Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review: David Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism, Oxford University Press, 1981

The Arrogance of Humanism (Galaxy Books)The Arrogance of Humanism by David W. Ehrenfeld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book when I was a graduate student in Oxford.  That must have been rather soon after it was published, though my memory is that the copy I still own was bought second-hand or remaindered. Perhaps this book’s uncompromising message meant that it was far from popular.   

One possible confusion should be cleared up at the start.  At that time, many books and articles could be found which aimed to mobilize evangelical Christians against what was often described as “secular humanism”, thought of as a kind of established irreligion.  Ehrenfeld’s title might make you think this is one of those books.  It isn’t.  In fact, many Christians (and other religious believers) might be surprised to find themselves among the “humanists” of the book’s title.

So what is the “humanism” that Ehrenfeld identifies? It is “our irrational faith in the limitless power of human reason – its ability to confront and solve the many problems that humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of Nature and the affairs of men and women so that human life will prosper.” Ehrenfeld perceives this faith as a secularized version of the Greek and medieval doctrine of final causes – the idea that everything exists for some discernible end or purpose, primarily for the benefit of humanity. “Thus the idea of using a Nature created for us, the idea of control, and the idea of human superiority became associated early in our history… It only remained to diminish the idea of God, and we arrived at full-fledged humanism.” And later, “Humanism is at the heart of our present world culture; we share its unseen assumptions of control, and this bond makes mockery of more superficial differences (among us).”

The book aims to demolish these “assumptions of control” by example and argument. The examples range from literature and science fiction to specific recent events, some of which may now not be remembered. Who now recalls the fire in the cable spreading room at the Brown’s Ferry nuclear plant, which was caused by workers attempting to check for air leaks in flammable insulation material using a candle flame, and which revealed a common mode failure possibility that had not been captured in supposedly exhaustive fault tree analysis?  After Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, probably few.  But that is exactly the point.  “The point is that human-designed systems of great power and complexity will always have accidents, as our emotional judgment rightly warns us, and no application of rational control systems, however carefully and skillfully engineered, can possibly prevent them from happening.”

It is not hard to collect examples of failures of control.  Ehrenfeld goes on to argue that total control will always be a myth.  Control can be achieved, for a limited time and in a limited arena, but only by expending significant resources outside the controlled arena: these expenditures ensure that our solutions will in the end only be “quasi-solutions”, and they will yield their own crop of “residue problems” in due course.  The scope over which control must be extended will therefore tend inexorably to widen; and at some point the cost of control may become more than the system can bear.  The global trading networks on which so many of us rely for even the basic necessities of life provide a simple example.  “In no important instance have we been able to demonstrate comprehensive, successful management of our world, nor do we understand it well enough to be able to manage it even in theory.”

Ehrenfeld identifies as humanistic the idea that all problems can be solved by human reason and ingenuity.  To give an example (not Ehrenfeld’s): Many pages of discussion are devoted to the question: How will America supply its future energy needs?  One camp points out the political risks, and depletion and pollution issues associated with fossil fuels; another, the intermittency and dubious economics of solar and wind power.  But that little word “needs” papers over the fact that the universe is under no obligation to supply us with abundant, persistent, concentrated energy at all.  As Enrenfeld says on a related matter,  “This is a question which makes no sense outside of a humanist context, because it is predicated on the assumption that we can do as we please… What we want  is often a separate thing form what actually happens, and I do not for a minute believe that the two will coincide in the future.”

One of the strengths of the book is its honesty about the psychological power of the “humanistic myth”.  Ehrenfeld does not believe that he or any other human being can really walk away from the myths of control.  “We will not give them up because we cannot – our egos prevent us.”  And so at the book’s conclusion we reach, of all things, a meditation on The Lord of the Rings:
“For when at last it was time for Frodo to cast away and destroy the One Ring, the ring of power, it was impossible for him to do so, despite the peril in which his refusal placed his friends, and despite the failure that his refusal would bring to the dread and determined quest which he had undertaken, without faltering, up to the very edge of doom itself.  And in the end it was Gollum, a slave to the dark forces, mindlessly, mechanically obeying the call of the power that held him fast, who was the unintentional but not unexpected agency of the destruction of the Ring.  I believe that such an agency is the best we can hope for, other than direct divine intervention, in the struggle to overcome the arrogance of humanism, although there is no knowing whether it will come in time to save many of the things we love on earth.”

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