Save Our Selves
from Science Gone Wrong

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Threat of a new barbarism

Just as you don't shout "Fire" in a crowded theater even if there really is danger of a fire, perhaps you shouldn't teach Physicalism in the classroom even if you think it's true. You may do more harm than good.

How could teaching Physicalism cause harm? Because it threatens us with the awful possibility of a worldwide slide into barbarism.

Unlikely as it seems today, civilization can plunge rapidly into barbarism. It happened 4000 years ago to the great civilizations in Sumeria, in what is now the Middle East. What was then a civilized world plunged into a thousand-year Dark Ages of brutality and ignorance. Something similar happened when the Roman Empire in the West collapsed. It took only a couple of generations for people to become brutal and illiterate. Except for isolated and defensible cities like Venice, civilization survived mainly in outposts of the old empire such as England and Ireland. The core of the empire, in just a few generations, reverted to barbarism.

Barbarism, in the form of "feral children"--people who go through childhood without human contact and learning any human language--is still found occasionally. From Wikipedia: "they cannot show empathy with others... are usually entirely unaware of the needs and desires and others. The concepts of morals, property and possessions are alien to them." Complete social collapse could lead to something like that, to the loss of everything we regard as distinctively human. There is no limit to the potential loss of human nature when you plumb the depths of barbarism.

The new barbarism
Distressingly common is a descent into partial barbarism, such as "showing no empathy for other people." Perhaps most curious, though, is people who take the extreme position of showing no empathy for their own selves.

Here pride of place goes to Victorians who embraced a curious doctrine that denied them a self of their own. Their own self they called an "epi-phenomenon," something with the appearance of being real but not having any reality in practice, not capable of having any effect on the physical world. It's Physicalism as experienced from the inside. "I have no conscious self." I even subscribed to this bizarre belief myself for a few years until the contradictions built into it became too obvious to ignore.

Physicalism and epiphenomenalism may be the most direct route to barbarism. Within a few generations children brought up by parents with those beliefs would have no sense they could shape their selves by deliberately learning anything new or by applying reason consciously. Whatever they did they'd have no thought of questioning. This would be barbarism by deliberate adoption. And if such a culture was adopted worldwide there would be no one left to borrow civilization from later.

By itself, Physicalism is harmless. Everyday conscious experience contradicts it. It becomes dangerous only when the enormous authority of science is placed behind natural selection and how it denies consciousness.

Here are ways natural selection is already preparing the ground for a new barbarism.

The new name--"Naturalism"
Just as academics don't wear their cap and gown when they go shopping in the mall, they don't call themselves "Physicalists" outside the college campus. Instead they call themselves "Naturalists." Members of one growing community of Physicalists, with its sights set on political action, have adopted the name "Brights." From their web site ( "The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic worldview "...join with other brights from all over the world in an extraordinary effort to change the thinking of society.... We want persons who hold naturalistic outlooks to be elected to public service and to be able to participate openly and candidly in civic affairs." Prominent among "Friends of the Brights" listed on the site are Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker, Physicalists all.

The new eugenics
First time around, eugenics was coercive. If some people were judged to have genes the rest of us didn't want in the gene pool, they got sterilized.

The new eugenics is voluntary. Women can apply to a sperm bank for semen from men with just the characteristics they admire and want in their children.

See the difference this could make? If these women want their children to succeed in the face of natural selection, they'll select for high levels of testosterone, physical strength, aggressiveness, callousness to anyone but family members, and promiscuity. On the other hand, guided by a self-based science they'd be more likely to select for intelligence, sensitivity to others both human and otherwise, design and creative ability, and talent for languages.

We're no longer dealing in theory. We're talking about rapid genetic changes in human nature from whether we believe in natural selection or not. Acceptance of natural selection becomes a potent force in the world.

The new economics
Economics got called the "dismal science," I suppose, because it seemed to have so little to do with human nature. But that's far from the truth. There's always a theory of human nature behind economics. That's the point of it. It's for turning theories of human nature into industrial plant and consumer products, into the goods we surround our selves with.

The human talent for bargaining and making deals is the basis for a modern market economy and the stock market. Economists now find that idea nave. People really aren't good judges of what's to their best advantage. They behave irrationally. So economists are beginning to turn to natural selection as a guide to what human beings are "really" like. If we don't watch out, that's what our world will increasingly come to reflect.

Imagine, though, economic theory built around a self-based science. Then it would center on creativity, intelligence, learning, and mutual interest. The difference would literally reshape our world.

The new literary criticism
There's a new literary criticism based on natural selection. We're already familiar with its main ingredients. From cheap fiction it borrows the motivations of sex, power, plus a little nepotism. From Wall Street it borrows the emotions of greed and fear. To reveal what they are "really" about, practitioners of the new literary criticism rewrite the classics in terms of just these motivations and emotions--Jane Austin's "Pride and Prejudice," for example.

The new education
To help our young triumph in the natural selection stakes, shouldn't we train them in aggression and promiscuity? If you accept natural selection as our origin story, the logic of this policy is hard to argue against, though you might not like the results.

The new psychology
In the form of "evolutionary psychology," natural selection is already throwing new light on human nature.

This new psychology has several strands. One is, how we adapted to our environment tens of thousands of years ago accounts for impulses in us today, such as our tendency to overeat when food is readily available.

Another strand comes from game theory. Hundreds of thousands of years of trial and error has taught us to use winning strategies in our relationships, such as "tit for tat"--trust first time, then trust or cheat as the other guy did last time. Either these winning strategies got built into our genes, or our genes have evolved the ability to figure these strategies out in a split second each time.

A third strand of this new psychology reminds you that the genes that end up in the gene pool come from individuals who, one way or another, survived the process of natural selection and had most progeny, that then in turn went on to survive and reproduce. To be successful in the natural selection stakes as evolution demands, ask yourself, what would favor your genes being passed on? The answer from evolutionary psychology: aggression against your competitors, promiscuous relations with the opposite sex, a total disregard for morals, and nepotism towards your children.

The new self
This story is spilling out into self-help books with titles like "Mean Genes" and magazine stories telling you how to really "know" yourself. The ground's been well prepared. Physicalists' insistence on teaching natural selection in the classroom is doing its work. Values in our culture are undergoing a massive shift. And any opposition to this shift is waved away as fanatical Creationism.

This is the battleground for the fight to halt the spread of Physicalists' primary agent, natural selection. Let's move on to tactics.