Saturday, March 17, 2018

On Deneen (2): Does Liberalism Make Us Lonely?

Yes, Deneen claims, liberalism has made us all desperately lonely. 

For Deneen, this illustrates how liberalism has failed because it has succeeded.  Liberalism teaches a false individualistic conception of human beings as naturally solitary and autonomous beings, who naturally seek to be free from the constraints of any social bonds.  Insofar as liberalism has succeeded in destroying all forms of social connectedness--including family life, friendship, and all kinds of voluntary associations--human beings are free to live solitary lives, and consequently there are only two units of society: the individual and the state.  And thus liberalism promotes both individualism and statism.  But since human beings really are naturally social animals, who yearn for social bonding in families, friendships, and social groups, people in liberal societies who live as solitary individuals suffer an unhappy loneliness.  In this way, the success of the liberal project shows the failure of liberalism to give us the happiness we desire.

Is Deneen correct in his interpretation of liberal political theory?  And is he correct in his empirical claims about the disastrous consequences of liberalism as he interprets it?

In developing his argument, Deneen employs a distinctive rhetorical strategy.  He looks for books and articles that agree with his position.  He then paraphrases and quotes from those writings.  Finally, he endorses the authors' conclusions.  But he never weighs the empirical evidence for and against what the authors are saying.  He never considers what the critics of those authors have said.  And sometimes he selectively reports what the authors have said to hide points where they disagree with him.

This rhetorical strategy is evident in how Deneen argues for his claim that liberalism has made us all lonely.  To support this claim, he appeals to four books and two articles, which I list here along with the pages in his book where they come up:

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains (15-16, 94)

Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (15-16, 94-95)

Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community (59-61)

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (74-75)

Stephen Marche, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely" (103-104)

Richard Thomas, "From Porch to Patio" (105)

Let's consider both the empirical evidence and the theoretical interpretations related to Deneen's use of these texts.

Deneen cites these six authors as testifying to the pervasive loneliness of Americans as created by liberalism, and he cites Carr, Turkle, and Marche as testifying to the fact that in recent decades American loneliness has been intensified by the use of the Internet and cell phones, which isolates people in depriving them of face-to-face social interactions.

Deneen is completely silent, however, about the extensive evidence that Americans are not suffering from an epidemic of loneliness, because they are just as socially connected as they have always been.  If ties to family and friends are especially important to people, because they have natural desires for sexual mating, parental care, familial bonding, friendship, and social status--five of the twenty natural desires on my list--then one would expect that people will respond to changing circumstances--technological, demographic, economic, and cultural changes--by adapting in ways that preserve those social relationships.  Claude Fischer (2011) has summarized the evidence--mostly from survey research--that this happened in America from 1970 to 2010.  In response to great social changes in this period, Americans have adapted their lives to preserve their valued ties to family and friends.  Deneen says nothing about this evidence.  (Fischer has written a brief statement of his reasoning in an online article.)

For example, there is evidence from time-budget studies that American parents were spending more time with their children after 2000 than in the decades before.  Although American parents and children might have fewer at-home activities together, they have more out-of-home activities, as parents spend more time accompanying their children to their playdates, sports practices, and on grocery shopping trips.  Family meals at home have declined slightly, but family meals in restaurants have increased.

In a 1964 survey, the proportion of respondents (53%) who said they saw their relatives for a social evening several times a month or more was a little lower than the average for the 2000s.  Surveys also indicate that Americans saw their friends in person about as often in the 2000s as in the 1970s.

For over fifty years, surveys have asked people whether they have anyone--a relative or a friend--whom they could count on to help them with their personal problems.  Only about 2% said "no one," and only about 3-4% named only one person.  Over 90% said that they could rely on personal material or psychological support from relatives or friends.  This has remained steady over the decades.

The World Values Survey have asked people to rate aspects of life as "very important," "rather important," "not very important," or "not at all important."  In 1990, 92% said their family was "very important." In 2006, 95% gave this answer.  In 1990, 54% said their friends were "very important."  In 2006, 60% gave this answer.

Asked whether they believed it is generally a good idea for older people to share a home with their grown children, 35% said yes in 1970, 50% said yes in 2010.

In America, about 75% of young adults report receiving financial help from their parents, and a great majority of adults report helping their elderly parents.

Changing circumstances have brought changes in the way people connect to their family and friends. Since the 1950s, for example, many more women have become college students, and many more have joined the workforce.  A growing proportion of women are even going to advanced professional schools (law schools, medical schools, business schools, and graduate schools). Consequently, women might spend less time at home making contact with their neighbors.  But at the same time, women in college and professional schools develop social networks at school, and working women can connect with people they meet at work.

Deneen asserts that women suffer from this, because working outside the home is a form of slavery:
". . . All but forgotten are arguments, such as those made in the early Republic, that liberty consists of independence from the arbitrariness not only of a king but also of an employer.  Today we consider the paramount sign of the liberation of women to be their growing emancipation from their biology, which frees them to serve a different, disembodied body--'corporate' America--and participate in an economic order that effectively obviates any actual political liberty.  Liberalism posits that freeing women from the household is tantamount to liberation, but it effectively puts women and men into a far more encompassing bondage" (187).
So anyone who works for an employer is a slave?  Is Deneen implicitly appealing to George Fitzhugh's argument that slaves in the American South were better off than the "wage slaves" in the North?  He presents no evidence to support this.  Nor does he mention the evidence that far from seeking "emancipation from their biology," educated women with careers have been raising their birth rate.  As I noted in another post, the percentage of American women ages 40 to 44 who are mothers has risen to 86% in 2016 from a low of 80% in 2006, and thus moving close to the high of 90% reached in 1976.

Compared with earlier periods, more American adults are living alone.  But researchers have discovered that people who live alone, on average, are as or more active in their social lives than those who live with others.

Perhaps the biggest technological change in social life has been the development and expansion of the Internet, social media, and cell phones.  This has made it easier than ever before for people to remain in contact electronically with their family, their friends, and others that they might meet online.

Deneen objects, however, that the impersonality of electronic social networking fosters social isolation and loneliness rather than the real social bonding that comes only from face-to-face interaction.  He cites the writings of Carr, Turkle, and Marche as supporting this conclusion.

But, following his regular rhetorical strategy, he is completely silent about all of the empirical evidence that online electronic communication really has deepened and expanded human social connectedness in America and around the world, which shows how human beings employ new technologies to satisfy their deepest natural desires for social bonding.

In 1998, Robert Kraut and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University reported one of the first studies of the social effects of using the Internet.  They reported that heavy Internet users felt increased loneliness and depression, and the size of their social networks declined.  This was widely covered in the news media, including a front-page article in the New York Times.  But immediately many scholars questioned the methodology of the study.  And three years later, Kraut and his colleagues reversed their conclusion, because they reported that heavy Internet users actually experienced increases in their social involvement and well-being (Kraut et al. 2002).  Stephen Marche--in the article cited by Deneen--refers to Kraut's 1998 article but is silent about Kraut's retraction in 2002.  Deneen says nothing about this.

Continuing research study over the past 20 years, as Internet use exploded, has confirmed this conclusion.  So, for example, it has been found that when Facebook users receive targeted, composed communication from their family and strong friends this improves their social well-being.  This effect does depend, however, on the personality traits of users.  Intensely introverted people can use social media to isolate themselves, while extraverted people can use it to connect themselves to others (Burke and Kraut 2016).

Far from the Internet making all of us lonely, as Deneen insists, online dating provides some of the most dramatic evidence for how electronic social networks can extend and deepen human social connectedness.  There is evidence now that over one-third of marriages in America now begin online, and that marriages that began online are slightly less likely than those that began offline to end in divorce or separation (Cacioppo et al. 2013).

Another remarkable consequence of online dating leading to marriage is that this has contributed to the sharp increase in interracial marriage.  In the past, most people married people to whom they were somehow connected--friends of friends, schoolmates, neighbors--who were likely to be similar to them, and thus they were likely to marry people of their own race.  Now, online dating brings together people who are complete strangers, and thus more likely to be from different races.  Here then is an expansion of social connectedness across the races (Ortega and Hergovich 2017).

Deneen says nothing about any of this evidence. 

By the way, the last time I checked, Deneen's Twitter account has 5,406 tweets, 5,890 followers, and 12,300 likes! 

And we know that his Internet use has not make him lonely, because his "Acknowledgments" in his book include over 55 friends, 3 children, and 1 wife (xvii-xix).  This tribute to his family, his friends, and his academic colleagues shows that the American liberal order has been very good to him in allowing him to live a richly satisfying social life.  And then he shows his ingratitude by writing a book denouncing American liberalism!

The theoretical side of Deneen's argument depends on his interpretation of the texts of liberal political philosophy--with John Locke being particularly important as "the first philosopher of liberalism" (32).  His primary interpretive claim is that Lockean liberalism teaches the "prehistoric fantasy" (16) of a "state of nature" that promotes a "disfigured view of human nature" (188) as atomistic individualism, in which human beings are said to be naturally solitary  and autonomous beings with no social bonds, who impulsively and selfishly seek the satisfaction of their appetites with no concern for the good of others. 

Although he does not mention Leo Strauss, Deneen has clearly adopted Strauss's interpretation of Locke in Natural Right and History.  Oddly, Deneen asserts this interpretation without offering much textual evidence to support it, and without responding to the many critics who argue that this is a false interpretation of Lockean liberalism.

Consider, for instance, Friedrich Hayek's argument in "Individualism: True and False" (1948).  Hayek identifies "false individualism" as the belief that individualism postulates "the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society" (6).  This is the view of individualism that Deneen attributes to liberalism, but which Hayek denies as "false individualism."

By contrast, Hayek explains that liberalism embraces the true individualism that recognizes the natural sociability of human beings as expressed in the natural propensity of individuals in a free society to live in families and voluntary associations:
". . . the deliberately organized state on the one side, and the individual on the other, far from being regarded as the only realities, while all the intermediate formations and associations are to be deliberately suppressed, as was the aim of the French Revolution, the noncompulsory conventions of social intercourse are considered as essential factors in preserving the orderly working of human society. . . ." (22)
"That true individualism affirms the value of the family and all the common efforts of the small community and group, that it believes in local autonomy and voluntary associations, and that indeed its case rests largely on the contention that much for which the coercive action of the state is usually invoked can be done better by voluntary collaboration need not be stressed further.  There can be no greater contrast to this than the false individualism which wants to dissolve all these smaller groups into atoms which have no cohesion other than the coercive rules imposed by the state, and which tries to make all social ties prescriptive, instead of using the state mainly as a protection of the individual against the arrogation of coercive powers by the smaller groups" (23).
Hayek identifies the intellectual tradition of true individualism as beginning with Locke and continuing with thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Smith, for example, one of the premier liberal individualists, affirmed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments the natural sociality of human beings, whose moral sentiments are shaped by the social order of families and voluntary associations; and he saw his moral theory as corresponding exactly to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.  Burke then praised Smith's book as "one of the most beautiful fabrics of moral theory, that has perhaps ever appeared."  Deneen says nothing about Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments or about this tradition of liberal conservatism based on true individualism, because this contradicts his assumption that all liberal thought is based on what Hayek calls false individualism.

Deneen does often cite Tocqueville.  But Deneen never mentions Tocqueville's praise of America for how it uses voluntary associations to organize social life through individual consent to social forms.  Deneen cannot mention this without contradicting his claim that America liberalism has destroyed all of the intermediary associations between individuals and the state.

In speaking about the dangers of individualism, Deneen quotes Tocqueville as warning: "Each man is forever thrown back upon himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart" (Deneen, 75).  This is the last sentence of Tocqueville's chapter "Of Individualism in Democracies" in Democracy in America.  Deneen does not quote, however, Tocqueville's remark in this chapter that individualism embraces the "little society" of "the circle of family and friends."  So even the most narrow individualism in America includes the social bonds of family and friends.

What then about Locke--"the first philosopher of liberalism"?  In asserting that Locke's "fantasy" of the state of nature depicts human beings as completely solitary animals, Deneen says nothing about Locke's account of the "law of nature" in the state of nature and family life as the "first society."  Deneen briefly mentions only once Locke's reference to the American Indians as living in the state of nature (136), but Deneen never recognizes that the natural history of hunter-gatherer bands like the Indians was a highly social life governed by moral norms of proper conduct.  Nor does he consider the possibility that modern evolutionary anthropology confirms the truth of Locke's state of nature, which I have written about in some posts here and here

Strangely, Deneen does not recognize that asserting that human beings were originally purely solitary individuals corresponds not to Locke's state of nature but to Rousseau's (as I have indicated in a previous post).

While Deneen insists that Lockean liberalism teaches "pursuit of immediate gratification" (39) and the "absence of restraints upon one's desires" (116), he says nothing about how Locke contradicts this claim in Some Thoughts Concerning Education.  In that book, Locke stresses the importance of parents educating their children so that they have a sense of shame in caring about their good reputation (secs. 56, 61, 78).  Locke says that "the great principle and foundation of all virtue and worth is placed in this, that a man is able to deny himself his own desires, cross his own inclinations, and purely follow what reason directs as best though the appetite lean the other way" (sec. 33). "It seems plain to me that the principle of all virtue and excellency lies in a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own desires where reason does not authorize them" (sec. 38). Children must be taught that "covetousness and the desire of having in our possession and under our dominion more than we have need of" is "the root of all evil" (sec. 110). 

Above all, children must be taught and habituated to show "civility"--respect and good will to all people (secs. 66-67, 70, 109, 117, 143-44). Here Locke's emphasis on the need for "civility" is part of what Norbert Elias identified as the "civilizing process" promoted by early modern liberalism to overcome the incivility and bad manners of medieval pre-modern Europe.  (I have written a post on "Lockean Liberalism as Symbolic Niche Construction.")

Deneen is silent about all of this.

I will be writing at least four more posts on Deneen's book--on inequality, liberal education, the liberalism of the Amish, and the illiberalism of Catholic Integralism.


Burke, Moira, and Robert Kraut. 2016. "The Relationship Between Facebook Use and Well-Being Depends on Communication Type and Tie Strength." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 21: 265-281.

Cacioppo, John T., Stephanie Cacioppo, Glen Gonzaga, Elizabeth Ogburn, and Tyler VanderWeele. 2013. "Marital Satisfaction and Break-Ups Differ Across On-Line and Off-Line Meeting Venues." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110: 10135-10140.

Fischer, Claude S. 2011. Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Hayek, Friedrich. 1948. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kraut, Robert, Sara Kiesler, Bonka Boneva, Jonathan Cummings, Vicki Helgeson, and Anne Crawford. 2002. "Internet Paradox Revisited." Journal of Social Issues 58: 49-74.

Locke, John. 1996. Some Thoughts Concerning Education, and Of the Conduct of the Understanding. Edited by Ruth Grant and Nathan Tarcov. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Ortega, Josue, and Philipp Hergovich. 2017. "The Strength of Absent Ties: Social Integration via Online Dating." arXiv:1709.10478v1

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On Deneen (1): The Liberalism of Happiness and Declining Violence

Steve Pinker's Enlightenment Now and Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed seem to belong to two different worlds. 

Pinker argues for the stunning success of the Liberal Enlightenment as shown by massive factual evidence (conveyed in 73 charts of statistical data) of human progress over the past 200 years: because of liberalism today more human beings are living longer, healthier, wealthier, freer, safer, more stimulating, and happier lives than human beings have ever lived at any time in history. 

Deneen argues for the utter failure of liberalism as shown by cultural critics of the liberal order:  because of liberalism today human beings are living lonely, resentful, alienated, boring, meaningless, and generally desperately unhappy lives.

You see what I mean by two different worlds--the world of liberal progress and the world of liberal failure?  Actually, Deneen's world is paradoxical in that he argues that liberalism has failed because it has succeeded: the successful triumph of liberalism in the modern world has manifested the destructiveness of the logic of liberal thought in abolishing the healthy practices and institutions of traditional forms of social life in promoting the degrading life of materialist individualism.

To settle this dispute, we need to judge the three levels of argument in this debate.  The first level of argument is about how to interpret liberal political theory.  The second level is about analyzing the factual evidence of liberalism's practical performance--its success or failure.  The third level is about assessing the illiberal alternatives to liberal order.

In this post, I will consider the second level--the factual evidence.  In subsequent posts, I will consider the other two levels of the debate.

Pinker relies much more on factual evidence than does Deneen, which shows the differences in their academic positions.  As a professor of psychology at Harvard who sees himself as a natural scientist, Pinker believes that the best source of knowledge is the modern scientific method of testing hypotheses by how well they explain the empirical data of human experience of the natural world.  He must also study the history of political philosophy in developing his argument for the classical liberal political philosophy that culminated in the Enlightenment, but he sees that philosophic position as making empirical claims about human nature and human history that must be tested by scientific research.

Deneen is a professor of political science at Notre Dame who specializes in the study of the history of political philosophy, which he sees as devoted primarily to the interpretation of classic texts of political philosophy from Plato to the present.  But he also recognizes that applying that philosophic knowledge to modern social and political life requires some appeal to empirical evidence for the success or failure of the liberal order and other regimes.

Deneen's book is similar in some ways to Steven Smith's recent book--Modernity and Its Discontents--which I have written about (here).  Like Deneen, Smith makes a Straussian argument against liberal modernity, although Smith is more explicit in his appeal to Leo Strauss.

The thesis of Smith's book is "that modernity has created within itself a rhetoric of antimodernity that has taken philosophical, literary, and political forms" in denouncing the bourgeois life as "a kind of low-minded materialism, moral cowardice, and philistinism" (xi).  He thinks that he proves this thesis by restating what some of the antibourgeois writers have asserted in their attacks on bourgeois liberalism.  But as I have observed, while this proves the existence of an antibourgeois rhetoric, it does not prove the truth of this rhetoric as confirmed by empirical evidence of what life is like in the Bourgeois Era.  Smith says that the goals of bourgeois liberalism are no longer credible, because "leading opinion has increasingly lost confidence in these goals" (4).  But then he never wonders whether "leading opinion" might be wrong.

Similarly, Deneen insists that there is "a long tradition of cultural criticism" directed against liberalism and the liberal view of technology (95).  Deneen cites lots of cultural critics of liberalism--from Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Wendell Berry.  But as with Smith, it's not clear how the mere existence of such anti-liberal cultural critics proves the truth of their criticisms.  Presumably, to show the truth of their claims about the failure of liberalism, we would need to see confirmation by factual evidence.

According to Deneen, liberalism "generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom" (3). Liberalism results in "the depletion of moral self-command and the depletion of material resources" (41).  It depletes material resources such as fossil fuels, and it creates climate change that will destroy human civilization.  It depletes moral self-command by teaching that there should be no moral restraint on selfish individualism in the endless competitive pursuit of hedonistic self-gratification without any concern for the good of others.  It also depletes moral self-command by driving students away from the liberal arts education that has traditionally formed the moral and religious character of a free people through a Western humanistic education. Liberal individualism also breaks all of the social bonds of family life, friendship, and local communities.  But since human beings are naturally social beings, this asocial individualism of the liberal order renders human beings deeply unhappy in their loneliness and social isolation. 

So is this a factually accurate description of life in a liberal social order?


If Deneen is right, then we should expect to see evidence that people in liberal societies today are generally unhappy, because liberalism frustrates the deepest longings of human nature, while people in illiberal societies are generally happy, because those human longings are satisfied.

There are at least four separate analyses of data for measuring human happiness.  The Gallup Organization, the World Values Survey, and the World Happiness Report (found online) present data on countries around the world (see Pinker 2018, 262-89).  The General Social Survey has gathered data for the United States. 

In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray defends an Aristotelian conception of happiness as lasting and justified satisfaction with life as a whole; and he uses data from the General Social Survey to show that self-reported happiness among Americans is associated with four kinds of virtues--marriage, industriousness, honesty, and religiosity.  I have written about Murray's argument here

Oddly, Deneen discusses Murray's book, in speaking about inequality in America, but without mentioning Murray's analysis of the data on happiness among Americans (Deneen, 134, 149-53).  Deneen endorses Aristotle's account in the Nicomachean Ethics of how the moral and intellectual virtues promote human happiness or flourishing (eudaimonia), but he says nothing about how Murray uses empirical evidence of happiness to support this Aristotelian understanding as applied to the American liberal order (Deneen, 35).

Much of the data on happiness is based on self-reports of well-being: people are asked how happy they are, or they are asked to rank their life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10.  Although we might wonder about the reliability of such self-reporting, it does correlate with other signs of happiness, such as smiling, having a joyful demeanor, and judgments by other people.

The World Happiness Report 2017 (WHR) ranks the happiness of 155 countries based on answers from 3,000 respondents in each of those countries.  Respondents were asked to evaluate their lives on a ladder where 0 represents the worst possible life and 10 the best possible.  Three-quarters of the differences among countries were accounted for by differences in six key variables.  "These six factors are GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (as measured by a perceived absence of corruption in government and business), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity (as measured by recent donations).  The top ten countries rank highly on all six of these factors" (WHR, 3).

I have written about the Human Freedom Index (HFI) (here), which applies a classical liberal conception of freedom in measuring human freedom--both personal freedom and economic freedom--for 159 countries.  The strong correlation between the ranking in the HFI and the ranking in the WHR suggests that people in liberal social orders with the greatest levels of freedom are also generally the happiest people.

Here are some of the rankings of happiness in the WHR with corresponding rankings of freedom in the HFI in parentheses:

1.  Norway (7)

2.  Denmark (8)
3.  Iceland (31)
4.  Switzerland (1)
5.  Finland (6)
6.  Netherlands (9)
7.  Canada (11)
8.  New Zealand (3)
9.  Australia (5)
10. Sweden (13)

14. United States (17)

16. Germany (16)

19. United Kingdom (9)

25. Mexico (73)

26. Singapore (18)

31. France (33)

34. Spain (30)

49. Russia (126)

79. China (130)

82. Venezuela (158)

108. Iran (154)

151. Rwanda (65)

152. Syria (159)
153. Tanzania (99)
154. Burundi (150)
155. Central African Republic (151)

This is empirical evidence against Deneen's critique of liberalism, unless he can show that there is something wrong with this evidence.  He has not done that, because he has chosen to remain silent about this evidence.

The general pattern seems clear: the liberal regimes tend to be high in both freedom and happiness, and the illiberal regimes tend to be low.  7 of the countries ranked in the top 10 of the Human Freedom Index are also in the top 10 of the Human Happiness Report.

If Deneen is right about liberalism making people deeply unhappy, one might expect this to be indicated by a high rate of suicide, since this is the most dramatic way in which people express their unhappiness.  And, indeed, some critics of liberalism, like Emile Durkheim, have made this claim.  But as Pinker points out, the data don't support this.  Plotting the data for suicides in England, Switzerland, and the United States from 1860 to 2014 shows that the rate of suicide has declined in all three countries (Pinker 2018, 279).  And remember that Switzerland ranks number 1 on the Human Freedom Index.  For these three liberal countries, suicide was more common in the past than it is today, which is not what someone like Deneen would predict.

Deneen claims that in a liberal order, people tend to lack "moral self-command."  One observable manifestation of moral self-command is when people refrain from attacking and killing other people.  Remarkably, Deneen is totally silent about the evidence presented by Pinker (2011) and others (Eisner 2014; Muchembled 2012; Sharpe 2016) that from high rates of violence and homicide in the Middle Ages, there has been a long decline in modern liberal societies, which shows that liberalism actually does promote moral self-command, and that people in pre-modern illiberal societies suffered from a lack of self-control.

One of the best-supported generalizations in the science of criminology is that the propensity to crime--and particularly violent crime--is increased with any loss or weakening of self-control.  And so, for example, young men between the ages of 16 and 30 show on average a higher propensity to violent crime because their impulsive personalities incline them to lose self-control, and any factor that increases that propensity in young men increases the rate of violent crime (Wilson and Herrnstein 1985).  Therefore, if Deneen were right about liberalism promoting a loss of self-control, we would expect a steady increase of criminal violence in the history of liberal social orders.  That we see just the opposite is powerful evidence against Deneen's claim.

Manuel Eisner (2014) is a criminologist who has assembled the History of Homicide Database, which is the most comprehensive collection of quantitative estimates of homicide levels from 1200 to the present.  His data show that the average estimates of homicide rates across Europe from 1200 to about 1450 converge at a rate of about 27 per 100,000 inhabitants.  This average rate then begins to decline: 20.1 (1500-1549), 12.0 (1600-1649), 5.5 (1700-1749), 3.5 (1800-1825), 2.0 (1900-1924), and 1.0 (2000-2012).  So, over a period of 500 years, the peacetime criminal homicide rate in Europe fell by half every century.

Eisner's data also show that most of this decline in homicide rates was due to a fall in lethal male-to-male fighting of about 99%!

Eisner thinks that the best explanation for this dramatic drop in homicidal violence in Europe over the past 500 years is that there was what Norbert Elias called a "civilizing process" (Elias 2000; Linklater and Mennell 2010).  European societies went through a change by which average levels of self-control, standards of decency, and disgust for open displays of cruelty tended to increase, which arose from the move away from the Middle Ages to European modernity. 

Elias presented various kinds of historical evidence for this civilizing process.  For example, he analyzed books on manners to see how these books taught new standards of civilized behavior.  He noted, for instance, that in medieval Europe, ordinary people often stabbed each other over insults at the dinner table; and the new books on manners tried to change this.

Eisner presents quantitative data analysis that supports Elias's theory.  For example, he shows a strong correlation between increasing book production and decreasing homicide rates.  Every 10% increase in book production is associated with a 3.4% reduction in homicide rates, and these two variables share almost 54% of the variance.  The countries that had the highest per capita book production by 1750-1799--England, the Netherlands, and Sweden--had also reached the lowest levels of homicide rates.  By contrast, countries such as Italy and Spain, with lower literacy and book production, had higher homicide rates. Although correlation does not prove causation, one can infer from this that literacy and the reading of books tends to inculcate habits of self-control.

Eisner also presents quantitative data to support the application of Elias's theory to the fluctuations in violent crime rates around the world from 1950 to 2010.  Beginning in the 1960s, there was a steep rise in violent crime across North America and Europe.  Then, in the early 1990s, there began a steep drop in violent crime.  And by 2010, crimes rates were lower than they ever had been.  Some social scientists, such as Fukuyama (1999) and Pinker (2011), have argued that this showed cultural changes in which there was a decline and then a revival of self-control.

To find data on these cultural trends, Eisner has used the Google Books NGAM corpus, which is a database of 8 million digitized books published between 1500 and 2008, with an interface that allows users to track the frequency of any group of words as a percentage of all words in the corpus over a specified period of time.  Eisner tracked three groups of words that might express hedonistic preferences--words concerned with "sex," "drugs," and "narcissism."  He also tracked four groups of words that relate to self-control--words concerned with "shame," "politeness and good manners," "conscientiousness," and "honesty." 

He found that the frequency of the hedonistic words increased during the years that the homicide rate was increasing and decreased during the years that the homicide rate was decreasing.  He found the opposite pattern for the frequency of the self-control words, which declined when homicide rates increased, and increased when homicide rates decreased.  This can be seen as indicating a culture shift that brought declining self-control in the 1960s and rising self-control in the 1990s, which is correlated with crime rates rising and declining.

As another quantitative data base that might show this culture shift, Eisner has used German opinion poll surveys from 1967 to 2010 asking Germans about what values they thought parents should teach their children.  There were three items related to self-control--"politeness and good manners," "doing work diligently and properly," and "being thrifty in money matters."

Eisner found that the endorsement of values of self-control was weak during the years of increasing homicide rates and strong during the years of decreasing homicide rates.

Contrary to Deneen's claim that modern liberalism must destroy the moral virtues of self-control, this historical evidence suggests that modern liberal cultures can and have inculcated habits of self-control that account for the stunning decline in violence over the past few centuries.

In my next posts, I will consider other kinds of evidence relevant to liberalism's influence on social life, education, inequality, and the environment.


Eisner, Manuel. 2014. "From Swords to Words: Does Macro-Level Change in Self-Control Predict Long-Term Variation in Levels of Homicide?" Crime and Justice 43 (2014): 65-134.

Elias, Norbert. 2000. The Civilizing Process. Revised ed. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Fukuyama, Francis. 1999. The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order. New York: Free Press.

Linklater, Andrew, and Stephen Mennell. 2010. "Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations--An Overview and Assessment." History and Theory 49 (October): 384-411.

Muchembled, Robert. 2012. A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present. Cambridge, MA: Polity.

Sharpe, James. 2016. A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England. London: Random House Books.

Wilson, James Q., and Richard Herrnstein. 1985. Crime and Human Nature.  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Donald Trump and Steven Pinker: Authoritarian Populism Versus the Liberal Enlightenment

"Trade wars are good, and easy to win." 

In asserting that, Donald Trump has challenged the Liberal Enlightenment.  That challenge could play out in one of three ways.

If Trump succeeds in showing that trade wars are good--that they are economically and culturally beneficial for the United States and other countries--then he will have refuted the classical liberal claim that the global free trade in goods, services, and ideas is essential for maintaining the global progress that has occurred over the past two centuries.

If Trump sets off trade wars that turn out to be harmful and irreversible, and thus causes a global disaster through the collapse of the global order of free trade, he will have refuted the classical liberal confidence that the directional forces favoring liberal progress cannot be permanently reversed.

If Trump sets off trade wars that turn out to be harmful but reversible, this could confirm the classical liberal claim that, despite occasional setbacks, the global benefits of free trade in promoting human progress are so powerful and so clear that they cannot be permanently reversed.

In these ways, Trump's authoritarian populism challenges the Liberal Enlightenment as it's defended by Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  In fact, Pinker frames much of his book as a refutation of Trump's authoritarian populism as rooted in the tradition of the right-wing Counter-Enlightenment.  Pinker has also summarized his argument in a debate a few years ago over the proposition "Do Humankind's Best Days Lie Ahead?"  Pinker and Matt Ridley defended the affirmative side against the negative side as defended by Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell.  This  debate in Toronto, Canada, in 2015 was published as a book in 2016.

Pinker presents his history of human progress rooted in the Liberal Enlightenment as contrasted to the dark vision of human decline conveyed by Trump and his illiberal movement.  Pinker quotes Trump as describing "mothers and children trapped in poverty . . . an education system which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge . . . and the crime, and the gangs, and the drugs that have stolen too many lives."  He also quotes Steve Bannon as saying that we are in an "outright war" that is "expanding and metastasizing," which has been produced by a "global power structure" that has subverted "the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity" (Pinker, xvii).

Against this, Pinker praises Barack Obama for saying, in his farewell speech, that the "essential spirit of this country" comes from the Enlightenment, which is responsible for 200 years of human progress.  He also praises Obama for rejecting Trump's denial of human progress, his dark view of America, and his claim that our whole world today is in decline.

Pinker thinks Obama is correct in observing:
"If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be--you didn't know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you'd be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman--if you had to choose blindly what moment you'd want to be born, you'd choose now."
A Rawlsian "veil of ignorance" applied to history favors our choosing to live in the present moment--the Liberal Enlightenment moment.  The core of Pinker's book is to show how the correctness of this choice can be confirmed by facts and statistical data.  The empirical data collected and analyzed by modern science prove that the last 200 hundred years have been years of unprecedented human progress as caused by the ideas and practices of the Liberal Enlightenment.  In doing this, Pinker's book covers much of the same ground that I have covered in my series of posts on the human progress promoted by classical liberalism (herehereherehereherehereherehere, and here).

To support what he calls "the facts of human progress" (363), Pinker presents 73 charts of statistical data--similar to the charts that he employed in The Better Angels of Our Nature.  These statistical charts show trend lines of progress for at least ten of the good things in life.  (You can see many of Pinker's charts in a video of his recent lecture at the Cato Institute, which is available here.)

First, life itself.  The average human life span today is longer than ever before in human history--over seventy.

Second, health.  Many diseases that killed millions of people in the past--such as small pox and cattle plague--have been totally eliminated, and many more will soon be eliminated.  Similarly, the deaths from famine have dropped dramatically.

Third, prosperity.  In 1800, at least 85% of all human beings around the world lived in grinding poverty.  Today, less than 10% live in extreme poverty, and in a few years, it could be zero.

Fourth, peace.  Wars between powerful nations have become almost completely obsolete. Great powers have not fought a war against one another for seventy years.  There are still civil wars, but they are less destructive than interstate wars, and there are fewer of them.

Fifth, safety.  The rates of death by homicide have fallen drastically.  Even the risk from terrorists is for most of us negligible.  People today are more likely to die from bee stings than from a terrorist attack, despite the fear-mongering by Trump and others.

Sixth, freedom.  60% or more of the world's population lives in free societies.  There is more freedom--personal freedom, economic freedom, and political freedom--than ever before in human history.

Seventh, knowledge.  Throughout most of human history, most human beings (90% or more) were illiterate.  Today, this has been reversed, and most human beings (85% or more) can read.  In 1820, only about 17% of people around the world had a basic education.  Today, at least 82% have a basic education, and the trend is moving to 100%.

Eighth, human rights.  Most of the most barbaric customs in human history--such as human sacrifice, infanticide, slavery, heretic burning, torture executions, and foot binding--have been eliminated.  Other cruelties--such as capital punishment, violence against women, female genital mutilation, and the criminalization of homosexuality--are being reduced.

Ninth, gender equity.  Women today are on average better educated, freer, earning more, and more powerful than women have ever been.

Tenth, intelligence.  In every country, IQ has been rising by three points a decade.

Of course, Pinker recognizes that to see all of this as moral progress, we need to agree on some standards of moral judgment--that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, wealth is better than poverty, freedom is better than coercion, knowledge is better than ignorance, and happiness is better than misery.  Does anyone reasonably disagree with such judgments?

But then how does Pinker explain the supporters of Trump and other authoritarian populists around the world--people who apparently don't see themselves as benefitting from this global liberal progress?

One common explanation is economic inequality.  Even if people at all levels of society around the world have seen an improvement in their living standards on average, some people have benefited more than others, and the richest people have benefited the most.  Pinker's answer to this is to argue that we should not confuse inequality with poverty.  There should be no moral objection to inequality as long as everyone on average is being raised out of poverty into wealth: the rich get richer, and the poor get richer also.

One objection to this is that what really counts for people's happiness is not absolute poverty but relative poverty--that people living in material comfort and even luxury feel poor if they see others who are richer than they are.  Pinker's response is to point to surveys suggesting that people in unequal but wealthy societies are happy as long as they see some hope that they can improve their economic standing, and as long as they see the wealth of the richest people as somehow merited (98-102).

Moreover, Pinker argues, the world as a whole is becoming more equal, because the poorest countries are experiencing growth rates higher than for the richest countries, and thus global inequality is declining.  One of the primary reasons for this is global trade that has benefited the poorer countries around the world.

And yet, Pinker admits that even if everyone around the world has on average benefited from global free trade, the benefits for some have been less than for others.  This might explain why "the lower middle classes of the rich world" are the supporters of Trump and other populist leaders: "globalization helped the lower and middle classes of poor countries, and the upper class of rich countries, much more than it helped the lower middle class of rich countries."  But then, Pinker can conclude: "it's true that the world's poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class, and if I were an American politician I would not publicly say that the tradeoff was worth it.  But as citizens of the world considering humanity as a whole, we have to say that the tradeoff is worth it" (113).

Jennifer Szalai (in her review in the New York Times) probably speaks for many readers of Pinker's book when she points to this passage as illustrating his callous utilitarianism: "he has little patience for individual tragedy; it's the aggregate that excites him," but "life isn't lived in the aggregate."  Is it the "individual tragedy" of the "American lower middle class" that has motivated the Trump supporters?

Oddly, Pinker seems to contradict himself when he says in one part of his book that what really motivates the Trump supporters is not "economic insecurity" but "cultural backlash": less educated older white rural voters cannot accept the liberal Enlightenment humanism of the urban ethnically pluralist society favored by younger educated voters (342-43).

Pinker presents a chart showing "Populist support across generations, in 2016," in the United States and Europe, that shows that the percentage voting for populist candidates (including Trump) falls off with the year of birth: younger voters are not attracted to populist candidates.  Moreover, other charts show how younger generations favor the "emancipative values" or "liberal values" of the Liberal Enlightenment.  If this is so, Pinker suggests, then the electoral support for populist candidates must decline over time as the older generation passes away (342).

This assumes that the liberal younger voters will turn out to vote.  And Pinker recognizes that Trump's electoral victory in the Electoral College depended on a low turnout among those who might have voted against him.

If Trump does initiate a global trade war, and if the consequences are as harmful as predicted by classical liberals, we will see whether the Trump supporters are willing to accept economic decline as a price for the illiberal culture of authoritarian populism.

In my next post, I will set up a debate between Pinker's Enlightenment Now and Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Remembering the White Rose and the Only German Philosopher Who Opposed Hitler

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Nazi execution in Germany of the leaders of the White Rose resistance movement.  They were beheaded.  Richard Hurowitz has a good article on this in the New York Times.

The young students at the University of Munich who led this small group of students calling for resistance to Hitler's Nazism were inspired by Kurt Huber, their philosophy professor at Munich, who was the only German philosopher in Germany who resisted Hitler and Nazi rule.  It is disturbing to realize that almost all German philosophers either supported Hitler or remained silent.  It is also disturbing to remember that the German people ignored the call to resistance coming from the White Rose students.

I have written about Huber and about the tradition of philosophers supporting Hitler's Nazism here and here.

I have also written here about how the Darwinian aristocratic liberalism of Nietzsche's middle writings warned against the illiberal authoritarian traditions in Germany that supported Hitler and the Nazis.

The Darwinian Meaning of Life in a Liberal Society: Sean Carroll and Owen Flanagan

Many people assume that the biggest problem with Darwinian science is that it denies that life has any meaning or purpose. After all, to find meaning--to see our lives as part of some cosmic drama--don't we have to look to some religious or transcendent vision of the world that goes beyond the materialism of Darwinian science? If human beings are just an insignificant speck in a vast cosmos that is indifferent to human life, if we are just animals produced by a natural evolutionary process that doesn't care for or about us, and if, like all other animals, we live for only a moment on one planet and then die, how can human life--how can my life--matter? Unlike other animals, it's not enough for us that we exist, we need some reason for our existence. Otherwise, what's the point?

Human beings used to believe that their Earth was the center of the universe, then they learned from science that the Earth is only one planet revolving around the Sun, then they learned that the Solar System is a tiny part of a vast galaxy of stars, then they learned that the Milky Way galaxy is just one of at least a hundred billion galaxies, and now in the past twenty years, astronomers have discovered that there are at least a trillion galaxies in the observable universe, each one having at least a hundred billion stars, and including many thousands of planets, many of which are similar to the Earth.

Human beings used to believe that the universe is not much older than 6,000 years, and that it all began as the creation of a God who loves and cares for human beings.  Now, they have learned from science that the universe is at least 14 billion years old, starting at the Big Bang, that fully human life began only a few hundred thousand years ago, and that in the remote future, all life must be extinguished, because all of the stars will exhaust their nuclear fuel, they will fall into black holes, and even these black holes will eventually evaporate into a mess of elementary particles in a dark and empty universe.  It is possible that this universe is only one of many universes in a multiverse that must forever be beyond human observation or comprehension.

Friedrich Nietzsche saw the nihilistic consequences of this modern scientific knowledge of the human place in the cosmos:

"In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever beasts invented knowledge.  That was the haughtiest and most mendacious minute of 'world history'--yet only a minute.  After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star grew cold, and the clever beasts had to die."

In the vastness of cosmic space and time, and in the apparent indifference of the cosmos to our evanescent existence, how can our human lives really matter?

Sean Carroll (a physicist at Caltech) and Owen Flanagan (a philosopher of science at Duke University) believe that we can indeed find meaning for our lives in a Darwinian cosmology of nature without any supernatural purposes.  In Flanagan's The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (2007) and Carroll's The Big Picture (2016), they argue that Darwinian naturalism--with its fundamental conclusion that we are animals in a purely material world--allows us to find a natural meaning to our lives without any resort to supernatural mystification.

Eight years ago, I wrote a post on Flanagan's book, and I will incorporate some of the material from that post into this post.

Throughout much of human history in many parts of the world, people making the argument that Carroll and Flanagan make--that there is no religious or transcendent support for human morality and politics--would have been persecuted, perhaps even killed.  Such persecution made it necessary and desirable for philosophers and scientists advancing such ideas to engage in esoteric writing to hide their subversive ideas from public view.  This was Leo Strauss's point in "Persecution and the Art of Writing," claiming that this showed the natural and unavoidable conflict between the moral, religious, and political life of most human beings as based on traditional opinions and the philosophic or scientific life of those few human beings devoted to the pursuit of true knowledge rather than mere opinion.

But as Arthur Melzer has indicated in his book on esoteric writing, the triumph of modern liberalism, beginning from around the year 1800, has promoted freedom of thought and speech in largely open societies that has made esoteric writing in many parts of the world today unnecessary and undesirable, which seems to have refuted Strauss's claim that such freedom in a liberal society is a dangerous delusion.  I have written about this hereherehere, and here.

Remarkably, Carroll and Flanagan say nothing about this, because they simply take it for granted that they live in a liberal society that allows them to freely challenge traditional beliefs about the moral and religious cosmology of transcendence without fear of violent persecution.  And contrary to what Strauss argued, they assume that the free discussion of the scientific truth about the place of human beings in a purely natural material world without any supernatural design does not dissolve the social order or render human life meaningless, and therefore their teaching scientific naturalism is not harmful in any way that would justify their being punished by violent censorship. 

If this is true, does this show the success of the liberal Enlightenment in a way that refutes Strauss?  And if so, does this show that Nietzsche was right--in his middle writings--in thinking that he could embrace Darwinian science and liberal Enlightenment without nihilistic consequences?  Or do we see--as many recent critics of liberalism have said--that ultimately liberalism must fail in trying to establish an open society in which human beings can find meaning for their lives without any legal enforcement of a political theology that denies modern scientific naturalism?  Or can we see that human beings in liberal societies find meaning for their lives in civil society--in their family life and in voluntary associations--without any need for a coercive enforcement of morality and religion by an illiberal government?

Flanagan suggests that meaning is "a matter of whether and how things add up in the greater scheme of things" (xi). The "space of meaning" is a "platonic space" in that we find meaning by living for "the true," "the good," and "the beautiful." And yet he insists that we can understand "the true," "the good," and the "the beautiful" as natural categories of human experience rather than as Platonic Forms existing as immaterial and eternal principles of the Cosmos. We seek what is good through ethics or politics. We seek what is beautiful through art and music. We seek what is true through science or philosophy.

These various human pursuits correspond to what I identify as the 20 natural human desires.  Carroll observes that desires are built into us by evolution, and it's those desires that make us care about ourselves and others (421).  So even if the cosmos does not care about us, we care 
about ourselves and our fellow human beings, and it's this human caring that makes human life meaningful.

Our human search for meaning is part of our pursuit of human happiness or flourishing. Flanagan agrees with Aristotle on this, and he regards Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics as an empirical science of "eudaimonics" that has been confirmed and deepened by modern natural science. Although there is no transcendent Idea of the Good--no objective standard of the Good woven into the fabric of the Cosmos or created by a Cosmic God--we can reach intersubjective agreement on standards of the human good by seeing that some ways of living are better than others in satisfying our natural human needs and desires. In such a naturalistic view of morality, there are no categorical imperatives strictly speaking, but there are hypothetical imperatives that are constrained by our human nature as very clever social mammals. If you want to live a happy human life, then you have to have those moral and intellectual virtues necessary for such a life.

But while there are certain generic goods that are human universals because they conform to the stable propensities of our human nature, the diversity and contingency of human cultures and human individuals create variability as to what is good for particular individuals in particular circumstances. There is no single good or kind of life that is best for all people in all situations. But there is a range of goods and kinds of life that are worth seeking. Our lives have meaning when we and those who know us well can judge that we have lived good lives. (That's why I think newspaper obituaries can be so fascinating, because they allow us to look back over a whole life and judge whether or how it was a happy or flourishing life.) We can understand this human happiness as suited to our nature as smart social mammals without any need for believing in supernatural or transcendental norms.

Of course, those who do believe in supernatural or transcendental realities offer many arguments for why a purely naturalistic view of human life makes it impossible for us to find any meaning in things. There are at least nine arguments, which have to do with (1) reductionism, (2) cosmic teleology, (3) individuality, (4) free will, (5) consciousness, (6) First Cause, (7) death, (8) spirituality, and (9) political theology.

(1) Reductionism.

Carroll admits that modern science is very limited in its knowledge.  But despite our ignorance, we do know that the fundamental reality of everything in the universe is particles and forces, and "the vast majority of life is gravity and electromagnetism pushing around electrons and nuclei" (177), which is what Carroll (following Frank Wilczek) calls "the Core Theory," which explains the substances and processes that we experience in everyday life.

But if everything is ultimately reducible to elementary particles and forces, does this mean that everything else is illusory?  So the world of ordinary experience--the world of tables, chairs, rocks, dogs, and my wife--are only illusions of my mind?  Such reductionism seems to deny that the world that matters to us has any meaning.

Carroll and Flanagan reject this strong reductionism, however, because they defend the idea of emergence--that there are emergent realities of higher levels of complexity that cannot be completely reduced to the lower levels of simplicity.  I have often defended this idea of complexity, and I have used some of the same examples that they use.

For instance, we are all familiar with how water passes through emergent phase transitions. Depending on temperature and pressure, water can be a frozen solid, a liquid, or a gas.  The macroscopic descriptions of the solid, liquid, and gaseous forms of water are emergent realities.  But the microscopic description--molecules of hydrogen and oxygen--remain the same.  The macroscopic properties change from one phase to the other.  The solidity of frozen water and the wetness of liquid water are real, and this does not change when we learn that water is ultimately reducible to molecules of hydrogen and oxygen.

Carroll observes that this illustrates how the way we talk about water changes as it passes through different phases.  We don't speak of pouring ice or chipping liquid water.  There are different ways of talking about the natural world that correspond to different domains of experience.

This  illustrates what Carroll calls poetic naturalism (19-20).

Naturalism can be stated in three propositions:

1. There is only one world, the natural world.

2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature.

3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

The poetic aspect of naturalism has to do with the different ways we talk about nature, or the different theories, which can also be stated in three propositions:

1. There are many ways of talking about the world.

2. All good ways of talking must be consistent with one another and with the world.

3. Our purposes in the moment determine the best way of talking.

So, for example, we can talk about the air around us in our room as composed at the microscopic level of individual atoms and molecules--mostly nitrogen and oxygen; or we can talk about the macroscopic fluid properties of the air.  Both ways of talking are true at their appropriate levels of reality.  This illustrates the different emergent levels of air in our room.

Similarly, we can talk about how people might be moving around that room as motivated by their beliefs and desires about how they should behave, which is the level of morality, aesthetics, and meaning.  These people might be conversing, or fighting, or dancing.  To explain what they are doing, we need the languages of psychology, ethics, or aesthetics.  Explaining this at the microscopic level of atoms and molecules is not appropriate because it does not usefully make this behavior comprehensible.

So, even though the microscopic level of elementary particles and forces is the fundamental reality of naturalism, the higher macroscopic levels are just as real, and they require different ways of talking.  It's at those higher levels, that the meaning of human life emerges.

(2) Cosmic teleology.

If the natural cosmos does not serve any supernatural purpose, then it might seem pointless, which might seem to make the human lives within that cosmos meaningless.  Strauss and others seem to say this when they argue that the idea of natural right or natural law loses its meaning if it cannot be grounded in the purposefulness of nature, because modern science has denied any teleological conception of the cosmos.

But I agree with Carroll and Flanagan that the naturalistic denial of cosmic teleology is consistent with the affirmation of the immanent teleology of life.  All living beings have evolved natural ends or purposes.  And that is certainly true for human beings in their natural desires for survival and well-being, which constitute the ground for the natural teleology of human life.

(3) Individuality.

Science generally and Darwinian science in particular are often criticized as too impersonal. This was one of Peter Lawler's favorite arguments against my position. Science--like every form of abstract thought--explains things through types or kinds. So Darwinian science explains the general traits of each species of life, but it cannot explain the uniqueness of each individual. But if the search for human meaning is the search for the meaning of each human life in its personal uniqueness, then we might think that to find such meaning, we need a religion with a personal God who knows and cares for me as the person that I am, and for all other persons as they are in themselves.  It's all about ME, Peter insisted.

Flanagan responds by saying that it is usually not the job of science to offer "thick descriptions" of individual instances of things, because like every form of abstract thought, science explains things through conceptual generalization. Art and literature are better at capturing the personal reality of life as it's actually lived by individual human beings in all of its rich concrete complexity.

I would say that biology teaches us that every living being is unique in its individuality as a product of genetic uniqueness and the uniqueness of its life history. And although it is generally true that science abstracts from individual cases, it is possible in some areas of biological study to strive for the "thick descriptions" of individual cases. This is true, for example, in medical case studies and in natural history. Oliver Sacks' "clinical stories" capture the personal drama of particular people struggling with neurological disorders. Jane Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe is a social history of a particular community of chimpanzees with vivid life histories of the unique individuals in the group.

I have written a series of posts on the biological study of "animal personalities" in the unique cultural and political histories of animal groups.

(4) Free will.

Darwinian science is often accused of a biological determinism that denies the free will required for the moral dignity of human beings as beings capable of being held responsible for their moral choices. And sometimes Darwinian scientists like Robert Sapolsky have even argued that biological determinism means that legal systems are unscientific in holding people morally responsible for their behavior.  Religious believers often argue that the human capacity for free will manifests a freedom from natural causality that must be the work of an immaterial mind or soul that is supernatural.

Flanagan rightly responds to this argument just as I do in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism by indicating how human freedom of choice is compatible with natural causality, as long as one rejects the idea of free will as uncaused cause. For Aristotle, voluntary action requires that the agent know what he is doing and act from his own reasons and desires without external compulsion. That his reasons and desires have more distant causes--his innate temperament, his social circumstances, and so on--does not deny the freedom of his choice. Thus, the agent can be the immediate cause of action while still being subject to the wider causal order of nature. By contrast, the idea of free will as uncaused cause could apply only to God as a completely self-subsisting being or unmoved mover. The Aristotelian understanding of voluntary and deliberate choice does not require any supernatural uncaused cause. And it's the Aristotelian understanding that is compatible with Darwinian science and with legal conceptions of moral responsibility.

Carroll does not bring up Aristotle, but Carroll does endorse David Hume's compatibilism.

(5) Consciousness.

Scientists have a hard time explaining consciousness. Both Flanagan and Carroll admit that no one has explained consciousness, which remains one of the deep mysteries of science. Almost no one doubts the reality of consciousness, because we all have direct access to our personal consciousness. But this subjective experience of consciousness is not directly observable as is everything in our objective experience.

Determining the objective traits of apples is a matter of direct, public observation. But my inward conscious experience of the "redness" of this apple before me--the "personal feel" of redness--is not open to public study. Although we might observe the neuronal patterns in my brain correlated with my conscious awareness of "redness," but still my conscious awareness would be directly available only to me. So it's not clear how, or even whether, my brain's activity fully explains my mind's conscious experience. The religious believer might say that this introspective experience of consciousness can only be explained as the activity of an immaterial mind or soul that transcends the material brain, because consciousness belongs to a supernatural realm of experience beyond natural material causality.

Many philosophers and neuroscientists identify this as the "hard problem of consciousness," and they see it as an unresolvable mystery that creates an explanatory gap between explaining the material brain and explaining the immaterial mind. Flanagan agrees that there is now an explanatory gap between subjective self-conscious awareness and the neural events in the brain correlated with that awareness. But he believes that embracing the idea of "subjective realism" should allow us to continue research on the neural basis of subjective experience until the gap is closed. "Subjective realism says that the relevant objective state of affairs in a sentient creature properly hooked up to itself produces certain subjective feels in, for, and to that creature" (29). "Conscious mental events are essentially Janus-faced and uniquely so. They have first-person subjective feel and they are realized in objective states of affairs" (27). We should see, then, that "mental events are neural events but that their essence cannot be captured completely in neural terms" (29).

But instead of solving the problem--the explanatory gap between brain and mind--Flanagan's talk about the "Janus-faced" character of subjective experience in which mental events "cannot be captured completely in neural terms" seems to just restate the problem. Religious believers can enter at this point to insist that the human mind can only be explained as a divine spark, because the human mind has been created in the image of the Divine Mind.

To defend Flanagan's naturalistic account of the mind/brain as a unity against the religious idea of the dualism of immaterial mind and material brain, I suggest that the religious argument here shows at least two fallacies (as many philosophers have noted). First, there's the Fallacy of Arguing from Ignorance. Flanagan correctly concedes that neuroscience cannot now fully explain human consciousness, but this is often the case with emergent phenomena in science, in which traits arise from complex interactions of simpler elements that cannot be found in the elements themselves. Water is wet even though the elements of water are not wet. Emergent phenomena are often so mysterious that it is hard to explain exactly how they arise, and that is certainly true of the mystery of how mind emerges at a certain level of size and complexity in the primate brain. But we can hope for better understanding of this with progress in neuroscience. And, in any case, to infer that our presently incomplete knowledge proves that there must be divine intervention at work here is a fallacious inference from ignorance.

Second, there's the Fallacy of Explaining a Mystery with Another Mystery. How the mind emerges from the brain is now a mystery. But to say that God's creation of the mind explains this mystery only adds a new mystery--how exactly does such a miracle occur? Replacing one mystery with an even deeper mystery is no explanation at all.

(6) First Cause.

Another big mystery is how to explain the ultimate causes of the natural universe and natural laws. Why is there something rather than nothing? Flanagan admits that science cannot answer this question, which creates an opening for positing God as the First Cause (190).  We can say that it all began with the Big Bang, but both Flanagan and Carroll admit that no scientist can explain the Big Bang.

Flanagan even concedes that human beings might benefit from a satisfying story about God as Creator, and he allows this as long as it is not asserted as a literally true story. He notes that Plato's Timaeus suggests something like this (190-91): a myth about how a good demiurge might have created the world, but a myth that is understood as a satisfying story that is not literally true.

This is what I have identified as the conundrum of ultimate explanation. We can keep asking, Why? But ultimately we must reach the final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained--the causal order that is its own cause. Some of us will be satisfied to say this ultimate ground is Nature. But others will want to say that the cause of Nature is God. Who or what caused God? The religious believer might say that God is self-caused. But if we are going to allow for a self-caused ultimate ground, why can't that be Nature? Invoking God to explain Nature is once again employing the Fallacy of Explaining One Mystery with Another Mystery. In facing up to such profound mysteries, we face up to the limits of human reason, perhaps the sort of limits we might expect of an animal mind that was not evolutionarily adapted for explaining why there is something rather than nothing.

(7) Death

If we're animals, then we're going to die. Many human beings don't want to believe that they are animals because they don't want to believe that they are going to die and never live again. They don't want to believe this because they think that death without rebirth would make life meaningless. Whatever we pursue in life that is good, true, or beautiful will be lost when we die. So for many religious believers some religious doctrine of human rebirth with eternal rewards and punishments is the necessary condition for meaning.

Aristotle is clear in stating that to wish for immortality is to wish for the impossible. But he does not seem to think that this makes the human pursuit of happiness meaningless.

Flanagan's response to this problem of death echoes that of Lucretius:

"I recently heard a wise Buddhist friend say that 'death is the ultimate absurdity, you lose everything you care about.' This, it seems to me, is not true. Furthermore, it is not a particularly Buddhist way (even for a secular Buddhist) to see things. Here is a better way: If you live well, then when you die you lose nothing you care about. Why? Because you are no longer there. You are just gone. That which is gone has nothing to lose. That which was once something, but is now nothing, cannot suffer any loss. But assuming the world and the people in it, including the loved ones remain, then your good karmic effects continue on. This is something to be proud of and happy about while alive. Your goodness, your presence, your worth are why the living feel your loss, and are sad, possibly very sad. But you are not sad, you neither suffer nor experience any loss because you are gone. Nothing absurd has occurred. True, dying could be miserable, but your own death is nothing to worry about" (203-204).

As I have indicated in a previous post, Darwin showed his understanding of death in his poignant response to the death of his daughter Annie at age ten.  He loved Annie as his beautiful child.  He could understand her death as coming from her losing struggle for life in the war of nature with tuberculosis.  he could cherish his memories of her vibrant personality, as carefully preserved in his memorial essay about her, but without any expectation of being reunited with her in an afterlife.

I have written a long series of posts on life, death, living forever, Heaven, and Hell herehere, and here.

(8) Spirituality

Flanagan includes "spirituality" as one of the "spaces of meaning." After all, if finding meaning and purpose in life comes from making sense of things and attaching oneself to something larger than oneself, then the experience of spirituality--of being in contact with the transcendent, cosmic source of all being--would seem to essential to a meaningful life. And, in fact, psychologists who study what people around the world want to make them happy often report that "transcendence" is a universal human longing.

But how can a Darwinian naturalist recognize the importance of such spirituality for human beings, if this requires religious belief in a supernatural realm beyond the natural world? Flanagan's answer is to look for spiritual traditions that do not require belief in the supernatural, which would therefore be compatible with Darwinian science. He wants religion to be tamed so that it can be a "strong cat without claws" (183). In particular, he looks to Buddhism, and especially the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama.

One reason for this move is that Buddhism is non-theistic. The classic teachings of Buddhism do not include any doctrines about God or gods. In fact, some people suspect that the Buddha was actually an atheist. This makes Buddhism attractive to atheists like Flanagan who want to have religious feelings without believing in religious doctrines about divinity.

But even if it is true that there is no theistic teaching in the classic texts of Buddhism, observation of how Buddhism is actually practiced around the world suggests that many, maybe most, Buddhists believe in divinities of some sort and perhaps in the Buddha as a god.

Another reason for Flanagan's move towards Buddhism is that he is attracted by the Dalai Lama's respect for modern science. In The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (2005), the Dalai Lama writes: "My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science, so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims" (2-3).

One remarkable example of the convergence of neuroscience and Buddhist spirituality is that some neuroscientists have discovered that the effects of Buddhist meditation can be seen in the brain, particularly in the activation of the left pre-frontal cortex, which is associated with having a positive mood. Here, then, Flanagan argues, is an example of how science can explain and confirm the natural basis of spirituality: meditation techniques can exploit the neuroplasticity of the brain to induce mental states of equanimity, euphoria, or ecstasy.

But then we must wonder whether psychic states of spirituality can be separated from religious beliefs in the supernatural. After all, a core belief of Buddhism is karmic rebirth--the belief that at death, we pass into a cycle of rebirths in which our bad conduct is punished and our good conduct is rewarded.

This idea of karmic rebirth has had a powerful appeal to the human mind. It originated in ancient India and then passed into the ancient Greek thought of Pythagoras and Plato and then into the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Flanagan argues, however, that belief in rebirth is not really required for Buddhism. To me, his argument here seems remarkably weak. He doesn't even mention the fact that the status of the Dalai Lama depends on the belief that he as the 14th Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama.

Another attraction of Buddhism for Flanagan is Buddhist ethics, and especially the ethics of universal love and compassion. But he is remarkably uncritical in his acceptance of Buddhist ethics. He notes that Buddhist ethics has no place for courage, spiritedness, and greatness of soul, as does Aristotle. Isn't this a problem? How can we eliminate human suffering--as Buddhism teaches we must--if we lack the courageous spiritedness for attacking injustice and tyranny? Remarkably, Flanagan does not even mention the Chinese atrocities against the Tibetan Buddhists or the Dalai Lama's traditional position as a political ruler. Nor does Flanagan mention the atrocities carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, which would raise the question of why the Buddhists in Cambodia did not overthrow this bloody tyranny.

Flanagan's attempt to naturalize spirituality is unpersuasive, at least to me, because he relies so heavily on an implausible and uncritical interpretation of Buddhism as the best expression of naturalistic spirituality.

My answer to the problem is to say that spirituality is rooted in two natural desires. The natural desire for religious understanding will express itself in religious believers as a spiritual experience of awe before the supernatural mysteries of the universe. The natural desire for intellectual understanding will express itself in scientists or philosophers as a spiritual experience of wonder before the natural order of things. The religious believers will be grateful that they are the objects of divine care and love. The scientists and philosophers will be grateful that they happen to live in a world with a deeply intelligible order that is open to investigation by the human mind.

(9) Political theology.  
In the past, Flanagan and Carroll could have been legally punished for the crime of writing blasphemous books.  Even today, in some parts of the world, they could be punished for violating laws against blasphemy.  According to the Mosaic law (Leviticus 24:16) adopted in colonial Massachusetts and other American colonies, blasphemy was a capital crime.  This reflects the ancient idea that social order depends on religious beliefs in a moral cosmology, and that an atheistic natural science that denies such beliefs must be severely punished by law.  One can see this, for example, in the teaching of the Athenian Stranger in Plato's Laws, which is cited by people like Strauss in arguing that every well-ordered society must be a closed society. 

As indicated in my posts on Tom West's account of the American founding (here and here), he claims that the American Founders agreed on the need for legally enforcing religious belief and practice, which would include punishing blasphemous speech and writing.  After all, doesn't the Declaration of Independence appeal to a theological cosmology affirming belief in God as Creator, Lawgiver, and Judge of human conduct? 

But as I indicated in my response to West, this ignores the fact that during the founding period, America moved towards a liberal policy of separating church and state based on the arguments of those like Roger Williams who insisted on a separation between the realms of "civil things" and "spiritual things."  In a liberal social order, moral virtue and religious belief will be enforced in families and voluntary associations; but there will be no legal coercion in matters of morality and religion except to enforce the equal liberty of all from force and fraud. 

This explains why the anti-blasphemy laws were not enforced in the early days of the American Republic.  For example, Tom Paine's attack on Biblical Christianity in The Age of Reason did not lead to any punishment for blasphemy. 

Similarly, Darwin's books have never been censored as blasphemous.  Darwin himself denied that his theory of evolution was necessarily atheistic.  Theists, atheists, and agnostics should be free to debate the moral and religious implications of evolutionary science without any fear that such debate threatens the social order. 

Thus it is that scientific atheists like Flanagan and Carroll can debate theists over whether theism is compatible with modern science.  And in a largely open society, such freedom of speech and thought need not be subversive of the good order of society. 

In such a liberal social order, esoteric writing is neither necessary or desirable, because theists, atheists, and agnostics can find meaning for their lives without fearing any harm to social order from the freedom of speech and thought for philosophers and scientists.