Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Harvard Scientist Throws Down the Gauntlet

Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson has a short opinion piece in New Scientist (hat tip to David Bailey, a subscriber to Eyring-L) that describes “three opposing images of the human condition,” and suggests that we should consign religion to the dustbin of history (not his words!).

The three worldviews he lists are (1) the great monotheistic religions, in which humanity is created by and responsible to God; (2) political behaviorism, which sees humans as blank slates molded by historical contingency and moldable by cultural/political/economic systems; and (3) scientific humanism, a “more radical view” (and by far the minority one), which claims that human nature was forged over millions of years of evolution, leaving us an inheritance of deeply-seated emotions and “biased channels of learning.”

He claims that political behaviorism implies communism, which has been tested on large scales and found to be a miserable failure; and that while monotheistic religion remains with us, it is problematic, leaving scientific humanism as the best option:
There is something deep in religious belief that divides people and amplifies societal conflict. The toxic mix of religion and tribalism has become so dangerous as to justify taking seriously the alternative view, that humanism based on science is the effective antidote, the light and the way at last placed before us.

Religions continue both to render their special services and to exact their heavy costs. Can scientific humanism do as well or better, at a lower cost?
If you heard Wilson make these claims and ask this question at a cocktail party, how would you respond?


I would pick up that "behaviorism implies communism" line. The logic seems to be that communism's only flaw was that it assumed people could be properly molded, and since communism failed, there you have it: people are messed up and there's no changing them. Then the rest of the old jaded leftists surrounding Wilson would share a short, quiet laugh at mankind's folly. 

Comment by John Mansfield | 11/10/2005 04:10:00 PM  

I think it was less communism than Marxism in general. Although it goes back farther than that. One can argue that in our own culture there is frequently social manipulation.

While it is a problematic book for numerous reasons (far too much naive polemics primarily) Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate  seems to discuss a lot that the New Scientist article does. He has three modes of humans, all wrong. One is the blank slate - that we are basically an empty computer open to any programming. The other is the idea of the nobel savage - that primitivism is best. (You still see that view a lot among environmentalists, for instance) Then the idea of the fallen creature would would be inherently evil were it not for civilization. (I forget the name he gave that category)

The problem with the so-called humanist approach (and it really is just a modification of older humanism) is that is still has the idea of manipulation. It's just that the manipulation is now the old myth of man as machine. Learn the code and you can make them do what you want.

Pinker doesn't address that line of course. He's an evolutionary psychologist. (I should add that the cog-sci people dislike the EP people)

The other problem about religion is that it confuses the religious instinct (which many scientists and philosophers argue developed evolutionarily) with religious *doctrine*. It seems to me that the assumption that scientific humanism has to pre-suppose religion as an innate part of humans. The attempts to get rid of it, such as in communism, fail. All that happens is that you get a new religion with dogmas that just happen to not discuss God.


Comment by Clark | 11/10/2005 04:38:00 PM  

John, yes, clearly he feels that successful social systems will not imagine humans as blank slates, but instead allow for and even harness tendencies that have resulted from evolution (e.g. drives to enhance individual pleasure and welfare cannot be ignored).

I am sympathetic to the idea of awareness of the biological legacies of evolution, but also recognize that there are significant cultural legacies, and would hope that we could use these received tendencies as building blocks with which to construct societies of our choosing. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/10/2005 04:43:00 PM  

Clark, I was typing my response to John when you submitted your comment... I'll have to get back to it in a bit. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/10/2005 04:49:00 PM  

Clark, thanks for summarizing Pinker's three takes on humanity. You also make a good point about communism reducing to an atheistic dogma. It's not clear to me that any particular worldview is really at fault; perhaps things can get bad with any of them when they are enshrined in an autocratic system.

You seem concerned about "manipulation." Of course any social system will necessarily involve regulation of individual impulses. If we think of humans having something like a computer code inside them, I would hope one could think of it in an object-oriented way---identifying useful modules and using them as building blocks. This then would be "harnessing" instead of "manipulation."

The necessary control over individuality works out best when people have their voices heard so they feel they have some influence on and a stake in the outcome, and when the regulations are not arbitrary but reasonably tailored to real-world effects. How does the church do on these fronts? ;-> 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/10/2005 06:40:00 PM  

BTW John and Clark, it's interesting you two are the ones to comment on this so far...

We three physicists of the Bloggernacle are. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/10/2005 06:42:00 PM  

I guess what I'm worried about is that the modern form of humanism is just religion in a different guise, pretending not to be. In that sense it is like communism, and like both communism and religion, it espouses a kind of manipulation. Just slightly differently. My issue is that he is portraying it as if this new humanism was different.  My point is that by pretending the issue is religion, meaning particular kinds of religious belief, he avoids the underlying problem.

But beyond that I'm fairly sympathetic to the general issue. It's how the humanism is implemented that is the big question. The danger here is that it's just an other attempt to bring in scientism, much like the humanisms of the 30's and 40's did.


Comment by Clark | 11/10/2005 08:00:00 PM  

Clark, I'm not real familiar with the humanism of the 30's and 40's, other than a dim awareness that Bertrand Russell (and maybe Einstein?) were involved with some sort of humanist manifesto. But I don't really know what it said or what became of the movement. I'm also vaguely aware of eugenics as a dark episode, but I don't know if that's related to the humanist movement you refer to.

I am not sure if humanism would be just religion in a different guise. Religion seems to entail reliance upon the witness and authority of prophets who have access to evidence that others do not. Perhaps humanism (as a social system) might do something similar by giving authority to elites who supposedly have intelligence and wisdom beyond the masses, but I'm not sure that's quite the same thing. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/11/2005 09:42:00 AM  

Please note Christian, I'm not ripping on humanism as intrinsically worse than religion. Just that humanism seems to have lots of blind spots that they call  scientific but aren't. That's the typical problem of scientism. That which isn't science is treated as if it is. They pretend answers where there aren't. In that sense it is very much like religion.

Certainly using our growing knowledge of human nature isn't bad. I'm just not at all convinced that this can somehow be cast into some unique position. Typically what happens is that these narrow positions get co-opted by people sympathetic to them but who add a lot more.

Look at ID. It was an interesting philosophical idea. Suddenly conservative Evangelicals latched onto it (as often as not misunderstanding it) and suddenly what was primarily a variation on evolution, but accepting most of the history became a way to push Creationism. (Note that I'm not saying ID is correct, since I don't buy it in the least - just that the movement bears little resemblance to the more modest claims I read of years ago) 

Comment by Clark | 11/11/2005 02:36:00 PM  

Certainly using our growing knowledge of human nature isn't bad. I'm just not at all convinced that this can somehow be cast into some unique position. 

I agree. (Part of the way I agree is that I am suspicious of across-the-board, least-common-denominator prescriptions---such as alcoholism is a real problem for some people, therefore nobody should ever drink alcohol.) I don't know if Wilson would argue that scientific humanism is some unique and elaborately specified position; the opinion piece is too short to tell. Surely there's more detail in his books. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/11/2005 04:15:00 PM  

The fact one uses the term "humanism" tends to raise warning flags in my mind. If the issue was just knowledge of our biology and cognitions then one wouldn't use that. Rather it is that combined with that line of perspective arising in the Renaissance that makes man the measure of all things. It just makes me wary as typically it involves a kind of quasi-religion no different than what the humanists rail against. 

Comment by clark | 11/12/2005 03:16:00 AM  

Clark, I don't know if you have time to get into this further, but I'm curious to know what are the features of the humanists' position that you're calling "quasi-religious." Do you mean a tendency to uncritically allow some propositions to become dogma, and a willingness to see them enforced?

Also, because I'm not very familiar with the history of humanism, are there some well-recognized pitfalls to making man the measure of all things? (If for Mormons the grand secret is that God is a man in yonder heavens, maybe that's not such a bad thing. ;-> ) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/12/2005 02:30:00 PM  

Yeah, that's pretty much it. Things that, typically have little by way of scientific justification.

The problem with making man the measure of all things is that it tends to invoke considerable hubris at times. I wouldn't mind it so much if the people were less dogmatic and more willing to give fallibilism more than lip service. But the formal humanists tend to really have a lot of religious characteristics (IMO).

Once again, nothing wrong with that. I tend to think that the religious behavior of humans is innate and genetic. If you reject the main theistic or quasi-theistic movements you're bound to simply re-invent them (IMO). I just find it a tad curious that these big distinctions are made between movements. It seems to me that it confuses particular religious claims with the religious mechanism in humans. It's thus simply a convenient way to make a differentiation that isn't there in terms of structure rather than belief. (As if movements like Zen Buddhism didn't all ready lead to problems with traditional ways of dealing with religion)

I'll probably talk about all this more later when I get into my next cognitive science reading group which is on the evolution of religion in the brain.


Comment by clark | 11/12/2005 10:00:00 PM  

Very interesting point about "religious mechanisms" operating even in secularists. I look forward to that next reading group. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/13/2005 08:24:00 AM  

Option three strikes me as awfully close to Popper's or Hayek's whig (or conservative, though they never liked that term) viewpoint.

As far as the humanism of the 30s and 40s that Russell participated in (this is the humanism that both Popper and Hayek take issue), it takes up position #2, although it explicitly rejects communism and marxism. And though Russell was serious about his politics, he never did serious political science.

As far as Clark's concerns, I must confess to yawning when I hear the term "scientism" bandied about. I tend to be a positivist myself, because the scientific method represents the highest mode of rational thought. Those who cry "scientism" are simply trying to rob science of its rightful place at the apex of human achievement and human thought without offering a meaningful alternative.

The fact is that Wilson's distinctions are vast oversimplifications, and Wilson himself knows it. Religion, for example, is part and parcel of the human nature that was forged over millions of years of evolution. Wilson is right that religion is problematic--through the ages religion has proven more dangerous than terrorism and oppressive government combined. But the relationship between a society and its religions is a feedback loop, and not a uni-directional transfer. Religions reflect a society's values as much as they shape it; e.g., consider Official Declarations 1 and 2 in our own church.

Indeed, when a violent religion unleashes bloodlust, it is merely bringing to life some latent characteristic in the society so affected. No neo-Benthamite approach to resolving human conflict is likely to have better results than Hitler's eugenics program. 

Comment by DKL | 11/15/2005 03:04:00 AM  

DKL,  interesting thoughts---though it's hard for me to tell which option you're most sympathetic with. Presumably you're a believer, but you also mention big problems with religion and call science the apex of human achievement. But while you extol science you also refer to option 3 as the "whig" option; in my mind "whiggish" is a pejorative term describing disapproval of technological innovation. I wouldn't expect such disapproval to be part of "scientific humanism." And while it seems you like Russell (who you say held the "blank slate" position 2), your discussion of religion acknowledges evolution as a significant influence on human nature.

So it seems you're all over the map. Not that there's anything wrong with that (to quote Seinfeld)! The older I get the more I respect and like nuanced, tentative views. (Hence your complaint about Wilson's oversimplification, I guess. Probably one has to oversimplify in a popular piece this short.) 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/15/2005 01:14:00 PM  

BTW, I agree that the linkage of communism with the "blank slate" is one of the weakest logical links in Wilson's piece. (To be fair, my characterization "political behaviorism implies communism" is an oversimplification or slight misrepresentation of what Wilson said.)

Also, the article was not a stand-alone opinion piece but an extract from the Afterword of his book just being published: From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's four great books  (just added to my wish list at Amazon ;-> ). 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/15/2005 01:24:00 PM  

I tend to agree with Christian's comments, so I won't say much there.

With regards to the scientism label. I wish it never had to be employed. While I think science is the highest pinnacle of human learning, scientism is what results when that hubris presupposes answers as  scientific when they aren't. If something could actually be established scientifically then I have no problem. It's all that stuff that can't that gets my goat... 

Comment by Clark | 11/15/2005 10:31:00 PM  

I'm uneasy about Wilson's distinction between "communism" and religion, because by most accounts the popular political ideology under Stalin and Mao was part and parcel of a "cult of personality." Also Marxism is Utopian--in effect about a heaven on Earth--and as Wilson addresses implicitly with the link to the blank-slate scheme, it carries a world-view shaping metaphysics. The choice Wilson is talking about is among the potential ideologies cum metaphysics cum world views available to us in the modern world, of which the things we call religions are one kind. 

Comment by MT | 11/17/2005 03:04:00 PM  

I made my first comment without reading the others. Now I'll comment again:

the linkage of communism with the "blank slate" is one of the weakest logical links in Wilson's piece. 

The link is Marx's metaphysics: Dialectical materialism. It's absolutely fundamental to his argument for the necessity and morality of communism, and it's consistent with the blank slate idea.

Since I saw the "believer" issue come up, maybe I should mention I am a "non-believer." Lately I've taken to thinking of myself as an "anti-supernaturalist." I sympathize with Wilson's position very much, which I take to be ambivalent with regard to the implicit question "Religion: Good or Bad?," generally leaning toward "Bad" and accepting that the answer doesn't matter all that much, and boy are we all in a pickle.  

Comment by MT | 11/17/2005 04:31:00 PM  

Here's partly where I'm coming from when I say "anti-supernaturalist." | 11/17/2005 04:35:00 PM  

MT,  thanks for stopping by. I was speaking from ignorance with regard to communism. Is Marx's argument that a blank slate implies  communism ("implies" in the sense of logical entailment), or only that it is necessary for communism?

If it is the former, I would be surprised if it were correct. I would think that given a blank slate there would be an infinity of possible worldview choices. I thought my paraphrase of Wilson that a blank slate implies communism might not be completely accurate because I understood him to mean that if there were a blank slate you would end up with communism not because it is logically entailed, but because people would tend to decide that was the best "value choice."

But now I'm suspecting that the argument really is that a blank slate implies communism. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/17/2005 05:44:00 PM  

Here's my vague memory of what I read of Marx's in a couple essays I read in school as an undergrad. The guy's a philosopher first and an economist and sociologist 2nd. He liked and spun off philosophically from Hegel. He says who and what we are is built up from the impressions of our senses, which for the massess are alas out of our control and impoverished because the elite in effect dictate the shape of our environment and the activities in which we engage ourselves. If we're a bunch of sad and debased thugs, that's the fault of the system, the chief beneficiaries of which are the rich. We will be truly mentally rich and enlighten and truly human only once we are unchained from this psychically opressive system. I'm equating I think Marx's "infrastructure" with the environment of civilisation and his "superstructure" with the elite and the organizational behavior and institutions through which they make the lives of the rest of us so dull and limited. From there Marx goes on to analyze the process of economic development and the effects of global trade, on which everybody seems to agree he did a wonderful and impressive job, and then to say the only possible outcome of this evolutionary process will be global communism. Lenin jumped the gun by initiating the revolution in a largely agrarian country and anyway Marx said economic viability demanded that communism be global, which the West wouldn't let the communists do. But I think "communist" is much abused and sort of meaningless. I doubt there was a lot of Marx in Breshnev's governance.  

Comment by MT | 11/17/2005 06:31:00 PM  

MT, thanks for the nice summary. So "implies" was right after all. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/17/2005 10:39:00 PM  

Marx thinks it "implies," yes, and that's his argument. Or rather it's my argument that that's his argument.  

Comment by MT | 11/18/2005 02:42:00 PM  

Having checked out MT's blog after reading his thoughtful comments here, I was horrified to notice that he had referred   to Wilson's article a few days earlier than me (assuming the dateline is accurate), even using the phrase "lays down the gauntlet." I swear it was not plagiarism---I found out about it from Eyring-L as I linked above, and would've been happy to do the same for Murky Thoughts if that's where I had seen it---but I do plead guilty to two counts: being incapable of having an original thought, and a willingness to use cliches.

Anyway, retroactive hat tip to Murky Thoughts, an interesting blog with posts of eminently digestible length. Check it out. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/19/2005 09:37:00 AM  

Why, thanks! I hope you don't really feel embarrassed about the similarity of our headlines (which is a chronic accidental occurrence among newspapers, especially whenever a cliche or bad pun is at all in reach). When I saw yours and a reflected I realized actuall it expressed a slightly different thought or flavor than mine. You said "throws." I said "lays." I considered "throws," because I think that's the version of the expression that came to my mind first, but I went with "lays" because I didn't and still don't see Wilson as doing something violent. Extremely provocative, yes, but not violent. I think Wilson is a deeply decent guy. I read his autobio, the Naturalist, and even had the great honor of talking to him once.


Comment by MT | 11/27/2005 03:42:00 AM  

Maybe I shouldn't make claims about how deep Wilson's decency is: It's not like I have a KGB report about what Wilson's like when he thinks the world isn't watching. But he's super charming in a way that seems frank and full to me.  

Comment by MT | 11/27/2005 02:51:00 PM  

MT, I like your thoughtful use of "lays" instead of "throws." Regardless of how superficially you know Wilson, I'd still make the larger point that there is an unfortunate and unfair prejudice that atheists cannot be moral and decent people.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 11/27/2005 08:16:00 PM  

Agreed, Christian. Some of the most ethical persons I know claim atheism (or agnosis at least) and I would trust them with a million dollars and my family to do what I ask them to do with these assets. Many are exceedingly respectful and a joy to interact with; they are unfairly stereotyped in religious circles. 

Comment by Mike W. | 11/28/2005 12:35:00 AM  



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