Saturday, February 9, 2013

Humans as Machines in Hobbes

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Humans as Machines

Thomas Hobbes (1588-167) theorized that all men act as machines, as if they were programmed to be mentally limited and inherently selfish. It is these traits that force men, in the absence of fear, to remain in a constant state of war. Hobbes’ argument is centered on the assumption that we are not creatures of logic nor reason, but programmed to be creatures of emotion, motivated by pride and vanity. He begins his argument by mechanistically describing the human body’s physical characteristics, which he uses as a precursor to describe the mechanistic nature of the human mind.

The Leviathan begins with a number of sordid, mechanical explanations for human traits. One such explanation is “the cause of vision, that the thing seen, sendeth forth on every side a visible… show.” (Hobbes I, 5) He continues to describe imagination and memory in the same fashion to clearly establish that humans have mechanistic tendencies. This sets up the argument that men have limited capabilities, which in turn, will aid in proving that men are incapable of remaining in a state of nature.

To further the argument that men will remain in a state of war in the absence of fear, Hobbes must first demonstrate that humans are not special, that they have limits to their thoughts and restrictions to their mental capabilities. The human train of thought, as articulated by Hobbes, is an example of our limited capabilities. “This train of thoughts, or mental discourse… is unguided, without design, and inconstant; wherein there is itself, as the end and scope of some desire, or other passion in which case the thoughts are said to wander, and seem impertinent one to another, as in a dream.” (Hobbes III, ) This mechanistic approach to analyzing our thoughts is one made with the intention to question the validity of our thoughts, along with our notions on the passions we believe to be important. If our thoughts are unguided, then how can we possibly use deduction reasoning? We would not be able to think things out to conclusion, for our minds would be in an unguided, dreamlike state. Hobbes continues his argument by discussing the limited capabilities of the mind. “Besides sense, and thoughts, and the train of thoughts, the mind of man has no other motion; though by the help of speech, and method, the same faculties may be improved to such a height as to distinguish men from all other living creatures.” (Hobbes III, 1) It seems here that Hobbes is sarcastically stating that speech is the only thing that separates us from the animals. Interestingly enough, Hobbes does not incorporate emotions and passions in the list of motions the mind is assigned. I believe this was specifically designed to maintain the image that humans are mechanistic in nature. A machine, in theory, uses deductive reasoning (basing new ideas on known truths) to arrive at its conclusion. So then, does reason in the human mind according to Hobbes mechanistic theory of humans. However, this seems to contradict his idea of wandering, unguided thoughts. This seems to be one of the more evident flaws in his argument. “The use and end of reason, is not the finding of the sum, and truth of one, or a few consequences…but to begin at these… For there can be no certainty of the last conclusion, without a certainty of all those affirmations and negations, on which it was grounded, and inferred.” (Hobbes V, 5) This quote does a lot to piece Hobbes’ argument together; in that, if one of the only motions of the mind is reason, and reason is simply a deductive process common to a machine, then the human mind resembles that of a machine. With this, Hobbes concludes that men have a mechanistic nature, and like a machine, limited capabilities.

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Religion, in itself, is followed more passionately and fervently than any other allegiance that humans may have to any institution. It is, therefore, a precarious subject for Hobbes to divulge in on the grounds that humans act mechanistically, for he is attempting to prove that religion may be a component of human nature that leads us to war. Avoiding the touchy subject of Christian dogma, Hobbes tactfully opens his argument by suggesting that the leaders of religion, not religion itself, interfere with civil obedience. “If this superstitious fear of spirits were taken away, and with it… false prophecies… by which, crafty ambitious persons abuse the simple people, men would be much more fitted than they are for civil obedience.” (Hobbes II, 8) Hobbes’ approach is not so much accusing religion of causing discourse, (although he does hint at its fallibility) but he his pointing out that it is the self-proclaimed leaders of religious sects that are causing the institution of religion to lead men to war. With this, Hobbes introduces the idea that people are intrinsically feeding on the fears of others in order to obtain as much power as possible. This inherent selfishness in all men, instills in them a “purpose to make those men that [rely] on them, the more apt to obedience, laws, peace, charity, and civil society.” (Hobbes XII, 1) Most forms of religion, then, is just an institution seized by men to rule over others. It is in our nature to obtain as much power as possible, so Hobbes’ is simply suggesting that men use religion as a means of obtaining more power. “So easy are men to be drawn to believe any thing, from such men as have gotten credit with them; and can with gentleness… take hold of their fear and ignorance.” (Hobbes XII, 1) It is in our mechanistic nature to be mentally limited and inherently selfish, which will lead to a state of war if left unchecked. The institution of religion illustrates both of these traits. It exemplifies an unseen battle between people who are both “drawn to believe any thing” and those that “take hold of their [other people’s] fear and ignorance”. As evidenced by the history of the era, the people fervently close with religion were forced into a constant state of war, 100 years of it!

As the case of religion demonstrated, Hobbes believed men to be inherently selfish by nature. And the nature of humans is based on mechanics, so one would conclude that everyone has a mechanical drive to be self-interested. He states that all men believe “that things should be determined, by no other men’s reason but their own …” (Hobbes V, ) Furthermore, the “constitution of a man’s body is in continual mutation.” (Hobbes VI, 6) I interpret these two statements to suggest that democratic principles will never be effective, for the public does not care about others, and has a continuously changing mind. Hobbes chooses to use the term ‘constitution’ to describe human behavior to keep with the theme of a mechanistic human nature. Not only are men self-interested, but Hobbes believes men are so self-absorbed, that they “have no pleasure… in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all.” (Hobbes XIII, 5) If true, this fierce competition between humans struggling for power would lead directly to an all-out war. Fortunately for us, Hobbes also believes these immoral traits can be kept in check.

The only way to keep these dangerous traits in check is with fear. If it were not for the human desire to live, or moreover live comfortably, we would undoubtedly be seeking to obtain power from others without any thought of consequence. One fear is preyed upon by the teachings of religious rulers. They teach, as Hobbes put it, that “invisible powers declare to men the things which shall hereafter come to pass, especially concerning their good or evil fortune in general…” (Hobbes XII, 10) It seems that the doctrine of religion has been somewhat commandeered by power-hungry men in order to control men and their wants. If religion did not advocate good deeds as a means of getting into heaven, men would not have morals and ethics, for there would not be any real consequence for acting unjustly. Another fear we all share is the fear of other men becoming too powerful in one way or another. Some may fear a monarch becoming a tyrant, whereas become simply jealous of powerful men. There is no assurance, no matter how unselfish one may live, that another man may not steal one’s power, rights, and liberties. The last passion that “inclines men to peace…[is] the fear of death…” (Hobbes XIV, 14) Ultimately, the fear of death will prevent any creature from engaging in a state of war. In the absence of fear, men have no obstacles to prevent them from arriving at a state of war. However when the possibility of death, coupled with the possibility of losing one’s freedom is introduced, men will repress their inner desires in order to avoid a state of war.

Throughout the Leviathan, Hobbes uses a structured argument to show how human nature, if left unchecked, will ultimately result to a state of war by attempting to prove that humans are mechanistic in nature. He begins by comparing physical and emotional aspects of the human body and mind to that of a machine. He furthers his argument by establishing that humans, like machines, are limited in capability. Humans are bound by the rules of nature, much like machines are bound to their programmed task. Hobbes illustrates his point by showing the inherent selfishness and overall hypocrisy of the leaders of religious sects, as well as the willingness of those that follow them to do anything and everything to please their leader. The argument that human nature is mechanistic leads to the conclusion that men will always arrive in a state of war unless there is “a common power to keep them all in awe.” (Hobbes XIII, 8)





Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathon

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