Saturday, February 23, 2008

E2.0: Peter Atkins: On Pride and Chemistry

This is the 19th in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

The next presentation from this series came from Peter Atkins, recently retired Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, Fellow of Lincoln College. Atkins continued the discussion of reductionism from the previous day. He also took up the position that reductionists in science do not have any reason to be concerned with the types of issues that other people raise.

For example, a very common example used against reductionism in science is that one can study all of the properties of a set of water molecules however one will never be able to explain the fact that water is wet. ‘Wetness’ is a property that, allegedly, cannot be reduced to physics.

Atkins asserts that chemists are not really concerned with the issue of the wetness of water. Chemists knows what it means for a substance to be coated with water molecules, and that is all one needs to know to understand wetness.

Another entity that some say cannot be reduced to physics is romantic love. However, scientists are well aware of how different proteins and molecules in men and women and an evolved desire to mate and to share each other’s company can be encoded in the brain as functional states. With this, one doesn’t really need to ‘understand’ anything more about romantic love.

The fact that there are people who want ‘something more’ in romantic love does not prove that there is something more to be had.

This brings up an important point about reductionism. Reductionism holds that an event at one level of description (e.g., World War II) can be ‘reduced to’ statements in a lower level of description (e.g., chemistry) – that the former is simply a simpler way of making claims that are just as true (though not so easily written) in the latter.

On the other side of the spectrum from reduction is elimination. ‘Ghosts’ cannot be reduced to statements in physics because ghosts do not exist. The fact that ghosts cannot be reduced to statements in the area of physics is not a problem for the reductionist project. It is a problem for those who believe that ghosts are real. One of the options that a reductionist can take is that, “Whatever we cannot reduce to statements in the area of physics, we can eliminate, because it plays no role in the real world.”

So, it is possible that a scientist can dismiss problems with the wetness of water and romantic love by saying that those elements that cannot be reduced to statements in the realm of physics are like ghosts. They have no role to play in the real world and we should not pretend that they exist.

One of the accusations made against <> and his defense of science concerns the issue of pride. Diedre McClosky said:

As a Christian, I am very alert to idolatry and to self-idolatry which is the master sin of pride. So, could you tell me, are you also concerned about pride in this evil and hazardous sense.

Atkins responded as follows:

I don't see why pride should be evil. I think that if we've got something that is fantastic, good, that we have developed that turns out to be a way of answering all of the deep questions that have ever been asked about the nature of the world. One that is capable of developing applications that enhances our lives, saves our lives, do everything that science does, then we have every reason not to feel humble.

I am not particularly well informed on the philosophy of reductionism and can do little more than report the claims that Atkins made, I do know something about value theory and the virtue, or the vice, of ‘pride’.

‘Pride” is a state that people generally have reason to keep bound between two extremes. A certain absence of pride (or self-respect) is unhealthy and destructive. A person who is two hard on himself or who cannot lift his head in public is at risk of hating himself and failing to muster the resources to accomplish his ends.

On the other end, there is the evil of arrogance. The arrogant person exaggerates his own worth. He thinks that he can do no wrong when, in fact, being human, he is prone to all sorts of error. He is somebody who is at risk of acting on false beliefs because he does not sufficiently appreciate his own infallibility.

Both vices – the vice of insufficient pride and the vice of excessive pride – can be linked to the value of truth. The insufficiently prideful person denies the truth of his own value. He is somebody who thinks of himself as inherently or intrinsically ‘worse’ than others. However, intrinsic ‘worthiness’ does not exist. As far as intrinsic worth goes, none of us have any. However, all of us have desires. There is no law of nature that demands that any of our desires be made subservient to those of others. We have a right to an equal political and social footing in society.

Of course, this means that if we have a desire that people generally have reason to inhibit, or are lacking desires that people generally have reason to promote, we are legitimately subject to condemnation. When we recognize these shortcomings in ourselves this would justify a certain amount of self-condemnation.

Yet, this is not the same as thinking of oneself as lacking ‘inherent’ worth. These types of problems can be reduced by simply going to work (sometimes with professional help) of inhibit those desires that people generally have reason to inhibit and to promote desires in oneself that people generally have reason to promote. These types of problems do not imply an inherent lack of worth. They imply a need to do some work.

The excessively prideful person – the arrogant person – overstates his own value or the value of his own contributions. He either claims that he has an intrinsic worth that is higher than others – a claim that is false since no intrinsic worth exists. Or he overestimates his ability to bring positive change for others – attributing to himself powers that he does not have. In either of these cases, he gets the facts wrong and, in acting on those false beliefs, he subjects others to risks.

A low sense of self-worth or self-respect is not something that people generally have much reason to condemn. We have more of a reason to pity those people (because of the harm they do to themselves) then to condemn them. However, the good person would find the person of low self-esteem to be a nuisance. The good person desires that the interests of others be considered, while the person of low self-esteem keeps insisting that his own interests are not worthy of being considered. So, the good person may be tempted to slap such a person across the face and shout, “Snap out of it!”

However, the arrogant person is extremely dangerous. He is quite likely to go forth on grand schemes without having any real (rational) idea of what he is doing, putting not only himself but others at grave risk. The invasion of Iraq, with millions of lives destroyed and hundreds of billions of dollars going to destroying things when that money could have gone to building things, is an example of innocent people – some of them not even born yet – suffering huge losses due to the arrogance of others. The suggestion was made that it was a symptom of ‘pride’ to think that, somehow, science would be able to answer all of the great questions (or, at least, had the potential to do so). This type of claim may be a symptom of pride – since the individual is making a claim that we have little reason to believe at this point. However, if it is pride, it is a weak form of arrogance. Few are being put at risk of harm by saying, “Someday, we will have an answer.”

A far greater form of arrogance is that which comes from religious belief. Many religious believers are so wrapped up in the certainty of their religion – which they have no right to given the huge numbers of people who disagree with them – that they are more than willing to pass laws affecting hundreds of millions of people, and sometimes to commit acts of brutally, all in the name of their God. There is no greater example of arrogance than a person who insists on passing legislation that will adversely affect others, and to do so on the basis of his claim to know what God wants.

There is real arrogance in putting, “In God We Trust” on the money, and putting “One Nation Under God” in the pledge, because these people are denying any possibility of error in spite of the fact that there is not only good reason for doubt, and in spite of the fact that their own religion tells them to be humble.

These people are not saying, “Someday, we will have an answer.” They are saying, “I have the answer today, I cannot possibly be mistaken, and I am so certain of my infallibility that I am willing to demand that others acknowledge the greatness of my truth.”

Science is belief with evidence, and even where it says “We will have an answer,” it still only accepts an answer when there is evidence. It is not pride to restrain one’s beliefs according to the evidence. It is pride to go beyond the evidence and claim to know things that the evidence does not support. We find that, not so much in science, as we do in religion.

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