Last year I wrote a brief Remembrance Day post. As that was one of the first entries on this blog, it provides me with another reason to reflect. I created this website in part due to my growing awareness of a widespread attitude of theoretical overconfidence within the field of psychology, and especially with regard to how we define what it means to be human. Contrary to prevailing attitudes, I have proposed that psychology can never be an objective science, and that it must rely heavily on logic and reason if it is to have any hope of conducting its business as a social science with a tether to reality. It is my view that psychology often neglects philosophical reasoning, and that it makes the field, and those who draw from its knowledge base, prone to scientism – the implicit belief that scientific empiricism offers the royal road to knowledge. Once may even argue that it was this bastardized and dangerous form of science, that played a significant role in the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Some believe that the Holocaust could never happen again. They believe that modernity and science have progressed beyond such things. I think such people are deluded. There are lessons to be learned. The Holocaust happened in part because ignorant fools embraced a scientific dogma that would justify the mistreatment of a group of people. It allowed them to view others not as people, but as a genetically-inferior class of sub-humans. Modernity, order, and notions of goal directed progress, were not lacking but rather operating in full stride. They were necessary (though obviously insufficient) conditions for this form of genocide to occur. It allowed for the technocratic and hierarchical division of labour in the name of progress. Individuals simply ‘followed orders,’ and guilt was divided among the many so that no one person would bear the burden of moral responsibility. In short, a multitude of factors permitted a rational dehumanization, followed by an algorithmic system oriented toward end goals that could justify whatever means. The problem was not the lack of civilization or science, but in having an idealized and utopian view of civilization, and in not having enough reason to guide and at times restrain the scientistic ideas that took hold of the collective imagination.
Whenever the human being is reduced… to either an object, or as being little more than a reflexive animal, we should be worried. In recent years we have seen Evolutionary Psychologists describe nearly every aspect of human culture, from religious belief and morality to artistic expression, as being little more than a collective assemblage of pre-specified psychobiological programs inherited through natural selection. They imply that there is little that separates us from other animals and that their psychological ‘science’ is able to prove it. Their biases are implicit in the language they use, as they happily reduce human relationships to discussions of ‘mate preference’ and ‘mate selection.’ Science is only as good as the theory that interprets it, and the theory of Evolutionary Psychology is full of problems. Some of these researchers have also claimed that if the mind is nothing but the moving mechanisms of the brain, then there is no such thing as free-will; that we are just programmed, by genes and our environment, and that we could not have done other than what we have. This too is based on flawed logic – and yet it never seems to shake our confidence in our theories.
The point to be made is this: if we do not learn to reason with humility, to doubt our certainty, to question our ‘truths,’ we risk again falling into ideological illusions and scientistic mind traps. And when we follow a science that views the person as less than human, we are in Kenan Malik’s words, at risk of treating one another in inhuman ways. If there is anything worth remembering, it is that. I will leave the reader with a video clip of Jacob Bronowski, taken from the award winning series, The Ascent of Man. Let us not forget – the cost is too great.