New Atheists, Universal Darwinists, and Scientism

Our modern times have witnessed a growing dissatisfaction with traditional forms of religion. With greater access to evolutionary education, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile our longing for meaningful answers in a faith that crumbles under the scrutiny of science and reason. In recent years, that scrutiny has come by way of the so-called New Atheists (e.g. Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett), who have risen to a kind of cultural stardom seldom granted to scientists or philosophers. Their confident and polemic style of writing has relentlessly attacked unscientific belief while amassing their own legion of loyal followers. In an age where religion has failed to sustain our heavy hearts, these scientific crusaders seem to have many answers, and much to teach us about what it means to be human.

Having used their science to dispel any remnants of a religious soul, many of these new science writers are happy to tell us all about ‘Selfish Genes,’ ‘How the Mind Works,’ our ‘Consciousness Explained,’ and even ‘How Science Can Determine Human Values.’ It would seem that this new form of science is both ambitious and powerful indeed. Yet, this new way of viewing human nature, espoused in these popular science books, seems to begin with a premise that may not be very scientific at all. At the heart of these new approaches, are theoretical assumptions that appear to minimize the role of the subjective and fully self-conscious agent, while favoring mechanistic metaphors (e.g. brain-as-computer) for defining the human being. Evolutionary psychology, for example, is a version of Universal Darwinism that has gained increasing attention in recent years. From this paradigm, nearly every aspect of our human nature can be hypothesized as ultimately originating from some genetically pre-specified psychobiological program. Some of these new science writers have even gone so far as to claim that our consciousness and even our free-will are nothing but illusions. All of this, they confidently tell us, is made very clear by the scientific evidence.

In Man, Beast, and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us about Human Nature (2002), Malik argues that the modern view of human nature has been one of increasing pessimism toward our ‘humanity’ – those parts of ourselves that uniquely separate us from other animals. In an age of overpopulation, dwindling resources, global warming, terrorism, and continued global conflict, it seems hard to be optimistic about the human being. Malik tracks a historical path leading to a modern view that de-emphasizes Enlightenment ideas of human uniqueness, transcendence, and reason, and places greater emphasis on reductionist views where humans are yet again seen as mere animals or biological machines. ‘They tell us that if we take away our complex culture, symbolic world of language, our ability to recognize our own mortality, and so on (essentially, everything that makes us human), that we are nothing but animals’ (Malik, 2002). But as Malik observes, there is nothing remotely profound in that statement – though we might wonder why there is a re-emphasizing of this single side of the human coin.

Many of these new science writers seem to think they can easily separate our culture and symbolic worlds from our ‘innate nature.’ They appear to think they can peel back the surface layers of culture, learning, or experience, to reveal a human creature standing naked in their genetic endowment (Malik, 2002). The human is thus revealed to be nothing more than an animal or computational machine. But while the popular science books of our day may convince the unspecialized layperson, these explanations leave much to be desired for a great many trained academics. An equally rational and scientific argument can be presented based on a limited mechanistic account of our human nature – while appealing to emergent aspects of our humanity that cannot be reduced to invisible genetic programs or other mechanistic explanations that are currently favored. For Malik, these re-emerging reductionist trends are worrisome, since ‘the moment we begin to see ourselves as less than human, it opens the door for us to treat one another in inhuman ways.’ And with enough time having passed since the horrors of the Second World War, we are perhaps once more perfectly poised to ignore the lessons of history – forgetting what ‘science’ has been capable of justifying.

In a May 2011 article in The Nation (here), Jackson Lears offered a similar historical assessment of these emerging trends, along with an extensive critique of Sam Harris’ version of science. Lears reminds us of what we seem to forget:

“Sociologists of knowledge, along with historians and philosophers of science (including Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger and Thomas Kuhn), all emphasized the provisionality of scientific truth, its dependence on a shifting expert consensus that could change or even dissolve outright in light of new evidence. Reality – or at least our apprehension of it – could be said to be socially constructed. This meant that our understanding of the physical world is contingent on the very things – the methods of measurement, the interests of the observer – required to apprehend it” (p. 28).

Science is a powerful method of investigation, but it must be tamed and directed by reason to avoid going astray or reaching unjustified conclusions based on problematic assumptions. But it seems as though this new breed of science writer wants to deify science as it silences reason and dismisses any need to investigate explanations of human nature in the context of our cultures or human history. They want to be rid of the cumbersome restrictions of philosophical thought. Troy Jollimore observes this trend in Harris’ writing (here). In every book that seeks to make humans ‘less human,’ our ability to employ reason becomes increasingly demoralized. ‘Trust the evidence’ they seem to say. It would be more appropriate to hear it as: ‘have faith in the evidence.’ The religious based faith, supplanted by the New Atheists, seems to have only been replaced by another – a positivist faith in scientism.

Malik observes how these emerging trends have brought us full circle within the history of thought on human nature. Aristotelian thought presupposed that every natural object has some kind of inner ‘essence’ or quality that makes it what it is. These ideas were later overthrown by the Scientific Revolution, but we have recently seen a re-emergence of an innately mechanistic philosophy where we are again brought back to a prescientific view of nature:

“It is ironic that the attempt to create a fully naturalistic view of humanity should return us to a medieval version of the cosmos. But this should not surprise us. The Scientific Revolution was a key buttress of the humanist view of the world: the attempt to place human beings at the centre of philosophical debate and to assert human control over both nature and history. It was a view of human beings as subjects who had a say in their own destiny, not as objects of a preordained fate. Today, as the balance shifts back towards the idea of humans as objects, as beings with limited control over their fate, so the balance has also shifted back towards a prehumanist view of human nature” (p. 380).

With Aristotle, our essence was bestowed by the Gods. In these modern times, our ‘essence’ belongs to invisible programs that are pre-specified by our genetic coding. Malik observes that while the Universal Darwinists have gotten rid of the ‘ghost in the machine,’ they have only worsened the situation: now, the ghost is the machine. The Universal Darwinists are now playing the role of the old Gods – and it seems that we are more than willing to worship them as well. Seeing ourselves as innately pre-specified to do what we do, as incapable of free-will or personal agency, in some ways reduces our sense of ultimate responsibility. Maybe that is too heavy a burden in these modern times.

The inclination to resist the lure of Universal Darwinism tends to be labelled by its proponents as ‘culturally deterministic’ or ‘anti-evolutionist.’ They seem to have an either ‘with us or against us’ kind of attitude, thus treating the issue in an absolute sense… but a mind that is aware of the absurdity of the human condition has no tolerance for absolutes. Camus has shown us that they always entail a logical leap. There are those of us who accept the tenants of evolution, and agree that the human mind was indeed shaped by natural selection. But we nonetheless disagree on ‘what it was’ that nature selected, and emphatically reject Universal Darwinism on the grounds that we cannot have faith in a science that parts so easily with reason.

2 Responses to “New Atheists, Universal Darwinists, and Scientism”

  1. ronbc Says:

    It’s too bad that you don’t seem to have the time to write here more often, for your too few pieces are both erudite and enjoyably literate.

    While I agree that the Horsemen can be tedious, from your posts here and your comments elsewhere I know that I have more tolerance for scientific “reductionism” than you do.

    On one level, the scientific method is little more than reductionism, in the sense that larger observations are explained by/resolved into successively smaller bits.

    However, to explain is not to explain away. The mechanism and the experience are not the same thing. Yet, I see no need for any species of dualism, any kind of spiritualism, or any appeal to an ineffable “humanness” in order to dignify or elevate what we experience.

    I’m quite comfortable with a machine view, and I can almost embrace a zombie hypothesis, so long as we realize that we’re describing physical processes, and not dismissing or diminishing the altogether different — and essentially human — experiences those processes produce.

    To be me is not to be what my brain does — but nothing that’s me depends on anything other than what my brain does.

    As Hamlet said of something else entirely, “This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof.”

    All the research I’ve read supports this view, and I think that it’s a mistake either to discount the research to protect the human experience, as some do, or to use the research to eliminate that experience, as the Horsemen do.

  2. Brad Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I suspect that we agree more often than not, though you are probably correct in noting that I am less optimistic about a reductionist approach to psychology. While I do not discount the psychological research altogether, I have over time lost my faith in it. I am particularly skeptical in its ability to elucidate the most interesting parts of our human experience without wishing them away as illusions or the product of some invisible genetic program. I again question whether the problem for a reductionistic psychology may involve the objective approach of science versus what may be the irreducible (perhaps emergent?) subjective experiences of human beings.

    I think you are very right to say that you are not what your brain does (Pinker would probably disagree!)… yet I also wonder if we could take it even further than your next qualification… is there reason for us to wonder, for example, that what makes me – ‘me,’ could depend on more than what my brain does? That may sound strange, but we might wonder how much brain activation could persist without an immediate environment or an interpersonal relationship, or even a personal history, a culture, etc. It seems to me that the theories involving ’embodied cognition’ and an ‘extended mind’ are giving more credit to things ‘outside’ of the brain, in trying to understand the processes that gives rise to our experiences as human beings. I have not thought enough about these things to take a serious stance on these ideas, but I am wavering enough to be skeptical about a mind that reduces to only a brain.