It’s not the clash of the titans, but it is an interesting debate between important academic thinkers.
British philosopher John Gray, professor at the London School of Economics has argued the case against human progress. He believes that human nature is fixed and constant. It may appear that things get better but they never really do.
For every step forward, we take a step backwards. You can find similar notions in Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents.
I do not know whether Gray counts himself as a Freudian, but his world view has much in common with the ideas of the Viennese neurologist.
Keep in mind, Freud suggested that reduced rates of infant mortality had a downside. It induced people to have less sex.
In a recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues that humanity has made progress over the centuries, thanks to science and the exercise of reason. He outlines the arguments in an interview that I have previously quoted.
Pinker is an atheist, of course. Yet, purer atheists like Gray seem to believe that Pinker and his ilk have been consorting with angels.
According to Gray the idea of progress is a secular myth, one that owes much to religion:
Our secular myths are just religious myths rebottled, but with most of the good things taken out.
Besides, Gray adds, contemporary atheists who are proselytizing their faith are acting more like evangelists than like good atheists.
Of course, Gray believes that these are telling arguments against Pinker and Co. And yet, consorting with angels is clearly better than consorting with devils. Gray might want to ban all consorting, but if Judeo-Christian thinking creeps into modern atheism, perhaps there is a reason.
In the meantime, the argument about progress refers to two contexts. One is the civilizational; the other is the personal.
Take the latter first. Is it possible for you to improve your character? Is it possible for you to improve the way you conduct yourself? Is it good to make rational decisions, make plans for the future and implement your plans?
Or, are we all just a bunch of miserable wretches, no matter what we do.
Gray argues for the latter:
The belief is that if you arrange your life in a certain way, then you'll have a certain state of mind. But I think a more interesting, fulfilling way to live is to just do what interests you because you never know in advance whether you'll be satisfied or not.
One suspects that you do not produce as many books as Gray does and hold down a job as professor at the LSE by just doing what interests you. It feels like an injunction to follow your bliss. And it risks making you a pawn in someone else’s game. Gray also seems to be suggesting that you should ignores your duties and obligations to other people.
As for the idea that you never know in advance whether you will be satisfied, the lessons of human experience ought to tell you that you will be more satisfied by winning the game than by losing it. Perhaps you cannot know to an absolute certainty, but, for the most part the search for absolute certainty will stifle your ability to function in the world.
Count me among the skeptical.
For his part, Pinker argues that there is less violence in the world than their used to be, and that science and reason have spurred the advance. I would have been happier if he had given more credit to human freedom, but, you can’t have everything.
I had very often come across the objection that if human nature exists -- including some ugly motives like revenge, dominance, greed and lust -- then that would imply it's pointless to try to improve the human condition, because humans are innately depraved.
Human nature or no human nature… it's just a brute fact that we don't throw virgins into volcanoes any more. We don't execute people for shoplifting a cabbage. And we used to.
Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “we.” In the enlightened West, we do not throw virgins into volcanoes, but I suspect that we never did.
In other cultures, however, people still practice honor killings and female genital mutilation. They throw rape victims in jail for having sex outside of marriage.
No serious academic is going to name the culture that practices these abominations, but the culture that does so has systematically rejected Western rationality, Western notions of free will and much of the Industrial Revolution.
By its example, it would sustain Pinker’s point.
Take another example. When the King of England sent Lord George McCartney to China in 1792 with an offer of the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, Emperor Qianlong rejected them.
The Emperor wrote:
Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.
You might ask how well the people of China did for the next two centuries without the Industrial Revolution and free enterprise.
John Gray would respond by saying that industrial technology has magnified the possibility for doing ill. In principle, bigger weapons can do more damage than can smaller weapons.
Gray seems to be following the third law of thermodynamics, suggesting that for every good there is an equal and opposite bad.
The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge – not even in the long run.
Pinker might respond by noting the life span of individuals before and after the Industrial Revolution and the advent of modern sanitation.
When it comes to genocide, the worst kinds were committed by regimes that rejected Western notions of freedom and reason. The Great Leap Forward, implemented by Mao Zedong in 1959 produced mass starvation. Around 35,000,000 people starved to death, and it wasn’t because China had embraced mechanized agriculture and free enterprise.
Of course, the Holocaust did not require the most advanced technology. Many of the Jews who were murdered were simply taken out and shot. One might blame the Industrial Revolution for the trains that took Jews to the death camps and for the gas that was used to kill them, but, National Socialism was a neo-pagan death cult designed to overcome the scourges of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment.
For his part, Gray argues that National Socialism and Communism are the apotheosis of enlightened Western values. Since both systems were designed to overcome and destroy Judeo-Christian civilization, it makes no sense to tax the latter with their horrors.
It makes no sense, in other words, unless you are trying to avoid taxing atheism with the horrors that were produced in its name.
As always, the argument depends on the context. Pinker argues that civilization made a great advance when we stopped torturing people.
Gray argued the counterpoint, by saying that Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prove that civilization has made no progress.
There were genuine advances in ethics and politics, but they were lost in an instant. And the ban on torture was notoriously "relaxed" by George W. Bush and his gang in the world's greatest democracy, not by some obscure dictatorship….
Less than a year later, however, pictures from the tortures in Abu Ghraib came out. It wasn't difficult to foresee that this would happen—hence that great achievement of the necessary ban of torture is very easily forgotten. Something like torture, which is completely beyond the boundaries of civilization, can become renormalized at any time.
Since Pinker’s argument for human progress looks at an overview of human civilization, trying to prove it or disprove it with a single event that occurred a few years ago feels frivolous.
Astonishingly, Gray is suggesting that genuine advances in ethics and politics only occur when people think as he thinks, when they hold the same liberal values.
Does Gray feel the same way about honor killings and stoning adulterers? Or does his predicate “completely beyond the boundaries of civilization” only apply to Republican politicians he does not like.
Is he, a dedicated atheist, preaching to the choir?
Is he selling a leftist dogma as an absolute truth?
If so, what would he say about Prof. Alan Dershowitz? How would he respond to Dershowitz’s statement that there are some cases where torture might be a viable option, but only when it is approved by a court?
Ask this question: if you have to choose between torturing a captured enemy soldier and losing a war, what would you do?
Everyone knows versions of the classical example: a captured terrorist is the only person who knows the location of a nuclear bomb that is going to destroy a city with millions of inhabitants. He refuses to talk. Is it acceptable to torture him?
You don't know whether he will tell you the truth, but would you be willing to uses all means to try to extract information?
Can you answer the question by invoking what you, and very few others, consider a dogmatic truth?