Peril of Ignoring the Ghost in the Machine

A rather chilling scenario of our future has been laid before us by Roger Scruton in a review of some books dealing with the nature/nurture issue in this month’s Prospect Magazine. One of the books is Professor Susan Greenfield’s YOU AND ME: The Neuroscience of Identity, in which she asks questions about the risks posed for the moral development of children by our careless approach to the new technology of communications. This technology is dominating society’s nurture of its young more and more and the implications of Greenfield’s and Scruton’s observations are that we allowing a kind of nurture of our future generations which borders on the irresponsible.

Roger Scruton

Echoing Greenfield concerns, Scruton reminds us that nurture can as easily destroy freedom as enhance it. We can bring up children on passive and addictive entertainments that stultify their engagement with the real world and rewire the neural networks on which their moral development depends. The short-term pursuit of gratification can drive out the long-term sense of responsible agency. Moreover, if children learn to store their memory in computers and their social life in portable gadgets, then gradually both memory and friendship will wither, to linger on only as futile ghosts haunting the digital archives.

Greenfield is taking on a formidable high-tech establishment on this issue and they throw charges at her that there is no hard evidence out there to back up her fears. She recalls that the tobacco giants in the last century made exactly the same charges against those who warned of the dangers of smoking. By the time the evidence came along millions had died. As she reminds us, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”

Baroness Greenfield is no Luddite. She is Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford, and knows all about the powers and effects of addiction – be it to whatever kind of good thing the boffins of this world can come up with. She acknowledges the great advantages which modern communications have left us with but clearly thinks that there is a dangerous laisszez faire element in our approach to the whole thing.

“Mind change” is what she thinks is going on. It is for her “an issue that’s as important and unprecedented as climate change”. Watch her explain what she means on this Guardian clip here .

Susan Greenfield

Scruton is a philosopher and sees another dimension to the plague we may be unleashing on ourselves and on future generations. He sympathises with all her worries and sees that her argument suggests that there is a kind of human development that prepares us, at the neurological level, for the exercise of responsible choice. If we bring up our children correctly, not spoiling them or rewiring their brains through roomfuls of digital gadgetry, the sense of responsibility will emerge. They will enter fully into the world of I and You, become free agents and moral beings, and learn to live as they should, not as animals, but as persons.

In her book, Greenfield asks: what is it that makes “you” distinct from “me”? Human identity is the term she grapples with. She says that it has long been a topic of fascination for philosophers but has been regarded with aversion by neuroscientists – like herself. Her study searches for a biological interpretation of what she sees as a most elusive of concept. In it she looks into all the social and psychiatric perspectives and ultimately into the heart of the physical brain. As the brain adapts exquisitely to environment she wonders if the cultural challenges of the 21st century are threatening to change human identity itself?

Scruton, the philosopher, takes her concerns on board and once more ends up calling us to our senses with regard to what our responsible behaviour should be towards our children in the face of the tsunami of high-tech gadgetry with which they are now being swamped. If we fail to recognise the need of the young for meaningful and real contact with other thinking, feeling and breathing human beings – as opposed to virtual ones – then we are effectively denying them the right to remain truly human. The evolutionist – of whatever type – who maintains that all these things will in time be positively adapted to by human beings is, he seems to be saying, a dangerous threat to civilization because she or he is ignoring something essential in our nature. Simply because they cannot understand the mysterious elements in the human condition, they choose to ignore it. In doing so they put us in peril.

He concludes, Allow children to interact with real people, therefore, and the grammar of first-person accountability will emerge of its own accord. Undeniably, once it is there, the I-to-you relation adds a reproductive advantage, just as do mathematical competence, scientific knowledge and (perhaps) musical talent. But the theory of adaptation tells us as little about the meaning of “I” as it tells us about the validity of mathematics, the nature of scientific method or the value of music. To describe human traits as adaptations is not to say how we understand them. Even if we accept the claims of evolutionary psychology, therefore, the mystery of the human condition remains. This mystery is captured in a single question: how can one and the same thing be explained as an animal, and understood as a person?

Read Nature, nurture and liberal values by Roger Scruton in Prospect Magaazine.

Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?


Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?We always seem to be making lists. It is hard to remember a month over the past decade when you opened a newspaper or a magazine without being confronted by a list of somebody’s favourite something to adjudicate on – the best book of all time, the best films of al time, the best jokes ever told. Indeed, the list is endless. But maybe we should not be too irritated by it. If they make us think a little, help us to judge and compare and reflect on things it’s not all bad.

Some, needless to say, are pretty trivial. Others, however, are more serious and thought-provoking. Time Magazine recently presented us with its current list of the world’s top 100 “influencers” – ranging across the world of politics, sport, literature and entertainment and more. On an even more serious level two political magazines, one on each side of the Atlantic, Prospect and Foreign Policy, are currently surveying who their readers estimate are the world’s top “public intellectuals”. Since it is always worth asking ourselves who is leading the world of ideas – and with what ideas – this is a worthwhile exercise. To qualify for the “competition” you have to be a) alive, b) active in public life, c) have shown distinction in your field, and d) have shown an ability to influence debate across borders. So when all that is taken into account the field narrows considerably and excludes most of us. Nevertheless, it is still very much our business to know who is included.

However, they didn’t bargain for the pitfalls of the world wide web. The word got out that the survey was on and the whole thing when pear-shaped when Muslims across the world effectively hijacked it. The results now report that the top ten public intellectuals in the world are an assortment of Islamic clerics and writers. The whole story can be found on . Nevertheless, while the survey is invalidated the question it poses is still a very valid one. Who is leading the world in the realm of ideas?

The last poll taken on this by these magazines made interesting reading and gave us a kind of snapshot of what we might call the intellectual ferment in the world at the time. For some of us, looking at the evolving membership of these lists over the years, there were encouraging signs of improvement in the climate of public opinion which they reflect. For example, whereas in the early years of the exercise the list was peppered with varying shades of Marxist, remarkably now, among the 100 names offered for consideration for selection, there is only one self-proclaimed Marxist.Furthermore, despite the best efforts of militant atheists and secularists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens – both of whom were in the top ten last time round – the secularist camp has diminished somewhat and the camp of those adhering to one faith or another is growing.

Regardless of what this poll produces surely the public intellectual who towers above all others in our world today is Pope Benedict XVI? If you measure this in terms of the number of people hearing him, listening to him and whom he influences, or in terms of the wisdom of what he says, then he is out in front on all counts.

This pope speaks to all Catholics as all popes have done over the centuries. All popes have also addressed themselves to men of good will everywhere down through the ages – and have had mixed responses from them. But this pope – and his immediate predecessor, it must be said – speaks to all men of good will with a new emphasis, on the basis of a new common denominator, one might almost say with a new kind of language, the language of Faith and Reason. It may well be that history will look back at the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI and see in them the beginning of a new age, the age of Faith and Reason.

Don’t get me wrong. Faith and reason have always been in harmonious partnership in authentic Catholic teaching. But as history looks at it, emphases differ over the ages. I remember a series of history books tracing Western thought down through the centuries. There was one entitled “The Age of Belief”. Another was entitled “The Age of Reason”, and yet another, “The Age of Science.”Can we now add “The Age of Faith and Reason”?

Pope Benedict is tireless in underlining for the world the vital role which both these elements have to play in mankind’s search for a better world through which he can fulfil his true destiny. Man’s journey, man’s search for truth and a proper understanding of that truth, he tells us, “can never suppose itself to be at an end and the danger of falling into inhumanity is never simply overcome — as we see in the panorama of contemporary history! Today the danger of the Western world — to speak only of this context — is that man, precisely in the consideration of the grandeur of his knowledge and power, might give up before the question of truth. And that means at the same time that reason, in the end, bows to the pressure of interests and the charm of utility, constrained to recognize it as the ultimate criterion.”

These were words written by Pope Benedict for a university gathering in Rome, written but not spoken because some die-hard secularists – clearly men of less than good will – objected to the invitation to the Pope to speak there. In that context the words carry more weight than they already had.

“The danger exists”, he concluded, “that philosophy, no longer feeling itself capable of its true task, might degenerate into positivism; that theology, with its message addressed to reason, might become confined to the private sphere of a group more or less sizable. If, however, reason — solicitous of its presumed purity — becomes deaf to the great message that comes from the Christian faith and its wisdom, it will wither like a tree whose roots no longer reach the waters that give it life. It will lose courage for the truth and thus it will not become greater but less. Applied to our European culture this means: If it wants only to construct itself on the basis of the circle of its own arguments and that which convinces it at the moment — worried about its secularity — it will cut itself off from the roots by which it lives; then it will not become more reasonable and more pure, but it will break apart and disintegrate.”

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We may live in a secular age, in an age “worried about its secularity” as the Pope says, but if we do perhaps we can now see light at the end of that particular tunnel and hope that this is only a prelude to an age in which the truth now being put before us by Benedict XVI will come into it own and usher in this new age of Faith and Reason.

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Michael Kirke, worked as a journalist with The Irish Press. He is now a freelance writer and the director of Ely University Centre, 10 Hume Street, Dublin 2. His views can be responded to at

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