Speaking Truth to Dr. Pangloss

Alexander Saxton

The first decade of our twenty-first century opened with a series of disasters, most of human origin. In earlier times, human power remained too limited and localized to work ruin on a grand scale; big disasters had to be natural. Thus Voltaire in Candide, satirizing Leibniz for his cosmic optimism, takes a fictionalized Leibniz—Dr. Pangloss, pedagogue-in-residence in an obscure German barony—to the scene of a big natural disaster: Lisbon, 1755. Amid the rubble of the demolished city, wading through pools of blood and floating body parts, Voltaire has Pangloss reaffirm his leitmotif that (paraphrasing Leibniz) all is for the best in the best of possible worlds.

Given time, natural disasters tend to be self-healing. Human disasters, such as global warming and nuclear arsenals, are more likely to be ongoing. If they can be healed at all, doing so tends to require socially planned, collective action. This makes a difference. One would expect sober-minded warnings in a minor key. Many warnings have in fact spelled out tactics to control global warming—or, on a broader scale, to establish defenses against the crises of ecological burnout and weapons of mass destruction that the coming century will certainly bring. These would require social commitment comparable at least to that of nations in the Second World War. But our warning signals are drowned out by a triumphal chorus—a magnificat—that reiterates (and amplifies) the cosmic optimism of Leibniz and his fictional doppelganger, Dr. Pangloss.

Cosmic Optimism: Science and Religion

Leibniz was a scientist, philosopher, and world-class mathematician. To consult scientists of comparable status in our own era—here I am speaking of our era in the West, especially the United States and Great Britain—takes us to celebrated overachievers like Freeman Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Study or Frances Collins, director of the Human Genome Project and chief of the National Institutes of Health. When Collins (in Year One of our new millennium) joined President Clinton to announce completion of the Genome Project, he spoke of that event in the language of cosmic optimism: “a happy day for the world. . . . We have caught the first glimpse of our own instruction book, previously known only to God.”

Freeman Dyson, older than Collins by a generation (or two), and according to USA Today “one of the world’s great theoretical physicists,” entered Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in 1953, overlapping Einstein by two years. Dyson describes himself as a nondenominational Christian. He predicts that human consciousness (the soul?)—defined as the capacity for creating and dispatching “information”—will radiate from its earthly origin till it encompasses the cosmos. Along the way, it will probably jettison its link to human bodies. Dyson’s Infinite in All Directions (1988) ends by invoking Dante on the heliotropic destiny of our species: “To describe the metamorphosis of mankind as we embark on our immense journey into the universe, I return to the humble image of the butterfly. All that can be said was said long ago by Dante: “Can you not see that we are worms, each one / Born to become the angelic butterfly / That flies defenseless to the Judgment Throne?” (298–99).

Collins and Dyson are both syncretists; that is, they are working, as did Leibniz, from a concept of religion and science as separate roads to the same destination. Is this the source of their cosmic optimism? What about science without religion? Let’s consult our time’s leading atheists.

First among so-called new atheists to reach the best-seller list was Sam Harris, a postgraduate in neuroscience. “What it means to be human,” Harris writes in The End of Faith (2004), is as yet undetermined “because every facet of our culture—and even our biology itself—remains open to innovation and insight.” I would rank this fairly high on the cosmic optimism scale, but Richard Dawkins—professor emeritus at Oxford and admiral in chief of the entire new-atheist flotilla—goes far beyond it. Dawkins’s book The God Delusion (2006) rode the best-seller list for many consecutive weeks. It closes as follows: “I genuinely don’t know the answer [whether science will ever fully explain the universe], but I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.”

A reasonable inference from the foregoing is that science—even without religion—remains fully capable of generating cosmic optimism. Suppose we reverse the question: What about religion without science?

Here we arrive at what seems at first a reductio ad absurdum. Fundamentalists of most world religions are cosmic optimists in the sense that they believe in the possibility of salvation, including of course their own. But since persons lucky enough to be saved will be “rapted” away to paradise, planet Earth (with the rest of us on board!) will be left behind. This makes for a tight gate. Believers emotionally bonded to their human origins will be likely to seek more generous accommodations. Angered though they may be at scientific intrusion into their belief systems, they will be tempted to adapt scientific technology, marginally at least, to their own undertakings. Many true believers, as we know, have made brilliant use of high-tech media. Technology, however, once it gets a foot in the back door, tends to take over the establishment. The reality is that not much religion, nowadays, remains totally without science.

Thus, for example, in America, floods of upwardly mobile, spiritually oriented, potentially salvationist projects gush from the giant money machine known as the Templeton Foundation. The late John Templeton, raised in Appalachian Tennessee, was an evangelical capitalist-on-the-make who struck it very rich on Wall Street. The foundation bearing his name disburses huge sums to religious leaders and teachers. Among the early winners were Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. Since then, the foundation has moved from fundamentalist theism to a more openly syncretist stance summarized by its current motto, “Supporting Science— Investing in the Big Questions.” Dyson, in fact, won the lucrative Templeton Prize in 2000, and Frances Collins served more recently on its awards panel.

The Templeton Prize is each year, purposely, just a little larger than the Nobel. The foundation supports religiously relevant projects in teaching, writing, and research, primarily in North America and Great Britain but globally as well. Templeton beneficiaries range from star performers like Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita (with E.O. Wilson) at Harvard down through the many-tiered hierarchy to an unsung rank and file at state colleges and regional theological schools. A triumph of faith? Projects for togetherness in science and religion doubtless helped loft the Templeton to its present grand estate, but that success stemmed also from old-fashioned enthusiasm for making dollars on Wall Street—or anywhere else. Thus a large part of its annual investment in “big questions” actually goes to expounding neoconservative economics and promoting the global “free” market. This leads us to a third element of modern-day Panglossianism for which we have a model from across the Atlantic.

Cosmic Optimism and the ‘Free’ Market

After he had concluded his tasks as prime minister and Bush administration pro-consul in the United Kingdom, Tony Blair founded the “Tony Blair Faith Foundation”(2008) and authored an autobiography titled A Journey: My Political Life. Blair’s text deals mainly with Anglo-American and international politics, but the title’s implication, I think, is that he now views his life as a journey in search of religious fulfillment: “I end on a note of optimism. . . . My theory of the world today is that globalization, enabled by technology and scientific advance, is creating an interdependent global community . . . I have always been more interested in religion than politics . . . What makes me optimistic?” he asks. “People . . . volunteers who work with my Faith Foundation, incredibly well motivated young people, whose religious commitment is totally without prejudice against those of a different faith” (679–81).

Bluntly, Blair is saying that progress toward global free trade will be unlikely in a world balkanized by religious fundamentalisms. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation in 2009 announced a “Faith and Globalization Initiative” centered at three universities on three continents: Yale in the United States, Durham in the U.K., and Singapore’s National University. An immediate result for Yale was a seminar on “Faith and Globalization” cosponsored by Yale’s graduate schools of Divinity and of [Business] Management, team-taught by professors from those schools and by Blair himself, now one of Yale’s Howland Distinguished Fellows. The course description explains that “faith and globalization can lead to the kind of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence that life in the twenty-first century demands.” The gist of Blair’s message, then, is that great expectations for the future depend on a confluence of religion and science (syncretism) into the mainstream of globalizing capitalism.

Or—if one prefers Panglossian models made in America—consider Joyce Appleby’s The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism (W.W. Norton, 2010). Having taught U.S. history at the University of California, Los Angeles and Oxford and presided over both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association, Appleby comes to the history of capitalism as an avatar of the American academic establishment. Like many capitalist defenders (if they permit themselves to think seriously about the twenty-first century), Appleby conceptualizes the coming crises not as threats to survival but as challenges to the genius of the “free” market—as incentives, that is, to risk-taking and investment in new technology by presumably well-informed “individual” market-players. She concludes her argument as follows: “Capitalism . . . is a set of practices and institutions that permit billions of people to pursue their economic interests in the marketplace. There is no monolithic international corporate power, but many diverse players in the world market. . . . People do learn from their mistakes. There is no reason to think that societies won’t continue to modify and monitor their economies in pursuit of shared goals. A relentless revolution, yes, but not a mindless one” (433, 436).

One of the difficulties with such capitalist theodicies is that what we are now referring to as the “Great Recession”—in reluctant acknowledgment of its similarity to the 1930s Great Depression—falsifies precisely this sort of ideological optimizing. Faith in the “free” market rested on economic doctrines once thought trustworthy but which the Great Recession showed were mostly make-believe. Thus Matthew Bishop, U.S. business editor of the London Economist (a journal well-known for its economic orthodoxy), begins a recent postmortem on the recession with the following statement: “Capitalism as we knew it ended on September 15, 2008.” Throughout the rest of the book, however (The Road from Ruin: How to Revive Capitalism and Put America Back on Top [Crown, 2010]), Bishop and his coauthor, Michael Green, attempt to bury this grim opener under a sequence of chapters carrying upbeat titles such as “Economics with a Human Face,” “A New World Order,” and “We Are the Change.” (My favorite is: “The Age of Philanthrocapitalism: Capitalism Must Rediscover its Soul.”) By the time they reach their destination, these authors are simply echoing the celebrationism expounded by Appleby, Blair, and many others. They wind up quoting Franklin Roosevelt’s famous dictum, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Optimism and Collective Consciousness

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” may have sounded good in 1933, but it does not cut much ice in 2011. Fear in 2011 is unmistakably realistic and widespread in populations hard-hit by the recession—that is, among the working classes and wage-earning sectors of the middle class. At more privileged levels such as professors, scientists, science writers, and civil servants—and especially among corporate, military, and political CEOs—where meaningful decisions (if any) about our future will actually be made, the prevailing mood is not so much fear fearing fear as confidence banking on prior success.

These people are too young to remember the Great Depression. What they read about it has mostly been predigested by Cold War politicians and libertarian economists. Beyond that—and more important—their own professional initiations inducted them into realms of gigantic success. Two recent books by science reporters, The Faith Instinct by Nicholas Wade and Robert Wright’s Evolution of God (best sellers in 2009; Wright is also a Pulitzer finalist), demonstrate how the stunning scientific breakthroughs of the past decades have stimulated glamorous visions of the future.

Both these writers identify themselves as nonbelievers, although they differ from new atheists in seeing religion as adaptive rather than dysfunctional: that is, like the syncretists referred to above, they expect religion to work in tandem with science. Wright —described by Paul Gross as “a staunch advocate of evolutionary biology and even of evolutionary psychology” (Free Inquiry, June/July 2010)—commented in one of his earlier works (NonZero: the Logic of Human Destiny [Pantheon, 2000]) that while most religious beliefs are probably false, “being false is not the same as being bad for the believer.” The implication would be that truth or falsity remains irrelevant to the social functioning of religion.

From this pragmatic starting point, Wright goes on to link religious morality with game theory as the progressive driving force of cultural evolution. He traces cultural evolution back to the hunter-gatherer era. Then, drawing on recent work by evolutionary psychologists, he speculates that hunter-gatherers must have evolved an egalitarian ethic inside each group while at the same time reacting with ferocious hostility to rival groups outside. Bargaining and exchange, however, might sometimes seem more attractive than warfare: “history expands the range of nonzero-sum relations in which two parties can both win if they collaborate, or lose if they don’t. Technological evolution (wheels, roads . . . alphabets, trains, microchips) has placed more and more people in nonzero-sum-relationships . . . often across ethnic, national and religious bounds. This seems to be the reason we’ve made moral progress since the days . . . of hunter-gatherer hostility.”

The long journey culminates at last in the globalizing “free” market. Thus buying a car plunges you into “one of the most complex nonzero-sum games in history: you pay a tiny fraction of the wages of thousands of workers on various continents and they make you a car” (“One World, Under God,” Atlantic, April 2009). Wright seems oblivious at this point to the possibility that mutually profitable outcomes of nonzero-sum transactions might in fact be “derivative” from vastly larger numbers of zero-sum (that is, exploitative) transactions that remain totally beyond the pale of buying and selling in the market. “When you look beneath the roiled surface,” Wright tells us in the opening chapter of Nonzero, “you see an arrow beginning tens of thousands of years ago and continuing to the present. And looking ahead you see where it is pointing.” This is cosmic optimism at its maximum setting.

A recent issue of Chronicle of Higher Education (October 29, 2010) titled its lead symposium “America’s Love Affair with War.” So far I have not even mentioned the military. Yet the successes referred to above ride on the back of the military. Success in the twenty-first century is military all the way down. Military power surpasses any that ever existed. Concentrated in the United States, it commands bases circling the world, transforms the oceans into (Anglo-)American lakes, and intervenes globally at will. Its definitive achievement is the autonomy of the military/industrial complex. The key factor today is not military dependence on the economic but rather that the economic flows from the military. The writers I have quoted above all take military hegemony for granted. Blair indeed helped set it in orbit for the English-speaking alliance. Wright not only portrays imperial Rome as a prototype of Anglo-American globalism but assigns to “conquest” and “empire” leading roles in his genealogy of nonzero-sum morality: “If there is any redemption for war, it lies in what sometimes followed, as a conqueror now drew diverse lands into an economic and political whole, and theology and morality expanded accordingly. On balance, through the rhythm of trade and war, the scope of nonzero-sumness grew. This boded well for the expansion of the circle of moral consideration” (94, 291).

From the foregoing panorama of sometimes terrifying successes flows the Panglossian optimism that distorts our collective consciousness.

Speaking Truth to Dr. Pangloss

But what’s wrong with optimism? Don’t we need optimism to cope with the coming disasters of the twenty-first century: global warming, ecological burnout, diminishing sources of fresh water and arable land, aggravated by that ever-widening gap between immiseration and affluence from which nonzero-sum accumulations largely derive? For many of our most optimistic Panglossians—especially those dwelling in Western Europe and North America—military hegemony offers a promising road to global solutions. That same road, however, nourishes terrorism while it raises a probability (perhaps a near-certainty) that other regions and nations (China?) might likewise opt for military hegemony. Military agendas will at very least deplete our resources by expending human productivity in total waste, or at worst enlist us in our own self-destruction. If this is hard-nosed optimism, what we need is the opposite.

We need “sober-minded responses in minor key.” What we desperately lack—amid all the talk about confronting “big questions”—is some sort of commonsense handle on “free” market capitalism that would liberate us from the myth of the invisible hand. Our leaders could hardly have walked away from the 2009 global-warming conference at Copenhagen, or from the Cancun follow-up in 2010, had they not been nourishing variations on that myth somewhere down in their subliminal infrastructures. Is all, really, for the best in the best of possible worlds? For us? Of course not. Yet despite Voltaire’s satire, the notion might still seem meaningful at some larger dimension, since (as far as we know) ours may be the only world that contains sentient biological life. We would be fatally mistaken to imagine that our species enjoys some privileged track. Voltaire ended Candide with an admonition nicely relevant to the present circumstances of ecological burnout: “Let us cultivate our garden.” To which we now might add: “And let’s begin speaking truth to our Dr. Panglosses.”

Alexander Saxton

Alexander Saxton is professor of history emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti- Chinese Movement in California (1971, 1993), The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America (1990, 2003), and Religion and the Human Prospect (2006).


The first decade of our twenty-first century opened with a series of disasters, most of human origin. In earlier times, human power remained too limited and localized to work ruin on a grand scale; big disasters had to be natural. Thus Voltaire in Candide, satirizing Leibniz for his cosmic optimism, takes a fictionalized Leibniz—Dr. Pangloss, …

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