Science, Hobbes & Derb

by Andrew Stuttaford

Derb, in some respects Michael Lind’s entertaining demolition of secular humanism in Salon echoes a number of your points about the use that our species often makes of, to borrow your phrase, “pretty lies.” Here is an extract: 

The secular humanist movement avoids the difficult question of the coexistence of in-group altruism and inter-group rivalries by imagining, with John Lennon, that conflicts would vanish if only people stopped being religious and patriotic…Unfortunately for Humanist Lennonism, evolutionary biology does not provide much hope for the sort of altruistic personal commitment to planetary solidarity that secular humanists want to encourage…To the extent that natural science can inform the way we think about politics and economics, it undermines the view that human beings are, or could be, rational actors devoted to the common good, rather than emotion-driven, semi-rational cousins of chimps and gorillas. On this point the secular philosophers Hume and Hobbes are more convincing than Bentham, Dewey and Kurtz.

Our simian psychology has obvious implications for naive models of democracy, in which a neutral, rational public listens dispassionately to all sides before making up its hyperlogical collective mind. And it has implications as well for naive models of economics, in which consumers and producers perceive, think and act with computer-like accuracy.

The skepticism about human rationality that science inspires should not be taken as support for authoritarianism or paternalism… On the contrary, it should render questionable all claims to wise and disinterested leadership, including those of America’s own altruistic progressive technocrats who propose policies to “nudge” the unenlightened masses into doing the right thing. It makes more sense to think of our leaders and intellectuals as half-crazed hooting howler monkeys — just like the rest of us.

Science can tell monkeys where they came from, and technology, informed by science, can build a cleaner and safer monkey house. But a knowledge of science cannot turn monkeys into something that we are not.

We are what we are.  

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