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Socratic Method / Biological Determinism
« on: October 07, 2011, 08:37:49 PM »
In the late nineteenth century, especially by the 1890s, the pendulum swung away from environmental determinism, and biological determinism increased its influence among European thinkers. Galton was a pivotal figure in this development, publishing his seminal work, "Hereditary Genius," in 1869. Galton's influence was profound, especially since he convinced his cousin Charles Darwin that heredity was more important than environmental influences in shaping human intellect and behavior. Many Darwinists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came to believe -- as Galton and Darwin also did -- that many human character traits, such as loyalty, thrift, and diligence (or on the negative side -- deceit and laziness), were biologically innate, not malleable moral traits, as most Europeans had previously thought.

Darwinists in various fields -- especially in biology, medicine, psychiatry, and anthropology -- were in the forefront promoting biological determinism. Cesare Lombroso, the famous Italian psychiatrist who founded criminal anthropology, built his ideology on Darwinism. He argued that criminals were atavistic creatures, throwbacks to ancestors in the evolutionary process. He was most famous for promoting the idea that criminality was hereditary, not formed through environmental influence. One of the most prominent man that popularized of Darwinism in Germany, the famous materialist Ludwig Büchner, published "The Power of Heredity" and "Its Influence on the Moral and Mental Progress of Humanity" in 1882. In the midst of his extended argument for biological determinism of mental and moral traits, Büchner showed where his vision of humanity led. He stated, "In the flow [of time] the individual is nothing, the species is everything; and history, just as nature, marks each of its steps forward, even the smallest, with innumerable piles of corpses."

By the 1890s and especially in the early twentieth century, the eugenics movement gained popularity, especially in medical circles, in Europe and the United States. Eugenics was driven in part by fears that modern institutions had set aside the beneficial aspects of natural selection. Eugenicists continually played on the specter of weak and sickly humans beings preserved through modern medicine, hygiene, and charitable institutions, while the more intelligent and supposedly better human beings were beginning to voluntarily restrict their reproduction. This was producing biological degeneration, according to many eugenicists. Their solution? Introduce artificial selection by restricting the reproduction of the so-called "inferior" and encouraging the "superior" to procreate. Biological determinism permeated the eugenics movement, which pressed for marriage restrictions, compulsory sterilization, and sometimes even involuntary euthanasia for the disabled, because they were deemed biologically inferior.

Another prominent feature of the biological determinism of the early 20th century was its stress on racial inequality. In Europe racist ideologies proliferated in the 1890s and early 1900s, partly under the influence of Darwinism and biological determinism. Many biologists, anthropologists, and physicians considered black Africans or American Indians less evolved than Europeans. As Europeans colonized vast stretches of the globe, many scientists proclaimed that non-Europeans were culturally inferior to Europeans. Further, they believed that these cultural differences were manifestations of biological inferiority.

By reducing humanity to their biological makeup, these Darwinian-inspired biological determinists contributed to the dehumanization process. Many nineteenth-century Darwinists emphasized the continuities between humans and animals, with Darwin himself arguing that all the differences between humans and animals were quantitative, not qualitative. Darwin even explained the origin of morality as the product of completely naturalistic evolutionary processes. The idea that humans were "created from animals," to use a famous phrase from Darwin, rather than created in the image of God, gained greater currency in the nineteenth century.

Just as one form of environmental determinism -- Marxism -- produced unfathomable misery for millions of humans, so did biological determinism. Hitler's National Socialism was based on a biological determinist vision of humanity that stressed racial inequality. Nazism endorsed discrimination -- and ultimately even death -- for those with allegedly inferior biological traits. On the other hand, it hoped to promote evolutionary advance for the human species by fostering higher reproductive levels of those considered superior biologically. Hitler's regime ended up killing about 200,000 disabled Germans, 6 million Jews, and hundreds of thousands of Gypsies in their effort to improve the human race.

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Often modern thinkers have masked the dehumanizing impact of their ideas by calling their philosophy "humanism" of one form or another, implying that their views exalt humanity. However, most attempts at exalting humanity have ironically resulted in diminishing humanity, demonstrating the biblical truth: "He who exalts himself will be abased."

After the waning of Romanticism in mid-nineteenth century Europe, many intellectuals embraced science as the sole arbiter of knowledge, including knowledge about humanity and society. The renowned, but quirky, French thinker Auguste Comte gained many disciples for his philosophy of positivism, which rejected any knowledge not obtained through empirical, scientific investigation (except, of course, this epistemological claim itself is not subject to empirical demonstration, so it seems to me that his epistemology is self-defeating). Comte hoped to initiate the scientific study of society, coining the term sociology for this endeavor. He was optimistic that a scientific study of humanity would lead humans to practice altruism, another term he coined. Though Comte considered all metaphysics, including religion, unknowable, he wanted to create a religion of humanity which would place humans on the highest pedestal. Most of Comte's disciples, such as John Stuart Mill, embraced his positivist epistemology but rejected his religion of humanity, especially in the ludicrous form he presented in his later writings (which involved many specific religious practices, including praying to a female that one admires).

Though not as prominent as positivism in the nineteenth century, materialism also increased in influence in the mid-nineteenth century. Though positivism rejected all metaphysical claims, including materialist ones, it shared many common features with materialism nonetheless. Both materialists and positivists idolized science as the only path to knowledge. By extending scientific investigation to humanity itself, however, they made assumptions about human nature that were not subject to scientific investigation. Effectively they dismissed body-soul dualism, thus reducing humanity to matter in motion. Also, their insistence that the scientific method could provide knowledge about all features of human life led them to embrace determinism. By the late 19th century some prominent thinkers were rebelling against reductionism and determinism, but in the 19th century, these views gained currency to such as extent that Francis Galton, the cousin of Darwin and the founder of the eugenics movement, coined the phrase, "nature versus nurture" to frame the intellectual debate over humanity. Galton's phrase is still commonly invoked in intellectual discourse about human behavior.

Galton and many of his contemporaries rejected free will, claiming with circular logic that science had disproved this supposedly antiquated religious conception. (This was circular reasoning because they defined science to exclude free will, and then claimed that science disproved free will). Their insistence on determinism effectively ostracized religious or spiritual conceptions of human nature. The new fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology, which only became institutionalized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, generally embraced this deterministic view of human behavior. By rejecting free will and embracing determinism, Galton and his contemporaries were left with three main options: humans were either the product of their biological makeup, or they were the product of their environment, or they were the product of some combination of heredity and environment. Either form of determinism (or hybrids thereof) reduces humans to inputs, either from internal or external influences. They deny independent human agency and thus strip humanity of any moral responsibility.

In the mid-nineteenth century environmental determinism was more prominent than biological determinism. The philosopher Maurice Mandelbaum argues that one of the ideas dominating 19-century philosophy was the "malleability of man," i.e., the idea that human nature is shaped largely by external forces, such as culture, education, and training. The father of John Stuart Mill exemplified this perspective, rigorously educating his son from an early age. Mill became a leading voice in Europe touting the power of education and training in shaping human intellect and behavior

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Socratic Method / Environmental Determinism: Marxism
« on: October 07, 2011, 08:22:22 PM »

[...] We know too little, and may never know enough, of human psychology to weigh and measure the relative values of this or that factor in determining man's conduct. To form such dogmas in their social connotation is nothing short of bigotry; yet, perhaps, it has its uses, for the very attempt to do so proved the persistence of the human will and confutes the Marxists. Fortunately even some Marxists are beginning to see that all is not well with the Marxian creed. After all, Marx was but human - all too human - hence by no means infallible. The practical application of economic determinism in Russia is helping to clear the minds of the more intelligent Marxists. This can be seen in the transvaluation of Marxian values going on in Socialist and even Communist ranks in some European countries. They are slowly realizing that their theory has overlooked the human element, den Menschen, as a Socialist paper put it. Important as the economic factor is, it is not enough. The rejuvenation of mankind needs the inspiration and energizing force of an ideal.


Karl Marx is a prominent example of a socialist committed to environmental determinism. He called his perspective "scientific socialism," because he believed that his analysis was based on immutable economic and social laws. He was convinced that social institutions and even human nature itself were shaped by economic forces. If economic conditions changed, human nature would change accordingly. In Marx's view private property was the source of all the evils in human society, especially the oppression of the urban workers by the bourgeois capitalists. Private property thus spawned a class struggle in every age. Religion, morality, law, political structures, and other institutions and cultural factors were merely tools of the propertied classes to oppress the unpropertied masses.

Marx's primary motivation was not establishing human equality, though his socialist philosophy did militate toward greater equality. Rather Marx's primary concern was liberating humanity from oppression and tyranny. This is a laudable goal, and anyone who has read Marx's "Capital" or Friedrich Engels' "Condition of the Working Class" in 1844 should recognize that Marx had legitimate grounds for complaint. Many factory workers, not to mention the unemployed, lived in squalor and misery. Marx rightly criticized the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution. Nonetheless, when we examine the practices of Marxist regimes in the twentieth century, we see incredible oppression and tyranny. The quest for freedom was turned on its head. Why?

Largely because of Marx's faulty view of human nature. Neither Lenin nor Stalin nor Mao nor Pol Pot nor Castro nor any other Marxist leader could alter human nature by ridding their society of private property. Changing the economy could not bring about utopia, because human behavior is not determined solely by the economy. Marxist philosophy failed because it denied to humanity its spiritual character, its free will, and also the Christian insistence on original sin. Alexander Solzhenitsyn clearly depicted the Soviet problem with altering human nature in his novel, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." In this novel the prisoners in the Soviet labor camp, who are supposedly being reeducated to become good Soviet citizens, continue to act as capitalists in any way they can, even while incarcerated. The protagonist expressed at one point that the Soviet regime simply could not change his nature.

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General Board / The Dehumanizing Impact of Modern Thought
« on: October 07, 2011, 08:10:11 PM »

Nietzsche says that "All psychology so far has remained hung up on moral prejudices and fears. It has not dared to go into the depths." Nietzsche changed it, and then Freud came along. The striking similarities between Nietzsche and Freud are well-known, and a whole literature is devoted to exploring them, primarily from a Freudian standpoint. While philosophers tend to be interested either in Nietzsche or in Freud, but rarely systematically in both, looking at Freud is useful for the purposes of this study, for two reasons. First, these similarities register strongly on a naturalist reading, and typically, in cases of such similarities, Freud provides laborious scientific investigations where Nietzsche offers flashy insights that require precisely such elaboration to be taken fully seriously. Second, while Freud never systematically engages with ER, nor even displayed a good understanding of its importance for Nietzsche, there are various grounds on which Freud would have rejected ER had he ever dealt with it. These two points show that exploring why Freud would have rejected ER is a fruitful way of exploring what to make of ER in the context of a naturalist reading of Nietzsche, and in general come to a better understanding of what Nietzsche took to be his greatest insight.

While Nietzsche believes we are not entirely transparent to ourselves, it is Freud who delivers a systematic model of the mind that also assigns a proper place to the unconscious, a model that, without difficulties, can be understood as accommodating Nietzsche's views, to the extent that they are developed. The goal of Freudian psychoanalysis is to help patients come to terms with what lies buried in their unconscious if it leads to apparently inexplicable patterns of behavior that interfere with the patient's life. But the underlying model of the mind that guides therapy also teaches that it will be rather hard to know oneself sufficiently well to be confident that one really wants to live this life again and again and again. But if so, it becomes dubious that we should test our own ability to affirm our lives by asking whether we would repeat this same life eternally. What precisely, other than sheer euphoria, would such a test assess? The other reason, finally, why Freud would not endorse ER turns on his view of guilt. As opposed to Nietzsche, Freud does not think that guilt can ever be overcome. Guilt is the price human beings pay for civilization: it simply comes with people's not living by themselves. Thus there will always be at least this element in an individual's life that she would want to be without, and so, again, it will be rather hard to be in a position to endorse ER. It turns out that, upon closer inspection, Nietzsche is, or at any rate ought to be, closer to Freud on these matters than it first appears, and therefore this Freudian reason for resisting ER as a life-affirmation test also applies to Nietzsche.

Like Nietzsche, Freud seeks to explain the origins of moral beliefs and emotions. Unlike Nietzsche, Freud does not think of such an account as part of a project of debunking morality. Neither is Freud concerned to object to common morality on behalf of human excellence, as Nietzsche is, nor does he have any interest in replacing debunked ideals with new ones, such as ER. In the "Future of an Illusion," Freud is clear that our God, Logos, promises no compensation for us who suffer grievously from life. Freud's vision, instead, is that morality can be justified on self interested grounds. Yet such self-interested morality merely delivers rules for conduct that are necessary for human beings to live together, but, as far as Freud is concerned, does nothing to answer any questions about the meaning of life. Freud is confident that in the long run nothing can withstand reason and experience, and the contradiction which religion offers to both is all too palpable – but, indeed, as he also reiterates in "Civilization and Its Discontents," no questions about meaning get answered anywhere:

Quote
The question of the purpose of human life has been raised countless times; it has never yet received a satisfactory answer and perhaps does not admit of one. (...) It looks (...) as though one had a right to dismiss the question, for it seems to derive from the human presumptuousness, many other manifestations of which are already familiar to us. Nobody talks about the purpose of the life of animals (…) One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system.

Freud is not only hostile to the idea of accepting questions such as the one about the meaning of life into the confines of the scientific worldview (which by itself would not be such a radical view); he also appears to be loath to accepting any areas of inquiry that are genuine and objective in a sense to be spelled out, but also discontinuous with science, again in a manner to be spelled out. As far as morality is concerned, what is thereby excluded are, for example, practical reasoning approaches and constructivist approaches. Freud, in fact, makes no effort (and has no way) to distinguish between religious worldviews and such approaches to morality. All of these forms of discourse would simply be "meaningless." Freud, that is, is a subscriber to a strongly positivist criterion of meaningfulness.

Nietzsche and Freud are both naturalistic thinkers, and in particular they share an interest in explaining out moral beliefs and emotions in a manner continuous with the biological sciences. But Freud is a scientist committed to positivist worldview within which a lot of questions about how we ought to live simply make no sense. Nietzsche, as opposed to that, pursues his naturalist project as part of a larger project of debunking morality and replacing it with something else, namely ER. For Freud this would make no sense, but, following Nietzsche, this is so only because Freud mischaracterizes the significance of science to such an extent that he is in fact committed to an ascetic ideal. At any rate, this reason for why Freud does not endorse ER is not one Nietzsche has any particular reason to share.


In rebelling against determinism many thinkers have followed the 19-century philologist and philosopher Nietzsche. Nietzsche attempted to rescue humanity from scientific reductionism by positing radical individual freedom. He believed that all knowledge and truth are created by humans, not imposed on us by some external reality. We cannot blame the environment, nor biology, nor God for our character and behavior. Nietzsche rejected the idea that humans have fixed natures or essences. Rather, the choices we make as individuals shape our destiny. Many subsequent existentialists and post-modern thinkers have exulted in Nietzsche's liberation from reductionism and determinism.

While Nietzsche's emphasis on free will might seem to rescue humanity from the degrading philosophies of environmental or biological determinism, it does nothing of the sort. It only elevates a small elite of humanity, whom Nietzsche called the Superman, or more literally, Overman. Nietzsche's freedom was freedom only for these Supermen, the creative geniuses (like himself) who would rise above the hoi polloi. He had nothing but disdain for the masses, whom he thought incapable of exercising true freedom. What Nietzsche contemptuously called the herd instinct of the masses fitted them for nothing other than submission to the domination of the Superman.

Despite its stress on freedom, then, Nietzsche's philosophy is really a philosophy that aims at enslavement. Power ultimately decides not only who rules politically, but also what counts as truth. Nietzsche rejected any form of fixed truth or morality, thus undermining the very notion of humanity and human rights. Nietzsche despised weakness, compassion, and humanitarianism, preferring strength and domination. He was especially vehement in his rejection of Christian ethics, because it catered to the weak and downtrodden. His aristocratic morality aimed at justifying and benefiting the strong and powerful.

In the twentieth century many existentialist philosophers, such as Heidegger and Sartre, embraced the general contours of Nietzsche's philosophy, denying that humans have any fixed essence and stressing radical free will in human decisions. Later in the twentieth century, however, many postmodern thinkers, though heavily influenced by Nietzsche, have reduced the element of individual agency still important to Nietzsche. Many literary scholars emphasized the written text over the author, who disappeared from consideration. Human intent became irrelevant in interpreting human documents. Dehumanization thus spiraled even further downward, as all human values were construed as socially constructed.

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