134. Hobbes vs. Socrates

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) opens his masterpiece Leviathan (1651) with some startling claims that reduce life to a series of motions and mechanisms:

“Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an artificial animal. For seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints, but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body, such as was intended by the Artificer?”

For Hobbes everything is matter in motion determined to move exactly as it moves by the laws of nature. If this is the case then physics can explain everything: we no longer need to appeal to immaterial souls with their reason, purposes, and free choices.

Many centuries before, however, Plato (427-347), in his dialogue Phaedo (98c), has his character Socrates say something very different. Socrates is talking about how disappointed he was when he found out that Anaxagoras didn’t include any intelligent, purposeful direction of matter in his cosmology.  Rather, he tried to get intelligence and purposeful direction from the configurations of matter alone. But this, for Socrates, will not work:

“What expectations I had formed, and how grievously was I disappointed! As I proceeded, I found my philosopher [Anaxagoras] altogether forsaking mind or any other principle of order, but having recourse to air, and ether, and water, and other eccentricities. I might compare him to a person who began by maintaining generally that mind is the cause of the actions of Socrates, but who, when he endeavoured to explain the causes of my several actions in detail, went on to show that I sit here because my body is made up of bones and muscles; and the bones, as he would say, are hard and have joints which divide them, and the muscles are elastic, and they cover the bones, which have also a covering or environment of flesh and skin which contains them; and as the bones are lifted at their joints by the contraction or relaxation of the muscles, I am able to bend my limbs, and this is why I am sitting here in a curved posture—that is what he would say, and he would have a similar explanation of my talking to you, which he would attribute to sound, and air, and hearing, and he would assign ten thousand other causes of the same sort, forgetting to mention the true cause, which is, that the Athenians have thought fit to condemn me, and accordingly I have thought it better and more right to remain here and undergo my sentence; for I am inclined to think that these muscles and bones of mine would have gone off long ago to Megara or Boeotia—by the dog they would, if they had been moved only by their own idea of what was best, and if I had not chosen the better and nobler part, instead of playing truant and running away, of enduring any punishment which the state inflicts. There is surely a strange confusion of causes and conditions in all this. It may be said, indeed, that without bones and muscles and the other parts of the body I cannot execute my purposes. But to say that I do as I do because of them, and that this is the way in which mind acts, and not from the choice of the best, is a very careless and idle mode of speaking.”

Socrates recognizes that the material mechanisms of the body are a necessary condition of human action. But we cannot reduce human action to such mechanisms since (1) many of our actions can only be sufficiently explained by also including the purposes and reasons we have for acting and physical explanations delete purposes and have no need of reasons only causes; (2) we act in accordance with what we think is truly good or right and material facts are not moral phenomena at all; and (3) our souls make choices for which we can be responsible and materialism and determinism exclude souls and free will. Any theory of human action that fails to incorporate these three points will inevitably lead us to engage in “a very careless and idle mode of speaking.”

So was Hobbes’ radical reductionism of everything to physics a bit careless and idle? Or should we follow Hobbes and claim that even Socrates’ “better and nobler part”, that part that apparently chooses in accordance with reason and objective morality, is just a series of mechanisms in a very complex automaton? Are there other options?

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