Chapter 2. The nature of your nature.
Everything I have to say about anything starts with carrying the claim back to the object. The essence of philosophical error, deliberate or not, is creative solipsism: “The nature of the thing under discussion is what I need it to be to make my argument work out.” This is useless, of course, since no amount of creative map-making will turn a mountain into a valley. The map is not the territory. If we want to make useful, cogent arguments about what humanity is, we must look to actual human beings, not to incomprehensible maunderings about what humanity “must” be – regardless of the facts.
This is ontology, the study of the nature of real things, irrespective of what anyone thinks about them. And as we will see repeatedly, as we go along, ontology really matters only when we are talking about human beings. There is no one who claims that there is anything controversial about the nature of rocks or trees or reptiles. Only human nature is deployed in one bogus argument after the next, each one devised to induce you to try to violate your own inviolable ontological nature.
There is another big word we need to deal with, so we might as well get it out of the way. Teleology is the branch of philosophy concerned with oughts – what real things should do. Again, it only matters with respect to human beings. A rock should sit around doing nothing until something else acts on it. A tree should grow toward the sun until it is felled by disease or collapses from its own weight. A reptile should eat, mate and moult until it is devoured by a starving bird. These are all non-controversial statements, ultimately of interest only to lab-coated academics.
But ontology and teleology matter a great deal as soon as the conversation turns to human beings. Recall that the most important question in philosophy is, “What (ontology) should (teleology) I (ontology) do (teleology)?” Accordingly, the sole topic of philosophical and theological writing, for all of human history, has been teleology: What should you do? As above, philosophers and theologians will insist that they are concerned with loftier issues, the big picture. This is false. The only thing that matters to human beings is humanity, and the sole purpose of any doctrine – including this one! – is to induce you to change your behavior.
Ontology is being and teleology is shoulding, and, practically speaking, shoulding only matters with respect to human behavior. You can’t “should” a rock into behaving like a reptile, nor a reptile a rock. But you sure can “should” a man into sacrificing everything he is, everything he has and everything he loves for some crack-pot theory – a religion or a philosophy or a political movement. Most of us don’t actually do the things we are “shoulded” about, thank heavens! We’ll give our favorite “thought-leader” – whom we never think to call a crack-pot – an hour or two a week, but then we go back to living a normal life that is largely appropriate to our true human nature – the human nature that our pet crack-pot insists in high dudgeon cannot possibly be what it actually is, and instead can only be what his doctrine commands it “must” be.
It’s funny in the abstract, and just about anyone can have great fun picking apart any ridiculous doctrine but his own. Your own dogma is holy writ, of course, and I don’t plan to take it away from you. If you cannot demonstrate the truth of your arguments by carrying them back to the object – by demonstrating them in reality – I don’t care what you say about human nature or why you behave the way you do. Your claims might actually be true, but if you are unable to defend them in ontology and teleology, they are just so much white noise to me. I accept that your dogma is sacred to you. I also regard it as being undefended – even if you disagree.
That’s your business, in any case. I plan to “should” humanity in the large – to talk about how human beings ought to behave in order to maximize the potential made possible by their ontological nature. But I don’t intend to “should” you – the individual person – too much at all. I don’t want to take from you the ideas you treasure now, I want to give to you the treasures you have never had – but always wanted. I want to show you how the human mind really works, so that you can take full command of it.
So start here: You are an organism. That might seem obvious to you, but a huge number of the critical arguments made against your mind turn on the idea that, since you have a rational, conceptual consciousness, any sort of behavior that reflects your origins as a biological entity is necessarily irrational. We can call this the Spock Fallacy. I think the portrayal of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock himself refutes this claim well enough, but it is one of a type of reductionist fallacies that are constantly being deployed against you: Not only are you damned as being less than the sum of your parts, typically some one part of your nature – blown out of all proportion and distorted out of all recognition – is declared to be a cipher for the whole.
The Determinist Fallacy is a reductionist dodge you will run into all the time, if you are able to identify it under its many thousands of masks. In its most basic form, it seeks to conflate living organisms with inanimate matter: Since atoms and rocks and planets are all governed in their “behavior” by inviolable physical causality, where each event is the unavoidable consequence of prior physical causes, the behavior of organisms must also be causally deterministic. No one knows why organisms are so different from inanimate matter – recall, the rock does nothing on its own – but they are obviously radically different, and conflating the two categories is clearly an error – a very common error. At the atomic or sub-atomic level, the causal events will be similar, but clearly that kind of predictable causal determinism does not scale in the linear fashion the determinists want it to. If you doubt this, push a boulder around for a while. Then go push a mountain lion around in the same way. Your peer-reviewed academic paper on your results just might win a prize – and your picture in the newspaper will be a sight to behold!
You are a particular type of organism, a mammal, and, in consequence, you share many characteristics in common with other mammals. Fish swim, birds fly and snakes slither, but only mammals exhibit the kinds of behaviors we would associate with emotions in human beings. We will talk more about this when we get to the subject of Mothertongue, but it is our mammalian heritage that leads Mr. Spock to so much consternation: It is irrational, goes this argument, that we should spend so much of our time engaging in behaviors – like cuddling or consoling each other or making love – that are both non-conceptual and intellectually or economically unproductive.
Are you sensing a common thread here? Every criticism of human nature consists of the derision of you and your mind for being what they are. As a matter of ontology, you are an organism, and you behave like an organism, not like a rock and not like a robot. You are a mammal, and so you behave like a mammal and not like a reptile or a tree. If any statement I make about your nature as a type of entity does not take into account everything you are as that type of entity, I am making a gross conceptual error: I am conflating the single aspect of your nature that I am focused on with the whole. If the statements I make on that basis are at least factually true – and don’t contradict anything else I know about human nature – I may qualify for a hugely redundant doctorate degree. But if my claims are not true, or if they contradict other aspects of human nature, I am committing the Reductionist Fallacy.
But you are much more than a mammal – and this is why we are having this discussion in the first place. You are capable of conceptual consciousness – sorting the evidence you apprehend with your senses into mental categories – where no other organism is. You are capable of rationality – reasoning in proportion about those categories – where no other organism is. And you are capable of governing your behavior accordingly by informed discretion – by free will – where no other organism is.
You are not bound by nature or physics or the gods to do any of this. In the first place, each one of those capacities had to be cultivated within you – and not by you. And in the second place, there is nothing in the laws of nature that prevents you from devising specious conceptual categories, conflating those categories out of all rational proportion and then resolving to do things you know in advance are contrary to your true nature as an entity. And if you get good enough at documenting that kind of deliberate nonsense, someone might just give you a doctorate degree – in philosophy, no less!
You are a being of rationally-conceptual volitionality – a free moral agent – and in this you are sui generis – a category unto your own. There is nothing like you in mere inanimate matter, and therefore it is a logical fallacy to describe your behavior as nothing more than the manifestation of inviolable physical laws.
Note in this context that all of philosophy assumes the idea of human free will. The stars cannot be persuaded by rhetoric to move in other orbits, and the sands on the beach cannot be wheedled, threatened or flattered into rearranging their distribution. If you are attempting to persuade me of the “truth” of inviolable physical causality as an explanation of human behavior, you are necessarily insisting, simultaneously, that I both can and cannot change my mind by an act of will. Both propositions cannot be true, and your own efforts at persuading me are proof that you yourself do not accept determinism – not the physical determinism addressed above, nor similar claims of a psychological, behavioral, genetic or neuro-chemical determinism – as the cause of human behavior.
That same argument applies to every sort of “must” argument of human nature. Human beings are physical objects, like all organisms, and so they “must” obey laws of nature like the law of gravitation. But to say that any sort of purposive, consciously-chosen human behavior “must” conform to this or that arbitrary law – defended in physics or biology or psychology or philosophy or theology or pure fantasy – is simply false to fact. No one who has raised a child can doubt this proposition. Human will is free of external constraints of all sorts, and just about any teenager will be happy to prove this to you with any act of defiance you choose to induce by forbidding it.
Similarly, because you are a being of rationally-conceptual volitionality, most arguments conflating human behavior with that of other animals are also fallacious. I call the most common form of these claims the Dancing Bear Fallacy: “See the bear dancing to the music! It’s just like us!” No, it is not. A trained animal does what it is trained to do – it knows not what or why – in anticipation of getting a treat. (A clever graduate student might jump up just now to observe that doing tricks for treats is just like having a job – and, no, it is not.) Human beings dance vertically in order to find out if they might want to continue the dance horizontally, later on, in private. The two types of events are nothing alike, and it is a gross error to conflate them.
The general form of the specious appeal – this seems to have certain traits in common with that, therefore this is that – is a comically obvious error when you state it plainly. The people who make these sorts of arguments can’t state anything plainly, of course, so you need to train your mind to unpack their claims. If there are significant differences in kind between the “this” and the “that” – regardless of their seemingly “uncanny” similarities – the argument is most probably deploying the Specious Analogy Fallacy.
As a sort of pocket-reference to the kinds of bogus arguments made about your mind – claims you will see everywhere if you look for them – take note of these three general categories:
1. “We now know we know nothing!” Either your mind is inherently unreliable or the world outside your mind is fundamentally incomprehensible.
2. “Your good behavior is not to your credit, but at least your bad behavior is not your fault!” The actions you think of as being morally good or evil are either causally unavoidable or are caused by something other than your free will – hormones, brain chemistry, genes, brain defects, drugs, diseases, your upbringing, your environment, your wealth or poverty, memes, etc.
3. “Dancing bears are just like us!” Either animals such as apes or dolphins (or even “artificially intelligent” computer programs) are just as smart as you, or you are just as flailingly ignorant as an animal.
Note that all three of these categories are self-consuming: To uphold them, necessarily, is to deny them. If we know we know nothing, then we must know at least that one something – begging the question of how we can know even that little bit of nonsense. If the human will is not free, I cannot will myself to persuade you of this claim – nor even simply to make it – and you cannot will yourself either to accept or reject it. And if your mind works “just like” an animal’s brain, then you cannot discover anything at all about how your mind works, nor record or communicate your findings. Do you doubt me? If so, please have your pet or your software project write a peer-reviewed paper denouncing my egregious intellectual arrogance. No one believes this hogwash. They just want for you to believe it – or at least not dare to challenge it.
But what about denigrations of your mind that are factually true? For example, can adrenaline in your bloodstream temporarily induce you to act out of proportion to your circumstances? Yes. Can pheromones goad you to dance horizontally with someone you should never even have danced with vertically? Yes. Can you make an error of perception in your apprehension of sense evidence, or can you make an error of knowledge in your reasoning about that evidence? Yes. Can you choose unwisely? Oh, yes! – especially when it comes to choosing whom to listen to about the nature of human nature.
You are most fundamentally a being of rationally-conceptual volitionality, but you are everything you are. Your thinking can be influenced by any number of external and internal factors. And your thinking, no matter how carefully you undertake the responsibility of thinking, can be in error. And, worst news of all, you can deliberately induce errors in your thinking, or pretend to, in order to rationalize saying or doing things that you know in advance are wrong – rationally unjustifiable according to your own standard of morality.
Does any of that make you fundamentally wrong? Impotent? Incompetent? Inept? Clumsy and chaotic? Diabolical? Corrupt? A dancing bear cannot actually dance, but it is beyond all doubt perfect in its expression of bearness. Why is so much of modern philosophy devoted to denouncing you for being so perfect, most of the time, in your expression of your humanity? Why is it always you who is flawed, deformed, bungled and botched? Why is your every glory portrayed as an ugly stain? Why would anyone ever create an artifact of the mind insisting that the universe would be a better place without any artifacts of the mind?
I can answer those questions, but I’m not going to. Not here. Not now. The only benefit to be realized from the study of errors is to learn how to correct them and how not to repeat them. Any sort of argument about what the human mind is not is most likely aimed away from your values, not toward them. Your mind is your sole means of survival, and you achieve your values by training your mind to work better and better, not by devising specious rationales for spitting at your mind, your self and your nature as a human being.