Posts Tagged ‘‘The Court of Sapience’’

Andrew Marr Praises Steven Pinker’s Book on Science, Rationality and Free Markets

February 28, 2018

Mike has posted a number of pieces on his blog commenting on the right-wing bias displayed by Andrew Marr on his Sunday morning show. One recent example of this was his comment to a Tory guest, who came on immediately after he had given a hard interview to someone from the Labour Party. His interview of the Tory was softer, and at the end of it he leaned over to tell her that she had done ‘very well’. Or something like it.

I’m not surprised by this bias. Marr is a fan of the free market, the sacred ideology at the heart of Thatcherism, against which no-one is allowed to blaspheme or question. He was in the I newspaper a few weeks ago praising Steven Pinker’s new book, which argues that the world has got immensely better due to science, reason and markets. Pinker’s a neuroscientist and atheist polemicist. The book’s a successor to his previous work, The Better Angels of Our Nature. This was written to refute the claim that the 20th century was the bloodiest period in human history. This argument has been made in defence of religion, as much atheist polemic is based on the violence and bloodshed that has been generated by religion. But the 20th century is a problem, as the massacres and genocides there took place within an increasingly secular world, and in the case of the horrors committed by Communist regimes, were perpetrated by aggressively atheist regimes. And in the case of the Fascist regimes, it’s questionable how religious they were. General Franco in Spain believed that he was defending Christianity from secularism and materialism when he launched his attack on the Republican government, and horrifically many Christians did support the Fascist regimes against the supposed threats of Communism and Socialism. I’m well aware that Hitler claimed that he was doing ‘the Lord’s work’ in persecuting the Jews in Mein Kampf, but in his Table Talk he has nothing but contempt for Christianity, and wants astronomical observatories set up near schools as part of a scientific campaign against the religion. Hitler’s own religious beliefs seem to have been a kind of monistic pantheism, possibly not that far removed from those of the Monist League, who also sported the swastika as their symbol. As for Mussolini, the Italian dictated signed the Lateran Accords with the papacy, in which the Pope finally recognised Italy’s existence as a state in return for Roman Catholic religious education in schools. But il Duce had started out as a radical socialist, and many members of the Fascist party still were vehemently atheist. Much depended on the religious opinions of the local Fascist ras whether Roman Catholic religious education was taught in the schools in his area. I don’t wish to go into this argument now, whether these regimes were really atheist or not, or if the 20th century really was the bloodiest period in human history. I just wish to make the point that this was the issue at the heart of Pinker’s previous book.

Pinker’s new book apparently tells us that everything’s getting better, including the environment, and Pinker marshals an impressive arrays of facts. But all this said to me was that people and governments have become more ecologically conscious. It does not mean that we aren’t facing the devastating loss of an extraordinary number of this planet’s animal and plant species, or that we face catastrophic global warming which may make the Middle East uninhabitable.

But even more questionable is Pinker’s and Marr’s assertion that modern, post-Enlightenment society has been immensely improved thanks to the science, reason and markets. In the case of science and reason, at one level the statement is obviously true. Human life has benefited immensely from scientific advance, particularly in medicine. But the view that science and reason didn’t exist before then is one that many Medieval scholars would strenuously reject. In contrast to the stereotypes, the Middle Ages actually wasn’t anti-science. There are poems from the 12th-13th centuries celebrating it, and the new knowledge that was flooding into Europe from the Islamic world. The 15th century English poem, The Court of Sapience, lists the various branches of knowledge known to the medieval world, and celebrates them as the area of ‘Dame Sapience’, an idealised personification of wisdom. As for superstition and the occult, historians have also pointed out that the Middle Ages were also an age of scepticism as well as faith. Medieval theologians wrote texts arguing that visions of demons were more likely caused by a full stomach interfering with the correct functioning of the nerves, and so causing bad dreams. Others doubted whether the seers, who claimed to be able to identify thieves through peering in bowls of water or other reflecting surfaces, had any such powers, and were simply using common knowledge to put the blame on notorious thieves. And in contrast to what Marr apparently thinks, free market capitalism did not suddenly emerge in the 18th century with the French Physiocrats and then Adam Smith. In fact, some Christian theologians were arguing for free trade as far back as the thirteenth century.

As for free market capitalism benefiting humanity, the evidence today is that it really doesn’t. The neoliberalism ushered in by Thatcher and Reagan has done nothing but make the lives of the poor much poorer across the world, and in so doing has increased international tension and political violence. The Korean economist, Ha-Joon Chang in his book 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, shows how the strong economies of the world’s developed nations were all created, not by free trade, but by protectionism.

This is very clearly not something any true-blue Thatcherite wants to hear. But it also shows the strange, cult-like nature of the ideology of free trade capitalism. A number of writers have pointed out the apparently illogical, absolute belief its supporters have, even when they are shown the plentiful evidence to the contrary. They still go on believing and demanding free market solutions, even when it is abundantly clear to everyone else that not only do they not work, they are even causing immense harm. And Marr is clearly one of these true believers. He also seems to have uncritically accepted the view that science, reason and free market capitalism were all products of the Enlightenment, when academic historians have been pushing the origins of science and capitalism further back to the Middle Ages, and demonstrated that the Age of Faith was also one of Reason, however irrational it now seems to us.

Marr’s praise of the book and its promotion of the free market also gives more than an indication of his own political beliefs, and why he is much less sympathetic to left-wing guests on his show than those from the right. He’s another member of the cult of neoliberal market capitalism, and this has to be protected at all costs from unbelievers. Even when he and the Beeb swear impartiality.