Religion and Politics
Several readers have asked me to take up cudgels against Bill Buckley's piece on NRO last Friday, in which WFB spoke up for the Intelligent Design people and their arguments.
I am not exactly going to do that: not because I think the writer's age and accomplishments place him above cudgeling — I don't think that, and if WFB thought I did think it, he'd never speak to me again — but because the actual pros and cons of creationism vs. science can be found argued, in far greater detail than a 2,000-word column could contain, all over the web. I generally refer argumentative emailers to the TalkOrigins website, which is a handy clearing-house for this sort of thing, with links to many other sites. (Including 347 creationist ones! If your favorite creationist website isn't included in the list, the TalkOrigins people make it easy for you to add it. This, by the way, offers an instructive contrast to creationist websites, which rarely link to anti-creationist ones. TalkOrigins links to the Center for Science and Culture, but CSC does not return the favor.)
What I am going to do is to take a glance at the psychology here: not "What is true and what isn't?" — a point on which our minds are all rigidly made up anyway — so much as "Who believes what, and why?"
WFB's piece illustrates rather clearly two things that lurk in the interstices of a great many of the creation-evolution arguments. Both those things, I am going to claim, are core features of human nature, present to some degree — though greater or lesser in individual cases, of course — in all but a pathological few of us. Those things are:
- The need to spot intelligent agency at work in the world outside our own precious selves, and
- The need to be constantly evaluating and re-evaluating our status in the various groups we belong to, and ditto with the statuses of other group members.
Both these core features of the individual human organism give rise to large-scale social phenomena: the first to religion, and the second to politics. (Two of the three topics, I note in passing, that you are traditionally forbidden to talk about in a British army or navy officers' mess.) Over to WFB:
Fifteen minutes after Charles Darwin explained his theory of evolution, his disciples — apostles — ruled out any heresy on the subject of the naturalistic explanation for human life.
That one 27-word sentence contains three religious terms: "disciples," "apostles," "heresy," and two political ones: "ruled out," "heresy." (Politics is about power. You can "rule out" something only if you have the power to do so. The word "heresy" is in both lists because its connotations are both religious — "You believe the wrong things!" — and political — "We have the power to punish you for believing those things!" Just how Darwin's "disciples" managed to acquire so much power in just fifteen minutes, WFB does not tell us.)
Here you see the natural disposition of the normal human mind. We have a mighty need to believe that all ideas about the non-human world are at root religious ideas, ideas centrally concerned with human-like agency or its absence, promulgated by charismatic teachers and their followers; and we have just as mighty a need to assign social events, including public reactions to new scientific theories, to plays of status and power.
Why? Because the first, last, and only great truth about human beings is that we are social animals. To function as such, we need two particular abilities.
- First, we need the ability to calculate what other people are likely to do, based on our assumption (our "theory of mind" or "ToM," in the current cognitive-science terminology) that their beliefs, desires and intentions ("BDIs" — more cog-sci jargon) are much like our own. We could not function as social animals without this ability to impute agency to the humans around us. And to impute it elsewhere, too: Survival prospects in the wild are much improved if we can impute some kind of agency to higher animals. That this ability slops over into imputing agency to the sky (weather), the earth's crust (earthquakes), and so on, is not very surprising. In extremely complex systems like human mentation, boundaries are rarely inviolable.
- Second, we need the ability to compare ourselves with others, assess hierarchies, know whose orders can be safely ignored and whose had better be obeyed, with whom it would be reasonable to compete and with whom dire folly to do so … and so on.
The human inclinations to religion and politics follow very naturally.
Both these abilities are smeared across a broad spectrum, like other human abilities — like the ability to sing a song or catch a thrown ball.
- In the case of the ability to impute agency, at the null end of the spectrum we have autism, in which a person seems to lack a ToM altogether. Towards the other end we have the Pathetic Fallacy and, standing on a ledge off from the very furthest point of this end, we find extreme paranoid schizophrenia, when you believe that your own desk fan is out to get you.
- In the case of status and power computation, the spectrum goes from the politically clueless person, who never knows who's up and who's down, to the gossip columnist and the political consultant, who always know those things to within a tenth of a millimeter.
As best I can judge, WFB is pretty much at dead center normality on the first of these spectrums, somewhat towards the high end on the second.
I'd rate myself low on both spectrums. I don't doubt that other human beings have minds containing BDIs, but I am not much good at guessing how they will behave — my ToM is rather feeble — and so I am socially maladroit. Further, my agency-imputing module has zero spillover. I am pretty sure my dog possesses BDIs that are at least crudely analogous to human ones, but I draw the line right about there — at any rate, well short of meteorological or seismic events. I don't believe there is any human-like agency at work in thunderstorms, or earthquakes, or phylogeny. Practically everybody at practically all points in human history has thought differently: hence Thor, Poseidon, and the Discovery Institute.
On the political spectrum I am well-nigh hopeless. Even after many years in the corporate world, office politics always caught me napping — I was for ever being stunned to hear that Smith had got fired or Jones made a Director, and even my own firings and promotions came as bolts from the blue.
In any case, I stress that both of these abilities are very human, almost universally so. Far, far more people are religious than are irreligious; far, far more people read People magazine than the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. We are an agency-imputing, status-computing species. WE HARDLY DO ANYTHING ELSE!
Out there on the eccentric fringes, though, some of us do do other things. One of the other things we do is science.
Science is an odd sort of pursuit, way off the beaten track of human intellection. That, at any rate, is the conclusion suggested by the historical evidence. Homo sap. has been around for 100,000 years or so, yet it's only in the last 400-odd of those years — less than half of a percent — that methodical scientific inquiry has been undertaken. There were theologians and politicians long, long, long before there were scientists. In dark moments I am inclined to think the former will still be with us long after the latter have been eliminated, probably via mass lynching. To put it very crudely — and yes, I am aware of all the quibbles here — science is an unnatural activity, an un-human activity. You see the common awareness of this in fictional representations of scientists — the one on the Muppet show had no eyes.
Scientists themselves tend to forget this because they associate mainly with other scientists. If you have red hair, and hang around all day with other red-haired people, then you'll slip into thinking that erythrism is the normal state of affairs, that blondes and brunettes are not quite right … on the head. The unnaturalness of science is more clear to folk like me, scientifically inclined but not scientifically employed, than it is to actual scientists.
Perhaps the most bizarre thing about science, as a human activity, is that so far as its content is concerned (I'll deal with its practice in just a moment), science deliberately turns its back on those two great human drives I am talking about. It rules out, a priori — but for excellent reasons, not arbitrarily — human-like agency as an explanation for any natural phenomenon at all. And it assigns status to scientists based not on how many enemies they've slain (games they've won, deals they've clinched), or how many cattle (dollars, houses) they've accumulated, or how many slaves they own (employees work for them), or how many wives they've got (or had), but on how original their ideas about the world are, and how well further observation confirms the value of those ideas.
In their extramural activities, to be sure, scientists can be as human as the rest of us. Some are religious; and even those who aren't are liable to tell you across the dinner table, from sheer mental/verbal habit, that sunspot activity threatens radio communication, or that quarks prefer to associate in twos and threes.
As for politics — well, if you think that jostling for power and status stop dead at the door of the physics lab, you are very seriously mistaken. Ask a physicist. However, while the result of those jostlings might get some particular physicist a rung up on the tenure ladder, or a much-coveted NIH grant, his eventual status as a scientist will be determined by the quality of his work, and by nothing else at all. There are plenty of second- and third-raters with high positions in the administration or teaching of science: there are none esteemed by posterity as Great Scientists.
Along with in-group status-jostling, human beings are also prone to negative feelings and attitudes towards out-group folk. You can argue about how essentially and ineradicably human that is. I don't see how you can disagree, though, that once you have developed some identification with some group, negative feelings about outside groups come to mind much more easily than, on a strictly reasonable basis, they ought. This has been experimentally confirmed (references from that link): Divide a group arbitrarily into Blue Team and Green Team, put them through some team-bonding activities, and see how fast Blues and Greens end up disliking each other. With very little effort you can get them to the throat-cutting stage.
This is very plain in the creationism-evolution debates, whose anti-outgroup subtexts are, on the one side: You are inhuman brutes determined to rob us of our spiritual consolations and sweep away the moral foundations of our civilization, and on the other: You are obscurantist ignoramuses who'd like to shut down progress and drag us all back to the 16th century, with kings and priests telling us what to think. Neither subtext has much relation to reality, in my experience — I mean, I know a couple dozen people on each side of this, and none fits either description. The scientists are not looking to convert Notre Dame into a Temple of Reason; the creationists aren't plotting to burn heretics at the stake.
As someone once said, though, the heart wants what it wants. One thing the human heart wants is an explanation in terms of human-like agency for the more mysterious kind of natural phenomenon: the bacterial flagellum, the fine structure constant, consciousness, or, in WFB's case, Hamlet. Another is a sense of place and status in any group the heart's proprietor belongs to, coupled with scathing contempt for those outside the group.
Religion and politics — still (one hopes) banned in the officers' mess, but unavoidable elsewhere. It's a pity we're like this, but we're human and we can't help it. We evolved that way.