Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Ghost in the Machine

Horatio: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosphy.
Steve Pinker’s article on the “The Moral Instinct” continues to draw a lot of attention on the web. At the risk of reviewing the reviews (or reacting to the reactions), what strikes me is the anxiety expressed by some about the notion there might be biological traits in humans associated with the exercise of moral reasoning or religious belief. I’m not talking about the creationists or proponents of ID; I’m talking about the average person who professes faith in God and who otherwise sees no conflict between that faith and modern science.

Now I’m not going to defend everything Pinker said in his article or the pop-journalistic style he used. What surprises me is how ready many have been to attack, jumping to the conclusion that he is arguing for a materialistic, mechanistic view of human beings and their moral behavior, and by implication, one that is contrary to the foundations of religious belief and practice. Maybe we have the militant atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins to blame for this – I do not recall quite so much anxiety about this back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when Ashley Montagu was trying to bridge the gap between the sociobiologists and cultural anthropologists of his day. Neverthelesss, some of the knee-jerk reactions against Pinker's article, such as that of Claire Hoffman (in "A Questionable Moral Instinct" at her Newsweek blog, Under God), rather astonish me. I sometimes wonder whether even so-called religious progressives can be as dismissive of science as the creationists they so often deplore.

Although I am not familiar with Pinker or his writings, I found a good description of the kind of attitude I mean in Steve Johnson's review of Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate. Johnson finds that critics of the various kinds of disciplines or schools of thought described as “biological determinism” often jump to the same conclusion:
The true straw man of biological determinism, however, is the latter term, which implies a fantasy of genetic programming in which we are all slaves to our DNA, with free will, education, culture, chance, life experience – all the nonbiological forces--relegated to the margins of who we are. Not one of the leading neo-Darwinians – Wilson, Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Robert Trivers, William Hamilton or the science writers who have helped popularize their work, like Richard Wright and Matt Ridley – has ever argued for a pure genetic determinism. You can't read more than a few pages into any of the major books written on the subject without encountering the obligatory disclaimer, making it clear that the author believes that we are greatly shaped by culture and experience, and the biological component is only a part of what makes us human.
"Sociobiology and You," The Nation, November 18, 2002. [Note, the same can be said about Pinker's article, where he discusses how many behaviors have become amoralized and moralized in recent years, indicating that culture is terribly important in determining what gets loaded into the hypothetical biologically-loaded "grammar" that frames the way we may conceive and act upon our notions of what is and is not moral.]

What Johnson and Pinker both find surprising is that many so-called liberals -- those who claim to be strong supporters of science -- nevertheless embrace "human exceptionalism" – i.e. Pinker’s "blank slate" – the notion that, "Unlike all the other organisms on earth, which clearly arrive with a sophisticated set of instincts designed to exploit the parameters of their environment, human minds are merely abstract learning machines, born with no innate proclivities other than to soak up information along the way." Id. at 2. Johnson describes this phenomenon as follows:
But the more interesting question – and the one Pinker spends the most time unraveling in The Blank Slate – is why that exceptionalism should prove to be so appealing to liberals and leftists who otherwise count themselves as proud defenders of the Darwinian faith. The argument for the blank slate turns out to be a strange kind of Not in My Backyardism: We need to have Darwinian theory in those Kansas schools, but we don't dare use it to understand what's going on in our own heads.
Id. (emphasis added). This peculiar bias has been acknowledged even by those who disagree with Pinker on other grounds (See Louis Menand, "What Comes Naturally," The New Yorker, November 22, 2002 and Simon Blackburn, "Meet the Flintstones"). However, I especially like Johnson's view of the middle ground, or more accurately, the multivalent context, in which nature and nurture, and our knowledge of each, can interact:
Contrary to what its critics say, evolutionary psychology does not threaten our ability to assess and transform our social and cultural landscapes. Quite the opposite--understanding the particular channels that we're prepared to learn can throw into sharper relief the achievements of culture. Knowing something about our reproductive drives and our tendencies toward violence makes the extraordinary drop in murder and birthrates experienced by many Western countries over the past few centuries all the more impressive. And just because our mental modules are implicated in political issues, that's no reason to hand over our societal reins to the evolutionary psychologists. To include biological explanations in a discussion of human society by no means eliminates the validity of other kinds of explanations. What Pinker and E.O. Wilson are proposing is not biological determinism but rather biological consilience: the connecting of different layers of experience, each with its own distinct vocabulary and expertise, but each also possessing links up and down the chain:
Good reductionism (also called hierarchical reductionism) consists not of replacing one field of knowledge with another but of connecting or unifying them. The building blocks used by one field are put under a microscope by another. The black boxes get opened; the promissory notes get cashed. A geographer might explain why the coastline of Africa fits into the coastline of the Americas by saying that the landmasses were once adjacent but sat on different plates, which drifted apart. The question of why the plates move gets passed on to the geologists, who appeal to an upwelling of magma that pushes them apart. As for how the magma got so hot, they call in the physicists to explain the reactions in the Earth's core and mantle. None of the scientists is dispensable. An isolated geographer would have to invoke magic to move the continents, and an isolated physicist could not have predicted the shape of South America.

I would suggest that while religion, in some senses, is the way that many of us not only view but experience "the whole shebang," in other senses it is one of many building blocks in human knowledge and understanding. It needs the others, as much as they need to be informed and guided by religion's understanding of larger eternal truths. And there is no good reason why we should shy away from learning whatever science can teach us about how we and the physical universe we inhabit function.

For many people it is not necessary to resolve the tensions between faith and science. We just go on our merry way thinking that evolutionary biologists can do whatever it is that they do as long as they keep to themselves and apply their work to advancing medicine and improving or protecting the physical environment. Meanwhile, we think and pray, live and die as though there is a ghost in our machines – as spirit, soul, and/or mind in each of our bodies and as God in the universe as a whole. And – here’s the rub -- we argue with atheists about whether there really are such ghosts, even though we admit we cannot prove, empirically at least, that they exist.

The work of biologists, physicists, sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers all can shed light on who and what we are without losing the mystery that keeps us from ever glimpsing the full reality of who and what God is. Theirs are not competing spheres of knowledge or understanding but rather the means by which we might better be all that God calls us to be. God's design and purpose may be working within what we know as our physical bodies, not extraneously -- or, for all we know, both internally and externally, or in terms of dimensions we will never fathom. Nevertheless, when science begins to talk about some kind of neurological predisposition for developing and exercising a sense of morality, for some kinds of altruism, or even having religious beliefs, a sudden chill seems to fill the air, as if in anticipation of someone suddenly yanking the curtains away to reveal a cold, dark, complex machine without even an Oz to pull the levers. Our faith should be bigger and better than that.

There is much to observe, learn, argue and debate. There are Pinker and his critics. There is Walter Freeman (How Brains Make Up Their Minds and Societies of Brains); António Damásio (Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain), and now Andrew Gluck (Damasio's Error and Descartes' Truth: An Inquiry into Consciousness, Metaphysics, and Epistemology). There appears to be no end to the questions, let alone answers.

Putting it all together suggests yet another kind of chain. As Steve Johnson envisioned it at the conclusion of "Sociobiology and You":
Neuroscientists explain how the brain's underlying electrochemical networks function; evolutionary psychologists explain how and why those networks create channels of "prepared learning"; sociologists explain what happens when those channels come together in large groups of individual minds; political theorists and ethicists explore the best way to structure society based on those patterns of group behavior, and the individual needs and drives contained within them. Including a few layers of biological knowledge in this chain doesn't hijack the process; it doesn't turn us into genetically programmed robots. In fact, it might well make our cultural systems more effective by showcasing useful avenues to explore and suggesting areas where our prepared learning may create too much resistance. The more we understand our nature, the better we'll be at nurturing.
The same can be said about loving God and our neighbor. The more we understand about how it is that we think and act the way we do, the better we'll be at building the Kingdom.

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