Monday, June 19, 2017

A Thousand Posts (3)

In January and February, my posts on "Darwinian Marriage: A Response to Robert George" initiated a series of posts stretching over the next six years defending a Darwinian view of marriage as open to gay marriage against the argument of George and his followers (such as Ryan Anderson) that gay marriage is not "real marriage."  George has made the best case against gay marriage as contrary to the Thomistic natural law of marriage.  I have argued that the Thomistic natural law of marriage is actually open to gay marriage, and that this natural law defense of gay marriage is implicit in Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion in the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).

In January, I wrote some posts on the continuing debates over evolutionary science--debates over what is included in evolutionary theory, over what counts as evidence for evolution, and over whether creationism or intelligent design theory should be taken seriously as alternatives to evolution.  For all of these debates, I argue, it is good to go back to Darwin's own writings.  Those who argue that the modern evolutionary synthesis is too narrow, because it does not include new ideas about evolution--such as epigenetic evolution, gene-culture coevolution, group selection, niche construction, and moral evolution--do not realize that all of these ideas were already there in Darwin's writings.

Although some of the modern evidence for evolution was not available to Darwin--such as the evidence from genetics and modern dating methods--Darwin was rigorous in weighing the evidence available to him, while recognizing what he called the "difficulties" for his theory, which turn out to be the same difficulties brought up by the critics of evolution today.

Moreover, Darwin saw that it was impossible to judge the persuasiveness of his "theory of natural selection" without weighing it against its alternative--the "theory of special creation."  And so the idea of "teaching the controversy" originated with Darwin.

Darwin saw that the fundamental controversy here points to the problem of ultimate explanation--that all explanation depends on some ultimate reality or uncaused cause that cannot itself be explained: it's either Nature or God.

In the fall of 2011, I was teaching my undergraduate course "Biopolitics and Human Nature," and one of the books for that course was David Brooks' The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. Brooks surveys the research in evolutionary psychology as supporting an Aristotelian conception of human nature and human happiness. To illustrate his points, Brooks tells the fictional story of one composite American couple--Harold and Erica. As Brooks indicates, he intends to employ the technique of Rousseau's Emile, a philosophical novel, in using a fictional narrative to illustrate his account of human nature.

In March and April, I wrote a series of posts on Brooks' book that began with a critical review of the book by Thomas Nagel.  Nagel is a prominent philosopher at New York University. In 1978, he wrote one of the first responses to E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology coming from a philosopher. Like most philosophers at the time, Nagel showed the reaction of a Platonic transcendentalist in denigrating Wilson's biological account of morality. Nagel rejected sociobiological ethics because it failed to see that ethics is "an autonomous theoretical subject" like mathematics that belongs to a transcendent realm of pure logic. He argued that ethics exists at two levels--the behavioral and the theoretical. And while he acknowledged that biology could illuminate the behavioral level of ethics--the patterns of ethical action as motivated by moral emotions--he dismissed biology as irrelevant to the theoretical level of ethics as concerned with rational standards of moral justification and criticism. Insofar as morality is a matter of normative reasoning, it has nothing to do with any empirical science of human behavior.

With my memory of this essay, I was not surprised to see Nagel criticizing Brooks's book. Here we see the fundamental debate that has been the subject of many of my posts--the conflict between a Platonic or Kantian transcendentalism and an Aristotelian or Humean empiricism. Brooks shows how a Darwinian moral psychology confirms the Aristotelian and Humean tradition of empirical ethics, which will provoke the opposition of Platonic and Kantian transcendentalists like Nagel.

As can be seen in the comments on my post on Nagel, many readers of my blog object to my claim that Aristotle and Hume belong to the same empiricist tradition of ethics, because they see Hume as an ethical subjectivist or even nihilist who must be opposed to Aristotle's virtue ethics.  When I first began reading Hume as a college student, I was taught this view of Hume as opposed to Aristotle.  But later, as I read Hume more carefully, I changed my mind, and I began to see Hume as part of a tradition of ethical empiricism and naturalism stretching from Aristotle and Cicero to Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, a tradition opposed to the rationalist and transcendentalist tradition stretching from Plato to Kant.

Brooks defends the Humean tradition of moral psychology--or, as Brooks puts it, the British Enlightenment as opposed to the French Enlightenment--in showing how the deepest influences on our decisions arise largely from unconscious decisions, in being shaped by human genetic history and cultural history, rather than from conscious and rational calculations of individual interests.  Reason is important but only as guided by emotion or desire, because, as Aristotle said, "thought by itself moves nothing."  Deliberate choice should be understood as "reasoning desire" or "desiring reason."  I first saw this in one of Aristotle's biological writings--On the Movement of Animals.

In April and May, I wrote some posts on Azar Gat's War in Human Civilization.  Rather than pursuing a reductive explanation of war as determined by one or a few factors, he encompasses all the major factors influencing the whole history of human warfare over two million years, while showing how evolutionary theory can explain the origins and interrelationships of all of these factors. Gat's book helped me to think about the evolution of the natural desire for courage in war.

I continued to think about the evolution of war and possibly declining violence in modern times in October, November, and December, when I began writing a long series of posts on Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature.

That human history shows a general decline in violence has emerged in recent years as one of the greatest discoveries of social scientific research.  It has taken me many years to realize that.  And it has only slowly dawned on me that this has deep implications for political theory, because it provides dramatic support for Darwinian liberalism.

I decided that the empirical data of wars and violence over the last 200 years strongly supported some of Immanuel Kant's arguments for a liberal peace.  (Here is one place where I agree with Kant!) Liberal commercial republics are less inclined to go to war than other kinds of regimes, and as the cultural values of liberal commercial republicanism have spread around the world, there has been a decline in war and violence.

In fact, as Robert Wright argued in Nonzero, the entire evolutionary history of life might be rightly understood as a history of expanding cooperation producing ever increasing gains through the logic of nonzero-sum games.

This seems to confirm the evolutionary liberalism of the 19th century--particularly, as formulated by Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin--because we seem to see here that Darwin was right in his vision of the future: "As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races."  According to Darwin, the most recent advance of sympathy extends it even beyond humanity to include the lower animals, so that now we can see "the most noble attribute of man" in the "disinterested love for all living creatures."

In Darwinian Natural Right (pp. 143-49), I had rejected this as Darwin's "moral utopianism," while I defended Darwin's "moral realism."  Darwin's moral utopianism is clearest in the section of the Descent of Man where he cites "our great philosopher Herbert Spencer."  In some of my blog posts, I have criticized Spencer's evolutionary utopianism.

But I now think that I was wrong about this, because recognizing the evolutionary trend away from violent conflict and towards peaceful cooperation arises not from a naive utopianism but from an optimistic realism that vindicates evolutionary liberalism.

This has become clear to me from reading Pinker's Better Angels along with a book that Pinker often cites--James Payne's History of Force.  What is implicit in Pinker's book becomes explicit in Payne's book--that the evolutionary history of declining violence confirms Spencerian/Darwinian liberalism, because it shows how human beings through a long history of trial-and-error learning have discovered the benefits of peaceful cooperation and the costs of violent aggression.  Moreover, this also confirms the classical liberal insight that declining violence coincides with increasing liberty.

Payne brings this out more clearly than does Pinker, because Payne is explicit in his commitment to classical liberalism or libertarianism.  If one accepts the classical liberal or libertarian definition of liberty as arising from the absence of coercive violence, then a decline in violence means an increase in liberty, as people enjoy the benefits of voluntary cooperation while minimizing the costs of violent conflict. (This conception of liberty corresponds to what Isaiah Berlin called "negative liberty.")

As Payne indicates, the classical liberal thinkers of the 19th century were the first political theorists to adopt the reduction in the use of force as their fundamental political principle.  Although previously some political theorists had condemned some uses of force, they also wanted to use force to promote what they regarded as good ends for social and political life.  The classical liberals were the first political theorists to see how the reduction in the use of force was the fundamental condition for human progress.

This led me to add a chapter on Pinker to the 4th edition of Political Questions, which now has the subtitle Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.  It seemed to me that Pinker's Better Angels should be seen as a major work of political philosophy that illustrates how empirical Darwinian science can illuminate, and perhaps even resolve, some of the fundamental debates in the history of political philosophy.

This also led me to organize a Liberty Fund conference on "Liberty and Violence" that met at the Westward Look Resort in Tucson, Arizona, in 2014.

In 2011, I was doing a lot of thinking about Thomas Aquinas.  At the end of the summer, I presented a paper at the American Political Science Association convention on "Thomistic Natural Law as Darwinian Natural Right: Replies to Critics," which renewed an argument from an article published in 2001.  In the fall, I taught a graduate seminar on Aquinas.

From June to September, I wrote a series of posts on how Thomistic natural law was rooted in Aristotle's biology, and how this could be confirmed by modern Darwinian biology. 

I also wrote some posts on Tom West's Straussian interpretation of Aquinas as an esoteric writer defending philosophic reason against biblical revelation.

In June, I wrote about how the neuroscience of self-awareness could support Locke's principle of self-ownership as the natural ground of equal rights.

In May, I wrote some posts on issues that had come up at a Liberty Fund conference on "Hayek and the Problem of Scientific Knowledge."  I decided that I needed to think more about three issues--Hayek's account of the open society as the repression of the tribal instincts of human nature, the evolution of oxytocin as one neural mechanism supporting morality and exchange in a free society, and the evolution of trade in prehistoric societies.

As I have indicated in various posts, I am not persuaded by Hayek's argument that the evolved instincts of human beings are adapted for life in a "closed society," and therefore the "open or free society" requires a cultural tradition of impersonal rules for an abstract society that suppresses those instincts, while the yearning for socialism and "social justice" manifests an atavistic desire to restore those primordial instincts.

Contrary to Hayek, it seems to me that even in small foraging groups, there was some individual autonomy, and individuals were inclined to resist domination by the arbitrary wills of others. In some respects, the modern liberal society revives the individual freedom of foraging societies, while combining that with all the advantages of modern civilization as based on global exchange networks. Our evolutionary ancestors were adapted for engaging in social exchange and detecting cheaters who violated the norms of fair exchange. Those evolved mental capacities for social engagement provided the psychological conditions in which the cultural evolution of a modern exchange society could succeed.

My debate with Hayek has continued over many years, particularly in 2013, at the Mont Pelerin Society meetings in the Galapagos and at a workshop in Freiburg, Germany, on the evolution of classical liberalism.

In July and December, I wrote out my response to Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against Darwinian naturalism: the theistic doctrine of the human mind as created by God in His image provides the necessary support for the validity of human thought, including the validity of modern science. If we embrace Naturalism--the view that nothing exists except Nature, and so there is no God or nothing like God--we are caught in self-contradiction: if human thought originated not from a divine Mind but from the irrational causes of Nature, then we cannot trust our minds as reliable, and thus we cannot trust our belief in Naturalism. Naturalism destroys itself by destroying the rationality of believing in Naturalism, or anything else. Insofar as science--including evolutionary science--depends on the validity of human thought, and insofar as theism is the indispensable support for trusting in the validity of human thought, science is not only compatible with theism, science depends upon theism.

The weak link in Plantinga's argument for metaphysical naturalism as self-defeating is his assumption that adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true belief. The evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible. The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces adaptations that are good enough but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.  But despite this fallibility, the evolved mental faculties cannot be absolutely unreliable, because the adaptive cognitive faculties of animals, including human beings, must correspond in some manner to the reality of the world to which they are adapted.

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