The scientific popularizers—Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, and others—don’t go in for nuance, as David Hart has pointed out again and again in our pages. They cheerfully champion the most reductive sort of materialism, including the idea that free will does not exist because our minds are just neural networks that function according to physical laws.
Why are they so enthusiastic about this idea that our minds are just neural networks? It’s not at first sight a very attractive belief. After all, free will provides a sense of self-possession, and it’s the source of the drama in life.
We should never underestimate the satisfaction that comes from finding what one imagines to be the Magic Key that unlocks all the doors, but I think our Happy Warriors of Science get so excited for another reason. The basic thrust of a reductive science of the mind involves a move from cultural categories—“I have an obligation to care for my children”—to biological ones—“I only feel an obligation because human DNA has evolved to promote species survival.”
It is a way, in other words, to deny the reality and authority of culture. One belief unifies a great deal of social theory and philosophy of the last one hundred years, and it’s the belief that culture crushes and deforms us. Max Weber called it “the iron cage.” Jacques Derrida used fancier words, but the so-called “Metaphysics of Presence” amounts to the same thing.
This belief has been reinforced by the fact that most have located the vitalizing powers of human existence in destabilizing thrusts and eruptions that undermine established cultural patterns. Michel Foucault provides perhaps the perfect example. He was fascinated by explosions of erotic desire and vivid scenes of violence.
Duty, logical coherence, settled or inherited patterns of behavior—these are among the bad motifs in our postmodern anti-culture. Self-expression, transgression, unmasking, madness, smashing the system—they are the good motifs. The bad motifs are all associated with laws, norms, and principles that discipline the soul. The good motifs suggest an anti-discipline, a liberation of desire.
It is true, of course, that a romance with transgression leads to a pseudo-morality—a discipline—of sorts, one that teaches that our greatest duty is not to make and express moral judgments that might oppress others. Verily, verily, it is forbidden to forbid.
I’m not surprised by this postmodern anti-Sinai. The old motifs put stress and tension into life. The Socratic maxim—know yourself—animated St. Augustine just as much as Albert Camus. They disagreed about the meaning of life—Augustine sought the uncertain requirements of God’s will, Camus proposed misty notions of an authentic life—but both agreed that we need to enter into ourselves. We must carefully examine our lives so that we can weigh, assess, correct, repent, and renew our efforts to live as we should.
Self-examination turns out to be endlessly painful and difficult. Therein lies the appeal of reductive explanations. They release us from the task of self-examination and the need to discipline our errant desires and disobedient wills. What matters is something impersonal, something working at a deeper level than culture and its soul-shaping agenda: the Laws of History or Physics, the Unconscious or Natural Selection. We shouldn’t underestimate the appeal of this release—and the pleasing rest it provides.
It’s really not a new idea. In his poem On the Nature of Things, the ancient Latin poet Lucretius preached the psychological benefits of explaining away culture and our conscious participation in it. Our world is an accident, he observed. Human life is a speck of no significance in the vast reality of the cosmos. As Lucretius insists, everything that seems to be uniquely personal can be explained by universal principles of matter.
It sounds nihilistic, and it is. But it was the genius of Epicureanism, which Lucretius seeks to promote in his poem, to recognize that with nihilism comes psychological freedom. A reductive theory of our humanity releases us from the tensions of all sorts of questions. Should I marry her? Do I have to keep my word? Should I make a sacrifice for my family? Have I lived honestly and with integrity? All difficult questions, and questions that may have answers we don’t want to know.
If, miracle of miracles, my life is explained by the evolution of human DNA struggling for survival, I can set these questions aside. Then I can just—live.
Perhaps this promise helps explain the strange urgency and high moralism of folks such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and other scientists who write popular books with strongly evangelical tones. They want us to recognize that we are animals governed by impersonal laws of nature for a reason. That reason is that we will be happier if we set aside culture and its illusions about the meaning of life.
If all the mental images we have about ourselves are deceptions, who can blame us for screwing things up? Who can blame us for trying to snatch what happiness we can, even if we have to transgress the moral laws our parents held dear? With this excuse, we can act contrary to our consciences, since conscience itself can be explained away by recourse to a deeper law of nature or a material process.
Yes, free will gives life its drama. But a life without drama is less stressful, less perilous, less urgent, less tense, and the therapists recommend stress reduction. If I’m just DNA trying to out compete other DNA, the mess I make of my life doesn’t matter, and it may even help the onward evolution of the species.
The Happy Warriors of Science are fitting men for our therapeutic age. They provide the metaphysical underpinnings for the great postmodern word of absolution: Whatever.
R.R. Reno is Senior Editor at First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible.
Among David B. Hart’s articles on the “Happy Warriors of Science” are Believe It Or Not, The Dawkins Evolution, and Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark.