In Remembrance: Ignorance and Dogma

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.



7 Responses to “In Remembrance: Ignorance and Dogma”

  1. Alicia Says:

    Strong, profoundly moving post. I like the light shed on human dignity especially.

  2. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    Nice post. I can’t say I am in agreement with all of your conclusions, but, I thank you for food for thought.

    Brad Reply:

    Thanks for the comment. This short post quickly sums up many of my positions regarding what I believe it means to be human and how I think we often get it wrong. Most of these ideas go against mainstream belief, so I am guessing that few would agree with all of them. That said, please feel free to offer a negative critique, comment, or challenge if you feel so inclined.

    Mrs. Neutron Reply:

    Well, I’m with you in the belief that psychology can never be an objective science, but, I don’t see Scientism as the ….” bastardized and dangerous form of science that played a significant role in the atrocities of the Holocaust.” Human beings have been exterminating members of “other” groups with great relish as far back as history records. The “different” are dangerous in so many, many ways.

    I agree with you about the Holocaust happening again. I’m almost certain it will, or, to one degree or another already has. But, I don’t think this because ..”ignorant fools embraced a scientific dogma that would justify the mistreatment of a group of people.” We don’t need science for that because, embarrassingly enough, this too falls within the definition of “What it means to be human”. Simple religion will do and conflicting denial of death schemes have traditionally provided ample fuel for the fires of wholesale murder and mayhem, ridding the stage of the unholy and the different. Perhaps it goes back to the extermination of the Neanderthals.

    I’m not sure I understand where you are going with this… “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. “…

    What are you suggesting instead? Magical thinking? I grant you that all this SEEMS to be magical, but, so does a BIC lighter to a Bushman. Are you sure you are not a victim of what John Schumaker calls “The Paranormal Imperative”?

    Respectfully yours
    Mrs. N.

    Brad Reply:

    Before I respond to your comments, I just wanted to say that I checked out your blog and was impressed. You write with insight, wit, and intelligence. I was also happy to find mention of some of my favorite writers… Becker, Rank, and Schumaker, suggesting that we might have similar theoretical leanings about some very complex ideas regarding human nature (also, George Carlin is also one of my favorite comedians). In short, you’ve earned yourself a subscriber!

    Now, on to your comments. I don’t disagree that human illusion and ‘other-extermination’ can and does occur without the help of scientism; only that in the case of the Holocaust, it played a significant role in the rationalization of genocide. I think you would agree that we are not going to free ourselves from illusion and death-denying ideologies by becoming more secular. I believe it is important to identify and continually combat illusionary worldviews that justify the mistreatment of others: scientism and certain aspects of modernity have become the new religions. As an aside, I should mention that my views about the Holocaust have been significantly influenced by Zygmunt Bauman, who paints a more complex view than the one we are often handed, and more subtly by Schumaker (specifically his book ‘The Age of Insanity: Modernity and Mental Health’). I am not sure if you would agree, but I think it is too simple to say that we are biologically predisposed to mistreat others because they are different. We have to take into account the mediating factors of culture, ideology, and trends toward absolutism [all of which serve the purpose of creating meaning where there was none and by offering ways to distract from, or outright deny, our own mortality]. In short, I was trying to say that in this specific example, scientism played a starring role that was important to acknowledge. To paint a more simplistic picture is, in my view, not only incorrect, but also implies succumbing to a defeatist or deterministic attitude, much like the one that John Gray seems to take (despite the fact that I agree with much of what the man has to say). I hope you are able to follow what I am saying.

    With regard to evolutionary psychology and the question of where was I going with that… Well, I was pointing out that evolutionary psychologists tend to minimize the role of culture as they appeal to ‘ultimate causes’ involving invisible genetic programs (when they talk of culture, they often mean ‘evoked cultures’). Have they localized these genes? Is there any physical evidence? No. They assume that they are there because that fits within the interpretive lens of their theory. If anyone is guilty of magical thinking, it would be them. They relieve us of personal responsibility by saying that we could not have done much different (or we must wrestle against significant genetically constrained tendencies)… we are predisposed to act this way or that because it would have served some adaptive evolutionary function. Raymond Tallis has noted (and critiqued) these trends in his book: Aping Mankind (which I review here). Evolutionary psychologists would have us think that their approach is the only way to think about the evolution of the human mind. This is not true; it is a false choice. Correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to be making the same accusation, when you seem to say that if we disagree with evolutionary psychology, we must be prone to magical thinking. Again, this is a false dichotomy. Many of the Embedded/Embodied Cognitive Theories, or ‘Extended-Mind’ Theories, offer alternatives to EP while being consistent with logically-coherent possibilities regarding the evolution of the human mind. If you have time, check out my paper Critiquing EP; it has been peer reviewed, and a slightly modified version has been accepted for publication in the journal ‘Theory and Psychology’ early next year. You might also want to know that most evolutionary psychologists think that all of the Becker stuff is absolute bollocks. They are some of the harshest critics of Terror Management Theory and the idea of ‘death denial’ because it does not fit with their theory about what it was that we evolved as a species.

    I will try to lay out my own thoughts about the evolution of symbolic thought, death denial, etc. in a future post, but for now I will say that the earlier steps in that evolutionary trajectory are influenced greatly by the work of Raymond Tallis (The Hand, I Am, The Knowing Animal), Terrence Deacon (The Symbolic Species), and of course Becker (The Birth and Death of Meaning).

  3. Mrs. Neutron Says:

    Thank you for your kind words Brad. I wrote an earlier reply, but, it seems to have gone poof. Never mind.

    I believe I understand what you are saying and I agree. I read your paper on EP and learned a great deal about a subject I had never really considered, at least in that detail. In the end I guess it all has to do with, as you say, “Where you draw the line”.

    Years ago I read some works by Rupert Sheldrake who takes exception to the idea that everything is genetic and it always has remained a question with me. Where is the robin’s nest in the robin’s genes and what particular amino acid combinations make it come out so much differently than a hummingbirds? “If we want to find I love Lucy, do we begin by dismantling the TV?”

    OK Brad, you have to help me out here. I love reading John Schumaker. I own and have read “Corruption of Reality”, “The Wings of Illusion” & “Happiness” many times. They were “reasonably” priced. What the hell is the story with…
    Religion and Mental Health…… $135
    The Age of Insanity…….. $110.95
    Human Suggestibility….. $247.84

    I love this guy, but, he’s killing me!

    I confess, you shocked me with this… ” You might also want to know that most evolutionary psychologists think that all of the Becker stuff is absolute bollocks.”…

    I look forward to reading more of what you have suggested and thank you, again, for your kind words.

    Respectfully yours
    Mrs. N.

    Brad Reply:

    “If we want to find I Love Lucy, do we begin by dismantling the TV?” – exactly. This is my biggest beef with evolutionary psychology. I did a video blog a few posts back where I try to show that theory rules over and ultimately justifies what we will call “scientific evidence.” The evolutionary psychologists (and let’s be fair, most persons too invested in any theoretical framework) don’t seem to get this. When you criticize their theories about why people abuse stepchildren or why they shop, they only pull out some study that they did, without giving serious thought to the idea that you could interpret the results very differently from another theoretical lens (i.e. using another set of assumptions). The evidence isn’t all that objective at all – which leaves us with a necessary critique and comparison the theories. In my debates with evolutionary psychologists I have found that I seem to know more about their theory than they do. I suppose that’s how it works for them in a way.

    I hear your pain. It was very difficult for me to shell out over $100 on that first book by Schumaker. It was a gamble that paid off. It is interesting that many of Raymond Tallis’ books are also grossly overpriced. I guess someone is making it very hard for us to understand how the world really works.