Friday, August 23, 2013

An Evolution That Matters

You can blame Mark Alger for this one, if you like. His brief, pithy observation about the reason there are no free, lightly governed societies today prompted the repost that follows. It first appeared at Eternity Road on June 11, 2006.

An awful lot of ink has been spilled these past few years onto the question of the emergence of life, particularly human life. Just in case you've spent the last twenty years in a Turkish prison, the most vocal of the contending camps have been the Darwinians and the intelligent designers. Neither can mount a conclusive case for its own contentions, but each has ridiculed the other's core thesis as unscientific, improbable, and a leap of faith. We're no closer to a definitive answer than we ever were, and we'll never come any closer, for a simple reason: there's no way to test any imaginable hypothesis.

Something that's already happened, with no one around to witness it, must remain forever causally undecidable. It's always possible to conjure two or more ways in which an event might have developed. To demonstrate that it could have happened in one particular way -- even that something very like it can be re-enacted at will in a laboratory -- does not prove that that's the way it happened previously; it merely strengthens the plausibility of the proposition.

Improbability is not impossibility. Despite the unlikelihood of the event, it's still possible that the "right" random mutations and confluences did produce the bacterial flagellum. After all, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox won the World Series in consecutive years, David Gregory and Helen Thomas are still admitted to White House press conferences, and Kevin Costner continues to be cast into leading-man roles.

Postulates of supernatural intervention are neither provable nor disprovable. We haven't the means to investigate anything outside our natural realm. If God exists -- and you know my position on the matter -- His manifestations to us are a matter of His Discretion. What agents and agencies He chooses to employ are similarly outside our jurisdiction. The extent to which He relies upon unmodified "natural processes" to work His Will is something we won't know until the Day of Judgment, if indeed He sees fit to tell us even then.

All that having been said, there are places for serious intellectual inquiry about the evolutionary thesis. One such has hardly been explored up to the present day: the evolution of the abstract. For we possess adequate records of the civilizations and conduct of our distant forebears to be sure that our capacity for abstract thought far exceeds theirs, not merely in quantity but in degree. It's not too arrogant to imagine that this talent, which in its fundamental form is our clearest perceptible difference from the beasts, might evolve still further. But to get a sense for how our future as thinkers might unfold, we must look also into the past.

We've demonstrated empirically -- that is, by doing it -- that Man possesses the power to form generalizations from the observation of concrete events. Since Roger Bacon, we've known how to arrange a generalization in such a fashion as to make it testable, and therefore disprovable. Thus, we have learned science: the sheaf of attitudes and methods that make possible the accumulation of knowledge about how the universe works.

But in more recent years, we've acquired an even more potent tool: we've penetrated some of the secrets of our own, generalization-empowered minds, and thus have begun to systematize a science of the sciences. The late Gregory Bateson called this meta-science deutero-learning: the special art of training the mind in how to formulate a potentially valid and testable abstraction; in other words, of learning how to learn.

There's no field in which this breakthrough is more important than my own. Software specialists, weighed solely on their core talent, are all but useless. No one would have much use for a man who's good with computers, if that were all he could do. The useful software engineer is a man who combines facility with computers with the ability to comprehend and absorb the knowledge domains of his clients. He must become as expert in their fields, in particular their fields' information-handling needs, as they are themselves, if he's to render them a service they'll be happy to pay for. The top software engineer is a man who has ruthlessly schooled himself in how to learn.

Might there be still further dimensions in abstraction? Might our posterity someday see our achievements in abstraction as the revered foundation under their higher achievements? One cannot know from here. Even to speculate on the possibility strains the brain. What we can do is look at the development of abstraction during classical and pre-classical times, and try to get a sense for what conditions might bring further advances about.

Causal penetration into natural law was very shallow until Man began to explore the possibility of "static" agriculture. Hunter-gatherer society was founded on coincidence. The band kept moving until it happened on a food supply, at which point it would halt, exploit the supply down to the margin of subsistence, and then move on. We cannot know exactly why or how some tribe or tribes decided to test survival in a fixed locale, but it is certain that they had to achieve adequately repeatable success at food cultivation to make good at it.

Early agriculture was a ritualistic affair. Pre-classical farmers knew only that certain actions, repeated at the right times of the year, would probably result in edible crops a few months later. They didn't know why, and had yet to learn how to investigate such things. So they formulated explanations that emphasized supernatural interventions, and conjured notions of duties toward "the gods" which, if properly fulfilled, might lead to more abundant and more reliable harvests. The pre-classical pantheons always included a god of the harvest, to be propitiated for the sake of food just as the gods of the waters and the sky were propitiated to ward off death from the elements.

About five centuries before Christ, bursts of abstraction struck simultaneously in Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East, and in coastal Asia. The first proto-science, philosophy, took its first halting steps toward refining Man's cognitive tools. A handful of philosophers laid down the basis for organized rational thought. Despite considerable opposition, often violent, they pulled the classical world into their wake. The adventure of rationality had begun.

What made those advances possible? What developments had tilled Man's mental garden and made it fertile for new growth?

One cannot be certain, but conspicuous among the conditions of those times and places was that written records of all kinds had been kept for centuries previous. Those societies had begun to accumulate data from which to generalize. Perhaps the flowering of philosophy -- and philosophy's supernatural adjunct, religion -- depended mainly on an adequate supply of such data. In all three locales, further advances came rapidly.

Particularly notable among those developments was that of Judaic society. For some centuries, the Jews had lived according to the Mosaic Law, as recorded in the Books of Exodus and Leviticus in the Old Testament. With the classical proto-Enlightenment came questions about whether those laws, which Moses had presented as the commands of God to His Chosen People, might imply still other laws of equal force. Large sectors of Judaic society set to work on the extended meaning and implications of the Mosaic tradition. The Jews' penchant for recording their history guaranteed that those debaters would have a lot to work on.

But the Essenes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the other intellectual communities of classical Judea tended to move in a single direction: a restrictive direction. As Moses had been the Jews' spiritual leader and political ruler, his laws rationalized the pervasive exercise of State power over both the bodies and souls of men. Though in many respects the elaboration of the Mosaic tradition was wholesome as well as intellectually fulfilling, among its consequences, it largely disarmed the Jews in the face of the Roman conquest and the subsequent centuries of foreign domination of Judea.

Another path was available to them, of course, but it took the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and the continuation of that ministry by His Apostles, to set Man upon it.

Human advancement since the time of Christ has emphasized respect for the natural law. Not coincidentally, so did Christ:

Now a man came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied, “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false witness, honor your father and mother and love your neighbor as yourself.” [The Gospel According To Matthew, 19:16-19]

The emphasized passage above summarizes what are sometimes called the Noachite Commandments: the elements among the first Ten that can be derived from the natural laws of the universe. Indeed, these are the first abstractions that one can directly derive from easily amassed data about Man and his societies. For a society to countenance the violation of any of them is to admit a destructive force that will tear that society apart. But for Jesus to have named these things, and no other item from the vast Mosaic Law, as essentials to salvation was in and of itself the proclamation of the New Covenant: the separation of the demonstrable requirements for individual survival and social success from the dross that surrounded them. By implication, He had dismissed the hundreds of omitted demands of the Levitical Covenant as inessential -- even harmful when enforced by political power ("Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's.").

Such a departure from the established Levitical Covenant would have been impossible to sell without a prior major breakthrough in abstraction. This has largely been overlooked by men who dismiss Judeo-Christian religious thought as irrelevant to "real science," even as they pile their own far smaller advances atop its indispensable foundation.

It is possible that for the Jews of pre-Christian times to become ready for the arrival of Christ, they had to be subjected to the sort of rigor demanded by Moses. I find the thesis attractive. One of the principal stimuli to hard creative thought is empirical contradiction: the repeated failure of a time-tested tactic that's always worked before. Under Roman domination, the Jews of the first century A.D. chafed but could not break free. Their highly legalistic tradition more or less forbade them to revolt against or subvert the Roman colonial administration. More, it had been their way to react with political force against dissenters of their own for centuries before the Romans arrived; they could not claim Roman rule, which was largely civil and tolerant, to be inconsistent with any principle they held.

Christ's message of freedom simultaneously liberated those who accepted it from the Mosaic constraints and appropriated the Romans' greatest social advance -- the notion of uniform, impartial law -- in a fashion that would ultimately conquer the Roman Empire from within. Derived from a single unifying principle, the Golden Rule, it was abstract as no other doctrine of right action has ever been. Yet precisely because it was both easily grasped and wholly consistent with all of Man's experiences on Earth, it proved irresistible.

Supporting all inquiry into natural law is the assumption that it exists in the first place, and that it does not change with time. (Alternately, if it changes at all, it does so slowly enough that it may nevertheless be studied as if it were immutable.) The Law of Non-Contradiction first formulated by Aristotle is really just a statement of that assumption. His methods of definition and categorization won't work without it.

Another philosophical primary, held inarticulately for many centuries and made explicit during the battles over relativity, is the Law of Correspondence: for thesis B to displace thesis A, thesis B must explain the phenomena addressed by thesis A at least as well as A does, and to at least as demanding a tolerance. Thus, if further evolution of our abstractive powers is to occur, what replaces them must do at least as good a job at elucidating the natural laws as what we have today.

No one alive can imagine what powers of abstraction might belong to our descendants. Perhaps we stand at the terminus of the development of human thought, exactly as we are today. But of this we may be sure: whatever new ability might belong to those who come after us, if its to support human flourishing, must be at least as much in harmony with the natural law as the powers that were tapped by Christ:

  • It cannot countenance murder.
  • It cannot excuse theft.
  • It cannot sanction the breaking of a solemn vow.
  • It cannot allow the bearing of false witness.
  • It cannot smile upon envy or covetousness.
  • It cannot accept the severing of the bonds of obligation between the generations.

It cannot be otherwise unless the natural law itself should change, a development on which it would be unwise to bet. As for any other possibilities, we shall see.

May God bless and keep you all.

Thus endeth the repost.

I would say that we have ample evidence, merely from the daily news, that Mankind has a way to go before a truly free society can sustain itself. Our race has not advanced far enough, intellectually or morally, to tolerate the existence of a free society. Perhaps if we had reached our current intellectual and moral stage without advancing technologically beyond the level of Europe at the time of John Locke, a free society might have a chance. As matters stand, it's too easy for the world's many wolves to fall upon a peaceable libertarian sheep and devour it before it can get its defenses in place.

There is still hope. But freedom? Not today...and perhaps, given the perversities to which Mankind is prone, not any time soon.

It might make an unsatisfying epitaph, but at least we tried.


Mark Alger said...

Thanks for the flag, Fran. OTOH, I must demur that our "modern" intellectual and moral development as a society is no improvement over that of the 18th Century Englightenment.


Francis W. Porretto said...

Now where did I say that, Mark? Read that bottom part again.

Mark Alger said...

Granted, you didn't exply it, but it did seem like it might have been IMplied.

In either case, it seemed like the clarification would not go amiss.