Wednesday, January 27, 2021

James Flynn, 1934-2020: How the IQ Debate Supports Darwinian Lockean Liberalism


                       James Flynn: "Why Our IQ Levels Are Higher Than Our Grandparents"

James Flynn died at the age of 86 in Dunedin, New Zealand, on December 11.  (The New York Times has published a good obituary.)  He had retired last year from teaching political science at the University of Otago.  He was best known for discovering the "Flynn effect"--that IQ has increased by around 30 points over the past 100 years--and for arguing that this shows that IQ is shaped more by environmental causes than it is by innate genetic endowment.  That put him into a debate with people like Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray, who have argued that at least half of the variance in IQ scores is explained by genetics.

I first came into contact with Flynn in 2004, when I was an associate editor for the Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, and I asked him to write an article for us on "The IQ Debate," which he did.  Over the years, I have written a series of posts on Flynn and the IQ debate.  Some of them can be found hereherehereherehere, and here.  

From my study of that debate, I have concluded that the study of intelligence as measured by IQ supports Darwinian Lockean liberalism with three ideas.

The first idea is that unequal intelligence is compatible with the Lockean principle of equal liberty.  Lockean equality means not that all people are identical--in intelligence or in many other respects--but that all people are similar in resisting exploitation by others, so that no human being is good enough to govern any other human being without that person's consent.  Equal liberty requires not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity in the pursuit of happiness.  In a society of equal liberty, those individuals who are naturally more intelligent or talented than others will reap the benefits of those superior traits, but those superior individuals will have no right to exploit those of lesser abilities.  In such a society, everyone can find valued places for themselves.

The second idea is that increasing intelligence favors progress towards classical liberal or libertarian social orders, because Lockean liberalism is itself a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives that is inherent to reason itself.  The intelligence that allows us to think abstractly, logically, and hypothetically makes it easier for us to think like an "impartial spectator" (to use Adam Smith's term)--to take the perspectives of other people--and thus to reason ourselves towards the Golden Rule: that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and that if we try to exploit others, we should expect them to resist exploitation just as we would if they tried to exploit us.  Abstract reasoning allows us to weigh the costs of coercive violence and the benefits of peaceful cooperation.  Consequently, more intelligent people--people with higher IQ--tend to be more law-abiding, healthier, wealthier, and more cooperative people.  This is what Steven Pinker has called the "moral Flynn effect"--that rising IQ scores are correlated with moral progress.

The third idea is that the Flynn effect shows the success of the Lockean Liberal Enlightenment in creating an open society with freedom of thought and speech for philosophers. This refutes Leo Strauss's claim that the irreconcilable conflict between the philosophic life based on the pursuit of truth and the social order based on unexamined opinion makes such an open society impossible.  Strauss said that philosophers would always have to engage in esoteric writing to protect philosophers from persecution and to protect social life from the subversive effects of philosophical questioning of traditional moral, religious, and political opinions.  But Arthur Melzer has shown that while this seemed to be true for most of human history, there has been less need for esoteric writing over the past 200 years, because the philosophic and scientific Enlightenment in liberal societies has created open societies in which people generally feel free to think and speak freely, as long as they accord that same freedom to others.  (It should be noted that one of Flynn's teachers at the University of Chicago was Strauss.)

Flynn read some of my posts on his work and his engagement with Charles Murray and Steve Pinker.  In 2013, I asked him if he agreed with Pinker that the smartest people are classical liberals or libertarians (as opposed to left-liberals).  He answered: "By no means.  I merely think that generalizing moral principles irons out logical flaws for everybody!  I am a social democrat."

In 2014, he sent me this email message:

Well you are unique - you have actually read my stuff, understand it, and treat it evidentially.  As to my views:

I  do not think people cannot be trusted to help one another and must be bullied by the state.  My position is: 
(1) The unregulated market FORCES people to put certain things ahead of their desire to be just, be inclusive, and so forth; 
(2) Therefore, we must turn to the state to overcome the coercion of the unregulated market, and it would be outrageous if this occurred by anything but democratic means (the people must WANT it);
(3) But without a robust welfare state, personal insecurity robs us of the incentive to finance such a state (we need every dollar to be self-sufficient).
All of this is from pp. 157-179 of "Where have all the liberals gone".

As to Murray, while industrial progress has done much, ON ITS OWN, to eliminate poverty, this does not mean that the welfare state is unnecessary or counter productive.  You are right  that there is an evidential gap on this in "Where".  But it i supplied in  "Intelligence and human progress", chapter 4 (dysgenics and eugenics).  In Scandinavia, where they have enjoyed both progress and a welfare state, rather than having an immiserated lower class (as Murray sees in America), even the lower classes have the "middle class" aspirations and contraceptive knowledge needed to avoid dysgenic mating.  No one else has achieved this. As to Murray on evidence, see pp. 96-97 of by far my best book "Fate and philosophy":  Where is the cross-culatural evidence of a correlation between "those governments that have tried to promote equality"  on the one hand and the "magnitude of their demoralized underclass" on the other - assuming both are at the same level of industrial development?

The eliteness of the black soldiers in German, as you know, I put at worth three points of genic IQ (all the analysis is in the appendix of my early "Race, IQ, and Jensen").   As you also know, I speculate that the three points may have been the effect of overt bias, thus giving 12 points to America's black culture.  This of course means I am called a racist.  I would teach your course on intelligence at Northern Illinois (I ran against them when I was captain of the cross-country team at Chicago).   I assume you have tenure.  I was fired twice because of my politics when I was untenured, so I know how difficult things can be.

Your regard for evidence politics aside reminds me of my old friend Thomas Sowell.  

I have learned a lot from my engagement with Jim Flynn.  Now that his voice has gone silent, I will miss him.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Is Trump a "Total Failure" for the Proud Boys?

Those who believed Trump's revolutionary syllogism, and who acted on it by joining the Capitol Hill insurrection, now look like fools.

During the election campaign, the Proud Boys, a far-right group, offered to serve as Trump's private militia.  In one of the presidential debates, Trump encouraged them by telling them to "stand back and stand by."  After the election, the Proud Boys supported his "Stop the Steal" movement by joining protest rallies where they often became violent.  They posted messages saying: "Hail Emperor Trump."  When his lawsuits for overturning the election failed, they called for him to declare martial law and lead them in a second civil war.  When he called for the storming of the U.S. Capitol, they answered the call; and over 100 of them have been arrested for their violence in the Capitol building.

But now the Proud Boys say that Trump has been a "total failure."  (Many of the other far-right groups--such as the Oath Keepers, America First, and the Three Percenters--are saying the same thing.)  Trump failed to lead the march on the Capitol as he promised on the morning of January 6.  He condemned their insurrectionary violence.  He refused to pardon those who have been arrested.  And rather than declaring martial law to prevent Biden from taking office, Trump meekly walked out of the White House and flew to Florida.

There are two possible explanations for this.  Either Trump did not believe his revolutionary syllogism, because he did not really believe the election was stolen from him; or he did believe it, but he lacked the courage to become a military dictator.  Nicholas Fuentes, the leader of America First, has said that Trump proved to be "very weak and flaccid."

In either case, we can say that Trump's illiberal populism has failed, and liberal democracy has prevailed.  I see this as vindicating the end-of-history argument:  the progress of the Liberal Enlightenment can be slowed, but it cannot be stopped, because it satisfies the deepest human desires.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Trump's Syllogism from the Declaration of Independence Demands Insurrection

Donald Trump's demagogic rhetoric has succeeded in persuading his supporters because of his skillful use of two primary syllogisms--an electoral syllogism and a revolutionary syllogism.  The syllogistic character of his rhetoric is usually not clear because he leaves some steps in his syllogistic reasoning unstated, so that they have to be supplied by the listeners.  This is what Aristotle described in his Rhetoric as persuasion through enthymemes.

I have indicated in some previous posts (here and here) that Trump's main syllogism supporting his election in 2016 looked like this:

Major premise: Because of stupid politicians, America no longer wins; and America will not win again until a successful businessman who knows how to win is elected president.

Minor premise:  Donald Trump is unique in his business success and his prudence in knowing how to win, because he is a self-made multi-billionaire.

Conclusion:  Therefore, Americans need to elect Trump president.

Both of the premises are contestable.  The minor premise is demonstrably false.

Beginning in his 2016 campaign, Trump has also employed a revolutionary syllogism; and it's the persuasiveness of that syllogism with his supporters that led to the insurrection on Capitol Hill on January 6, which could motivate future insurrectionary violence as well.  When the majority of those in the House of Representatives recognized this, that led them to impeach Trump a second time.  Whether Trump is convicted in a Senate trial will depend upon whether two-thirds of the Senators can be persuaded to recognize this.

Trump's revolutionary syllogism follows the model of the syllogism around which the Declaration of Independence is organized.  In a previous post, I have said that the Declaration argues for this revolutionary syllogism:

Major premise:  The natural history of humanity shows that human beings have a natural right to overthrow tyrannical governments.

Minor premise:  The cultural history of the American colonies shows that the British King intends to exercise tyranny over the colonies.

Conclusion:  The 56 individuals signing the Declaration can rightly exercise their prudential judgment, acting as representatives of the American people, to affirm the conclusion that the American colonies have a right to revolt in separating from British rule.

This same structure--a theoretical major premise, a factual minor premise, and a practical conclusion for insurrectionary violence--can be seen in Trump's revolutionary syllogism:

Major premise:  The American people have the right to overthrow tyrannical government.

Minor premise:  The Democratic Party has been conspiring to steal elections so that they can rule over America tyrannically.

Conclusion:  The American people have the right to engage in a violent insurrection to stop this tyrannical conspiracy for stealing elections.

The insurrectionary conclusion follows logically from the premises.  I presume that most Americans accept the major premise.  The minor premise--the factual premise about the Democratic Party's fraudulent voting conspiracy--is the point of disagreement.  Most Americans deny that minor premise.  But a large number of Trump's supporters believe Trump's endorsement of that premise, and so they feel justified in becoming insurrectionists, as they did on January 6.

That Trump has indeed argued for this revolutionary syllogism becomes clear as soon as one reviews the history of what he has said to his supporters from 2016 to the present.  The best survey of that history that I have seen is the long article by Luke Mogelson for The New Yorker--"Among the Insurrectionists."

During his campaign in 2016, Trump predicted that while he would win by a landslide in the legal votes, the Democrats would steal the election for Hillary Clinton.  Roger Stone created a Web site called Stop the Steal.  After the election, Trump said that the Democrats had stolen enough votes to win the popular vote, although they had failed to win the Electoral College.

During his reelection campaign in 2020, Trump predicted that the Democrats would once again try to steal the election from him.  On the day of the election--November 3--shortly after midnight, Trump sent out the message: "We are up BIG, but they are trying to STEAL the Election."

On November 14, at the Million MAGA March, tens of thousands of Republicans went to Washington, D.C. and marched to the Supreme Court demanding that it overturn the election.  They believed Trump's claim that the Democrats had stolen a victory for Joe Biden both in the Electoral College and in the popular vote, despite the fact that Trump had actually won the election by a huge margin.  At the rally, Alex Jones, a leading pro-Trump conspiracy theorist, declared: "Down with the deep state!  The answer to their 1984 tyranny is 1776."

Trump's lawyers filed many lawsuits to reverse the electoral outcome.  One of his lawyers in an interview on Fox Business explained their strategy: "We're waiting for the United States Supreme Court, of which the President has nominated three Justices, to step in and do something."  All of their lawsuits failed, because they had no persuasive evidence of fraudulent voting, and they failed even when the judges were Trump appointees.  Once this failure in the courts became clear, congressman Louie Gohmert from Texas declared on TV: "You gotta go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa and BLM."

Nicholas Fuentes is the host of the popular "America First" program.  Many of the protesters at the Capitol Hill riot had royal-blue "AF" flags, the logo of "America First."  In December, Fuentes said: "Our Founding Fathers would get in the streets, and they would take this country back if necessary.  And that is what we must be prepared to do."

In December, the Arizona Republican Party reposted a tweet from Ali Alexander, an organizer of the Stop the Steal movement, that stated, "I am willing to give my life for this fight!"  The Republican National Committee the following to this retweet: "He is.  Are you?"

On December 20th, Trump retweeted a QAnon supporter who declared: "It was a rigged election, but they were busted.  Sting of the Century!  Justice is coming!"  QAnon conspiracy theorists believe that the entire world is coming under the tyrannical control of a small cabal of Democratic Party leaders like Hillary Clinton who are Satan-worshipping pedophiles.  They also believe that Donald Trump will expose their conspiracy and then have them all arrested and executed.  They predicted that he would do this shortly after being reelected in 2020.  Now they are predicting that he will have to declare martial law so that he can overturn the stolen election and arrest Biden and the others leading the conspiracy.

Trump has used one of the favorite phrases of the QAnon people--"the calm before the storm."  The Storm is the apocalyptic violence of Trump's revolution when he overturns the conspiratorial cabal and kills their leaders.  Many of the insurrectionists who broke into the Capitol Building to stop the certification of the presidential election of Biden apparently thought they were part of The Storm.

This was initiated by Trump when he invited his people to come to Washington on January 6 to "stop the steal."  At the rally that day, Trump warned: "We want to be so nice.  We want to be so respectful of everybody, including bad people.  We're going to have to fight much harder.  And Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us."  He went on to say: "After this, we're going to walk down, and I'll be there with you.  We're going to walk down to the Capitol, and we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women.  We're probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them--because you'll never take back our country with weakness.  You have to show strength."

People in the crowd responded by yelling "No weakness!" and "We're storming the Capitol!"  They marched to the Capitol.  But Trump did not keep his promise to march with them.  He drove back to the White House where he watched the assault on the Capitol on TV.

On the Mall, some of the people constructed a makeshift wooden gallows, with stairs and a rope.  Others carried ropes with nooses.  As they entered the Capitol Building, they shouted: "Storm!"  "Shoot the politicians!"  "Fight for Trump!"  "Hang Mike Pence!"

Advancing on five policemen guarding a side corridor, one group of people shouted: "Stand down."  "You're outnumbered.  There's a fucking million of us out here, and we are listening to Trump--your boss."  "We can take you out."

Some of the intruders were clearly hunting for politicians--shouting "Where the fuck are they?" and "Where the fuck is Nancy?"  Those who broke into Nancy Pelosi's office were angry that she was not there.

One woman--Ashli Babbitt--was fatally shot by a policeman.  In her final tweet the day before, she had declared, "The storm is here," the QAnon prophecy that the day was coming for Trump to expose and execute his enemies.

Some of the people yelled: "It's 1776!"

They believed Trump's revolutionary syllogism.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Can the Evolutionary Neuroscience of the Brain Explain the Self-Awareness and Freedom of the Soul? Sacks, Popper, Eccles, and Dennett

I have been working on the idea that social neuroscience might support Lockean liberalism--particularly, the Lockean principles of self-ownership and natural punishment.  As part of that work, I have been studying Thomas Willis to see how much influence he might have had on Locke.  Willis is sometimes said to have been "the first neuroscientist" because of his anatomical and functional studies of the brain and nervous system.  He was one of Locke's teachers at Oxford University and one of Locke's colleagues in the Royal Society.

While thinking about the questions raised by Willis's brain science, I started to review my notes from a Liberty Fund conference that I organized in 2004 in Tucson, Arizona on "Liberty in the Evolution of the Human Brain."  I decided to post those notes here.


Can a scientific understanding of the evolution of the human brain explain the natural basis of human liberty?  Or does a purely naturalistic science of the brain subvert liberty by denying free will?  Can our common-sense experience of exercising free choice be compatible with Darwinian evolution and neuroscience?  Or does a purely naturalistic science of evolution and the brain disparage our experience of free will as an illusion?  Does free will require some notion of an immaterial soul that is not reducible to material mechanisms?  Can human morality be explained as rooted in human biological nature?  Or does the human sense of moral obligation—the perception of a moral “ought”—transcend our biological nature?  How do these questions about our metaphysical and moral freedom influence our understanding of political freedom?

These are some of the questions that were raised in this Liberty Fund colloquium.  Although we surely did not answer any of these questions conclusively, we came away with a better understanding of the questions and of the possible answers.

The participants were diverse in their backgrounds, which included law, biology, economics, philosophy, psychology, political science, journalism, and literature.

The readings were selected from three books:  Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Other Clinical Tales (1985), Karl Popper and John Eccles, The Self and Its Brain (1983), and Daniel Dennett, Freedom Evolves (2003).

I will note a few of the high points of the discussions.



Sacks, pages 1-5, 22-52, 87-96

Sacks’ clinical stories about the weird and poignant consequences of brain disorders were welcomed  by the participants as engaging, although often troubling, stories.

Most of the participants spoke about how disturbing these stories were, because the stories depicted how fragile our human identity could be and how easily we could lose our identity through brain damage.  Some of the participants spoke of their own experiences of physical suffering and their feelings of losing control.

And yet, some participants spoke of how Sacks’ stories were uplifting because of the kindness and artistry of Sacks himself.

Sacks’ stories led us into a discussion of how the mind arises from the brain.  The participant who is a philosopher briefly surveyed the various positions among contemporary philosophers as to the mind-body problem.

Some of the participants commented on the importance of dramatic narrative for Sacks as depicting “the human subject, striving to preserve its identity in adverse circumstances.”  This suggests that the soul itself arises more from dramatic narrative than it does from the brain as a computational machine.  Sacks seems to be attacking the notion of the mind as a mere machine.

And yet some participants suggested that we could in principle build machines that could tell a story, machines with intentions or purposes.  If so, then a mechanistic view of mind might be defensible.

In the story of Ray, who suffered from Tourette’s Syndrome, Ray spoke of how normal people have a “natural freedom” that comes from a “natural balance” in their souls, while he had to create an “artificial balance” through using the drug Haldol,  so that he could balance the manic exuberance of his Tourette’s against the sober calmness induced by the Haldol.

Some participants wondered whether the “coherence” of the soul was the crucial thing—maintaining its continuity through time.

Participants commented on the importance of Sacks in guiding us through these stories.  One participant compared him to Dante guiding his readers through Purgatory.

It was observed by some that Sacks’ patients are not free because they have to deliberately control things that in normal people are handled automatically without conscious control.  For example, the “disembodied lady,” who had lost the proprioceptive sense of her own body, had to consciously control her body movements through carefully watching her body in motion.

It seemed that we cannot be truly free when our bodies and minds are in so much conflict that we must deliberately strain to control them, striving to achieve an “artificial balance” where normally we would have a “natural balance.”

At the end of this discussion session, we were left with various questions.  Do clinical stories about the sometimes weird consequences of brain disorders teach us anything about the relation between the human mind and the activity of the brain?  Do they show that a person’s mental activity and personal identity are reducible to the material mechanisms of the brain?  Or do such stories sometimes suggest the freedom of the human spirit to preserve its freedom and nobility even when the brain is disabled?



Popper and Eccles, pages 3-17, 33-60, 72-81, 98-99

These readings come from Karl Popper, who argues against the materialist position that the physical world is closed upon itself, so that the only effective causes in the universe are purely physical causes.  Rather, Popper claims, we need to recognize three “Worlds”—“World 1” (the physical world), “World 2” (the self-conscious mind), and “World 3” (the products of the human mind, such as language, art, and science)—as interacting causally with one another.

One participant asked, Is it true—as Popper says—that the openness of World 1 is needed to explain human freedom?  Someone answered that this is not needed, as long as one sees that World 1 is in fact many worlds at different evolutionary scales—from non-living entities to living organisms to self-conscious animals.  Generally, most of the participants were skeptical of Popper’s dualism.

Another participant suggested that both Popper and Dennett were “emergentists,” although Dennett was defending a “weak” form of emergence, while Popper was defending a “strong” form of emergence.  In Dennett’s thought, complex forms emerge from less complex forms naturally.  In Popper’s thought, these more complex, emergent realities—particularly, self-conscious thought—become detached from the physical world and exert a “downward causation” on that physical world.

One participant observed that whatever plausibility Popper and Eccles had, it came from their appeal to the common-sense, introspective experience of most people that they exercise a freedom as self-conscious minds to control their brains and bodies.  Some participants questioned whether we had to take such introspective experience as decisive.  Isn’t introspection fallible?  But even if it is fallible, one person responded, it is a “data point” that needs to be taken seriously.  And someone insisted that it is hard to just deny this common experience of freedom.

There was some discussion of whether modern science tended to promote determinism, or whether—on the contrary—modern science tended to undermine determinism with quantum mechanics and chaos theory.  But then some participants suggested that saying something was unpredictable was not the same as saying it was uncaused or undetermined.

In defense of Popper’s idea of World 3, one participate asked, What’s wrong with Popper’s claim that “standards of logic are not physical properties”?  Some people responded by saying that if our physical universe were different, our logic might be different, so that in some manner, logic might be rooted in physical reality.  Or one might say that the laws of logic are preconditions for any universe at all.



Popper and Eccles, pages 225-235, 250-51, 272-94, 311-13, 355-76, 437-57, 554-61

The readings for this session come from John Eccles, a Nobel-prize-winning neuroscientist who defends a strong form of dualism, even to the point of suggesting that the self-conscious mind could be immortal.  The question here is whether the self-conscious mind transcends the brain in ways that manifest the spiritual freedom of a soul that is supernaturally created to be immaterial and immortal.

Another question is whether Eccles’ survey of human neurological science supports his dualism.  The discussion began with a philosopher who has studied neuroscience offering a survey of recent developments in neuroscience.  He suggested that these recent advancements provided detailed explanations for how the mind arises as the activity of the brain, and thus this weakens Eccles’ argument for dualism.

Many participants agreed that it was not clear that the purely scientific evidence supported Eccles’ position.  Some suggested that Eccles was motivated by a fear of death and a yearning for immortality of the soul, which pushed him towards finding scientific confirmation for his yearning.  In any case, it would seem from the evidence provided by Eccles himself that any immortality of the soul would require immortality of the body to sustain the soul, which would require the religious idea of resurrection of the body.

There was a sustained discussion of consciousness—whether it is uniquely human, or whether other animals are conscious as well.

Some people wondered whether we needed full self-consciousness for moral responsibility.  Don’t we have levels of responsibility, so that nonhuman animals and young children can act voluntarily, although they might not show self-conscious deliberate choice such as we might expect from a mature human adult?

Some participants thought that the question of the soul is universally of concern to human beings.  We must explain this—this yearning for some purpose larger than oneself.

Popper stresses that there is no “ultimate explanation” for anything, because every explanation ultimately depends on unexplained starting points.  So if we ultimately appeal to the laws of nature, we assume that uncaused nature is the starting point for explanation that cannot itself be explained.  But if we look beyond nature to God as nature’s Creator, then we assume that uncaused God is the starting point.  We cannot conclusively decide this disagreement.  But this could be used by religious believers to argue for the limitations of scientific explanation.



Dennett, pages 1-22, 169-218.

Dennett argues that a naturalistic explanation of the evolution of the human brain can support the freedom of human beings as cultural and moral animals.  Determinism, he claims, does not mean inevitability.  Animals can evolve to avoid dangers in their environment, and this flexible behavior has been highly developed in human beings.

One participant suggested that Dennett’s rhetorical style displays arrogance towards the readers he wants to persuade, and thus he is unlikely to persuade.  He uses the Walt Disney story of Dumbo the elephant to suggest that believers in an immaterial soul need to believe in “magical feathers” that allow them to fly.

Some people responded that Dennett—and those like him—might have persuaded some undecided students who were unsure of whether modern science could be compatible with human freedom.

And yet some thought that sometimes Darwinists are “true believers” who assume metaphysical naturalism without proving it.

One participant thought that the mystery of the origin of the universe and the origin of life left plenty of room for a sense of wonder and awe that might be religious.

There was some discussion of whether Dennett was employing a “sleight of hand” in the way he defined “free will” as “evitability.”  A butterfly on a train track can fly away to avoid a train.  But, according to Dennett, the butterfly is determined to fly away.

Dennett makes much of cultural evolution—as “mimetic” evolution.  But then, one participant observed, mimetic determinism is still determinism.

 There was a discussion of whether morality could be explained as rooted in moral emotions as “commitment devices,” as suggested by Robert Frank.



Dennett, pages 221-55

For this session, the question was, If mind is what the brain does, and if the brain is a purely material mechanism with no place for an immaterial soul, does that mean that our brains make decisions without our having any free will?  Or can our free decisions show a form of free will that arises from the natural mechanism of the brain?

One participant insisted that a deterministic system can enable free choice, just as the artistic rules for some genre of art can generate artistic freedom.

Another participant argued that cognitive science can list the features that make a system more in control and then compare systems as more or less in control, more or less free.  For example, having a model of the world, having a language, having more than two options, having memory—these and other features would make a system freer than one without such features.

One participant suggested that in working out the levels of freedom, we need a nested hierarchy of three kinds of order (such as one finds in Aristotle, Darwin, Hayek, and others)—nature, custom (or habit), and reason.  So, first, we need nature as genetic evolution.  Then, we need custom or habit as cultural evolution, which is constrained by genetic evolution.  Finally, as mature human beings we have the capacity for rational choice, which is constrained both by genetic evolution and cultural evolution.  The first two levels—nature and custom—are spontaneous orders.  The third—rational choice—is a deliberate order.  Consider, for example, marriage law.  As human beings, we have natural inclinations to sexual mating and parental care.  These natural inclinations are expressed in cultural traditions as to the norms of marriage and familial bonding.  Finally, we might decide by deliberate choice to favor some forms of marriage over another; but this deliberate choice would be constrained by both nature and custom.  The current debate over whether the law in the United States should sanction homosexual marriage illustrates this.  Similarly, the laws governing incest avoidance illustrate this nested hierarchy.

But then one participant suggested that biotechnology will give us the power to reshape human nature, and perhaps even abolish it.  Others responded that the power of biotech will be constrained by natural human desires and propensities.  For example, when a 63 year old woman had a child using reproductive biotech, many people thought this would radically change the nature of human reproduction.  But, in fact, most 63 year old women will not want to become pregnant.  This and other kinds of biotech innovations will not change the human condition when they go against the natural propensities of most people.

There was some discussion of how in vitro fertilization has weakened our repugnance towards “unnatural” reproductive technology.  This is a result of our seeing that this has succeeded in allowing people to have healthy children who have no other means of procreation.  And yet if medical studies were to show that IVF children were subject to serious genetic defects, that might arouse our repugnance.  Here reason and emotion are combined in our moral judgments.



Dennett, pages 289-309

The discussion leader asked the director of the colloquium to open this session with a series of questions.  He offered three sets of questions.  First, since we began by speaking about how disturbing Sacks’s stories were—because they arouse our fear of annihilation or of losing our identities—we might ask whether science can explain that fear and help us face up to it.  Or does such a fear show religious longings that science can never satisfy? 

Second, although most of us seem to reject the Popper/Eccles position of dualism, we should ask ourselves whether we have a good alternative.  If we look to Dennett for an alternative, it’s not clear how coherent his alternative is.  After all, doesn’t his cultural evolution look at lot like Popper’s World 3?  Has Dennett replaced the immaterial soul with an immaterial culture?  Many evolutionary psychologists reject the naturalism of Darwin and, instead, adopt the dualism of T. H. Huxley, who argured that morality requires culture as “an artificial world within the cosmos.” 

The third set of questions concern the legal and political implications of Darwinian naturalism.  Dennett says that “the real threats to freedom are not metaphysical but political and social,” and that we need to agree on governmental and legal systems that are compatible with a scientific understanding of human nature.  What would these governmental and legal systems look like?  Paul Rubin (in Darwinian Politics) and Steve Pinker (in The Blank Slate) argue that a Darwinian science of human nature supports a Tragic Vision of human nature—as opposed to a Utopian Vision.  (The distinction between the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision comes from Hayek as elaborated by Thomas Sowell.)  And this Tragic Vision supports the principles of modern democratic republicanism—limited government, individual liberty, the rule of law, and free markets.  But is this true?

Various participants responded to these three sets of questions.  I will summarize a few of the responses.

To the first set of questions: Yes, religion can work to reassure us.  Science gives us little reassurance in facing up to the fear of annihilation.  But science can look for cures for our mental maladies.  The fear provoked by Sacks’ stories is not fear of death but fear of continued physical existence with loss of soul or deformity of mind.  If death is total oblivion, it need not be fearful (as Lucretius argued).  Someday death might be optional as biotech and biomedical medicine extend life.  Religion might actually promote fear of death by creating fear of punishment after death.

To the second set of questions: Yes, Huxley broke from Darwin, but later Darwinians (like Dewey) defended Darwin’s position by arguing that moral culture cultivates the natural potentialities of human nature.  We don’t need to accept a radical dualism of facts and values because there are natural ethical facts about what is required for proper human flourishing given our nature.  Substance dualism is wrong.  But matter-form dualism is defensible in Dennett.  After all, the power of “information” (such as the DNA code) shows how “form” rules over “matter” in the natural world, without requiring a radical substance dualism.  We can explain morality as a purely natural product without any dualistic transcendence of nature, because morality arises as cooperative concern for others as an end in itself (proximate motivation), although the ultimate explanation is that this was favored by evolution by natural selection promoting reproductive success.  Evolution creates beings with purposes, even though the evolutionary process itself is not purposeful.  At least one participant argued that Darwinian evolution was necessary but not sufficient to explain morality, because human beings have the potentiality to develop moral norms of right and wrong that surpass biological instincts.

To the third set of questions:  Darwin can explain the natural desire for freedom as rooted in the instinct of the human animal to protect oneself against harm and exploitation.  Darwin confirms that human beings are self-governing creatures.  We have a Darwinian function to be free.  The criminal code manifests a Darwinian notion of the normality of responsibility versus the abnormality of people who are not responsible for their behavior.  Political freedom is rare in history, and so this looks like a novelty created by cultural evolution in the last few hundred years.  Has this changed human nature?  Historically, Darwinism was interpreted as supporting socialism (Alfred Russel Wallace), fascism (Ernst Haeckel), feminism, and many other ideologies.  This suggests that Darwinism has no clear political content.  Like other forms of social thought, Darwinism can be abused by various ideologies.  But surely Darwinism denies the Leftist assumption of human perfectibility (as conceded by Peter Singer).

Over the years, I have written a series of posts on the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain that that is close to the position taken by Popper (hereherehere, and here).  I have also written about Oliver Sacks (here).

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Were the Capitol Hill Rioters Exercising Their Right to Revolution?

If it were true that the Democrats have been stealing American elections through fraudulent votes--most recently in the presidential election on November 3rd and the Senate elections in Georgia on January 5th--wouldn't that justify revolutionary violence to "stop the steal"?  

Wouldn't that justify the insurrection of January 6th on Capitol Hill?  

And wouldn't that justify President Trump in declaring martial law, mobilizing federal troops, and having some Republican-controlled state legislatures declare that he has been elected to a second term in a landslide victory? 

Wouldn't this revolutionary violence be a proper expression of what John Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature"--the power of the people to punish those who violate their natural rights?  (I have written about that herehere, and here.)

This all turns on a big if--if Trump's claims about a stolen election are true.  I have seen no evidence to support Trump's lies.  But I understand that if Trump and his supporters believe his lies, they should feel it their patriotic duty to engage in revolutionary violence to keep Trump in office and prevent Biden from being inaugurated president.

That they do believe those lies was indicated by what was said at the "Save America March" on the morning of January 6--not only what Trump said but also what was said by Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman.  (You can find a video and a transcript of this here.  A video of the entire rally can be found at CSPAN.)

Giuliani claimed that "this election was stolen in seven states," and that the Georgia Senate elections had been stolen the night before using the same techniques for fraudulent voting that had been employed on November 3.  He insisted that these stolen elections would have to be reversed "to save our republic," and that this would require "trial by combat."  To prove that their plan for the day was "perfectly legal," Giuliani introduced Eastman as "one of the preeminent constitutional scholars in the United States."

Eastman is a law professor at Chapman University's Fowler School of Law and the Founding Director of the Claremont Institute's Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence.  (In a previous post, I mentioned Eastman's attempt to get a Trump lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court.)  Speaking at the rally, Eastman said that he had proof that the Democrats had used Dominion voting machines to steal elections by putting ballots in a "secret folder" in a machine, so that those ballots could be converted to enough Biden ballots as necessary to win an election.  He claimed that this had been done the night before in Georgia, so that the Democrats could win both of the Senate elections and thus take control of the Senate.

Eastman then said: "And all we are demanding of Vice President Pence is this afternoon at 1:00 he let the legislators of the state look into this so we get to the bottom of it, and the American people know whether we have control of the direction of our government or not."  All fifty states have certified the presidential electors for the Electoral College, with a winning number for Biden.  But Eastman here was agreeing with Trump that the Constitution gives the Vice-President the power to refuse to accept these certifications of electors and to ask the state legislatures to review the elections in their states and consider whether Biden electors should be replaced by Trump electors.  If Pence did not do this, and if he thus allowed the stolen election to stand, Eastman declared, that would destroy the "very essence of our republican form of government."

Eastman's position has provoked angry criticism from some faculty members at Chapman University.  In response to this, Eastman just this morning issued a statement (published at the Claremont Institute's "American Mind" blog) on his decision to retire from Chapman's Law School.  He quotes the political science faculty at Chapman as criticizing him for making "false claims" about the 2020 presidential election that "have no basis in fact or law and seek to harm the democratic foundations of our constitutional republic."  He responds by insisting that all of his arguments are based solidly on both fact and law.  He makes two claims of law and two claims of fact.

First, as a matter of both fact and law, he claims that in many states partisan election officials and partisan judicial officials altered or ignored existing state laws governing the conduct of elections.  He says that this violates constitutional law, because Article II, section 1, clearly says that "each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors" for the Electoral College.  The Constitution thus allows each state legislature to appoint presidential electors in any "manner" that they choose.  The state legislature can even choose the electors themselves without having a popular vote, as happened in most states prior to 1828.  Once a legislature has determined by law the "manner" of selecting electors, it must surely be unconstitutional for any election officials or judges to alter those election laws.  But that's exactly what was done in some states, according to Eastman.

Moreover, as a matter of fact, Eastman says in his statement, some legislators have in fact written to Vice-President Pence asking him to delay the electoral vote count until the legislatures can review whether their electoral slate was legally certified.

Finally, Eastman asserts: "It is also a fact that a forensic analysis of the one voting machine courts have permitted to be inspected demonstrated not only that the machines are capable of switching votes, but they actually did switch votes in Antrim County, Michigan."

This final claim is dishonest.  Because Eastman does not tell his reader that this "forensic analysis" is very dubious and not at all "demonstrated."  He is referring to a report prepared by an organization called Allied Security Operations Group, which has been accused if making false claims about Michigan's election.  Nor does he tell his reader that Trump won Antrim County (with a population of 23,000) by more than 3,700 votes.  If this was a case of Democrats stealing votes, why did they steal the votes for Trump?

Eastman also fails to explain why his arguments of fact and law have been rejected by every court to which they have been presented--in over 60 lawsuits--even when the judges had been appointed by Trump or other Republican presidents.

Eastman denies that he participated in a riot: "I participated in a peaceful rally of nearly 1/2 million people, two miles away from the violence that occurred at the capital and which began even before the speeches were finished."

But if Eastman and other Trump supporters believe that the Democrats have been stealing elections and that this will destroy the American republican form of government and thus destroy America, why doesn't this justify violent revolutionary activity?  Why shouldn't we expect millions of Americans to show up next week at Biden's inauguration armed and ready to fight a "trial by battle"?

If this does not happen, there will be two possible explanations.  Either Trump and his supporters do not really believe his lies about a stolen election.  Or they do really believe them, but they're afraid they don't have enough force to prevail in a battle with federal police and national guardsmen.  

A recent memorandum from the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Department of Defense would seem to support the second explanation.  This extraordinary memo was sent two days ago to all active duty and reserve troops of the United States.

The memo begins: "The American people have trusted the Armed Forces of the United States to protect them and our Constitution for almost 250 years.  As we have done throughout our history, the U.S. military will obey lawful orders from civilian leadership, support civil authorities to protect lives and property, ensure public safety in accordance with the law, and remain fully committed to protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

They say that the riot on January 6 was a direct assault on the United States and the Constitutional process.  They pledge that all military service members will defend the Constitution against such violence.

They also pledge: "On January 20, 2021, in accordance with the Constitution, confirmed by the states and the courts, and certified by Congress, President-elect Biden will be inaugurated and will become our 46th Commander in Chief."

In other words, they reject the claim by Trump and Eastman that the election of Biden was fraudulent and unconstitutional; and therefore, they imply, they would refuse to obey any orders from Trump that would obstruct Biden's inauguration.  They also imply by this that there is no justification for revolutionary violence.

In saying that the American military has protected the country "for almost 250 years," they point back to the establishment of the Continental Army in 1774 by the Second Continental Congress.  In that case, the American military fought on the side of colonial revolutionaries who were traitors to Great Britain.  They thus endorse the right to revolution, even as they deny that there is any justification now to invoke that right in fighting to keep Trump in power.

There are reports that the Defense Department is investigating some military personnel who might have participated in the 1/6 riot.  This memo from the Joint Chiefs is a clear warning against joining any such revolutionary insurrection.

This raises some deep questions about whether and how the right to revolution as stated in the Declaration of Independence can be compatible with the constitutional order.  In the Dennis v. United States (1951) decision, the Supreme Court upheld the Smith Act of 1940, which declared it unlawful for any person "to knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government."  Under this law, leaders of the Communist Party USA were arrested and convicted for teaching Marxism, which advocated the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

The Court seemed to endorse a Hobbesian denial of the Lockean right to revolution: "That it is within the power of the Congress to protect the Government of the United States from armed rebellion is a proposition which requires little discussion.  Whatever theoretical merit there may be to the argument that there is a 'right' to rebellion against dictatorial government is without force where the existing structure of the government provides for peaceful and orderly change.  We reject any principle of governmental helplessness in the face of preparation for revolution, which principle carried to its logical conclusion, must lead to anarchy."

Does this mean that the Declaration of Independence--with its affirmation of the right to revolution--is unconstitutional, because no government could ever permit revolutionary change that would bring about its own abolition?  Or would the right to revolution be a constitutional right when it is exercised to overturn an unconstitutional presidential election?  

If Trump and Eastman were right in their assertion that Biden's election arose from an unconstitutional process, would that justify them in leading a revolutionary assault against Biden's presidency?

Friday, January 08, 2021

American Lockean Liberal Democracy Will Prevail Over Trump's Illiberal Demagoguery

The mob violence in the U.S. Capitol Building incited by Donald Trump's demagogic speeches has made many people fear that American liberal democracy is crumbling.  There are at least four good reasons to believe that is not true.

The first and most fundamental reason is that the progressive expansion of the Lockean Liberal Enlightenment in modern history is too appealing to most human beings to be stopped.  The recent wave of illiberal populist demagoguery in the U.S. and elsewhere is only a momentary deviation from the progressive movement towards a deepening liberal political culture.  Francis Fukuyama was right--we really have reached "the end of history."

One can see evidence for that even in Trump's political career.  He is popular with a minority faction that is large enough to do great harm, as manifest in the social unrest over the past two months.  Nevertheless, he has never won a majority of the electorate, and he has suffered a string of three electoral defeats in the 2018 mid-term elections, on November 3, and in the recent George Senate elections.

I have elaborated these points hereherehere, and here.

The second reason to believe that Lockean liberal democracy will prevail in the U.S. is that the American constitutional system has successfully checked Trump's power.  As I have indicated in some previous posts (here), Trump's lawsuits for overturning the presidential election have been defeated by the constitutionalism of the judges that Trump himself has appointed.  Although Trump has no interest in constitutionalism, he has followed the recommendations of the Federalist Society, which favors a strict constructionist constitutionalism and rule of law that worked against his legal arguments.  Moreover, Trump's failure to sway Pence and McConnell towards overturning the election is another triumph for constitutional checks on presidential power.

A third reason for believing that Trump's illiberal populism must fail is that the insurrectionary mob action on Capitol Hill was so shocking that it has provoked a revulsion against Trump and his movement that will simmer for a long time.

Finally, it's clear that the losses suffered by the Republican Party because of Trump--losing control of both Houses of Congress and the White House--will have a sobering effect on the Party.  In May of 2016, Lindsey Graham said: "If we nominate Trump, he will destroy our Party, and we will deserve it."  Now, many Republican leaders see that he was right.

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Solving Molyneux's Problem: The Innate Faculty for Leaning to Perceive Forms by Touch and Sight

If someone blind from birth were suddenly able to see, would he be able to recognize by sight the shape of an object he previously knew only by touch?  For example, if he had previously known a cube and a globe by touch, would he now be able to tell which was which just by looking and not touching?

Ever since William Molyneux posed that question to John Locke in 1693, philosophers and scientists have argued about it.  Answers to the question have been offered by George Berkeley, Goffried Leibniz, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, La Mettrie, Adam Smith, Hermann von Helmholtz, and William James. 

There's a profound question here about human understanding of the world--about whether we derive our knowledge from innate ideas or from learned experience or from some mixture of both (Degenaar 1996; Degenaar and Lokhorst 2017).

It has been common for modern philosophers to treat a question like this as a thought-experiment that can be answered only by purely speculative reasoning.  But in principle this question is open to empirical study and testing, and indeed some recent research by neuroscientists studying sensory perception does suggest an answer.

Like Locke, Molyneux was a polymath.  A Protestant Irishman living in Dublin, he was a philosopher, a scientist, and a politician.  He founded the Dublin Philosophical Society in 1683.  He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1686.  He wrote a book on the science of optics--Dioptrica Nova (1692)--in which he praised Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  He sent a copy of this book to Locke in 1692, which began a philosophical friendship between them sustained through correspondence, although they never met.  Molyneux became a member of the Irish Parliament representing Dublin University in 1692.  In 1698, he published The Case of Ireland, in which he used Locke's arguments in the Second Treatise for government by the consent of the people to support the claim that the Irish people were not subject to the laws of the British Parliament.  This was the first time that Locke had been identified in print as the author of the Two Treatises of Government.  It was only after Locke's death that he acknowledged his authorship in his will.  The Case of Ireland became a foundational text for 18th century Irish nationalism.  In 1774, John Dickenson referred to this book as indicating how Locke's theory of consent supported not only Irish independence from Great Britain but also American independence.

In a letter of March 2, 1693, Molyneux posed his "Jocose Problem" to Locke as something for him to take up in the second edition of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

"I will conclude my tedious lines with a Jocose Problem, that, upon Discourse with several concerning your your Book and Notions, I have proposed to Diverse very Ingenious Men, and could hardly ever Meet with One that at first dash would give me the Answer to it, which I think true; till by hearing My Reasons they were Convinced, tis this.  Suppose a Man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his Touch to Distinguish between a Cube and a Sphere (Suppose) of Ivory, nighly of the same Bigness, so as to tell, when he felt One and tother, Which is the Cube which the Sphere.  Suppose then, the Cube and Sphere placed on a Table, and the Blind man to be made to see.  Ouaere [the question is] whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now Distinguish and tell which is the Globe which the Cube.  I answer, Not; for tho he has obtained the Experience of How a Globe, how a Cube affects his Touch.  Yet he has not yet attained the Experience, that what affects my Touch so or so, must affect my Sight so or so; or that a Protuberant Angle in the Cube that pressed his hand unequally, shall appear to his Eye as it does in the Cube.  But of this enough; perhaps you may find some place in your Essay, wherein you may not think it amis, to say something of this Problem."

Locke responded to this by adding a new passage to the second edition of the Essay in his chapter on the "Faculty of Perception" (II.9.8).  It's in a section where he explains how our sensations are changed by our judgment.  So, for example, when we look at a round globe of some uniform color such as gold, the visual sensation coming from our eyes and imprinted on our mind is of a flat circle shadowed with several degrees of light and brightness.  But we are accustomed to perceive the appearances of convex surfaces with reflections of light and shadows of color and to construct in our minds a globe with a uniform golden color; and once this becomes habitual for us, we do it automatically, and we forget how we had to learn by experience to do this.  We do this just as we look at the flat plane of a painting with perspective, shading, giving relief, and coloring, and we learn how to reconstruct a three-dimensional scene in our mind's eye.

Locke then adds:

"To which purpose I shall here insert a problem of that very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge, the learned and worthy Mr. Molineux, which he was pleased to send me in a letter some months since; and it is this:--'Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when dhe felt one and the othr, which is the cube, which the sphere.  Suppose then the same cube and sphere placed on a table, and dthe blind man be made to see: quere, whehe4r by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?'  To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, 'Not.'  For, 'though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, how a cube affects his touch, yet he has not yet obtained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so; or that a protuberant angle in the cube, that pressed his hand unequalloy, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube.'--I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt.  This I have set down, and leave with my reader, as an occasion for him to considesr how much he may be beholden to experience, improvement, and acquired notions, where he thinks he had not the least use of, of help from them."

Here we see Locke's famous teaching that the mind is a tabula rasa, or "white paper," or "empty cabinet," with no innate principles, so that all of the content of the mind must be acquired through experience or learning.(I.1.15, I.2.22, II.1.2).  Those who believe this will give a negative answer to Molyneux's question, because they are inclined to believe that the connection between touch and sight in the perception of form--distinguishing a globe from a cube--must be learned by experience.  By contrast, a positive answer to the question suggests that there is some innate concept of space and figure common to both touch and sight that allows for the perception of forms such as globes and cubes.

To my mind, Locke and Molynieux are mistaken insofar as their rejection of innate ideas assumes a false dichotomy of instinct versus learning, which ignores the possibility of instincts for learning.  After all, the mind's learning by experience would be impossible if the mind did not have any inborn capacities for learning, or latent propensities that are elicited or evoked by experience.  Locke implicitly recognizes this when he speaks of the mind as having faculties for perception, retention, and discerning (II.9-11).  He also speaks of the mind as having "powers" or "capacities."  If the mind did not have these natural, inborn powers for learning by experience, it could not learn anything.  Moreover, Locke sometimes explicitly recognizes the mind's innate principles: "Nature, I confess, has put into man a desire of happiness and an aversion to misery: these indeed are innate practical principles" (I.2.3).

Recently, some neuroscientists studying how the brain learns to see have performed some experiments designed to answer Molyneux's question; and while their results seem to confirm Molyneux and Locke's answer, their experiments also seem to show that learning the perception of forms by touch and sight does require some innate faculties for such learning.

In India, children in poor families born blind because of cataracts don't have access to the surgery to correct their condition, and consequently many of them will grow to adulthood without ever having vision.  A few years ago, Pawan Sinha, a neuroscientist at MIT, led a team of doctors and scientists who set up clinics in India for studying and treating these congenitally blind individuals.  This created an opportunity to experimentally answer Molyneux's question: Would a blind person, on regaining sight, be able to immediately visually recognize an object previously known only by touch (Held et al. 2011; Sinha 2013; Sinha et al. 2014)?

For one study, five young people were recruited, aged from 8 to 17 years.  Their congenital blindness was so severe that they could only detect differences of light and dark.  They could not see objects.  Four of the individuals had cataract removal surgery and an intraocular lens implant.  One individual was provided with a corneal transplant.  After this, all five could see for the first time in their lives.

Within 48 hours of their sight-restoring surgery, all five were tested for their ability to distinguish shapes by touch and by sight.  They were presented with 20 pairs of Lego-like three-dimensional forms that had different shapes.  They would feel one object in the pair, without looking at it, because it would be hidden under a bed sheet.  They were then allowed to feel both objects in the pair, and they could correctly pick out the first object they had touched.  Then they were allowed to look at both objects and asked: Which one looks like the first object you touched?  They failed to answer this correctly.  They could not transfer their knowledge from touch to vision.  They could not integrate their knowledge from these two different sensory modalities.

After a few weeks, they were tested again, and most of these individuals could transfer their knowledge of shape by touch to their knowledge by vision.  A few weeks of experience in the world combining touch and vision in the perception of forms was enough to integrate the two sensory modalities.

So in these experiments, the answer to Molyneux's question is no, but it's a qualified no.  Someone blind from birth who suddenly is able to see will not immediately recognize an object by sight alone that he has previously known by touch.  Molyneux and Locke were right in believing that understanding the connection between touch and vision in the perception of forms must be learned by experience.  But they were wrong in suggesting that there was nothing innate in this process of learning.  The fact that these congenitally blind individuals learned this so quickly--within a few weeks of gaining vision--suggests "a latent ability for rapid learning" (Sinha 2013, 54).

Moreover, Sinha and his colleagues have seen evidence that the brain uses some instinctive rules for learning how to see the intelligible order of the world by organizing fragmented visual inputs into whole objects.  Initially, newly sighted individuals see only a chaotic flux of visual data of confusing shadows and shading and overlapping patterns with no meaningful structure.  In this, they are like newborn infants who see a "blooming buzzing confusion" around them.  Within a few weeks of birth, a baby begins to discern patterns of whole objects--such as mother's face.  The newly sighted Indians who had grown up in blindness took longer to do this.  Only after a year or more could they see distinct patterns of whole objects.  For example, if they saw a picture of a square overlapping a circle, they saw many interlocking pieces, and they could not identify the square as different from the circle.  But then if the square was moving around while the circle was motionless, they could identify the square as a separate figure.  

Thus, the brain uses motion as a visual cue for learning to see whole objects.  The brain seems to have the rule "things that move together belong together."  Infants employ this same rule in organizing their sensory experience.  Evolution by natural selection has favored brains that employ this rule for the perception of sensible forms.

Human beings are born with an innate capacity in the brain and nervous system for learning how to see.  The first few weeks and months of life are a critical learning period in which infants with normal functioning visual systems learn quickly how to perceive visible forms.  People who have been congenitally blind through most of their childhood are beyond this critical learning period.  But Sinha and his colleagues have shown that the plasticity of the brain is sufficient to allow people gaining sight later in life to slowly evoke the latent instinctive capacity for learning how to see.

The evolved nature of the human brain for understanding ourselves and our world gives us knowledge not from instinct alone nor from learning alone but from our evolved instincts for learning.

                                                   Pawa Sinha on How Brains Learn to See


Degenaar, Marjolein. 1996. Molyneux's Problem: Three Centuries of Discussion on the Perception of Forms. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

Degenaar, Marjolein, and Gert-Jan Lokhorst. 2017. "Molyneux's Problem." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Held, Richard, et al. 2011. "The Newly Sighted Fail to Match Seen with Felt." Nature Neuroscience 14: 551-553.

Sinha, Pawan. 2013. "Once Blind and Now They See: Surgery in Blind Children from India Allows Them to See For the First Time and Reveals How Vision Works in the Brain." Scientific American, July.

Sinha, Pawan, Jonas Wolff, and Richard Held. 2014. "Establishing Cross-Modal Mappings: Empirical and Computational Investigation." In Senssory Integration and the Unity of Consciousness, ed. David Bennett and Christopher Hill, pp. 171-191. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Saturday, January 02, 2021

John Locke's Friendships in the "Republic of Letters"

I have written many posts over the years on the evolved natural desire for friendship (including philosophic friendship) and how this desire for friendship is satisfied in liberal societies, which refutes those critics of liberalism who claim that it promotes a selfish individualism that dissolves all social bonds and human virtue.  Some of these posts can be found herehere, and here.

I have been thinking more about this while reading some of John Locke's correspondence, because it shows his life-long devotion to the exchange of letters to sustain and deepen his friendships, and particularly his philosophic friendships.

Prior to the 17th century, few people left behind them as much correspondence as did Locke.  There are 3,637 surviving letters written by him and to him.  (All have been published by Oxford University Press in eight volumes edited by Esmond de Beer.  244 of them have been published by Oxford in one volume--Selected Correspondence--edited by Mark Goldie.)  Cicero and Augustine left a few hundred each.  Erasmus was the great letter writer of the Renaissance, crafting over 3,000 for publication.


In the 17th century, as literacy and education improved, letter-writing became a pervasive activity in English culture.  The General Post Office was established by parliamentary act in 1657, which created a system of postal delivery for England, Scotland, and Ireland.  The expansion of the British Empire supported a global network for the exchange of letters.  Locke received letters from North America, Jamaica, India, and China.

By the end of the 17th century, there was a "Republic of Letters" in which scholars and learned people exchanged ideas, news, and books.  This arose chiefly in the triangle of London, Paris, and Amsterdam.  Locke lived in France (1675-1679) and the Dutch Republic (1683-1689), where he formed life-long friendships that he sustained through correspondence after he returned to England.

New learned journals, such as the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions and Jean Le Clerc's Bibliotheque universelle published "philosophical letters" written by people like Locke.  Sometimes letters were collected into books.  Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education incorporated verbatim his letters to his friend Edward Clark advising him on the education of his son. 

For the first time in human history, there was a global exchange of written communication that made it possible for some philosophers like Locke to aspire to an encyclopedic knowledge of both the natural world and the social world around the whole Earth.


Like Plato and Aristotle in Athens, or David Hume and Adam Smith in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Locke found that philosophic friendships were best formed and cultivated in clubs--small groups of people who meet regularly for intellectual discussion.  This shows that the philosophic life is possible in any society liberal enough to allow freedom of thought and discussion in voluntary associations.

As an undergraduate at Oxford (1652-1656), Locke discovered the "experimental philosophical club," a weekly meeting of people interested in the new experimental sciences of nature, which became the basis for the Royal Society in 1660.  This Oxford experimental club included Thomas Willis, the founder of neurology, and his best pupil Richard Lower, who had been Locke's friend when they were both students at Westminster School.  Lower introduced Locke to the study of medicine and experimental philosophy.  Locke was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1668.

In 1667, Locke joined the household of Anthony Ashley Cooper, living in London at Ashley's Exeter House.  There Locke founded a little club that met regularly in his room to discuss scientific, theological, and philosophical questions.  The members included Ashley and Locke's friends John Mapletoft (a physician and clergyman), Thomas Sydenham (a famous physician who was Locke's mentor), and James Tyrell (a Whig lawyer and political and historical writer, who wrote Patriarcha non Monarcha [1681], which anticipated some of Locke's arguments in the Two Treatises of Government).

Because he was implicated in a Whig conspiracy to assassinate Charles II, Locke was forced to flee to the Dutch Republic in 1683, where he settled first in Amsterdam.  There he began his life-long friendship with Philip van Limborch, a professor of theology who was writing a book Theologica Christiana similar to Locke's later Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) in contending that the simple truths of Christianity could be known by reason, and that a Christian society could rightly tolerate religious dissent (with the exception of Roman Catholicism).

Fearing that he would be arrested by agents of the King in Amsterdam, Locke went underground by hiding in a house where only two or three friends were allowed in.  His friends letters were sent to Limborch, who secretly passed them to Locke.  Later, Locke felt safe enough to organize a club in Amsterdam similar to his Exeter House club.  Then, in 1687, he moved to Rotterdam, where he joined the household of Benjamin Furley, a prosperous Quaker merchant.  There he formed another club--called the Lantern Club.  After James II was deposed and William and Mary put on the British throne in the 1688 Glorious Revolution, Locke returned to England in February of 1689.  Furley wrote to him: "All in the Lantern salute thee, and do regret thy absence."  Locke was never to see Holland again.  But for the rest of his life, he corresponded with his philosophic friends there--particularly, Furley and Limborch.

In the autumn of 1689, Locke's Two Treatises of Government, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and A Letter Concerning Toleration were all published.  But while Locke was identified as the author of the Essay, the other two books were anonymous; and he did not identify his authorship until he did so in his will at his death in 1704.

From 1691 until his death, Locke lived in the home of Sir Francis Masham and Lady Damaris (Cudworth) Masham at Oates in the county of Essex about twenty miles northeast of London.  Whenever he was in London, he could attend meetings of the new discussion club he had formed--the Dry Club.

In the 1690s, Locke was part of a new kind of club called "the College," which was a group of Locke's friends in Parliament who consulted with Locke about political issues.  The key members were Edward Clarke, John Freke, and John Somers.  Locke regularly corresponded with all of them about political debates in Parliament.

Locke also corresponded with many women, sometimes writing flirtatious letters to other men's wives.  A few of these women he recognized as philosophic friends.  In some ways, Damaris Cudworth became Locke's most intimate friend.  They first met in 1682 when she was 24, and he was 50.  They wrote love letters to one another under the names "Philander" and "Philoclea."  As the daughter of a philosopher--Ralph Cudworth, the Cambridge Platonist--Damaris was something of a philosopher herself.  She wrote books of philosophical theology.  She married Sir Francis Masham in 1685.

After Locke had joined the Masham household at Oates, he wrote to Limborch about Damaris:

"The lady herself is well read in theological and philosophical questions, and of such an original mind that very few men could equal her in the abundance of her knowledge and her ability to use it.  Her judgment is excellent, and I do not know many people who can bring such clarity of thought to the study of the most difficult subjects.  She has also a capacity for searching through and solving problems beyond the range not only of most women but of most men."

Locke's most philosophically important correspondence was his extended exchange of letters with William Molyneux, because Locke amended later editions of his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in response to Molyneux's criticisms.  That will be the topic for my next post.