Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Thousand Posts (2)

In January, my post on "Evolutionary Psychology's Slow Acceptance of Darwinian Morality" pointed to the most important turn in the recent history of evolutionary psychology--the acceptance of Darwin's evolutionary theory of morality in The Descent of Man

In his famous lecture on "Evolution and Ethics" in 1893, Thomas Huxley adopted a Kantian transcendentalist view of ethics and invoked the is/ought dichotomy in rejecting Darwin's claim that the evolutionary explanation of morality was part of the evolutionary science of human nature.  For over a century after Huxley's lecture, most Darwinian biologists--including George Williams and Richard Dawkins--agreed with Huxley's rejection of Darwin's evolutionary ethics.  Therefore, they were disturbed by Ed Wilson's efforts--in Sociobiology (1975) and Consilience (1998)--to revive Darwin's evolutionary study of morality.  In the 1980s and 1990s, I had argued in agreement with Darwin and Wilson, but my argument was scorned by the leaders of evolutionary psychology.  Remarkably, however, by 2009, the tide had turned as the growing research on the evolutionary psychology of morality confirmed that Darwin was right after all.  One of the leaders of this movement was Jonathan Haidt.  I wrote my first post on Haidt's research in November of 2009.  I returned to Haidt in September of 2012 and October of 2016.  In January of 2011, I wrote a post on how Sam Harris had persuaded Richard Dawkins to change his mind and accept Darwinian ethics.

An evolutionary moral psychology assumes the reality of an evolved human nature.  But my colleague at Northern Illinois University--David Buller--has dismissed the idea of human nature as a superstition in his book Adapting Minds, which is a general critique of evolutionary psychology.  In January, I wrote a post arguing that Buller's denial of human nature depends on a silly definition of human nature as consisting only of traits that satisfy three conditions--first, they must be unique to human beings and thus not shared with any other animals; second, they must be invariably and exactly the same for all human individuals everywhere; and, third, they must be eternal essences that are not historically contingent.  It is easy for Buller to argue that human evolution has not produced a human species with such traits. But a sensible definition of human nature does not require these conditions. We could define human nature as constituted by regularities in that suite of generally recurrent anatomical, physiological, and psychological traits that characterize the human species.  These regularities do not have to be uniquely human, invariably the same for all individuals, or eternal essences.  These regularities of human nature include what I have identified as the 20 natural desires.

I elaborated some of these points in April in posts on nature and human nature and on Marjorie Grene's account of natural teleology and the concept of species.  In September, I defended the Aristotelian and Darwinian understanding of species.

In the spring, I taught a graduate seminar on David Hume. In May, I wrote a long post on "A Research Program for a Humean Science of Human Nature."  In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume laid out his grand vision of a comprehensive science grounded on a science of human nature.  Every topic that I have taken up on this blog could be understood as part of this Humean science of human nature rooted in Darwinian evolutionary science. This science could be sketched out according to at least ten broad themes running through my blog posts: (1) Darwinian liberal education, (2) deep history, (3) ethology, (4) behavioral game theory, (5) neuroscience, (6) social history, (7) moral psychology, (8) evolution of religion, (9) evolutionary aesthetics, and (10) the Darwinian future of human nature.

In May and June, I travelled around England and Scotland, and I wrote a series of posts on the natural history of Great Britain based on my travels.  During this trip, I visited Darwin's house in Down and wrote some posts on that.  As I indicated, some of my first reading of Darwin included the notebooks that he began writing after he returned to England from his trip on the Beagle.  I was impressed with those notebooks as showing Darwin's mind at work, and my writing of this blog is in some ways following the style of Darwin's writing in his notebooks.

My visit to Darwin's house and reading about his family life led me to write about how Darwin's pondering the suffering and death of his daughter Annie manifested his understanding of love and death.  I wrote this in response to Peter Lawler's assertion that Darwin advanced an "impersonal theory of evolution" denying the personal reality of love and death.

From the end of June to the end of September, I wrote many posts on the history and philosophy of Platonic moral cosmology, in which I set up a debate between Remi Brague and C. S. Lewis, on one side, and Catherine Zuckert and Joseph Cropsey, on the other.  Brague and Lewis see Plato's dialogues (particularly the Timaeus and book 10 of The Laws) as defending a divinely designed teleological cosmology as setting the cosmic standards for the moral and political life of human beings, but they also see this Platonic moral cosmology as overturned by modern science (including Darwinism) in a way that promotes moral nihilism by teaching that the cosmos is indifferent or even hostile to human concerns.  By contrast, Zuckert and Cropsey see Plato's Socrates as denying, or at least questioning, that moral cosmology taught by Timaeus and the Athenian stranger, and suggesting that instead of finding moral guidance in the cosmos, humans need to look to their own human wants and desires.  Even if the cosmos does not care about or for us, we care about and for ourselves.  This Socrates identified by Zuckert and Cropsey belongs to a tradition of Socratic skepticism that includes Cicero, Hume, and Darwin.

If Zuckert and Cropsey have the correct interpretation of Socrates' position, then Socrates is close to my position--that human morality and politics depend not on a cosmic teleology but on an immanent teleology of human natural desires.  If human beings are by their natural desires directed to certain ends or purposes, then we can see those ends or purposes as intrinsic to their nature, regardless of whether those ends or purposes have any cosmic reference.  Darwinian biology supports such an immanent teleology because it recognizes the goal-directed behavior characteristic of various animal species, including the human species.

While some Straussians like Zuckert and Cropsey reject Platonic cosmic teleology as false, others insist that it needs to be supported as at least a "noble lie" that sustains popular conceptions of natural right, and that the Darwinian denial of cosmic teleology is (as Nietzsche put it) "true but deadly."

In September, I endorsed the "Midwest Straussianism" promoted by Catherine and Michael Zuckert.  The Straussians seem to have affirmed three propositions that are contradictory: 1. America is modern. 2. Modernity is bad. 3. America is good.  To overcome the contradiction, the West-Coast Straussians have denied #1, the East-Coast Straussians have denied #3, and the Midwest Straussians have denied #2.  I agree with the Midwest Straussians that modernity is good, and for me this includes not only modern political thought, but also modern natural science.

From October to December, I wrote many posts on the evolutionary biology of human rights as rooted in evolved human nature, and in doing so, I argued that the idea of human rights does not depend on any religious belief in the creation of human beings in the image of God.  As part of this discussion, I wrote about the debate over female genital mutilation as a violation of human rights.

In January, I travelled to England to direct a week-long seminar at Oxford University on "Evolution and Ethics."  The participants were mostly philosophy professors and students from China.  In October, we met again in China (Beijing) for a conference to present papers coming out of the seminar.  This led to a series of posts on the evolutionary psychology of ethics.

As I anticipated, much of the discussion at the seminar turned on the debate between the Platonic or transcendentalist view of ethics and the Humean or empiricist view. A Darwinian evolutionary understanding of ethics is on the side of the Humean view that sees ethics as rooted in human nature, particularly in human emotions, beliefs, and desires. On the other side, the Platonic view taken by those like Kant looks to a transcendent conception of the Good that is somehow woven into the order of the cosmos. (As I have indicated in various posts, the careful reader of the Platonic dialogues might doubt whether Plato himself--or Plato's Socrates--was a Platonist in this way.)

A growing number of leading philosophers today are adopting a Humean/Darwinian moral psychology supported by recent research in evolutionary science, neuroscience, anthropology, and animal behavior. But one can still see the powerful influence of a Kantian transcendentalism in moral philosophy that regards morality as an autonomous realm of pure reason totally separated from the empirical realm of nature as studied by natural science.

Kantian philosophers like Richard Joyce worry that evolutionary ethics promotes moral nihilism by teaching that morality is fictional. Joyce agrees with Kant that by definition moral judgments presuppose belief in a transcendent world of moral facts beyond the empirical world of natural facts. But since he denies the truth of that belief, because there really are no such moral facts, he concludes that we cannot know that morality is true, and therefore we cannot know that moral rightness and wrongness really exist. Moreover, he argues that evolutionary ethics necessarily leads us to this conclusion that morality is fictional, because an evolutionary account of morality explains it as arising from the natural facts of human desires and capacities without any reference to any distinctively moral facts.

I agree that believing in a moral law grounded in divine will or transcendent reason might strengthen the moral motivation of people with such a belief. But it seems clear to me that people can still have a strong motivation for moral conduct when they believe that morality has no other ground than the evolved human nature of our moral emotions.

That a Kantian philosophical idealism does not necessarily support good moral judgment is indicated by the fact that most of the German philosophers who supported Nazism were Kantian idealists. For me, as I indicated in a post in January, this suggests that the evils of Nazism flowed from a metaphysical tradition of idealist utopian philosophy that stretches from Plato to Fichte to Nietzsche to Heidegger.

My reasoning for rejecting Kantian categorical normativity is clarified in my post on "Philippa Foot and the Hypothetical Imperatives of Natural Goodness" (March).

In 2010, I wrote a lot about the natural evolution of religious belief.  I have identified the desire for religious understanding as one of the twenty natural desires rooted in our evolved human nature. Human beings generally desire to understand the world as governed by gods or God, because this satisfies their natural longing to make sense of things that would otherwise be incomprehensible.

The recent research on the evolutionary and cognitive causes of religious belief goes a long way to substantiate my position. The general reasoning for how religious belief evolved as an innate disposition of human nature is laid out by David Hume and Charles Darwin. This new research provides elaborate theoretical and empirical grounds for their naturalistic account of religion.

One of the proponents of this research is Justin Barrett, whom I met at the Oxford seminar. He is an evolutionary psychologist who argues that the evolved propensity of the human mind to detect intelligent agents supports a natural tendency to believe in divine agents. Barrett is a Christian evolutionist.  His work largely confirms what Hume says in his Natural History of Religion. Barrett is a Christian who sees his evolutionary explanation of religious belief as compatible with his own Christian belief that God has created human beings so that they can discover him.  I have also written about Jesse Bering (in February of 2011), who explains the evolutionary psychology of religious belief in a way similar to Barrett's explanation, but Bering is an atheist.

Also in 2010, I wrote about Rebecca Goldstein's philosophical novel on the "36 arguments for the existence of God" (February), the evolution of Heaven and Hell (April-May), the evolutionary game theory of how religion supports cooperation (April), and Confucianism (June, August, October).  My writing on Confucianism was drawn from my paper on Darwinian and Confucian Ethics for the conference on "Evolution and Ethics" in Beijing in October, which included some of the same Chinese professors and students who were at the Oxford conference in January.

Religious belief is uniquely human because it arises from the uniquely human capacity for symbolic thought and communication that allows human beings to construct a shared imagined reality.  In February, I wrote about how Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb have explained human symbolism as one of four dimensions of evolutionary inheritance: genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic.  Recognizing these four levels of evolution helps to explain the "animal culture wars" (April): if "culture" is defined as inherited behavioral traditions, then some nonhuman animals have culture; but if "culture" is defined as inherited symbolic traditions (like religious belief), then this is uniquely human.

In 2010, I wrote a lot about Aristotelianism.  In March and April, I wrote a series of posts on Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl's Aristotelian liberalism and showed how a Darwinian moral and political psychology supported this.  In the fall, I was teaching a graduate seminar on Aristotle, and I wrote some posts in September, October, and December, on "Aristotle's Darwinian Ethics," which went into my paper on "The Darwinian Science of Aristotelian Virtue" for the conference on "Science and Virtue" organized by Peter Lawler and Marc Guerra at Berry College (Mount Berry, Georgia) in November.  In 2013, the papers for this conference were published in The Science of Modern Virtue: On Descartes, Darwin, and Locke, edited by Lawler and Guerra (NIU Press).

In July, I pointed to my essay for "Cato Unbound" on "Darwinian Liberalism," which would lead to papers and lectures in later years on the Darwinian psychology of classical liberalism.

My list of 20 natural desires includes the natural desire for courage in war, because human beings generally desire war when they think it will advance their group in conflicts with outside groups.  The is the one desire that has provoked the most criticism from people who are uncomfortable with the idea that war might be rooted in evolved human nature.  In 2010, I began to write the evolutionary psychology of war in various posts (in February, June, and December).  I returned to this issue in 2011, in response to the publication of Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Also, in 2010, I began writing about anarchism (June) and equality in the Lockean state of nature (July), and I would return to these topics in subsequent years.

To be continued . . .

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