Sunday, March 06, 2005

Modernism Part 16: It goes beyond the arts...

And now, part 16 of "Modernism and its enemies."

Modernism Part 16. Putting it all in context.

In part 15, I compared author Michael Crichton to one of his left-wing counterparts, Margaret Atwood, revealing underlying agendas that are remarkably similar, despite superficial differences of politics, heroes and villains. Relentlessly and point by-point, they reject the modernist notion that we can and should improve both humanity and the world through calmly-negotiated, pragmatic advancement in realms of commerce, society and science, in an era of openly shared knowledge.

Of course, each of them would deny this, since both claim to be "progressive" and scientific in their own ways. But I contend that a long checklist of traits argues otherwise. For example, they seldom, if ever, show either society or science utilizing sophisticated enlightenment processes for error-discovery and correction. While praising diversity in principle, they never show diverse competing interests actually engaging in a mature process of reciprocal accountability or negotiation.

True, a good fiction tale can thrive upon situations when such mature processes fail. Exciting drama may revolve around a few heroes opposing terrible errors or oppressive opponents. But these errors and opponents are portrayed by romantic authors in simplistic, polemical fashion, demonizing straw-man villain groups for the purpose of making a political point. Never to illustrate mature processes in action.

In almost every case, the fictional failure mode seems to arise out of secrecy that prevented society and science from functioning properly. And yet, secrecy itself is never shown to be a core mistake! Rather, hubris is the classic character flaw that these authors bemoan. With typical elitism, they cast unalloyed dread toward the possibility that common citizens may seize new powers to remake society, their own lives, and even the lives of their children.

You can find the same loathing all across the arts, from fantasy novels that despise democracy and extol feudalism to rock videos that foster egotism as a primary human virtue.

Of course, the situation is not as simple as I've described so far. Dichotomies are inherently untrustworthy, (a decidedly modernist position, by the way.) Indeed, romantic polemics conveyed via the arts can often overlap with messages of the Enlightenment. They may even agree over specific or surface issues.

This shouldn't be surprising. Romantics and modernists were once allies, after all. Two centuries ago, until a great rift tore apart these worldviews, they briefly stood shoulder-to-shoulder through the American and French Revolutions -- before spilling apart in violent fraternal dispute. (Thomas Jefferson would seem to be the perfect blending of modernism and romanticism.)

For example, both movements claim credit for what seems to be the universal propaganda message, pervading nearly all recent movies and dramas. That message is Suspicion of Authority or SOA. (Name a popular film you've enjoyed in the last 30 years that does not feature it.) Both also claim to champion tolerance and admiration of human eccentricity/diversity.

Only with a key difference. Modernism calls for mild suspicion toward all centers of authority, including any that include you or me. An omni directional accountability, enforced by open and freely-accessible knowledge.

Romanticism nearly always manifests SOA as fervid hatred of some particular authoritarianism... while making excuses for its polar opposite. Romantics seldom see anything wrong with unaccountable power in the hands of their favorite authorities. Indeed, they make many excuses for why the masses cannot be trusted to take care of themselves.

And yet, after all this going on and on about romanticism in the arts, it may surprise you to learn that I find such artistic expression to be the least bothersome aspect of an ancient worldview. Indeed, the romantic impulse is deeply and naturally human. I exploit and foster it in myself, when writing a dramatic scene in one my own novels -- though I try to do so with open eyes and some awareness of the inevitable tradeoffs.

Even within the arts, romanticism has long waged war on the nerdy, cautious, cooperative and reasonable, in favor of extravagance, emotion, lusts and love-at first-sight. Indeed, can you even begin to count the number of times that films or novels have posed a dichotomy between logic and love? Between passion and reason? Between calculated risk and that bold roll of the dice? And how often has passionate illogic been portrayed as wrong? The nearly universal reflex does seem to indicate something driven, consistent, like a concerted campaign.

And I don't really mind. Again, we all grew up with this relentless romantic propaganda in the arts, and it sure has its good side. Certainly we will never abandon the richly emotional and voluptuous power that romantic posturing can offer through the arts, from Shelley, screaming at the heavens with lighting flashing all around, to Slim Pickens riding a hydrogen bomb like a bucking bronco, in Dr. Strangelove. The arts are where romanticism thrives and feeds us. In art, it can inspire and stir or replenish the soul.

Unfortunately, it goes far beyond fiction and the arts. If you look across six thousand years of recorded history, nearly all cultures were led by romantic thinking in their centers of policy and power. And that's where inestimable damage has been done.

Oh, there are more than enough superficial differences that allow anti-modernists of "left" and "right" to pontificate and rage at each other... while colluding over a deeper agenda. Certainly the left has been more direct and honest in its intellectually assault, fostering an entire movement called postmodernism, implying that their foe (modernism) is already finished off, a relic, even dead.

It should be no surprise that many of the leading figures in postmodernism, such as Derrida, Lacan and Foucault, emerged from the French wing of the Enlightenment... the wing that got suckered away from pragmatism and back into the arms of Plantoic mysticism.

Proclaiming that nothing is objectively true - that only subjective texts matter - they preach (in-effect) for a return to the era of persuasive magical incantations. By claiming that science is just another incantory system, they hope to downgrade its authority, denying this era's masters of wisdom any authority to "prove or disprove" anything at all. (More on this, in part 18.)

The hostility of rightwing intellectuals can be much more cryptic, and yet easy to understand. The retro-romantic impulse of the neoconservatives is not to restore the authority of magicians, but rather to re-empower aristocratic lords and priests.



...on to part 17... about the need for mysteries...

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

Five thousand years of recorded history!

NoOne said...

After reading Dr. Brin's detailed description of how modernism is under concerted attack from both postmodernists and traditionalists, I want to ask a simple question. Why are science and modernism under attack now? Are there any inherent shortcomings in science which we must address?

I believe that this attack is occurring right now because of science's failure (at the present time) to deal with values, purposes, morals or subjectivity in general. We must convince our opponents that there is no intrinsic reason why science cannot ultimately address these domains. Just that it'll take us a while to get there given the current state of neuroscience.

Willey Nelson said...

Well NoOne, I would answer that question with another; When has science and modernism not been under attack? It seems to me that throughout history for every "The world is round" theory there has been cries of "heretic". As ridiculous those cries seem later on, they have always been there. We are living in a time when science is making worldview changing announcements everyday. These ideas spread rapidly in our evolving information age. Is this reactionary movement that surprising? I see Mr. Brin's essay here as a description of what this reactionary movement is, at it's heart.

Anonymous said...

NoOne mentioned "science's failure...to deal with values, purposes, morals, or subjectivity." I don't really know what's meant by "subjectivity" in this context – I feel like it's got some kind of specialized, unconventional meaning here, since psychology and biology deal with questions of perception just fine, though of course there's plenty more to be learned – but for the rest, it’s not that science fails to deal with questions of values, purposes, or morals. It simply doesn’t deal with them.

Think about questions like,
What’s the purpose of my life? What is just? How can I find the courage to accomplish this task? Should I bother? How can I make a choice that’s morally right? Is that the same as a responsible choice?

Now imagine trying to answer those questions by designing an experiment, fitting the results to an analytic formula, and publishing a paper. It’s dumb.

Experiments – the scientific method – science can tell you what is and what works. But no amount of experimentation will tell you what’s just or right. To get answers to that, you’ve got to think. (These questions are the purview of philosophy, which is broader than science.)

Or think about the question, “Why am I here?”

A religious answer would deal with what your purpose is for being here, why God put you here, what, cosmically, is achieved by putting you here. A scientific answer would deal what energy was expended to cause you to be in this location, what mechanisms allowed that energy to be converted into the forces that propelled you here, what principles allowed those mechanisms to function.

Some people say that science is a religion. But it’s not. Science answers different questions than religion does.

I’d go so far as to say that it hurts science when people treat it as a religion, when they try to use it to answer questions of morals and values. Because when they do that, they’re applying the methods and results of science outside of their domain of applicability. It’s bad science.

Some people use this to claim that our society is lacking and morals and values. But in fact, our society does have institutions that deal with questions of morals and values, questions like the ones I mentioned in my second paragraph above. It’s just that science isn’t one of those institutions.

On a related note, what does it say about our society that, unlike in just about every society in the past, our myths and legends, those stories that teach us what it is to be heroic and righteous and responsible, and to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, say “fiction” on the spine?

Anonymous said...

NoOne mentioned "science's failure...to deal with values, purposes, morals, or subjectivity." I don't really know what's meant by "subjectivity" in this context – I feel like it's got some kind of specialized, unconventional meaning here, since psychology and biology deal with questions of perception just fine, though of course there's plenty more to be learned – but for the rest, it’s not that science fails to deal with questions of values, purposes, or morals. It simply doesn’t deal with them.

Think about questions like,
What’s the purpose of my life? What is just? How can I find the courage to accomplish this task? Should I bother? How can I make a choice that’s morally right? Is that the same as a responsible choice?

Now imagine trying to answer those questions by designing an experiment, fitting the results to an analytic formula, and publishing a paper. It’s dumb.

Experiments – the scientific method – science can tell you what is and what works. But no amount of experimentation will tell you what’s just or right. To get answers to that, you’ve got to think. (These questions are the purview of philosophy, which is broader than science.)

Or think about the question, “Why am I here?”

A religious answer would deal with what your purpose is for being here, why God put you here, what, cosmically, is achieved by putting you here. A scientific answer would deal what energy was expended to cause you to be in this location, what mechanisms allowed that energy to be converted into the forces that propelled you here, what principles allowed those mechanisms to function.

Some people say that science is a religion. But it’s not. Science answers different questions than religion does.

I’d go so far as to say that it hurts science when people treat it as a religion, when they try to use it to answer questions of morals and values. Because when they do that, they’re applying the methods and results of science outside of their domain of applicability. It’s bad science.

Some people use this to claim that our society is lacking and morals and values. But in fact, our society does have institutions that deal with questions of morals and values, questions like the ones I mentioned in my second paragraph above. It’s just that science isn’t one of those institutions.

On a related note, what does it say about our society that, unlike in just about every society in the past, our myths and legends, those stories that teach us what it is to be heroic and righteous and responsible, and to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, say “fiction” on the spine?

Anonymous said...

NoOne mentioned "science's failure...to deal with values, purposes, morals, or subjectivity." I don't really know what's meant by "subjectivity" in this context – I feel like it's got some kind of specialized, unconventional meaning here, since psychology and biology deal with questions of perception just fine, though of course there's plenty more to be learned – but for the rest, it’s not that science fails to deal with questions of values, purposes, or morals. It simply doesn’t deal with them.

Think about questions like,
What’s the purpose of my life? What is just? How can I find the courage to accomplish this task? Should I bother? How can I make a choice that’s morally right? Is that the same as a responsible choice?

Now imagine trying to answer those questions by designing an experiment, fitting the results to an analytic formula, and publishing a paper. It’s dumb.

Experiments – the scientific method – science can tell you what is and what works. But no amount of experimentation will tell you what’s just or right. To get answers to that, you’ve got to think. (These questions are the purview of philosophy, which is broader than science.)

Or think about the question, “Why am I here?”

A religious answer would deal with what your purpose is for being here, why God put you here, what, cosmically, is achieved by putting you here. A scientific answer would deal what energy was expended to cause you to be in this location, what mechanisms allowed that energy to be converted into the forces that propelled you here, what principles allowed those mechanisms to function.

Some people say that science is a religion. But it’s not. Science answers different questions than religion does.

I’d go so far as to say that it hurts science when people treat it as a religion, when they try to use it to answer questions of morals and values. Because when they do that, they’re applying the methods and results of science outside of their domain of applicability. It’s bad science.

Some people use this to claim that our society is lacking and morals and values. But in fact, our society does have institutions that deal with questions of morals and values, questions like the ones I mentioned in my second paragraph above. It’s just that science isn’t one of those institutions.

On a related note, what does it say about our society that, unlike in just about every society in the past, our myths and legends, those stories that teach us what it is to be heroic and righteous and responsible, and to live a meaningful and fulfilling life, say “fiction” on the spine?

Eric said...

Because I've nothing else to offer this fine series of discussions, I'll just point out that "plantoic" is almost certainly a typo. Dunno if the post is editable or not, but I thought I'd mention it.

Keep up the good work, all!

A.R.Yngve said...

The conflict between reason and unreason, modernity vs. romanticism, has rarely been depicted better than in the movie FORBIDDEN PLANET. (t's shown frequently on Turner Classic Movies -- see it!

-A.R.Yngve
http://aryngve.blogspot.com

NoOne said...

Anonymous said

"Think about questions like,
What’s the purpose of my life? What is just? How can I find the courage to accomplish this task? Should I bother? How can I make a choice that’s morally right? Is that the same as a responsible choice?

Now imagine trying to answer those questions by designing an experiment, fitting the results to an analytic formula, and publishing a paper. It’s dumb."

Very lucidly put. The important thing though is that I'll submit that religion doesn't answer this question very well for most people either (at the present time).

As for science not being able to answer these questions, I think you're wrong. There's no intrinsic reason why a future science cannot address these questions. For starters, you'll need a more or less complete neuroscience and extremely detailed correlations with first person data. Getting honest, verifiable first person data seems highly problematic though...

MemeMaster said...

Anonymous said: "As for science not being able to answer these questions, I think you're wrong. There's no intrinsic reason why a future science cannot address these questions. For starters, you'll need a more or less complete neuroscience and extremely detailed correlations with first person data. Getting honest, verifiable first person data seems highly problematic though..."That's quite a statement. The most that could be done would be statistical analysis on people's reasons and attitudes for a variety of case studies, tracking the trends in which answers people give to those questions. This presupposes each polled person has an answer. It also seems to assume that the most commonly accepted answer would be the most moral and correct one -- an assumption that is totally unjustified. The whole world may have an opinion on my thoughts and actions, but no one but me gets to determine my opinion.

--Rocky (http://anthropomemesis.blogspot.com)

Anonymous said...

A few quick notes,

How many here have read the Graphic Novel series "Promethea"? I'd especially be curious as to David Brin's take on it.

For those who don't see science as taking on a moral dimension, I see science as calculating potential harm (this action would result in more lives saved/lost than that action, therefore the first action is "more moral" than the other. Food For thought.

Lastly, I've checked out David Brin's activities calendar and I don't see any events located in the California Bay Area. A shame.

Jon

NoOne said...

Mememaster said "The most that could be done would be statistical analysis on people's reasons and attitudes for a variety of case studies, tracking the trends in which answers people give to those questions. This presupposes each polled person has an answer. It also seems to assume that the most commonly accepted answer would be the most moral and correct one -- an assumption that is totally unjustified."

Don't agree at all. For starters, what can be done is by observing my behavior (3rd person exterior) and collecting brain/neural cord/proteme/gene data (3rd person interior) and talking to me (2nd person) and observing my interactions with others (3rd person report of 2nd person) and getting my verbal reports of my own qualia (1st person reports of 1st person), a model is built of me. This model makes predictions, some right, some wrong and tries to improve like all of science. Each person will have their own model which they can test drive. And perhaps, the model can be embodied in android form giving me a silicon twin. I don't see why some approximation of this can't be realized in say, a hundred years.

Mark said...

NoOne,

I think you are pushing science's ability to provide morals well beyond what is reasonable. Ultimately, we have to choose our morals for ourselves, the scientific method won't provide us with the answers.

However, facts lead to knowledge and knowledge leads to wisdom; science provides us with the knowledge to gain this wisdom. For example, we now know every native human culture believes they love their children more than those in other cultures. Knowledge like that can help us understand the human condition and lead us down a more moral path.

No one will ever produce a falsifiable set of morals, though one could produce a falsifiable theory how humans deal with morality. The models you suggest could be helpful, but don't confuse the results with morals.

David Brin said...

NoOne asked: " Why are science and modernism under attack now?" To which various members replied about a growing sense of alienation, etc. Or the failure of science to answer deeper issues like the meaning of life.

Another person said: " it’s not that science fails to deal with questions of values, purposes, or morals. It simply doesn’t deal with them."

I beg to differ with both assertions. First, science has progressively crossed every line that was drawn in the sand by people who said "beyond this is unknowable." Churches conceded Galileo the heavens but fought Darwin over biology and geology. Conceding those, they predicted humans could/should never meddle in life's code. Few say that now (though many urge caution.) Today the line is drawn at the soul (and - for some - at abortion.)

In KILN PEOPLE I have fun with a what-if. There is a new science "soulistics" that lets people imprint their souls into clay golems, making temporary duplicates, at will. I run with every implication - and pun - possible.

But I haven't answered NoOne yet. Here goes.

I do NOT believe science and modernism are under concerted attack from all directions because they have failed to provide enough answers.

I believe they are under attack because romantics have come to realize that modernism is winning. It is providing. It is answering. If something isn't done soon, the Enlightenment will push back the darkness and romantics fear it will mean an end to color and shadows and mysteries and hierarchies and drama and love and lust and fear and reverence... and they are partly right. The bad parts of all those things will be scorched and burned away...

... leaving all the good and fun and blessed parts for people to indulge in all they want. But that prospect, in itself, terrifies romantics. Take William Gibson's "The Gernsback Continuum", in which he cries out for a world of filth and smut and crime and grit, as opposed to one of sterile plastic and sterilized food pills... as if those two are the only choices. (Romantics love dichotomies.)

No, I like to believe this spasmodic and savage attack upon modernity, from left and right and all directions, is a manifestation that humanity is waking up... and some of us are really grouchy in the morning. We'd rather roll over, back into the familiar drama of our long romantic nightmare.

Oh, and Yngve said..."The conflict between reason and unreason, modernity vs. romanticism, has rarely been depicted better than in the movie FORBIDDEN PLANET."

I agree! I love to see movies that turn out NOT to have any villains, per se, but still involve enough tension, tragedy, action to be interesting. Like the first Rocky movie, which had no (major) villain, but dealt with a triumphant self-improvement campaign. Forbidden planet has all of the qualities of a great Greek tragedy, including a penalty for hubris... and yet, the overall tone does not demean human daring and ambition. It simply warns that fools who are not cautious will pay a price.

Jon said...

"I agree! I love to see movies that turn out NOT to have any villains, per se,"

Which makes me wonder if you've seen Princess Mononoke, and perhaps, Spirited Away. (and again, I wonder what you'd think of Promethea.)

I'm not sure that I'd call Gibson a romanitc just because he wrote a story in which a protagonist is so horribly shocked by a simplistic childhood dreamworld coming to life that he clutches for a current, fucked up world.

I realize that this essay is leading towrds a point, but I'm a bit impatient. One book I recently checked out of the library (Herman Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game" suggests (I think, haven't really gotten into it yet) that one of the worst things a person can do is live in a world of pure speculation and debate and not act on their convictions to physically change their society. Sometimes the internet, and this ongoing discussion, feel like this.

Ah well, at least I still have thepetitionsite.com, care2.com, Moveon.org, and truemajority.org to join with me in actual action.

And there are protets lined up for the 19th and 20th. Onward ho!

The Cardassian Scot said...

I'm not sure that science can deal with morality. Just because there have been areas which people have tried unsuccessfully to mark off from science, only for science to prove that it can handle them does not mean that there are no real areas where science cannot answer.

Certainly, science can help with morality, informing us of the consequences of our actions and which action will produce which result. What it cannot do is tell us which result is more moral.

For instance, what is the ultimate guiding principle of morality? Most people would agree it's not self preservation, but what about the preservation of a person's family, their bloodline, their species, all sentient life, all life? Or is it something else? (A few even have a standard of behaviour that they don't think should be broken no matter what the consequences, although I'm guessing not many when you actually put this into practice.) How can science possibily tell us which of these is moral. Rather, is it not the case, that in morality, we start with the goal we want and then science helps us determine how we get there and the consequences of our actions.

Tury said...

Your Romantics Vs Modernist dichotomy irks me just as much as the Liberal Vs. Conservative democracy. First off... I don't necessarily agree with your idea of authorities not being secretive... How can this work? How can the government be totally honest with its citizens without alerting enemy nations of its plans...that would be detrimental to America. There "needs" to be secrecy. Of course...if every other nation in the world were as open and honest as all the others this would work..but as far as I can tell there will always be secretive governments who don't let their people know every single thing that goes on.

NoOne said...

Dr. Brin said "I believe they are under attack because romantics have come to realize that modernism is winning. It is providing. It is answering."

Here's an interview with Huston Smith ("Why Religion Matters") which has the opposite opinion (I think). Quoting from the interview "Smith accordingly proposes a kind of "detente" wherein "science must move over" and respect what religion asserts, and vice versa. "Eventually the sun sets on every empire, and the sunset for the empire of science has arrived.""

Tury said...

Your Romantics Vs Modernist dichotomy irks me just as much as the Liberal Vs. Conservative one. First off... I don't necessarily agree with your idea of authorities not being secretive... How can this work? How can the government be totally honest with its citizens without alerting enemy nations of its plans...that would be detrimental to America. There "needs" to be secrecy. Of course...if every other nation in the world were as open and honest as all the others this would work..but as far as I can tell there will always be secretive governments who don't let their people know every single thing that goes on.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Cardassian. Dr. Brin said that science has progressively crossed every line that was drawn in the sand by people who said, "beyond this is unknowable." And I agree. But you can cross lines in the sand all day long...morals aren't even on the same beach. It's not that morals are unknowable. Morals are not knowledge.

And, science is a system for determining knowledge. Knowing what exists in the heavens, is knowledge. Knowing how our bodies work, how the earth came into being, what determines the physical traits of our children, what comprises the soul, whether god exists...are all knowledge. They all fall under the purview of science.

Deciding what is righful, what is just, what you want out of life...isn't knowlege. Science lets us understand the universe, but you can understand the universe all you want and not have answers to questions of purpose and morality. Even if I were omniscient, that wouldn't give me the right to dictate to you what you should want out of life.

(Before you argue that that's not morals either, I'm using "morals" as a shorthand for the "morals, purposes and values" that we were originally talking about.)

Science can tell you what actions will produce a certain result. It can't tell you what result you should try to achieve.

Science can tell you what the result of a particular course of action will be. It can't tell you whether that result is what you want.

Maybe someday, science will incontrovertibly determine that God exists, and that you will go to Hell if you don't follow His teachings. But that won't tell you whether or not you should go to church.

Science can help you make moral decisions to exactly the extent that an understanding of the universe can help you make those decisions. That's not a trivial aid. But science cannot -- can never -- make those decisions for you.

And, really, life would be pretty boring if you could analytically determine both what you should do and how you should do it. It would kind of make free will redundant....

What bothers me, you see, is that when NoOne says that science "fails" to deal with morals and values, he (or she) implies that science ought to deal with these issues. In other words, he implies that scientists should dictate our morals to us.I'll repeat what I said before: that's bad science. And it's dumb. If a scientist tells you that because of his superior education he can dictate what you should want, or what your morals should be, he's spouting bull.

Getting back to the topic of Dr. Brin's essay, that's not a modernist position, either. It strikes me as more of a radical leftist position.

A modernist would -- I think -- belive that society should deal with issues of morals and values, and that by dealing with these issues, we will become a more just and morally upstanding people. But the modernist would not conclude that because of this, science ought to deal with these issues.

After all, science isn't the only trick in our book. And it's fallacy to believe that just because science doesn't deal with something, society doesn't deal with it.

Surely, science -- an understanding of the universe -- can help to make moral decisions. But that's different from saying that science "deals" with moral decisions. To properly deal with moral decisions, you need more than science. You might need logic, passion, imagination, reasoned discussion, intuition, criticism. The right tool for the right beach.

Anonymous said...

Tury, you're confusing modernism with transparency. They're not the same thing.

I hate to say this, because I know it sounds snarky, but to understand how the government can employ transparency without compromising national security, you really ought to read The Transparent Society.

That said, the "Romantics vs. Modernists" dichotomy bothers me too. Dr. Brin comes up with a laundry list of characteristics and implies that everyone falls either in column A, or column B (tradition over innovation, the pastoral over the urban, craftsmanship over production, apprenticeships over universities, the subjective over the objective, incantation over skill in the physical arts, secret knowledge hoarded by a suitably chosen elite, heroes who are destined for greatness because of inner qualities rather than relying upon social mobility among diverse and resilient citizens, villains who are evil by their basic nature as a type, rather than by individual choice, inherited hierarchies over democratic institutions, the notion of a lost-lamented golden age, over ambitions to build a new one). Dr. Brin seems to claim that that's the way it really is: everyone does fall either in column A, or in column B. I'm not convinced, not even close.

For instance, check out this very cool speech by the Prime Minister of Canada on the subject of gay marriage. The PM says that Canada is "where our world is going, not where it’s been.... Over time, perspectives changed. We evolved, we grew, and our laws evolved and grew with us. That is as it should be. Our laws must reflect equality not as we understood it a century or even a decade ago, but as we understand it today.... If we do not step forward, then we step back." He espouses the idea of a progressive new future, instead of a lost-lamented golden age. Modernist.

But what's his main argument? The charter. The immutable charter, that was put in place decades ago. Tradition over innovation. Following our old values, instead of rethinking the problem. Romantic.

So, does the "romantic vs. modernist" dichotomy not work in Canadian politics?

Actually, I think that this dichotomy is useful...if you use it right. But the right way to use it is not to use it to decide if a person or group is "romantic" or "modernist". It's to use it to examine ideas and to decide if they're romantic or modernist (or neither). I rather suspect that if you take any particular person or group, they will have some ideas that are romantic, and some that are modernist.

Of course, there's an incentive to label people as romantics -- it lets Dr. Brin claim that modernism is "assaulted from all sides", that politics are dominated by romantics (since every politician probably has at least one or two romantic ideas)...giving the impression that Dr. Brin (and us, his readers) are rebels, members of the enlightened few, who can see what the ignorant masses cannot about the direction of our society....

Endorphin high, anyone?

Boy, this comment is likely to tick people off.

Heh. Cool.

Mark said...

Actually Anonymous, I agree with most of what you said. The Romantic versus Modernist dichotomy isn't fundamentally any better than any other dichotomy such as the traditional Liberal versus Conservative. But it is a whole new set of eigenvectors through which to view the world, and new perspective are always good. Personally, I find this quite eye-opening.

But push it too hard and it breaks, just like any other dichotomy. For example, here's another take on global warming: some suggest that the global warming scare is just another attack against modernity and a desire by the left to get back to the way things used to be, when things were simpler and more pure. Perhaps the worst thing we could do is slow down our economic development, instead we should grow our wealth and expand it through free trade to the furthest reaches of the world so when and if anything does change we have the resources to deal with it.

I'm not sure I agree with this argument, but I've heard it before. It shows one can have both a modern and conservative reaction to global warning. I certainly find this argument compelling and worthy of debate.

For me, this is where the dichotomy works the best; ideally all of our arguments, all of our debates should be in modernistic terms. We need to reject romanticism whenever and wherever it crops up in our political discourse.

David Brin said...

Trury perceives me simplistically dichotomizing... because Trury perceives it. Not because it is true. I do not resemble the strawman he portrays.

For example, nowhere in The Transparent Society, or anywhere else, do I proclaim "all secrecy is evil."

What I do maintain - backed up by history and human nature - is that "there is no evil that cannot be made worse by secrecy."

In fact, I make careful appraisal of the uses of secrecy in many forms and readily concede that governments and people may need temporary secrets. But given human nature, we must always demand a burden of proof, or else human leaders will do what comes naturally... as they are doing right now... and use secrecy as a cheap way to evade accountability.

Above all, secrets should decay and expire. They will anyway. Whistles get blown, last year's crypto gets cracked, conscience-wracked henchmen do deathbed confessions. A wise person uses secrecy sparingly and prepares for the day when all may be known.

Cardassian points out that science can inform morality. Yes. See: http://www.setileague.org/iaaseti/brin.pdf where I discuss this in the context of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

In any event, I never claimed that science answers all. We have to share an underpinning of values. Not just the Golden Rule. Add in an appreciation of positive sum games, otherness, and curiosity... an much else.

NoOne implies that my laundry list of romantic traits would mean that a modernist cannot be nostalgic or a defender of traditions. Baloney. The Canadian example is a good one. The Enlightenment depends on reverence for the miracles of 1776 and 1787, too. But good things of the past are seen as FOUNDATIONS to build upon, like Newton's laws. We can revere them without nostalgia/romance making us call them timelessly perfect.

I have repeatedly said that we are BOTH romantic and pragmatic, internally. I am a romantic too. Jefferson combined the worldviews seamlessly. Hence this dichotomy is imperfect and I have always said so. All metaphors about human nature are at best shadows that instruct, they are not the thing itself.

Having said that, you can find my laundry list obeyed with utter fidelity in much of the arts. Count the movies and fantasies that do it all! Compare Star Trek II to Star Trek III, for example. One is relentlessly and joyfully modernist... and the sequel betrays every promise by a systematic return to the romantic checklist.

Actually, don't get me wrong. I found that particular critical posting well-written, incisive and cool! Of course I may just be preening and showing off how well I live by the precept of CITOKATE.

Willey Nelson said...

Anonymous said..."A modernist would -- I think -- belive that society should deal with issues of morals and values, and that by dealing with these issues, we will become a more just and morally upstanding people. But the modernist would not conclude that because of this, science ought to deal with these issues."

I like how you draw up the question of how much science impacts the morals, purpose, and values of society. However, I must disagree with your view that science isn't on the same "beach" as morals. While its certainly true that science probably will never be able to make moral decisions for the individual, society is another matter. It seems to me that society and science are fundamentally connected by Law. Cigarette smoking is a good example of this. While science hasnt made the decision to smoke or not for all individuals, it has impacted the laws of our society. You are taxed an obscene amount to buy cigarettes, you can't smoke in public buildings, and you dont see ads on TV anymore. All of this because science apparently proved smoking will kill you, and hurt others around you. Anyhow, to say that science could never understand the thought process of the individual so completely that it could be possible to "convince" anyone, or everyone to follow a set of morals is abit romantic in itself.

Anonymous said...

Nice metaphor, Mark. To overextend it, the romantic versus modernist dichotomy offers a new set of orthogonal eigenvectors into which we can transform our view of the world; however, these eigenvectors do not form a complete set, and do not span the space. And anyone who understood that is a nerd.

Willey, you're correct that in my earlier comments, I was considering individual morals, and didn't think about the morals and values of society as a whole. But I think the same arguments apply -- science can help a society answer questions of morals and values to exactly the extent that an understanding of the universe can help in answering those questions. But, science can't answer those questions for us.

Your example of cigarette smoking is a good one. Science can show that smoking is harmful. But the society must decide when preventing that harm is more important than preserving the individual's freedom to smoke. A society that valued safety and health more highly than our own, and individual freedom less highly, might have banned smoking altogether, even with the exact same science that we've got. Conversely, a society that valued individual freedom more highly, and health and safety less highly, might place no restrictions on smoking, again even with the exact same scientific knowledge. Such a society would then be eradicated from the face of the earth when all of its citizens died in a massive car accident precipitated by drunk driving in cars with no airbags and no seatbelts on roads with no speed limits, but that's beside the point.

I keep coming back to this because I think it's important to understand what science is and what it isn't. Because when science is used properly, in situations where it's appropriate, it's very useful indeed. But when people try to use science improperly or inappropriately, then they end up making science look ineffective, and strengthen the arguments of those wankers who say that science has no value at all.

Once we've decided what we ought to do, then science can help us to figure out how to do it. But science can't decide what we ought to do for us. And that's an important distinction.

Here's another important distinction: science can help us to make better moral decisions. It doesn't necessarily make those decisions any easier. Sometimes, having more knowledge of what the possible consequences of an action might be make it more difficult to decide whether or not to take that action.

Some people have suggested that advances in neuroscience or "the thought process of the individual" will let science make moral decisions for us. I don't get how this is supposed to work. I guess if we completely understood how the brain worked, then we could figure out how to make laws so as to maximize happiness in our society. But we'd have to first decide that maximizing happiness is the goal we want to achieve. Like I said before, science lets us figure out how to do something...but only once we've decided what it is we want to do. Science isn't a substitute for thought (or reasoned discussion, or passion, or anything else that goes into making moral and value judgments).

Short story idea: A society builds a computer whose purpose is to make laws so as to make sure that everyone in the society gets what they want. The computer determines that what everyone wants is not to be controlled by a computer, and promptly self-destructs. The committee that built the computer grouches about the fourteenth consecutive flawed design, and gets to work building computer #15.

dchev said...

fyi - relevant article

"Does Gödel Matter?
The romantic's favorite mathematician didn't prove what you think he did."
http://slate.msn.com/id/2114561/

NoOne said...

Anonymous said "Some people have suggested that advances in neuroscience or "the thought process of the individual" will let science make moral decisions for us. I don't get how this is supposed to work"

A computer model is made of you based on observing you and talking to you. In a situation calling for moral action, you consult the model and get a set of possible actions and the (automated) reasoning behind them. Based on the alternatives offered, you make a moral decision. The decision itself can be creative and not limited to the options offered.

Anonymous said...

NoOne,

I hadn't thought of that. And I should have...after all, I've read Kiln People too.

I said, "Science isn't a substitute for thought." And here you're proposing a technology which is literally a substitute for thought. That was unimaginative of me.

In effect, a person with your proposed technology could say, "I'm too lazy to think through this moral quandary. So I'll create an exact duplicate of my brain, and have it think through the quandary, and then tell me what I would have decided if I had bothered to think through it myself."

Likewise, anyone in the society of Kiln People who is facing a moral quandary could create an ebony golem to think through the problem and then tell him what he should do.

So...would you say that in the society of Kiln People, science effectively "deals with" values, purposes, and morals (in the sense of your first comment to this thread)?

It is, to some extent, a matter of opinion...but I would say not.

With your proposed technology, or the ebony golem of Kiln People, science would be telling you what you would have decided. That's different from having science make moral decisions for you.

In other words, with this proposed technology, science isn't telling you what you should do...it's telling you what you'd think you should do, if you bothered to figure it out. It makes a practical difference, since there's no claim that answer that your technology (or the ebony golem) comes up with is objectively correct. And it makes a moral difference.

I don't have a copy of Kiln People right here, but I recall a scene where the ebony golem sends Albert Morris on an errand. It would be absurd for Albert Morris to claim, "Science sent me on this errand," or especially "I know that I should be doing this errand, because science says so."

Michael said...

I believe that those who claim that science cannot determine morality fundamentally misunderstand what morality is. When you unpack the concept of morality it is really nothing more than culturally encoded rules for how to deal with the world; most characteristically, how to deal with social interactions, but also with the nutural world and the supernateral. Those rules are not inchoate in some Aristotealian sense, they are invented by people over time to deal with issues of survival and social cohesion. In a sense, they are the result of trial and error, a very rough analogy to the scientific method, as applied to vastly more complex problems than those cultures’ epistomologies were really ready to handle.

Richard Dawkins popularized the concept of memes; his is a useful way to think of what morals are. Morals are culturally trasmitted solutions to complex social problems collected over and competing across time. Morals are often based on rank conjecture, superstition, and lucky, or unlucky, guesses, but they are also often based on astute observation to determine what works in a society that is trying to survive in the real world. I contend that as our knowledge of the world grows through science, including knowledge of our own extremely complex biology, behavior, social interactions, and role in the ecosystem, so too does our morality grow and change.

Here are examples of where we’ve gone wrong, and where we’ve gone right in forming moral codes, and the role tnat science plays.

There have long been cultural taboos about homosexuality in many western cultures. There have also been cultures in which homosexuality is tolerated, and even celebrated. At some point, the meme that homosexuality is bad got encoded (perhaps the writing of Levitcus is relevant as source of the meme) and more-or-less worked for the cuture or cultures involved. To this day, we continue to have a strong meme of condemnation of homosexuality as a result. But now that we are learning more about our biology, and about sexual behavior in other species, much of which derives from science, and have developed other memes/morals which stress privacy in sexual affairs, the anti-homosexuality meme is being challenged by other moral viewpoints. At least in part, science is changing morality. It may be slow and painful, but it is happening in most of the Western world and in many places is far advanced from where the U.S. now is.

Now, take a seemingly meaningless moral value and put it in a scientific context that fully validates it. The Native Ameicans of the Souhwest have had a taboo against living near ground rodents for centuries. If mice invade your home, you should move away, is the folk wisdom. No one really knew why; if you asked them, their reply would be couched in supernateral beliefs. But when Four Corners disease flared up late last century, the hantavirus responsible was eventually traced back to its natural resevior; the dried and aerosolized urine of the mice that had infested the homes of the victims. Unfortunately, the cultural taboo that had protected people from the virus had broken down under pressure from the competing Western culture. It turns out that what was a seemingly baseless moral taboo was actually the product of some very astute observation that proposed a link between rodents and illness. That correlation was eventually ratified by truly scientific investigation.

Now for an example of science creating a moral meme, almost sui generis. Don’t pollute the environment. Until we began to see the health effects, the effects on bio-diversity and habitats, and the economic costs of pollution, there was no moral aspect to disposal of waste. Now that we are gaining an ever greater scientific knowledge of the effect that man-made pollutants can have, more and more people see preserving the environment as a moral good, and harming it as a moral negative. Even many evangelical churches, just to name a fairly unexpected authority, are starting to talk about the stewardship of creation as a moral duty. This set of environmental moral values did not exist widely in the population just a few decades ago. Science has given us new ways to see the world and our effect on it, and birthed a new moral value.

You can’t be concerned about what you don’t know about. There are many possible examples of how increased knowledge of the world through science has enhanced or changed moral imperitives. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Seems fairly barbarous now, doesn’t it? It is certainly not a universal moral yet, but as we come to find that early childhood abuse corrrelates well with social, sexual, and mental problems later in life, corporal punishment of children becomes more and more frowned upon. Society now has laws against it; that wasn’t always so. People look upon parents who hit their children with moral condemnation; that wasn’t always so. Society is learning and morals are changing for the better as we apply scientific understandings to our social lives. This trend can go much further and delve much deeper into what it means to be human, and consequently change what it takes to be a ‘good’ and moral person.

We struggle constantly to apply moral values to new discoveries and new knowledge. We don’t always get it right immediately, but I would argue that the most enduring memes are those which are based on the world as it really is -s those based on science. I conjecture that as science uncovers more and more of the delicate workings of human societies, economies, and psyches, that this new knowledge will continue to create or overturn memes that tell us how we should behave in our daily life. Those memes/morals that use science as a starting point have an advantage over competitors in that they are more likely to be based on demonstrable facts and have tangible benefits. Just as organisms compete, so do memes. Organisms which deal realistically with their enviroment tend to thrive: likewise with memes/morals. This evolutionary process is the basis of my belief in the possibility of constant betterment of humans and their society which Dr. Brin points to as the central hope of Modernism. Science does give us moral values, better ones than we had before.

NoOne said...

Anonymous said "It makes a practical difference, since there's no claim that answer that your technology (or the ebony golem) comes up with is objectively correct. And it makes a moral difference."

Yes it makes a difference. The only objective model I can have of my own moral actions is a model that doesn't interact with me. Since this model interacts with me, it is participatory. I can read off its prediction and do something else. Perhaps, it is safer to call it an engineering model rather than a scientific model.

I haven't read Kiln People but will read it now especially after you've pointed out a nice context for it.

Anonymous said...

I don't get David Brin's comments on Star Trek Two and Three.

Anonymous said...

Based on what he's said before: taken in isolation, ST2 features a group of scientists, apparently going through the usual process of getting grants, doing their lab work, etc., working on a project which eventually results in their discovering the secret of "life from lifelessness", and the end of the movie features the first dawn on a new world created from scratch by the hand of man. Plus we see Kirk and the original crew acting as teachers, bringing along the next generation of Starfleet officers and crew.

Then in ST3, we learn "not really", one particular scientist cut corners to "solve certain problems", and the Genesis device becomes another big bomb. Plus Kirk turns from a dutiful Starfleet officer into a rogue who convinces his friends to steal a starship (government property!) and head off to retrieve Spock, motivated by the tenets of Vulcan mysticism.