Thursday, September 02, 2010
One thing I'll grant "David Hume" is that I find his posts at Secular Right thought-provoking.
Not long ago, I took note of a blog post of Humes's whose disparagement of human beings stuck out like a sore thumb to me. After making a couple of decent points, Hume moaned that, "Of course most humans are too stupid to even spell 'philosophical,'" and basically concluded that man is incapable of objectivity.
Today, I stopped by Secular Right and found another, similarly interesting post. This one comes out in favor of a kind of "argument" I normally observe religionists making, and which I privately call the "puny man" argument." Typically, I see it when creationists seek to disparage the theory of evolution, or "pro-life" Christians rail against abortion or stem cell research.
The gist is something like, "How dare you, puny man, presume to comprehend the vast cosmos, or, in your unconquerable ignorance, assign any importance whatsoever to yourself." Here's the passage that clicked for me, which Hume quotes from a Scientific American article on why (supposedly), "we're suckers for stories of our own demise."
The impulse is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature -- we are, after all, creatures of the savanna, programmed to uncover trends in the natural world. It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points. (In recent years this tendency has been amplified by news media that are very good at turning complex events into cartoon crises.) The desire to treat terrible events as the harbinger of the end of civilization itself also has roots in another human trait: vanity.On reading this, I cannot help but ask whether creating a "simple story from a complex set of data points," made author Michael Moyer "feel special." Why "cartoon crises" hold such a grip on so many people is an interesting question, but this analysis doesn't even come close to touching it, and could just as well apply to valid concerns about real crises. The problem is that it makes completely wrong assumptions about man's nature and his relationship with the rest of the universe.
We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet -- with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. "It's part of the fundamental limited perspective of our species to believe that this moment is the critical one and critical in every way -- for good, for bad, for the final end of humanity," says Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego. Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.
The first paragraph of the above implies determinism. In addition, the fact that -- if man can know anything, he has to know it somehow -- is used to imply that the "somehow," (which it holds to be simple pattern recognition) necessarily leads to distortions. The second paragraph basically dismisses self-interest as "limited," and even dismisses concern for self as a neurotic desire to "feel special." But then, if a vast, dumb collection of matter, time, and space (excluding yourself, of course) is your standard of "value," I guess there's no room for recognizing one's own life as special, let alone sacred.
Contrast the above with something that my favorite secular, non-leftist once said:
I will ask you to project the look on a child's face when he grasps the answer to some problem he has been striving to understand. It is a radiant look of joy, of liberation, almost of triumph, which is unself-conscious, yet self-assertive, and its radiance seems to spread in two directions: outward, as an illumination of the world -- inward, as the first spark of what is to become the fire of an earned pride. If you have seen this look, or experienced it, you know that there is such a concept as "sacred" -- meaning: the best, the highest possible to man -- this look is the sacred, the not-to-be-betrayed, the not-to-be-sacrificed for anything or anyone. ["Requiem for Man" by Ayn Rand, in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 303]Could you say that such a child feels "special?" Yes. Is this neurotic? Absolutely not. Would such a child fall for every forecast of the apocalypse? No. (He'd consider the evidence himself, and he already feels special, in a proper sense, anyway.) Would he be able to recognize and work to stem a real crisis? Yes.
Epistemologically, the view of man as puny takes omniscience as the standard of knowledge. Ethically, it is altruism -- abject, Kantian altruism when severed from its usual Christian context. Psycho-socially, it manifests as ridicule of any view of man as anything more than a hunk of meat.
What would Ayn Rand have said to that? "Speak for yourself," I believe.
Today: Clarified second paragraph after first quote.