Materialism, spirituality, and the three C's

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive linguist, would not make a very good ambassador. In his latest diatribe, he attempts to reassure humanities scholars that science is not their enemy. Science is good, and humanities scholars should stop complaining about 'Scientism'. Unfortunately, he says this in such a tactless and, er, Scientistic way that it’s guaranteed to annoy not just humanities scholars, but no doubt many scientists too.

Right from the get-go, he patronizes the humanities, giving his essay the sub-title, ‘an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’, which makes everyone in the humanities sound like losers. Just to make sure of offence, he then claims that Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant and Smith were ‘all scientists’, and all materialists to boot. Even I know that’s wrong - Descartes, Rousseau, Liebniz, Kant and Smith all used spiritual ideas like the soul, providence, God or the General Will in their philosophies.

I don't care about inter-departmental bun-fights. I am all for cross-disciplinary work between the humanities and the sciences, like the Stoicism and Therapy project I’m working on at Exeter University. The Scientism I object to, which Pinker expresses, is the shrill insistence that science has 'proved' materialist utilitarianism and any other world-view is ridiculous. I think that type of Scientism, besides being tactless, leaves out important aspects of human experience.

Materialism’s rejection of subjective experience

According to Pinker’s Scientism, ‘most of the traditional sources of belief - faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty - are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge’.

Dismissed entirely? That would mean ignoring subjective experience, our mental states and emotions. Surely our inner experience is a useful source of knowledge about ourselves - otherwise how would we have any basis for psychology? Certainly subjective experience can mislead - whole shelves of philosophy and theology have been written on the art of discernment - but it seems extreme to dismiss all inner experience as a source of knowledge.

Pinker goes on, ‘the moral worldview of any scientifically literate person requires a radical breach from religious conceptions of meaning and value’. How does it require that? William James understood that the foundation of religions is ‘religious experience’, our attempt to make sense of our consciousness, emotions and relationships, and to discover the wisest way to live. Many ‘scientifically literate’ people still find religious traditions useful guides.

Pinker insists that scientific progress has exposed and debunked the truth-claims of the world’s religions. This is true - some of the truth-claims of Genesis, for example, have been debunked, and it’s unfortunate that many fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept the discoveries of evolution or geology. But Pinker over-eggs his materialist pudding. He says: ‘We know that the laws governing the physical world have no goals that pertain to human well-being’.

No, we don’t. We know that the laws of the physical world led to consciousness, and that consciousness apparently gives humans the ability to think, discuss and philosophize, and to choose better and wiser ways of living which enhance our well-being. A strict materialist might claim that talk of consciousness and free will is 'woo woo', but I think the scientific evidence supports the above claims.

We don’t yet know how consciousness works, and whether it’s confined to our individual brains or is connected with other sentient beings and the cosmos. Until then, scientists don’t know if things like prayer, prophecy and revelation have something to them or are delusions (although we can test out the truth-claims of particular prophecies or revelations, and see for ourselves if we think prayer works).

Does science ‘prove’ secular humanism?

Pinker’s right that scientific progress has undermined many religious truth-claims, and in the process undermined people’s values and sense of meaning. But has science led to positive values or meaning? Pinker says that though ‘the scientific facts do not themselves dictate values...[they] militate towards...principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings’. This ‘humanism’, he says, ‘is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies’.

Is it? The fact that modern democracies are doing nothing to prevent climate change suggests that we don’t care about the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. Rather, the ruling value system of modern democracies would seem to be consumerism, and the flourishing of all sentient beings is way down our list of priorities.



I'm not blaming this failure on scientific materialism - the Christian majority of America seem just as consumerist as the atheist minority. I'm merely saying that Pinker’s faith in secular humanism is just that: a faith, something that flies in the face of the abundant evidence that humans don’t care about the flourishing of others, that rationalism alone is apparently not enough to help us. He speaks of the ‘unfulfilled promises’ of secular humanism, much like a Christian longing for a more just world.  Humanism, like Christianity, involves faith (which according to Pinker makes it 'unscientific' and therefore unworthy of respect).

Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism ignores the three Cs

Like Pinker, I believe that our ethics should be connected to what psychology tells us about human nature. But I would argue that religious traditions have a better understanding of human psychology and how to develop it into ethical conduct than Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism. I want to emphasize three aspects of human nature where materialist utilitarianism falls short - creativity, community, and consciousness.

First, creativity. Pinker discusses at the end of his essay how ‘new science’ has discovered humans are not ‘rational actors’. Instead, as social scientists like George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt have researched, we’re moved by metaphor, image, and narrative-frames of purity, heroism, justice and other ‘moral emotions’.

That’s what religious thinkers from Carlyle to Chesterton have been warning utilitarians since the Enlightenment. But materialism has undermined our myths or ‘sacred narratives’, which is why poetry has gone from being at the very centre of human society to being at the margins. Poets (even atheist poets like Shelley) drew energy from the Platonic idea that they are prophets, mediators to the spirit world - this is true all the way up to Ted Hughes, our last great poet. Once we stopped believing in things we couldn’t see, our poetic imagination dried up. Poetry became a sideshow: amusing but of no substantial import.

As TS Eliot warned, the loss of collective myths led to a loss of meaning and a flattening of emotion, because materialism failed to come up with new sacred narratives that light up our moral emotions, other than the rather toxic narrative of nationalism. Photographs from the Hubble telescope are awesome, but they’re not a guiding myth like, say, Lord of the Rings or Paradise Lost.

Secondly, community. Religious traditions are not perfect at community-building - most of them still struggle with misogyny and homophobia, and secular humanist communities are much better in that respect. But religious communities typically have stronger and more emotional ties, because they have at their heart collective experiences of the sacred, which social scientists from Emile Durkheim to Robert Putnam emphasised as the key to community cohesion.

The most nurturing religious communities have the idea of a loving God at their centre. This allows people to be vulnerable, to care for each other and for their communities, and gives them a common identity at a deep level - deeper than the secular humanist idea that what connects us in rationality. The problem about communities connected only by rationality is they easily become snobbish cliques of the cognitive elite, rather like the Edge Foundation to which Pinker belongs. Secular humanist communities need to learn the art of being vulnerable - that’s why Brene Brown’s work is so valuable.

Thirdly, consciousness. Rather than dismissing subjective experience, religious traditions are storehouses of wisdom about it, and in particular about the emotions, and how to transform them. Secular therapy owes a great deal to these traditions, from mindfulness meditation to prayer in the 12 Steps Programme. This wisdom seems to me at least as valuable as the materialist approach to our inner worlds, which is basically to look for chemical solutions to chemical problems. Religious traditions are also open to ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’ like visions, trances and ecstasies, which scientific materialism can often dismiss as ‘psychotic-like symptoms’.

Of course, the materialist hypothesis may turn out to be right. Our minds may be confined to our brains, there may be no God or higher beings communicating with us, the universe may not care anything about us. But it remains a hypothesis, to be challenged and criticized rather than turned into dogma. As Pinker says, ‘the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today’.