We shouldn’t be surprised that Time magazine would allow the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker to write about what science knows–or thinks it knows–about the phenomenon of consciousness. But the magazine also lets him move way beyond the scientific realm and a recitation of empirical information, into rank philosophizing. That being so, it should have mentioned that Pinker is, along with Dawkins, a debunker of belief in anything beyond the merely material, that is, he is a denier of the potential Truths found in noetic exploration, experience, philosophy, meditation, prayer, and faith. To Pinker, all we are is meat on the hoof, and our value can be determined by the sum and substance of what can be measured in our brains.
But we are much more than that. As Pinker demonstrates by the very act of philosophizing, we are moral beings. In this realm, science can only play, at most, a supporting role. Indeed, science has no capacity to tell us what is moral and immoral, what is right from what is wrong: Not that you would know that from Pinker’s essay. He ends his discourse with an explicitly philosophical appeal, steeped in pure scientism: “My own view is that…the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It’s not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings–the core of morality.”
Why exactly, this is the core of morality, Pinker doesn’t say. In fact, in a purely Darwinian sense, this is senseless. If all there is, to use my vernacular, is news, weather, and sports, if all we are is a physical phenomenon that somehow became aware of itself, why should we give two cents for the suffering of other beings?
Pinker thinks it is because we share brain parts:
“As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people’s sentience becomes ludicrous. ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew–or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog–a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.”
So a dog is the moral equal of a Jew and an Arab because it has a frontal lobe, a thalamus, and a brain stem? It also has a heart and kidneys. Why not include them in the mix? Talk about an exercise in reductionism! But hey, if we want to get reductionist, let’s do it right: All flora and fauna are made up of carbon molecules. So, I guess that means we are essentially no different from a fungus or a tapeworm.
“And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.”
How sophomoric. Really.
“Think, too, about why we sometimes remind ourselves that ‘life is short.’ It is an impetus to extend a gesture of affection to a loved one, to bury the hatchet in a pointless dispute, to use time productively rather than squander it. I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.”
This is to whistle past the graveyard, it seems to me. That aside, Pinker is promoting personhood theory, which finds value in consciousness rather than humanness, which is to say, it denigrates human exceptionalism and moves us away from intrinsic human value and universal human rights. Indeed, he seems to believe–and I would have to read more by him to know for sure–that any creature with consciousness deserves equal consideration–just like Peter Singer. Of course, being exceptional beings, only humans will be the ones giving the equal consideration. All other wildlife on the planet will be engaged in the tooth and claw of Darwinian struggle, taking all they can get for themselves and/or family units from whatever source is available.