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Human Prospecting

The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization

by William Barrett
Anchor Press/Doubleday, 359 pp., $12.95

The Paradox of Cause and Other Essays

by John William Miller
Norton, 192 pp., $14.95

“Is there hope for man?” was the opening question of Robert Heilbroner’s An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect.1 The query was prompted by brooding doubts about our ability to avoid catastrophe, or at least a steady deterioration in the human condition. Heilbroner offered no evidence that these doubts were widely shared. He simply gambled that in saying that they existed he would not generate in his readers “the incredulity I should feel were I to open a book whose first statement was that the prevailing mood of our time was one of widely shared optimism.”

The Arrogance of Humanism begins with just such a statement. The “humanism” of the title is not confined to the views of self-styled humanists, but refers to a set of assumptions which, Ehrenfeld contends, is “at the heart of our present world culture” and “makes mockery of the more superficial differences among communist, liberal, conservative and fascist.” The core of this “religion of humanism” is supposed to be supreme faith in the ability of human reason to solve all the problems that face us.

Has our outlook changed so much in the four years between these books? Some change has occurred. When Heilbroner was writing there were famines in Ethiopia and the Sahel, harvests had been bad in the Soviet Union, and world food stocks were perilously low. Population was soaring and famines on an unprecedented scale were expected. There were also the oil crisis, doubledigit inflation, and rising unemployment—pointers to a coming world depression, some said. Our faith in the problem-solving ability of human reason was at a low ebb.

In recent years oil has flowed more smoothly than many had predicted, the weather has been kind to crops, there are no major famines (as distinct from the less newsworthy slow starvation and malnutrition that continue to afflict several hundred million of the world’s poor). Inflation has declined, those with jobs forget the unemployed, and fears of a great depression have receded. Most miraculous of all, world population growth appears to be slowing a little.

Perhaps Heilbroner mistook a trough of despondency for a permanent decline. Perhaps not. But Ehrenfeld surely overstates our faith in our ability to solve our problems, at least as badly as Heilbroner understates it. Outside the pages of science fiction, which Ehrenfeld is fond of quoting, and the wilder reaches of futurology, is there anyone who now believes that we can solve all our problems? Much of The Arrogance of Humanism has appeared twenty, if not seventy, years too late. How many politicians, writers, or thinkers of any kind now claim to have the solution to all our ills? Isn’t the talk of “lowered expectations” rather than of the “Great Society”? Who seriously expects to see an end to poverty, war, crime, or environmental pollution in our lifetime, or any time in the foreseeable future? Ehrenfeld’s book has a resounding title and a grand theme, but they are achieved by charging against a foe who has melted away, leaving only half-hearted camp followers and a few fanatics seeking after a lost vision.

On the real human prospect, Ehrenfeld’s views are as gloomy as he thinks the views of the rest of us are rosy. Human society as we know it, he says, cannot survive. The best we can do is to prepare for a more durable society to emerge from the ruins of the present one—and even that may be futile, for the crash may be so bad that no new society can be formed, or we may fail to learn our lessons and make the same mistakes all over again.

One can only feel sympathy for Ehrenfeld, who has painted himself into an unpleasant little corner. Having denounced as the principal assumption of humanism the belief that we can solve our problems, he must at all costs avoid proposing anything that looks like a solution to our problems. So he cannot say that giving up the assumption that we can solve our problems will actually help solve our problems. But if giving up this assumption won’t help, why should we give it up? (Assuming, for the moment, that we really do make the assumption in question.) If disaster will come whatever we assume, but in the meanwhile we feel a bit more cheerful believing that we can solve all our problems, why not go on believing this? Or if, having been convinced by Ehrenfeld that the belief is false, we cannot ourselves go on believing it, wouldn’t the decent thing be to keep the bad news from everyone else? Why not let them enjoy life while they still can?

To avoid this response—which implies that he ought not to have written this book—Ehrenfeld has to hold out some hope that abandoning our arrogant assumptions will enable us to surmount at least the worst of our problems. That rather spoils the black-and-white nature of his battle with humanism.

The book would have been much better if it had been less black and white. On matters of detail, Ehrenfeld has many good points. His criticism of behaviorism—to which I shall return—is one example. Another is his deflation of the pretentious jargon used by those who try to give a spurious air of scientific precision to studies in fields like history and education, or to the assessment of the risks involved in nuclear reactors, where the complexity of human life continues to resist this kind of treatment. As one would expect from a professor of biology, there are plenty of Aswan Dam-type illustrations of the damage done by our belief that we can master nature. Ehrenfeld also raises an interesting and more fundamental dilemma for humanist conservationists: do we preserve nature for its own sake, or only when it is a useful resource for human beings?

The question is well put. Unfortunately Ehrenfeld’s own answer is not entirely clear. He argues convincingly that the humanist resource view, however much it may be broadened to include recreational, aesthetic, scientific, and other values, is not sufficient to support conservation in every instance. He then says: “Conservationists will not succeed in a general way using only the resource approach, and they will often hurt their own cause.”

Does this mean that humanist conservationists will not succeed even to the extent necessary to preserve those aspects of nature valuable to us as resources? But this is not what Ehrenfeld has argued for, and it is not plausible either.

Is Ehrenfeld saying, then, that even if humanist conservationists did succeed in preserving those elements of nature useful as resources, that would not be enough? In that case humanists will need to be persuaded that nature really is valuable in itself, and Ehrenfeld has not provided any argument for this conclusion. (A couple of stirring quotations from Aldo Leopold and other ecologists scarcely count as argument.)

Ehrenfeld is surely right to see the idea that all of nature exists only to serve human ends as a glaring example of the arrogance of our species. If human pleasure is good and human pain bad, the pleasures and pains of non-human animals must have similar intrinsic value. The blue whale is not a resource, it is a sentient being with a life of its own to lead. This is not necessarily a conservationist argument, for it applies to sentient creatures who do not happen to belong to an endangered species as well as to those who do. It does provide strong, nonanthropocentric reasons against the destruction of nonhuman animals, or of their habitats. Whether any basis can be found for maintaining that rocks, trees, and rivers have some value beyond their value for sentient creatures is another and much more difficult question. If Ehrenfeld wishes to maintain that there is, he needs to do more than denounce opposed views as “arrogant” and “humanist.” They need not be either.2

As a biologist Ehrenfeld sees human beings as part of nature, and his skepticism about the capacity of science and technology to master nature applies equally to the use of science to tackle political and social problems. He is particularly scathing about behaviorism.

If B.F. Skinner did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent him. Who else would make such an ideal target for opponents of the technical approach to human problems? Here Ehrenfeld’s objections are a useful counter to William Barrett’s in The Illusion of Technique. Ehrenfeld treats Skinner’s theory as another example of humanist naïveté, flying in the face of biological reality. He dismisses as “imbecile” the attempts of the CIA to develop behavioral methods of mind control.

Barrett takes it all much more seriously. His book was shaped, the prologue tells us, by a press report of a Soviet scientist’s claim that thanks to behaviorism, dissent will soon cease to be a problem in the Soviet Union. Barrett therefore conceived his critique of technological civilization as “an attempt at a connected argument for human freedom.”

On behaviorism, Ehrenfeld has the better case: outside strictly limited situations, it simply doesn’t work. Human nature is not that malleable. But Skinner is too easy a target. Why should the failure of his utopian dreams suggest the impending failure of human civilization? We have until now muddled along, badly but not catastrophically, without behaviorists restructuring human nature for us. We shall probably continue to do so. Ehrenfeld often slips from deflating humanist hopes to assuming the certainty of disaster. In his final chapter he asks: “What is the best we can hope for?” and answers: “global economic depression…resulting in a collapse of the present world economic system.”

It is not merely inveterate optimism that leads most of us to reject confident predictions of this kind. Ehrenfeld’s own premises force him to deny that he is a futurologist, for futurology relies on the sort of science of human behavior that Ehrenfeld thinks we will never achieve. He claims, however, that one does not have to be a futurologist to see into the immediate future!

Ehrenfeld the debunker of futurology is more convincing than Ehrenfeld the immediate futurologist. Back in the 1960s, Bertrand Russell and C.P. Snow were warning of the “certainty” of nuclear war “within at the most ten years.”3 I see no reason to believe that Ehrenfeld is a more reliable guide to the immediate future than these eminent thinkers proved to be.

Barrett does not devote much space to the damage technology causes to our environment; he is more interested in its effects on the human psyche. The book itself is not what the title leads one to expect. After the prologue about the Soviet behaviorist, we find six chapters on Wittgenstein and his retreat from the rigorous logical atomism of the Tractatus to the much looser acceptance of ordinary language in the Investigations. Pausing only to reassure readers who can’t see the bearing of this on freedom, Barrett leads us through some more philosophical history, from Descartes to Heidegger, all given an air of profundity by frequent references to “Being,” written with a capital, of course. This philosophical grand tour ends with a discussion of William James which attempts to link the issue of freedom to “the individual’s need and his right to risk religious belief.” Barrett uses James’s championing of “the will to believe”—even in the absence of sound reasons for belief—to suggest that if necessary, when argument is lacking, faith or will can serve instead. Then come two chapters of speculations on “The Shape of the Future” before the epilogue draws the book to a close on a more personal note.

It is a peculiar attempt to produce a connected argument for human freedom, and scarcely less strange as a critique of technique or technology. (Barrett takes the two together, claiming that “the assimilation of these two terms to each other is the great fact of modern history.”) An uncharitable reviewer might be tempted to suggest that the disparate philosophical material existed first—as lecture notes, perhaps?—and the book was conceived in a vain effort to make it hang together.

Barrett’s treatment of philosophical questions is generally entertaining, not always reliable, never rigorous. The presentation of Hume’s view of freedom in the third chapter, for instance, is a grotesque parody. Hume does not hold, as Barrett would have him hold, that there is “no causal influx of the present into the future.” What Hume offers is an account of the nature of causation, and he concludes that it can be nothing more than “constant conjunction”—the fact that one event is always observed to follow upon another. If Barrett thinks there is more to causation than that, he should tell us what this “more” is; in any case, saying that Hume denies the existence of “causal influx” from the present to the future misrepresents Hume’s whole enterprise. Worse still is Barrett’s claim that on the Humean view, when he (Barrett) completes the writing of a sentence he must then “gaze back as a stranger” at the marks he has made on the paper, because “the continuity of process itself has been abolished.” Hume would never have held a view so flagrantly at odds with our everyday experiences.

The political speculations in the last two chapters are much worse. It is sad to find a former editor of Partisan Review using cold-war language like: “The United States, despite the tremendous advantages in its material conditions, has been steadily losing ground in its struggle with world communism.” And what can one say about the following, in reference to dialogue with “the so-called Third World”: “The semi-literate demagogues of the Third World have already embraced an ideology that spares them the tedious business of cautious thinking.”

The Illusion of Technique is memorable not for what it says about “technique-technology,” nor for any sustained argument for human freedom, but as a personal statement of its author’s own attempt to give meaning to his life. Taken this way, the account of how Barrett gave up drinking to vindicate his freedom of choice succeeds as autobiography, instead of failing as philosophy (because of the obvious reply that there is a causal explanation of why at this particular time Barrett chose to break his habit and had the ability to do so). Similarly the fine concluding description of a walk in the woods can stand alone without the philosophical lessons drawn from it.

John William Miller is another firm opponent of “determinism and mechanism.” “Mechanism,” he claims, means that “all values in ethics, logic, and esthetics disappear.” The omission of any account of what he takes “mechanism” to be, however, makes it difficult to know precisely what position he is so strongly urging us to reject. The same applies to the concept of “cause,” which he finds paradoxical. Causation, freedom, and determinism have been intensively discussed by academic philosophers, but Miller, though himself emeritus professor of philosophy at Williams College, makes no reference to anything anyone else has said on the subject.

Miller’s paradox in the idea of causation appears to result from his demanding too much of causal explanations. He thinks that if they are to explain in some ultimate sense they must be part of a unified causal explanation which would make the entire universe intelligible to us; but perhaps there are some questions which we should admit our inability to answer, or even to imagine how they could be answered. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is a famous example. (To appeal to a god does not help, since the question can be applied to gods too.) Miller’s assertion that the world is governed by a “law of process” is no advance on an honest confession of ignorance.

Other essays in Miller’s book are no more useful, unless you happen to be troubled by insomnia. The picture of the author on the back flap, incidentally, shows him sunk deep in an armchair, apparently asleep. On his lap lies an open book, presumably his own.

Is there any real basis for anxiety over the acceptance of a scientific or determinist approach to human behavior? Does giving up the idea that our choices are in some metaphysical sense free take us any closer to giving up political freedom, as Barrett contends? Does it make all our other values disappear, as Miller asserts?

These are ancient questions and the answers are almost as old, though they still seem to need repeating. No plausible version of determinism can deny the existence of choice as a subjective phenomenon. We know that we choose. The only serious philosophical issue is whether there is another level at which the choices we make can be given a causal explanation. Even if we hold that such a causal explanation can be made, no plausible version of determinism can destroy the value of political freedom, much less all ethical values.

In choosing we reflect on what we most want, that is, what we value. When we choose ethically our wants are still relevant, but only in so far as they are acceptable from a standpoint which gives no priority to wants that happen to be our own, simply because they are our own rather than those of another. So the existence of choice leads us to accept certain values. The values are not arbitrary, because they are chosen within definite constraints, although how best to specify the constraints and what follows from them is controversial.4 There is no reason for thinking, however, that political liberty should not be among the values chosen, and many reasons for thinking that it should. All the standard arguments for valuing political liberty are available to determinists—not surprisingly, since many of the greatest defenders of political liberty, including John Locke and John Stuart Mill, have been determinists.

Hence it is not determinism, science, or technology in itself that we need to guard against, but the misapplication of these approaches. We can deny the metaphysical freedom that went better with the old view of human nature as half-animal, half-divine than it does with what we now know about our biological origins and nature. We must then resist the suggestion that because choice is not “real” it does not matter if individuals are denied the freedom to choose. The reality of choice in this metaphysical sense has nothing to do with the importance of freedom of choice in the political sense.

Similarly we can applaud the scientific enterprise of gaining a better understanding of human nature without defending every means of obtaining this knowledge, or the application to human beings or to the natural environment of theories based on incomplete knowledge or weak theoretical foundations. We can accept technology as a means to our ends, while taking the greatest care that it does not dictate our ends to us. These distinctions are important. They will become more important still if, as some experts tell us, computer microchips are about to cause a technological revolution as far-reaching as any we have so far experienced. In this situation we are not helped by sweeping denunciations of technology as the worst form of human arrogance, or by the invocation of Being as a philosophical antidote to technological excess. A finer degree of discrimination is needed.


'The Paradox of Cause' May 3, 1979

  1. 1

    Norton, 1974. 

  2. 2

    I have objected to human-centered ethics in my Animal Liberation (New York Review/Random House 1975; Avon 1977). For a critical review arguing that the extension of ethics to all sentient beings still does not go far enough, see John Rodman, “The Liberation of Nature,” Inquiry, Spring 1977. 

  3. 3

    See Bertrand Russell, “On Civil Disobedience,” a leaflet first published in 1961 and reprinted in The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, volume 3 (Allen & Unwin, 1969), pp. 141-142. 

  4. 4

    The account I have given is an oversimplified approximation to that of R.M. Hare. See his Freedom and Reason (Oxford University Press, 1963) and for a more recent statement, “Ethical Theory and Utilitarianism” in Contemporary British Philosophy, edited by H.D. Lewis, (Allen & Unwin, 1976). John Rawls gives a substantially similar specification of the constraints, but draws different consequences from them, in A Theory of Justice (Harvard University Press, 1971).