Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Brooks and Materialism

I commented on a response to a David Brooks column here. The original column is here. The statement that Derbyshire and friends jumped all over is this:

"Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment."

Derbyshire overlooks the hilarity of Brooks's appeal to "researchers" who have, just now, discovered that people actually like to to be fair, empathetic, and become close to others. Apparently neither Brooks nor the researchers ever had a mother. Instead, Derbyshire and his correspondent treat the statement with deep scientific seriousness that makes them look even more foolish than Brooks.

With respect to Darwinism and materialism in general, Brooks has the naivete of the uninitiated. It is clear that he thinks he is writing on the side of the "good guys", that is, the scientific materialists, but he is charmingly innocent of just how difficult it is to stay within Darwinian orthodoxy. For example, we are regularly told that scientific theories are provisional and always subject to potential revision, evolutionary theory no less than others. What the nasty creationists do is take this reasonable scientific development and distort it into an attack on science itself. Fair enough, the uninitiated thinks. If the scientist tells me that he has a scientific theory that genes are "selfish", and scientific theories are provisional, it is possible that the theory will be revised in the future and we will conclude that genes are not always selfish but may be unselfish. So if "researchers" discover that fairness and empathy are pretty deep drives rather than merely superficial impulses, we can count this as evidence that the selfish theory is wrong or at least incomplete. And in this conclusion the uninitiated reveals his innocent state.

When Darwinists say that a theory like the selfish gene is provisional, they don't mean that it can ever possibly be overthrown by empirical evidence. What they mean is that the precise manner in which any behavior may be accounted for in terms of selfish genes, is provisional. You are more than welcome to propose differing theories as to how sacrificing your life to save a man from a burning car is really selfish, but are never welcome to wonder whether the act might count as evidence against the theory of selfish genes itself. In fact, the latter thought is a dangerous attack on science that has the potential to bring down Western Civilization if it is pondered too long. This goes for evolutionary theory in general. You are more than welcome to speculate how material forces produced the eye, the ear, and even the human mind, but not welcome to wonder whether it is even possible for the human mind to have been caused by purely material causes at all. Again, such questions are a threat to civilization.

If this sounds a lot like how Marxist dogma works, it sounds that way to me too. You are more than welcome to speculate different ways that the capitalist dogs are exploiting the workers (maybe just their selfish genes at work?), but never welcome to wonder whether there might be something more and other going on than simple exploitation.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"It's an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when they have lost their way."

Rollo May 1953