Saturday, September 26, 2009

Three Cheers for Midwest Straussianism!--Strauss, Science, and the Zuckerts

Although I never met Leo Strauss, I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1970s where I studied under friends and students of Strauss such as George Anastaplo, Joseph Cropsey, and Herbert Storing. For many years, I have been a political science professor at Northern Illinois University in a department that has had a long tradition of faculty members who were students of Strauss--including Morton Frisch, Gary Glenn, and Martin Diamond.

Under this Straussian influence, I have adopted many of the ideas and habits of the Straussians, such as the deep respect for the history of political philosophy from Plato to the present and a devotion to a careful reading of the classic texts of political philosophy. But in many respects, I am not an orthodox Straussian. For example, I have always been skeptical of the stark ancients versus moderns dichotomy of the Straussians, along with the assumption that the ancients are better than the moderns. A related point of disagreement is that while Strauss and the Straussians are generally suspicious, if not scornful, of modern science as showing the bad traits of modernity, I regard modern science, and especially Darwinian biological science, as a great achievement of the human mind that can illuminate political philosophy.

Now, having read Catherine and Michael Zuckert's book The Truth About Leo Strauss: Political Philosophy and American Democracy (2006), I finally have a label for my position. I'm a "Midwest Straussian"!

Other people have noticed the debate between the "West Coast" and the "East Coast" Straussians. But the Zuckerts are the first to identify the "Midwest" Straussians as occupying a third position in this debate.

This debate arises from what the Zuckerts describe as the "tension-ridden legacy" of Strauss (21). The tension is clearest in the three following propositions that constitute Strauss's position on American liberal democracy:

1. America is modern.

2. Modernity is bad.

3. America is good.

To resolve the obvious contradictions between these propositions, each of the three schools of Straussian thought has had to deny, or at least downplay, one of the three propositions. The West Coast Straussians (led by Harry Jaffa) reject the first proposition, because they argue that the American founding is actually rooted in ancient (especially Aristotelian) thought. The East Coast Straussians (led by Allan Bloom) stress the first and second propositions, while questioning the third proposition, because they doubt that America can ever overcome the moral and intellectual defects of its modernity. The Midwest Straussians (led by Martin Diamond) deny or at least express doubts about the second proposition, because they are impressed by the apparent improvements in the human condition brought by modernity that seem to show clear progress beyond ancient thought. Thus, the Midwest Straussians cast doubt on what the Zuckerts identify as Strauss's "signature idea"--his "return to the ancients" (252-53).

According to this scheme, I would place myself under the category of Midwest Straussian, because I agree with those like Diamond who argue that the American regime manifests the progress that modern political thought has made beyond ancient political thought. The modern liberal constitutional regime provides for individual liberty, civil society, commercial prosperity, and limited government, which secure the conditions for moral and intellectual excellence more fully than was done in the ancient or medieval world.

As the Zuckerts rightly indicate, "modernity" as the Straussians understand it includes modern science. So, the second Straussian proposition--that modernity is bad--includes the proposition that modern science is bad (see, for example, 28, 33, 37-41, 50, 56, 61, 65, 68, 70-72, 78, 82, 84-85, 88, 96, 99-100, 112-14, 192-93, 208, 236-37, 244-45, 252, 255-59). My defense of Darwinian science and Darwinian natural right obviously denies this proposition, and so, again, I am in the Midwest Straussian camp.

On this question of the goodness of science, the Zuckerts are not as helpful in their analysis as they are on other issues, because they speak about "Aristotelian cosmology" as opposed to modern physics without seeing the importance of Aristotle's distinction between cosmology and biology.

The Zuckerts rightly notice that one of the biggest obstacles to Strauss's "return to the ancients" was that Strauss accepted modern natural science in its refutation of "Aristotle's view of the eternity of the world and the species, or his natural teleology" (37). It took Strauss a long time to figure out how to get around this. They write:

"Unlike some of his students (or his students' students), Strauss did not try to resurrect Aristotelian natural science by showing that it is compatible with modern natural science. [In a footnote here, the Zuckerts cite David Bolotin's book on Aristotle's physics and my book Darwinian Natural Right.] He came to think that would not be necessary, even if it were possible. Further study of Maimonides and Farabi convinced Strauss that they were not so much Aristotelian as Platonic philosophers. They did not deduce the characteristics or qualities of the best human life from an understanding of the natural order as a whole. Nor did they propagate Plato's doctrine of the ideas. . . . Philosophy, as represented by Plato's Socrates, constituted a fully satisfying form of human existence that could be enjoyed by private individuals in less-than-perfect regimes. Based entirely on reason, Socratic philosophy nevertheless involved something less than a claim to full knowledge. . . . Explicitly lacking knowledge of the most important things, Socrates did not affirm the truth of any particular account of the cosmic order, although he did have to be able to show why no available account was entirely satisfactory in order to maintain his paradoxical claim that he knew that he did not know. Since modern natural science also explicitly provides less than full knowledge of the whole, Socratic philosophy was compatible with it in a way Aristotelian cosmology was not (38)."

One can see here some of the main themes of Catherine Zuckert's Plato's Philosophers, which I have taken up in some previous posts. As I indicated in those posts, I generally agree with Catherine's argument that Plato's Socrates distances himself from the cosmological teachings of the Athenian Stranger and Timaeus. But I also indicated that Catherine never really explains Socrates' yearning for some cosmology in which Mind rules everything; nor does she explain why some of the greatest philosophers--from Aristotle to Nietzsche--failed to see that Plato was not a Platonist. Furthermore, the Zuckerts don't explain how Plato could reject the doctrine of ideas while simultaneously affirming the Socratic doctrine that "being is divided into essentially different kinds (or ideas)" that are eternal (112).

But here my main concern is to question the loose language here about "Aristotelian cosmology." As I have noted in previous posts, Aristotle spoke of the cosmology of eternal order as based largely on mythic stories. By contrast, he spoke of the biological study of living beings as closer to human life and more open to direct study. While cosmological science (like that of Timaeus) looks for the eternally fixed order of being, biological science looks to the temporal flux of becoming.

Aristotelian natural right does not depend on a cosmology of eternal, teleological order. It depends on the biology of human nature and its immanent teleology. That empirical biology of human nature is not so far away from modern Darwinian biology. The way that the Zuckerts cite my book indicates that they have missed the point of the book, which is to argue that empirical biology manifests an immanent teleology of enduring but not eternal species that does not depend on any cosmic teleology of eternal order.

In contrast to Aristotle, Plato gave almost no attention to biology, because he was more interested in looking for the eternal patterns promised by mathematical knowledge or astronomy. But then Plato (or Plato's Socrates) could not account for the relationship between the invariant patterns of intelligible being and the variant patterns of sensible becoming.

Modern Darwinian biology continues in the tradition of empirical biology begun by Aristotle. Darwin's evolutionary science is a clear advance beyond Aristotle--one that Aristotle himself would surely have welcomed. In this and other respects, therefore, modern science shows progress in the philosophic study of nature and human nature. Modern science is good, and the modernity that sustains modern science is good.

That's why I'm a Midwest Straussian.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Idea of Species and the False Story about Essentialism

A major objection to my notion of Darwinian natural right is that Aristotelian natural right assumes an essentialist understanding of species that has been refuted by Darwinian evolutionary science.

My idea of natural right assumes that human beings exist as a distinct species or kind of animal with characteristic traits, which include natural desires that incline human beings to certain natural ends. I can then argue that whatever fulfills those ends of the human species constitutes the natural human good.

But Darwin denied the eternal fixity of species by claiming that species emerge by a historically contingent process of evolution from ancestral species, which would seem to deny the objective reality of species boundaries, since they are in perpetual flux. According to biologists like Ernst Mayr and philosophers like David Hull, Darwin's intellectual revolution was his denial of the ancient Platonic and Aristotelian conception of species as defined by eternal, discrete, and unchanging essences, and his affirmation of species as nothing more than historical lineages that come into being and pass away. Hull has concluded from this Darwinian denial of essentialism that since Homo sapiens is a historically contingent entity, like every other species, there is no such thing as human nature. David Buller, a student of Hull's, has elaborated this point in arguing that evolutionary psychologists do not understand how the evolutionary account of species as historical lineages denies any belief in human nature as anything more than a "superstition."

In chapter 9 of Darwinian Natural Right, I responded to this line of thought by arguing that although the Darwinian must deny the eternity and fixity of species, and thus deny the claims of a transcendentalist essentialism, the Darwinian must still affirm the reality of species as natural kinds. Although species are not eternally fixed, since they have evolved from ancestral species, that does not make them any less real during the time of their existence. I also argued that Aristotle in his biological works anticipated the modern Darwinian criticisms of essentialist classification. Aristotle's biology was misinterpreted in the Middle Ages by those religious believers who viewed his logical concept of "species" as a biological concept of fixed kinds conforming to the teaching of biblical creationism, in which species become eternal ideas in the mind of God.

In the essentialist tradition of biological classification, logical division was used to classify organisms into genera and species with definitions based on essential properties that are necessary and sufficient for defining each species. So, for example, the essentialist definition of human beings was that they were the rational animals. They belonged to the genus of animals, while being uniquely distinguished from other animals by their rationality. The essence of human nature was thus captured through the necessary and sufficient properties of rational animality, properties that were fixed, discrete, and unchanging.

But contrary to the common view, I argued, Aristotle did not employ this method in his biological writings. On the contrary, he criticized the artificiality of applying logical division to biological phenomena, as Plato did. In his logical works, Aristotle did define "species" through the possession of essential, or necessary and sufficient properties. But in his biological works, he generally accepted the popular classification of species and genera, while turning his primary attention to studying how living beings were adapted for a specific kind of life in a specific kind of environment. The essential traits of a biological species are essential because of the functional role they play in the life of the living being.

When Darwin claimed that all species have evolved from ancestral species so that each species is adapted to a specific manner of life, he was closer to Aristotle than to those nominalists who would deny the natural reality of species.

So, I am now pleased to report that the scholarly writing on the "species problem" seems to be moving towards this position as I argued it in 1998. Increasingly, historians of science and philosophers of biology are questioning the "essentialism story" told by Mayr and Hull that presents Darwin's "populational" thinking as a revolutionary rejection of the "essentialist" thinking that ruled over biology for two thousand years. Instead, scholars are rediscovering a tradition of Aristotelian biological empiricism that broke away from Platonic essentialism and prepared the way for Darwin.

Some of this new scholarship was surveyed a few years ago in an article criticizing the "essentialism story"--Mary Winsor, "Non-essentialist Methods in Pre-Darwinian Taxonomy," Biology and Philosophy, 18 (2003), pp. 387-400. Now we have two new books that elaborate the issues in this scholarly debate. Newly published is John S. Wilkins, Species: A History of the Idea (University of California Press, 2009). Soon to be published is Richard Richards, The Species Problem: A Philosophical Analysis (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press). I have read Wilkins' book, and I have read a few chapters from Richards' manuscript. Wilkins is a philosophy professor at the University of Sydney. Richards is a philosophy professor at the University of Alabama.

Wilkins provides an encyclopedic history of the idea of species from Plato to the present. Running through his history is his argument for the falsity of the essentialism story as told by Mayr and Hull. His argument rests on three claims (x-xi, 231-34).

His first claim is that the essentialism story fails to distinguish species as a logical concept from species as a biological concept. Living species are not the same as formal species. Beginning with Plato, there is a logical tradition of universal taxonomy, which attempts to classify all possible objects into categories defined by necessary and sufficient properties. Beginning with Aristotle, there is a biological tradition of reasoning about species that are identified by a range of traits that are not reducible to logical essences of necessary and sufficient properties.

Wilkins' second claim is that Aristotle's biological writings began a "generative conception of species" that runs through the tradition of natural history as empirical science. Living species are identified by their generative power, which constitutes a lineage by which living form is passed through a reproductive process. Sometimes Wilkins identifies this generative conception of species as beginning with Lucretius and the Epicureans (25-27, 227-228). But I would stress the importance of this generative conception for Aristotle in his book on the generation of animals.

Wilkins' third claim is that in the tradition of empirical biology, species are understood as types rather than essences, and types allow for variation, while essences do not. Biologists can recognize individual organisms as conforming to the type of a particular species, even though there is great individual variation around the type.

As I indicated in Darwinian Natural Right, Darwin is ambivalent about the reality of species. In some passages of his writing, he seems to be a nominalist or conventionalist who views the identification and classification of species as a matter of convenience for the human mind that has no ground in nature. But in other passages, Darwin affirms the natural reality of species by claiming that only evolutionary biology can uncover the natural basis of classification by seeing that "community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking," and therefore, all true classification "must be strictly genealogical in order to be natural." Wilkins is not completely clear about this. Generally, he argues that Darwin believed in "species as real things in nature (albeit temporary things)"; and therefore he was a "species realist" (129-30). But then Wilkins also says that for Darwin "species are the outcomes of the evolutionary process acting on varieties and are not real entities themselves" (230).

The fundamental reason for this ambiguity, I think, is suggested by Wilkins' qualifying phrase--"albeit temporary things." In the Platonic tradition, there's a tendency to identify reality with eternity--what is really real must be eternal. That's why Platonists typically look to mathematics as a model of timeless truths. But unlike mathematics, biology is the study of temporal processes that are everchanging. Unlike mathematical objects, living things come into being and pass away. But Aristotelians and Darwinians can say that the temporality of living things and processes takes nothing away from their reality. A living being is real for as long as it exists.

Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz was one of the leading critics of Darwin's theory of evolution when Darwin proposed it in 1859. As a Christian Platonist, Agassiz regarded species as thoughts in the mind of God and therefore fixed essences that could not have evolved through any historical process. Here then is the Platonic essentialism that those like Mayr and Hull conjure up as the dominant tradition of biological thought prior to Darwin. For Agassiz, Darwin's denial of the eternal fixity of species was a denial of the very reality of species.

Agassiz wrote: "If species do not exist at all, as the supporters of the transmutation theory maintain, how can they vary? And if individuals alone exist, how can differences which may be observed among them prove the variability of species?" In a letter to Asa Gray in 1860, Darwin responded: "How absurd that logical quibble 'if species do not exist, how can they vary?' As if anyone doubted their temporary existence?" (quoted by Wilkins, 158).

Darwin did not doubt the "temporary existence" of species. But for a Platonic essentialist like Agassiz, "temporary existence" is not real existence at all.

Richard Richards goes more deeply than does Wilkins into the history of how Aristotle's biological studies of species were overlooked or distorted by a medieval tradition of Christian Platonism that read Aristotle as a Platonic essentialist who could be brought into alignment with a biblical creationist conception of species as eternally fixed in the mind of the Creator.

My defense of an Aristotelian and Darwinian conception of species and of the reality of human nature can be found in some previous posts here and here.

Cosmology, Morality, and Divine Law: Remi Brague's Response

Over the past two months, I have written a series of four posts on two of Remi Brague's books--The Wisdom of the World and The Law of God. He has sent me an email message responding to my comments, and he has kindly agreed to allow me to post that message here. He writes:

"You have somewhat overstated my commitment to the pre-modern view that I endeavored to delineate in my two books. They are written in the manner adopted by historians of ideas. I describe a worldview that I deem to be obsolete. I do not condone it. I simply ask how we could possibly meet the consequences of its disappearance.

"You write that I am 'defending the idea that moral and political order depends upon a cosmic order of divine design," while I try to show, conversely, that the "denial of cosmic moral order leads to moral confusion if not nihilism." This runs counter to my intention.

"What I do claim is that, according to the standard ancient and medieval worldview (that brooked exceptions, as we both observe), such an order used to depend on a cosmic order.

"You ascribe to me the claim that 'the idea of a morally neutral cosmos did not appear in Western thought prior to the modern era.' This is diametrically opposed to what I wrote--for instance, when I discuss the atomistic worldview (see ch. 4: 'The Other Greece'), or when I quote Marcus Aurelius on pp. 76-77 and again p. 218. I simply claim that this idea was kept at bay by the mainstream platonic-abrahamic synthesis, which drove its rivals out of the market. What you write about Socrates is right, and is precisely what I contend. But again, those aspects of Plato were simply forgotten in the latter tradition. Plato's dialogues were not known to Europe before the 15th century (see my The Legend of the Middle Ages, the University of Chicago Press, 2008, fourth part).

"The same holds true for your sentence according to which I defend 'the premodern idea that norms of human practice must rest upon belief in divine law.' The general thrust of my book is that the idea of a lawgiving God was done away with by Paul, who kept only the Ten Commandments. They constitute some sort of basic survival kit of humankind, hence they are accessible, at least in principle, to human moral conscience and are not revealed, because they need not be.

"You wrote that I 'give the reader the impression that the modern turn away from cosmic or divine norms leads to a nihilistic collapse. But then, by the end of the book, (I) conclude that an 'autonomous ethics' of 'common morality' without religion is indispensable.' The contradiction arises from the impression given to the reader, but this impression is wrong. As for the last sentence, I simply meant that such an ethics is possible, nay that it is real. But I don't venture into the third category of modality . . . Whether religion--and which religion(s)--did prop this common ethics or undermined it could be, partly at least, a question for historians.

"I have some reservations about that concept of 'nature' that you wield, for instance, when you mention 'the nature of the human species.' It looks like the Epicurean and, for that matter, modern (Hobbes) concept of a primitive, 'rough' state of things. Whoever defends the idea of natural law takes his/her bearings from the Aristotelian concept of nature as the full development of the potentialities of a being (see Politics, I, 2, 1252b32-33) and/or from the Stoic concept of a nature that sets morality in the most elementary instincts of man. Hence, the discussion between supporters and opponents of 'natural law' is desperately lopsided.

"Whether one can ground morality on the Darwinian description of what evolution has made of man looks doubtful to me, not because it is Darwinian, but because it is a description. Hume's old problem of the 'ought' that you can't derive from the 'is,' or the fact/value problem is hardly solved.

"Furthermore, whereas I am pretty confident that a secular worldview can enable people to get on together in a well-ordered society, because it is the interest of the individuals to do so, I doubt that it can give mankind as a species good reasons to survive, more crudely, to beget children.

"Again, many thanks for the care with which you have read my things and for your interesting discussion."

For those interested in his Law of God book, Professor Brague recommends two recent symposia on the book that have been published in Modern Age, 51, winter 2009, pp. 26-46, and in the Political Science Reviewer, 38, 2009, pp. 1-104.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Remi Brague on Divine Law & Common Morality

In recent months, my posts on the question of cosmic teleology have included comments on Remi Brague--particularly, here, here, and here.

Brague is a philosophy professor at the Sorbonne who has written some of the best studies of cosmological thinking and divine law in the history of philosophy and culture. He has had a lot of influence on Straussians and American conservatives in defending the idea that moral and political order depends upon a cosmic order of divine design, which has been subverted by modern science and philosophy, including Darwinism.

Against Brague, I have argued that we can understand the moral and intellectual goods of human life as rooted in evolved human nature, which does not necessarily depend on any cosmic order or divine law.

Despite my disagreements with Brague, I admire his writing, because he allows his careful readers to see the weaknesses in his position. For example, as I have noted previously, he at least hints that the skeptical questioning of Platonic cosmology began with Plato's Socrates.

Similarly, in his book The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea (2007), he sets out to defend the premodern idea that norms of human practice must rest upon belief in divine law; but then by the end of the book, he admits that one can reasonably look to "common morality" as founded in human nature without any necessary support from religion.

Brague begins this book by quoting Leo Strauss: "the divine law, it seems to me, is the common ground between the Bible and Greek philosophy. . . . The common ground between the Bible and Greek philosophy is the problem of divine law. They solve that problem in a diametrically opposed manner" (18). This quotation is from an essay by Strauss in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (248). But this quotation leaves us wondering what is meant by the "diametrically opposed manner" in which the Bible and Greek philosophy solve the problem of divine law.

After the Strauss quotation, Brague explains: "Greek divine law is divine because it expresses the profound structures of a permanent natural order. Jewish Law is divine because it emanates from a god who is master of history. In both cases, it is external to the human and transcends the quotidian." But if one looks at Strauss's essay, it seems that he wants to suggest an even sharper opposition between the Bible and Greek philosophy. First of all, Strauss casts doubt on any intelligent design cosmology by pointing out "the fundamental difference between human production and the production of things which are not manmade, so that no conclusion from human production to the production of nonmanmade things is possible except if it be first established by demonstration that the visible universe has been made by thinking beings." Strauss then goes on to say that in Greek philosophy, the idea of divine law is replaced by the idea of natural order or natural law or natural morality. Thus, divine law is abandoned. "And if it is accepted by Greek philosophy, it is accepted only politically, meaning for the education of the many, and not as something which stands independently" (Rebirth, 255-56).

Although Strauss does not draw this conclusion, I would say that Darwinian science completes the Greek philosophic substitution of "natural order" or "natural morality" for "divine law" by providing a natural explanation for how the order of the cosmos could arise by natural evolution, within which human morality could arise as an expression of evolved human nature.

Oddly enough, Brague himself seems to move towards such a position towards the end of his book. At the beginning of his book, Brague sets out to show how--using Kant's terms--the premodern world saw morality as "heteronomy" (a law based on cosmic or divine standards external to human beings) as opposed to the modern project of viewing morality as based on "autonomy" (a law that human beings give themselves)(vii-viii). Moreover, he gives the reader the impression that the modern turn away from cosmic or divine norms leads to a nihilistic collapse. But then, by the end of the book, he concludes that an "autonomous ethics" of "common morality" without religion is indispensable. "There is no religious morality," he says. Rather, "there is a common morality capable of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, 'secular,' or other interpretations." The role of religion is "not to add to morality, but rather to provide it with the nourishing environment" (259-61). This "common morality" sounds a lot like Darwin's natural "moral sense," which does not require religion although it can benefit from religious beliefs and practices.

The crucial turn in Brague's book comes in his account of Paul's remarks on natural law in the opening chapters of his Letter to the Romans: "When Gentiles who do not have the law keep it as by nature [phusei], these men, although without the law, serve as a law for themselves [nomos heauto]. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness together with that law, and their thoughts will accuse or defend them" (Romans 2:14-15). This is the primary passage in the New Testament for the idea of "natural law" that human beings can know even without any belief in divine law. And it clearly shows, as Brague admits, that the idea of moral "autonomy" arose long before the modern project.

This natural law is what Brague calls "common morality," which contains "the elementary rules that permit the coexistence of individuals and the permanence of the species, what C. S. Lewis called 'the Tao'" (90). The reference to Lewis is to The Abolition of Man, where Lewis claims that in all human cultures through history, there is evidence for a shared morality that can be known without any particular religious beliefs.

And, again, I would say that this is what a Darwinian ethics would recognize as the natural morality that satisfies the conditions for human flourishing, the conditions that secure "the coexistence of individuals and the permanence of the species." To justify these as conditions for a good human life, we don't have to appeal to some cosmological morality or divine law. We only have to see how these conditions conform to the nature of the human species.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

C. S. Lewis and the Medieval Model

C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964) sketches the "Medieval Model" of the universe and shows how that model shaped medieval and Renaissance literature. He shows how that cosmic model arose by combining ideas from Plato (especially the Timaeus), Aristotle, the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists, and the early Christians. This model was crafted during the first centuries of the Christian era and became the prevalent conception of the cosmos throughout the Middle Ages. Its influence on literature continued even through to the end of the seventeenth century.

Lewis's book helps us to see the moral, political, and philosophical implications of the modern scientific model of the cosmos, including Darwinian evolution, by showing us what the modern model replaced. In fact, much of the opposition to the evolutionary view of the cosmos is motivated by a longing for the Medieval Model.

One important point that emerges clearly in Lewis's book is that this Medieval Model of the cosmos depends on pagan ideas. Although it is "eminently religious," it is "not eminently Christian" (18-19), because much of it was out of harmony with biblical religion (45-46, 49-51, 76, 79, 119-20). I stress this because it shows that other than the biblical doctrine that God created the universe, biblical religion does not require any specific view of the cosmos; and it certainly doesn't require the geocentric cosmology of the Medieval Model.

That's why even though Lewis admires that model--"the old Model delights me" (216)--he concedes that it is "not true." And as I have indicated in a previous post, Lewis was a theistic evolutionist.

Lewis's appreciation for the Medieval Model is more artistic than philosophical or scientific. His primary concern, he says, is with the "emotional effect" of the Model rather than its literal truth (112).

As an indication of the primacy of artistic emotion over scientific truth in such models, Lewis indicates that medieval philosophers and scientists treated the model as merely "provisional" (16). "It is not in the nature of things that great thinkers should take much interest in Models. They have more difficult and more controversial matters in hand. Every Model is a construct of answered questions. The expert is engaged either in raising questions or in giving new answers to old ones. When he is doing the first, the old, agreed Model is of no interest to him; when he is doing the second, he is beginning an operation which will finally destroy the old Model altogether" (18).

This is the point I have suggested in some of my recent posts on Platonic cosmology: even as Plato has Timaeus and others lay out elaborate cosmological designs, Plato implies that the skepticism of Socratic questioning will never support a dogmatic commitment to any cosmic model.

But even if we doubt the literal truth of such a model, Lewis insists, we should recognize the artistic sublimity of the Medieval Model. He writes:

"Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out--like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors. But if you accepted the Medieval Model, you would feel like one looking in. The Earth is 'outside the city wall.' When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see inside. Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life. And, looking in, we do not see, like Meredith's Lucifer, 'the army of unalterable law,' but rather the revelry of insatiable love. We are watching the activity of creatures whose experience we can only lamely compare to that of one in the act of drinking, his thirst delighted yet not quenched. For in them the highest of faculties is always exercised without impediment on the noblest object; without satiety, since they can never completely make His perfection their own, yet never frustrated, since at every moment they approximate to Him in the fullest measure of which their nature is capable. You need not wonder that one old picture represents the Intelligence of the Primum Mobile as a girl dancing and playing with her sphere as with a ball. Then, laying aside whatever Theology or Atheology you held before, run your mind up heaven by heaven to Him who is really the centre, to your senses the circumference, of all; the quarry whom all these untiring huntsmen pursue, the candle to whom all these moths move yet are not burned" (119).

Lewis would say that this "revelry of insatiable love" expresses a truth about the erotic nature of the human soul in striving for eternal truth and union with God. So even if we deny the literal truth of the Medieval Model, we can take seriously the psychic truth of human longing.

Lewis argues that although the Medieval Model is "not true," the move to the Modern Model of the universe is not "a simple progress from error to truth" (216, 222). The reason for this is that every model captures some but not all of the total truth. A model accounts for some aspects of what we experience in the cosmos under the influence of some prevailing psychological propensities. Our choice of models inevitably shows our "taste in universes" (222-23).

The literal truth of models is always limited by their dependence on metaphors. After all, that's what we mean by the word "model." So, for example, Lewis observes: "The fundamental concept of modern science is, or was till very recently, that of natural 'laws,' and every event was described as happening in 'obedience' to them. In medieval science, the fundamental concept was that of certain sympathies, antipathies, and strivings inherent in matter itself. Everything has its right place, its home, the region that suits it, and, if not forcibly restrained, moves thither by a sort of homing instinct" (92). Our selection of cosmic metaphors is important. "On the imaginative and emotional level it makes a great difference whether, with the medievals, we project upon our universe our strivings and desires, or with the moderns, our police-system and our traffic regulations. The old language continually suggests a sort of continuity between merely physical events and our most spiritual aspirations" (94).

We should remember here that Darwin's idea of "natural selection" is a metaphor that treats nature as acting like a human breeder of plants and animals. In the 6th edition of The Origin of Species, Darwin added (in chapter 4) a defense of this metaphor: "It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets? Every one knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten." So in trying to give a literal meaning to his metaphor "natural selection," Darwin uses another metaphor--"natural laws"!

Here we see why, as Lewis suggests, serious thinkers will always treat cosmic models as provisional formulations that approximate, but never fully capture, the whole truth. But even so, we can judge how well our models approximate the truth by seeing how well they account for the facts--both the material facts of the physical world and the mental facts of the psychic world. And by that standard, Darwin could argue for the superiority of his model to the older model.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Richard Weikart's New Book--HITLER'S ETHIC

What difference would it make for our view of morality if we rejected the Platonic/theistic cosmology of intelligent design in favor of a Darwinian cosmology of evolutionary order?

In the Platonic dialogues, the Athenian Stranger (especially in book 10 of the Laws) and Timaeus argue that morality requires a moral cosmology of intelligent design. Much of the tradition of biblical theology--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--has adopted a similar position: God the Creator has intelligently designed His universe to conform to His good ends, and He has created human beings in His Image so that they are endowed with a conscience that can grasp God's moral law. Much of the opposition to Darwinian science has come from Platonic philosophers and religious believers who fear that a Darwinian morality is corrupting, because it denies the intelligent-design cosmology necessary for any healthy morality.

Some of these critics of Darwinian morality have pointed to Adolf Hitler's Nazi morality as a terrifying illustration of how dangerous a Darwinian morality can be. Richard Weikart's book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004) argued that the evils of Nazism showed the consequences of adopting a Darwinian view of morality that rejected the traditional Judaic-Christian morality based on the belief that human beings have equal moral dignity as created in God's Image. If human beings have evolved by a natural process of evolution in which the strong prevail over the weak in the struggle for existence, then, the Nazis concluded, the rule of the biologically stronger races over the weaker races must be a moral imperative rooted in the laws of evolutionary nature as studied by science.

Some of my previous posts on this book can be found here, here, here, and here.

Weikart's new book--Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (2009)--is a sequel to the earlier book. While the earlier book concentrated on the history of Social Darwinism as shaping Nazi ideology, this new book concentrates on Hitler's own writings as showing the fundamental influence of Darwinian ethics.

The evil of Hitler makes it hard for many people to understand how one could speak of "Hitler's ethic." But Weikart argues that Hitler illustrates how the greatest evils are often perpetrated under the appearance of doing good--especially, if the apparent good is a utopian vision that seems to justify any means to the utopian end. I agree with this, because I am persuaded of the Platonic and Aristotelian principle that people tend to act for the good, or at least for what appears good to them. It is unlikely that any influential moral or political movement can prevail if it does not appeal to some moral sense that a great good is being achieved. The problem, however, is that human beings are often mistaken in their moral beliefs, particularly when they are seduced by some utopian conception of radical transformation that requires evil means to apparently good ends.

According to Weikart, the fundamental end for Hitler's ethic was the evolutionary improvement in the human species. Hitler interpreted the Darwinian conception of evolution as dominated by a struggle for existence as teaching that the only moral imperative was the survival and reproduction of the superior races over the inferior races. The Aryan or Nordic race prevalent in the German Volk arose in evolutionary history as the superior race. Promoting the progressive expansion of that race would therefore promote the biological improvement of the human species.

The elements of Nazi ideology seem diverse--racism, German nationalism, anti-Semitism, socialism, militarism, imperialistic expansionism, the "leadership principle," eugenics, and genocide. But Weikart is remarkably persuasive in showing how all of these strands of Nazi ideology are woven together by the final end of Hitler's ethic--the evolutionary improvement of the human species through the triumph of the Aryan race in the struggle for existence.

Proponents of Darwinian ethics--like myself--should be honest in recognizing the impressive evidence that Weikart marshalls from Hitler's writings and speeches to show how Hitler's thought and actions were driven by a coherent view of Darwinian ethics.

But once this is conceded, then we are left with at least three questions. First, was Hitler's Darwinian ethics scientifically correct? Second, was it logically derived from Darwin's science? Third, what alternative view of morality is Weikart offering us?

In response to the first question, Weikart admits that Hitler's evolutionary thinking was scientifically false--often ridiculously so (201-202). But Weikart's point here is that its falsehood was not evident at the time. In Hitler's times, many prominent people--including many prominent scientists--embraced the same crude ideas about the evolution of superior races that run through Hitler's thought.

Weikart's response to the second question seems to be that even if Hitler's ethic did not arise by logical necessity from Darwin's teaching, Darwin's language could easily be interpreted as supporting Hitler. Although I agree with Weikart that some of what Darwin says is open to Hitler's Social Darwinist interpretation, any careful reader of Darwin would have to conclude that Hitler and the Nazis had to distort Darwin's teaching to get the conclusions they wanted.

First of all, it should be noted that, as Weikart indicates, Hitler never uses the term "Darwinism" or refers directly to Darwin. The only evidence that Hitler ever specifically mentioned Darwin comes from a report by Otto Wagener, a Nazi associate of Hitler (36, 41, 185). In any case, it is clear that Hitler had no direct knowledge of Darwin's writings.

And yet Weikart insists that Hitler's writing shows the influence of thinkers who did read Darwin and who did find support for their Nazi thinking in Darwin's writing. Weikart admits that Darwin never recommends violence against "inferior races," and he never says anything to support anti-Semitism. But Darwin does describe the conflict between "the higher civilized races" and the "lower savage races," which was interpreted by Darwinians like Ernst Haeckel as supporting scientific racism.

But here Weikart overstates his case and glosses over weaknesses. For example, he notes that Haeckel taught that the human races were actually separate species (57-58). But he doesn't tell his reader that Darwin denied this, and that affirming the unity of the human species was part of Darwin's life-long argument against slavery and scientific racism. Moreover, while Weikart cites Daniel Gasman's book on the fundamental influence of Haeckel on Hitler's Social Darwinism, Weikart does not mention the fact that Gasman argues that Haeckel's thinking "had little, if anything at all, to do with Charles Darwin" (The Scientific Origins of National Socialism). Here is one of many examples of where Weikart passes over in silence evidence and argument that works against his position.

As Weikart indicates, Hitler was a crude genetic determinist who believed that not only physical traits but even morality and culture were inherited genetically along racial lines, so that moral and cultural evolution depended on genetic evolution. But Weikart doesn't indicate to his readers that Darwin denied this. Although the capacity for human morality requires biologically inherited social instincts and cognitive abilities, the actual progress of morality and civilization depends more on social learning, cultural traditions, religious ideas, and individual reasoning than on biological evolution by natural selection. (See, for example, in the first edition of the Descent of Man, vol. 1, pp. 72, 165-66, 173; vol. 2, pp. 326, 404.)

As our final question for Weikart, we might wonder what exactly he is suggesting as an alternative view of morality that would avoid the horrors of Hitler's Nazism. In his earlier book, he spoke of traditional "Judeo-Christian ethics," particularly as based on the idea of humans with equal dignity from being created by God in His Image. Is this the alternative to Hitler's evolutionary ethics? Well, not exactly. Weikart admits that Hitler often refers to God as Creator and to human beings as created in His Image (38-39, 50-51, 56, 85). Weikart says he wants to write another book showing that Hitler was "neither an atheist nor a Christian" (40). He doesn't explain this except to say that if Hitler was a "theist," he was a "theistic evolutionist"--that is, someone who thought God did His creative work through a natural process of evolution (51). "Hitler saw evolutionary ethics as the expression of the will of God" (40).

So where exactly did Hitler go wrong, according to Weikart? Weikart writes: "In none of the relevant quotations from Mein Kampf does Hitler state that humans were specially created in the recent past by the miraculous intervention of God. On the contrary, Hitler repeatedly insisted that humans are subject to inescapable natural laws and that they are the product of eons of change. He often presented evolution as a universal process encompassing humans as well as other creatures" (51).

So what exactly is Weikart suggesting here? To avoid the evils of Hitler's evolutionary ethics, it seems, it is not enough to believe that God created human beings in His Image. Is Weikart saying that one must be a young-earth special creationist who believes that human beings were created a few thousand years ago in the Garden of Eden? Is he saying that believing that God would use a natural evolutionary process to bring about His creative intentions would necessarily lead to something like Hitler's Nazi ethics?

If Weikart is suggesting that the only reasonable basis for morality is young-earth creationism based on a literal 6-days-of-creation reading of Genesis, then he is in disagreement with the Discovery Institute's promotion of "intelligent design theory" as something distinct from young-earth creationism. If this is Weikart's position, then he is also opposed to those many thoughtful Jews, Christians, and Muslims who have become theistic evolutionists--people like C. S. Lewis, for example.

Unfortunately, this book is grossly overpriced by Palgrave Macmillan. Although it is only 254 pages long with a plastic binding, the publisher's price is $80, and the Amazon price is $54. Instead of buying this book, you should find a library copy and photocopy it.

Writing at the Discovery Institute's blogsite, Weikart has responded to this review of his book.

Does the Life of the Mind Require a Platonic Cosmology?

Over the past two months, I have written a series of posts on the moral and intellectual implications of Platonic cosmology, its dominance of Western culture for almost two millenia, and the overturning of that cosmology by modern science, especially Darwinian science. As most elaborately stated in the Timaeus, that Platonic cosmology presents a cosmic model of divine intelligent design in which there is an eternal and purposeful order that constitutes the cosmic standards of moral and intellectual perfection.

The fundamental claim of that Platonic cosmology is that Mind (nous) governs everything, and that this cosmic Mind has designed everything for what is best. By contrast, the fundamental claim of Darwinian science is that the design of the universe arises by a natural evolutionary process that does not require a cosmic Mind.

What difference does this make for the intellectual life of human beings? Sometimes, it seems that the Platonic/Socratic argument for the supremacy of the philosophic life as the best human life depends on the principle of "mind rules all"--so that the life of the mind can be understood as an erotic striving to contemplate the eternal ideas of that noetic cosmic order. But, then, sometimes it seems that the Socratic life of philosophy can be justified as satisfying the deepest human needs and desires, regardless of whether this is grounded in any kind of cosmic Mind.

Some of the critics of evolutionary science have warned that any denial of divine intelligent design is self-defeating, or self-referentially incoherent, because this would deny the grounds for any confidence in human reason, and thus deny the rationality of science or philosophy. If our human minds are products of an irrational evolutionary process, then we have no reason to believe our cognitive faculties are reliable. But if this is the case, then we have no reason to trust our belief in evolutionary science. So we are caught in a self-denying position. Those like C. S. Lewis and Alvin Plantinga would say that the only escape from this confusion is to conclude that our confidence in human reason--and in the claims of the philosophic or scientific life--presupposes a theistic cosmology in which Mind has created the universe with noetic order and created our human minds to discover that order. (This argument that evolutionary naturalism without theism is self-refuting can be traced back at least as far as the writings of Arthur Balfour and G. K. Chesterton.)

Much of the writing of Plato seems to point in the same direction, and yet there is also evidence in the dialogues of a Socratic skepticism about any cosmology of intelligent design, and thus an openness to the thought that cosmic order might have arisen by a natural process that does not require cosmic intelligence or intentionality.

I am inclined to believe that we can account for the reliability of the human mind, and thus support the claims of philosophy or science, through an evolutionary explanation for the origins of the human mind. But sustaining that position will require some future posts.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Three New Books on Darwinism, Philosophy, & Biotechnology

Some of my writing has appeared in three recently published books.

Philosophy After Darwin: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Michael Ruse, has just been published by Princeton University Press. This book brings together a broad selection of writings on the philosophic implications of Darwinism, along with helpful commentary by Ruse. It includes readings from Darwin, Herbert Spencer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Alvin Plantinga, E. O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer, David Sloan Wilson, and many others.

This book reprints two selections by me--a couple of chapters from Darwinian Conservatism and an essay on "The Darwinian Moral Sense and Biblical Religion."

Ruse has carefully selected the readings to convey the contrasting positions in the continuing philosophical debates over Darwinism. So, for example, a reading from Singer on "the Darwinian Left" is followed by the reading from me on "Darwinian conservatism." Plantinga's argument that Darwinism undermines a naturalistic epistemology is followed by Evan Fales' critical response to Plantinga.

This book should be useful both for those scholars interested in the philosophic debates over Darwinism and for teachers looking for a text to introduce these debates to students.

The other two books on my table have been mentioned previously on this blog. Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizens, edited by Sean Sutton, has been published by the State University of New York Press. This book captures the philosophic debate over biotechnology with essays by Leon Kass, Ron Bailey, Ron Green, Lee Silver, Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, Richard Sherlock, and me. My contribution is entitled "The Bible and Biotechnology." The theological side of this debate runs through at least five of the essays.

Finally, I will put in another plug for Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, edited by Ken Blanchard and published by Imprint Academic. This book reprints the entire text of Darwinian Conservatism, followed by critical assessments from Neil Blackstone, Lauren Hall, Carson Holloway, Peter Lawler, Timothy Sandefur, Richard Sherlock, Michael Shermer, and John West. I have a response to these critics. And then Blanchard has an excellent concluding essay on "Natural Right and Natural Selection," which takes up the Aristotelian character of Darwinian natural right.