Friday, August 9, 2013

Can Science Make Us Happy?

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. 


Anonymous said...

I like watching Bill Maher (Real Time). But I do not agree with his view that religion is harmful, childish, silly, etc. The roots of religion, art, morality, are in earliest childhood when reasoning efforts are iconic and indexical knowledge (of causation) has yet to emerge. A firearms dealer sells the Cricket rifle to a family whose five year old boy shoots his two year old sister, and kills her. The boy is engaging in mimetic desire (to shoot a gun like a man or men) and does not yet understand the consequences of his actions. As a species we then ask whether the parents or maker of rifles marketed for children who cannot understand cause and effect have a moral blame for the tragedy which causes us pain merely to hear it reported in the media. This is how our bodies process morality, right and wrong, good or bad, by forming judgments about individual behavior or even the outcome of social customs.

In the Bible eating shellfish was an abomination in the sight of God. So was homosexuality. The shellfish beds in Long Island were recently diagnosed as having high harmful bacteria due to testing, and it is known that high temperatures in the water cause the harmful bacteria to "floursish," so science alone can inform a person NOT to eat the shellfish under certain conditions, although it is impossible to isolate science (theory) from technology because both are necessary to how we think and interact with each other and the world.

When the Bible attributes the delivery of the "law" by Moses to the people in the promised land, it says, something to this effect, "Heed these words so that you and your descendants may flourish (prosper) in the land from generation to generation." Flourish is just another word for prosperity but nowadays egotists attribute wealth, technology, and prosperity to the human ego whereas the ancient mystics knew without a doubt that a mysterious and beneficial Source of Life (God) is the true force behind prosperity. Many of the religious laws had pre-scientific efforts to defend the community against harm, such as prohibiting the eating of shellfish, whereas with increasing knowledge of causation we now see that liberty to eat shellfish is increased because the power to predict good or bad outcomes has increased due to scientific reasoning.

If you do not like the word flourish or prosper, the lesson for me is, this word in this or that context causes you pain. If you think I should fear this or that word, then you think I should have a co-dependent emotional process to validate your own fears.

Flourish! Flourish! Flourish! Without the plants to create oxygen what air would I breathe? Of course science tells us about the composition of air, but the word spirit may be associated with birds, life, and air. The presence of life is the Great Spirit or God and each life is a spirit of child of the living god. For a human body the religious motivation is the same as reason: to contemplate the causes of life and to do this one must breath the common air!

Sam L. said...

If you only believe in what you can see and/or touch, the wonders of the universe are fewer.

Anonymous said...

We infer an invisible God to be the Cause of visible life and other natural events.

We infer an invisible force of gravity to be the cause of visible changes in momentum.

If one adopts the definition of William James, that religion is an expression of belief in the invisible, then aspects of science are expressions of religion.

Anonymous said...

There is no doubt that science has significantly improved the material dimension of human life.

However, science does not (and largely cannot) answer the bigger questions of what it means to be human and the meaning or purpose of one's life. Then again, neither do our contemporary "luminaries" in the humanities, who demean the value of human life and the agency each of us has to contribute. Today's scientistism and postmodern humanities make Homo sapiens insignificant, yet said position is pedantically promulgated... by those of the same species. So strange.

As Walker Percy once said, dying believing in something like "scientism" just won't do for 99.461% of people. There's something more, something eternal beyond materialist claims to truth.

Once we look at the totality of what we observe and exerience, our wonder (awe) kicks in, and we're left speechless at the vastness and beauty of it all. That's why I am a Christian, while simutaneously enjoying science, knowledge and the classics of literature. They all support my enjoyment of this life... and life is to be enjoyed on all levels. Without these joys, I would despair.

To say that one dimension of life study holds a monopoly on all the answers is preposterous. To live is to suffer, struggle, rejoice and wonder. I like a lot of Pinker's stuff but, like most academic theorists, he gets carried away with his tidy conclusions. Don't we all?


Dennis said...

It may provide some answers and create more questions which in and of itself can provide the joy of discovery. Suffice it to say most of the things that provide us joy don't require science to explain it to us. Do we need to know why certain music strikes a chord within us? Do we need to know why love causes us such joy and such pain? Do we need to know why a beautiful sunrise or sunset appeals to almost every one of us? Many times knowing why takes away from the experience of truly enjoying the experience.
Feelings need to be tempered by logic, but the vice is also true. We make ourselves happy, and sad as well. Science is tangental to happiness. I have met people who lived in the middle of a jungle, or on remote islands, some of who have not seen an American since WWII, who are quite happy without science in the meaning we give to it. Science is a means, not an end. As much as I believe in Science it should never be allowed to control us as individuals or for that matter as groups. We are still barbarians, we cannot even find the responsibility to keep from killing our own children, and the science we understand is still at that level. I will guarantee that 50 years from now people will wonder what in the HELL were we thinking?
One of the greatest joys is not knowing and the discovery that comes from finding out, but it is only a small part of a "complete life."