Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 23 – Darwin – Part 3

Evolutionary Theory, Stage III: The Return to Human Nature

Genes and Memes –  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s evolutionary was further confirmed and understood at greater depths than ever before. Mathematical insights shed light on adaptation, kin selection [altruism toward close relatives], reciprocal altruism [directed toward away from relatives even toward other species], and the relevance of game theory to evolving populations [for example, non-human animals often find themselves in situations with the structure of a prisoner’s dilemma.]

 Richard Dawkins

This research meant that evolution could be understood at the level of the gene, an idea popularized by Richard Dawkins in his famous book, The Selfish Gene. The very title of the book helps us see evolution in terms of the competition of genes trying to survive. [With today’s mathematical modeling we can understand this in great detail.] At the end of the book Dawkins argued that culture evolves analogously to biology only much faster. The elements of culture that are selected for are ideas, beliefs, practices, fashions, etc. Dawkins called these “memes.” Some memes catch on and survive–say a belief in gods or immortality or wings for aircraft—while others go extinct—like the idea of celibacy for everyone or wings attached to your arms. Like genes, memes are transferred from person to person, only rather than being transferred from one body to another they are transfer from one brain to another. This means you can spread memes must faster than you can spread genes. Cultural evolution is very fast while biological evolution proceeds very slowly. [Cultural evolution also seems to be guided by Lamarckian “inheritance of acquired characteristics.” You inherit your religious or sports team loyalties from say your parents, who acquired them.]

Niko Tinbergen

The Rise of Ethology – In the mid-twentieth century a new discipline arose, ethology, which studies animal behavior in its natural environment. The key finding was that much behavior is physiologically innate or hard-wired. Many behaviors in animals can’t be explained by environmental conditioning. They exist independent of experience or learning, they are fixed. It seems evolution has designed species-wide behaviors. Regarding animal behavior, the great ethologist Niko Tinbergen asked four questions and provided answers to each.

1) What is the internal physiological cause of a behavior? Answer. Muscle contractions, hormone secretions, etc.
2) What development or experience of the individual prepared the way for that behavior? Answer. Fetal development, growth patterns like hormone changes, or previous learning.
3) What is the function of the behavior? Answer. To survive, reproduce, escape predators, reinforce pair-bonds, etc.
4) What is the evolutionary history of the behavior? Answer. Sometimes the function of behaviors changes over time, and ethologists try to distinguish 3 form 4.

Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz (1903 -1989) became famous for studying animal behavior, especially the imprinting of ducks to the first moving thing they see. He assumed imprinting was an innate feature of many animals, but he reached this conclusion too easily—how does one know which traits are learned and which are innate? Moreover if an anti-social behavior is innate, can it be eradicated or are we stuck with it? Lorenz did believe in group selection, but as we have seen the level or levels at which selection operates is still open to debate.

Noam Chomsky

Chomsky and Cognitive Psychology –  While B.F. Skinner thought that language could be explained by the social environment, the linguist Noam Chomsky showed that human facility with language is different from other animal behaviors.  All normal humans can learn language and no animal language approaches the complexity of human language. Even chimps who use sign language fall far short of human language. Chomsky famously argued that the speed at which infants learn language and grammatical  rules suggests that a capacity for language is innate. There is a universal human grammar, and it is a result of our evolutionary history. [This has been the most influential idea in 20th century linguistics.] In short, our facility with language is an evolutionary adaptation, a feature selected for in our long evolutionary history. Language aids survival. Today research on this topic is pursued by linguists, neuroscientists, and evolutionary biologists.

[Today Chomsky is known mostly as a political philosopher and social critic, especially as a critic of American domestic and foreign policy. Despite writing voluminously on political topics, despite a fearless desire to debate anyone, anywhere, you will almost never see him on TV or noted in the mass media. His ideas are generally censored from the masses. Here is a collection of his essays: Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013.]

E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson and Sociobiology – But if language has a strong evolutionary component, then wouldn’t other human behaviors? The Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson was the first to argue convincingly and vehemently that the humanities and social sciences can be reduced to biology, and that all this leads to the new science of sociobiology. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, On Human Nature, Wilson offers biological explanations for human social behaviors like aggression, sex, ethics, and religion. [I think this is one of the most important books of the 20th century. And it is eminently readable.] Needless to say Wilson’s ideas have provoked controversy, especially from social scientists who don’t want to believe their fields can be biologized. Moreover they fear that Wilson’s views give support to those who would misuse them for racist or sexist views. Even some biologists believe he is underestimating the influence of culture. The political implications of Wilson’s theories are thought by some to be so controversial, that this grey-haired grandfather once had a bucket of water dumped on his head at a conference!

But Wilson’s detractors were wrong. He clearly saw that both biology and culture as influential on human nature, and he made this clear to anyone who read his books carefully. In fact he wrote an entire book on gene-culture coevolution. Still he may have been right when he said that, for the moment, “genes hold culture on a leash.” We are not that far removed from our evolutionary past; its imprint is apparent in our behaviors.

Cosmides/Tooby and the Integrated Causal Model – What Wilson called sociobiology goes by other names like evolutionary psychology or evolutionary anthropology. This school of thought applies Darwinian insights to the human mind and human behaviors. Key premises are: 1) universal human nature refers primarily to evolved psychological mechanisms; 2) these mechanisms are adaptations selected for over many generations that helped us survive and reproduce, (remember though what was formerly adaptive and what is now adapted can be different—going to college may now be adaptive, aggression may no longer be); 3) our minds contain adaptations from distant ancestors, all the way back to the Pleistocene. This final point has been challenged by evidence that genes may evolve faster than previously thought.

Cosmides and Tooby

Cosmides and Tooby, an anthropologist and psychologist respectively, also critique the standard social science emphasis on the environmental factors. Because social scientists fear racist and sexist ideologies, they argue, they have been blind to the overwhelming evidence for evolutionarily produced cognitive mechanisms. Like Wilson they propose that a complex web of causal factors produced human nature. Behind any human phenomena is 1) natural selection operating over eons of time producing innate cognitive structures; 2) historical development; 3) unique genes as the result of sexual reproduction; 4) physical, cultural, and social environments; and 5) information processing which leads to beliefs and desires.

What all this means is that there are innate mental modules resulting from natural selection that operated on our distant ancestors, especially regarding factors relevant to reproductive fitness like perception, language, cooperation, mate selection, parental care. [Harvard’s Steven Pinker and Rutgers’ Helen Fischer both write about these issues for popular audiences.] Still all of this is open to further investigation. Human nature is complex and there is much more to be learned.

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love

Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love

Final Thoughts

Darwin himself was a scientist who was unafraid of the truth:

[Humans in their] arrogance think [themselves] a great work worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider [them] created from animals. 

Yet at the same time he was an artist who saw beauty in that truth:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

It is hard to ask much more of a human being.

Charles Darwin and his wife Emma Wedgewood


Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 22 – Darwin – Part 2

Evolutionary Theory, Stage II: The Reaction Against Biological Accounts of Human Nature

Gregor Mendel

The Genetic Basis of Heredity – Darwin knew that there are variations between individuals and that these variations are inherited, but he didn’t know the mechanism of inheritance. This mechanism was discovered by Gregor Mendel who figured out that distinct casual factors—what we call genes—are passed from parents to offspring. We now know that sometimes genes change or mutate randomly, which accounts for genetic variation. Putting Mendelian genetics together with Darwinian natural selection along with precise mathematically modeling resulted in the “modern synthesis.” [This feat accomplished during the 1930s and 1940s is one of the greatest scientific achievements of all time.] To make the ideas even stronger, the biochemical basis of gene copying was uncovered with the discovery of DNA in 1953 by Crick and Watson. This ushered in the era of molecular biology, so that we now understand evolution at a molecular level that Darwin couldn’t imagine. Today, in laboratories around the world, biological evolution is confirmed over and over every single day! Over and over and over; day after day after day! 

Crick & Watson

Eugenics, Racism, and Sexism – Many were led to the conclusion that evolution implied that there are innate differences between individuals, sexes, or races. Perhaps this implies that we should let the physically or mentally weak die or at least keep them from breeding. This led to the idea of eugenics, the study of how to produce fit offspring. In the early twentieth century much of the western world was enamored with this idea. Yet even if this was ethically acceptable, it is practically impossible to know who has “bad” genes. Moreover such judgments, as Darwin himself realized, were sociological not biological. What we call different races are all the same species. Racism and sexism all emanate from prejudice against groups with no biological justification for such prejudice. [Race is not a justifiable biological concept. More genetic diversity exists within populations than between them.]

The Reaction in Favor of Culture and Education: Intelligence Tests, Sociology, and Anthropology – Many went further to suggest that woman and some racial groups were intellectually inferior to white men. But this raises a number of questions. Is there some single thing called intelligence that can be measured? Even if there were how would it be measured. Are there different kinds of intelligence, say social or moral intelligence as compared to simply being good at math or language? And even if we had tests to measure this supposed intelligence how do we know if the results are due to innate ability or social opportunities? Today the whole idea of intelligence measurement is controversial.

Moreover the burgeoning social sciences of the 19th century placed more emphasis on the influence of culture rather than biology to explain human behavior. (With the exception of some basic biological functioning.) Social scientists generally say that facts about human beings are: 1) physical; 2) psychological; and 3) social/cultural. Most importantly social facts are not reducible to psychological or physical facts. This means that social facts really exist just as physical things do. [There really are such things as sub-cultures or societies.] Social facts are facts about wholes that cannot be reduced to their parts. [Society is not just a collection of individuals.] The social world strongly affects the individual. Culture is not reducible to biology. [If you were raised in a non-English speaking culture, you would probably not have learned English.] However none of this implies cultural relativism. Some cultures may be better than others, at least in certain ways.

John B. Watson

The Reaction Against Instinct Theory: Behaviorist Psychology – There was also a reaction against supposedly Darwinian ideas in psychology, especially the idea of instincts. To put psychology on a more scientific basis John B. Watson (1878-1958) proposed that psychology study observable behaviors and reject appeal to vague notions like instincts, intentions, or other mental states. He was so adamant about the influence of the environment that he thought he could make any healthy child a world-class scholar, musician, or athlete if the right environment were provided. This program was carried forth by B.F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) at Harvard. Skinner argued the environment selects behaviors by rewarding them, or eliminates behaviors by punishing them. [Classical and operate conditioning.] In other words Skinner emphasized that behavior was explained by environmental causes. While there is some truth in all this, studies of identical twins reared apart—who share identical genomes—reveal the strong influence on the biological as compared to the environmental.

B.F. Skinner

Because of the perversions of social Darwinism, racism, sexism and all the other immoral ideas attached to Darwinism, the biology of human nature was ignored until the 1960s. And while we acknowledge the horrors of racism and sexism and social Darwinism, we should also not ignore facts about our biology. In the last few decades, a new wave of thinkers rediscovered and extended the Darwinian paradigm further than Darwin could ever imagine. They have brought about a scientific revolution. We now turn to these ideas.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 21 – Darwin – Part 1

(I am teaching the course “Philosophy of the Human Person” at a local university. These are my notes of the primary text for the course, Twelve Theories of Human Nature. )

Darwinian Theories of Human Nature

What does modern biology say about human nature? To understand the answer to this question let us look the history of evolutionary ideas.

Evolutionary Theory, Stage I: Darwin and his Contemporaries – Before Darwin came along scientists in the 18th and 19th century realized the world was much older than the Judeo-Christian tradition had assumed. Geologists like Charles Lyell realized that layers of rocks or soil were formed by processes like eruption, sedimentation, and erosion over vast periods of time. Scientists before Darwin had also discovered fossils of creatures that no longer existed. Many thinkers, including Darwin’s Grandfather Erasmus Darwin, had realized that the organisms that exist now had come from predecessors through a series of small changes. [Even some pre-Socratic philosophers had theories of evolution.]

Darwin on Natural Selection – Of course it is one  thing to realize that something had happened but quite another to show how it had happened. What Darwin realized was that natural selection was the mechanism for evolution. The most prominent theory about how this had happened before was Lamarck’s theory. Lamarck believed in the “inheritance of acquired characteristics.” If animals, for example, stretch their necks they might pass on long necks to their offspring. [Or if you lift weights you might pass on your muscles to your offspring.] Darwin, who came to Cambridge to study first medicine and then theology, found himself most fascinated with biology and geology—which led to his getting a position as the naturalist about the HMS Beagle on its five-year trip around the world.

During his excursion he found bones of huge, extinct animals, the fossilized remains of sea creatures, an earthquake in Chile that uplifted earth, and other evidence of the processes of geological change. And of course he saw the birds and other animals in the Galapagos Islands, which were similar to those of the mainland but differed from one island to another. Even the beaks of little finches differed from one island to the other, in each case so as to help them get food on that island. Shortly after his return to England he came up with the idea of natural selection, but he did not publish the idea for almost twenty years since they were so controversial. Finally, after Alfred Wallace had arrived at the same conclusions, his friends encouraged him to publish so that he could get the credit.

The basic idea of evolution can be logically deduced from 4 basic empirical facts:

1) Variation of traits exists among individuals in a given species [look at other humans]

2) Traits of parents are passed on to offspring [look at people’s parents]

You can easily see both of the above by looking around you. This is how we have bred animals and plants for thousands of years. Just like humans artificially select to modify species—hence all those different dogs walking around—so too does nature select. And that’s called natural selection. Here are the other two facts:

3) The population of a species can increase quickly, and

4) An environment’s resources typically cannot support such increases.

Fact #3 can be confirmed when you realize that any pair of organisms can produce more than two offspring, in some cases thousands of offspring. Along with fact #4, this means that only a small portion of offspring reach maturity and reproduce, and that there is a competition to survive and reproduce. Given fact #1 we can logically infer that some individuals, because of their differences, have a better chance to survive and leave offspring than other individuals. Thus the traits of those individuals that reproduce will be passed on. This means that the characteristic of populations gradually change and, given enough time, this will lead to new species. All you need is natural selection working on individuals with different traits. (Darwin also recognized sexual selection, the process of selecting for traits that help individuals reproduce—color of birds, antlers of the stag, or a peacock’s tail.)The Origin of Species is basically 700 pages of evidence to support his logical inference—evidence from selective breeding, natural history, paleontology, and more.

Darwin on Human Evolution – While others immediately saw the implications of his theory for human bodies, Darwin waited another 12 years to publish The Descent of Man. In it he used anatomical, medical, embryological, and behavioral evidence to support the thesis that the human body has a common ancestry with other animals. Today biological evolution is acknowledged as a fact beyond any reasonable doubt by biologists. The overwhelming evidence for this today comes from literally dozens of sciences including but not limited to: comparative anatomy, botany, embryology, biochemistry, genetics, anthropology, geology, molecular biology, chemistry, mathematics, population ecology, zoology, and more. This is as well established as anything in science.

[Evolution is as well established as that gravity or atoms exist! It is every bit as certain as that the earth is (roughly) round and goes around the sun! Anyone who tells you that evolution is false is either a) lying; or b) scientifically illiterate. The only way to imagine it is false is if intelligent aliens or deceptive gods are playing tricks with our minds! But you don’t have to trust me. Here is a link to a statement  on the issue from the National Academy of Sciences, the most important scientific body in the world. You could also visit hundreds of other scientific websites to confirm this claim. Even better, major in biology at a good university and you can learn to understand this fact first hand. ]

Social Darwinism – But what are the social, ethical, or religious implications of the theory? Specifically, can a scientific fact imply anything about values? Can you get an ought from an is? It seems not. For example, it may be a scientific fact that penicillin cures certain bacterial infections, but that doesn’t mean that you ought to take penicillin (unless you value health.) Or it may be a fact that large amounts of energy are released when we split atoms, but that doesn’t imply that you ought to split atoms. Similarly the fact of evolution doesn’t tell us what we ought to do. (Defenders of this view say that those who think you can get facts from values commit the naturalistic fallacy.)

Still others say that since evolution implies the most biologically fit survive and reproduce, and since biological success might be thought of as the ultimate value, those who survive must be the most valuable. They take Darwinism to imply that we should do everything we can to survive, that greed is good, etc. [Not surprisingly Ayn Rand, the matron of today’s Republican Party in the USA, titled her work on ethics: The Virtue of Selfishness.] In other words those who survive are not the biological fittest, but basically the fittest in a larger sense. [In the USA today this is generally taken to mean those with the most money.]

This also implies that charity, health-care, social security, public education, child care, etc are pointless. You must let the inferior die; they cannot possibly be as valuable as the idle rich! Many thinkers in the USA in the 19th century adopted this attitude, and it was as common among the robber barons at that time as it is among large elements of today’s Republican Party in America. It advocates competition to weed out the 47% who are Ayn Rand’s or Mitt Romney’s or US Senator Paul Ryan’s moochers. It is but a small step from social Darwinism to racism and genocide. But it doesn’t follow that those who are biologically fit—like cockroaches—are morally, artistically, intellectually, spiritually, or psychologically fit. Those who have the most children or the most money aren’t necessarily the best in other ways. And social Darwinism was not Darwin’s idea, nor did he subscribe to it. The idea came from the philosopher Herbert Spencer, and was embraced by the wealthy in America in the 19th century, as it still in large part is. [How ironic that so many of the opponents of biological Darwinism in the American political arena, primarily from the right, are supporters of social Darwinism. They disbelieve what we know to be true, and believe what we know to be false.]

Darwin’s Own Values – Darwin suggested that not only had human bodies evolved from lower forms, but so too had our intelligence, language, emotions, morality and religion. [Today we know that Darwin was right about all this. He was, I believe, the most important human being who has yet lived.] Darwin knew he was speculating by extending evolution from human bodies to their minds and behaviors. And some of his ideas, especially about selection operating at the level of the group—group selection—are still matters of controversy today. [Yes there are controversies about how evolution happened, but none about that it happened.] He also realized that culture as well as biology influenced ethical values and religious beliefs. Darwin believed that human sympathy and compassion were noble. By all accounts he was a humble man, dedicated father, and affectionate husband.

The reply to social Darwinism is that evolution has given us sympathy and concern for our fellows, and the intelligence to make a just and moral world. This is every bit as natural as a survival of the fittest. But in the end the appeal to the ethics of Kant or Marx or Christianity at its best goes well beyond any biological imperative. As for religion, many pages have been spilled on the issue of Darwin’s religious beliefs. But anyone serious about discovering his views will conclude that by the end of his life he was almost certainly a closet atheist. He had come a long way from preparing for the clergy as a young man.

Charles Robert Darwin is buried in the north aisle of the nave of Westminster Abbey, not far from Sir Isaac Newton.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 20 – Sartre – Part 2

Diagnosis: Anguish and Bad Faith, Conflict with Others – Freedom brings anxiety which we try to avoid by denying our freedom. But we cannot escape freedom, we must choose, we are condemned to be free. [Think about the anxiety of choice. What job should I do? Who should I marry? Where should I live? What should I believe?] A way out of choice is to imagine we must believe this or do that, to act in bad faith in Sartre’s language. This is a kind of self-deception where we imagine that our thoughts and actions are determined when they are up to us. [You could be an axe murderer or join the Peace Corps. You could be an atheist or a join a religious order. You could do or think whatever you want.] In Sartre’s famous examples a woman acts in bad faith when she doesn’t recognize her freedom to resist a man’s advances; and the waiter acts in bad faith when he assumes, if he does, that he must act like a waiter. The woman is not an object to be seduced and the man is not essentially a waiter. Actions and beliefs are sustained by our choices.

Sartre rejects that bad faith could be explained by Freudian repression. Is there a censor in the mind that represses? If so it must decide what to repress and what not to, so it must be aware of what’s repressed so as not to be aware of it. Bad faith then describes a whole person, not some part of their mind. But to say one is sincere or has good faith is also problematic because again, we are not essentially anything. If I act gay, shy or arrogant there is still a distinction being made between the self doing the describing and the self that is described. But we cannot be described because we are not artifacts. So I am not essentially shy, gay, or arrogant. To say so is to act in bad faith. [Sartre says you choose to be gay, shy or arrogant.] While this is all perplexing, the key and best idea in Sartre is that we can always be different from we are, which is probably a good thing to believe.

Sartre does think we can justifiably infer that other people have minds. [Some thinkers argue that we can’t know this.] When others look at us we know we are being observed, hence we experience emotions like shame, embarrassment or pride. Sartre also argues that relationships between conscious people are necessarily ones of conflict. Other people look at us and objectify us, thereby threatening our freedom. In response we might try to control others by treating them as objects. So Sartre believes that Hegel was right; all human relationships are master/slave relationships that depend on differences in power. Sartre believed that master/slave relationships were expressed in sexual desires, and he also thought that we couldn’t really respect the freedom of other people. This is Sartre at his bleakest. [When you read Sartre you often feel that he just had a fight with his longtime lover, companion, and intellectual giant, Simone de Beauvoir.]

Prescription: Reflective Choice – Sartre rejected objective values—values are wholly subjective. So there is no specific way of life or course of action he can recommend. What he can do is condemn bad faith and praise making choices with an awareness that nothing determines them. This means accepting responsibility for our actions, beliefs and everything else about ourselves, while rejecting the idea that there are objective values to which we must adhere. [Sartre, following Marx, ascribes the latter to the ruling classes for whom the status quo works.]

Sartre illustrates how objective values [or ethical theories] don’t help us in situations where we must freely choose. In a famous story he asks: should a man go off to fight the Nazis or stay home and care for his mother? No moral theory, intuition, or emotion tells you what to do. You must simply exercise your freedom and choose. [To say that some moral principle forces you to do one thing or another is to act in bad faith, it denies your freedom.] Sartre is partly right that no moral theory answers every moral question, but that seems different from saying you should do whatever you want.

What Sartre says we should do is act authentically. We should act recognizing that we are free to act in many different ways, and we are responsible for our actions. Today Sartre’s assertion flies in the face of research about how much of our mental processes are unknown to us consciously. [Not to mention the influence of genes and environment on our behavior.] But Sartre maintains that to have self-knowledge entails understanding the reasons, not the causes, of our actions and beliefs. He also thinks that people must choose their own values and create their own meaning in life. But is authentic choice all there is to it? If so it would seem Sartre has to commend dedicated Nazis, compulsive child tortures, or sadists like Cheney, Yoo, Addington, Rumsfeld and other members of the George W. Bush administration who approved torture. Also, Sartre would have to condemn someone who does apparently good things because they believe in objective values. But does that make those things wrong? So an ethics which boils down to “just choose” is incomplete.

Authenticity and Freedom for Everyone – As Sartre’s thought developed he did come to see how freedom was situated within the contexts of facts about human beings—their facticity. Our freedom is limited by our bodies and our place in history and society [none of us will ever be born to Sam Walton and inherit about 20 billion dollars!] Some have the chance to go to Harvard or Oxford and become physicians or scholars, but most do not. So Sartre backtracked a bit from his claims about our radical freedom as his thought matured. He also advocated for social change. He believed that we might change the world by becoming  more godlike, by seeing ourselves as the only source of salvation and meaning in this world.

Sartre also came to believe that relationships with others could be authentic. If others sees you as free, they give some meaning to your life through that recognition. He even argues there can be authentic love. [Perhaps he was experiencing the wisdom and maturity that comes with age.] Still his most basic value was freedom, but not just the freedom that conscious beings have when they choose, “but the value judgment that every person ought to be able to exercise his or her freedom in concrete ways, and thus that human society should be changed in the direction of making this a reality for everyone.” To be authentic is to recognize the freedom of all people. And this obtains in a socialist, classless society where “all human beings will be able to express their freedom. Thus Sartre encourages us to use our freedom to change both ourselves and the world.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 19 – Sartre – Part 1

(I am teaching the course “Philosophy of the Human Person” at a local university. These are my notes of the primary text for the course, Twelve Theories of Human Nature. )

Sartre: Radical Freedom

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 -1980) was France’s most important philosopher for much of the twentieth-century as well as an important novelist and playwright. Sartre is classified as an existentialist. This means at least three things. Sartre is interested in: 1) the uniqueness of an individual life, not abstract theories about a shared human nature; 2) the meaning of life from a subjective point of view; and 3) the freedom to choose one’s projects, meanings, and values. To better grasp existentialism, here is a very brief sketch of some of a few of the philosophers who influenced Sartre.

The Danish Christian Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is usually thought of as the first existentialist, although there is an existential dimension in many previous Christian thinkers especially Augustine and Pascal. Like Marx, Kierkegaard reacted to Hegel’s philosophy, rejecting its abstruse metaphysics and focusing instead on individuals and their choices. Kierkegaard believed people generally choose one of the following as their basic attitude toward life: 1) they searched for pleasure; 2) committed to family, work, and social responsibility; or 3) concentrated on religion and the divine. The latter life is the best but it involves taking a “leap of faith.” [Kierkegaard writes of his agony about choices and their implications as passionately as anyone.] What is most important about Kierkegaard’s thought for existentialism is its turning away from objective truth to focus on subjective consciousness.

The other seminal figure in existentialism is the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 -1900), who is famous for declaring that “god is dead.” The idea is that religion no longer plays a very significant role in western culture, we have seen through its illusions, and we need to find the meaning of life without invoking gods. Nietzsche thinks we must create our own values, we must become supermen who reject conventional, religious values [“slave morality”] and exert our will to power [“master morality”] Nietzsche investigates subjective phenomena like  emotions, will and consciousness. [The most accessible introduction to existentialism that I know of is William Barrett’s Irrational Man.]

Sartre’s Life and Work – Much of Sartre’s work originates from and is influenced by his experiences as a Frenchman in Nazi occupied France. His focus on choice was surely influenced by the choice that the French faced: collaboration, resistance, or quiet self-preservation. He later became a Marxist, although he thought Marxist philosophy would benefit by emphasizing freedom. He joined the Communist Party in the early 1950s, although he left it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He was politically active later in life, supporting exploited workers, nascent political revolutions and condemning American aggression in Vietnam. In the first phase of his thinking, he focuses on individual freedom, and in the second, he explores the social and economic limits on human freedom. [It is if his early bedrock belief in freedom was shaken by the reality of the social and economic world.]

Metaphysics: Consciousness and Objects, Atheism – Sartre distinguishes human consciousness and inanimate non-consciousness. This is not a distinction between two different substances, it is not a mind/body dualism, but between “two modes of being.” One is the way conscious beings exist—being for itself—the other the way non-conscious things exist—being in itself. Consciousness is always about something, including sometimes itself, whereas inanimate things are not conscious. [He’s trying to get at what it is to be, to be conscious, to be human.] The other main foundation of Sartre’s thought is his thoroughgoing atheism. He assumed that there are no transcendent values, and no intrinsic meaning or purpose for our lives. Life is absurd, we are forlorn. We have to grow up and choose our own values and projects. The meaning of life isn’t something discovered, but something we create. We must give our lives meaning.

Theory of Human Nature: Existence and Essence, Negation and Freedom – Sartre doesn’t believe in a human nature or essence that precedes individuals. Rather our existence precedes our essence; we have to create our own essence. Nothing, not god or evolution, created us for any purpose other than the purposes we choose. Of course Sartre recognizes that we are biological beings, but there are no general truths about what we should or ought to be. The most basic thing we can say about humans is that they are radically free, to be anything except to not be free. [They can choose anything except choose not to choose.] In his words, we are “condemned to be free.” Consciousness is also aware that it is not the objects it ponders, that many things are not the case, and that we lack many things. The concept of nothingness or negation relates to freedom for Sartre. For the ability to conceive of what’s not the case—I could have done that—implies the freedom to imagine and choose other possibilities. In large part consciousness is this conceiving or desiring things to be different—not to be as they are. Negation implies freedom of mind and of action.”

Sartre rejects Freud’s psychic determinism as well as the idea of the unconscious. Sartre believes we choose our mental states like emotions. This may be true sometimes but other emotions, like concern and care, seem to be very much a part of our nature. He also thought that character traits are choices. I am not shy, I choose to be shy. While this may be partly true we now know enough about biology to know that it’s not the whole truth. Still Sartre thinks that our radical freedom is evident when we make resolutions. I say I won’t eat cookies starting Monday, but when Monday rolls around and I’m confronted with cookies—I face my freedom because my past resolution doesn’t constrain me. Confronting choices leads to angst or anguish. We don’t know what we will do or what to do. We can jump off a bridge, and we could throw our child off a bridge too. When we confront our freedom it brings anxiety.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 18 – Freud – Part 2

Prescription: Psychoanalytic Therapy – Freud hoped “that human problems could be diagnosed and ameliorated by the methods of science. His project was to restore a harmonious balance between parts of the mind and … to suggest a better balance between individuals and the social world.” Freud concentrated on the former—social reformers work on the latter—but he recognized the limits of working only with patients. Freud’s method, so well known to us today, tried to get his patients talking uninhibitedly about their past. When patients stopped talking, Freud thought he was close to some repressed memory or idea. He thought that by bringing this material to the awareness of the rational, conscious mind, one could defeat these harmful thoughts.

Freud realized this process could take years, but such “psychotherapy” could eventually bring greater harmony for troubled individuals. He also found that patients manifested strong feelings of love or hatred toward Freud himself. Thus was born the idea of “transference,” whereby emotions are projected onto the therapist. The goal of the therapy is self-knowledge. Patients may then: a) replace repression of instinctual wishes with rational self-control; b) divert them into acceptable behaviors; or c) even satisfy the wishes. But by bringing these passions to the surface one conquers them, they no longer will control the patient. [This is problematic. Might not one also become obsessed with these repressed memories or desires? Thereby allowing them even more control?] And Freud also thought that psychoanalysis could probably be applied to entire societies: “… our civilization imposes an almost intolerable pressure on us …” [For example what does it say about a country that always says it is #1 or the greatest country on earth, when by objective measures it’s clearly not the best place to live, does not have the happiest people, has a very high suicide rate, has the highest incarceration rates, etc.? Might Freud say the entire culture is neurotic?]

Critical Discussion: (A) Freud As Would-Be Scientist –  Is psychoanalytic theory scientific? Is it effective? Is it true?

Is it effective? – It is hard to judge the effectiveness of psychoanalysis for many reasons. First understanding the causes of maladaptive behaviors or thoughts—say abuse in childhood—does not imply that one can change it. Some things may be impossible to undo and we have to accept or control them as best we can. Second even if psychoanalysis works, it might be misapplied in practice. Third what constitutes a cure is vague. Fourth how can we compare different neurotic patients, or establish control groups to compare them to? Generally we rely on anecdotal evidence about the effectiveness of therapy, which is by definition not scientific.

Is it true? – Testability is fundamental for a theory to have scientific status, so we must ask whether these theories are testable before we can know if they are true. Freud’s theorizing is speculative, going beyond the evidence, so it is not clear how it is testable. For example, Freud thought dreams were typically to be understood as wish-fulfillment. Even if this is true what are its causes? Are they mental or physical? Are dreams significant or just cognitive noise? Can we test the idea that the cause of a dream is a wish? Can we test that the unconscious is the cause of a slip of the tongue, a Freudian slip? Isn’t psychoanalytic theory just a way to understand people by interpreting meaning into what they say, do, and dream? In large part it seems so.

Is it scientific? – Now consider the idea of unconscious mental states. Is it a testable idea? Does it explain or predict human behavior? If not it is not scientific. It is similar to our attributing conscious states to explain thoughts and behaviors. [Many scientists think this is just a kind of “folk” psychology, explanations that aren’t really scientific ones.] Moreover Freud does more than just postulate unconscious states, he says the process of repression pushes thoughts into the unconscious. But who or what does this repressing? Is this another consciousness? Is there a consciousness within a consciousness? We can raise serious doubts about the scientific status of the Freudian project.

Defenders reply that psychoanalytic theory is not so much a scientific hypotheses as a hermeneutic (interpretation), a way to understand the meaning of people’s actions, words, dreams, neuroses, etc. So we shouldn’t criticize it for being less precise than physics or chemistry. People are more complicated than atoms. Perhaps interpreting people’s thoughts and behaviors is more art than science. Maybe a good psychotherapist is particularly good at understanding human motivation, they have a knack for it. Still it seems that interpretations should be backed up with evidence before we accept them as good interpretations. Perhaps this view of Freudian psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic can be supported by the distinction between reasons and causes. Perhaps the unconscious is not a physical cause but a psychological reason for behavior. Or perhaps unconscious beliefs and desires are both causes and reasons. These are deep philosophical questions.

As for Freudian drives, how many there are? How do we distinguished from one another? How do we know that some drive, say a sexual one, is behind different behaviors, say artistic expression? We can sometimes be self-destructive, but does this imply we have a death instinct? None of this is clear. The extent to which this is all scientific is problematic.

Critical Discussion: (B) Freud As Moralist – All human behaviors don’t seem driven by bodily needs. But Freud thought that our behavior shows that we operate according to “the pleasure principle.” We generally seek satisfaction of our impulses. But this makes us seem like non-human animals despite the fact that we derive satisfaction from, for example, the intellectual and artistic. Freud replied that these “satisfactions are mild” compared to eating, drinking, and sex. Moreover the higher satisfactions are available only to those with rare gifts he thought. But what of the satisfaction of friendship, parenting, music and more which are more reliable and lasting forms of satisfaction?  [Both Plato or John Stuart Mill make qualitative distinctions between pleasures. Both thought the intellectual were preferable to the physical.] Perhaps Freud’s views were colored by the physical pain he endured and the world war through which he lived.

But Freud was not one to offer an overly optimistic view of reality. For example he saw “religious belief as a projection onto the universe of our childhood attitudes to our parents: we would like to believe that our Heavenly Father … is also in benevolent control of our lives …” Of course that fact that religion has its origins in childhood doesn’t mean that it’s false but Freud himself was an atheist who thought religion was generally bad for society. Freud thought religion appealed to the emotions not reason; it was an illusion created by humans because they couldn’t face the bleakness of life. It could best be understood as wish-fulfillment. We believe god, souls and immortality because we wish they are real.

The Future of an Illusion 

Freud also believed that saintly, selfless behavior as well as artistic or scientific activity derived their energy from suppressed sexual instincts. Needless to say this biological theory of human motivation is highly speculative. Human are often bored even if their physical needs are met. But Freud thought that most humans are motivated by pleasure and thus they may need Platonic-like guardians to run the society.

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 17 – Freud – Part 1

Freud: The Unconscious Basis of Mind

(I am teaching the course “Philosophy of the Human Person” at a local university. These are my notes of the primary text for the course, Twelve Theories of Human Nature. )

“Freud’s psychoanalytic approach to the mind revolutionized our understanding of human nature in the first half of the twentieth-century.” Freud (1856 – 1939) grew up in Vienna where he lived until the last year of his life. He was an outstanding student with a broad range of academic interests, he attended the University of Vienna medical school, and worked as a physician before setting up a private practice in nervous disorders at the age of thirty. He continued that work for the rest of his life.

In the first phase of his intellectual career “he put forth some original hypotheses about the nature of neurotic problems, and began to develop his distinctive method of treatment, which came to be known as psychoanalysis.” From his early experiences conducted with middle-class Viennese woman, Freud hypothesized that emotional symptoms had their roots in a long-forgotten emotional trauma that needed to be recalled so that the emotions associated with it could be discharged. [This mechanical model is itself problematic. Do humans build up pressure like machines? Is there a better model to describe them?] This was the beginning of the idea of psychoanalysis. Freud also found that in many cases that patients reported their trauma originated in sexual abuse—although he was uncertain how often these reports were reliable. Freud postulated that psychology had a physical basis in the brain, but neurophysiology was not developed enough at the time to confirm this.

Around the turn of the century he also began to formulate theories about sexual development and the interpretation of dreams. Ideas common to our lexicon would subsequently spring up—resistance, repression, and transference. Such ideas were applied to everyone’s mental life, giving birth to a new psychological theory. Starting around 1920, Freud changed his theories introducing the death and life instincts, as well as his division of the mind into the id, ego, and superego. In his later years he wrote his most philosophical works. The Future of an Illusion regarded religion “as a system of false beliefs whose deep infantile root in our minds can be explained psychoanalytically.” While Civilization and Its Discontents “discussed the alleged conflict between individual drives and the morals of civilized society.”

The Future of an Illusion  Civilization and Its Discontents

Freud escaped Austria right before the start of World War II and died a year later in London. [Freud suffered terribly from cancer of the jaw in the final months of his life. On September 21 and 22  his doctor administered the doses of morphine, as he had promised and Freud requested, that resulted in Freud’s death on 23 September 1939.]

Metaphysical Background: Neuroscience, Determinism, and Materialism – Freud began his career as a physiologist who always tried to explain all phenomena scientifically. He had no use for theology or transcendent metaphysics, believing instead that the human condition could be improved by the application of science and reason. Living post-Darwin, Freud recognized that human beings are animals related to all living things, and he believed that both mental and physical events are determined by physical causes. This meant that Freud was a materialist regarding mind—as almost all philosophers and scientists are today—mental states, including unconscious states, are dependent upon brain states. He left the project of discovering the relationship of mental states and the brain to future scientists, a project that has developed enormously since his time.

Theory of Human Nature: Mental Determinism, The Unconscious, Drives, and Child Development – The first major idea in Freud’s theory of human nature is the application of determinism to psychology. This would seem to imply that humans do not possess free will, but Freud was ambivalent about that philosophical question. On the one hand he thought the contents of consciousness are determined by individual, psychological and biological drives, while on the other hand he believed that we sometimes make rational decisions and judgments. (This is similar to Marx’s view, although Marx held that the causes of the contents of our consciousness were primarily social and economic.)

The second key idea in Freud’s theorizing is the postulation of the unconscious. For Freud there are not only preconscious states, those we aren’t continually conscious of but can recall if needed, but unconscious states that can’t ordinarily become conscious.  Our minds contain elements of which we have no awareness, but which exert influence on us nonetheless. Some elements of the unconscious may have originally been conscious, say a traumatic event in childhood, but were subsequently repressed—a process of pushing ideas into the unconscious. [Is this is done consciously or unconsciously?] He also advanced his famous three-part division of the structure of the mind: 1) id, instinctual drives that seek immediate satisfaction according to the pleasure principle; 2) ego, conscious mental states governed by a reality principle; and 3) superego, the conscience, which confronts the ego with moral rules or feeling of guilt and anxiety. The ego tries to reconcile the conflicting demands of the id—I want candy—with the superego—you shouldn’t steal candy.

The third main idea in Freud is his focus on drives or instincts. These drives manifest themselves in multiple ways. Freud, following the mechanical models of his day, felt these drives need to be discharged or pressure builds up. [Again this is at best a model, and probably not a good one.] Freud emphasized the sexual drive to a much greater extent than any previous thinker, but other important drives include the drive for self-preservation and other life-enhancing drives (eros), as well as self-destructive drives for sadism, aggression or death instinct (Thanatos). However Freud acknowledged these ideas were preliminary.

The fourth major aspect of Freud’s theorizing was his offering of a developmental account of human personalities. He places particular emphasis on the crucial importance of childhood for future psychological development. [Be nice to your children.] In fact he didn’t believe you could understand any adult without knowing about facets of their childhood, including various sexual stages of development. And while Freud has been criticized for his focus on the Oedipus complex, most likely he was making the point that the love between parents and children foreshadowed adult love. However if individuals don’t develop properly then psychoanalysis may be the only way one can reverse the damage of childhood.

Diagnosis: Mental Harmony, Repression, and Neurosis – “Like Plato, Freud held that individual well-being, happiness, or mental harmony depends on a harmonious relationship between various parts of the mind, and between the whole person and society.” [This might explain why some countries—most notably, New Zealand, Switzerland, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Canada, Finland, and Denmark—do so much better than other countries on the Social Progress Index.] The ego seeks to satisfy its demands, but if there is a dearth of opportunities to do this, pain and frustration ensue. Yet even in the best of situations there is obsession, neuroticism, and other mental illness.

Freud believed that repression was a primary cause of neuroticism. If someone experiences drives or desires (or beliefs) that conflict with standards or norms they are supposed to adhere to, then such feelings are often repressed. Repression is a defense mechanism used to avoid mental conflict. But repression ultimately doesn’t work, for the desires or drives remain in the unconscious exerting their influence. They may lead to irrational behaviors that we cannot control. Furthermore much of the blame for neuroses Freud attributes to the social world. Parents and other parts of culture may make unrealistic demands upon people. In fact Freud speculated that entire societies can be described as neurotic. While the exact meaning of this claim is ambiguous, clearly some societies do better at providing the conditions in which individuals can flourish.

Hang in There (A Poem for the Distressed)

Hang in There


Like a boxer staggering

on the ropes,

don’t condemn yourself for being hit

praise yourself for fighting,

maintain your hope.


You are a champion but sometimes

you must get out of the ring,

there are better things in life than boxing

And after winter comes the spring.


But after spring

the winter will come again you say,

perhaps, but perhaps not

Life is mysterious.

Death Is Like A Ticking Time Bomb

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, November 20, 2014)

I have written extensively on why death: 1) should be overcome; 2) is one of the greatest tragedies to befall us; and 3) makes completely meaningful lives impossible. In a recent post I summarized Nick Bostrom’s fable about the dragon-tyrant that makes similar points. In response I received this perceptive comment:

Love that story. Given that we now see death as a result of genetic programming. Literally, programmed cell death. You could tell a similar story but have everyone born with a ticking time bomb strapped to them—same point but more accurate. People of the religious or “death gives life meaning” crowd would be arguing against disarming this bomb.

The “ticking time bomb” conveys the sense in which death is always with us, not merely at the end of the road like the dragon-tyrant. In Bostrom’s image you stand in line awaiting your fate—which is bad enough—but strapped to a ticking time bomb you can blow up anytime. This is a more accurate description of our situation—death is always near.

The deathists—the lovers of death—often don’t disarm the bomb because they believe that dying transports you to a better address—from a slum to a mansion. And in the mansion your mind and body are eternally bathed in a salve of peace, love, and joy. That is a prominent justification for opposing the bomb’s removal.

The problem is the story that dying is moving to a better neighborhood  is that it is almost certainly fictional. And most people agree because, as I’ve said many times in my blog and books, when humans conquer death—learn to remove the bomb—they will. Those who have the option to live forever will be eternally grateful that they have the real thing, instead of the empty promises they now pay for in church.

Consciousness has come a long way from its beginnings in a primordial soup … but there is so much farther to go. Let’s put our childhood behind us, and make something of ourselves.

I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough;
None has ever yet adored or worship’d half enough;
None has begun to think how divine he himself is,
And how certain the future is.

O strain, musical, flowing through the ages—now reaching hither!
I take to your reckless and composite chords—I add to them,
And cheerfully pass them forward.

~ Walt Whitman

Theories of Human Nature: Chapter 16 – Marx – Part 2

Why Marx Was Right

Theory of Human Nature: Economics, Society, and Consciousness – Marx is most interested in the social nature of humans rather than their biological nature. “Almost everything a person does presupposes the existence of other people … what kinds of things one does are affected by one’s interactions in the society one lives in. What seems ‘instinctive’ in one society or epoch—for example, a certain role for women—may be very different in another.” In other words, sociology is not reducible to biology or psychology. Some things about humans cannot be explained by facts about individuals but must be explained by society. Marx is one of the founding fathers of sociology. Marx does argue that human beings are active, productive beings. Unlike non-human animals, we make conscious decisions about how we want to work for a living, and good lives entail appropriate, purposive work.

Diagnosis: Alienation and Exploitation Under Capitalism – Alienation or estrangement in Marx refers to our alienation from other people, as well as from the products and process of their labor. Without capital one must sell one’s labor to capitalists who dictate the nature of work. Thus we do not generally get to express or elaborate our being through our work but must work in order to satisfy our basic needs. At work we don’t “belong to ourselves,” rather we are under the control of others. Moreover “the competitiveness of life under capitalism conflicts with the ideal of solidarity with other human beings.” Alienation thus implies a lack of community where individuals can’t see their work as contributing to the larger society. In short Marx sees the economic structure of capitalism as unjust. [What would he think of this?]

Surprisingly many of Marx insights coincide with those of Adam Smith, who is usually hailed as the father of capitalism and its most ardent defendant. Smith too was alarmed by the injustice of capitalism: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable.” Both echo Kant’s a formulation of the categorical imperative—never treat people as a means to an end, for they are ends in themselves. In Marx’s time people were clearly used for the capitalists end, including children and adults who worked long hours in unsafe conditions. [Thee conditions were not ameliorated by capitalists, but by responsive governments.] Even today exploitation of workers in the most advanced countries still takes place. [The countries that do this least, who treat their workers best, are the social democracies of Scandinavia and western Europe.] And this is not only factory workers or minimum wage workers but the vast majority of people who can’t fulfill their human potential, those who cannot elaborate themselves through their labor. Human beings shouldn’t exist as cogs in a productive machine; they produce in order to express themselves.

Prescription: Revolution and Utopia – “If alienation and exploitation are social problems caused by the nature of the capitalist system, then the solution is to abolish that system and replace it with a better one.” [A more modest proposal would be to tinker with it, preserving what might be good about it but improving its obvious flaws—encouraging mindless consumption, exploitation of individuals, destruction of the environment, etc.] Marx thought that the movement of history would eventually undermine capitalism. [In fact pure laissez-faire capitalism exists nowhere on the planet.] However he still believed that we should act to bring about the transition from capitalism to communism (a classless society in which all wealth and property is jointly owned). Marx held that a complete revolution was necessary to undermine capitalism and create a more just and equitable society. [Some historians argue that US President FDR actually saved capitalism from the ferment developing in the depression of the 1930s.)  In fact many of the proposals of the Communist Manifesto have been adopted by capitalist countries.

“Marx envisaged a total regeneration of humanity …” If human consciousness could be altered, then freedom could become real, with individuals free to actualize their potentials. The guiding principle of this world is “from each according to [their] ability, to each according to [their] needs.” [If this sounds idealistic, think of the voluntary labor that produced Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, etc] Marx advocated using science and technology to improve life, shortening work, universal education, society in balance with nature, and more. “Marxism has offered this kind of hopeful vision of a human future … [it] has been a secular faith, a prophetic vision of social salvation.”

Still we might object that economic factors are “only one of many obstacles in the way of human fulfillment.” Existential angst, immorality, illness, aggression, mortality and much more also stand in its way.