Posted on July 11th, 2015 4 comments
British philosophers demonstrated the existence of a “moral sense” early in the 18th century. We have now crawled through the rubble left in the wake of the Blank Slate debacle and finally arrived once again at a point they had reached more than two centuries ago. Of course, men like Shaftesbury and Hutcheson thought this “moral sense” had been planted in our consciousness by God. When Hume arrived on the scene a bit later it became possible to discuss the subject in secular terms. Along came Darwin to suggest that the existence of this “moral sense” might have developed in the same way as the physical characteristics of our species; via evolution by natural selection. Finally, a bit less than half a century later, Westermarck put two and two together, pointing out that morality was a subjective emotional phenomenon and, as such, not subject to truth claims. His great work, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, appeared in 1906. Then the darkness fell.
Now, more than a century later, we can once again at least discuss evolved morality without fear of excommunication by the guardians of ideological purity. However, the guardians are still there, defending a form of secular Puritanism that yields nothing in intolerant piety to the religious Puritans of old. We must not push the envelope too far, lest we suffer the same fate as Tim Hunt, with his impious “jokes,” or Matt Taylor, with his impious shirt. We cannot just blurt out, like Westermarck, that good and evil are merely subjective artifacts of human moral emotions, so powerful that they appear as objective things. We must at least pretend that these “objects” still exist. In a word, we are in a holding pattern.
One can actually pin down fairly accurately the extent to which we have recovered since our emergence from the dark age. We are, give or take, about 15 years pre-Westermarck. As evidence of this I invite the reader’s attention to a fascinating “textbook” for teachers of secular morality that appeared in 1891. Entitled Elements of Ethical Science: A Manual for Teaching Secular Morality, by John Ogden, it taught the subject with all the most up-to-date Darwinian bells and whistles. In an introduction worthy of Sam Harris the author asks the rhetorical question,
Can pure morality be taught without inculcating religious doctrines, as these are usually interpreted and understood?
and answers with a firm “Yes!” He then proceeds to identify the basis for any “pure morality:”
Man has inherently a moral nature, an innate moral sense or capacity. This is necessary to moral culture, since, without the nature or capacity, its cultivation were impossible… This moral nature or capacity is what we call Moral Sense. It is the basis of conscience. It exists in man inherently, and, when enlightened, cultivated, and improved, it becomes the active conscience itself. Conscience, therefore, is moral sense plus intelligence.
The author recognizes the essential role of this Moral Sense as the universal basis of all the many manifestations of human morality, and one without which they could not exist. It is to the moral sentiments what the sense of touch is to the other senses:
(The Moral Sense) furnishes the basis or the elements of the moral sentiments and conscience, much in the same manner in which the cognitive facilities furnish the data or elements for thought and reasoning. It is not a sixth sense, but it is to the moral sentiments what touch is to the other senses, a base on which they are all built or founded; a soil into which they are planted, and from which they grow… All the moral sentiments are, therefore, but the concrete modifications of the moral sense, or the applications of it, in a developed form, to the ordinary duties of life, as a sense of justice, of right and wrong, of obligation, duty, gratitude, love, etc., just as seeing, hearing, tasting and smelling are but modified forms of feeling or touch, the basis of all sense.
And here, in a manner entirely similar to so many modern proponents of innate morality, Ogden goes off the tracks. Like them, he cannot let go of the illusion of objective morality. Just as the other senses inform us of the existence of physical things, the moral sense must inform us of the existence of another kind of “thing,” a disembodied, ghostly something that floats about independently of the “sense” that “detects” it, in the form of a pure, absolute truth. There are numerous paths whereby one may, more or less closely, approach this truth, but they all converge on the same, universal thing-in-itself:
…it must be conceded that, while we have a body of incontestable truth, constituting the basis of all morality, still the opinions of men upon minor points are so diverse as to make a uniform belief in dogmatical principles impossible. The author maintains that moral truths and moral conduct may be reached from different routes or sources; all converging, it is true, to the same point: and that it savors somewhat of illiberality to insist upon a uniform belief in the means or doctrines whereby we are to arrive at a perfect knowledge of the truth, in a human sense.
The means by which this “absolute truth” acquires the normative power to dictate “oughts” to all and sundry is described in terms just as fuzzy as those used by the moral pontificators of our own day, as if it were ungenerous to even ask the question:
When man’s ideas of right and wrong are duly formulated, recognized and accepted, they constitute what we denominate MORAL LAW. The moral law now becomes a standard by which to determine the quality of human actions, and a moral obligation demanding obedience to its mandates. The truth of this proposition needs no further confirmation.
As they say in the academy to supply missing steps in otherwise elegant proofs, it’s “intuitively obvious to the casual observer.” In those more enlightened times, only fifteen years elapsed before Westermarck demolished Ogden’s ephemeral thing-in-itself, pointing out that it couldn’t be confirmed because it didn’t exist, and was therefore not subject to truth claims. I doubt that we’ll be able to recover the same lost ground so quickly in our own day. Secular piety reigns in the academy, in some cases to a degree that would make the Puritans of old look like abandoned debauchees, and is hardly absent elsewhere. Savage punishment is meted out to those who deviate from moral purity, whether flippant Nobel Prize winners or overly principled owners of small town bakeries. Absent objective morality, the advocates of such treatment would lose their odor of sanctity and become recognizable as mere absurd bullies. Without a satisfying sense of moral rectitude, bullying wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. It follows that the illusion will probably persist a great deal longer than a decade and a half this time around.
Be that as it may, Westermarck still had it right. The “moral sense” exists because it evolved. Failing this basis, morality as we know it could not exist. It follows that there is no such thing as moral truth, or any way in which the moral emotions of one individual can gain a legitimate power to dictate rules of behavior to some other individual. Until we find our way back to that rather elementary level of self-understanding, it will be impossible for us to deal rationally with our own moral behavior. We’ll simply have to leave it on automatic pilot, and indulge ourselves in the counter-intuitive hope that it will serve our species just as well now as it did in the vastly different environment in which it evolved.
Posted on July 10th, 2015 5 comments
James Boswell, who wrote the famous biography of Dr. Johnson, recounts in his journal a conversation with a man who trusted nothing about history except the mere occurrence of such widely witnessed and notorious events as great battles. Similar thoughts have probably occurred to anyone who has lived through historical events and was paying attention. I have lived through several in my own lifetime that I interpret a great deal differently than the versions that appear in the standard histories. In other cases there are profound differences of opinion among the writers of history themselves. The most striking example in my own experience is the Blank Slate affair. In my opinion it was the greatest scientific debacle ever, and yet little has been written about it. The best known historical account is Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, a deeply flawed bowdlerization of reality. There are many possible reasons for the lack of a reliable account of what happened. Perhaps the academics one would normally consider most qualified to write on the subject are too ashamed to talk about it. It was, after all, a remarkable failure of the “science” they represent, and which they loudly insist everyone else must trust and defer to. An honest history must also reveal the role their “tribe” played in actively promoting and bitterly defending an absurd fantasy for a period of more than half a century. Fortunately, a great deal of source material exists that isn’t quite in step with the “official” version of the affair, which tends to gloss over these inconvenient truths.
“Official” versions of the history of the Blank Slate, including Pinker’s, typically run more or less as follows:
- A wave of progressive ideology swept the world in the early 20th century, characterized by rapidly changing attitudes about race and sex. Accounts of behavior based on innate biological traits that were perceived as immutable stood in the way of the progressive ideal of equality. As a result, theories of behavior were reformulated to eliminate whatever could be construed as condoning racism and sexism. Innate explanations were dropped in favor of purely cultural accounts of human behavior. The result was the Blank Slate.
- The Blank Slate orthodoxy controlled the behavioral sciences until the 1970’s. Only then did cracks begin to appear in the façade. However, nothing of any real significance happened until 1975, when E. O. Wilson published Sociobiology. Only then did the debate begin in earnest.
- Wilson and his supporters were subjected to furious attacks, motivated more by politics than science. Gradually, however, they gained the upper hand. As Pinker put it, “…sociobiology did not, as (Marshall) Sahlins had predicted, turn out to be a passing fad. The title of Alcock’s 2001 book The Triumph of Sociobiology says it all.”
No doubt this version of “history” is comforting to academic practitioners of the behavioral sciences. It elevates one of their own, E. O. Wilson, into the role of the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. It includes a happy ending, in which science was recued and put back on track by the scientists themselves. It is also complete nonsense. Everything of any significance about human nature in the meager treatment it received in Sociobiology, which was devoted mainly to Wilson’s study of ants and other fauna, as well as in his On Human Nature, published three years later, is completely derivative from works that had appeared through the 1960’s. They were written by the likes of Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, Desmond Morris, Lionel Tiger, Hans Hass, and, most prominently of all, Robert Ardrey. Their books were widely read and extremely influential. As a result, by the end of the 60’s, the Blank Slate was a dead man walking. By the beginning of the 1970’s the only question remaining was how long it would take the dead man to fall. In fact, it was a slow tumble. The grip of the Blank Slate in academia and much of the public media wasn’t finally broken until the turn of the century, and one still hears its death rattle occasionally even today. However, there can be no real question about who was actually responsible for its demise. The relevant historical source material is there in abundance for anyone who takes the trouble to look for it.
I’ve written about Pinker’s specious reasons for dismissing the earlier work of Lorenz and Ardrey in an earlier post. There can be little doubt that he knew the truth, but simply chose to ignore it. For example, he mentions reading Man and Aggression, a collection of Blank Slater essays edited by Ashley Montagu and aimed mostly at Ardrey and Lorenz. Published in 1968, it is one of the more important pieces of historical source material on the subject. One of the essayists Geoffrey Gorer, psychologist, former patron of George Orwell, and prominent public intellectual at the time, wrote as follows:
Almost without question, Robert Ardrey is today the most influential writer in English dealing with the innate or instinctive attributes of human nature, and the most skilled populariser of the findings of paleo-anthropologists, ethologists, and biological experimenters… He is a skilled writer, with a lively command of English prose, a pretty turn of wit, and a dramatist’s skill in exposition; he is also a good reporter, with the reporter’s eye for the significant detail, the striking visual impression. He has taken a look at nearly all the current work in Africa of paleo-anthropologists and ethologists; time and again, a couple of his paragraphs can make vivid a site, such as the Olduvai Gorge, which has been merely a name in a hundred articles.
…he does not distort his authorities beyond what is inevitable in any selection and condensation… even those familiar with most of the literature are likely to find descriptions of research they had hitherto ignored, particularly in The Territorial Imperative, with its bibliography of 245 items.
As noted above, there’s no need to take Gorer’s word for it. The historical evidence is there. Ardrey’s significance and the derivative nature of Wilson’s comments on human nature was certainly no secret to the rest of the Blank Slaters. In their mobbing attack on Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books they wrote,
From Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” to Konrad Lorenz, Robert Ardrey, and now E. O. Wilson, we have seen proclaimed the primacy of natural selection in determining most important characteristics of human behavior.
In fact, the lay public was far ahead of these “scientists.” Ardrey’s work may not have seen the light of day in the academic journals, but it had been prominently featured throughout the 60’s and early 70’s in such popular magazines as Life and Time, in many of the more “high brow” venues, such as the Saturday Review, and even in the “respectable” articles that lent redeeming social value to Playboy and Penthouse. By the time Sociobiology finally appeared, the Blank Slaters were largely engaged in a drawn out process of bamboozling themselves, with a predictable conclusion.
A typical example of these numerous “Ardrey tracks” appeared in the February 1972 issue of Encounter magazine. Entitled “4-Dimensional Man,” it was concerned not with group selection, Pinker’s bogus excuse for dismissing the entire corpus of Ardrey’s work, not with “hydraulic theory,” which he used to drop Konrad Lorenz down the memory hole, but with the common theme of all Ardrey’s work; the reality of human nature. The “4th dimension” Ardrey referred to was, of course, mankind’s evolutionary past. As he put it,
For some decades now, certain areas of our most popular sciences have dedicated their efforts to the proposition that man is three-dimensional, owing nothing of his behavior, his thoughts, his actions to anything but present circumstances of his environment, as experienced within his lifetime.
Ardrey was hardly unaware of the tactics of bullying and vilification the Blank Slaters used to silence their enemies. He had been one of their prominent targets long before Wilson was similarly “martyred.” Noting the obsolescence of the term “instinct,” when applied to human beings and other higher animals he wrote,
Instinct – inherited behavioral patterns perfected in our evolutionary experience – enter as a factor in the human equation, or they do not. The environmentalist insists they do not and (in the best tradition once suggested by Maslow) is not above reinforcing his arguments with the insinuation or direct observation that those who disagree with him are reactionaries, Social Darwinists, fascists, and probably racists to boot.
He continues with a pithy description of the Blank Slate orthodoxy:
The environmentalists have the advantage of widespread academic control, widespread influence over educated thought and organs of opinion, but the disadvantage of sometimes stunning displays of ignorance concerning new facts of biological life.
and notes that, by that time, they already had an intimation of their coming demise:
Something is panicking the three-dimensionals, and how well I know! In their defenses against the intruder they resort too frequently to self-righteousness, to unprofessional misquotation, and (as I have earlier suggested) to the upside-down McCarthyism of charging right-wing political guilt. I find it difficult to believe that I have dedicated the last fifteen years of a quite profitable writing career to the fascinations of evolution simply to prove somebody’s political leanings.
Things haven’t changed much, have they? The same, hackneyed tactics still feature prominently in the arsenal of latter day “progressives.” Today they serve mainly as an admission of intellectual sterility. Ardrey’s article ends on a prophetic note:
The controversy will not end for a long, long while. But the fatal pessimism of the environmentalist rests without doubt on the failure of changes in environment to alter significantly the nature of man. And the optimism of the evolutionists rests on man the inheritor, the four-dimensional animal.
Ardrey was not optimistic because he believed in a changeless status quo enforced by rigid human instincts. Rather, he hoped that by “comprehending ourselves” we would enable “new illuminations of human complexities and civilization’s paradoxes,” adding that no such human progress would be possible,
…if we regard the baby born as a fresh blackboard, on which any Skinnerite may sign his name. He is a being born with many a propensity for evil or for good, inheritances maladaptive or overwhelmingly adaptive to present circumstance. But we must first try to understand him. That surely is the intellectual objective of developing evolutionary thought.
All this was written long before the appearance of Sociobiology, and yet today, even as thinly disguised versions of his hypotheses of the hunting transition from ape to man, human territoriality, ingroup-outgroup behavior, etc., turn up ever more frequently in the academic literature as “original work,” Ardrey is treated as a pariah. After all, he was a “mere playwright,” and how much could such playwrights as Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Shaw, not to mention Ardrey, possibly know about human nature? I am no disciple of Ardrey’s, nor do I consider him infallible. Indeed, unlike so many others, he was quick to admit his own mistakes. I do, however, feel a certain sense of unease when I see lies and half-truths tarted up as “history.” I will therefore continue to insist that Ardrey was the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate. The historical source material demonstrating that truth is there in abundance. Perhaps some day a historian of more than common integrity will collect it and write a history of the Blank Slate debacle the way it was, instead of the way academic apologists wish it had been.
Posted on June 21st, 2015 27 comments
If we are evolved animals, then it is plausible that we have evolved behavioral traits, and among those traits are a “moral sense.” So much was immediately obvious to Darwin himself. To judge by the number of books that have been published about evolved morality in the last couple of decades, it makes sense to a lot of other people, too. The reason such a sense might have evolved is obvious, especially among highly social creatures such as ourselves. The tendency to act in some ways and not in others enhanced the probability that the genes responsible for those tendencies would survive and reproduce. It is not implausible that this moral sense should be strong, and that it should give rise to such powerful impressions that some things are “really good,” and others are “really evil,” as to produce a sense that “good” and “evil” exist independently as objective things. Such a moral sense is demonstrably very effective at modifying our behavior. It hardly follows that good and evil really are independent, objective things.
If an evolved moral sense really is the “root cause” for the existence of all the various and gaudy manifestations of human morality, is it plausible to believe that this moral sense has somehow tracked an “objective morality” that floats around out there independent of any subjective human consciousness? No. If it really is the root cause, is there some objective mechanism whereby the moral impressions of one human being can leap out of that individual’s skull and gain the normative power to dictate to another human being what is “really good” and “really evil?” No. Can there be any objective justification for outrage? No. Can there be any objective basis for virtuous indignation? No. So much is obvious. Under the circumstances it’s amazing, even given the limitations of human reason, that so many of the most intelligent among it just don’t get it. One can only attribute it to the tremendous power of the moral emotions, the great pleasure we get from indulging them, and the dominant role they play in regulating all human interactions.
These facts were recently demonstrated by the interesting behavior of some of the more prominent intellectuals among us in reaction to some comments at a scientific conference. In case you haven’t been following the story, the commenter in question was Tim Hunt,- a biochemist who won a Nobel Prize in 2001 with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell for discoveries of protein molecules that control the division (duplication) of cells. At a luncheon during the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea, he averred that women are a problem in labs because “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry.”
Hunt’s comment evoked furious moral emotions, not least among atheist intellectuals. According to PZ Myers, proprietor of Pharyngula, Hunt’s comments revealed that he is “bad.” Some of his posts on the subject may be found here, here, and here. For example, according to Myers,
Oh, no! There might be a “chilling effect” on the ability of coddled, privileged Nobel prize winners to say stupid, demeaning things about half the population of the planet! What will we do without the ability of Tim Hunt to freely accuse women of being emotional hysterics, or without James Watson’s proud ability to call all black people mentally retarded?
I thought Hunt’s plaintive whines were a big bowl of bollocks.
All I can say is…fuck off, dinosaur. We’re better off without you in any position of authority.
We can glean additional data in the comments to these posts that demonstrate the human version of “othering.” Members of outgroups, or “others,” are not only “bad,” but also typically impure and disgusting. For example,
Glad I wasn’t the only–or even the first!–to mention that long-enough-to-macramé nose hair. I think I know what’s been going on: The female scientists in his lab are always trying hard to not stare at the bales of hay peeking out of his nostrils and he’s been mistaking their uncomfortable, demure behaviour as ‘falling in love with him’.
However, in creatures with brains large enough to cogitate about what their emotions are trying to tell them, the same suite of moral predispositions can easily give rise to stark differences in moral judgments. Sure enough, others concluded that Myers and those who agreed with him were “bad.” Prominent among them was Richard Dawkins, who wrote in an open letter to the London Times,
Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but ‘disproportionate’ would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness.”
The moral emotions of other Nobel laureates informed them that Dawkins was right. For example, according to the Telegraph,
Sir Andre Geim, of the University of Manchester who shared the Nobel prize for physics in 2010 said that Sir Tim had been “crucified” by ideological fanatics , and castigated UCL for “ousting” him.
Avram Hershko, an Israeli scientist who won the 2004 Nobel prize in chemistry, said he thought Sir Tim was “very unfairly treated.” He told the Times: “Maybe he wanted to be funny and was jet lagged, but then the criticism in the social media and in the press was very much out of proportion. So was his prompt dismissal — or resignation — from his post at UCL .”
All these reactions have one thing in common. They are completely irrational unless one assumes the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things rather than subjective impressions. Or would you have me believe, dear reader, that statements like, “fuck off, dinosaur,” and allusions to crucifixion by “ideological fanatics” engaged in a “baying witch-hunt,” are mere cool, carefully reasoned suggestions about how best to advance the officially certified “good” of promoting greater female participation in the sciences? Nonsense! These people aren’t playing a game of charades, either. Their behavior reveals that they genuinely believe, not only in the existence of “good” and “bad” as objective things, but in their own ability to tell the difference better than those who disagree with them. If they don’t believe it, they certainly act like they do. And yet these are some of the most intelligent representatives of our species. One can but despair, and hope that aliens from another planet don’t turn up anytime soon to witness such ludicrous spectacles.
Clearly, we can’t simply dispense with morality. We’re much too stupid to get along without it. Under the circumstances, it would be nice if we could all agree on what we will consider “good” and what “bad,” within the limits imposed by the innate bedrock of morality in human nature. Unfortunately, human societies are now a great deal different than the ones that existed when the predispositions that are responsible for the existence of morality evolved, and they tend to change very rapidly. It stands to reason that it will occasionally be necessary to “adjust” the types of behavior we consider “good” and “bad” to keep up as best we can. I personally doubt that the current practice of climbing up on rickety soap boxes and shouting down anathemas on anyone who disagrees with us, and then making the “adjustment” according to who shouts the loudest, is really the most effective way to accomplish that end. Among other things, it results in too much collateral damage in the form of shattered careers and ideological polarization. I can’t suggest a perfect alternative at the moment, but a little self-knowledge might help in the search for one. Shedding the illusion of objective morality would be a good start.
Posted on June 12th, 2015 10 comments
The fact that the various gods that mankind has invented over the years, including the currently popular ones, don’t exist has been sufficiently obvious to any reasonably intelligent pre-adolescent who has taken the trouble to think about it since at least the days of Jean Meslier. That unfortunate French priest left us with a Testament that exposed the folly of belief in imaginary super-beings long before the days of Darwin. It included most of the “modern” arguments, including the dubious logic of inventing gods to explain everything we don’t understand, the many blatant contradictions in the holy scriptures, the absurdity of the notion that an infinitely wise and perfect being could be moved to fury or even offended by the pathetic sins of creatures as abject as ourselves, the lack of any need for a supernatural “grounding” for human morality, and many more. Over the years these arguments have been elaborated and expanded by a host of thinkers, culminating in the work of today’s New Atheists. These include Jerry Coyne, whose Faith versus Fact represents their latest effort to talk some sense into the true believers.
Coyne has the usual human tendency, shared by his religious opponents, of “othering” those who disagree with him. However, besides sharing a “sin” that few if any of us are entirely free of, he has some admirable traits as well. For example, he has rejected the Blank Slate ideology of his graduate school professor/advisor, Richard Lewontin, and even goes so far as to directly contradict him in FvF. In spite of the fact that he is an old “New Leftist” himself, he has taken a principled stand against the recent attempts of the ideological Left to dismantle freedom of speech and otherwise decay to its Stalinist ground state. Perhaps best of all as far as a major theme of this blog is concerned, he rejects the notion of objective morality that has been so counter-intuitively embraced by Sam Harris, another prominent New Atheist.
For the most part, Faith versus Fact is a worthy addition to the New Atheist arsenal. It effectively dismantles the “sophisticated Christian” gambit that has encouraged meek and humble Christians of all stripes to imagine themselves on an infinitely higher intellectual plane than such “undergraduate atheists” as Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens. It refutes the rapidly shrinking residue of “God of the gaps” arguments, and clearly illustrates the difference between scientific evidence and religious “evidence.” It destroys the comfortable myth that religion is an “other way of knowing,” and exposes the folly of seeking to accommodate religion within a scientific worldview. It was all the more disappointing, after nodding approvingly through most of the book, to suffer one of those “Oh, No!” moments in the final chapter. Coyne ended by wandering off into an ideological swamp with a fumbling attempt to link obscurantist religion with “global warming denialism!”
As it happens, I am a scientist myself. I am perfectly well aware that when an external source of radiation such as that emanating from the sun passes through an ideal earthlike atmosphere that has been mixed with a dose of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, impinges on an ideal earthlike surface, and is re-radiated back into space, the resulting equilibrium temperature of the atmosphere will be higher than if no greenhouse gases were present. I am also aware that we are rapidly adding such greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, and that it is therefore reasonable to be concerned about the potential effects of global warming. However, in spite of that it is not altogether irrational to take a close look at whether all the nostrums proposed as solutions to the problem will actually do any good.
In fact, the earth does not have an ideal static atmosphere over an ideal static and uniform surface. Our planet’s climate is affected by a great number of complex, interacting phenomena. A deterministic computer model capable of reliably predicting climate change decades into the future is far beyond the current state of the art. It would need to deal with literally millions of degrees of freedom in three dimensions, in many cases using potentially unreliable or missing data. The codes currently used to address the problem are probabilistic, reduced basis models, that can give significantly different answers depending on the choice of initial conditions.
In a recently concluded physics campaign at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, scientists attempted to achieve thermonuclear fusion ignition by hitting tiny targets containing heavy isotopes of hydrogen with the most powerful laser system ever built. The codes they used to model the process should have been far more accurate than any current model of the earth’s climate. These computer models included all the known relevant physical phenomena, and had been carefully benchmarked against similar experiments carried out on less powerful laser systems. In spite of that, the best experimental results didn’t come close to the computer predictions. The actual number of fusion reactions hardly came within two orders of magnitude of expected values. The number of physical approximations that must be used in climate models is far greater than were necessary in the Livermore fusion codes, and their value as predictive tools must be judged accordingly.
In a word, we have no way of accurately predicting the magnitude of the climate change we will experience in coming decades. If we had unlimited resources, the best policy would obviously be to avoid rocking the only boat we have at the moment. However, this is not an ideal world, and we must wisely allocate what resources we do have among competing priorities. Resources devoted to fighting climate change will not be available for medical research and health care, education, building the infrastructure we need to maintain a healthy economy, and many other worthy purposes that could potentially not only improve human well-being but save many lives. Before we succumb to frantic appeals to “do something,” and spend a huge amount of money to stop global warming, we should at least be reasonably confident that our actions will measurably reduce the danger. To what degree can we expect “science” to inform our decisions, whatever they may be?
For starters, we might look at the track record of the environmental scientists who are now sounding the alarm. The Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg examined that record in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in areas as diverse as soil erosion, storm frequency, deforestation, and declining energy resources. Time after time he discovered that they had been crying “wolf,” distorting and cherry-picking the data to support dire predictions that never materialized. Lomborg’s book did not start a serious discussion of potential shortcomings of the scientific method as applied in these areas. Instead he was bullied and vilified. A kangaroo court was organized in Denmark made up of some of the more abject examples of so-called “scientists” in that country, and quickly found Lomborg guilty of “scientific dishonesty,” a verdict which the Danish science ministry later had the decency to overturn. In short, the same methods were used against Lomborg as were used decades earlier to silence critics of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, resulting in what was possibly the greatest scientific debacle of all time. At the very least we can conclude that all the scientific checks and balances that Coyne refers to in such glowing terms in Faith versus Fact have not always functioned with ideal efficiency in promoting the cause of truth. There is reason to believe that the environmental sciences are one area in which this has been particularly true.
Under the circumstances it is regrettable that Coyne chose to equate “global warming denialism” a pejorative term used in ideological squabbles that is by its very nature unscientific, with some of the worst forms of religious obscurantism. Instead of sticking to the message, in the end he let his political prejudices obscure it. Objections to the prevailing climate change orthodoxy are hardly coming exclusively from the religious fanatics who sought to enlighten us with “creation science,” and “intelligent design.” I invite anyone suffering from that delusion to have a look at some of the articles the physicist and mathematician Lubos Motl has written about the subject on his blog, The Reference Frame. Examples may be found here, here and, for an example with a “religious” twist, here. There he will find documented more instances of the type of “scientific” behavior Lomborg cited in The Skeptical Environmentalist. No doubt many readers will find Motl irritating and tendentious, but he knows his stuff. Anyone who thinks he can refute his take on the “science” had better be equipped with more knowledge of the subject than is typically included in the bromides that appear in the New York Times.
Alas, I fear that I am once again crying over spilt milk. I can only hope that Coyne has an arrow or two left in his New Atheist quiver, and that next time he chooses a publisher who will insist on ruthlessly chopping out all the political Nebensächlichkeiten. Meanwhile, have a look at his Why Evolution is True website. In addition to presenting a convincing case for evolution by natural selection and a universe free of wrathful super beings, Professor Ceiling Cat, as he is known to regular visitors for reasons that will soon become apparent to newbies, also posts some fantastic wildlife pictures. And if it’s any consolation, I see his book has been panned by John Horgan. Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad. Apparently Horgan’s review was actually solicited by the editors of the Wall Street Journal. Go figure! One wonders what rock they’ve been sleeping under lately.
Posted on June 6th, 2015 6 comments
Jerry Coyne just launched another New Atheist salvo against the Defenders of the Faith in the form of his latest book, Faith versus Fact. It’s well written and well reasoned, effectively squashing the “sophisticated Christian” gambit of the faithful, and storming some of their few remaining “God of the gaps” redoubts. However, one of its most striking features is its decisive rejection of the Blank Slate. The New Atheists have learned to stop worrying and love innate morality!
Just like the Blank Slaters of yore, the New Atheists may be found predominantly on the left of the political spectrum. In Prof. Coyne’s case the connection is even more striking. As a graduate student, his professor/advisor was none other than Blank Slate kingpin Richard Lewontin of Not In Our Genes fame! In spite of that, in Faith versus Fact he not only accepts but positively embraces evolutionary psychology in general and innate morality in particular. Why?
It turns out that, along with the origin of life, the existence of consciousness, the “fine tuning” of physical constants, etc., one of the more cherished “gaps” in the “God of the gaps” arguments of the faithful is the existence of innate morality. As with the other “gap” gambits, the claim is that it couldn’t exist unless God created it. As noted in an earlier post, the Christian philosopher Francis Hutcheson used a combination of reason and careful observation of his own species to demonstrate the existence of an innate “moral sense,” building on the earlier work of Anthony Ashley-Cooper and others early in the 18th century. The Blank Slaters would have done well to read his work. Instead, they insisted on the non-existence of human nature, thereby handing over this particular “gap” to the faithful by default. Obviously, Prof. Coyne had second thoughts, and decided to snatch it back. However, he doesn’t quite succeed in breaking entirely with the past. Instead, he insists on elevating “cultural morality” to a co-equal status with innate morality, and demonstrates that he has swallowed Steven Pinker’s fanciful “academic version” of the history of the Blank Slate in the process. Allow me to quote at length some of the relevant passages from his book:
Evolution disproves critical parts of both the Bible and the Quran – the creation stories – yet millions have been unable to abandon them. Finally, and perhaps most important, evolution means that human morality, rather than being imbued in us by God, somehow arose via natural processes: biological evolution involving natural selection on behavior, and cultural evolution involving our ability to calculate, foresee, and prefer the results of different behaviors.
Here we encounter the conflation of biological and cultural evolution, which are described as if they were independent factors accounting for the “rise” of human morality. This tendency to embrace innate explanations while at the same time clinging to the “culture and learning” of the Blank Slate as a distinct, quasi-independent determinant of moral behavior is a recurring theme in FvF. A bit later Coyne seems to return to the Darwinian fold, citing his comments on “well-marked social instincts.”
In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, where Darwin first applied his theory of evolution by natural selection to humans, he did not neglect morality. In chapter 3, he floats what can be considered the first suggestion that our morality may be an elaboration by our large brains of social instincts evolved in our ancestors: “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.”
This impression is apparently confirmed in the following remarkable passage:
A century later, the biologist Edward O. Wilson angered many by asserting the complete hegemony of biology over ethics: “Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.” Wilson’s statement, in the pathbreaking book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, really began the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior that has become the discipline of evolutionary psychology. In the last four decades psychologists, philosophers, and biologists have begun to dissect the cultural and evolutionary roots of morality.
Here we find, almost verbatim, Steven Pinker’s bowdlerized version of the “history” of the Blank Slate, featuring E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who came out of nowhere to “begin the modern incursion of evolution into human behavior,” with the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. Anyone with even a faint familiarity with the source material knows that Pinker’s version is really nothing but a longish fairy tale. The “modern incursion of evolution into human behavior” was already well underway in Europe in 1951, when Niko Tinbergen published his The Study of Instinct. It was continued there through the 50’s and 60’s in the work of Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, and many others. Long before the appearance of Sociobiology, Robert Ardrey began the publication of a series of four books on evolved human nature that really set in motion the smashing of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences. There is literally nothing of any significance in Sociobiology bearing on the “incursion of evolution into human behavior” or the emergence of what came to be called evolutionary psychology that is not merely an echo of work that had been published by Ardrey, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and others many years earlier. No matter. It would seem that Pinker’s fanciful “history” has now been transmogrified into one of Coyne’s “facts.”
But I digress. As noted above, even as Coyne demolishes morality as one of the “gaps” that must be filled by inventing a God by noting its emergence as an evolved trait, and even as he explicitly embraces evolutionary psychology, which has apparently only recently become “respectable,” he can never quite entirely free himself from the stench of the Blank Slate. Finally, as if frightened by his own temerity, and perhaps feeling the withering gaze of his old professor/advisor Lewontin, Coyne executes a partial retreat from the territory he has just attempted to reconquer:
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker makes a strong case that since the Middle Ages most societies have become much less brutal, due largely to changes in what’s considered moral. So if morality is innate, it’s certainly malleable. And that itself refutes the argument that human morality comes from God, unless the moral sentiments of the deity are equally malleable. The rapid change in many aspects of morality, even in the last century, also suggests that much of its “innateness” comes not from evolution but from learning. That’s because evolutionary change simply doesn’t occur fast enough to explain societal changes like our realization that women are not an inferior moiety of humanity, or that we shouldn’t torture prisoners. The explanation for these changes must reside in reason and learning: our realization that there is no rational basis for giving ourselves moral privilege over those who belong to other groups.
Here we find the good professor behaving for all the world like one of Niko Tinbergen’s famous sticklebacks who, suddenly realizing he has strayed far over the established boundary of his own territory, rushes back to more familiar haunts. Only one of Lewontin’s “genetic determinists” would be obtuse enough to suggest that the meanderings of 21st century morality are caused by “evolution,” and those are as rare as unicorns. Obviously, no such extraordinarily rapid evolution is necessary. The innate wellsprings of human morality need not “evolve” at all to account for these wanderings, which are adequately accounted for by the fact that they represent the mediation of a relatively static “moral sense” in a rapidly changing environment through the consciousness of creatures with large brains. As brilliantly demonstrated by Hutcheson in his An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, absent this “root cause” in the form of evolved behavioral predispositions, “reason and learning” could chug along for centuries without spitting out anything remotely resembling morality. Innate behavioral predispositions are the basis of all moral behavior, and without them morality as we know it would not exist. The only role of “reason and learning” is in interpreting and mediating the “moral passions.” Absent those passions, there would be literally nothing to be reasoned about or learned that would manifest itself as moral behavior. They, and not “reason and learning” are the sine qua non for the existence of morality.
But let us refrain from looking this particular gift horse in the mouth. In general, as noted above, the New Atheists may be found more or less in the same region of the ideological spectrum as was once occupied by the Blank Slaters. If they are now constrained to add innate behavior to their arsenal as one more weapon in their continuing battle against the faithful, so much the better for all of us. If nothing else it enhances the chances that, at least for the time being, students of human behavior will be able to continue acquiring the knowledge we need to gain self-understanding without fear of being bullied and intimidated for pointing out facts that happen to be politically inconvenient.
Posted on May 31st, 2015 2 comments
More than a century has now come and gone since the start of World War I. Numerous books and articles have been published to mark the centennial, often differing sharply with each other in their interpretations of the events and personalities concerned. My personal favorite is The Sleepwalkers, by Christopher Clark. I’ve been reading quite a bit of the source material myself lately. As I speak German, these have included memoirs of many of the key players on the German side. In reading his book, I noticed that Clark was very familiar with everything I’d read. I also noticed that everything I’ve read was a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the material he quoted in detail. Clark also generally refrains from categorizing every historical personality as either a “good guy” or a “bad guy.” I avoid reading histories written by journalists, because so few of them manage to avoid this moralistic pigeonholing. It’s much easier to understand historical events if, as Clark puts it in his introduction, one “remains alert to the fact that the people, events and forces described… carried in them the seeds of other, perhaps less terrible, futures.”
Not everyone agrees with Clark. Even a century later there are others, even among professional historians, who remain obsessed with the question of “war guilt.” For example, John C. G. Röhl, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Sussex, recently published a life of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in which he insisted that Germany’s last Kaiser managed to concoct World War I almost single-handedly. I’ve also seen several articles, such as this one that appeared on the conservative Australian Quadrant website, that are still harping about “German militarism” as if the war had ended yesterday. If the Quadrant author is to be believed, the “ideological and cultural pathologies” of Wilhelmine Germany were direct forerunners of Nazism.
I doubt it. Germany could certainly have broken the chain of events that led to war. So could Austria-Hungary, and so could Russia. The question of who, among these three, not to mention the other belligerents, was really the chief culprit was hardly as obvious in the days immediately preceding the clash of arms as the historians of the victorious powers so often asserted when it was over. Writing two days after Russia had begun her “partial” mobilization in response to Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia, Lord Bertie, at the time British ambassador in France, wrote in his diary,
It seems incredible that the Russian Government should plunge Europe into war in order to make themselves the protectors of the Servians. Unless the Austrian Government had proofs of the complicity of Servian officials in the plot to murder the Archduke (which they did, ed.) they could not have addressed to the Servian Government the stringent terms which the Austrian Note contained. Russia comes forward as the protectress of Servia; by what title except on the exploded pretension that she is, by right, the protectress of all Slavs? What rubbish! And she will expect, if she adhere to her present attitude, France and England to support her in arms.
A day later he wrote,
I cannot believe in war unless Russia wants it. The Military party in Germany may think the present moment more favourable for Germany than it is likely to be later, when the reforms in the Russian Army will have been carried out and the strategic railways, converging on the Russo-German frontier, will have been constructed, but I cannot think that the German Emperor and his Government desire war. I do not believe that they were accessories before the fact to the terms of the Austrian Note to Servia. If, however, the Emperor of Russia adhere to the absurd and obsolete claim that she is protectress of all Slav States, however bad their conduct, was is probable, Germany will be bound to support Austria, and France will have to help Russia.
In fact, that’s exactly how it looked to Kaiser Wilhelm himself. As he noted in his memoirs, it was clear that if Germany fulfilled her treaty obligations to defend Austria against a Russian attack, it would certainly bring France into the war. The Germans knew they would be facing a two front war, and reacted accordingly. He also confirmed Bertie’s surmise about the conflict between the German civil and military officials in the days leading up to war. In his words,
The foreign office… was so hypnotized by the idea of “peace at any price,” that it completely ruled out war as a possible element of Entente policy, and was therefore unable to correctly assess the signs that war was possible. Therein lies yet another proof of Germany’s desire to preserve the peace. This attitude of the foreign office gave rise to certain contradictions between it and the General Staff and the Admiralty, who gave warning as their duty required, and advised preparations for defense. These difference persisted for some time. The Army could never forget the fact that it was the fault of the foreign office that they had been surprised. And the diplomats were piqued that war had come in spite of their efforts.
The memoirs of the Kaiser and some of the other key players in the war and the events leading up to it are often dismissed with a wave of the hand as mere justifications after the fact. In fact, while self-justification is a typical motive, memoirs can’t simply be invented out of whole cloth, and invariably reveal a great deal about the character of the authors, regardless of how they choose to construe the facts. Wilhelm was no angel. He was paranoid, a narcissist, became an anti-Semite, especially after the war, and had an unfortunate penchant for bombast and bluster. However, he was not the rabid warmonger portrayed by Röhl and many others, either.
Perhaps the most damaging indictment of Germany was written by her ambassador in Great Britain before the war, Prince Karl Lichnowsky. His assessment, currently available under the title, The Guilt of Germany for the War of German Aggression, pointed out the folly of Germany’s crash naval building program in alienating England. He saw the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, as a man dedicated to preserving the peace, and an honest broker in his dealings with Germany and the other European powers. Grey had suggested a conference of the powers, similar to the one that had preserved the peace of Europe during another spat over the Balkans a couple of years earlier, as a way to avoid war. Lichnowsky considered Germany’s decision to refuse this offer suicidal, and a major contributing factor to the onset of war. His assessment of Grey and British policy in general was probably a great deal more accurate than that of the Kaiser and the German foreign office. Their paranoia about the supposed perfidious, anti-German intrigues of England’s King Edward VII and his foreign secretary is evident in the Kaiser’s as well as several other memoirs. However, in spite of that, one cannot simply ignore the reply of von Jagow, German foreign secretary at the time, which is also included in the volume referred to above. According to Jagow,
We could not agree to the English proposal of a conference of Ambassadors, for it would doubtless have led to a serious diplomatic defeat. For Italy, too, (Germany’s ally at the time in the Triple Alliance with Austria, ed.) was pro-Serb and, with her Balkan interests, stood rather opposed to Austria… The best and only feasible way of escape was a localization of the conflict and an understanding between Vienna and Petrograd. We worked toward that end with all our energy.
In retrospect, this “way of escape” may have appeared a great deal more “feasible,” in view of the fact that the actual alternative turned out to be Germany’s crushing defeat in the World War, but that outcome did not yet seem inevitable. In fact, Germany did seek to localize the conflict, as is evident from the source material. As for the German naval building program, I doubt that its aim was really to outstrip or seriously threaten British domination of the seas. Again, one cannot simply dismiss what has been written about the subject on the German side. According to the one man most often associated with the program, Admiral von Tirpitz, Germany’s battle fleet was necessary in order to protect her coast against a combination of France and Russia or any other two naval powers other than Great Britain. She never aimed at more than an 8 to 5 ratio of naval power in favor of England, and would have been satisfied with 3 to 2. There is no credible evidence that Tirpitz or the Kaiser aimed at anything beyond this.
There is a great deal of additional material in Tirpitz’ memoirs of interest to students of events leading up to the outbreak of war. For example, he could not understand why Germany had not simply mobilized in response to the Russian mobilization, and left the moral odium of an actual declaration of war to its enemies. In his words,
Did not (German Chancellor, ed.) Bethmann really consider the enormous disadvantages which were created for us by our not leaving the act of declaration of war to the enemy?… my feelings revolted at our having to assume the odium of the attacking party in the face of the world, on account of the jurists of the Foreign Office, although we could not at all intend to march into Russia, and although we were in reality the attacked party. I therefore asked the Chancellor, as the meeting broke up, why the declaration of war had to coincide with our mobilization? The Chancellor replied that this was necessary because the army would immediately send troops over the frontier. The reply astonished me, because at the most it could only be a question of patrols. But through these days Bethmann was so agitated and overstrained that it was impossible to speak with him. I can still hear him as he repeatedly stressed the absolute necessity of the declaration of war, with his arms uplifted, and consequently cut short all further discussion. When I asked Moltke afterwards the actual relation between the crossing of the frontier and our declaration of war, he denied any intention of sending troops over the frontier forthwith. He also told me that he attached no value to the declaration of war from his own point of view.
Thus the riddle, why we declared war first, remains unsolved for me. It is to be assumed that we did it out of formal legal consciousness. The Russians began the war without any declaration, but we believed that we could not defend ourselves without such a statement. Outside Germany there is no appreciation for such ideas.
That’s for sure! In retrospect, it’s hard to find fault with his reasoning. Unfortunately, I can’t write a complete history of the start of World War I in a blog post. Suffice it to say that I agree with Clark that the notion that it was all Germany’s fault, with Kaiser Wilhelm the “bad guy” extraordinaire, is nonsense. There was plenty of blame to go around. What’s the point? I suppose that I tend to be dubious of the value of morality tales posing as history. In reality, there are no good guys and bad guys. The terms “good” and “bad” are artifacts of the human tendency to attribute objectivity to moral judgments. In fact, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, but are better understood as subjective impressions in the minds of individuals. I read history to gain an understanding of why things happened the way they did, and what motivated individuals to act the way they did. That information is often lost in works that seek to portray certain individuals as “good,” and others as “bad.” Understanding of real human beings and the complexity of human motivations and behavior are sacrificed when one seeks to create a collection of wooden puppets that all fit neatly in one of these two moral pigeonholes.
Posted on May 24th, 2015 1 comment
Philosophers have been masticating the question of free will for many centuries. The net result of their efforts has been a dizzying array of different “flavors” of free will or the lack thereof. I invite anyone with the patience to attempt disentangling the various permutations and combinations thereof to start with the Wiki page, and take it from there. For the purpose of this post I will simply define free will as the ability to make choices that are not predetermined before we make the choice. This implies that our conscious minds are not entirely subject to deterministic physical laws, and have the power to alter physical reality. Lack of free will means the absence of this power, and implies that we lack the power to alter physical reality in any way. I personally have no idea whether we have free will or not. In my opinion, we currently lack the knowledge to answer the question. However, I believe that debating the matter is useless. Instead, we should assume that there is free will as the “default” position, and get on with our lives.
Of course, if there is no free will, my advice is useless. I am simply an automaton among automatons, adding to the chorus of sound and fury that signifies nothing. In that case the debate over free will is merely another amusing case of pre-programmed robots arguing over what they “should” believe, and what they “ought” to do as a consequence, in a world in which the words “should” and “ought” are completely meaningless. These words imply an ability to choose between two alternatives, but no such choice can exist if there is no free will. “Ought” we to alter the criminal justice system because we have decided there is no such thing as free will? If we have no free will, the question is meaningless. We cannot possibly alter the predetermined outcome of the debate, or the predetermined evolution of the criminal justice system, or even our opinion on whether it “ought” to be changed or not. Under the circumstances it can hardly hurt to assume that we do have free will. If so, the assumption must have been foreordained, and no conscious agency exists that could have altered the fact. If we don’t have free will, it is also absurd, if inevitable, to blame me or even take issue with me for advocating that we act as if we have free will. After all, in that case I couldn’t have acted or thought any differently, assuming my mind is an artifact of the physical world, and not a “ghost in the machine.” If we believe in free will but there is no free will, debate about the matter may or may not be inevitable, but it is certainly futile, because the outcome of the debate has been predetermined.
On the other hand, if we decide that there is no free will, but there actually is, it can potentially “hurt” a great deal. In that case, we will be basing our actions and our conclusions about what “ought” or “ought not” to be done on a false assumption. Whatever our idiosyncratic goals happen to be, it is more probable that we will attain them if we base our strategy for achieving them on truth rather than falsehood. If we have free will, the outcome of the debate matters. Suppose, for example, that the anti-free will side has much better debaters and convinces those watching the debate that they have no free will even if they do. Plausible results include despair, a sense of purposelessness, fatalism, a lethargic and indifferent attitude towards life, a feeling that nothing matters, etc. No doubt there are legions of philosophers out there who can prove that, because a = b and b = c, none of these reactions are reasonable. They will, however, occur whether they are reasonable or not.
I doubt that my proposed default position will be difficult to implement. Even the most diehard free will denialists seldom succeed in completely accepting the implications of their own theories. Look through their writings, and before long you’ll find a “should.” Read a bit further and you’re likely to stumble over an “ought” as well. However, as noted above, speaking of “should” and “ought” in the absence of free will is absurd. They imply the possibility of a choice between two alternatives that will lead to different outcomes. If there is no free will, there can be no choice. Individuals will do what they “ought” to do or “ought not” to do just as the arrangement of matter and energy in the universe happens to dictate. It is absurd to blame them for doing something they could not avoid. However, the question of whether they actually will be blamed or not is also predetermined. It is just as absurd to blame the blamers.
In short, I propose we all stop arguing and accept the default. If there is no free will, then obviously I am proposing it because of my programming. I can’t do otherwise even if I “ought” to. It’s possible my proposal may change things, but, if so, the change was inevitable. However, if there is free will, then believing in it is simply believing in the truth, and a truth that, at least from my point of view, happens to be a great deal more palatable than the alternative.
Posted on May 17th, 2015 6 comments
New Atheist bashing is all the rage these days. The gloating tone at Salon over New Atheist Sam Harris’ humiliation by Noam Chomsky in their recent exchange over the correct understanding of something that doesn’t exist referred to in my last post is but one of many examples. In fact, New Atheists aren’t really new, and neither is New Atheist bashing. Thumb through some of the more high brow magazines of the 1920’s, for example, and chances are you’ll run across an article describing the then current crop of atheists as aggressive, ignorant, clannish, self-righteous and, in short, prone to all the familiar maladies that supposedly also afflict the New Atheists of today. And just as we see today, the more “laid back” atheists were gleefully piling on then as now. They included H. L. Mencken, probably the most famous atheist of the time, who deplored aggressive atheism in his recently republished autobiographical trilogy. Unfortunately he’s no longer around to explain the difference between “aggressive” atheism, and his own practice of heaping scorn and ridicule on the more backward believers. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that Mencken was by nature a conservative. He abhorred any manifestation of the “Uplift,” a term which in those days meant more or less the same thing as “progressive” today.
I think the difference between these two species of atheists has something to do with the degree to which they resent belonging to an outgroup. Distinguishing between ingroups and outgroups comes naturally to our species. This particular predisposition is ostensibly not as beneficial now as it was during the period over which it evolved. A host of pejorative terms have been invented to describe its more destructive manifestations, such as racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, etc., all of which really describe the same phenomenon. Those among us who harbor no irrational hatreds of this sort must be rare indeed. One often finds it present in its more virulent forms in precisely those individuals who consider themselves immune to it. Atheists are different, and that’s really all it takes to become identified as an outgroup,
Apparently some atheists don’t feel themselves particularly inconvenienced by this form of “othering,” especially in societies that have benefited to some extent from the European Enlightenment. Others take it more seriously, and fight back using the same tactics that have been directed against them. They “other” their enemies and seek to aggressively exploit human moral emotions to gain the upper hand. That is exactly what has been done quite successfully at one time or another by many outgroups, including women, blacks, and quite spectacularly lately, gays. New Atheists are merely those who embrace such tactics in the atheist community.
I can’t really blame my fellow atheists for this form of activism. One doesn’t choose to be an atheist. If one doesn’t believe in God, then other than in George Orwell’s nightmare world of “1984,” one can’t be “cured” into becoming a Christian or a Moslem, any more than a gay can be “cured” into becoming heterosexual, or a black “cured” into becoming white. However, for reasons having to do with the ideological climate in the world today that are much too complicated to address in a short blog post, New Atheists are facing a great deal more resistance than members of some of society’s other outgroups. This resistance is coming, not just from religious believers, but from their “natural” allies on the ideological left.
Noam Chomsky’s scornful treatment of Sam Harris, accompanied by the sneers of the leftist editors of Salon, is a typical example of this phenomenon. Such leaders as Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens are the public “face” of the New Atheist movement, and as a consequence are often singled out in this way. Of course they have their faults, and I’ve criticized the first two myself on this blog and elsewhere. However, many of the recent attacks, especially from the ideological left, are neither well-reasoned nor, at least in terms of my own subjective moral emotions, even fair. Often they conform to hackneyed formulas; the New Atheists are unsophisticated, they don’t understand what they’re talking about, they are bigoted, they are harming people who depend on religious beliefs to give “meaning” to their lives, etc.
A typical example, which was also apparently inspired by the Harris/Chomsky exchange, recently turned up at Massimo Pigliucci’s Scientia Salon. Entitled “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements,” it was ostensibly Pigliucci’s announcement that, after being a longtime member and supporter, he now wishes to “disengage” from the club. As one might expect, he came down squarely in favor of Chomsky, who is apparently one of his heroes. That came as no surprise to me, as fawning appraisals of Blank Slate kingpins Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould have also appeared at the site. It had me wondering who will be rehabilitated next. Charles Manson? Jack the Ripper? Pigliucci piques himself on his superior intellect which, we are often reminded, is informed by both science and a deep reading of philosophy. In spite that, he seems completely innocent of any knowledge that the Blank Slate debacle ever happened, or of Lewontin’s and Gould’s highly effective role in propping it up for so many years, using such “scientific” methods as bullying, vilification and mobbing of anyone who disagreed with them, including, among others, Robert Trivers, W. D. Hamilton, Konrad Lorenz, and Richard Dawkins. Evidence of such applications of “science” are easily accessible to anyone who makes even a minimal effort to check the source material, such as Lewontin’s Not in Our Genes.
No matter, Pigliucci apparently imagines that the Blank Slate was just a figment of Steven Pinker’s fevered imagination. With such qualifications as a detector of “fools,” he sagely nods his head as he informs us that Chomsky “doesn’t suffer fools (like Harris) gladly.” With a sigh of ennui, he goes on, “And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.” The rest of the New Atheist worthies come in for similar treatment. By all means, read the article. You’ll notice that, like virtually every other New Atheist basher, whether on the left or the right of the ideological spectrum, Pigliucci never gets around to mentioning what these “naïve” criticisms of religion actually are, far less to responding to or discussing them.
It’s not hard to find Dawkins’ “naïve” criticisms of religion. They’re easily available to anyone who takes the trouble to look through the first few chapters of his The God Delusion. In fact, most of them have been around at least since Jean Meslier wrote them down in his Testament almost 300 years ago. Religious believers have been notably unsuccessful in answering them in the ensuing centuries. No doubt they might seem naïve if you happen to believe in the ephemeral and hazy versions of God concocted by the likes of David Bentley Hart and Karen Armstrong. They’ve put that non-objective, non-subjective, insubstantial God so high up on the shelf that it can’t be touched by atheists or anyone else. The problem is that that’s not the God that most people believe in. Dawkins can hardly be faulted for directing his criticisms at the God they do believe in. If his arguments against that God are really so naïve, what can possibly be the harm in actually answering them?
As noted above, New Atheist bashing is probably inevitable given the current ideological fashions. However, I suggest that those happy few who are still capable of thinking for themselves think twice before jumping on the bandwagon. In the first place, it is not irrational for atheists to feel aggrieved at being “othered,” any more than it is for any other ostracized minority. Perhaps more importantly, the question of whether religious beliefs are true or not matters. Today one actually hears so-called “progressive” atheists arguing that religious beliefs should not be questioned, because it risks robbing the “little people” of a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives. Apparently the goal is to cultivate delusions that will get them from cradle to grave with as little existential Angst as possible. It would be too shocking for them to know the truth. Beyond the obvious arrogance of such an attitude, I fail to see how it is doing anyone a favor. People supply their own “meaning of life,” depending on their perceptions of reality. Blocking the path to truth and promoting potentially pathological delusions in place of reality seems more a betrayal than a “service” to me. To the extent that anyone cares to take my own subjective moral emotions seriously, I can only say that I find substituting bland religious truisms for a chance to experience the stunning wonder, beauty and improbability of human existence less a “benefit” than an exquisite form of cruelty.
Posted on May 16th, 2015 2 comments
Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky have a lot in common. Both are familiar public intellectuals, both are atheists, and both are well to the left of center politically. Both are also true believers in the fantasy of objective morality. As I noticed on my latest visit to the Salon website, however, that hasn’t deterred them from hurling anathemas at each other. Harris landed some weak jabs in a recent exchange of verbal fisticuffs, but according to Salon, Chomsky won by a knockout in the later rounds. A complete, blow by blow account may be found on Sam’s website, along with his own post mortem.
Apparently it all began when Harris tried to, in his words, “engineer a public conversation with Chomsky about the ethics of war, terrorism, state surveillance, and related topics.” As he wrote on his blog,
For decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, and the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence. Although I agree with much of what Chomsky has said about the misuses of state power, I have long maintained that his political views, where the threat of global jihadism is concerned, produce dangerous delusions. In response, I have been much criticized by those who believe that I haven’t given the great man his due.
To clear the air, he wrote a pleasant note to Chomsky suggesting that they engage in a public conversation to, “explore these disagreements, clarify any misunderstandings,” and “attempt to find some common ground.” Not one to be taken in by such pleasantries, old pro Chomsky immediately positioned himself on the moral high ground. His tart reply:
Perhaps I have some misconceptions about you. Most of what I’ve read of yours is material that has been sent to me about my alleged views, which is completely false. I don’t see any point in a public debate about misreadings. If there are things you’d like to explore privately, fine. But with sources.
Harris should have known going in that hardcore “progressive” leftists never have friendly differences of opinion with anyone on matters more significant than the weather. Anyone who disagrees with them is automatically tossed into their outgroup, and acquires all the usual characteristics of the denizens thereof. They are, of course, always immoral, and commonly disgusting and mentally incompetent as well. That’s often how Harris portrays those who disagree with him on questions of morality himself. Nevertheless, he walked right into Chomsky’s punch, admitting the possibility that he may have misread him. He merely threw in the caveat that, if so, it could only have happened in a passage in his first book, The End of Faith, as that was the only time he’d ever mentioned Chomsky’s work in writing. That was plenty for Chomsky. In effect, Harris had just handed him the opportunity to pick his own battlefield. He did so with alacrity. As it happens, in the passage in question, Harris had objected to Chomsky’s condemnation of the Clinton Administration’s decision to bomb the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in the context of remarks about the 9/11 attacks. As he put it:
Chomsky does not hesitate to draw moral equivalences here: “For the first time in modern history, Europe and its offshoots were subjected, on home soil, to the kind of atrocity that they routinely have carried out elsewhere.”
Citing the passage in his own work Harris referred to, Chomsky immediately fired back, denying that it had ever been his intent to “draw moral equivalences”:
Let’s turn to what you did say—a disquisition on “moral equivalence.” You fail to mention, though, that I did not suggest that they were “morally equivalent” and in fact indicated quite the opposite. I did not describe the Al-Shifa bombing as a “horrendous crime” committed with “wickedness and awesome cruelty.” Rather, I pointed out that the toll might be comparable, which turns out on inquiry (which is not undertaken here, and which apologists for our crimes ignore), turns out to be, quite likely, a serious understatement.
Having thus seized the moral high ground, he proceeded to rain down pious punches on Harris, demonstrating that he was not merely wrong, but grossly immoral. His ensuing replies include such choice examples as,
You also ignored the fact that I had already responded to your claim about lack of intention—which, frankly, I find quite shocking on elementary moral grounds, as I suspect you would too if you were to respond to the question raised at the beginning of my quoted comment.
Harris is willfully blind to the crimes of the Clinton Administration:
And of course they knew that there would be major casualties. They are not imbeciles, but rather adopt a stance that is arguably even more immoral than purposeful killing, which at least recognizes the human status of the victims, not just killing ants while walking down the street, who cares?
He is morally depraved for abetting this crime:
Your own moral stance is revealed even further by your complete lack of concern about the apparently huge casualties and the refusal even to investigate them.
I’ve seen apologetics for atrocities before, but rarely at this level – not to speak of the refusal to withdraw false charges, a minor fault in comparison.
Chomsky closes on a magnanimous note:
I’ll put aside your apologetics for the crimes for which you and I share responsibility, which, frankly, I find quite shocking, particularly on the part of someone who feels entitled to deliver moral lectures.
Harris is game enough, but staggers on rubbery legs for the rest of the fight. Even in the midst of these blows, he can’t rid himself of the idée fixe that it’s possible to have a polite exchange with someone like Chomsky on differences of opinion about morality. In the post mortem on his website, it’s clear that he still doesn’t know what hit him. It’s virtually impossible to win arguments about objective morality with the likes of Chomsky unless you grasp the fundamental truth that there’s no such thing as objective morality. In fact, the whole debate was about subjective perceptions that are, as Westermarck put it, entirely outside the realm of truth claims.
I can only suggest that next time, instead of getting “down in the weeds,” as he puts it, in a debate with Chomsky about who is “really” the most morally pure, Harris consider the matter pragmatically. In fact, Chomsky is, and always has been, what Lenin referred to as “a useful idiot.” The net effect of all his moralistic hair splitting has been to aid and abet ideologies for which most sane people would just as soon avoid serving as guinea pigs, and to demoralize those who would seek to stand in their way. The most egregious example is probably the moral support he provided for the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia at the very time it was perpetrating what was probably, at least on a per capita basis, the worst act of genocide in human history, resulting in the virtual decapitation of a whole country and the annihilation of a large percentage of its population. There are many accounts of his role in this affair on the Internet, and I invite interested readers to have a look at them. One of the more balanced accounts may be found here. Here, too, Chomsky would run rings around Harris if he attempted to debate his role on moralistic grounds. Here, too, he could claim that he had never deliberately drawn any “moral equivalence,” that he had never intended to support the Khmer Rouge, and that those who suggest otherwise are immoral because of a, b, and c. However, it is a fact that Pol Pot and his cronies made very effective use of his remarks in their propaganda, among other things, predictably exploiting them to draw “moral equivalence” in blithe disregard of Chomsky’s assertions about his “intent.”
In fact, Chomsky has been a virtual poster boy for potential tyrannies of all stripes. One might say he has been an “equal opportunity” useful idiot. Once when I was visiting Germany I happened to glance at the offerings of a local newsstand, and saw the smiling face of none other than Noam Chomsky smiling down at me from the front page of the neo-Nazi “Deutsche National-Zeitung!” In the accompanying article, the fascists cited him as an ideal example of a true American hero. I note in passing that tyrants themselves usually have no illusions about the real nature of such paragons of morality. Once Stalin had successfully exploited them to gain absolute power, he shot or consigned to the Gulag every single one he could lay his hands on.
In a word, I suggest that Sam take some advice that my father once passed down to me regarding such affairs: “Never get in a pissing contest with a skunk.” You don’t need to convince anyone that you’re more morally pure than Chomsky in order to realistically assess the net effect of all his “piety.” You just need to realize that, from a purely subjective point of view, it is “good” to survive.
Posted on April 26th, 2015 1 comment
I would rank the Blank Slate debacle as the greatest scientific disaster of all time. For half a century and more, the “men of science” created and maintained a formidable obstacle in the way of our gaining the self-knowledge as a species that may be critical to our survival. This obstacle was the denial that human behavior is in any way influenced by innate human nature. For the time being, at least, the Blank Slate orthodoxy has been crushed. It would seem however, that the scientific community is still traumatized by the affair. The whimsical “histories” that continue to be concocted of the affair and of the roles of the key players in it is a manifestation thereof.
For example, Robert Ardrey, the most influential and effective opponent of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in its heyday, has been thoroughly vindicated as far as the main theme of all his work is concerned. In spite of that, he is a virtual unperson today. Having shamed the “men of science,” it would seem that it is now beneath their dignity to even take notice of the fact that he ever existed. Meanwhile, Richard Lewontin, one of the high priests of the Blank Slate, is revered, and continues to win prestigious awards as a “great scientist.” Among people who should certainly know better, the mere mention of the fact that he was a kingpin of the Blank Slate orthodoxy is greeted with stunned disbelief.
Recently Lewontin was interviewed by David Sloan Wilson, one of today’s foremost defenders of group selection, a topic with a fascinating history of its own in connection with the Blank Slate. We find that, like the Bourbons who were propped back up as French monarchs by the victorious allies after the defeat of Napoleon, he has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He has merely become more circumspect about revealing the ideological motivations behind his “science.” This becomes obvious when Wilson gets around to asking Lewontin about the connection between The Spandrels of San Marco, a paper he co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould in 1979, and Sociobiology. Lewontin demurely replies that it may have been “contextually relevant,” but the paper was mainly an attack on naïve adaptationism. Wilson: “I’m interested to know that was the primary motivation for the article, not Sociobiology.” Lewontin: “Yeah.” Balked in this first attempt, later in the interview, Wilson becomes a bit more blunt. (I delete some of the exchange for brevity. I encourage readers to look at the entire interview.)
DSW: Dick, I’d like to spend a little bit of time on Sociobiology and also Evolutionary Psychology, because even though that didn’t motivate the Spandrels paper, it still motivated you to be a critic and Steve too.
RL: Look, when I look at Sociobiology, the book or some of the other books he (E. O. Wilson) has written, it drives me mad. For example, if you read – I’ll take an extremely nasty example because it’s so clear – it is written that aggression is a part of human nature. It says that in the book, it lists features of human nature and aggression is one of them. So then I have said to Ed and others of his school, what do you do about people who have spent almost their entire lives in jail because they refuse to be conscripted into the army? What do you think the answer is? That is their form of aggression.
DSW: Well, OK, that’s facile.
RL: I don’t know what you can do about it. If everything can be said to be a form of aggression, even the refusal to be physically aggressive, what kind of science is that? …Because if everything by definition can be shown to be aggression then it ceases to be a useful concept in our scientific discussions.
As it happens, Lewontin uses the same argument in Not In Our Genes, a book he co-authored with fellow Blank Slaters Steven Rose and Leon Kamin in 1984. It makes no more sense now than it did then. Obviously, what’s still sticking in Lewontin’s craw after all these years is a series of books on the subject of human aggression that appeared back in the 60’s, the most famous of which was “On Aggression,” by Konrad Lorenz, published in the U.S. in 1966. In fact, the notion that the anecdote about an imprisoned pacifist demolishes what Lorenz and others actually wrote about human aggression is the sheerest nonsense. Lorenz and the others never dreamed that any of their theories on the subject precluded the possibility of conscientious objectors in any way, shape or form. In reality Lewontin is refuting, not Lorenz, but his favorite strawman then and now, the “genetic determinist.” Lewontin’s “genetic determinist” is one who believes that “human nature” forces people to behave in certain ways and not in others, regardless of culture or environment. If such beasts exist, they must be as rare as unicorns, because in all my reading I have never encountered one, not even among the most hard-core 19th century social Darwinists. Lewontin imagines them behind every bush. For him, all sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists must necessarily be “genetic determinists.”
Lewontin spares Wilson any mention of his obsession with “genetic determinists,” but lays his cards on the table nevertheless. He’s still as much of a Blank Slater as ever. For example, at the end of the interview,
My main complaint is… the underlying claim that there exists a human nature, which then the claimant must give examples of, and so each claimant gives examples that are convenient for his or her pet theory. I think the worst thing we can do in science is to create concepts where what is included or not included within the concept is not delimited to begin with, it allows us to claim anything. That’s my problem with Sociobiology. It’s too loose.
Well, not exactly. Readers who really want to crawl into the mind of a Blank Slater should read Not In Our Genes, the book I referred to above. There it will be found that Lewontin’s problem isn’t that Sociobiology is “too loose,” but that he perceives it as an impediment to the glorious socialist revolution. You see, Lewontin is a Marxist, and Not In Our Genes is not a book of science, but a political tract. In its pages one will find over and over and over again the assertion that those who believe in human nature are stooges of the bourgeoisie. Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature are merely so many contrived, ideologically motivated ploys to defend the capitalist status quo and stave off the glorious dawn of socialism. For example, quoting from the book,
Each of us has been engaged… in research, writing, speaking, teaching, and public political activity in opposition to the oppressive forms in which determinist ideology manifests itself. We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just – a socialist – society. And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.
Biological determinist ideas are part of the attempt to preserve the inequalities of our society and to shape human nature in their own image. The exposure of the fallacies and political content of those ideas is part of the struggle to eliminate those inequalities and to transform our society. In that struggle we transform our own nature.
Those who possess power and their representatives can most effectively disarm those who would struggle against them by convincing them of the legitimacy and inevitability of the reigning social organization. If what exists is right, then one ought not oppose it; if it exists inevitably, one can never oppose it successfully.
Here, then, we see that Lewontin is being a bit coy when he claims that he only objects to Sociobiology and the other sciences that affirm the existence of human nature because they are “too loose.” In perusing the book, we find that not only Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey, but also Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, and W. D. Hamilton are all really just so many hirelings of the capitalist system. No matter that Trivers is a radical leftist, and Ardrey almost became a Communist himself in the 1930’s.
It is amusing to read Lewontin’s pecksniffery about the lack of scientific rigor in the work of these “capitalist stooges,” followed in short order by praise for the “scientific” work of Mao, Marx, and Engels. I can only encourage anyone in need of a good belly laugh to read Engels’ Dialectics of Nature. Therein he will find the great St. Paul of Marxism lecturing the greatest scientists of his day about all the errors he’s discovered in their work because they don’t pay enough attention to the dialectic. Lewontin’s confirmation of one important facet of innate human nature, ingroup/outgroup identification, referred to by Ardrey as the Amity/Enmity Complex, by his furious ranting against the “bourgeoisie” in a book that claims there is no such thing as human nature would also be amusing, were it not for the fact that 100 million “bourgeoisie,” give or take, paid with their lives for this particular manifestation of outgroup identification.
If one is determined to cobble together a version of “reality” in which Lewontin figures as a “great scientist” instead of the Blank Slate kingpin he actually was, he will find no better place to look than the pages of Not In Our Genes. It comes complete with sage warnings against running to the opposite extreme of “cultural determinism,” and anathemas against the proponents of tabula rasa. To this I can only reply that nowhere in any of his work has Lewontin ever affirmed the existence of anything resembling the innate predispositions that one normally refers to in the vernacular as human nature, and he has consistently condemned anyone who does as politically suspect. If “good science” were a matter of condemning anyone who disagrees with your version of reality as a hireling of the forces of evil, Lewontin would take the cake.
UPDATE: Whyvert tweeted a link to a great article by Robert Trivers posted at the Unz Review website entitled, Vignettes of Famous Evolutionary Biologists, Large and Small. Included is a vignette of none other than Richard Lewontin. As it happens, Prof. Trivers was among those singled out by Lewontin as an evil minion of the bourgeoisie in his Not In Our Genes. His article includes some very interesting observations on the disintegrating effects of politics on Lewontin’s scientific career.