Thursday, April 28, 2005

A guest Commentator on the Modernist Rift

While still swamped, I want to share with you some thoughts by an eminent philosopher/poet and theoretician about philanthropy, Frederick Turner. (We are both on a philanthropy round-table exploring new ideas in that important realm.)

The following excerpts touch upon matters that we have been discussing, having to do with anti-modernism and its roots in the 18th Century, when romantics and Platonist philosophers chose to wage ideological war against science and the Enlightenment.


I believe that the rift between the sciences and the humanities is profoundly dangerous both intellectually and culturally, leading to deep errors of understanding and unwitting crimes. Certainly at the time it seemed the only defense against what looked like a brutal pragmatism in personal relationships and a ruthless historicism in international realpolitik, where the victors in both cases would write history. But the apparent cure--the cordon sanitaire between science and the humanities--had side effects perhaps worse still. Let us look briefly at the history of those key humanistic ideas: freedom in moral action and originality in art.

To be free one must have free will. Will became the core concept of nineteenth century moral philosophy. It was will or intentionality that set us apart from brute nature. But what was the direction of will? It could only be the extension of its own field of action, since any focussing down on a specific object in the world would enslave it to the deterministic motivations of physicality. "Extension of the field of action" is nicely glossed by the word "power": so "Will" now became "the Will to Power". Thus power eventually became the key idea of the Humanities, as it remains today in its Foucauldian, Feminist, Postcolonialist, Lacanian, and Neomarxist versions. Strangely, our original enterprise, which was to delineate an alternative humanistic world to the deterministic realm of physical forces, has logically morphed itself into the very enemy it was designed to escape.

Power, whether expressed in oppressive violence by a reactionary elite, revolutionary acts by the disenfranchised, or legal sanctions by an enlightened ruling group, is the same thing as physical force: politically it means that you can send men with guns to make people do what you want. If beauty has been culturally relativized out of existence (which is indeed the result of avant-garde theory) and if logical reasoning is, as part of the regnant regime of power and knowledge, no more than the linguistic property of the oppressor, the only way to persuade people is through force.

...Thus the humanities, when cut off from nature, ended up not only looking exactly like the brutal world they hoped to transcend, but also trapped in the gradual entropic heat-death of the physical universe. And history confirmed this gloomy picture: the best-intentioned will- and power-based state in the world, the Soviet Union, turned into a nightmare of coercion and finally after seventy years blew away as if by some inexorable physical law of decay. As Lysenko found out, nature had its revenge on will.

...But during the same period natural science has, paradoxically, undergone a profound revolution. The theory of evolution proved how astonishingly original nature could be. Chaos and complexity theory showed that no Laplace calculator could keep pace with the world's own unpredictable self-organization. The feedback inherent in all dynamical systems rendered the idea of power largely obsolete in complex ecological systems, where the top-down balancing influence of the whole system could dominate local chains of deterministic cause. The predator's power over its prey is part of a system in which the prey species also determines the numbers of the predators and relies on predation to keep its own gene pool healthy. The rigid reductive xenophobia of our immune systems serves a larger organism that is free to explore all kinds of different worlds. The selfish gene becomes the microstructure of the altruism of a social species, and is in turn selected for or against by the resulting adaptability of the species as a whole and the emergent features of the ecosystem it inhabits...

...Ironically, then, the sciences and the humanities have changed places. The humanities now profess a scientifically obsolete view of events, a power-based account of the world which is as incompatible with the values of human culture as Kant rightly declared the Newtonian universe to be. This is where the "logic of the humanities," in Cassirer's phrase, has got us. Meanwhile the sciences, with their rigorous research methods, and beginning with presuppositions just as linear and deterministic as they were accused by the humanities of being, have paradoxically disclosed to us a universe full of freedom and creativity, fertile ground for art and moral action.

For the humanities this reversal is tragic, however understandable the route by which it was reached. If there is a moral it is that we should not have lost faith so soon in the power of human reason and experiment when corrigible by free criticism...

...But it is too late now to be drawing morals, and who are we to judge the grand humanistic savants of the nineteenth century? The task now before us is to rescue what we can from over a century of largely misguided theory--and thus partly tainted research--in the humanities, and put the field on a sound footing; so that we can bequeath to the future public an institution in better shape than we found it. The sciences, technology and the market now more than ever need guidance from the arts and humanities, which are the custodians of our best human traditions of truth, beauty and goodness. If those activities are exempted from the purview of the humanities, they are being given a licence to be ugly and unethical; science to allow its necessary reductive method to infect its conclusions, technology to be socially and ecologically destructive, and the market to choose short-term exploitation and cheating rather than the more profitable but more demanding path of long-term mutual interest.


Fascinating! I'll see if he plans to publish the entire article somewhere.

Indeed, the notion of a distinct split between science and the humanities has long been fostered by those who implicitly assume that later generations will continue to be unable to cross the gap. CP Snow famously addressed this cultural divide, which he saw as unbridgeable.

Many in the humanities clutch this dichotomy to their breasts, frantically. They adore the notion of "eternal human verities" in order to preserve a notion of equality with scientists, who have achieved truly staggering things in the last two hundred years. (In contrast, what are the transforming discoveries in psychology or ethics or literature, that have made us truly different than we were, say, in the days of William James.)

This is of course sad, and a little pathetic. The phrase "eternal verities" must be one of the most loathsome and despicable notions ever perpetrated on ten thousand college campuses, pushing the view that children can never learn from the mistakes of their parents.

Of course, this contradicts the central aim of most literature! Do we not write moving works of prose in order to enlighten others, so they will empathize and thus learn from episodes of pain and error that they never personally experienced? This is the goal of great literature, and yet, the mavens of literary criticism hold that this goal can never be achieved on a grand scale. Genrations who read great tales of tragic error will never be edified enough to STOP making similar errors themselves.

Fortunately, the simplistic rigidity pushed by Kant and others has been decisively disproved. The sciences and the arts are perfectly capable of fruitful intercourse. While we weren't looking, the "gap" has been quietly vanishing - crossed eagerly by technically-trained artists and artistically inclined scientists.

Try this exercise. Go to a place like Caltech and poll both students and faculty. See what fraction of the population not only participate in some artistic pastime, but excel at it! I will wager the figure is more than 90%. And yet, this is never reported, so precious is the comforting image of hapless nerds who have surrendered much of their humanity in order to succeed at the dry realm of facts. Or poll former Caltech graduates to survey the relative success of their careers, income or marriages. Or even happiness and overall serenity. I'll wager they score highly (on average!) in every category.

There is no tradeoff. No hidden moral cost to science. Science CAN be dangerous, because it increases human power to do good or harm. But it is also the generator of such notions as emergent properties, and the positive sum game. The belief that things can get better. Especially if science does NOT become the amoral pack of nerds that so many romantics feel driven to portray it.

--See the next entry on Modernism--


Anonymous said...

I have a meta-comment:

The TYPEFACE these posts are displayed in is too frigging small. (Comments, too!)

The problem is compounded when the text is italicised.

The problem not my browser. It's default display font is quite readable. Some setting in Blogger is responsible. PLEASE fix this! Ideally, big blocks of text should be in a slightly larger serif font.


Anonymous said...

Stefan, just go to VIEW > TEXT SIZE > LARGER. Then you can enlarge the text on your own computer. (This works for IE in Windows; I don't know how this is done on a mac.)

Anonymous said...

I have no argument with this line of reasoning, but it seems to avoid the crucial question: namely, how to change the attitudes of students of the humanities - as you observe, the issue really doesn't arise from the science students, for the most part; but the dismissive defensiveness of most humanities educators & critics seems rather impenetrable.

Anonymous said...

-David Brin said:

"See what fraction of the population not only participate in some artistic pastime, but excel at it!"

Well, sure, everybody needs a hobby. But how many great scientists do you know that are also great artists ? Or vice versa ?
Among other factors it is the degree of dedication involved here that feeds romantic caricaturalism.

There is no obvious reason why cross-pollination between the sciences and the humanities should be taboo. Either can provide inspiration for the other.

Anonymous said...

Billmon's recent post on Strauss and the Straussians is quite germain to what David's been talking about in this series.

And as far as cross-pollination between science and the humanities goes, frank may be right. But not in the case of playwrites -- I've seen far, far too many plays that just butcher real science in the name of drama. The plays Proof, Humble Boy, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, just in my own limited experience. Stoppard may personally be the worst offender in terms of dumbing down real science for the popular palate. But what's even worse is when we get the "mad scientist" cliche. That's teh suck.

Anonymous said...

Bruce Sterling did an essay on the 'eternal verities' theme, picking apart John Updike's attempt at an SF novel:

The payoff stuff is in the last ten paragraphs.


Anonymous said...

>Chaos and complexity theory showed that no Laplace calculator could keep pace with the world's own unpredictable self-organization.

Err... No. See, Laplace postulated a demon whose knowledge went down to the last place of pi, so to speak. Under regular old chaos theory, that suffices to let the Demon more than keep pace, and ideed predict it. It's only when you drag in quantum mechanics, or weakened Demons which have only approximations that that quote even remotely approaches the truth.
Things like this prevent the two sides from really talking.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Brin -

What's wrong with amoral nerds?
I also happen to be a hard determinist.
I can be quite creative, and indeed have been encouraged in the arts in which I have engaged, but my love is in the mastery of facts.

That does not prevent me from being a modernist or a libertarian (funny that I should be a "libertarian" when the very word was stolen from the free will/determinism debate in the wake of the word "liberal" being hijacked).

This quote from Frederick Turner bothered me:
"To be free one must have free will."

Since when?

We need to distinguish between having less artificial restriction on choices and being able to choose between those choices truly freely.

Anonymous said...

If there are no eternal human verities then that means that everything is variable, including human nature. But we can not
deny being human. Does this not define certain boundaries ? And constants ?

Or does 'human nature' by definition mean 'infinitely flexible' ? What would this say about the future of morality ?

Or maybe there are verities but, they are not particularly human but universal in the widest possible sense ?

Anonymous said...

There is one humanistic discipline that tries its best to fit in with the sciences: philosophy in the British/American analytic tradition. Many philosophy departments in the US, and nearly all prestigious ones, are mostly concerned with finding significance and drawing conclusions within the scientific world view.

Anonymous said...

Eternal human verities eh? What's that? Does it commute with the Hamiltonian?

Anonymous said...

1. David seems to be out of date with the way literature is really taught beyond the level of high school.

Nobody creditable in University English Departments talks about "Eternal Human Verities" in the way he implies. Far from it, everyone's talking about how constructed everything is, to the point where it's hard to draw a line between assumptions and hard reality (which poses more of a problem, really, to dialogue between science and the humanities).

It's amusing that, in ranting about the divide between science and humanities, this misconception has been repeated over and over.

2. Isn't the point of eternal human verities that there are things deep down that don't change much? Or that haven't changed much since humans first appeared?

People are empathic, gregarious, inventive, are good mimics and problem solvers. Their flaws include a tendency towards short-sightedness, misinterpretation based on perceived patterns, and aggressive expansionism (not always a flaw, but often linked to tragedy)?

These are all insights about human nature I learned from reading science books, by the way.

Typeface looks fine here, by the way.

Anonymous said...

In addition...

It's a bit misguided to ask psychology or ethics or literature to provide the kind of changes that science has in the last two hundred years. However, if you look at the changes wrought by philosophy, literature, and psychology on the way we perceive ourselves, I think you'll have to agree a lot has changed in the last few thousand years—and often the change came in rapid bursts, and in ways equally or more profound to those ways science has changed us.

As for "the central aim of most literature", the Literary Mavens are going to be disagreeing at the outset. They're going to think it "sad" and "pathetic" that someone declared any one monolithic purpose of literature exists at all...

And they'll find it another sad and pathetic example of how scientists believe that they understand art and philosophy, but are themselves simply spewing silly "eternal literary verities". I agree that possibly up to 90% of students believe that they excel at some artistic hobby. Similarly, plenty of philosophy and lit and art majors think, when they read Fritjof Capra, that they understand science.

Science and art can have fruitful intercourse, but not with the majority of each camp deluded into thinking they know much more than they do about the other side. Unfortunately, more cross-training will be necessary, and this blog's author is no exception.

Finally, science is not the root of the idea that things can become better; at best, it borrowed and secularized the notion from Christian theology, who likewise stole it from the Greeks, and back on to some primeval sense of hope probably associated with the rush of endorphins one feels holding one's child. (The "modernist" secularization of this is a fine thing, of course, but let's not pretend scientists or modernists invented optimism; that would be patently ridiculous. Even amid fear and superstition and ignorance, hope and optimism always held on.)

Doc said...

What passes for science today is more what i would call applied engineering. There is however and exciting revelation in chemecology, where order of magnitude detection limits and facile sample prep promise to reveal a whole bunch of nature's intrinsic secrets.
I am a research chemist and a poet and invite your readers to visit my blog at .

Anonymous said...

@ Maru:
"It's only when you drag in quantum mechanics"

And you feel you can ignore quantum mechanics ? What are your arguments for doing so ?

David Brin said...

Obviously,when I spoke of "eternal verities" I was being overly general. Yes, there are things that are essentially human and merit continued exploration AS essential elements of being human.

And yet, the fundamental imulse OF a science fiction author is to hear something declared universal and then ask: "well... what if it ISN"T universal?" I think this is the thing that lit profs find most irritating about our genre.

ANd let there be no mistake. The huge hostility toward sci fi that is rampant in most lit and English depts is not imagined. It is fierce and relentless, except on maybe 2 dozen campuses that long ago chose to be different. e.e. U Kansas, Temple U., UC Riverside.

Back when a great many departments were taken over by crypto-marxists, the hostility was strange, because of course, Karl Marx was arguably the greatest sci fi author who ever lived. He wrote what must have been the most powerful "self-preventing prophecy".

(It is possible that the world WOULD have spiraled into proletariat revolution had his "novel" not warned of the scenario so vividly that western reformers acted vigorously to prevent that failure mode.)

In any event, just go to any of 500 universities and you will find an underpaid instructor without tenure who teaches the Sience Fiction class that brings in half of the department's non-major students and cash. But he/she will never ever get tenure. Now the rhetoric is not so much marxist as postmodernist-liberation theory.

And yes, there SEEMS to be a conflict between the watery vagueness of postmodernism and the notion of never-changing "eternal verities". But that conflict is does not prevent both from occupying primacy in these departments. Especially in France.

Finall, it is fine rhetoric to call scientists as ignotant about the humanities as artists and english profs are about science. It makes a nice balance...

... and it is simply wrong. Totally wrong. Demonstrably and profoundly wrong.

Those caltech students who are accomplished in some artistic pastime are ACCOMPLISHED in some artistic pastime. Granted, many of them are geniuses. SO? In being profoundly eclectic, they realized something.

If you want to be BOTH an artist and a scientist, you had better choose science as the vocation and art as the avocation, because art can forgive a lot of timeflexibility and occasional lack of discipline. Science does not easily forgive periods of murkiness or laxitude or riding on momentum. Anyway, art nurtures the soul when you are way down. Just when you are going to be really crappy at doing science.

They CAN be complementary, in other words. Just the opposite of the either-or zero-sum game pushed by many of those who spread the stereotype of science nerds.

Logically speaking, if you intend to do both, you will have science as your "day job". Anyway, that is the route that also pays better.

Hence it is no surprise to find spectacular artistic avocations among the best scientists. Concert violinists, painters, sculptors, ahem authors. That is where you would EXPECT to find polymaths.

This is not a screed denigrating art. Look at my words right and you see that I am calling for an end to the great divide. The notion that is pushed hardest by those who cannot cross it.

Anonymous said...

Good ole Davey Brin essayed:

"See what fraction of the population not only participate in some artistic pastime, but excel at it!"

Well said. And for obvious reasons -- as many have noted ere this, it's a whole lot easier for a scientist to pick up the basics of literature or art than for an artist or writer to pick up the basics of, oh, say, quantum chromodynamics...or molecular biology...or materials name it.

Bucky Fuller wrote about a splendid art show back in the late 60s. Some curator put the latest and most avant garde paintings side by side with electron photomicrographs. Lo and behold...deja vu.

That said, the divide twixt science and the arts remains vast and unbridgeable in one sense: every single effort at scientizing art has failed. And not just mildly failed. The failures have been catastrophic, persistent, colossal, and gigantic.

From the musical pseudoscience of Schoenberg and Robert Morris and earlier, less familiar names like John W. Keely (whose deliriously wacky postmortem website "Sympathetic Vibratory Physics" must be seen to be appreciated in all its demented lunacy), every time a scientist or musician has dipped hi/r toe into the arts, they wound up submerging into a tarpit of mindless numerology.

It's worth noting, incidentally, that the march of pseudoscience in the arts has actually gotten a littel better over the eons. Once upon a time, painters and scientists of the Renaissance actually believed that a mathematical theory of the visual arts could be constructed. Based on the Platonic elementary solids and Greek geometry, one of the great delusions of the Renaissance involved the effort to tease some sort of aesthetic significance from elementary geometric shapes or the arrrangement thereof. If a group of figures in a painting formed a triangle (so went 15th century reasoning), this made 'em beautiful. Alas, as the geometrically-arranged paintings of dogs playing poker prove so inescapably, it ain't that simple.

Sometime around the late 18th century the goal of scientizing the art of painting using Greek geometry and Platonic solids seems to have died a quiet death. Since then, little has been heard about the alleged vast aesthetic visual significance of small integers, geometric figures, and suchlike twaddle. With the exception of the occasional crank spouting the Golden Ratio, this particular form of visual gematria appears to have thankfully died out of our culture (though the astrologers and dowser and feng shui practitioners remain sadly omnipresent).

However, acoustic gematria remains a thriving cottage industry. Alogn with its kidding cousin, musical atonal set theory, these forms of mindless numerology continue to consume the time and energy of countless young composers who might otherwise be doing something productive with their lives... Like, oh, say, composing music using other than numerological conjurations.

As for po-mo litcrit "theory," at least it has the good grace not to consider itself "scientific." And if any of Foucault's or Derrida's followers ever deluded themselves into fantasizing that their word-games had any connection with science, Sokal's hoax must have disabused 'em of that notion.

Nonetheless, the relentless effort to mathematize the arts remains a curse under which music-lovers and art-lovers nowadays must suffer. Fortunately, like Welteislehre in the 30s and orgone therapy in the 50s and the Satanic child molestation panic of the 80s, we can console ourselves with the expectation that "This too shall pass..."