What is Truth? Science, Identity, and Imagination

During a stout and whiskey session with one of my regular interlocutors, JV, the kind of session where you push each other through various adversarial positions on philosophy and politics, the inevitable question came up: What is truth?

At that juncture in the floating debate, JV was in the pure science posture and the question was thrown at me. How can I assign any truth value to mythological systems (including religious ones) that have no scientific basis? And if I persist in such foolishness, how can I turn around and defend science against its contemporary critics from the Right (of the anti-evolution, climate denier sort) and from the Left (the “you don’t know my truth” identity politics that rejects the universals of science and reason and shared humaness, and indeed anything science might say that is politically unsavory at the moment, as vestiges of a racist patriarchy)?

To which I pled guilty on all three counts – the defense of mythological systems against science-based attacks, the defense of science against attacks from today’s political Right and Left, and, most boldly, claiming no contradiction to my impromptu epistemological system.

On the first count, I believe reality is more than just a collection of objects in this space we call the universe. Sure, that’s a big part of it, but lived reality is more complicated – at a minimum we can say it includes objective and subjective aspects. Science studies the “objective world” and has great analytical power within that scope. But science oversteps its scope when it claims that the “objective world” is the “real world period” and that there is nothing else to our lived experience. I propose that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world. Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from her abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. It’s not at all clear to me that the subjective aspects of lived reality – art, justice, ethics, the felt joy of love and friendship, and the felt pain of loss and betrayal, are really reducible to (although they may be correlated to) scientific data about neurons.

It’s not at all clear to me that the rich unconscious landscapes of Greek mythology or Blake’s visionary poetry, or the subjective-centered critique of empiricism in Kant’s philosophy, teach us less about lived reality than Darwin. To call the scientist’s abstraction of the world “the real world period” is to falsely assign it a metaphysical status, confusing one abstract way of looking at lived reality with the presumed metaphysical ground of lived reality itself.

Imagine we’ve isolated the electronic arc in the brain that corresponds to falling in love. Turns out, every time someone falls in love, electricity fires across this arc. Now we open someone’s brain and you see the arc. Which is more “real”? The subjective feeling you got when you fell in love or the electrical arc in the localized time-space of a certain lobe of the brain? It seems to me that the scientist observing the arc may have her finger on an objective correlative to the feeling of falling in love, but it is still just an objective correlative. She can use it to study “being in love” and get information about it, but “being in love” is now being viewed “from the outside.” We have shifted the interface. We are now working from the vantage point of the “objective” abstraction of reality and see the objective aspects of being in love. This may prove a very useful study, but it will never, no matter how many studies you do and no matter how subtle your analysis of the arc becomes, it will never give you the actual feeling of being in love. This feeling is by nature out of scope for an analytical tool that evolved to express information about the objective aspect of reality.

The scientist gives us truths about the objective world, but the great mythological systems offer “truths” about lived experience that fall outside the scope of science. I put “truths” in quotes to avoid confusion. Myths do NOT give us scientific truths and indeed are often demonstrably false from a scientific perspective. I am not saying that they can compete with science on its own turf. No, when it comes to explaining the physical world, science rules. But “truths” about lived reality can be found in Greek mythology (for example) nonetheless. Indeed, the narrow definition of “truth” in the sense of scientific fact has only become the dominant sense in the past few hundred years. For most of pre-Enlightenment history, the pursuit of such truth about the physical world was a mere sidebar to the study of what were perceived as deeper inquiries into spiritual and intellectual truths.

In saying that science rules in determining truths about the physical world but that a broader sense of “truth” is needed to get at lived reality in its fullness, I have already segued to the second charge against me. How can I defend science against today’s critics from the political Right and Left? The defense against the Right is easy. Evolution and climate change are physical world studies. To claim, e.g., that the Bible has equal stature to science in studying the objective mechanisms of the physical world implies a gross misunderstanding of the difference between physical reality and lived reality, between the two senses of truth (the narrow sense, wherein science rules, and the broad sense, which concerns lived reality more broadly). Whether you agree with me or not, it is easy to synchronize this defense of science against the political Right with my defense of the great mythological systems. My defense of those systems in no way suggests that they be called upon to provide factual data about the physical world.

The defense of science against the political Left takes a similar path. There is a tendency in postmodernism (and I don’t want to reduce it to this tendency but this is the relevant tendency in the present discussion) to see truth as socially constructed. And if truth is socially constructed, science as an arbiter of truth is a social construct that can and must be interrogated. Now apply identity politics to this interrogation and you might conclude that science (and other Enlightenment formations) are not the conduits of general truths about physical reality but are formations that serve the dominant ideology (i.e., white supremacist patriarchy). This, if I may quote Henry Fielding, is “a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.” It is my position that the scientific method, no less than math, helps us to draw universal conclusions about the objective world. By “universal” I don’t mean “certain.” Theories need to be revised, and science can sometimes be hijacked for political purposes, but the basic conclusions of evidence-based science, like gravity, apply regardless of what this or that tribe or social demographic thinks. A very large point of the Enlightenment was to articulate tools that can get us beyond those tribal definitions of truth and worth, which had locked people for so long in darkness and prejudice and distrust across demographic lines. I believe my friends on the identity politics Left make a mistake when they try (however inadvertently) to lead us back down that road.

The final charge against me – the potential contradiction of my defense against science on the one hand and my defense of science on the other – should have resolved itself in the previous paragraph. For clarity, though, I will add that my defense of science against today’s political Left and Right does not negate my earlier defense of those image-filled systems that explore what Carl Jung calls “the subjective inner world … the instinctive data of the dark primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness.” Indeed, to the list of ancient Greek mythmakers and modern visionary poets, I will add this thought by LSD guru, Timothy Leary: “Myth is a report from the cellular memory bank. Myths humanize the recurrent themes of evolution.”

Gaston Bachelard, sometime science professor who became the Chair of Philosophy at the Sorbonne, talked at times about two axes in his epistemology: “the axes of poetry and of science.” The power driving the first axis, the axis of poetry, is imagination. If today’s seekers of truth are going to right the ship of planet earth, they need to give up the politicized definitions of truth. They need to respect the tremendous capacity of science to give us valuable information about our world that transcends tribe and reminds us of our shared humanness. And they need to recognize imagination as the power than can exceed science as it harnesses the vitality of those “invisible roots of consciousness” to visions of social reality that transcend tribal divisions and bring us all together for the next stage.

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Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

4 stars out of 5

Pinker’s big push for the Enlightenment values that got us where we are is the right message at the right time. Not perfect, mind you. Pinker’s cheerleading for capitalism goes a little overboard and understates the problems commensurate with it. His treatment of cultural movements that press against the Enlightenment, such as Romanticism, are at times astonishingly simplistic. Enough so to undermine his credibility in isolated passages. When he criticizes Thomas Piketty’s landmark Capital in the 21st Century, Pinker has a point in that Piketty’s emphasis on wealth inequality elides the improvements in material life that have carried all classes forward. But Piketty’s willingness to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of late capitalism makes his work seem more impartial overall, less slanted than Pinker’s. The charts and counter-charts that make Piketty’s book more tedious and less readable than Pinker’s more informal tome also make Piketty’s analysis seem more balanced and complete.

Overall, though, Pinker’s own core thesis is persuasive and exceedingly timely. After all, the Right has always had a deeper investment in religious and authoritarian structures that cut against the Enlightenment’s commitment to open inquiry and to a principle of individual freedom that transcends religion, region, or demographic. It is only recently that the postmodern Left has joined in the attack, often renouncing the Enlightenment standards of universal truth (accessible to reason and science) and condemning the Enlightenment-based liberal Western democracies as hopelessly enmired in racism, sexism, and other oppressive formations. In this regard, Pinker’s pushback against the Left as well as the Right is spot on. Despite the obvious bumps along the way, and bumps that are still with us, the Enlightenment, with its philosophical message of universal rights over tribalism and of the universal standards of reason and science, has resulted in the most humane, anti-sexist, and racially tolerant sensibility in social history. This is measurable in Pinker’s statistical graphs (and most visibly of late in the Washington Post’s worldwide survey-based map). That there were bumps and contradictions along the way, that challenges of social justice are still with us, is no reason to attack the foundation of the Enlightenment and of the Western liberal democracies that go along with it. Indeed, it would be preposterous to expect no bumps, no contradictions and challenges. We need to improve, perhaps even to do so at a revolutionary pace, but we need to start by working with what we have, not throwing it all overboard and creating a vacuum for some less Enlightenment-based power formation to move in.

     piketty

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Don’t blame me — it’s human nature

Tackling the current obsession with “fake news,” a recent Science magazine study (Science 09 Mar 2018) concluded that false stories indeed spread more rapidly on the Internet than true ones, but not because the algorithms are rigged against us. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

This conclusion may be comforting in that it keeps the HAL 9000 at bay for a time, but may be unnerving for what it says about human nature. Let me seize this unnerving moment as the occasion to review of Enlightenment theories of human nature. After all, the Enlightenment, with its investment in the scientific method and evidence-based epistemology, with its tenet of universal rational principles as a foundation for universal rights, represents the beginning of our age, an age now under attack, some would say, by a postmodern epistemology.

Enlightenment thinkers looked for the roots of human nature at its origin. What was the human condition in a state of nature? Start there and maybe we can unravel the rest.

For the late 17th-century Hobbes, left on our own in a state of nature, we would find life “nasty, brutish, and short.” In a word, we’re a bad lot, which is why we’ve had to build up all this civilizing infrastructure over the millennia.

Some decades later, Rousseau, perhaps a more Romantic spirit, held that human beings in a state of nature were “noble savages,” intrinsically good until so-called civilization corrupted their natural goodness.

From Voltaire’s point of view – and I’m thinking mainly of Candide (from memory) – both Hobbes and Rousseau seem a little silly, dogmatic. Everywhere Candide goes, he finds a mix of generous people and self-interested people. Neither nature nor nurture matters very much. Wherever you go, cross-culturally, you will be mistaken (comically so if you are in a Voltaire narrative) if you expect to find a collective human nature that is idealized and you will be mistaken if you expect to find seamless corruption. We’re a mixed bag wherever you find us.

So take your pick: a darkly driven human nature that needs external structures and traditions, an idealized human nature that needs to throw off the shackles of civilized society, or an irreducibly mixed nature.

Ah, but the article in Science. We may be neither programmed for generous behavior nor for selfish behavior, but it’s hard to read the article and think that we are not programmed for stupid behavior. Maybe we need to call in the HAL 9000 after all.

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Hippies, Wholeness, and Human Touch

If you look at clips of hippies from the Summer of Love or Woodstock or their post-60s communes, you see, the sexual liberation of the times aside, lots of non-sexual touching and hugging. In the hippie zeitgeist, human touch was one of the primary glues of communal oneness. Physical touch was not just symbolic of healing and unity. It was the physical joy of human connection itself. It not only symbolized but manifested oneness with our fellow beings on the level of all the sheaths of identity (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual). You could feel the bonds. Besides the cosmic, hippyish explanation, this may simply be evolution. For millions of years, grooming and snuggling and other forms of touch have defined primate behavior.But as with so many things in the hippie spring of the 1960s, the reinvestment in physical touch was part of a social vision, a push toward a society that was less materialistic but richer in human contact.

Nowadays, the focus on sexual harassment has brought shame to many who long deserved it, but has also raised a question for us hippie sympathizers: Was there a utopian naivete about the hippie zeitgeist on touch? Can it be exploited by those who would sexually harass? That is certainly a risk, and the anti-harassment movement we see today is a corrective to that risk. But I fear the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Along with those who are justly punished, there seems a sense building that any touch on the shoulder or forearm, is a blip on a gradient that ends in rape. We have moved from seeing “human touch” as one of the great healing and redemptive powers at our disposal to seeing it as something intrinsically dark.

I don’t want to overstate my case. I understand that no one is proposing that all human touch be marked negative. But is that becoming the new default setting? In our eagerness to right wrongs, is “potentially toxic” becoming the first thing we think of when one human being touches another? Come to think of it, a lot of default settings seem to be moving the needle to “toxic.” Masculinity is increasing portrayed as toxic in itself, invested in violence and power and subjugation; heterosexual sex is seen as vaguely toxic, and even women with straight heterosexual desire should feel a little guilty for being complicit in the heteronormative patriarchy. Such are the times, at least as they are being engineered by the theories coming out of academic identity departments.

But touch, I hate to see touch go. Whereas the push in the 60s was for a society richer in physical human contact, the push now would seem to presage a society that valorizes a decrease in physical human contact. Granted the naivete of the hippie zeitgeist had a vulnerability that could be exploited, I just worry about the pendulum swinging too far. I am uneasy about the demise of that hippie optimism about human nature and human connection. I worry that the beauty of human touch will be lost in a new age of puritanism. I worry that this new idea we have of the integrity of the isolated individual – some would say an idea that really only emerged 100 years ago with the existentialist philosophers – that this idea puts us at odds with millions of years of evolution, in which identity formed as part of a group, with constant tactile confirmation giving “wholeness” to that identity.

A society depleted of that tactile confirmation may indeed make individuals safer,and there is an absolute value there that gives pause to my own thesis. That value alone makes today’s anti-harassment movement potentially a great positive in our effort to “form a more perfect union.” But great positives can become negatives without moderating voices, just as the heady liberation of the French Revolution (1789) morphed into the Reign of Terror (1793). Without a Martin Luther King or a Gandhi, the passion of protest can turn unprofitably violent. And if Facebook posts are any indication, there are certainly some cultural warriors out there harboring a little of the Robespierre bloodthirst. So yes, I am all for the increased safety that might result from the anti-harassment movement, but be aware that a lack of moderation always comes with its own risks. The risk in this case is a more general fear of human contact. People may slowly become more isolated, alone, bereft of the redemptive power that has always saved us from our fragmentary, individual lives and given us a pathway to fulfillment that only comes viscerally, through abundance of human contact.

Photo credit: Peter Simon (http://www.petersimon.com/)

              

Out on a Limb: Sexual Harassment, Race, and the Unsinkable Mr. Trump

Mixed feelings on sexual harassment in the news stories of the day. It’s good to see those who routinely harass getting caught and going down in greater numbers. But I do worry about a loss of perspective. If there are 50 million married couples in the US, and you asked how many started with (a) venturing a kiss in the hopes that it would be reciprocal, or (b) asking permission for a kiss, I’m guessing that at least 49 million would say (a). By today’s standards, that means 49 million marriages started with an act of sexual harrassment. Similarly, by the standards of California’s “yes means yes” law, I believe every sex act I’ve ever had would be a rape, since I never explicitly asked or received a verbal permission. In fact, since I align with 1960s feminists (who proclaim for women equal strength and agency with men) more than with current feminists (who more often risk infantilizing women for political gain), I’d have to say every sex act was a mutual rape, since I also did not explicitly say “yes, it’s OK” before the act. This is what I mean by a loss of perspective. I am not sure of my position because tides and definitions change so quickly on the topic, so I’m open to feedback. It’s been too long, anyway, since we’ve allowed each other to air out unfinished thoughts openly in the public sphere without triggering the hegemonic machinery of shame and condemnation. So for all those who would like to see a little more tolerance and openness, maybe even a little more play and freewheeling chaos, in the greater communal idea exchange, I’ll go out on that limb.

Now to turn from sexual harassment to “rape culture,” here too it’s good to see rapists nailed as often as we can nail them, and forcible rape should be “one strike you’re out” with no hope of parole. But blaming it on “rape culture” gives me pause. I didn’t grow up thinking rape was OK until someone taught me otherwise. I think most men are horrified by the thought of rape without having to be “taught” that it is wrong. Those who need to be “taught” that harming innocent people is wrong may already be hopeless. This doesn’t mean I’m against educating people – and boys in particular – about where the line is or how certain behaviors make women feel – but keep it in perspective. Blaming “rape culture” or Western culture in general is like blaming black culture when a black man commits a crime or Islamic culture when an Islamic terrorist strikes. Broadening the blame so widely takes the focus off of the criminal, and elides all laws and social forces aligned to punish rapists and other criminals without broad-brushing the rest of the group with guilt by association. And there’s also the problem of blurring categories. It seems in the media that “rape culture” is a vague umbrella under which crude jokers and clumsy suitors are more or less lumped in with brutal rapists, which may not be the best way to focus the efforts of a wide range of people.  I sympathize with the goal of calling attention to and clamping down on sexual assault, but I’m not yet convinced that the broad brush of “rape culture” is the right tool.

While I’m out on that precarious limb, I fear a similar loss of perspective on race. Per the Black Lives Matter focus on cops and black suspects, I am glad there’s a watchdog to insure an investigation when a suspect is killed. Given our history, it makes sense to have a watchdog group with a particular eye on black suspects who are killed. A demand that an investigation take place, and evidence be gathered and presented in court, is totally fair. A demand for a guilty verdict before a trial takes place seems a bridge too far, but it seems a bridge many routinely cross nowadays.  I’m reluctant to use an individual criminal case as a venue to redress social problems. I have friends both liberal and conservative who seem more eager than I am to take sides up front based on preconceived notions about race relations. But even if those preconceived notions are correct, not every white cop is a racist and not every young black man is a thug. With individual lives at stake, specific cases should not be prejudged on political grounds. At least that seems a good general rule. As political currents shift, grand juries and juries of peers seem a safer long-term bet than guilt assigned and convictions demanded before investigations take place.

Tiptoeing still further out on my limb, I will say that I think in the wake of Trump’s election, some of my liberal brothers and sisters have generally taken their eye off the ball on how to address persistent racial inequality. I think this stems from a misreading of Trump’s supporters. Sure, the hard-core racists who never vote Democrat voted Trump, but my theory (coming from a conservative part of the country where probably 40% of my friends and family voted Trump) is that most people who voted for Trump did so because (a) they always vote Republican regardless of the name of the ballot, or (b) they were sick of Democrats and Republicans and political correctness, and Trump seemed to them an outsider who would cut through the crap. In the case of the white working class, they were sick of being told by liberals that they were racist, sexist dolts who were overloaded with unearned privileges. I think voting for Trump was a mistake, but one that is explicable without appeal to racist, sexist xenophobia.

Once Trump votes were marked as a simple indicator of widespread racism and misogyny, the damage was done to the liberal mindset. In facing persistent racial inequities, focus on schools and economic opportunity in specific areas seems to have shifted to a focus on a vast conspiracy of white supremacists. In a word, liberals went back to fighting the battle of the 1960s. As unpopular as it sounds, white people’s hatred and prejudice against black people is not the biggest inhibitor to racial equity today. Although there is some of that, and it has perhaps been hardened in recent years by an unfortunate backlash against a relentlessly race-conscious identity politics, there are still few actual white supremacists. The big national call for a white supremacist gathering in Tennessee a few weeks ago brought in a total of 300 people from around the country. These knuckleheads have been increasingly marginalized since the 60s. As Charles Barkley said, if ignored, these 300 idiots gathered from around the country could talk stupid to each other for a couple of hours and then go home with no one ever noticing. Our new crop of liberals raised on identity politics, though, have vastly enhanced the prestige of those 300 idiots, telling them that America in general is a white supremacist nation that has their back. I fear that today’s liberals are rapidly reversing the gains in consciousness we made in the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. By the end of the 70s, I’d say very few white people I knew really thought whites were genetically superior to blacks, and even those few would not admit it in public. Yes, there are still inequities that need to be addressed, yes there are still pockets of racial prejudice, but overall we’d gone a very long way toward marginalizing KKK thinking. (As Professor Cornel West once said on a talk show appearance while seated next to some klan members, “The KKK doesn’t represent white people; they represent morons.”) Sadly, the new liberal idea that everyone is a white supremacist moves in the other direction, giving those few KKK idiots an enormous microphone. The unpopular truth is that most corporate entities are eager to recruit women and minorities, if for no other reason than the edge it gives them when seeking big government contracts and major clients. The major obstacle for these corporate entities is finding enough women or minorities who have been well-prepared for board seats or top-level positions. We need to work on getting women and minorities well-educated from the ground level, well-prepared professionally – schools, mentoring, and economic conditions on the streets – this will serve better than marching against the till recently quite marginalized idiots of the KKK.

So let’s take the spotlight off the idiots, and off of the supposedly entrenched demographic differences that falsely present us as enemies, and see each other anew. Obama, in 2008, probably gave the best speech since Martin Luther King on the issue of race:

“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren. This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.”

It’s hard to tell whether Obama is schooling prospective Trump voters or identity politics liberals in this appeal, but let’s hope it’s a little of both. We need to stop the nonsense, see the good in each other, and get to work. Forget about all the theoretical divisiveness and do what it takes to make this school or that neighborhood better with an eye not on the past but on the immediate future.