Thursday, February 25, 2010

Culture Vultures and Sick Societies

As sociologist George Homans once observed, many social scientists are "culture vultures." Culture vultures explain social behavior by saying that this is "because of the culture." The problem is that this doesn't really explain anything, unless we can explain why a culture is the way it is and how it came to be that way. To explain how and why cultural beliefs and practices work (or don't work) the way they do, we need to explain how cultural history is constrained by human nature. But modern proponents of the idea of culture often reject this, because they think of culture as a constructive activity that transcends nature.

Immanuel Kant originally formulated the modern concept of culture (Kultur), particularly in his essay "Speculative Beginning of Human History" and in his Critique of Judgment (secs. 83-84). Kant conceived of culture as that uniquely human realm of artifice in which human beings escape their natural animality to express their rational humanity as the only beings who have a "supersensible faculty" for moral freedom. Through culture, human beings free themselves from the laws of nature. Although culture has become a vague concept in the social sciences, it retains all of the central features prescribed by Kant. (1) Culture is uniquely human. (2) It is uniquely human because only human beings have the understanding and the will to set purposes for themselves by free choice. (3) Culture is an autonomous human artifice that transcends nature. (4) Culture is the necessary condition for forming moral values.

This understanding of culture entered English anthropology in 1871, when Edward Tylor in Primitive Culture defined culture as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." Beyond anthropology, this concept of culture supports the common view of the "social sciences" and the "humanities" as separated from the "natural sciences." The "sciences of the spirit" (Geisteswissenschaften) must be separated from the "sciences of nature" (Naturwissenschaften). This same separation supports the idea of history as the human transcendence of nature.

Darwin's argument for the continuity between human beings and other animals denies the Kantian concept of culture by denying the dichotomies on which it rests: biology versus culture, nature versus nurture, instinct versus learning, animality versus humanity, facts versus values. But those social scientists who accept Darwin's argument provoke intense opposition from their colleagues. For example, the conflict between biological anthropologists and cultural anthropologists often becomes so heated that they have to be put into separate academic departments, because they can't find any common ground.

Human societies are cultural constructions. But cultural constructions are not arbitrary products of some autonomous realm of mental experience that floats above the natural world. The cultural constructions of human society are constrained by the natural desires and natural conditions of human existence.

Far from being set apart from biology, culture is part of animal biology, because if culture is defined as the behavioral transmission of information through social learning and social traditions, then many animals have cultures. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb recognize this in their book Evolution in Four Dimensions, when they present animal cultures as belonging to behavioral inheritance as one of the four dimensions of evolution.

In this way, Jablonka and Lamb break from the Kantian conception of culture as transcending biological nature. But then they also argue for symbolic culture as uniquely human, because it manifests a capacity for symbolic abstraction that goes beyond animal communication through signs.

Although I agree with them about the human uniqueness of symbolic culture, I am dissatisfied by their failure to elaborate a Darwinian science of symbolic culture and by their occasional suggestions that symbolic culture can become a purely arbitrary construction. I agree with them that although social events are unique as products of contingent circumstances, we should be able to develop "a general theory of historical cultural changes" (228). But while I think such a general theory of culture requires a general theory of human nature--of the regularities of natural human desires and propensities--as constraining cultural evolution, Jablonka and Lamb sometimes imply that they accept a Kantian conception of culture as showing a human freedom in transcending biological nature. They write:

"A broader view of heredity and evolution makes explicit the wealth of possibilities that are open to us, and the fact that our activities, as individuals and as groups, construct the world in which we live. In particular, recognizing that we have a history and can plan our future, that we are able to construct shared imaginary worlds and systematically explore them and strive for them, greatly expands our freedom. The plasticity of human behavior is enormous. On the basis of present biological knowledge, there is no way one can dismiss the power of historical social construction and explain the social and behavioral status quo in terms of genes or memes. We cannot transfer explanatory power and responsibility to these entities!" (380).

Here and elsewhere in their book (203, 230), Jablonka and Lamb come close to espousing a radical utopianism in which the uniquely human capacity for symbolic culture allows us to construct any imaginable world and then live in that imaginary construction. They say nothing about the history of utopias or of how that history shows that human biological nature frustrates utopian hopes. In Darwinian Natural Right, I devoted a lot of space to the history of utopias--from Plato's Republic to John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida Community to the Jewish kibbutzim--to show how the ultimate failure of these projects manifests the limits set by human biological nature.

"All societies are sick, but some are sicker than others." That's how anthropologist Robert Edgerton begins his book Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (1992). In contrast to the radical freedom for cultural constructions celebrated by Jablonka and Lamb, Edgerton argues that all societies can be rightly judged by how well they conform to human nature, and when we do that, we discover that most societies are maladaptive. Some societies serve the natural needs and desires of human beings better than others, but no society is fully successful. More particularly, Edgerton argues against the common assumption (particularly among anthropologists and Rousseauian philosophers) that primitive societies were always happy and harmonious, in contrat to the despair and conflict in modern urban societies. In laying out his evidence from anthropological studies, Edgerton shows how the evolved biological nature of human beings--their evolved desires and propensities--constrain cultural or symbolic evolution, so that those societies that frustrate natural human needs must necessarily become maladaptive.

Edgerton writes: "Populations the world over have not been well served by some of their beliefs such as, for example, those concerning witchcraft, the need for revenge, or male supremacy, and many of their traditional practices involving nutrition, health care, and the treatment of children have been harmful as well. Slavery, infanticide, human sacrifice, torture, female genital mutilation, rape, homicide, feuding, suicide, and environmental pollution have sometimes been needlessly harmful to some or all members of a society and under some circumstances they can threaten social survival" (p. 1).

The belief in witchcraft is a product of human symbolic culture that has appeared throughout human history. It is an example of a highly maladaptive belief that shows how prone human beings are to irrational beliefs that cause unnecessary harm. For instance, Edgerton cites the case of the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea, who had one of the highest homicide rates ever recorded by anthropologists, and most of the homicide victims were people thought to be witches. Even in Renaissance Europe, the belief in witchcraft caused social disruption.

In parts of Hindu India, people have believed that a widow could become divine by immolating herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Anthropologist Richard Shweder has explained this practice of sati (or "suttee") as a heroic act that manifests "the deepest properties of Hinduism's moral world." But Edgerton recognizes it as another example of a delusional cultural practice that is maladaptive. He notes that sati has been prescribed only for women--widowers feel no duty to burn themselves to death to join their deceased wives. He also notes that most widows have resisted social pressure in choosing to live rather than killing themselves. Along with Chinese foot-binding and female genital mutilation, sati shows how practices harmful for women can be imposed on them by male-dominated cultures.

Cultural beliefs and practices are almost never equally beneficial for all members of society because individuals and groups have conflicting interests. Those with greater power and status will often favor beliefs and practices that allow them to exploit those with less power and status. Slavery is one prominent example of such an exploitative cultural practice. Similarly, tyrannical rulers have used their power to exploit those over whom they rule. The assassination of tyrants and rebellion against tyrannical rule show the popular resistance to maladaptive exploitation.

Warfare can be an adaptive practice insofar as every society must defend itself against military attack. But excessive militarism can become self-destructive. Many traditional societies have become caught in a cycle of blood feuding that leads to extinction.

I agree with Edgerton that the anthropological record of cultural evolution supports not cultural relativism but cultural evaluation. If we recognize the natural desires of human biological nature, we can judge societies by how well they satisfy those desires. We can then distinguish between those cultural beliefs and practices that are more adaptive and those that are maladaptive.

Does such a stance allow us to see progress in human social evolution? I think so. We can judge that the best regime (so far) is liberal democratic capitalism, because such a regime tends to be adaptive for most human beings in most circumstances. A liberal society allows human beings to freely pursue their diverse moral and religious visions without fear of repression from those who disagree with them, and it also allows for a freedom of scientific inquiry that ultimately increases our knowledge of and mastery over nature. A democratic polity allows human beings to organize political rule so that the power of rulers is limited and checked in ways that promote the common good and restrain the tendency to exploitation. A capitalist economy creates incentives for productive market exchanges that foster economic prosperity.

By many obvious measures, this modern regime of liberal democratic capitalism is more adaptive than previous regimes. Never before in human history have so many human beings lived such healthy and happy lives. This has emerged through a historical process of trial and error, and this historical process will continue to produce cultural innovations in the future. We haven't reached the "end of history." But we can say that while liberal democratic capitalist societies are sick, they are not as sick as most other societies in our history.

We might also judge that the best world regime (so far) is an international system of sovereign nations with international norms for free trade, just war, and human rights. This also has emerged by historical trial and error, which will continue into the future. And despite all the horrors of world history over the past century, we can see that this system of liberal internationalism is more adaptive for human beings than previous world systems.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Darwinian Evolution in Four Dimensions

People often question me about why I stress the importance of reading Charles Darwin's writings rather than relying on modern textbook presentations of evolutionary biology. After all, hasn't there been great progress in biological science since the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species a 150 years ago? This is certainly true. But it is also true that in many respects Darwin's original understanding of evolution is superior to the prevailing views of today's "Neo-Darwinians." Contemporary proponents of Darwinism like Richard Dawkins tell us that biological evolution is ultimately reducible to the natural selection of random genetic mutations. More and more critics are pointing out the flaws in such a genetic reductionist view of evolution, and they are arguing that we need to explain the complex interaction of multiple levels of evolution that cannot be reduced to the gene-centered view of Neo-Darwinism. But if one studies Darwin's writings, one notices that what these critics are proposing is actually a return to Darwin's original theory.

Consider Darwin's summary of his theory in the last paragraph of the Origin:

"It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing a Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

Notice that Darwin states his "laws" of evolution in a very general and abstract way--the laws of reproduction, inheritance, variability, and struggle for life. If some entities can reproduce themselves, if these entities show heritable variation, and if some of this heritable variation affects their chances of surviving and reproducing in the competitive struggle for existence, then evolution by natural selection will occur. Stated in such a general way, these laws could apply as well to the evolution of human culture as to the evolution of animal anatomy. And, in fact, much of Darwin's Descent of Man is a study of the cultural evolution of human morality.

Notice also that Darwin thinks that heritable variation can arise from "the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse." This means that Darwin embraces Lamarck's idea of the inheritance of acquired characters. So the common story that Darwin overthrew Lamarckianism is false.

In the 1930s, the "Modern Synthesis" of evolutionary biology combined a Neo-Darwinism that rejected all Lamarckianism with Mendelian genetics. It was assumed that genes were the only units of heredity, that variations in genes are random and not affected by the developmental history of the individual, and that selection favors individuals with genes that make them more adapted to their environment than others. Consequently, evolution was understood as some change in the genetic composition of some group of organisms.

In recent decades, empirical research and theoretical arguments have thrown this Modern Synthesis of Neo-Darwinism into doubt, because it seems that a gene-centered theory cannot fully account for the evolution of life. Some people are even saying that this is an intellectual revolution that will destroy Darwinism.

One of the best critiques of Neo-Darwinism is by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (MIT Press, 2005). But rather than overturning Darwinism, Jablonka and Lamb see their critique as a renewal of Darwin's Darwinism.

The argument of Jablonka and Lamb is that in evolution the genetic system of inheritance is only one of four dimensions of evolutionary inheritance, and that these multiple dimensions of inheritance show a Lamarkian evolution of acquired characters, just as Darwin believed.

To illuminate their general point, Jablonka and Lamb use an analogy to show how different systems of heredity can work along with the genetic system. We can think of a piece of music that is represented by a score, the notes written on paper. This score can be copied as it is passed on through the generations. Although a few mistakes in copying might occur over time, generally the score will be accurately transmitted. We might then see the relationship between the musical score and the musical performance as analogous to the relationship between a genotype and a phenotype in biology. Although mutations in the genotype will be transmitted to future generations, changes in the phenotype will not be transmitted, and so the Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characters does not occur.

But with the invention of new means of transmitting music--such as musical recordings and broadcasts--it becomes possible to transmit the musical performance (the "phenotype") by inheritance. It is also possible that popular performative interpretations of the music might bring notational changes in the score, and in this way the musical "phenotype" would change the musical "genotype."

In a similar way, Jablonka and Lamb argue, there are systems of inheritance beyond the genetic system that allow phenotypic variations to be transmitted across generations. All organisms have two systems of inheritance--the genetic system and the epigenetic system. Many animals have a third system--the behavioral system. Human beings are unique in that they have not only these three systems, but also a fourth--the symbolic system. The full complexity of evolution arises from the intricate interaction of these four dimensions of evolutionary inheritance, which correspond to various levels of complexity from the genome to cells to organisms to groups.

The genetic inheritance system is the foundation for the Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. Jablonka and Lamb accept this as true, but they also criticize genetic reductionism and determinism for failing to see how gene action depends on the complexity of interacting causes within the genome, within cells, within organisms, within groups of organisms, and within ecological circumstances. Except for a few single-gene genetic disorders, "genetic astrology"--the idea that genes directly control specific traits--must be dismissed as foolish.

The epigenetic inheritance system is evident in the differences between specialized cells. Brain cells, liver cells, and skin cells are very different, although the nucleus of each cell has the same genome. Their differences are epigenetic, rather than genetic, because they have arisen through their developmental history in which there were different patterns of gene activation and interaction within the cell. This developmental information is passed on as these cells divide to produce more cells of the same kind. It is possible for evolution to occur through heritable epigenetic variation even without genetic variation. Just as a musical recording transmits interpretations in musical performances of a musical score, so does an epigenetic inheritance system transmit interpretations of the information in DNA, so that there is a Lamarkian inheritance of phenotypes instead of genotypes. One version of such inheritance that is now under active study is DNA methylation: strands of DNA are chemically modified during development, and these modifications can be transmitted through reproduction.

The behavioral inheritance system is the transmission of information among animals through social learning. For example, among some animals (including human beings) mothers transmit food preferences to their offspring, because information about what mother is eating is transmitted either in the womb or through suckling, so that the offspring inherits a preference for that food. More complex forms of social learning come through animal culture. For example, some chimpanzees can discover how to open nuts with a stone, and then pass on this practice within their group so that it becomes a social tradition. Different communities of chimps in Africa have different cultures based on distinctive profiles of traditional practices transmitted by social learning. As opposed to genetic evolution, cultural evolution is not blind but targeted to functional change.

The symbolic inheritance system is uniquely human because it shows the qualitative leap that defines our humanity as based on our capacity for symbolic thought and communication. Other animals can communicate through signs. But only human beings can communicate through symbols. The evolution of human language was probably crucial for the evolution of symbolism. Symbolic systems allow us to think about abstractions that have little to do with concrete, immediate experiences. Symbolic systems allow human beings to construct a shared imagined reality. These symbolic constructions are often fictional and future-oriented. Art, religion, science, and philosophy are all manifestations of human symbolic evolution. What Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (600-200 B.C.) would be an example of a turning point in the symbolic evolution of humanity, in which Confucius, the Buddha, the Hebrew prophets, and Plato acted as agents of symbolic innovation that has been inherited across the generations for the last two thousand years.

Neo-Darwinian theorists can hardly deny the reality of symbolic or cultural evolution. So they have developed their own theories of how this works. Dawkins is famous for his theory of "memetics"--the idea that "memes" (units of cultural replication) can evolve as "viruses of the brain." The evolutionary psychologists (like John Tooby and Leda Cosmides) explain cultural evolution as a historical process of social learning constrained by the genetically evolved biases of the brain. Although Jablonka and Lamb see some partial truth in these approaches, they also see them as inadequate for explaining the uniqueness of symbolic evolution as shaped through the constructive activities of individual and social agents in history.

The four-leveled account of evolution could explain Aristotle's biological studies of political animals. Human beings are not the only political animals, Aristotle observed, but human beings are more political than the other political animals because the human capacity for logos--speech or conceptual reasoning--allows human beings to organize their political life around shared conceptions of the good and the just. Jablonka and Lamb might say that while human beings share with other animals a capacity for political culture based on behavioral inheritance, only human beings have a capacity for political symbolism that creates a shared symbolic meaning for political life.

I will be writing more posts on these four dimensions of evolution.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Darwin's World of Pain and Wonder

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born on February 12, 1809. Some of my thoughts about this remarkable coincidence and the deeper connections between Darwin and Lincoln can be found in some previous posts here, here, and here.

This past year has produced many celebrations and publications related to the bicentennial of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of Species. The latest issue of The New Atlantis has an article by Algis Valiunas that offers a brief summary of Darwin's life and work, based largely on Janet Browne's two-volume biography. Although Valiunas's article is notable only for its shallowness, it does have a good title: "Darwin's World of Pain and Wonder." Contrary to the assertions of Darwin's existentialist critics like Peter Lawler, Darwin pondered the meaning of love and death. In particular, the death of his ten-year-old daughter Annie left him with deep scars. Trying to explain the cosmic meaning of suffering was part of the motivation for his scientific inquiry. But through his pain, he also felt wonder--the wonder of the human mind's capacity for uncovering the intelligible order of nature, while still facing the unfathomable mystery of the origin of all things.

It is regrettable that so few people actually read Darwin and see the power and poignancy of his mind at work. A few years ago, I suggested that the best way to resolve the dispute over the teaching of Darwinian evolution in high school biology classes would be to allow students to actually read Darwin himself. Most of the criticisms of Darwin can be found in Darwin's own writings--especially, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Darwin openly confronts what he calls the "difficulties" for his theory, and he shows how the alternative to his "theory of natural selection" is the "theory of special creation." If high school students were allowed to read Darwin's writings and then read some of the writings from the proponents of "intelligent design," the students could weigh the evidence and arguments and make up their own minds. But when I proposed this, I was attacked by people like Chris Mooney--author of The Republican War on Science--who insisted that high students were not smart enough to read Darwin for themselves and then reach their own conclusions. Instead, Mooney insisted, they should read only textbooks that tell them what the "experts" think, and they certainly should never be permitted to read any writings criticizing evolution from the viewpoint of "intelligent design."

My original proposal was laid out in a short article for Inside Higher Ed, which can be found here.

Recently, I was delighted to hear about a high school course on evolution at Seattle Academy taught by Melinda Mueller. She agreed with my proposal for teaching Darwin, and she has organized her class around having her students read Darwin's Origin. She found that these high school students were quite capable of reading Darwin for themselves and assessing his argument. As a final class project, she had her students create a webpage--"Virtual Museum of the Origin"--for which each student "curated" a chapter of the Origin.

I would be happy to hear about any other high school biology teachers who have done something like this.

There is a deep point at issue here. We live in an Age of Science and Technology, which began some four centuries ago. But we still do not have a broad understanding of what that scientific vision of the cosmos means for human life. Teaching science to our students through ordinary textbooks doesn't provide such an understanding. But reading Darwin as part of what I have called "Darwinian liberal education" could promote the sort of human understanding of our scientific age that we need. What we need, as suggested by Karl Jaspers, is a Second Axial Age--a period of deep philosophical, scientific, and religious reflection on the meaning of human life within an evolutionary cosmos.

My earlier post on "Darwinian liberal education" can be found here.

The article by Valiunas can be found here.

My post on "Darwin's Understanding of Love and Death" can be found here.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Natural Desire for War in the Axial Age

Of the desires that I have included on my list of 20 natural desires, none has elicited more criticism than the desire for war. Here's how I have described that desire:

"Human beings generally desire war when they think it will advance their group in conflicts with other groups. Human beings divide themselves into ethnic and territorial groups, and they tend to cooperate more with those people who belong to their own group that with those outside t heir group. So when the competition between communities becomes severe, violent conflict is likely. Human beings desire war when fear, interest, or honor move them to fight for their community against opposing communities. War shows the best and the worst of human nature. War manifests the brutal cruelty of human beings in fighting those they regard as enemies. Yet war also manifests the moral sociality of human beings in fighting courageously for their group. One of the prime causes for the emergence of large, bureaucratic states is the need for increasing military power. War is an instrument of politics, and like political rule generally, warfare is a predominantly male activity."

Critics such as Carson Holloway, John Hare, and C. Stephen Evans have objected that war violates the fundamental moral imperative of universal love and humanitarian compassion. In response to such critics, I have argued that a morality of absolute pacifism is unreasonable because it denies the natural morality of human life as based on a love of one's own and a spirited disposition to defend oneself and one's own against attack. Despite the persistence of pacifist traditions, pacifism has never provided a stable ground for any enduring social order.

But then Karen Armstrong's book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (2006) would seem to show that all the major religious traditions in the world teach nonviolence. She surveys the history of the emergence of the major religions during what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age. From about 900 to 200 BC, the great spiritual traditions arose in four parts of the world--Confucianism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Christianity and Islam were later developments out of these spiritual movements of the Axial Age. Despite the diversity of teachings in these traditions, Armstrong sees a recurrent moral teaching based on the Golden Rule, which dictated universal love and compassion for all human beings, and perhaps even for all creatures, which therefore required nonviolence. This then allows Armstrong to criticize all religious movements based on "holy war" and the coercive imposition of religious orthodoxy as violating the original teaching of the Axial sages.

And yet any careful reading of Armstrong's book shows that she has to ignore or play down the evidence that works against her favored interpretations. For example, she begins her book with Zoroaster (or Zarathustra). Although he probably lived earlier than 900 BC, he formulated many of the religious ideas that would be taken up during the Axial Age. He foresaw a final cosmic judgment when the good would be rewarded with eternal life in bliss and the bad punished with death, which led him to an apocalyptic vision of a final battle between the forces of good and evil. Armstrong rejects this, however, as "a militant piety that polarizes complex reality into oversimplified categories of good and evil," which violates the spirit of "an Axial-style faith" (12). This sets the pattern for her whole book. Whenever one of the Axial thinkers recognizes the need for war, Armstrong dismisses this as deviation from her preferred message of nonviolence and universal love.

Armstrong has a hard time fitting the ancient Greeks into her account of Axial spirituality. The Homeric heroes embody a manly ethos of heroism in war that she cannot accept. She rightly points out that Homer's poignant depiction of Achilles' sympathy for Priam shows an insight into the tragic suffering caused by war. But she assumes that the Greeks were mistaken in not allowing such sympathy to lead them to pacifism (125-34). After recounting the victory of the Athenians over the Persians at the battle of Salamis, she concludes: "Salamis was an Axial moment, and yet, as so often in Greece, it was a martial triumph and led to more warfare" (267). She can't allow herself to consider the thought that this illustrates how the history of the Axial Age might have turned on military battles.

She takes for granted--without any supporting argument--that human beings could eliminate the tragic conflicts of life by adopting a stance of complete nonviolence, and so she can't understand why human beings are so foolish that they can't see this. She never considers the possibility that her own unexamined pacifism might itself show an imprudent blindness to the tragic character of human life.

Armstrong also has a hard time with the Hebrew Bible, one of the most important texts to emerge during the Axial Age. The Hebrew Bible manifests a sober realism in its depiction of human conflict. God himself is a warrior leading his people into battle. Of course, Armstrong doesn't like this. She looks for a pacifist message in Second Isaiah's prophecy of the "suffering servant" of Yahweh. But even here she is disturbed by the depiction of Yahweh as leading the people of Israel to battle against their enemies. She has to dismiss this as a corruption of the true teaching of the Axial vision. Moreover, she doesn't consider the implications of the fact that the Persian ruler Cyrus is called by Second Isaiah the "messiah," the "anointed king" of Yahweh. It seems that Yahweh uses the military might and political prowess of Cyrus to liberate the Hebrew exiles in Babylon (251-57). But Armstrong refuses to acknowledge that the spiritual history of the Axial Age depended on military and political history.

Although the New Testament came after the Axial Age, Armstrong praises the message of Jesus--particularly in the Sermon on Mount--for fulfilling the Axial vision of nonviolence. But again, she has to ignore those elements of Jesus' teaching that undercut the message of pacifism, such as the eternal expulsion of sinners from the Kingdom of God, and she says nothing about the apocalyptic vision of the Last Battle in the Book of Revelation.

The radical requirements of pure nonviolence are manifested in the life of the Jains in India who could hardly move without feeling guilty for stepping on an insect, a blade of grass, or a cobweb. Any activity could cause injury to some creature (288-90). Armstrong praises them for their "truly heroic restraint," without any thought for the silliness of such behavior.

In the ancient Hindu religious traditions, human beings were understood as having sacred duties to fulfill the requirements of each social class, which included warriors and rulers, who had to fight in defense of their communities. Thus, the ethics of nonviolence came into conflict with the requirements of social order. This is evident in one of the great texts of the Axial Age--the Bhagavad-Gita. The great warrior Arjuna has a sacred duty to lead his people into a war, but he hesitates because he doubts the justice of the war, and he fears being punished for his violent karma. Krishna, his charioteer, convinces him to fight by instructing him in spiritual wisdom. Krishna eventually reveals himself as Vishnu, the divine Lord of the Universe. Arjuna is granted a wondrous vision of the god as the supreme monotheistic deity. The primary theological teaching of the Gita is that the god is the source of all that exists, and the primary moral teaching is that one should do one's duty as determined by the social circumstances of one's birth, which includes the duty of a warrior to fight courageously in war. Armstrong stresses Krishna's argument that Arjuna can fight in a spirit of detachment from personal gain, but she fails to ponder the conclusion that social duty often requires violence, and thus pure nonviolence is contrary to the human condition.

Pure nonviolence denies the natural desire for justice as reciprocity. A natural moral sense of justice as reciprocity arises from the human tendency to respond in kind--returning benefit for benefit and injury for injury. This tendency to reciprocity is enforced by moral passions found in most human beings: they are inclined to feel gratitude, love, and benevolence in return for benefits conferred on them; they are inclined to feel anger, hatred, and malevolence in return for injuries inflicted on them; they are inclined to feel guilt, shame, and regret for their violations of their reciprocal obligations to others. Pure nonviolence denies the spirited resistance to evil that enforces justice. (One might wonder, for example, whether the brutal atrocities of the Khymer Rouge in Cambobia could have been stopped if the Buddhist monks had led a movement of violent resistance.)

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

Friday, February 05, 2010

Goldstein's Appendix: The Arguments for the Existence of God

Rebecca Goldstein's Appendix on the "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" is stunning in its concision, clarity, and cogency. In 53 pages, she lays out the logic of each argument as a series of premises leading to the conclusion "God exists," and then she points out the flaws in each argument that refute it.

Not only does she take up the classic philosophical arguments, she also puts into logical form the emotionally compelling longings that underlie the religious experience of most human beings. So, for example, she includes not only the "cosmological argument," but also "the argument from the intolerability of insignificance."

Here are the 36 arguments:

1. The Cosmological Argument
2. The Ontological Argument
3. The Argument from Design
A. The Classical Teleological Argument
B. The Argument from Irreducible Complexity
C. The Argument from the Paucity of Benign Mutations
D. The Argument from the Original Replicator
4. The Argument from the Big Bang
5. The Argument from the Fine-Tuning of Physical Constants
6. The Argument from the Beauty of Physical Laws
7. The Argument from Cosmic Coincidences
8. The Argument from Personal Coincidences
9. The Argument from Answered Prayers
10. The Argument from a Wonderful Life
11. The Argument from Miracles
12. The Argument from the Hard Problem of Consciousness
13. The Argument from the Improbable Self
14. The Argument from Survival After Death
15. The Argument from the Inconceivability of Personal Annihilation
16. The Argument from Moral Truth
17. The Argument from Altruism
18. The Argument from Free Will
19. The Argument from Personal Purpose
20. The Argument from the Intolerability of Insignificance
21. The Argument from the Consensus of Humanity
22. The Argument from the Consensus of Mystics
23. The Argument from Holy Books
24. The Argument from Perfect Justice
25. The Argument from Suffering
26. The Argument from the Survival of the Jews
27. The Argument from the Upward Curve of History
28. The Argument from Prodigious Genius
29. The Argument from Human Knowledge of Infinity
30. The Argument from Mathematical Reality
31. The Argument from Decision Theory (Pascal's Wager)
32. The Argument from Pragmatism (William James's Leap of Faith)
33. The Argument from the Unreasonableness of Reason
34. The Argument from Sublimity
35. The Argument from the Intelligibility of the Universe (Spinoza's God)
36. The Argument from the Abundance of Arguments

If you read her Appendix, you will notice how often her refutations depend on citing three kinds of fallacies--The Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance, The Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Explain Another, and The Fallacy of Wishful Thinking.

Many of the arguments for the existence of God depend on the assumption that if science has not yet provided a full explanation for something, that shows that this must be something that has been created by God. This is the Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance. Scientific knowledge is always going to be incomplete. And there probably are some fundamental problems that will never be fully explained by science because of the limitations of human experience and human reasoning. But the mere fact of human ignorance does not dictate the conclusion there there is no natural explanation at all, and that this must be the work of God acting outside of nature. As Goldstein indicates, this is the most common fallacy in the arguments of the "intelligent design theorists": if molecular biologists have not yet explained the step-by-step evolutionary history of bacterial flagella (or any other living phenomenon), that is assumed by the IDers to prove the existence of an Intelligent Designer.

There really are some fundamental mysteries in the universe. But to invoke God as the explanation shows the Fallacy of Using One Mystery to Explain Another. Goldstein identifies at least six great mysteries:

1. First Cause
2. consciousness
3. free will
4. unique self-identity
5. mathematical reality
6. the uniqueness of the universe

The first great mystery is evoked by the question, Why is there something rather than nothing? There is no good scientific or philosophic answer for that question, which points to the problem of ultimate explanation. We can keep passing the buck, but the buck must stop somewhere. To say that God is the First Cause--the Uncaused Cause of everything--doesn't resolve the mystery because then we have the mystery of how to explain God. If we can say that God is uncaused or self-caused, then why not say that the Universe is uncaused or self-caused?

Similarly, human consciousness or the uniqueness of human personal identity might forever remain deep conundrums without full scientific explanations. But to say that God created human consciousness and unique human persons only replaces one kind of mystery with another.

Perhaps the deepest emotional attitude supporting religion is the feeling that my life has no meaning or purpose if I am not a creature of God who loves me and cares for me and will give me eternal life. I cannot bear the thought that my appearance in this universe was an accident, the product of cosmic causes that have no special purpose in mind, and that when I die, the world will go on without me. How can my life matter--really matter--if it's not all about ME? This is the thought that moves existentialist Christians like Peter Lawler who say that Darwinian science cannot explain everything if it cannot give cosmic meaning to the life of human beings as unique persons who don't want to die.

But as Goldstein indicates, this shows the Fallacy of Wishful Thinking. Wishing for something doesn't make it so, even when the wish expresses an anguished human longing. If there's no good reason to believe that it's all about ME, then my wish that it should be so is unwarranted narcissism. If I undergo an existential crisis as I seek the cosmic reason for my personal existence--why am I here? what am I here for?--there may be no reason, because it might be that my personal existence is ultimately just a contingency of the universe.

And yet, even as Goldstein reaches this conclusion, she gives her reader a novel that suggests that most human beings will never accept this, and so they will turn from reason to religion. Even those few who understand most fully the fallaciousness of the transcendent longings of human beings might feel compelled to yield to those longings by an emotional necessity that overpowers rational necessity.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

36 Arguments for the Existence of God


That's my response to Rebecca Goldstein's new novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction.

Her book captures the emotional and intellectual depth of the tension between religion and science in the modern world better than any other book I have ever read. Her book helps me to think through many of the topics that have come up on this blog--particularly, questions about whether Darwinian science can fully account for, and satisfy, the moral, intellectual, and religious longings of human beings.

Having received her doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University, she has
written a series of philosophical novels. She received the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" prize for her ability to "dramatize the concerns of philosophy without sacrificing the demands of imaginative storytelling." She is the partner of Steve Pinker, the evolutionary psychologist at Harvard, and her main character in this new novel--Cass Seltzer--is based partialy on Pinker.

Seltzer is a psychologist who studies the psychology of religion. He writes a book entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion that shows how the psychology of religious experience expresses emotional attitudes that have almost nothing to do with arguments. His book has an Appendix that summarizes the "36 Arguments for the Existence of God" along with refutations, showing that the arguments against the existence of God are stronger than those for the existence of God. His point is that such logical argumentation is largely irrelevant, because it does not weaken the emotional experiences of human life that sustain the longings for transcendence that find their satisfaction in religious attitudes. Surprisingly, Seltzer's book becomes an international best-seller after the 9/11 attack as people want to understand why religious passions remain so strong in a world dominated by scientific reasoning that has apparently refuted religious belief.

Seltzer's Appendix appears as the Appendix to Goldstein's novel. Thus, the personal psychological struggle over the existence of God is conveyed in the drama of the novel, while the impersonal logical argumentation over the existence of God is presented in the Appendix. The novel has 36 chapters with titles to indicate that each chapter portrays through story-telling an argument for God's existence. So, like a Platonic dialogue, Goldstein's book combines poetic drama and philosophic argument.

Like Plato, Goldstein shows that the erotic longing for transcendent meaning and purpose can only be satisfied by religious myth and mysticism, even as she also shows that reason refutes all the rational arguments for religious belief.

I will say more about this book in some future posts. But for now, I'll just say that Goldstein has given us a wonderfully rich and disturbing depiction of how in the modern world we still have not resolved the mutual irrefutability of reason and revelation. The formal arguments for religious belief can be refuted by logical reasoning. But reason cannot dispel the fundamental mysteries surrounding the meaning of our existence in the universe. Reason gives us no solution to the human predicament in facing what Goldstein calls "the brutality of incomprehensibility that assaults us from all sides."