February 24, 2013 § 22 Comments
Iain McGilchrist has written a response to my post about his book The Master and his Emissary and about the RSA workshop that discussed it. Since it is a long reply, Iain asked me whether I could publish it as a post, rather than as a comment, which I am happy to do. I have appended my own response at the end. (And just to avoid any confusion, while I have set up the discussion in the form of two open letters, Iain’s piece was written as a straightforward essay, not in letter form.) I am slightly puzzled, as I observe in my reply, by the tone of Iain’s piece. He seems to suggest in places that my original was written in bad faith and that I seem not to have not read his book or the RSA document. Whether I have adequately understood either is, of course, a matter for debate. But my post was written in good faith, and while critical of Iain’s thesis was also, in my eyes at least, respectful of his work. I wrote it to engage in the kind of debate for which I had hoped that Iain himself had written his book, and the RSA had held its workshop. I am publishing Iain’s essay in the spirit of such debate, I have written my response to it in that spirit, and I hope that people will engage in that spirit with both sets of arguments.
When Jonathan [Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre] and I agreed to attempt this short publication we did so with a degree of foreboding. We knew that the attempt to abbreviate an argument that is, for the most part, carefully articulated, and already somewhat compressed, in its original 350,000 word form, was inviting difficulties. One such difficulty was that in further compression much would be lost: subtlety, nuance, complexity of argument, qualification of expression, and that I would be taken as saying something cruder than I am. Another was that the casual reader might be lead to think that they could substitute an acquaintance with the paper for a careful reading of the book. Yet we were encouraged by the advice of many readers from many academic disciplines and from many walks of life to think that it was worth risking such casualties in order to engage readers who otherwise might not have come across it at all, trusting that, at least before passing judgment, they would be led to do the book justice by reading it for themselves.
But perhaps even the RSA document is too long for today’s reader. Our fears would appear to have been more than justified. It is a little dispiriting that most, if not all, the comments and objections that KM raises are addressed, sometimes at considerable length, in the course of the document. Of course, those responses might still not satisfy KM, but at least if he had read them the debate would be at a higher level. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 21, 2013 § 14 Comments
In November the RSA in London held a workshop to discuss Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary. The RSA has now published Divided Brain Divided World, a report of that workshop, together with a long conversation between McGilchrist and Jonathan Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre.
McGilchrist’s book deals with the social, political and philosophical implications of the lateralisation of the brain, that is, its division into two hemispheres, left and right. The difference between the two hemispheres is not, McGilchrist suggests, as much pop psychology would have it, that the left hemisphere primarily processes language, and the right visual imagery and spacial representation. The difference, for McGilchrist, lies in the manner in which each hemisphere analyses the world, rather than in what it analyses.
‘For us as human beings’, McGilchirst argues, ‘there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognizably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain’. What opposed realities or modes of existence? ‘The left-hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt’: « Read the rest of this entry »
July 5, 2012 § 16 Comments
One of the themes in contemporary discussions of morality of which I have been highly critical is the idea that science can, and should, determine right and wrong. Morality, as Sam Harris puts it in The Moral Landscape, is an ‘undeveloped branch of science’. Where there are disagreements over moral questions, he argues, ‘science will… decide’ which view is right ‘because the discrepant answers people give to them translate into differences in our brains, in the brains of others and in the world at large.’ ‘Science’ here seems to have taken on a life of its own, existing independently of humans, and imposing its will and mind on human thought and activity. It as if science possesses moral authority and human beings do not.
There are some philosophers, like the Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu, who take the argument further still, looking to science not simply to determine right and wrong but also to make humans more right than wrong. The human capacity for morality is ‘limited’, Savulescu suggests, because evolution favoured a tribal, short-sighted sense of morality that is insufficient to deal with the problems of the 21st century, from climate change to terrorism. But space age technology can put right our Stone Age morality. A combination of positive eugenics and neurological intervention will, he believes, allow us to ‘inculcate certain values and certain forms of morality’ rather than be ‘neutral as we traditionally have been in liberal societies to different conceptions of the good life, religious traditions and different versions of morality’. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 25, 2012 § 4 Comments
In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 15, which looks at existentialism, and primarily the work of Søren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. This extract is from the section that explores Sartre’s concept of freedom and his relationship to Marxism.
‘Existence comes before essence’. So claimed Sartre in his celebrated 1946 lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. It is a phrase that gets to the heart (one might even say the essence) of his understanding of human nature and of human freedom. Humans do not possess a given nature, an unchanging essence, from which their capacities, personalities and values derive. Rather humans create themselves and their nature by acting upon the world.
This, for Sartre, was the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from a Godless world. ‘When we think of God as the creator’, Sartre observed, ‘we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan’. God ‘makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife’. But what if there is no God? Then there can be no God-created human nature. More, there can be no human nature at all. The only coherent way in which we can speak of a distinctive human nature is as a preconceived creative plan for human beings, just like the only way we can speak of a paper-knife is as a consciously manufactured artefact. Only God, in other words, could have created human nature. If we do not believe in God, we cannot believe in human nature. For Sartre the death of God provided also the last rites for human nature.
The idea that without God, there can be no human nature might seem a strange view, especially for an atheist, in the post-Darwinian world. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 18, 2011 § 49 Comments
Jim is a botanist doing research in a South American country led by a brutal dictator. One day he finds himself in the central square of a small town facing 20 Indians who have been randomly captured and tied up as an example of what will happen to rebels. The army captain tells Jim that if he agrees to kill one of the Indians, the others will be released in honour of Jim’s status as a guest. If, however, Jim refuses, then all the Indians will be shot. What should Jim do?
It is a question that philosopher Bernard Williams poses in his essay ‘A critique of utlitarianism’ in his 1973 book Utilitarianism: For and Against, which I am currently re-reading. The book is a double-hander with JJC Smart, in which the two philosophers… well, unsurprisingly, argue for and against utilitarianism. Both essays in the book are worth reading. But my sympathies are clearly with Williams’ critique of utilitarianism, and more broadly of consequentialism.
Wiliams uses the story of Jim to illustrate his most profound criticism of conequentialism. The real problem with consequentialism, he observes, is not that it arrives at the wrong answers to moral questions (though often it does). It is that even when a consequentialist arrives at the right answer, he or she does so by the wrong means and for the wrong reasons, and in a way that is devastating for our moral lives. « Read the rest of this entry »
November 6, 2011 § 9 Comments
In the series of extracts I’m running from my still-being-written book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 11, which explores the ethical claims of Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza. The rise of the market economy and the growth of religious scepticism had, by the seventeenth century, corroded the ability of both God and community to warrant moral behaviour. Who or what could now authorize moral rules? This was the question now facing moral philosophers. One answer was revolutionary: humans could. Human nature, needs, desires, aspirations and possibilities would act as warrant for the moral good. But how human nature would play this role remained perplexing. After all, as Thomas Aquinas had pointed out, it was precisely the seeming ‘uncertainty of human judgement’ and the fact that ‘different people’ formed ‘different judgements on human acts’ and created ‘different and contrary laws’ that seemed to necessitate Man having to ‘be directed in his proper acts by a law given by God’.
Hobbes and Spinoza gave very different answers to this challenge, answers that were both to be highly influential. Hobbes helped launch a British tradition of moral philosophy; in his wake come Shaftesbury, Locke, Hume, Bentham and Mill. Spinoza helped shape what is now often called the ‘Continental’ tradition. Thinkers as diverse as Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche were all in his debt. The distinctions between the two traditions are often overplayed. Nevertheless, the ideas of Hobbes and Spinoza were to shape the way that the modern world came to look at the question of moral rules through the distinct answers they gave as to what should warrant moral behaviour. This extract is taken from the section on Spinoza’s Ethics.
Spinoza’s stock is today not very high. In the pantheon of great seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers – Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, etc – Spinoza is usually seen as hovering in the back row. He is surprisingly little known, often regarded as a philosopher difficult to understand and possessed of little influence. Yet he is arguably the philosopher who more than most has shaped modern thinking about freedom and equality and the possibility of a secular morality. No one else, the historian Jonathan Israel suggests, ‘during the century 1650-1750 remotely rivalled Spinoza’s notoriety, as the chief challenger of the fundamentals of revealed religion, received ideas, tradition, morality and what was everywhere regarded… as divinely constituted political authority.’ Spinoza, Israel adds, ‘imparted order, cohesion and formal logic to what was in effect a fundamentally new view of man, God and the universe rooted in philosophy, nurtured by scientific thought and capable of producing a revolutionary ideology.’ Philosophically, Bertrand Russell wrote of Spinoza, ‘some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme’. As a ‘natural consequence’, Russell sardonically added, Spinoza ‘was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
October 26, 2011 § 3 Comments
It has long been known that different groups of chimpanzees have different cultural habits. Now, new research has revealed the degree of behaviour plasticity among orangutans, plasticity that gives rise to cultural differences between different groups, each possessing behaviours specific to that group, and each passing on such behaviours from one generation to another.
For many, the empirical discoveries about ape cultures are important not just because of what they tell us about the mental abilities of the Great Apes, but also because of what they tell us, or potentially tell us, about humans and human cultures. (‘Great Ape’, I know, is often seen as synonymous with the family Hominidae, which includes humans; here I’m using the term to refer to non-human members of Hominidae.) In particular, many see such studies as shining significant light upon the common evolutionary roots of human and Great Ape culture. ‘Now we know that the roots of human culture go much deeper than previously thought’, Michael Krützen, the lead author of the orangutan study suggests. ‘Human culture is built on a solid foundation that is many millions of years old and is shared with the other great apes.’
In one sense, of course, this has to be true. Humans are evolved beings and our propensity for culture must have evolved at some point in our evolutionary journey. If the Great Apes possess the same cultural propensities as humans do, then there are likely to be common evolutionary roots for those propensities. But do they possess the same cultural propensities? « Read the rest of this entry »