May 1, 2017: Shermer vs. Delsol, Liberation or Dispossession?

Rather than continue the examination of moral implications from America’s anti-science movement, this time from the Left, I decided to first consider two books stark in their opposition. Their focus is one of two paramount issues of our age: the status of the human condition. Of course this reflects every human endeavor, including that other great issue: planetary assault causing earth’s sixth great extinction now underway thanks to human overpopulation, myself included. [1] The books are Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, and Chantal Delsol’s Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning In An Uncertain World. [2] This post serves merely as an introduction to their thought.

Though a very approximate summation, Shermer sees the world materially, practically, quantifiably, like Aristotle. Delsol sees the world spiritually, existentially, qualitatively, like Plato. While Shermer pays lip-service to community, to him we’re a species of individuals. For Delsol this outlook comes with negative consequences that permeate and threaten the West. While Shermer acknowledges we have problems, we now know how to solve them with science and reason. For Delsol, the way we solved our problems killed our humanity. For Shermer, reason has come far but remains in dreadfully short supply. For Delsol, the penetration of reason is radical and incomplete only in failing to recognize its own limits. For Shermer Western civilization is more peaceful, stable, comfortable, knowledgeable, richer with more stuff, longer healthier lives, and we have rights coming out of our ears, no longer under the thumb of a despot. We have Enlightenment to thank for a way out of humanity’s long bondage to circumstance. While Delsol writes, “Why do people seem so dissatisfied when so many, in the West at least, have acquired everything they reasonably need to be happy?” Rather than bondage to circumstance, it is precisely ancient man’s acceptance of both his ineluctable condition (mostly this means death) and his persistent need to escape it that gave meaning through acceptance and hope. Hope not of escape from that ultimate human fate as modernity attempted and failed, but a hope to cope with this first fact of life through traditions built non-rationally, not irrationally. Modernity’s intolerance for the realities of life have made us tyrants of another sort for Delsol, determined to torch what gave us meaning because we’ve decided that conviction to concepts which granted significance are dangerous (religion, patriotism, heroism). Likewise, we have Enlightenment to thank for this mistake.

For Delsol, real life is full of contradictions, some of which are necessary as a state of existence. They cannot be made to universally vanish for utopia unless we do what we did: deny contradictions exist by relativistic means. Like good and evil are merely matters of culture bound opinion, or by creating social tyrannies of oppression like political correctness. Instead, traditional ways established over centuries of trial and error addressed these natural contradictions with countermeasures. “Religious thought,” writes Delsol, “explained the permanence of temporal imperfection and thereby legitimized the necessity of a moral code, politics, and all the other structuring antinomies [i.e. contradictions between two apparently correct solutions]…” For Delsol, religion with its promise in the face of despair, politics with its command structure, not perfect equality, and economics with winners and losers are a bit like checks and balances in Constitutional governance. Each branch can step on the other’s territory. Battles emerge over important issues as the victors ebb and flow. A messy, but organic not analytical, leveling act that attenuates too much oscillation of naturally unstable humans.

I often challenge the blatant contradiction of those who simultaneously embrace capitalist selfishness, and Christian selflessness. But Delsol says, that’s life. And for reasons modern arguments miss. For example, profit is capitalism’s reward for hard work, innovation, and service. But along the way to profit, some are inevitably left with less. On a broad scale there will be rich and there will be poor, an apparent injustice. Isn’t there some way to fix this? One is, “A kind of happy austerity,” writes Delsol, “in which desires would be limited in proportion to available goods, imagining that people would be content with a bare minimum made palatable by the attainment of equality for all.” A socialist solution—while far from the only option—that not only ignores the reality of imperfect existence but denies yearning for reward and recognition. It’s a flawed definition of human nature, or an expectation that human nature will conform to a higher calling if only ideals of equality could override natural emotions. Here Delsol echoes Michael Polanyi who asserts that only if we manage to abandon moral perfectionism can we come to accept reality. [3]

But moral imperfection is hard for Enlightenment moderns to accept. Enlightenment thought has been so successful in providing solutions for everything from spaceflight to the Founder’s Constitution, why would any stone be left unturned if justice is a fundamental human desire? Though patient, Shermer’s vision seeks to turn those stones, expanding the moral sphere as dictated by reason wherever it leads. This includes those animals whose brain structure and emotional function science has found to be little or no different from our own. [4] To Shermer, Deslol’s non-rational solution looks like a method without a plan, destined for that good old time abuse. For him, our moral gains didn’t come from tradition, least of all religion. “Most of the moral development of the past several centuries,” Shermer writes, “has been the result of secular not religious forces… The most important of these that emerged from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment are science and reason… The moral universe bends not merely toward justice, but also toward truth and freedom… the product of societies moving toward more secular forms of governance…” His survey of the religious backdrop and participation in “witch” burning 60,000-100,000 women, and the disembowelment of heretics is enough to make even the Internet generation blanch. And must we be reminded of abject immorality in a God who murders first born toddlers and children of Egypt in Exodus? Even first born of livestock. Where’s that external objective morality Delsol frees from the flimsy intrusion of reason? For Shermer, these examples show what doesn’t work. And regardless of whether or not God exists, humans are not good at practicing what they preach. There’s a better way, and Shermer says we know as fact what that is. Time to leave the Middle Ages behind, not go back to it.

Certainly there seems support in Delsol’s argument for contradiction in humans themselves. We want love and independence, belonging and autonomy, someone of extraordinary measure to look up to, often combined with insecurity that hopes to pull those people down. If, as E.O. Wilson claims, natural selection filtered us by gene traits expressed through individuals and by group traits expressed through community and culture, then these contradictions are built in. [5] Hardwired to express individualism and selfishness (greed), or community and altruism of selflessness (virtue). In that case, Shermer and Delsol argue for one side or the other of our dual nature. But which way is right for the world we’re in? Or is there a solution waiting to be discovered that unifies both? Do humans have a capacity for balance?

Until next time. Monday, July 3rd, 2017.


[1] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Picador, 2015
[2]Michael Shermer Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, And Freedom, Holt and Company, 2015. Chantal Delsol Icarus Fallen: The Search For Meaning In An Uncertain World, ISI Books, 2003
[3] Michael Polanyi, Meaning, University of Chicago Press, 1975
[4] The Cambridge Statement on Animal Consciousness, in Marc Bekoff, Animals are conscious and should be treated as such, New Scientist, September 2012.
[5] E.O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, Liveright, 2015
Added two words, 1/27/19. I know, it's crazy.
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Published on May 01, 2017 10:13
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