Knowing Knowledge IV: Humanity as Pinnacle, Dialogues, 20/03/2015

My discussion yesterday with Steve Fuller ran for so long that we didn't get a chance to cover two more interesting issues that came up in Chapter Two of his Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. So we talked about them here, Fuller's thoughts on David Hume and a central concept of modern evolutionary theory.
• • •
Dear Steve;

Two other ideas in this week's chapter struck a chord with me, but I wanted to explore them separately from the larger discussion about theodicy that we've gotten into. Nonetheless, I think they're genuinely important. One is a quibble in the history of philosophy, and another has some lessons for the modern revival of theodicy concepts in science and politics. 

Films like Roman Polanski's The Tenant explore the
horror of a fragmenting personality, but the
freakiest aspect of Hume's philosophy is the prospect
that all personality is always already fragmented.
The smaller question is about the hate you get on for David Hume. You describe him, if I could use your economic epistemic terms from a previous chapter, as a supply-side theorist of knowledge. Your account of Hume also fits with the traditional interpretation of him as an epistemic skeptic that was canonical for so long in Analytic philosophy, particularly thanks to the influence of Bertrand Russell.

Hume also embodies what appears in your text as a fundamental contradiction. He's part of a tradition of secular liberal political philosophy thanks to his skeptical writings on religion and the existence of God. But his conception of how individual humans are actually built precludes the strong notion of the discrete individual person that political liberalism needs to function. 

A person is not a discrete, unified individual in Hume's thought, but a fluctuating jambalaya of different and mutually inconsistent forces and processes (which Hume called passions), whose unity is retroactively constructed through an exercise of memory. And that memory can get quite faulty.

What's more, Hume's own explicit everyday political beliefs were retrograde by our standards, and even some of the standards of his day. Essentially, he was a monarchist and a racist. 

But Hume's theory of subjectivity was, in its substance, a major crack at an assemblage conception of personality. From this philosophy, its contemporary form arising from the work of Gilles Deleuze, the subject is a singular contingent formation of particular kinds of forces. A complex machine constituted from the continuing collision of other complex machines. 

The political articulation of this theory of subjectivity is an experimentalist anarchism that encourages trying out new ways of making subjects. I make this connection of political philosophy with the ontology of subjectivity in my own upcoming book, Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, available this August from Palgrave McMillan.

Artist John Barker's depiction of the Battle of
Marston Moor, a brutal event in the English Civil
War. I sometimes think that most of our stereotypes
about Britain would be very different if more
people understood the long-term cultural heritage
of the English Civil War. I don't fully understand it
myself, but I know it's significant.
It's really quite unfortunate for Hume that he had come to the political conclusions he did, but he was unlucky to have lived in a time whose social climate just didn't offer the political articulations of his theory of subjectivity. 

If he had lived in continental Europe during the medieval period, he would have seen how well his anarchic conception of the subject fit with the communitarian, locally-networked politics of free cities like Mainz and Worms. As it is, his political culture was shaped by the authoritarian statism of the aftermath of the English Civil War and the unification of the United Kingdom.

The other point I wanted to discuss is about evolutionary theory, particularly your philosophical interpretation of convergent evolution. You're right that straight Darwinian natural selection doesn't have the conceptual capacity to cope with the fact of convergent evolution. 

But convergent evolution isn't quite enough to preserve an account of biological evolution that accords directly with theodicy. An essential idea of the specifically Christian theodicy is that humanity is made in the image of God. As such, humanity is something of a pinnacle of life. Creation does take on something of a purpose, a telos, whose embodiment is humankind.

Convergent evolution just doesn't get you there. It's more of a pragmatic scientific principle, as I understand it. Living creatures will face similar problems throughout a planet's evolutionary history, and similar problems will have similar optimal solutions. 

For example, the problem of how to get around an environment soaked in light is an issue wherever the sun can shine. Developing photoreceptive abilities is an optimal solution. The camera model of the eye in particular is the optimal model of a photoreceptive organ in an animal that needs detailed focus on objects at various long-ish distances. That's why camera eyes have developed independently in vertebrates, cephalopods, and annelids. We all have to solve similar problems of quickly adjusting our vision while we move.

Knowing what humanity shares with worms is
remarkably instructive in learning about the
processes of evolution.
There's a further political problem with the concept of humanity as the image of God in theodicy, which is that it blinds us to our own species-level maladaptive behaviour. If humanity, as the closest creatures in nature to God Herself, is the pinnacle of creation, and our powers and existence are essentially entwined with the telos of being itself, then it becomes difficult to conceive how anything in our nature could harm nature as a whole. 

Human behaviour, no matter what it is, could never harm the natural order of God's universe because we are its material culmination. And if we do harm it, then we do so as culminations of God's order, bringing the order of Earth's creation to its purposive end.

This denies the central motive of environmentalist thought, which I describe in more detail in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, still forthcoming from Palgrave McMillan this August. The environmentalist idea is that humanity is currently the most maladaptive imbecile of a species on Earth, stumbling into accidental species suicide by covering the planet in so much pollution that we cause a new mass extinction.

Environmentalism asks us to take responsibility for our own industrial actions, not for the sake of God, but for the sake of ourselves and everything else that we share the planet with. To do that, we must accept that human existence is contingent, and that we, like many other species in our world's history, have prioritized our immediate prosperity but jeopardized our long-term survival in doing so. 

A theodicy where we are the image of God holds us off from our collective forehead smack of humility because it privileges humanity's being. That privilege keeps us from understanding how God could allow our extinction, how God could permit the pinnacle of His creation to, as my favourite Clinton* once said, drown in our own shit. 

* That would be George Clinton, and the track would be the spoken-word introduction to Funkadelic's masterpiece "Maggot Brain."

Theodicy's concept that existence is the ordered expression of God or the Divine generally speaking makes perfect sense to me. I think I've held such a belief about existence and divinity for some time now, though I never thought to call it a theodicy. But a theodicy where humanity occupies a privileged place in nature strikes me as even worse than simply untrue. It's maladaptive.
• • •
Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time
For y'all have knocked her up
I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe
I was not offended
For I knew I had to rise above it all
Or drown in my own shit
Dear Adam,

Thanks originally to T.H. Huxley (who recast Hume as a proto-Darwinist) but more influentially to Bertrand Russell, David Hume has become contemporary philosophy’s go-to guy to show that you’ve got the angels on your side. 

I first noticed this as a teaching assistant to Annette Baier, who taught one of Pitt’s introductory philosophy courses in the early 1980s. She was then touting Hume as a virtue theorist comfortable with multiculturalism, not Russell’s radical sceptic who might prove a nuisance in mixed company. 

In recent times, as you point out, the continentals have gotten in on the act, with Deleuze – and more to the point, Anglophone Deleuzians – honing in on Hume’s ‘bundle of perceptions’ theory of the self as a precursor to the protean idea of ‘assemblage’. Moreover, considered in light of the relatively little use that empirically minded philosophers like Mill made of Hume prior to Huxley’s makeover, I conclude that Hume has been overused and quite possibly overrated.

Thus, I see you as going against the grain of Hume’s own thinking – and not simply because he didn’t live in the right times. The bundle theory is basically designed to demonstrate the illusory nature of any sense of a substantial self, which includes a self that is capable of experimentation in the sense you suggest. 

You are already attributing too much autonomy (or will) to the bundled self, which Hume denies. Any sense of self that we think we have is a product of faulty memory and wishful thinking, and once we recognize these in-built liabilities we’ll be able to live saner lives. Here Hume is really like Epicurus and Buddha – and Wittgenstein. The Humean self may be open to a wide variety of experiences that result in various personal reconfigurations but it is not one that would take responsibility for having initiated those experiences.

John Locke wrote when the concept of
consciousness was literally a new idea.
My own view is closer to Locke’s, who also had doubts about the idea of a substantial self. Indeed, he identified the self with the legal concept of the ‘person,’ an entity constructed for ‘forensic’ purposes, which is to say, to attribute responsibility. Locke didn’t deny the sort of psychological complexity that Hume highlighted but concluded that our ‘consciousness’ (a neologism in Locke’s day for second-order divine-like awareness) intervenes and we just draw a line and take – and are recognized as having taken – ownership for a range of thoughts and actions. 

The physical body provides the default locus for defining the jurisdiction of such interventions – i.e. the self that is mine versus the selves that belong to others. As the American founding fathers demonstrated, you can then get some serious politics out of what would otherwise be empiricist vagaries.

Now, the point you raise about convergent evolution is correct, I’m afraid to admit – namely, that it need not eventuate in our species as the crown of creation. However, there is a strong chance that it will eventuate in a species that might be reasonably called Humanity 2.0, leaving open just how much of Homo Sapiens it will actually incorporate. 

Figures in the Lamarckian tradition promoting convergent evolution seem to have thought this way, not least one of my schoolboy influences, that renegade Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who saw in the anticipated convergence the Second Coming of Jesus, or the Omega Point.

But we don’t need to go this far. The man who most effectively contested Stephen Jay Gould on his own palaeontological turf, Simon Conway Morris, has observed that over the course of evolution, the basic morphologies of organisms have become fewer and more similar. 

There is no need to postulate a divine hand or even natural selection to suppose that symbiosis and cross-species mimicry are playing a significant role here. In fact, one might even go so far as to suppose that the ultimate state of convergence will realize something like James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, whereby humans (when ecologically well-behaved) function as the brain of the superorganism called ‘Earth.’ My guess is that this line of thinking would be quite congenial to you.

A brief rebuttal to Steve on my environmentalism.
I'm uncomfortable thinking of humanity in the
stewardship role as I see here. I don't see how we
can make the progress required to do it right at least
until Humanity 8.0. The ideas I have for science-
fiction literature featuring my character of Alice
can explain better than a photo caption.
However, being more humanist than you, I don’t see things panning out quite this way. Much of the history of technology has been based on biomimicry at varying levels of abstraction from the organisms imitated (e.g. airplanes do what birds do but rather differently). 

The Bible certainly exhorts people to learn from nature, but what happens to nature afterwards is an open question. After all, scientists are also developing an ability to freeze-dry DNA for future use, which would allow us to keep various species ‘on tap’ should we need or want them around. So the exact normative role of ‘Nature’ in our thinking needs to be made clear, especially as we are clearly developing godlike powers. 

For me it means that ‘Nature’ should not function as a static – euphemistically called sustainable – vision of the ecology. Such a move is little more than environmental fetishism, since various combinations of known organisms might well live well together under radically different environmental conditions. 

And even when this turns out to be false, we will have learned something and our capacities for generating organisms will permit us to try again. The corollary of ‘No pain, no gain’ is ‘Life is a hypothesis.’

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