Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes

The Difference of Man and the Difference It Makes
Mortimer. J. Adler
Fordham University Press (Fifth printing, 2005) 

In The Difference of Man and The Difference It Makes, Mortimer J. Adler offers a philosophical analysis of the problem of human nature and defends the thesis that human beings differ in kind rather than in degree from animals. He also explores the legal, political and social consequences that will follow if this thesis is not accepted.

Adler demonstrates that the study of man’s nature needs both scientific and philosophical methods of investigation and that the answers can only be found through cooperation between the scientists and the philosophers.

The thesis that he is defending was developed much before the Industrial Revolution—the roughly sixteen hundred years between Aristotle and Aquinas. Though Aristotle had a hylomorphic view of man, he believed that the attribute of sense perception is a function of the body while the power of “intellect” is immaterial in its origin. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 12, “The Efforts of the Philosophers to Resolve the One Issue That Remains”:

“The one striking exception, according to Aristotle, is the power of understanding or intellection—the power of conceptual thought. This one power (distinctive of the rational soul that is the form of the human body) belongs to the living or besouled man in exactly the same way that his power of digestion or his power of perception does; but unlike all his other powers, this one power is not the power of any bodily organ. It alone is an immaterial power; its acts are not the acts of any bodily organ; yet its acts never occur without the acomapainment of sensory or perceptual acts, especially acts of imagination and memory, that are themselves acts of corporeal power, i.e., acts of the sense organs and of the brain.”

This shows that Aristotle believed that human beings, because they possess the power of intellect or conceptual thought, differ “in kind” from every other creature on this planet. This view, which in some form or other, was held by most major philosophers in history, is now facing a challenge because of the advances in science, and the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man.

According to the Darwinian theory, man differs from animals only in degree—which in essence entails that man is an animal capable of conceptual thought in the same way in which a blue whale is the heaviest animal or a leopard is the fastest animal. But if we accept such a view of man then what will be the implications for our way of life?

If the difference between man and animals is only of degree then the idea that man should be treated differently from animals cannot be defended. Adler points out that the argument that man is more intelligent and therefore deserves a different treatment can lead to absurd and dangerous political consequences because the same logic can be used to defend the idea that it is morally justified for advanced human cultures to overtake and even obliterate inferior cultures.

“Why, then should not groups of superior men be able to justify their enslavement, exploitation, or even genocide of inferior human groups, on factual and moral grounds akin to those that we now rely on to justify our treatment of animals that we harness as beasts of burden, that we butcher for food and clothing, or that we destroy as disease-bearing pets or as dangerous predators?” (Chapter 17: “The Consequences for Action”)

The advent of the computer age has given rise to the idea that scientists may at some point of time be able to create a so-called Turing machine, or a robot which is capable of producing propositional speech, or hold a conversation like human beings. If such a robot gets built then it can be said that since the robot exhibits conceptual thought despite being entirely material in its constituents, no immaterial factor is required either for the robot’s performance or man’s.

The creation of a conceptual robot and the acceptance of the idea that man differs from animals only in degree will bring about a fundamental transformation into mankind’s moral beliefs. Here’s an excerpt from chapter 17:

“If man were just another animal, different only in the degree to which his rudimentary instinctive mechanism needed to be supplemented by learning, the pursuit of happiness would not be the peculiarly human enterprise that it is, nor would there be any ethical principles involved in the pursuit of happiness. There can be an ethics of happiness only if men can make mistakes in conceiving the goal that they ought to pursue in life, and can fail in their efforts by making mistakes in the choice of means. Lacking the power of conceptual thought, other animals cannot conceive, and hence cannot misconceive, their goals; only man with the power of conceptual thought can transcend the perceptual here and now and hold before himself a remote goal to be attained.”

Adler patiently takes the reader through a wide range of scientific and philosophical argument before developing the thesis that man differs from the animals in kind—that man represents a massive jump over everything on this planet. He offers valuable perspectives on critical issues like man’s rights, animal rights and the nature of the environment in which we live. The section on footnotes, of almost 70 pages, is insightful and like a book on its own.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Hannah Arendt On The Significance of “God is Dead”

It is generally believed that Nietzsche had the traditional God in mind when he pronounced that “God is Dead,” (in The Gay Science and in Thus Spoke Zarathustra). But Hannah Arendt observes that Nietzsche is talking about the end of something other than the traditional God.

Here’s an excerpt from Arendt’s The Life of The Mind:
No one knew this better than Nietzsche, who, with his poetic and metaphoric description of the assassination of God, has caused so much confusion in these matters. In a significant passage in The Twilight of Idols, he clarifies what the word "God" meant in the earlier story. It was merely a symbol for the suprasensory realm as understood by metaphysics; he now uses, instead of "God," the expression "true world" and says: "We have abolished the true world. What has remained? The apparent one perhaps? Oh no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one" 
She notes that the concept of God’s death is not Nietzsche’s unique position because Hegel, in his Phenomenology of Spirit, has said that the "sentiment underlying religion in the modern age [is] the sentiment: God is dead.”

What Hegel (and Nietzsche) meant by the “God is dead” statement is that theology, philosophy and metaphysics have reached an end.

If we wish to trace the idea of God’s death (or the end of theology, philosophy and metaphysics) further back, we can look at the work of Immanuel Kant. Kant has not specifically pronounced the God’s death, but he talks about the end of traditional metaphysics even though he loved the subject. Here’s an excerpt from The Life of The Mind:
Kant in his pre-critical writings, where he quite freely admits that "it was [his] fate to fall in love with metaphysics" but also speaks of its "bottomless abyss," its "slippery ground," its Utopian "land of milk and honey" (Schlaraffenland) where the "Dreamers of reason" dwell as though in an "airship," so that "there exists no folly which could not be brought to agree with a groundless wisdom." 
Arendt points out that at a later stage in his life, Kant prophesied that “men will surely return to Metaphysics as one returns to one's mistress after a quarrel.”

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wittgenstein Thought that Darwin was Wrong

Maurice O'Connor Drury in Conversations with Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees (Oxford, 1984), pp. 160-161:
One day, walking in the Zoological Gardens, we admired the immense
 variety of flowers, shrubs, trees, and the similar multiplicity of
 birds, reptiles, animals.

Wittgenstein: I have always thought that Darwin was wrong: his
 theory does not account for all the variety of species. It hasn't
 the necessary multiplicity. Nowadays some people are fond of saying
 that at last evolution has produced a species that is able to
 understand the whole process which gave it birth. Now that you
 can't say.

Drury: You could say that now there has evolved a strange animal
 that collects other animals and puts them in gardens. But you can't
 bring the concepts of knowledge and understanding into this series.
 They are different categories entirely.

Wittgenstein: Yes, you could put it that way.
Source: Maverick Philosopher

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Philosophy in the Modern World

Philosophy in the Modern World
(A History of Western Philosophy, Volume IV) 
Anthony Kenny 
Oxford University Press 

Philosophy in the Modern World, the fourth and the final volume of Anthony Kenny’s A History of Western Philosophy series, covers modern philosophy (from 1757 to 1975).

In the first three chapters Kelly conducts a chronological survey of the intellectual environment: 1. Bentham to Nietzsche; 2. Pierce to Strawson; and 3. Freud to Derrida. In these chapters there is also a discussion of philosophers like Darwin, Marx, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Sartre.

Freud regarded himself as a scientist, but Kenny includes him in the book because he thinks that Freud has exercised heavy influence on most philosophers who are engaged in teaching philosophy of mind, ethics, or philosophy of religion. However, for some reason, Kenny has left out the philosophers of postmodernism: Bergson, Foucault, Rorty and others.

The nine chapters which follow the first three chapters are on particular themes of modern philosophy: 4. Logic; 5. Language; 6. Epistemology; 7. Metaphysics; 8. Philosophy of Mind; 9. Ethics; 10. Aesthetics; 11. Political Philosophy; and 12. God.

While talking about the philosophical movements, Kenny does not describe the social and cultural environment in which the philosophers did their work. He confines himself to describing the personal histories and the general ideas of the philosophers. At times, he is opinionated and defends some points of view while rejecting others.

He is clearly a Wittgenstein sympathiser. He calls Wittgenstein the most significant philosopher of the 20th century. But Kenny is not enthusiastic about Derrida. He holds that Derrida was an important philosopher, who he had nothing of importance to say. He writes:

“Is it not unfair, then, to include Derrida, whether for blame or praise, in a history such as this? I think not. Whatever he himself may say, he has been taken by many people to be a serious philosopher, and he should be evaluated as such. But it is unsurprising that his fame has been less in philosophy departments than in departments of literature, whose members have had less practice in discerning genuine from counterfeit philosophy.”

To readers who have some kind of familiarity with this stretch of philosophy, the ground that Kenny covers will seem familiar. He does not offer any new kind of analysis on the philosophers and their philosophies, but he gives a good description of what is already known. I think that this book can serve as a good reference text for the students of philosophy. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Impact of Aristotle’s Works on Medieval Philosophy

Frederick Copleston
The following lines are borrowed from the Volume III of Frederick Copleston’s celebrated eleven volume work on history of western philosophy, A History of Philosophy:
“The assertion that the most important philosophical event in mediaeval philosophy was the discovery by the Christian West of the more or less complete works of Aristotle is an assertion which could, I think, be defended. When the work of the translators of the twelfth century and of the early part of the thirteenth made the thought of Aristotle available to the Christian thinkers of western Europe, they were faced for the first time with what seemed to them a complete and inclusive rational system of philosophy which owed nothing either to Jewish or to Christian revelation, since it was the work of a Greek philosopher. They were forced, therefore, to adopt some attitude towards it: they could not simply ignore it. Some of the attitudes adopted, varying from hostility, greater or less, to enthusiastic and rather uncritical acclamation, we have seen in the preceding volume. St. Thomas Aquinas's attitude was one of critical acceptance: he attempted to reconcile Aristotelianism and Christianity, not simply, of course, in order to avert the dangerous influence of a pagan thinker or to render him innocuous by utilizing him for 'apologetic' purposes, but also because he sincerely believed that the Aristotelian philosophy was, in the main, true. Had he not believed this, he would not have adopted philosophical positions which, in the eyes of many contemporaries, appeared novel and suspicious. But the point I want to make at the moment is this, that in adopting a definite attitude towards Aristotelianism a thirteenth- century thinker was, to all intents and purposes, adopting an attitude towards philosophy. The significance of this fact has not always been realized by historians. Looking on mediaeval philosophers, especially those of the thirteenth century, as slavish adherents of Aristotle, they have not seen that Aristotelianism really meant, at that time, philosophy itself. Distinctions had already been drawn, it is true, between theology and philosophy; but it was the full appearance of Aristotelianism on the scene which showed the mediaevals the power and scope, as it were, of philosophy. Philosophy, under the guise of Aristotelianism, presented itself to their gaze as something which was not merely theoretically but also in historical fact independent of theology. This being so, to adopt an attitude towards Aristotelianism was, in effect, to adopt an attitude, not simply towards Aristotle as distinguished, for example, from Plato (of whom the mediaevals really did not know very much), but rather towards philosophy considered as an autonomous discipline. If we regard in this light the different attitudes adopted towards Aristotle in the thirteenth century, one obtains a profounder understanding of the significance of those differences.” 
A History of Philosophy, Volume III, Ockham to Suarez by Frederick Copleston

Frederick Copleston on Schopenhauer

Friday, September 8, 2017

Five Ways of Proving God's Existence

In  Medieval Philosophy: An Introduction, Frederick Charles Copleston offers a precise account of Thomas Aquinas's five ways of proving the existence of God. Here's an excerpt from Chapter 6, "St. Thomas Aquinas":
"Aquinas, in the Summa Theologica, gives five ways of proving God's existence. First he argues from the fact of motion (which does not mean simply locomotion, but, as with Aristotle, the reduction of potentiality to act) to the existence of a first mover. This argument is based on Aristotle's argument in the Metaphysics. Secondly, he argues that there must be a first efficient cause; and, thirdly, that there must be a necessary being. We see that there are at any rate some beings which do not necessarily exist, for there are beings which begin to be and cease to be. But, these beings (contingent beings) would not exist, if they were the only type of being; for they are dependent for their existence. Ultimately there must exist a being which exists necessarily and is not dependent. The fourth argument proceeds from degrees of perfection observed in the world to the existence of a supreme or perfect being; and the fifth argument, based on the finality in the corporeal world, concludes with asserting the existence of God as cause of finality and order in the world. In these proofs the idea of dependence is fundamental, being successively applied to the observed facts of motion, efficient causality, coming into being and passing away, degrees of finite perfections, and lastly finality. None of the proofs were entirely new; nor did Aquinas think they were new. He was not writing for atheists but was engaged in showing the rational foundation of faith as a preliminary to treating of theological matters. The only proof which he develops at any length (in the Summa contra Gentiles) is the first, namely that from motion."