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Stein’s Law and Science’s Mission

The case for scientific humanism

Scientific American (cover)

This column was first published in the January 2019 issue of Scientific American.

In the April 2001 issue of Scientific American, I began this column with an entry entitled “Colorful Pebbles and Darwin’s Dictum,” inspired by the British naturalist’s remark that “all observation must be for or against some view, if it is to be of any service.” Charles Darwin penned this comment in a letter addressing those critics who accused him of being too theoretical in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. They insisted that he should just let the facts speak for themselves. Darwin knew that science is an exquisite blend of data and theory. To these I add a third leg to the science stool—communication. If we cannot clearly convey our ideas to others, data and theory lie dormant.

For 214 consecutive months now, I have tried to communicate my own and others’ thoughts about the data and theory of science as clearly as I am able. But in accordance with (Herb) Stein’s Law—that things that can’t go on forever won’t—this column is ending as the magazine redesigns, a necessary strategy in the evolution of this national treasure, going on 174 years of continuous publication. I am honored to have shared a fleeting moment of that long history, grateful to the editors, artists and production talent for every month I was allowed to share my views with you. I will continue doing so elsewhere until my own tenure on this provisional proscenium ends (another instantiation of Stein’s Law)—many years in the future, nature and chance willing— so permit me to reflect on what I think science brings to the human project of which we are all a part.

Modern science arose in the 16th and 17th centuries following the Scientific Revolution and the adoption of scientific naturalism— the belief that the world is governed by natural laws and forces that are knowable, that all phenomena are part of nature and can be explained by natural causes, and that human cognitive, social and moral phenomena are no less a part of that comprehensible world. In the 18th century the application of scientific naturalism to the understanding and solving of human and social problems led to the widespread embrace of Enlightenment humanism, a cosmopolitan worldview that esteems science and reason, eschews magic and the supernatural, rejects dogma and authority, and seeks to understand how the world works. Much follows. Most of it good.

Human progress, which has been breathtaking over the past two centuries in nearly every realm of life, has principally been the result of the application of scientific naturalism to solving problems, from engineering bridges and eradicating diseases to extending life spans and establishing rights. This blending of scientific naturalism and Enlightenment humanism should have a name. Call it “scientific humanism.”

It wasn’t obvious that the earth goes around the sun, that blood circulates throughout the body, that vaccines inoculate against disease. But because these things are true and because Nicolaus Copernicus, William Harvey and Edward Jenner made careful measurements and observations, they could hardly have found something else. So it was inevitable that social scientists would discover that people universally seek freedom. It was also inevitable that political scientists would discover that democracies produce better lives for citizens than autocracies, economists that market economies generate greater wealth than command economies, sociologists that capital punishment does not reduce rates of homicide. And it was inevitable that all of us would discover that life is better than death, health better than illness, satiation better than hunger, happiness better than depression, wealth better than poverty, freedom better than slavery and sovereignty better than suppression.

Where do these values exist to be discovered by science? In nature—human nature. That is, we can build a moral system of scientific humanism through the study of what it is that most conscious creatures want. How far can this worldview take us? Does Stein’s Law apply to science and progress? Will the upward bending arcs of knowledge and wellbeing reach a fixed upper ceiling?

Remember Davies’s Corollary to Stein’s Law—that things that can’t go on forever can go on much longer than you think. Science and progress are asymptotic curves reaching ever upward but never touching omniscience or omnibenevolence. The goal of scientific humanism is not utopia but protopia—incremental improvements in understanding and beneficence as we move ever further into the open-ended frontiers of knowledge and wisdom. Per aspera ad astra.

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Reason (and Science) for Hope

A review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking, 2018, ISBN 978-0525427575). This review appeared in Science in February 2018.

Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization (book cover)

How much better can you imagine the world being than it is right now? How much worse can you imagine the world being than it is right now?

For most of us, it is easier to imagine the world going to hell in a handbasket than it is to picture some rosy future, which explains why there are far more dystopian and apocalyptic books and films than there are utopian. We can readily conjure up such incremental improvements as increased Internet bandwidth, improved automobile navigation systems, or another year added to our average lifespan. But what really gets imaginations roiling are the images of nuclear Armageddon, AI robots run amok, or terrorists mowing down pedestrians in trucks. (continue reading…)

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Alvy’s Error and the Meaning of Life

Science reveals our deepest purpose

Scientific American (cover)

In a flashback scene in the 1977 film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer is a depressed young boy who won’t do his homework because, as he explains to his doctor: “The universe is expanding…. Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.” His exasperated mother upbraids the youth: “What has the universe got to do with it?! You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”

Call it “Alvy’s Error”: assessing the purpose of something at the wrong level of analysis. The level at which we should assess our actions is the human timescale of days, weeks, months and years—our life span of fourscore plus or minus 10—not the billions of years of the cosmic calendar. It is a mistake made by theologians when arguing that without a source external to our world to vouchsafe morality and meaning, nothing really matters.

One of the most prominent theologians of our time, William Lane Craig, committed Alvy’s Error in a 2009 debate at Columbia University with Yale University philosopher Shelly Kagan when he pronounced: “On a naturalistic worldview, everything is ultimately destined to destruction in the heat death of the universe. As the universe expands, it grows colder and colder as its energy is used up. Eventually all the stars will burn out, all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes, there will be no life, no heat, no light—only the corpses of dead stars and galaxies expanding into endless darkness. In light of that end, it’s hard for me to understand how our moral choices have any sort of significance. There’s no moral accountability. The universe is neither better nor worse for what we do. Our moral lives become vacuous because they don’t have that kind of cosmic significance.” (continue reading…)

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Mr. Hume: Tear. Down. This. Wall.

A Response to George Ellis’s Critique of My Defense of Moral Realism

This article appeared in Theology and Science in December 2017.

I am deeply appreciative that University of Cape Town professor George Ellis took the time to read carefully, think deeply, and respond thoughtfully to my Theology and Science paper “Scientific Naturalism: A Manifesto for Enlightenment Humanism” (August, 2017),1 itself an abbreviation of the full-throated defense of moral realism and moral progress that I present in my 2015 book, The Moral Arc.2 As a physicist he naturally reflects the methodologies of his field, wondering how a social scientist might “discover” moral laws in human nature as a physical scientist might discover natural laws in laboratory experiments. It’s a good question, as is his query: “Is it possible to say in some absolute sense that specific acts, such as the large scale massacres of the Holocaust, are evil in an absolute sense?”

Pace Abraham Lincoln, who famously said “If slavery is not wrong, then nothing is wrong,”3 I hereby declare in an unequivocal defense of moral realism:

If the Holocaust is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

Since Professor Ellis is a physicist, let me approach this defense of moral realism from the perspective of a physical scientist. It is my hypothesis that in the same way that Galileo and Newton discovered physical laws and principles about the natural world that really are out there, so too have social scientists discovered moral laws and principles about human nature and society that really do exist. Just as it was inevitable that the astronomer Johannes Kepler would discover that planets have elliptical orbits—given that he was making accurate astronomical measurements, and given that planets really do travel in elliptical orbits, he could hardly have discovered anything else—scientists studying political, economic, social, and moral subjects will discover certain things that are true in these fields of inquiry. For example, that democracies are better than autocracies, that market economies are superior to command economies, that torture and the death penalty do not curb crime, that burning women as witches is a fallacious idea, that women are not too weak and emotional to run companies or countries, and, most poignantly here, that blacks do not like being enslaved and that the Jews do not want to be exterminated. Why? […]

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Postmodernism vs. Science

The roots of the current campus madness

Scientific American (cover)

In a 1946 essay in the London Tribune entitled “In Front of Your Nose,” George Orwell noted that “we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

The intellectual battlefields today are on college campuses, where students’ deep convictions about race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation and their social justice antipathy toward capitalism, imperialism, racism, white privilege, misogyny and “cissexist heteropatriarchy” have bumped up against the reality of contradictory facts and opposing views, leading to campus chaos and even violence. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, and outside agitators, for example, rioted at the mere mention that conservative firebrands Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter had been invited to speak (in the end, they never did). Middlebury College students physically attacked libertarian author Charles Murray and his liberal host, professor Allison Stanger, pulling her hair, twisting her neck and sending her to the ER. (continue reading…)

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