Posted on March 2nd, 2015 No comments
Tell me, dear reader, have you ever heard the term, “On Aggression” before? As it happens, that was actually the title of a book by Konrad Lorenz published in 1966, at the height of the Blank Slate debacle. In it Lorenz suggested that the origins of both animal and human aggression could be traced to evolved behavioral predispositions, or, in the vernacular, human nature. He was duly denounced at the time by the Blank Slate priesthood as a fascist and a racist, with dark allusions to possible connections to the John Birch Society itself! See, for example, “Man and Aggression,” edited by Ashley Montagu, or “Not in Our Genes,” by Richard Lewontin. In those days the Blank Slaters had the popular media in their hip pocket. In fact, they continued to have it in their hip pocket pretty much until the end of the 20th century. For example, no less a celebrity than Jane Goodall was furiously vilified, in the Sunday Times, no less, for daring to suggest that chimpanzees could occasionally be aggressive.
Times have changed! Fast forward to 2015. Adaeze Uyanwah, a 24-year-old from California, just won the “Guest of Honor” contest from Science Museum with celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking. During the tour, Uyanwah asked Hawking which human shortcoming he would most like to change. He replied as follows:. The prize package included a tour of London’s
The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.
Hello!! Hawking just matter-of-factly referred to aggression as an innate human trait! Were there shrieks of rage from the august practitioners of the behavioral sciences? No. Did it occur to anyone to denounce Hawking as a fascist? No. Did so much as a single journalistic crusader for social justice swallow his gum? No! See for yourself! You can check the response in the reliably liberal Huffington Post, Washington Post, or even the British Independent, and you won’t find so much as a mildly raised eyebrow. By all means, read on and check the comments! No one noticed a thing! If you’re still not sufficiently stunned, check out this interview of famous physicist Mishio Kaku apropos Hawking’s comment on MSNBC’s Ed Show. As anyone who hasn’t been asleep for the last 20 years is aware, MSNBC’s political line is rather to the left of Foxnews. Nothing that either (Ed) Schultz nor Kaku says suggest that they find anything the least bit controversial about Hawking’s statement. Indeed, they accept it as obvious, and continue with a discussion of whether it would behoove us to protect ourselves from this unfortunate aspect of our “human nature” by escaping to outer space!
In a word, while the Blank Slate may simmer on in the more obscurantist corners of academia, I think we can safely conclude that it has lost the popular media. Is hubris in order? Having watched all the old Christopher Lee movies, I rather doubt it. Vampires have a way of rising from the grave.
Posted on February 28th, 2015 No comments
All appearances to the contrary in the popular media, the Blank Slate lives on. Of course, its heyday is long gone, but it slumbers on in the more obscure niches of academia. One of its more recent manifestations just turned up at Scientia Salon in the form of a paper by one Mark Fedyk, an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount Allison University in Sackville, Canada. Entitled, “How (not) to Bring Psychology and Biology Together,” it provides the interested reader with a glimpse at several of the more typical features of the genre as it exists today.
Fedyk doesn’t leave us in doubt about where he’s coming from. Indeed, he lays his cards on the table in plain sight in the abstract, where he writes that, “psychologists should have a preference for explanations of adaptive behavior in humans that refer to learning and other similarly malleable psychological mechanisms – and not modules or instincts or any other kind of relatively innate and relatively non-malleable psychological mechanisms.” Reading on into the body of the paper a bit, we quickly find another trademark trait of both the ancient and modern Blank Slaters; their tendency to invent strawman arguments, attribute them to their opponents, and then blithely ignore those opponents when they point out that the strawmen bear no resemblance to anything they actually believe.
In Fedyk’s case, many of the strawmen are incorporated in his idiosyncratic definition of the term “modules.” Among other things, these “modules” are “strongly nativist,” they don’t allow for “developmental plasticity,” they imply a strong, either-or version of the ancient nature vs. nurture dichotomy, and they are “relatively innate and relatively non-malleable.” In Fedyk’s paper, the latter phrase serves the same purpose as the ancient “genetic determinism” strawman did in the heyday of the Blank Slate. Apparently that’s now become too obvious, and the new jargon is introduced by way of keeping up appearances. In any case, we gather from the paper that all evolutionary psychologists are supposed to believe in these “modules.” It matters not a bit to Fedyk that his “modules” have been blown out of the water literally hundreds of times in the EP literature stretching back over a period of two decades and more. A good example that patiently dissects each of his strawmen one by one is “Modularity in Cognition: Framing the Debate,” published by Barrett and Kurzban back in 2006. It’s available free online, and I invite my readers to have a look at it. It can be Googled up by anyone in a few seconds, but apparently Fedyk has somehow failed to discover it.
Once he has assured us that all EPers have an unshakable belief in his “modules,” Fedyk proceeds to concoct an amusing fairy tale based on that assumption. In the process, he presents his brilliant and original theory of “anticipated consilience.” According to this theory, researchers in new fields, such as EP, should rely on the findings of more mature “auxiliary disciplines,” particularly those which have been “extremely successful” in the past, to inform their own research. In the case of evolutionary psychology, the “auxiliary discipline” turns out to be evolutionary biology. As Fedyk puts it,
One of the more specific ways of doing this is to rely upon what can be called the principle of anticipated consilience, which says that it is rational to have a prima facie preference for those novel theories commended by previous scientific research which are most likely to be subsequently integrated in explanatorily- or inductively-fruitful ways with the relevant discipline as it expands. The principle will be reliable simply because the novel theories which are most likely to be subsequently integrated into the mature scientific discipline as it expands are just those novel theories which are most likely to be true.
He then proceeds to incorporate his strawmen into an illustration of how this “anticipated consilience” would work in practice:
To see how this would work, consider, for example, two fairly general categories of proximate explanations for adaptive behaviors in humans, nativist (i.e., bad, ed.) psychological hypotheses which posit some kind of module (namely the imaginary kind invented by Fedyk, ed.) and non-nativist (i.e., good, ed.) psychological hypotheses, which posit some kind of learning routine (i.e., the Blank Slate, ed.)
As the tale continues, we learn that,
…it is plausible that, for approximately the first decade of research in evolutionary psychology following its emergence out of sociobiology in the 1980s, considerations of anticipated consilience would have likely rationalized a preference for proximate explanations which refer to modules and similar types of proximate mechanisms.
The reason for this given by Fedyk turns out to be the biggest thigh-slapper in this whole, implausible yarn,
So by the time evolutionary psychology emerged in reaction to human sociobiology in the 1980s, (Konrad) Lorenz’s old hydraulic model of instincts really was the last positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior.
Whimsical? Yes, but stunning is probably a better adjective. If we are to believe Fedyk, we are forced to conclude that he never even heard of the Blank Slate! After all, some of that orthodoxy’s very arch-priests, such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould are/were evolutionary biologists. They, too, had a “positive model in biology of the proximate causes of adaptive behavior,” in the form of the Blank Slate. Fedyk is speaking of a time in which the Blank Slate dogmas were virtually unchallenged in the behavioral sciences, and anyone who got out of line was shouted down as a fascist, or worse. And yet we are supposed to swallow the ludicrous imposture that Lorenz’ hydraulic theory not only overshadowed the Blank Slate dogmas, but was the only game in town! But let’s not question the plot. Continuing on with Fedyk’s adjusted version of history, we discover that (voila!) the evolutionary biologists suddenly recovered from their infatuation with hydraulic theory, and got their minds right:
…what I want to argue is that, in the last decade or so, a new understanding of the biological importance of developmental plasticity has implications for evolutionary psychology. Whereas previously considerations of anticipated consilience with evolutionary biology and cognitive science may have provided support for those proximate hypotheses which posited modules, I argue in this section that these very same considerations now support significantly non-nativist proximate hypotheses. The argument, put simply, is that traits which have high degrees of plasticity will be more evolutionarily robust than highly canalized innately specified non-malleable traits like mental modules. The upshot is that a mind comprised mostly of modules is not plastic in this specific sense, and is therefore ultimately unlikely to be favoured by natural selection. But a mind equipped with powerful, domain general learning routines does have the relevant plasticity.
I leave it as an exercise for the student to pick out all the innumerable strawmen in this parable of the “great change of heart” in evolutionary biology. Suffice it to say that, as a result of this new-found “plasticity,” anticipated consilience now requires evolutionary psychologists to reject their silly notions about human nature in favor of a return to the sheltering haven of the Blank Slate. Fedyk helpfully spells it out for us:
This means that, given a choice between proximate explanations which reflect a commitment to the massive modularity hypothesis and proximate explanations which, instead, reflect an approach to the mind which privileges learning…, the latter is most plausible in light of evolutionary biology.
The kicker here is that if anyone even mildly suggests any connection between this latter day manifestation of cultural determinism and the dogmas of the Blank Slate, the Fedyks of the world scream foul. Apparently we are to believe that the “proximate explanations” of evolutionary psychology aren’t completely excluded as long as one can manage a double back flip over the rather substantial barrier of “anticipated consilience” that blocks the way. How that might actually turn out to be possible is never explained. In spite of these scowling denials, I personally will continue to prefer the naïve assumption that, if something walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flaps its wings like a duck, then it actually is a duck, or Blank Slater, as the case may be.
Posted on February 22nd, 2015 No comments
The ideological Left is fond of accusing the Right of being “anti-science.” The evidence often comes in the form of Exhibit A (climate denialism) and Exhibit B (Darwin denialism). True, these maladies are encountered more frequently on the Right than on the Left. As it happens, however, there are also scientific allergies on the Left, and there is little question that they have been a great deal more damaging than their conservative analogs. The best example is probably the Blank Slate debacle. In order to prop up leftist shibboleths, denial of the very existence of human nature was enforced for more than half a century. The effect on the behavioral sciences, and with them the self-knowledge critical to our very survival, was devastating. “Scientific” Marxism-Leninism is another obvious example. However, when it comes to scientific allergies, the Left’s irrational and often fanatical opposition to nuclear power may turn out to be the most damaging of all.
Those who seek to alarm us about rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and yet reject the most effective technology for bringing them under control, are not serious. They are mere poseurs. Thanks to these anti-science attitudes on the Left, dozens of dirty, coal-fired power plants will be built in Germany alone to replace the baseload generating capacity once provided by nuclear reactors. The situation is no better in the U.S. Both countries have developed some of the most advanced, not to mention safest, nuclear technologies known to man, and yet both, hamstrung by opposition coming from the Left of the political spectrum, have abdicated the responsibility to apply that knowledge. Instead, they are exporting it – to China.
As I write this, we are helping China to build a novel type of reactor that combines molten salt technology developed in the United States with a version of the “pebble” type fuel pioneered by the Germans. Approved in 2011, the original target completion date of 2015 has now slipped to 2020, but both goals would be out of the question in the byzantine regulatory atmosphere of the 21st century United States. U.S. knowhow will also be used to build the novel “traveling wave” reactor design favored by Bill Gates – also in China. The Chinese are also actively pursuing the high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) technology that was proposed for the ill-fated Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP), further development of which was recently cancelled in the United States.
I certainly have nothing against China building advanced reactors using technology that was developed elsewhere. It’s good that the knowledge in question is being applied at least somewhere on the planet. However, I find it unfortunate that we no longer have the leadership, vision, or political will to do so ourselves. It was not always so. The U.S. commissioned the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, in 1954, little more than a decade after the successful demonstration of the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago. More than 50 experimental nuclear reactors were built at what is now Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in a period of about two decades stretching from the 50’s to the mid-70’s. None has been built since. The situation is similar at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), site of the world’s first molten salt reactor. Instead of working, next generation reactors, INL, ORNL, and the rest of the U.S. national laboratories now turn out only paper studies – gigantic mounds of them – in quantities that would probably stretch to the moon and back by now. The chances that any of them will ever be usefully applied in this country are slim and none.
The technologies in question are not mere incremental improvements over the conventional nuclear power plants that now produce almost all the world’s nuclear power. They have the demonstrated capacity to extract more than an order of magnitude more energy out of a given quantity of mined fuel material than conventional designs. They can burn the long-lived radioactive actinides and other hazardous isotopes produced in nuclear fission that represent the most dangerous types of radioactive waste, reducing the residual radioactivity from operation of a nuclear plant to a level less than that of the original uranium ore is less than 500 years – a far cry from the millions of years often cited by hysterical anti-nukers. Under the circumstances, it is worth taking note of where the opposition that stopped the development and application of these technologies in the past, and continues to do so today, is coming from.
The regulatory nightmare that has brought the continued development of these technologies in the United States to a virtual standstill is primarily the legacy of the “progressive” Left. The anti-nuclear zealots on that side of the political spectrum cling to bogus linear no-threshold models of radioactive hazard, grotesquely exaggerated horror stories about the supposed impossibility of dealing with nuclear waste, and a stubborn cluelessness about the dangers of the alternative coal and other fossil-fired technologies that their opposition to nuclear will inevitably continue to promote in spite of all their strident denials. These are facts that it would be well to keep in mind the next time you hear the Left calling the Right “anti-science,” or, for that matter, the next time you hear them pontificating about their deep commitment to the fight against global warming.
Posted on February 8th, 2015 No comments
In this and my previous post, I discuss some British philosophers that even most well-educated laypeople have never heard of. Why? Because they shed a great deal of light on the subjects of human nature and morality. These subjects are critical to our self-understanding, which, in turn, is critical to our survival. If we had read, understood, and built on what they taught, we might have avoided wandering into many of the blind alleys into which we were led by subsequent generations of the “men of science.” The most damaging and delusional blind alley of all was the Blank Slate orthodoxy. Ironically, it was enforced by exploiting the very moral emotions whose existence it denied, setting back the behavioral sciences and moral philosophy by more than a century in the process. View, if you like, these posts as an attempt to pick up the lost threads.
In my previous post I highlighted the philosophy of Francis Hutcheson. I note in passing that he was actually born in Ireland, and studied and received his degree in Scotland. I did that because Hutcheson was the first, or at least the first I know of, to elaborate a well thought out and coherent theory of the origins of morality in an innate “moral sense,” demonstrating in the process why, absent such a moral sense, moral behavior is not even possible. In other words, the “root cause” of morality is this moral sense. Furthermore, Hutcheson explained why, as a consequence, it is impossible to distinguish between good and evil using reason alone. Two hundred years later the great Finnish moral philosopher Edvard Westermarck, who had read and admired Hutcheson, noted that in the ensuing years, his contention that, “the moral concepts are ultimately based on emotions either of indignation or approval, is a fact which a certain school of thinkers have in vain attempted to deny.”
That said, it is hardly true that the works of many other 18th century British authors do not contain ideas similar to Hutcheson’s. Such authors are often able to see further and more clearly than those who have come before by virtue of the privilege of, as Einstein put it, “sitting on the shoulders of giants.” In Hutcheson’s case, one such giant was Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftesbury. Hutcheson certainly left no one in doubt concerning his debt to Shaftesbury in his own time. Sir James MacKintosh, who left sketches of many forgotten British moral philosophers who are well worth reading today in his, “On the progress of ethical philosophy, chiefly during the XVIIth & XVIIIth centuries,” which first appeared as a supplement to the Encyclopedia Brittanica in 1829, went so far as to refer to Shaftesbury as Hutcheson’s “master.” Although Shaftesbury was born in England, MacKintosh claimed that, “…the philosophy of Shaftesbury was brought by Hutcheson from Ireland,” after it and similar works had been suppressed in England for some time “by an exemplary but unlettered clergy.”
Like Hutcheson, many of the themes in Shaftesbury’s writings would have sounded very familiar to modern evolutionary psychologists. For example, he had this to say on the Blank Slate ideology of his day:
It was Mr. Locke that struck at all fundamentals, threw all order and virtue out of the world, and made the very ideas of these… unnatural and without foundation in our minds.
Locke, of course, is often cited as a forerunner of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century, although the comparison isn’t entirely accurate. He rejected innate morality because it was incompatible with his Christian theology rather than the secular “progressive” ideology of a later day.
The key theme of Hutcheson’s work as far as the modern science of morality is concerned – the existence of an innate “moral sense” – is, if anything, emphasized even more strongly in the writings of Shaftesbury. For example, from his Inquiry Concerning Virtue or Merit, probably his most important work on morality as far as modern readers are concerned,
Sense of right and wrong therefore being as natural to us as natural affection itself, and being a first principle in our constitution and make; there is no speculative opinion, persuasion or belief, which is capable immediately or directly to exclude or destroy it. That which is of original and pure nature, nothing beside contrary habit or custom (a second nature) is able to displace. And this affection being an original one of earliest rise in the soul or affectionate part; nothing beside a contrary affection, by frequent check and control, can operate upon it, so as either to diminish it in part, or destroy it in whole.
A somewhat startling aspect of Shaftesbury’s work, given the time in which it was written, was his recognition of the continuity between human beings and other animal species. For example, again from the Inquiry,
We know that every creature has a private good and interest of his own, which Nature has compelled him to seek, by all the advantages afforded him within the compass of his make. We know that there is in reality a right and a wrong state of every creature, and that this right one is by nature forwarded and by himself affectionately sought.
We have found that, to deserve the name of good or virtuous, a creature most have all his inclinations and affections, his dispositions of mind and temper, suitable, and agreeing with the good of his kind, or of that system in which he is included, and of which he constitutes a part.
The ordinary animals appear unnatural and monstrous when they lose their proper instincts, forsake their kind, neglect their offspring, and pervert those functions or capacities bestowed by nature. How wretched must it be, therefore, for man, of all other creatures, to lose that sense and feeling which is proper to him as a man, and suitable to his character and genius?
If one didn’t know better, one might easily imagine that E. O. Wilson’s latest book, The Meaning of Human Existence, with its assertions about our “good” nature being the result of group selection, and our “evil” nature the result of selection at the level of the individual, had been inspired by Shaftesbury. For example,
There being allowed therefore in a creature such affections as these towards the common nature or system of the kind, together with those other which regard the private nature or self-system, it will appear that in following the first of these affections, the creature must on many occasions contradict and go against the latter. How else should the species be preserved? Or what would signify that implanted natural affection, by which a creature through so many difficulties and hazards preserves its offspring and supports its kind.
One must hope that such passages won’t draw down on Shaftesbury’s head the anathemas of Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker as the great heresiarch of group selection theory.
In a remarkable passage that might have been lifted from the pages of Westermarck, Shaftesbury reveals some doubt regarding the objective existence of good and evil, in spite of our tendency to imagine them in that way:
If there be no real amiableness or deformity in moral acts, there is at least an imaginary one of full force. Though perhaps the thing itself should not be allowed in nature, the imagination or fancy of it must be allowed to be from nature alone. Nor can anything besides art and strong endeavor, with long practice and meditation, overcome such a natural prevention or prepossession of the mind in favor of this moral distinction.
Finally, at the risk of exhausting the patience of even my most dogged readers, allow me to throw in another aspect of Shaftesbury’s writings that would put him “ahead of his time” even if he were alive today; his dispassionate and temperate comments on the subject of atheism. Consider, for example, the following:
…it does not seem, that atheism should of itself be the cause of any estimation or valuing of anything as fair, noble, and deserving which was the contrary. It can never, for instance, make it be thought that the being able to eat man’s flesh, or commit bestiality, is good and excellent in itself. But this is certain, that by means of corrupt religion or superstition, many things the most horridly unnatural and inhuman come to be received as excellent, good, and laudable in themselves.
…religion, (according as the kind may prove) is capable of doing great good or harm, and atheism nothing positive in either way. For however it may be indirectly an occasion of men’s losing a good and sufficient sense of right and wrong, it will not, as atheism merely, be the occasion of setting up a false species of it, which only false religion or fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity, is able to effect.
To confirm those observations, one need look no further than recent events in the Middle East. When it comes to “fantastical opinion, derived commonly through superstition or credulity,” the 20th century gave us two outstanding examples, in the form of Communism and Nazism. Pundits like Bill O’Reilly claim that atheism itself is responsible for all the crimes of these modern secular versions of “corrupt religion.” This was a form of bigotry of which Shaftesbury, writing three centuries earlier, give or take, was not capable.
Of course, Shaftesbury no more wrote in a vacuum than Hutcheson. Similar themes may be found in the work of many other British moral philosophers of the time. In particular, Joseph Butler, like Hutcheson, borrowed heavily from Shaftesbury in developing his own ideas regarding the origins of morality in human nature. Brief descriptions of the work of many others may be found in the book by Sir James MacKintosh referred to above, and in Michael Gill’s excellent book, The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics.
Posted on January 31st, 2015 No comments
The thought of brilliant individuals is worth considering regardless of the historical pigeon holes they happen to end up in. Sometimes we ignore them because they’re not in the “right” pigeon hole. For example, “philosophers” are dismissed by some as irrelevant since the advent of “science.” Such a cavalier attitude can be perilous assuming one is really seeking the truth. True, many philosophers were born too early, before Darwin or his theory were heard of, but that doesn’t mean their musings were useless. At the very least, they are of historical value, informing us of what was on the minds of people who thought in days gone by. Sometimes, they are a great deal more valuable than that.
Consider, for example, what a certain 18th century British philosopher by the name of Francis Hutcheson had to say touching on the subject of morality as an expression of human nature. As my astute readers will recall, the “science” of much of the 20th century denied that human nature had anything to do with morality. The “scientists” who promoted this dogma, sometimes referred to today as the Blank Slaters, would have done well to read Hutcheson. He demolished the Blank Slate narrative two centuries before it became the greatest scientific debacle of the 20th century, if not of all time.
As it happens, there is a fascinating connection between thought about morality and human nature in British philosophy going back at least to the time of the Puritans of the 17th century. An excellent history of the subject was written by Michael Gill, entitled, The British Moralists on Human Nature and the Birth of Secular Ethics. Therein, Gill traces the debate between those who defended the possibility of morality based on reason alone, and those, like Hutcheson, as well as Shaftesbury before him and Hume after him, who claimed that a rational origin of morality was impossible. Of the three, Hutcheson deserves most of the credit for demonstrating that morality based on pure reason is impossible, and that a “moral sense,” grounded in human nature, is a prerequisite for its very existence.
As suggested above, history has deposited Hutcheson in the “philosopher” pigeon hole. However, he was well aware of the scientific method, and enthusiastic about the advance of science in his own time. He conscientiously sought to apply scientific technique to his own inquiries into human nature. His “experiments” consisted of keen observations of the moral behavior and reactions of other human beings, as well as a constant probing and examination of his own consciousness.
Hutcheson’s most important work on the subject was An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, which was published in 1728. In that work he demonstrated that there can be no such thing as a purely reasonable morality, that reason cannot possibly serve as the end motivation for moral behavior, that only an innate moral sense can provide such motivating ends for moral actions, and that as a consequence of the fact that this moral sense is innate, it cannot be acquired purely by learning or, as moderns might put it, by “culture.” In other words, the Blank Slate is a logical impossibility.
Hutcheson begins by pointing out that many of the words available in human languages are imprecise, and as a result are blunt instruments for conducting inquiries into subjects as complex as the origins of human morality. In particular, it’s necessary to understand exactly what one means when one speaks of “reason.” As he puts it,
Since reason is understood to denote our power of finding out true propositions, reasonableness must denote the same thing, with conformity to true propositions, or to truth. Reasonableness in an action is a very common expression, but yet upon inquiry, it will appear very confused, whether we suppose it the motive to election, or the quality determining approbation.
It follows that, while reason can be applied to discover the consequences of an action, it can never provide motivation for choosing or approving it over any other:
If conformity to truth, or reasonable, denote nothing else but that “an action is the object of a true proposition,” ‘tis plain, that all actions should be approved equally, since as many truths may be made about the worst, as can be made about the best.
There is one sort of conformity to truth which neither determines to the one or the other; viz. that conformity which is between every true proposition and its object. This sort of conformity can never make us choose or approve one action more than its contrary, for it is found in all actions alike: Whatever attribute can be ascribed to a generous kind action, the contrary attribute may as truly be ascribed to a selfish cruel action: Both propositions are equally true.
Hutcheson went on to point out that, as a result, no ultimate end can ever be found using reason alone. Any end must have a motivating reason based on some other end. However, another reason must be supplied for this “other end,” and a reason must be found for that end as well. As each end is identified in turn, we can go on asking “why?” forever. As Hutcheson put it,
But as to the ultimate ends, to suppose exciting reasons for them, would infer, that there is no ultimate end, but that we desire one thing for another in an infinite series.
According to Hutcheson, two types of reason can supply the ultimate answer to the final “why,” thereby ending the chain, including “exciting” reasons, and “justifying” reasons. I encourage those interested in the precise definition of these words to read his book. However, in either case, they cannot be derived by reason, but presuppose the existence of “human nature:”
Now we shall find that all exciting reasons presuppose instincts and affections; and the justifying presuppose a moral sense.
If we assume the existence of human nature, the “reasons” fall easily into place:
Let us once suppose affections, instincts or desires previously implanted in our nature: and we shall easily understand the exciting reasons for actions, viz. “These truths which show them to be conducive toward some ultimate end, or toward the greatest end of that kind in our power.” He acts reasonably, who considers the various actions in his power, and forms true opinions of the tendencies; and then chooses to do that which will obtain the highest degree of that, to which the instincts of his nature incline him, with the smallest degree of those things to which the affections in his nature make him averse.
Of course, versions of the Blank Slate have been around since the days of the ancient Greek philosophers, and “updated” versions were current in Hutcheson’s own time. As he points out, they were as irrational then as they are now:
Some elaborate Treatises of great philosophers about innate ideas, or principles practical or speculative, amount to no more than this, “That in the beginning of our existence we have no ideas or judgments;” they might have added too, no sight, taste, smell, hearing, desire, volition. Such dissertations are just as useful for understanding human nature, as it would be in explaining the animal oeconomy, to prove that the faetus is animated before it has teeth, nails, hair, or before it can eat, drink, digest, or breathe: Or in a natural history of vegetables, to prove that trees begin to grow before they have branches, leaves, flower, fruit, or seed: And consequently that all these things were adventitious or the effect of art.
Now we endeavored to show, that “no reason can excite to action previously to some end, and that no end can be proposed without some instinct or affection.” What then can be meant by being excited by reason, as distinct from all motion of instincts or affections? …Then let any man consider whether he ever acts in this manner by mere election, without any previous desire? And again, let him consult his own breast, whether such kind of action gains his approbation. A little reflection will show, that none of these sensations depend upon our choice, but arise from the very frame of our nature, however we may regulate or moderate them.
A bit later, Hume used the same arguments as Hutcheson to demonstrate his famous dictum that,
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
As readers of such modern books as Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind are aware, Hume got all the credit, and Hutcheson is now more or less forgotten by all but professional philosophers. I suspect that’s because, as Gill pointed out, Hume supplied the final link in a chain of philosophers going back through Hutcheson to Shaftesbury, Cudworth, and many others, who had insisted on the origins of morality in human nature. Except for Hume, Hutcheson and most of the others had been firm believers in a Deity, and often Christian theologians. Like Hutcheson, they traced the origins of human nature to the hand of God. Hume was the exception, and could therefore be ensconced as the “Father of Secular Ethics.” That doesn’t alter the fact that Hutcheson had supplied compelling arguments for the existence and significance of human nature before Hume came on the scene. Those arguments remain unrefuted to this day. As the great Edvard Westermarck wrote nearly 200 years later:
That the moral concepts are ultimately based on emotions either of indignation or approval, is a fact which a certain school of thinkers have in vain attempted to deny.
Westermarck was familiar with Hutcheson, and referred to him in his own work. It’s a shame that the latter day Blank Slaters didn’t read him as well. It turns out that his “philosophy” was far in advance of their “science.” It took the “men of science” the greater part of the 20th century to finally crawl out of the swamp they had wandered into, and find Hutcheson there to greet them when they finally made it back to solid ground. There is no more important knowledge for human beings than self-knowledge. Occasionally one can find it hiding in the books of obscure philosophers.
Posted on December 31st, 2014 3 comments
It’s great to see another title by E. O. Wilson. Reading his books is like continuing a conversation with a wise old friend. If you run into him on the street you don’t expect to hear him say anything radically different from what he’s said in the past. However, you always look forward to chatting with him because he’s never merely repetitious or tiresome. He always has some thought-provoking new insight or acute comment on the latest news. At this stage in his life he also delights in puncturing the prevailing orthodoxies, without the least fear of the inevitable anathemas of the defenders of the faith.
In his latest, The Meaning of Human Existence, he continues the open and unabashed defense of group selection that so rattled his peers in his previous book, The Social Conquest of Earth. I’ve discussed some of the reasons for their unease in an earlier post. In short, if it can really be shown that the role of group selection in human evolution has been as prominent as Wilson claims, it will seriously mar the legacy of such prominent public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, as well as a host of other prominent scientists, who have loudly and tirelessly insisted on the insignificance of group selection. It will also require some serious adjustments to the fanciful yarn that currently passes as the “history” of the Blank Slate affair. Obviously, Wilson is firmly convinced that he’s on to something, because he’s not letting up. He dismisses the alternative inclusive fitness interpretation of evolution as unsupported by the evidence and at odds with the most up-to-date mathematical models. In his words,
Although the controversy between natural selection and inclusive fitness still flickers here and there, the assumptions of the theory of inclusive fitness have proved to be applicable only in a few extreme cases unlikely to occur on Earth on any other planet. No example of inclusive fitness has been directly measured. All that has been accomplished is an indirect analysis called the regressive method, which unfortunately has itself been mathematically invalidated.
Interestingly, while embracing group selection, Wilson then explicitly agrees with one of the most prominent defenders of inclusive fitness, Richard Dawkins, on the significance of the gene:
The use of the individual or group as the unit of heredity, rather than the gene, is an even more fundamental error.
Very clever, that, a preemptive disarming of the predictable invention of straw men to attack group selection via the bogus claim that it implies that groups are the unit of selection. The theory of group selection already has a fascinating, not to mention ironical, history, and its future promises to be no less entertaining.
When it comes to the title of the book, Wilson himself lets us know early on that its just a forgivable form of “poetic license.” In his words,
In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention. Intention implies design, and design implies a designer. Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer. This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories. Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose. Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth. Both humanity and individuals have meaning.
Wilson is right when he says that this is what most people understand by the term “meaning,” and he decidedly rejects the notion that the existence of such “meaning” is even possible later in the book by rejecting religious belief more bluntly than in any of his previous books. He provides himself with a fig leaf in the form of a redefinition of “meaning” as follows:
There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used, and a very different worldview implied. It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning.
I rather suspect most philosophers will find this redefinition unpalatable. Beyond that, I won’t begrudge Wilson his fig leaf. After all, if one takes the trouble to write books, one generally also has an interest in selling them.
As noted above, another significant difference between this and Wilson’s earlier books is his decisive support for what one might call the “New Atheist” line, as set forth in books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Obviously, Wilson has been carefully following the progress of the debate. He rejects religions, significantly in both their secular as well as their traditional spiritual manifestations, as both false and dangerous, mainly because of their inevitable association with tribalism. In his words,
Religious warriors are not an anomaly. It is a mistake to classify believers of particular religious and dogmatic religionlike ideologies into two groups, moderate versus extremist. The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism. Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.
and, embracing the ingroup/outgroup dichotomy in human moral behavior I’ve often alluded to on this blog,
The great religions… are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world. Their exquisitely human flaw is tribalism. The instinctual force of tribalism in the genesis of religiosity is far stronger than the yearning for spirituality. People deeply need membership in a group, whether religious or secular. From a lifetime of emotional experience, they know that happiness, and indeed survival itself, require that they bond with oth3ers who share some amount of genetic kinship, language, moral beliefs, geographical location, social purpose, and dress code – preferably all of these but at least two or three for most purposes. It is tribalism, not the moral tenets and humanitarian thought of pure religion, that makes good people do bad things.
Finally, in a passage worthy of New Atheist Jerry Coyne himself, Wilson denounces both “accommodationists” and the obscurantist teachings of the “sophisticated Christians:”
Most serious writers on religion conflate the transcendent quest for meaning with the tribalistic defense of creation myths. They accept, or fear to deny, the existence of a personal deity. They read into the creation myths humanity’s effort to communicate with the deity, as part of the search for an uncorrupted life now and beyond death. Intellectual compromisers one and all, they include liberal theologians of the Niebuhr school, philosophers battening on learned ambiguity, literary admirers of C. S. Lewis, and others persuaded, after deep thought, that there most be Something Out There. They tend to be unconscious of prehistory and the biological evolution of human instinct, both of which beg to shed light on this very important subject.
In a word, Wilson has now positioned himself firmly in the New Atheist camp. This is hardly likely to mollify many of the prominent New Atheists, who will remain bitter because of his promotion of group selection, but at this point in his career, Wilson can take their hostility pro granulum salis.
There is much more of interest in The Meaning of Human Existence than I can cover in a blog post, such as Wilson’s rather vague reasons for insisting on the importance of the humanities in solving our problems, his rejection of interplanetary and/or interstellar colonization, and his speculations on the nature of alien life forms. I can only suggest that interested readers buy the book.Anthropology, Atheism, Blank Slate, Christianity, Evolution, Evolutionary psychology, Extraterrestrial life, Group Selection, human evolution, Human nature, Hunting Hypothesis, Ingroups and Outgroups, Kin selection, Morality, Philosophy, Religion, Secular Religions, The Meaning of Life, The Purpose of Life group selection, Meaning of Life
Posted on December 20th, 2014 No comments
‘Twas the month before Christmas, and Bill O’Reilly launched his usual jihad against the purported “War on Christmas.” It drew the predictable counterblasts from the Left, and I just happened to run across one that appeared back on December 4 on Huffpo, entitled “A War on Reason, Not on Christmas.” I must admit I find the “War on Christmas” schtick tiresome. Conservatives rightly point to the assorted liberal cults of victimization as so much pious grandstanding. It would be nice if they practiced what they preach and refrained from concocting similar cults of their own. Be that as it may, I found the article in question somewhat more unctuous and self-righteous than usual, and left a comment to that effect. It was immediately deleted.
My comment included no ad hominem attacks, nor was it abusive. I simply disagreed with the author on a few points, and noted that the political Left has an exaggerated opinion of its devotion to reason. The main theme of the article was the nature of the political divide in the U.S. According to the author, it is less between rich and poor than between “reasonable” liberals and “irrational” conservatives. As he put it,
Before imploding in the face of his sordid extramarital trysts, presidential candidate John Edwards based his campaign on the idea of two Americas, one rich the other poor. He was right about the idea that American is divided, but wrong about the nature of the division. The deeper and more important split is defined by religiosity, not riches.
The conflict between these two world views is made apparent in the details of our voting booth preferences. Religiosity alone is the most important, obvious and conclusive factor in determining voter behavior. Simply put, church goers tend to vote Republican. Those who instead go the hardware store on Sunday vote Democrat by wide margins.
He then continued,
Those who accept the idea of god tend to divide the world into believers and atheists. Yet that is incorrect. Atheist means “without god” and one cannot be without something that does not exist. Atheism is really a pejorative term that defines one world view as the negative of another, as something not what something else is.
This evoked my first comment, which seemed to me rather harmless on the face of it. I merely said that as an atheist myself, I had no objection to the term, and would prefer to avoid the familiar game of inventing ever more politically correct replacements until we ended up with some abomination seven or eight syllables long. However, what followed was even more remarkable. The author proceeded to deliver himself of a pronouncement about the nature of morality that might have been lifted right out of one of Ardrey’s books. In a section entitled, “Secular and Religious Morality,” he writes,
Traits that we view as moral are deeply embedded in the human psyche. Honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, kindness to others and reciprocity are primeval characteristics that helped our ancestors survive. In a world of dangerous predators, early man could thrive only in cooperative groups. Good behavior strengthened the tribal bonds that were essential to survival. What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. Morality is a biological necessity and a consequence of human development, not a gift from god.
Exactly! Now, as I’ve often pointed out to my readers, if morality really is the expression of evolved traits as the author suggests, it exists because it happened to enhance the chances that certain genes we carry would survive and reproduce in the environment in which they happened to appear. There is no conceivable way in which they could somehow acquire the magic quality of corresponding to some “real, objective” morality in the sky. There is no way in which they could assume a “purpose” attributed to them by anyone, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum. Finally, there is no way in which they could acquire the independent legitimacy to dictate to anyone the things they “really” ought or ought not to do. So much is perfectly obvious. Assuming one really is “reasonable,” it follows immediately from what the author of the article says about the evolved origins of morality above. That, of course, is not how the Left is spinning the narrative these days.
No, for a large faction on the secular Left, the fact that morality is evolved means not merely that the God-given morality of the Christians and other religious sects is “unreasonable.” For them, it follows that whatever whims they happen to tart up as the secular morality du jour become “reasonable.” That means that they are not immoral, or amoral. They are, by default, the bearers of the “true morality.” In the article in question it goes something like this:
The species-centric arrogance of religion cultivates a dangerous attitude about our relationship with the environment and the resources that sustain us. Humanists tend to view sustainability as a moral imperative while theists often view environmental concerns as liberal interference with god’s will. Conservative resistance to accepting the reality of climate change is just one example, and another point at which religious and secular morality diverge, as the world swelters.
It’s wonderful, really. The Left has always been addicted to moralistic posing, and now they don’t have to drop the charade! Now they can be as self-righteous as ever, as devotees of this secular version of morality that has miraculously acquired the power to become a thing-in-itself, presumably drifting up there in the clouds somewhere beyond the profane ken of the unenlightened Christians. As it happens, at the moment my neighbors are largely Mormon, and I must say their dogmas appear to me to be paragons of “reason” compared to this secular version of morality in the sky.
Of course, I couldn’t include all these observations in the Huffpo comment section. I merely pointed out that what the author had said about morality would have branded him as a heretic no more than 20 years ago, and evoked frenzied charges of “racism” and “fascism” from the same political Left in which he now imagines himself so comfortably ensconced. That’s because 20 years ago the behavioral sciences were still in thrall to the Blank Slate orthodoxy, as they had been for 50 years and more at the time. That orthodoxy was the greatest debacle in the history of science, and it was the gift, not of the Right, but of the “reasonable” secular Left. That was the point I made in the comment section, along with the observation that liberals would do well to keep it in mind before they break their arms patting themselves on the back for being so “reasonable.”
The author concluded his article with the following:
There is no war on Christmas; the idea is absurd at every level. Those who object to being forced to celebrate another’s religion are drowning in Christmas in a sea of Christianity dominating all aspects of social life. An 80 percent majority can claim victimhood only with an extraordinary flight from reality. You are probably being deafened by a rendition of Jingle Bells right now. No, there is no war on Christmas, but make no mistake: the Christian right is waging a war against reason. And they are winning. O’Reilly is riding the gale force winds of crazy, and his sails are full.
I must agree that the beloved Christian holiday does have a fighting chance of surviving the “War on Christmas.” Indeed, Bill O’Reilly himself has recently been so sanguine as to declare victory. When it comes to popular delusions, however, I suspect the Left’s delusion that it has a monopoly on “reason” is likely to be even more enduring. As for the deletion of my comment, we all know about the Left’s proclivity for suppressing speech that they find “offensive.” Thin skins are encountered in those political precincts at least as frequently as the characteristic delusions about “reason.”
Posted on December 14th, 2014 No comments
…to tell me why, in the absence of data, they were so sure that religion was bad for the world. That is, how do they know that if the world had never had religion, it would be better than it is now?
That would seem to be an empirical question, resolvable only with data. Yet as far as I can see (and I haven’t read every comment), most readers feel that the question can be resolved not with data, but with logic or from first principles. Or, they cite anecdotes like religiously-inspired violence (my response would be that it’s easy to measure deaths, but not so easy to measure the consolation and well being that, believers claim, religion brings them). But pointing out that religion does bad stuff doesn’t answer the question if it’s been harmful on the whole.
As an atheist myself, my answer would be that the question is neither empirical nor resolvable with logic from first principles, because it implies an objective standard whereby such terms as “bad,” “better,” and “harmful” can be defined. No such objective standard exists. At best, one can identify the consequences and then decide whether they are “go0d” or “bad” based on one’s personal subjective whims. As long as it is clearly understood that my reply is based on that standard, I would say that religion is “bad.”
Supernatural beings either exist or they don’t. I don’t claim to know the truth of the matter with absolute certainly. I don’t claim to know anything with absolute certainty. I base my actions and my goals in life on what I consider probable rather than absolute truths, and I consider the chance that a God or other supernatural beings exist to be vanishingly small.
The question then becomes, do I, again from my personal point of view, consider it a good thing for other people to believe in supernatural beings even though I consider that belief an illusion. In short, the answer is no. It will never be possible for us to know and understand ourselves, either as individuals or as a species, if we believe things that are false, and yet have a profound impact on our understanding of where we come from, what the future holds for us, what morality is and why it exists, the nature of our most cherished goals, and how we live our lives. Our very survival may depend on whether or not we have an accurate knowledge of ourselves. I want my species to survive, and therefore I want as many of us as possible to have that knowledge.
According to a current manifestation of the naturalistic fallacy, religion “evolved,” and therefore it is “good.” Among other places, articles to this effect have appeared at the This View of Life website, edited by David Sloan Wilson, a noted proponent of group selection. Examples may be found here and here. According to the latter:
For Darwin, an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist for the simple reason that religiosity and religions had been biocultural products of evolution themselves! He realized in the 19th century what many religious Creationists and so-called “New Atheists” are trying to ignore in their odd alliance to this day: If evolutionary theory is true, it must be able to explain the emergence of our cognitive tendencies to believe in supernatural agencies and the forms and impacts of its cultural products.
I’m not sure which passages from the work of Darwin the article’s author construed to mean that he believed that “an inevitable conflict between evolution and religion could not exist,” but the idea is nonsense in any case. Many flavors of both Christianity and Islam explicitly deny the theory of evolution, and therefore a conflict most certainly does exist. That conflict will not disappear whether religiosity and religions are biocultural products of evolution or not. Assuming for the sake of argument that they are, that mere fact would be irrelevant to the questions of whether religiosity and religions are “good,” or whether supernatural beings actually exist or not.
In any case, I doubt that religiosity and religion are biocultural products of evolution in any but a very limited sense. It is most unlikely that genes could be “smart enough” to distinguish between supernatural and non-supernatural agencies in the process of installing innate behavioral tendencies in our brains. Some subset of our suite of innate behavioral predispositions might make it more likely for us to respond to and behave towards “leaders” in some ways and not in others. Once we became sufficiently intelligent to imagine supernatural beings, it became plausible that we might imagine one as “leader,” and culture could take over from there to come up with the various versions of God or gods that have turned up from time to time. That does not alter the fact that the “root cause” of these manifestations almost certainly does not directly “program” belief in the supernatural.
This “root cause,” supposing it exists, is to be found in our genes, and our genes are not in the habit of rigidly determining what we believe or how we act. In other words, our genes cannot force us to believe in imaginary beings, as should be obvious from the prevalence of atheists on the planet. Because of our genes we may “tend” to believe in imaginary beings, but it is at least equally likely that because of them we “tend” to engage in warfare. Supposing both tendencies exist, that mere fact hardly insures that they are also “good.” Insisting that the former is “good” is equivalent to the belief that it is “good” for us to believe certain lies. This begs the question of how anyone is to acquire the legitimate right to determine for the rest of us that it is “good” for us to believe in lies, not to mention which particular version of the lie is “most good.”
One can argue ad nauseum about whether, on balance, religion has been “good” because of the comfort and consolation if provides in this vale of tears, the art products it has spawned, and the sense of community it has encouraged, or “bad” because of the wars, intolerance, bigotry, and social strife that can be chalked up to its account. In the end, it seems to me that the important question is not who “wins” this argument, but whether religious claims are true or not. If, as I maintain, they are not, then, from my personal point of view, it is “good” that we should know it. It matters in terms of answering such questions as what we want to do with our lives and why.
Consider, for example, the question of life after death. Most of us don’t look forward to the prospect of death with any particular relish, and it is certainly plausible to claim that religion provides us with the consolation of an afterlife. Suppose we look at the question from the point of view of our genes. They have given rise to our consciousness, along with most of the other essential features of our physical bodies, because consciousness has made it more probable that those genes would survive and reproduce. When we fear death, we fear the death of our consciousness, but as far as the genes are concerned, consciousness is purely ancillary – a means to an end. If they “program” an individual to become a Catholic priest in order to inherit eternal life, and that individual fails to have children as a result, then, from this “genes point of view,” they have botched it.
In a sense, it is more rational to claim that “we” are our genes rather than that “we” are this ancillary entity we refer to as consciousness. In that case, “we” have never died. “Our” lives have existed in an unbroken chain, passed from one physical form to another for billions of years. The only way “we” can die is for the last physical “link in the chain” to fail to have children. Of course, genes don’t really have a point of view, nor do they have a purpose. They simply are. I merely point out that it would be absurd to imagine that “we” suddenly spring into existence when we are born, and that “we” then die and disappear forever with the physical death of our bodies. Why on earth would Mother Nature put up with such nonsense? It seems to me that such an irrational surmise must be based on a fundamental confusion about who “we” actually are.
Posted on December 7th, 2014 No comments
The Blank Slate affair was probably the greatest scientific debacle in history. For half a century, give or take, an enforced orthodoxy prevailed in the behavioral sciences, promoting the dogma that there is no such thing as human nature. So traumatic was the affair that no accurate history of it has been written to this day. What was it about the Blank Slate affair that transmuted what was originally just another false hypothesis into a dogma that derailed progress in the behavioral sciences for much of the 20th century? After all, the blank slate as a theory has been around since the time of Aristotle. A host of philosophers have supported it in one form or another, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Stuart Mill. Many others had opposed them, including such prominent British moral philosophers as Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Mackintosh.
Sometimes the theories of these pre-Darwinian philosophers were remarkably advanced. Hume, of course, is often cited by evolutionary psychologists in our own time for pointing out that such human behavioral phenomena as morality cannot be derived by reason, and are rooted in emotion, or “passions.” In his words, “Reason is wholly inactive, and can never be the source of so active a principle as conscience, or a sense of morals.” The relative sophistication of earlier thinkers can also be demonstrated by comparing them with the rigid dogmas of the Blank Slaters of the 20th century who followed them. For example, the latter day dogmatists invented the “genetic determinist” straw man. Anyone who insisted, however mildly, on the existence of human nature was automatically denounced as a “genetic determinist,” that is, one who believes that human “instincts” are as rigid as those of a spider building its nest, and we are powerless to control them rationally. Real “genetic determinists” must be as rare as unicorns, because in spite of a diligent search I have never encountered one personally. The opponents of the Blank Slate against whom the charge of “genetic determinism” was most commonly leveled were anything but. They all insisted repeatedly that human behavior was influenced, not by rigid instincts that forced us to engage in warfare and commit acts of “aggression,” but by predispositions that occasionally worked against each other and could be positively directed or controlled by reason. As it happens, this aspect of the nature of our “nature” was also obvious to earlier thinkers long before Darwin. For example, 19th century British moral philosopher William Whewell, referring to the work of his co-philosopher Henry Sidgwick, writes,
The celebrated comparison of the mind to a sheet of white paper is not just, except we consider that there may be in the paper itself many circumstances which affect the nature of the writing. A recent writer, however, appears to me to have supplied us with a much more apt and beautiful comparison. Man’s soul at first, says Professor Sidgwick, is one unvaried blank, till it has received the impressions of external experience. “Yet has this blank,” he adds, “been already touched by a celestial hand; and, when plunged in the colors which surround it, it takes not its tinge from accident but design, and comes out covered with a glorious pattern.” This modern image of the mind as a prepared blank is well adapted to occupy a permanent place in opposition to the ancient sheet of white paper.
Note that Sidgwick was a utilitarian, and is often referred to as a “blank slater” himself. Obviously, he had a much more nuanced interpretation of “human nature” than the Blank Slaters of a later day, and was much closer, both to the thought of Darwin and to that of modern evolutionary psychologists than they. This, by the by, illustrates the danger of willy-nilly throwing all the thinkers who have ever mentioned some version of the blank slate into a common heap, or of ordering them all in a neat row, as if each one since the time of Aristotle “begat” the next after the fashion of a Biblical genealogy.
In any case, these pre-Darwinian thinkers and philosophers could occasionally discuss their differences without stooping to ad hominem attacks, and even politely. That, in my opinion, is a fundamental difference between them and the high priests of the Blank Slate orthodoxy. The latter day Blank Slaters were ideologues, not scientists. They derailed the behavioral sciences because their ideological narrative invariably trumped science, and common sense, for that matter. Their orthodoxy was imposed and enforced, not by “good science,” but by the striking of moralistic poses, and the vicious vilification of anyone who opposed them. And for a long time, it worked.
By way of example, it will be illuminating to look at the sort of “scientific” writings produced by one of these high priests, Richard Lewontin. Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, is occasionally flawed, but it does do a good job of describing the basis of Lewontin’s Blank Slate credentials. Interested readers are encouraged to check the index. As Pinker puts it,
So while Gould, Lewontin, and Rose deny that they believe in a blank slate, their concessions to evolution and genetics – that they let us eat, sleep, urinate, defecate, grow bigger than a squirrel, and bring about social change – reveal them to be empiricists more extreme than Locke himself, who at least recognized the need for an innate faculty of “understanding.”
Anyone doubting the accuracy of this statement can easily check the historical source material to confirm it. For example, in a rant against E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in the New York Review of Books, which Lewontin co-authored with Gould and others, we find, along with copious references to the “genetic determinist” bugbear,
We are not denying that there are genetic components to human behavior. But we suspect that human biological universals are to be discovered more in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping than in such specific and highly variable habits as warfare, sexual exploitation of women and the use of money as a medium of exchange.
Anyone still inclined to believe that Lewontin wasn’t a “real” Blank Slater need only consult the title of his most significant book on the subject, Not In Our Genes, published in 1984. What on earth was he referring to as “not in our genes,” if not innate behavior? As it happens, that book is an excellent reference for anyone who cares to examine the idiosyncratic fashion in which the Blank Slaters were in the habit of doing “science.” Here are some examples, beginning with the “genetic determinist” bogeyman:
Biological determinism (biologism) has been a powerful mode of explaining the observed inequalities of status, wealth, and power in contemporary industrial capitalist societies, and of defining human “universals” of behavior as natural characteristics of these societies. As such, it has been gratefully seized upon as a political legitimator by the New Right, which finds its social nostrums so neatly mirrored in nature; for if these inequalities are biologically determined, they are therefore inevitable and immutable.
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.
All of these recent political manifestations of biological determinism have in common that they are directly opposed to the political and social demands of those without power.
The Nobel Prize laureate Konrad Lorenz, in a scientific paper on animal behavior in 1940 in Germany during the Nazi extermination campaign said: “The selection of toughness, heroism, social utility… must be accomplished by some human institutions if mankind in default of selective factors, is not to be ruined by domestication induced degeneracy. The racial idea as the basis of the state has already accomplished much in this respect.” He was only applying the view of the founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, who sixty years before wondered that “there exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race.” What for Galton was a gradual process became rather more rapid in the hands of Lorenz’s efficient friends. As we shall see, Galton and Lorenz are not atypical.
Of course, Lewontin is a Marxist. Apparently, by applying the “dialectic,” he has determined that the fact that the process was even more rapid and efficient in the hands of his Communist friends doesn’t have quite the same “ideological” significance. As far as eugenics is concerned, it was primarily promoted by leftists and “progressives” in its heyday. Apparently Lewontin “forgot” that as well, for, continuing in the same vein, he writes:
The sorry history of this century of insistence on the iron nature of biological determination of criminality and degeneracy, leading to the growth of the eugenics movement, sterilization laws, and the race science of Nazi Germany has frequently been told.
The claim that “human nature” guarantees that inherited differences between individuals and groups will be translated into a hierarchy of status, wealth, and power completes the total ideology of biological determinism. To justify their original ascent to power, the new middle class had to demand a society in which “intrinsic merit” could be rewarded. To maintain their position they now claim that intrinsic merit, once free to assert itself, will be rewarded, for it is “human nature” to form hierarchies of power and reward.
Biological determinism, as we have been describing it, draws its human nature ideology largely from Hobbes and the Social Darwinists, since these are the principles on which bourgeois political economy are founded.
Everyone had to be stretched or squeezed to fit on the Procrustean bed of Lewontin’s Marxist dogma. In the process, E. O. Wilson became a “bourgeois” like all the rest:
More, by emphasizing that even altruism is the consequence of selection for reproductive selfishness, the general validity of individual selfishness in behaviors is supported. E. O. Wilson has identified himself with American neoconservative liberalism, which holds that society is best served by each individual acting in a self-serving manner, limited only in the case of extreme harm to others. Sociobiology is yet another attempt to put a natural scientific foundation under Adam Smith. It combines vulgar Mendelism, vulgar Darwinism, and vulgar reductionism in the service of the status quo.
This, then, was the type of “scientific” criticism favored by the ideologues of the Blank Slate. They had an ideological agenda, and so assumed that everything that anyone else thought, wrote, or said, must be part of an ideological agenda as well. There could be no such thing as “mere disagreement.” Disagreement implied a different agenda, opposed to clearing the path to the Brave New World favored by the Blank Slaters. By so doing it sought to institutionalize inequality, racism, and the evil status quo, and was therefore criminal.
It’s hard to imagine anything more important than getting the historical record of the Blank Slate affair straight. We possess the means of committing suicide as a species. Self-knowledge is critical if we are to avoid that fate. The Blank Slate orthodoxy planted itself firmly in the path of any advance in human self-knowledge for a great many more years than we could afford to squander. In spite of that, the bowdlerization of history continues. Lewontin and the other high priests of the Blank Slate are being reinvented as paragons of reason, who were anything but “blank slaters” themselves, but merely applied some salutary adult supervision to the worst excesses of evolutionary psychology. Often, they left themselves such an “out” to their own eventual rehabilitation by themselves protesting that they weren’t “blank slaters” at all. For example, again quoting from Lewontin:
Yet, at the same time, we deny that human beings are born tabulae rasae, which they evidently are not, and that individual human beings are simple mirrors of social circumstances. If that were the case, there could be no social evolution.
One can easily see through this threadbare charade by merely taking the trouble to actually read Lewontin. What Pinker has to say as noted above about the degree to which he was “not a blank slater” is entirely accurate. I know of not a single instance in which he has ever agreed that anything commonly referred to in the vernacular as “human nature,” as opposed to urinating, defecating, being taller than a squirrel, etc., is real. Throughout his career he has rejected the behavioral hypotheses of ethology (yes, I am referring to the behavior of animals other than man, as well as our own species), sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology root and branch.
It has been said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. However, it’s not out of the question that we don’t have enough time left to enjoy the luxury of making the same mistake twice. Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to take a very dim view of any future saviors of the world who show signs of adopting political vilification as their way of “doing science.”
Posted on December 3rd, 2014 No comments
The human types afflicted with the messianic itch have never been too choosy about the ideology they pick to scratch it. For example, the Nazis turned up some of their most delirious converts among the ranks of former Communists, and vice versa. The “true believer” can usually make do with whatever is available. The main thing is that whatever “ism” he chooses enables him to maintain the illusion that he is saving the world and clearing the path to some heavenly or terrestrial paradise, and at the same time supplies him with an ingroup of like-minded zealots. In the 20th century both Communism and Nazism/fascism, which had served admirably in their time, collapsed, leaving an ideological vacuum behind. As we all know, nature abhors a vacuum, and something had to fill it. Paradoxically, that “something” turned out to be radical Islam. For the true believers, it is now pretty much the only game in town. The result of this ideological sea change has been quite spectacular. The “human types” one would normally have expected to find in the ranks of the atheist Communists 50 or 75 years ago are now powerfully attracted to the latest manifestation of industrial strength religious fanaticism.
So far the ideological gap between the secular left that supplied the Communists of yesteryear and the jihadis of today has been a bit too wide for most western “progressives” to hop across. Instead, they’ve been forced to settle for casting longing gazes at the antics of the less inhibited zealots on the other side of the chasm. They can’t quite manage the ideological double back flip between the culture they come from and obscurantist Islam. Instead, they seize on surrogates, defending the “oppressed” Palestinians against the “apartheid” Israelis, meanwhile furiously denouncing anyone who dares to criticize the new inamorata they are forced to love from afar as “islamophobic.”
An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon recently turned up on the website of The Jacobin Magazine, which styles itself, “The leading voice of the American left.” In an article entitled “Old Atheism, New Empire,” one Luke Savage, described as “a student of political theory and formerly the editor of Canada’s largest student newspaper,” demonstrates that the New Atheists are not really the paladins of Enlightenment they claim to be, but are actually conducting a clever underground campaign to defend imperialism and provide a “smokescreen for the injustice of global capitalism!” Similar attacks on such New Atheist stalwarts as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens are becoming increasingly common as the Left’s love affair with radical Islam continues to blossom. The New Atheists, in turn, are finding that the firm ground on the left of the ideological spectrum they thought they were standing on has turned to quicksand.
It isn’t hard to detect the Islamist pheromones in the article in question. We notice, for example, that Savage isn’t particularly concerned about New Atheist attacks on religion in general. He hardly mentions Christianity. When it comes to Islam, however, it’s a different story. As Savage puts it,
It is against the backdrop of the war on terror, with its violent and destructive adventurism, that the notion of a monolithic evil called “Islam” has found a sizable constituency in the circles of liberal respectability.
As one might expect, this is followed by the de rigueur charge of racism:
The excessive focus on Islam as something at once monolithic and exceptionally bad, whose backwards followers need to have their rights in democratic societies suppressed and their home countries subjected to a Western-led civilizing process, cannot be called anything other than racist.
Moslem zealots, we find, aren’t really the enemy of, but actually belong in the pantheon of, officially endorsed and certified victim groups:
Criticisms of the violence carried out by fundamentalists of any kind – honor killings, suicide bombings, systemic persecution of women or gay people, or otherwise – are neither coherent nor even likely to be effective when they falsely attribute such phenomena to some monolithic orthodoxy.
The cognoscenti will have immediately noticed some amusing similarities between this rhetoric and that used to defend Communism in a bygone era. Notice, for example, the repeated insistence that Islam is not “monolithic.” Back in the day, one of the most hackneyed defenses of Communism was also that it was not “monolithic.” No doubt it was a great comfort to the millions slowly starving to death in the Gulag, or on their way to get a bullet in the back of the neck, that they at least weren’t the victims of a “monolithic” assassin. In case that’s too subtle for you, Savage spells it out, quoting from a book by Richard Seymour:
The function of [Hitchens’] antitheism was structurally analogous to what Irving Howe characterized as Stalinophobia…the Bogey-Scapegoat of Stalinism justified a new alliance with the right, obliviousness towards the permanent injustices of capitalist society, and a tolerance for repressive practices conducted in the name of the “Free World.” In roughly isomorphic fashion Hitchens’ preoccupation with religion…authorized not just a blind eye to the injustices of capitalism and empire but a vigorous advocacy of the same.
One would think that defending “the opiate of the masses” would be a bitter pill for any dedicated fighter against “capitalism and empire” to swallow, but Savage manages it with aplomb. Channeling the likes of Karen Armstrong, David Bentley Hart, and the rest of the “sophisticated Christians,” he writes,
Whether directed at Catholicism, Paganism, or Islam, the methodology employed to expose the inherent “irrationality” of all religions betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or perhaps misrepresentation) of the nature of religious discourses, beliefs, and practices.
If that’s not quite rarified enough for you, how about this:
Moreover, the core assertion that forms the discursive nucleus of books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith – namely, that religious texts can be read as literal documents containing static ideas, and that the ensuing practices are uniform – is born out by neither real, existing religion or by its historical reality as a socially and ideologically heterogeneous phenomenon.
This is particularly significant in relation to the New Atheists’ denunciations of what they call “the doctrine of Islam” because it renders bare their false ontology of religion – one which more or less assumes that fundamentalism is the product of bad ideas rather than particular social and material conditions.
So Stalin wasn’t a bad boy. He just had a bad environment. See how that works? At this point Marx must be spinning in his grave, so we’ll leave these eloquent defenses of religion at that, and let the old man get some rest. In point of fact Marxism was itself a religion for all practical purposes. It just happened to be a secular one, with an earthly rather than a heavenly paradise. In its heyday, Communism had to damn the older, spiritual versions because messianic religions are never tolerant. Now that it’s defunct as an effective vehicle for militant zealotry, it’s pointless to continue trying to defend it from its spiritual competition.
In any case, the “progressive” flirtation with medieval obscurantism continues unabated. Will it ever become a full-fledged embrace? I suppose it’s not completely out of the question, but a lot of ideological baggage will have to be ditched along the way to that consummation. As for the New Atheists, one might say that they’ve just had a religious experience in spite of themselves. They’ve all been excommunicated.
Thanks to Tom at Happyjar.com for the cartoon. Check out his store!