Saturday, March 15, 2008

'Knowledge grows but...'

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world's pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.
As with much of John Gray's writing, The atheist delusion, from which this is taken, makes some good points. But while Gray may sometimes see further and deeper than some evangelical atheists, I am not convinced he delivers.

The increasing pace of scientific and technological development may not necessarily mean 'better' ethics and politics (and they may even be vain hopes - see, for example, Climate change, poetry and tragedy); but the huge scale and nature of the change and the challenges (including but by no means limited to changes in the biogeochemical cycle unprecedented in millions of years) points to at least two things: 1) it is necessary to try; 2) there may be discontinuities and surprises.


Clive Bates said...

I've read Straw Dogs by John Gray but not Black Mass.

His target is excessively optimistic humanism - ie. the view that progress in society is what humans are about. But agreeing with that should not be a criticism of atheism, which is just a view that the supernatural agents at the heart of the theistic religions do not exist and are not needed to explain the things they purport to explain - like the development complicated forms of life or the origin of the universe. You don't need to invoke gods because the counter-story of human destiny is too wide-eyed.

So one can sympathise with Gray and even share his bleak reflections on human nature. But human nature has been modified and tempered into civilisation over many centuries - and there is no reason for some of that to continue.

Caspar Henderson said...

More than centuries, perhaps: we are part of a continuum over tens and hundreds of thousands of years of anatomically modern humans. Yes, the degree to which culture shapes behaviour, including in the long run by selecting some genes should not be underestimated. But it's pretty clear we face big problems. For example, quite a few cultures place an emphasis on delayed gratification, but -- as a gross generalisation -- human drives seem to ram raid right through the middle of it all too often.

I also like a post by 'Mike the Mad Biologist' called Morality, Utility, and Defending Evolution: basically, one needs to work with the fact that many people get irrationally angry with what they see as know-it-alls. For this reason, "evolution needs to defended, in part, as an integral part of biomedical research--that is, from a perspective of utility."