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…

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