Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 12 – Historical Interlude

Historical Interlude

Our discussion of theories of human nature will now move from the ancient worlds to the 18th century with Immanuel Kant. Needless to say a lot happened in the interim. In order to make the transition of almost 2000 years Stevenson provides us a brief description of a few of the major thinkers during this long period. He briefly discusses Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume and Rousseau. [This is a good representative sample. Notable omissions include: Bacon, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, Montaigne, Voltaire, and Hegel.]

Augustine – St. Augustine was the most important link connecting the ancient world and the Christian medieval world. Augustine affected a philosophical synthesis of Plato, the neo-Platonists and Christianity. [Plato’s idea of the good became divine illumination; Platonic forms became ideas in god’s mind, the cave became the story of the soul’s journey to god, and more. Moreover the idea of the trinity owes much to a similar 3 fold distinction in the philosophy of the neo-Platonist Plotinus.] Despite the influence of Greek rationalism, Augustine said “I believe in order to understand.” In other words faith comes first and an exercise of will is necessary for belief, since reason by itself always fall short.

Augustine also believed that humans are sinful and that nothing we do can save us—our salvation depends on god’s grace. Thus we are predestined to be saved or not, we cannot merit salvation. This was the source of his dispute with Pelagius who argued we can save ourselves by our free acts. This is still a vexing issue in Christian theology. Augustine particularly identified sin as sexual, an idea which has had a profound influence on Christianity to this day. He also believed in a “city of god,” the ideal destiny where god’s will is fulfilled. The relationship between the church and this final destiny is ambiguous. [I think the idea is that the church helps bring about this final destiny, although if you are only saved by grace it is hard to see how this can be—which was Martin Luther’s point.]

 The Islamic Philosophers –  There were a number of prominent Islamic philosophers from the 9th through 13th centuries. They had discovered and preserved the work of Aristotle, which had been lost to the West, and their translators introduced Aristotle in Spain in the 12th century. [This would eventually make its way to Aquinas at the University of Paris.] Islam, like Christianity, assumes the authority of their religion is based on divine revelation, but this also suggests that issues of the relationship between faith and reason are prominent. The most important of these thinkers were Avicenna, who believed that god (Allah) spoke through both the intellect and imagination of Muhammad; Al-Ghazali, a Sufi mystic who emphasized mysticism rather than philosophical arguments; and Averroes, who reasserted the primacy of reason in interpreting the Koran. Each of these philosophers had considerable influence on the West.

Thomas Aquinas – While many in the Catholic Church tried to ban Aristotle, Aquinas embraced his thought and tried to synthesize it with Christianity. “Though controversial in its time, it has since become Roman Catholic orthodoxy, backed by papal authority.” Aquinas placed a greater emphasis on reason than had Augustine. Like Aristotle he believed that knowledge begins with the senses and that the intellect recognizes types or forms of things in order to categorize the world. This leads to a distinction between rational and revealed theology, the former using unaided reason to prove god’s existence, while the latter depends on the Bible and the Church.

Like Aristotle he believed we have a rational soul or structure which includes perception, intellect, reason and free will. He identifies the idea of eudaimonia with knowledge and love of god. [Is it better to know god or love him was a famous medieval dispute.] The most important virtues are the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Aquinas believed that immortality would involve the resurrection of the body, but tried to also maintain that the disembodied soul somehow survived between death and resurrection. Still, despite his emphasis on reason, the authority of the Church was paramount and like Augustine he was prepared to use force against dissent, arguing that heretics should be killed.

The Reformation: Where Lies the Authority for Faith? – Christianity dominated the social, political, and religious life of Europe for more than a 1000 years, from the fall of Rome till at least the 17th century. The first major division of Christianity occurred with the schism of 1054 when the Eastern Orthodox Church broke from the western Catholic Church. But four successive cultural movements slowly unraveled the hegemony of the Catholic Church in Europe: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the 17th century scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment.

The Renaissance refers to the flowering of reason and humanism, literally “the rebirth” or rediscovery of Greek and Roman thought. The next great cultural movement was the Reformation, begun when Martin Luther posted his ninety-five thesis of the door of his German church. There had been other reforming voices before Luther, such as John Wycliffe and John Hess, but Luther’s protest really sparked the Reformation. [Both Wycliffe, who was one of the first to translate the Bible into English, and Huss met terrible fates. Huss was burned at the stake, while Wycliffe was declared a heretic whose remains exhumed and burned. William Tyndale, another of the early translators of the Bible was also burned at the stake.]

Luther had many disagreements with the Church, especially with their selling of indulgences which allowed people to believe they could buy their way into heaven. Theologically Luther believed that one is save by faith and grace alone, thus there was no need for the Church to act as an intermediary between god and humans. He also rejected reason which he famously called a whore. [He rejects the Church, its scholasticism (using reason in theology) and the rise of reason associated with the Renaissance.] And he emphasized the scripture as a truer source of religious truth than the Church.

This religious reform—especially the emphasis on faith and the authority of the Bible—spread throughout northern Europe. The emphasis on scripture was particularly strong in the thought of John Calvin. He helped develop a theocratic state in Geneva, and his ideas spread with the puritans to England and then to America where the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible was developed. Of course this hardly settled matters as the issue of interpretation of the Bible arose. In response some sects like the Quakers placed more emphasis on religious experience. All of this led to centuries of violent conflict and genocide between various religious groups. [Today Europe is almost completely secular, while America is much more overtly religious.]

The Rise of Science: How Does Scientific Method Apply To Human Beings? – The 17th century scientific revolution changed the world. [Look around you anywhere and you see the overwhelming evidence of its influence.] The combination of an experimental method [most associated with Francis Bacon] and the mathematical reasoning utilized by Galileo and Newton showed that science could explain the heavens and earth. Consequently appeals to the Bible and the Church in matters of science began to seem futile. But how far can a scientific approach go in explaining human beings? Are humans material only or is there some immaterial component to them?

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1659) – Hobbes was a materialist [one who believes only matter exists] who rejected dualism [the idea that both matter and mind/soul exist.] He argued that the idea of an immaterial soul made no sense, espousing instead a materialistic explanation for all states of body and brain—human nature is exclusively materialistic. Hobbes also argued that humans are selfish, desiring wealth, power, fame, food, clothing, shelter and more for themselves. But as all these things are in limited supply, humans are at war with each other in an effort to obtain them. To avoid this state of war humans accept a coercive political authority to adjudicate their disputes—they trade some of their freedom for the security of the state. This is ultimately in each individual’s interest, inasmuch as it helps them survive. Hobbes was also an atheist who wanted the churches subordinate to the state.

Rene Descartes (1596 – 1659) – Descartes is probably the most famous exponent of the dualist view—human nature is composed of a material body and an immaterial mind/soul. The body occupies space and is studied by science; the mind/soul doesn’t occupy space and can’t be studied by science. This immaterial component can exist without the body. While one can doubt the existence of the body and the external world—perhaps you are dreaming the world or some evil demon is making you think there is one—you cannot doubt your own consciousness. [Even if you are deceived about the existence of your consciousness, you must be to be deceived. Thus “I think therefore I am.] In this way Descartes could remain a Catholic and a and scientist at the same time.

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) – Spinoza attempts to reconcile dualism and materialism. Spinoza is a pantheist—god and nature are identical. [This begins to reconcile the material and immaterial.] He also advocated the dual-aspect theory of mind or human nature. For Spinoza mind and matter are two aspects of one underlying reality. Mental events are the same as brain events but we can describe these events as either mental or physical. In other words mind is what the brain does. [This is a bit more materialistic than dualistic.]

The Enlightenment: Can Science Be Our Guide To Life? – As science became accepted as the only cognitive authority in the world [religion and science basically has switched places since the middle ages] the question of apply these insights to human nature arose. Could reason and science explain human beings and improve the human condition? [The evidence is in … the answer is YES.] Could scientific explanations replace religious, philosophical, poetic explanations of human beings? Gradually rational approaches, especially in politics, replaced religious explanations.

David Hume (1711 -1776) – Hume was an empiricist, one who believes that knowledge derives from sense experience. Reason tells us about the relationship between logical and mathematical ideas, but sense experience tells us how the world works. Our ideas are derived from impressions, either sense impressions or introspective reflection of one’s own mind. What we call matter is just a bundle of perceptions—and so are we. There is no soul or self, only a flow of consciousness, a succession of mental states. We are simply a bundle of perceptions, a continual flow of perceptions without any underlying substance. [This is similar to the doctrine of no self in Buddhism.] Needless to say there are no religious overtones to Hume’s thought, as he was a thorough going atheist and freethinker.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) – Rousseau is famous for his belief in the goodness of humans before the corrupting influence of civilization [the so-called “noble savage.”] He also believed that children have a good intrinsic nature that is corrupted by society. Like most romantics he believed that the natural was good. [This is quite dubious.] However he doesn’t allow for the innate selfishness so characteristic of the human race.

All these strains of thought will lead to Immanuel Kant, the crowing figure of the Enlightenment. It is to his views on human nature that we now turn.


George Orwell’s 1984

Books of My Youth

The first books I remember reading as a child were baseball biographies. Stories of baseball legends like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. I also have a fond memory of reading a book about my favorite baseball player titled: Ken Boyer: Guardian of the Hot Corner. The first novel I remember reading was entitled Across the Five Aprils by Irene Hunt. It was a short novel about the American civil war that I read when I was about ten years old. Amazingly, it is still on my bookshelf! In eighth grade I read John Knowles, A Separate Peace, but I was too young to get much out of it. In high school I read Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations Aldous Huxley’s Brave New WorldErnest Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. No doubt many others have vanished from memory.

In college I remember reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, and I was particularly moved by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which is not surprising as Buddhism is a profound philosophy. No doubt the memory of reading many other books has long since evaporated from my mind, and there are thousands upon thousands of wonderful books that I’ve never read.

Orwell’s Masterpiece

But the most influential novel I’ve ever read was Orwell’s 1984. It is the only novel that transformed me and the way I saw the world. The novel was prescient foretelling, to a large extent, the political reality of America in 2014. No one who truly understands the book ever sees the world the same way again. It is as if Orwell removes a curtain that hides reality behind it—a reality completely opposite the message promulgated by the voices and images that proceed daily in front of us. These voices and images are designed to mislead and control rather than inform, they make a mockery of truth. The Ministry of Truth lies; The Ministry of Peace wages war; The Ministry of Love tortures. (Think of a major geopolitical power today where: A few major corporate conglomerates control news; the Department of Defense wages war, the Department of Homeland Security tortures and incarceration of undesirables is rampant.)  What better slogan for the ruling elite:


It is as if, the philosopher in me would say, Orwell allows us to see past Kant’s phenomenal world to the neumonal world—to the way things really are. To a social and political reality so bleak and barren that even love cannot thrive. In the end Winston and Julia betray each other because, contrary to what I’ve written in previous posts, love is not stronger than death. Here is their conversation after both have been emptied of their most noble inclination—the inclination to love another consciousness.

“I betrayed you,” she said baldly.
“I betrayed you,” he said.
She gave him another quick look of dislike.
“Sometimes,” she said, “they threaten you with something—something you can’t stand up to, can’t even think about. And then you say, ‘Don’t do it to me, do it to somebody else, do it to so-and-so.’ And perhaps you might pretend, afterwards, that it was only a trick and that you just said it to make them stop and didn’t really mean it. But that isn’t true. At the time when it happens you do mean it. You think there’s no other way of saving yourself and you’re quite ready to save yourself that way. You want it to happen to the other person. You don’t give a damn what they suffer. All you care about is yourself.”
“All you care about is yourself,” he echoed.
“And after that, you don’t feel the same toward the other person any longer.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t feel the same.”

If Orwell is right, life is bleaker than we usually let ourselves to imagine. Power and the desire for it remove color, beauty and love from the world. I hope he’s wrong.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 11 – The Bible

The Bible: Humanity in Relation to God

The Old Testament is recognized as the word of god by both Jews and Christians; the New Testament is only recognized as such by Christians. Islam also recognizes the patriarchs and prophets of these books, but asserts that Muhammad is “the last and greatest of the prophets, and that the Koran is the uniquely authoritative message of God.” Needless to say there are so many varieties of belief that there is no way to say “the Jews say this” or “the Christians say that.” We begin with a theory of the universe common to both Jews and Christians (and to Islam too.) The author begins by telling us that he is a Christian in case you want to know where he’s coming from.

Metaphysical Background: The Judaic-Christian Conception of God – It is not clear from the opening verses of the Bible whether god is one (monotheism) or god is many (polytheism.) [There are other well-known conundrums. For example there are two creation accounts corresponding to the first two chapters of the book. In the first multiple humans were created after the animals and man and woman were then created simultaneously; in the second humans were created before animals, with man created first, then the animals and then a woman from man’s rib.] But this god(s) creates evidently by commanding, gives things names after bringing them into existence, and all created is good. Soon the first two humans disobey god, then one of their children kills the other, and god resolves to kill all humans. Finally Noah is allowed to save his family and all the animals. There are also stories of sons of god having sex with woman and races of giants. [This is all in the first book of the Bible.] No doubt the text “is a compilation of several ancient stories containing different conceptions of the divine.”

This god speaks to people throughout the book, instructs them, and is represented variously as having a face and voice, being a shield, having nostrils, being a shepherd, and more. In later books he generally speaks through intermediaries and later on still there is less talk of god. All of this causes the author to ask “Where should we draw the line between symbolic or metaphorical talk of God and realistic, literal talk of Him?” He is not sure of the answer. But traditionally (classical theism) holds that god is non-spatial, non-temporal, immaterial and yet a personal being who creates, loves, guides, judges, and cares for us. He is endowed with intelligence, desires, knowledge and other traits of personality. He intervenes in the world, performs miracles, and tells us how to live. In short he is a disembodied person. But what does this mean if we cannot confirm or falsify it? The author suggests that we understand this talk of god as a metaphor. [But of what?]

The Hebrew Theory of Human Nature – Humans exists “primarily in a relation to God, who has created us to occupy a special position in the universe … The question immediately arises whether we should read this story literally as narrating historical events … or as mythology…” The author, as I did previously, notes the main problem with a literal account—there are multiple and contradictory creation stories. Another problem is the stories inconsistency with modern science, including but not limited to cosmology, geology, and biology. Science provides entirely different accounts of our past. Furthermore, these stories contradict common sense. How did Adam and Eve’s sons find wives if all humans were descended from the first couple? The author, a Christian, says “I propose that only symbolic readings of the creation stories can be taken seriously. It is now widely … accepted that they are myths …”

Humans are supposedly made in the image of God [if true then looking around the world one might conclude god is a monster]. Of course we can turn this around and say humans made god in their image. In other words we don’t partake in the perfect intelligence, moral perfection and personhood of the creator but imagine our own imperfections don’t exist in a godhead. [Both Nietzsche and Feuerbach said that God didn’t make us in his image but we made god in our image.] Humans are thus special yet also continuous with nature made from dust to which they return. And humans are not made up of body and soul. The Hebrew world ruach means wind or breath, it is not a separate soul. This idea is not found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.  [In all my years of teaching I think this is the most common misunderstanding of orthodox Christianity by Christians.] In fact there is no expectation of the afterlife in the Old Testament, the Jews developed the idea of the afterlife only slightly before the time of Jesus.

As for woman the one biblical account has them appearing second to man and a woman is represented as the temptress who brought about man’s fall and tempts him to sin, especially sexually. For their disobedience woman will suffer in childbirth and must accept men as their masters. And of course, god is a man! [I’m guessing all of this was written by men.]

Humans are supposed to be free [there is a tension here because woman are supposed to submit to men] to love and obey god or not. God commanded humans not to learn about good and evil, and humans must choose whether to know about good and evil (to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), and their eternal salvation depends on it. But why is it bad to learn this? Is not the mark of the mature to put childhood behind and search for one’s own answers? Here we confront the emphasis on faith and the heart characteristic of the Hebraic mind in contrast to the emphasis on reason and intelligence characteristic of the Hellenistic (Greek) mind.

The emphasis on the heart implies a concern with human goodness, with the personal characteristics, and with good actions. But faith in the godhead is of primary importance, for god created us “so that we fulfill the purpose of our life only when we love and serve our Creator.” Thus the ultimate requirement is obedience to god “rather than the use of the intellect to reason things out and make one’s own judgments about truth and morality.” Thus god rewards Abraham because he is willing to kill his own son Isaac in order to submit to god.” [Kierkegaard famously called Abraham the “knight of faith” for doing this. Might we instead call Abraham … insane and god malicious?] As the author puts is “… such a command could not really come from a loving god … Even if it was only given as a “test of faith,” what sort of god would play such a trick?” Another example of the emphasis on faith vs. reason is in the story of Job. Satan persuades god to torment Job for no reason. God asserts his authority and Job submits. The point seems to be that one should be humble before god [or he will mess you up], rather than there being any intellectual insight as to why this has all happened to Job.

Diagnosis: Human DisobedienceWe misuse our freedom and choose evil over good and therefore mess up our relationship with god. God punishes our disobedience by sending pain, suffering, and death. [Did god know all this was going to happen beforehand?] There is thus a tension between our inclinations and our duties, but why do our (biological tendencies) imply moral failure?

God’s Covenants and Regeneration – God made us to be in a relationship with him, we broke that relationship, so god must fix it—hence the idea of salvation initiated by the mercy of god. In the Old Testament this is described as the idea of a covenant between god and his chosen people—the Jews, especially Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Still problems persisted, sin did not disappear from the earth, the Jews commit genocide that god orders, and more. God uses history to punish both friends and foes alike, but the idea arises that god’s mercy can also intervene in history to rectify all these problems. “Thus the hope arose among Judaism for the coming of a God-appointed savior, “the Messiah,” which Christians identify with Jesus.”

The New Testament – The Jewish rabbi Jesus didn’t leave any writing but the new religion of Christianity developed with the letters of St. Paul and the gospel narratives about his life written between 40 to 70 years after his death. [His existence as a historical figure has also been called into question.] Christians soon recognized god the father, god the son, and god the holy spirit who inspired Christian believers—thus 3 persons in 1 god. What is a Christian? This is a complex question, but at a minimum it requires believing that Jesus was at least a special, historical, revelation of god, and that god was uniquely present in Jesus. This is usually expressed as the doctrine of the incarnation—Jesus is both human and divine. What this doctrine means is a matter of theological dispute. [The issue was settled historically for Christians at the Council of Nicaea in 325 which settled the issue of the relationship between god the father and god the son in a debate among council members.]

The New Testament Theory of Human Nature – St. Paul talks of (the level of) spirit and (the level of old nature) flesh. This distinction is one “between regenerate and unregenerate humanity, redeemed and unredeemed human nature.” The idea, as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, seems to be that the best of human nature rejects power, fame, wealth, and sex for moral righteousness. Sex is a particularly vexing issue, as both St. Paul and St. Augustine deride it. As for women, Jesus evidently didn’t choose any as disciples and St. Paul and Christianity ever since “… has found females theologically problematic  …” [Should woman cover their heads in church? Should women be ordained? etc.] Again none of this assumes an afterlife, although some have obviously interpreted the Kingdom of God in this way.

However, eternal life implies loving god and one’s neighbors certainly, and the New Testament does discuss on resurrection, the last judgment, and eternal punishment. The idea that Jesus was resurrected has traditionally been taken to imply that we can life forever too, at least if we are saved by god. The Christian expectation of resurrection of the saved appears in Corinthians.

The New Testament Diagnosis of Sin – We are all imperfect in god’s eyes, as is the entire creation after the Fall—since human beings rejected god by eating the forbidden fruit.

God’s Salvation in Christ – It is unclear what Jesus thought of himself, as it was Paul who first formalized the doctrines of salvation and the incarnation. Paul thought that God was uniquely present in Jesus and his life and death somehow restored our relationship with god. Paul believed that one misdeed condemned all humanity and one righteous act—Jesus dying—saves everyone. But it is counter-intuitive to believe that one bad act and one good act could do this. And how does Jesus atone for our sins anyway? Today most theologians don’t accept the idea that this was a blood sacrifice like in the Old Testament. So again, how does this supposed event 2000 years ago redeem the world of sin? How can one be saved by Jesus? Traditionally then we are saved by god’s grace, not our own works. On the other hand Christianity assumes we are free to choose to accept god’s salvation. This creates a tension.

Spiritual or Supernatural Versions of Christianity? – But how are we to rationally understand perplexing Christian doctrines, like the resurrection and virgin birth? Must we just accept them on faith? What of the outlandish material in the book of Revelation? How can resurrected bodies not exist in space and time? One might respond by partaking in the spiritual life of the church, regardless of the truth of its theological claims, but surely this can be achieved without accepting all the supernatural and metaphysical claims.

Transhumanism and Scientific Requirements to Hold Political Office

Recently I have written multiple articles about the scientific illiteracy of American politicians. [1] [2] [3] Even members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology display an ignorance of science that should make a high school student blush.

After reading my essays a perceptive reader posed the follow questions: 1) How do we decide if a person holds “unscientific” beliefs? 2) What about someone who denies evolution or specific aspects of modern cosmology? 3) Should there be a science test for this job [member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology]? 4) Could any of the members of the committee pass a realistically broad and deep science exam? To these questions I would like to add my own: 5)How are issues of scientific literacy among politicians relevant to transhumanism? Let me answer each of these questions in turn.

1) How do we decide if a person holds “unscientific” beliefs? In the simplest and most obvious case a person holds unscientific views if they deny a received view of modern science for non-scientific reasons. If someone denies atomic theory for an invisible gremlin theory of matter, or evolutionary theory for an invisible god theory, then that person holds an unscientific view. In the case of biological evolution this has been affirmed over and over by the courts after listening to experts testify as to the nature of science—creationism, creation science and intelligent design are not scientific hypotheses.

To illustrate this point, suppose I say that bread rises in an oven because of the oven’s color. This claim is clearly false, but it is a testable scientific hypothesis—one that could quickly be falsified by placing bread with yeast into different colored ovens. However if I say that bread rises because there are invisible gremlins inside the bread that cause the bread to rise by jumping when it is heated, then I have not advanced a scientific hypothesis because no experiment can falsify this belief—no matter the outcome of any experiment the believer can always claim that invisible gremlins did it. (I am relying on Popper’s theory of falsification here, fully cognizant of the fact that it is a complex issue in philosophy of science to show exactly what makes something a scientific hypothesis. But here falsification clearly shows why some hypothesis aren’t scientific.)

There are also more complicated cases, as when someone denies the received scientific wisdom for a scientific reason. What are we to make of such daring hypotheses? We treat them like any other scientific hypotheses. For what scientists do “is to try to answer fundamental questions by crafting comprehensive and reasonably explanatory hypothesis suggested by the data, and leave it to their own later work, or that of others, to try to verify or falsify it.”1 And who decides what is a scientific reason? Scientists do. It is their expertise that allows them to differentiate a scientific from a pseudo-scientific hypothesis, although there are issues on the fringes of science in which it is difficult to determine what is and is not a reasonable scientific hypothesis. There are many debatable ideas in science, countless unsettled areas which are for the moment unsettled. In such cases we must wait for further evidence.

2) What about someone that denies evolution or specific aspects of modern cosmology? Much rejection of the received scientific wisdom in our society today is a response to propaganda dispensed by those motivated by profit. It in the interest of tobacco and oil companies to deny the scientific consensus about the deadly consequences of their products. Other reasons for rejecting science include: cognitive errors, scientific illiteracy, fear of authority, and fear of government. In the specific cases of evolution or big bang theory such opposition is easy to understand. People reject ideas that seemingly contradict the preconceived world views. As William James so aptly put it: “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”

To better understand this consider the curious case of the intelligent design movement, which tries to make their opposition to evolutionary biology appear scientific even though the motivations are clearly religious. Intelligent design is pseudo-science masquerading as science, but that doesn’t stop blatantly immoral, theocratic organizations like the Discovery Institute from trying to have their religious views taught in American public school science classes! Clearly such opposition is ideologically motivated and has nothing to do with the science, about which there is a unanimous consensus. Should scientifically illiterate, anti-sciences ideologues sit in positions of on committees charged with setting public science policy or choosing public school science curriculums? Of course not! That would be like a religiously illiterate, atheist being Pope.

3) Should there be a science test for this job [member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology]? and 4) Could any of the members of the committee pass a realistically broad and deep science exam? To the first question we answer: YES, YES, YES. To the second question we answer, probably NO, NO, NO.

Not only should the members of this committee have to pass a basic scientific literacy test to be members of said committee, but so should anyone holding political office anywhere. The notion that scientifically illiterate political leaders should be in positions to make important decisions is abhorrent. The idea that holders of political power should be among the most intellectually excellent goes back to at least Plato in the west and Confucius in the East. That one must pass a test to practice law, medicine, nursing, education and many other professions yet anyone, regardless of their level of ignorance, can hold important political positions is a travesty. Plato believe that one could only have a good life in a good society, which itself depended on knowledgable rulers who had passed a long series of tests. The imperial exams in ancient China played a similar role, assuring that those who held political power were masters of Confucian political texts. (The result was one of the longest eras of peace and prosperity ever known on the planet.)

5) How are issues of scientific literacy among politicians relevant for transhumanism? I recently wrote about my support for the newly formed Transhumanist Political Party. Clearly progress toward a transhumanist world depends on political action informed by an understanding of science and technology. Opposition to transhumanism is strong enough given the general human tendency toward stasis, but such opposition is multiplied if the more open-minded and dynamic among us are uniformed. Think of how opposition to stem cell research and therapeutic cloning is driven, not only by legitimate worries and rejection of the novel, but by scientific ignorance. (No there won’t be multiple copies of people running around.) Similarly opposition to robotics, artificial intelligence, intelligence augmentation, and nanotechnology is largely driven by irrational fears.

The transhumanist movement is stifled and compromised by an uninformed public, and the situation is exacerbated by scientifically ignorant policy makers. However, while it is self-evident that we would all live in a better society if government officials were more generally educated, such a political change is almost certainly not feasible. Perhaps then the best hope for transhumanism lies, not with governmental support, but with the efforts of privates corporations like Google and private organizations like the Singularity Institute and others.

In the end illiteracy of any kind, but especially scientific and technological, impedes a movement based on using science and technology to overcome all human limitations. The movement needs to be more cognizant of these impediments.

This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, October 23, 2014.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 10 – Aristotle – Part 2

Ideal and Diagnosis – Rather than diagnosing a flaw in human nature and proposing a remedy, Aristotle gives us an account of the end, purpose or meaning of life and how one might achieve it. Rather than offer an otherworldly account of salvation, he offers one for this world—one more akin to Confucianism or Buddhism.

Aristotle begins by asking if there is one thing at which all action aims; if there is one thing all action seeks for its own sake. Aristotle says that eudaimonia is that thing. This is variously translated as happiness, flourishing, well-being, living well, fulfillment, perfection, and more. In his own words “the human good turns out to be activity in the soul [mind] in accordance with excellence.” In other words the good life is activity that involves rationality and embodying excellence over an entire lifetime.

Anything, even inanimate things, can function excellently. A good pen or a good dog functions as they are supposed to. Humans have both excellences of intellect—theoretical and practical reason—and excellences of character—virtues (excellences) like practical wisdom, knowing what to do in real-life situations by having learned from experience, as well as temperance, courage, and justice. In general he presents these virtues as “the mean between the extremes.” A life of virtue (excellences of character) is the ideal for human life. [Like Plato he emphasizes moral and intellectual virtue.]

In contrast to the state of virtue [knowing, wanting, and doing the right thing] stand brutishness (vice) [which is to not know, want, or do the good]; badness (incontinence) [which is to not want or do the good, although one may know it] and lack of self-control (continence) [which it to not do the good, although one may want and know it. Unlike Socrates, who thought knowledge was sufficient for virtue (KSV) and Plato, who recognized inner conflict, Aristotle recognized how weakness of will implies that KSV is false. Knowing the good doesn’t mean one will do it.

Realization or Prescription: Political Expertise and Intellectual Contemplation – A key is that vice and virtue result from habits, which themselves are the result of past actions and environment, including the social and political environment. [Aristotle says that political science is the science which studies the good for humans.] This leads us to Aristotle’s conception of government and society. In brief Aristotle believed that societies can only survive and flourish if there is some basic agreement about issues of private morality. [It is hard to know his prescription for a pluralistic society like ours. The founders of the USA thought that individual moral and religious pluralism was allowable, as long as the public, secular good took precedence.]

As for his specific, ideal notion of the good life Aristotle contrasts lives of pleasure, honor, and intellectual reflection. Not surprisingly he felt the latter was superior. Intellectual contemplation he thought was the highest and best human activity. Needless to say the authors reject Aristotle’s belief that intellectual activity is higher than other worthwhile activities. [Plato argues that intellectual pleasures are better than physical ones. He says you can confirm this by asking someone who has experienced both types which they prefer. He argues they will always say intellectual pleasures are superior.] The authors also criticized Aristotle for not noting how much one’s station in life affects their ability to live well.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 9 – Aristotle – Part 1

Aristotle: The Ideal of Human Fulfillment

Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was a student of Plato’s and the tutor of Alexander the Great. Aristotle’s background in biological subjects made him more of an empiricist [truth discovered primarily by the senses] as compared to the mathematician Plato’s rationalism [truth discovered primarily by reason.] Aristotle attended Plato’s academy but founded his own school, the Lyceum, later in his life. [Both schools would exist, in some cases off and on, for between 500 and almost 1000 years.]

Aristotle wrote on an amazing range of topics including: logic, metaphysics, epistemology, astronomy, physics, meteorology, biology, psychology, ethics, politics, law, and poetics. [I think we can safely say that Aristotle influenced more subjects for a longer period of time than any thinker in the history of humanity. His scientific ideas were often false, but they were the received wisdom for 2000 years. His logic is still used and his influence in multiple areas of philosophy is still felt.] For our purposes we will mainly focus on the Nicomachean Ethics, based on lecture notes taken by his students.

Metaphysical Background: Forms as Properties, and the Four Kinds of Question – Aristotle is not a classical theist like Augustine or Aquinas, but he does have a conception of an unmoved mover, a changeless cause/sustainer of the processes of the universe. Again this is not a personal god who cares about human beings or is the object of worship. [It is more like a power or energy that keeps things in motion by attracting them toward it.]

Aristotle rejects Plato’s belief in independently existing forms. There is something common to things that share a concept x, but that essence/form/pattern/structure is embedded in thing itself. We don’t need to escape from a cave, but see clearly what is in it. [Everything is a composite of form and matter. The form is the pattern or structure of a thing and the matter is what makes something an individual thing. Everything in the world is a formed matter; that is matter in a certain form. You never find matter without form---which would be like a primordial goo---and you never find form without matter---with the exception of the unmoved mover. Some forms are very primitive—a brick is basically just the shape of heated clay—while others are very complicated---like that of a human being.]

But in what sense is the essence of catness shared by all cats? Is this form a thing or a quality? Does a given form like health or goodness apply to all healthy or good things? Aristotle thought not. You can be healthy or good in different ways so he doubted that there was a unitary form of goodness. Pleasure, honor, and wisdom may all be good, but they are good in different ways hence there is no single form of goodness.

Another way of understanding his metaphysics is to consider the 4 causes, four questions we can ask about a thing in order to understand it: 1) material cause—what something is made of? 2) formal cause—what kind of thing is it? 3) efficient cause—what caused it to exist? And 4) final cause—what is its purpose or function? [This works well to understand human artifacts like statues or books, but the idea of a final cause is harder to determine for people, much less for inanimate objects. Aristotle is expressing a teleological view of reality—the idea that nature is goal-oriented. [This view has been undermined and rejected by modern science.] But Aristotle’s analytic nature laid the groundwork for the analysis prevalent in modern philosophy.]

Theory of Human Nature: The Soul as a Set of Faculties, Including Rationality – Plato was a dualist who believed that we are composed of two substances, a material body and immaterial mind. Aristotle rejects this. [No wonder his views were so much harder to reconcile with Christianity than Plato’s.] As a biologist, Aristotle recognized that living things include plants as well as human and non-human animals. [He says that plants have a vegetative structure (a way of functioning) which is primarily about taking in nutrients, reproducing, and the like. Non-human animals have this structure plus a sensitive structure which uses senses to interact with the environment and initiates desires. Human animals add to this a rational structure which makes them unique.] Each different thing then has a different structure or form. This is its formal cause in his language. Thus some things have a richer or more complex form than other things.

Thus the form of something does not exist independently; it is not an entity in itself. Rather it is the specific pattern or structure or form of a thing which defines how it exists and functions. [It is different to be structured as a rock, tree, dog, or human.] Thus for Aristotle it makes no sense to talk of a soul or mind without a body, for the essence of a person is embedded and intertwined with their matter. You can’t take it out of the body. [And to think Roman Catholic natural law theory is Aristotelian through and through.]

The only exception is that divine intellectual functioning may take place without a body. Yet it is hard to see how this could be the case. For example even if computers think without bodies their thought still depends on material components. Disembodied thought is conceptually problematic, although many Christians and Islamists who followed Aristotle welcomed the possibility. As for ordinary embodied human beings Aristotle’s major distinction is between their rational component and their emotions and desires. He also distinguished between theoretical and practical reasoning.

Aristotle also held that humans are social and political creatures who have activities common to all.  He also thought that we can only reach our full development in societies. However he does not think that woman are rational creatures, and his remarks are quite disparaging toward them. Perhaps worst of all, Aristotle advocated a doctrine of natural slavery—the idea that some are naturally slaves. He thinks this is the status of non-Greek barbarians. Still we should not reject the rest of Aristotle’s thought because he was a misogynist, racist, and imperialist. [Aristotle’s doctrine of natural slavery heavily influenced the Catholic Spanish conquerors of the new world, many of whom used this doctrine to justify their horrific treatment of the people of the new world. For more see the disputations during that time held particularly at the University of Salamanca.]

The Transhumanist Party: Could It Change Our Political Future?

The noted transhumanist Zoltan Istvan recently published an article in the Huffington Post entitled: Should a Transhumanist Run for US President? Istvan is preparing to run for the Presidency of the United States in 2016, as a member of his newly formed Transhumanist Party, a political organization dedicated to using  science and technology improve human beings and their society. In addition to promoting ideals like prosperity and security his political agenda is as follows:

1) Attempt to do everything possible to make it so this country’s amazing scientists and technologists have resources to overcome human death and aging within 15-20 years—a goal an increasing number of leading scientists think is reachable.

2) Create a cultural mindset in America that embracing and producing radical technology and science is in the best interest of our nation and species.

3) Create national and global safeguards and programs that protect people against abusive technology and other possible planetary perils we might face as we transition into the transhumanist era.

Although the universal benefits of such goals are obvious, politicians ignore them. Instead “They’re more interested in landing your votes, in making you slave away at low-paying jobs, in keeping you addicted to shopping for Chinese-made trinkets, in forcing you to accept bandage medicine and its death culture, and in getting you to pay as much tax as possible for far-off wars (places where most of us will never step foot in).”

Istvan realizes that he will not get elected, and will have difficulty even getting on many state ballots, but he thinks the forming of the party is a start. “[I]f transhumanists—a growing group consisting of futurists, life extensionists, biohackers, technologists, singularitarians, cryonicists, techno-optimists, and many other scientific-minded people—are serious about the pending future, then it’s time to get involved in the political game …” And perhaps the time is right since the transhumanist movement is becoming more mainstream. “There are many employees at major tech companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google who subscribe to transhumanist aims. Transhumanist-themed conferences, groups, and even schools, like Singularity University, are popping up.”

I can personally attest to this rapid transformation. When I taught transhumanist themes in a world-class computer science department just ten years ago, the ideas were generally dismissed by both students and faculty. Now, with drone planes replacing jet pilots, AI and robotics progressing, Ray Kurzweil essentially Google’s thinker-in-chief, the idea of the singularity omnipresent in silicon valley, rapid advancement of self-driving cars, exoskeletons showing promise and more, I do feel somewhat vindicated. No, we haven’t yet reached a technological singularity, and any given prediction regarding the reality and benefits of a future technology is open to the vicissitudes of fortune and a thousand caveats. Still the inexorable transformation of our world unfolds before our eyes each day.

Yet although the pace of change is increasing exponentially, many still respond to the unfamiliar with ancient and uniformed dogma wired by genes and culture into their primate brains. This will not do. As we enter into this new world we need brains capable of greater intelligence and morality; we need to evolve; we need to transform. But this can only be accomplished in a social and political milieu that actively promotes the transhumanist goal of using science and technology to overcome all human limitations. I thus applaud Istvan’s potential foray into politics and I think we should support him.

Finally I echo Istvan’s concerns about mustering the political will to defeat death. There is no more important human project. As I wrote in most recent book, The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives:

Only if we can choose whether to live or die are we really free. Our lives are not our own if they can be taken from us without our consent, and, to the extent death can be delayed or prevented, further possibilities for meaning [in life] ensue. Perhaps with our hard-earned knowledge we can slay [what Nick Bostrom calls] the dragon tyrant, thereby opening up the possibility for more meaningful lives. This is perhaps the fundamental imperative for our species.

Note – This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, October 20, 2014.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 8 – Plato – Part 2

Plato: The Rule of Reason

Diagnosis – Persons differ as to which part of their nature is predominant. Individual dominated by reason seeks are philosophical and seek knowledge; individuals dominated by spirit/will/emotion are victory loving and seek reputation; individuals dominated by appetites are profit loving and seek material gain. Although each has a role to play, reason ought to rule the will and appetites. And in the same way those with the most developed reason ought to rule the society. A well-ordered, harmonious, or just society is one in which each kind of person plays their proper role.  Thus there is a parallel between proper functioning individuals and proper functioning societies. Good societies help produce good people who in turn help produce good societies, while bad societies tend to produce bad individuals who in turn help produce bad societies.

Plato differentiates between 5 classifications of societies. 1) The best is a meritocracy, where the talented rule. This may degenerate into increasingly bad forms, each one worse than the other as we go down the list. 2) The timarchic society, which values honor and fame while reason is neglected. In such a society spirit dominates the society and the ruling class. 3) Oligarchy, where money making is valued and political power lies with the wealthy. In such a society appetites dominate the society and the ruling class. 4) Democracy, where the poor seize power. They are also dominated by appetites. He describes the common people as “lacking in discipline [and] pursuing mere pleasure of the moment …” 5) Anarchy is the sequel to the permissiveness and self-indulgence of democracy.  It is the total lack of government. Plato thought this would usher in a tyrant to restore order.

Prescription – Justice is the same in both individuals and society—the harmonious workings of the parts to create a flourishing whole. But how is this attained? Plato believes that education—academic, musical, and physical—as the key. Education takes place in the context of a social and political system. Not surprisingly this includes kings (rulers) being philosophers, those in whom reason dominates. If there really is a truth about how people should live, then only those with such knowledge should rule. [Think of the parallels with Confucianism, where those who rule have mastered the Confucian political texts.]

To achieve this end Plato, the guardians or rulers must engage in a long educational process in which they learn about the Forms. [After a nearly 50 year long process, those of the highest moral and intellectual excellence will rule.] The guardians cannot own personal property and cannot have families. [The idea is that only the desire to serve the common good motivates them, rather than money or power.] He hopes that the guardians will so love wisdom that they will not misuse their power. As for those dominated by will/emotion/spirit they are best suited to being auxiliaries—soldiers, police, and civil servants. The final class is comprised of the majority, those in whom the appetites dominate. They will be farmers, craftsman, traders, and other producers of the materials necessary for living.

Critics have called Plato’s republic authoritarian or totalitarian, and Plato advocated both censorship and propaganda as means of maintaining social control.  He certainly believed that the masses [who he says like to “shop and spend”] were unable to govern the society, and that an elite, composed of the morally and intellectually excellent should make the important decisions about how best to govern a society.

The School of Athens

Review of David Benatar’s, Better Never to Have Been

Born rich                                                                              Born poor

David Benatar is professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. He is best known for his advocacy of antinatalism. His article, “Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence,” espouses the view that it is always a harm to be born. In addition he wrote a book on the same topic: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.

It is commonly assumed that we do nothing wrong bringing future people into existence if their lives will, on balance, be good. This assumes that being brought into existence is generally beneficial. In contrast Benatar argues that: “Being brought into existence is not a benefit but always a harm.” While most people maintain that living is beneficial as long as the benefits of life outweigh the evil, Benatar argues that this conclusion does not follow because: 1) pain is bad, and 2) pleasure is good; but 3) the absence of pain is always good whether people exist or not, whereas 4) the absence of pleasure is only bad if people exist to be denied it.

To support this asymmetry between 3 & 4 Benatar presents three arguments. The first is that: 1) while there is a duty not to bring people who will suffer into the world (supports 3), there is no duty to bring people who will be happy into the world (supports 4). Thus a lack of suffering is always good, whether or not someone enjoys this absence; whereas a lack of happiness is not always bad, unless people exist to be denied it.

His second argument is that though we think it strange to say we have children so they will benefit, we think it normal to say we should not have children because they will be harmed. We don’t think people should have as many children as they can so as to benefit those children, but we do think people should refrain from having children if this will cause them suffering.

His third argument to support the asymmetry is that while not having children may be bad or good for the living, not having been born cannot deprive those who have never been born of anything.

This fundamental asymmetry—suffering is an intrinsic harm, but the absence of pleasure is not—allows Benatar to draw his nihilistic conclusions. In other words, the amount by which the absence of pain is better than its presence is itself greater than the amount by which the presence of pleasure is better than its absence. This means that not existing is either a lot better than existing, in the case of pain, or a little worse, in the case of pleasure. Or to think of it another way, the absence of pain and the presence of pleasure are both good, but the presence of pain is much worse than the absence of pleasure. (Here is my own thought experiment that might help. Suppose that before you were born the gods were trying to decide whether to create you. If they decide to create you, you will suffer much if you have a bad life or a gain greatly if you have a good life. If they decide not to create you, you will gain greatly by avoiding a bad life, but suffer only slightly if at all by not existing—as you wouldn’t know what you had been deprived of.)

To further his argument, Benatar notes that most persons underestimate how much suffering they will endure. If their lives are going better than most, they count themselves lucky. Consider death. It is a tragedy at any age, and only seems acceptable at ninety years of age because of our expectations about life-spans. But is lamenting death inconsistent with his anitnatalism? Benatar thinks not. While non-existence does not harm a possible person, death is another harm that will come to those in existence. In response you could say that you can’t be mistaken about whether you prefer existence to non-existence. Benatar grants that you may not be mistaken, if you claim that you are currently glad to have been born, but you could still be mistaken that it was better to have been born at all. You might now be glad you were born, and then suffer so badly later that you change your mind. (I might wish I hadn’t been born, after I find out what’s in store for me.)

What follows from all this? That we shouldn’t have children? That no one should have children? Benatar claims that to answer yes to these questions goes against a basic drive to reproduce, so we must be careful not to let such drives bias our analysis. Having children satisfies many needs of those who bring children into existence, but this does not mean it serves the interests of the children—in fact it causes them great harm. One could reply that the harm is not that great to the children, since the benefits of existing may outweigh the harm, and, at any rate, we cannot ask future persons if they want to be born. Since we enjoy our lives we assume they will too, thus providing the justification for satisfying our procreational needs. Most people do not regret their existence, and if some do we could not have foreseen it.

But might we be deceiving ourselves about how good life is? Most of us assume life would be unbearable if we were in certain situations. But often, when we find ourselves in these situations, we adapt. Could it be that we have adapted to a relatively unbearable life now? Benatar says that a superior species might look at our species with sympathy for our sorry state. And the reason we deceive ourselves is that we have been wired by evolution to think this way—it aids our survival. Benatar views people’s claims about the benefits of life skeptically, just as he would the ruminations of the slave who claims to prefer slavery to death. Benatar concludes by saying: “One implication of my view is that it would be preferable for our species to die out.” He claims that it would be heroic if people quit having children so that no one would suffer in the future. You may think it tragic to allow the human race to die out, but it would be hard to explain this by appealing to the interests of potential people. He concludes that it is better never to come into existence, as being born is always a harm.

Reflections – Benatar relies on an asymmetry to claim that it is better never to have been born, and it would be a good thing if the human race became extinct. The validity of this asymmetry is open to question. Yet despite its philosophical subtlety, it is hard to believe that Benatar believes his own argument. Can one really prefer eternal nothingness to the possibility of a good or bad life? If I prefer to remain alive, I am not implicitly accepting that life is better than non-life? Does it really make sense to dedicate a book to the parents who harmed you by bringing you into existence? Still, Benatar’s arguments are persuasive enough that I cannot find any knock-down arguments against them, although I urge caution against accepting philosophical prescriptions that, if followed, will result in the death of the species. Surely we ought to tread carefully here despite the power of Benatar’s claims.

I find this one of the deepest, most troubling, and hardest to evaluate pieces I’ve ever read. A possible answer might be to accept the truth of Benatar’s assertions regarding the history of cosmic evolution to the present—so far pain and unhappiness have outweighed their opposites and so far it would have been better never to have been—but suggest that a glorious future is in store for our descendents. This future will make the long, painful struggle of life and consciousness ultimately worth it. Thus the end state will be so rewarding that we can say, in retrospect, that it was better to have been.

Still this kind of eschatological talk scares me, inasmuch as it relies on a future that may not transpire. It also implies that somehow the future will justify past suffering. If this justification depends upon an eternal plan, then the eternal planner is exceptionally evil. As Dostoevsky said, the torture of a single child cannot be justified by a good future. But if reality was a matter of happenstance, and if all those who previously suffered somehow partake in this better future, then one might justifiably conclude that, on balance, it was better that consciousness arose.

Still I don’t know if my argument works against Benatar, and the whole question strains my limited intellectual faculties. Perhaps we just have to hope that life is worth living. But then this is really no answer either. As for me, I now find my life to be quite worthwhile. However, if at some point in the future that it not the case , then I hope to have the option to end my life without help, or be able to get help ending it if necessary. I also hope that my family reads the pieces I have written on this topic, as well as consult my end of life documents. Until then, I want to follow the advice of Thoreau:

… to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life …

Henry David Thoreau

Note – This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, October 13, 2014

The Allegory of the Cave, The Divided Line, The Myth of the Sun

As I said in yesterday’s post, Plato used three images to explain his theory of the Forms. The first was the myth of the cave.

The chained prisoner’s tied see only the wall in front of them while in the roadway behind them various objects are carried back and forth resulting in the shadows on the wall. One day a prisoner breaks free and see the objects behind him. He knows there is something more real and he has more knowledge of his reality. Eventually he makes his way out of the cave and see objects in the sunlight, and then he sees the sun itself.

The allegory this refers to his leaving behind the impermanent, material world for the permanent intelligible world. It is a story about the human journey from darkness to light, from sleeping to waking, from ignorance to knowledge. For Christians like St. Augustine it represented the souls journey from this world to the heavenly one. Contemporary commentators often argue that has something to say to us. We look at our televisions, smart phones, and computer screens rather than contemplating eternal things.

Plato’s next device to explain forms was the divided line.

As move from top to bottom you find more reality and more knowledge. For example suppose you only know the shadow of a horse, in that are at the bottom (A). The shadow has very little reality—it depends on the horse casting the shadow—and it provides little knowledge. If you now see an actual horse you have moved up one level (B). You know more about horses and the actual horse has more reality than its shadow. If you move further upward to (C) you are in the realm of understanding, the realm of mathematical ideas. Finally as you proceed upward you arrive at the world of forms (D), the highest of which is the form of the good.

Finally Plato says that just as the sun illuminates the entire physical world so too, by analogy, does the idea of the good illuminate all of reality. Thus the entire material, temporal world that we usually see is less real than the immaterial, non-temporal.

I don’t know if I hope Plato is right or not. But if he is, then dinner is not that important.