Quantum of Science

Marilynne Robinson [“Humanism,” Nov. 9] seems to misunderstand what scientists do. Unanswerable questions are the province of philosophy and religion; science is limited to answerable questions, in the sense that reasonable people can eventually agree that experiments favor one answer over another. Obviously, both types of question are important to people. (Which category the untestable theories of modern cosmology fall into is debatable.) Whether the soul, or nonphysical “self,” is real is an unanswerable question, but Robinson wants neuroscientists to address it. That is not their job.

Sometimes scientists replace a difficult question with an easier one; this is called “reductionism.” For Robinson, this is tantamount to genocide, but for most of us it is simply a strategy for approaching difficult problems. Deferring the difficult parts is not the same as denial. Trying to understand an average brain before Shakespeare’s is merely common sense.

At least since the 1944 publication of Schrödinger’s book What Is Life?, people have considered the possibility that quantum mechanics may be important for understanding brain function (Schrödinger thought not)—but, thus far, this has not been a productive line of inquiry. Classical physics often provides useful insights into things as small as molecules and atoms, so the need for neuroscientists to use quantum mechanics is not at all obvious.

Neuroscientists use the working assumption that the “self” can be understood as a by-product of brain function. This may turn out to be wrong (or right), but it is the most viable scientific approach. When neuroscientists finally devise a precise neural definition of the self (which I don’t expect anytime soon), then we can judge whether it enhances our self-understanding or falls short of the mark, and whether it reduces us to soulless automata or raises automata to the level of humanity.

Paul Kienker
white plains, n.y.

“I am content to place humankind at the center of Creation,” writes Marilynne Robinson. Six paragraphs later, she finally comes out with it: “I am a theist”—the real climax of the tale, as artfully cadenced as only a fiction writer of Robinson’s skill can do. “It seems science may never find a way to confirm or reject the idea of multiple universes,” she continues, “or to arrive at a satisfactory definition of time or gravity.” Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Give science time, Marilynne Robinson, give it time.

Joel R. Solonche
blooming grove, n.y.

Misreading Progress

In his article “Philanthrocapitalism: A Self-Love Story” [Oct. 19], David Rieff cites the ranking of Rwanda on the Social Progress Index to suggest that our assessment of the social performance of nations must be flawed, as we scored it near the bottom of our list of nations, in contrast to the opinion of some in the “development community,” he writes, who hold Rwanda as an exemplar of development in Africa.

Sadly, Rieff’s critique is out of date. He cites obsolete data from the “beta” version of the Social Progress Index released in 2013. In the 2015 iteration of the index—our latest—we assess the social progress of 133 countries and rank Rwanda 10th of 32 nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 109th overall. We find that it performs better than its economic strength would predict in no fewer than 21 individual indicators, including on factors like maternal mortality, life expectancy, addressing corruption, and fostering religious tolerance. We also highlight where Rwanda is underperforming, including undernourishment, press freedom, and political rights. The full methodology and all of the data for the Social Progress Index are available at socialprogressimperative.org. We would welcome feedback.

Michael Green
executive director
social progress imperative
washington, d.c.

David Rieff Replies

After a certain point in one’s career, any sensible author grows resigned to being misread. Still, even as misreadings go, Michael Green’s is worth savoring. For he seems to imagine that the principal point I was making in citing the assessment of Rwanda in the 2013 iteration of the Social Progress Index that he developed with Michael Porter was that it ranked Rwanda too low. That evaluation, he complains, is out of date, since the 2015 version of his index ranks Rwanda far higher. To which I can only reply, “More’s the pity,” since the point I was actually making was the moral scandal of the mainstream development community’s decision to relegate human rights, freedom of expression, and political pluralism to merely three out of a host of individual indicators (ranging from maternal mortality to corruption) that determine the “social progress”—and what a condescending expression that is from an institution in the Global North evaluating conditions in the Global South!—of poor countries. This is pure fressen moral, to use Brecht’s phrase—a view of the world that the playwright summarized as “first grub, then ethics”—and I think it is dead wrong. To put it bluntly, all social indicators are not equal, nor, whatever Green and Porter may imagine, are poor countries like errant schoolchildren to be judged by their teachers as “performing” well or poorly. If only this kind of paternalism were as obsolete as Green says his 2013 ranking of Rwanda has become.
David Rieff
new york city

Crack Up, Fall Down

William Greider’s “The GOP Crack-Up” [Nov. 9] really helped explain many of the reasons the GOP is having trouble controlling the far-right wing of the party—a far right that the party’s leaders have done everything to foster. What Greider’s article leaves out is the tepid response of the Democrats. Instead of calling out the GOP on its “solutions” to issues like healthcare and immigration, they allow it to frame the issues and define key terms, such as “patriot” and “religious freedom.” Under the GOP’s definition of what it means to be a “true citizen,” any government intervention is intolerable, until it comes to social issues like abortion.

If the Democrats really stood up for what they believed in, they would get a lot more support, but the only one really speaking out on progressive solutions to economic and social inequalities is Bernie Sanders.

Mary LaBonte
weymouth, mass.


In Emily Wilson’s “Shelf Life” [Nov. 9], a printing error caused several references to the fifth century bce to be printed as ku”.