Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Strauss, Darwin, and the Pursuit of a Comprehensive Natural Science

In their recent essay (“Skepticism, Experience, and Science”), Glenn Ellmers and J. Eric Wise claim that the scholars in the tradition of Leo Strauss have failed to include the knowledge gained by modern natural science—particularly, physics and biology—as part of their recovery of the skeptical political philosophy that began with Plato and Aristotle.[1]  Consequently, they have failed to show how political philosophy as the architectonic science can contribute to the pursuit of a modern comprehensive science of the whole. 

Instead of engaging the deep questions raised by modern science about the universe and the place of human beings in that universe, Ellmers and Wise contend, Straussian scholars have withdrawn into a narrow academic profession devoted mostly to commentaries on old texts that repeat the standard interpretive themes of the Straussian tradition of thought.  Ellmers and Wise say that increasingly the new generation of students is losing interest in Straussian teachers who have little to say about the profound issues arising in modern science and technology.

Ellmers and Wise suggest but do not elaborate what I see as the explanation for this situation—Strauss’s fear that the victory of modern natural science over Aristotelian science has created a problem for natural right for which there is no adequate solution that would allow natural right to be rooted in a comprehensive science of nature.

The Problem of Natural Right

As Strauss explained it in the Introduction to Natural Right and History, the problem for natural right is that modern natural science is antiteleological and reductionist, and thus it denies the natural teleology and irreducible complexity of the human species that support the Aristotelian science of natural right.[2]  Strauss thought this was evident in the antiteleological and reductionist science of Darwinian evolution.  The mistake of Strauss (and many of his students) is in failing to see how Aristotle’s biological science of the natural ends and natural kinds of life has been confirmed and deepened by Darwinian biology in ways that support a modern science of natural right.[3]

According to Strauss, natural right in its classic form requires a teleological view of nature, because reason can discern what is by nature good for human beings only if they have a natural end distinctive to the human species.  Strauss thought Aristotle had the clearest view of this dependence of natural right on natural teleology.  But “the issue between the mechanical and the teleological conception of the universe is decided by the manner in which the problem of the heavens, the heavenly bodies, and their motion is solved,” and through modern science “the issue seems to have been decided in favor of the nonteleological conception of the universe.”  The motion of the heavenly bodies is determined by mechanical causes that act without ends or purposes, and thus there is no cosmic teleology to support natural right.

This creates a dilemma, Strauss explained.  If the science of man is to be part of a nonteleological science of nature, then human action must be explained by reduction to physical impulses, which seems inadequate to explain the purposefulness of human action.  The only alternative appears to be “a fundamental, typically modern, dualism of a nonteleological natural science and a teleological science of man,” but this rejects the comprehensive naturalism of the premodern exponents of natural right such as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

Neither reductionism nor dualism was fully satisfactory for Strauss.  He concluded: “The fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science.  An adequate solution to the problem of natural right cannot be found before this basic problem has been solved.”  “Needless to say,” Strauss then added, “the present lectures cannot deal with this problem,” because the lectures published as Natural Right and History are “limited to that aspect of the problem of natural right which can be clarified within the confines of the social sciences.”

Remarkably, the reader of Natural Right and History reaches the end of the book without ever seeing a solution to this problem of reconciling natural right and modern natural science.  Moreover, neither Strauss nor his students (with the exception of Roger Masters) have ever attempted to solve this problem.[4]

Amazingly, in the "Preface to the 7th Impression" of Natural Right and History in 1970, just three years before his death, Strauss spoke of his "preference" for natural right, which sounded like the historicist position as he described it in his book.

The two unsatisfactory alternatives in Strauss’s dilemma can be called “reductionist monism” and “transcendentalist dualism.”  According to reductionist monism, everything should be ultimately reducible to physical mechanism, but this cannot adequately explain the evident purposefulness of human thought and action.  According to transcendentalist dualism, human beings are uniquely free to transcend the nonteleological realm of natural causes, but this typically modern dualism denies us the comprehensive science of nature that we need to make the whole intelligible as a whole.

The Search for Comprehensive Science

In a lecture course on “Natural Right” that Strauss taught in 1962, he explained his reluctant acceptance of transcendentalist dualism.[5]

Seeing that the approach which is peculiar to modern natural science leads to a distortion of human phenomena, the most convenient thing to do is to speak of a dualism of the sciences: the sciences of nature and the sciences of man as man. . . . This distinction was generally known in Germany as the distinction of the natural and cultural sciences. . . . You have heard of this as the humanistic understanding of man in opposition to the scientific understanding of man. . . . So this dualism of sciences is a convenient practical solution.  But—and here I agree with the positivists—there is a need for an ultimate unity of science.  So this dualism of science can be accepted only as provisionally indispensable.  But this comprehensive science is today only a pious wish; and therefore one cannot say more than that it is to be desired.

Strauss’s reference here to the distinction known in Germany is apparently pointing to Wilhelm Dilthey’s separation of the Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) from the Geisteswissenschaften (the sciences of the human mind or spirit, the sciences of culture, or the humanities).  The natural sciences seek causal explanations of the objectively observable realm of Nature.  The humanities seek interpretive understanding of the subjectively experienced realm of Spirit or Mind or Culture, which is the uniquely human realm.  The social sciences are in between these two opposing positions, and thus torn in opposite directions.  It has been common for conservative political philosophers—Roger Scruton, for example—to invoke this dualism as a way to defend humanistic knowledge against the expansive claims of modern natural science.[6]

This division of the intellectual world into two or three utterly separated realms of study explains the fragmented incoherence of academic life today, an incoherence that also infects our cultural life generally.  That’s why Strauss yearned for an ultimate unity of thought in a “comprehensive science.”  And that seems to be what Ellmers and Wise are striving for in arguing that the Straussians need to see the unity of the sciences through the architectonic science of skeptical political philosophy.

As an escape from Strauss’s dilemma that moves towards a comprehensive science of nature that supports natural right, I have argued for a Darwinian liberal education that sustains Darwinian natural right, which rests upon what I call “emergentist naturalism.”  Unlike the transcendentalist dualist, I affirm the continuity of nature and the integration of human beings within the natural order.  Unlike the reductionist monist, I affirm the irreducible complexity of nature, in which novel properties emerge at higher levels of organization that cannot be reduced to lower levels, so that the uniqueness of human beings as a natural kind comes from the emergent properties that distinguish the human species, which include those distinctively human natural ends that constitute the ground of natural right.  I thus draw from a long tradition in Darwinian biology of thinking about emergent evolution, which Ellmers and Wise acknowledge in referring to “the overwhelming evidence for such ‘emergent’ order in evolutionary biology.”

Straussians need to see that evolutionary biology recognizes emergent differences in kind when differences in degree pass over a critical threshold of complexity.  In his lecture in 1962, Strauss criticized the theory of evolution for teaching that “there is no essential difference between man and the brutes because man has developed out of the brutes.”  But while Darwin did say in The Descent of Man that the difference between man and the higher mammals “great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind,” he also suggested in various passages that there is a qualitative difference in kind insofar as human beings are unique in their capacities for conceptual thought, symbolic language, and moral judgment.[7]

While Darwin recognized the uniqueness of human capacities as showing a difference in kind, he feared that acknowledging this would suggest a radical difference in kind due to a miraculous creation of “spiritual powers” beyond nature.[8]  He did not see that an emergent difference in kind allows for qualitative novelty but without any miraculous break in the underlying continuity of nature.  A radical difference in kind would suggest a transcendentalist dualism with an absolute separation between natural law and human freedom.  An emergent difference in kind recognizes human uniqueness without such a dualistic separation.  So we can explain the specialness of the human mind as arising from the evolution of the primate brain passing over a critical threshold of size and complexity, where uniquely human powers arise that cannot be seen in lower primate brains. 

Leon Kass has made the same point in suggesting that Darwinian biology supports an emergent naturalism in which novel traits arise in evolutionary development at each higher level of organization in an “unbroken line of descent,” so that differences in degree pass over a critical threshold leading to differences in kind.[9]

Darwin also recognized the natural teleology that supports natural right.  But contrary to Strauss, this natural teleology in organic life is not a cosmic teleology of the heavenly bodies but an immanent teleology displayed in the goal-directed activity of living entities and processes.  This is the sort of teleology that Aristotle studied in his biological works.

Near the end of his life, Darwin read Aristotle's explanation of biological teleology in The Parts of Animals; and Darwin saw that he really was bringing back into science a teleological conception of living nature that was originally formulated by Aristotle.[10]  So Strauss and his students are wrong when they assume that Darwinian science denies the Aristotelian teleology necessary for natural right.

Aristotle and Darwin show us that it is possible to root natural right in an immanent teleology of living beings rather than a cosmic teleology of the universe.  Strauss himself points to something like this in one passage of Natural Right and History:

However indifferent to moral distinctions the cosmic order may be thought to be, human nature, as distinguished from nature in general, may very well be the basis of such distinctions. . . . the fact that the atoms are beyond good and bad does not justify the inference that there is nothing by nature good or bad for any compound of atoms, and especially for those compounds which we call “men.” . . . We must distinguish between those human desires and inclinations which are in accordance with human nature and therefore good for man, and those which are destructive of his nature or his humanity and therefore bad.  We are thus led to the notion of a life, a human life, that is good because it is in accordance with nature.[11]

If the good is the desirable, and the naturally good is the naturally desirable, and if the naturally desirable is rooted in our natural human instincts, then the question of natural right becomes the question of how best to understand the range of our instinctively natural desires.  This assumes an immanent teleology of human nature that does not require a cosmic teleology of the universe.  And while cosmic teleology has been refuted by modern natural science, the immanent teleology of evolved human nature can be supported by modern evolutionary science.

The Natural Science of Political Theory and Political Practice

If I am right about this conception of Darwinian natural right as part of a comprehensive natural science, Straussian scholars might wonder what difference this could make for their research and teaching, as largely devoted to the interpretation of classic texts in studying the theory and practice of politics.

I can respond with two illustrations.  First, if we are studying the political theory of the state of nature in the texts of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, we can adjudicate this debate among the political philosophers by looking to the account in Darwinian anthropology of the hunter-gatherer human ancestors in the evolutionary state of nature.  Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau studied carefully the European reports of what the American Indians in the New World were like, because, as Locke said, “In the beginning, all the world was America,” and so the American Indians provide “a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe.”[12]  Now we have 200 years of anthropological evidence and theorizing about the life of human foragers in the state of nature, which we can use to clarify and perhaps even resolve the debate between Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau.  My conclusion from this is that Darwinian anthropology shows that Hobbes was partly right, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.[13]  This conclusion is open to dispute.  But at least this illustrates how the Straussian study of political philosophy could draw knowledge from Darwinian science as a step towards the comprehensive science that Strauss desired.

As a second illustration, if we are studying the political practice of American statesmanship as manifest in Abraham Lincoln’s career, and if we have a special interest in explaining his Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, we could apply the intellectual framework of “biopolitical science” as the Darwinian science of political animals.  This requires that we understand evolutionary political history as moving through three levels of analysis—the natural history of the species, the cultural history of the group, and the individual history of animals within the group.  To fully comprehend the nature of politics within the natural order of the whole, we must understand the unity of political universals, the diversity of political cultures, and the individuality of political judgments.  We can see these three levels of biopolitical history manifest in Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation: we can see it as an event in the natural history of cooperation and conflict in the human species, in the cultural history of the debate over slavery in America, and in the individual history of Lincoln as a political actor in American history.[14]

If Strauss was right about the “need for an ultimate unity of science” that would solve the problem of natural right, then what I have sketched could move us toward this goal--the comprehensive science of nature that supports Darwinian natural right.

[1] Glenn Ellmers and J. Eric Wise, “Skepticism, Experience, and Science,” The American Mind blog, americanmind.org/essays/skepticism-experience-and-science.
[2] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 1-8.
[3] Here I briefly state some points that I have elaborated elsewhere: Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 231-48; “Defending Darwinian Natural Right,” Interpretation 27 (2000): 263-77; “Darwinian Liberal Education,” Academic Questions 19, n. 4 (2006): 6-18; Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question, ed. Kenneth C. Blanchard (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2009), 104-111; “Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism,” The Intercollegiate Review 45 (Fall 2010): 22-32;  Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker, 4th ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2016), Chapter 14 on Strauss.
[4] See Roger Masters, The Nature of Politics (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1989); Masters, Beyond Relativism: Science and Human Values (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1993); and Larry Arnhart, “Roger Masters: Natural Right and Biology,” in Kenneth L. Deutsch and John A. Murley, eds., Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 293-303.
[5] An audio of this course is available at the website of the Leo Strauss Center: https://leostrausscenter.uchicago.edu/course/natural-right-autumn-quarter-1962  My quotation is found at 24-29 minutes into session 2.
[6] See Roger Scruton, On Human Nature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), and Larry Arnhart, “Roger Scruton’s Fallacious Argument in On Human Nature,” https://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com/2017/11/roger-scrutons-fallacious-argument-in.html
[7] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (London: J. Murray, 1871), vol. 1, pp. 54, 62, 70, 88; vol. 2, pp. 391-92).
[8] Darwin, Descent, vol. 1, p. 186.
[9] Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (New York: Free Press, 1994), 12, 14, 39, 59-63, 76-79.uhUHH
[10] See Allan Gotthelf, “Darwin on Aristotle,” in Gotthelf, Teleology, First Princiles, and Scientific Method in Aristotle’s Biology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 345-69, and Larry Arnhart, “The Biology of Natural Right: Aristotle, Darwin, Strauss, and Rand,” http://darwinianconservatism.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-biology-of-natural-right-aristotle.html
[11] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 94-95.
[12] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, secs. 49, 108.
[13] See Arnhart, Political Questions, 189-93, 228-36, 284-93.
[14] See Larry Arnhart, “Biopolitical Science,” in James E. Fleming and Sanford Levinson, eds., Evolution and Morality (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 221-265.


Glenn said...

Thanks for reading our essay with such care, and for your thoughtful comments. I want to read what you've said more slowly and digest it over the long weekend. (I think your blog comment is as long as our essay!) I've been following your work with admiration for a long time, so I suspect we are mostly in agreement.

Glenn said...

We posted a few thoughts in response here:

Unknown said...

Of course, this is a crucial topic and the author has to be commended for facing it. At the outset, we should remember that, for classical political philosophy, natural right was an unresolved problem, not a naive assumption and not solely the outcome of empirical observations (and assuredly not the product of thought experiments that are the vogue for popularizers of science). Hence, even on the propitious basis of "cosmic" teleology, natural right was never understood to be established conclusively. In sum, before we attempt to square natural right with modern natural science, we must understand how natural right was held to be problematic by classical political philosophy. I am not sure we have achieved this, largely because I doubt that Strauss believed he had achieved this. Moreover, it is premature to assume the primacy of modern natural science as the arbiter of truth. True, Strauss spoke of its "victory," but he also argued convincingly (to me anyway) that modern natural science was constitutionally unsuited to be the overarching science (because it cannot establish on its own terms "Why science?"). We can add to this Heidegger's critique of modern natural science, which raises substantial doubt as to its claim to genuine, fundamental knowledge. Not coincidentally, Heidegger also raised the most virulent attack on natural right known to man, which makes a critique of Heidegger the most critical task of philosophy.

Larry Arnhart said...

Heidegger's attack on modern natural science and on natural right is so shallow that it hardly deserves any serious consideration. Heidegger's mindless Nazism is sufficient proof in itself that he was not a serious thinker.

The Greek philosophers made empirical claims about human nature and human history that can be judged by natural science. Aristotle showed this in his biological writings, which constitute over one-fourth of all of his extant writing, and which shape his moral and political philosophy in The Nicomachean Ethics, The Politics, and The Rhetoric.

Darwin read Aristotle's Parts of Animals, and Darwin agreed with Aristotle's biological teleology.