There is Nothing Wrong With Humanism

Is there a conflict between science and humanism? Jeremy Stangroom thinks so. Science, he argues, is necessarily reductive, and reductive science undermines humanist ideas about phenomena such as consciousness or free will. Humanists, therefore, are forced to reject perfectly good scientific theories that don’t fit with their particular worldview. A good example, he suggests, is my own critique of what I call ‘mechanistic’ science. I am, apparently, a closet Lysenkoist (though I had always thought that such guilt-by-association argument itself smacks of Stalinist rhetoric).

To understand what is wrong with Stangroom’s argument, let us accept for the moment his claim that science will eventually show ‘the stuff of the inner life of human beings – consciousness, agency, will, sensation, etc’ to be just physical, so that ‘in one way or another, they will disappear completely’. In other words, imagine that science has destroyed the argument that humans are subjects – that is, rational beings with agency and will and the capacity consciously to transform both themselves and the world around them – and shown instead that we are simply physical objects like any other physical object.

If this were true, though, how would we know it to be true? After all, truth has no meaning in a world composed simply of objects. That is why John Gray, a far more consistent anti-humanist than Jeremy Stangroom, argues in his book Straw Dogs that the whole of the Western rationalist tradition is doomed because it rests on the faith that ‘through science humankind can know truth – and so be free’. But, Gray suggests, ‘if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible’. Drawinian processes are driven, not by the need to ascertain the truth, but to survive and reproduce. Accordingly, ‘the human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.’ Indeed, ‘in the struggle for life, a taste for truth is a luxury’, even a ‘disability’.

In other words, if we are the kind of creatures that Stangroom believes us to be, then not just consciousness and agency, but truth and reason too, ‘will disappear completely’. Science, Gray suggests, reveals that ‘humans cannot be other than irrational’. But science itself is a product of our poor, irrational, mechanistic minds. If we cannot trust such minds to discover truths about the world, how can we accept the verities of science? The logic of Gray’s – and indeed Stangroom’s – argument undermines our confidence in its own veracity. For if we are simply biological objects, then we cannot place any trust in the claim that we are biological objects. Far from science revealing humans to be beings without consciousness and agency, we are only able to do science because of our ability to transcend our evolutionary heritage, to act as subjects, rather than as objects. Uniquely among organisms, human beings are both objects of nature and subjects that can, to some extent at least, shape our own fate. We are biological beings, and under the purview of biological and physical laws. But we are also reflexive, rational, social beings, who can design ways of breaking the constraints of biological and physical laws.

The very development of the scientific method has exacerbated this paradox of being human. To study nature scientifically requires us to make a distinction between a humanity that is a thinking subject and a nature that presents itself to thought but is itself incapable of thought. When studying ‘external’ nature the distinction between the thinking subject and the object of study is easy to make. But with the study of humans, such a neat division becomes impossible: human beings are simultaneously the subject that thinks and the object of that thought.

This is, in Kate Soper’s words, ‘the paradox of humanity’s simultaneous immanence and transcendence’. Nature ‘is that which humanity finds itself within, and to which in some sense its belongs, and also that from which it seems excluded in the very moment it reflects upon either its otherness or its belongingness.’ Our very capacity to reflect upon nature, then, takes us in a certain fashion outside of nature, for if we could not view nature in some sense from the outside we could not reflect upon it objectively.

For Stangroom, the view of humans as both immanent in, and transcendent to, nature is ‘slightly odd’ because it seems to suggest that ‘things like consciousness, agency and free will are real’ but ‘beyond scientific… explanation’. Yet it is Stangroom himself who suggests that if consciousness, agency and free will can be explained mechanistically they will be exposed as illusions: in other words, that the belief in the reality of consciousness and agency and in a mechanistic science are mutually exclusive. My own view is neither that consciousness, agency and free will are illusions, nor that they are beyond scientific explanation, but rather that they cannot be fully explained by the precepts of natural science. This is the key point of difference.

According to Stangroom, because I value humanist explanations of the world, so I ‘deny that reductive, scientific explanations are admissible in the case of the inner life of human beings’. This is an unhelpful way of presenting the problem. For a start, I’m not sure what Stangroom means by ‘the inner life’. Is agency, for instance, an aspect of our inner life? My criticism of a mechanistic viewpoint is precisely that it views it as such, ignoring the importance to agency of our existence as social beings.

I’m unsure too what Stangroom means, in this context, by the word ‘admissable’. I have always argued that no areas are out of bounds to scientific inquiry and that there should be no artificial limits to the kinds of questions science should attempt to answer. At the same time, many mechanistic philosophers do hold that the ‘inner life’, in a certain sense, is out of bounds for scientific inquiry. Daniel Dennett, for instance, argues that ‘any such facts as there are about mental events are not among the data of science’. (Consciousness Explained, p. 71). And not just that they are not among the data of science, but that the subjective qualities of metal events do not exist. Dennett writes of ‘phenomenal qualities’ that ‘I am denying that there are any such properties’. (Consciousness Explained, p. 372)

And this brings us to the real problem with a mechanistic viewpoint. It’s not a question of whether science is admissible in the explanations of inner life. It is, rather, the assumption that a physical description of the brain is a sufficient explanation for the phenomena of consciousness and agency. It is an assumption that Jeremy Stangroom certainly seems to make: without it, the claim that a mechanistic science will make consciousness and agency ‘disappear’ makes no sense. But on what basis does one make such an assumption? Certainly, there is nothing in the data of science that compels one to do so. If anyone is introducing ‘non-scientific criteria’ into the discussion, it appears to be Jeremy Stangroom himself.

We certainly don’t make such an assumption in other cases. For example, nobody would suggest (I hope) that ‘democracy’ can be explained simply by the physical descriptions of ballot boxes, the physical act of voting, or the physical state of the brains of those who call themselves democrats. ‘Democracy’ refers not to a physical state of the world but to a set of social relations, political institutions and historical developments. Yet democracy is no more ‘illusory’ than the chair upon which I am sitting or the keyboard upon which I am typing.

When it comes to human behaviour or consciousness, though, there is an insistence that what cannot be understood purely in terms of the physical state of the brain is not ‘real’. Why? Partly because of the belief that not to understand human behaviour in this fashion is to give in to the mysterians. For example, in The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker suggests that the ‘self’ is just a description of a brain process. To say someone is responsible for their actions is to say that they possess a ‘functioning brain system that can respond to public contingencies of punishment’. Moral responsibility resides in certain ‘parts of the brain (primarily in the prefrontal cortex)’ that are able to inhibit violent or criminal behaviour ‘by anticipating how the community would respond to it.’ To invoke the self in any other sense, Pinker suggests, is to reintroduce the ghost into the machine.

Insofar as this is true, it is saying something trivial. Insofar as it is saying anything profound, it is untrue. Since brain processes underlie all thoughts and actions, so the ‘self’ in some sense must be a brain process. But to suggest that the self is simply a brain process is a bit like Margaret Thatcher’s infamous argument that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families’. Individuals and families constitute society. But society has an existence beyond those individuals and families.

Similarly, with selves. We cannot point to a ‘self’ in the way that we can point to a neurone. But that does not mean that neurones have a reality, and selves don’t. As the neurobiologist Joseph le Doux put it in a recent essay in Prospect magazine, ‘My assertion that synapses are the basis of personality does not mean that your personality is determined by synapses; it’s the other way round. Synapses are simply the brain’s way receiving, storing and retrieving our personalities, as determined by all the psychological, cultural and genetic factors.’

Part of the problem here is in the way that we have come to understand ‘naturalism’. Originally, as the concept developed through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ‘naturalism’ meant the ability to explain all events and phenomena without recourse to the supernatural and the divine. It came to be understood as a liberation from the dogmas of religion and the conservative social order for which they served as an ideology, as well as a declaration of independence for scientific inquiry into the nature of the world and also into human nature. In this sense I am a fully-fledged card-carrying naturalist – as I assume are all humanists.

In recent decades, though, there has been redefinition of naturalism which is now widely taken to mean, not simply the rejection of supernatural explanations, but the acceptance of the idea that the explanations of natural science suffice to explain all phenomena, not just the phenomena of nature. Naturalism has been reformulated as an all-embracing physicalism. For a naturalist such as Jeremy Stangroom it seems that the only conceptual system in terms of which the world and its processes can be reliably characterised is that of the physical sciences of nature. This is a view that appears to confuse the physical world with the real world. The social world, as I have suggested, is as real as the physical world, but cannot be understood simply in physical terms.

To suggest this is not, as Jeremy Stangroom seems to believe, to give into mysticism. The alternative to mechanism is not mysticism. The distinction I am drawing is between a mechanistic, a mysterian and a materialist view of the world. A mechanistic view sees human beings largely as objects through which nature acts. A mysterian view suggests that there are aspects of human existence not knowable to mere mortals. A materialist view, on the other hand, understands human beings without resort to mystical explanations. But it also sees humans as exceptional because humans, unlike any other beings, possess consciousness and agency. And understanding human consciousness and agency requires us to understand humans as not just as natural, but also as historical and social, beings.

But it’s just this view of humans as social and historical beings – as creatures who can transform themselves and the world around them – that today is in such bad odour. As John Gray puts in Straw Dogs, ‘Those who struggle to change the world’ are merely seeking ‘consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear’. Their ‘faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality’. Like all animals, we’re all going to die, seems to be the argument, so why bother with grand schemes of social change?

We live in a time that is deeply pessimistic about the human condition. For many people, human activity and human reason are themselves the sources of most of the ills of the world. Half a millennium ago, Descartes viewed reason as ‘the noblest thing we can have because it makes us in a certain way equal to God and exempts us from being his subject.’ Today, many view human reason as a tool for destruction rather than betterment. As the biologist David Ehrenfield put it in his emblematically titled book The Arrogance of Humanism, what he objects to is ‘a supreme faith in human reason – its ability to confront and solve the many problems that humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of Nature and the affairs of men and women so that human life will prosper.’

There is a widespread feeling that every impression that humans make upon the world is for the worse. For many, the attempt to master nature has led to global warming and species depletion. The attempt to master society, many argue, led to Auschwitz and the gulags. The result of all this has been a growth of anti-humanism, of despair about human capacities, a view of human reason and agency as forces for destruction rather than for betterment.

A prime expression of such pessimism is the denigration of the human subject and of human agency. Historically, humanism – a desire to place human beings at the centre of philosophical debate; a view of human reason as a tool through which to understand both the natural and the social world; a conviction that humankind could achieve freedom, both from the constraints of nature and the tyranny of other humans, through the agency of its own efforts – was the philosophy at the heart of both the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. Today, though, such a view is often dismissed as arrogant, naÔve, even irrational.

The irony in this denigration of the human subject is that it is common to both postmodern and mechanistic views. Most advocates of the mechanist viewpoint are clearly, and rightly, hostile to postmodernism, and its deconstruction of reason. Yet mechanism and postmodernism are linked by a common distrust of human subjectivity. Whereas mechanists view the human subject as a physical illusion, postmodernists regard it as a historical construction, a myth foisted by European rationalist culture as part of its attempt to colonise the rest of the world, not just physically but also intellectually.

Daniel Dennett conceives of the self as a ‘Centre of Narrative Gravity’, a web spun out of the words and ideas in our minds. ‘Our tales are spun’, Dennett writes, ‘but for most part we don’t spin them, they spin us.’ Similarly, the postmodern historian Jeffrey Weekes argues that, ‘The individual is constituted in the world of language and symbols which come to dwell in, and constitute, the individual.’

In his comic novel, Nice Work, David Lodge satirises postmodernism in the person of Dr Robyn Penrose (Temporary Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Rummidge), for whom ‘there is no such thing as the “self”… there is only a subject position in an infinite web of discourses – the discourses of power, sex, family, science, religion, poetry, etc.’ And for whom ‘there is no such thing as an author’, because ‘Every text is a product of intertextuality, a tissue of allusions to and citations of other texts’.

In Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett cites this passage from Nice Work and suggests that ‘Robyn and I think alike’. ‘We are both’, he writes, ‘fictional characters of a sort, though of a slightly different sort.’ This bizarre love-in between the mechanists and postmodernists is a bit like discovering that the Ayatollah Khomeini had really agreed with Salman Rushdie that magical realism was an appropriate literary form through which to debate the merits of Islam. Both mechanists and postmodernists begin with reasonable premises – on the one hand that the world consists only of physical stuff, on the other that what we know of the world we know through language and culture. Both push their reasonable premise to an unreasonable conclusion – for one that consciousness is illusory, for the other that we can never know reality. Both sides end up in this virtual world because both have abandoned the one thing that attaches all of us to reality – our conscious selves.

Mechanism and postmodernism are like the two heads of a pushme-pullyou, constantly tugging at each other, determined to travel in different directions, never realising that they are stitched together at the waist. And the twine that makes the stitching is the common distrust of human subjectivity, a view of human beings not as subjects capable of acting autonomously but as objects who are simply acted upon, whether by nature or by culture.

Far from there being a conflict between science and humanism, a humanist viewpoint is necessary for us to take science seriously – and science is a supreme expression of humanism. There certainly appears to be a tension between a mechanistic philosophy and a humanistic outlook. By making humans into conscious agents we seem to separate them off from the rest of nature, and hence suggest that the language of natural science cannot fully encompass our humanness. Historically, however, this tension has been a highly creative one, helping develop both a more rational humanism and a science of humanity compelled to address the exceptional character of human nature. The tension only becomes a problem when we attempt to resolve it by assuming either that we cannot understand human beings using reason, or that we can only understand humans mechanistically.

There is an old joke (first told, I think, by Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore) about two men sitting on a park bench. One has a paper bag over his head. ‘Why are you sitting with a paper bag on your head?’, the other asks him. ‘To keep the elephants away’, comes the reply. ‘What elephants?’, asks the first man, looking about him greatly puzzled. ‘I can’t see any elephants.’ ‘Exactly’, says the paper bag man. ‘It’s working brilliantly’.

If you invent a non-existent problem, you can always manufacture an unnecessary solution. So it is with mechanists. There is nothing mystical or unscientific about viewing humans as exceptional, as social and historical beings, not just as biological ones. Nor is it ‘political’ to insist that a physical description of the brain is an insufficient explanation of consciousness and agency. Jeremy can remove the paper bag from his head. There are no elephants (Lysenkoist or otherwise) in the park.

Kenan Malik has a web site here.

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