Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Shermer and Pinker on Science and Ethics

Do you believe that science, abetted by reason will naturally and inevitably benefit the human species? Do you believe that once enlightened reason supplants religious superstition the human species will enter a new age of flourishing?

Such are the arguments put forth by scientists like Steven Pinker and now Michael Shermer. Arguing that science is naturally a force for good, Shermer asserts that those who practice scientific disciplines should be charged with making up moral principles for the rest of us.

After all, as Pinker has cogently argued we have made such great progress that we no longer throw virgins into volcanoes—or, at least, most of us don’t. And we do not, as Shermer adds make executions a public spectacle.

One hastens to qualify these instances of happy talk by noting that public executions are coming back into favor, practiced for the most part by prescientific cults. One is happy to note that they are not broadcast on the nightly news, but it would be overly optimistic to claim that they will not eventually be all over the internet.

It’s true that ISIS is a pre-scientific cult, but their practice of public beheading seems to be based on their access to Youtube.

While we accept that there is less violence in the world than there used to be, nothing about science or about human reason suggests that it will always be thus.

Trends continue until they do not. To project a rosy future based on a rosy present or a rosy past has nothing to do with science. As Wittgenstein noted, there is no such thing as a scientific fact about tomorrow.

The most naïve student of the markets knows well that the more people believe in the inevitability of a bright tomorrow the more likely it is that tomorrow will bring gloom.

Most of us are old enough to remember the twentieth century, a century that was not short on violence, mass murder and starvation. All by itself, Communism killed over a hundred million people.

Those who want to make atheism our guiding light ought to have the decency to explain why all of the atheist governments and cultures that have heretofore been tried have produced unmitigated calamities.

Besides, declaring that religion is bad while science is good involves making a moral judgment, one that is, at the least, simpleminded.

Reviewing Michael Shermer’s new book, “The Moral Arc,” Sally Satel summarizes his arguments about extending the power of scientists:

Mr. Shermer is a buoyant culture warrior—and an eloquent one—who believes that our better angels will continue to soar. Although an atheist, he is respectful of religion’s role in individual well-being. Nonetheless, he concludes that science and reason, abetted by free markets and democracy, are the drivers of justice and freedom. Insisting that scientists should have a voice in determining values and morals, Mr. Shermer argues that “the goal of a science-based morality should be to construct a set of provisional moral precepts that are true for most people in most circumstances most of the time.”

But, Shermer is playing fast and loose with his concepts. How does science give us the concept of free will? Why does he ignore the place of reason in Western theology? And why does he not explain why science and the enlightenment—along with their more important offspring, the Industrial Revolution—arose in a specific place at a specific time within a specific culture.

Does he think that it was an accident that these wondrous discoveries arose within the culture of Western Judeo-Christianity?

It should be obvious that there is nothing about science, per se that forces us to use it to benefit ourselves and others. Science gives us nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. For the moment we have emphasized the former against the latter, but you cannot guarantee that one day someone will launch nuclear weapons and wipe out a large part of the human species.

Call it improbable and I would agree. Call it impossible and you are talking nonsense.

Last summer, we discovered that the Hamas authorities that rule Gaza had been using their development aid to buy rockets to shoot into Israel and to dig terror tunnels. They believed that these goals were more important than the good of their people.

Of course, they are religious fanatics, but how did it happen that other countries overcame religious fanaticism? Leaders of Hamas know the benefits that science and industry can confer. They reject them. How did it happen that the British and other Europeans pursued the Industrial Revolution without knowing the good that it would eventually bring?

If science has been used to benefit people, this practice is based on the moral principle of benevolence. The principle comes from our religious tradition. I discussed it extensively in my book, The Last Psychoanalyst.

The principle of benevolence exists in other moral universes, those of Aristotle and Confucius, but it drives the impulse to use science and reason and industry to benefit mankind.

It need not always be so.

We recall that when the King of England offered the Emperor of China, Qianlong, the wonders of the Industrial Revolution in 1793, the Emperor refused.

As it happened, the King of England was trying to open up new trading opportunities with China but he did benevolently give it advanced Western technology. Qianlong did not believe that benevolence was very important.

As for the uses (and abuses) of science reason, they were not invented by the Enlightenment. The Middle Ages saw a flourishing of rational deliberation and debate. Then, thinkers like Averroes, Avicenna, Maimonides and Aquinas—none being obscure figures—brought Aristotelian thought into the Judeo-Christian world and launched a new round of scientific and rational inquiry.

Admittedly, they did not know the experimental method but a major theologian named Albertus Magnus did write about botany, astronomy, minerology, zoology, and physiology.

Thinkers throughout the Middle Ages debated theological issues vigorously. Among the most impressive debaters was one Peter Abelard. They disagreed vigorously on major theological points. Abelard was eventually excommunicated for heresy by one of the other major theological figures of the time, Bernard of Clairvaux.

Reason did not sleep during the Middle Ages. It was alive and well in university faculties and Christian monasteries.

To appreciate this, one needs to understand what science is and what it is not. And one needs to understand what religion is and what it is not.

Steven Pinker, for example, seems to believe that astrophysics can disprove metaphysics, that the ethical precepts taught by the Bible can be discredited by scientific inquiry.

Examine his argument:

To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

Evidently, Pinker is confused. If the laws that govern the physical world are not designed to produce human well-being, how does it happen that knowledge of those laws leads to progress?

And why does Pinker imagine that the belief systems of religions are based on fact, anyway. The story of Adam and Eve does not depend on fact. It is a moral fable, an effort to teach moral principles.

We might ask why we need stories to teach moral principles. If we do we would note that science is not in the business of storytelling. If science is going to establish a new morality, how will it communicate, teach it and induce people to follow it?

Pinker imagines that once religion has been discredited on matters of fact, it must be doubted on matters of morality.

In his words:

Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics. The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

An ethic of human flourishing is not the same as an ethic that promotes social harmony. What is more important, your personal flourishing—thus your wish to become like a potted plant—or the good of the community.

At times, these might coincide, but often they do not.

Humanism fails to accept that human beings only exist within social groups and that their duties as members of those groups supersede their duty to the philosophical abstraction called humanity or to their least common denominator, their membership in a species.

[Addendum: For the sake of clarity... if you are defined primarily as a member of the human species, thus by your biology, nothing you do can cause you not to belong to said species. If you are defined by your membership in a constituted group, you will always risk being expelled or ostracized from the group for egregiously bad behavior. Thus, seeing people as mere human beings, beyond being demeaning also consigns them to amorality.]


Sam L. said...

I don't trust anyone who says, "we're smart, so we should decide for you". That's always turned out badly.

n.n said...

The scientific domain is extremely limited in both time and space. Today, a pseudo-science is practiced, which makes affirmative statements outside of the scientific domain, in the universal and even extra-universal domains. It does not distinguish between science, philosophy, and faith. It operates on the premise of a gross simplification or corruption of science based on the uniformitarian principle. It claims knowledge about the origin of the universe, of human life, when the scientific domain does not even cover all of planet Earth.

It is self-evident that human life, at minimum the physical process, begins with conception, and ends with a natural, accidental, or premeditated death. Our "enlightened" society, notably liberal or pro-choice, has deemed that human life is effectively the product of spontaneous conception. Today, the State offers official sanction and subsidy to the premeditated murder of around 2 million of our citizens annually.

If there is progress, then it must be qualified as negative. The progress we have experienced is extraordinary corruption that benefits an elite minority, who exacts an extremely high price, including human sacrifice (e.g. abortion), to earn its favors.

Ares Olympus said...

re: Humanism fails to accept that human beings only exist within social groups and that their duties as members of those groups supersede their duty to the philosophical abstraction called humanity or to their least common denominator, their membership in a species.

This conclusion is very good, worthy for continued reflection. I've tried my own attempts to define the limitations of Humanism.

Carl Sagan does a good job to define the intention of Humanism, and dismissal of religion as superstition, like this narrative, ending with images of spaceships and Sagan saying "If we crave some cosmic purpose, let us find ourselves a worthy goal."
http://www.haveabit.com/sagan/24 A Universe Not Made For Us

I can also appreciate Sagan's assertion "Science has taught us that, because we have a talent for deceiving ourselves, subjectivity may not freely reign."

But back to the original conclusion "human beings only exist within social groups and that their duties as members of those groups supersede their duty to the philosophical abstraction called humanity"

What I hear in this is that a "human being" in the highest sense is a cultural point of view, and that our development and maturing may be constrained by the structures of that cultural container, and without a container than can express "external moral force", we may stay immature and dependent. And secondly there's a question of scale, or how a hierarchy can organize cultural expression.

On the small scale, perhaps the place I most hear such a perspective is from the category of "indigenous culture" and the conflicts always come down to small groups don't have the power to defend themselves against foreign invaders, whether military or economic.

I can see the more inhospitable the wider world is to your point of view, the more power any group has to force conformity of its members, but we don't live in that world now.

Libertarian Stephen Molyneux is also with the Humanists in defining the individual as the moral center, and he's quick to see corruption and abuse of power in family structures and suggest people go their own way, and join his religion of Ayn Randianism or whatever.

So one story says we're limited by our cultural past, and our job is to learn its structures, and if it is corrupt, reform it from within, while a second story says once we reach adulthood our obligation is to create a new culture from scratch, or to follow some central philosophy of "how things should work" and keep our attention to getting where we think we should go.

I'll say the answer must be somewhere in between. We need the George Bailey's of the world who forego personal ambition for the community and we need our adventurers who abandon culture and try to thrive in the wider jungle, and hopefully someday bring back a different perspective.

And in the limit you can be a Mother Teresa, and see our "common human heritage" as a base of development that needs to be defended, but how do you ever balance protecting your own corner of humanity, while seeing unlimited needs of others outside of it.

I can see its fun in youth if you believe you have "the truth", like the Mormons, and you can go out and preach your religious truths, but you don't notice you're only interested in conversion, not in doing anything that will help others see their own strengths that are not dependent upon yours.

America seems to have done something right, allowing freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and individuals and groups can define their own centers within that freedom. But we don't clearly know how to deal with failure, including failure caused by our own success.

And my own slant is with E.F. Schumacher, that our dishonest "success" is due to our ability to exploit one-time resources, and double, double, double, double, double our population dependent upon a future to do everything we've done but more, forever.

Ares Olympus said...

re: Addendum: For the sake of clarity... if you are defined primarily as a member of the human species, thus by your biology, nothing you do can cause you not to belong to said species. If you are defined by your membership in a constituted group, you will always risk being expelled or ostracized from the group for egregiously bad behavior. Thus, seeing people as mere human beings, beyond being demeaning also consigns them to amorality.

I was thinking more about this. Talking about "being expelled or ostracized" is a risk, but there's another level.

In humanity's vast period before agriculture (before 3000BC), we were all tribal peoples and getting kicked out of the tribe really was a likely of death sentence, although I suppose there was always an optional "life as a slave" where you can join another tribe at the very bottom, and depend on the daily mercy of everyone above you for your survial.

But the other side is not ostracization but an authoritarian culture can punish you, including imprisonment, to corporal and capital punishment. And for members who are not only uncooperative but outright aggressive against social order.

I myself have mixed feelings on corporal punishment, and the old adage "spare the rod, spoil the child", apparently from the old testiment Book of Proverbs 13:24, “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”

The "rod" might be literal or metaphorical, but certainly it is easiest to assume it is literal, while modern "progressive" cultures have either banned punishment that can cause damage or lasting scars, and used science to back it up, saying physical punishment does not inspire cooperation but rebellion.

Anyway, part of these thoughts go to the idea that anyone who is in your tribe should be protected, while people in other tribes are not your responsibility, AND it also would justify ideas that say the "other people" are not "fully human" compared to your people, thus justifying the killing of people outside of your tribe, either in war, or simple self defense.

I don't know what to make of that, but I can see that religious "cults" use all of these games to control people, pulling them into the flock, and setting idealistic standards, while demeaning "others" on the outside for failing "God's way".

And probably this is what all fundamentalistic religions are about, and the key that keeps fundamentalism on task is to project all aggressive feelings outside the group.

And that might sound a lot like militant Islam?

So they are leading the way, going back to religious tribes, with jealous gods, and the whole demon-haunted world that terrified Carl Sagan.

But the strange thing is that "final solution" scapegoating that most terrify modern people, these irrational places are most efficiently destructive within rational modern scientific methods, while superstious tribes with their sticks and stones are self-limiting.

In our modern world of access to vast knowledge, we have no excuse for our ignorance, but the problem with knowledge is the illusion that perfect knowledge can be gained that takes away personal responsibility, in the smallest ways like how to discipline a child, spouse, or employee. There's no "safe" answer where you can avoid self-guessing yourself.

Science can tell us some things, but not others, and I agree fundamentalist Christian turned Skeptic Shermer and others just as easily try to find all the answers in places where they are not to be found.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the dichotomy of reason vs religion.

Atheist-rationalists presume that the main enemy of reason/science is religion. It can be in some societies.

But in the West, the main enemy of reason(which requires restraint, self-control, and concentration) is consumerist hedonism that urges young people to give into their orgasmic/gluttonous/egocentric instincts.

Girls who act like Miley Cyrus or twerk like whores are not religious. But they sure aren't rational either.

Though religion can be oppressive, in moderate doses it does foster conscience, control, and concentration. And those qualities aid and abet in the use of reason that requires animal drives to be held in check.

So, religion can paradoxically aid reason.

In the video below, I don't think the kids are religious. But do ever read books? I doubt it.


n.n said...


First, atheism is not a scientific philosophy. It is a simplistic philosophy based on a single article of faith: rejection of theism, or, stated clearly, an affirmative statement about phenomenon [well] outside of the scientific domain. A scientific philosophy is either constrained to the scientific domain, or distinguishes between it and articles of faith and their interlude.

The key to faith, not religion (i.e. moral philosophy), is to maintain a proper perspective. The value of Judeo-Christian faith is that it separated articles of faith and the scientific domain. The failures that occurred in its name, happened for the same reason that secular (e.g. liberal) societies become barbaric or mystic. It's not religion, but actually anti-religion, as men and especially women following their profits of power, money, sex, ego, and leisure. I emphasize women, because in America alone, they voluntarily slaughter around 2 million [wholly innocent] human lives annually for pleasure -- a planned parenthood rite.

As for faith in extra-universal entities and domains, one entity, God, has stepped forward and proposed a moral philosophy for post-mortem judgment. If this was a fairytale, then we will simply become incoherent and cease to exist. If this was reality, then we will discover the truth in our post-mortem. A rational risk management strategy would consider the possibility that God is real. That is to say, not make an affirmative statement about something outside of the scientific domain, without evaluating the consequences of adopting an alternative faith.

Ares Olympus said...

Here's an article from Tuesday. It's making a claim based on science about the nature of addiction, and its cure.
...Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation.
...So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.
....But this new evidence isn't just a challenge to us politically. It doesn't just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.

Loving an addict is really hard. When I looked at the addicts I love, it was always tempting to follow the tough love advice doled out by reality shows like Intervention - tell the addict to shape up, or cut them off. Their message is that an addict who won't stop should be shunned. It's the logic of the drug war, imported into our private lives. But in fact, I learned, that will only deepen their addiction - and you may lose them all together. I came home determined to tie the addicts in my life closer to me than ever - to let them know I love them unconditionally, whether they stop, or whether they can't.

I connected it to this blog subject only because its conclusion "If you are defined by your membership in a constituted group, you will always risk being expelled or ostracized from the group for egregiously bad behavior. Thus, seeing people as mere human beings, beyond being demeaning also consigns them to ."

Myself, I'm not sure how to best amoralityhelp family members with addiction. I ended up legally evicting my own brother and it was being homeless (along with Minnesota's cold winters), that got him to accept a locked in drug program.

So I'll accept the idea that human connection is a necessary component, maybe more to extroverts like my brother, but it also seemed that he was in some sort of hidden pain his whole life, and his drug habits were largely socially based, and his recovery was socially based.

Religious people may say that AA and similar program's power comes from "surrendering to a higher power." It's certainly not scientific. I don't know what they do if a member comes in every week and says "I fell off the wagon again." And on the other side, if you get cheered every week for saying you stayed clean, that encourages people to lie, and then the whole process is corrupted.

I won't even call dishonesty amoral. It can just be an intense desire to connect and be accepted and doing whatever you think it takes.