Can science bring us into a golden age of understanding human nature? (Pinker 2002)

April 28, 2007

Why are genetics, neuroscience and evolution perceived as corrosive to notions of free will, personal responsibility and the possibility of negotiating a universal code of ethical values1? Steven Pinker (2002) brilliantly unveils a history of major debates on issues that have become increasingly strident.

Pinker reveals the underlying fear of a religious and secular nihilism engendered by materialist theories of consciousness in which the mind emerges solely from the forces of living matter2. Pinker concedes that ‘debating the Pope [on the ontological leap about the existence of the human soul, the higher purpose of knowledge and love of God] is the ultimate exercise in futility’ (Pinker 2002:187). But Pinker’s argument is that the theory that the mind is purely a physical organ is as humane as the doctrine of the immortal soul. In fact Pinker continues, the doctrine of the immortal soul and the reward of life after death, devalues life on earth (Pinker 2002:189).

Picture this, an exiled, persecuted Persian spiritual leader, invited to speak to distinguished audiences in London, Paris, New York . . . to respond to divergent philosophies that had emerged during his decades of imprisonment. In 1911 after strolling through the Trocadero Gardens near the Eiffel Tower he shared his thoughts on the relationship between mind, body and spirit. He acknowledged the way in which the terminology of soul, mind and spirit differed between the ancient and modern philosophers. The ancient philosophers used the term ‘soul’ as sensations of emotion as a function of the reality. The concept of ‘mind’ was used to describe the power that discussed the reality of phenomena. The concept of ‘spirit’ was used to discuss ‘consciousness’.

Abdul-Baha (1911) offered an alternative to the way in which philosophers described the relationship between body, mind, soul and spirit. He described how the mind as a faculty is a power superior to the soul because through the mind man can investigate the reality of every phenomena. The spirit is a third power differentiated from the soul and the mind. This third power, the spirit, involves an ontological leap of faith and cannot be deduced from a purely rational, scientific investigation of material phenomena. The soul is the motive power of the physical body, the intermediary between the body and the spirit. But it is the mind that can investigate the nature of reality choosing rationally to either open the soul to the spirit or to focus completely on the embodied self dependent on material comforts and needs. Each individual is called to use her rational mind and intellect to investigate truth individually. According to Abdul-Baha, those who choose to live in an entirely material world without need for spiritual qualities risk a weakening and eventual atrophy of the soul.

Pinker replaces the concept of ‘spirit’ with ‘consciousness’ and rejects the concept of the immortal soul leaving us with a mortal brain and a mind dependent on and emanating from purely material living matter. He argues that the “doctrine of a soul that outlives the body is anything but righteous, because it devalues the lives we live on this earth.” (Pinker 2002:189) He argues that it is more humane to use the sciences of physiology and genetics to alleviate suffering from Alzheimer’s and major depression than to rely on the ontological leap of spiritual souls based on the premise that thought and emotion are manifestations of an immaterial soul. What Abdul-Baha is saying is that we don’t need to choose between the two. Science will provide cures for those aspects of mental illness caused by purely physical, physiological or genetic manifestations in the body. But how many of us seriously believe that science will provide answers for existential crises? And what about the ethical and historical relationship between incidents of suicides and the structural, political, economic realities that engendered unhealthy environments in which certain groups of people are socially excluded and at heightened risk for mental collapse? Despair is not a state of consciousness, brain or mind but of the human spirit.

The dilemma lies then with the ethical topography of self and the other to which Pinker responds convincingly. This intrigues me. How far can we go towards a set of universal values within an entirely materialist framework? Or how humane is human nature when disengaged from a higher form of consciousness called the spiritual?

Belief that a purely materialist view that human nature, body with consciousness but not spirit, will lead to a more humane world, a golden age of understanding human nature, resonates with the belief that the science of economics with its dogma of free trade will provide the solution to the extremes of wealth and poverty.


Abdul-Baha. 1911. Causeries d’Abdu’l Baha à Paris (Les ). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_Talks

Abdul-Baha. 1911. “Concerning Body, Soul and Spirit.” Paris Talks.

Bergson, Henri. 1907. Creative Evolution (L’Evolution créatrice).

Bergson, Henri. 1932. The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (Les deux sources de la morale et de la religion).

Ferguson, A. 1999. “The End of Nature and the Next Man: Review of E. Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption.” Weekly Standard. January 12.

Gould, S. J. 1976. “Criminal Man Revived.” Natural History. 85:10-21.

Kass, L. 1997. “The End of Courtship.” Public Interest. 126. Winter.

Lewis, C. S. 2002. [1952]. “Mere Christianity.” in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York: Harper Collins.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: the Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin.

Rose, S. 1978. “Pre-Copernican Sociobiology?” New Scientist. 80:45-6.

Wolfe, Tom. 1996. “Sorry but your Soul Just Died.” Forbes ASAP. December 2.

Wolfe, Tom. 2000. “Sorry but your Soul Just Died.” Ellipses.


1 Pinker cites partisans on the political left and right (Rose, Gould, Kass, Wolfe and Ferguson) who ironically are in agreement that the ‘new sciences of human nature threaten the concept of moral responsibility’ (Pinker 2002:132-3).

2 Pinker’s materialist view of human nature is part of a vast spectrum of materialist theories that are as numerous as divergent religious views. Henri Bergson’s (1859-1941) who enjoyed a cult-like status in his lifetime presented his view of Creative Evolution, Emergent Evolution, the Life-Force through the concept of un esprit vital, which vivified the entire universe with purposeful life. In Creative Evolution (1907) Bergson integrated findings of biological science with a theory of consciousness. According to some readings of the theory of Creative Evolution, Bergson denied the existence of the God of static religion but accepted that some force provided the impetus so that lowest forms evolved purposefully into the more perfected form of Man. (In 1914 the Roman Catholic Church, placed Bergson’s books on the Index of prohibited books. Bergson’s theories were in opposition to Catholic dogma as defined by the 13th century Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas). C. S. Lewis (2002:31-2 [1952]) argued that this Life-Force was really a tame version of God and an open dynamic inclusive religion without the discomfort of moral consequences of rigid Kantian moral imperatives. (Lewis suggests Bernard Shaw as a source of the wittiest version of Creative Evolution.) Bergson’s ideas and the man himself became an object of ridicule to the next generation of French Marxist humanist intellectuals, like Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) although Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, and Lévinas acknowledged his influence on their thought. Gilles Deleuze’s (1966) Bergsonism realizing the enduring contribution of Bergson’s concept of multiplicity, revitalized his work. Since the 1990s there has been an increased interest in Bergson’s thought.

© 2007 Flynn-Burhoe, Maureen. 2007. “Can science bring us into a golden age of understanding human nature? (Pinker 2002)” > Speechless. April 26. http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=ddp3qxmz_219dwbrzk

2 Responses to “Can science bring us into a golden age of understanding human nature? (Pinker 2002)”

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