A humorous little piece by Fr. Neuhaus from the “While We’re At It” section of the June/July edition of FIRST THINGS:
- Of course we are to love everybody, but, as we have all too many occasions to remember, that does not mean that we have to like them. Take Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist and poster boy of pop-science writing, for instance. If you haven’t read them, you’ve undoubtedly seen references to his books. There is The Stuff of Thought: Language Is a Window into Human Nature, and The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Pinker is like the brightest little boy in fourth grade who polished apples for Miss Woodward because she agreed with him that he is a genius. I admit it: Steven Pinker gets to me. But then, a lot of people get to me. It’s something else to get to Leon Kass. Kass, who for years headed up the President’s Council on Bioethics, is a man of moral gravity and admirably tranquil disposition. As a master teacher, he has spent a lifetime patiently eliciting from preening fools a recognition, or at least a suspicion, of the abysmal depths of their ignorance. But, with respect to Steven Pinker, he has clearly had enough. In a Commentary essay a while back, Kass wrote about the limits of scientific explanations of human experience. Pinker wrote a blistering letter in response, to which Kass had this to say: “While esteeming the findings of these exciting new fields in science, I argued that the knowledge they provide must always be incomplete, owing to science’s chosen conceptual limitations. No science of life can do justice to its subject if it does not even inquire into the nature, character, and meaning of our ‘aliveness,’ with its special inwardness, awareness, purposiveness, attachments, and activities of thought, while believing that it has ‘explained’ these richnesses of soul by reducing them to electrochemical events of the brain. Because of these limitations, and because, as I argued, the biblical account of our humanity can be affirmed even in the age of science, I suggested, against the zealots on both sides, that biblical religion has nothing to fear from science, and that, conversely, scientists still in touch with their humanity have nothing to fear from scriptural religion. . . . In the course of my critique of reductionism, I accused Steven Pinker of arrogance and shallowness. I am tempted to say that his letter provides further evidence for the charge, especially as it progresses quickly from science (about which he knows a lot) to philosophy (about which he knows a dangerous little) to the Bible and religion (about which he knows less than the village atheist).” One detects a certain impatience with Steven Pinker.
- Pinker had written: “The supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife, altered by chemicals, turned on or off by electricity, and extinguished by a sharp blow or a lack of oxygen. Centuries ago it was unwise to ground morality on the dogma that the earth sat at the center of the universe. It is just as unwise today to ground it on dogmas about souls endowed by God.” To which Kass responds: “One can hardly be blamed for thinking the man a simple materialist. Someone who boasts, even for rhetorical effect, that ‘the supposedly immaterial soul can be bisected with a knife’ simply does not see that thought and awareness, like all powers and activities of living things, are immaterial in their essence and therefore cannot be carved. This is not because they are the work of ‘ghosts in the machine’ or because materials are not involved, but because the empowering organization of materials (the vital form), the powers and activities it makes possible, and the ‘information’ it manifests and appreciates are not themselves material.”
- Kass concludes with this: “Leaving aside the simplemindedness of his moral views, I would remind Mr. Pinker that ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is a central teaching of biblical morality, promulgated centuries before his tepid and banal scientistic translation. It did not require the discovery of the human genome, because that ‘Iron Age tribal document’ already understood and proclaimed our common humanity, based on the recognition of our equal god-likeness. Moreover, the Bible, unlike Mr. Pinker, understood that such a teaching had to be commanded, because it went against the grain of native human selfishness. In this respect, as in so many others, the Bible understands human nature in ways much richer than a science that sees man only through his genetic homologies and brain events. And it teaches us more wisely than homilies drawn from DNA analysis, embellished by naïve and wishful thinking.” Steven Pinker, drop that knife.