Saturday, May 23, 2009

Quote of the Day

...we need once more to focus more precisely on Socrates' own complaint against Anaxagoras and his ilk. The complaint is that Anaxagoras makes no use of Mind when he explains the world (instead adducing causes like 'air and ether and water and many other absurdities'), and that this is 'just about as inconsistent' as if he were first to say that the cause of everything Socrates does is Mind, and then go on to explain that he is in his prison in Athens because of the operations of his bones and sinews, making no mention of his conviction that he is acting in a way right and honourable. Socrates is thus taking himself as a microcosm of the world: the world, like the individual, is guided by Mind, and by what is for the best.

Far-fetched as Socrates as microcosm might seem today, those who would wish to explain human behaviour without reference to mind, and who would disparage explanations of action in terms of doing what is for the best as folk psychology, are making an analogous move in reverse. Rather than treating the macrocosm by analogy with the microcosm, they are treating the microcosm on analogy with the macrocosm. They are treating the microcosm (man) as if it were just part of the macrocosm, and guided and animated by the same principles. But this is surely misguided. Whatever we decide about our ultimate destination and origin, it remains the case that we, as human beings and as self-conscious agents, can question our standing in the world in a way no other part of nature can. This, indeed, is part of what 'acting for the best' comprises: raising questions about our relationship to the rest of nature and to each other. The normativity, the search for truth for its own sake, which this involves, engages us in types of considerations which are not found in the scientific descriptions and explanations, whether those of physics or of biology.
If it is hard to see science accomplishing a wholesale revision of commonsensical perceptions and beliefs about the empirical world, it is even harder to envisage science revising our attitude to practice, and the explanation we give to action in terms of agents' intentions and in terms of their being motivated to act for the best. This is because science itself is a practice, and because in choosing to do it at all and in doing it in particular ways, we will be subjecting ourselves to normative considerations. We will be having at the back of our mind the idea that, for various reasons, it is for the best that we engage in science, and that engaging in it in such a way is the best way to do it. In this sense, the decisions to do science and to do it in a particular way are on a par with Socrates' decision to stay in his prison cell, rather than let his bones and sinews (or genes) take him into exile. They are all decisions which cannot be given a scientific justification, and which demand a justification logically independent from anything we might discover in scientific accounts. It would then be, to say the least, self-defeating, if science -- done in the best way and for the best motives, done in Socrates' terms because of Mind -- were to tell us that Mind in this sense plays no part in human affairs, or that it is an illusion foisted on us by genetic working on quite other principles.

Anthony O'Hear
Beyond Evolution: Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Explanation

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