Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Scientism Summary

I have been very busy with other things and have been unable to blog for these last several months. This unfortunate situation will continue for a little while longer.

But I can't let pass John Derbyshire's neat summary of scientism at the Corner on National Review Online. Like every thinker in the thrall of scientism, Derbyshire can't see that his formulation denies its own possibility. Take the last paragraph:

We don't know much about the natural world; what we don't know is vastly more than what we do know; and there are squishy areas where we aren't sure whether we know or don't know. The things we do know to high probability, though, we know through methodical inquiry, observation, measurement, classification, discussion, comparison of results, consensus — through science. The rest is wishful thinking, power games, social fads, and the sleep of reason.

Let me call the proposition "The things we know to high probability we know through methodical inquiry, observation, measurement, classification, etc.. - through science" proposition S. Now proposition S is not itself known through the methods it specifies, the methods of science. Derbyshire did not go into the lab and measure the molar mass of proposition S vs. the molar mass of some other proposition, say "Truth is best known through philosophical dialog" or "Science can only defend itself through philosophy, and if philosophy is undermined, science inevitably will be as well." No, proposition S is either known philosophically or it is not known at all. But proposition S denies "high probability" to anything other than that which is known through the methods of science; therefore it cannot be known with high probability. We can know it at most with low-probability. In fact, according to Derb's epistemology, it's got to be either wishful thinking, power games, social fads or the sleep of reason. I wonder which he prefers.

We could leave proposition S to its absurd self-destruction, if scientism were the only casualty. Unfortunately Derbyshire's self-contradictory scientism puts science itself in danger; proposition S seems to be the only possible defense of science conceivable to many. But science can only truly be defended through a genuine philosophy of knowledge; a philosophy that explores the ways of knowing and the relationships between them. Such a philosophy would certainly acknowledge the methodical power and certainty of science and provide a philosophical foundation for them (as Kant did in the Critique of Pure Reason.) Defending science by undermining philosophy can't work, anymore than science can be defended by undermining arithmetic.

Beyond all that, I am always fascinated with the man who can tell us about things he himself denies he knows. We know very little about the natural world, Derbyshire says, compared with what we don't know. How does he know how much we don't know? He doesn't say, for the good reason that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. At least I don't know what I don't know and can't say anything about it, including how much of it is lurking out there. Derb, however, can somehow get a quantitative estimate of what he doesn't know, no doubt through the best practices of science - inquiry, observation and measurement and whatnot. Now that's some powerful science.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Complexity as Inevitable

I would love to leave the Intelligent Design/Evolution controversy alone and read John Derbyshire in peace... why must I be ambushed by comments such as these from his Straggler column?

There are great cosmic principles at work here. Simplicity yields to complexity. From ammonites and trilobites come seven hundred species of dinosaur; from the spare pronouncements of the Master come annotations, exegesis, and commentary upon commentary; from the convenience of a phone call we advance to email inbox folders, texting, MySpace, Facebook, and twittering. There were originally three federal crimes: there are now, according to one scholar's tally, at least 4,452. (Did you know that as of 2002 it has been a federal crime to move birds across state lines to engage in fights?)

Derbyshire is a highly intelligent man, certainly smarter than I am. Yet this quote is open to a Sesame Street-level analysis that seems beyond the reach of committed Darwinists like him: Which one of these things is not like the others? His examples of exegesis and commentary, email and twittering, and the increase in federal law are all examples of the effects of intelligent agency. The complexity in these cases doesn't just "happen" as though complexity is waiting in the wings for simplicity to "yield" to it. It only happens because intelligent men apply their minds to the world and add complexity to it. The one case where this is alleged not to have happened is in the simplicity of ammonites "yielding" to the complexity of dinosaurs. Can't you just hear those complex dinosaurs banging at the door to be let in?

It may very well be that dinosaurs developed from ammonites through the unintelligent, mechanical process that Darwinists suppose. I don't know. I do know that email and federal law certainly didn't. What is perplexing about Darwinism, and makes me wary of it, is the manner in which its allegedly hard-headed and skeptical advocates fail to see the obvious. If they can't see intelligent agency in email and federal law, why should I put any stock in their assurances that there is no intelligent agency in the development of life?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Conventional Courage and the Western Way of War

Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation recalled for me Victor Davis Hanson's thesis of the "Western Way of War." In a series of books (this and this one for a start - both good), Hanson argues that the West has prosecuted wars in a peculiarly violent and effective manner throughout its history. He attributes this to cultural reasons, which are summarized in the Amazon editorial reviews.

Hanson doesn't get much into philosophy, but I wonder how much the philosophical distinction between nature and convention that I mentioned in this post has contributed to the lethality of the West. Cultures that do not possess this philosophical distinction (and it seems that they do not prior to their encounter with the West, but I am not enough of a cultural anthropologist to say this categorically) tend to have a conventional way of fighting. By this I mean a way of fighting that is not necessarily rationally ordered to the end of victory, but is a stylized way of fighting that has developed for peculiar religious or traditional reasons.

For instance, the life of the Crow warrior was centered around "counting coups", which meant performing bold exploits against the enemy. Lear writes that

If the survival of the Crow tribe as a social unit had been the primary good, one might expect that highest honor would go to the warrior who killed the first enemy in battle, or the warrior who killed the most. But to count coup it was crucial that, at least for a moment, one avoided killing the enemy. There is a certain symbolic excess in counting coups. One needed not only to destroy the enemy; it was crucial that the enemy recognize that he was about to be destroyed.

Lear analyzes the notion of counting coups and concludes that, for a nomadic hunting tribe like the Crow, the crucial point was to establish boundaries with respect to other tribes. The form that counting coups takes with the Crow makes sense from this point of view; tapping the enemy with your coup stick before killing him makes him recognize the boundary he has violated before he dies; taking his weapons from him while he is still alive demonstrates that he cannot pass this boundary as a warrior:

The establishment of boundaries will, of course, be important to any cultural group. But it is especially tricky when it comes to a nomadic group whose migration depends heavily on hunting. As the tribe migrates, its defensible boundaries will shift, but it needs to be able to exert a proprietary claim over the animals within its (shifting) domain; and it needs to be able to repulse the proprietary claims of its rivals. Counting coups is the minimal act that forces recognition from the other side. The about-to-die Sioux warrior is, after all, about to die: if all goes as planned, he will be no further threat to the Crow. Recognition of the Crow boundary is the second-to-the-last thing the Crow warrior wants from him. (The last thing is his scalp, but that will serve as a token that he achieved that recognition.) If the tribe's goal is the firm establishment of a boundary, then the act of counting coups is not excessive. It strikes the mean between the defect of wishful thinking that one has boundaries when one is unwilling or unable to defend them and the excess of slaughtering one's enemies so quickly that one does not obtain from them recognition of anything. When struck with a coup-stick, the Sioux warrior recognizes a Crow boundary because he also recognizes that he is about to die.

The problem with Lear's argument is that, since the Sioux warrior is about to die, what does it matter whether he recognizes a boundary or not? If the establishment of boundaries is the goal of counting coups, then what matters is whether the surviving Sioux recognize the boundary, not the dead Sioux. Furthermore, even if Lear were successful in establishing a rational goal for counting coups, it doesn't follow that the Crow counted coups for those rational reasons. Lear's analysis attempts to show that the conventional form of Crow courage is the form it should take according to the nature of Crow life; in other words, it is an analysis from means to end. But there is no reason to think that Crow traditions were established with this sort of rational analysis. They seem to have developed innocently and unreflectively, like most traditions within aboriginal peoples.

Counting coups is reminiscent of the Aztec way of war that Hanson discusses in Carnage and Culture. Aztec weapons were not particularly lethal; their purpose was to stun the enemy so the Aztec warrior could drag his opponent back to the pyramid to be a ritual human sacrifice. It turns out that this way of fighting was effective against other native tribes for psychological reasons. But it is unlikely that it developed as a deliberate way to psychologically demoralize the enemy. Probably the religious ritual came first, and it was later discovered that Aztec warriors capturing the enemy to be human sacrifices had a particularly devastating effect on their morale. Whatever the case, it didn't have much impact on the morale of Hernan Cortez and his men. One reason so few Conquistadors were able to conquer an Aztec empire of hundreds of thousands is that the Aztec way of war was singularly ineffective against Spanish steel. But, more significantly, the Aztec could not adapt their methods of war to the novel enemy constituted by the Spanish. Their staggering losses to Spanish swords and armor did not cause them to reconsider the practice of human sacrifice as a way of war. Courage for an Aztec warrior still meant dragging an enemy off to the pyramid. They had no rational tradition of philosophy to treat warfare abstractly as a mean to an end, or to understand courage as involving means to an end.

Although Cortez was not a philosopher, he was raised in a culture that was informed by the philosophical notions of nature vs. convention and means vs. ends. Courage in the West is not finally specified by a particular act in battle, like striking the enemy with your coup stick or stunning him so he can be a human sacrifice. It means overcoming your fears and facing lethal dangers in the service of victory - whatever form that might take in any particular situation. Cortez approached the Aztecs rationally as a military problem to be solved. (The moral analysis of the Conquistadors is another subject entirely.) He even went so far as to construct his own navy from scratch to eliminate the Aztec mobility on the lake surrounding Tenochtitlan.

It is the Western tradition of philosophically-based rationality that has made it so lethal, for it has given the West a flexibility and creativity in war not known to non-Western peoples.

Monday, September 7, 2009

More on Lear and Radical Hope

In this post I began a discussion of Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Here I would like to discuss more specifically the content of radical hope.

In Ch. 3, the "Critique of Abysmal Reasoning", Lear writes this about radical hope:

I would like to consider hope as it might arise at one of the limits of human existence. In the scenario outlined in the preceding chapter, Plenty Coups responded to the collapse of his civilization with radical hope. What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.

The reason Lear says that the hope transcends the current ability to understand it is that the Crow understanding of the good life was specific to their mode of living - hunting buffalo, roaming the plains, "counting coups" against their enemies. This way of life was inevitably doomed with the coming of the white man, a future Plenty Coups anticipated through several dreams he experienced as a youth. In these dreams he was advised to pay attention to the "wisdom of the Chickadee", a bird that is smaller than other birds yet is more intelligent and perceptive. Plenty Coups applied this wisdom as a chief, allying the Crow with the U.S. Army against the Sioux, rather than fighting a hopeless battle against irresistible U.S. government force. The end result was that the Crow were unusual insofar as they never suffered a defeat at the hands of the U.S. military, and they were also able to retain their ancestral lands under their own possession (with the usual encroachments and false dealing by the U.S. authorities.)

My philosophical interest in this post is Lear's statement about a hope that is directed toward "a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is." For hope to be any sort of hope at all it must have some content. Hope is hope for something. We can't merely hope that "things will be different" because things might become different by becoming worse; we only hope if we can anticipate some state of affairs that we recognize as desirable in itself. It must have a goodness that doesn't entirely transcend our current ability to understand it so we can direct ourselves toward it as an end. The situation is similar to the attributes of God. If the goodness of God is a goodness that utterly transcends any possible conception we might have of it, then God is not a being who can be an object of our desire. In fact, according to St. Thomas, we can have a genuine but limited notion of the goodness of God through analogy.

And, in fact, the hope of Plenty Coups was not a leap into the dark or across an abyss but had some content. Arguing the point that the radical hope of Plenty Coups was not simply wish-fulfilling fantasy, Lear writes:

Finally, it has been the aim of this entire chapter to argue that Plenty Coups's radical hope was not mere wish-fulfilling optimism (criterion 5), but was rather a radical form of hope that constituted courage and made it possible. After all, through a series of canny decisions and acts, the Crow were able to hold onto their land, and Plenty Coups helped to create a space in which traditional Crow values can be preserved in memory, transmitted to a new generation, and, one hopes, renewed in a new historical era.

Lear is certainly right that Plenty Coups was a man of outstanding virtue, a man who was able to transcend the concept of courage as it was taught him in the Crow tradition when it became clear that the traditional notion of courage was no longer relevant. But the fact that he and the Crow were able to preserve their lands through "canny moves" shows that they had some notion what they were doing. A man with a contentless hope can't make canny moves, because he doesn't know what he is moving toward. Plenty Coups saw in his wisdom that "counting coups" in the traditional sense against the U.S. Army was futile; he realized that planting the coup-stick in no way intimidates the man firing a Gatling gun. But by allying themselves with the white man, and learning his ways, he seems to have understood that some parts of the Crow nation might be preserved - in particular, their land. This is not a hope that transcends understanding, but a hope that is real but limited. Plenty Coups was remarkably successful in handling the encounter of the Crow with the white man, but there is a sense of melancholy in what he says of life after the Crow were included in the reservation system. "After this," Plenty Coups said, "nothing happened." This is a statement of limited hope fulfilled. 

Darwinian Logic and the Mind

The post Darwinists Check Their Logic at the Door over at Uncommon Descent brings up one of my favorite topics, the relationship of evolution to the mind. I think all three of the participants in the main post miss the logic of the situation.

The problem with Delurker's response in the first exchange ("To the extent that nature is comprehensible, modern evolutionary theory predicts that alignment with reality will be selected for.") is not that it is circular. Barry A. confuses an epistemological question with an empirical one in making that argument. No, the problem with Delurker's response is that it is a philosophical response rather than the empirically contingent one he seems to think it is.

There is nothing wrong with philosophical responses, of course, unless they are mistaken for something else. This is what happens here. "Alignment with reality will be selected for" cannot be a contingent conclusion from evolutionary science, but is a precondition for the possibility of evolutionary science itself. Is evolutionary science about the true world or merely about our impression of the world, an impression that may or may not have anything to do with true reality? (I.e. do we have a science of the noumenal or the phenomenal?) Evolutionary scientists to a man take it for granted that their science is about the world as it really is, which means that they already assume that their minds are "aligned with reality." Evolutionary science must predict that alignment with reality will be selected for, because only a mind aligned with reality can truly investigate how it is that the mind is aligned with reality. I happen to agree that our minds are aligned with reality, but not because I think it is a possible empirical conclusion, but rather because Aristotle settled the issue thousands of years ago in his Metaphysics Book IV.

The logic of Exchange #3 is similar. How did the mind and world become coordinated? The answer is that "organisms who don't deal with reality die (eventually)." This again cannot be a contingent conclusion from evolutionary science, but is a precondition for the possibility of evolutionary science itself. If it were a contingent conclusion, then we would have to seriously consider the possibility that "organisms who don't deal with reality fare quite well." But if this latter possibility were true, then since human beings have fared quite well, we may very well be the type of creature that fares well without dealing with reality. Our evolutionary science, in that case, might have nothing to do with the way things really are. The assertion "organisms who don't deal with reality die" is an assertion about reality only if it is spoken by a creature already confident of his connection with reality; if its negation is taken seriously as an empirical possibility then the mind has put itself out of its own misery.

In exchange #4, the point is made that "the nature of reality is not addressed by modern evolutionary theory. The fitness of organisms to that reality is." If the nature of reality is not addressed by modern evolutionary theory, but the fitness of organisms is, then the fitness of organisms must have nothing to do with the nature of reality. We are back to the point that the possibility of evolutionary science requires that the human mind be "fitted" to reality; if this fitness is not itself part of reality but only our imaginations, then evolutionary science as a science of the way things truly are is not possible.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lear and Aristotle on Courage and Radical Hope

I recently finished reading Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Lear is also the author of the wonderful Aristotle, the Desire to Understand. I would like to discuss Lear's use of Aristotle in the former book, but to do so I must give a preliminary account of Lear's project in that work, so I ask the reader's patience.

Radical Hope is a meditation on the meaning of the virtues, and specifically courage, in a time of cultural collapse. Lear bases his investigation on the life of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation. Plenty Coups's life spanned from the 1850's, when the Crow were still a vibrant Indian tribe, through to the 1930's, by which time they had been relegated to a reservation for many years. Lear credits Plenty Coups with guiding the Crow through this transition in a way significantly more successful than most other Indian tribes. 

What happened to the Crow was something far more significant than merely a military defeat or occupation. Their traditional way of understanding themselves became unintelligible. Lear calls this event a loss of concepts. When Plenty Coups was raised, the traditional Crow life was still tenable. His moral character and imagination was developed in its terms. For example courage, for the Crow, centered on the feat of "counting coups." Counting coups was paradigmatically some sort of  bold exploit with respect to the enemy. Lear quotes the following account of counting coups from Plenty Coups:

To count coup a warrior had to strike an armed and fighting enemy with his coup-stick, quirt, or bow before otherwise harming him, or take his weapons while he was yet alive, or strike the first enemy falling in battle, no matter who killed him, or strike the enemy's breastworks while under file, or steal a horse tied to a lodge in an enemy's camp, etc. The first named was the most honorable, and to strike such a coup a warrior would often display great bravery.

The crow-stick was also used as a "line in the sand" in battle. If a warrior planted his coup-stick, he was obliged to hold the ground in which it was planted or lose his life attempting to defend it. As Lear describes it:

The planting of the coup-stick was symbolic of the planting of a tree that could not be felled. In effect it marked a boundary across which a non-Crow enemy must not pass. This was a paradigm of courage. A warrior culture will accord highest honor to the brave warriors - and the wise old chiefs who once were brave warriors.

Now what happens when a tribe such as the Crow is moved onto a reservation? Prior to the reservation, the Crow had a certain understanding of life's possibilities. Life is about hunting buffalo and beaver and fighting the Sioux and Blackfeet. The tragic possibilities of life seem accounted for. The worst thing that can happen is military defeat by their enemies. Lear's point is not that the Crow thought they would always be victorious, but that they had a conception of the range of life's tragic possibilities. "Either our warriors will be able to plant their coup-sticks or they will fail." 

But after the move to the reservation, what meaning does "planting the coup-stick" have? The Crow no longer fight the Blackfeet or the Sioux; inter-tribal warfare is forbidden by the U.S. Government. What has happened is something the Crow couldn't even imagine prior to their move to the reservation. Worse than failing to plant their coup-sticks, the entire concept of "planting coup-sticks" has lost intelligibility. How is a warrior raised in the Crow warrior tradition, where life revolved around counting coups, to understand himself on the reservation where planting the coup-stick would be a ridiculous act?

This is what Lear means by "ethics in the face of cultural devastation." He doesn't mean merely that your nation has been defeated and occupied; he means that your nation's entire way of life and means of understanding itself has lost intelligibility. You have suffered a loss of concepts.

Plenty Coups is interesting because he responded to the devastation of the Crow way of life in a novel and flexible way. He didn't "go down fighting" by planting his coup-stick in a doomed defense against the U.S. Army. Plenty Coups, in his youth, had several dreams that prophesied the destruction of the Crow way of life. They also gave a clue concerning a way he could deal with it, "the virtue of the Chickadee" :

Young Plenty Coups's dream calls on him, and it gives him ethical advice - advice that seems designed to help him survive the cataclysmic rupture that is about to occur: become a chickadee! "He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words." Becoming a chickadee, then, is a virtue - a form of human excellence... Chickadee virtue called for a new form of courage, yet it drew on the traditional resources of Crow culture to do so. "The Chickadee is big medicine," Pretty Shield told her interviewer.
Lear makes the argument that, using the virtue of the Chickadee, Plenty Coups was able to transcend the culturally specific form of courage into which he was raised and discover a way the Crow could weather the storm of the White Man. This is what Lear means by radical hope; a hope that transcends the concepts with which one may understand it. The courage that Plenty Coups demonstrated in following the virtue of the Chickadee was outside the parameters of courage as it had been taught him in his Crow youth.

It is by way of analyzing courage and what it might have meant to Plenty Coups that Lear brings in Aristotle. He uses Aristotle's analysis of courage to analyze the courage of Plenty Coups. Lear then writes this:

In a period of cultural devastation such as Plenty Coups and the Crow had to endure, there would have to be a radical transformation in the risks associated with courage. At such a historical moment, traditional examples of risk - counting coups - have become weirdly irrelevant. And the risks that do arise are of a different order: the risks of facing a future that one as yet lacks the concepts to understand. Are there courageous ways of facing a future for which the traditional concept of courage has become inapplicable? This is not a question that Aristotle ever asked; and one can see that it has distinctive challenges.

Lear does not explore why Aristotle never asked this question; the impression he gives is that it is a simple lack in Aristotle. But there is a good reason that Aristotle never addressed it: His understanding of courage is not one that might become inapplicable through cultural devastation. In fact, this is the very reason that Aristotle's twenty-five hundred year old analysis of courage is still useful to Lear in his contemporary analysis of Plenty Coups.

The difference between Aristotle and Plenty Coups is that Aristotle was a philosopher and Plenty Coups, as brave and flexible as he was, was not. All of Aristotle's thought is based on the fundamental philosophical distinction between nature and convention. Aristotle analyzes courage in terms of nature; that is, in terms of the enduring characteristics of human being that are the same everywhere and for all time, and that transcend cultureNon-philosophical cultures, like that of the Crow, do not possess this distinction. For them, the conventional form of courage found in their culture - e.g. counting coups - is courage pure and simple. When circumstances change in a way that makes counting coups no longer intelligible as an act of courage, then courage itself ceases to be a meaningful concept. This is how the Crow can lose the concept of courage. Aristotle can lose his concept of courage only if human nature itself is transformed.

Lear introduces Aristotle's analysis of virtue this way:

For Aristotle, the virtues are states of character the exercise of which contributes to living an excellent life. He did not confront the problem that different historical epochs might impose different requirements on what states of the soul could count as courage. And thus the conception of courage I shall explore extends beyond the virtue that Aristotle explicitly considered.

Everything hangs on what is meant by an "excellent life." Does it refer to a culturally specific form of life, such as the nomadic warrior/hunter life of the Crow with its focus on counting coups, or the ancient Greek life specific to Athens? The original philosopher, Socrates, was executed for challenging the conventional forms of religious piety in Athens. For Socrates the "excellent life" could only be a life lived according to a reason informed by nature - "the unreflected life is not worth living." Aristotle followed Socrates by dividing the virtues into intellectual and moral virtues. The intellectual virtues are the virtues by which we know the truth about nature and man; the moral virtues are those that allow us to live according to the truth discovered by the intellectual virtues. The intellectual virtues inform the moral virtues. What makes "courage" truly count as courage is not its conformity to a culturally specific mode of life, but whether it reflects the truth about the nature of man; just as Socrates argued against Euthyphro that "piety" is only truly piety if it is based on the truth about the gods and not merely the conventional way of interacting with the gods.

Aristotle famously begins the Nicomachean Ethics by saying that "Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim." He then proceeds to draw a distinction between instrumental goods and goods that are ends in themselves, the former of which are pursued for the sake of the latter. Aristotle uses the example of the military arts, which are all subordinate to the end of victory. The end of victory itself falls under the science of politics, or the master art, which is directed to the end of man as such. When an instrumental good is no longer able to serve the end to which it is subordinate, it loses its status as a good. This is implicit in Aristotle's analysis. Counting-coups was an instrumental good conducing to the successful defense of the nomadic warrior/hunter Crow tribe against other Indian tribes. For Aristotle, when counting-coups no longer made sense in terms of the success of the Crow tribe, it would cease to be a virtue. This would not have been a world-shattering event for Aristotle; it was world-shattering for the Crow because they did not possess Aristotle's philosophical understanding of the distinction between instrumental and final goods. Here is more from Lear on what happened to the Crow:

The Crow had a conception of happiness, a conception of what life was worth living for. They lived in relation to a spiritual world in which they believed God had chosen them to live a certain kind of life. Happiness consisted in living that life to the full. This was an active and unfettered pursuit of a nomadic hunting life in which their family life and social rituals could prosper... With the destruction of this way of life came the destruction of the end or goal - the telos - of that life. Their problem, then, was not simply that they could not pursue happiness in the traditional ways. Rather, their conception of what happiness is could no longer be lived. The characteristic activities that used to constitute the good life ceased to be intelligible acts. A crucial blow to their happiness was a loss of the concepts with which their happiness had been understood.

I believe that Lear is in danger of reading into the Crow a philosophical attitude they did not possess. Nothing Lear quotes from the Crow indicates that they had a concept of "happiness." They had a way of life, the nomadic warrior/hunter life, that constituted their life as Crow. They weren't living their lives "for" anything; they were just living them. Hunting buffalo and counting coups are what Crow did, and there is no reason to think they did it self-consciously in terms of a concept of what life was about. This lack of self-consciousness, or philosophical innocence, in fact, seems to be what attracted Rousseau to "savage" people and led him to develop the notion of the "noble savage." The noble savage lives directly and immediately, without the philosophical reflection that leads him to develop a science and politics that ultimately enslaves him (or so Rousseau thought.)

Whether or not we are attracted to the philosophical innocence of aboriginal life, it is a life that is in danger of becoming unintelligible if its specific mode of living becomes untenable. In such circumstances the only possibility open to it is a "radical hope", or a leap into (and hopefully across) the abyss. What is on the other side of the abyss (i.e. what the Crow will be like after the encounter with the white man) is something the "noble savage" can't possibly conceive.

A culture that is philosophically based, on the other hand, as Western culture was from the time of the ancient Greeks forward, has the resources to persevere through civilizational collapse, as trying as those times might be. The premier case of this is, of course, the collapse of the Roman Empire. St. Augustine, in his City of God, drew on all the philosophical (and religious) resources of the West to teach us that what mattered about Rome was not anything that could disappear with the sack of Rome; it would endure as God and the nature of man endures.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Elderly and the City

What does it say about a City (in Plato's sense of the word) that considers its elderly a burden rather than the expression of its greatest fulfillment? I write this after having made a comment on the secular right blog.

If human being means something more than mere productive utility, then it must bear a goodness that develops with time and is therefore expressed in the elderly or nowhere at all.  Traditional cultures do not see the elderly as burdens but as the fullest expression of the way of life of their City. The elderly possess an understanding of life and human nature, a wisdom, that can only come with age and experience; they are not a burden to the city but its greatest resource. We can always bear more young. A wise old man or woman can only be the result of many years of virtue and good fortune. 

The Enlightenment cut wisdom down to what can be demonstrated via an abstract reason married to empirical observation. This had the immediate benefit of sweeping away many old and obstructive prejudices. But it also undermined any serious notion of wisdom, and specifically the conviction that there are important things about life and human nature that can only be known through long experience and reflection. The young Descartes could only choose to embark on his universal doubt if he thought that time and experience were not essential to any important truths. In the twentieth century, the young Albert Camus could write the following only in an intellectual universe thoroughly penetrated by the Enlightenment understanding of reason and its lack of respect for the wisdom that is a prerogative of age:

After so many centuries of inquiries, so many abdications among thinkers, we are well aware that this true for all our knowledge. With the exception of professional rationalists, today people despair of true knowledge. If the only history of human thought were to be written, it would have to be the history of its successive regrets and its impotences. (From the Myth of Sisyphus)

In the 12th century, someone who uttered such sentiments would be asked: What can a 29 year old possibly know? In the twentieth century, he is applauded for his bold vision.

We in the twenty-first century have difficulty finding reasons to keep the old folks around. We have eliminated the pursuit of wisdom as the goal of our universities; now we are contemplating severing our last link with the only people who might have finally learned wisdom on their own. What will happen to Athens when Socrates is given hemlock before he even has a chance to become the gadfly that wakes up the City?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Wizards and Muggles in the Potter series

The Harry Potter series of books has the uncanny feature that its critics (both pro and con) routinely overlook obvious features of the Potter universe. It is as though the series itself casts a spell of blindness on its readers.

Take the relationship between Muggles and Wizards. (Muggles, for the uninitiated, are ordinary folks like you and me who are without magical power. Wizards are able to use magic with the use of a wand.) The Boston Sunday Globe recently featured a lengthy article discussing the allegedly deep religious meaning of the series. The subtitle is "How the boy wizard won over religious critics - and the deeper meaning theologians see in his tale." Along the way, the article has this to say about the place of Muggles in the series:

Some religion scholars seem most interested in the Potter series as social commentary - in particular, they focus on Harry's refusal to take part in the anti-Muggle bias demonstrated by some pure-blood witches and wizards, as well as the hostility toward giants and ghosts and other menacing magical creatures that some characters in the series evince. "One of the overall themes of the Harry Potter series has to do with race and race-based persecution," says Lana A. Whited, a professor of English at Ferrum College in Virginia and the author of "The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter." And Dalton, of Brite Divinity School, takes the argument a step further, suggesting that the series's association of tolerance with the heroic characters is a critique of fundamentalism.

"To Dumbledore and Harry and his friends it didn't matter whether you were Muggle-born, or whether you were a giant," Dalton says, "whereas clearly the Death Eaters, the evil ones, were intolerant of people who were unlike them."

But not all scholars are quite so enthusiastic. Elizabeth Heilman, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University and the editor of "Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter" says that, unlike Hermione, who adopts the cause of the house elves, "you don't see Harry Potter ever taking up a cause for the sake of the downtrodden. He's really a reluctant hero, and I'm not convinced the narrative has him effectively going beyond personal motives."

Now the most obvious characteristic of the relationship between Muggles and Wizards is its basic inequality. We can start with the names. "Muggles" is a name invented by Wizards to indicate ordinary, non-magical people (that is, you and me.) The vast majority of ordinary people have no idea that they are Muggles; they are unaware that a society of magical people has segregated itself into a largely separate world defined over against the ordinary world. This is because Wizards deliberately keep almost all ordinary people ignorant of the existence of Wizards. Nor are ordinary people aware that the border and any interaction between the ordinary and magical worlds is defined and policed by Wizards on terms determined by Wizards. These terms do not permit ordinary people entry into the Wizard world or even knowledge of its existence; should an ordinary person accidentally discover something magical, he has his memory erased (involuntarily) by a Wizard Ministry of Magic specifically charged with the task. Wizards occasionally allow ordinary people knowledge of the Wizard world when it suits their purposes (for example, when they wish help in tracking down criminal Wizards running loose in the ordinary world), but they keep this knowledge within strict limits.

The Wizard world has its own system of justice, courts and prisons. When you travel to Guatemala, you are subject to Guatemalan law, but this is not how it works for Wizards. When Wizards are in the ordinary world, they are subject to Wizard law and not ordinary law. Thus when the aforementioned bad Wizards run amok in the ordinary world, including killing ordinary people, the situation is not resolved by catching the Wizards and trying them before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. No, the equivalent of a Wizard posse tracks down the wayward Wizards and drags them back to the Wizard world for treatment by Wizard justice. What the next of kin of the dead Muggles are supposed to think is a matter of inconvenience to Wizards, but not one that demands that the Wizards tell the truth about what happened. Generally the Wizards hope that the Muggles will attribute the deaths to natural disaster and remain ignorant of the Wizard world.

When the Boston Globe article mentioned above says that Harry Potter refuses to take part in anti-Muggle bias, you might think that Harry resisted the whole Wizard-defined, Wizard-policed distinction between the ordinary and magical worlds. You might think that he objected to the policy of keeping ordinary people ignorant of Wizards, or of involuntarily erasing their memories, or of making Wizards not subject to ordinary law while in the ordinary world. Equality is only possible if everyone is subject to the same law and no one is kept in involuntary ignorance.

But that is not what is meant by "anti-Muggle" bias. The policies I have stated above are fully supported by all Wizards, both "good" and "bad", Dumbledore and Hagrid as well as Voldemort, and by most Harry Potter fans in my experience. When Hagrid, in an early scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, attacks the ordinary boy Dudley Dursley with magic in Dudley's own home, the notion that he has done something against ordinary law that might have ordinary legal consequences never occurs to him, Harry Potter, or even to the Harry Potter fans with whom I have discussed this scene. For them, since it is an assault by a Wizard on an ordinary person, it is not anything that might rise to legal categories, at least as far as the Muggle is concerned. Like a slave in the old South, Muggles have no legal standing in the Wizard world, or legal standing with respect to Wizards even in the ordinary world.

What is meant by "anti-Muggle bias" is the fact that sometimes Wizards are born of ordinary parents. When this happens the Wizard is introduced and admitted to Wizard society where, unfortunately, some Wizards hold a bias against Wizards born of non-magical parents, calling them "Mudbloods" and the like. The Mudblood "controversy" has a farcical quality about it, like the "old money" rich holding a bias against "new money" rich. Harry Potter and Dumbledore are insufferable because they are like the "old money" rich that nobly holds no bias against new money, it never occurring to their pure souls that they don't think the servants deserve rights or the vote anymore than do any of the other rich.

The situation is all the more ridiculous in the case of Hermione Granger, the advocate of the "cause of house elves" mentioned in the article above. What is fascinating about Hermione is that, alone among the three major characters, very little mention is made of her parents. Harry Potter's parents are dead but he makes retrospective acquaintance with them and discovery of their characters is a major part of the plot. Ron Weasley, Harry's other best friend besides Hermione, has Wizard parents who are significant characters in the action of the story. But Hermione's parents are barely mentioned in the thousands of pages of text.

The reason Hermione's parents are absent from the plot is that they are ordinary people, and therefore subject to all the general restrictions Wizards place on Muggles. They cannot visit or know anything about the Wizard world, except for the inevitable knowledge that there is a Wizard world and their daughter attends a school in it. Imagine a school that invited your daughter to attend, but told you that you could never visit, or know what goes on there, or even know how your daughter gets there. Nor can you ask for a demonstration of what your daughter learned at school, since Wizards are forbidden (normally) from using magic in the ordinary world. Your job is to write the check and demur from asking any inconvenient questions.

The archetype of "good Muggles", the Grangers know their place and dutifully send Hermione off to Hogwarts every year with no questions asked. Hermione reminds one of the college kid who agonizes over the fate of Tibet while ignoring her house-bound grandmother. It would have made a much more interesting story if the "elf rights" silliness were dropped and the Grangers given a more prominent role. Instead of spending every summer with Harry and his self-pity, why not a summer with Hermione exploring the pernicious rules the Wizards have set up with respect to Muggles? Does Hermione struggle with the fact that Wizard law does not permit her to tell her parents all the fantastic, life-threatening adventures she has had at Hogwarts? Or of the fact that she is at the top of her class and what it means? Suppose Mrs. Granger is a weak old woman who can barely do the housework. Is Hermione tempted to use magic to assist her in violation of the Wizard law? Wouldn't Hermione be a far more interesting character if the focus was on her decision to challenge Wizard law by using magic to assist her ordinary parents? This would make Hermione more genuinely Christ-like than any of the putatively Christ-like characters in Harry Potter, but more on that later.

Good Muggles, like good servants, do what they are told and do their job in the background, seen and heard as little as possible. Even the British Prime Minister is treated in peremptory fashion. The Wizard Minister of Magic (more or less the Wizard equivalent of a Prime Minister) occasionally needs to talk to the ordinary Prime Minister. He does so by magically appearing, unannounced and uninvited, in the Prime Minister's office. The idea that the Prime Minister is not at the beck and call of the Minister of Magic, and that the latter should get an appointment like anyone else, naturally never occurs to Wizards. The Minister of Magic tells the Prime Minister only the minimum of information necessary and generally leaves him in state of puzzlement. The Prime Minister has no way to call the Minister of Magic should he discover the need; communication is always a one-way street from Wizards to Muggles.

"Bad Muggles" get uppity and do not accept the place assigned to them by Wizards. They are seen and heard way too much. The most prominent bad Muggles are the Dursleys, Harry's relatives and the ordinary family in which Harry Potter is raised. The Dursleys are involved with the story because Harry Potter is dropped on their doorstep as an infant by Dumbledore, with written instructions concerning what they are supposed to do with him. Again, the notion that the Dursleys might have some say in their involvement with Wizards, or that their taking in Harry should be a matter of negotiation, is not one that occurs to Dumbledore. He has decided that the Dursleys are the best place for Harry to be raised and that is the end of it. The Dursleys place is to do what they are told without question, and like it.

As much as J.K. Rowling invites the reader to despise the Dursleys by making them mean, stupid, petty, vindictive and - worst of all - fat, I admit to taking an instant liking to Vernon Dursley, Harry's uncle. Virtually alone among ordinary people, Vernon refuses to kowtow to Wizards. When Hagrid shows up shortly after Harry's tenth birthday, demanding that Harry be turned over to him, Vernon refuses, leading to the magical incident with Dudley I mentioned above. Ordinary justice is, of course, on Vernon's side, since he is the de facto father of Harry (and by the Wizards' own choice, not his own!) and therefore has the right, not to mention the responsibility, to make decisions about Harry's future. Vernon doesn't like Wizards and thinks Hogwarts is a waste of time. The book presents Vernon as small-minded but, then, it is the prerogative of a parent to be small-minded. Dumbledore should have thought of this possibility before dumping Harry on Vernon, but then it never occurred to Dumbledore that Vernon might not simply submit to orders issued by Wizards. My respect for Vernon only increased as the series went on, as he consistently refuses to play the "nice Muggle" no matter how much the Wizards intimidate him with magic. The more Rowling insists that he is lacking in any virtue, the more I root for him to stick it to the Wizards.

The Globe article goes on to discuss the comparison of Harry and Dumbledore to Jesus Christ:
Eisenstadt sees Dumbledore and Harry, in different ways, as Christ figures - perhaps Harry representing the human Jesus, and Dumbledore the divine. And she posits that the New Testament depiction of elements of the Jewish community is represented by the goblins (unappealing bankers) and the Ministry of Magic (legalistic and small-minded).

Since we are casting parts for the New Testament, what part are the Muggles assigned? This brings up a basic problem with viewing the Potter series through a Christian lens. The New Testament has no place for the division of humanity into separate worlds based on talent or natural ability. It has no parallel to a self-segregated world of "extraordinary people" who live an existence deliberately disconnected from the "ordinary" mass of humanity. This is Gnosticism, not Christianity. In fact, we might say that Christ came in part to challenge such distinctions. But, supposing that such division can be sustained in Christian terms, what would be a legitimately Christian relationship between the magically endowed Wizards and ordinary Muggles? Hagrid gives a tissue-thin rationalization for why Wizards do not use their power to assist Muggles - "they [Muggles] would always be wanting magical solutions to their problems." Thank goodness that Christ did not have such an opinion with respect to his own miraculous power. Christ came precisely to use his power to serve the poor, humble and unknown, even though He knew it would cause him to be overwhelmed with crowds wanting miraculous solutions to their problems.

The Harry Potter series departs from the mainstream tradition of Christian-inspired literature by making Harry himself magical. Generally the hero of the Christian story is an ordinary fellow who encounters magic as a form of grace; as Cinderella is not magical but is graced by a fairy Godmother, or Snow White and Rose Red discover a prince hidden in the form of a bear. The heroic Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings are as unmagical as they could possibly be - the perfect Muggles. But they encounter grace through the magic of Gandalf and the elvish queen Galadriel.

The Hobbits imitate Christ the way Mary did; not by exercising a miraculous power that they do not possess, but by acting with a faith, love and humility that allows the grace of God to work through them.

Since Harry Potter, unlike Frodo Baggins, Cinderella, Jack from the Beanstalk, Mary or St. Francis of Assisi, is born with extraordinary magical power, for him to imitate Christ means something different than what it means for Frodo to imitate Christ. He must put his magical power to the service of the poor, humble and ordinary. But Harry never uses that power to challenge the pernicious distinction between Muggles and Wizards the way Christ used His miraculous power to give voice to the poor and forgotten and to challenge the rules of the Pharisees. Harry accepts the conventions of the world as given to him by the Wizard authorities; whatever "Christian" impulses he might have are restricted to the extraordinary world of Wizards and do not extend to the broader world of Muggles. At best, Harry is a good pagan who does not think Wizards should abuse Muggles, but it never occurs to him that the extraordinary (Wizards) are actually called on to serve the humble (Muggles), the way the magical Gandalf served the ordinary Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings. It never occurs to Harry that the real problem with the Ministry of Magic is not that it prevents him from terrorizing Dudley Dursley with magic, but that it prevents him from helping ordinary folks like the Granger parents. The Christian "inversion of values", by which the talented and superior do not live for themselves ala Aristotle, but are called to serve the plain and ordinary, is the obligation Christ revealed to the world; any series that does not recognize this obligation can't claim to possess a Christian sensibility. But the possibility of this inversion never occurs to any Wizard in the Harry Potter series, from the evil Voldemort through to the good Dumbledore.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Transcending human nature through science.

Here is Steven Pinker in the Preface to his book The Stuff of Thought (the emphasis is mine):

There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words. There is a theory of matter and a theory of causality, too. Our language has a model of sex in it (actually, two models), and conceptions of intimacy and power and fairness. Divinity, degradation, and danger are also ingrained in our mother tongue, together with a conception of well-being and a philosophy of free will. These conceptions vary in their details from language to language, but their overall logic is the same. They add up to a distinctively human model of reality, which differs in major ways from the objective understanding of reality eked out by our best science and logic.

I love that last sentence. It is a neat summary of the philosophical assumptions of the contemporary philosophy of mind. There is the distinction between "a distinctively human model of reality" - to be taken with a grain of salt, for it is only "a" model among many possible models - and "the objective understanding of reality" given by science and logic, which suffers from none of the unfortunate drawbacks of the human condition and its models, transcending human nature entirely as the objective understanding of reality. There is the easy confidence that never wonders who or what it is that understands this "objective understanding" when it is understood, or wonders how an "objective understanding" saves itself from being oxymoronic, since an understanding is only an understanding if it is understood by someone and therefore is subjective; or wonders how we mere men can understand an "objective understanding" without it becoming a human model. There is the hint of a further perspective beyond both the human model and the objective understanding, the perspective that allows us to compare the lesser two perspectives and determine in just what "major ways" the human model differs from the objective understanding. Finally, there is the strange innocence that fails to notice that whatever we understand and do must happen in and through our own nature, and so reference to "the objective understanding of reality" is itself an expression of human nature and so destroys the distinction of which it is a part.

Friday, July 24, 2009

FPR on Space Travel

Over at Front Porch Republic, Jason Peters has an hilarious take on the proposed Mission to Mars.

I disagree with him on one thing:

I caught a piece on NPR Monday evening about the possibilities of a Martian voyage. If I got the story right, we’d need 180 days for the trip there and then a 500-day layover at the Red Dust Daze Inn to wait for a planetary alignment conducive to the leisurely 180-day commute back home.

So about three years without beer, baseball, and soft personnel.

If there is one thing of which we can be certain, it is that any forthcoming space mission will be exquisitely diversified along racial and sexual lines. So there will definitely be "soft personnel" stuffed in that interplanetary tin can for 860 days. Given the instability that may be lurking even in the unconscious of those with the "Right Stuff", the trip might more resemble a contemporary "reality show" than the path to glory of the Apollo program. How long into the trip will it take before the astronauts figure out that nothing has gone on, nothing is going on, and nothing will go on during that long trip? Especially when, after a week or so, everyone on Earth has lost interest in what they are doing?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

George Will and pop culture

George Will sometimes tries a little too hard to be clever and makes a fool of himself, as in this column on global warming. The global warming commentary is fine, but he ends the column with this self-inflicted wound:

"And why, regarding climate change, the U.S. government, rushing to impose unilateral cap-and-trade burdens on the sagging U.S. economy, looks increasingly like someone who bought a closetful of platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks just as disco was dying."

Platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks were early '70s, disco late 70's, the difference an eternity in pop culture. Marcia Brady wore platform shoes on the Brady Bunch in 1972 when I was in 4th grade; by the time I was in high school in 1978, when disco was king, no one would be caught dead in them, especially white-suit wearing disco divas like Tony Manero (John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever). Even the nerds like me had figured it out. Will is trying to make the point that the U.S. government is catching the climate-change wave just as it is petering out, but he's really only proven that the clever pop culture references should be left to the experts.

Or in, other words, there are some times of nerd - the clever, bow-tie wearing kind - that are just embarrassing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Wiping out with St. Thomas

The Boston Sunday Globe has a good article on a TV show my family loves - "Wipeout" - and brings in none other than St. Thomas Aquinas for some perspective:

Slapstick equals humility, and humility - as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out - equals truth. St. Thomas would have cautioned that salvation remains a serious business: it’s called the Fall of Man, after all, not the Wipeout of Man. But as a sideshow to the obstacle course of righteousness, we can enjoy “Wipeout.”

Friday, July 17, 2009

Derb on Space Exploration

John Derbyshire is spot on with his analysis of manned space exploration.  Here is his common sense analysis of the shuttle.

The thing to remember about space exploration is that it is not like going from one place to another on the surface of the Earth. It is like climbing out of a very, very deep well (Earth), scooting across a barren surface, then diving down another deep well (the Moon or another planet). It takes a lot of energy to get up and out of those wells, and so there needs to be good payoff for it to be worthwhile. Unfortunately, the only thing at the bottom of the wells within reasonable distance of the Earth is... nothing. The moon is just a big hunk of rock. So is Mars. There isn't much point in expending all the energy to get there and back. If you want a barren landscape, the Mojave Desert is available. And it has an atmosphere.

Space is the most inhospitable environment for human beings imaginable. If we really want to start making things happen on other planets, the way to do it is to forget about manned space travel and use automated systems. A space probe doesn't care that it can't breathe in a vacuum and that it's -100 degrees C. Spend the money on engineers like me and not hot-shot flyboy astronauts.

The difference between space travel and the 15th century explorers was, as Derb points out, that there was a fairly big and immediate payoff to terrestrial exploration. Spices, gold, new and exotic plant and animal life, native girls... these things made the trip worthwhile. There aren't any native girls on the Moon.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Harry Potter and the objective moral order

OK, a post at the Blue Boar got my Harry Potter juices going. I know I'm a voice crying in the wilderness on this one, and a lot of people are bored silly with Harry Potter. But here goes anyway.

A problem with the Potter series is that it is objectively disordered in a moral sense. This has nothing to do with whether Harry Potter develops morally, or how he feels about what he does, or even what people say about the moral order in the books. What matters is the objective consequences of actions. Is the moral order violated? Then the violator must suffer the consequences, however he feels. Crime and Punishment is a great book because it doesn't stop with Raskolnikov feeling bad about murdering the old lady. The moral order is affirmed only when Raskolnikov confesses his crime and submits to his sentence in a labor camp.

The consequences don't necessarily have to be legal, but they must be objective. Michael Corleone doesn't suffer legal consequences in The Godfather, but the moral order is affirmed because he ends up destroying the very thing he sought to defend by crossing over the line - his family. Not only does he end up divorcing his wife Kay, his children become strangers to him and he ends up killing his brother-in-law and, then, even his own brother Fredo.

In the Lord of the Rings, the moral order is consistently affirmed; not just in the consequences to the bad guys like Sauron, but especially when the good guys go wrong. When Pippin illicitly looks into a magic globe, he immediately suffers the consequences of his transgression - a terrifying mind meld with Sauron.

Harry Potter and his friends consistently violate the moral order in large ways and small, but there are rarely objective consequences. Sometimes there are subjective consequences - Harry might feel bad about it - but he eventually gets over it. In Ch. 16 of The Sorcerer's Stone, for example, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione are racing to recover the Sorcerer's Stone before the bad guys get it. Neville Longbottom, another friend, stands in their way because the students are not supposed to leave the dorm. Unfortunately for Neville, he hasn't accounted for the ruthlessness of Harry Potter. Neville has prepared to defend himself in the normal physical way, but even though Harry has Ron and Hermione with him and could quickly overpower Neville and move on, he orders Hermione to take care of the problem magically, so Hermione paralyzes Neville with magic - the Full Body Bind. It's clear from the text that it is a horrifying experience: "Neville's arms snapped to his sides. His legs sprang together. His whole body rigid, he swayed where he stood and then fell flat on his face, stiff as a board... Neville's jaws were jammed together so he couldn't speak. Only his eyes were moving, looking at them in horror." 

Of course Hermione feels bad about it, in fact she's "really, really sorry about this." Well, that makes it OK then, doesn't it? As long as you are sorry about it.  Harry adds a little utilitarian rationalization - "We had to Neville, no time to explain", although Harry finds the time to indulge his curiosity about the spell Hermione used. His technical interest aside, Harry is indifferent to Neville's fate. The difference between Neville and Harry is that it never occurred to Neville to go outside the moral order (by using forbidden magic) to restrain Harry, while Harry is "resourceful" enough to have no such qualms. Why should he have any qualms? Unlike Pippin, Harry does just fine using illicit magic, a positive consequence that undermines the moral order that forbade Harry from using it in the first place.

It's a good exercise when reading Harry Potter to remember that most of what they do with magic can be done with normal means - the Full-Body Bind, for example, is the moral equivalent of tasering someone. Is Harry justified tasering another student (an innocent one) because that student is in the way of Harry's self-appointed mission? Is a student ever justified in tasering anyone on his own authority? Did the Potter series illustrate an objective moral order, then Harry would suffer some sort of objective consequences for this action. Maybe Hermione's spell would get out of control and they would kill Neville rather than paralyze him; or maybe they would leave him with permanent physical or psychological damage; or maybe they would simply be caught by the authorities and justly expelled from Hogwarts. As it is, there are no adverse consequences; in fact, the consequence is that Harry and friends are treated as heroes. For taking his tasering like a man, Neville is awarded ten points by Dumbledore at the end of the story. Thanks!

This sort of thing is routine for Harry Potter. What makes it problematic is that the story doesn't affirm that the moral order has been violated. It justifies Harry's transgressions - his regular lying, for example - on utilitarian grounds and leaves it at that. Lying, tasering other students, feeding them poisoned treats, lighting teacher's robes on fire... these things are sort of bad, but OK if the good guys need to do them, especially if they feel bad about doing it. This is the distorted moral order the series teaches.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

John Searle's Philosophy of Mind

John Searle's place in the contemporary philosophy of mind is that of someone who accepts the materialistic premises of the mainstream philosophy of mind, but wishes to avoid the reductionist conclusions to which it invariably leads. As he puts it in the Introduction to The Rediscovery of the Mind:

"What I argued for then (Searle 1984b) and repeat here is that one can accept the obvious facts of physics - that the world consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force - without denying that among the physical features of the world are biological phenomena such as inner qualitative states of consciousness and intrinsic intentionality."

Later in Ch. 10 he writes this:

"I see the human brain as an organ like any other, as a biological system. Its special feature, as far as the mind is concerned, the feature in which it differs remarkably from other biological organs, is its capacity to produce and sustain all of the enormous variety of consciousness life."

In the Epilogue to Mind, A Brief Introduction, he writes this:

"I have tried to give an account of the mind that will situate mental phenomena as part of the natural world. Our account of the mind in all of its aspects - consciousness, intentionality, free will, mental causation, perception, intentional action, etc. - is naturalistic in this sense: first, it treats mental phenomena as just a part of nature. We should think of consciousness and intentionality as just as much a part of the natural world as photosynthesis or digestion. Second, the explanatory apparatus that we use to give a causal account of mental phenomena is an apparatus that we need to account for nature generally. The level at which we attempt to account for mental phenomena is biological rather than, say, at the level of subatomic physics. The reason for this is that consciousness and other mental phenomena are biological phenomena; they are created by biological processes and are specific to certain biological organisms."

He then goes on to tell us that "science does not name an ontological domain; it names rather a set of methods for finding out about anything at all that admits of systematic investigation." So the "explanatory apparatus" that we use to account for nature generally, and that we must use to investigate the mind, is that of ordinary empirical science. Searle's distinctive approach to the philosophy of mind is to hold these two principles in tension: 1) That the traditional philosophical features of the mind - e.g. consciousness, free will, intentionality - are real things in the world that require explanation rather than merely being explained away, and 2) The empirical sciences are the only way to systematically explore nature, and so the empirical sciences (specifically, biology) must account for the phenomena referred to in principle #1.

The problem for Searle's philosophy is that the tension of his two principles is fatal. There is consciousness, free will and intentionality in science, but it is all found in the mind of the scientist conducting the science, not in any of the products that result from his science - even if that product is a scientific account of the mind itself. Neuroscientists, for example, spend a lot of time stimulating the brains of subjects in various ways, inducing sensory experiences (seeing colors, hearing sounds), making them feel different things from sadness to religious-like awe, or changing their perception of themselves or the world. These experiences are mapped back onto the brain regions from which they are stimulated. There is no possible freedom on the part of the subjects; they either see the color or they don't. Suppose scientists tried to stimulate a "free act." They stimulate an area of your brain and you raise your right arm. They stimulate the same area again and you raise your left arm. They stimulate it again and you whistle "Dixie." They stimulate it yet again and you recite the Nicene Creed. What would the scientific conclusion be? That they had stimulated a "free act?" No, the only possible scientific conclusion would be that their experiments had not been done with sufficient care and that they were not really stimulating exactly the same brain cells every time.  In fact, your physical brain will not be in exactly the same condition from each experiment to the next, since it is continually changing in minor material ways as a matter of nature. The only possible scientific result is "failed experiment", not "science discovers free will", for the latter is an impossibility. 

Similar points can be made with respect to the other interesting features of the mind. The essential feature of consciousness, for example, is that it is a viewpoint from the center of the world, the "subjective viewpoint." The subjective viewpoint in science is that of the scientist. The subjective viewpoint of the subject is necessarily treated as an objective element in the scientific world of the scientist, with the scientist and not the subject at the center; the subjective viewpoint of the subject therefore appears in the scientific world as something it is not, or rather, it doesn't appear at all. There is consciousness in science, of course - the consciousness of the scientist and no other.

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher who accepts the same principles as Searle, but also accepts the obvious and necessary results. If science is how we know reality, and the subjective features of the mind do not appear for science, then we must conclude that the subjective features of the mind are not real. Searle sums up Dennett's position smartly in Ch. 5 of his Mystery of Consciousness:

"The problem of consciousness in both philosophy and the natural sciences is to explain these subjective feelings. Not all of them are bodily sensations like pain. The stream of conscious thought is not a bodily sensation comparable to feeling pinched and neither are visual experiences; yet both have the quality of ontological subjectivity that I have been talking about. The subjective feelings are the data that a theory of consciousness has to explain... The peculiarity of Daniel Dennett's book can now be stated: he denies the existence of the data. He thinks there are no such things as the second sort of entity, the feeling of pain. He thinks there are not such things as qualia, subjective experiences, first-person phenomena, or any of the rest of it. Dennett agrees that it seems to us that there are such things as qualia, but this is a matter of mistaken judgment we are making about what really happens."

Dennett is exactly right to deny the existence of the data, for the data as Searle describes them are not scientific data. "Subjective experiences" cannot be scientific data, for the only subjective experience that counts in science is the subjective experience of the scientist; the subjective experience of the subject appears in science only as an objective element in the subjective experience of the scientist; in other words, not as a subjective experience at all. Since, for both Dennett and Searle, science determines the nature and extent of the real, subjective experiences can't be real. Searle's two basic principles are in fundamental conflict.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Weigel and Benedict

I see I am far from the first or the best to comment on the Weigel article. First Things has a good compendium of critcisms (via rimwell.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

George Weigel subjects Caritas in Veritate to Higher Criticism

Over at National Review online, George Weigel has written an odd article concerning Benedict XVI's new encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Basically, Weigel subjects the encyclical to Higher Criticism, picking out the "authentic" Benedictine passages (to be marked in gold) from the unfortunate passages (marked in red) that don't really express the Pope's thinking, but are only sops the Holy Father allowed in to placate the Peace and Justice crowd. Weigel more or less tells the reader to ignore the red passages and pay attention to Weigel's gold passages. I don't think it is any stretch to suppose that the approved gold passages not only reflect the thinking of Benedict XVI but also... George Weigel.

It's the implicit insult that bothers me. The Holy Father signed his name to the entire encyclical (sort of like the Holy Spirit inspired the entire Gospels, not merely the parts approved by T. Jefferson or E. Renan.) A man who writes what he honestly believes and is wrong we can at least respect for being honest; the man who writes what he doesn't believe out of a misguided sense of charity or because he's too wimpy to stand up to opposition in his own camp - is not only wrong but not worthy of respect. It seems Weigel would rather us lose respect for the Pope than admit that the Holy Father might see things a little differently than he does.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Why Descartes Haunts the Philosophy of Mind

If there is a premier villain in the modern philosophy of mind, it is Rene Descartes. John Searle calls him a "disaster", Antonio Damasio devotes an entire book to exposing Descartes' Error, and Daniel Dennett has spent his career trying to put a wrecking ball through the "Cartesian Theater." Yet Descartes doesn't seem to go away. His ghost keeps rattling his chains like the Jacob Marley of the philosophy of mind.

The reason is that the modern project of the philosophy of mind is Cartesian through and through. Daniel Dennett, despite his protests, is about as Cartesian as he could possibly be. The modern philosophy of mind, in fact, never seriously challenges Descartes. Philosophers attack Descartes' dualistic conclusions, but authoritatively assert the foundational elements of Cartesian philosophy that drove Descartes to dualism. These same foundational elements set the modern philosophy of mind on a path to dualism, and like a man trying to go to Los Angeles after setting his GPS for New York, modern philosophers spend their efforts trying to avoid the conclusions their first principles dictate they must eventually accept.

In Ch. 2 of Consciousness Explained, for example, Daniel Dennett gives reasons why dualism will never work as a philosophy. The dualist won't be able to explain how the immaterial mind can interact with a physical body anymore than Caspar the Ghost can explain why he can move through walls yet hold up a house when it is about to fall down. Dennett's criticisms hit the mark, but it doesn't address the reasons Descartes became a dualist in the first place. Cartesian dualism follows directly from the methodical first principle of Cartesian philosophy:

"I thought that I should take a course precisely contrary, and reject as absolutely false anything of which I could have the least doubt, in order to see whether anything would be left after this procedure which could be called wholly certain. Thus, as our senses deceive us at times, I was ready to suppose that nothing was at all the way our senses represented them to be... But I soon noticed that while I thus wished to think everything false, it was necessarily true that I who thought so was something. Since this truth, I think, therefore I am, was so firm and assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were unable to shake it, I judged that I could safely accept it as the first principle of the philosophy I was seeking.

I then examined closely what I was, and saw that I could imagine that I had no body, and that there was no world nor any place that I occupied, but that I could not imagine for a moment that I did not exist.... therefore I concluded that I was a thing or substance whose whole essence or nature was only to think, and which, to exist, has no need of space nor of any material thing or body. Thus it followed that this ego, by which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body and is easier to know than the latter, and that even if the body were not, the soul would not cease to be all that it now is." 

The essence of Cartesianism is in the first paragraph, not the second, which is merely a conclusion from Cartesian first principles. Those first principles are 1) The assertion of method as foundational to true philosophy, and 2) The selection of radical doubt as the method of choice. We have become so used to the Cartesian first principles that we tend to see past them and take them as self-evident first principles of thought itself. But they are not self-evident at all; at least they were not for Descartes. He spent the first part of the Discourse on Method justifying his beginning philosophy in method and radical doubt (which, once that doubt is asserted, makes one wonder about the cognitive status of the first part of the Discourse, since it is asserted prior to and without the benefit of the method.) To the extent that we see the basic task of the philosopher as to "doubt things", or think that we need special training in order to philosophize, we have adopted the Cartesian approach to philosophy. For "special training" is nothing other than education in technical method, and that doubt should be a first principle of philosophy is itself open to philosophical doubt.

Daniel Dennett begins Consciousness Explained by introducing the "brain in a vat" thought experiment, which he admits is a modern version of Descartes' Evil Demon. You've no doubt heard this before: How do you know that you are not merely a brain in a vat, with electrodes hooked up to your neurons, making you think reality is something completely different than it truly is? It's easy to see that this is another way of posing the possibility that "nothing at all was the way our senses represented them to be." Dennett rapidly concludes that you are not a brain in a vat, arguing from scientific considerations of the difficulty of pulling off something like the brain in the vat hoax on a real brain. Of course, Dennett's destruction of the vat doesn't really work, because his argument depends on his knowledge of the way the real world really works; in other words, his argument starts with his brain outside the vat in the real world. Like David Copperfield, he only appears to have gotten himself out of the vat. He was already out the whole time.

But that is beside the point. It doesn't matter whether the brain in the vat experiment pans out. The basic Cartesian principle is that the radical falsity of experience is a possibility that must be addressed and overcome at the very outset of philosophy; Descartes himself overcomes this radical doubt, although in a way different than Dennett. The point is that any philosophy that feels it must start with the overcoming of radical doubt is starting on the Cartesian railroad. 

The second fundamental principle of Cartesian philosophy is that philosophy can only be conducted in the light of method. The point here is to undermine "folk philosophy" or the naive trading of opinions that was supposed to be characteristic of traditional philosophy. Instead of lolling around the agora engaging in idle conversation, the modern philosopher rolls up his sleeves and gets results. In Descartes' words, the ancient philosopher only argued the truth; the modern philosopher discovers the truth. 

Descartes' method of choice was that of applied universal doubt, but the selection of the particular method is not so important as the decision that philosophy itself can only begin with method. The latter principle is the distinguishing one of Cartesian philosophy. Since Descartes' time, philosophers have tried various experimental combinations of doubt and method; criticizing each other's doubt as not being real doubt, or each other's method as being poorly applied or wrongly selected, but the presumption that philosophy must begin with some form of doubt and method has been more or less tacitly assumed throughout the history of modern philosophy. 

The contemporary philosophy of mind generally begins in straightforward Cartesian terms with the assertion of method, in this case scientific method. There is nothing wrong with referring to scientific results in philosophy, of course, but what distinguishes the approach as Cartesian is that science is brought in through authoritative assertion rather than argument. This is the way John Searle does it in Mind, A Brief Introduction:

"The view implicit in this book, which I know want to make explicit, is that science does not name an ontological domain; it names rather a set of methods for finding out about anything at all that admits of systematic investigation... There is no such thing as the scientific world. There is, rather, just the world, and what we are trying to do is describe how it works and describe our situation in it. As far as we know, its most fundamental principles are given by atomic physics and, for that little corner of it that most concerns us, evolutionary biology. The two basic principles on which any such investigation as the one I have been engaging in depends on are, first, the notion that the most fundamental entities in reality are those described by atomic physics; and, second, that we, as biological beasts, are the products of long periods of evolution, perhaps as long as five billion years."
So if we are able to discover anything about the mind systematically, it must be through the methods of science, which has already established atomic physics and Darwinian evolution through the application of method. The interesting Cartesian question is: What is the relationship of the subsequent philosophy of mind to the mind that authoritatively established method and its results in the first place? Can the philosophy of mind call into question the mind that established its foundation in method? It is the same question that can be asked of Descartes, and it brings to light the inevitable tendency of Cartesian thought towards dualism.

In his Discourse on Method, Descartes proclaims his method in Part II after a preamble in both Parts I and the beginning of Part II. The method is supposed to cast all prior notions into doubt so as to find the one indubitable starting point of philosophy. But if the method does this, what happens to the cognitive status of the preamble? Is it not cast into doubt as well? The preamble consists of Descartes' reasons for abandoning the traditional approach to philosophy and inventing a new approach. It involves his views on the historical futility of philosophy and the uselessness of what he learned in school. But if we are to doubt all prior notions, should we not also doubt the uselessness of traditional philosophy and the worthlessness of what Descartes learned in school? Should not Descartes doubt that he ever was in school, or that he ever learned philosophy? Such doubt would, of course, undermine Descartes' justification for his revolution in philosophy. It would bring his project to a standstill. In fact, Descartes does not really doubt everything; he doesn't doubt his own appreciation of the history of philosophy or his confidence in establishing a radically new basis for philosophy. His assertion of the Method merely hides his earlier conclusions, which were not established by the method but are nonetheless beyond all doubt. The mind that established those conclusions, and that authorized and created the Method, is itself also hidden from view. But although it is hidden, it still lurks in the background, and will never go away because it is more certain than the Method itself. This is the ghost that reasserts itself in the form of Cartesian dualism; the Cartesian ghost is the true knower who established and underwrites the Method through which all other beings are granted existence. The Cartesian world is a world of beings who are granted existence through method; but, as Descartes realized, the Thinking Being who conducts the Method is not itself granted existence through Method, for it must already be for the Method to happen at all. So the thinking being is not a body or extensive being in the world like all others, it is an immaterial being transcending the world entirely. Thus we arrive at dualism.

The contemporary philosopher of mind follows the same path as Descartes, with the method of empirical science substituted for the method of empirical doubt. But the result is the same. For John Searle, the true "fundamental entities" populating the world are those established by the methods of atomic physics. What of the scientific mind that creates, establishes, and conducts atomic science, and proclaims in its name the true fundamental entities? This Thinking Being is clearly less dubitable than the atomic particles it proclaims, and it is also beyond the reach of the philosophy of mind, for the philosophy of mind starts with the scientific mind behind it as the authoritative voice of method. But although hidden, the scientific mind is still there, and haunts the contemporary philosophy of mind in the form of the Cartesian Ghost. Daniel Dennett won't find the Cartesian Ghost in his Cartesian Theater; he'll find him in the scientist who establishes the scientific results with which Dennett starts the philosophy of mind.

The only way to exorcise the Cartesian Ghost is to stop repeating the spell that calls him forth from the grave: The insistence on doubt and method as first principles of philosophy.