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What choices we make as human beings will only affect our future only if, in fact, our choices can affect our future. This sounds like an empty and meaningless tautology, except that that we can define circumstances in which human action makes no difference at all (and this apart from any consideration of freewill and determinism, which I will not take up here, but which is relevant).
1. If it is the case that human beings are doomed despite our best efforts, if, e.g., some cosmic catastrophe is heading our way, then any action we take is pointless.
That is to say, whether human action is free or determined, if, for example, a massive, sterilizing gamma-ray burst is heading toward Earth at this moment, nothing that we do, whether free or determined, will save us. We are all, in this or some similar case, dead men walking.
At the other end of the scale of hope and despair we must consider this possibility:
2. If it is the case that human beings will survive no matter what, then any action we take (or fail to take) is pointless.
One might regard this second example — human survival regardless of human action — as an optimistic formulation, but in so far as it denies the role of human agency in securing the future of humanity it is, in a certain sense, as hopeless as the first example above. The only example of human survival regardless of human action that I can think of offhand is the case of a divine providence that will maintain humanity in existence despite anything that human beings might do (again, whether free or determined) that might, under other circumstances, prejudice our future survival.
While these formulations — extinction or survival regardless of human action — are superficially similar, they are in fact quite different.
There are any number of large-scale cosmic catastrophes that could spell the doom of humanity or of all life on Earth, and there is little that we could do at our present technological threshold to change this outcome. However, it is difficult to imagine anything other than supernatural agency that could sustain human existence without respect to human agency, so that the first of the two examples above — human extinction regardless of human action — has a naturalistic basis, and therefore can be formulated according to the methodological naturalism of science. In the second of the two examples above — human survival regardless of human action — has not naturalistic basis and therefore cannot be approached scientifically.
The possibility of ongoing human survival is predicated upon a continuing existential viability that is responsive to contingent and changing circumstances; in other words, there is no way to see a clear path to the survival of humanity (or our successor species), though there may be such a path. Human agents respond to these contingent and changing circumstances with contingent and changing actions, and these actions have the possibility of ensuring existential viability for the moment, but both circumstances and actions are always evolving and so the outcome is never assured.
Thus there is an asymmetry in the fate of humanity: our doom can be all but assured, while our welfare is always tenuous and subject to the vicissitudes both of nature and ourselves, as long as we take a naturalistic view of the human condition. In so far as we study the human condition scientifically under the aspect of methodological naturalism, there is an asymmetry in human fate.
There is a simple reason for the asymmetry of fate: existence is tenuous. As I have written previously, to exist is to be subject to existential risk. It is only when our existence is no longer at issue — i.e., after we have died — that we are no longer subject to risk. Death and extinction have a high degree of permanence; life and existence are impermanent and ephemeral.
We seek to manage the impermanence and emphemerality of life and the world though our agency. Even those who have a non-naturalistic world-view will seek to placate unseen powers in the attempt to secure a better outcome for humanity. We act as though our actions make a difference, which implies a visceral belief in a world in which our actions at least in part shape our destiny.
Our choices are only meaningful where they make a difference. Where our choices make no difference whatsoever, they also cease to have meaning. That we do, in fact, find meaning in the world implies that our choices do make a difference.
In a post on The Place of Bilaterial Symmetry in the History of Life I made a lot of assumptions that I did not attempt to spell out in detail or make fully explicit. It will be obvious to any reader that my perspective is strictly naturalistic. Thinking about this, I realized that certain counterfactuals are implicit within any thorough-going naturalistic account of the world. At present I would like to try to go a little further into the particular constitution of human beings from a naturalistic point of view and how it relates to the forces that have shaped us and how we have shaped our civilization.
While the complete formalization of my exposition of body plans conducive to the emergence of civilization — or even the emergence of a peer civilization, which would be an industrial-technological civilization not of specifically human origin — must await a systematic exposition of a metaphysics adequate to a naturalistic understanding of humanity’s place in the universe (and no such metaphysics yet exists) there remains much that can be said short of a systematic treatment.
It is of the essence of naturalism, understood as a philosophical position, to be tolerant of variables that are to be charged to the contingent nature of history and all that is shaped by history, not excepting our minds and our bodies. Given different historical antecedents, we might have turned out differently. The particulars of our constitution are not essential to our being sentient, rational beings, although it is not clear (and it may be quite difficult to make clear) exactly where the line is to be drawn between the merely contingent and the essential in our constitution.
Just as a defender of libertarian free will may argue that, whatever action an individual did in fact that, that individual could have taken a different action, so too a naturalistic understanding of ourselves and our civilization would argue that, however in fact we turned out, and how the civilization we have built turned out, it could have been different. This is not because we believe the world has free will that it can exercise (though there are perhaps some philosophers who would argue for this), but rather that there is nothing necessary or inevitable in our constitution, and nothing necessary or inevitable about the actions that have been taken that have resulted in the civilization that we have today.
In one case, that of the emergence of our species, necessity and inevitability are ruled out by contingent matters of fact. In the other case, that of the emergence of civilization and the other products of human activity, necessity and inevitability are ruled out by the contingent actions of individual human beings, which actions are subject to free will if one understands at least some human actions to be determined by volition (as I do). In the case that one denies freewill, then the necessity and inevitability of civilization is ruled out by the same contingent matters of fact that made our species what it is.
In Christiaan Huygens’ book Cosmotheoros — which was essentially the first treatise on astrobiology — we find an explicit recognition of the contingencies that shape our bodies and the resultant counterfactuals to the anthropomorphic norm:
"For ’tis a very ridiculous opinion, that the common people have got among them, that it is impossible a rational Soul should dwell in any other shape than ours. And yet as silly as ’tis, it has been the occasion of many Philosophers allowing the Gods no other shape; nay, the Foundation of a Sect among the Christians, that from hence have the name of Anthropomorphites. This can proceed from nothing but the Weakness, Ignorance, and Prejudice of Men; as well as that too of humane Figure being the handsomest and most excellent of all others, when indeed it’s nothing but a being accustomed to that figure that makes us think so, and a conceit that we and all other Animals naturally have, that no shape or colour can be so good as our own.”
We find a similar appreciation of contingency in Stephen J. Gould, who held that natural history is:
The role that Christiaan Huygens and Gould attribute to contingency in the constitution of the human frame may also be attributed to the frame of our minds and all that our minds have produced.
Even those who have had no great respect for rationality have, in the past, fetishized human rationality, treating it as a disembodied mind that happens, by pure chance, to become lodged in a body. Thus man is called the “rational animal,” which makes rationality the differentia for man within the genus of animalia.
This vulgar formulation of mind-body dualism has been occasionally supported with arguments from Descartes and the Cartesian tradition, but this isn’t what Descartes actually said when he formulated his mind-body distinction, but this is the lesson that many took away from Cartesian dualism, and it is this view recent philosophers of mind have strongly reacted against.
This reaction has also taken place in anthropology. In crude terms, those who study human development once assumed that human beings descended from a “smart ape,” whereas now the view is more that human beings descended from a bipedal ape, leaving hands free to manipulate the environment, and it was this bipedal ape using its hands to help it survive, that benefited from increasing brain size and increasing cognitive capacity.
As I said, this is the crude version. Our earliest primate ancestors probably already had binocular color vision, which already requires a brain of significant size. Being able to recognize the ripeness of fruit by sight is a survival advantage, while swinging through the branches of trees is aided by binocular vision which gives depth perception.
Nevertheless, even the crude version has something to teach us, as it makes us more keenly aware of bringing a developmental perspective to mind, and the role that the body plays in the development of mind. Here the idea of the embodiment of mind takes on its full significance. We have the mind of minds that emerge from primates and the lifeways of primates. The more distant a non-human body is from primates and their lifeways, the more distant will be the constitution of the mind.
Just as the role that Christiaan Huygens and Gould attribute to contingency in the constitution of the human body and, by extension, to the human mind, so too this contingency may also be attributed to the frame of our civilization, which is in turn an extension of the human mind.
Anthropogenic industrial-technological civilization (AITC) — which might also be called Tellurian civilization (“Tellurian” being an adjective that means “earth originating”) — is but a single exemplification of industrial-technological civilization, and that a wider knowledge of the universe might well provide us with counter-examples to our own civilization. Such counter-examples would be close enough to our own civilization that we would recognize such civilization as peers to our own civilization, but would also be different in ways attributable to historical contingency.
Just as Carl Sagan observed that a single instance of non-terrestrial life would “deprovincialize” biology, so too a single instance of non-terrestrial civilization would “deprovincialize” the social sciences. Interestingly, we do not as of yet have a science of civilization — the closest discipline we have to a science of civilization is that of history — so there is not yet a science of civilization to deprovincialize.
It seems likely that different body plans of an intelligent organism would result in different forms of civilization; we need not assert that these different forms of civilization will be absolutely different, because it is likely that, in some respects, they would closely resemble (or overlap with) some of the forms of civilization human beings have put into practice. Both biologies and civilizations are likely to overlap and intersect, exemplifying Wittgensteinian family resemblances.
If, for example, invertebrate organisms, or organisms with an exoskeleton, attained intelligence and self-consciousness, and created the kind of civilization that could be built by such bodies and which would enable the growth in the numbers of such organisms (and those attendant organisms such intelligent beings would domesticate), the institutions and infrastructure of such a civilization would, of necessity, be distinct from the institutions and infrastructure of civilization that serves the needs of vertebrates.
In the same way that molecular phylogeny has made it possible to trace life back to its earliest origins and from there understand the history of the repeated branching of the tree of life, a phylogeny of mind and civilization will someday make it possible for us to understand what is truly fundamental and essential about our bodies in relation to our minds, and our minds in relation to our civilization.
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On my other blog I have posted a series of attempts to define naturalism, including:
I began with the idea that, “Naturalism is on a par with materialism, and philosophically is to be treated as far as possible like materialism,” and went on to suggest that we can characterize naturalism in parsimonious terms, following our initial formulations as far as they will go, and only appealing to anything that transcends these original formulations when that initial formulation breaks down. In this way it makes sense to speak of deflationary naturalism.
But what is that which transcends our materialistic, mechanistic, or quantitative formulations? The answer is this: Mind. Thus we can formulate naturalism as materialism plus whatever is required to account for the mind. This immediately raises the familiar spectre of Cartesian dualism.
If you are an eliminativist materialist, there’s no problem. You simply deny that there is anything in nature that corresponds to mind and there is no need to go beyond materialism since nothing transcends materialism. If, however, you find this denial unsatisfying, you must go farther.
There are, of course, no end of alternative formulations to account for the mind. Searle, for example, calls his formulation biological naturalism. Searle doesn’t want to posit anything beyond the brain and neurological processes, and above all he doesn’t want to posit Cartesian dualism. If there is anything that philosophers today can agree upon it is their common condemnation of Cartesian dualism.
The problem with the attempt to get beyond Cartesian dualism — which did, admittedly, have a stultifying effect on philosophy of mind for some time — is that contemporary philosophers are simply trying to scrap the distinction without recognizing that it is an approximation of an important truth: that a thought is a different kind of thing than a body.
I just read this on the Wetwiring blog:
The mind/body idea was a hack, a kludge. It was a solution (if inelegant) to a series of difficulties that arose out of human thought and the history of ideas (with the waning of religion and the waxing of science proper in the seventeenth century). It should be dispensed with. Not replaced, not finessed, not supplemented. Dropped. With this, some new possibilities appear.
This is what most philosophers of mind today are trying to do, but not very well, in my opinion. The attempt to abandon Cartesian dualism leads to conceptual kluges that are only employed out of a desire to avoid the appearance of a mind-body distinction at any cost.
So when I say that naturalism is materialism plus whatever is required to account for mind, I am not trying to reinstate Cartesian dualism, but I am also not going to go out of my way to avoid a clumsy distinction that nevertheless captures an important truth. So I guess I stand with those who want to supplement the mind-body distinction as a first, rough approximation upon which we can improve.
I suggest that one way that the mind-body distinction can be supplemented is by replacing the distinction with a continuum: the mind-body continuum. If there are degrees of reality that depart from strict materialism, they do not therefore necessarily constitute mind, and, vice versa, if there are degrees of reality that depart from a strict interpretation of mind, they do not therefore necessarily constitute body.
Searle’s biological naturalism seems, to my mind, to have this character. Searle acknowledges that thoughts are different from bodies, but his answer to what thoughts are is that they are neurological processes. Now, neurological processes are not identical with the brain considered merely as an artifact, but they aren’t mind in the traditional sense. Thus I would say that neurological processes, which are not themselves bodies but which transparently supervene upon the brain as body occupy one degree (as it were) away from body on the mind-body continuum.
Searle’s position strikes me as a species of reductivism. While he has recognized that a thought is a different kind of thing than a material body, he instead identifies thoughts with neurological processes. Well, again, a neurological process is a difference kind of a thing than a thought. We experience a neurological process as a scientist studying the brain, whereas we experience a thought as a conscious thinker.
On the other hand, in contradistinction to neurological processes being one degree away from strict materialism, an idea in the Kantian sense (a locution that Husserl often employs to indicate an idea that has nothing corresponding to it in nature) entertained by the mind in thought comes close to exemplifying the extreme “mind end” of the mind-body continuum, but any thought that involves some connection to the empirical world (and thus the vast bulk of our thought in actual fact) departs at least one distinguishable degree from ideal mind and lies along the mind-body continuum between mind and body.
Thus mind and body stand in an important relationship to each other, and this relationship is continuous (as in materialism), but even while there is a continuity between mind and body, the two are still distinguishable.
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A medieval manuscript of an Aristotelian treatise
Today we celebrate the birthday of the year, although we can’t really say that the year was “born” on this day. There is something very arbitrary about the beginning of the year, just as there is something profoundly arbitrary about the international date line and the lines with which we striate the planet to divide it into time zones.
For small, finite creatures like ourselves, and for the macroscopic features of our experience, we can often definitively determine the moment of birth, or how a given object otherwise came into existence. For entities of indeterminate extent, like time and the earth and the universe, it is difficult to determine any point of emergence in time, and, of course, for time itself this is highly problematic.
Aristotle wrote a short treatise about things that are born and which also die, On Coming to Be and Passing Away (as it is usually, but not invariably, translated). As Aristotle’s work was developed in the Middle Ages, there came to be a radical distinction made between things “below the sphere of the moon” (and therefore “sublunary” in Ptolemaic cosmology) which come into being and pass away, and things beyond the sphere of the moon (and therefore “superlunary”) which were believed to be unchanging and eternal, like Platonic ideas.
This Aristotelian-Platonic-Ptolemaic cosmology eventually became so embedded in human thought that the idea of the universe having a natural history was too radical even for radical thinkers to embrace. In Einstein’s early formulations of general relativity he introduced the cosmological constant to stop the universe in its tracks and make it behave. It took most of the twentieth century for cosmologists to get beyond this and embrace the idea of the universe itself as something that comes to be and passes away.
On my other blog, in Of Flowers and Sunflowers I wrote:
In several posts I have suggested that, in five hundred to a thousand years, when industrialized civilization has matured, there may come another axial age in which the civilization we are in the process of creating produces a mythos equal to itself, and thereby creates a world in which we might live comfortably with industrialization and its discontents. If this does come to pass, the scientific understanding of the world, which has been so central to the technologies driving industrialization, will be central to the future industrial Weltanschauung, and it may also come to pass that the stories of origins formulated by science, now converging on a degree of specificity enjoyed by the Greek gods and their exploits, will provide us with new places of pilgrimage. At such places, our extended sense of ourselves as part of the natural world, and as part of our shared natural history, will allow us to sympathize with, if not identify with, the earliest antecedents of life on earth, which is our story also.
To “places of pilgrimage” I would now like to add, “times of celebration.”
I can imagine a scientific civilization of some future time when naturalistic events are celebrated as public holidays. For example, we might pick a day and call it “Big Bang Day,” and this would celebrate some particular day about fifteen billion years ago when the Big Bang occurred, because we could, in theory, extrapolate the 24 hour day (based on the earth’s rotation) backward into history until we came to the particular day that was the day of the Big Bang.
The selection of such a day would of course be arbitrary — it would be the establishment of a convention, which by another name is a tradition, which is a convention constitutive of a culture — but the selection of a particular day as Big Bang Day would be no more arbitrary than the length of the day itself. There are a great many planets in the universe, and probably only a few (i.e., many million, rather than billions and billions) have something like a 24 hour day. There are days much shorter, and days much longer to be found elsewhere in the universe.
Aliens on a planet with a different length of day would identify a different day as Big Bang Day than we as human beings would celebrate as Big Bang Day. Though all species in our universe would share the blessed event of the Big Bang, each would celebrate the Big Bang in its own particular way, and part of being human (even after we have migrated to other worlds with different lengths of day) would be to celebrate Big Bang Day on a date extrapolated from the 24 hour day of the earth. In this way we might celebrate the birthday of the universe.
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I think that almost everyone with whom I have held a long and detailed conversation about life has said to me that they believe that things happen for a reason. And the reason that I say “almost everyone” in the immediately preceding sentence is not because I can think of a particular example that was the exception, but only to allow for the possibility that there was an exception that I can’t remember as I write this.
I remember a conversation with a friend some years about the film Pulp Fiction. My friend argued, with the action of the film as an example, that sometimes your time is up, and you need to face the fact. (Note: since I wrote this my friend has informed me that he did not hold this view, and his point was that this was the message expressed by the film. 07.20.2011) For those who have not seen the film, the action involves two professional killers who experience a close call. The killer played by Samuel L. Jackson (as “Jules”) takes the close call as a sign (in the supernatural sense of the term), whereas the killer played by John Travolta (“Vincent”) is portrayed as a quasi-positivist who denies any meaning, pattern, or purpose to events. Vincent interprets the close call as a random accident, continues with his trade, and is killed as a result. Jules takes the close call as a sign, retires from his career as a professional killer, and even goes on to help others. So much for a pop culture exposition of purpose in life.
As a died-in-the-wool naturalist, as a naturalist to the bone, I side with Vincent on this one. I have never had any feeling of purpose, design, or pattern to events, other than the purpose, design, or pattern imperfectly imposed upon events by human action and the actions of other species. And, in addition to having no feeling or intuition that this is the case, my life long effort to educate myself and to understand the world has given me no reason or yielded any knowledge to the contrary. So I know that I am on the minority on this one, and I accept my minority status with equanimity.
The pervasive view that events in life happen for a reason is interesting on its own account, and it is worth trying to get to the bottom of it. If we assume a non-naturalistic account of the world, we simply acknowledge that there are purposes we cannot know and we submit to our destiny. If, however, we are naturalists, we must ask the obvious question as to what the naturalistic source of this pervasive belief might be.
The obvious way to account for the claim of meaning behind events is through evolutionary psychology, which I have examined previously in Suspicion: Beyond the Agency Detector and in The Temporal Ecology of Mind. The assertion of meaning behind events would seem to be transparently a case of agency detection run amok, finding agency in the events of world even if these events are random, because there is a high survival cost to failing to detect agency when it is present, and a low survival cost to false ascriptions of agency.
I want to go beyond this obvious explanation, however, and ask whether the generic claim of meaning behind events represents more than just another iteration of the agency detector. The key term in the last sentence is generic: when, in conversation, I have been so often told that my interlocutor believes there to be reasons that things happen as they do, it is almost always couched in the most generic terms possible. Very often these are people without any explicit or traditional religious beliefs, and perhaps no religious beliefs at all (as in the case with my friend with whom I discussed Pulp Fiction).
The framing of purpose and meaning without reference to any direct supernatural mechanism or agency (as, for example, would be the case with Karma or with divine providence) is of particular interest to me. The lack of any supernatural mechanism or of any assertion of a definite body of non-naturalistic truths that govern the world could indicate several different sources for the belief:
1) The claim of meaning in events could be the transference of an explicit belief system to a non-explicit belief system that is unfalsifiable and therefore insulated from criticisms that have marginalized traditional supernaturalistic world views of western civilization. Thus the essentially non-naturalistic character of the belief is preserved.
2) The claim of meaning behind events could be the authentic voice of the agency detector. That is to say, once the possibility of explicit religious belief is made unreasonable, the agency detector remains deep in our subconscious, whispering in our ear, as it were.
3) The claim of meaning behind events could indicate a displacement of no-longer-tenable explicit religious beliefs into a quasi-naturalistic context, without the mention of explicit non-natural agency, which at some time could be given an explicitly naturalistic formulation.
What do you think? Is the claim of meaning behind events and purpose embodied in the world a more fundamental expression of the instinct that gives rise to religious belief, and therefore more amorphous and less explicit — a belief in its bare and unadorned form? Or is the claim of meaning and purpose simply a dodge to get around the decline of institutionalized religious belief, to have one’s cake and eat it to, in a spiritual sense?
Have I missed anything?
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Any hope not based on a rigorously naturalistic conception of the world will not only ultimately disappoint us, but will also ultimately betray us.
The world cannot deliver on the promises that we make to ourselves that exceed the limits of the world, and these limits are none other than the limits of nature.
Recognizing in oneself a need for that which exceeds the limits of the world, one faces a choice: one can create a false world amenable to non-naturalistic hopes, or one can revise and recast one’s hopes such that these hopes have a place within the world and not outside it.
The revision of hope will involve a loss, much as the transition from childhood to adulthood involves a loss (a loss that Peter Pan refused to accept), but the alternative to accepting that loss (and perhaps also mourning that loss in a proper show of respect) is to attempt to live outside the world even while living in the world.
To experience a loss is an occasion for sadness, but this can be for us no objection to accepting a loss for what it is. Loss is part of the structure of life; sadness is part of the structure of loss; therefore, sadness is part of the structure of life.
The world is sadness and sorrow; to deny sorrow is to deny the world, to renounce the world, and once again to attempt to live outside that which is the origin, source, and foundation of all life.
A life lived in renunciation of the world (whether conscious or unconscious) is a vagrant life that does not know (or cannot admit to itself) its home in the world.
If one cannot find a home for one’s hopes within the world, these hopes will remain forever homeless. Hopes unhoused in the world are vagrant hopes.
To reconcile oneself to life in the world is to take ontological responsibility; to refuse to be reconciled to the world is to condemn oneself to ontological vagrancy.