In his vigorous defense of scientism Steven Pinker explained how science has improved our well-being.
He would have done better to say that we owe these wonders to technology, the application of science, but he is surely correct. Without science and technology we would not have antibiotics and sanitation, agribusiness and vaccines, air conditioning and mass communications.
Pinker expands the list:
And contrary to the widespread canard that technology has created a dystopia of deprivation and violence, every global measure of human flourishing is on the rise. The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age.
Let’s accept that material well-being is a necessary condition for human happiness, but that does not also mean that it is a sufficient condition.
Pinker does not limit himself to modern technology. He also claims that if your mind is more clearly focused on facts instead of superstition, you will have a better understanding of what is really happening in the world, and that this will improve your moral well-being. In particular, Pinker thinks that any individual whose thought is grounded in fact and reason will be better off than one whose thought is based on superstition and prejudice.
The more science course you take in college, the better off your will be. Pinker waxes eloquent:
The most obvious is the exhilarating achievement of scientific knowledge itself. We can say much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff we’re made of, the origin of living things, and the machinery of life, including our own mental life. Better still, this understanding consists not in a mere listing of facts, but in deep and elegant principles, like the insight that life depends on a molecule that carries information, directs metabolism, and replicates itself.
As I said, it is good not to confuse science with technology. Pinker might feel exhilarated to grasp the latest from the world of biochemistry, but still, as Claude Levi-Strauss once noted, when your physician explains that a bacterium is making you sick, this knowledge, in and of itself has no therapeutic value. Translate that knowledge into a medical treatment through the intermediary of technology and you might be on the road to cure.
All of this leaves open the question of whether or not we should jettison religion and go out and become secular humanists. After all, Pinker is arguing that human “flourishing” depends on our ability to dispense with religious beliefs that science has disproved.
Yesterday, a commenter on this blog drew our attention to the word “flourishing.” One finds the word sprinkled through supposedly scientific treatises, but it is effectively a trap. I posted about it a couple of years ago. For now, allow me to point out that, as a metaphor, it compares human beings to flowering plants. Because that, after all, is the meaning of the word “flourish.”
American academics use the term because they want to universalize feminine experience. In place of the dread generic masculine pronoun we now find them trafficking in the politically correct but grammatically incorrect generic feminine pronoun. As everyone should know, the generic masculine pronoun includes women. The generic feminine pronoun excludes men.
Would you say that when you team wins the Super Bowl, its members are flourishing? Would you say that an army that wins a war is flourishing?
Be that as it may, an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal sheds a slightly different light on Pinker’s reflections.
It should not be news that scientific studies have demonstrated clearly that people who attend religious services regularly are largely happier than those who do not. I do not know whether they are flourishing, but, by all measures of human contentment they are doing better than their atheist cousins.
Ari Schulman summarizes the research:
Consider a study of nearly two million Twitter messages sent by prominent Christians and atheists, published in June in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science. It found that Christians were more content, if not happier. The authors came to this conclusion by analyzing the language tweeters used: Christian tweeters used positive words more often than atheists, and negative words less often.
In 2012, researchers led by a group at Yeshiva University analyzed the health outcomes of more than 90,000 women over an eight-year period and found that those who frequently attended religious services were 56% more likely than non-attending women to report high rates of optimism, and 27% less likely to report depression. Other studies of the same group found a 20% lower mortality rate.
Researchers at University College London found similar results in analyzing dozens of studies that examined the impact of religiosity among men and women. Numerous other studies by researchers at Harvard, Duke and other universities have found that religious identification and church attendance are associated with less social isolation, lower risk of substance abuse, lower rates of suicide, greater happiness and life satisfaction.
Schulman warns against judging religion in utilitarian terms, and he tends to confuse belief with attending religious services. While it is well and good to see the benefits of religion in terms of transcendent values and even the enhanced access to Paradise, it makes little sense to believe that people would be attending services regularly if the activity did not provide a more palpable and immediate benefit.
Secular humanism provides a set of beliefs and a set of values, but its members do not belong to a group. You do not get together with your fellow secular humanists to worship at the altar of nothing.
Attendance at religious services does affirm our membership in specific groups. It defines us as social beings. Pinker pays lip service to our social being, but if he defines us primarily as members of the human species he is effectively cutting us off from the real groups that affirm our identity.
Putting aside for the moment whether the beliefs that animate religious services are or are not scientifically accurate, the experience itself is real. A religious ritual may not fulfill the terms of experimental science, but it is certainly a real experience, one that is shared in common by a group of people. These people are bound together as a congregation and as a community by their participation.
You may dispute the factual basis for much of what the Bible says. Most serious theologians have for centuries warned against reading these texts as literal fact. These stories contain moral teachings, so they should not be judged in purely empirical terms.
It’s one thing to articulate a moral principle; quite another to show people how to apply it to real world situations. Parables show the principles in action; thus, they facilitate understanding and application.
Pure knowledge, the understanding of how things really, really work, however valuable it is, does not show you what you should do when faced with a moral dilemma that does not admit to a simple solution. Knowing what is and what was does not tell you what might be.