When a fellow-scientist brands Richard Dawkins naïve you sit up and notice. But that’s exactly what Emanuel Derman has done. I didn’t know anything about Derman before, but it seems that he has rather an intimidating CV: he is a theoretical physicist, economist AND successful businessman originally from South Africa. All of which gives him a rather unique angle on a topic to which I’ve frequently returned on Q: the nature of being human (e.g.see Fritz Kahn’s Industrial Palace or the Nothing Buttery Rant).

Derman has written a short but excellent article in the latest Wired UK magazine, alarmingly entitled “There’s no value in pragmamorphism“. If anthropomorphism is attributing human qualities to things that are not human ( e.g.computers, animals or gods – and indeed this is something that the Old Testament frequently does for Yahweh), then pragmamorphism goes in the the opposite direction. He defines this as:

the naïve materialism involved in attributing to humans the properties of inanimate things

Credit: Matthias Kulka/Corbis Images

But look where Derman detects this: on the lips of the new atheists…

Richard Dawkins, the biologist and evangelical atheist, wrote in the Los Angeles Times about the scientific “vandalism”involved in hanging Saddam Hussein: “His mind would have been a unique resource for historical, political and psychological research, a resource that is now forever unavailable to scholars.” Fellow neuroscientist Sam Harris argues for a scientific approach to moral questions, a contradictorily moral stance itself. Another neuroscientist, David Eagleman [writer of one of my favourite books of recent years, Sum], wrote: “If we desire our medical treatments to be biologically informed, shouldn’t we demand the same from our courtrooms?”

And then Derman launches in:

These remarks strike me as stunningly naïve. Dawkins understands little about human nature if he thinks we can avoid the creation of monsters by questioning Hitler or Stalin. Eagleman assumes that crimes are unambiguous, like illnesses. Doesn’t he notice that illnesses are ill-defined, that treatments go in and out of fashion? Lobotomies are out; stomach banding is fatly in.

Read the whole article – I only wish it was 10 times the length because there is so much food for thought – but here’s how he ends.

The world is complex and you lose a lot by insisting things you don’t understand already fit into the boxes you imagine you do. Don’t be pragmamorphic!

Spot on… time for a little humility in the face of both our finitude and profound complexity methinks…

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Toby Simmons

    Hmm. Very interesting indeed. You raise a good number of important issues. I enjoyed reading it!
    A great blog. Let me know what you think of mine . . .
    Keep on posting!

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