R.G. Collingwood, The
Idea of History
the most dangerous intellectual currents of the last several
centuries has been the project to deny any importance to consciousness
in scientific and philosophical thought, through a relentless
insistence on materialist, reductionist explanations for all
human activities. To the extent it succeeds, the project both
drains individuals' lives of meaning, and encourages the view
that human society is merely a collection of mechanical devices,
along the lines of an enormous factory, the output of which
should be planned and optimized through the systematic control
of the machines' behavior. (Coincidentally, the reductionists
often seem to discover that, for some reason, they happen to
be best suited for the role of one of the planning machines
at the top of the heap.) The success of the project depends
on reducing this is the "reductionist" part
any explanations of human action involving the ideas or states
of mind of the actors involved to physical cause and effect
relationships in which consciousness plays no part.
materialist reductionism does not imply the acceptance of any
other single doctrine or worldview. It is rejected by Christians
and by Buddhists, by Objectivists and by "New Age"
spiritualists, by scientists pursuing research into complex
phenomena and by semioticians, and by philosophical dualists
and philosophical idealists. If there is a common thread running
through such diverse groups, it might be the view that regarding
humans as mechanical devices is both damaging to people and
a poor scientific explanation for social phenomena. However
much Objectivists criticize Christianity and Christians are
put off by Objectivists' atheism, their views of human nature
are much closer to each other's than either's are to that of
a hard-core reductionist.
came across a particularly egregious example of reductionism
in the February, 2004 issue of Scientific American. It
is worth discussing because it makes plain the reliance of the
reductionist project on what we might call an "anti-faith":
the devout belief that consciousness is an accidental phenomenon,
perhaps even an "illusion," that must be eliminated
from any scientific explanation. The article also unintentionally
lays bare the unscientific nature of reductionism and its disregard
for empirical evidence.
is "A Bounty of Science," written by Michael Shermer,
the publisher of Skeptic magazine. It appeared in his
regular Scientific American column, "Skeptic."
(Are you detecting a theme running through Shermer's work?)
It opens by briefly describing a new book by Caroline Alexander,
Bounty, which offers a revisionist version of the events
involving the famed British ship, its captain, William Bligh,
and the successful mutiny of some of the crew.
immediately confess that I have only a passing familiarity with
the history of the Bounty. I have no knowledge of or opinion
about whether Alexander succeeds in defending her central thesis,
which is that Bligh was really the hero of the story while Fletcher
Christian, the leader of the mutiny, was a coward. Nevertheless,
I can confidently assert that the alternate explanation proposed
by Shermer is utter rubbish. It is not the least bit "scientific,"
and it utterly fails to grasp the fact that biology and history
are different disciplines, requiring different modes of explanation
in dealing with their different subject matters.
first accuses Alexander of offering a "romantic" explanation
of the events in question, relying on such things as "the
seductions of Tahiti," "Bligh's harsh tongue,"
and "a night of drinking and a proud man's pride."
The "skeptic's explanation," however, "is more
intellectually satisfying because it is extrapolated from scientific
evidence and reasoning." He claims to see beyond the "proximate"
causes involving "immediate historical events" to
the "ultimate" causes, which are "deeper evolutionary
does not realize that the proper concern of history is what
he calls proximate causes. History is the effort to understand
the actual, unique human events that really did occur in the
past. Those events must always be explained in terms of how
the people involved understood the particular circumstances
in which they found themselves. Because biological, sociological,
or psychological theories of "deeper motives" can
only indicate tendencies or typical patterns of humans' responses
to their circumstances, they can never explain why a historical
individual chose his actual, unique response to his situation,
rather than some other action also consistent with the "deeper
motives." Therefore, they can never serve as historical
case, Shermer's "deeper explanation" is basically
that the mutinous crewmembers were just answering the booty
call, although he dresses it up in fancier language. I'll quote
and comment on a couple of examples of his technique.
says: "Neuroscience shows that the attachment bonds between
men and women, especially in the early stages of a relationship,
are chemical in nature and stimulate the pleasure centers of
the brain in a manner resembling addictive drugs." Well,
what neuroscience actually shows is that human attraction can
fruitfully be studied from the perspective of chemistry.
Since neuroscience studies humans by examining the biochemistry
of the brain, naturally enough what it finds is always a biochemical
explanation. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with such an
approach, so long as one keeps in mind that it is just one approach,
and, like all coherent disciplines, is only able to reveal a
partial view of reality.
to think that neuroscience might "show" that human
sexual relationships are "chemical in nature" is like
thinking that automotive engineering might show that vacations
taken by car are "auto-mechanical in nature." Automotive
engineering is certainly relevant to a driving vacation,
but that is no justification for trying to reduce all
aspects of such vacations to engineering issues.
proclaims: "Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg shows that oxytocin is
secreted into the pituitary gland during sex… and plays a role
in pair bonding…" Well, now, if that doesn't fully explain
why the crew of the Bounty mutinied, I don't know what possibly
prepares readers for his conclusion by saying: "Ten months
at sea weakened home attachments of the Bounty's crew. New and
powerful bonds made through sexual liaisons in Tahiti… culminated
in mutiny 22 days after departure, as the men grew restless
to renew those fresh attachments; Christian, in fact, had been
planning for days to escape the Bounty on a raft."
were less enamored of reductionist explanations he might be
a little worried about offering the bit about Christian as evidence
supporting his case. As he has it, the rebellion on the Bounty
was caused by chemical reactions causing some of the crewmembers
to become addicted to various women in Tahiti. In order to "renew
those fresh attachments," Christian apparently was planning
to reverse the 15-or-20-day journey of a fast sailing vessel
on a raft. What sort of hope could he have had of ever
reaching Tahiti? Doesn't it seem more likely he just wanted
off the Bounty? Now to Shermer, the actual ideas that prompted
Christian to perform certain actions are probably irrelevant:
remember, we are looking for deep causes. Of course,
the same search can be applied to Shermer's column: while he
thought that he wrote what he did in order to offer a
scientific explanation of the Bounty mutiny, the deeper cause
was most likely an innate male urge to assert dominance over
females such as Alexander.
doesn't even bother to mention whether there is any evidence
that Christian himself had a sexual relationship with one or
more Tahitian women. Surely, whether or not the leader
of the mutiny could possibly have been influenced by Shermer's
preferred "cause" is highly relevant to his case.
But I suppose it's best not to ask: if it turned out Christian
was a virgin, it would only place messy facts in the way of
Shermer reaches his "more intellectually satisfying"
conclusion: "Proximate causes of mutiny may have been alcohol
and anger, but the ultimate reason was evolutionarily adaptive
emotions expressed nonadaptively, with irreversible consequences."
It is stunning
that a journal as prestigious as Scientific American
would publish such swill. Far from proposing a possible "cause"
of the mutiny, Shermer has merely restated what happened,
but in biological rather than historical terms. He offers no
reason why, in this particular instance, the "evolutionarily
adaptive emotions" were "expressed nonadaptively,"
while thousands of other times, all of them apparently quite
similar to the Bounty mutiny from a biological perspective,
the emotions were expressed adaptively. Shermer's "cause"
is no more an explanation of the mutiny than would be a model
by a physicist showing how the atoms composing the rebels moved
in such a way that the atoms composing Captain Bligh were ejected
from the ship.
as I know, there is nothing wrong with the biological or neurological
research that Shermer cites. I find it quite plausible that
bonds are formed between men and women who have sex with each
other. That neuro-chemistry can detect such bonds does not surprise
me. And, given that the bonds exist, they obviously might influence
offer sexual bonding as an explanation of some historical event,
and as a "deeper" one than the actual historical circumstances,
is absurd. Over the millennium during which humans have navigated
the seas, countless sailors have been away from their home long
enough to weaken their attachments to it, and have had sexual
liaisons with women in foreign lands. However, only a miniscule
fraction of those sailors mutinied. What a historical explanation
of the Bounty mutiny must account for is why those particular
sailors chose to rebel in that particular situation.
a quarter of the sailors on the Bounty itself took part in the
rebellion. Shermer notes that roughly two-fifths of the crew
caught a venereal disease on the voyage, so assuming that not
every single sailor who had sex caught VD, significantly more
than 40 percent must have been sexually active during the trip.
If sexual bonding was the "cause" of the mutiny, then
well over half the crew should have participated. If it turned
out that Bligh had fooled around in Tahiti, he should have gladly
cooperated with the mutineers!
per Shermer's approach to scientific methodology, we might reasonably
conclude that sexual bonding could not have been the
cause of the mutiny. After all, the vast majority of sailors
who have sex while away from home do not stage a mutiny, and
surely not every mutinous sailor in history had been sexually
active during his voyage. Therefore, sexual bonding is neither
a necessary nor a sufficient cause for mutiny. Of course, if
we understand that historical explanations are an attempt to
make past human actions comprehensible as the actors' responses
to their perceived circumstances, then we can see that sexual
bonding might very well play a role in such an explanation,
even though it does not determine the actions of those who experience
the mutiny on the Bounty by noting that humans become attached
to their sexual partners is no more of a historical explanation
than an "urge to advance boldly in the face of danger"
would be for Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon. Since other historical
actors have cowered in the face of danger, or fled from it,
or become devious as a way of dodging it, the question a historian
must answer is what particular circumstances explain the specific
choice made by Caesar. Vague pronouncements about drives and
instincts are entirely inadequate for that purpose.
embarrassment for Shermer's "explanation" is that,
after taking over the ship, the mutineers set sail for the island
of Tubuai, rather than for Tahiti. How would their chemical
bonds with some women in Tahiti possibly explain their heading
off for an island that is 640 kilometers away from those women?
(Some, but not all, of the crewmembers did return to
Tahiti several months later.)
tries to bedazzle his readers with statistics that pretend to
offer "empirical evidence" for his explanation. We
are told that 82.1 percent of British sailors in the Pacific
between 1765 and 1793 were between the ages of 12 and 30. Twenty-eight
percent of the 1,556 sailors studied contracted some venereal
disease. The 19 percent of his sailors that Captain Bligh flogged
was below the average of 21.5 percent for all ships studied.
is no doubt nice to know such things, I wonder how, exactly,
they are supposed to back Shermer's story. Since so many of
the sailors were young, sexually active men, why didn't all
crews, or most crews, or even one other crew, mutiny? It is
interesting to note that Bligh was not as harsh a leader as
the average British captain at the time, but that hardly contradicts
Alexander's interpretation that he was the good guy in the story.
That Bligh flogged crewmembers less often than the average captain
contradicts the idea that his brutality was the impetus for
the mutiny, but it doesn't help pick among alternative explanations.
I believe that the real intent of the data Shermer cites was
to demonstrate that, because his column contains lots of numbers
and percentages, his conclusion must be based on the "hard
data" rather than some wishy-washy romantic tale. Readers
should ignore the awkward fact that the data presented offers
next-to-no support for his conclusion.
obviously regards himself as a hard-headed skeptic, unlikely
to fall prey to theories not backed by "the facts,"
he appears to be all too credulous when it comes to the explanatory
power of materialism. As I noted above, materialist reductionism
is really a religious creed, believed in despite the paucity
of supporting evidence. Its opponents ought to relentlessly
point out its unscientific nature.