Part I: A Gut-Level Transformation
Last October, I fasted during Yom Kippur for the first time since I was a teenager. I’ve joined a synagogue, where I sometimes attend Shabbat morning services. I’ve stopped eating pork. Almost every day, I read some of the Hebrew Bible (aka the “Old Testament”), with the help of Meir Soloveichik’s commentaries in his “Bible 365” podcast.
All of this would have been unimaginable to me ten years ago. To some who know me but not well, it might be unimaginable even now. This post will be the first of several explaining how I’ve changed and why.
Believe That You’re a Robot, and You Might Become Capable of Believing Damn Near Anything
There are philosophical reasons for rejecting the dogma, preached most forcefully for popular audiences by Richard Dawkins, that humans are nothing but very complicated robots. I describe some of these reasons in Part II of this post. Here, I’ll describe my visceral unease, growing year by year, at what this dogma seemed to do to most (not all) of the people I knew (colleagues and grad students) who held it. Most were either openly unprincipled self-promoting cynics, or else adherents of a virulently creepy utilitarianism, e.g. casually suggesting that some people’s lives have “negative utility” (Lebensunwertes Leben?). One postdoc prefaced every one of his presentations by expressing incredulity that anyone ever acted in anything but a short-sighted self-interested way. (“This is the puzzle I’m going to address.”) Cost-benefit analysis was these people’s Rosetta Stone – it (alone) could render intelligible, with crystal clarity, any aspect of the human condition. And more: it alone could point the way toward practical solutions to social problems. Adherence to rationality itself, they were sure, demanded nothing less.
In mundane conversations, my professional friends and acquaintances remained just as pleasant (or unpleasant, in a few cases) as ever. But I began to feel queasy when serious ideas were on the table, as during seminars and committee meetings. There was a hollowness, a brittleness, a superficiality to the discussions. “There’s a lot more to it than that,” I found myself thinking, again and again – but the “more” that I had in mind didn’t fit into any of the theoretical approaches (evolutionary psychology and gene/culture co-evolution for the science, utilitarianism for the policy ideas) that my colleagues took for granted as the only legitimate ways to contemplate the human condition.
Then the Great Awokening swept Academia and then the nation, starting with the troubles at the University of Missouri and Yale in 2015, accelerating through the first three years of the Trump Administration, and shifting into overdrive in 2020 following the beginning of the pandemic and the death of George Floyd. What was the reaction of these stalwart adherents of rationality and cost-benefit analysis?
Most of them quickly abandoned rationality and cost-benefit analysis to embrace the newly fashionable religion and the dictates of a politicized, scientistic (not scientific) public health bureaucracy.
Woke doctrine focuses on two areas: race and gender. It was with respect to the latter that my Darwinian colleagues changed their tune most dramatically – whether sincerely or not, I have no idea. Scholars whose own published research was based on the reality of binary biological sex in humans began including their pronouns in their email signature blocks, referring to Latinos as “Latinx,” and calling for preferential treatment for applicants to our graduate program who identified as “non-binary.” People who mocked theistic religion with “Flying Spaghetti Monster” memes were eager to believe (or pretend to believe) six impossible things (like “Sex is a spectrum, not a binary”) before breakfast.
And when the pandemic struck, they treated the CDC’s every mandate and recommendation (e.g., wear masks [See this], keep the elementary schools closed [See this]) as holy writ. When informed of the harmful effects of these measures, and challenged to subject them to cost-benefit analysis, or even reminded that other countries had relaxed these restrictions and had not suffered any more from COVID than the U.S., they either laughed or got angry. Only COVID deniers, they sneered, could say such things.
I came to realize that my colleagues, and others in my academic and academic-adjacent social circles, had not freed their minds for strictly rational inquiry by viewing the universe as purposeless, and themselves as fancy robots. What they had done instead was to unmoor their thinking from any stationary spot on which to stand. They were intellectually adrift in interstellar space, ready to be drawn into the gravitational field of any idea, no matter how crazy, so long as it was cloaked with the appropriate moralistic formulas (sympathy for the oppressed, safety as the supreme value, etc.), and/or backed by coercive authority (your career will stall if you don’t embrace this idea). I kept thinking of the remark attributed to G.K. Chesterson: “When men choose not to believe in G-d, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
A Drink of Water in the Desert
In September 2020, I attended the Zoom High Holiday services of the UCLA Hillel chapter. It was the first time in decades that I had attended High Holiday services. Part of why I abandoned religious practice as a teenager was that I was appalled by the image of G-d deciding who is to live and who is to die during the coming year. To my 16-year-old self, this seemed to be a dishonest way to frighten children into obeying arbitrary rules. In 2020, the Ten Days of Repentance appeared in a very different light.
According to the evolutionary social science theories that had formed my intellectual world for decades, moral systems evolved in the past as a solution to adaptive problems, especially the problem of how to promote cooperation in large groups of unrelated people. Individual moral choices can be understood in a completely deterministic framework. In the present day, every moral rule should be required to justify itself in light of utilitarian analysis. Many of today’s rules might be obsolete tomorrow. But according to the new, post-Floyd dispensation, a system of absolute moral authority is both available and mandatory. The inverted oppression hierarchy distinguishes social categories by culpability and innocence. White, Christian, heterosexual, “cisgendered” men, on the bottom rung of this hierarchy, are guilty of the great sin of privilege, just by existing, regardless of what any individual does or fails to do. Forgiveness is irrelevant, and redemption is impossible. At the same time, membership in the most “oppressed” social categories confers victimhood and innocence, regardless of what any individual does or fails to do.
Compared to both utilitarian relativism, and the Woke version of puritanism, the Jewish view of sin and repentance, as enacted during the High Holidays, was a drink of water in the desert. There is a moral order to the universe that transcends functional considerations, although its specifics are open to some debate. Every person has free will and moral agency, and is judged to fall short of the ideal, and every person has the potential to “annul the severity of the decree” by means of repentance, charity, and prayer. These lessons can’t be fully conveyed by left-hemisphere logic, quantitative analysis, or indeed by ordinary language – they impress themselves on us by right-hemisphere means such as collective chanting and the performance of minutely specified embodied rituals. For me in September 2020, even as a mostly passive Zoom spectator, the effect was powerful. At the end of the Yom Kippur services, I was well on my way back home.
Part II: The Philosophical Arguments
Twenty years ago, I was telling my students that humans are nothing but robots, programmed by genes and “memes” (in the original sense of that word), and that, in the words of George Gaylord Simpson as famously quoted by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, “…all attempts to answer that question [‘What is man?’] before 1859 [the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species] are worthless and…we will be better off if we ignore them completely.”
First, let me clarify how I haven’t changed. I still do research in evolutionary psychology. Natural selection has shaped the human mind, as it has shaped all traits of all organisms, and that insight has been the source of countless interesting and non-obvious testable hypotheses, an impressive number of which have been supported by rigorously collected data.
What I don’t believe any more is that that’s the complete or final answer to the question “What is man?” (or “What is humankind?,” as Simpson would have written it today).
Where reductionist determinist accounts of human nature (Darwinian, Behaviorist, Woke Intersectional, etc.) go wrong is in mistaking assumptions for conclusions or inferences. In formulating theories in evolutionary social science, it’s helpful to assume that humans are robots programmed by genes and memes. Scientists must quantify variables, and free will (not to mention the soul) is probably unmeasurable in principle. Allowing it into our theories would turn them into unfalsifiable gunk. But the usefulness of an assumption (the limited usefulness: “My hypothesis explained 30% of the variance!” is a social scientist’s exclamation of triumph) doesn’t prove that assumption to be correct, let alone justify turning it into metaphysical dogma. Indeed, any approach that requires accepting proposition x as an assumption is inherently incapable of demonstrating that x is valid. It takes faith to believe (as distinct from assume for research purposes) that humans are nothing but robots.
So, personal faith will play a role in any complete, comprehensive answer to the question “What is humankind?” And that means that in answering this question, non-scientific considerations are inevitable. These include “What beliefs about human nature are consistent with everyday experience?” and “Holding what beliefs about human nature are conducive to individual well-being? To living the good life? To social solidarity?”
A similar confusion of assumptions with conclusions attends the claim, commonly made by practicing Darwinian scientists, that because natural selection, a mechanical process, can generate the illusion of conscious design of organic adaptations (true), therefore the universe is devoid of meaning and purpose. In fact, mainstream 20th-21st Century science rejects teleological explanations as a matter of first principle; it is therefore incapable of evaluating the usefulness of such explanations. And yet, Darwin himself, in the words of his advocate and spokesman Thomas Huxley, recognized a “wider teleology which is not touched by the doctrine of Evolution, but is actually based on the fundamental proposition of Evolution…The teleological and the mechanical views of nature are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive” (in F. Darwin, ed., 1887, The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter, London: John Murray, Vol. II., p. 80).
The robotic human, lumbering through a purposeless universe, is an article of faith, no less than the child of G-d with an immortal soul. What’s more, shared sacred truths about the human condition are a prerequisite for functioning polities, which means that faith-based beliefs about the most important issues are inescapable. The Declaration of Independence, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Marxist dogma, Critical Race Theory…all of these express or consist of basically religious doctrines. Therefore, no human society, and no seriously reflective person, truly lacks religion.