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"Errors in human thought...are not like errors in science."

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  June 13, 2013 11:31 AM

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After posting about John Gray's new book "The Silence of Animals" I found this talk that he gave at the Royal Society of Arts in April. There Gray concisely expressed the argument in his book. He explained that he doesn't deny the possibility of instances of progress, because such a statement is immediately, empirically false. Rather, he explained that he doesn't think that the advance of scientific knowledge has any correlation with advances in our ethical and political practices. That is, we could get smarter and smarter, know more and more about the world, and yet the same deep flaws in the human constitution would continue to cause the same ethical calamities to occur over and over again. Below you'll find the thesis of his talk and the video.

Errors in human thought in general, in ethics and politics, in human civilization and culture, are not like errors in science. Errors in science don't usually come back. We won't see an article in Nature saying 'By God, Nostradamus was right.' Whereas the exploded fallacies of a previous generation in human thought more generally, in human culture, like this idea of social evolution, always do come back. And that's why in my book I kind of conclude by saying that if human rationality was really a scientifc theory, if we approached the idea that human beings are even potentially reasonable, rational, and that the increase of knowledge would increase human reasonableness, if we treated that as a scientific theory in a truly critical way, we'd have abandoned it, dumped it, in the trash can of history a long time ago.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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