A couple of days ago I linked to Steven Pinker’s discussion of the recent report by the President’s Council on Bioethics, and mentioned that one of the contributors, surprisingly given the overall makeup of the Council, was the irreligious and materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett. In his essay, he is in fine, feisty form.
Dennett talks about what he refers to as the “belief environment”: the prevailing set of opinions and convictions that shape a society’s behavior, regardless of their truth. He illustrates the concept with a look at “failed states”:
The belief environment plays just as potent a role in human welfare as the physical environment, and in some regards it is both more important and more fragile. Much of this has been well-known for centuries, particularly to economists, who have long appreciated the way a currency can become worthless almost overnight, for example, and the way public trust in financial institutions needs to be preserved as a condition for economic activity in general. Today we confront the appalling societal black holes known as failed states, where the breakdown of law and order makes the restoration of decent life all but impossible. (If you have to pay off the warlords and bribe the judges and tolerate the drug traffic…just to keep enough power and water and sanitation going to make life bearable, let alone permit agriculture and commerce to thrive, your chances of long-term success are minimal.) What matters in these terrible conditions is what people in general assume whether they are right or wrong. It might in fact be safe for them to venture out and go shopping, or to invest in a clothing factory, or plant their crops, but if they don’t, in general, believe that, they cannot resume anything like normal life and rekindle a working society. This creates a belief environment in which there is a powerful incentive for the most virtuous and civic-minded to lie, vigorously, just to preserve what remains of the belief environment. Faced with a deteriorating situation, admitting the truth may only accelerate the decline, while a little creative myth-making might— might —save the day. Not a happy situation.
He then zeroes in on an aspect of our American belief environment that is central to our bioethical debate:
And this is what people fear might happen if we pursue our current scientific and technological exploration of the boundaries of human life: we will soon find ourselves in a deteriorating situation where people—rightly or wrongly—start jumping to conclusions about the non -sanctity of life, the commodification of all aspects of life, and it will be too late to salvage the prevailing attitudes that protect us all from something rather like a failed state, a society in which the sheer security needed for normal interpersonal relations has dissolved, making trust, and respect, and even love, all but impossible. Faced with that dire prospect, it becomes tempting indeed to think of promulgating a holy lie, a myth that might carry us along for long enough to shore up our flagging confidence until we can restore “law and order.”
That is where the doctrine of the soul comes in. People have immortal souls, according to tradition, and that is what makes them so special. Let me put the problem unequivocally: the traditional concept of the soul as an immaterial thinking thing, Descartes’s res cogitans, the internal locus in each human body of all suffering, and meaning, and decisions, both moral and immoral, has been utterly discredited. Science has banished the soul as firmly as it has banished mermaids, unicorns, and perpetual motion machines. There are no such things. There is no more scientific justification for believing in an immaterial immortal soul than there is for believing that each of your kidneys has a tap-dancing poltergeist living in it. The latter idea is clearly preposterous. Why are we so reluctant to dismiss the former idea? It is obvious that there must be some non -scientific motivation for believing in it. It is seen as being needed to play a crucial role in preserving our self-image, our dignity. If we don’t have souls, we are just animals! (And how could you love, or respect, or grant responsibility to something that was just an animal?)
That’s our man Dan for you: Science has banished the soul as firmly as it has banished mermaids, unicorns, and perpetual motion machines. There are no such things.
I am well familiar with the objections that religious people, and in particular, theistic philosophers, will raise here: Dennett will be accused of a deluded “scientism” that leads him to apply the methods and assumptions of science to an area where they do not apply. Dennett is not impressed, and cautions against backing the wrong horse:
Doesn’t the very meaning of our lives depend on the reality of our immaterial souls? No. We don’t need to be made of two fundamentally different kinds of substance, matter and mind-stuff, to have morally meaningful lives. On the face of it, the idea that all our striving and loving, our yearning and regretting, our hopes and fears, depend on some secret ingredient, some science-proof nugget of specialness that defies the laws of nature, is an almost childish ploy: “Let’s gather up all the wonderfulness of human life and sweep it into the special hidey-hole where science can never get at it!” Although this fortress mentality has a certain medieval charm, looked at in the cold light of day, this idea is transparently desperate, implausible, and risky: putting all your eggs in one basket, and a remarkably vulnerable basket at that. It is vulnerable because it must declare science to be unable to shed any light on the various aspects of human consciousness and human morality at a time when exciting progress is being made on these very issues. One of Aristotle’s few major mistakes was declaring “the heavens” to be made of a different kind of stuff, entirely unlike the matter here on Earth—a tactical error whose brittleness became obvious once Galileo and company began their still-expanding campaign to understand the physics of the cosmos. Clinging similarly to an immaterial concept of a soul at a time when every day brings more understanding of how the material basis of the mind has evolved (and goes on evolving within each brain) is a likely path to obsolescence and extinction.
Obviously this game isn’t over yet, but I think I know where the smart money belongs. Dennett goes on to offer his notion of what a more stable foundation for our concept of human dignity might consist of (though I think he stops far short of describing it in convincing detail, and acknowledges that there are those who aren’t going to buy it): it draws upon the notion of “belief in belief” that was a central theme of his book Breaking the Spell. You can read the full essay here.