April 12, 2015 at 8:25pm
Our intellectual history in the West, Jose Ortega y Gasset once noted, has been a long struggle between Heraclitus and Parminides.
To refresh your memory:
Heraclitus said all things are in flux, ever-moving, energetic and active, like fire.
Parminides said all things are One, that movement and change are illusory, and that radical stability is what things arise from.
For the most part, the influence of Parminides has won out up to this point. From Plato, who believed the “real reality” was in the realm of the immaterial Ideas to Aristotle, who believed that things in this world were composed of two parts — the hyle’, or “matter”, which had no form on its own and was unintelligible and the morphos, the form that gave the matter its shape, its meaning, its “purpose” which we could abstract from the matter intellectually thus making it understandable. The real reality was not the changing world around us, but the stability which our minds can grasp that underlies the unstable-seeming world of life — the substancia, substance, that which stands under or beneath appearances… and appearances are changing things.
The Stoics went with Heraclitus, but Stoicism, even though it never entirely died, has been a minority report in philosophy and was more interested, like Socrates and the original Cynics in working out how to live a good, moral life in the face of this changing reality than in working out a detailed metaphysics or ontology.
Modern science went with Parminides as well, whether the origin was in Galileo or Descartes, both of whom saw geometrical stability and measurability as the only sure paths to knowledge, or in the Empiricists who ultimately taught the same, or Kantian Constructivism. In the end, being able to reduce or substitute measuring and quantifying for qualities – which are complex and often unique because they flow and change or because, like courage or justice or mercy, they very often cannot be applied exactly the same way every time — one cannot properly make rules from virtues.
In the 20th c., this dream of stability was revealed to be illusory. The first crisis in theoretical physics that unveiled this was summarized by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics: After close examination of phenomena at the quantum level, it was discovered that, for example, you may be able to know how fast a particle is moving or where it is at, but you cannot do both at the same time. It is impossible and no matter how fine the instrumentation becomes, the best the most exacting of the sciences will be able to do is give probable knowledge — not absolute knowledge.
This understanding, that absolute knowledge of any “substance” is impossible — because of the ever-changing nature of reality at every level and our epistemological limitations as humans — has yet to be completely felt or grasped in all sciences or pursuits, much less the true theoretical origins of the scientific theories being employed. This is true in some practitioners of biology, for example.
No, this is not an attack on Darwinianism. Far from it. It is an attack on bad metaphysics and scientists who make pronouncements without grasping the historical origins of their theories. Or their limits.
During the Cold War, we were desperate to understand the Soviet Union and be able to guess how they would react to this or that strategy. The short story — you may look up the long story — is that America turned to the think tank at the Rand Corporation to work out theories to predict Soviet behavior and avoid nuclear destruction. A man called John Nash was there who was a brilliant mathematician… and an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. If you’ve seen the movie “A Beautiful Mind” the more romantic fantasy of the man’s life has been presented for public consumption. In truth, Nash, being actively paranoid, delusional, and generally a son of a bitch, worked out game theories based on a paranoid person’s conception of human beings. Humans, he said, were by nature, selfish and always out for their own interests — dangerously so. Not in some cases, but all cases. He resurrected Hobbes’ theory of radical egoism and the cultural atmosphere was well-prepared for it (e.g. Ayn Rand’s Universal Ethical Egoism was beginning to be accepted by the popular mind through her propagandistic novels and the Social Darwinian notion of American atomistic individualism).
Nash came up with games he played on his co-workers one of which was called “Fuck You, Buddy.” The object of the game was for everyone to screw everyone else over trying to obtain something — a date, for example with the same woman. The theory he worked out from this game was that the equal selfishness of all involved created a sort of equilibrium where everyone was held from the object of desire and the only path to success was to choose something — another woman — rather than the woman no one could get because of the competition. Later, he worked the theory out further into “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” which mathematically “proved” that rather than trust anyone else, the best thing to do was screw over one’s partner and at least get away with something, rather than trust the other person and probably wind up with “the sucker’s reward” — i.e. nothing — because one’s partner, being selfish by nature, will probably screw you over.
For this, Nash eventually won the Nobel Prize in economics. But not after years in an asylum and medication and recovery. Oddly, Nash now believes his theory is wrong, the product of paranoia, and needs to include a full description of human beings — not humans reduced to mathematical formulae and lacking empathy and the capacity to cooperate.
But that’s recent history. In between the 1950s, when Nash’s theory began to be used to strategize against Soviets and be applied to right-wing economics, it leaked out into science and influenced Selfish Gene Theory. Long story short, two men, an English biologist and American mathematician, worked out a theory to explain the underlying stability in the chaos of human behavior. Presto: Our genes are selfish and trying to preserve those most like them and get rid of those less like them — we are machines doing the rational will of the genes whose “mission” is to propagate and survive and eliminate rivals. Thus marriage… and murder and war, etc. The selfish “nature” of human beings lies in our genes protecting and spreading themselves — all we are — literally — are the meat machines that carry the genes and do their hidden will.
Richard Dawkins became a disciple of these two and proceeded to popularize the idea and dogmatically fight for it with the missionary zeal of a fundamentalist… which I will assert he is, fully.
For one thing, scientifically, there is a disqualifying element in any theory so pervasive and so absolutely true it can’t be disproven. Any instance of so-called altruistic actions or moral behavior that are not self-centered are explained — explained away, really — by saying it’s the genes’ strategy to preserve themselves and their kin and they recognize, somehow, close kin from distant. The genes control us the way a program controls computer hardware. To have a scientifically acceptable theory, it has to be at least possible that it is wrong and that means being able to imagine an opposite interpretation or example that would disqualify it. This theory explains away every attempt to give a counter-example making it, at the very least, suspicious.
And remembering that it arose from non-biological theories invented by a paranoid’s interpretation of human beings and economic theories that are specious, and from computer science — essentially, to believe this theory one has to replace the living human being with the imaginary model of an inert, unliving computer and reduce us to machinery while ignoring the many, many very un-machine-like qualities we have.
Dawkins, et alii, are attempting to assert they have a science with a grasp on absolute truth, not probable or possible truth — in violation of the Heisenberg Principle. It has been one of the last gasps of the Parmenidan version of reality with the “stable substance” being genes now, not an immortal soul – which these genes may as well be – or Platonic Ideas.
Biology itself, now, has begun to discover that the living being actively chooses which genes to use and which to ignore based on circumstantial needs — it’s not the genes running the show, but the show running the genes. And part of the show is our choices. Even if I were set up to be “selfish” by my genetic inheritance, it does not follow I should be selfish or that I must be selfish. Within the network of determination, I have a zone of freedom, even if it is very narrow. If my genes cause me to feel anger towards you, enough to kill you, I can always disengage, go home, and draw a vicious satire of you which I may share with others… or hide… or throw away. Transform it into humor. You want to talk to some angry, depressed people? Talk with a comedian.
I can take the energy from my genes and shunt them off, use them in any number of ways, or swallow it down and get an ulcer. It is possible. I can take something so strong as the sexual drive and choose to be celibate and direct the energy in other directions — spiritual, artistic, scholarly, scientific, whatever.
Human beings are not automatons, literally or metaphorically. Humans have no “nature,” no stable program, and no predetermined destination. We have history, circumstance, pressing in on us and from within our psyches have structures and our bodies have a biology. But I am not these things, these limitations — I am what I choose to do with these things, or in spite of them, as far as I can be creative and get away with it. I am an agent of change and choice, an energetic being, not a fixed “substance” — I must always be choosing and seeking whom to be or drifting on the social tide of unexamined opinions, shrugging off my responsibility, being “just like everyone.”
The future, if there is to be a meaningful future, will shift to seeing the world more through the lens of Heraclitus than Parmenides. The world is ever-changing, ever in flux. Darwin dimly grasped this in his own way — why else would he need to explain the change in species over time if they, indeed, did not change and are not, at all times, changing? Geology shows us that the Earth is continuously changing, is continuously flowing, if very slowly most of the time except in disasters. History is all about human change and choice and accident while archaeology and other sciences show that humans in the past and in other cultures are as unlike us here, now, in this country, as can be. If you transplanted them here or us there the experience would be so bewildering as to be maddening.
The choices human beings make are creative, unexpectedly, unpredictably so. Some are selfish, others, many others can’t even vaguely be explained by something as impoverished as egoism, whether the egoism be by choice, “nature,” or genes.
Since the 1950s, we have labored under a powerful delusion and applied it to all levels of activity: economic, scientific, military, diplomatic, scholarly, religious — and the roots of the delusion go back thousands of years… to dear, mistaken Parmenides.
That is all I have to say for the moment. Others may comment if they wish.
Richard Van Ingram
12 April 2015