Friday, July 28, 2006

Strauss, Darwin, and the Bible

Heinrich Meier's new book--Leo Strauss and the Theological-Political Problem (Cambridge University Press, 2006)--includes two unpublished lectures by Strauss. One of them is a lecture--"Reason and Revelation"--that was delivered in 1948 at the Hartford Theological Seminary. One point of interest for me in this lecture is that is contains some remarks by Strauss on the Bible and Darwinian evolution.

The general theme of this lecture is summarized as follows:
"Why revelation cannot refute philosophy, and vice versa. Generally: a) human knowledge is always so limited that the possibility of revelation cannot be refuted, and need for revelation cannot be denied. b) revelation is always so uncertain that it can be rejected, and man is so constructed that he can find his satisfaction, his happiness, in investigation, in the progress of clarity" (p. 174).

Finding satisfaction in investigation is for Strauss the philosophic life, understood as the highest life for human beings. As he understands philosophy, it includes science, because he criticizes the modern distinction between philosophy and science (p. 144). If philosophy is the quest to understand the whole by reason alone, then science is part of philosophy.

This irreconciliable conflict between philosophy or science and revelation is manifest, Strauss suggests, in the conflict between the Biblical story of Creation and Darwinian evolutionary science (see pp. 155, 160, 171, 173).

One way to overcome this conflict is to say that the Bible is not a scientific book, but a book concerned with matters of faith, and therefore it need not contradict the Darwinian account of evolution. Strauss rejects this solution. If we cannot take the Bible seriously in its claims about the physical world--such as the stories of God's miraculous creation of the world in the book of Genesis--then we would have to dismiss the Bible as merely a mythic text.

And yet, Strauss says, neither side in this conflict--the Bible and Darwinian science--can refute the other, because both sides beg the question at issue. Darwinian science assumes that miracles are not possible. The Bible assumes that miracles are possible. The Darwinian scientist might present evidence from the geological record that life evolved over millions of years. But this would not refute the possibility that God created life in a few days through miraculous causes that are not detectable by science.

Strauss also suggests that the Darwinian account of human evolution must contradict the Biblical teaching about Adam and Eve and the Fall. If human beings evolved from lower animals, then there was no original state of perfection from which they fell.

It is hard for me to understand the implications of what Strauss is saying. He seems to claim that there can be no reconciliation between science and the Bible. But what he says about the mutual irrefutability of philosophy and revelation suggests that thoughtful human beings must be open to both.

Moreover, a fundamental assumption of Strauss's position here is that to take the Bible seriously as revelation, we must read it absolutely literally--so that, for example, the Genesis story of Creation in six days must be read as literal history. This seems dubious to me. Inevitably, even the most serious Biblical believer must distinguish between the literal and the poetic or metaphorical writing in the Bible. For example, Pope John Paul II endorsed Darwinian evolution as compatible with the Bible, while still insisting the the divine creation of the human soul required an "ontological leap" beyond natural causes.

What Strauss describes as the fundamenal alternative between philosophy and revelation--with neither side being able to refute the other--seems similar to what I describe in Darwinian Conservatism as the problem of ultimate explanation. The ultimate ground of explanation cannot itself be explained. The philosopher or scientist will appeal ultimately to the order of nature as the final ground of explanation. The Biblical believer will appeal ultimately to God as the final ground of explanation. The uncaused cause of everything is either nature or nature's God. Appealing to nature as ultimate satisfies our natural desire for intellectual understanding. Appealing to God as ultimate satisfies our natural desire for religious understanding. As far as I can see, there is no way to resolve this dispute by rational proof.

But it is not clear to me that this is what Strauss has in mind. I would be happy to receive help from others who know Strauss better than I do.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Interview by Jamie Glazov

Jamie Glazov has posted an interview with me. The interview along with many comments can be found at the Free Republic. The comments show the wide range of conservative reactions to the idea of Darwinian conservatism.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Desire for War

Of the desires on my list of 20 natural desires, none is more controversial than the desire for war. On page 31 of Darwinian Conservatism, I write: "Human beings generally desire war when they think it will advance their group in conflicts with other groups. Human beings divide themselves into ethnic and territorial groups, and they tend to cooperate more with those people who belong to their own group than with those outside their group. So when the competition between communities becomes severe, violent conflict is likely. Human beings desire war when fear, interest, or honor move them to fight for their community against opposing communities. War shows the best and the worst of human nature. War manifests the brutal cruelty of human beings in fighting those they regard as enemies. Yet war also manifests the moral sociality of human beings in fighting courageously for their group. One of the prime causes for the emergence of large, bureaucratic states is the need for increasing military power. War is an instrument of politics, and like political rule generally, warfare is a predominantly male activity."

In Chapter 5 of The Descent of Man, Darwin saw warfare as a crucial factor in the evolution of "the social and moral faculties" through "natural selection, aided by inherited habit." "When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if the one tribe included (other circumstances being equal) a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danager, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other."

In recent years, a small but growing number of political scientists have applied this Darwinian view to explain war and international relations. This can be seen in three recent books: Bradley Thayer's Darwin and International Relations (2004), Stephen Rosen's War and Human Nature (2005), and Dominic Johnson's Overconfidence and War (2004).

War poses special puzzles for political scientists who employ "rational choice theory," which views human beings as rational maximizers of their self-interest. If human beings are rational egoists, it is hard to see why they would fight wars, because it would seem that rational egoists would negotiate a peaceful resolution of conflicts based on a rational assessment of comparative power, so that the weaker side would yield to the stronger. But instead, nations often show an irrational confidence in going to war and suffering losses that could have been avoided by a rational calculation of interests. It is also hard to see why rational egoists would risk their lives in warfare. Dying in war would seem to be the ultimate sacrifice of one's self-interest to others.

War might also be a puzzle for the Darwinian. After all, why would natural selection favor courage in war if this means that the dead soldier gives up his reproductive fitness?

The writing of some Darwinian political scientists explores these puzzles in ways that confirm Darwin's view of war as a factor in the social and moral evolution of the human species.

In a recent article, Dominic Johnson reports that some wargame experiments show that males show an overconfidence that inclines them to launch unprovoked attacks. Some Darwinian theorists have argued that a disposition to "positive illusions" might have been favored by the evolutionary history of human beings, particularly males. In any case, as Stephen Rosen has argued, a Darwinian view of human nature suggests that human beings are moved not just by a rational calculation of interests but also by emotional impulses inclining them to risky behavior.

In an unpublished paper, Johnson has shown that computer simulations of human evolution suggest that the disposition to heroic sacrifices in war would have been favored by group selection working through genetic evolution, cultural evolution, or gene-culture coevolution. Under certain conditions of competition for scarce resources, groups with courageous members would prevail over other groups with less courageous members. This seems to be exactly what Darwin suggested in his account of the evolution of war "through natural selection, aided by inherited habit."

This also indicates how our moral dispositions--courage, sympathy, cooperation for the good of society--might have been shaped by competition in war. We evolved to cooperate with people in our group in order to compete with others outside our group.

This evolutionary origin of morality in war is confirmed by the Bible, because Mosaic morality was shaped by the need to cooperate in war (see Deuteronomy 20:10-20, 30:15-20).

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

American Political Science Association Convention Panel

The 2006 meetings of the American Political Science Association will be in Philadelphia, August 31 to September 3. At 8:00 am, August 31, I will be presenting a paper on "Darwinian Conservatism" as part of a panel on "Darwinism, Religion, and the American Regime," co-sponsored by the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. Carson Holloway and John West will be presenting papers, and Joseph Bessette will be a commentator. Since Holloway and West are fervent critics of my position, it should be a lively session.

My paper summarizes my arguments for Darwinian conservatism and responds to criticisms from Holloway, Harvey Mansfield, Peter Lawler, and Ann Coulter. You can download a copy of my paper by going here.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Charles Darwin

I have been reading The Cambridge Companion to Adam Smith, edited by Knud Haakonssen and just published by Cambridge. The concluding essay by Haakonssen and Donald Winch, "The Legacy of Adam Smith," confirms some of my thinking about how Darwin and evolutionary ethics (particularly in the work of Edward Westermarck) fits into the Smithian tradition of thought.

One of the strongest arguments for Darwinian conservatism turns on the intellectual links between Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Charles Darwin.

While libertarian conservatives look to Smith as their intellectual founder, traditionalist conservatives look to Burke. The intellectual friendship between Smith and Burke shows the fundamental compatiblity of libertarian and traditionalist thought. When Darwin worked out his theory of the social evolution of morality, he relied on the moral philosophy of Smith (as well as others in the Scottish Enlightenment). This continuity between Smith, Burke, and Darwin manifests the moral philosophy of conservatism as rooted in the evolved nature of human beings as moral animals. The work of conservative thinkers like James Q. Wilson (in The Moral Sense) builds on this ground.

Burke's first letter to Smith (September 10, 1759)can be found here. He wrote to praise Smith's book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. "I have ever thought that the old Systems of morality were too contracted and that this Science could never stand well upon any narrower Basis than the whole of Human Nature." He thought Smith's book had done that. "A theory like yours founded on the Nature of man, which is always the same, will last, when those that are founded on his opinions, which are always changing, will and must be forgotten." In his review in the Annual Register, Burke observed: "The author sseeks for the foundation of the just, the fit, the proper, the decent, in our most common and most allowed passions; and making approbation and disapprobation the tests of virtue and vice, and shewing that those are founded on sympathy, he raises from this simple truth, one of the most beautiful fabrics of moral theory, that has perhaps ever appeared." Burke then quoted the entire first chapter of the book entitled "Of Sympathy."

In The Descent of Man, Darwin elaborated his evolutionary theory of morality, which can be found here. He was guided by Smith's moral philosophy, and he quoted the opening remarks about sympathy as the natural power of the human mind for sharing the feelings of others as the ground of moral experience. He then showed how this natural human capacity and the moral sentiments could have evolved from social instincts and human reason.

So as I argue in Darwinian Conservatism, this shows us how a conservative defense of traditional morality can be rooted in a Darwinian science of evolved human nature.

The moral sense is not a product of pure reason alone but is rather a humanly unique capacity for moral judgment that combines social emotions and rational reflection. As social animals, human beings have evolved to feel social emotions and to seek social approbation. As rational animals, human beings have evolved the cognitive ability to reflect on present actions in the light of past experience and future expectations. Consequently, human beings can plan their actions to satisfy their social desires for living well with others.

Recent research in neuroscience is uncovering the neural basis of moral experience in the brain, and it confirms the moral philosophy of Smith, Burke, and Darwin in showing how morality requires a combination of moral emotions and moral deliberation in the service of our social instincts.

Contrary to those conservatives who fear Darwinian science as a threat to morality, Darwinism actually shows the natural grounds of human morality in the nature of the human animal. In this way, Darwinian science supports the conservative commitment to traditional morality.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Spiritual Machines or Abolition of Man?

By the year 2045, we will have created robotic intelligence that will be one billion times more powerful than the biological intelligence of human beings. At that point, we will transcend our biology by uploading our human consciousness into "spiritual machines." That's the prediction of Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. He welcomes this prospect, because he foresees that by uploading his consciousness into a robot, he will become immortal, and his intelligence will be increased.

But many people fear this. Religious conservatives see this as what C.S. Lewis called "the abolition of man." The modern quest to conquer nature might lead us to conquer human nature, perhaps by using our technological power to transform our nature so that we might be immortal. But in doing that, we would actually annihilate ourselves.

This leads religious conservatives like Carson Holloway to warn that Darwinian conservatism provides no obstacle to such uses of technology to alter and eventually abolish human nature. After all, if our existing human nature is understood as a product of biological evolution that serves no cosmic purpose, then why shouldn't we use our power to bring about a technological evolution of our nature to improve it in ways that we might hope would make us happier and more secure?

But if one believes in a cosmic teleological order designed by God, as Holloway does, then it's hard to see why he worries about the abolition of human nature by technology. Such a worry suggests that God's teleological order is so fragile that it can be upset by human technology. That's why Peter Lawler suggests that to speak about the technological abolition of human nature is an exaggeration.

Like Lawler, I have argued (in the last chapter of Darwinian Conservatism and in my March 8th posting on transhumanism)that human nature will endure, and that both the fearful opponents of transhumanism and the hopeful proponents exaggerate the power of technology for changing human nature.

But what should be said about Kurzweil? He rejects the idea of "transhumanism," because he thinks that what makes us human--the software patterns of information that make us the people that we are--will be preserved in nonbiological hardware.

Kurzweil is famous as a successful inventor who has developed optical scanners and voice recognition software. He identifies himself as a "pattern recognition scientist." Rather than being a "materialist," Kurzweil insists that he is a "patternist" who believes that emergent patterns of information are more important than the materials that embody them. That's why he thinks the human patterns of conscious experience can be preserved even in the complex computational mechanisms of the future.

Kurzweil's main idea is "that there is a specific game plan for achieving human-level intelligence in a machine: reverse engineer the parallel, chaotic, self-organizing, and fractal methods used in the human brain and apply these methods to modern computational software" (Singularity, 439).

Since I have argued that the human mind arose by emergent evolution in the brain, I would have to agree that at least in principle it should be possible to duplicate human intelligence in machines that replicate the causal complexity of the brain. But while I concede this as true in principle, I am skeptical that it will ever be possible in practice, because I doubt that we will ever have the perfect understanding of the brain that will allow us to "reverse engineer" its activity and then replicate it in a machine.

Some religious conservatives would disagree. They would say that the human mind cannot even in principle be replicated in a machine, because the machine would lack the immaterial spirituality that constitutes the human soul as created by God.

But even if God has created the human soul, isn't it clear that He has chosen to exercise His creation through the natural causal powers of the human brain and nervous system? The human mind arises in a human individual when the brain has developed to a critical point of complexity while interacting with the social and physical world in the early development of the individual.

But if this is so, then in principle we could replicate human intelligence if we knew enough about the causal powers of the brain to replicate them artificially in a machine. And yet I think this is unlikely, simply because I cannot foresee that our understanding of those causal powers will ever be deep enough to make this possible in practice. Kurzweil says that "the principles of the design of the brain are simpler than they appear" (446). To me, this seems remarkably naive.

Nevertheless, some of Kurzweil's critics would say that I have conceded too much to him. For example, John Searle insists that no computer could ever replicate human intelligence. He uses his famous Chinese Room Argument to support this claim.

In Are We Spiritual Machines?, a book edited by Jay Richards and published by Discovery Institute Press, Kurzweil meets his critics. Searle has a chapter in the book in which he says at one point: "Suppose you took seriously the project of building a conscious machine. How would you go about it? The brain is a machine, a biological machine to be sure, but a machine all the same. So the first step is to figure out how the brain does it and then build an artificial machine that has an equally effective mechanism for causing consciousness. These are the sorts of steps by which we build an artifical heart. The problem is that we have very little idea of how the brain does it. Until we do, we are most unlikely to produce consciousness artificially in nonbiological materials" (72).

I agree with Kurzweil in seeing this as a fundamental concession to Kurzweil's reasoning. Searle admits that in principle a machine could replicate human intelligence if it could replicate the causal powers of the human brain. The only disagreement, then, is that Searle thinks our knowledge of the brain's working is too limited to permit this. Kurzweil is much more optimistic about future advances in neurobiology that will allow us to "reverse engineer" the brain and thus build "spiritual machines."

Darwinian conservatives should be skeptical about Kurzweil's vision, because they should be skeptical that human beings will ever have the perfect knowledge of how the brain works that would allow the creation of artificial intelligence with the complexity and flexibility of human intelligence. Human beings are uniquely endowed with a freedom of thought and action that comes from the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain. It is unlikely that we will ever know enough about the brain to artificially recreate the brain's causal powers in a machine.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

George Gilder's Intelligent Design Creationism

The July 17th issue of National Review has an article by George Gilder, "Evolution and Me". Gilder is a conservative economist who joined with Bruce Chapman in founding The Discovery Institute, the leading conservative think-tank promoting "intelligent design theory."

Gilder tries to persuade conservatives to reject Darwinian science because it promotes a scientific materialism that is both morally corrupting and scientifically false. Darwinian materialism is morally corrupting because it "banishes aspirations and ideals from the picture," and because it advances a crude vision of capitalism "as a dog-eat-dog zero-sum struggle." It is scientifically false because in reducing all of nature to material causes, it denies the primacy of information (as in the DNA code)in guiding organic order in a manner that can only be explained as the work of the Divine Mind. The New Testament teaching that "in the beginning was the word" (John 1:1) is confirmed by modern information theory.

I have answered these and related criticisms of Darwinian science in Darwinian Conservatism. But I can make a few points here.

In asserting that Darwinism cannot support the moral aspirations of human beings, Gilder says nothing about Darwin's account of the natural moral sense or the work of others (like James Q. Wilson) who have shown how Darwinism sustains morality.

In particular, it's hard to understand Gilder's assertion that Darwinism assumes a "zero-sum" view of human life. Darwin emphasized the importance of cooperation in moral evolution. Darwinian theorists have used game theory to show how cooperation could have evolved because of the advantages of "non-zero-sum" cooperation. Robert Wright has written a book--Nonzero--arguing the entire history of life can be understood as the expansion of synergistic cooperation through the logic of "non-zero" collaboration to resolve "prisoner's dilemma" situations.

In arguing that Darwinian evolution cannot explain the emergence of information, Gilder repeats a standard argument of the Biblical creationists like those at Ken Ham's "Answers in Genesis." They distribute a book entitled In the Beginning Was Information, which argues that information can only come from an intelligent creator, and therefore the DNA code proves the story of Creation in the Book of Genesis.

As I have said, there is nothing in Darwinian science to deny the possibility of God as the First Cause of nature who works His will through the evolutionary process. But Gilder and other intelligent design creationists assume that God cannot do this, because evolution cannot create information such as we see in the DNA code. Gilder insists: "Everywhere we encounter information, it does not bubble up from a random flux or prebiotic soup."

But such talk about "random flux" ignores the power of natural selection for introducing information into the genome. For example, an article by Christoph Adami, Charles Ofria, and Travis Collier in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown how biological complexity could evolve by chance mutation and natural selection. Applying information theory to evolution, they indicate how random mutation creates variation on which natural selection works--favoring those variations that are adapted to the environment, so that information about the environment is transferred to the organism's genome.

Gilder makes much of the emergent hierarchical order of the universe, relying on a famous argument by Michael Polanyi. But he does not tell his readers that many Darwinian biologists agree with this idea that biological phenomena show an emergent order that is not reducible to physics and chemistry. I have a whole chapter on "emergence" in Darwinian Conservatism

This article is clearly an effort by the folks at the Discovery Institute to blunt the effect of Judge John Jones decision in the Dover case. Gilder ridicules Jones as a "gullible federal judge." But Gilder does not tell his readers that even the Discovery Institute has admitted that the policy of teaching intelligent design in the Dover school district was adopted by Biblical creationists on the school board who had no interest in science.