Praxis

August 11, 2007

The Immortality of Richard Dawkins

Filed under: Economics, Philosophy, Science — duncan @ 5:12 pm

There is a powerful tradition in Western philosophy that attempts to argue for the existence of an unchanging incorporeal world by starting from the structure of human consciousness.  For the transcendental thinkers the soul must be immortal, because the soul’s synthesising power constitutes the empirical world, and so must precede it.  But the idea isn’t limited to transcendental thought.  Perhaps the canonical exposition is Plato’s Symposium, where the goddess Diotima interrogates Socrates on the question of the Good.

Diotima:  Then may we state categorically that men are lovers of the good?
Socrates:  Yes, I said, we may.
Diotima
:  And shouldn’t we add that they long for the good to be their own?
Socrates:  We should.
Diotima
:  And not merely to be their own but to be their own forever?
Socrates
:  Yes, that must follow.
Diotima
:  In short, that Eros longs for the good to be his own forever?
Socrates
:  Yes, I said, that’s absolutely true.

A number of ideas are here bound tightly together.  That which the soul desires, the soul desires forever, and all for itself.  If one desired something transient, then one could never possess it absolutely, for even one’s current possession of it would be shadowed by the inevitability of loss.  According to Plato’s / Diotima’s logic, desire – intentionality (and thus consciousness itself) – must aim at this absolute and permanent possession.  Anything less would be a rending of the self – and since a self that is constantly torn to pieces would be no self at all, the possibility of permanent possession of the good is a necessary condition for any consciousness at all.  If we are to think at all, we must be able to think the eternal. For deconstruction, what is at stake in our reading of the philosophical canon is an attempt to find an alternative to this logic.  The tradition says: eternity is a condition of consciousness.  Deconstruction replies: universal mortality is a condition of this thought of eternity.It’s impossible to really expand on this here – if you’re interested, I commend Henry Staten’s Eros in Mourning, the first chapter of which I’m paraphrasing.  But I want to say a few words about the way in which this argument informs the work of Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins – one of the most vocal atheists in the world – invokes at critical moments this same canonical logic of necessary immortality.  Even as he inveighs against the ‘delusions’ of those who cling to the idea of a world beyond the empirical, he is guided in his characterisation of the empirical world by a desire to locate a similarly ungainsayable foundation of consciousness.Earlier this year I read ‘The Extended Phenotype’.  Two themes: The ‘selfishness’ of the gene; the ‘immortality’ of the gene.  Here’s Dawkins in chapter five.  “The whole purpose of our search for a ‘unit of selection’ is to discover a suitable actor to play the leading role in our metaphors of purpose.  We look at an adaptation and want to say, ‘It is for the good of…’.  Our quest in this chapter is for the right way to complete that sentence.  … I am suggesting here that, since we must speak of adaptations as being for the good of something, the correct something is the active, germ-like replicator” (p. 91).  Dawkins’s idea of an “active, germ-like replicator” is pretty empty; given his woolly definitions (p. 83), the last quoted sentence is almost tautologous.  But that’s not the point.  The thrust of his idea is obvious: the possibility of an indefinitely long line of copies.  Since a gene, which is his central exemplar of an ‘active germ-line replicator’, is replicated (Dawkins argues) in all its essential properties, a gene can in some sense persist forever.  “Whether it succeeds in practice or not, any germ-line replicator is potentially immortal.  It ‘aspires’ to immortality but in practice is in danger of failing.” (p. 83).

A gene aspires to immortality.  This idea is at the heart of Dawkins’s form of evolutionary explanation.  We animals and humans live and die – any given death is contingent, but the fact of death is not.  We are mortal.  Genes, however, are not mortal.  They are, in principle, immortal; and if any gene happens to ‘die’, then this fate is itself contingent.

What interests me is the force with which Dawkins presents this idea as having explanatory value.  Dawkins believes that his perspective of the ‘selfish gene’ will provide explanatory insights that a rival perspective – of, say, the altruistic individual – will not.  I’m sure he’s right.  Yet Dawkins has remarkable confidence in the value of his perspective – a confidence that leads him to make such notorious statements as “We no longer have to resort to supersti- tion when faced with the deep problems: Is there a meaning to life? What are we for? What is man? After posing the last of these questions, the eminent zoologist G. G. Simpson put it thus:’The point I want to make now is that all attempts to answer that question before 1859 are worthless and that we will be better off if we ignore them completely.’“.  It seems to me that this confidence is based on the belief that a selfish aspiration to immortality fundamentally makes more sense as a motive force than, say, altruistic self-sacrifice.  This is why the explanatory chain runs from the ‘irrational’ behaviour of individuals to the ‘motives’ of the selfish genes.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not objecting to evolutionary explanation; I’m not objecting to Dawkins’s form of evolutionary explanation.  But I’m disturbed by the bludgeoning force of Dawkins’ advocacy.  I don’t think this is just a product of his pugnacious personality.  Dawkins’s movement from altruistic mortal intentions to the gene’s selfish aspiration to immortality puts him in the mainstream of the Western philosophical and theological tradition.  Like Plato’s Diotima, Dawkins says that we cannot understand desire unless we can reduce it to the desire for eternity.

What’s this got to do with economics?  Well, a few posts ago I was discussing Arrow’s impossibility theorem.  I was saying (yet again) that the idea of a rationally self interested individual is ridiculous.  We are all composed of conflicting drives, and therefore Arrow’s argument about the impossibility of fully rational collective choice applies equally well to individuals.  I said that we don’t need Freud to tell us this: evolutionary biology will do the job just as well (and with sounder scientific credentials). 

But I want to distinguish two different levels of criticism here.  One level is the obvious foolishness of positing ‘rational self-interested individuals’ as economic actors.  But there is also the question of what constitutes ‘rational self-interest’ itself.  If we wished to criticise economics from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, we could replace classical economic explanations of human behaviour with accounts that emphasise the motives of the ‘selfish gene’.  (And I’m sure there are people on the case.)  But even if we did this (and it’s a worthwhile thing to do) we would remain within a certain form of metaphysical explanation: one that gives priority to self-sufficient self-interested atomic actors – and that ties the possibility of such actors to the possibility of rationality.  This is a philosophical inclination that cannot be empirically refuted or affirmed.  But, to my mind, it’s suspect..

When thinkers throughout history have examined consciousness, they have, often, reduced it to an eternal, unchanging, self-sustaining core.  One of Darwin’s achievements was – apparently – to do away with that: Darwinism was meant to be a Copernican revolution that undermined anthropic narcissism.  The theory of natural selection told us that our individual essence was contingent; by destroying the classical opposition between human and animal, it undermined the idea of an immortal human soul.  But the logic that underlies the desire to believe in an immortal soul cannot be destroyed by science: if human consciousness has been denied its special status, then a new consciousness can be invented – the consciousness of the gene – and all the old properties of the immortal soul can be safely ascribed to it.  In the name, ironically, of Darwinism. 

I obviously don’t want to overemphasise the similarities between Plato, Dawkins and rational choice theory.  God knows there are differences enough.  But there are also, I think, suggestive parallels.  A challenge to economics’ idea of rationality should try to take account, not only of the obvious empirical problems with economists’ theories, but also with the philosophical ideas behind them.  Kenneth Arrow, student of Socrates, stands in the market place and describes its workings.  The Goddess Diotima, with her invisible hand, guides his thoughts.

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