Thursday, April 18, 2019

12 Thomas on the vices

The Horses Inside Us

In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt asks a provoking question:  Why it sometimes the case that pre-modern psychological advice is better than its modern alternative? He was spurred to ask this because a modern therapy technique called cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT that is based on antique philosophy, mostly but not exclusively Stoicism of the Imperial period, has proven to be much more effective than anything Freud, Adler, Jung, Watson or Frankl have been able to suggest.

Haidt’s answer is, the antique world had better metaphors for how the mind works. He tells a story about a time when, as a child, he was on a horseback tour of the Grand Canyon. At one point on a trail along the face of a cliff such that going off the trail meant death, there was a curve. Haidt on the outside of the trail with another rider beside him. Not wanting to turn his horse for fear of running into another horse, he panicked and froze. For a moment he expected to die. His horse was going to keep going in a straight line and they would both plunge off the cliff. It was like one of those nightmares where you try to run or scream but can’t.

As it happened, the horse simply turned when it reached the curve.

Antique writers, most notably Plato, used horses and the training of horses as a metaphor for how the mind works. On this sort of metaphor there are things that simply act in relatively complex ways because that is their nature. By way of contrast, imagine that, like Hobbes, you believed that the mind operated on mechanical principles. If young Haidt had been riding a bicycle and frozen, he would have died. Again, Freud imagined the mind works on hydraulic principles. He worried that if we keep repressing desires the internal pressures will build up and something will explode. That is still a very popular way of imagining the way the mind works. Unfortunately, behaving as if we need to relieve internal mental pressures tends to have disastrous effects. Likewise, mental models based on computer technology are inadequate. Computers can do some tasks, such as playing chess, better than any human being. But ask a computer to manœuver a robot over rough ground such as a trail on the Grand Canyon and they are pathetic. A colt that trips over its own feet will, by the time it is 6 months old, be able to travel over a rough trail better than any robot made.

When a thinker such as Thomas thinks of the inclinations of things, such as rocks falling or horses running, he has a far more complex series of operations in mind that we do. We are inclined to say that he is “wrong” about these things but that isn’t fair. Some explanations are perfectly adequate for a given set of purposes. It is perfectly adequate to think of this table as solid even though some might insist that we actually “know’ that is is a quivering mass of molecules. But such knowledge is not only useless to a cabinet maker, it would actually be a hindrance to her. Likewise, Haidt is suggesting that when it comes to being happy, the metaphors the antique world used to understand the mind are more useful.

So where, for Thomas, are the horses inside us? He does not think like Plato who, in the Phaedrus, used a metaphor of the soul as a chariot equipped with a charioteer and good and bad horse. He posits no internal theatre available through introspection such as we find in Plato and Freud. Our self awareness is strictly empirical. We figure out what the mind does by observing outward behaviour.
My suggestion regarding Thomas is, although he doesn’t use this language, we might say there are potentially many horses inside us.

If we turn to the Summa, prima secundae Question 50, Article 3 “Whether there can be any habits in the powers of the sensitive parts?” Horses enter into the matter in Objection 2, which reads,
Further, the sensitive parts are common to us and the brutes. But there are not any habits in brutes: for in them there is no will, which is put in the definition of habit, as we have said above (I-II:49:3). Therefore there are no habits in the sensitive powers.

If we try to think of this in terms of the context of the time, one of the reasons this question is going to be relevant is that brutes such as horses can and do perform quite complex series of actions but seem, nevertheless, to be very different from us, a difference of kind and not degree.
In the respondio, Thomas makes a distinction between the ways sensitive powers may act: they can do so according to natural instinct or they can do so according to reason. The reply to objection three that follows consists of three parts:
  1. First, the horse’s sensitive powers act according to instinct and not reason. That said, the horse has certain natural dispositions. Jonathan Haidt’s horse had a natural disposition not to die so it turned even though its rider failed to direct it. Now let’s stop a second and underline that: there are complex operations, operations that involve what seem very close to judgments, that will continue to happen even if reason (meaning the rider) does not intervene. 

  2. Second, despite this distinction, a human being can train a horse to acquire the ability to do additional, not natural, complex behaviours that we might reasonably compare with what we call habitus in human beings. Consider an example that was not available to Thomas: dressage. In dressage, horses perform complex footsteps that most of us couldn’t do without tripping, and that is with only two feet while the horse does it with four. The rider doesn’t micromanage the horse through these steps. She simply directs the horse when to start and stop. The horse makes all the necessary adjustments to deal with all the unevenness of the terrain it needs to cover.  

  3. The third part of the argument I will simply read: “But the habit is incomplete, as to the use of the will, for they have not that power of using or of refraining, which seems to belong to the notion of habit: and therefore, properly speaking, there can be no habits in them.” No horse decides to learn or even to do dressage. Those choices are made for them. But the text here begins by saying, “the habit is incomplete” and that is different from saying, it’s completely unlike a habitus. There is a similarity here that needed to be accounted for. We should also note that Thomas began this reply by saying the horse’s, "sensitive powers act according to instinct and not reason,” while he ends it by saying, “the habit is incomplete, as to the use of the will.” Are we making a distinction according to reason or according to the will? Both these issues will need to be explored a bit. 

“Habitius” and “habit” don’t the same thing. Exercise is a habit. The ability to read Latin or to play the piano would be habitus. Now consider what happens when someone like me who does not have either habitus does. When I try to puzzle out a Latin text, I go through it in a plodding way. Likewise, at the piano I do what musicians call “note-bashing”. That is to say I can read a musical score and hit the notes so as to puzzle out a melody. My wife can play he same passage immediately up to a rate of about seven notes a second getting all the stressed and unstressed notes right.

Now, why doe she have this habitus and I do not? Well, because she decided it was important and worked at acquiring it is part of the answer. Reason and will entered into it. Reason told her that being good at music was a habitus worth developing. A persistence and consistence in practicing got her that habitus. Now, while most of us would agree that musical ability is a good thing, nobody would say it is required of anyone the way the college will certainly insist that I improve my Latin considerably before they give me a degree.

We would say, however, that there are moral habitus that everyone simply by virtue of being a human being should try to develop. If we consider my vice, scandal, Thomas defines it as, "“something less rightly said or done that occasions spiritual downfall.” The implication that I should develop the habitus of doing things more rightly is clear.

That’s interesting for it would seem that avoiding this vice would require not just having a particular habitus but rather a whole range of them. The problem is not, as Plato would have it, that we have contending horses. It seems that there are two stages here. First, our habitus represent a number of different horses that we can train well or not-so-well. And second, that there are habitus that are perfectly acceptable at some times but might be ill chosen at others. Is that right? Well, I hope to figure that out by exam time. And what exactly is the relationship between reason and will? If I have this right, both are always involved in a moral act but there are different ways for either to fail.

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