high rates of disapproval of Trump among American voters are due primarily to his bad character.  A report last July from the Gallup polling organization showed that of those disapproving of Trump's performance, 65% did so because of "personality/personal characteristics," and only 16% did so because of "issues/specific policies."  If this is accurate, then American voters think Trump's bad character really does matter, and it matters more to them than their possible agreement with policies of the Trump administration.

Moreover, there is a fundamental philosophical issue about the meaning of the American regime raised by Trump's claim that immigration policy should favor immigrants from predominantly white countries like Norway.  There are reports that when Trump said this, Senator Lindsey Graham spoke up at the meeting and said "America is an idea, not a race."

Until recently, the Claremont Straussians seemed to agree with Senator Graham, because they seemed to interpret the Declaration of Independence as appealing to the universal idea of human equality and liberty as defining American identity.  But recently, some of the Claremont Straussians (Tom West, for example) have said that Trump is right about the need to restrict the immigration of non-white people to protect America's white racial identity.  [See the comments on this post from Tom West.]

If so, then this would put the Claremont Straussians on the side of the alt-right white-identity movement, which would be a disturbing denial of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, or perhaps a denial of Lincoln's interpretation of the Declaration in favor of Stephen Douglas's interpretation.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Slavery and the Neurobiology of Self-Ownership: Frederick Douglass & Bud Craig

February will be the 200th anniversary of the birth in 1818 of Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave in Maryland, who at age 20 ran away from his slave master, and who became world-famous as a leading orator for the abolition of slavery and for a classical liberalism that would secure the natural rights of all human beings.

Douglass's liberal political thought was rooted in the natural human desire and capacity for the self-ownership of one's body and mind.  Now we can see how modern neurobiology supports this idea by explaining the neural basis of self-ownership in what neuroanatomist Bud Craig has called "interoception."

This post adds to my series of previous posts on the evolutionary neurobiology of self-ownership in liberal thought, which can be found herehereherehere, and here.

For Douglass, freedom meant self-ownership.  So that in making his argument against slavery as violating the fundamental human right to self-ownership, he was making a general argument for freedom.  And, indeed, as Nicholas Buccola has shown (in The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass [NYU Press, 2012]), Douglass appealed to the principle of self-ownership to support liberalism generally--arguing not only for the abolition of slavery, but also for universal suffrage, women's rights, the rights of immigrants, and religious liberty.

Some readers have asked me why I have devoted so much attention in Darwinian Natural Right and in this blog to the debate over slavery.  After all, they say, slavery is no longer a controversial topic.  My answer is that since human slavery is the most complete denial of human freedom, understanding why slavery is contrary to human nature gives us the understanding of why freedom is according to human nature, which supplies the foundation of liberalism.

Douglass said that even in childhood, he held onto one idea for freedom and against slavery: "Every man is the original, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body; or in other words, every man is himself, is his self, if you please, and belongs to himself, and can only part from his self ownership, by the commission of a crime" ("A Friendly Word to Maryland," The Frederick Douglass Papers, 4:42, available online).

In 1848, on the tenth anniversary of his escape from slavery, Douglass wrote an open letter to his former master, Thomas Auld, in which he explained his justification for running away as grounded on the human nature of self-ownership:
"The morality of the act, I dispose as follows: I am myself; you are yourself; we are two distinct persons, equal persons.  What you are, I am.  You are a man, and so am I.  God created both, and made us separate beings.  I am not by nature bound to you, or you to me. Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine depend upon yours.  I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself.  We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence.  In leaving you, I took nothing but what belonged to me, and in no way lessened your means for obtaining an honest living.  Your faculties remained yours, and mine became useful to their rightful owner.  I therefore see no wrong in any part of the transaction" ("Letter to Thomas Auld," September 3, 1848, Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip Foner, p. 113, available online).
One can see here three features of Douglass's argument for self-ownership: the separate and distinct identity of each individual, the equality of human beings in their desire and capacity for self-ownership, and the grounding of this self-ownership in both divine law and natural law.

First, it is a natural fact about human beings that they are separate and distinct individuals in their bodies and their minds.  The existence of each individual is independent of the existence of others.  "Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine depend upon yours."

Despite the claims of liberalism's critics that this promotes a crudely selfish individualism, Douglass makes it clear that the natural individuality of human nature does not mean that human beings are utterly self-sufficient, because they are naturally social animals who need the love and cooperation of others for their survival and well-being.  Indeed, the realm of self-ownership includes all of those people to whom one is attached, particularly one's family and friends.  In his letter to Auld, Douglass boasts of the pleasure he takes in his wife and children, who cannot be taken from him by a slaveholder.  But even within such tightly bonded social groups, Douglass indicates, each person has an identity distinct from the others.

The second feature of self-ownership is that all human beings are equal in their desire and capacity for it, because it is part of their common human nature.  Like Charles Darwin, Douglass rejected the racial science that saw the human races as separate species, and he saw the unity of the human species as the natural ground for human equality of rights.  "Human rights stand upon a common basis . . . because all mankind have the same wants, arising out of a common nature" ("The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered," July 12, 1854, in Selected Speeches and Writings, 296).

I have written about Darwin's agreement with Douglass--and with Abraham Lincoln--in Darwinian Natural Right (chapter 7) and in some posts (here and here).

In some other posts (here, and here,), I have argued that the modern idea of human rights can be rooted in the universal desires and capacities of human biological nature.

Douglass recognizes, however, that even though each of us naturally desires self-ownership and thus resists oppression, our selfishness often makes it hard for us to see that everyone else has the same natural desire that we must respect.  It takes some effort to recognize the moral reciprocity of the Golden Rule, as expressed by Abraham Lincoln: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master."  Throughout history, slaves have sought freedom through running away or through violent resistance; but even as people have resisted their own enslavement, they have not necessarily resisted the enslavement of others.  In fact, those who have escaped slavery have sometimes become slaveholders themselves!

So, as I have indicated in another post (here), some historians have argued that slavery was not abolished by slaves rebelling against it, because the institution of slavery was not abolished until the emergence of abolitionist thought at the end of the 18th century.  Douglass's life illustrates this point. He liberated himself from slavery by running away.  But he did not begin campaigning for the abolition of slavery until, three years after his running away, he was recruited by William Lloyd Garrison to become a speaker for the abolitionist movement.  The emergence of abolitionism depended on the modern evolution of liberalism as symbolic niche construction (see my post here).

As I have indicated in some previous posts on the emergence of the first states in ancient Mesopotamia (here and here), the ancient Mesopotamians recognized the idea and reality of freedom.  Many people were free, and they expected the government to secure their freedom.  Those people who were enslaved could claim their freedom by running away.  But while we see slaves resisting their enslavement, we don't see slaves seeking to abolish the institution of slavery.  We don't see any Mesopotamians affirming that all human beings are by nature born free and equal.  That affirmation comes much later in history, in the writing of the English Levelers, Locke, and the Declaration of Independence.  This is what I mean by modern liberalism as symbolic niche construction.

The third feature of self-ownership is its grounding in divine law and natural law--God or Nature.  The human desire for self-ownership can be seen as a manifestation of God's creation, or it can be seen as a product of the natural order of things.  Evolutionary creationists will say that God used natural evolution to carry out his creative design.

Some people today have argued that the idea of human rights depends upon the moral dignity of human beings that comes from the idea that they have been created in God's image, and thus it is impossible to defend human rights without such religious belief.  I have argued against that claim (here).

So here I would say that evolutionary neurobiology can support Douglass's grounding of human rights in the natural desire and capacity for self-ownership.  The biological character of self-ownership is clear in Douglass's language.  "Every man is the original, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body."  "I cannot breathe for you, or you for me, I must breathe for myself."  Now we can see how this human sense of each person's self-ownership arises in the evolved neuroanatomy of the brain to serve the survival and well-being of the human animal.

We can see this experience of self-ownership as expressing what neuroscientists today call interoception--the self-aware perception of the state of the body (Erik Ceunen, Johan Vlaeyen, and Ilse Van Diest, "On the Origin of Interoception," Frontiers in Psychology 7 [May 2016]: 743). 

A. D. (Bud) Craig has surveyed the research on interoception in How Do You Feel? An Interoceptive Moment with Your Neurobiological Self (Princeton University Press, 2015), which brings together the work from his articles that I cited in my previous posts on interoception.  Craig has provided a good summary of his thinking in a lecture that he gave in 2009, available as a video.

These charts show Craig's neuroanatomical maps for interoception:

Craig's fundamental idea of interception is that our self-awareness arises from the feelings that we have from our bodies as a neural integration in insular cortex of the signals of the condition of the body.  The interoceptive neural network, having its core in the anterior insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, provides the basis for the subjective awareness of our bodily emotions and social feelings, including pleasure, anxiety, trust, and anger.

The first chart above shows the neural pathway for generating interoceptive self-awareness--from the spinal cord to the medulla and brainstem, to the thalamus, and finally to the cerebral cortex (particularly, the insula and the anterior cingulate--that is unique to primates.  Humans have this primate neural pathway, but humans are unique in the size and complexity of the cortical structures at the highest levels of the brain.

Interoceptive awareness can be measured quantitatively by heartbeat awareness--by asking a person to count the number  of heartbeats he or she feels in time intervals of 30, 45, and 60 seconds, and then comparing these numbers to real counts from an electrocardiogram recording or finger pulse oximeter.  Heartbeat awareness varies greatly across individuals.  Individual heartbeat awareness scores are correlated in fMRI images with increased activity in the right anterior insular cortex.  They are also correlated with the size of the right anterior insular cortex.  And, remarkably, better heartbeat perceivers are better at reading their own emotional feelings and the feelings of others; they are also better at making good decisions for themselves.  Better interoceptive awareness as measured by heartbeat perception also correlates with greater efficiency in rejecting unfair offers in playing the Ultimatum Game.  This shows how our bodily awareness supports our self-awareness, social awareness, moral awareness, and awareness of the world generally.

The human neural circuity for interoception integrates sensory information from all tissues and organs of the body, which includes information about the internal state of the body, about the physical environment outside the body, and about the social environment of interactions with other human beings.  As one example, of the assessment of the social environment, the left anterior insular cortex is activated by seeing trustworthy faces, and the right anterior insular cortex is activated by seeing untrustworthy faces.  The emotional assessment of this sensory information as indicating painful or pleasurable circumstances--threats or opportunities--can then send signals to those parts of the cortex that control and motivate behavior.

This neural circuitry for emotional assessment and behavioral decision-making integrates information not only about the present state of the organism but also about past emotional experiences stored in memory and about the projected future as simulated in imagination.  Thus, this neuroanatomical system allows us to act in the present in the light of past experiences and future expectations, so that we can act for what seems most desirable for us in promoting our survival and well-being.

The anterior insular cortex (AIC) is involved not only in interoceptive self-awareness but also in the social emotions that support cooperation and fairness.  Observing pain in others activates parts of the neural network that are also activated when we experience pain in ourselves.  Empathy for the pain of others activates the most anterior parts of the AIC, which overlaps with activation related to pain experienced in oneself.  But the activation associated with the experience of pain in oneself encompasses a much larger portion of the insula (including the middle and posterior insular cortex).  To some degree, then, the neural activity for self-concern is extended to concern for others.  But still our self-concern is distinguished from our concern for others.

Craig's survey of the research on the neuroanatomy of interoception explains the basis in the brain for Douglass's principle of self-ownership in human nature (see Craig, 3-9, 191, 195-97, 204-10, 223-24, 243, 258).

The feeling of self-awareness--the feeling of being alive--arises from the integration in the cortex of the brain of the feelings from one's own body.  This gives one a sense of ownership of one's body.  This is confirmed by the fact that damage to the insula from a stoke or a tumor can result in a patient having no feeling of ownership of a limb of the body.  A patient can feel that his leg is not really his.

Comparing brain activation in people viewing photographs of their own face or body as compared with people viewing photographs of the face or body of someone they know, researchers have seen that viewing one's one face or body selectively activates the right anterior insular cortex and the right cingulate cortex.  This is functionally equivalent to the mirror test of self-awareness--being able to recognize oneself in a mirror.  By about 18 months, most human infants can pass this test.

The brain's evolved capacity for a feeling of self-ownership includes feeling whether other people are likely to be helpful or harmful to oneself, as in the brain's ability to discriminate trustworthy faces and untrustworthy faces or to punish people who make unfair offers in an Ultimatum Game.  Our brains have evolved to protect ourselves from threats and to seek out cooperative relationships in ways that secure our survival and well-being.

In running away from his slave master, and then in arguing for the abolition of slavery, Douglass expressed the evolved natural propensity of the human brain for self-ownership and for moral resentment against those who would threaten the natural human right to self-ownership.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Spinoza's Neurobiology: The Emergence of the Mind in the Body and the Brain

The human mind is the idea of the human body.

This assertion by Spinoza in his Ethics (particularly, part 2) can be judged as a claim about human biology open to confirmation or falsification by recent research in neurobiology.  If this is so, then this illustrates a point that I have often argued on this blog--that the history of political philosophy is largely a history of debatable empirical claims about human nature, social life, and the natural world generally that can be interpreted and assessed in the light of modern scientific knowledge.

Some folks might object that Spinoza is speaking as a philosopher, who appeals to logic and intuitive judgment, rather than as a biological scientist, who relies on hypothesis-testing through empirical research.  But this modern distinction between philosophy and science was not accepted in Spinoza's time, when what we today would call "natural science" was called "natural philosophy."  Beginning in ancient Greece, philosophers like Aristotle engaged in biological research.

Moreover, Spinoza indicated that his understanding of the relationship between the mind (mens in Latin) and the body (corpus) depended on his understanding of the brain (cerebrum).  Our thoughts arise in our brains as stimulated by the motions that our bodily nerves receive from objects outside of us and from the internal activities of our bodies (Ethics I, appendix).  Spinoza took seriously Descartes's research on human anatomy and physiology; and although he rejected Descartes's claim that the pineal gland is the place in the brain where mind and body meet, and although he saw this as contradicting Descartes' assumption that that mind and body are two distinct substances, he assumed that thought must arise somehow and somewhere in the brain (V, pref.).  Spinoza thus left open the possibility that increasing knowledge of the brain might reveal how mind emerges in the brain from its integration of signals from the body, which would explain the neural basis for what he saw as the parallelism of mind and body.

Indeed, Antonio Damasio has argued, in Looking for Spinoza, Spinoza's intuition that the mind is the activity of the body is confirmed by modern neurobiological evidence that "mental processes are grounded in the brain's mappings of the body, collections of neural patterns that portray responses to events that cause emotions and feelings" (12).

This Spinozistic claim that our conscious feelings arise from neural mappings of body states can now be experimentally tested.  For example, Damasio and his colleagues have hypothesized that when feelings occur, there is increased neural activity in those areas of the brain that receive signals from the body and thus map the ongoing state of the body.  These brain areas are at different levels of the central nervous system, which include several nuclei in the brain stem tegmentum (the back part of the brain stem), the hypothalamus, two of the somatosensory cortices (the insula and the secondary somatosensory cortex), and the cingulate cortex.

To test this hypothesis, Damasio and his colleagues recruited forty people with no history of neurological or psychiatric disease.  The subjects were asked to think of some intense emotional episode from their lives that involved happiness, sadness, fear, or anger.  They were in a brain scanning room so that machines could measure blood flow in their brains using the technique of PET (positron-emission tomography), with the understanding that increased blood flow to some region of the brain is correlated with the local activity of the neurons.  The subjects were asked to signal with a hand movement the moment they began feeling the emotion--happiness, sadness, fear, or anger.  The brain scans showed increased activity in the predicted areas of the brain, which indicated that the mapping of body states had been modified during the process of conscious feeling.

Apparently, what was happening is that in the past, body states had induced a feeling like anger in the brain, and then this experience had been stored in memory; so that when they recalled this memory of anger to recreate the feeling of anger, they activated the neural circuitry of the body-sensing brain regions associated with this feeling.

Here, then, Damasio concludes, we can see in these brain images the correlation of mind and body claimed by Spinoza.

Damasio's use of brain imaging to support this kind of argument is illustrated in this TED talk:

There are, however, at least three problems with Damasio's use of neurobiology to support Spinoza: the mystery of subjectivity, the self-refuting character of materialist science, and the experience of spirituality.

In his TED talk, Damasio passes over the mystery of subjectivity in two sentences about two minutes into the talk.  He says that many people, including many neuroscientists, have said that human self-consciousness is too mysterious to be explained scientifically.  He rejects this.  But then he says: "It would be ridiculous to claim that we know how we make consciousness in our brains. But we can begin to approach the question and to see the shape of an answer."  Here he is pointing to what he calls the "consciousness puzzle" in Looking for Spinoza (198).  We can see neural patterns through the "tools of neuroanatomy."  And through the "tools of introspection," we can subjectively see our own mental images or ask other people to report their mental images to us.  But we cannot see the process by which observable neuroanatomy creates subjective introspection.  We see correlation but not causation.

In his experiment with the 40 people asked to create feelings of happiness, sadness, fear, and anger, he could see the PET brain images, but he could not see their conscious feelings, because he had to rely on the people to report to him what they were feeling.

In his book, Damasio admits that there is a "knowledge gap" here (208).  He observes:
"The mind level of biological phenomena has additional specifications that are not present at the neural-map level.  I hope a reductionist research strategy eventually will allow us to explain how we get from the 'neural-map' level to the 'mental' level, although the mental level will not 'reduce to' the neural-map level because it possesses emergent properties created from the neural-map level.  There is nothing magic about those emergent properties, but there is a lot that remains mysterious, given our massive ignorance of what they may involve" (325).
As I have indicated in my posts on the evolutionary emergence of the mind in the brain, I agree that there is nothing magic here, but I also agree that there is some mystery as long as we cannot explain exactly the natural process by which the observable brain causes the subjective mind.

The biblical creationist might say that the only way to resolve this mystery of consciousness is to see that the conscious human mind is the creation of God in His image.  But as I have indicated in another post (here), this falls into the fallacy of explaining a mystery through an even greater mystery.

The second problem for Damasio's Spinozist neurobiology is the possibility that any materialist science that sees the human mind as the product of mindless evolution becomes self-refuting.  (I have written about this here.)  Damasio never recognizes this problem.

One of the best arguments for theism is that the theistic doctrine of the human mind as created by God in His image provides the necessary support for believing in the validity of human thought, including the validity of modern science. If we embrace Naturalism--the view that nothing exists except Nature, and so there is no transcendent Creator God--we are caught in self-contradiction: if human thought originated not from a divine Mind but from the irrational causes of Nature, then we cannot trust our minds as reliable, and thus we cannot trust our belief in Naturalism. Naturalism destroys itself by destroying the rationality of believing in Naturalism, or anything else. Insofar as science--including evolutionary biological science--depends on the validity of human thought, and insofar as theism is the indispensable support for trusting in the validity of human thought, science is not only compatible with theism, science depends upon theism.

Natural selection rewards adaptive behavior and punishes maladaptive behavior. But natural selection does not care about the truth or falsity of an animal's beliefs. If beliefs produce adaptive behavior, they will be rewarded by natural selection regardless of whether the beliefs are true or false. Therefore, the evolution of adaptive behavior in our prehistoric ancestors did not guarantee or make it probable that our cognitive faculties would be reliable in generating mostly true beliefs.  Even Damasio admits that as produced by evolution, the brain is not a passive mirror of objective reality, because it constructs its own images of the world to serve the evolved purposes of survival and reproduction (199-209).

The weak link in this reasoning, however, is the assumption that adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true belief. On the contrary, the evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible. The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces adaptations that are good enough for survival and reproduction but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.

Despite this fallibility, the mental faculties cannot be absolutely unreliable. In the evolution of animals,adaptive behavior requires accurate indicators. So, for example, a frog must have sensory equipment that allows him to accurately detect flies so that he can catch them with his tongue.  The waggle dance of bees must convey accurate information to other bees. Similarly, the immune system of the human body must accurately indicate the presence of foreign bodies and then accurately devise responses to destroy the invaders.

For those animals who develop some capacity for conscious reasoning--and most preeminently human beings--the accuracy of this conscious reasoning will be important for adaptation. The highest mental capacities of human beings are so biologically expensive in terms of the investment of energy they consume that it is implausible that evolution would have produced them unless they improved the ability of human beings to track the truth about themselves and their environment. Again, this is going to be fallible, but it's implausible that human beings could be naturally evolved for being in a state of complete and perpetual delusion.  These reliable but fallible cognitive capacities can then be appropriated for scientific research, which must include methods to minimize those evolved biases that impede our accurate perception of the world, an important theme for Spinoza.

The third problem for Damasio's Spinozist neurobiology is whether it can account for and satisfy the human need for spirituality and religious salvation.  Damasio does recognize this problem (267-89).

If Spinoza is right about the essence of human nature being the natural striving for self-preservation, then we might expect that when we confront the reality of suffering and death, we naturally strive to escape that vulnerability and mortality in achieving some enduring if not eternal joy in our lives and the lives of those we love.  Our striving for self-preservation becomes a striving for salvation.

Spinoza identifies two ways to human salvation--one for the many common people (the vulgus), and the other for the philosophic few.  For the common people, salvation can come only through faith in biblical revelation:
". . . I judge the utility, even necessity, of Sacred Scripture, or revelation, to be very great.  We can't perceive by the natural light that simple obedience is a path to salvation.  Only revelation teaches that this happens, by a special grace of God, which we cannot grasp by reason.  It follows that Scripture has brought great comfort to mortals.  Everyone, without exception, can obey.  But only a few (compared with the whole human race) acquire a habit of virtue from the guidance of reason alone.  So, if we didn't have this testimony of Scripture, we would doubt nearly everyone's salvation" (TPT xv.44).
For this reason, Spinoza did not want common people to read his books, because this would do them no good (TTP, pref. 34).  He wrote his books in Latin and discouraged any translations into Dutch, because he wanted to be read only by those few learned people who could read Latin.

The philosophic few could not take the first way to salvation, because they accepted the truth of human mortality, and thus they could not believe in salvation through resurrection to eternal life with God.

For the philosophic few, there was a second way to salvation--what Spinoza at the end of The Ethics called  "the mind's intellectual love of God," which induces that fullest satisfaction of the mind that is felt as Joy, and which is eternal (V, prop. 34-42).  When I first read The Ethics in Cropsey's class, I struggled to understand what this means.  I still do.

If atheism is the denial of the existence of God or of anything divine, then Spinoza was not an atheist, because he does affirm the existence of God (Ethics I, p. 11). Spinoza denied the common charge that he was an atheist.

But if atheism is denial of the existence of a personal God, who cares for human beings, who listens to prayers, who reveals Himself miraculously to human beings, who demands obedience to His law, and who rewards and punishes human beings in an eternal afterlife, then Spinoza was an atheist.

One can say for sure that Spinoza's God is an absolutely infinite being that is the first cause--the uncaused cause--of all things, that it is a being that human beings can love, and that this love of God is the greatest human good, although in loving God, human beings cannot expect God to love them in return.

Spinoza's phrase "God or Nature" (Deus sive Natura) has led some people to say that Spinoza is a pantheist who identifies the whole universe as divine (IV, pref., p. 4).  But then Spinoza says that God as first cause is to be identified with "nature naturing" (Natura naturans) rather than "nature natured" (Natura naturata) (I, p. 29).  And yet he also says that he does not separate God from nature as other philosophers do (letter 6).  (Is "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence Spinoza's God?)

Spinoza seems to be affirming a secular or naturalistic religiosity based on a religious feeling of awe, love, or joy in contemplating the order of nature, but without any sense of a personal God.  As Damasio indicates, this was most powerfully affirmed by Albert Einstein, who said that his God was Spinoza's God.  He described the religious feeling of the "profounder sort of scientific minds" as taking "the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."  He described this feeling as "a sort of intoxicated joy and amazement at the beauty and grandeur of this world, of which man can form just a faint notion.  This joy is the feeling from which true scientific research draws its spiritual sustenance, but which also seems to find expression in the song of birds."  This might be what Spinoza meant by amor intellectualis Dei.

And what can a neurobiologist like Damasio say about this?  At the very least, he observes, "the spiritual is a particular kind of feeling state. . . . a particular state of the organism, a delicate combination of certain body configurations and certain mental configurations" (286).

But if Spinoza is right, these religious feelings in the brain do not point to any transcendent reality beyond nature.

In my copy of the Elwes translation of Spinoza's Ethics that was the text for Cropsey's class, I wrote this note in the margin of the text for Part 5, proposition 30: "On the intellectual love of God, compare Lucretius: 'it is true piety to be able to contemplate all things with a calm mind' (5.1205)."

Is that enough for our salvation--at least for those few like Einstein who can feel joy in contemplating the beautiful order of a natural world that is joyful in being intelligible to our minds, although it does not care for or about us, so that we can love it without expecting to be loved in return?