Stephen Pinker (pictured above) is the rockstar of the world of neuroscience. Not only does this Harvard professor sport a hairstyle that would make Robert Plant proud, his writing also possesses the rare qualities (at least among professional scientists) of clarity, wit, and humor. I did not make this post, however, to magnify Pinker’s personal magnetism but rather to critique his staunch materialism as set forth in this Time article. I will pay particular attention to his materialistic basis for morality.
Pinker’s article, The Mystery of Consciousness, presents humans as being incredibly complex material objects: “meat machines” if you will. Professor Pinker argues that things like the soul or the concept of a single, controlling “I” (or center of consciousness) are mere illusions. Indeed, Pinker goes so far as to state that we can practically “read thoughts” through technological wizardry such as MRI scans (funny, I never knew that thoughts were splotches of color on a doctor’s computer screen). Although he does concede that phenomenology and qualia present a “hard problem” for contemporary psychology, he practically dismisses the problem by arguing that perhaps evolution did not “wire” our brains to understand these things. Despite all of this however, I consider his primary philosophical gaffe to reside in a statement that he makes about ethics:
“the conviction that other people can suffer and flourish as each of us does is the essence of empathy and the foundation of morality… the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It’s not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings [which is the] the core of morality. As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people’s sentience becomes ludicrous. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew–or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog–a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.”
Pinker’s ethical argument could be given as follows:
My material structure allows me to experience pain and suffer.
I observe others who have the same material structure as myself.
Therefore, I ought not do things to others which, if such were done to me, would cause me pain. (a materialist form of the golden rule I suppose)
Simple enough, right? I don’t think so. Now, as every student in Philosophy 101 learns (to use Pinker’s rhetoric), “is” does not imply “ought”. In other words, you cannot derive an imperative statement from a declarative statement. In other, other words, describing the physiological makeup of human beings in no way implies what is morally right for human beings. Indeed, if we are simply matter in motion, how can there even be a concept of right and wrong? Do we hold a rock morally responsible for rolling down a hill and crushing someone?
Pinker never explains why we should not hurt other human beings (although if pressed, he would probably hold to some form of consequentialism). Sure they will suffer, but what difference does it make? What if hurting others is what makes me happy? Professor Pinker and his materialistic ethic can offer no answer to these questions.