In 1919, a total eclipse of the sun provided a rare opportunity to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer and admirer of Einstein who had resisted the nationalist hatreds of the First World War, sent two teams to the mid-Atlantic to observe Mercury during the eclipse, and test the German scientist’s theory. To the astonishment of his colleagues, and the world, Einstein was vindicated. Two centuries of orthodoxy in physics were disrupted overnight, and Einstein was catapulted into a celebrity that has never left him.
At that time much of Europe was in chaos. The Austrian and Russian Empires had collapsed under the strain of the First World War, and Marxist revolutionaries rushed to fill the void. They called for socialism in stirring public speeches, raised militias, staged coups and counter-coups, and fought their nationalist enemies in the streets and on the battlefield. Amid this struggle all eyes turned to the Soviet Union, whose confident leader, Lenin, preached the dawn of a new era of happiness and progress. He was certain that Karl Marx had discovered a science of history, and that it was at last possible for humankind to seize control of its destiny, completely transform society—even to predict the future.
Karl Popper, soon to be one of the most famous philosophers of the twentieth century, was a student in Vienna during these troubled but exhilarating times. He had been mightily impressed by Einstein and Marx. Both could muster impressive arguments, presented themselves as authentically scientific, and proposed revolutionary new ways of looking at the world. But the more he thought about it, the more dissatisfied he became with Marx, and the more he admired Einstein. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934), he argued that the difference between authentic science and pseudo-science was falsifiability. Einstein had put his theory to the test. He had made definite predictions, and if they had proven incorrect, that would have been evidence against his theory. While no theory can be completely proven or disproven on the basis of just a handful of observations, prediction was a crucial test. Anyone could make claims, but prediction forced the issue in an unambiguous way. So, Popper concluded, the more predictions a theory makes, and the more risky they are, the more genuinely scientific it is. The more Einstein’s theory was tested, the better it looked.
Marx, too, had made predictions. He had predicted that the revolution would occur first in Germany, since it was the most heavily industrialized; he had predicted that depressions would become more and more severe over time as the capitalists failed to find buyers for their over-produced goods; and he had predicted that the workers would become more and more miserable as the owners slashed their wages in an attempt to make up the shortfall. None of these predictions had been borne out, yet Marxists were more numerous, more deeply convinced, and more powerful than ever. What was happening?
The key, Popper believed, was the word “science,” for it carried then, as it does now, tremendous prestige. To speak it is to invoke the awesome technological progress of the last few centuries, the principled stand of Galileo, the towering genius of Newton and Darwin, and, in short, our highest aspirations to truth and reason. But as astute observers recognize its deep emotional resonance, they will try to claim it for all sorts of purposes—politics, ethics, ideology, beliefs about the meaning of life and our place in the cosmos, and an entire philosophy of life, can all be called science. While there is no reason, in principle, that these views cannot be scientific, they usually do not make the type of predictions that characterized Einstein’s physics. Yet people who feel they have something important to say are naturally tempted to call their ideas scientific, hoping that some of the prestige of Newton, Darwin, or Einstein will rub off. In the never-ending war of ideas, invoking the symbolism of science can provide a powerful advantage.
Einstein took a risk. So, too, did Marx. According to Popper they were both scientific in that sense, but Einstein passed the test of prediction where Marx did not. So, to continue to hold to Marxism after its predictions had failed was not scientific, but ideological, and this was the reason that no amount of evidence or argument could shake a convinced Marxist. In order to protect science from ideological abuse, Popper argued, we need to keep this distinction in mind. Genuine science takes risks, and its products could be disproven. Ideology, by contrast, risks nothing, and is never wrong.
Popper published these views under the shadow of a National Socialist takeover of Austria. He fled his country shortly after he published, and ended up in New Zealand for most of the Second World War, where he wrote a classic defense of liberalism called The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). He argued that the Open Society—the liberal, tolerant society, which permits dissent and is based on democratic institutions and values—has always faced opposition from within, even from intellectuals. Because it leaves questions of meaning and identity to the individual, rather than to the group, it also leave individuals to fend for themselves when it comes to the most important questions they can ask about life. No one can tell us what to believe about ethics, politics, religion, science, the meaning of life, or any of the other profoundly important questions we seek answers to. We have to decide for ourselves, on the basis of reason and evidence, and that is not only a freedom, but a responsibility.
There have always been people who find that responsibility a burden, and who wanted to rid themselves of it. Others have been only too happy to take it away. Provided that the appropriate symbols were invoked, through gestures, phrases, and rituals, these people can get along nicely. In that sense it hardly matters what the phrases and gestures actually are, or where they come from. They could be the symbols of nationalism or universalism, hope for the future or veneration of the past, of religion or science, or indeed anything else. What matters is not the symbol, but the actions that follow from it, and in that sense the end result of this irresponsibility is always the same—the demand for a closed society, where all the answers are already known, where dissent is not permitted, and where there is no greater crime than disloyalty to the group.
In Popper’s time the enemies of the open society were Communists and Fascists, who, however much they hated each other, agreed in their rejection of democracy. But he stressed that this was not a one-time affair. The open society always had enemies, and always would. In the time of the Greeks those enemies were the Platonists. They demanded the rule of an all-knowing philosopher king, whose knowledge of the invisible Forms and Essences would lift him high above the people, and whose Guardians would ruthlessly punish dissent, in order to create a utopia. In the time of the Enlightenment those enemies were the Hegelians. They rejected democracy in favor of monarchism, smothered rational inquiry beneath the fog of romanticism, and dreamed of a return to the Middle Ages. In our own time Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalists similarly reject the open society. Christian fundamentalists want Six-Day Creationism taught in public schools instead of genuine science, they reject the right of gay people to adopt or marry, and are promising to build a huge and ridiculous wall on the Mexican border to keep out immigrants. Jewish Fundamentalists claim that Palestine is their holy land, promised to them by God, and gather in the streets of their cities shouting “Death to the Arabs!” while their tanks and fighter jets make their wishes a reality. And as we all know, Islamic Fundamentalists have launched dozens of attacks in their own countries and in ours—in New York, Paris, Mumbai, Beirut, Cairo, and many other places, have cruelly tortured prisoners, and terrified millions of people across the world. When asked about their goals, they say they want to destroy the mutual understanding that makes it possible for Muslims and other communities to live in peace—a strategy that is likely to succeed if we do not defend our values as well as our lives from their terror campaign.
While all the world’s attention is focused on religious fundamentalism, there is a new tribalism, and a new revolt against reason, taking shape within liberalism. The name of this movement is New Atheism, but it would be more appropriate to call it Atheist Fundamentalism. Like their religious counterparts, these people believe they are members of a select and blessed minority—a Chosen People—and that they possess an infallible truth, called science. Science, they say, can answer every question simply and convincingly, whether it’s about ethics, politics, the existence of God, the meaning of life, or our place in the cosmos. There are no genuine philosophical problems, no real moral dilemmas, no mysteries, and indeed not much reason to have these discussions at all. Science has spoken: your job, if you are truly rational, is to submit, and the proof of your rationality is your submission. They are terrified of much the same prospect as their Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Fundamentalist counterparts—of sharing space with people whose ideas they detest.
Atheist Fundamentalists talk about science quite a bit, but it seems to me that Popper, who understood only too well how much was at stake in our use of that word, would have rejected them as narrow-minded ideologues. What bold, falsifiable predictions have they made? What are they really risking when they reclassify their political and philosophical opinions as science? Do their arguments really show the spirit of critical inquiry that they are always praising? Are their views genuinely scientific, or are they simply appeals to prejudice? Do they want more freedom, or less? Can they honestly claim to represent the values of science, or the open society?
To me, science means, above all, a spirit of open-ended, critical inquiry. It means appeals to evidence rather than to prejudice, and to reason rather than to fear. To me, liberalism means the plurality of a free society welded together by humanism, and that we should value and respect all human life, simply because it is human. It means that we hold people accountable for what they do, not for who they are or what they believe. When I read people argue, on the basis of science and liberalism, that we have no right to think matters through for ourselves, or that we should hate, fear, and despise people who do not share our opinions, I have to wonder what they think the words “science” and “liberalism” mean.
Fundamentalist Atheists aren’t the kind of allies we need in the struggle for reason and tolerance, for reasons Karl Popper saw only too well. Like that friend who you used to have good times with, but these days only brings you down, they aren't actually friends at all. They’re frenemies, and it’s time to cut them loose.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page, where this article appeared previously.
“…they reclassify their political and philosophical opinions as science.” Are there many examples of this? I can only think of one: Sam Harris seems to think that his axiom “Morality relates to the well-being of conscious creatures” is an undeniable one-sentence solution to all of meta-ethics.
Aside from that, I can’t where this criticism of new Atheism is supposed to get traction. Are Dawkins and Coyne wrong that evolution is true? Do Dennett or Hitchens make any misplaced claims to scientific verification?
“Do they want more freedom, or less?” From reading the New Atheists, I would say “more.” What have they said that makes you think otherwise? “Can they honestly claim to represent the values of science, or the open society?” Yes, I think so. Why would I not think that? How can you ask such a question without providing so much as a quote or summary of some position that prompts your question?
If you are going to hurl accusations like this, you need to provide some support.
This blog post may be an attack on memes that get posted to reddit /r/atheism. And maybe you would be right. But frankly, I have no way of knowing because you offer no quotes and no specific targets for your rhetoric.
“When I read people argue, on the basis of science and liberalism, that we have no right to think matters through for ourselves, or that we should hate, fear, and despise people who do not share our opinions, I have to wonder what they think the words “science” and “liberalism” mean.”
Again, I have to ask… what in the world are you reading?
Cannon Hubka says
Excellent piece, as always. Thank you again for writing these.
Popper is one of my favorites and I largely agree with your points here, but I have a question that reflects the kinds of emotions and thoughts that have occupied my mind for the majority of the past 10 years or so. These emotions and thoughts are the same ones that draw me towards critics of liberalism – thinkers like MacIntyre, Nietzsche, Rorty, Burke, Kierkegaard, Derrida, Adorno, and Jewish thinkers like Yeshayahu Leibowitz.
What I draw from these thinkers, while at the same time I embrace deep pluralism and our condition of being condemned into freedom as truths we must accept, is that the exultation of individual freedom and instrumental rationality is not a path to the most fulfilling and meaningful modes of human existence. They may be necessary for the creation of the conditions for the possibility of fulfilling lives for more than a select few, but that individual freedom and rationality deeply under-determine how one lives a meaningful life. Additionally, it is painfully obvious that most of us are coming into adulthood without being equipped to deal with this freedom and to drag ourselves out of this ocean of nihilism.
How do you square the brilliance of doctrines of individual rights and scientific rationality with views that claim that tradition is the core of human experience, that the reflection, discipline, and self-examination that is necessary for real individual choice is impossible outside the context of thickly-constituted community practices, traditions, and non-instrumental relationships between human beings.
It’s a huge question – indeed I think it is THE question of modernity; a version of what Nietzsche wanted us to do in creation new festivals etc. – but I would like to hear your thoughts on it given your defense of Popper and the values of Pluralism and free inquiry (values I share).
Daniel Halverson says
Thanks for your thoughtful and encouraging comments. I’m sympathetic to those critiques of liberalism, which go back at least to Edmund Burke. It may be the case that liberalism is undermining itself by making an authentic communal life very difficult if not impossible. There are many people who sincerely believe that the community should have rights against the individual, as a general rule of thumb, rather than the individual against the community, as liberalism posits. And I don’t doubt they’re quite sincere in this. That is, they would be willing to sacrifice many of their freedoms and claims to individual choice if it meant they could participate in some more authentic communal feeling or movement, which the plurality stressed by liberalism makes very difficult to realize in practice.
Over the long run this analysis might be right. It might prove fatal to liberalism. That being said, I’m committed to defending liberalism on what I think are very practical grounds. I’ve grown used to thinking for myself, and for exercising other kinds of choice that only a society organized on the individualistic principle permits. If a political movement which was sincerely committed to the communal principle ever did get into power in this country, I suppose it would regard me and people like me – that is, people who chat casually about issues of fundamental importance on an open forum – as good targets for suppression. After all, these types of conversations can only be subversive from their point of view, since the whole point of a communal society is that the thinking has been substantially done already, or is currently being done by the relevant experts, and that inquiry at our level can only be pernicious.
Isaiah Berlin talks about the need to choose between irreconcilable human values in his essay Two Concepts of Liberty. He argues we usually take it for granted that all good things must be compatible – so individual freedom and the communal principle must be reconcilable in his way. But in his view experience shows that we have to make choices when it comes to our values, because they are not all compatible. I think the choice between the communal and the individualistic principle falls under that description. They both have their good points, but they’re not really compatible. Karl Popper talks about this as well in Open Society. If there is to be a communal principle that is genuinely compatible with individual freedoms (and I regard this as an outside possibility), it can only be one that rests on a genuine consensus. Which is to say, one that comes about through open discussion.
I do think people should find groups that share their beliefs, whether Christian or Muslim or Atheist or whatever else, because community is a real human need, and I think it is unfair and unrealistic to put a burden on people, that they have to liive as isolated social particles, without any deeper or permanent connection to the community. That seems likely to create unhappy people and a disordered and unhealthy society. Maybe it already has. I certainly think we need to strengthen, not weaken, these kinds of ties. But I also regard this as outside the proper sphere of politics, since politics is largely a matter of force, and I do not want to be forced to be a part of that kind of community if I do not want to be.
So, to sum up, I’m sympathetic to many of the classical criticisms of liberalism, and I don’t think they’re without merit. I don’t have any synthetic, or probably even a satisfying, answer to the way these conflicting and deeply-felt human needs might be reconciled. But in view of the likely political consequences of privileging the communal principle over liberalism – significant restrictions on our right to inquire and think and speak freely – I’m ready to defend liberalism. Warts and all.
Cannon Hubka says
Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I think I agree with you in general, especially when it comes to Berlin’s point that all good things don’t go together. That view of the Good (ie. that it is not one Good but many, incommensurate goods) is something I really appreciate in the work of MacIntyre, Nietzsche, and Rorty. Mark L in some podcasts has referred to this as a “tragic view of morality”; I’m sympathetic to this view.
To tie your comment into that short “book” Wes A posted in response to Sandel, I think the key to this issue is to separate out the pursuit of political/social goods from the administration of the State.
This will always be a tension-filled task full of risk and tight-rope-walking, but some consensus based on recognition of two facts – 1) that social communities with shared values are necessary for human flourishing, and 2) that the State is much too broad of an instrument to create such communities and can only create horrible, oppressive, corrupt versions of such communities – I think may be possible.
This, of course, results in a State founded on radical plurality and free discourse – a liberal state. I just hope we can do this without creating an ethos or environment that oversimplifies things and continues to create atomized individuals who feel the pain of rootlessness but don’t even have the linguistic resources to articulate their pain.
Daniel Halverson says
” I just hope we can do this without creating an ethos or environment that oversimplifies things and continues to create atomized individuals who feel the pain of rootlessness but don’t even have the linguistic resources to articulate their pain.”
Well said. Ideally most of us would want to participate in such a community, because they genuinely spoke to our values, and served to connect us to each other, while, at the same time, one could stand apart from them if one chose without fear of reprisal or coercion. I do not know if such a balance is possible, but I hope that it is.
Karl Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge tries to bring together tradition and individuality.
“Like their religious counterparts, these people believe they are members of a select and blessed minority—a Chosen People—and that they possess an infallible truth, called science.”
“Science, they say, can answer every question simply and convincingly, whether it’s about ethics, politics, the existence of God, the meaning of life, or our place in the cosmos.”
“There are no genuine philosophical problems, no real moral dilemmas, no mysteries, and indeed not much reason to have these discussions at all.”
” They are terrified of much the same prospect as their Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Fundamentalist counterparts—of sharing space with people whose ideas they detest.”
I agree with the author’s conclusion that we could all do with less kneejerk tribalism and demonizing of outgroups with team-based smears. But I think this article isn’t making the point it thinks it’s making.
Daniel Halverson says
Hi Sean, Staircase. Thanks for your comments.
Daniel Dennett wants atheists to start calling themselves “brights”:
A bright is distinguished from the rest of us (“darks,” presumably) by their superior rationality:
“What is a bright? A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny — or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic — and life after death.”
They have a special flag:
According to Lawrence Krauss all scientists should be militant atheists:
According to philosopher of science Michael Ruse:
“his view that science has an exclusive claim on truth has been taken to its logical conclusion by a recent book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions, by the philosopher Alex Rosenberg. Embracing the pejorative term ‘scientism’, which at the least has major overlaps with what I am calling ‘Humanism’, he argues that once science is finished, no questions remain. If the Big Bang or something like that cannot explain the meaning of existence, then there is no genuine question at stake. The same is true of morality, meaning, consciousness and everything else that religion and philosophy have claimed as their own.”
He is quite critical of New Atheism:
“The New Atheists believe that science replaces the claims about the world that religion makes — and therefore makes religion redundant. Some of them think that a whole new moral system should be based on science. That’s sounding more and more like religion itself to me. But the other unsettling way in which Humanism imitates religion — and perhaps the most notable one in the case of the New Atheists — is its claim that people who do not share its beliefs are not only mistaken but also deluded and perhaps even evil. The line I quoted above about opposition to evolution being a sign of insanity and possibly wickedness comes, of course, from Richard Dawkins.”
He quotes Dawkins:
“It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, mad cow disease, and many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate … Well, science is not religion and it doesn’t just come down to faith. Although it has many of religion’s virtues, it has none of its vices. Science is based upon verifiable evidence.”
“I think there’s something very evil about faith … it justifies essentially anything. If you’re taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die — anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed — that clearly is evil. And people don’t have to justify it because it’s their faith.”
Dawkins has also argued that religion is child abuse:
As child abuse, it is definitely worse than pedophelia, which, according to Dawkins, isn’t so bad:
Presumably this is his opinion as a scientist, since, as he’s explained, all genuine morality is scientific:
So, to be clear, in Dawkin’s view it is a scientific fact that pedophelia passes muster as morality. Anyone who disagrees is, presumably, irrational, if not _dangerous_. Anyway I take it that a person who thinks religion is child abuse is committed to its forceful suppression. Unless they think children should not be protected by law from abuse. Which people can argue, I guess, although I think at that point it’s fair to say they’re being insincere. Nobody would accuse New Atheist presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan of that. He’s put his money where his mouth is: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zoltan-istvan/some-atheists-and-transhu_b_5814484.html
So has EO Wilson:
Let’s not forget that time Bill Maher argued that little muslim boys who play with electronics should _of course_ be examined by police:
Sam Harris thinks that muslims should be screened at air ports. In order to leave no doubt about his position, he called the article “in defense of profiling”:
He’s also opined that, should a muslim country get in possession of nuclear weapons, a nuclear first strike would be our only option
To be clear, that means the extermination of tens of millions of people because they are Muslim. I suppose this too would be a scientific fact, since, as Harris has also explained, a science can answer moral questions: https://www.ted.com/talks/sam_harris_science_can_show_what_s_right/transcript?language=en
To return to EO Wilson for a moment, he’s not exactly a stranger to controversy. He’s made his name by soft-peddling social darwinism, rebranded as evolutionary psychology: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2001/sep/07/highereducation.books
For which he has been roundly criticized, not least by his fellow biologist Stephen Jay Gould. As a Jew born during the Second World War, I suppose he was well-prepared to appreciate the dangers this kind of thinking represented to minority groups in general, and to Jews in particular: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/11/e-o-wilsons-theory-of-everything/308686/
Anyway he isn’t the only person to draw the connection between New Atheism and Scientific Racism:
In Sam Harris’ opinion religion is worse than rape: http://thesunmagazine.org/issues/369/the_temple_of_reason?page=2
Asked whether he wanted to back peddle or double down in that interview, he doubled down:
“I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion. I think more people are dying as a result of our religious myths than as a result of any other ideology. I would not say that all human conflict is born of religion or religious differences, but for the human community to be fractured on the basis of religious doctrines that are fundamentally incompatible, in an age when nuclear weapons are proliferating, is a terrifying scenario. I think we do the world a disservice when we suggest that religions are generally benign and not fundamentally divisive.”
Our modern fundamentalist atheists are of course a part of a disreputable, bloody tradition of irrationalism and pseudoscience.
Indeed, FA Hayek coined the term scientism to describe what he thought had gone wrong with popular ideas about science in the first half of the twentieth century, and how it had materially contributed to the rise of totalitarianism:
George Orwell agreed:
And so did Karl Popper, whose arguments I have adhered to fairly closely:
While there’s no necessary link between fundamentalist atheist radicalism and scientism, the two are often found together. Scientism has been broadly recognized as a fallacious form of reasoning since FA Hayek coined the term:
Of course one does not have to be a fundamentalist atheist in order to be an atheist, any more than one has to be a fundamentalist christian to be a christian, muslim to be a muslim, and so on:
I could go on, but if I haven’t made my point by now I probably never will. These people are bigots. I reject their claim to speak for liberalism or for science, and I stand by my article.
Cannon Hubka says
Even though EO Wilson has taken a turn for the worse, I have to defend sociobiology and evolutionary psychology against maligning it as “social Darwinism”. Just because one can abuse evolutionary thinking by creating just-so stories for nearly anything doesn’t mean that the central insights of sociobiology/evolutionary psychology are not to be taken seriously. Indeed, I think the recognition that our minds (and by extension many aspects of how we interact as social beings) are products of evolution just the same as our immune systems are products of evolution – the acceptance of that fact of evolutionary influence on the social mind – is of central philosophical importance. I do not think it can be ignored or discounted in any serious examination of the human condition. Do you really think the fact that evolution shaped our brains and our capacities for social cooperation is of no consequence to philosophy or history? Because that is what it seems like when you equate evolutionary psychology with social Darwinism. Sincerely interested in your reply.
Daniel Halverson says
I have to defer to Stephen Jay Gould on this issue, as he was better acquainted with both the biology and the history than I am. It is a complicated issue on which I am not fully competent to speak. It seems to me, based on my own research into 19th century biological thought, as it was applied to politics by people like Francis Galton, Ernst Haeckel, and Herbert Spencer, that Wilson’s project bears important structural similarities to those of his predecessors. If it were widely accepted, I believe it could not be anything but subversive of notions of human freedom, rights, and dignity, on which our society is substantially based. But, again, I have to defer to Stephen Jay Gould on the details.
Cannon Hubka says
Thanks for your honesty. I have to admit that I tend to view Gould’s work on this subject to be tinged with wishful thinking out of fear of history repeating itself – plus there have been advancements in the mathematics behind hypotheses of group selection – but maybe I’m just inclined towards pessimistic views of the world. It’s an active area of controversy in evolutionary biology and I think the new evidence is tilting the scales towards Wilson’s views on the evolution of social behavior (not on his reductionist philosophical views, which have gotten more Dawkins-y over the last few years and are, of course, not logical consequences of science).
If you are curious to watch/listen to some interesting thinking on the evolution of social behavior, here are some links:
Marc Burock says
The limitations of evolutionary psychology can be appreciated in contrast to other dynamical/developmental scientific enterprises such as the physics of star formation or the biology of fetal development. In each of these dynamical fields, we may learn about the stages of development, the contexts of each stage, the necessarily steps, the places and ways that it may go wrong, discover mechanistic ways to intervene causally, perform experiments and gather results, etc. Evolutionary psychology of the human species offers none of this because there is only one human species and it has evolved to the point we are at now. We cannot repeat the experiment of human cognitive evolution. Evolutionary psychology can only posit the contexts that put selective pressure on the cognitive traits we have now—it may offer an explanation of why we are the way we are now—but I do not see why this is immediately important in the way you assume. Similarly, Freudian psychology always assumed that providing a historical explanation of a patient’s psychopathology would free the patient from illness, but this is hardly the case. This ready-made insight does little to help the patient.
The best example—in the sense of being on the most sound explanatory footing–of evolutionary psychology I have come across is about our fear of snakes. It is argued that we have cognitively evolved to fear snakes. I think this makes sense. But so what? What useful theory or tool does this explanation do for us into the future; how does it help us navigate our lives or solve problems? Does that knowledge help you to expunge your fear of snakes? It may (or may not), but you can rid yourself of that fear through many ways (exposure therapy being the most-studied). You may argue that evolutionary psychology helps us to identify our biases, but again, biases can be discovered through other, experimental ways; and even after identifying biases, we do not automatically become less biased people. Removing biases requires hard work, and passively understanding an explanation rarely does the trick.
So how do evolutionary psychological explanations take on central philosophical importance for matters of social justice and political philosophy? To me, this is kind of like saying that explanations about how a factory in Korea made my TV are of central importance in understanding how TV’s work. Perhaps evolutionary psychology has something to add, but I would say that addition is marginal. And, if we truly could use knowledge of evolutionary psychology to shape the future, don’t you think it would look like environmental eugenics, and not necessarily anything a liberal society would want around?
I do respect your comments, so please excuse any harshness in my response.
Cannon Hubka says
No offense taken.
By “of central importance” I simply mean that the realization that the human mind is the result of natural, morally neutral processes points towards certain existential realities of the human condition in the same way that the shear massiveness of the universe, the reality of deep time, and the apparent finality of death point towards certain existential realities (by existential I am using it in the Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Dostoevsky sense). It is not an argument or logical, premise-conclusion chain of reasoning. It is simply a suggestive pointing.
I also don’t mean to say that the specific experimental results or explanatory arguments of specific evolutionary psychologists are philosophically important. I simply mean that naturalism is of philosophical importance, and to my mind any naturalist worth paying attention to (who is doing work today or in the future) simply assumes that the human brain is the result of the same type of evolutionary processes as the human immune system, bluebird feathers, and bacterial ribosomes. This assumption, I assume, would shape philosophical reflection in the same way as assuming that we are the children of a loving God would shape reflection.
Also, I may have less philosophical interest in concepts like social justice or “solving problems” and more interest in reflections upon the tragic nature of morality and the modern experience of alienation. My interests in science and philosophy are mostly literary, not pragmatic (in the colloquial sense of pragmatic as in solving problems – I’m actually quite fond of philosophical pragmatism, esp. Rorty on ‘Final Vocabulary’ and morality).
I’m simply not that concerned about how philosophy can be used to help society at large or misused by people for cruel or nefarious purposes. I doubt anything truly philosophically interesting can ever be understood on a mass-society level. Philosophy seems to me to be something that appeals to a small subsection of society consisting of people with unusual mental needs and desires. How it gets distorted for uses outside that small subsection is of little concern of mine – if for no reason other than I see no way to avoid such evils.
Perhaps I would feel differently if I came from a less privileged background, but I leave that question to someone who cares more about such things than I.
Mate, spot on for most of that.
Now if you’ll allow me a moment of pedantry- the term “scientism” predates Hayek. It was used in an essay in 1871 by Thomas Huxley and in 1921 by George Bernard Shaw.
Pedantry completed 😉
Daniel Halverson says
Thanks for the correction. Do you know the name of the essay?
Can’t remember off the top of my head. I do remember it was in the American Presbyterian review in 1871 (don’t ask me why I remember that rather than the title)…it was mostly anti-materialist and used the watchmaker analogy a bit too much for me, but he did use the term scientism.
Daniel Halverson says
Thanks. I looked it up and indeed the term was first used in 1870, long before Hayek wrote. So you are quite right, and now I am curious to read this essay, if I can find it.
Glad to help (and glad to have the opportunity to be needlessly picky).
I can also recommend “Back to Methuselah” by Shaw (1921). His insights into scientism are awesome.
Huxley is just railing against scientism from a religious perspective whereas Shaw talks about it in terms of hagiography and the stories we tell ourselves about our own beliefs.
First no support, then a massive rat’s nest of claims and references. I find it interesting that this was the method by which you chose to unearth the actual content of the case against the new atheists.
Who could spare the time to respond to this torrent? I sure can’t, so I’ll just say that even though i am familiar with much of the material cited, i still think that the new atheists’ work is by and large pretty solid, and i do not believe they are bigots. Perhaps some more enterprising soul will dig into this in my stead. Or maybe i shall find myself later this week with the drive to spend eight hours responding to a blog post comment.
Suppose I had written an article in which I said something like “Black people are lazy, violent thugs and welfare queens.” Then suppose you politely point out that I haven’t even pretended to give any evidence for this claim.
Now imagine that my response consisted of some cut-and-pasted list with items like “Here is video of Jerome, who is black, being arrested for a violent crime.” “Here is a picture of Janet, who is black, who is on unemployment but isn’t really looking very hard for work.” “Here are several paragraphs from Donald Trump talking about what he thinks about black people.” etc.
Would you say that I had discharged my burden of proof? Or that my original sweeping claim was made any less obnoxious or inflammatory or insulting?
It’s a cliche, but how you think really is more important than what you think. And with all due respect, nothing in your curated collection of quote-mines and slander and cherry-picked outrages indicates even an attempt to connect relevant evidence to a conclusion like “these people believe… that they possess an infallible truth, called science.”
”I could go on, but if I haven’t made my point by now I probably never will.”
I agree you have been thus far reluctant to make your point. But I am a compatiblist, so I believe that decision ultimately rests with you.
Fil Salustri says
This essay is a mangled mess of half-formed, poorly researched ideas, full of bald assertions and gross over-generalizations. Shame on you.
Baruch Brodersen says
In his essay, Mr. Havlerson makes several mischaracterizations of religious fundamentalism. In the spirit of ecumenicism, he distributes these caricatures across the West’s best-known monotheisms. Christian fundamentalists he claims, want creationism taught instead of something he refers to as “genuine science.” This is rather an inaccurate statement of fact. Christian fundamentalists want the public schools systems to honor or at least not offend deeply held beliefs by teaching creationism *in addition* to evolutionary science. The objective, similar to that of certain cartoon-phobic sects, is to preserve, nay protect the elevated feeling associated with the devotion these religion beliefs imbue and also to not undermine the rational validity of said beliefs. Mr. Havlerson goes off the rails though, when he attributes the building a security wall along the US-Mexican border, to Christian fundamentalism. It is no such thing. And the assertion that it is, is a conceit.
Furthermore, his ill-informed discussion of Jewish fundamentalism is a strikingly anti-Semitic piece of argumentation. Jewish fundamentalists he says, “claim that Palestine is their holy land, promised to them by God…”
Really? This is no more fundamentalist than say the Christian belief that Jesus is messiah or the Muslim one that Mohammad is a prophet.
If he intends the settler movement, those bogeymen of the left, then I must inform him that they too are not fundamentalists. Rather, they align more with the daati leumi, the national religious camp, although like everything in life, there are exceptions. Moreover, it is the Jewish fundamentalists who reject reclaiming the land without the leadership of the messiah (not the Christian one, for those keeping score). Since, according to Jewish tradition that has not happened, Jewish fundamentalists (broadly speaking, the Orthodox camp pre-1948) did not sanction the UN Partition Plan. Quite the opposite of Mr. Halverson’s assertions.
Now he says they “gather in the streets of their cities shouting “Death to the Arab!”…A scurrilous slander. But the curious thing is, if such a thing were to happen (outside of the mentally deranged, of course), it would never be sanctioned by what one might be called Jewish fundamentalists. And by that I mean the Israeli charedi parties. The charedim, while keen to insinuate religious observance into Israeli public life, (Israel is afterall, according to the UN Partition, the Jewish State in the Jewish-Arab two-state partition plan) are in the main quite peace loving and tolerant of ethnic minorities.
He continues, “…while their tanks and fighter jets make their wishes a reality.” This is an outrageous assertion. Jewish fundamentalists (charedim) have no tanks nor fighter jets, nor any weapons for that matter. The Jewish State, an open and liberal democracy, though, does.
Finally, he dispenses with Islamic fundamentalism by attributing dozens of attacks on the West to it. Mr. Havlerson here again demonstrates a lack of clarity about what constitutes religious fundamentalism, and by extension, fundamentalism in general. Jihadi terror attacks are acts of political fanaticism against the West. Islamic fundamentalism, say Wahhabism, is a different matter altogether, which may or may not coalesce with jihadi warfare.
Daniel Halverson says
I regret that we are unable to have an informed and civil discussion, as your baseless slander of anti-Semitism precludes the possibility. I invite you to acquaint yourself with the facts.
Hey Daniel – thanks for your great posts. I’ve probably read a few dozen of them in the past year, and they are all interesting and well-measured, and I learn a lot. Usually, that leaves me with little to say in a comment. Well, I felt compelled to say thanks here. Looking forward to reading more of your thoughts in the new year. Best of luck.
Daniel Halverson says
Thankyou for your kind and encouraging words, jSully. They are much appreciated.
By the same token, one can call you a fundamentalist liberal. What Popper has said about Einstein and Marx is a total misunderstanding of science. You can by no mean compare Physics with Sociology. It is like comparing Máthematic with Music.,
What Popper says in his book about Einstein, Marx and Freud and calling the first one for science and the other two for Pseudoscience can be interesting n the first glance, but it does´not hold in a logical reasoning. Why you are so proud about the so-called free societies when you see thousands and Thousands of immigrants and children and elderly suffering behind the closed doors of Europe. Do you call what Danmark, for instance, do against these poor people for humanism, democracy and the acts of a free society? In that case, I ho nothing to add, mate.
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