Thursday, December 14, 2017

Von Economo Neurons: The Neural Basis for Self-Awareness, Social Awareness, and the Moral Sense?

In the summer of 1996, I participated in a Summer Institute on the Biology of Human Nature at Dartmouth College, directed by Roger Masters and Robert Perlman.  At the time, I was finishing my book manuscript Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature; and this Summer Institute helped me think through many of the questions for the book, including the fundamental question of the biological basis for the human mind and morality.

We spent one afternoon at a human dissection lab at Dartmouth Medical School, where a professor of neurology guided us in our dissection of two human brains.  We talked about how the human brain compares with the brains of other animals.  And we asked what might make the human brain unique.  As we sliced up these brains, I remember asking myself: Where's the soul?  How does the soul or mind arise in the evolution of the brain?

At one point, the neurology professor suggested that part of the answer as to the uniqueness of the human brain might be special neurons--particularly, "spindle neurons" that seem to facilitate fast communication across distant neural networks in the large human brain, neurons that are found only in certain areas of the human brain and possibly in some other primate brains.  Looking back on this, I assume that the professor had read a recently published article on spindle neurons in the human anterior cingulate cortex (Nimchinsky et al. 1995).

I was intrigued by this, and I wanted to learn more.  But as far as I could tell, there wasn't much research on these spindle neurons.  Only recently, have I discovered that over the past 15 years there has been intense study of these neurons.  Although the conclusions remain very speculative, there is evidence that these neurons provide some of the neural basis for human self-awareness, social awareness, and the moral sense.

As I have often argued on this blog--most recently in response to Roger Scruton's claim that biological science cannot study the human mind--this sort of research shows how evolutionary biologists can explain the evolutionary emergence of the human mind in the primate brain and body, although the inward experience of subjective self-awareness will always remain somewhat mysterious.

A Cartoon of Von Economo (Spindle) Neurons with Only a Single Dendrite Compared with Pyramidal Neurons with Many Dendrites

The mystery is that while each of us has direct access to our own subjective consciousness, we cannot directly observe the conscious experience of anyone else.  So when neuroscientists put someone in a functional MRI brain scanning machine, the scientists can see what parts of the brain light up in the brain images as indicating neural activity, but they cannot see what the person is thinking or feeling, and so they must ask that person to report what he or she was thinking or feeling. The scientists can then infer that the observed patterns of neural activity are somehow correlated with the reported thoughts and feelings.

Scientists have observed that the anterior insular cortex (AIC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) on both sides of the brain are jointly active in most functional imaging studies, and that the AIC supports emotional feelings, self-awareness, and social awareness.  Moreover, they have observed that these two parts of the brain have a high concentration of spindle neurons that are not found anywhere else in the brain, except for small numbers in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

Spindle neurons are also called von Economo neurons (VENs), because Constantin von Economo provided the first comprehensive description of these neurons in 1925 (Seeley et al. 2012).  It was not until the end of the 20th century, however, that comparative neurologists began to study VENs as special neurons that might be part of what explains the evolutionary uniqueness of the human mind.

VENs appear in the brains of only a few species.  They are present in gorillas, bonobos, chimpanzees, and orangutans, although in numbers smaller than for humans.  They are also found in the brains of whales, dolphins, and elephants.  Thus, VENs are associated with species that have large brains, which suggests the possibility that VENs facilitate speedy communication of neural signals over neural networks scattered over large brains.  VENs are also associated with species that have complex social lives and that show mirror self-awareness (recognizing themselves in mirrors).  This supports the speculation that VENs allow animals to self-consciously navigate successfully through complex social interactions.  This fits with the "social brain hypothesis" of Robin Dunbar--the idea that the evolution of large and complex brains arose primarily as an adaptation for the mental challenges of social life (Allman et al. 2010; Bauernfeind et al. 2013; Cauda et al. 2014; Chen 2009; Craig 2015, pp. 217-19; Dunbar and Shultz 2007).  (I have written a post on Dunbar's presentation of his theory at the 2013 conference of the Mont Pelerin Society in the Galapagos Islands.)

Allman et al. (2010, pp. 496-97) have argued that the VENs in the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex are activated either by social error--by some defect in an individual's social network--or by social success--by some satisfying experience in a social network:
". . . For example, these structures are activated by resentment (Sanfey et al. 2003), deception (Spence et al. 2001), embarrassment (Berthoz et al. 2002), and guilt (Shin et al. 2000).  They are also activated by feelings of empathy for the suffering of others, another type of social error signal (Singer et al. 2004).  In mothers, FI in the right hemisphere responds to the crying of distressed infants (Lorberbaum et al. 2002), which is a powerful social error signal.  The anterior insula (including both superior and inferior components) was activated when partners in the prisoner's dilemma game failed to reciprocate cooperative moves made by the subject, which is a type of social error signal (Rilling et al. 2008).  Anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex are also activated by pro-social signals, such as love and trust (Bartels and Zeki 2004; Singer et al. 2004), which suggests that these structures register both negative and positive aspects of the states of social networks.  The responses of FI and LA are parametrically related to how humorous subjects judge cartoons to be; the humorous content of the cartoons typically involved social errors (Watson et al. 2007)."
Here the VENs are associated with the moral emotions of social life such as guilt, shame, resentment, sympathy, love, and a sense of humor.

There are few VENs in human infants at birth.  The number of VENs increases rapidly during the first eight months of life, and they reach adult numbers at about four years of age.  The number is extremely variable between individuals, which might explain individual variability in the acuteness of self-awareness and social awareness (Allman et al. 2011).

Another way to infer the functional activity of VENs is to notice how the degeneration of VENs leads to distinctive kinds of mental disorders.  For example, early behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia arises from the degeneration of VENs in the anterior insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.  People with frontotemporal dementia suffer a breakdown in their social character, showing a loss of self-conscious emotional control, social empathy, and emotional self-awareness.  They become insensitive, erratic, and irresponsible in ways that can destroy their social lives by breaking up their family lives and their professional careers.  This can be seen as additional evidence for seeing the evolution of VENs in humans as part of the evolution of the social brain (Kim et al. 2012).

Seeing people with severe forms of mental disorder like frontotemporal dementia is disturbing, because it raises the question of whether they have lost their souls, from having lost the neural activity that supports the self-awareness, social awareness, and moral sense that constitute the healthy human mind.

VENs seem to be a crucial part of that neural activity, and therefore the evolution of VENs must be part of the emergent evolution of the mind in the primate brain.

Some of my other posts on the evolution of the mind can  be found hereherehere, and here.

Most of the research that I have reported here relies heavily on brain imaging.  I have argued against the fallacy of seeing brain imaging as mind reading herehere, and here.


Allman, John, et al. 2010. "The von Economo Neurons in Frontoinsular and Anterior Cingulate Cortex in Great Apes and Humans." Brain Structure and Function 214:495-517.

Allman, John, et al. 2011. "The von Economo Neurons in the Frontoinsular and Anterior Cingulate Cortex." Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1225:59-71.

Bartels, A., and S. Zeki. 2004. "The Neural Correlates of Maternal and Romantic Love." Neuroimage 21:1155-1166.

Bauernfeind, Amy L., et al. 2013. "A Volumetric Comparison of the Insular Cortex and Its Subregions in Primates." Journal of Human Evolution 64:263-79.

Berthoz, S., et al. 2002. "An fMRI Study of Intentional and Unintentional (Embarrassing) Violations of Social Norms." Brain 125:1696-1708.

Cauda, Franco, et al. 2013. "Functional Anatomy of Cortical Areas Characterized by Von Economo Neurons." Brain Structure and Function 218:1-20.

Chen, Ingfei. 2009. "Brain Cells for Socializing." Smithsonian Magazine, June 2009.

Craig, Arthur D. (Bud). 2015. How Do You Feel? An Interoceptive Moment with Your Neurobiological Self. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dunbar, Robin, and S. Shultz. 2007. "Evolution in the Social Brain." Science 317:1344-1347.

Kim, Eun-Joo, et al. 2012. "Selective Frontoinsular von Economo Neuron and Fork Cell Loss in Early Behavioral Variant Frontotemporal Dementia." Cerebral Cortex 22:251-59.

Lorberbaum, J.P., et al. 2002. "A Potential Role for Thalamocingulate Circuitry in Human Maternal Behavior." Biological Psychiatry 51:431-45.

Nimchinsky, E. A., et al. 1995. "Spindle Neurons of the Human Anterior Cingulate Cortex." Journal of Comparative Neurology 355:27-37.

Rilling, J., et al. 2008. "Neural Correlates of the Affective Response to Unreciprocated Cooperation." Neuropsychologia 46:1265-1266.

Sanfey, A. G., et al. 2003. "The Neural Basis of Economic Decision-Making in the Ultimatum Game." Science 300:1755-1758.

Seeley, William W., et al. 2012. "Distinctive Neurons of the Anterior Cingulate and Frontoinsular Cortex: A Historical Perspective." Cerebral Cortex 22:245-50.

Shin, L. M., et al. 2000. "Activation of Anterior Paralimbic Structures During Guilt-Related Script-Driven Imagery." Biological Psychiatry 48:43-50.

Singer, T., et al. 2004. "Brain Responses to the Acquired Moral Status of Faces." Neuron 41:653-62.

Spence, S. A., et al. "Behavioural and Functional Anatomical Correlates of Deception in Humans." NeuroReport 12:2849-2853.

Watson, K. K., et al. 2007. "Brain Activation During Sight Gags and Language-Dependent Humor." Cerebral Cortex 17:314-24.

Friday, December 08, 2017

The Progressive View of Presidential Leadership in Claremont Trumpism

The current issue of The New York Review of Books (December 21, 2017) has an article by Jacob Heilbrunn on "Donald Trump's Brains" that identifies the Straussian conservatives associated with the Claremont Institute as the intellectuals with the most influence in the Trump administration.  As its name indicates, The Claremont Review of Books has always tried to be the right-wing alternative to The New York Review of Books.  It is remarkable, therefore, that this article in the New York Review includes a large reproduction of the cover of the spring 2016 issue of the Claremont Review, with its picture of Donald Trump, under the title "Lights. Camera. Faction!"

Heilbrunn gives an accurate account of how the West-Coast Straussians of the Claremont Institute have adopted Trump as their leader.  He fails, however, to notice the fundamental contradiction in their position.  He correctly identifies the Claremont argument that America needs to return to the principles of the American constitutional founding that have been eroded through the corrupting influence of American progressive thought beginning with Woodrow Wilson.  But he does not notice how their support for Trump's populist leadership depends upon their adopting the progressive view of the president as a "man of the people" whose leadership must transcend the checks and balances of the founders' Constitution.

Heilbrunn does not comment on the picture of Trump on the cover of the Claremont Review:  Trump has the crown of a monarch on his head!  This suggestion that the American president can and should have the royal prerogative powers of a monarch contradicts the argument of the American founders that the president as constrained by the Constitution does not have monarchic powers (as indicated, for example, in The Federalist number 67).  But this does conform to the claim of the American progressives like Woodrow Wilson that the Constitution was flawed in establishing a "leaderless democracy," and that the president needed to break free of the constitutional system in exercising populist leadership.

Moreover, Heibrunn does not notice that this progressivist view of presidential leadership is defended by Charles Kesler in that spring 2016 issue of the Claremont Review.  Kesler speaks of Trump as a "strong leader" in the tradition of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  Kesler quotes Wilson's claim that "the President is at liberty to be as big a man as he can," and he quotes Wilson's declaration that "the personal force of the President is perfectly constitutional to any extent which he chooses to exercise it."  Kesler observes: "'Personal force'--not far from Trump's praise of high energy, toughness, and strength in the ideal chief executive."

Kesler praises Trump for taking "a tough position in tough terms." After all, Kesler observes, "every republic essentially faces what might be called the Weimar problem.  Has the national culture, popular and elite, deteriorated so much that the virtues necessary to sustain republican government are no longer viable?"  In such times, the nation needs a "strong leader."

Thus, Kesler implies that Trump is doing for the United States what Adolf Hitler did for Germany.  Hitler promised to make Germany great again.  Like Weimar Germany, the United States needs someone "to be as big a man as he can."  After all, as Trump has said, in one of his favorite quotations from Mussolini, "it is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep."

Oddly, in affirming the need for a President acting as a "strong leader" who is free "to be as big a man as he can," Kesler, the West-coast Straussian, seems to be agreeing with Harvey Mansfield, the East-coast Straussian, who has asserted the need for Presidents who  show the "manly nihilism" of "one-man rule."

If this follows from the teaching of Leo Strauss, then Will Altman was right to argue that Strauss was promoting Nazism, because he saw classical liberalism as so decadent that it needed the spirited manliness of Nazism--or  Donald Trump--to save it.  One of the writers at the Journal of American Greatness, in an article on "Paleo-Straussianism," has said of Strauss that "the philosophic mind he admired the most belonged to a Nazi."  Altman has argued that Strauss's praise for Martin Heidegger and his refusal to repudiate Heidegger's Nazism is good evidence for Strauss's acceptance of Nazism, or at least some radically illiberal alternative to the liberal regime.

Altman cited Strauss's comments about how every healthy society must be a "closed society" rather than an "open society."  The Trumpist Straussians seem to conform to this  by agreeing with Trump's claim that to make America great again, America must become a closed society not open to Muslims and immigrants from non-European countries.

And yet, contrary to the Claremont Institute's progressive view of presidential leadership, which would allow Trump "to be as big a man as he can," the first year of Trump's presidency has shown that the constitutional limits on presidential power have frustrated Trump's hopes for one-man rule.  In a recent New York Times article, it is reported: "Mr. Trump's difficult adjustment to the presidency, people close to him say, is rooted in an unrealistic expectation of its powers, which he had assumed to be more akin to the popular image of imperial command than the sloppy reality of having to coexist with two other branches of government."

It is said that in his first few months in office, Trump regularly barked commands at Senators.  But then, in one meeting, Senator Bob Corker snapped back: "I don't work for you, Mr. President."  In another meeting, Trump repeatedly cut in while Senator Mitch McConnell was making an elaborate presentation on the complexity of health care, until McConnell told the President: "Don't interrupt me."

So maybe the constitutional system of checks and balances really does work as it was intended by the framers to frustrate populist demagogues like Trump.  And maybe we will see that when Trump is impeached or forced to resign.

(In this post, I have used some passages from a previous post.)

Monday, December 04, 2017

The Dishonesty and Sophistry of Stephen Meyer's Intelligent Design Theory

That Stephen Meyer is one of the four authors in Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design is fascinating, because these four authors identify themselves as biblical creationists, even though Meyer defends a position--intelligent design theory--that Meyer and its other proponents say is not creationist!

This dishonesty in intelligent design theory--both denying and affirming biblical creationism--is made necessary by the rhetorical strategy of the Discovery Institute, the leading organization promoting intelligent design, where Meyer directs the Center for Science and Culture.

The modern intelligent design movement in America originated with William Jennings Bryan, an evangelical Christian, and a three-time presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, who took the side of the "fundamentalist" Christians, who defended a literal interpretation of the Bible as the inerrant word of God against the "modernist" interpretation of the Bible as compatible with modern science, and particularly the modern science of evolution.  The modernists defended a theistic evolutionism, and Deborah Haarsma's evolutionary creation could be seen as belonging to that modernist tradition of thought.

Continuing the tradition started by Plato, Bryan developed the four arguments that constitute the rhetoric of intelligent design.  (I have elaborated these points in chapter 7 of Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question.)  His scientific argument was that the Darwinian theory of evolution was not truly scientific because it was based not on empirical evidence but on the dogmatic commitment to a materialistic naturalism.  His religious argument was that Darwinism promoted atheism by denying the truth of the Bible, and particularly by denying the biblical teaching that human beings were specially created by God in His image.  His moral argument was that the atheistic materialism of Darwinism was morally corrupting.  His political argument was that teaching Darwinism in the public schools was undemocratic, because it violated the wishes of the majority of parents, and because it denied the moral and religious principles of American political life as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

This fundamentalist attack on Darwinism led to the dramatic trial of John Scopes in 1925 in Dayton, Tennesse.  Scopes was tried for violating a Tennessee law that make it a misdemeanor for public school teachers "to teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man had descended from a lower order of animal."  Bryan acted as a lawyer for the prosecution against Scopes, while Clarence Darrow joined the lawyers defending Scopes.  Scopes was convicted, although his conviction was overturned on a technicality by the Tennessee Supreme Court.  Many states continued to enact laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

The publication in 1961 of The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris sparked a revival of scientific creationism, which stressed Bryan's scientific argument against Darwinism--the claim that the biblical creation story was actually more scientific than Darwinian evolution, and therefore that biblical creation should be taught as science in public school biology classes.

Creationists supported "balanced treatment" laws dictating that creation science be taught as a scientific alternative to Darwinian science in public school biology classes.  Such a state law in Arkansas was struck down as unconstitutional in 1982 in a federal district court case McLean v. Arkansas, because teaching creationism was said to be an unconstitutional establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment.  The state of Arkansas did not appeal this decision, and so it did not reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1987, in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Edwards v. Aguillard, the creationists thought they had a better chance of winning, because the Louisiana law at issue in this case did not mandate the teaching of creation science, but it did require that if evolutionary science was taught in a public school biology class, creation science would have to be taught as an alternative.  In a 7-2 decision (with Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist dissenting), the Court decided that teaching scientific creationism did violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, because the primary intent was to teach a particular religious doctrine.  It also held, however, that "teaching a variety of scientific theories about the origins of humankind to school children might be validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction."

Creationists saw that this left an opening for a new rhetorical strategy: if they adopted Bryan's scientific argument and claimed that creationist science was a strictly scientific position that did not depend on biblical teaching, they might justify teaching creationism in public schools as "validly done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction."  Stephen Meyer and others who established the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture decided that the best way to do this would be to avoid the term "creationism" and, instead, to use the term "intelligent design," so that there would be no explicitly religious language of God as Creator.

The success of this rhetorical strategy depends on covering up the dishonesty of this strategy.  Meyer does this by insisting that his personal belief in biblical creationism is completely separate from his purely secular scientific argument for intelligent design, because the reasoning for intelligent design theory does not depend necessarily in any way on any belief in the supernatural.  And, therefore, he insists, the intelligent design argument of the Discovery Institute is not a deceptive rhetoric strategy of creationists to get around the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard , so that scientific creationism can be taught under the guise of intelligent design in the public school biology classes.

To support this conclusion, Meyer claims that a book by Charles Thaxton, Walter Bradley, and Roger Olsen--The Mystery of Life's Origin--"marked the beginning of interest in the contemporary theory of intelligent design" (198).  And since this book was published in 1984, three years before the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, Meyer observes, this proves that the intelligent design argument was not devised as a disguised form of creationism to evade that decision (179).

Meyer points to the Epilogue of The Mystery of Life's Origin as presenting the "radical alternative" to evolution (198).  But Meyer is silent about the fact that this Epilogue explicitly appeals to the idea of "Special Creation by a Creator beyond the cosmos" (Thaxton et al., 188, 196, 200, 209).  So this book was explicitly a creationist book, in which terms like "intelligent cause" were terms for the Creator.  This is what I mean by Meyer's dishonesty.

Similarly, Meyer is silent about the biblical Creationism in the founding statement of the Center for Science and Culture--"The Wedge Document," which can be found online.  The cover page has a reproduction of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam fresco for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, which makes clear the Creationist doctrine.  The opening line of the document affirms "the proposition that human beings are created in the image of God."  Meyer is identified as the Director of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.  And the primary goal of the Center is declared to be "to defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies," and "to replace materialistic explanation with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God."

Meyer is also silent about the evidence supporting the decision in 2005 in the federal district court case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Distinct that a public school endorsement of an intelligent design textbook--Of Pandas and People--as teaching an alternative to evolutionary science was actually an unconstitutional establishment of creationist religion.  The first versions of this book were written prior to the decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, with the hope that a favorable court decision would allow this book to be taught in public schools as a supplementary textbook promoting creation science.  But when the court decision turned out to be unfavorable to the public-school teaching of creationism, the manuscripts for the book were revised so that the words "creationism" and "creation proponents" were replaced by the words "intelligent design" and "intelligent design proponents."  When the evidence for this was presented at the Dover trial, this made it clear that using the term "intelligent design" was a rhetorical strategy for promoting creationism disguised as a purely secular science.

Even if one sets aside the dishonesty of this rhetorical strategy, and looks at Meyer's substantive arguments for intelligent design theory as a real science, one can see the fundamental sophistry in his reasoning.  Intelligent design reasoning depends completely on the fallacy of negative argumentation from ignorance, in which intelligent design proponents argue that if evolutionary scientists cannot fully explain the step-by-step evolutionary process by which complex living forms arise, then this proves that these complex forms of life must be caused by the intelligent designer.  This is purely negative reasoning because the proponents of intelligent design are offering no positive explanation of their own as to exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer caused these forms of life.

For example, Meyer points out that building a new animal form requires not just new genes and proteins but also integrated networks of genes and proteins called developmental gene regulatory networks (dGRNs).  He then argues that building a new dGRN from a preexisting dGRN requires altering the preexisting dGRN in some way that is likely to be catastrophic.  "Given this, how could a new body plan--and the new dGRN necessary to produce it--ever evolve from a preexisting body plan and dGRN?  Neither mainstream evolutionary biologists, nor evolutionary creationists have answered this question." 

If evolutionists cannot answer this question, Meyer assumes, this proves intelligent design.  But notice that Meyer does not himself answer the question that he poses to the evolutionists.  Exactly how could a new body plan--and the new dGRN necessary to produce it--ever be created by the Intelligent Designer from a preexisting body plan and dGRN?  Meyer cannot answer this question, because he cannot explain exactly where, when, or how the Intelligent Designer achieves all of the miraculous effects attributed to Him by the proponents of intelligent design.  Meyer insists that the proponents of evolutionary science satisfy standards of proof that he and his fellow proponents of intelligent design cannot satisfy, because his sophistical strategy is to put the burden of proof on his opponents, while refusing to accept that burden of proof for himself.

Meyer admits that this argument from ignorance is a fallacy.  But he tries to argue that proponents of intelligent design theory do not really commit this fallacy, because they offer explanations with positive content:
". . . Proponents of intelligent design also offer design because we know that intelligent agents can and do produce specified information-rich systems.  As the information theorist Henry Quastler observed, 'Information habitually arises from conscious activity.'  Indeed, we have positive, experience-based knowledge of an alternative cause sufficient to have produced the effect in question--and that cause is intelligence or mind.  Thus, design theorists infer intelligent design not just because natural processes do not explain the origin of specified information in biological systems, but also because we know, based upon our uniform experience, that intelligent agents, and only intelligent agents, produce this effect.  That is to say, we have positive experience-based knowledge of an alternative cause (intelligence) that is sufficient to produce specified information" (204).
Notice Meyer's subtle use of the fallacy of equivocation here--in the equivocation between human intelligent design and supernatural intelligent design.  We have all had the experience of how human intelligent agents create artificial products by intelligent design.  But it does not follow logically from this that we have all had the experience of how supernatural intelligent agents create artificial products by intelligent design.

Consider a slight alteration in the last sentence in the passage quoted above.  "That is to say, we have positive experience-based knowledge of an alternative cause (human intelligence) that is sufficient to produced specified information."  Well, of course, we would all have to agree with that statement.  But what about this--"That is to say, we have positive experience-based knowledge of an alternative cause (supernatural intelligence) that is sufficient to produce specified information"?  There is no good reason for all of us to agree with that statement.  The fallacy of equivocation here is Meyer's implicit assumption that since we all have "positive experience-based knowledge" of human intelligent agency, we therefore all have "positive experience-based knowledge" of supernatural or divine intelligent agency.  The entire argument for the intelligent design explanation of the universe depends on this fallacious inference.

Consider also this remark by Meyer as illustrating this equivocation:
". . . We would not say, for example, that an archeologists had committed a 'scribe of the gaps' fallacy simply because--after rejecting the hypothesis that an ancient hieroglyphic inscription was caused by a sand storm--he went on to conclude that the inscription had been produced by a human scribe.  Instead, we recognize that the archeologist has made an inference based upon his experience-based knowledge that information-rich inscriptions invariably arise from intelligent causes, not solely upon his judgment that there are no suitably efficacious natural causes that could explain the inscription" (205).
Well, yes, again, we would all agree with this statement.  But what if we inserted "divine scribe" in place of "human scribe"?  That's different.  Because while we have "experience-based knowledge" of how human intelligent causes work, we don't have "experience-based knowledge" of how divine intelligent causes work.  The rhetoric of intelligent design theory depends on our not recognizing the equivocation here.

William Dembski has said: "The point of the intelligent design program is to extend design from the realm of human artifacts to the natural sciences."  This rhetorical strategy hides the fact that while detecting the design of human artifacts is a matter of common observation and logic, detecting the design of divine artifacts is not.

So what would have to be done to turn intelligent design theory--or any other form of creationism--into a real science?  Hugh Ross in Four Views provides a good answer:
"According to famed physicist Paul Davies, anyone presenting a model identifying the designer, citing specific dates, locations, and means of design, showing how their model could be falsified, and making short-range predictions of what scientists should discover (distinct from other models' predictions), has earned a seat at the science research and education tables.  Commitment to such a model opens doors to discussion in public universities.  It also elicits valuable critique from non-Christian research scientists and provides opportunities to draw them toward faith in Jesus Christ" (216).
As long as Meyer and other proponents of intelligent design refuse to offer such a falsifiable model of intelligent design for scientific explanation, their position cannot be taken seriously as real science.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Revelation Cannot Resolve the Creation/Evolution Debate

Unlike  the atheistic religiosity of Romantic conservatives like Roger Scruton, the theistic religiosity of evangelical Christians is grounded in their faith in the supreme authority of God's revelation--the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of nature, the "two books" in which God's revelation can be read by human beings.  Remarkably, however, neither biblical revelation nor natural revelation provides a clear teaching to resolve the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution. 

This becomes evident if one reads the new book edited by J. B. Stump--Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Zondervan, 2017).  Four positions in the creation/evolution debate are represented by four leading proponents: Young Earth creationism (Ken Ham), Old Earth creationism (Hugh Ross), evolutionary creation (Deborah Haarsma), and intelligent design (Stephen Meyer).  This is the first time that these four people have engaged one another directly.  Each of the four has written a chapter, followed by responses from the other three, and then a rejoinder by the chapter's author.

In John 17, Jesus prays to God that all believers will be as one, that they will come to complete unity, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  It seems that Christians give witness to the truth of revelation by showing their agreement about that revelation.  In Stump's "Introduction" to Four Views, he says that a primary purpose of this book was to pursue unity in what revelation teaches about origins (16).  But in his "Conclusion" to the book, he laments that this has not been achieved: "I doubt that readers will come away from this book with the feeling that we are any closer to the goal of Christian unity on the topic of origins" (232).

There are three possible explanations for this.  Either there has been no revelation (through the Bible or through nature) of God's teaching about origins. Or there has been such a revelation, but it's so obscure that it conveys no clear message. Or the revelation does convey a clear message, but human beings have a stubborn bias that blinds them to that clear message.  Hugh Ross says that "since most humans will choose autonomy over submission to God," most humans will refuse to see the clear evidence of God's creative activity in nature (166).  But this atheistic bias cannot explain why faithful Christians--like the four authors in this book--would refuse to recognize the clear teaching of revelation.  So we are left with the first two explanations for why these Christians cannot come to agreement about origins: either there has been no revelation about origins, or the revelation is not clear enough to be understood.  All four of the authors believe that God has sent the Holy Spirit "to guide us persistently to truth" (71, 76, 107), but here the Holy Spirit has failed to guide them to agreement about the revealed teaching concerning origins.

Like the other three authors, Ken Ham (the young earth creationist) sees God's revelation both in Scripture and in nature.  But he thinks the biblical revelation is clearer and more truthful than natural revelation, because after Adam's Fall, God cursed creation, and so "the creation gives a confusing message about the Creator" (19).  The creation reveals the Creator to all people, but it does not teach us how and when God created.  For that, we must go to the Bible (101).

Ham insists that the "clear teaching" of the Bible, particularly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, is that God created everything over six literal days about 6,000 years ago; and therefore the claim of evolutionary science that life and the universe evolved naturally over billions of years is false.  But Ham is silent about the fact that the dating of Creation at 6,000 years ago is not in the Bible.  This date was inferred by Bishop James Ussher, who relied not just on the Bible but also on non-biblical documents.  So this is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible.  Moreover, Ham admits that "most Christians" or "many Christians" do not agree with his interpretation (24, 28, 31, 34, 38, 44, 46).

Ham also claims that the Bible is clear in declaring that God created all the forms of plant and animal life by creating distinct "kinds" (Hebrew min), and that these created kinds correspond to what in modern classification would be called the family (not species or genus) (41, 105).  Thus, new species can arise by natural evolution, but this evolutionary change is within the boundary of a "kind" or "family."  Ham is silent, however, about how, prior to Darwin, "kinds" were interpreted as species.  Once Darwin had shown how species can emerge by natural evolution, some creationists, beginning with Frank Marsh in 1941, began to argue that the Hebrew min was an "imprecise term," and that it should be interpreted not as species but as family.  (I have written about this here.)  Ham has adopted this interpretation without acknowledging that it is an interpretation that is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible.  (I have written a post on Ham's debate with Bill Nye in 2014.)

Against Ham, Hugh Ross (the old earth creationist) insists that the Bible clearly teaches that the six days of creation in Genesis 1 are not literal 24-hour days but "ages"--long expanses of time that correspond to the billions of years for the creation of the universe, the earth, and life that has been confirmed by modern science.  And yet, while disagreeing with Ham about dating, Ross agrees with Ham in reading the Genesis story literally.  So, for example, he agrees with Ham that the human species was originally created with God's creation of Adam and Eve; and he predicts that genetic models will eventually show an initial human ancestral population of 2.  The creation narrative in Genesis is "in perfect accord--both descriptively and chronologically--with the established scientific record" (83).  The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature are in concord.

Ross believes that the evolutionary history of the universe and life show gaps that cannot be explained by purely natural evolutionary processes, because these gaps arise from God's miraculous intervention. For example, there is an unbridgeable gap between human beings and all other animals, because the creation of Adam and Eve was a miraculous work of the Creator.  Similarly, mass extinction and mass speciation events show God's interventions into natural history.

Unlike both Ham and Ross, Deborah Haarsma (the evolutionary creationist) does not see the creation story in Genesis as a literal history of nature's origins, and she does not see gaps in evolutionary history that require miraculous interventions by God to create what cannot arise by natural evolution.  She writes: "Evolutionary creation is the view that God created the universe, earth, and life over billions of years, and that the gradual process of evolution was crafted and governed by God to create the diversity of all life on earth. Thus, evolution is not a worldview in opposition to God but a natural mechanism by which God providentially achieves his purposes" (125).

Compared with the other three positions, Haarsma's evolutionary creation is closest to Darwin's idea of "dual causality": Darwin speaks of the laws of nature as manifested in evolution as "secondary causes," which leaves open the possibility of God's creative power acting through "primary causes" to create the original order of nature itself.  I have written about this here and here.

Haarsma has carefully chosen the term "evolutionary creation" as an alternative to the term "theistic evolution," because the later term often suggests a deism in which the divine First Cause lacks the personal and providential traits of the Biblical God.  Haarsma's Creator chooses to act through the evolutionary laws of nature rather than miraculous interventions, which distinguishes her position from that of Ham and Ross.  But her Creator does engage in those miraculous acts that are necessary for human salvation--such as the incarnation and resurrection of Christ.  Her Creator hears and answers prayers.  Her Creator really is the Biblical God and not just Meyer's Intelligent Designer.  (As I have indicated in another post, Darwin would have disagreed with Haarsma on this point, because he did not see any clear evidence that the Bible was a divine revelation.)

According to Haarsma, Genesis does not answer the how and when questions of science, but it does answer the who and why questions (131).  Much of the Genesis story repeats the creation stories of the ancient Near East that the Israelites would have known.  God accommodated his teaching to these beliefs.  He could have corrected this cosmology, Haarsma observes, but he chose not to do that.  God's only concern was to teach that there is only one God who is the sovereign creator of all, which departed from the ancient origin stories (128-30).  In this interpretation, Haarsma follows the lead of John Walton, who argues that the Bible was written first to the peoples living in the ancient Near East, and therefore we should not expect that the cosmological teachings should correspond with a modern scientific understanding.

But as Ham points out, this "accuses God of using error to teach truth" (156).  If God had corrected the errors of ancient Near Eastern cosmology, wouldn't this have confirmed God's revelation as truth that was beyond human understanding prior to modern science?  If there is no correction of ancient cosmology, does this imply that this is not really a revelation of a truth beyond the human beliefs of that time?

Haarsma might respond that we can see this was a true revelation because it corrects ancient theology in teaching a monotheistic religion of a creator God that was new.  But if we're going to read the Bible within its cultural setting, then we might notice that parts of the Bible seem to accept the polytheistic idea that different peoples have different gods (for example Judges 11:24).  We might then wonder whether Yahweh was originally one of many gods who at some point was elevated to be the one universal and transcendent god of Israel, which is the argument of Thomas Romer in The Invention of God (Harvard, 2015).  So why isn't God a cultural invention?  To deny this, it would help to have a revelation in the Bible of cosmological truths that correct traditional cosmologies in ways that people of the ancient Near East could not have understood, but which might be confirmed by modern science.

To all of this, Stephen Meyer (the intelligent design theorist) responds by arguing that although he personally believes in biblical revelation, he sees that the case for an intelligent designer as an alternative to materialist natural science is best made on purely scientific grounds without any appeal to biblical authority.  He claims that the evidence of science based on our natural observations of the world point to the existence of an intelligent designer to explain the appearance of design in the natural world that cannot be explained plausibly by Darwinian evolutionary science.

There are, however, as I will indicate in my next post, some serious problems with Meyer's argument.

Here, I only want to make the point that the disagreement over origins among these four faithful Christians who have carefully studied both the Bible and science suggests that there has been no divine revelation that clearly resolves the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution.

So what?  What difference does this make for orthodox believing Christians?  Sometimes the authors in this book say the debate over origins is only a "secondary issue" for Christians, because one can be a believing Christian without resolving this debate (44-45, 60).  But then Ham contends that the literal truth of Genesis 1-11 is the "foundation" of all the other doctrines of Christianity--it is "the foundation of the whole rest of the Bible" (18).  If this is so, then those who disagree with Ham's interpretation of Genesis are destroying Christianity.

Ham refers to the famous case of Anthony Flew, the British philosopher who argued for philosophic atheism until he was persuaded to accept the argument for intelligent  design, and he became a deist.  Ham observes that since Flew never accepted the clear revelation in the Bible of God as Creator and Jesus as Savior, he died "as a Christ-rejecting sinner who sadly will spend eternity in Hell" (210).  So those who fail to receive the correct revelation of Biblical creationism will go to Hell!  (My posts on Flew can be found herehere, and here.)

Even if they don't go to Hell, professors at Christian schools who don't receive the correct revelation of creationism might lose their jobs.  For example, the editor of Four Views--Jim Stump--was for many years a respected professor of philosophy at Bethel College in Indiana.  But then the College adopted this declaration as part of their statement of  faith: "We believe that the first man, Adam, was created by an immediate act of God and not by a process of evolution."  Since Stump is a proponent of evolutionary creation, who works for Haarsma's BioLogos, the organization promoting evolutionary creation, he believes that Adam was indeed created by God through a natural process of evolution.  Consequently, he was forced to resign from Bethel College.  (I have written about the Adam controversy here.)

So why are faithful Christians unable to reach any agreement about this question of creation, evolution, and ultimate origins?  If the revelation of God's teaching in the Bible or in nature about origins is untrustworthy or unclear, why should we believe that there has been any revelation at all?

Has the Holy Spirit failed us?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Roger Scruton's Fallacious Argument in "On Human Nature"

In his new book On Human Nature (Princeton University Press), Roger Scruton shows the straw man fallacy in criticizing the biological science of human nature as biological reductionism.  Although some biologists do sometimes sound like absolute reductionists, most biologists--beginning with Charles Darwin himself--recognize that any biological science of human nature must explain the emergent differences in kind between human beings and other animals, for which there is no fully reductionist explanation. One needs to see, however, that these emergent differences in kind are not radical differences in kind that would require some creationist or Kantian metaphysics of transcendence.

In The Descent of Man (Penguin Classics, 2004), Darwin did seem to be a reductionist when he declared that the differences between human beings and the other animals was only a difference in degree and not in kind:
"Some naturalists, from being deeply impressed with the mental and spiritual powers of man, have divided the whole organic world into three kingdoms, the Human, the Animal, and the Vegetable, thus giving to man a separate kingdom.  Spiritual powers cannot be compared or classed by the naturalist: but he may endeavor to shew, as I have done, that the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree. A difference in degree, however great, does not justify us in placing man in a distinct kingdom" (173).
Against this apparent reductionism, Scruton argues that human beings are irreducibly different in kind from other animals: "We are animals certainly; but we are also incarnate persons, with cognitive capacities that are not shared by other animals and which endow us with an entirely distinctive emotional life--one dependent on the self-conscious thought processes that are unique to our kind" (29-30).

Other animals are conscious, Scruton contends, but only human beings are self-conscious in being able to say "I," who thus become persons rather than mere objects.

Other animals can communicate, but only human beings have language, which allows them to tell stories about themselves and their world; and thus they can live in imagined symbolic worlds that they have created for themselves, which includes the religious symbolism of stories about the divine.

Other animals are social beings who can enforce rules of social cooperation, but only human beings have a moral sense by which they judge the conduct of themselves and others as right or wrong, good or evil, just or unjust.

Scruton concedes that all of these distinctively human traits depend upon biological capacities in the brain that are objectively observable and thus open to scientific explanation.  And yet, he argues, the uniquely human experiences of self-conscious awareness, understanding language, and moral judgment are inward subjective experiences of the mind that cannot be outwardly seen through objective observation, and therefore they cannot be studied by the natural science of biology.

In all of this, Scruton assumes a fundamental dualism that originated in nineteenth-century Romanticism, which is conveyed in Wilhelm Dilthey's separation of Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences or sciences of the mind or the humanities) and Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) (12, 22-23, 46).  The natural sciences seek causal explanations of the objectively observable realm of Nature.  The humanities seek interpretive understanding of the subjectively experienced realm of Spirit or Mind, which is the uniquely human realm.  This kind of distinction is assumed in the way academic disciplines are organized in Western culture: the natural sciences and social sciences are separated from the humanities.

Scruton illuminates this distinction through an analogy (30-32).  When painters paint on a canvas, they create physical objects by physical means.  When we look at the painting, we are looking at the physical blobs of paint on the physical canvas.  But if we see a face in the painting, the face is in some manner something more than the physical blobs of paint.  Seeing the face is a subjective experience in our inward mental experience.  Natural science can explain the physical and chemical properties of the painting as objectively observable phenomena.  But our subjective awareness of the face is an inward mental experience that cannot be reduced to the physical and chemical properties of the painting.  Similarly, we might say that persons are to their bodies as seeing the face in the painting is to the physical blobs of paint on the canvas. 

Personhood is an emergent feature of the human organism that depends on the biological capacities of the organism but without being fully reducible to those biological capacities.  The brain scientist can explain the natural physical and chemical properties of the brain that make personal subjectivity possible, but this cannot fully explain the subjective experience to which a person has direct access, but which is invisible to the scientific observer.  We can design machines that paint pictures, but we cannot assume that those machines see faces in their pictures.  Thus, the human person is an emergent entity rooted in the human animal body but belonging to a higher realm of reality beyond biology.

Emergence occurs when quantitative differences pass over a critical threshold of complexity to become qualitative differences: differences of degree become differences in kind.  So, for example, with rising temperature, ice becomes water, and then water becomes steam.  Scruton concludes: "What we are trying to describe in describing personal relations is revealed only on the surface of personal interaction.  The personal eludes biology in just the way that the face in the picture eludes the theory of pigments.  The personal is not an addition to the biological: it emerges from it, in something like the way the face emerges from the colored patches on a canvas" (41).

The straw man fallacy in Scruton's argument is in his false assumption that biologists must be reductionists who fail to see the need for the idea of emergence as part of their scientific explanation of subjective mental experience.  In fact, as I have argued in various posts (here, here, here, and here), many biologists, beginning with Darwin, have recognized biological emergence.

Despite Darwin's explicit statement that humans differ only in degree, not in kind, from other animals, he implicitly recognized all the differences in kind that are stressed by Scruton.  That is to say, that Darwin recognized that human beings have some traits that other animals do not have at all.

Darwin noted that self-consciousness is uniquely human: "It may be freely admitted that no animal is self-conscious, if by this term it is implied, that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth" (105).  Morality is also uniquely human: "A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them.  We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity. . . . man . . . alone can with certainty be ranked as a moral being" (135).  And language is uniquely human: "The habitual use of articulate language is . . . peculiar to man" (107).

Darwin could implicitly affirm such emergent differences in kind without affirming any radical differences in kind.  Emergent differences in kind can be explained by natural science as differences in kind that naturally evolve from differences in degree that pass over a critical threshold of complexity.  So, for example, we can see the uniquely human capacities for self-consciousness, morality, and language as emerging from the evolutionary expansion of the primate brain, so that at some critical point in the evolution of our ancestors, the size and complexity of the brain (perhaps particularly in the frontal cortex) reached a point where distinctively human cognitive capacities emerged at higher levels of brain evolution that are not found in other primates.  With such emergent differences in kind, there is an underlying unbroken continuity between human beings and their hominid ancestors, so there is no need to posit some supernatural intervention in nature that would create a radical difference in kind in which there is a gap with no underlying continuity.

Scruton agrees with this in that human uniqueness emerges from small steps in evolution without any need for positing some separate miraculous origin for human beings: there is "no impassible gap" (66).

Scruton and Darwin also agree about what Scruton calls "the mystery of the subjective viewpoint" (135).  We can see the body through outward observation.  But the mind is invisible, and we can know it directly only by our own inward experience of mental awareness; and therefore we can only infer mental experience in other human beings or other animals by interpreting their outward movements as evidence of inward subjectivity similar to our own.  So, as Aquinas said, "the internal passions of animals can be gathered from their outward movements."

Darwin recognizes "the impossibility of judging what passes through the mind of an animal" (105).  But he believes that scientists can make reasonable inferences about the invisible subjectivity of animal minds from careful observation of their bodily movements and bodily expression of emotions. And, of course, this is what ethologists do when they infer animal psychology from observational and experimental studies of animal behavior.  Ethologists thus engage in scientific "mind reading."  And, as we have seen in some posts (here), some ethologists see experimental evidence for other animals having a "theory of mind," so they read the minds of other animals.  Oddly, Scruton ignores this when he asserts that interpreting animal minds is not part of science, but belongs only to the humanities and to ordinary folk psychology.

Scruton also ignores the scientific study of what Darwin called the "mental individuality" of animals (Darwin, 106), which includes the study of "animal personality" (a topic for various posts here and here).  Scruton does admit that other animals show "shallow individuality," although he insists that only human beings show "deep individuality" (80-82).

And while Scruton denies that other animals have morality, he does admit that apes show "near equivalents of punishment, appeasement, and reconciliation" (84).

If it is possible for biological scientists to study the mind--the Geist--then they can study those uniquely human traits that arise through mental subjectivity--self-consciousness, morality, and language--and thus biology can account for the fullness of human nature as including both body and mind.  If this is true, then biology includes the Geisteswissenschaften as well as the Naturwissenschaften.

And this biological study of human psychology includes the biological study of religious psychology as rooted in the evolved human propensity for detecting intelligent agency: just as we read the invisible minds of other human beings and other animals, we read the invisible mind of God.  Our natural desire for religious understanding is rooted in our natural desire for understanding invisible minds.  Evolutionary psychologists can agree on this without agreeing on whether this religious psychology points to the real existence of a divine mind, which has come up in posts (here).

In his affirmation of atheistic religiosity, Scruton affirms religious longing as part of human nature grounded in evolved human psychology, but without affirming the doctrinal truth of that natural religion.

Scruton's atheistic but religious conservatism resembles the position of other conservatives such as Peter Augustine Lawler, who have tried to argue that evolutionary science provides a true, but only partially true, account of human nature.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Atheistic Religiosity in Kantian Conservatism: Roger Scruton on Wagner's "Ring" Cycle

Tomorrow, I will see the new production of Richard Wagner's Die Walkure at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.  This is the second of the four operas in Wagner's Ring cycle.  In the spring of 2020, Lyric will have performances of all four of the operas in one week, so that audiences can sit through all 17 hours of the cycle over a few days, as Wagner originally intended.

As I have indicated in my previous posts on Wagner (here, here, here, and here), I regard Die Meistersinger as his best opera, because it shows how a free society with only a limited "night-watchman state" can foster the full range of human virtue, from the low to the high, including the virtuous cultural activities of art, science, and philosophy, and thus it provides no support for Hitler's Nazi statism.  By contrast, Wagner's Ring cycle manifests the Romantic conception of art as appealing to the Dionysian emotions of an atheistic religiosity, which was so attractive to Hitler and the Nazis.

It is this Wagnerian art of atheistic religiosity that appeals to conservative philosophers like Roger Scruton, as is evident in his book The Ring of Truth: The Wisdom of Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" (Allen Lane, 2016).  Scruton is one of the preeminent theorists of political conservatism; and like many conservatives in Great Britain and the United States, he thinks a religious attitude is essential for a healthy moral order, and therefore that traditional religious experience needs to be defended against a Darwinian science that claims to explain the place of human beings in the natural world without any reference to a transcendent realm beyond nature.  And yet--again like many other conservatives--Scruton does not believe in the literal truth of Christianity or any other religion.  He wants to have a sense of the sacred that comes from religious emotions, but without the need to believe any religious doctrines.  We know that God is dead, but we also know that human beings need to satisfy their religious longings for transcendence and redemption.  That's the truth that Scruton sees in Wagner's Ring cycle.

Scruton traces that truth back to Kant and to the German philosophers in the nineteenth century whose thinking was shaped by Kant's idealism: "Kant begat Fichte, who begat Hegel who begat Feuerbach; and Feuerbach began both Wagner and Marx" (16).

I cannot embrace the atheistic religiosity of Kant, Wagner, and Scruton, because this line of thinking is incoherent self-deception, and because it led to the Nazi philosophers of the 1930s.  (I have written a post on the Kantian idealism of the Nazi philosophers.)

Scruton thinks that Wagner saw the "bleak truth" that "we are here on earth without an explanation and that if there is meaning, we ourselves must supply it" (36).  "The core religious phenomenon, Wagner believed, is not the idea of God, but the sense of the sacred. . . . religion contains deep truths about the human psyche; but these truths become conscious only in art, which captures them in symbols.  Religion conceals its legacy of truth within a doctrine.  Art reveals that truth through symbols" (40).  In other words, "Wagner sees his art as expressing and completing our religious emotions.  Art shows the believable moral realities behind the unbelievable metaphysics" (41).  Religion is an "elaborate fiction," because the gods exist only in human imagination, but in Wagner's imaginative art, the gods symbolize truthfully the spiritual needs of our human psychology (56).

Our deepest spiritual need is redemption from a world that has no meaning.  And Scruton believes that Wagner's Ring cycle satisfies our human longing for redemption.  For Scruton, this is clearest in two parts of the Ring.  First, in Act 3 of Die Walkure, which begins with the famous ride of the Valkyries.  In the previous act, Siegmund has been killed, and Brunnhilde has taken his wife Sieglinde onto the saddle of her horse to save her from Wotan.  Sieglinde sees no reason to live.  But Brunnhilde tells her that she must live to save the child--the future hero Siegfried--whom she carries in her womb.  The music introduces the motif of Siegfried as hero followed by a passionate climax with the motif of Sieglinde's blessing, which is often called the "redemption motif."  This motif is not heard again until we hear it at the very end of the cycle as the last music we hear at the end of Gotterdammerung ("The Twilight of the Gods").  So, the meaning of the whole Ring cycle, it seems, is the artfully aroused emotion of redemption.

I must say that when my wife and I saw the complete Ring cycle at the Lyric Opera in April of 2005--four operas over six days--the closing music did leave us with an ecstatic feeling that might be identified as redemption.  (Well, okay, we were also feeling exhausted relief that we had finally made it through the 17 hours of Wagnerian opera!)

But then, as Scruton admits, anyone who wonders about what this really means must ask: redemption from what, to what, by whom?  The Christian will answer: redemption from our sinful human condition, to an eternal life of bliss with God, by the grace bestowed on us by Jesus Christ.  C. S. Lewis conveyed this thought in his account of his early life in Surprised by Joy.  He remembered the first time he saw a book with the title Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods will illustrations of Wagner's Ring cycle.  He became totally taken over by Wagner and Norse mythology.  He tried to write a heroic poem on the Wagnerian version of the Nibelung story.  Here he felt what he called "the stab of Joy" that would later be fulfilled in his conversion to Christianity.  Wagner's Ring cycle was a pointer to something else--to the Joy that only Christians can know.

But since Wagner and Scruton deny the truth of these Christian doctrines, this kind of redemption is not possible for them.  The only redemption that can come through Wagner's operas is the artistically induced feeling of redemption, which does not require any belief in the literal truth of Christian redemption.

I think Nietzsche was right--during the middle period of his writing career, when he freed himself from his Dionysian enchantment with Wagner--in saying that this is all a magician's trick that gives us the fake emotions of a fake redemption.  It's entertainment for atheists who want religious feelings without religious doctrines.

Scruton restates Nietzsche's objections to Wagner (296-99).  But, oddly, Scruton doesn't even attempt to refute those objections.  His only response to Nietzsche is to point out that in his last years Nietzsche revived the love for Wagner that he had had earlier in his life.  "Clearly then, his attacks on Wagner did not cure him of the enchantment, and we are left wondering how sincerely he meant them" (299).  Scruton then passes on without any further thought about what this reveals about Nietzsche's struggle with Wagner's atheistic religiosity.

In many posts (some of which can be found hereherehereherehere, and here ), I have argued that Lou Salome (the woman who turned down Nietzsche's proposal of marriage) understood Nietzsche better than all of the other commentators on Nietzsche.  (I have also written about this in my Nietzsche chapter in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker.

Salome saw that Nietzsche was deeply moved by religious longings that made Wagner's art appealing to him, that he escaped from this only in the middle period of his writing (particularly in Human, All Too Human), when he adopted a scientific view of the world, which was the most intellectually defensible position that he ever took, but then in his later writings, he returned to the religious longings that were expressed in his attempt to create a new Dionysian religion. 

In his middle period, Nietzsche understood how the need for redemption had become so strong for human beings that even those who believe themselves to be atheists are moved by the religious desire to find some transcendent satisfaction through art.  Those who might otherwise be considered atheistic free spirits enjoy music like Wagner's operas that stirs religious feelings without requiring belief in religious doctrines.  Romantic art in general shows "the magic of religious feeling" as the modern artist appeals to those who have given up religious beliefs but who still yearn for religious ecstasy through art.  (In his essay "Nietzsche on Wagner," Scruton jumps from Nietzsche's early writings to his later writings, while passing over in silence Nietzsche's middle writings.)

In his middle period, Nietzsche defended a Darwinian science of evolution according to which "everything has evolved."  By Nietzsche's Darwinian account, morality does not elevate human beings beyond the natural world, because human morality arises as a natural development of animal nature.  There is no need for a redemptive transcendence of nature to give meaning to human life, because life, even in its mortality and contingency, is inherently good in its intrinsic purposefulness without any need for cosmic purposefulness.  (I have suggested that this thought is conveyed in Wallace Stevens' poem "Sunday Morning": "Death is the mother of beauty.")

Scruton occasionally comes close to saying something like this, but then he insists on the need for redemption in a way that renders his thought incoherent.  Explaining Wagner's operatic art, he observes:
". . . it takes the turning points of human life and frames them as religious sacrifices--it is a 'making sacred' of those moments when we must pay the full cost of being what we are.  It is not absurd to give to these moments the name that Wagner clung to when attempting to summarize their power--Erlosung, or redemption.  He did not mean that word in its Christian sense, as invoking the promise and the purchase of a better life to come.  He meant it as a description of the religious rite itself, and hence of the moment of transcendence on the tragic stage: the moment when life is shown to be intrinsically worthwhile, exactly when it is engulfed by the ambient nothingness" (302).
But if we know that life is "intrinsically worthwhile," so that we have no need for "the promise and the purchase of a better life to come," then it makes no sense to say that life's worth depends on transcendence, if only the fake transcendence of operatic emotion.  Moreover, it's hard to see how such fake transcendence works if we know it's fake.

I suppose that Scruton would say that it's not completely fake, because the longing for transcendence in human nature is a real phenomenon of human psychology.  That's his claim in his new book On Human Nature, which I will take up in my next post.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Lockean Social Contract in Ancient Mesopotamia

In various posts in recent years, I have argued that John Locke's evolutionary history of politics has been largely confirmed by the modern research of evolutionary anthropologists and archaeologists. 

Locke was correct in seeing that most human beings throughout history have lived in a state of nature in which they were free, equal, and independent.  They lived in families in small bands of hunter-gatherers, hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants.  They organized their social lives through customary laws of mutual cooperation, and they settled conflicts through informal negotiation and arbitration, with each individual having a natural right to punish those who violated the customary laws. 

In time of war, they might appoint someone as a temporary chief to lead them in war.  In time of peace, some prominent men might act as informal leaders.  But they resisted any attempt by anyone to exercise dominant rule over them as an violation of their natural freedom and autonomy, and so they had no government.  Despite the occasional wars between bands, this state of nature without government was generally a state of peace. 

But then, a few thousand years ago, as human beings moved from hunting and gathering to farming--harvesting domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals--it became harder to settle disputes peacefully.  They consented to a government that would act as a common superior over them in making, judging, and executing laws.  But those rulers who abused their governmental powers in oppressing their people rather than securing their natural rights could provoke popular resistance and rebellion, which could overthrow a tyrannical government and lead to establishing a new government that seemed more likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Locke saw evidence for all this in the anthropological history of the New World, because he believed that "in the beginning all the world was America," and that "the Kings of the Indians in America" is "still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe" (Second Treatise, paras. 49, 108).  Archaeological studies over the past two centuries suggest that the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to settled farming villages and then to cities with centralized states occurred for the first time in Mesopotamia between 5,200 BCE and 3,200 BCE.

Does this new history of the earliest states in Mesopotamia confirm or deny Locke's history?  James C. Scott's new book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States helps to answer this question, because he provides a survey of how new evidence from the fields of prehistory, archaeology, ancient history, and anthropology brings into view how states arose in ancient Mesopotamia for the first time in human history.

Beginning around 5,200 BCE, there is evidence in Mesopotamia for small towns of sedentary foragers, farmers, and pastoralists who manage their collective affairs and trade with the outside world.  So even after the development of agriculture, with the farming of domesticated plants and the herding of domesticated animals, human beings still lived in societies without states.

If one is looking for those attributes of "stateness" that point to "territoriality and a specialized state apparatus: walls, tax collection, and officials" (Scott, 118), then Uruk was the first state.  A city wall was first built at Uruk around 3,200 BCE.  By then Uruk was the largest city in the world, with a population somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000.  Following the model of Uruk, roughly twenty other city-states arose in the Mesopotamian alluvium.  As Scott indicates, each city was small enough that one could walk from the center to the outer boundary in a day.

Scott is best known for a series of books (Scott 1976, 1998, 2009, 2012) that shows an anarchist scorn for organized state societies, based on fixed-field agricultural production, as a plague upon humanity--bringing slavery, conscription, taxes, forced labor, epidemics, and warfare.  For Scott, this explains why many people have rightly chosen to remain stateless; and in doing so, they have shown how ordinary people are capable of organizing their lives through spontaneously cooperative enterprises without any need for oppressive regimentation by the central planning of a state bureaucracy.  Although libertarians and libertarian anarchists have pointed to Scott's books as supporting their opposition to statism, Scott himself rejects libertarian anarchism in favor of the socialist anarchism of those like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin. 

You can see this in a YouTube video of a debate between Scott, David Friedman, and Robert Ellickson, with Ellickson speaking for classical liberalism as opposed to the anarchism of Scott and Friedman.
Some of my posts on anarchism can be found herehereherehere, and here.

Although Locke was not an anarchist, he shows an anarchist propensity in his account of the state of nature as showing that life in stateless societies is natural for human beings, that there have been no governments throughout most of human history,  and therefore formal governmental institutions are artificial creations of human will that have arisen only recently in human history. 

The evidence surveyed by Scott confirms this line of thought in Locke by showing that indeed most of human evolutionary history, for hundreds of thousands of years, has been a history of stateless societies without government in bands of hunter-gatherers.  About 7,000 years ago, some people in Mesopotamia formed settled villages with farming and herding, but they still organized their social life without a state apparatus.   It was only about 5,000 years ago that the first states began to appear first in Mesopotamia.  Moreover, Scott shows, even after the emergence of states, most human beings continued to live outside the state as "barbarians."  Even at the time of Locke's birth in the seventeenth century, a majority of the human population around the world was probably living in stateless societies.

If this supports Locke as correct about the state of nature, then this sustains Locke's fundamental claim that human beings by nature have the ability and propensity to live in the natural and voluntary associations of stateless societies without centralized governmental rule.  If this is so, then this also supports Locke's claim that human beings naturally can and will withdraw their obedience to a government that they see as oppressive in depriving them of their liberty and failing to secure their lives and property: they are naturally inclined to assert their natural right to resist and rebel against despotic government.  It's in this way that we can understand all government to depend upon the consent of the individuals subject to its rule.  This is what has been called the social contract theory of government, although Locke himself does not use the term "social contract."

Scott, however, seems to deny that this is true for the history of the earliest states in Mesopotamia.  In Against the Grain, he casually dismisses Locke's social contract theory in one sentence: "If the formation of the earliest states were shown to be largely a coercive enterprise, the vision of the state, one dear to the heart of such social-contract theorists as Hobbes and Locke, as a magnet of civil peace, social order, and freedom from fear, drawing people in by its charisma, would have to be reexamined."  But then in the next two sentences after this passage, Scott seems to concede Locke's point that people can and will resist an oppressive state: "The early state, in fact, as we shall see, often failed to hold its population; it was exceptionally fragile epidemiologically, ecologically, and politically and prone to collapse or fragmentation.  If, however, the state often broke up, it was not for lack of exercising whatever coercive powers it could muster" (26-27, 29).

"Walls make states," Scott observes.  And while walls might protect a city's people from invaders, the walls should also be seen as keeping the city's people inside--walls demonstrate "that the flight of subjects was a real preoccupation of the early state" (139).  Repeatedly, Scott notes that the records of the Mesopotamian states are full of evidence of people running away from their states--slaves running away from their enslavement, soldiers running away from their conscripted service in war, taxpayers running away from oppressive taxation, laborers running away from coerced labor, and people generally running away from cities racked with famine and contagious diseases (150-64, 205-218).  Scott also notes the evidence for frequent rebellions.

When rulers were threatened by external invaders or internal enemies, the rulers were inclined to increase their extraction of resources from their people--increased confiscation of grain, increased taxation, increased conscription of laborers and soldiers.  This increased exploitation of the people would provoke flight or rebellion that could bring the disintegration of the state.  Commonly, historians describe this as a "collapse" of the state following by "dark ages" of stateless barbarism.  But as Scott indicates, this language assumes an unjustified bias in favor of the state.  A "collapse" of the state that brings a "dark age" might be better described as "a bolt for freedom by many state subjects and an improvement in human welfare" (209, 255).

Scott doesn't reflect on how this "bolt for freedom" shows the people withdrawing their consent from the state, which confirms Locke's account of how people through resistance and rebellion against governmental tyranny reclaim their natural freedom.

Seth Richardson (2010, 2016) has noted the evidence that over 3,000 years of Mesopotamian political life, there were hundreds of rebellions.  He has also noted how these rebels were described by the state authorities: "characterizations of rebels as the violators of contracts (mitgurtu, rikistu) necessarily implied that some bilateral obligations were incumbent on the state through the framework of the social contract" (2016, 35).  The Akkadian words mitgurtu and rikistu denote agreement, consent, contract, or treaty.  Richardson suggests: "Those motifs relating to violation-of-contract strike a familiar chord to us moderns, since they suggest the premise of a social contract between ruler and ruled, or at least the existence of legal treaties and loyalty oaths" (2010, 9).

Not only in ancient Mesopotamia, but also throughout the ancient Mediterranean world--the Near East, Greece, and Rome--one sees the same pattern of rebellions against the state in which rebels assert their natural freedom from oppression, and thus confirm Locke's understanding of government as dependent on the consent of the governed (Howe and Brice 2016).


Howe, Timothy, and Lee Brice, eds. 2016. Brill's Companion to Insurgency and Terrorism in the Ancient Mediterranean. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Richardson, Seth. 2010. "Writing Rebellion Back Into the Record: A Methodologies Toolkit." In Seth Richardson, ed., Rebellions and Peripheries in the Cuneiform World, 1-27. New Haven, CN: American Oriental Society.

__________. 2016. "Insurgency and Terror in Mesopotamia." In Howe and Brice 2016, 31-61.

Scott, James C.  1976.  The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  2009.  The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

__________.  2012.  Two Cheers for Anarchism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

__________.  2017.  Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.