Gene Roddenberry has often pissed me off. He didn’t invent the stereotype, but he certainly crystallized it in popular culture with his Star Trek character, Mr Spock. What is the end result of intelligence and education? Why, an emotionless robot who assesses impossible probabilities instantaneously in his head and denies love and friendship. It’s a caricature I run into all the time — I’ve lost count of the number of emails I’ve received informing me that True Scientists™ do not get angry about anything, and therefore everything I say is invalid. It’s annoying, but mainly what it tells me is that the correspondent doesn’t know any scientists at all.
Guess what, people? Scientists are human beings! We’re even aware of it, because there human/emotional/fun/expressive/imaginative things we like to do! This is also true of atheists, who contrary to popular opinion, are not grim and bloodless beings out to grind feelings out of existence. (You can imagine the kinds of fantasies about their existence that godless scientists hear all the time.)
The latest perpetrator of this idiotic and tiresome canard is that epitome of dull-witted mediocrity, the columnist David Brooks. And it’s not just the atheist scientists he snipes at, but a lot of other things, as you might guess from the presumptuous title of his latest column, The End of Philosophy. The reason for his argument? The amazing (to him) discovery that human beings are not rational, which leads him to conclude that reason isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It seems Mr Brooks has just now discovered the work of Jonathan Haidt, who has found that many moral judgments are not the product of reason, but of emotional responses — the reasoning is after the fact, and is usually nothing but an exercise in rationalizing a decision that was already made. This is not surprising, an assessment which is not intended to denigrate Haidt’s work, which has done a good job of testing and affirming that idea. We are not rational actors, and we know this … even those of us who are supposed to don pointy ears and pretend to be a Vulcan.
Where Brooks falls flat on his face is his unthinking adoption of the naturalistic fallacy — the idea that if many of our moral decisions are the product of snap judgments built on emotional responses, then all that hoity-toity philosophy and thinking about what is good and what is right to do are irrelevant and wrong. Reason just doesn’t matter, emotion is primal and dominant, and therefore, this is the way we should think.
I would like to suggest some remedial reading in the philosophy of reason vs. emotion; I strongly recommend that classic treatise in the subject, Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. It’s beautifully written and clear, and most of us — even us atheist scientists — learned the story in kindergarten. There seems to be a gap in Mr Brooks’ education.
That is the real problem here. You won’t get any argument from me that most moral decisions are built more on wishful thinking or disgust or blind prejudice — I will concede that point, and throw in many examples that I know about to support it further. The question is whether that is the best way to make decisions, and I would say that in many cases it is not, that it leads us astray, and that what this property of human nature tells us is that we need philosophy and reason even more to help us correct a flaw in our makeup.
It’s the same thing biologists have been saying since Darwin. Nature may be a bloody tyrant that is ruthless in its execution, but that does not imply that human beings must model their behavior after natural selection. Rather, what we should do as sentient beings is act to create a society that balances the harshness of evolution with a culture that tries to elevate virtues like reason and social justice and equality. Similarly, if emotion tells us to recoil from harmless behaviors, maybe we should counter that with practiced reason, rather than simply succumbing to our biases.
Maybe, if David Brooks were not embracing any excuse to justify his prejudices and were instead trying to think rationally, he would hesitate before saying stupid things like this:
The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.
There’s that cartoon again. The atheists are not convinced of the purity of their reasoning — we know the human mind is flawed and easily twisted askew from reality. That’s precisely why we demand verifiable, empirical evidence for truth claims. It is not enough to simply say you know the answer and it is right, we expect you to show your work, and we’re going to reject claims, like those of faith, that insist on an unwarranted certainty of the possession of knowledge. The idea that humans are emotional and make choices on weak grounds is not at all antithetical to our goals, but instead explains why it is more important that we critically self-analyze and inspect all of these religious arguments with more skepticism.
I hate to admit it, but it’s also not a strike against Talmudic reasoning, which tries to ground decisions in law and tradition. That is also an ongoing effort to overcome the fallacies of the appeal to transient passions. (I would argue that the focus on old texts is invalid, however, so don’t imagine that I’ve gone soft on Judaism.)
And finally, Brooks closes with a whole string of nonsense.
Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.
He begins by approvingly citing Jonathan Haidt, whose work is describing the emotional basis of moral decision-making. Now he tells us that scientists are challenged and struggling. Mr Brooks: Jonathan Haidt is a scientist. Think about it.
Feelings of transcendence exist, and no one denies it. Those feelings seem to be rather easily triggered by a whole host of phenomena, from a focal seizure to a morning in ritual to a beautiful sunset. We don’t neglect the phenomenon, but it does seem to be a poor mechanism for achieving an understanding of physics. There is more to the universe than morality and feelings, you see, and what I would argue is not that emotions like those listed don’t exist or are unimportant, but that they have a place, and it is not as sufficient evidence for how the world works.
As for this strange idea that the evolutionary approach says nothing about individual responsibility…I have no idea what the man is talking about, other than that he is blithering ignorantly. I strongly urge that Mr Brooks try using his cerebral cortex in addition to his brain stem and hypothalamus when writing — that’s another of those areas where emotional prejudices need to be supplemented with reason and knowledge.