I went out to Pasadena yesterday to Caltech, where the Skeptics Society held its annual conference. The theme was set by Michael Shermer, whose latest book “The Moral Arc”, framed the conversation.
Shermer’s basic premise is that charting the course of science shows that it correlates with an improvement in moral decision-making. I would tend to caution that correlation does not imply causation. But let’s look at how the conference speakers responded to that framing.
The first speaker, Don Prothero, raised an alarm about the dangers of science denial. We are skating on the edge of ecological disaster. Species extinction is occurring at a rate never before seen in the history of the planet, and global climate change threatens human survival as well. Prothero pointed the finger at science deniers who have impeded the implementation of policies such as those pursued by Germany and France to reduce their fossil fuel dependency. But where did the power to extract and consume so much fossil fuel come from, Dr. Prothero? From science, of course. In conversation, I also pointed out to him my sense that the political investments made by the Koch brothers probably reflect a basic understanding of the science of economics.
Ian Morris did not look deeply into the future, but commented on the correlation between social moires and energy consumption in foraging, farming and fossil fuel societies. He noted that the citizens in the last stage consume nearly 100 times as much energy as those in the first stage. Only farming societies tend to accept hierarchical structure, while foraging societies accept violence. The fossil fuel culture has created a kind of “sweet spot” for citizens that are largely free from violence and also allowed personal liberty (although that conclusion seems weaker if we look at what we’ve done to the rest of the animal kingdom – pigs, chickens and cows might beg to differ). The future depends greatly upon discovery of alternative sources of energy.
Jared Diamond framed his comments on the perception of danger against his experiences among the natives of New Guinea. His charming vignettes included the wisdom that parents in New Guinea allow their children choice. While I agree that far too much of our children’s time is prescribed for them, I found his admission that his household ultimately held 150 or so reptilian pets to reflect more an allowance for children to decide for their parents. The overall flow of the presentation, however, seemed to argue against Shermer’s hypothesis: the medical benefits of advanced cultures comes with emotional disassociation and irrational anxiety that is unknown in tribal cultures.
Carol Tavris offered an amusing and enlightening look at gender and sexuality. Mostly it was directed towards disassembly of social stereotypes regarding gender and sexuality. The most significant revelation for the attendees should have been the debunking of studies that suggested that sexual orientation was a biological predisposition rather than a choice. The intervening years have demonstrated that there is no biological factor that determines sexual orientation, and sociologists have described societies that have age groups that engage in homosexuality before entering into hetero adulthoods. Tavris also emphasized that feminine rights (with a focus on the frightening practice of castration and mutilation) depended upon economic opportunity for women. Both observations have significant political consequences, and led to turbid discussions regarding Western cultural imperialism.
John McWhorter was on far safer ground in considering the future of languages. Many languages will die, and attempting to preserve languages that are dying is a lost cause – their structure is simply too irregular for anyone to master who hasn’t learned them from the cradle. In fact, the relative elegance of many modern languages is related to the need to bring adult learners (emigrants) into the social system. The language had to be “dumbed down.” For this reason, McWhorter confidently states that Chinese, although the language spoken by the most people, would not overcome the tide of English. The tonal and contextual subtleties of Chinese make it impossible for an adult to master.
After the lunch break, Shermer and Richard Dawkins had a conversation that was advertised to consider the future of religion, but became rather focused on the suitability of Darwinian theory as a moral weathervane. It was nice for Dawkins to admit that he would allow for an advanced alien species (a type of “God”), but that it would have to have arisen out of evolution. I found the discussion to be frustrating, and stood up in the Q&A to offer that human behavior and evolutionary success is driven by Lamarckian processes (due to the enormous plasticity of the brain, human adults pass traits acquired during their lifetimes on to their children). While competitive selection still applies in human society, attempting to use Darwinian processes to explain human morality is a broken proposition.
Esther Dyson gave humble and uplifting introduction to the work that she is doing in trying to change the systems that cultivate poor health choices in the economically disadvantaged segments of our society. She shied away from any claims to scientific process. I had to stand up and applaud the empathy demonstrated by her choice to feel the pain of these people, and respond by wading in to do something.
My assessment of Leonard Krauss was summed up in person to him. Since I left the field of particle physics in 1990, I have become concerned that physicists talk about mathematical constructs as though they were observed physical fact. Krauss agreed that was an issue, but when I asked what the corrective was, he simply said “people lose their funding.” I did try to introduce some of the concepts I’ve outlined here. The conversation was an experience that hopefully will prepare me to do better in the future.
David Brin was to talk about privacy and security, but ended up developing a philosophical framework for political action. I found his presentation to be fascinating, in that I think that he was actually trying to deal with moral complexity that the others escaped by narrowing their focus. However, it wasn’t terribly scientific: Brin’s claim that developed nations have a “diamond shaped” power structure (a broad middle class) ignores the third-world critique that we’ve merely exported our poverty (globally, the pyramidal structure still applies). Brin did characterize the war on the middle class as an upper-class “putsch”, and considered that a reflection of behavior held over from our Darwinian past. I was heartened by one particular marching order: liberals need to reclaim Adam Smith, whose thinking has been corrupted by the neo-conservatives.
Gregory Benford spoke about the future of space travel. He echoed Prothero with an alarm that if we don’t start pulling our space junk out of orbit, the gateway will close: we won’t be able to launch rockets through the debris generated by colliding fragments. He then considered economic models for resource extraction from the asteroid belt, which are apparently related to long-term (100 million years) plans to boost the earth from its orbit so that it won’t be dried out as the sun heats. As for the prospect for travel to other solar systems, Benford invoked the lack of foresight of Thomas Jefferson, who thought it would take 1000 years for Americans to settle the continent, and the importance of the explorer spirit to human culture: politics, rather than science.
Returning now to the framing set by Shermer, I offer this: science is the study of the behavior of things that lack personality. It has long been recognized that the stepchildren of political and social science struggle because the participants don’t sit still long enough to be studied – introduce a change in the system, and they’ll change their behavior. So while trying to manage morality must be a rational exercise, this conference offered weak indications that scientific practices are going to have an impact. Where the question of the basis of morality was addressed, it was in gross abstractions that were often contradicted by the evidence offered by other speakers.
The lesson that I would hope a skeptic would draw from this is that they should have far more sympathy for the struggles faced by leaders of religious and political organizations. St. Augustine, for example, was a rational philosopher whose thought shaped moral discussion for more than a thousand years. His writings might be worthy of consideration.
The danger of convocations such as the Skeptics’ Conference is that they create an echo chamber. The fact is that most of society cannot keep up with the developments described by these worthy speakers: we lack either the mental capacity or the time. In that context, ritual and mystery are essential and valuable props to social development. So don’t tell Christians that they are unscientific. Tell them that we need intelligent design, and since they are exhorted to be Godly, why not get into the game ourselves?