What Science Tells Us… and Doesn’t


^ conversing with Bill Kristol, Charles Murray explored comprehensively the anomalies in today’s societal structures, but drew conclusions unnecessarily pessimistic. Free will exists, and so does social adaptation

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Much attention is being given these days to three academic thinkers : Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, and Charles Murray. All are social scientists and/or psychologists — students of the brain — much given to biological observations. From these biological observations, they draw conclusions about individual behavior and societal accommodations. All three thinkers point toward so-called traditional arrangements and imperatives and away from the revisionism that has affected both these past 50 years since the individualistic revolution of the 1960s.

To what extent do I support these thinkers’ recommendations ? The answer is that I don’t support them much at all. Where I do support the traditional social arrangements, I don’t need their authority; the arguments for traditional set-ups were all established long ago. More, I disagree that biology has anything to tell us about moral questions. Thus I am unconvinced that its observations dictate society’s duties. Observed phenomena are what they are, and nothing else. Data recorded do give the lie to speculation, but they tell us nothing about what is meant, if anything.

Biology certainly affects medicine. Medical discovery usually can’t take place without a biological record. The same is not true of morals. Even if possession of a y chromosome gives the possessor an advantage in certain physical capabilities — and a concomitant disadvantage in others — that finding tells us nothing about how to value the lives of each, the y chromosome person and the person with only x chromosomes. (I use the chromosome distinction only as an example. There are, for sure, other fundamental biological differences between people we describe as “male” and “female.”)

The relationship between biology and the mind  is a complex one as yet quite unsettled. Why some people identify as female even though possessing biologies that we list as “male,” and vice versa,  we have as yet no good answer for. Self-identifications seem embedded deep in  the brain, well below the cortex, in the brain stem or deeper, in the mimetic mind where music and rhythm arise. They are FELT even when no name can be put on the feeling. Nor is gender feeling the only personality outcome that defies biological explanation. The question then arises,:are identity feelings determined, or are they an exercise of free will ? Free will, as we use the term, has little, if anything to do with biology and not much more to do with social science. Free will, when it occurs, can arise unexpectedly — surprising the person willing it, even. All the anecdotal evidence suggests that identity feelings do not arise willingly; that they are felt to pre-exist; are FOUND OUT by the person finding, the way one stumbles by accident upon a secret that was already there, just not noticed. But if that is so, that identity feelings already existed even before noticed, where in one’s being were they ? To this question, biology has no answer, psychology only a guess.

The biology adept would like to assert that gender feelings are random and groundless; that biology rules, feelings have only subjective presence. On these grounds Peterson and Pinker both object to the political use of identity feelings. Are they right to say so ? That depends on what motives we attribute to their opinion. Myself, I agree, that identity feelings have no political bearing. Whatever civil rights our society accords, it accords to all, equally; the question of who one is does not arise, or should not. Only when people try to make identity an issue and to deny civil rights to certain identities does identity become an issue. Is this what Peterson and Pinker tell us ? I am not sure. I do agree with the two that identity should never become a legitimate basis for differentiating, politically, between people.

Back now to the issue of identity.

It is difficult for modern man, given to answers for everything, to accept, or to agree, that identity feelings are real despite there being no answer to where they are : in the body ? In the brain ? In one’s heart ? Augustine, long ago, wrote that sexual feelings arose in him, all the time, no matter how much he wanted them not to. His response was to will them dormant. Our age takes the opposite tack : admit them and let them be. Each outcome is equally deterministic. We can will these feelings to retreat, but we cannot will them to go away.

I don’t think our current trio of thinkers has gotten much farther than Augustine did. They may not even have gotten as far as he did. He said about evil, why does it exist if God is all powerful, that evil exists because people want to do it. They will it. I think Augustine is right; and his conclusion also dignifies humankind enormously by granting every person the capacity to choose the good. The good — or the bad — are not simply the reflex actions of a biological condition that we cannot do anything about. They are choices that all people can make. Thus Augustine’s “capability to will” becomes a basis for the social and idealistic equality that our Framers wrote into the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Our modern thinkers, who assert that biology is destiny, and that different physical sex characteristics are a valid basis of social role assignment, deny the moral basis of political equality.

Charles Murray has advanced the most comprehensive — and insightful — analysis of current social conditions, which he considers broken down and unable to wean an optimally prepared next generation. He considers the two parent family essential and urges that children be born in wedlock, not outside; and that a boy who grows up without a father role model is compromised thereby. I find his view much too lazy. Of course the standard family usually works (but not always!); but so do other family forms. People growing up in single parent homes, or in homes with two fathers or two mothers, don’t just give up; they work around their structure, or they adapt it to make it work. Adults are still role models even if there is only one, or two of the same. And kids want to grow up to be important. Few grow up not caring. Murray mentions finance as a factor, but not in the way that it really is. To him, families at the bottom of the economic scale are denied access to success not by having few funds but by lack of motivation resulting from the overwhelming burdens upon them. So saying, he has it backward. Any divorce lawyer knows that more marriages break up over financial difficulties than for any other reason. lack of finance is a terrible restriction upon lives. Blame becomes the daily yell, the accusation, the poison that splits parents apart and leaves kids in turbulence — never an asset to the acts of will that enable individuals to rise.

Like all the present science-based thinkers, Murray is trapped by the determinism built into scientific observation. Or should I say, he seems deterministic where acts of free will can and do save many the day, and not deterministic enough where basic identity feelings are involved. But while I criticize Murray, I do not puzzle at his outcomes. Human life is a mystery that resists explanation. Augustine and Rabbi Hillel, who gave us the golden rule, and maybe Plato’s Socrates, have come the closest to understanding who we are and what we should do; but even they haven’t the final word. There isn’t one.


—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


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