Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Darwinian Meaning of Life

When people ask me how I am spending my year-long sabbatical, I say that my sabbatical project is to figure out the meaning of life. They think I'm joking. But when I say I'm looking for the Darwinian meaning of life, they're befuddled.

Most people assume that one big problem with Darwinian science is that it denies that life has any meaning or purpose. After all, to find meaning--to see our lives as part of some enchanting cosmic drama--don't we have to look to some religious or transcendent vision of the world that goes beyond the materialism of Darwinian science? If we are just animals produced by a natural evolutionary process that doesn't care for or about us, and if like all other animals, we live for only a moment and then die, how can human life--how can my life--matter? Unlike other animals, it's not enough for us that we exist, we need some reason for our existence. Otherwise, what's the point? (That's the question raised in a good scene in the new George Clooney movie Up in the Air, where a bridegroom gets cold feet just before his marriage because he foresees his whole future life played out without there being any point to it all.)

Owen Flanagan thinks we can find meaning in a Darwinian world. In his book The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (MIT Press, 2007), Flanagan argues that Darwinian naturalism--with its fundamental conclusion that we are animals in a purely material world--allows us to find a natural meaning to our lives without any resort to supernatural mystification.

I remember Owen well from a summer that we spent together at a NEH/NSF summer institute in 1996 on "The Biology of Human Nature" at Dartmouth College directed by Roger Masters. Owen has been one of the pioneers among philosophers in showing how Darwinian evolutionary science and neuroscience supports a naturalistic view of moral philosophy.

Flanagan suggests that meaning is "a matter of whether and how things add up in the greater scheme of things" (xi). The "space of meaning" is a "platonic space" in that we find meaning by living for "the true," "the good," and "the beautiful." And yet he insists that we can understand "the true," "the good," and the "the beautiful" as natural categories of human experience rather than as Platonic Forms existing as immaterial and eternal principles of the Cosmos. We seek what is good through ethics or politics. We seek what is beautiful through art and music. We seek what is true through science or philosophy. These various human pursuits correspond to what I identify as the 20 natural human desires.

Our human search for meaning is part of our pursuit of human happiness or flourishing. Flanagan agrees with Aristotle on this, and he regards Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as an empirical science of "eudaimonics" that has been confirmed and deepened by modern natural science. Although there is no transcendent Idea of the Good--no objective standard of the Good woven into the fabric of the Cosmos or created by a Cosmic God--we can reach intersubjective agreement on standards of the human good by seeing that some ways of living are better than others in satisfying our natural human needs and desires. In such a naturalistic view of morality, there are no categorical imperatives strictly speaking, but there are hypothetical imperatives that are constrained by our human nature as very clever social mammals. If you want to live a happy human life, then you have to have those moral and intellectual virtues necessary for such a life.

But while there are certain generic goods that are human universals because they conform to the stable propensities of our human nature, the diversity and contingency of human cultures and human individuals create variability as to what is good for particular individuals in particular circumstances. There is no single good or kind of life that is best for all people in all situations. But there is a range of goods and kinds of life that are worth seeking. Our lives have meaning when we and those who know us well can judge that we have lived good lives. (That's why I think newspaper obituaries can be so fascinating, because they allow us to look back over a whole life and judge whether or how it was a happy or flourishing life.) We can understand this human happiness as suited to our nature as smart social mammals without any need for believing in supernatural or transcendental norms.

Of course, those who do believe in supernatural or transcendental realities offer many arguments for why such a purely naturalistic view of human life makes it impossible for us to find any meaning in things. Flanagan responds to at least six of these arguments, which have to do with (1) individuality, (2) free will, (3) consciousness, (4) First Cause, (5) death, and (6) spirituality.

(1) Individuality. Science generally and Darwinian science in particular are often criticized as too impersonal. This is one of Peter Lawler's arguments against my position. Science--like every form of abstract thought--explains things through types or kinds. So Darwinian science explains the general traits of each species of life, but it cannot explain the uniqueness of each individual. But if the search for human meaning is the search for the meaning of each human life in its personal uniqueness, then we might think that to find such meaning, we need a religion with a personal God who knows and cares for me as the person that I am, and for all other persons as they are in themselves.

Flanagan rightly responds by saying that it is usually not the job of science to offer "thick descriptions" of individual instances of things, because like every form of abstract thought, science explains things through conceptual generalization. Art and literature are better at capturing the personal reality of life as it's actually lived by individual human beings in all of its rich concrete complexity.

I would say that biology teaches us that every living being is unique in its individuality as a product of genetic uniqueness and the uniqueness of its life history. And although it is generally true that science abstracts from individual cases, it is possible in some areas of biological study to strive for the "thick descriptions" of individual cases. This is true, for example, in medical case studies and in natural history. Oliver Sacks' "clinical stories" capture the personal drama of particular people struggling with neurological disorders. Jane Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe is a social history of a particular community of chimpanzees with vivid life histories of the unique individuals in the group.

(2) Free will. Darwinian science is often accused of a biological determinism that denies the free will required for the moral dignity of human beings as beings capable of being held responsible for their moral choices. Religious believers often argue that this human capacity for free will manifests a freedom from natural causality that must be the work of an immaterial mind or soul that is supernatural.

Flanagan rightly responds to this argument just as I do in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism by indicating how human freedom of choice is compatible with natural causality, as long as one rejects the idea of free will as uncaused cause. For Aristotle, voluntary action requires that the agent know what he is doing and act from his own reasons and desires without external compulsion. That his reasons and desires have more distant causes--his innate temperament, his social circumstances, and so on--does not deny the freedom of his choice. Thus, the agent can be the immediate cause of action while still being subject to the wider causal order of nature. By contrast, the idea of free will as uncaused cause could apply only to God as a completely self-subsisting being or unmoved mover. The Aristotelian understanding of voluntary and deliberate choice does not require any supernatural uncaused cause. And it's the Aristotelian understanding that is compatible with Darwinian science and with legal conceptions of moral responsibility.

(3) Consciousness. Scientists have a hard time explaining consciousness. As Flanagan says, "no one, dualist, naturalist, or pan-psychic, has yet explained consciousness" (26). "First-personal feel is only captured by the subject of experience" (230). Almost no one doubts the reality of consciousness, because we all have direct access to our personal consciousness. But this subjective experience of consciousness is not directly observable as is everything in our objective experience. Determining the objective traits of apples is a matter of direct, public observation. But my inward conscious experience of the "redness" of this apple before me--the "personal feel" of redness--is not open to public study. Although we might observe the neuronal patterns in my brain correlated with my conscious awareness of "redness," but still my conscious awareness would be directly available only to me. So it's not clear how, or even whether, my brain's activity fully explains my mind's conscious experience. The religious believer might say that this introspective experience of consciousness can only be explained as the activity of an immaterial mind or soul that transcends the material brain, because consciousness belongs to a supernatural realm of experience beyond natural material causality.

Many philosophers and neuroscientists identify this as the "hard problem of consciousness," and they see it as an unresolvable mystery that creates an explanatory gap between explaining the material brain and explaining the immaterial mind. Flanagan agrees that there is now an explanatory gap between subjective self-conscious awareness and the neural events in the brain correlated with that awareness. But he believes that embracing the idea of "subjective realism" should allow us to continue research on the neural basis of subjective experience until the gap is closed. "Subjective realism says that the relevant objective state of affairs in a sentient creature properly hooked up to itself produces certain subjective feels in, for, and to that creature" (29). "Conscious mental events are essentially Janus-faced and uniquely so. They have first-person subjective feel and they are realized in objective states of affairs" (27). We should see, then, that "mental events are neural events but that their essence cannot be captured completely in neural terms" (29).

But instead of solving the problem--the explanatory gap between brain and mind--Flanagan's talk about the "Janus-faced" character of subjective experience in which mental events "cannot be captured completely in neural terms" seems to just restate the problem. Religious believers can enter at this point to insist that the human mind can only be explained as a divine spark, because the human mind has been created in the image of the Divine Mind.

To defend Flanagan's naturalistic account of the mind/brain as a unity against the religious idea of the dualism of immaterial mind and material brain, I suggest that the religious argument here shows at least two fallacies (as many philosophers have noted). First, there's the Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance. Flanagan correctly concedes that neuroscience cannot now fully explain human consciousness, but this is often the case with emergent phenomena in science, in which traits arise from complex interactions of simpler elements that cannot be found in the elements themselves. Water is wet even though the elements of water are not wet. Emergent phenomena are often so mysterious that it is hard to explain exactly how they arise, and that is certainly true of the mystery of how mind emerges at a certain level of size and complexity in the primate brain. But we can hope for better understanding of this with progress in neuroscience. And, in any case, to infer that our presently incomplete knowledge proves that there must be divine intervention at work here is a fallacious inference from ignorance.

Second, there's the Fallacy of Explaining a Mystery with Another Mystery. How the mind emerges from the brain is now a mystery. But to say that God's creation of the mind explains this mystery only adds a new mystery--how exactly does such a miracle occur? Replacing one mystery with an even deeper mystery is no explanation at all.

(4) First Cause. Another big mystery is how to explain the ultimate causes of the natural universe and natural laws. Why is there something rather than nothing? Flanagan admits that science cannot answer this question, which creates an opening for positing God as the First Cause (190). He even concedes that human beings might benefit from a satisfying story about God as Creator, and he allows this as long as it is not asserted as a literally true story. He notes that Plato's Timaeus suggests something like this (190-91): a myth about how a good demiurge might have created the world, but a myth that is understood as a satisfying story that is not literally true.

This is what I have identified as the conundrum of ultimate explanation. We can keep asking, Why? But ultimately we must reach the final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained--the causal order that is its own cause. Some of us will be satisfied to say this ultimate ground is Nature. But others will want to say that the cause of Nature is God. Who or what caused God? The religious believer might say that God is self-caused. But if we are going to allow for a self-caused ultimate ground, why can't that be Nature? Invoking God to explain Nature is once again employing the Fallacy of Explaining One Mystery with Another Mystery. In facing up to such profound mysteries, we face up to the limits of human reason, perhaps the sort of limits we might expect of an animal mind that was not evolutionarily adapted for explaining why there is something rather than nothing.

(5) Death If we're animals, then we're going to die. Many human beings don't want to believe that they are animals because they don't want to believe that they are going to die and never live again. They don't want to believe this because they think that death without rebirth would make life meaningless. Whatever we pursue in life that is good, true, or beautiful will be lost when we die. So for many religious believers some religious doctrine of human rebirth with eternal rewards and punishments is the necessary condition for meaning.

Aristotle is clear in stating that to wish for immortality is to wish for the impossible. But he does not seem to think that this makes the human pursuit of happiness meaningless.

Flanagan's response to this problem of death echoes that of Lucretius:

"I recently heard a wise Buddhist friend say that 'death is the ultimate absurdity, you lose everything you care about.' This, it seems to me, is not true. Furthermore, it is not a particularly Buddhist way (even for a secular Buddhist) to see things. Here is a better way: If you live well, then when you die you lose nothing you care about. Why? Because you are no longer there. You are just gone. That which is gone has nothing to lose. That which was once something, but is now nothing, cannot suffer any loss. But assuming the world and the people in it, including the loved ones remain, then your good karmic effects continue on. This is something to be proud of and happy about while alive. Your goodness, your presence, your worth are why the living feel your loss, and are sad, possibly very sad. But you are not sad, you neither suffer nor experience any loss because you are gone. Nothing absurd has occurred. True, dying could be miserable, but your own death is nothing to worry about" (203-204).

(6) Spirituality. Flanagan includes "spirituality" as one of the "spaces of meaning." After all, if finding meaning and purpose in life comes from making sense of things and attaching oneself to something larger than oneself, then the experience of spirituality--of being in contact with the transcendent, cosmic source of all being--would seem to essential to a meaningful life. And, in fact, psychologists who study what people around the world want to make them happy often report that "transcendence" is a universal human longing.

But how can a Darwinian naturalist recognize the importance of such spirituality for human beings, if this requires religious belief in a supernatural realm beyond the natural world? Flanagan's answer is to look for spiritual traditions that do not require belief in the supernatural, which would therefore be compatible with Darwinian science. He wants religion to be tamed so that it can be a "strong cat without claws" (183). In particular, he looks to Buddhism, and especially the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama.

One reason for this move is that Buddhism is non-theistic. The classic teachings of Buddhism do not include any doctrines about God or gods. In fact, some people suspect that the Buddha was actually an atheist. This makes Buddhism attractive to atheists like Flanagan who want to have religious feelings without believing in religious doctrines about divinity.

But even if it is true that there is no theistic teaching in the classic texts of Buddhism, observation of how Buddhism is actually practiced around the world suggests that many, maybe most, Buddhists believe in divinities of some sort and perhaps in the Buddha as a god.

Another reason for Flanagan's move towards Buddhism is that he is attracted by the Dalai Lama's respect for modern science. In The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (2005), the Dalai Lama writes: "My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims" (2-3).

One remarkable example of the convergence of neuroscience and Buddhist spirituality is that some neuroscientists have discovered that the effects of Buddhist meditation can be seen in the brain, particularly in the activation of the left pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with having a positive mood. Here, then, Flanagan argues, is an example of how science can explain and confirm the natural basis of spirituality: meditation techniques can exploit the neuroplasticity of the brain to induce mental states of equanimity, euphoria, or ecstasy.

But then we must wonder whether psychic states of spirituality can be separated from religious beliefs in the supernatural. After all, a core belief of Buddhism is karmic rebirth--the belief that at death, we pass into a cycle of rebirths in which our bad conduct is punished and our good conduct is rewarded.

This idea of karmic rebirth has had a powerful appeal to the human mind. It originated in ancient India and then passed into the ancient Greek thought of Pythagoras and Plato and then into the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Flanagan argues, however, that belief in rebirth is not really required for Buddhism. To me, his argument here seems remarkably weak. He doesn't even mention the fact that the status of the Dalai Lama depends on the belief that he as the 14th Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.

Another attraction of Buddhism for Flanagan is Buddhist ethics, and especially the ethics of universal love and compassion. But he is remarkably uncritical in his acceptance of Buddhist ethics. He notes that Buddhist ethics has no place for courage, spiritedness, and greatness of soul, as does Aristotle. Isn't this a problem? How can we eliminate human suffering--as Buddhism teaches we must--if we lack the courageous spiritedness for attacking injustice and tyranny? Remarkably, Flanagan does not even mention the Chinese atrocities against the Tibetan Buddhists or the Dalai Lama's traditional position as a political ruler. Nor does Flanagan mention the atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which would raise the question of why the Buddhists in Cambodia did not overthrow this bloody tyranny.

Flanagan's attempt to naturalize spirituality is unpersuasive, at least to me, because he relies so heavily on an implausible and uncritical interpretation of Buddhism as the best expression of naturalistic spirituality.

My answer to the problem is to say that spirituality is rooted in two natural desires. The natural desire for religious understanding will express itself in religious believers as a spiritual experience of awe before the supernatural mysteries of the universe. The natural desire for intellectual understanding will express itself in scientists or philosophers as a spiritual experience of wonder before the natural order of things. The religious believers will be grateful that they are the objects of divine care and love. The scientists and philosophers will be grateful that they happen to live in a world with a deeply intelligible order that is open to investigation by the human mind.

There is another fundamental weakness in Flanagan's book. He never clearly explains the meaning of "meaning," or why he thinks the search for such meaning is sensible. He writes: "Meaning, if there is such a thing, is a matter of whether and how things add up in the greater scheme of things" (xi). What exactly would it mean to believe that "things add up in the greater scheme of things"? Doesn't "the greater scheme of things" imply that there is a Great Schemer? But since Flanagan doesn't believe in the existence of the Great Schemer, he can't believe in the reality of a great scheme. If there is no great scheme or cosmic purpose, then life has no meaning if meaning requires fulfilling some cosmic scheme or purpose. The search for meaning "in the greater scheme of things" implies a cosmic teleology that is denied by Darwinian science.

It could be that in a million years the human species will be extinct, and from that point of view, human life would seem to lack any purpose in the grand scheme of things, because there really is no grand scheme. Many human beings find that so deeply disturbing that they want to believe that there is some grand scheme that will give their lives some cosmic meaning. But isn't that wishful thinking? If it is true that there is no cosmic meaning to human life, then we just have to live with it.

Some posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Evolution and Ethics at Oxford: From Charles Darwin to C. S. Lewis

The seminar on "Evolution and Ethics" that I directed at the University of Oxford last week left me with many questions to ponder.

Most of the participants were professional philosophers (professors and advanced students) from China and from Calvin College. As I anticipated, much of the discussion turned on the debate between the Platonic or transcendentalist view of ethics and the Humean or empiricist view. A Darwinian evolutionary understanding of ethics is on the side of the Humean view that sees ethics as rooted in human nature, particularly in human emotions, beliefs, and desires. On the other side, the Platonic view taken by those like Kant looks to a transcendent conception of the Good that is somehow woven into the order of the cosmos. (As I have indicated in previous posts, the careful reader of the Platonic dialogues might doubt whether Plato himself--or Plato's Socrates--was a Platonist in this way.)

A growing number of leading philosophers are adopting a Humean/Darwinian moral psychology supported by recent research in evolutionary science, neuroscience, anthropology, and animal behavior. But one can still see the powerful influence of a Kantian transcendentalism in moral philosophy that regards morality as an autonomous realm of pure reason totally separated from the empirical realm of nature as studied by natural science.

After discussing this general debate in our first meeting, we turned in the second meeting to the debate between Charles Darwin and George Jackson Mivart. As far as Mivart is concerned, Darwin's evolutionary account of the moral sense stresses the role of the moral emotions and thus misses the essence of morality as pure rationality. Mivart insists: "It is judgment and not feeling which has to do with right and wrong." Mivart fails to see, however, that Darwin recognizes the role of reason in moral judgment that makes morality uniquely human, because it depends on human intellectual capacities, but he also recognizes the role of emotion and social instinct in motivating moral actions. The emotions and instincts underlying human morality can be seen in other animals, which shows the building blocks of moral experience in animal nature.

Although some of the participants in the seminar were receptive to Darwin's moral naturalism, many were deeply skeptical of whether his naturalism could account for the moral ought, for that sense of imperative normativity that seems to transcend emotion and desire, and which is so prominent in Kant's moral philosophy. These Kantians argued that while natural science could explain the origins of morality through evolutionary history, it could not explain the justifications of moral rules by reason. The Kantians insisted on this dichotomy between origins and justifications in order to preserve the Kantian separation between the natural realm of human moral sentiments and desires and the transcendent realm of human moral reasoning and freedom. The natural realm of human action is governed by hypothetical imperatives about what we have to do to be happy. The transcendent realm of human reason is governed by categorical imperatives of what we absolutely ought to do regardless of the practical consequences.

This set up the opposing sides in our discussion. I and the other naturalists were inclined to argue that morality is completely a matter of hypothetical imperatives, because the only ultimate answer to questions about why we "ought" to do something is that it will promote our human happiness or flourishing, and therefore evolutionary science helps us to understand the evolution of human morality as hypothetical imperatives that are constrained by our nature as social mammals. Against this position, the Kantian transcendentalists argued that morality strictly speaking--the morality of the moral "ought" rather than the calculation of the prudential "ought"--is a matter of pure reason separated from all natural experience.

But what I found most interesting in this discussion is how far the Kantians were willing to go in compromising by acknowledging that Kant's "pure ethics" of a priori reasoning had to be combined with his "impure ethics" of human nature and moral emotions. The pure a priori rationalism of Kantian ethics has been strongly challenged by research in moral psychology that shows that reason by itself cannot be the only ground of moral judgment. Consequently, the Kantians have had to argue that an expansive reading of all of Kant's writings shows that he allows for a naturalistic explanation of moral experience beyond pure reason. Kant is not simply a Kantian!

This reading of Kant has been elaborated by Robert Louden's Kant's Impure Ethics: From Rational Beings to Human Beings (Oxford University Press, 2000).

Still, however, the Kantians could not compromise at all on one point. Darwin speculated that if bees had mental capacities comparable to those of human beings, bees would develop a moral sense. But the content of bee morality would be radically different from human morality. Moral bees might regard it as a "sacred duty" for sisters to kill their brothers, and for the queen mother to kill her fertile daughters. The thought here is that since morality is relative to the natural needs and desires of the species, each species would have a different morality. So there is no cosmic morality. The standards of right and wrong are not woven in the fabric of the cosmos, there to be discovered by any animal that evolves a moral sense. Rather, morality is species-specific in its content. This bothered the Kantians in our group (just as it bothered the original Kantian reviewers of Darwin's book--Mivart and Cobbe), because it denies the transcendentalist claim that morality manifests a truth about the cosmos--perhaps about God as the moral lawgiver of the cosmos.

These same basic positions and lines of reasoning continued in the other meetings. In the third meeting, we discussed a paper by Frans de Waal, with critical responses from Robert Wright, Philip Kitcher, Christine Korsgaard, and Peter Singer. De Waal stressed the continuity between the social behavior of other primates and the moral behavior of human beings as showing the evolutionary roots of morality. The critics insisted, however, that there was a gap between animal behavior and human morality created by the uniquely human capacities for language and abstract reasoning.

Although initially there seems to be a sharp separation between the sides in this debate, closer examination reveals that both sides eventually move close to one another. I saw the same thing happening in our group. On the one side, de Waal and the Darwinian naturalists say that even as they stress the continuity of human morality with the social behavior of others animals, they recognize that morality strictly speaking really is uniquely human because of the uniquely human mental capacities required for morality. On the other side, the Kantians can recognize that nonhuman animals can display some of the natural dispositions and capacities that go into human morality.

Everyone seems to agree here that morality requires an "impartial" or "disinterested" perspective that leads to something like the Golden Rule as a fundamental moral principle. But I agree with de Waal that this moral impartiality is not absolute, because it rests on an "abstract yet still egocentric concern about the quality of life in a community." This is evident in the "tension between loyalty and moral inclusion." Morality is an "in-group phenomenon" in that morality has evolved largely to promote cooperation within groups to compete with those outside the groups. We can extend our moral concern to ever wider groups--fellow kin, fellow citizens, all human beings, perhaps even all sentient creatures. Darwin speaks of moral progress reaching the point of "disinterested love of all living creatures." But I agree with de Waal that as we extend our moral sympathy farther out on the moral circle, our attachments to those far away is commonly weaker than our attachments to those close to us, and we are even morally obligated to feel a stronger concern for those close to us than for strangers.

The question of whether absolute impartiality is possible, or desirable, becomes evident in the debate over "animal rights." Peter Singer claims that the ultimate moral principle is impartial concern for the interests of all sentient creatures, which dictates that we might have to sacrifice human interests for the interests of nonhuman animals. Against Singer, de Waal argues that while we should show some sympathy for other animals, our moral obligations to our fellow human beings come first. So, for example, de Waal thinks using primates for scientific research where we would not want to use human beings is justifiable if the benefit for human beings outweighs the suffering of the animals.

In our reading for this seminar, some of the authors interpret the principle of moral impartiality as dictating universal love, like the teaching of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. As I said in the seminar, I am not persuaded by this, because it seems to me that universal love is contrary to human nature. A morality of universal love would dictate absolute pacifism and socialism in the pursuit of global peaceful cooperation free of any conflict. But we know that doesn't work. In fact, refusing to punish evildoers would make human morality impossible.

This point came up in our fourth meeting as we discussed my Darwinian Natural Right and John Hare's criticism of my book. Hare is a Kantian Christian. He agrees with me that complete moral impartiality as dictating universal love is unnatural for human beings. But then he says this only shows the "moral gap" between what morality demands of us and what we can do. To cross that moral gap--to satisfy the demands of morality--we need the assistance of God. This leads him into his divine command theory of morality. Against the secular Kantianism of people like Korsgaard, Hare defends a religious Kantianism based on the claim that Kant's categorical morality cannot be obeyed by human beings without some religious support.

Darwin intimates the religious character of Kant's moral philosophy when he quotes Kant's depiction of moral law as evoking "reverence." Moreover, in the passage from the Critique of Practical Reason from which Darwin quotes, Kant speaks of "man as belonging to two worlds"--the phenomenal world of natural causes and the noumenal world of human freedom. But then Darwin indicates that he will explain morality "exclusively from the side of natural history." So, implicitly, Darwin rejects Kant's "two worlds" in favor of one world--the empirical world of nature.

This points us again to the fundamental debate between Platonic transcendentalism and Humean naturalism. In the last meeting of our seminar, I began by suggesting that if we're laying out a typology of fundamental sources of moral principles invoked in moral philosophy, we might consider six possible sources:

1. Cosmic God
2. Cosmic Nature
3. Cosmic Reason
4. Human Nature
5. Human Culture
6. Human Individuals

The transcendentalists look to the first three--the cosmic sources of moral order--because they believe that morality cannot have "moral clout" (in Richard Joyce's phrase) unless it is believed to be part of the cosmic order of things as dictated by God, by the nature of the universe, or by universal rational structures. So just as we discover mathematical principles as somehow woven into the constitution of the world, we should be able to discover moral principles as part of the "wisdom of the world" (in Remi Brague's phrase).

The empiricists, however, look to the second three sources--the human sources of moral order. Human nature gives us the generic goods of life as rooted in the natural desires of the human species as shaped by evolutionary history--perhaps the 20 natural desires that I have sketched. But within the contraints of human nature, human culture specifies the moral traditions of human morality as shaped by cultural history. Then, within the constraints of both human nature and human culture, human individuals make choices that reflect the uniqueness of their individual temperaments, abilities, and circumstances as shaped by their individual history.

Kant's "pure ethics" corresponds to the transcendental order of the first three sources. His "impure ethics" corresponds to the human order of the last three sources.

Philosophers like Kant and Hare are satisfied Platonists because they believe that morality really does find its transcendent grounds in the cosmic sources. But philosophers like Richard Joyce and John Mackie are frustrated Platonists who agree that "moral clout" requires belief in "moral facts" as cosmic facts beyond the "natural facts," but they are convinced by natural science that this belief is false, because what appears to be a cosmic moral objectivity is actually a subjective projection of the human moral emotions onto the cosmos, and therefore morality is necessarily fictional.

By contrast, the satisfied Humeans--those like Darwin and Westermarck--see no need for morality conforming to a moral cosmology, and so the illusion of moral objectivity as founded on moral cosmology can be exposed for the illusion that it is, even as we accept the purely naturalistic grounds of morality in human experience--human nature, human culture, and human individuality.

The Humeans and Darwinians accept the historical contingency of morality as shaped by the genetic history of human nature, the social history of human culture, and the personal history of human individuality. The good is the desirable. But what is desirable varies according to the contingencies of human cultures and human individuals. Even so, the generic goods of human nature are stable and universal across all of human history for as long as the human species exists. And yet, there was a time when the human species did not exist, and there will be a time sometime in the future when the human species will be extinct. In the absence of the human species, morality would not exist. If some other species develops the capacities necessary for a moral sense, it will have a moral sense, but the content of that moral sense will be distinct to its specific nature.

On the last day of this seminar, we spent the afternoon touring some sites around Oxford associated with C. S. Lewis. It was fitting that we did this, because Lewis struggled his whole life with the consequences of the modern scientific rejection of the moral cosmology of the ancient and medieval world that Lewis loved.

Lewis was a student at Oxford, and then he taught for 30 years as a Fellow at Magdalen College at Oxford. He was a scholar of medieval and renaissance literature. But he is best known as the author of some of the most popular works of Christian apologetics and literature, including science fiction and children's fantasy.

We toured his house ("The Kilns"), Magdalen College, and the graveyard where he is buried outside his parish church--Holy Trinity Church in Headington.  At the house, our tour was guided by Michael Ward, a chaplain at Oxford and the author of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Ward argues in his book that Lewis's love of medieval cosmology provides the key to the symbolic coherence of Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, which became one of the most popular series of children's fantasy novels of the twentieth century. Ward shows how each of the seven novels in the series corresponds to the seven planets of medieval cosmology.

I have written an earlier post on Lewis' book The Discarded Image as his study of the geocentric cosmic model that combined Platonic and Christian teachings about the moral order of the universe as designed by God. This model shaped the human sense of cosmic moral order in the Western world for almost 2,000 years before it was discarded by modern science.

Lewis' transcendent longings were satisfied by that cosmic vision of the world as a creation of God's love that offered ultimate satisfaction to the human yearning for meaning and purpose in the universe. Lewis doubted that modern natural science could ever provide a proper substitute for that old cosmology. And yet Lewis was a theistic evolutionist who accepted the scientific truth of evolutionary science, even if he doubted that such a science could ever give us the moral truth that we seek. I suggest, however, that what Lewis in The Abolition of Man lays out as the "common morality" (or Tao) of humanity--universally found in all human societies throughout history--points to the sort of natural morality that is supported by evolutionary reasoning.

A few of my previous posts on pertinent themes can be found hereherehere, here, here, and here.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"Evolution and Ethics" Seminar at Oxford University

Today, I will be travelling to England. Next week, I will be helping to direct a week-long seminar at Oxford University on "Evolution and Ethics." The following week, Ryan Nichols of Cal State Fullerton will direct a second week in the seminar. The participants are mostly philosophy professors and students from China. This is part of a program organized by Kelly Clark of Calvin College with the support of the John Templeton Foundation. In October, we will all meet in China for a conference to present papers coming out of the seminar.

Since this topic is intensely controversial, I think the best way to study it is to read texts that represent distinct positions in the debate. So, for each day of my seminar, I have readings that show this debate.

For the first day, I will introduce the readings and comment on how I developed my interest in this area of study. While most of the participants are philosophers, I come at this from the perspective of a political scientist who studies the history of political philosophy from antiquity to the present. Because of that, I tend to stress the historical development of the topic, and I tend to look back to classic texts.

My interest in all of this started with my earliest studies of Aristotle's political philosophy as set forth in his Nicomachean Ethics, his Politics, and his Rhetoric, which present the study of the "regime" (politeia)--the way of life of a political community--as encompassing moral character formation, political behavior and institutions, and rhetoric. I noticed that Aristotle repeatedly compares human beings with other animals, and this led me into studying his biological works, and particularly his account of the biology of political animals.

I also noticed that Aristotle's devotion to biological studies seemed to distinguish him from Plato. Aristotle's criticisms of Plato's Theory of the Ideas seemed to suggest an opposition between Aristotle's biological empiricism and Plato's transcendental idealism. As I have indicated in some posts, this contrast can be overdone if one does not see that Plato's Socrates shows some skepticism about the moral cosmology taught by Plato's Athenian stranger and by Timaeus. But even so, one can see in Aristotle's response to Plato that he saw problems with Platonic idealism, and he saw his biological studies as a turning away from such idealism. One can also see this contrast in Aristotle's defense of rhetoric and rhetorical appeals to the moral emotions, as contrasted with Plato's scorn for rhetoric as mere sophistry. The debate over evolutionary ethics shows this continuing debate between Platonic transcendentalism and Aristotelian empiricism.

I will also suggest, in the first meeting of the seminar, that the history of evolutionary ethics can be understood as showing four waves. The first wave was Darwin's classic statement of evolutionary ethics in The Descent of Man. Although there are obvious gaps in Darwin's knowledge that have been filled by later research--for example, genetics, neuroscience, and careful studies of animal behavior--all of the major insights of evolutionary ethics are already there in Darwin's book. But this first wave of Darwinian ethics came to an end when many Darwinians--particularly, Thomas Huxley--asserted a dichotomy between natural facts and moral values that denied Darwin's evolutionary ethics.

The second wave came at the beginning of the twentieth century with Edward Westermarck's revival and elaboration of Darwin's evolutionary ethics, based largely on bringing together the moral psychology of David Hume and Adam Smith and the evolutionary science of Darwin. Westermarck's work fell into neglect, however, as a consequence of the post-World-War-II revulsion against biological explanations of human nature as associated with the Nazis and Social Darwinism.

The third wave of evolutionary ethics came with the publication of Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975. On the first page of that book, Wilson declared that one great achievement of sociobiology would be explaining human morality as rooted in the emotion control centers of the brain and thus rejecting the rationalist transcendentalism that had become prevalent in modern moral philosophy. This provoked a passionate outcry from those who saw this as crude biological reductionism. In fact, even the leading proponents of "evolutionary psychology" (Tooby, Cosmides, Buss, and others) rejected Wilson's Darwinian ethics as violating the fact-value distinction.

The fourth (and current) wave of evolutionary ethics came with the publication of Wilson's Consilience in 1998. This book was a masterful synthesis of the research done since 1975 supporting Wilson's project for sociobiology as the ground for a grand unification of all knowledge, including ethics. By 1998, the research in ethology, neuroscience, genetics, biological anthropology, behavioral game theory, and gene-culture coevolution confirmed Wilson's claim that the absolute separation of natural facts and moral values was a false dichotomy. Consequently, more and more scholars in psychology, anthropology, philosophy, and political science are beginning to take evolutionary ethics seriously, although the opponents are still resolute in their opposition.

For the second day of our seminar, we will read selections from Darwin's Descent and George Jackson Mivart's critical review of the book. Here we will see the fundamental debate that continues to run through all of the controversy over evolutionary ethics, a debate that can even be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Mivart is a Kantian who rejects Darwin's Humean moral psychology as failing to see that morality is autonomous--governed by its own internal, logical rules without reference to human emotions and desires. The influence of David Hume and Adam Smith on Darwin set Darwinian ethics in stark opposition to the transcendental ethics of Kant. That's why Ed Wilson in Consilience explains the ultimate debate in moral psychology as between the transcendentalists who see morality as rooted in some cosmic order outside the human mind and the empiricists who see morality as an expression of the human mind.

For the third day, we will turn to Frans de Waal and other authors in the book Primates and Philosophers. Here we will see de Waal taking the Humean position of Darwin against the Kantian position of Mivart, while de Waal's critics (particularly, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer) lean towards the Kantian side of the debate, arguing that the moral "ought" belongs to an autonomous realm outside of nature. And yet, all of these critics make concessions to de Waal's Darwinian/Westermarckian account of the moral emotions that suggests some retreat from the position of Kantian moral transcendentalism as based on pure reason.

For the fourth day of our seminar, we will turn to my Darwinian Natural Right and the criticisms of my book coming from John Hare, a philosopher at Yale. Hare is a Christian Kantian. And once again, one can see here the Hume/Kant debate continued in the debate over evolutionary ethics. (I have written some posts in response to Hare.)

For the fifth day, we will discuss Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, with me defending Darwinian ethics against my critics. And, again, I think we'll see the basic contrast between the biological empiricism of my Darwinian naturalism and the transcendental idealism of my critics. And, of course, here, as in all of our reading, we will see the dispute over whether morality is possible without some religious belief in God as the ultimate source and authority for moral law.

I might have a chance to write some posts on the course of the discussions in the seminar.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why It's Natural to Believe in God: Justin Barrett and David Hume

In Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism, I identify the desire for religious understanding as one of the twenty natural desires rooted in our evolved human nature. Human beings generally desire to understand the world as governed by gods or God, because this satisfies their natural longing to make sense of things that would otherwise be incomprehensible. I must admit, however, that I have offered very little support--arguments or evidence--for this assertion. But I do believe that the recent research on the evolutionary and cognitive causes of religious belief goes a long way to substantiate my position. 

The general reasoning for how religious belief evolved as an innate disposition of human nature is laid out by David Hume and Charles Darwin. This new research provides elaborate theoretical and empirical grounds for their naturalisitic account of religion. One of the best surveys of this research is Justin Barrett's Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004). Barrett is a Christian evolutionist. And although he never mentions Hume, his work largely confirms what Hume says in his Natural History of Religion (Clarendon Press, 2007). Barrett is a psychologist who specializes in the evolutionary and cognitive psychology of religious belief. His main conclusion is that believing in God is a natural, almost inevitable, consequence of the innate propensities of the human mind as shaped by natural selection in evolutionary history. By contrast, atheism is unnatural, because it goes against the grain of those evolved propensities of the human mind, which is why atheism is so rare in human history. 

Drawing from research in cognitive science and evolutionary psychology, Barrett lays the foundation for his argument in the claim that regardless of culture, human beings all over the world and throughout history have had similar minds insofar as they are directed by cognitive structures designed by evolution to perform specific tasks in ways that have been adaptive in human evolutionary history. These "mental tools" operate largely beneath conscious awareness, although they influence our conscious beliefs by making some reflective beliefs more plausible than others. For example, it is clear that human infants are born with a "face detector." They can discern faces and imitate facial expressions, long before they are aware of their own faces. Obviously, such a mental tool would have been adaptive for mammalian offspring who must attach themselves to parental caregivers. 

Research suggests that there are other intuitive mental tools that incline human beings to religious beliefs. (Here Barrett builds particularly on the work of Pascal Boyer in arguing that religion has evolved as a byproduct of innate mental mechanisms shaped by biological evolution.) Human beings seem to have an innate "agency detection device" for identifying objects in the environment--like animals and other human beings--that move themselves for the sake of goals according to mental states like beliefs and desires. Once such agents have been detected, the "theory of mind" tool (ToM) generates predictions about the mental states of these agents and how these mental states might direct their actions.

Human beings need to track their social exchanges with these agents--who owes what to whom--and their minds seem to have a "social exchange regulator" that does this. As naturally social animals whose survival and reproductive fitness has depended on a subtle negotiation of the complex social interactions among human agents, human beings have been endowed by evolution with these intuitive mental tools necessary for social life. Identifying agents is attractive to us because it allows us to explain and predict events and thus make sense of those events by telling stories about how agents act. 

For that reason, our agency detection device becomes hypersensitive: we detect agency based upon limited evidence. Particularly, in urgent situations of distress where we cannot account for what is happening based on natural causes, we are quick to infer supernatural agents at work. When human beings suffer misfortune with no clearly apparent causes, they are naturally inclined to look for supernatural agents at work. They then want to negotiate with these agents--such as ancestral spirits, ghosts, or gods--to protect themselves from harm. 

This sounds a lot like the old idea of anthropomorphism as the basis of religious belief--the idea that human beings project human qualities onto the cosmos. But Barrett's research suggests that anthropomorphism is actually only part of the larger idea of agency. In detecting divine agency, we are not limited to the qualities of human agency. For example, we can imagine that gods are immortal, while human beings are not. 

Much of Barrett's research involves the study of how children develop their ideas of agents--human, animal, and divine. Although the particular content of their religious concepts reflects the religious teaching in their cultural environment, Barrett claims that there are some universal patterns in how children think that suggests they are "intuitive theists." 

Although it is common among those who study religion scientifically to assume that all religions can be explained in the same general ways, and therefore all religions are equal from a scientific point of view, Barrett argues against this, claiming that some religious traditions have a selective advantage in cultural evolution, because some religions are better than others in satisfying the innate mental tools of the evolved human mind. He thinks the Abrahamic monotheistic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are more naturally attractive to the human mind. The human mind is naturally inclined to believe in the divine traits of the Abrahamic God--God as superknowing, God as superperceiving, God as immortal, God as superpowerful, and God as a Creator. (Barrett admits, however, that in some parts of the world--China, for example--monotheism has not been widely successful [91].) 

It is not clear to me that Barrett's favored form of monotheism coincides exactly with the God of the Bible and the Koran. Barrett writes: "I have argued that a superknowing, superperceiving, superpowerful, immortal, and (perhaps) supergood god possesses strong selective advantages, such that once it is introduced, belief in such a god should spread quite well. This supergod concept matches well (but not perfectly) with the God of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and other religious traditions as well. However, belief in a deity such as God does not preclude belief in minor gods, particularly ghosts and ancestor spirits. . . . Nothing in the previous discussion precludes the possibility that these spirits (or others) might act locally while a supreme God takes care of cosmic business or serves in a management capacity. I find the historical fact that ancestor worship, saint cults, and other peripheral religious activities continue to exist alongside 'monotheistic' traditions unsurprising. Monotheism does not appear to be a cognitively privileged form of theology except perhaps through considerations of parsimony" (89-90). 

Barrett's qualifications here are remarkable. The "supergod concept" does not perfectly match the God of the Abrahamic religions. In fact, Barrett never quotes any passages from the Bible or the Koran in laying out his "supergod concept." And he actually concedes that some of the central teachings of the Bible--like the Trinity and the Incarnation of Jesus--are not intuitively appealing to the ordinary human mind (82, 100). He also admits that monotheism in practice often coexists with polytheistic beliefs (such as ancestor worship and saint cults). Barrett says that "the threat of eternal damnation or other punishment for disbelief is not a common thread in broadly theistic belief systems and does not even occur consistently in Christianity" (121). So it seems that Barrett wants to interpret his "supergod concept" as excluding any teaching about Hell and eternal damnation. But how is this consistent with the belief that God appeals to our instinctive morality by punishing the bad, even when they have escaped punishment in their earthly life (50, 54-55)? 

Barrett reports that when he presents his arguments in public lectures, many of his listeners conclude that he is attacking religion. Religious believers think he is defending evolutionary science as an alternative to creationism. Atheists think he is confirming their assumption that religious belief arises from some unconscious compulsion of the mind contrary to logic and evidence. But Barrett himself is a Christian evolutionist who sees no conflict between his evolutionary account of religion and his religious beliefs. He writes: "God created people with the capability to know and love him but with the free will to reject him. Consequently, our God-endowed nature leads us to believe, but human endeavors apart from God's design may result in disbelief. Even if this natural tendency toward belief in God can be conclusively demonstrated to be the work of evolved capacities, Christians need not be deterred. God may have fine-tuned the cosmos to allow for life and for evolution and then orchestrated mutations and selection to produce the sort of organisms we are--evolution through 'supernatural selection'" (123).

Barrett concludes that while science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, what we learn from science can be compatible with religious belief. On a number of points, Barrett's position agrees with that of Hume, particularly in his The Natural History of Religion. Hume sees that with only a few possible exceptions, "belief of invisible, intelligent power" is almost universal," because religious belief is rooted in human nature. Religious belief is naturally appealing to the human mind because it allows us to explain human fortune and misfortune as the result of divine agents. 

Hume writes: "Though the stupidity of men, barbarous and uninstructed, be so great, that they may not see a sovereign author in the more obvious works of nature, to which they are so much familiarized; yet it scarcely seems possible, that any one of good understanding should reject that idea, when once it is suggested to him. A purpose, an intention, a design is evident in every thing; and when our comprehension is so far enlarged as to contemplate the first rise of the visible system, we must adopt, with the strongest conviction, the idea of some intelligent cause or author" (85). Moreover, "the universal propensity to believe in invisible, intelligent power, if not an original instinct, being at least a general attendant of human nature, may be considered as a kind of mark or stamp, which the divine workman has set upon his work" (86). 

Hume thinks that ordinary human beings are strongly disposed to polytheism, and so even within monotheistic traditions, there will be other divinities in popular practice beyond the supreme God. Just as Barrett offers the "supergod concept" as the purest form of religious belief, Hume speaks of "true religion" or "philosophical theism" as the highest attainment of religious thought (34-36, 41, 44, 47-48, 52-53, 58, 71-72, 85-87). 

Barrett stresses the limitations of science and human knowledge generally that push us towards religious belief. For example, Barrett argues, it's just as impossible to prove the existence of other minds as it is to prove the existence of God. We all believe that other human beings have minds like ours. But the mind is invisible and immaterial. We know our own minds by introspective, subjective awareness. But we cannot observe the mind directly, and so we cannot verify or falsify the mind's existence by the normal methods of scientific testing. And yet we are absolutely certain of the existence of other minds. Similarly, we can believe in God's existence as supreme Mind, even though we can't prove this belief by empirical testing. 

Moreover, we cannot scientifically explain the origins of the laws of nature or why the universe has those natural laws that make our existence possible. Here we reach the limits of scientific reasoning about natural causes. 

Like Barrett, Hume stresses our ignorance of causes as the opening to religious belief. He writes: "We are placed in this world, as in a great theatre, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent those ills, with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed among the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear . . . the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers, on which we have so entire a dependence" (40). 

Hume concludes: "The whole is a riddle, an enigma, an inexplicable mystery. Doubt, uncertainty, suspense of judgment appear the only result of our most accurate scrutiny, concerning this subject. But such is the frailty of human reason, and such the irresistible contagion of opinion, that even this deliberate doubt could scarcely be upheld; did we not enlarge our view, and opposing one species of superstition to another, set them a quarrelling; while we ourselves, during their fury and contention, happily make our escape, into the calm, though obscure, regions of philosophy" (87). Some of the posts on related topics can be found herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and .here.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Does Darwinism Make Morality Fictional?

In The Descent of Man, Darwin recognizes the uniqueness of human morality. "Of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important" (Penguin ed., p. 120) This moral sense is "summed up in that short but imperious word ought," which is "the most noble of all the attributes of man, leading him without a moment's hesitation to risk his life for that of a fellow-creature; or after due deliberation, impelled simply by the deep feeling of right or duty, to sacrifice it in some great cause." Darwin then quotes a remark by Immanuel Kant: "Duty! Wondrous thought, that workest neither by fond insinuation, flattery, nor by any threat, but merely by holding up thy naked law in the soul, and so extorting for thyself always reverence, if not always obedience; before whom all appetites are dumb, however secretly they rebel; whence thy original?"

The quotation from Kant is from a passage in his Critique of Practical Reason, which is immediately followed by a passage in which Kant writes about the sense of duty or "ought" as showing us "man as belonging to two worlds"--the empirical (phenomenal) world of natural causes and the transcendental (noumenal) world of moral freedom. By contrast, Darwin indicates that his explanation of morality will be "exclusively from the side of natural history." A careful reader might see here a fundamental difference between the Kantian approach that sees morality as belonging to a transcendent world beyond the natural world and the Darwinian approach that sees morality as belonging completely to "natural history."

In fact, some of Darwin's first readers saw this, and many of them were deeply disturbed by it. For example, Frances Cobbe wrote a review of the book--"Darwinism in Morals"--for the Theological Review, in which she warned that Darwin's rejection of the Kantian view of morality as transcending natural human experience would destroy all morality.

Cobbe saw a fundamental conflict between two views of morality. "Independent or Intuitive morality has, of course, always taught that there is a supreme and necessary moral law common to all free agents in the universe, and known to man by means of a transcendental reason or divine voice of conscience. Dependent or Utilitarian Morality has equally steadily rejected the idea of a law other than the law of utility" (5-6). Darwin clearly takes the second position. She observed "that the Kantian doctrine of Pure Reason, giving us transcendental knowledge of necessary truths, is not entertained by the school of thinkers to which he belongs; and that as for the notion of all the old teachers of the world, the voice of Conscience is the voice of God--the doctrine of Job and Zoroaster, Menu and Pythagoras, Plato and Antonius, Chrysostom and Gregory, Fenelon and Jeremy Taylor,--it can have no place in their science. As Comte would say, we have passed the theologic stage, and must not think of running to a First Cause to explain phenomena. After all (they seem to say), cannot we easily suggest how man might acquire a conscience from causes at work around him?" (7)

Darwin maintained that although the moral sense was unique to human beings, it would be possible for evolutionary history to produce another species of animal with a different kind of moral sense. "Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well developed, as in man." But the content of the moral sense in such an animal would depend upon the desires and needs of the animal. Darwin explained:

"If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right and wrong, or a conscience. For each individual would have an inward sense of possessing certain stronger or more enduring instincts, and others less strong or enduring; so that there would often be a struggle as to which impulse should be followed; and satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or even misery would be felt, as past impressions were compared during their incessant passage through the mind. In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed, and the other ought not; the one would have been right and the other wrong" (122-23).

It seems, than, that the moral sense or conscience--the sense of moral "ought"--is a "feeling of right or wrong" that varies according to the instinctive desires of the species. So far, the human moral sense is the only moral sense, because human beings are the only animals with the evolved capacities for moral judgment. But if any other species of animal were to evolve such moral capacities, their moral sense would differ from the human moral sense depending upon the differences in their instinctive desires.

Cobbe was appalled by this--by the claim that if bees had a moral sense, it would prescribe a sacred duty for sisters to murder their brothers. She saw this as "affirming that, not only has our moral sense come to us from a source commanding no special respect, but that it answers to no external or durable, not to say universal or eternal, reality, and is merely tentative and provisional, the provincial prejudice, as we may describe it, of this little world and its temporary inhabitants, which would be looked on with a smile of derision by better-informed people now residing on Mars, or hereafter to be developed on earth, and who in their turn may be considered as walking in a vain shadow by other races" (10). She warned: "Our moral sense, however acquired, does not, it is asserted, correspond to anything real outside of itself, to any law which must be the same for all Intelligences, mundane or supernal" (28).

Against what she perceived as Darwin's moral nihilism, Cobbe asserted that ethics was a normative science just like geometry in that both ethics and geometry were based on axiomatic principles that all intelligent beings could recognize as necessary truths. "Love your neighbor" is such a necessary truth of morality, and therefore any intelligent being should eventually understand that moral duty dictates universal love, which would be as true for bees as for humans (29).

Other readers besides Cobbe--including George Jackson Mivart and even Alfred Russel Wallace (the co-discoverer of the idea of natural selection)--warned that Darwin's evolutionary account of morality denied the eternal truth of morality as rooted in the transcendent cosmic order of God, Reason, or Nature. The same warning is heard today from proponents of "intelligent design theory" (like John West and Richard Weikart), who insist that morality cannot be sustained if it is not grounded in some transcendent world of moral truth beyond the empirical world of natural causes.

The reasoning for this worry that evolutionary ethics promotes moral nihilism--or at least moral skepticism--has been elaborated by philosopher Richard Joyce in two books: The Myth of Morality (2001) and The Evolution of Morality (2006). Joyce agrees with Cobbe (and Kant) that by definition moral judgments presuppose belief in a transcendent world of moral facts beyond the empirical world of natural facts. But since he denies the truth of that belief, because there really are no such moral facts, he concludes that we cannot know that morality is true, and therefore we cannot know that moral rightness and wrongness really exist. Moreover, he argues that evolutionary ethics necessarily leads us to this conclusion that morality is fictional, because an evolutionary account of morality explains it as arising from the natural facts of human desires and capacities without any reference to any distinctively moral facts.

Joyce believes that Darwin's evolutionary ethics explains the ultimate causes of ethics in a way that confirms David Hume's insight that the human moral sense depends on the human tendency to project emotions onto the world. Hume spoke of the mind's "great propensity to spread itself on objects," because "taste" (as opposed to reason) "has a productive faculty, and gilding and staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises in a manner a new creation." So it is that "vice and virtue may be compared to sounds, colours, heat and cold, which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects but perceptions in the mind." And yet, our human moral principles can be enduring, if not universal, insofar as our moral emotions reflect the "universal constitution of human nature." For Hume, the explanation of the origins of human morality ended with some final appeal to human nature as ultimate cause, because he could not go any further to explain the original causes of human nature itself. But here is where Darwin could adopt Hume's account of the natural moral sense, but then go further in developing an evolutionary explanation for how human nature as endowed with a moral sense could have arisen.

But while Joyce accepts this Humean/Darwinian account of morality as an evolved propensity of human nature to project human moral emotions onto the world, he cannot believe that this is a full explanation of morality, because he agrees with Kant that moral concepts necessarily presuppose belief in a transcendent world of moral facts. Like many moral philosophers--from Plato to Kant--Joyce embraces a transcendental view of morality in contrast to the empirical view of morality taken by those like Hume and Darwin. In other words, Joyce agrees with Reme Brague that morality requires a moral cosmology, so that morality can be understood as having an eternal truth as corresponding to some cosmic order of God, Reason, or Nature. But since Joyce denies the reality of that moral cosmos, he must conclude that morality cannot be known to be true.

In this way, Joyce is like Nietzsche, who accepted the Platonic/Kantian teaching that morality must be grounded in some transcendent reality of the Idea of the Good, Pure Reason, or Divine Law, but who denied the truth of that belief in transcendent moral order, and therefore worried that moral nihilism was inevitable. Nietzsche's response to this dilemma was to try to create a new myth with a new religion of Dionysus that would support a new morality of nobility as commanded by new philosophers shaping a new human future.

Joyce's response to his similar dilemma is unclear. On the one hand, he insists that morality is impossible without the "moral clout" that comes from believing in the eternal truth of moral facts, which provides the strength of will to overcome the weakness of will that plagues us when we rely on merely prudential reasoning about what is desirable for us. On the other hand, he also insists that human beings have evolved motivations for good conduct even when they don't believe in God or eternal moral duty (2006: 224).

Joyce admits that a strong sense of transcendent moral duty can often support an authoritarian morality that does great damage. After all, human history gives us many examples of atrocities committed by people who thought they were doing their moral duty.

As I have indicated in previous posts, many of the Nazi philosophers were neo-Kantians who believed in "eternal values" and in Nazism as fulfilling that eternal moral order. Moreover, Claudia Koonz's book The Nazi Conscience (2003) shows how the Nazi regime was organized around a strict communitarian morality of sacrificing selfish interests for the good of the community. Also, Jonathan Glover's moral history of the 20th century shows how the greatest atrocities were committed by those moved by a fanatical utopian Belief in the goodness of their cause.

Joyce's answer to this problem is to say that this only shows the danger in wrong moral beliefs! But this makes us wonder how the purity of moral judgment as separated from prudential judgment can be preserved if we have to judge the rightness or wrongness of moral beliefs. According to Joyce, morality "functions to bolster self-control. It imbues certain desirable actions with a 'must-be-doneness,' which raises the likelihood of their being performed. . . . It goes without saying that if this 'must-be-doneness' were attached to the wrong actions--undesirable ones--then it would be disastrous in practical terms" (2001: 181).

But now it seems that Joyce is subordinating his categorical imperatives of moral duty to the hypothetical imperatives of prudential calculation, because now it seems that we don't know whether this "must-be-doneness" really must be done until we have judged that the outcome will be desirable for us! If so, then Joyce ends up agreeing with me that "the good is the desirable."

Joyce's reasoning would be clearer to me if he had compared his position with Edward Westermarck's. Westermarck's elaboration of Darwinian evolutionary morality is remarkably similar to Joyce's--particularly, in the claim that morality arises from evolved moral emotions and therefore that moral concepts have no objectivity insofar as they have no real existence apart from the human mind. But while Westermarck develops his Darwinian ethics as a total rejection of Kant's transcendentalist "two worlds" view, Joyce agrees with Kant that moral concepts by definition must refer to some transcendental realm of eternal cosmic order.

Like Westermarck, I am on the side of Darwin against Cobbe. I agree that believing in a moral law grounded in divine will or transcendent reason might strengthen the moral motivation of people with such a belief. But it seems clear to me that people can still have a strong motivation for moral conduct when they believe that morality has no other ground than the evolved human nature of our moral emotions.

By contrast, Joyce can't decide whether he's on Darwin's side or Cobbe's side. He seems to agree with Darwin that human morality can be fully explained "exclusively from the side of natural history." But then he also seems to agree with Cobbe that human morality cannot be fully explained without some belief in "the Kantian doctrine of a Pure Reason, giving us transcendental knowledge of necessary truths," or in the idea that "the voice of Conscience is the voice of God."

A few of the many posts on related themes can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Cobbe, Frances. 1872. Darwinism in Morals: And Other Essays. London: Williams and Norgate.

Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man. 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books.

Joyce, Richard.  2001. The Myth of Morality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Joyce, Richard. 2006. The Evolution of Morality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Nazi Philosophers: Plato, Fichte, Nietzsche, Heidegger

On January 30, 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor. In April, the new Nazi government began dismissing Jewish professors from their university positions, including at least twenty German philosophy professors. On May 1, Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in a public ceremony.

On May 4, Heidegger at Freiburg University began his first lecture for his course on "The Basic Problems of Philosophy." He said that German students had a new purpose:

"It is determined to find discipline and education, to make itself ready and strong for a political and spiritual leadership conferred on it in behalf of coming generations. The question is whether or not we want to create a spiritual world. If we cannot do so, some kind of savagery or other will come over us and we will reach an end as a historical people."

On May 27, Heidegger was inaugurated as rector of Freiburg University in a ceremony with Nazi flags and many Nazi authorities in attendance. In his inaugural rectoral address, "The Self-Assertion of the German University," Heidegger spoke of the need for philosophy to exercise "spiritual leadership" in the present world-historical crisis, so that Germany could fulfil its historical mission as grounded in a new order of being. He concluded by quoting from Plato's Republic.

After his speech, the students pledged their loyalty to Hitler as the leader of the nation. All those present sang the "Horst-Wessel Lied," the anthem of the Nazi Party, as they raised their arms in the Nazi salute, and then they concluded with repeated shouts of "Seig Heil!"

Heidegger never renounced his Nazism or apologized for his active support of the Nazi Party. Even after the war, he continued to affirm the "inner truth and greatness of the movement." That such a prominent philosopher--perhaps even the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century--was a Nazi has created an emotional debate over what this might mean. Recently, a new book by Emmanuel Faye has renewed this debate, because he argues that Heidegger's philosophic ideas continue to promote Nazi-like thinking today. An recent article favorable to the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education stirred anger from Heidegger's philosophic defenders.

There are some big questions here about the relationship between philosophy and politics. Does the support of Nazism by German philosophers show the dangerous tendency of philosophers to support tyranny? If so, what traditions of philosophy are most prone to such mistakes?

Critics of Darwinian science often put the blame for Nazism on the influence of Social Darwinism. But this support for the Nazis among the German philosophers suggests that explaining Nazism as Social Darwinism can't be the whole story. Most of these Nazi philosophers were actually opponents of Darwinian science, because they feared that it promoted a morally corrupting scientific materialism. Against the materialism of modern science, they argued for a metaphysical idealism, which is evident in their interpretations of Nazi ideology.

Hermann Schwarz declared: "The German people have become what the Greeks once were, the human nation to whom the meaning of the universe is linked." Nicolai Hartmann said that Plato was right that "all value is eternal and all meaning eternal meaning." Bruno Bauch agreed with Plato's attack on sophistic relativism and affirmation of "objective values" as set by the eternal Idea of the Good.

For me, this suggests that the evils of Nazism flowed from a metaphysical tradition of idealist utopian philosophy that stretches from Plato to Fichte to Nietzsche to Heidegger.

It's hard to see this, however, if one concentrates just on Heidegger, and fails to see how Heidegger was part of a larger philosophical movement in German history. The controversy over Heidegger's Nazism and the possibility that Nazi ideology was particularly rooted in Heidegger's ideas is misconceived insofar as it ignores the historical circumstances of German philosophy that shaped Heidegger. That broader intellectual history is well studied in Hans Sluga's Heidegger's Crisis: Philosophy and Politics in Nazi Germany (Harvard University Press, 1993).

Sluga shows that most of the prominent German philosophers who stayed in Germany after Hitler's ascent to power publicly supported Hitler and Nazi ideology. 30 German philosophers joined the Nazi Party in 1933. By 1940, almost half of Germany's academic philosophers were Nazis. But since we have forgotten that history, we give too much significance to Heidegger's Nazism as if it were an isolated case. Sluga's history shows that in fact the many German philosophers who became Nazis manifested a wide range of often conflicting philosophical positions. The common assumption that the major philosophical position supporting Nazism was some kind of moral relativism (such as Nietzschean subjective value relativism) is not correct. Many, if not most, of the Nazi philosophers--for example, Nicolai Hartmann, Bruno Bauch, Hans Heyse, Hermann Schwarz and many others in the German Philosophical Society--were Kantian idealists who assumed a metaphysical order of objective eternal values, and who argued that it was the destiny of the German nation to be rooted in that eternal order of value.

This Kantian philosophical idealism of German nationalism as appealing to eternal values goes back to the founding statement of German nationalism--Johann Gottlieb Fichte's Addresses to the German Nation of 1807. Fichte saw Napoleon's conquest of Germany as creating a world-historical crisis in which the metaphysical destiny of Germany to save humanity could be fulfilled only through extraordinary spiritual leadership that ground German life in an eternal order of values. He developed these four themes--crisis, nation, leadership, and order--in the context of his Kantian idealism. Sluga shows that Heidegger's Rectoral Address and all of the other writing of the Nazi philosophers turn on these same four themes.

The alliance of the German philosophers with Nazism manifests the danger in philosophers becoming corrupted by political power, a danger that goes back to Plato and his Republic in his attempt to ground political order in a metaphysical order of cosmic morality. In asserting the need for philosophers to assume "spiritual leadership" in Nazi Germany, Heidegger and the other Nazi philosophers explicitly invoked the teaching of Plato's Republic. Sluga observes: "For the Nazi philosophers, Plato became the most authoritative political thinker and the Republic the most widely read work on political theory" (175).

Heidegger told Karl Jaspers that he wanted to "lead the Leader." He even requested a meeting with Hitler himself. But Hitler was not interested, and they never met.

In Heidegger's writing, all four of the Fichtean concepts--crisis, nation, leadership, and order--assume a transcendental metaphysics, because he sees a "spiritual" meaning in the crisis, in the mission of Germany, in the leadership required, and in the fundamental order that is needed. By speaking of his "spiritual leadership" (geistige Fuhrung), Heidegger appealed to the German idealist tradition for which "spirit" (Geist) was a central theme. So although Heidegger's existential ontology was counter to the German idealist tradition, his metaphysical German nationalism evoked the idealist ideas going back to Fichte.

In the lectures of 1935 that were later published as his Introduction to Metaphysics (Doubleday Anchor, 1961), Heidegger identified Germany as "the most metaphysical of nations" that must move itself and the whole history of the West "into the primordial realm of the powers of being" (31-32) by asking "the fundamental question of metaphysics" as to the meaning of Being (35). In this way, Germany would become the most spiritual of all nations: "For all true power and beauty of the body, all sureness and boldness in combat, all authenticity and inventiveness of the understanding, are grounded in the spirit and rise or fall only through the power or impotence of the spirit. The spirit is the sustaining, dominating principle, the first and the last" (39).

According to Fichte's transcendental rationalism, the history of humanity was the history of reason. In that rational history, Germany was destined to promote true philosophy that would grasp "the eternal archetype of all spiritual life" and thus secure "the education of the perfect man" in the "perfect state." Germany would thus educate its students in the "moral world order." Heidegger and the other Nazi philosophers saw Nazism as fulfilling this Fichtean vision of the metaphysical destiny of Germany.

In his first book, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche continued the metaphysical nationalism of Fichte. The Nazis often cited this book. In his later writings, however, Nietzsche turned against the transcendental metaphysics of Fichte and Kant. But even so, I would say, the later Nietzsche followed the argument of F. A. Lange's History of Materialism in striving to overcome the degrading effects of scientific materialism through "the standpoint of the ideal" by leading Europe towards a new redemptive religion of Dionysus. He thus turned away from the anti-metaphysical Darwinism of his middle writings--Human, All Too Human, Daybreak, and the first four books of The Gay Science--to return in his later writings to the religious longings and metaphysical redemption that he had sought in his youth.

So, despite the conflicts among the Nazi philosophers--between the conservative philosophy of Kantian idealism and the radical philosophy of Nietzsche and Heidegger--they all took for granted the metaphysical German nationalism of Fichte, which they saw as traceable back to the Greek philosophers, and particularly the political metaphysics of Plato's Republic.

The mistake of the Nazi philosophers was Plato's mistake--the mistake of thinking that political order can be grounded in an eternal metaphysical order as discovered by philosophers who then exercise spiritual leadership in politics.

To avoid this mistake, philosophers need to see that philosophy is primarily an exercise in questioning the order of nature and human existence with no hope of finding any absolute metaphysical answers, and therefore the moral and political order of human life must be grounded in ordinary human experience--human desires and needs--rather than any eternal cosmic order. The Socratic life itself--the life of continual questioning--suggests that Socrates was a philosophic skeptic rather than a Platonic idealist.

Nietzsche embraced this Socratic skepticism in his middle writings by denying any claim to metaphysical knowledge and embracing Darwinian evolution as a science of "humble truths." In this Darwinian period of Nietzsche's writing, he saw the philosopher as a "free spirit" or "free thinker" who devotes himself to ceaseless questioning and lives content with tentative answers. This led him to warn against transcendental longings and tyrannical power sanctioned by delusional appeals to metaphysical order. He endorsed liberal democracy as the best regime for such a free spirited philosopher and scientist, because such a regime would leave such people free to think and question.

Oddly enough, this conception of philosophy as perpetual questioning was apparently embraced by Heidegger, but then he tried to argue that the order of primordial questioning of Being could become the metaphysical ground of German political order. He didn't see that philosophy as questioning would throw into doubt any political claim to metaphysical order.

Understanding philosophy as skeptical questioning should have led Heidegger back to the Nietzsche of Human, All Too Human, which would have led him away from the illusory metaphysical certainty of German nationalism, and which would have led him to see that Socratic philosophy is most secure in a liberal democratic regime. Instead, Heidegger asserted that Germany was the metaphysical center of Europe, with America at one end and Russia at the other, and "from a metaphysical point of view," American democracy and Russian Marxism were the same.

We might see here that Leo Strauss corrected Heidegger in seeing the danger of tyranny in Platonic political metaphysics, affirming Socratic philosophy as perpetual questioning without metaphysical certainty, and seeing that liberal democracy might provide the best conditions for such Socratic philosophizing.

But as far as I know, Strauss never recognized how this line of thought leads back to Nietzsche's middle writings as shaped by Nietzsche's insight into how a Darwinian science of evolutionary history supports Socratic philosophic skepticism.

Some of these points about Plato, Nietzsche, and Darwin have been elaborated in previous posts found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., here, and here.