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Can the forces of reason tame the devil within us?


Steven Pinker wants to challenge the claim that “The twentieth century was the bloodiest in history”. Those who advance this idea are said to be numbered among “the romantic, the religious, the nostalgic and the cynical”. The reason why they make the claim is “to impugn a range of ideas that flourished in that century, including science, reason, secularism, Darwinism and the ideal of progress”. However, according to Pinker, there is no substance to this “historical factoid” because historical records are better as we come closer to the present time, because it is a human trait to overestimate the frequency of wars (“vivid, memorable events”) and because we care more about violence today. Against all this, Pinker asserts that there has been a historical decline in violence that deserves our attention.

Those who are accustomed to saying that science deals with “How?” questions and religion deals with “Why?” questions have a real problem with Pinker’s article, because it appears in a leading science journal and is all about why humans behave the way they do. The philosophical stance of much modern science treats morality, ethics, social behaviour and much else as a sub-set of phenomena in the natural world.

There are many issues to consider. For more leads to discussion, go here.

David (re.#7): I pretty much agree with everything you say, but I would take your first paragraph one step further: I contend that ALL morality is "relativised and personal", even Christian morality. Any Christian who is not a Biblical literalist must decide which of the many moral imperatives found in the Bible to accept and which to ignore. For example, one passage in the Old Testament requires that a wife who grabs the privates of a man who is attacking her husband should be put to death. Another decrees the same fate for a disobedient son. Most Christians today would reject such moral imperatives. But on what basis? What other basis is there than a personal belief that such moral rules no longer apply. Even the passages in the Bible that seem to condemn homosexuality can be variously interpreted according to personal belief. I listened to an interview not long ago with the gay Episcopalian minister who was recently made an American Bishop (whose name I forget) who basically contended that the Bible condemns homosexual one night stands (I paraphrase here) but not a committed, loving, monogamous homosexual relationship. Clearly, given the divisions that his election engendered, many Christians agree with him, and many do not. Christians can even be found on both sides of the issue of abortion. But even a Biblical literalist must still interpret the moral imperatives found in the Bible, and the fact that different fundamentalist Christian sects impose different "absolute" standards of morality on their members attests to the fact that personal ideas influence moral standards even there. I contend that morality, even faith based morality, is a moving target--it evolves as society evolves. In fact I would say, as I have in these blogs before, that there is no such thing as morality, really. Rather there is only what works and doesn't work given what you want to be, do, and have. If what you want is to be successful above all else, you will behave in ways quite different from one who wants a life filled with love, relationship, and caring. To me, a life that is most faithful to our essential (God like) nature is one in which every action in each moment arises out of an answer to the question, "What would Love do now?" This is not morality at all in the normal sense of the word, because it is not based on rules of behavior. Rather, it involves listening to our hearts and souls and acting in each moment according to the promptings found there. It can never be absolute because each moment is like no other. Action arises spontaneously out of the unique needs of each moment, based in the love in our hearts and the wisdom in our souls. Bruce David
i support ID but i side here with Pinker. This is good news. This is something we should be happy about. Pinker has well researched his topic and has his facts lined up. The decline of violence in the 20th century does not prove God does not exist, in fact, it proves the opposite since this shows that the more evil declines the more atheism increases, so this is an argument against the argument from evil, since it shows that evil can decline and there is no point at which the atheists will confess that there is not enough evil to support their atheism. besides, if we refuse our opponents everything then we risk being seen as stubborn by the fence sitters. noam_ghish
Or related interest:
Can Darwinists Condemn Hitler and Remain Consistent with Their Darwinism? - Richard Weikart October 27, 2011 Excerpt: Darwin understood this point, for in Descent of Man he claimed, "If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering." http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/10/can_darwinists_condemn_hitler052331.html
Bruce David @ 6.1: Thanks for your comments. I think you are overstating the stance taken by the Christians on this blog. It is not that atheists have no morality, but that if they have a morality, it is a post-modern morality (one that is relativised and personal). Pinker is a case in point - he is trying to set out a morality based on rational argument and logic, but the problems with this approach are blatent. The same applies to Sam Harris and others who seek to develop a humanistic morality - the positivist paradigm which they espouse in their science crumbles and they end up in the company of postmodernists or existentialists. Regarding your last paragraph, my concern is how we can bring other paradigms regarding human nature into science. The experimental psychologists and neuroscientists are dominated by people who are building models of human cognition and behaviour on the foundation of naturalism. Humans end up as machines and their behaviour is (statistically) deterministic. You refer to humanity being made in God's image - but if this is true, it needs to be expressed in ways that allow us to develop hypotheses about the human condition that can be tested against the hypotheses arising from naturalism. This is a task that has hardly been started within academia! David Tyler
It is a common idea among the Christians who post to this blog that without a belief in God there can be no morality. However, if one looks at the actions of those who profess atheism or agnosticism, it is clear that this view is patently false. Christopher Hitchens, for example, has a very well developed sense of right and wrong. So does my brother, the atheist. I would trust either of them with my well being before many I know who profess a Christian faith. I believe that we human beings, being made in God's image and likeness, possess an essence one of whose qualities is Love. We are naturally kind, compassionate, and loving simply because we are made that way, and that is true whatever our belief regarding the existence or non-existence of a Deity. What must be explained is not that humans are kind and loving, which they are, but rather why they nonetheless behave in ways that are contrary to that essential nature. There is a valid explanation for this fact, and it speaks to the very reason and purpose of the physical Universe and our existence as physical beings (again, in my opinion), but to go into it here would make this post way too long. Bruce David
From the Wiki entry on "The Black Book of (Godless) Communism." () my gloss. "Estimated number of victims In the introduction, editor Stéphane Courtois asserts that "...Communist regimes...turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government". He cites a death toll which totals 94 million, not counting the "excess deaths" (decrease of the population due to lower than-expected birth rates). The breakdown of the number of deaths given by Courtois is as follows: 65 million in the People's Republic of China 20 million in the Soviet Union[3] 2 million in Cambodia 2 million in North Korea 1.7 million in Africa 1.5 million in Afghanistan 1 million in the Communist states of Eastern Europe 1 million in Vietnam[4] 150,000 in Latin America 10,000 deaths "resulting from actions of the international Communist movement and Communist parties not in power."(p. 4) Courtois claims that Communist regimes are responsible for a greater number of deaths than any other political ideal or movement, including Nazism. The statistics of victims includes executions, intentional destruction of population by starvation, and deaths resulting from deportations, physical confinement, or through forced labor." I would argue the logical conclusion of any materialist explanation of human life always devolves to power and violence. There is no moral law, right? So what is left to govern? The laws of physics. Bigger, faster, stronger, wins and how they do it is irrelevant. If we want to be honest about it. Of course, Pinker and his ilk do not. Ugh. tgpeeler
I did not take a specific stance on this in the blog, but I did question the validity of using military conflict as a diagnostic measure of "violence". What do you mean by "violent acts"? There must be billions that are not reported! Pinker uses deaths in military conflict per capita - and I do not dispute that this shows a decline. The real issue for me is (a) is this statistic meaningful? and (b) is Pinker's interpretation - the increase of reasoning skills - valid? My blog discusses the latter and suggests that it tells us more about Pinker's scientism and idealism than about his contribution to knowledge. David Tyler
I think Pinker does have a point in some respects. We no longer live in walled cities, travelling across country is not as dangerous as it used to be, not all are walking around armed. People drive past Hadrian's wall on friendly visits. When people are agressive, their tools are much more powerful, true, but that doesn't add up to being more aggresive, just more efficient. ThatDarnCat
OT: William Lane Craig's lecture on the historicity of Jesus' resurrection. - audio http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DsYXKKAJp8M Description: When: Monday 24th October 2011 at 7.30pm Where: Southampton Guildhall, Southampton SO14 7LP What: Public Lecture: The Historicity of Jesus' Resurrection bornagain77
OT: William Lane Craig vs Peter Millican - Debate - Does God Exist? - audio http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4lKWiV8pkE Description: The Reasonable Faith Tour has concluded! This Special Podast edition of the show features the full audio from the debate held at Birmingham University between Christian Philosopher William Lane Craig and atheist Philosopher Peter Millican. bornagain77
Having said that, I would tend to agree with the Scientific American reviewer. Elizabeth Liddle
Are you guys saying that violent acts per capita has not dropped over the last hundred years? I don't know if it has or not, but it seems to me that that's the point Pinker is making. It seems at least plausible to me. Does anyone have any stats? Elizabeth Liddle
Further to the comment of kairosfocus - Robert Epstein in Scientific American (October 7, 2011) reviews Pinker's book with this comment: "Pinker acknowledges that one's immediate experience belies these facts [stats suggesting decreased violence] to the point where you might even want to call him "hallucinatory"." Source: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=bookreview-steven-pinker-the-better-angels-of-our-nature-why-violence-has-declined David Tyler
If Pinker's attempts to deflect attention from the fact that he century just past was horrendously bloody and for 50 years threatened to wipe out the planet [not just the dozens upon dozens of millions lost in wars and mass murders by governments animated precisely by radical secularism and post-Christian neo-paganism, were not so patently sad, they would be ridiculous. kairosfocus

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