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.

Religious traditions claim that our consciousness, and subjective experiences like emotions, are useful sources of knowledge about how to live

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.

Like Christianity, Humanism is an expression of hope and faith in the face of contrary evidence.

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’.

Shelley, kicked out of Oxford for preaching atheism in the streets, still claimed poets were the ‘hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration’.

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’.


  • carel muller says:

    Of course: materialisme is an assumption .( see fi Rupert Shedrake).

    The Near Death Experience is a clear cut example of conscousness without brainfunction.Therefore it is so useful when talking to hardcore materialists.
    Besides the NDE does not presuppose a believe in God or whatever,which makes it very suitable for scientific discussion.
    Materialists usualy deny the possibility of NDE,saying that somewhere,somehow the brain must be involved. It is their turn to prove that.

  • Thank you, thank you. Lovely piece. P

  • […] of flak from pretty capable people. One aspect of his arrogance was largely passed over, but is highlighted for us by Jules Evans at Philosophy for Life: Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive linguist, would not […]

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  • troll says:

    I think we need to work more with the natural reflexes of the brain. also, we need to remember that capitalism (which you seem to shy away from naming) was invented by a man, through male brain mechanisms, so to extrapolate that to assume that capitalism (with all it’s – I would say – macro and toxic – side effects) would suit all humanity, is, simply, illogical.

    yes, materialism, or, capitalism, requires. a great deal of faith. it is extremely dangerous, because whilst it benefits many, it also destroys as many. it must surely be in the balance as to it’s real efficacy …. efficacy for whom?????

    could you define what you think science is? I have a feeling that some people misunderstand what it is, and use it for their own reasons, a bit like could be said of some organised religions.

    yes, for me, the fact that the Christian God and Jesus is portrayed as male is a complete turn off. in addition, I find theism hard to believe and I don’t think it’s helpful to human beings who have evolved through co-operation, surely, not through individual dictatorships.

  • […] Evans: Materialism, spirituality, and the three C’s (23 augustus […]

  • […] asked Pinker to kindly stop caricaturing all humanities types as clueless losers. Jules Evans, who already slammed him at his philosophy blog now goes after him at the leftish Huffington Post: Pinker switches Scientism […]

  • I go back and forth on whether I agree with scientism, whether it’s a valid outlook or a valid criticism.
    Ultimately I think I hold out faith (yes, faith) that materialism through scientific evidence can show us how creativity, community and consciousness work and suggest how we can improve each of these for the better without science overstepping its bounds. We still need other sources of knowledge day to day; science shows how fallible the human brain is, but what else can we use to assess things on the small scale (in each of our lives’ decisions N usually equals 1) and in small time frames (we simply cannot be agnostic about everything that science has yet to ‘answer’).

    My faith has precedence to back it up, the science of subjective experiences is fast developing, so in a way Pinker isn’t being scientistic enough as he hasn’t really understood the correct lessons from the newest scientific revolution.

    I think further confusion is added to the debate because materialism seems to be used both to entail a philosophical worldview that all that exists consists of matter and energy and the forces between them, that there is no ‘other’ world or dimension, nothing supernatural or extra-material. But it is also the paradigm that the entirety of science, and other evidence based disciplines, operates under. As such it’s a working theory, like all paradigm it’s the best explanation we have for the data we have, it could potentially shift if there were enough data that didn’t fit the theory. (Of course one version of the supernatural is that it can’t be detected by material means, therefore we can’t collect data on it and materialism will never be shifted.) This means that like with all other scientific paradigms, we shouldn’t get to attached to it, but work under the assumption that it can be overturned. I think most scientists would admit to this, Pinker certainly talks as if he wouldn’t.

    Does this seem fair in terms of balancing the rightful, and evidence based, limits and place of science, without denigrating the humanities and other human activities?

  • Dylan Gratn says:

    Materialism is the most toxic doctrine to ever exist, and anyone who attacks it is doing a great deal of good.

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