The Theory of Optimal Disenchantment

— The fascinating discussion following Steven Pinker’s recent presentation to the President’s Council on Bioethics led me to consider whether there is an optimal level of realism about the physical world, human nature, and our relationship to the universe. Let me say what I mean by this.

Think of a continuum running from an extremely superstitious and mythical conception of the universe and human nature to a rigorously empirical conception of the universe and human nature defined by some complete future science. Call this the continuum of enchantment. The history of human progress has to a large extent consisted of a rightward shift on the continuum. Truth is the enemy of mystification, and the discovery of large truths, such as the heliocentric theory of the solar system and the theory of evolution by natural selection, are, generally, victories for disenchantment. (I intend ‘disenchantment’ descriptively, not pejoratively.)

At any moment in time, there are ideologies that codify and organize human life around the prevailing conception of the universe and human nature. A rightward shift on the continuum presents itself as a threat to the ordering of society, especially to those with a vested interest in the ideology of the prevailing worldview. Think of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward Galileo. Inevitably, these people argue that the source of disenchantment is false, because it contradicts the ideology, which defines “the truth,” and, even if true, would be destructive of human society, virtue, and meaning.

Because Galileo and Darwin did not in fact cause civilization to collapse, morality to wither away, and meaning to dissolve, those of us with a naturalistic, scientific bent are suspicious of claims, such as those made by Leon Kass, head of the bioethics council, of the dangers of further disenchantment. Kass himself does not think we would be better to return to the pre-industrial era, forsake our advanced medical knowledge, or begin believing once again that the Earth is the center of the universe. He, like almost of all us, is glad to be fairly far along the continuum. However, he does seem to think there is a danger in moving further. Is he wrong?

Pinker’s exchange with the council is interesting as a piece of sociology. Pinker is on the vanguard of the forces of scientific discovery, and it is clear that he understands the need to allay the concerns of the ideologues of the prevailing conception, which he attempts to do in his presentation. Nevertheless, his disenchantment comes through in his discussion of the justification for punishment.

Pinker argues that we have probably ineradicable intuitions about retribution. However, he seems to believe that these intuitions are the consequence of a selective process that built into us behavioral dispositions that would effectively secure peace and coordinate behavior by creating a social climate of credible commitments to punish. So, the underlying logic of our intuitions of retributive justice is a logic of deterrence, and it is that underlying logic that justifies the expression of our retributive sentiments. Several on the Kass panel seemed to want Pinker to admit that some people–evil people, Nazis–should be punished because they deserve it, period. That’s the position left of Pinker. But he’s moved on. So he was prepared only to say that it’s impossible for us to keep from feeling that they deserve it, and we’re right to express that feeling, only if it serves it’s proper function of deterrence.

Several on the Panel, Krauthammer for one, seemed a little unnerved by this. Pinker is not unnerved, because he has already begun to build an ideology that makes coherent and liveable his location on the continuum. He understands that the intransigence of our intuitions will guarantee that our practices of criminal justice will not unravel if we understand their justification in a way that is more sensitive to the facts about human nature. In fact, they may well be improved.

I think he’s right. Yet it’s not obvious that every rightward slide will be beneficial. There may well be diminishing returns to disenchantment. I don’t believe that Kass is right that genetic manipulation and cloning somehow undermines human dignity, and so on. One sometimes suspects that folks like Kass know better, but think, Strauss-fashion, that the hoi polloi need to maintain a certain level of enchantment to ensure the viability of a desirable polity. I personally know folks on the right who believe that certain religious beliefs are a prerequisite for the long term enjoyment of political freedom, even though they will admit that those beliefs have no basis in reality. That’s a theory of optimal disenchantment!

The problem with most theories of optimal disenchantment is that they are ad hoc and arbitrary. We are rarely given a principled basis for believing that the prospects of civilization, morality, and meaning will suffer should the average worldview shift right on the continuum. Generally, we are given nothing but a heated reiteration of the received ideology that points out how the shift threatens to undermine “what we believe.” And it is easy enough for the forces of disenchantment to just laugh it off.

But it seems possible to provide a sound theory of optimal disenchantment, and somebody ought to try. The problem is that a convincing theory of optimal disenchantment will have be drawn from a point on the continuum to the right of the putative optimum. A good theory will need to draw from the epistemically best conception of human nature, and show us how believing such and such can in fact be expected to produce bad behavior and undermine good institutions, and that believing this or that falsehood is in fact a precondition for everything that makes living worthwhile. But the epistemically best theory will be the most disenchanted one. And those most motivated to set forth a theory of optimal disenchantment are not those most prepared to lay aside the prevailing ideology in order to really understand the disenchanted facts.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center