Wilson and "Scientific Humanism"

Monday, November 26, 2007

Entomologist E.O. Wilson of Harvard has written an essay on the religion-inspired controversy concerning evolution in which he touches on a very important aspect of the dispute:

In the more than slightly schizophrenic circumstances of the present era, global culture is divided into three opposing images of the human condition. The dominant one, exemplified by the creation myths of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - sees humanity as a creation of God. He brought us into being and He guides us still as father, judge and friend. We interpret His will from sacred scriptures and the wisdom of ecclesiastical authorities.

The second world view is that of political behaviourism. Still beloved by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the brain is largely a blank state devoid of any inborn inscription beyond reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence, the mind originates almost wholly as a product of learning, and it is the product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency. Because there is no biologically based "human nature", people can be moulded to the best possible political and economic system, namely communism. In practical politics, this belief has been repeatedly tested and, after economic collapses and tens of millions of deaths in a dozen dysfunctional states, is generally deemed a failure.

Both of these world views, God-centred religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical world view, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of the world's population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 per cent of its existence, it forms the behavioural part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called "the indelible stamp of [our] lowly origin". [bold added]
I set aside my major criticism of Wilson's essay -- that it makes the common error of mistaking science for rational philosophy (on whose foundations it depends) as the fundamental alternative to faith-based religion -- to focus on the crucial fact that it identifies: Man's conception of himself does indeed depend upon his most fundamental beliefs, be they based on evidence and reason or on faith.

This fact certainly accounts for much of the emotional nature of the "debate" over evolution, although Wilson does not elaborate enough on his own position to allow me to divine whether it has merit or offers any guidance for an intelligent being with free will. Is Wilson a determinist? Does he pooh-pooh any and all human aspirations as cultural relics of our primitive religious past? Would he smirk at the notion that man can lead a purposeful life and that he must break the chains of religion to do so? I strongly suspect that Wilson's "scientific humanism" is very thin gruel.

I have touched on what religion attempts to offer man quite a bit here lately, and it is not just such airier notions as reverence and awe. Many people, when confronted with a challenge to their religious beliefs, really feel on a visceral level not just the fear of others that Dostoevsky's saying, "If God is not, everything is permitted," captures, but also a chasm of emptiness that comes with a lack of purpose. Religion has taken from them the idea that their life is their own and convinced them that without its framework, life is not worth living. (And it does not help matters that when one's mind is atrophied through the life-long practice of taking the shortcuts of faith, one naturally has little confidence in his own mind.)

While I suspect that, were the philosophy of Ayn Rand only better known, many intelligent people would accept much or all of it, many others would (as many already do) still strongly oppose it on very powerful emotional grounds. It takes time to digest and appreciate an argument, but an emotion, even if a consequence of mistaken beliefs, is felt with the same immediacy and strength as a perception.

This presents a serious difficulty, but addressing such a difficulty begins with identifying it.

-- CAV


: Minor edit.


Clay said...

I've been following a debate between Dr. Steven Novella of the New England Skeptical Society and some sort of religious leader.


I find the whole thing interesting. Dr. Novella just erroneously ceded the point that values are subjective. I generally find that these folks are good at logic 101 type stuff. Excellent pointing out the fallacies committed by others, but this deductive work doesn't necessarily translate when it comes to inductive issues.

Dr. Novella is the host of a podcast called "The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe." It is a good podcast which spends most of its time debunking myths, "woo," and bad science. Probably the best part of the show is the interview portion which features many prominent "skeptics," and scientists.

On the other hand it has been my experience that the more philosophical and/or political the conversation gets the less interesting it is as their views tend to become more conventional or more ill-informed.

Wrt more people knowing about Ayn Rand's philosophy. I don't speak for him, but Dr. Binswanger pointed out in a lecture that when he read Atlas Shrugged that he believed that the philosophical message would sweep the culture. He went on to observe that nothing near that has happened and explained why. In essence he explained that people have the wrong epistemology and psycho-epistemology. He gave some examples which I won't repeat here, but his comment with regard to them was something like... after dealing w/ numerous instances of peoples' inability to grasp complex philosophical issues he came to the conclusion that they hadn't read the same Ayn Rand that he had.

Gus Van Horn said...

"[P]eople have the wrong epistemology...."

This is an excellent point, and explains why so many who are free from religion to various degrees still don't see value in Rand's works.

I ran across an extreme example of this recently, which I will err on the side of caution and not elaborate upon at all.

Suffice it to say that this victim of public education was both among those most in need of Rand's philosophy and at the same time least able to engage it.

Dr. B. ain't whistlin' Dixie when he sys that some people don't "read the same Ayn Rand" he has.

Monica said...

Nice post. To my recollection, EO Wilson also said some strange things about how bee behavior pertains to human behavior. ?! He actually argued that since bees are eusocial, humans should be, too. This was all read a long time ago, before I read Ayn Rand and became better able to untangle bad arguments, but the fundamental argument makes no logical sense, anyway. I could also use bee behavior as an argument for working really hard or getting pushed out of the colony to your death. *sigh* Furthermore, inferring behavioral aspects between highly unrelated organisms is always a bad idea. I'm sure Wilson knows this. He's just emotionally motivated to say these things. In one of his books, he recounts throwing away religion because it was too illogical, but it made him really sad because he felt an emotional tug there.

I'm sure you have noticed, since your comments are in bold, that Wilson seems to assert contradictory things about the basis of human nature. On the one hand, it's not biologically based. On the other, it's self-assembled. !? Those two statements are totally contradictory!!

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for the additional information on Wilson.

On the comments in bold, while it would not surprise me for Wilson to contradict himself, the "not biologically based" is a point of view (which he terms "political behaviourism") he is discussing and seems to disagree with, at least here.

Jim May said...

The third "option" sounds merely like a milder "weak" variation of the "strong" innate-ideas position of the first group.

The second is merely the false concept of "tabula rasa" that I've noted here earlier, that ignores free will to "inflate" the concept to mean total malleability.

The Objectivist position which I laid out by analogy in the linked comment above, which holds that man the species has identity (nature) but each individual is self-authored, is the true "third" position.

Gus Van Horn said...

Regaring the mind, you have two camps: Those who want it to exist, but have no nature, and those who wish it didn't exist at all.

Or at least you did until the Objectivists came along!