Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Justin Amash for President: A Tea Party Libertarian Speaks for the Constitution and Congressional Deliberation

                               Justin Amash Speaks at His Town Hall in Grand Rapids, May 28th

For constitutional conservatives in the United States, the only good candidate for President in 2020 is Justin Amash.  The most likely possibility would be running as the Libertarian Party candidate, which would follow from Amash's complaint that the two-party system has failed, and that there needs to be a new party system.

That was clear to me after I attended his town hall gathering last night in Grand Rapids.  As many as a thousand people turned out.  Much of the energy at this town hall meeting was stirred by Amash's recent public statements that from his reading of the Mueller Report it was clear that Donald Trump had committed impeachable offenses. This has drawn national attention to Amash as the first Republican in Congress calling for Trump's impeachment.  (An article in the Detroit News on this town hall includes a few quotations from me.)

I live in the 3rd Congressional District of Michigan, which has been represented by Amash since 2010, when he was elected as a Tea Party candidate arguing for the constitutional principles of limited government, Congressional deliberation, and fiscal responsibility.  Shortly after his election to the House, he founded the House Liberty Caucus as a organization for House members who remain committed to the Tea Party principles of constitutional government and liberty.

Today, most Republican leaders have no interest in constitutional limited government, because they want Trump to rule without any serious limits from the Congress; and so, for example, they don't want to take seriously the impeachment power of the Congress as one of the constraints on presidential abuse of power designed by the Founders.

Most Republican leaders have no interest in Congressional deliberation, because they agree with the Democratic leaders that the process of lawmaking in the Congress should be controlled by the party leaders to enforce the strict party line without allowing congressmen to exercise their individual judgment in a deliberative process.

And most Republican leaders have no interest in fiscal responsibility, because they are happy to increase federal spending through endlessly increasing federal debt, with the thought that the inevitable debt crisis is too far off to matter to them.

Amash stressed all three of these points in the town hall meeting.  In his opening statement and in his responses to questions, he carefully led his audience through the principles of American constitutionalism, the process of lawmaking in the House of Representatives, and the precepts of classical liberal political thought.  I have never seen a politician speak to a popular audience like this, as if he were teaching a college class in political science.  When I taught political science at Northern Illinois University, I would have been happy to engage my students the way Amash engaged this audience.

And I have to say these Amash supporters are really, really nerdy!  I saw people in the audience with copies of the Mueller Report in their laps, and they were all talking about their reading of the whole 448 pages of the report.  At least it's good to know that I belong to the great community of Nerds in America.


Amash's opening statement was a defense of his conclusion that Mueller's report proves that Trump is impeachable.  Amash then elaborated his reasoning on impeachment in some of his responses to questions.

As indicated by my post on the Mueller Report and impeachment earlier this month, I mostly agree with Amash, but I might disagree with Amash on two points about which he was silent.

As I have said, the American Founders made the President impeachable by Congress as one of the ways to prevent the President from becoming an elected monarch.  The impeachment power of the British Parliament did not extend to the King, who could not be impeached or tried for crimes.  For the first time in history, the Americans after 1776 made the chief executives of their governments--the state governors and the U.S. President--subject to impeachment by the legislatures.  In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton emphasized that this impeachment of the president was one crucial factor in insuring that the president could not become an elected king.  (One member of the audience at the town hall quoted from Hamilton on this.)

Amash cited this evidence from the American Founders as showing the importance of impeachment by Congress as one way the Congress keeps the president from becoming a monarch.  And, so, he argued, the Congress has a constitutional duty to impeach the president when he has abused his powers.

This started a long discussion with audience members about whether there was sufficient evidence to impeach Trump.  The Trump supporters insisted vehemently that the Mueller Report had not shown that Trump had committed any indictable crimes such as obstruction of justice.  Amash responded by quoting from the Constitution and from the American Founders to support the idea that impeachment is not a judicial judgment of crime but a political judgment of abuse of power.  He indicated, correctly, that some of the Founders thought that the president could be rightly impeached for "maladministration," although Amash suggested that this might go too far for him.

Amash then pointed to his Twitter statements summarizing the factual indictment of the President in the Mueller Report showing that Trump had indeed obstructed justice and thus abused his powers, although there was not sufficient evidence (beyond a reasonable doubt) for indicting Trump for a crime.

Amash worried that a failure to impeach Trump where the evidence for abuse of power is so clear would send the message that Congress will never impeach a President, which would deny the expectation of the Founders that impeachment of the President should be a frequent check on presidential power.  In fact, only two presidents have been impeached by the House (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton), and neither was convicted by the Senate.

Although I agree with Amash on all of these points, I disagree with his silence about two reasons why the Congress has failed to exercise its constitutional power for impeachment.  The first reason is that Congress has chosen to abdicate its power of impeachment investigation by turning this over to "special prosecutors" appointed by the Department of Justice.  The Constitution says nothing about this, and it violates the constitutional understanding that impeachment is a congressional power that should not be delegated to the Executive Branch.  That the Congress has not had full control over the Mueller investigation or over the release of the Mueller Report is a consequence of the Congress's mistake in allowing the Department of Justice to take control of this investigation, which has put it under the control of the President.  Amash has not recognized this problem.

In Robert Mueller's public statement this morning at the Department of Justice, there is one crucial sentence that bears on this point: "The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing."  Of course, the constitutional process to which he is referring is impeachment by Congress.  A special prosecutor in the Department of Justice cannot conduct an impeachment investigation, Mueller is suggesting, because that belongs to the Congress; and because an impeachment investigation of presidential wrongdoing does not belong to the criminal justice system.  So Mueller is saying is that the Mueller Report cannot decide whether Trump should be impeached, which is a decision constitutionally given to the Congress, but the Report can provide the Congress the factual evidence supporting the conclusion that Trump has abused his powers in a way that is impeachable by Congress, regardless of whether the President has committed an indictable crime.  That's exactly what Amash has said.

The second reason for the failure of Congress to exercise its impeachment power is a flaw in the Constitution itself--the requirement of a supermajority (2/3) in the Senate for an impeachment conviction.  As I indicated in my earlier post, this lowers the minimum winning coalition for the president to 34 Senators obstructing impeachment.  Today, there are 41 Republican Senators; and so conviction of Trump would require that all of the Democratic Senators and at least 8 of the Republican Senators would have to vote for impeachment.  So even if Trump is impeachable by the House, it is highly unlikely that he will be convicted by the Senate, particularly considering the highly partisan politics on Capital Hill that Amash bemoans.  This has rendered the impeachment power largely ineffective in checking the propensity of the president to become an elected monarch.  This mistake of the Constitutional Framers arose from the fear of some of them that a simple majority requirement for impeachment might promote "legislative tyranny."  Many of them did not foresee that the real problem in American government would be "executive tyranny" unconstrained by the Congress, which was created by the American Progressives who pushed for "presidential leadership" at the top of the federal government.


The second major theme of Amash's comments at the town hall was the importance of understanding how both Republican leaders (like Paul Ryan) and Democratic leaders (like Nancy Pelosi) have corrupted the process of lawmaking in the House to enforce a rigid party-line vote as dictated by the party leaders that suppresses congressional deliberation.  Remarkably, Amash observed, the public never hears about this as the explanation for mindless partisanship in the Congress, the lack of open deliberation in Congress, and the expansion of presidential power.

At the beginning of every new two-year House session, Amash explained, the House member enact the "Rules of the House," the basis legislative procedures that have developed over 200 years since the Constitutional founding.  But then, beginning when Paul Ryan was Speaker of the House, the Speaker has started every week of the session by proposing a suspension of the rules, which allows bills to be passed with limited debate and without allowing any floor amendments.  The House leadership forces party members to vote for this suspension of the rules by threatening them with punishment if they don't: they won't get good committee assignments, and they won't receive party support for re-election.

With limited debate on each bill (an average of 13 minutes) and with no floor amendments allowed, there is no deliberation among the members of the House; and instead the bills pass as they were written by the House leadership.  In the 114th Congress (2015-2016), 83% of the House bills were considered under suspension.

As a result of this, congressmen are not permitted to think for themselves, because everything is dictated to them by the House leadership.  The congressmen are forced into a mindless partisan divide--Republicans versus Democrats--because they are not allowed to disagree with their party leaders, and perhaps work with people in the other party.  This also means that the President does not have to worry about working with individual congressmen, because he needs only to work with the party leaders.

One indication of this, Amash noted, is that in the House, most members vote with their party about 95% to 99% of the time.  Amash votes about 70% of the time with the Republicans, and he is punished by the party leaders for not being a good party member!

Amash asked the audience to imagine how different politics would be if Congress were a deliberative body where each member could think for himself or herself without having to sacrifice one's principles in blindly following the party leadership.  Instead of this, Amash observed, what one sees in the Congress is that members give up thinking and give up all of their principles to please their party leaders, and as a result they become soulless zombies

Amash is one of the few members of Congress who breaks away from this.  He is famous as being perhaps the only member of Congress who actually reads every piece of legislation before he votes on it, and then explains his vote on every bill on his Facebook page.


Amash's third point was how the Republicans--and particularly, the Tea Party candidates--have betrayed their promise of fiscal responsibility.  A few months ago, the national debt went over $22 trillion dollars for the first time in American history; and the yearly federal budget deficit is getting close to $1 trillion dollars, with no end in sight.  There are reports that when people in the White House tried to get Trump interested in the need to reduce the national debt to avoid a debt crisis, he responded by saying something like, Why should I care if there's debt crisis after I'm gone?

Well, Amash cares, and he emphasized at the town hall that he has asked for more spending cuts than anyone else in Congress.  We can be sure that if he runs for President, he will be the only candidate willing to talk about the debt crisis.

I don't see any other potential candidate for the presidency willing to speak, in such an engaging and intelligent way, about constitutional government, the need for legislative deliberation, and fiscal austerity in order to have a government that secures personal and economic liberty.

My wife tells me I shouldn't overlook his biggest advantage--he's so young and good looking.

I should also add one qualification to my earlier suggestion that Amash could run as the presidential candidate of the Libertarian Party.  Amash has publicly declared that he believes that life begins at conception, and therefore abortion denies the right to life and is murder.  This contradicts the position of the Libertarian Party that abortion is a free choice of "individual conscience."  If he were to  run as the Libertarian Party candidate for President, he would have to disagree with this position.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Seeing Abraham Lincoln in Donald Trump's Soul--The Strange Fantasy of the Claremont Institute

In the spring 2019 issue of The Claremont Review of Books, the cover essay is by Thomas Klingenstein--"Patriotism vs. Multiculturalism."  Speaking as the chairman of the Claremont Institute's Board of Directors, he declares what must be the official Claremont Institute position that Abraham Lincoln has been reincarnated in the soul of Donald Trump:
"Trump may not be able to express as well as one might like what makes America great but in his soul he knows what not so long ago our elite knew, that we are the 'almost chosen' people (in Abraham Lincoln's quaint, humble phrase) dedicated to the proposition that 'all men are created equal,' here to show the rest of the world that man can govern himself."
There are three claims here.  First, that Trump has a soul.  Second, that he is unable to clearly express what he knows in his soul.  Finally, that those who know the political thought of Abraham Lincoln can see Lincoln's thought in Trump's soul--particularly, Lincoln's appeal to the Declaration of Independence as affirming the principle of the equal liberty of all human beings as the moral standard for the American regime.  Against the evils of multiculturalism, Trump knows in his Lincolnian soul that America needs "to unite around a single, national political culture based on natural rights, individual freedom, and republican government."

Against these claims, Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump's book The Art of the Deal, has said that Trump has "no soul" and "no conscience," that "he's willing to say any thing, to lie, deceive, distort and not feel the slightest bit of guilt about it," because he is a "sociopath."  I have taken Schwartz's position in arguing that Trump shows the chimpanzee personality of a grandiose narcissistic psychopath who has neither moral nor intellectual virtues (here, and here).

So what evidence does Klingenstein have for the Lincolnian depths of Trump's soul that people like Schwartz and I have ignored?  It's hard to say, because Klingenstein admits that Trump "does not formulate" the Lincolnian ideas that Klingenstein attributes to him, that Trump shows "inability to develop coherent arguments," and that he is not "someone who can articulate the nature of the war we are in, who speaks the language of justice, and who can remind us that our goal is the good."

In fact, as far as I know, Trump has never in his entire life ever accurately quoted Lincoln or the Declaration of Independence.  On February 12, 2017, Trump did wish a happy birthday to Lincoln on Instagram, and then he quoted his favorite remark from Lincoln: "And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count.  It's the life in your years."  The only problem here is that Lincoln never said this.  Trump felt no guilt in falsely attributing this to Lincoln.

Trump's Lincolnian soul is expressed not in his speech, Klingenstein argues, but in the policies he recommends--and particularly in his attempts to restrict immigration.  So, for example, Trump was embracing a Lincolnian idea when he said that America should not allow immigration from "shitholes" like Haiti, because he was expressing "the view that it is wrong to invite into our society people who cannot, or will not, live responsibly in the way Americans believe is the right way to live."

Trump's scorn for Haitians was an insult to people like Mia Love, the first Haitian American elected as a representative in Congress.  She was also the first black female Republican elected to Congress.  She is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who fled violence in Haiti.  She is a pro-life conservative Republican.  Is Klingenstein accurate in saying that she "cannot, or will not, live responsibly in the way Americans believe is the right way to live"?  Would Lincoln have said this?  Or would he have found it despicable?

Klingenstein is silent about what Lincoln said about the Know-Nothing Party, which promoted the anti-immigration xenophobia that Trump is reviving today.  In a letter to Joshua Speed in August 24, 1855, Lincoln wrote:
"I am not a Know-Nothing.  That is certain.  How could I be?  How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people?  Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid.  As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.'  We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.'  When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.'  When it comes to this, I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."
As is pointed out in David Azerrad's response to Klingenstein's essay in CRB, Trump's Know-Nothing anti-immigration policies are rooted not in Lincoln's thought but in American Progressivism, because the American Progressives "believed in the superiority of the Teutonic races and their rightful title to rule not just America, but the world," and thus the Progressives would have agreed with Trump's scorn for the "shithole" countries.

The American Progressives were responsible for the Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act), which imposed strict quotas on immigration from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.  The Immigration Law of 1965 overturned these quotas to allow for freer immigration.  Trump's anti-immigration policy is an attempt to restore the 1924 policy of the American Progressives, and thus to overturn the Lockean liberal policy for general naturalization and open borders.  (I have written a post on John Locke's general immigration policy.)

This indicates that the Claremont Institute has now decided to drop its opposition to American Progressivism so that it can support Trump.  This suggests that if Trump has a soul, it's not Lincolnian but Progressive.

The Evolutionary Psychology of the Harm Principle: Are Lieberman and Patrick Libertarians?

I have long been puzzled as to why evolutionary psychologists--like Jon Haidt, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby--do not affirm explicitly the libertarianism that is implied in what they say about the evolved human nature of morality and politics.  I have written about that hereherehere, and here.

I continue to be puzzled by that same question in trying to interpret Debra Lieberman and Carlton Patrick's Objection: Disgust, Morality, and the Law.  In arguing for reducing or even eliminating the influence of moral disgust in the law, they repeatedly appeal to the principle of no harm--that people should not be legally punished for conduct that affects only themselves and does not harm others (4-5, 12-13, 117, 123, 125-27, 130-31, 139, 141, 147-48, 163, 187, 203, 205).  But except for one casual reference, they do not identify this as the famous principle of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (see 203, 235, n. 23).

In On Liberty, Mill contends that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."  This has been called not only the "harm principle" but also the "nonaggression axiom"--the idea that a legal order is a mutual nonaggression pact in which all agree not to injure others by force or fraud, but with the understanding that all have the right to defend themselves against the aggression of others.  This idea has an ancient history beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers Lycophron and Epicurus.  In modern liberal thought, it was affirmed by John Locke that in the state of nature "being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions," and that all have the "executive power of the law of nature" to punish those who initiate aggression against others.  This same principle has been reaffirmed by a long line of classical liberals, such as Herbert Spencer: "Every man is free to do that which he wills, provided he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man."

In the entry on "John Stuart Mill" in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, Aeon Skoble writes: "The general principle that conduct that does not harm others should not be legally proscribed virtually defines libertarianism."  If that is so, then Lieberman and Patrick are libertarians in their promotion of that principle.  It's also notable that The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism has an entry on "Evolutionary Psychology" written by Cosmides and Tooby, which includes a criticism of Marxist communist regimes for denying the reality of evolved human nature by assuming "that human desires, emotions, and motivations are infinitely plastic social constructions that can be easily molded into any form."  (I have written about Cosmides and Tooby as libertarian critics of socialism here.)

In this video, being interviewed by Michael Shermer, Lieberman says that her evolutionary psychology of disgust provides a "platform for promoting freedom," for "just freedom in general" (go to 1:22:40), because it teaches us how "free trade" overcomes Us/Theming, so that we allow people to live as they please in their various groups as long as they do not harm others.  This is her clearest statement of her libertarianism.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Evolutionary Moral Psychology Combines Reason and Emotion: Correcting Lieberman and Patrick on Disgust

The main argument of Lieberman and Patrick in Objection is a syllogism:  since evolutionary psychology shows that moral emotions like disgust are irrational in ways that are dangerous to society, and since the law should be based on rational principles rather than irrational emotions, disgust (and other moral emotions) should be excluded from the law.

That syllogism is false, because the premise that moral emotions like disgust are utterly irrational is false.  Research in evolutionary moral psychology shows that moral judgment always combines reason and emotion in a complex interaction.  Consequently, moral judgment cannot be properly explained by either a purely emotivist theory or a purely rationalist theory.  In explaining moral judgment in this way as the conjunction of reason and emotion, evolutionary moral psychology confirms the tradition of naturalist moral philosophy that stretches from Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas to David Hume and Adam Smith and then to Charles Darwin and Edward Westermarck.  (Here I am drawing some passages from some previous posts hereherehere, and here,)

Lieberman and Patrick begin their book with Jonathan Haidt's famous scenario about Julie and Mark deciding to engage in incest, which Haidt calls "a harmless taboo" story:
"Julie and Mark, who are sister and brother, are traveling together in France.  They are both on summer vacation from college.  One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach.  They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love.  At the very least it would be a new experience for each of them.  Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe.  They both enjoy it, but they decide not to do it again.  They keep that night as a special secret between them, which makes them feel even closer to each other.  So what do you think about this?  Was it wrong for them to have sex?" (Haidt 2012, 38)
Originally, Haidt and his collaborators presented this story to 30 undergraduate students at the University of Virginia.  24 of the students said that Julie and Mark were wrong to do this.  They were then asked why was this wrong.  They struggled to give a reason, and when they did, the interviewer would challenge what they said.  Haidt reports:

"Most people who hear the above story immediately say that it was wrong for the siblings to make love, and they then begin searching for reasons.  They point out the dangers of inbreeding, only to remember that Julie and Mark used two forms of birth control.  They argue that Julie and Mark will be hurt, perhaps emotionally, even though the story makes it clear that no harm befell them.  Eventually, many people say something like, 'I don't know, I can't explain it, I just know it's wrong'" (Haidt 2001, 814).
Notice what Haidt did here.  First, he implicitly assumed that the best rational principle of moral judgment is "no harm."  Then, he carefully wrote the scenario about Julie and Mark to exclude the possibility of harm from their incest--either the harm of inbreeding for their offspring or the emotional harm to their relationship as siblings.  He could then tell the students that this harmless conduct could not be morally condemned and that condemning this conduct as disgusting is irrational because disgust is not a rational principle of moral judgment. 

Some of Haidt's critics have challenged him on all these points (Jacobson 2012; May 2018; Royzman et al. 2015).  Weren't the students who condemned Julie and Mark correct in thinking that sibling incest is likely to be harmful?  Even if they could avoid pregnancy and the harm of inbreeding, isn't it implausible that they could avoid emotional harm to themselves.  In his scenario, Haidt says that Julie and Mark thought making love would be "interesting and fun," and that they could keep it as a "special secret between them" that would make them "feel even closer to each other."  But isn't that unrealistic?  And isn't it likely that most of the students found Haidt's scenario unbelievable?

In fact, when Royzman and his colleagues conducted their own experiment in asking students to respond to Haidt's story of Julie and Mark, the students were allowed to express their disbelief in the claim that Julie and Mark could engage in incest without harm.  Most of the students could not believe that sex between siblings could occur without some emotional harm to the siblings.  In Haidt's experiment, he refused to accept this by forcing the students to agree with the stipulated claim in his scenario that Julie and Mark were not emotionally harmed by their incest.

Haidt's students show that the moral condemnation of incest will be both emotional and rational: there will be an emotional expression of disgust with incest that depends on a rational judgment of what constitutes incest.  Consider, for example, how Haidt's students might have responded to a scenario in which Julie and Mark were cousins who fell in love.  Many of the students might have felt no disgust if they thought that sex between cousins need not be considered incest.  Or if they were told that Julie and Mark were stepsiblings who had been reared in different families, this also might have led some of them to conclude that this was not incest.  Or what if they were told that Mark's wife had died, and Julie was his sister-in-law?  Here our moral emotion of disgust depends on our cognitive judgment of what counts as incest.

This illustrates how we reason with our emotions: we argue ourselves into and out of our moral emotions by judging whether those emotions are a justified response to the circumstances.  Not many years ago, most people might have felt a disgust with interracial marriage and homosexual marriage comparable to their disgust with incest.  But now this reaction has been weakened by the judgment that there is no harm in such marriages.  Legislators and judges must debate these questions in deciding what kinds of marriage are permitted.

And so, for example, as I have indicated in my recent posts on Justice Kennedy's opinion in the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision upholding same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, much of the debate in this case turned on whether same-sex marriage would be harmful for children or harmful in weakening the institution of heterosexual marriage.  This required a rational judgment of the empirical evidence as to whether same-sex marriage was likely or not to be harmful.  The acceptance of Kennedy's opinion depends on whether one agrees with him that the evidence suggests that same-sex marriage is not harmful.

Remarkably, when Lieberman and Patrick briefly discuss the Supreme Court cases on homosexuality, they are almost completely silent about this debate over the evidence as to whether homosexuality is harmful or not.  They thus convey the impression that the disgust with homosexuality has no rational basis at all (185-88).  Oddly, it is only in a endnote that they admit that there might be a rational policy debate here: "To be fair, a few dissenting justices briefly discuss the interest of states in encouraging natural procreation within the unit that provides the best atmosphere for raising children (i.e., traditional marriage).  And regardless of whether this is a strong policy argument, it is, at least, a policy argument" (233, n. 41).  (I am wondering whether they were forced to add this endnote to satisfy one of the anonymous referees of their book manuscript for Oxford University Press.) 

In another endnote, they admit that Kurt Gray and other researchers "might be correct" in seeing evidence that judgments of harm are always involved in moral emotions, because when people see something as wrong, they almost certainly see it as harmful (224, n. 31).  (Was this endnote added to satisfy another referee?)  Amazingly, Lieberman and Patrick don't recognize that this contradicts their main argument--that disgust is an utterly irrational emotion that does not involve any rational judgment that disgusting conduct might be harmful.  (See Gray et al. 2014, 2015; Schein et al. 2016.)

In trying to prove the irrationality of disgust and other moral emotions, Lieberman and Patrick often cite the research of Haidt and others that apparently shows that "incidental" disgust--disgust that has nothing directly to do with the object of moral evaluation--influences moral judgment.  So, for example, if you create a bad smell in a room--by using fart spray--and then ask people in the room to evaluate homosexuality, they will rate it as more morally wrong than subjects in a room without the foul odor.  But then in a parenthetical sentence, Lieberman and Patrick remark: "We should note that recent analyses have questioned, with good reason, the robustness of the results from those incidental-disgust studies, but the original researchers maintain that their conclusions as to the effects were valid" (136; 224, n. 32).  If you read the articles they cite, you will see that Landy and Goodwin (2015) have shown that the research claiming that incidental disgust strongly influences moral judgment has not been replicated, and that there has been a strong publication bias, in that many of the experiments showing no influence of incidental disgust on moral judgment have not been published.

In response to research like this that contradicts his original argument that moral emotions like disgust have no rational basis, Haidt has begun to change his mind, and he has begun to recognize that moral judgment really does require a complex interaction of reason and emotion.  In The Righteous Mind, he speaks of the "useless dichotomy between cognition and emotion," and he says that "emotions are not dumb," because "emotions are a kind of information processing," and therefore emotion and reasoning are two forms of cognition (Haidt 2012, 44-48).

When we respond to some situation with a moral emotion like disgust, we must cognitively interpret that situation, which requires some kind of reasoning, even if the reasoning is quick, unconscious, and implicit rather than consciously deliberate.  So when Haidt's students read his scenario about Julie and Mark, the students had to engage in some reasoning to decide whether Haidt's claim that their incestuous liaison could be harmless was realistic or not.  Most of them decided that this was not realistic, and as a consequence of this rational judgment of likely harm, their interpretation of the situation produced an intuitive emotion of moral disgust.

Consequently, we can be persuaded--by ourselves or by others--to change our moral emotions when we change our judgments about the social world around us.  This has happened in the debate over homosexuality and same-sex marriage.  For a long time, the great majority of people have felt disgust towards homosexuals because they thought homosexuality was harmful.  If you have any doubt about the opposition to homosexuality being based on the perception that it is harmful, just read Anita Bryant's The Anita Bryant Story: The Survival of Our Nation's Families and the Threat of Militant Homosexuality (1977).  The subtitle tells it all.  Bryant was a popular American singer and advertising voice for Florida orange juice.  In 1977, she began a campaign against a gay rights ordinance in Miami, which soon spread around the country.  Although she had some victories, she provoked a national backlash against her that destroyed her career, because her exaggerated fear of "the threat of militant homosexuality" was not persuasive with many people.  Now, more and more people are deciding that homosexuality is not harmful after all, and consequently they no longer find it disgusting enough to legally suppress it.

Not seeing this, Lieberman and Patrick cannot explain why the law in many societies has recently become more tolerant of the homosexual life, because they cannot recognize how the moral emotion of disgust depends upon rational judgments about the reality of homosexuality in our social world.


Bryant, Anita. 1977. The Anita Bryant Story: The Survival of Our Nation's Families and the Threat of Militant Homosexuality. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company.

Gray, Kurt, Chelsea Schein, and Adrian Ward. 2014. "The Myth of Harmless Wrongs in Moral Cognition: Automatic Dyadic Completion From Sin to Suffering." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 143: 1600-1615.

Gray, Kurt, and Chelsea Schein. 2015. "The Myth of the Harmless Wrong." The New York Times, January 30.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2001. "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment." Psychological Review 108: 814-34.

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind; Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon.

Jacobson, Daniel. 2012. "Moral Dumbfoundng and Moral Stupefaction." In Oxford Studies in Normative Ethics, ed. Mark Timmons, 289-315.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

May, Joshua. 2018. Regard for Reason in the Moral Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Royzman, Edward B., Kwanwoo Kim, and Robert F. Leeman. 2015. "The Curious Tale of Julie and Mark: Unraveling the Moral Dumbfounding Effect." Judgment and Decision Making 10: 296-313.

Schein, Chelsea, Ryan S. Ritter, and Kurt Gray. 2016. "Harm Mediates the Disgust-Immorality Link." Emotion 16: 862-76.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Evolutionary Psychology of Morality and Law: From Darwin and Huxley to Lieberman and Patrick

The moral judgments that we enforce in our laws are often rooted in deep emotions such as fear, anger, love, compassion, and disgust.  And so, for example, it has been an almost universal practice to legally prohibit or punish those forms of sexual activity that people have generally found disgusting--such as prostitution, pornography, incest, sodomy, and bestiality, some of which have been regarded as "crimes against nature."  But recently, particularly in the more liberal societies around the world, there has been a movement towards loosening or even eliminating the legal repression of sexual conduct that many people find disgusting.  A dramatic illustration of this is the removal of legal sanctions against homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

This raises big questions about how to explain this, what this shows about the role of instinctive emotions in law, and whether we should see these changes in the law as moral progress.  Debra Lieberman and Carlton Patrick help us to think through these questions in their book Objection: Disgust, Morality, and the Law (Oxford University Press, 2018).  Lieberman is one of the leading researchers in evolutionary psychology--as developed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby--and she is best known for her research supporting Edward Westermarck's evolutionary theory of incest avoidance and the incest taboo.  Patrick is a professor of legal studies interested in the application of evolutionary psychology to the law.

Lieberman and Patrick argue that what we see in the laws that are based on disgust is "the general logic of what is gross to me is wrong for you" (178).  They explain the evolutionary psychology of disgust as an evolved instinctive aversion to harmful food (deciding what to eat), to pathogens and infectious agents (deciding what to touch), and to sexual activity that will not produce healthy, viable offspring (deciding with whom to have sex).  So, when we taste, touch, or see the cues for bad food, diseased agents, or perverse sexuality, we say "that's disgusting."  This evolved instinct for feeling disgust can then be turned to support moral disgust that is expressed in law: what you're doing is really bad because it grosses me out, and so there should be a law against it.  It's so disgusting to me to imagine gay men having anal sex that this must be wrong, and they should be legally punished.

Once they have explained these links between disgust, morality, and the law, Lieberman and Patrick contend that this shows the irrationality of allowing disgust to shape our moral and legal judgments; and they conclude by recommending that disgust should never be a standard for morality or law, because our moral and legal norms should be based on purely logical and abstract reasoning free from the influence of disgust and all other emotions.

I am not confident that I fully understand what they are saying here, because they don't elaborate what they mean by advocating morality and law based purely on "logic and abstract reasoning," so that "we need not rely on biologically driven intuitions," and we can separate human biology from moral philosophy (190, 193, 204)  But as far as I can tell, they are supporting, if only implicitly, a Kantian rationalist view of ethics as transcending human biological nature, which denies the naturalist view of ethics defended by Hume, Darwin, and Westermarck.  This is confusing, because if I am correct in this interpretation, Lieberman and Patrick in their book are contradicting what Lieberman has argued some years ago about the biological basis of morality in the moral sentiments, as explained by Westermarck (Lieberman, Tooby, and Cosmides 2003).

As I have indicated in some previous posts (here, and here,), many evolutionary psychologists have followed Thomas Huxley's lead (in his lecture on "Evolution and Ethics") in rejecting Darwin's evolutionary account of morality in The Descent of Man.  Because of the "moral indifference of nature," Huxley argued, one could never derive moral values from natural facts.  He concluded "that the ethical process of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it," and thus building "an artificial world within the cosmos."  Human morality belongs to a transcendent realm of cultural artifice that is beyond the natural realm of evolved human nature.

In 1975, in his book Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson tried to revive the position of Darwin and Westermarck that ethics could be fully explained as rooted in evolved human nature, in the moral emotions or sentiments of the human animal.  Immediately after the publication of that book, moral philosophers took Huxley's position that ethics transcended human biology because ethics was an autonomous creation of human reason.  For example, Thomas Nagel argued that ethics was a rational activity that transcended human biology.  Ethics is "the result of a human capacity to subject innate or conditioned prereflective motivational and behavioral patterns to criticism and revision, and to create new forms of conduct."  "Biology may tell us about perceptual and motivational starting points, but in its present state it has little bearing on the thinking process by which these starting points are transcended" (Nagel 1978, 204).

In 1998, in his book Consilience, Wilson elaborated his defense of a Darwinian science of ethics that would take an empiricist view of ethics as rooted in the moral sentiments, as opposed to the transcendentalist view of ethics as a product of pure reason.  Many evolutionary psychologists were disturbed by Wilson's suggestion that a biological science of natural facts could explain the ethics of moral values.  After all, they insisted, isn't there a radical dichotomy between science and ethics, facts and values, is and ought?  Isn't it a "naturalistic fallacy" to think that one can infer a moral ought from a natural is?

Lieberman and Patrick make this same appeal to the is/ought dichotomy (or "Hume's Law") in claiming that it is fallacy to move from the "is" of human nature to the "ought" of human ethics.  They do not consider the possibility that this is based on a misinterpretation of Hume, or that Hume actually defended a naturalistic view of ethics as rooted in a natural moral sense that was embraced by Darwin and Westermarck.  Moreover, they do not reflect on the possibility that there is no fallacy in viewing ethics as a system of hypothetical imperatives based on human nature (a point that I have developed here.)

Lieberman and Patrick also echo Nagel's Kantian rationalism in their claim that the "logic and abstract reasoning" of ethics transcends human biology.  They write:
"Humans have science, the capacity for logic and abstract reasoning, and a vast sea of knowledge from which to draw.  We need not rely on biologically driven intuitions, like disgust, to shape society" (190).
". . . Unlike other animals, humans are endowed with an extraordinary gift: the capacity to ascertain and investigate our own biological and psychological makeup, and even more importantly, the capacity to evaluate it--to reinforce the parts of it that we deem worthy, and to try our best to moderate the parts of it that we deem undesirable.  As far as we know, we're the only species on the planet that has this capacity, and we're also the only species with an institutional infrastructure that is powerful enough either to value the intuition and license it, or to move society away from these deep-seated intuitions.  It is a an extraordinary gift and, accordingly, should be exercised with great responsibility.  The starting point of this responsibility is to separate biology from philosophy; to disentangle the reliably developing tendencies that evolution has equipped us with from the state of the world that we seek to effectuate" (204).
". . . The goal of the law is not to optimize or maximize the survival and reproduction of individuals or their genes, but rather to move the populace toward a desired state of affairs" (205).
Notice that the ultimate standard here for morality and law is to move away from the "undesirable" and towards the "desired state of affairs." Although Lieberman and Patrick repeatedly point to this goal of "a desirable state of affairs," they never explain what this means, or what it implies about morality and law (6, 13, 18-19, 79, 81, 126, 195, 202, 204-205).

Are they assuming that the good is the desirable?  If so, does this mean that morality cannot arise from pure "logic and abstract reasoning" without the motivational impetus of desire?  Can morality be understood as rooted in the natural desires of evolved human nature?  If so, does that indicate how the science of ethics could be a biological science?

I will be writing more posts on Lieberman and Patrick's book.


Lieberman, Debra, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides. 2003. "Does Morality Have a Biological Basis? An Empirical Test of the Factors Governing Moral Sentiments Relating to Incest." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 270: 819-826.

Nagel, Thomas. 1978. "Ethics as an Autonomous Theoretical Subject." In Gunther S. Stent, ed., Morality as a Biological Phenomenon: The Presuppositions of Sociobiological Research, 198-205. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Gelernter's Strong Arguments Against Intelligent Design Creationism

Having just written about David Gelernter's weak arguments against Darwinian evolution in his Claremont Review essay, I thought I should also write about his strong arguments against intelligent design creationism.  The people at the Discovery Institute--like David Klinghoffer--have been celebrating Gelernter's "wonderful essay" as a triumph for the cause of intelligent design theory.  But they have to reluctantly admit that while Gelernter has been persuaded by Stephen Meyer's criticism of Darwinian science, he rejects Meyer's claim that the best replacement for Darwin is intelligent design.

I have written (here) about the dishonesty and sophistry of Meyer's intelligent design theory.  Gelernter doesn't recognize Meyer's dishonesty, but he does recognize one of Meyer's two sophistical fallacies.

At the end of his essay, in the section on "Darwin's Limits," Gelernter indicates that Meyer hasn't offered any proof for intelligent design, because he hasn't explained exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer has intervened.
". . . What was his strategy?  How did he manage to back himself into so many corners, wasting energy on so many doomed organisms?  Granted, they might each have contributed genes to our common stockpile--but could hardly have done so in the most efficient way.  What was his purpose?  And why did he do such an awfully slipshod job?  Why ae we so disease prone, heartbreak prone, and so on?  An intelligent designer makes perfect sense in the abstract.  The real challenge is how to fit this designer into life as we know it.  Intelligent design might well be the ultimate answer.  But as a theory, it would seem to have a long way to go."
By seeing that Meyer's critique of Darwinian science does not prove intelligent design, Gelernter recognizes, at least implicitly, that intelligent design reasoning depends completely on the fallacy of negative argumentation from ignorance, in which intelligent design proponents like Meyer argue that if evolutionary scientists cannot fully explain the step-by-step evolutionary process by which complex forms arise, then this proves that these complex forms of life must be caused by the intelligent designer.  Gelernter sees that this is purely negative reasoning, because the proponents of intelligent design are offering no positive explanation of their own as to exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer caused these forms of life.  Meyer insists that the proponents of evolutionary science satisfy standards of proof that he cannot satisfy, because his sophistical strategy is to put the burden of proof on his opponents, while refusing to accept that burden of proof for himself.

Meyer has admitted that this argument from ignorance is a fallacy, but he tries to show that proponents of intelligent design theory do not really commit this fallacy, because they offer explanations of intelligent design with positive content.  When he tries to do this, however, he must use the fallacy of equivocation--in the equivocation between human intelligent design and supernatural intelligent design.  We have all had the experience of how human intelligent agents create artificial products by intelligent design.  But it does not follow logically from this that we have all had the experience of how supernatural intelligent agents create artificial products by intelligent design.

Gelernter has not spotted this fallacy of equivocation in Meyer's reasoning.  Nor has he spotted the dishonesty in Meyer's claim that intelligent design theory is a purely secular scientific theory that does not depend on religious belief.  Gelernter says that "intelligent design as Meyer explains it never uses religious arguments, draws religious conclusions, or refers to religion in any way."  Gelernter is such a sucker.

If he knew more about the history of Meyer's work with the Discovery Institute, he would know about the founding document--"The Wedge Document"--of Meyer's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.  And he would know that the primary goal of the Center is declared to be "to defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies," and "to replace materialistic explanation with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."

The Wedge Document was written only for private circulation among potential donors to the Discovery Institute.  They wanted this to be kept private because in public their rhetorical strategy was to deny that their attacks on Darwinian science and defense of intelligent design were designed to promote biblical creationism.  They needed this dishonest rhetoric as a way of getting around the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard in 1987, which said that teaching "creation science" in public school biology classes was an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment's ban on any governmental "Establishment of Religion."  Their way around this was to replace the term "creation science" with "intelligent design theory," and then to insist that the later had nothing to do with the former, because "intelligent design" was a purely scientific idea that had nothing to do with any religious belief in the Creator.

Clearly, Meyer's dishonest rhetoric has succeeded in fooling people like Gelernter.

I have written (here) about how Intelligent Design Theory should be understood as one of four leading positions on the creation/evolution debate among biblical theists--along with Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, and Evolutionary Creation.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Gelernter's Weak Arguments Against Darwinian Evolution in "The Claremont Review of Books"

The spring 2019 issue of The Claremont Review of Books has an essay by David Gelernter entitled “Giving Up Darwin” that summarizes some of the arguments against Darwinian evolution as developed by proponents of “intelligent design” theory at the Discovery Institute.  Gelernter is silent about the many objections to these arguments, and thus he conveys to his readers the impression that these arguments are irrefutable.  Actually, the arguments are so weak as to be easily refuted.

Gelernter makes four claims.  His first claim is that while Darwinian science rightly explains microevolution (changes within a species), it cannot explain macroevolution (the emergence of new species from ancestral species).  He mentions “changes to fur density or wing style or beak shape” as examples of “the fine-tuning of existing species,” which is microevolution as distinguished from the macroevolutionary origin of species.

He offers no evidence or argumentation to support this first claim.  He simply asserts it as if it were obviously true.  His reference to “beak shape” might be pointing to the famous studies of the finches in the Galapagos Islands by Peter and Rosemary Grant, who have seen changes in beak size and shape on the island of Daphne Major as evolution in action.  Gelernter seems, then, to be suggesting that this shows microevolution (changes within one finch species) but not macroevolution (changes leading to the emergence of a new finch species).

He is silent about the fact that the Grants have observed the evolution of a new species of finch.  In 1981, a large male cactus finch (Geospiza conirostis) mated with a medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis).  They produced offspring who have bred within the hybrid lineage for over 30 years.  Genetic analysis has recently confirmed that this is a distinctive species separate from the other 18 species of finches on the Galapagos Islands. (I have written about this herehere, and here.)

Gelernter is also silent about the fact that some intelligent design proponents (like Michael Behe) and some scientific creationists (like Ken Ham) have admitted that evidence like this proves the Darwinian evolution of new species.  Ham and others have conceded that Darwin proved that species are not fixed, and that new species can evolve, although they argue that since God created separate “kinds” of life in Genesis, this must mean that some taxonomic level of classification (perhaps “families”) must be God’s fixed creation.  Similarly, Behe accepts the Darwinian account of the evolution of species by common descent from ancestral species—including the common descent of chimps and humans.  (I have written about this herehere, and here.)

Gelernter’s second claim is that the “Cambrian explosion”—the seemingly sudden explosion of complex animal forms about 540 million years ago—denies the Darwinian theory of gradual evolution from ancestral forms, because the “predecessors of the Cambrian creatures are missing.”  He is silent about all the fossil evidence for evolutionary predecessors.  There is evidence for multicellular life appearing from about 590 million years ago in China.  Testate amoebae are known from about 750 million years ago.  There are transitional fossils within the Cambrian—such as lobopods (worms with legs), which are intermediate between anthropods and worms.  Most of the animal groups that we are most familiar with—mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, and spiders—appeared after the Cambrian.  Gelernter says nothing about any of this evidence for Darwinian evolution before, during, and after the Cambrian.

His third claim—to which he devotes the most space—is that Darwinian science cannot explain the evolution of protein molecules, because the construction of such complex molecules by random mutation is so incredibly improbable as to be impossible. 

A protein molecule is based on a chain of amino acids with 150 or more elements, with each one chosen from 20 amino acids.  He writes:

So how hard is it to build a useful, well-shaped protein?  Can you throw a bunch of amino acids together and assume that you will get something good?  Or must you choose each element of the chain with painstaking care?  It happens to be very hard to choose the right beads.

                                             .   .   .

What are the chances that a random 150-link sequence will create such a protein [that is functional].  Nonsense sequences are essentially random.  Mutations are random.  Make random changes to a random sequence and you get another random sequence.  So, close your eyes, make 150 random choices from your 20 bead boxes and string up your beads in the order in which you choose them.  What are the odds that you will come up with a useful new protein?

                                          .   .   .

The total count of possible 150-link chains, where each link is chosen separately from 20 amino acids, is 20150 [20 with 150 zeros].  In other words, many, 20150 roughly equals 10195, and there are only 1080 atoms in the universe.

Notice the reasoning here: the fundamental assumption that Darwinian scientists believe that protein molecules arose in evolution by a single all-at-once “at random” trial, and then the assertion that this is probabilistically impossible.  The problem, however, is that this is a “straw man” fallacy, because no Darwinian scientist believes that this is the way evolution works.  On the contrary, scientists believe that biomolecules evolved as the result of a long series of intermediate steps over long periods of time, in which each step was useful in a previous biological context; and this was not purely a “random” process, because while mutations might be random, natural selection is not—natural selection is a directional process that selects variations that are functional for survival and reproduction.  (Notice how, in the second of the three passages quoted above, Gelernter uses the word “random” 6 times in 3 sentences.)
Gelernter treats complex, functional organic structures as vanishingly tiny targets in large search spaces.  He then assumes that evolution must search this space of equiprobable outcomes blindly and randomly to find its target by accident.  This allows him to conclude that the probability of evolution randomly hitting its target in this huge search space is ridiculously improbable.  But this is utterly irrelevant to how evolution by natural selection actually works.
Evolutionary searches take as their starting points already functioning structures.  Evolution never does a global search of all possibilities.  Rather, evolution undertakes a sequence of local searches in the neighborhoods of functional organic structures.
Consider, for example, the human alpha-globin molecule, which is a part of hemoglobin that performs an oxygen transfer function in the blood stream.  This is a protein chain based on a sequence of 141 amino acids.  Choosing from the 20 amino acids common in living systems, the number of potential chains of length 141 is 20141, which is roughly 10183.  And, of course, Gelernter would say that this number is so enormous that the probability of a random search hitting this tiny target—the human alpha-globin molecule—is so low as to be impossible.
But this ignores the fact that a large class of alpha-globin molecules can perform the essential oxygen transfer function, and there is a great variety in alpha-globin molecules across animal species.  This variation shows the record of evolutionary descent.  Humans and chimpanzees have the same arrangement of alpha-globin genes, while other primates show differences from humans and chimps, but similarities to other mammals.
This indicates that the evolution of the human alpha-globin molecule did not search randomly for its target in a huge search space, as Gelernter assumes.  Rather we should say, it started with the alpha-globin molecule of the common ancestors of humans and primates.  The alpha-globin molecules of our primate ancestors functioned well for them.  By starting there, evolution could move step-by-step to select the alpha-globin molecules that would function well for us—to enhance our survival and reproductive fitness.  What matters is not the rarity of functional proteins in the whole conceivable search space of possible amino-acid combinations, but rather isolation within that portion of the space that must be searched (in this case, the variety of functional alpha-globin molecules among primates as the starting point for natural selection in the evolution of the human alpha-globin molecule).
Gelernter asks: “Can you throw a bunch of amino acids together and assume you will get something good?”  Well, no.  But this question is irrelevant to how evolution really works.

Gelernter’s fourth claim is that Darwinian science cannot explain “the big body-plan changes required by macro-evolution,” because the major mutations required for such big changes in body plans would be fatal.  But in making this claim, he is silent about the emergence over the past 30 years of “evolutionary developmental biology” (Evo-Devo), which resolves this problem.  (Sean Carroll has provided some of the best surveys of this research.) 
The question is how to explain the remarkable diversity of animal life forms, and particularly, how to explain the diversity of animal species from ancestral species. We might assume, as Gelernter does, that the diverse forms of animal bodies must arise from radically different genes. So, for example, we might think that the wing of a fly and the arm of a human being require major genetic mutations. In fact, however, the "tool kit genes" for building animal bodies are remarkably similar across all animals. This became apparent when the human genome project showed that human beings have only about 22,000 genes, which is about the same number as other animals.

The differences between animal species come not from differences in their "tool kit genes" but differences in their "genetic switches," which are devices in DNA that tell tool kit genes when, where, and how to act. The gene controlling the formation of a fly's wing is the same as the gene controlling the formation of a human arm. The difference arises during embryonic development as regulatory genes turn the other genes on and off at different times and places in the body.

The beauty of this explanation is that it allows us to explain the origin of new species. Small changes in the timing and pace of these genetic switches can lead to the evolutionary development of new species. So, for example, a fish with fins can evolve into a fish with primitive legs for crawling onto land, when small changes in the genetic switches move from creating fins to creating legs.

This same evolutionary mechanism can explain what makes us uniquely human, with our human capacities for thinking, feeling, and acting. Our human uniqueness depends on the uniqueness of our brains in their size and complexity. The evolution of those brains from smaller and simpler primate brains could arise from evolutionary changes in the genetic regulation of the development of primate brains and nervous systems.

As a consequence of that evolution of the brain, we human beings can debate the truth of Darwinian science and of alternatives like intelligent design theory and scientific creationism.  If we use our brains properly, we can see through the specious arguments against Darwinian evolution, like those offered by Gelernter.
I have written a series of posts on the evidence for evolution (herehere, and here.)

In my next post, I will point to Gelernter's strong arguments against intelligent design theory.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Bees Know Nothing: The Evolutionary Psychology of Zero and Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

                             Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

I have written some posts answering Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism (here and here).  Plantinga claims that the theistic doctrine of the human mind created by God in His image provides the necessary support for the validity of human thought, including the validity of natural science.  If we embrace Naturalism--the view that nothing exists except Nature, and so there is no God or nothing like God (like Plato's Idea of the Good)--we are caught in self-contradiction: if human thought originated not from a divine Mind but from the irrational causes of Nature, then we cannot trust our minds as reliable sources of true beliefs, and thus we cannot trust our belief in Naturalism as being true.  Naturalism thus destroys itself by destroying the rationality of believing in Naturalism, or anything else.  Insofar as science--including evolutionary science--depends on the validity of human thought, and insofar as theism is the indispensable support for trusting in the validity of human thought, science is not only compatible with theism, science depends upon theism.

As I have argued, the weak link in Plantinga's argument is his assumption that the evolutionary natural selection of the mind for adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true beliefs.  He argues that natural selection rewards adaptive behavior and punishes maladaptive behavior.  But natural selection does not care about the truth or falsity of an animal's beliefs.  If beliefs produce adaptive behavior, they will be favored by natural selection regardless of whether the beliefs are true or false.  Therefore, he infers, the evolution of adaptive behavior in our prehistoric ancestors did not guarantee or even make it probable that our cognitive faculties would be reliable in generating mostly true beliefs.  For all we know, we could have naturally evolved for being in a state of complete and perpetual delusion.

Against this line of reasoning, I have argued that the evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible.  The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces mental adaptations that are good enough (for survival and reproduction) but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.  But despite this fallibility, the mental faculties of animals cannot be absolutely unreliable or delusional.

Plantinga concedes this point when he says that in the evolution of animals, "adaptive behavior requires accurate indicators."  So, for example, a frog must have sensory equipment that allows him to accurate detect flies so that he can catch them with his tongue.  A frog with a brain prone to put him into a completely delusional view of the world around him would not survive and reproduce.

Another good example of the adaptive value of "accurate indicators" is the waggle dance of honey bees.  The accuracy of the bee's waggle dance in communicating with other bees shows the capacity for natural evolution--even without any divine guidance--to produce animal cognition and communication that gives the animal an accurate--even if fallible--representation of the world as it pertains to the needs of the animal.

Last year, we saw another example of this from the honey bees when scientists published research showing that bees have some knowledge of arithmetic as even including the concept of zero, which is a difficult concept even for human beings as indicated by the fact that some human civilizations have not had the concept of zero as a number.  The difficulty of this concept should be clear: How can "nothing" be "something"?  How can the absence of quantity be quantifiable or countable?

The scientists testing bees for their number sense devised a simple but clever experimental procedure (Howard et al. 2018; Nieder 2018).

Two groups of 10 bees each were lured to a rotating screen with four panels showing different numbers of black shapes.  Half of the bees were rewarded with a sugar solution for flying to the display showing a greater number of items, while the other half were rewarded for flying to the display showing a lesser number of items.  The bees who were taught the "less than" rule were then tested with some panels having multiple items and others being blank.  Most of the bees flew to the blank panels, suggesting that they somehow understood that the blank panel was "less than" the panels with one or more shapes.  This seemed to show some understanding of the concept of zero.

Until about 50 years ago, scientists generally assumed that the capacity for counting was uniquely human.  But then experiments showed that crows and ravens could carry out simple numerical tasks.  And now there is plenty of evidence that many different species of animals have some number sense, although they do not have the human capacity for comprehending mathematical symbolism.

In humans and other primates, the core areas of the brain for processing numerical quantity are in the left and right parietal lobes and the left frontal lobe (Butterworth et al. 2017; Butterworth 2017).  The abnormal development of the parietal lobes is associated with dyscalculia, a congenital disability in learning about numbers and arithmetic (Butterworth et al. 2011).  Given the small size of the bee brain--about the size of a sesame seed--it is remarkable that bees have any capacity for counting at all.

That such a wide range of species have some number sense suggests that this is a case of convergent evolution of numerical capacity.  Different species that are very distant from one another phylogenetically have converged on the same adaptive solution to computational problems posed by their socioecological environments: being able to count the number of items in a set has been favored by natural selection because this mental capacity has enhanced the chances of survival and reproduction.

This, then, is another illustration of how the evolutionary adaptation of animal minds really does require "accurate indicators" of the world, and so Plantinga is wrong in assuming that a natural process of evolution unguided by the Mind of the Creator could never produce minds capable of generating true beliefs about the world.

But, still, the claim that bees understand the concept of zero is puzzling.  After all, doesn't the fact that the concept of zero has appeared only recently in some human civilizations suggest that conceptualizing numbers is a cultural invention rather than a purely biological activity, and that this depends on a uniquely human capacity for symbolic abstraction?

That will be the question for my next post.


Butterworth, Brian, et al. 2011. "Dyscalculia: From Brain to Education." Science 332 (27 May): 1049-1053.

Butterworth, Brian, et al. 2017. "Introduction: The Origins of Numerical Abilities." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 373: 20160507.

Howard, Scarlett R., et al. 2018. "Numerical Ordering of Zero in Honey Bees." Science 360 (8 June): 1124-1126.

Nieder, Andreas. 2017. "Number Faculty Is Rooted in Our Biological Heritage." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 21 (June): 403-404.

Nieder, Andreas. 2018. "Honey Bees Zero in on the Empty Set." Science 360 (8 June): 1069-1071.