Last week I participated to an interesting panel discussion at the New York Academy of Science, on “Seeking the why of our existence.” We were supposed to talk about meaning and purpose. I am usually somewhat weary of these sorts of panels, as the topic is often vague and open to far too much interpretation, and you never know what the other panelists’ take is going to be until you are on stage and find yourself thinking: “how do I respond to that??”
Nevertheless, I accepted, partly at the prospect of enjoying the stunning view of Manhattan from n. 7 World Trade Center, where the Academy is located, partly because my esteemed colleague Michael Ruse was also on the panel, and partly because, well, how bad could it possibly be? Joining Michael and me were Jay Lombard, MD, Clinical Director of Neuroscience at LifeSpan Medicine; creator, co-founder, and Chief Scientific Officer at Genomind; author of “The Mind of God: Neuroscience, Faith, and a Search for the Soul.” And Emily Esfahani Smith, MAPP, Writer, journalist, and author of “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.” The whole thing moderated by journalist Steve Paulson, Executive Producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge.”
Sure enough, it was not bad at all, it actually turned out to be a pleasant evening with good questions from the audience and very able moderation by Paulson. Still, I managed to get called “arrogant” twice, by two fellow panelists (and a third time by a member of the audience), one of whom was Michael himself! (If you know Michael, genial Brit that he is, you may think it odd that he would hurl such an insult to someone else.) My Stoic training has taught me not to get offended, so I responded with humor rather than resentment. But the whole episode made me think about why I do so often receive such label. Immediately discarding the admittedly possible answer that I really am arrogant, I figured something else must be afoot.
Let’s begin with the basics, that is, with the dictionary definition of arrogant:
1. Making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights; overbearingly assuming; insolently proud.
2. Characterized by or proceeding from arrogance, or a sense of superiority, self-importance, or entitlement.
Now let me tell you why first Jay Lombard, MD, and then Michael himself, thought it appropriate to use the epithet with me. You will be the judge of whether they were justified.
Lombard, pretty early on in the evening, said that — as a neuroscientist — he thinks it is obvious that souls exist. I did a double take, shook my head, and asked what he meant by that. He was ambivalent. On the one hand, it seems, he meant what most people mean by that term: some sort of vaguely defined, incorporeal thing that survives our bodily death and decay, and that in some way carries our “essence” to whatever “next stage” of existence. But when I pressed him, he said that the soul was “the same as” the self.
Well, for one, those two definitions are not at all compatible, unless by “self” one means an incorporeal thing that survives our bodily death and decay — and most people, especially cognitive scientists, definitely do not mean that when they use the word. Moreover, as I pointed out to Lombard, the “self” is, at best, a dynamic “bundle of sensations,” as David Hume so perceptively described it back in the 18th century. And modern cognitive science is squarely behind this notion, as opposed to some Platonic conception of the self as being an unchangeable essence of who we “really” are.
Moreover, I told my interlocutor that he was engaging in a bit of bate and switch: if by “soul” he truly meant the self, why was he using a word so metaphysically and theologically loaded. If, conversely, he meant the above mentioned immaterial essence, then I was pretty confident that there is no such thing. That, of course, is when I got the label of “arrogant.”
Arguably, I should have been more careful with my language. I should have said that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of souls (defined as above), and that, moreover, there is no particular reason to think they exist. Hence, it is perfectly reasonable to take the provisional position that they don’t, until proven wrong. To invoke Hume again, a reasonable person proportions her beliefs to the evidence. No evidence, no justification for belief. It’s as Bayesian as that. But these qualifications should have been obvious from the context of the conversation, with no need to spell them out. Lombard, instead of seeking clarifications of my position (as I had done of his) chose to interpret it in the least charitable way possible, a good rhetorical move, perhaps, but a bad philosophical one.
The discussion went off in a number of other directions, and then I got a second “that’s arrogant” accusation, near the end of the evening, this time by Michael Ruse. I do not, unfortunately, recall the precise wording of that bit of the conversation, but what I was arguing was that human mental powers — including consciousness — are of a degree the like of which is nowhere to be found in the animal world. Again, I probably should have been very careful to clarify that what I meant by that was that the quantitative differences between us and every other living organisms are such that they essentially amount to qualitative differences, not that they are, in fact, qualitative. But Michael — a philosopher! — decided to use the same rhetorical strategy adopted by Lombard, rather than actually engage in a conversation. Scoring points, apparently, is more essential than understanding.
Now, my position on this is far from radical or unsubstantiated, and is very well defended, for instance, by one of the scientists who has actually spent decades of his career studying cognition in humans, as well as its evolution: Kevin Laland, the author of Darwin’s Unfinished Synthesis: How Culture Made the Human Mind, the book we are going to tackle next in our book club series. He has tons of evidence that licenses the conclusion that human beings are incredibly different from anything else on earth, when it comes to the mind.
I know that in these times of revived interest in panpsychism it is not cool to say that humans are special, even though researchers who actually work on these issues agree that they are (in the so-quantitative-that-it-becomes-qualitative sense just described). Hell, some people even think that bacteria and plants are conscious, though of course there is not a shred of evidence that they are (invoking Mr. Hume again). On my part, I simply think that one ought to be careful about making those claims, if nothing else because vegetarians and vegans are going to be really upset. (I’m not kidding: I have vegetarian friends who are very concerned by the possibility that the carrots they eat may be sentient.)
So I fully expected a negative reaction from Lombard, but not from Michael! And yet he accused me of going “Cartesian,” as in assuming that animals are simply robots, while only humans have the divine spark. This would be comical except for the fact that Michael ought to have known better. We have frequented each other, and known about each other’s work, and in fact even collaborated on a number of projects, for literally decades. He knows I am an atheist (which means I don’t believe in divine sparks of any kind), and that I am an evolutionary biologist (which means that I don’t believe in any sort of qualitative exceptionality of Homo sapiens). And yet, I was the arrogant one because I stated the obvious, scientifically grounded, reality, while he got away waxing poetic about the entirely implausible, and certainly completely lacking in evidence, notion that rocks and atoms have degrees of consciousness!
Back to the definition of arrogance, seems to me pretty clear that I wasn’t “making claims or pretensions to superior importance or rights,” was not “overbearingly assuming,” and certainly not “insolently proud.” But I was reminding the good doctor Lombard, as well as my colleague and endowed chair professor of philosophy, that honest intellectualism is bound by reason and evidence. If there is anything that could reasonably qualify as arrogant is precisely what both Lombard and Ruse where doing: making sweeping ontological claims, i.e., claims about what is real, without a shred of empirical evidence to back them up. This, after all, was a panel discussion held at the NY Academy of Science, not of science fiction, fantasy, or wild speculation. It is a disservice to the public to lend credence — with impressive titles such as MD and PhD — to notions that are speculative at best, and incoherent or false at worst.
Do I know for a fact that atoms are not conscious, or that souls do not exist? Nope. But in both cases the burden of proof is squarely on the shoulders of those who do. It is not arrogant to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence. On the contrary, it is the only epistemically modest thing to do.