Article of Interest

My friend and colleague Richard Cocks has an article, “Are Friends Electric,” at The People of Shambhala that will, I believe, be of interest to Orthosphereans.

I offer an excerpt:

To some people being an emotionless machine is enormously attractive. Any view that seems to offer support for the mechanistic notion will seem appealing. It’s actually going to be an enormously counter-productive attitude to adopt in living one’s actual life. But it remains an ideal for many. It would indeed make things simpler. When the Earl of Shaftesbury said that pleasure was the one and only source of human motivation, one seems to be encountering a person of such emotional stupidity with so little insight into the multi-faceted nature of human existence that it beggars belief. That whole generations of English philosophers followed suit indicates to me that Anglo-American philosophy has become a self-selecting discipline filled with emotional imbeciles, just as psychopaths were once described as moral imbeciles. Sociopaths tend to be skeptical about morality because they lack empathy and a conscience of their own. They extrapolate from their own experience, as we all do. Interestingly, many Anglo-American philosophers have expressed skepticism about moral matters too, such as the logical positivists. To be frank, being a normally mentally functioning person in such a context can be a very bizarre experience.

13 thoughts on “Article of Interest

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  3. Corrected link

    The article accurately reflects a good criticism of materialism, which can be fairly summed up as a mechanical view of the world. Of course this presents a rather interesting question. All machine have to be programmed, either by entities or other machines. Where is our programmer? The materialist has to ultimately deny that we have one, which is a conundrum.

    Two points of contention.

    “The conventional thinker knows that, generally speaking, stealing is wrong, slavery is wrong and murder is always wrong.”

    I believe he is here referring to the moral truth written on people’s hearts, but including slavery on the list is an error. The attitude to slavery as a moral atrocity is a Modern concept birthed by outrage over the particularly brutal chattel slavery popular in the 17 and 1800s and of course the racial guilt industry that resulted to rub salt in the wound. Throughout history, most people have viewed the far more common minor forms of slavery to be a great social good, and indeed they were. Before the dawn of consumer capitalism, slavery was the biggest form of upward mobility in the world, and was typically something people entered into voluntarily to further themselves, and then buy their freedom at a later date.

    “This makes Descartes’ assertion that dogs and other animals are merely machines with no souls particularly annoying and also autistic seeming.”

    I cannot bring myself to believe that any animals have souls (in the meaningful, immortal sense). This is just unbiblical, and would entail all sorts of terrible conclusions. Dogs may possess incredibly faculties when it comes to reading human emotions and this could be an adaptive trait apparent in animals that are in effect informal symbiotes relying on humans to survive, but they share a commonality with computers in that they have no objective duties or values. They operate according to their nature (programming) and are not called, nor have the necessary faculties, to go beyond that nature for a higher purpose.

    Put more concisely, a dog is not much different from a spider other than being more physically attractive and better adapted for companionship.

    • As the ancients observed (see Plutarch on “The Rationality of Animals”), while dogs do not, when left on their own, originate cultural phenomena, they are capable of assimilating to them through their communion with people. Having lived with dogs all my life, I cannot agree that they resemble computers. Dogs are much smarter than computers, and their ability to ken their human masters, and to ken their cultural situation, is a marvel of created compatibility. The argument that relegates dogs to the order of automata can easily be extended to other human beings, and that by itself should signify caution. That is one of Professor Cocks’ points. After all, Mark, how do I know with absolute certainty that you are not simply a clever simulacrum of humanity, instinctively programmed to respond to me in convincing ways that fulfill a Darwinian agenda? The canine-human relation is a great mystery. It is an instance of grace. Speaking for myself only, I shall refuse to belittle it.

      PS. A couple of weeks ago, on a Sunday (I believe it was), Richard came to my house on my invitation to watch Christopher Mihm’s subtly subversive 2009 film Cave Women on Mars, and to enjoy some Port wine and some aged cheddar cheese from the famous cheese shop in Pulaski, NY. As far as I can remember, Richard has never bribed Shorty although Shorty has always been friendly to Richard, and to his wife Ana, and vice versa. While we sat on the couch watching the film, Shorty chose to associate himself with Richard, in various affectionate ways, not with me, the one who habitually spoils him. Shorty got nothing for his effort except the association. Would a spider do that? Is that the behavior of a “computer”? I hardly think so.

      • Dogs are different from computers certainly, and computers are in turn different from inanimate objects like spoons. The thrust of my point was that we enter dangerous territory when we start affording animals the status of having souls, in the true sense of the word. As I said this has horrible implications, for instance animals would become accountable for their actions and so when a pack of dogs ripped a fox apart they would be committing a moral evil. It would also reduce Christians to an almost Jainist way of life, avoiding even unintentional harm to animals.

        I’m in no way defending careless destruction of animals, but I understand where people are coming from when they draw that line under humanity and say that things below it are on a lower order of being that while not entirely mechanical, does not share the kind of free will we enjoy as human beings. Dogs are different from spiders in that they have what you suggest, assimilation to human beings who most breeds have come to be reliant on for their welfare over a very long period of time (spiders of course are completely independent). Cats can also do this, but apparently not to the same extent as dogs.

        I don’t mean to belittle the canine-human relation, just make sure we don’t ascribe the qualities unique to humans to animals. Just as we should never ascribe qualities unique to humans to computers no matter how complex and lifelike we can engineer them to be.

      • I don’t understand people’s apprehension about recognizing the souls of animals (even of spiders) or plants, for that matter. It is obvious that they have souls — they are alive! They “breathe.” Myself, I wonder whether even particulars that modern science considers inorganic have souls. (I err on the side of caution.) There is a long history of recognizing different levels of souls, just as there are different levels of pretty much everything. Remember the anima in animal!

        Mark, does your qualification (“in the meaningful, immortal sense”) mean that the only true life is the life of the mind, following Aristotle’s understanding that the intellectual part of soul is the only one that may exist apart from the body? Such would dismiss anything that is necessarily enfleshed as “unalive,” which Aristotle doesn’t do. Be it far from me to deny that the theoretical life of the philosopher or the spiritual life the saint are superior to other modes of earthly existence, but the Lord has given us a bountiful order, from spiders to Saint Felix of Nola. It strikes me as perverse and quite modern (but I repeat myself) to flatten being out, and then this error compounds its folly by clipping away all inconvenient (to the reduction) aspects of the world from the mashed paper model that it has made of reality. “There is the mind of man — and then there is mechanism. Nothing else!”

        A hearty, honest assessment of the world doesn’t tremble at the thought of granting beings lower in the divine order their rightful place on the ladder. Civilizations that kept such an image of the world’s hierarchy did not fall prey to men like Peter Singer. Rather, we are such dupes! We modern fools, we modern fooled! The human / non-human dichotomy is an impoverished Cartesian reduction — and, as Bertonneau notes above concerning dogs, such a reduction has historically had a tendency to devour the distinction between man and matter, as well. Nihilistic mechanism isn’t satisfied to exempt man from its colorless, vapid suffocation. All will become dull atoms in the void.

        “I understand where people are coming from when they draw that line under humanity and say that things below it are on a lower order of being that while not entirely mechanical, does not share the kind of free will we enjoy as human beings.”

        I understand where people are coming from when they draw that line under billionaires and say that people below it are on a lower order of economic wellbeing that, while not entirely destitute, does not share the kind of riches we enjoy as billionaires.

        See the problem with these statements?

        “we enter dangerous territory when we start affording animals the status of having souls, in the true sense of the word. As I said this has horrible implications, for instance animals would become accountable for their actions and so when a pack of dogs ripped a fox apart they would be committing a moral evil.”

        Why does this follow? What is “in the true sense of the word”? By the true sense of soul, you appear to mean human soul. But one can affirm all sorts of souls without equating them to human souls, just as one can acknowledge all sorts of intelligences without equating them to human intelligence, and so on. Moreover, why does moral accountability follow from having a soul? The life-principle and the moral faculty appear rather distinct.

        I have many nasty suspicions about contemporary Western man, and one is that he believes that the world is meaningless and without life. Various groups in the West have their special exception to this view — some admit larger sections of reality than others. The Calvinist has the heart and mind of the elect. Everything else is the outer darkness. The Kantian has his rational agent. The Latin has his sacramentalism, which often appears rather stingy to me — invoking a place for God in so few places and under such restrictions. Is it any wonder that such a snuffing out of the really real has triggered ill conceived backlashes such as the neopagans champion? As I note above, though, the more common tendency has been to throw out the exceptions. The human mind loves simplicity and uniformity — just make it all matter in motion.

      • This may be more semantics than anything else. Catholic Answers gives a pretty good summation of my view.

        “Animals have souls–and so do plants. Does this answer sound like something out of the New Age movement? Don’t worry–it isn’t. Rest assured we’re not saying animals and plants have souls like ours.

        The soul is the principle of life. Since animals and plants are living things, they have souls, but not in the sense in which human beings have souls. Our souls are rational–theirs aren’t–and ours are rational because they’re spiritual, not material.

        Animals and plants can’t do anything which transcends the limitations of matter. Although some animals seem clever, they don’t actually possess conceptional intelligence. They can’t, for instance, conceive of the abstract notion of justice.

        Animals and plants also lack a moral sense. When you scold Spot for chewing the carpet and tell him what he did was “wrong,” you aren’t assigning guilt of sin to him, since he can’t commit a sin.

        Animal and vegetable souls are dependent entirely on matter for their operation and being. They cease to exist at death. (There’s no “doggie heaven.”)

        Human souls, by contrast, aren’t material. They’re spiritual. Only a spirit can know and love, a spirit’s two chief faculties being the intellect (which knows) and the will (which loves). We know human souls are spiritual since humans can know and love.

        We also know human souls are immortal because spirits can’t decompose. They have no parts: Only a thing with parts can fall apart. A spirit is a unit. It has no top or bottom, no left or right, no inside or outside.

        Every bit of matter, even the smallest, has parts. The human body can decompose–it’s made of matter, after all–but the human soul can’t. That’s why we say it’s immortal.”

        So, yes, we can refer to ALL life, even that of bacteria as being ‘soul’, but it seems to me the immortal soul is so fundamentally different as to entail some distinction beyond mere animal. Being does have an order, but where do things fall in that order. I would say that humans occupy the highest earthly strata and that there is a deep gulf between them and animals because of this rational spirit nature that allows us to not only conceive of God and be aware of Him, but also to then be accountable for our moral lives.

        “Mark, does your qualification (“in the meaningful, immortal sense”) mean that the only true life is the life of the mind,”

        Note that I am drawing a distinction between life and soul, where perhaps you may see these terms as fully interchangeable (there is basis for your use of the language here, and perhaps I am using it too strictly). But the conscious mind is indicative of the soul I am talking about, the kind possessed not only by human beings but also apparently by angelic beings as well. The reason it would hold us accountable for our moral actions is that we are free to make moral choices. An animals will not take morality into consideration, as it is an abstract concept.

        When an animals dies, what lives on? I don’t think anything does.

        When a human dies, the soul lives on, and so I think human souls and any soul that could be ascribed to both animals and plants can be differentiated quite dramatically. Looking more into this, perhaps the term I should use is ‘spirit’ which rather than having connection to the term ‘life’ is rather more akin to ‘wind’ or ‘breath’ (not in the literal sense of those words).

        Might we say all living creatures (which would exclude computers) have souls that animate them, but only humans possess the spirit, and this segregates them from lower orders of being and is the reason they have dominion over the earth. We are unique in our spirit.

      • I am primarily reminded of Dostoevsky: “do not exalt yourself above the animals; they are without sin, whereas you defile the earth by your very presence on it.”

  4. Richard asks me to post this for him:

    Some Ancient Greeks sold themselves into slavery as a result of being unable to pay debts. Solon banned the sale of free Athenians, including by themselves. So even at that time, selling free Athenians or yourself was seen as inimical to human dignity. People will debase themselves in all sorts of ways for social mobility, but it doesn’t make it right.

    It’s true that slavery was tolerated in the past. I would argue, however, that slavery contradicts two Biblical injunctions, among others – do unto others as you would have them do unto you and love your neighbor as yourself. Most slavery has been involuntary. If I don’t wish to be enslaved, I shouldn’t enslave others. Enslaving another human being is unjust and unfair. If my wishes and desires are important and to be respected, then so are yours.

    I don’t think we should get into a consequentialist debate about slavery, much as one wouldn’t want to debate the pros and cons of raping children, although on a worldwide scale I would be truly amazed if you could show it has done more good than harm. I hold in particular horror the castration of slaves in the Middle East. In some cases when they were marched across the deserts such as the Sahara, there was a 90% mortality rate couple as a result of the march and another 90% morality rate of the remaining 10% upon being castrated. I believe that translates into a 1% survival rate and then life as a eunuch for that one in a hundred survivor.

    Dogs are dissimilar to spiders. Dogs have a limbic system, as I mentioned, and therefore have full-fledged emotions, just as we do. Interacting with them offers sufficient proof that they think and feel. Dogs are clearly self-aware, feeling, thinking creatures who show a great deal of understanding of our inner being. Dogs have been known to try to comfort the sad and react sensitively in other ways. They have souls in the Greek sense of psyches, as do, perhaps, all conscious entities. They may also have immortal souls, whether biblical or not.

    Dogs may lack moral duties and not know the difference between right and wrong but this just means they are in a state of grace and innocence in a way inaccessible to humans. Humans have higher capacities and thus more is asked of us, including acting on our moral understanding – this, from my point of view, would include refraining from enslaving our fellow human beings for our own purposes. Such enslavement disregards the well-being and dignity of others.

    • He makes some valid points about the limbic system. Most of my rationale comes from Dr. Craig’s treatment of the question of animal suffering and how one can reconcile God’s righteousness with the huge perceived suffering of animals on earth.

      With his condemnation of all kinds of slavery including voluntary, temporary debt slavery which is endemic in antiquity, in various forms, I would be interested to hear what his thoughts are on the slavery of the Old Testament that was regulated by God through a series of restrictions on how slaves should be treated, almost a blanket form of ‘civil rights’ for slaves in Israel. Paul Copan’s work really got me interested in some of the misconceptions surrounding slavery as a historical practice. I don’t deny that there was awful slavery before the colonies of the American South, (good examples include the slavery in Sparta and of course Egypt!) but that the slavery of antiquity wasn’t used or regulated in the same way by and large. The advent of ‘plantations’ where individual men owned MASSIVE tracts of land for the growth of cash crops and could afford to have armies of slaves is really a pretty Modern phenomena. Instead you would often have people serving masters in households. The result was that slaves and their families grew close with their masters in such cases, and this explains why in the Israeli civil code there are conditions for a slave actually choosing to become owned for life.

      Craig’s take on this is here…

      “First, many skeptics are not really concerned with a careful exegesis of the biblical text, but merely with taking potshots at the biblical depiction of God. We need to help them come to grips with the fact that they have not studied the Hebrew text carefully and in many cases simply have a misunderstanding of the text. So-called “slavery” in the Old Testament is a prime example. I think that Copan’s point that our understanding of this term is shaped by the experience of the American South prior to the Civil War and that what is described in the Old Testament is actually a sort of anti-poverty program designed to help the poor in the absence of a strong national government is quite convincing.”

      Christians often have to defend various things in the Old Testament, New Covenant or not. This is one of the big ones, and I think Copan’s take is an interesting one.

  5. The discussion of canine-human relations is fascinating. I wish not to diminish it. (Ditto the discussion of slavery.) I would like, however, to call attention to the main topic of Dr. Cocks’ essay: The modern drive to purge humanity of emotion and to approximate a speculative artificial intelligence. This is an important theme. It belongs to the general critique of modernity with which Orthosphereans are thematically interested. Dr. Cocks argues that the philosophy departments of North American universities have self-selected for a period of decades in favor of low emotional intelligence. I would extend the claim to the faculties generally speaking and even beyond academia to modern institutions generally. By the way, being of low emotional intelligence does not preclude experiencing intense emotion. One form of low emotional intelligence is to be able to experience only a narrow range of emotions. On stating it that way, does one not immediately think of the narrow range of emotional positions that characterizes the regnant liberalism? I encourage others to comment on this aspect of Dr. Cocks’ essay.


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