Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Leon Kass's Mistaken View of Science

Seeing a new publication by Leon Kass is always a big event in my life.  So I was pleased to see the publication last year of Kass's new book--Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times (Encounter Books).

I first became interested in Kass's thinking when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and I attended his "job talk" in 1976 for joining the Committee on Social Thought.  His lecture--"Looking Good: Nature and Nobility"--was later published as the last chapter of Toward a More Natural Science (The Free Press, 1985).  In 1977, I audited one of his classes--on "The Passions," with readings from Aristotle (Book 2 of The Rhetoric), Descartes (The Passions of the Soul) and Darwin (The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals).

In 1978, after I had taken a teaching position at Idaho State University,  I read Kass's paper "Teleology and Darwin's The Origin of Species: Beyond Chance and Necessity?"  Although Darwinian science often explicitly denies the Aristotelian conceptions of natural ends and natural kinds, Kass suggested, it implicitly points to the immanent (but not cosmic) teleology of organic life and to the emergent evolution of differences in kind from differences in degree.  Earlier in 1978, I had read a paper by Roger Masters explaining how a Darwinian evolutionary science could be interpreted as supporting Aristotelian natural right.  So with the help of Kass and Masters, I began to think my way towards Darwinian natural right.

Kass's paper was later published in 1985 as chapter 10 of his Toward a More Natural Science. In this book, he explained how modern natural science could become "a more natural science" by becoming Aristotelian in being truer to nature as known to us in our lived experience, which would provide a ground in human biological nature for human ethics.

In 1994, Kass's The Hungry Soul (The Free Press) continued his search for "a more natural and richer biology and anthropology, one that does justice to our lived experience of ourselves as psychophysical unities--enlivened, purposive, and open to and in converse with the larger world" (9).  Once again, I saw Kass as pointing to an Aristotelian interpretation of Darwinian biology that could support natural right.

But then in Kass's Life, Liberty, and the Defense of Dignity (Encounter Books), published in 2002, during his tenure as chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, I saw that Kass was reversing his position.  At the end of this book, in his chapter on "The Permanent Limitations of Biology," Kass explicitly turned away from his "more natural science" of biological ethics.  He spoke of "the insufficiency of nature for ethics" and "the difficulty in looking to biology--even a more natural science more true to life--for very much help in answering the questions about how we are to live."  Instead of looking to nature, he advised, we should look to "insights mysteriously received from sources not under strict human command," and we should "acknowledge and affirm the mysteries of the soul and the mysterious source of life, truth and goodness" (296-97).

In 2003, with the publication of Kass's commentary on Genesis--The Beginning of Wisdom (The Free Press)--I saw further confirmation of his turn away from human reason to religious mystery.  Kass even confessed: "There are truths that I think I have discovered only with the Bible's help, and I know that my sympathies have shifted toward the biblical pole of the age-old tension between Athens and Jerusalem.  I am no longer confident of the sufficiency of unaided human reason.  I find congenial the moral sensibilities and demands of the Torah, though I must confess that my practice is still wanting.  And I am frankly filled with wonder at the fact that I have been led to this spiritual point, God knows how" (xiv).

But, then, having rejected "unaided human reason" in favor of biblical revelation, Kass offered a "philosophic reading of the Bible" rather than a pious reading (1-4, 15).  He could not offer a pious reading because he was not himself a pious believer in the Bible as God's revelation, although he wanted his reading of the Bible to evoke in himself and his readers a sense of sublime wonder and awe before "the mysterious source of life, truth and goodness."  He is an atheist who wants to feel religious emotions without having to believe any religious doctrines, such as the real existence of God as the Creator of the universe.

I have raised two objections to Kass's new position--the incoherence of his religious atheism and his mistaken view that modern science must be radically reductionist and antiteleological.  I have explained my two objections in a serious of posts over the years (here, here, here, here, here, here, here  and here).  I have made the same objections against Roger Scruton (here and here).  Kass and Scruton are representative of those cultural conservatives who promote an atheistic religiosity in their opposition to modern science as subversive of moral order.

My two objections still apply to Kass's Leading a Worthy Life.  Actually, it's surprising that Kass never acknowledges much less responds to these obvious objections.


Is Science Necessarily Reductionist  and Nonteleological?

In answering yes to this question, Kass asserts that there are five features of science that make it reductionist and nonteleological.  These five features explain science's "indifference to questions of being, cause, purpose, inwardness, hierarchy, and the goodness or badness of things, scientific knowledge included" (300).  He offers no evidence to support these "abstract generalizations" about science.  But he does offer "a few concrete examples"--actually, three examples from cosmology, genetics, and neurophysiology.
". . . In cosmology, we have seen wonderful progress in characterizing the temporal beginnings of the universe as a 'big bang' and elaborate calculations to describe what happened next.  But from science we get complete silence regarding the status quo ante and the ultimate cause.  Unlike a normally curious child, a cosmologist does not ask, 'What was before the big bang?' or 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' because the answer must be an exasperated 'God only knows!'" (300)
Kass's assertion that science gives us "complete silence" about this question is false.  As I have indicated in some previous posts (here and here), some cosmologists have debated this question.  For example, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss has written A Universe From Nothing:  Why There is Something Rather than Nothing (2012).  Kass is completely silent about this.

Now it is true, however, that some scientists (like Sean Carroll) think that we cannot sensibly ask the question of why something rather than nothing, because while we all have experience of how natural causes work within the universe to bring things into existence, we do not have experience with how transcendent causes work outside the universe to bring the universe itself into existence.  I agree with this.  Does Kass disagree?  He doesn't say.

Maybe Kass would say that to sensibly ask or answer this question, we need to go to the Bible--to the account of Creation in Genesis.  But the Genesis creation story does not clearly affirm creation from nothing.  As Kass indicates (294), the biblical story begins by declaring that "the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep."  That's obscure, but it's not nothing!

Moreover, since Kass says that the Genesis creation story is not a literal history of the beginning of the universe, then it would seem that the Bible (as Kass reads it) has nothing to say about what there was before the Big Bang.

Kass's second example is from genetics:
"In genetics, we have the complete DNA sequence of several organisms, including man, and we are rapidly learning what many of these genes 'do.'  But this analytic approach cannot tell us how the life of a cockroach differs from that of a chimpanzee, or even what accounts for the special utility and active wholeness of cockroaches or chimpanzees, or the purposive effort each living thing makes to preserve its own specific integrity" (300).
Kass cites no evidence to support this claim, and he is completely silent about the whole field of animal behavior and cognitive ethology.  Primatologists like Jane Goodall, Anne Pusey, Richard Wrangham, Robert Sapolsky, and Frans de Waal observe the natural lives of primates either in the wild or in captivity, and in explaining their behavior, they infer the emotional and cognitive experiences that constitute their subjective lives.  Much of the debate in primatology today is about how far we can infer "animal minds" from our own subjective experiences as self-conscious beings.  As indicated in a previous post (here and here), one of the vibrant areas of research today in animal behavior is the study of individual personalities among animals, which renews the study of what Darwin called the "mental individuality" of animals.  This can tell us quite a lot about "how the life of a cockroach differs from that of a chimpanzee."

Kass's third and final example is from neurophysiology:
"In neurophysiology, we know vast amounts about the processing of visual stimuli, their transformation into electrochemical signals, and the pathways and mechanisms for transmitting these signals to the visual cortex of the brain.  But the nature of sight itself we do not know scientifically; we know it only from the inside, and only because we are not blind.  As Aristotle pointed out long ago . . ., the eyeball (and, I would add, the brain) has extension, takes up space, can be held in the hand; but neither sight (the capacity) nor seeing (the activity) is extended, and you cannot hold them in your hand or point to them.  Although absolutely dependent on material conditions, they are in their essence immaterial: they are capacities and activities of soul--hence, not an object of knowledge for the an objectified and materialist science" (300-301).
To illustrate this claim about how objectified science cannot account for the subjective experience of sight and seeing, and to support his claim about Descartes as the founder of all science, Kass says that "in a revolution-making passage in the Rules for the Direction of the Mind, Descartes sets the program of all modern science by transforming how we should approach the study of color" (317).  (Here I am using some writing from my post on "Leon Kass and the Science of Color.")

Descartes says that we can study colors by arbitrarily identifying them as corresponding to various geometrical figures.  Kass writes: "Descartes's geometrical figures, standing for the differences among the colors white, blue, and red may be passe but the principle he proposes is not: today we treat color in terms of 'wave lengths,' purely mathematical representations from which all the color is sucked out.  This tells the whole story: the objective is purely quantitative.  All quality disappears" (319).

Really?  Is this "the whole story" of the scientific study of color?  Certainly, part of the story is that scientists explain visible light as a continuously varying wavelength.  But this is not the whole story, because wave-lengths of light have no color intrinsic to them.  Color arises only for animals that have neural systems of vision that translate the variations in wave-length into color perceptions.

Some anthropologists used to say that human color perception was an arbitrary creation of culture depending on the variable color vocabularies of different human languages.  But in the 1960s, a famous experiment conducted by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay showed that this variation in color vocabularies followed a regular pattern indicating a universal of human nature.  Native speakers of twenty languages from around the world were asked to look at a Munsel array showing the full spectrum of colors and then apply the color terms from their languages.  Although there was great variation, the variation followed a universal pattern moving from two to eleven basic color terms.  The reason for this is that the human sensory system for vision tends to break down the continuing varying wavelengths of visible light into discrete units.

Notice that Berlin and Kay had to ask their subjects to report their subjective experience of color in the terms of their color vocabularies.  Color as a perceptual quality is known to us directly only through our own subjective experience.  But we can testify to that qualitative experience through language that can then provide the data for scientific study.  It is not true, then, as Kass asserts, that for modern science, "all quality disappears."

Edward O. Wilson--in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge--offered the Berlin and Kay study of color vocabularies as an example of "gene-culture coevolution" guided by "epigenetic rules."  He wrote:
"The brain constantly searches for meaning, for connections between objects and qualities that cross-cut the senses and provide information about external existence.  We penetrate that world through the constraining portals of the epigenetic rules.  As shown in the elementary cases of paralanguage and color vocabulary, culture has risen from the genes and forever bears their stamp.  With the invention of metaphor and new meaning, it has at the same time acquired a life of its own.  In order to grasp the human condition, both the genes and culture must be understand, not separately in the traditional manner of science and the humanities, but together, in recognition of the realities of human evolution" (163).
The epigenetic rules of human biology shape the broad patterns in color vocabularies that are universal propensities across all human societies.  But within those broad patterns, the specific content of color vocabularies will be determined by linguistic practices, social customs, and deliberate choices that are peculiar to some particular group.  And our scientific studies of color perception must combine quantitative methods of objectified science with the qualitative experience of human subjects expressed in language.

Such scientific study of the emergent complexity of life is lost in Kass's assumption that Descartes's reductionism "sets the program of all modern science."

My next post will be on Kass's account of religion.


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