Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Functional Singularities

with 2 comments

Spring Break starts on Monday.  That means that, as of Saturday, I have an entire ten days when I do not have to get up at three thirty in the morning even once.  I must be getting old.  I used to do that all the time.  Now, if I don’t get the extra hour, I’m grumpy.

Let me clarify something, to begin with.  When I said that the idea of the autonomous individual was necessary for the advancement of science on the scale we’ve seen it over the last two hundred years, I didn’t mean that scientists had to view human beings as autonomous individuals.

I meant scientists had to view themselves as autonomous individuals.

Those paradigm shifts are the ball game.  They occur seldom or never when people view themselves as embedded in webs of relation, because, historically, viewing oneself as so embedded has meant viewing oneself as required to show deference to those older and wiser than oneself.

The advancement of science requires people–most often fairly young people–who are willing to say, “look, old fogey, step aside, you’ve got this all wrong.”

A person in the middle Ages–or in Aristotle’s Athens–with such an attitude would have been viewed by his society as, at best, a barbarian.  At worst, he would have been labelled hopelessly and fatally corrupt. 

That was why it took so long to break away from Aristotelian natural science.  The old canard about how the Middle Ages simply “thought” about the natural world while in the late Renaissance and Enlightenment they started to experiment with it is false.  The Middle Ages saw a great deal of experimentation, including the first attempts at controlled experimentation, in science.

And if you can find one of those books that contain translations of scientific notebooks and observational diaries from the years around 1200 or so, you’ll be surprised at how meticulous those operations were and how carefully designed were some of the experiments.  

The problem was not lack of empirical research but the felt need to explain such research in Aristotelian terms–Aristotle was, after all, the master, and we were his students, and a good student does not contradict the master, because the master’s wisdom is (by definition) superior to his own.

Robert says that, even using functional or teleological definitions of the human, it would still be impossible to construct a moral code because we would still be fighting over the definition of “good.”

And all I can say is–no, we wouldn’t.

The entire idea of different and competing definitions of the good was alien to classical society and to Christian Medieval society both.  The two worlds didn’t even see themselves competing on that score.

There was a lot of argument between Christianity and Pagan culture, but none of it was over what was to be accepted as “good.”  Augustine was able to be a highly successful and highly productive Pagan philosopher and later Christian philosopher precisely because understanding of the morally good and morally right had more in common between the two cultures than at variance. 

On the subject of the human being defined by role and function, the two societies were virtually identical, and they were more like than unlike the societies of the East to which they had little or not access. 

What made a woman a good mother and a good daughter, what made a man a good father, a good husband and a good son, what made the man a good citizen or a good subject–these roles were considered immutable and fixed.  Study them and you could determine what actions were proper to each, and therefore determine what was morally right for you to do. 

As for teleological conceptions of the human being–well, there were certainly arguments over that.

Sort of.

It would seem, at least on the surface, that Christianity introduced a new and alien teleology into the Pagan world–and it did.

Sort of.

The thing is, if you look at the history of philosphy over time, what you see is that Christian belief added something to the classical understanding of the ancient world, but it did not reject the pagan understanding of what it meant to be moral.

That was why Christians were universally admitted to be morally exemplary by the pagans who met them, even the pagans who disagreed with them about things like the divinity of Christ or the need to cast away the worship of the old gods, or thought that they were all a pack of cultural barbarians. 

One Roman emperor after another after Nero exhorted Romans to commit themselves to charity as the Christians did.  Pagan society made giving charity a part of the definition of a morally good person, but the Christians not only gave charity, they gave it unconditionally even to people who didn’t “deserve” it by their behavior and they gave it without seeking praise for it.

In other words, Christian thinking added something to the already existing Pagan moral ideal of giving charity to the poor–it didn’t change Paganism from being a society with no such moral ideal into one that was.

Even the examples usually given as showing that the change to Christian morality was “radical” don’t pan out on deeper study.

There is, for instance, the common practice of infanticide throughout the Greek and Roman worlds.  A father, having absolute power over his family, could command that an infant be exposed on the mountainside if it was deformed, or if there was some other reason why he believed it should not live.

Peter Singer would have felt right at home.

But unlike Singer, the Greeks and the Romans did not think this was a morally good action.  They didn’t event think it was morally neutral.

They thought it was a necessary evil–that it was something that “ought” not to be done, but that circumstances demanded. 

Christianity didn’t change the power of fathers, or protest the nature of the patriarchal family.  (See Augustine’s Confessions–I think one of the more interesting studies somebody could do would be one into Augustine’s relationship with his father, a person he repeatedly refers to as “that man” throughout his autobiography. The Confessions provide the world’s first recorded protest against patriarchal right–not a small thing in the time it was written, and too big a thing for Augustine to realize where his thinking would lead to if he let it get there.)

Anyway, sorry for the aside.

Christianity didn’t change the power of fathers, or even seek to, and did not protest the nature of the patriarchal family.  What it did was add to the definition of a “good father” a few things that hadn’t been there before.

Those thing were not minor–the duty to care for all one’s children, even when circumstances meant that such care would bring the family to utter ruin ; the duty to “love they wife as thyself.”

These had enormous implications for the lives of children and wives in families, but they did not amount to a paradigm shift.

Of course, Robert is quite right.  I probably wouldn’t like much of what would result from a return to functional and teleological definitions of what it means to be a human being.

But the issue isn’t whether or not I’d like it.  The issue is whether or not MacIntyre is correct in saying that no moral system of any kind can be constructed or maintained without such definitions.

That is, if MacIntyre is right that no universally binding and universally understood moral code is possible in a world that defines the human as an autonomous individual.

I say the question is still open. 

It’s true we have maintained widely accepted ideas of the moral throughout three hundred years of the human being as autonomous individual.  MacIntyre would say we’ve done it by clinging to the rules of older moral codes while pretending that their foundation hasn’t be shot away.

And we’ve gotten to a point, now, where the fact that those foundations no longer exist has begun to matter.

But I’ve been at this long enough, and I have tea and and a free morning, so I’m going to go listen to some Medieval English ballads sung by the King’s Noyse. 

Like the Greeks, the Medieval English were really into weepies.

Written by janeh

March 4th, 2010 at 7:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Functional Singularities'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Functional Singularities'.

  1. Oddly enough (since I’ve rarely read the books you mention) I recently finished St. Agustine’s Confessions and I didn’t get anything much at all from it about his relationship with his father. He was much influenced by his mother, of course. And there was lots of other interesting stuff in it, but I don’t remember anything particularly unusual about his father.

    Martin Luther, now, that’s a person I suspect had serious issues with his father, although I haven’t read as much about him as I’d like.

    I think you’re splitting something that falls on a continuum into an either/or situation. There’s a good range of experiences between a Roman pater familius, if that’s how you spell it, and a modern man living alone with an ex-wife somewhere and adult children who have all gone their separate ways.


    4 Mar 10 at 7:56 am

  2. Hmmm. As regards agreeing on the good, I didn’t say we hadn’t in the past. I said we couldn’t now, or in the near future. Run a quick check over a wide spectrum of people on the relative value of peace, freedom, security, biodiversity and what have you. A lot of this is relative, which is troublesome enough, but some of it is absolute. Ask a Mormon and a Greenpeace activist about bringing more children into the world. And–the real sticking point–get the outnumbered or outgunned to change their views, rather than submit and bide their time.
    Getting an agreed or imposed common definition of the “good” would be much more traumatic than the subsequent working out of a moral code from that.


    4 Mar 10 at 8:21 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 240 access attempts in the last 7 days.