Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Neuroscience of Judgment in War

The New York Times (July 27) has a good article on how research in neuroscience is being used by the U.S. military to study the judgment of soldiers in warfare.

In Iraq and Afganistan, one of the primary weapons of the insurgents is "improvised explosive devices" (I.E.D.'s). It's a matter of life of death for American soldiers to detect roadside bombs that have been carefully hidden by the insurgents. Some soldiers are better at this than others. Relying on hunches or gut feelings, some soldiers have an intuitive sense that there's a bomb nearby.

This is an example of the mystery of practical judgment--of how some people can see what needs to be done in a practical situation where it's not just a matter of abstract rules or logic. This is what Aristotle called "prudence" (phronesis).

Apparently, prudence depends on some complex activity of the human brain as adapted for making practical judgments to avoid dangers and seek out opportunities in one's circumstances. Neuroscience can help to explain how this works.

This kind of research confirms the argument of Leslie Paul Thiele--in his book The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative (2006)--that the neuroscience of judgment largely supports Aristotle's account of prudence.

I have written about this in some previous posts that can be found here and here.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Reply to Richard Hassing on Natural Law

In some previous posts, I have commented on the Straussian responses to my conception of Darwinian natural right. On the one hand, the Straussians agree with Strauss about the need for a comprehensive science of nature that would include human nature, which would overcome the typically modern separation between the natural world and the human mind. On the other hand, many of the Straussians (like Leon Kass and Allan Bloom) seem to embrace the radical dualism of nature and humanity that comes out of the modern tradition of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant.

This ambiguity in the Straussian response to my argument for a fully naturalistic account of human life was clear in Richard Hassing's critique of Darwinian natural right published in Interpretation. In my reply to Hassing, I showed how my conception of Darwinian naturalism moved toward the "comprehensive science" sought by Strauss--a science of nature that would include the ethical striving of human nature as part of the natural universe. This would be a science of emergent naturalism that would escape the dilemma of choosing between a reductionist monism and a transcendentalist dualism. Instead of the artificial separation between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, we need a new science of nature that integrates all the intellectual disciplines as we try to understand human nature within the natural order of the whole. Nothing less is required if we want to solve what Strauss identified as the fundamental problem of natural right.

In the book Contemporary Perspectives on Natural Law, edited by Ana Marta Gonzalez (Ashgate Publishing, 2008), Hassing has a chapter on "Difficulties for Natural Law Based on Modern Conceptions of Nature." Here again, against my Darwinian natural right, he argues, as he did in his earlier article, that Darwinian science assumes a "species-neutrality" that denies the ground of natural law by denying the importance of the natural differences between species. According to Hassing, the Darwinian theory that all living forms are adapted by evolution for survival and reproduction means that the differences between species are unimportant. In particular, he claims, the Darwinian scientist sees no important differences between the human species and other species of animals.

In my earlier reply to Hassing's article, I pointed out that this interpretation of Darwinian science as "species-neutral" is false. Although all species are subject to evolutionary pressures for survival and reproduction, each species is adapted to its own adaptive niche, and each species has its own species-specific set of traits. Biologists must recognize the uniqueness of each species.

This is as true for Aristotle's biology as it is for Darwin's.  Aristotle sees that self-nutrition and reproduction are capacities that generally distinguish the living beings (plants and animals) from the lifeless bodies (De Anima, 412a14-15, 415a24ff., 434a30ff.).  And yet he also recognizes and studies the unique traits of each species as adapted to its distinctive way of life (as he does in The Parts of Animals and The History of Animals.)

Darwin's account of human nature in The Descent of Man includes elaborate explanations for the uniqueness of human beings in their capacities for conceptual thought, symbolic language, and moral judgment. What we see here--I argue--is an emergent difference in kind that allows for qualitative novelty but without any break in the underlying continuity of nature.

In his book chapter, Hassing does not respond to my argument. Instead, he merely restates his assertion that Darwinian biologists must believe in "species-neutrality," and therefore they must deny that there are any natural differences between species. His reasoning for this conclusion is strange. For example, he says that since biologists believe there is a universal genetic code, this means that there is no genetic difference between species. But, of course, this doesn't follow at all. Although the genetic code is universal, each species has its own genetic propensities.

Although I find Hassing's reasoning confusing, perhaps I should be reassured that in this book chapter, he does, at least, concede that "Darwin was right about the mutability of living species," and that "living species came into being from common ancestors over a long period of time."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Plato, Aristotle, and Cosmic Teleology

In Raphael's famous painting "The School of Athens," the center of the picture is dominated by Plato and Aristotle. Plato's right arm is raised with his index finger pointing to the sky. In his left hand, he carries a copy of his Timaeus. Aristotle's right arm is extended forward with the open palm of his hand gesturing down to the ground. In his left hand, he carries a copy of his Nicomachean Ethics. Plato's gesture suggests, "It's up there." Aristotle's gesture suggests, "No, it's down here amongst us."

The Timaeus is perhaps the single most influential book of philosophy in history, because it shaped the prevalent cosmological model of the Western world for 2,000 years. It presented an intelligent-design cosmology in which a divine craftsman creates the world according to eternal forms of perfection, and human life is judged by how well it imitates this cosmic model. Aristotle's Ethics almost never invokes any cosmic standards in laying out his view of ethics as directed to human happiness as the flourishing of human nature. In contrast to Plato's preoccupation with mathematical patterns as exemplifying the the eternal and unchanging perfection of true knowledge of Being, Aristotle studied biology as the realm of mortal life and flux that lends itself only to probable knowledge. His Ethics uses biological reasoning in studying the conditions for human well-being.

Platonism often seems to belong to a tradition of transcendental ethics that depends on a cosmic teleology by which human life imitates the perfect order of the intelligent designer. Aristotelianism belongs, by contrast, to a tradition of empirical ethics rooted in the immanent teleology of the human species. Obviously, my argument for Darwinian natural right is on the side of the Aristotelian tradition.

But the situation might seem more complicated than this. At the beginning of Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss insists that the classic idea of natural right as understood by Aristotle depended on a teleological conception of the universe--and particularly the heavenly bodies--so that the natural ends for human beings could be seen as sanctioned by a cosmic teleology. But, Strauss observes, this cosmic teleology has been refuted by modern natural science, which creates an intellectual crisis that threatens to lead us to historicism and nihilism, with no natural standards for human life. And yet, Strauss and his students are not completely clear on this point. Some previous posts on this can be found here, here, and here.

There are some passages in his ethical writings, where Aristotle does seem to be a Platonic transcendentalist. For example, at the end of his Eudemian Ethics, he declares that all human goods are to be judged by how well they promote the "contemplation of God" as the final end. And at the end of the Nicomachean Ethics, his arguments for the supremacy of the contemplative life seem very Platonic. But his arguments here are all remarkably strange in that they contradict what he says elsewhere. So, for instance, he declares that philosophers are loved by the gods, but this contradicts what he has said about the self-sufficiency of the gods in not caring for human matters (1154b25-27, 1179a23-33). It almost seems as if Aristotle is here writing an ironical caricature of the Platonic arguments for divine contemplation.

There is only one place in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle refers to the cosmic system. "It is absurd for anyone to believe that politics or prudence is the most serious kind of knowledge, if a human being is not the highest thing in the cosmos. . . . And if it is the case that a human being is the best in comparison to the other animals, that makes no difference, for there are other things that are much more divine in their nature than a human being, such as most visibly the things out of which the cosmos is composed" (1141a21-41b2). But no where else in this book does he refer to these cosmic divinities.

Clearly, he is referring to the heavenly bodies--the Sun, the planets, and the stars. In his On the Heavens, Aristotle lays out his theological astronomy. But even though he takes this astronomy seriously, he repeatedly reminds the reader that astronomical phenomena are too far away to be directly studied, and so most of the fundamental ideas in astronomy are "hypotheses" that must be "trusted" as having been passed down as ancestral myths (270b1-25, 279a5-32, 284a1-25, 291b24-92a20, 298b7-99a2; Metaphysics, 1074a31-b14).

In justifying his biological studies, Aristotle argues that while studying the eternally unchanging phenomena in the heavens might be honorable and divine, such study is hard to carry out because there is so little observational evidence. By contrast, the perishable phenomena of plants and animals are easier to study because "we live among them." There is intense pleasure in studying biological phenomena because "they are nearer to us and more akin to our nature" (Parts of Animals, 644b22-45a5). This goes against the disposition of Plato and the Platonists because believing with Heraclitus that "all sensible things are always in a state of flux and that no science of them exists," they turned to the abstract realm of Ideas and Forms in the search for perfect intelligibility (Metaphysics, 987a30-b15).

That Platonic search for perfect intelligibility seems to be most fully manifested in the Timaeus. But the strangeness of this book--surely the strangest of all of the Platonic dialogues--creates serious problems of interpretation.

In the dramatic setting of the Timaeus, the dialogue occurs the day after the dialogue of the Republic. Socrates begins this new dialogue by summarizing some of the main ideas from the Republic. Just as Socrates had constructed the best city in speech, Timaeus will construct the best cosmos in speech. The best political order, it seems, needs to be set within the best cosmic order. (Here Timaeus's speech seems to serve the same function as the Athenian Stranger's theological cosmology of intelligent design in Book 10 of the Laws.) In Timaeus's cosmos as created by a providential God acting by intelligent purpose, we see that we really do live in "the best of possible worlds," in the famous phrase of Leibniz (the "German Plato").

But then any careful reader has to wonder about the odd features of this dialogue. First of all, it's hardly much of a dialogue, because two-thirds of it is one long speech by Timaeus. And it's not much of a Socratic dialogue because Socrates does not speak once Timaeus takes off in his speech. Timaeus tells Socrates: "it is fitting for us to receive the likely story about these things and not to search further for anything beyond it." Socrates responds: "Excellent, Timaeus! And it must be received entirely as you urge" (29d-e). So although Socrates seems to give advance approval to whatever Timaeus wants to say, Socrates never speaks again. With the suspension of all Socratic inquiry, Timaeus is free to construct his "likely story" as he pleases, without being challenged by any Socratic questioning.

Socrates identifies Timaeus's story not as a "myth" (muthos) or an "account" (logos) of the cosmos, but as a nomos--a song or a law--perhaps suggesting that this is a fictional story to provide cosmic support for the legal order (29d).

Timaeus's mythic stories are so fanciful and unsupported by evidence or logic as to be ridiculous. For example, all the nonhuman animals are created by the divine artisan by reshaping human beings who deserve punishment for their stupidity. "The tribe of birds was the result of remodeling: sprouting feathers instead of hair, it comes from men harmless but light-minded, and studious of the heavenly bodies yet believing, in their naivete, that the firmest demonstrations about such things come through sight" (91d-e). This scorn for empirical astronomy based on visual evidence contradicts what Timaeus had earlier said about human vision as a god-given gift so that we can see the order of nature and become philosophers (47a-c). There is good reason, however, for Timaeus to reject visual evidence, because we know (at least from Pliny's Natural History) that some ancient astronomers observed novas--new stars--being born, which would refute Timaeus's mythic claim that the stars are unchanging.

The dubious character of Timaeus's mythic cosmology and the absence of any Socratic questioning of his claims has led some scholars--including Straussians like Joseph Cropsey and Catherine Zuckert--to conclude that Timaeus doesn't speak for Plato or Plato's Socrates. But if Plato did not intend to endorse Timaeus's cosmological myth, we must wonder why he wrote it in such a way that it would be taken seriously by many, if not most, readers; and even become the most influential of all of Plato's writings for over two millenia.

One might also wonder about whether Timaeus's myth satisfies a Socratic yearning for moral cosmology. In the Phaedo (97c-100b), Socrates describes his youthful excitement in reading Anaxagoras's claim that Mind rules over the whole order of the cosmos and thus designs everything for the best. Socrates was disappointed, however, when he discovered that Anaxagoras was ultimately a materialist in explaining things as governed by purely material causes rather than intelligent causes. This disappointment with natural philosophy set Socrates off on a "second sailing" where he decided to look for the truth of Being in speeches or accounts (logoi) of things, by examining how people talk about their experience and particularly their moral experience. If this was a turn away from natural philosophy towards moral philosophy, with the understanding that moral life is disconnected from cosmic nature, then Timaeus's moral cosmology would be contrary to this Socratic turn. But then one might say that Timaeus had done what Anaxagoras had failed to do successfully--construct a moral cosmology in which the cosmos is intelligently designed as the best of possible worlds--and therefore Timaeus gave Socrates what he had always wanted: an intelligent-design cosmology that would explain why it is best for things to be as they are.

Cropsey and Zuckert reject this reading of the dialogues, because they argue, instead, that Socrates really teaches that the cosmos is morally neutral, because morality depends upon an anthropology of human care for themselves that has no ground in cosmic nature. If so, this would conform to what I have argued for as the immanent teleology of morality as rooted in evolved human nature.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Plato's Teleological Cosmology & Cicero's Socratic Scepticism

I continue thinking about the history of Plato's teleological cosmology, as well as the history of the break from that cosmology in the work of Hume and Darwin.

As far as I know, the three best surveys of how Plato's cosmology--in the Laws (book 10) and the Timaeus--shaped Western cosmology for 2,000 years are Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being, C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image, and Remi Brague's The Wisdom of the World. In all three books, the claim is that there was no serious criticism of that Platonic cosmology until the modern era.

But this ignores the evidence that Plato's intelligent-design cosmology provoked sceptical questioning from the very beginning with Plato's Socrates, and that this Socratic scepticism was continued by Cicero and others, which was then renewed in the Eighteenth Century by Hume and then elaborated in the evolutionary science of Darwin in the Nineteenth Century.

Brague does at least give his reader a glimpse of this sceptical tradition. Brague notices that the cosmology of the Timaeus--with its teaching that the moral and political life of human beings must imitate the intelligent order of the cosmos--overturns the "Socratic Revolution" described in the Phaedo. In his famous account of his "second sailing," Socrates says that, as a young man, he was devoted to "inquiry into nature"--looking for the natural causes of all things. He was excited by a writing of Anaxagoras that proclaimed "Mind" (nous) to be the cause of all things. But then Socrates became disappointed when he saw that Anaxagoras's explanations through material causes did not really give Socrates what he was looking for--an explanation for why it was best for everything to be ordered as it was. So Socrates decided that instead of looking directly at natural things--as if he were looking directly at the sun--he must look at their reflections in the accounts or speeches (logoi) about them. Thus, he turned to examining how people talk about their experiences, hoping that through such human experience, he could ascend to the enduring patterns or forms that explain that experience. Brague writes: "Thus Socrates renounced that unification of experience in favor of considering solely phenomena relating to the polis, that is, the being-together of men. In this way he disconnected anthropology from cosmology and introduced his plan to found an anthropology based solely on itself" (31).

But if so, then, Brague insists, Plato in the Timaeus had to reverse the Socratic Revolution by formulating a teleological cosmology by which all things were governed by cosmic Mind so that everything was ordered in the best and most excellent way. "Plato built a bridge over the abyss Socrates had opened, by positing the Good as the supreme principle" (32).

Brague suggests that this "abyss" opened by Socrates and closed by Plato was not opened again until the modern era, when the moral interpretation of the cosmos was challenged by modern thinkers. But this overlooks the ancient tradition of Socratic scepticism. Brague does recognize Lucretius and the Epicurean tradition as deviating from the cosmological thought set in motion by the Timaeus. But this Epicurean tradition of thought was outside the main line of thought from Plato and Aristotle.

To tell this story, Brague has to ignore Cicero's account of Socratic scepticism. Particularly in his Academics, Cicero shows how scepticism emerged early in the history of the Platonic Academy. Part of that scepticism was the thought that the moral and political life of human beings could not be governed by cosmological knowledge, and so Socrates was right to bring philosophy down from the heavens into the realm of human experience. In this Academics (I.15), Cicero has Varro say: "It is universally agreed that Socrates was the first person who summoned philosophy away from mysteries veiled in concealment by nature herself, upon which all philosophers before him had been engaged and led it to the subject of ordinary life, in order to investigate the virtues and vices, and good and evil generally, and to realize that heavenly matters are either remote from our knowledge or else, however fully known, have nothing to do with the good life." So, contrary to Brague's claim, the idea of the moral neutrality of the cosmos was not an invention of the modern era, because the idea was already there in the ancient tradition of Socratic scepticism to which Cicero belonged.

The best critique of intelligent-design cosmology in antiquity is Cicero's dialogue On the Nature of the Gods. This became the model for Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Hume's character Cleanthes is named after the teacher of the Stoic Balbus, who lays out the intelligent-design argument in Cicero's dialogue. Hume's character Philo (who speaks for Humean scepticism) is named after the teacher of Cotta, who lays out the sceptical arguments in Cicero's dialogue. After allowing Cotta to demolish the intelligent-design cosmology of Balbus, Cicero carefully avoids scandal in the conclusion to his dialogue: "Here the conversation ended, and we parted, Velleius thinking Cotta's discourse to be truer, while I thought that of Balbus approximated more nearly to some semblance of the truth." Similarly, Hume concludes his dialogue by having his narrator Pamphilus say: "I cannot but think that Philo's principles are more probable than Demea's, but that those of Cleanthes approaches still nearer to the truth."

We can see here that Cicero and Hume belong to a tradition of sceptical conservatism that doubts Plato's teleological cosmology, even as it grudgingly acknowledges that this Platonic cosmology might be salutary as a popular "civil religion."

Metaphysical conservatives who believe that moral and political order cannot survive without cosmic support are uncomfortable in the face of this conservative tradition of scepticism. One can see this, for example, in an article published in The Intercollegiate Review in 1968 by Frederick Wilhelmsen and Willmoore Kendall--"Cicero and the Politics of the Public Orthodoxy." They admire Cicero for his understanding of the "public orthodoxy" as "that tissue of judgments, defining the good life and indicating the meaning of human existence, which is held commonly by the members of any society, who see in it the charter of their way of life and the ultimate justification of their society." They see this as corresponding to what Leo Strauss identified as the "way of life" of the politeia or what T. S. Eliot called "culture"--shared judgments about the cosmic meaning of human existence that support social and political order. But they are disturbed by the evidence that Cicero thought that the theological, intelligent-design cosmology of the public orthodoxy was false, even though he might be obligated to avoid publicly denying it.

For Wilhelmsen and Kendall, no public orthodoxy can sustain itself if it is not grounded in some metaphysical conception of the cosmos as intelligently designed as a model for human morality and politics. In the case of Cicero, they see a conflict between theoretical truth (Socratic scepticism) and the customary beliefs required for society. Their solution to this problem is to assert that Christian revelation creates a bridge between transcendent truth and immanent social order. Our Christian faith that God is the source of all order guarantees that there will be no conflict between the truths of the soul and the truths of society. But they leave the reader wondering how this can be "theoretically guaranteed" so as to be immune to the sceptical doubts of Socratic philosophy.

Darwinian science continues the sceptical tradition of Cicero and Hume by showing how the moral order of human life can be based on the natural order of human nature. Even if the natural cosmos as a whole is morally indifferent, the species-specific nature of human beings can support moral distinctions.

If this is persuasive, then we should say that Aristotle was right when he argued in his biological works that in contrast to astronomy, the study of the nature of animals is more open to study, less dependent on traditional myths, and "more akin to our nature" than study of the divine cosmos (Parts of Animals, 642a).

An earlier post on comparing metaphysical conservatism and evolutionary conservatism can be found here.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Brague, Nietzsche, and the Longing for Moral Cosmology

In my recent posts on Platonic cosmology as interpreted by Zuckert, Brague, and Cropsey, I have taken the side of Cropsey and Zuckert against Brague in concluding that Plato and Plato's Socrates see the cosmos as morally indifferent, and thus they do not endorse Timaeus's moral cosmology. While I disagree with the fundamental argument of Brague's book The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought, I like the book because in laying out the history of the reasoning for moral cosmology, Brague shows the weaknesses in the reasoning, although that is not his intention.

The idea of moral cosmology is that the order of the cosmos is such a model of moral perfection that human morality is to be judged by how well it imitates that cosmic model. In particular, the astronomical order displayed in the sky or the celestial realm is the highest expression of the Good. (What Brague is describing here is what Arthur Lovejoy called "the Great Chain of Being" and what C. S. Lewis celebrated as "the discarded image.")

According to Brague, this moral cosmology was first sketched out in Plato's Timaeus, where the cosmos is described as a creation of a divine craftsman who designed everything to approximate the perfect order of eternal ideas, so that Being and the Good coincide, and so that the moral and political perfection of human life comes from imitating that cosmic order of the heavenly spheres. Later, this pagan cosmology was modified by biblical theologians to conform to their theology. This cosmology then became the dominant image of the cosmos throughout the Western world from late antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages. But then, Brague argues, this cosmic image was displaced in the modern era by the idea that the cosmos is either amoral or immoral, and therefore not a suitable model for human imitation. For the moderns, therefore, Being and the Good were disconnected. Brague's main message is that this dissolution of moral cosmology and the lack of any cosmic support for morality in the modern era has promoted nihilistic chaos.

At various points in his book, Brague indicates that his analysis coincides with Nietzsche's assessment of the moral crisis that comes with the "death of God," or the death of any belief in a moral interpretation of the cosmos, which is a consequence of modern science, and particularly the "true but deadly" doctrines of Darwinian science (24, 32, 189-90, 198). Brague agrees with Nietzsche that Plato's cosmology is a fictional creation of Platonic philosophers who project their wishes onto the cosmos. But he also agrees with Nietzsche that once this Platonic cosmology is refuted by modern science and replaced by a modern conception of the universe as morally neutral or even hostile to morality, then morality collapses without cosmic support.

Brague's extremism on this point is clear when he insists that a modern scientific conception of the moral neutrality of nature dictates "natural violence" and the criminal immoralism of the Marquis de Sade (204-209)!

Brague does not question this Nietzschean analysis of moral cosmology, and he does not consider Nietzsche's claims in Human, All Too Human that modern evolutionary science can support morality as rooted in animal instincts and evolved human nature. Like many readers of Nietzsche, Brague concentrates on the early and late writings of Nietzsche--with all the fireworks about scientific nihilism--and ignores the more moderate and reasonable writings of Nietzsche's middle period where he suggests that morality does not require transcendent, cosmic support, because it can be founded in the immanent teleology of human nature rather than the cosmic teleology of a divinely perfect cosmos.

Moreover, Brague admits that the moral cosmology that he finds so attractive probably could not provide any moral rules, and thus it probably didn't improve the morality of those who believed in it. After all, what kind of moral instruction is it to be told to "imitate the sky"? Judging what is good and bad is always a matter of prudence or practical judgment, and such judgment can be carried out based upon a biological conception of human life as aiming towards human ends, without any need for a moral cosmology. In fact, Brague admits, that seems to be the case for Aristotle. Although he sometimes invoked conceptions of cosmological teleology, his Nicomachean Ethics does not seem to rely much upon the sort of cosmology that Timaeus set forth. And rather than looking to astronomy for moral and political guidance, Aristotle seemed to look more to biology as a realm of phenomena closer to human moral concerns. (See 30, 122, 126, 152-53, 201, 217.)

If this is so, then Brague is wrong to suggest that the idea of a morally neutral cosmos did not appear in Western thought prior to the modern era, and he is also wrong to argue that morality cannot be sustained without a moral cosmology.

In addition to some of my recent posts, some of my earlier posts that are pertinent to this issue can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Obama Nominates a Theistic Evolutionist to Head NIH

President Obama has nominated Francis Collins to be the head of the National Institutes of Health. Since NIH is the single biggest funding source for science in the world, this position will give Collins immense influence on scientific research.

There are two big points of interest here. As I have noted in some of my posts, Collins is a theistic evolutionist. Having been an agnostic or atheist in his youth, Collins eventually embraced Christianity through the influence of writers like C. S. Lewis. He decided that this religious belief did not require belief in creationism or intelligent design reasoning--which he rejects--because Darwinian evolutionary science is fully compatible with Christianity. In recent years, he has spoken a lot about this. In fact, some scientists are uneasy about his nomination because they think he shouldn't be mixing science and religion.

At the same time, creationists and intelligent design proponents dislike Collins because he subverts their rhetorical strategy of arguing that scientific atheists like Richard Dawkins speak for all Darwinian scientists.

The second point of interest related to Collins is his involvement in the debate over the power of human genetics. As the leader in the human genome project, Collins won massive federal funding with the prediction that mapping the human genome would fuel medical advances in treating genetically caused diseases and disabilities. That prediction has failed to come true, which has exposed the falsity of any simple-minded genetic determinism. Now, Collins himself emphasizes that human nature cannot be reduced to human genetics, because genetic factors interact in complex ways with many other factors that are not reducible to genetic causes.

Some of my posts related to Collins can be found here, here, and here.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Darwinian Reading of Cropsey's Plato

Against my argument for "Darwinian natural right," many of my critics have insisted that any defensible conception of "natural right" requires a cosmic teleology in which human ends can be understood as fulfilling the natural ends of the cosmic order. Since Darwinian science cannot support such a cosmic teleology, they conclude, it cannot support the idea of natural right.

My response has been to point out that even if human ends cannot be sustained by cosmic nature, those ends can be sustained by human nature. And insofar as Darwinian science explains the evolutionary emergence of a natural moral sense rooted in human nature, such a science supports an immanent teleology that is sufficient grounds for natural right. Some of my many posts on this can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Many of my critics on this point are Straussians who think they are following Plato in arguing for a cosmic teleology of moral ends. I believe, however, that Plato (or Plato's Socrates) is actually close to what I have in mind in defending an immanent teleology of human nature as understood by Darwinian science.

In some ways, Joseph Cropsey's book Plato's World: Man's Place in the Cosmos (1995) confirms my thinking about the link between Plato and Darwin on this point. (Many years ago, Cropsey was one of my professors at the University of Chicago.)

The most persistent theme of Cropsey's book is "care." Human beings are said to care about their existence within an uncaring world of nature and without any divinity to care for them (2, 7, 62, 64, 110, 114, 118-21, 125, 127-31, 136-38, 145-47, 151, 155-57, 160, 164-65, 170, 180, 212, 218, 222, 225). At times, this sounds more like Heidegger than Plato. Cropsey never mentions Heidegger in this book. And yet, for Heidegger, the being of human being understood as Dasein is defined as "care" (Sorge), and "care" is grounded in historical temporality. Cropsey seems to be suggesting that Heidegger elaborates what is implied in the Platonic dialogues. This impression of mine was confirmed when I saw that Catherine Zuckert in her review of Cropsey's book also spoke of "the evocation of Heideggerian themes--the temporal limitations of human knowledge, the centrality of the confrontation with death in the definition of human existence, and the importance of care." (Aren't these all Humean and Darwinian themes as well?)

Cropsey indicates that for Plato the primacy of human care shows itself in the need for a human conquest of nature. According to Cropsey, Plato did not believe that nature could provide "the criterion and incentive of human excellence," because Plato actually anticipated the modern teaching that nature is "indifferent or unfriendly to our well-being until we learn to exploit it" (185-86). Cropsey's Plato thus affirms "the moral neutrality of nature" (210).

Although Cropsey does not explicitly associate "care" with any particular Greek word, he implicitly links "care" to two Greek words--epistatike and epimeleia (138, 151, 156, 160). The second word is used by Socrates in the Apology (24c, 31b, 36b-c) when he claims to "care" for the Athenians by trying to persuade them to "care" for virtue rather than for money and power. Both words are used by the Stranger in the Statesman (305e, 308e, 311c) when he speaks of the statesman as the one who "cares for" his city by weaving the diverse characters of his people into a common fabric.

Cropsey says that human caring has neither natural nor divine support. Here is where I disagree with Cropsey. Even if one grants that cosmic nature is uncaring, why not say that caring is natural in the sense that it is rooted in human nature?

After all, Cropsey indicates that caring for their existence is natural to all human beings in some manner, and a special kind of intelligent caring is natural to Socratic philosophers (110, 121, 125, 129-31, 147). Although Cropsey depicts philosophy as a struggle against nature (157, 161, 176, 185), he also makes much of Socrates' philosophic caring as dictated by his nature (157, 161, 185). He describes Socrates as having "an innate inclination toward right and good" that is part of his nature, and this shows us "that nature sends the better angels of caring and nobility as well as the afflictions of cruelty and baseness" (157). According to Cropsey, the Socratic philosopher is "guided by his understanding of the good for the humanity he has insisted was an object of his caring" (212). But where would this philosopher get his understanding of the human good if not from his understanding of human nature (218)? How could we even identify "an innate inclination toward right and good" in Socrates if there were no natural standard of "right and good"?

Cropsey says that human nature does not clearly support human care because of the natural conflict between the indispensable virtues of hardness and softness. "Courage or manliness or aggressiveness (andreia) is in conflict with restraint or accommodation or passivity (sophrosyne), each being a virtue or a part or kind of virtue" (139). True statesmanship is "according to nature" when it contrives a union of these virtues that "conflict by nature," which requires "weaving by which the hard-natured and soft-natured are united as warp and woof to form the protective web of state, procuring the mingling that uncorrected nature would preclude" (139-42). Statesmanship as weaving is the artifice that overcomes "the conflict in equivocal nature between the aggressive and the accommodating virtues" (170).

What does Plato mean in calling this statesmanship "the truly genuine political art in accord with nature" (Statesman, 308d)? Cropsey would say that although the materials are natural, the political order that is woven out of those disorderly materials is an artificial construction of the philosophic statesman. Like other students of Leo Strauss, Cropsey interprets Plato as denying Aristotle's claim that human beings are political animals by nature.

But I would say that what one sees here is the trichotomy of political order as manifesting natural inclinations, cultural traditions, and individual judgment. A fundamental insight of Aristotelian and Darwinian political science is that human political nature must be nurtured through custom and judgment.

If the philosophic weaver cannot look to human nature for guidance, where does he find the pattern for the cloth? How does he know that the best pattern must include an interweaving of courage and moderation? Plato's Stranger explains that the combination of courage and moderation is necessary for the survival of a city in war and peace (Statesman, 307e-308b). Cropsey suggests that "his implication is that the natural reward of survival is conferred on those regimes that sit most bearably on their subjects because the polity respects the law and keeps undivided counsel." Therefore, "survival is the natural reward that signals the presence of true and authentic statesmanship (136).

Doesn't this indicate that the standard for the political weaver is by nature? Given the nature of human beings, they cannot live together in stable political communities without some combination of courage and moderation. Darwin recognized this in his account of how group selection in war contributed to the evolution of cooperation and the moral sense.

Nature can provide no standard for the philosophic statesman if nature is irrational. Cropsey seems to think that the irrationality of nature is indicated by the fact that certain kinds of geometric relationships require irrational numbers for their numerical expression (111, 125). But this makes no sense. These geometric relationships--such as that between the diagonal of a square and its sides or that between the radius and the circumference of a circle--are regular and thus intelligible relationships. Indeed, the wondrous intelligibility of such geometric patterns would seem to manifest the rational order of nature.

If the pattern for the political weaver is purely artificial, as Cropsey suggests, we are left with many questions. Does the weaver simply invent his pattern arbitrarily? Or is his pattern only a modification of a pattern that he has inherited from others? Does the weaver weave himself into and out of his own pattern? Or has the weaver been woven into someone else's pattern?

Cropsey claims that Socrates is the model statesman. If so, was he produced by the pattern woven by Athenian political weavers? According to Cropsey, "Socrates is under the influence of an unfeigned if subdued patriotism that is born of the understanding . . . that the human authority erected in political society is our nearest guarantee of prosperity in an uncaring milieu" (160).

Socrates realizes, however, that "human authority" is not sufficient to sustain the right opinions of the multitude of people. Socrates as the superior human being who cares for humanity cannot speak simply in his own name, because "the natural human suspicion of human superiority gives rise to the urgent need for a presence and a judgment above suspicion." Therefore, Cropsey concludes, Socrates had to create a new religion as a "noble lie." "His own care for the Athenians seems to reveal itself in his effort to conceal from them their human loneliness and to make up for it, as far as possible, with a simple theology of the nameless god. . . . What could better illuminate the paradox of the human condition than this act of human caring for man on the part of one who teaches that the oblivious deity is diligent in righteousness" (165)? In the words of a more recent philosophic weaver of noble lies, "Only a god can save us now."

Cropsey speaks of Socrates's "new religion without theophany" as "a religion of reason and justice rather than faith and charity" (177). But it seems to me that "a religion of reason and justice" might well be a natural religion in the sense of a religion adapted to human nature, a religion that might be the product of natural human evolution.

If nature were not the standard for the Socratic weaver, then the pattern of his weaving would be set not by reason and justice but by will and power. This might be Cropsey's view of the matter. But I do not think it is Plato's.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Dancing Cockatoos and Ice Age Flutes

Music is sometimes said to be a uniquely human activity that cannot be explained through Darwinian evolution from ancestral species. But the YouTube video of Snowball the cockatoo dancing to the music of the Back Street Boys suggests that music has deep roots in the animal world. With birds like this, we shouldn't miss Michael Jackson.

Recently, Nature published an online article reporting the discovery of a flute that is estimated to be over 35,000 years old. The flute has five finger holes, and it was made from the wing bone of a vulture. It was found in Hohle Fels Cave in Germany, where other such flutes have been found.

The Wall Street Journal has a a good article on this discovery and the scientific debate over the evolutionary origins of music. The video accompanying the article includes a recording of what the flute might have sounded like.

It is surprising, however, that the Nature article makes no reference to Darwin; and the article in the Wall Street Journal claims that Darwin was "baffled" by music, because he could not explain how it could have evolved.

In fact, in The Descent of Man, Darwin has a long section on music. He reported the discovery of "two flutes, made out of the bones and horns of the reindeer, found in caves together with flint tools and the remains of extinct animals." So here, as in so many other cases of supposed new discoveries in evolutionary science, we should see that Darwin was there first!

Some of the scientists studying the evolution of music believe that music evolved among ancient humans before speech, and that speech might actually depend upon abilities shaped originally by music. But, again, Darwin was there first with his claim that "musical sounds afforded one of the bases for the development of language."

And yet one can also see progress beyond Darwin in some critical respects. For example, the use of radiocarbon dating allows for a reasonably precise dating of human archaeology, which was not available to Darwin. Another example of progress would be advances in neuroscience that are now being applied to reasoning about human evolution, so that, in this case, we can infer evolutionary changes in the human brain corresponding to the archaeological evidence for music.

But even as they go beyond Darwin, these new advances in evolutionary science fit within, and deepen, Darwin's evolutionary framework--in this case, Darwin's explanation for how even the highest artistic activities of the human mind might have emerged from human evolutionary history.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Nature and Nature's God: Another Reply to Budziszewski

Observing the Fourth of July might remind us of the famous appeal in the Declaration of Independence to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

That phrase provokes questions. Do the "Laws of Nature" depend on some religious belief in "Nature's God"? Does "Nature's God" suggest some kind of natural theology--some conception of the divine that is manifest in nature without need for revelation? Could "Nature's God" suggest a deistic notion of God as the uncaused cause of Nature? Or do we need a more biblical conception of God as a divine person who intervenes in nature miraculously? Does the very idea of "Laws of Nature" imply a lawgiver, who must be God? If natural law requires religious belief, does that mean that a regime based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence must enforce religious belief--at least the minimal religious beliefs suggested by the Declaration with its invocation of God as Creator, Legislator, and Judge? If so, why is the United States Constitution silent about these religious beliefs, even as it declares that there shall be "no religious test" for public office, and no congressional "establishment of religion"?

Some of these questions have come up in the exchanges I have had with J. Budziszewski, a professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. Budziszewski is an evangelical Christian who writes works of Christian apologetics, which include a defense of natural law reasoning as the basis of ethics. He has criticized my claim that natural law can be rightly understood as a purely natural morality rooted in evolved human nature that can be known to human beings regardless of whether they have any religious beliefs. Against my position, he insists that natural law requires some belief in God as the supernatural ground of natural law.

Budziszewski has developed his critique of my reasoning in an essay that he has published three times. Most recently, the essay appears in his new book--The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction (ISI Books, 2009). Three years ago, I wrote a post responding to the earlier version of this essay.

I still believe that Budziszewski's argument is implicitly based on a divine command view of ethics--the idea that we have no natural ground for judging right and wrong independently of God's command. Budziszewski tries to deny this. He writes: "The idea of a divine authority behind the natural law is often misunderstood. Some people imagine that if God had ordained that we rape instead of marry, murder instead of cherish, hate Him instead of love Him, then such things would be right. The absurdity of this idea is considered an objection to God's authority. What the objection overlooks is that a being capable of commanding such things would not be God. God is neither constrained by nor indifferent to the good; He is the good, the uncreated good in which the goodness of created being is grounded" (210-11).

But doesn't this identification of God with the good imply that Budziszewski knows what the good is independently of God's revealed will? For example, since Budziszewski knows murder is wrong, wouldn't he say that the biblical story of God commanding Abraham to murder his son Isaac must be somehow mistaken? Wouldn't he also recognize that Thomas Aquinas was wrong when he concluded that it was right for the Church to sanction the execution of heretics?

Similarly, while the Bible sanctions slavery, Budziszewski knows that this is wrong, and therefore he looks for some way to correct the Bible to conform to his natural moral knowledge that slavery is wrong. In his new book, he writes: "Consider how many centuries it took natural law thinkers even in the Christian tradition to work out the implications of the brotherhood of master and slave. At least they did eventually. Outside of the biblical orbit, no one ever did--not spontaneously" (36). The explicit teaching of the Bible is that the "brotherhood of master and slave" is consistent with preserving slavery as a moral good. But Budziszewski rightly judges that Christians had to correct the Bible by seeing that human brotherhood demands the abolition of slavery as a great moral wrong.