Friday, August 9, 2013

Praying Apes & Steven Pinker

Sitting at a table in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, I was asked how it is possible for an ape to pray?  This was a direct challenge to my interest in evolutionary explanations for human political and moral behavior. 
I responded that a wide range of animals have two sets of limbs, fore and aft, and that in one species of ape the pads of the forelimbs can be brought together in front of the chest.  I was being facetious, of course; but not altogether facetious.  Prayer often involves physical activity and such activities are both enabled and constrained by biological facts. 
I went on to suggest that the same is true of the spiritual activities involved in prayer.  Like most animals, human beings have an evolved capacity to infer what is invisible from what is visible.  When a polar bear is hunting, it does not look for anything that looks like a seal.  It looks for mist coming from a hole in the ice.  A human hunter tracking prey looks first not for the animal itself but for signs of its passing and course. 
Unlike all other animals, the human ape has a robust capacity for forming a theory of mind.  This means that I understand that other people and other animals have minds like I do and I can use this fact to predict their behavior and engage with them.  This capacity underwrites both our social lives and our animal husbandry. 
Inclined by our evolved capacities to look for signs of what is invisible and to infer intentions and will behind visible behavior, it is not difficult to understand how this ape learned to pray.  Of course, these instincts can lead to mistakes.  The erupting volcano is not really angry nor do the entrails of the bird really indicate the will of the gods.  Or so I suppose. 
However, that does not mean that prayer is always or even mostly a mistake.  All prayer is a turning of the human mind toward the divine.  In that sense it is like treasure hunting, which can be understood regardless of whether there is treasure underneath the X.  Understanding how our evolved inclinations make prayer possible and how they influence its expressions cannot tell us whether the object of that turning exists or what its character is.  Such an understanding certainly does not allow us to infer that the treasure does not exist. 
Steven Pinker has a piece in The New Republic attacking the critics of “scientism”.  This is a pejorative term meaning in general the idea that science can explain everything and (always) in particular, the idea that science can explain something the critic does not want science to explain.  The term is typically deployed against those who inquire into the evolutionary and developmental roots of human culture. 
Pinker thinks that science and the humanities are not at odds with one another.  He makes a strong case and one with which I am largely in agreement.  To add my own two cents, evolutionary science can tell you a lot about why Romeo and Juliet were attracted to one another.  It can tell you a lot about why we love such stories.  Human beings are sexually reproducing creatures.  Our mating behavior is extraordinarily rich in the psychological depth of our displays and motives.  Each of us is interested, obviously, in our own loves and lusts and (almost as obviously) in those involved in third party arrangements.  Our interest in Romeo and Juliet is intelligible. 
Pinker draws a useful distinct between intelligibility and reductionism. 
Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.
Yes.  The laws of physics, chemistry, and biology were in full force when a bullet pierced the shirt of the Archduke Ferdinand.  If biology has something to offer here, it is because biology has principles that are not derivable from chemistry and physics.  Likewise, historical analysis must determine factors (chance and culture) that are not derivable from biology. 
While Pinker thinks that science and the humanities are not at odds with one another, he clearly does think that science rules out certain ways of thinking about the human things. 
The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.
To begin with, the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree that embraces all living things and that emerged from prebiotic chemicals almost four billion years ago. We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.
I happen to believe most of what Pinker states in that passage, but I am pretty sure that I do not know any of it and neither does he.  I am very dubious about “spells, curses, [and] augury” but I cannot think of what science I can rely on to rule out “fate, providence, karma, divine retribution, or answered prayers”.  In fact, I know that such things cannot be ruled out because that would depend on assumptions that science requires but cannot establish.  Science assumes uniformity in physical laws both across space and time, for which reason it rules out miracles.  Such an assumption is very useful and indeed very powerful; however, it is still just an assumption.  It cannot be verified by scientific reasoning since the latter requires it.  If there were, indeed, an omnipotent God, outside of time and space (an alternative assumption) then quite literally everything goes. 
Still, it was right for Pinker to issue this challenge.  It is quite true that science is not the enemy of the humanities.  I would go further to say that it is not the enemy of religion either.  This does not mean that is rests comfortably with either.  Science should make us uncomfortable. 
Leo Strauss argued that one of the great sources of vitality in Western Civilization is the conflict between reason and revelation.  From the time of Thomas Aquinas, to be sure, intelligent persons have had to wrestle with two claims to wisdom.  While I think that Pinker is right to push the claims of science as authoritative, I am also grateful for the honorable opposition.  All science is just a special case of philosophy.  Philosophy is rooted in the knowledge of what one does not know.  Without religion, who would continue to remind those of a scientific mind that they do not know what they think they know?


  1. Perhaps an ape who has learned how to put the pads of his forelimbs together - or maybe a rival scientific mind - or possibly even God himself.

  2. Or perhaps a shrewd commenter on a blog. But I suppose that the categories are not mutually exclusive.

  3. I agree. On a more serious note - why should science make people uncomfortable?

  4. Miranda: this is a very serious question and goes to the heart of the tension between philosophy/science and politics that was the context of every Platonic dialogue.

    I answer that philosophy in general and science in a more specific way are attempts to replace opinions about important things with knowledge. Opinions (which are nothing more than points of view) are what guides most of us (maybe everyone except Socrates). They guide us and provide satisfying answers to basic questions. We often cherish our opinions, not only because they provide such guidance but because they comfort us.

    For that reason alone, any questioning of our opinions is likely to make us at least a bit uncomfortable. It is entirely possible, of course, that we may come to know exactly what we now opine. Someone who believes that the world is more or less round because he has been told that it is and is comfortable with that image may discover, once he has been asked to explain why that belief is correct, that the world is in fact round. On the other hand, someone who is satisfied with the view that the world was created in six days (over, perhaps, six thousand years) may find out that his comfortable belief was false. Regardless of how it turns out, the first genuine questioning is likely to make one uneasy.

    Some years ago I listened to a discussion of student rights in the classroom. Students have a right to be treated in a certain way, fairly and impartially, for example. Does a professor transgress when he challenges the student in such a way as to make her or him uncomfortable? Some of those in the room seemed to think so. I raised my hand and remarked that anyone who gets through four years of college without once being made uncomfortable in a classroom should sue for malpractice.