In my debates with some theists over the nature of human morality I am sometimes accused of being utopian. Of only seeing a good side to human nature. Ignoring the history of violence and persecution.
Maybe it’s just a matter of my critics finding a balanced view of human nature impossible. However, I reject their criticism because I have in fact written about the human nature and intuitions, such as the “then vs us” intuition, which have motivated negative examples of human activity.
Still, these critiques have put me in admirable company – Steven Pinker has received similar unwarranted criticism. Particularly in the publicity surrounding his new book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.
I have a copy and look forward to reading it. His earlier books are impressive and this has certainly had excellent reviews.
Pinker argues, and provides evidence for his argument, that human violence has declined. He is not claiming this trend is inevitable or that it cannot be reversed. Just that it is a fact of recent history.
The Guardian recently published an interview with Pinker about his findings. You can read it at Steven Pinker: fighting talk from the prophet of peace. This included a table from the book that impressed me. it was a list of the 21 worst atrocities (conflicts or tyrannies) in human history. Pinker recalibrated these, to express the number of victims in terms of an equivalent 20th Century population.
I have listed the data below in order of the recalibrated death tolls. It certainly provides some food for thought. (And, incidentally put’s paid to the simplistic ideologies which blame all wars and atrocities on either religion or atheism).
||Death toll (20C equivalent)**
||An Lushan revolt
||Middle East slave trade
||Fall of the Ming dynasty
||Fall of Rome
||Annihilation of the American Indians
||Atlantic slave trade
||Second world war
||Mao Zedong (mostly government-caused famine)
||British India (mostly preventable famine)
||Thirty years’ war
||Russia’s “time of troubles”
||First world war
||French wars of religion
||Congo Free State
||Russian civil war
||Chinese civil war
*Median/mode of figures cited in encyclopaedias or histories. Includes battlefield and civilian deaths
**Deaths were calculated against global population at time, then scaled up to mid-20th century level
One of the figures from Pinker’s new book also illustrates his main point. This is his Figure 5.3: 100 worst wars and atrocities in human history.
Perhaps we are getting better?
Posted in atheism, belief, philosophy, politics, religion, SciBlogs, science, Science and Society
Tagged American Native Indians. slavery, Congo Free State, History, India, Mao Zedong, Middle East, Pinker, SciBlogs, Steven Pinker, Timur
This is the panel discussion at the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?” (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop).
The panel includes Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Patricia Churchland, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Roger Bingham. They respond to questions from the audience (and the size of the audience for such a subject is heartening).
Their interaction is useful as it helps to overcome any misunderstanding any participant may have had about others points of view. Its a useful supplement to the individual presentation I have posted during this week (see Telling right from wrong – unreligiously, A philosopher comments on science and morality and A physicist comments on science and morality).
This video is 42 min long.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
TSN: The Great Debate Panel, posted with vodpod
Posted in diversity, evolution, Krauss, philosophy, religion, SciBlogs, science, Science and Society
Tagged Lawrence Krauss, Lawrence M. Krauss, morality, Patricia Churchland, Peter Singer, Sam Harris, SciBlogs, Simon Blackburn, Steven Pinker
Stephen Pinker participated in the Great debate “Can Science tell us Right from Wrong?” (See Telling right from wrong? for more details of this debate and workshop).
His answer to the question was “Yes and No!” His wasn’t placing a bet
each way – just stressing that the answer depends on how “science”
is defined. Science interpreted in the narrow way it normally is
can’t answer these questions. However, it can – if science is
interpreted to mean “unreligion.” And many people is this debate do
interpret science that way. Pinker starts by explaining how
religion cannot tell us right from wrong. He then goes on to argue
that why while science, determined narrowly, can’t either it has
helped us make these decisions. Its an interesting presentation –
only 12 mins long.
Vodpod videos no longer available.
TSN: Steven Pinker, posted with vodpod
Steven Pinker is Harvard College
Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard.
His research is on visual cognition and the psychology of language.
Among his books are “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language,” “How the Mind Works” and “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.” He has been named Humanist of the Year, and is listed in Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and in Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the
World Today.” His latest book is “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature.”
- Telling right from wrong? (openparachute.wordpress.com)
- Can science shape human values? (openparachute.wordpress.com)
This follows on from my post Can science shape human values? That included an audio of a discussion on science and morality recorded before the Origins of Morality Workshop held at Arizona State University recently.
On November 6th a panel of renowned scientists, philosophers, and public intellectuals gathered to discuss what impact evolutionary theory and advances in neuroscience might have on traditional concepts of morality. If human morality is an evolutionary adaptation and if neuroscientists can identify specific brain circuitry governing moral judgment, can scientists determine what is, in fact, right and wrong? The panelists were psychologist Steven Pinker, author Sam Harris, philosopher Patricia Churchland, physicist Lawrence Krauss, philosopher Simon Blackburn, bioethicist Peter Singer and The Science Network’s Roger Bingham.
The discussions was promoted as The great debate: Can science tell us right from wrong?
Videos of the Great debate are now up at the Science Network website (see
The Great Debate). I have reproduced them below. They are each about 14 minutes long.
Well worth watching. (The videos are now starting to be uploaded to Youtube – for those who prefer to download).
The Great Debate
The debate was introduced by Roger Bingham (The science Network) followed by Sam Harris.
Posted in diversity, evolution, philosophy, SciBlogs, science
Tagged Arizona State University, End of Faith, morality, Project Reason, Roger Bingham, Sam Harris, SciBlogs, Steven Pinker, The Science Network, The Stuff of Thought
There’s been a bit of discussion lately about the relationship between science and human values. Partly because of the recent Edge Seminar (see The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality). But also because of recent talks by Sam Harris arguing that science can determine human values. He expresses his ideas more clearly in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
It’s an excellent book – I have just finished reading it and will express my thoughts on the ideas in a separate post shortly.
But for others interested in this subject NPR has produced a podcast with an interesting set of interviews (see Can Science Shape Human Values? And Should It?).
In this Ira Flatow talks with scientists and philosophers about the origins of human values, and the influence of modern scientific thought on human values. Even if science can shape human morals, should it? Or does science bring its own set of preconceptions and prejudices to moral questions?
Those appearing on the podcast include:
Lawrence Krauss: foundation professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Department, director, Origins Project
Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona
Simon Blackburn: research professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge
Sam Harris: Author, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values“; Author, “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason“; co-founder and CEO, Project Reason
Steven Pinker: Johnstone Family professor, department of psychology
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
There’s even a discussion of “How can science and religion inform each other?” And they take some call-in questions.
Thanks to Jerry Coyne (See Science and morality: a Science Friday discussion).
Posted in agnostic, agnosticism, atheism, belief, diversity, philosophy, religion, SciBlogs, science, Science and Society, tradition
Tagged End of Faith, Ira Flatow, Lawrence M. Krauss, morality, Project Reason, Sam Harris, science of morality, SicBlogs, Steven Pinker
Some time ago (Evolution – a theory or a fact?) I made the observation:
“Our knowledge about evolution includes facts (e.g., fossil records, genetics, molecular biology of DNA), theories (e.g, natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift) and speculation (e.g., much of evolutionary psychology). Just like any other body of scientific knowledge.”
We could add that although many ideas in evolutionary psychology are speculative, some of these are firming up. Steven Pinker does a good job of separating the more reliable ideas from the more speculative (see his books: The Blank Slate, How the Mind Worksand The Stuff of Thought). Similarly, some of the theories, such as natural selection, are now so well supported by factual evidence they are beginning to be accepted as facts in themselves. A bit like the laws of thermodynamics.
Posted in Christianity, creationism, Darwin, Dawkins, evolution, faith, intelligent design, interfaith, religion, science, supernatural, superstition
Tagged Craig Venter, DNA, evolution, evolutionary psychology, natural selection, Richard Dawkin, Steven Pinker
I must upgrade my computer soon. Meanwhile I keep my eyes open to see what is available and what might be suitable for me. I have even considered a laptop – so am naturally interested in what people are using.
I recently watched the videos of the Origins Symposium. It was great and well worth the time. However, I was a little distracted by the laptops presenters used. As many of the presentations were by panels of five or so people sitting in front of the audience their laptops were often lined up in a row.
Patricia Churchland favours Macs but steven Pinker doesn't!
Posted in culture, diversity, science
Tagged astronomy, biology, cosmology, Human evolution, Laptop, Linux, Mac OS, Microsoft Windows, Pamela L. Gay, Steven Pinker, Windows
Jerry Coyne, the author of Why Evolution Is True, has posted an interesting comment from Steve Pinker on his blog (see Steven Pinker’s take on the material mind). I will just quote here the section where Pinker comments on the origins of human morality.
“Nor is morality any mystery. Abstract, universal morality (e.g., a Kantian categorical imperative) never evolved in the first place, but took millennia of debate and cultural experience, and doesn’t characterize the vast majority of humanity. More rudimentary moral sentiments that may have evolved – sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt – are stable strategies in cooperation games, and emerge in computer simulations.”
A beautiful brief statement which encapsulates some of my own attempts to explain the sources of our morality (see Where do our morals come from?, Atheists not allowed to criticise Hitler! and A naturalistic approach to human morality).
Posted in atheism, belief, diversity, evolution, religion, science, supernatural, superstition, tradition
Tagged Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne, morality, morals, Steven Pinker
I’m currently reading Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. Very interesting book.
I thought this section quoted below on the gene-centred theory of evolution is enlightening. Many people interpret this idea wrongly. I know I did for 30 years – as I refused to read Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene thinking it was a justification fro a selfish society (see Dealing with Dawkins).
This is particularly relevant to the discussion of purpose.
But almost everyone misunderstands the theory. Contrary to popular belief, the gene-centered theory of evolution does not imply that the point of all human striving is to spread our genes. With the exception of the fertility doctor who artificially inseminated patients with his own semen, the donors to the sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners, and other kooks, no human being (or animal) strives to spread his or her genes. Dawkins explained the theory in a book called The Selfish Gene, and the metaphor was chosen carefully. People don’t selfishly spread their genes: genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains”. “By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends and children, the genes buy a lottery ticket for representation in the next generation, with odds that were favorable in the environment in which we evolved. Our goals are subgoals of the ultimate goal o£ the genes, replicating themselves. But the two are different. As far as we are concerned, our goals, conscious or unconscious, are not about genes at all, but about health and lovers and children and friends.
The confusion between our goals and our genes’ goals has spawned one muddle after another. A reviewer of a book about the evolution of sexuality protests that human adultery, unlike the animal equivalent, cannot be a strategy to spread the genes because adulterers take steps to prevent pregnancy. But whose strategy are we talking about? Sexual desire is not people’s strategy to propagate their genes. It’s people’ strategy to attain the pleasures of sex, and the pleasures of sex are the genes’ strategy to propagate themselves. If the genes don’t get propagated, it’s because we are smarter than they are. A book on the emotional life of animals complains that if altruism according to biologists is just helping kin or exchanging favors, both of which serve the interests of one’s genes, it would not really be altruism after all, but some kind of hypocrisy. This too is a mixup. Just as blueprints don’t necessarily specify blue buildings, selfish genes don t necessarily specify selfish organisms. As we shall see, sometimes the most selfish thing a gene can do is to build a selfless brain. Genes are a play within a play, not the interior monologue of the players.
Posted in atheism, belief, creationism, Darwin, Dawkins, evolution, intelligent design, religion, science
Tagged How the Mind Works, Pinker, Steven Pinker, The Selfish Gene
Why do theists seem to require ceremonies and yet atheists seem to have no need of them? Similarly, most theists seem to join a church or have a community while atheists are not exactly clamouring to organise themselves. Humanist and similar organisations do not appear to receive the support that we might expect from the proportion of humanists, free-thinkers and other non-religious people in the population.
Perhaps the non-religious just aren’t interested on organising, After all they don’t feel the need to worship anything.
However, Steven Pinker offers an interesting explanation involving the role of ceremony in religion. In a seminar at Harvard University in 2003 Pinker discussed the science of religion with Richard Dawkins and Keith Rose (here is an mp3 file of the seminar). He suggested that religion uses ceremony to reinforce belief and solidarity within the community.
Posted in agnostic, agnosticism, atheism, belief, creationism, diversity, intelligent design, religion, supernatural, superstition
Tagged Pinker, Steven Pinker