Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was a French-Genevan Enlightenment philosopher known for his influential work in literature, music and, most importantly, political philosophy. During the French Revolution, Rousseau was the most revered theorist amongst the revolutionaries.
As discussed previously, one of the hallmarks of modern philosophy was the tendency to think of substances sans final causes. One of the consequences of this type of mechanistic inquiry was to view man as being in a “state of nature”, where he is removed of any qualities or attributes that are caused in him by social conditioning.
There are two important thinkers that precede Rousseau regarding the state of nature: Hobbes and Locke. For Hobbes, the state of nature is men aside from civil society, a state ruled entirely by the self-interest of the individual that inevitably leads to chaos, war and destruction. According to Locke, the state of nature is articulated through the natural and alienable rights of man. While Hobbes says that man can do no good aside from the state and must give himself to a sovereign in order to live, the Lockean man is capable of good on his own and thus the intervention of the state into his life should be necessary only when beneficial.
Rousseau’s innovation is to offer an inversion of Hobbes. Rousseau contends that the state of nature is a state of “uncorrupted morals”. Rousseau outlines three developmental stages of man. The first is the brute animal life state which is similar to the primitive man described by Hobbes. The second is a decadent man corrupted by the vices on offer in a political and civilised society.
The third is the natural man – a type of uncivilised savage. Rousseau argues that this man who has evolved beyond the primitiveness of apes but has not been spoiled by the decadence of civil society is best. Rousseau’s critique of Hobbes’ view of natural man is that he has taken civilised people and removed from them all concepts of laws, property and etc., and thus has failed to accurately characterise this type of man (only a gross abstraction). Like Locke, Rousseau admits that self-interest is an important motivation for human action but it is by no means the sole one.
Reading Rousseau’s passionate advocation of the virtues of a simpler man, it is easy to see how he inspired the French revolutionaries to rally against the indulgence of the French government of their time.
Voltaire was the pen name for the French writer Francois-Marie Arouet (1694 – 1778). Voltaire was one of the central French Enlightenment thinkers, known for his daring literary attacks on authorities (including both church and state) and his advocacy of political and social freedoms. His most important influences include Newton in regards to the sciences and Locke in regards to politics.
As modern thinking began to gather momentum, the four part causal understanding of nature offered by Aristotelian thinkers began to be abandoned in favour of a mechanical theory of causality that would attempt to explicate nature through the action of a dessicated matter.
Voltaire was a staunch Enlightenment Newtonian in this regard. His contribution to modern philosophy is not a novel theory to rival Newton, such as Leibniz offered, but rather he was instrumental in guiding the course of modernism towards the adoption of an empirico-Newtonian epistemology.
The thesis of this new epistemology was the primacy of empirical facts uncovered through the new scientific method. The contrast to the Aristotelian method is the relegation of metaphysical inquiry to a handmaiden of scientific inquiry at best and uselessness at worst. One of the consequences of this approach was the requirement of so called “brute facts”. Voltaire argued that rational philosophy should reject speculations that could not be proved by empirical facts, even if it meant certain empirical facts went unexplained – thus arising the need for brute facts.
This is arguably the most important factor in Voltaire’s deistic understanding of god. For Voltaire, god is like a very powerful watchmaker who sets in the world in motion according to natural laws (which can be discerned by scientific investigation alone). According to Voltaire god is an idea empty of any religious or metaphysical content, an ultimate brute fact.
In a previous post, we have already seen Hume make the division between statements about nature and moral statements resulting in the famous is-ought problem. In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Hume makes another partition:
All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic … [which are] discoverable by the mere operation of thought … Matters of fact, which are the second object of human reason, are not ascertained in the same manner; nor is our evidence of their truth, however great, of a like nature with the foregoing.
Consider a perfect equilateral triangle. Geometrically, one may know that any equilaterial triangle must have three sides and angles of equal proportion. According to Hume, this statement is a “relation of ideas” and is necessary and known before experience. It is necessary because it would be the same in the circumstance of any physical facts (or any possible world if you will) and known a posteriori because there exists no perfect equilaterial triangle in the material world from which to derive such knowledge. Think again about an imperfect equilateral triangle made out in green paint on a white wall. The statement, “this triangle I am perceiving is green” would be a “matter of fact”.
While we can be certain of relations of ideas, that knowledge is not as valuable as one might think because relations of ideas only relate to other relations of ideas and so can prove nothing about the actual world or “matters of fact”. Because of Hume’s skepticism in regards to causality and the resulting problem of induction, generalising to relations of ideas from matters of fact also goes out the window.
One can easily imagine the kind of devastating effect this schema along with Humean causality would have on the medieval/Scholastic tradition which relied on induction to move from the particular to the universal and deduction from the universal to the particular. Kant, who later credited Hume with “waking him from his dogmatic slumbers“, would subsequently recast Hume’s Fork into his own idealistic analytical-synthetic distinction.
Hume was insistent that any meaningful statement must fit into one of his two categories. But critics have asked, what of the fork itself? Is it a relation of ideas in which case it has no relevance in the real world, or is it merely an uncertain matter of fact lacking universal jurisdiction?
I killed you, Mr. Anderson. I watched you die… with a certain satisfaction, I might add. Then something happened. Something that I knew was impossible, but it happened anyway. You destroyed me, Mr. Anderson. After that, I understood the rules, I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey. And now, here I stand because of you, Mr. Anderson. Because of you, I’m no longer an Agent of this system. Because of you, I’ve changed. I’m unplugged. A new man, so to speak. Like you, apparently, free.
But, as you well know, appearances can be deceiving, which brings me back to the reason why we’re here. We’re not here because we’re free. We’re here because we’re not free. There is no escaping reason; no denying purpose. Because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.
- Agent Smith, The Matrix Reloaded
Per Aristotle, the final cause (or the purpose of a substance) is the cause of causes. Using the example of a saw; the material that the saw is made from, the shape of the saw and the manner in which the saw is built all come after its purpose of cutting things. Take for example Agent Smith above, who is made by the Matrix in order to suppress a potential human insurrection. He has the abilities and qualities you would expect to be able to perform such a role: a sense of superiority, superhuman strength, martial arts expertise and etc.
All of this seems fairly non-controversial. This is because Smith is clearly an artifact; that is he is clearly made by another from an idea that exists prior to its phyiscal manifestation. But substitute Smith for Neo or Morpheus, a man born of a woman – a natural substance. Considering a man born in the usual way, the notion of a final cause becomes highly controversial. Plato and Aristotle’s rival Lucretius (a forerunner to Democritus), insisted when regarding a natural substance that “nothing in the body is made in order that we may use it. What happens to exist is the cause of its use”.
One can find the same notion in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. For Aristotle, the adaptation occurs after the purpose. For Darwin, the adaptation occurs randomly and without purpose, but may find “a cause of its use” that can lead to the organisms survival.
The zombie trope is ubiquitous in modern film and literature. The typical plot involves a form of chemical or virus that infects a human being and mysteriously removes their humanness while leaving them more or less physically intact. The zombie will engage in any means that will meet its physical needs, with no regard for morality and reasoning.
The zombie theme is an archetypal example of the influence of modern philosophy on modern art. The father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, theorised that animals were a type of zombie i.e. their behaviour could be thoroughly explicated through physical interactions. Descartes differentiated animals from humans by saying that a human being had an immaterial mind that interacted with their brain.
It is not difficult to see how the idea of the zombie arises. If what makes the man wholly man is a separate and distinct thinking substance, what would happen if this substance, or access to it, were lost? Per Descartes, man would be reduced to the state of an animal i.e. a zombie.
While a symbol of popular culture, the zombie is also an important metaphysical tool. Modern philosophers like Locke and Hume, who sought to explain conscious activity purely in physical terms, are faced with a “zombie problem”. Either mental facts such as secondary qualities and qualia can be explained wholly in physical terms, in which case a man is a zombie; or they cannot in which case the existence of zombies is not possible and the materialist account of mind faces a serious problem.
I have discussed previously the manner in which Hume’s theory of causality leads to skepticism of universals. In order for his theory to stand, Hume faces the challenging question of personal identity. For if personal identity persists through change, then an argument for the existence of universals (i.e. the human soul) can be made.
Hume’s attack on the soul relies on his unique empirical epistemology and his theory of causation. Hume argues that whenever he thinks, he can only recall a particular perception of sensation. For example, he can recall the sight of an elephant or the smell of steak. He then states then he cannot perceive anytime of himself apart from any perception. Hume then contends that the self consists in the association between these perceptions. In other words, the perceptions are primary and the self is secondary at best (if it can be said to be real at all). This interpretation of Hume is called the “bundle theory”.
It is interesting to trace the progression of ideas that leads to Hume’s theory. At first, there was Aquinas who held that the intellect was an immaterial power of the soul, while phantasms (i.e perceptions) and imagination were bodily. Descartes follows with his trans-location of the intellect from the human body as a separate immaterial substance. Locke then relocates “consciousness” as a bodily activity inside the physical body of a human being. Finally, Hume denies the intellect altogether in saying that a man is nothing but a loosely connected series of phantasms. In this way, Hume would lay the foundation for modern philosophies of mind such as functionalism and eliminative materialism.
David Hume was arguably the most influential hand in the modern periods discounting of natural theology. For scholastic writers, such as Aquinas, an effect is necessarily conjoined to its cause and thus knowledge of God can be reasoned from the natural world. Hume severed this necessary connection, driving modern philosophy towards skepticism.
It follows then, per Hume, that the only way one could have any knowledge of the divine would be through the miraculous. However, Hume railed against the “superstitious delusion” of his time. Hume defines a miracle as “a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity, or by the interposition of some invisible agent”. Hume’s anti-miracle argument works the following way:
1) Evidence for miracles consists of the testimony of those who experience them.
2) A miracle is a violation of a law of nature.
3) The testimony for the inviolate laws of nature largely outweighs that for any particular miracle.
Therefore, miracles do not occur.
Criticism of Hume’s argument tends to take two forms:
i) One need not except Hume’s definition of miracles as a violation of the laws of nature. Such critics often offer scenarios where a natural law has not been transgressed but the event may still be considered miraculous.
ii) Some say that Hume’s argument is circular or that he is engaging in question begging. Hume’s claim that the laws of nature are inviolate relies upon unanimous testimony, however unanimity can only be attained if testimony regarding miracles is disregarded.