Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Plato, Descartes, and Human Exceptionalism

Posted by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I explore the implications of Plato's allegory of the cave, along with his distinction between Platonic "forms" and mere exemplars, for human relationships with animals as well as with one another.  I recommend reading the column, because the ideas in it are difficult to summarize in a sentence.  Here, though, is my attempt at summary:  I argue that describing an idealized abstraction of an object (or a living subject) as reality, as Plato does, while relegating material objects (and subjects) to the status of mere exemplars of that reality, creates a moral risk of subordinating and even obliterating the inherent value of the individual humans and non-humans with whom we share this planet.  I use the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to consider the difference between attending to an individual's inherent value, and attending to an idealized category (such as race, sex, nation, or species) while ignoring the worth of the individuals who occupy that category.  The ESA, for reasons I explain in the column, approaches animal species as forms rather than attending to the individuality and interests of particular animals.  This is why the extinction of a species (rather than the death and suffering of particular animals) is the target of the ESA.

After I described my column to fellow columnist Professor Dorf, he responded that he could see a direct line from Plato to Descartes.  I had not thought about this line, but I am convinced that he is correct about this. Descartes is most famous for the inference he drew that "I think, therefore I am."  This inference, like Plato's allegory of the cave, elevates ideas over reality by positing that the first and most elemental thing we can know as truth is that we can cogitate and that it is this capacity to think (in the particular ways in which we humans think) that manifests and proves our existence.  In an interesting (and quite unpersuasive) effort to prove the existence of God, Descartes suggests that God must  exist  because we can imagine a perfect being, and one of the necessary features of a perfect being includes its actually existing (as though existence were a trait, like height or weight).  Based on Descartes' way of thinking about reality, it is not all that surprising that Descartes would believe that one could prove the existence of something (or someone) by reference only to one's imagination.

I realize that I am not being entirely fair to Descartes.  For one thing, he showed tremendous insight in implicitly intuiting that everything we believe to be true about the world is necessarily processed through our own sensory and mental processes.  At some level, all we really know about the world is our own brain's reactions to stimuli in the world.  Descartes' deep moral error, however, makes itself known when he speaks of nonhuman animals (and thereby colors my view of his mind/body division more generally).

Descartes argued that only humans can have subjective experiences and that animals are simply animate machines that appear to have experiences, much in the way that a clock that chimes at noon might appear to "know" that it is noon but is in fact incapable of feeling or knowing anything.  Carrying his conclusion about animals' insensate qualities from the world of ideas into the material world, Descartes performed shockingly cruel experiments on live, conscious animals, arguing that their cries signified nothing and that suffering was impossible for them.  The reason for Descartes' bizarre belief that animals lacked sentience was that because he imagined that animals lacked "souls," he concluded that they were simply matter without minds, and in the absence of a mind, a creature is incapable of experiencing subjective states like pain and pleasure.  He and his followers accordingly nailed live, conscious dogs to wooden boards and sliced into them to observe their internal organs at work.

Though Descartes' beliefs about animals would sound insane to most people today, many have nonetheless continued to draw a firm moral line between human and nonhuman animals, arguing that something "unique" about humans entitles humans (but not animals) to freedom from torture and slaughter and also entitles humans to exploit animals in ways that involve (even more than in Descartes' day) the infliction of torture and slaughter upon animals.  What is this supposedly "unique"  trait?  When described by those asserting that humans are "unique" in some morally important way, the answer is usually something about our particular kind of intelligence, tracing to the special "mind" enabled by our large/complex/unique brain.  Like Descartes, then, those who subscribe to this view of human uniqueness elevate the human mind and its capacities to justify harming other animals.

Likewise, the view that it is morally acceptable to consume the products of animal torture and slaughter (including the flesh and secretions of animals) frequently entails the proposition that animals lack the human "mind" or "soul."  Animals' experiences of suffering and death, though generally acknowledged to exist, therefore do not have moral weight to counterbalance people's desire to eat dairy cheese, an omelette, or a piece of meat, instead of nut-based vegan cheese, a vegan frittata, or a spicy plate of rice and beans.  This proposition would be familiar and sympathetic to Descartes.

Both Plato and Descartes emphasized abstract thinking as the key to discerning the truth, and abstract thinking appears to be a human specialty.  I would suggest, though, that our modern and more enlightened view of those incapable of abstract thinking (including infantile and some mentally disabled humans) would help expose as false the nonsense propagated by Descartes and still with us, in a less obvious form:  the notion that anything "unique" about some subset of the human population justifies the ongoing harm that we inflict on animals for our own purposes.

16 comments:

Lloyd said...

"In an interesting (and quite unpersuasive) effort to prove the existence of God, Descartes suggests that God must exist because we can imagine a perfect being, and one of the necessary features of a perfect being includes its actually existing (as though existence were a trait, like height or weight)."

That argument actually comes from Saint Anselm of Canterbury, not Descartes.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Oops! Yes, Lloyd is right. Sorry about that. Descartes' proof is more complicated but ultimately similar and similarly problematic: Very briefly summarized, it boils down to the inference that a conception of the infinite comes from outside of his own finite mind, and thus from God.

egarber said...

This post is exactly why I like this blog so much: the mental exercise is intense and eye opening.

A bunch of thoughts pop into my head here, but let me focus on one track.

Connecting this to all the posts about SSM, is it not possible that the idealized form of something, say "marriage", can empower (rather than subordinate) individual exemplars? In other words, to me at least, one reason we're seeing so much progress is that people realize the "shadows" are falling short of the ideal -- marriage between two loving people. Or what about "equality" as an idealized form?

As I type this, I'm wondering if ideas / concepts might be different, but it seems you sort of went there talking about race and groups (which are more abstract notions than say, a table).

Great discussion!!

Joe said...

This column seemed familiar stuff to me, but then I just read your book. I recommend it to egarber, lol.

Paul Scott said...

As I understand it, your first presentation of Descarte's proof of God is closer to the mark. He had, actually, multiple such "proofs." All of them ontological and all highly flawed and mostly (though not entirely) reducible to God of the Gaps.

His concept of infinity has to do with his assignment of a lesser degree of reality to those things that are finite. Infinity effectively wraps into "perfection" by making an infinite being the most real.

In any event, they are all terrible arguments wrapped in the language of sophistry to make them seem more than they are.

When I have more time I will return to this thread, because I think you have illuminated something very real and important about the nature of Humanity's treatment of non-humans.

Paul Scott said...

So, per Sherry's post, human exceptionalism is an exceptionalism of kind, not degree. There would be nothing remarkable if all we said was humans are the smartest group of animals on our planet and then went about ranking animals by intelligence. That sort of exceptionalism, while true, does not lead to to the necessary separation of humans from all other species. We can't just be better; we have to be unique.

And when it comes down to it, to make that work with today's level of scientific understanding, you have to be a duelist; you must believe that the mind is somehow distinct from the brain.

While not 100% necessary, I think it close enough to say that the only way to keep that going is faith. If you do not accept that magic (which is inclusive of, but not limited to, all religions) is real, then it is impossible to make humans exceptional (at least from most other animals) in any way other than degree.

This exceptionalism is not a prerequisite for cruelty, but it certainly helps. I suspect that without the confusion caused by religion, social construct would be the only thing standing in the way of a vegan world. It is also, of course, possible for religion/magic to create a vegan world, since religious tenants are arbitrary and can and do change - often radically. But with regard to the kind of human exceptionalism as expressed by the likes of Descartes, magic/religion is the only way to it.

Jimmyd said...

The post makes several mistakes but the one I want to focus on here is the conflation of the psychological experience of "thinking" with the psychological experience of "imagination". They are different psyche phenomenon.

This distinction between thinking and imagination has caused quite a few heated battles in the recent past between professionals in the area of computer security as to whether it is better to defend against hackers by "worst case thinking" or to defend against hacks by imagining possible attack vectors. There is an excellent post here that outlines the scope of the debate.

https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2010/05/worst-case_thin.html

So when the OP writes, "For one thing, he showed tremendous insight in implicitly intuiting that everything we believe to be true about the world is necessarily processed through our own sensory and mental processes."

The problem with the statement in quotes is that psychologists and neurologists do not actually believe this to be an accurate description of the way that mental processes work. Most psychologists would accept a definition of intuition as precisely that apprehension of the world that is not processed (mediated) by any other sensory or mental process.

I do not bring this point up to be pedantic but quite the opposite. It's easy to toss around words like "intuition" and "thinking" and "imagination" but the way that the law (often drawing on a backdrop philosophy) and psychology and the medical science view those same terms is quite different.

This becomes especially clear when we move away from thinking and into issues such as "feeling". Do animals "feel" pain? Well, what counts as feeling? Most psychologists today would tell you that they cannot conclude that animals feel pain. In fact, I know one well-respected textbook that states that the idea that animals feel pain is nothing more than a projection of the human mind onto the animal. (Learning and Memory: From Brain to Behavior, Gluck, Meracdo, Meyers.)

BTW, I am actually supportive of your agenda. I actually do think animals can feel pain. And while I think that most psychologists agree that Descartes ideas about how the human mind works are "insane" I know plenty of medical professionals who imagine Descartes conclusions about animal's psychological states to be correct.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

One point of the Cave allegory is the ultimate reality of the Forms of the Good: truth, justice, and so forth. The philosopher who ascends to a vision of "the Good" is assured of its reality, as Ultimate Truth, a standard by which things less than perfect can be measured by their comparative distance from (near or far), or their less than perfect realization of, the Forms. It in no way denies or trivializes the particularity of things in the Cave: indeed, the completion of the dialectical ascent, as Iris Murdoch pointed out, is necessarily followed by a descent back into the Cave, the philosopher now in possession of the normative standards, so to speak, by which to assess the progress, or lack thereof, with regard to the realization of, say, justice, goodness, beauty, truth (all standards in the Cave being indeterminate, relative, or partial). It could be said that the philosopher, better than the denizens of the Cave who fail to make the dialectical ascent, fully appreciates the value incarnate in particular things. I think the use of the idea of objects and their material execution or realization is merely an analogy...and as such they are relative, impermanent or contingent only vis-a-vis 'Ultimate Reality,' and that only for the philosopher who has a vision of the Agathon: for the rest of us, the objects of the Cave are in fact 'real,' at least until such time as we have a vision capable of sublating that reality. Abstract conceptualization is important for Plato only insofar as it communicates the necessity or significance of a fundamental body of metaphysical truths, or the significance of a metaphysical worldview as a holistic framework by which me make proper moral sense of the world. The ideal metaphysical framework involves an appreciation or realization of non-propositional truths, in other words, it is non- or para-rational (NOT irrational), beyond the "conceptualization" of the Cave. This "knowledge" is thus not purely cognitive or merely affective but involves something greater: an experiential realization that transcends "subject and object" or "knowledge and being" dualities. In the time-worn terms of philosophy, we can say in fact that the philosopher who descends back into the Cave can see the Universal in the particular and the particular in the Universal: he or she now fully sees the truth and intrinsic value of individual forms of sentient existence.... It is the philosopher who is now capable of the widest empathy and sympathy for her fellow creatures in the Cave for she has the keenest appreciation of their suffering and some understanding of what it might take to alleviate such suffering (in a manner comparable to the role of the bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism).

Sam Rickless said...

Just a couple of thoughts here.

1. Plato's forms are more real than sensible objects only by virtue of the fact that they do not possess contrary properties. Eg, largeness can't be both large and small, but I am both large and small. I am smaller than Kareem, hence small, and larger than Mugsy, hence large. The cave allegory sounds deeper than deep, but ultimately this is what the distinction between forms and sensibles comes down to. I don't think that we can hold Plato responsible for weird ideas that his allegory may have inspired. For more on this, you might look at the first chapter of my Plato's Forms in Transition (CUP, 2007), which reconstructs the theory of forms.

2. Descartes doesn't elevate ideas over reality in the cogito or in the third meditation proof of god's existence. D infers that he exists from the fact that he is thinking (note: not from the fact that he has the *capacity* to think). And he thinks he knows far more than the fact that he is thinking. Eg, he thinks he knows that nothing comes from nothing. Otherwise his proof of god's existence can't get off the ground. So, in addition to the fact that he knows that he is thinking, he also knows a bunch of metaphysical truths that have nothing to do with ideas. So knowledge of the fact that he is thinking is not in fact privileged.

3. The ontological proof of god's existence does appear in Anselm, but also reappears, in a much pared down form, in Descartes' fifth meditation, and again in the Principles of Philosophy.

4. It's just not true for Descartes that everything we know about the world is processed through sense or the brain's reactions to stimuli. This picks up on the point in 2 above that the only things that are really known with certainty are perceived clearly and distinctly by the intellect, rather than by the senses or the imagination. This is encapsulated in D's discussion of the *natural light* in the third meditation.

5. You are right that D condoned the brutal treatment of animals for scientific purposes. The main reason, if I recall correctly, for his thinking that animals don't have souls is that they don't have language. So, interestingly, now that we have more evidence of the communicative abilities of animals, if D were alive now he might actually, on that basis, grant that what he did to animals in his lifetime was actually cruel and wrong.

Paul Scott said...

" Eg, he thinks he knows that nothing comes from nothing. Otherwise his proof of god's existence can't get off the ground."

Yes. And since we now know that nothing is actually unstable and, in fact, our entire universe (and an infinite number of other Universes) came from nothing...

If Descartes was alive today would he be atheist or would he find some other "proof"? I think we know the answer. ;)

Joe said...

He might find another proof and it will be of similar length and tedious complexity.

Evin Terna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Evin Terna said...

Connecting this to all the posts about SSM, is it not possible that the idealized form of something, say "marriage", can empower (rather than subordinate) individual exemplars? In other words, to me at least, one reason we're seeing so much progress is that people realize the "shadows" are falling short of the ideal -- marriage between two loving people. Or what about "equality" as an idealized form?
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