Fallacies of Science

To the scientists in my circle: I’m more with you than you think. I don’t doubt for a minute the value of science. I find it absurd, e.g., that some people think religious texts can compete with science as a source of information about how the physical world works. But I like to amuse myself by playing watchdog for my scientific friends.

Even in my watchdog role, I can raise no objections to the scientific method, or to the analytical power that science has to unpack the facts and processes of the physical world. But as self-appointed guardian at the gates, I propose the following fallacies often committed by the scientifically-minded – all, again, fallacies of application or of scope, not intended to impeach the core value of the scientific method but to snap at the heels of scientists — and even our most admirable scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking — when they make claims that go beyond the scope of their expertise.

The fallacy of metaphysical (external) scope

As I’ve argued elsewhere in this fine blog, 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 anything else is nonsense, thus implying that science is the one and only path to truth.

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.

(Don’t the abstractions called “objects” in computer science suggest as much? A computer program at Tulane may, and probably does, have an “object” called Wayne xxx. This object is an abstraction that consists of a character string (name), numeric string (birthdate), etc. A different database—say that of the IRS—may also have an object called Wayne xxx but with different characteristics abstracted. The physical scientist, like the computer scientist, studies only those details relevant to his or her level of abstraction. But scientists sometimes forget this and make claims that go “beyond scope.”)

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.

The fallacy of substantive (internal) scope

Let’s look more narrowly at the role science plays within the scope of the objective world it studies. It mines and generates much knowledge about the physical world, and for that we are grateful. But how much of its substantive area does it really grasp? Even at its present power, it only nibbles the tip of the iceberg. Take the human body. Medical science knows much more about the body’s processes than it knew 350 years ago, when the Age of Science really started coming on line. We look back at the 17th century as a kind of dark ages of leeches and blood-letters. Isn’t it obvious that science will expand its knowledge base just as rapidly, if not more rapidly, in the centuries to come? Won’t they look back at us with the same amusement, as a people nobly gathering knowledge but remarkably primitive in what we had gathered?

This telescopic view from the future should give us pause before we leap. Just a few decades ago, “science” was telling us that it could produce a baby formula more nutritious than mother’s milk. For every “well-tested” drug on the market, there’s a class action lawsuit addressing unintended consequences of that drug. One doesn’t have to be religious to believe that there is a vast (evolved) intelligence at work in the human body and in nature, and that science has only mapped a few percentage points of what is really going on in these systems. Don’t get me wrong – a few percentage points is better than no percentage points, and I’m all for science expanding its knowledge base. But when it comes to applying that knowledge, I take a humbler approach than some more eager proponents of science. The pro-implementation argument I most hear is that the things to be deployed have been tested exhaustively in study after study. Although this may be true, it is limited by context. If scientific understanding of its subject area (in this case the human body and the natural world) has leaped from 1% to 5% in the past few hundred years, it has still mapped just the tip of the iceberg, and still leaves enormous territory unexplored. So when you test exhaustively for results and side-effects, you are only really testing within the zone you understand. There are so many collateral aspects of human and natural ecological systems that are undiscovered that it is sheer arrogance to say that we’ve tested by 2015 standards and thus pronounce such-and-such safer and more effective than Mother Nature.

How does this translate to policy? If you have a serious illness, by all means draw upon that scientific knowledge base and try a scientific cure. If you have a less serious illness, you may be better off trusting to the body’s natural healing mechanisms, insofar science has only scratched the surface on how these mechanisms work, and tampering with biochemical processes may do more harm than good. I and everyone will have to judge this case by case, but by no means am I willing to conclude that science understands every aspect of how the body works and has therefore tested and measured every collateral effect for a particular drug or procedure.

On a tricky subject such as GMO foods, I am not as rabidly anti- as some of my hippie-ish brethren, but not as naively optimistic as some of my scientist friends. I like the idea of scientists building a knowledge base on this topic. But when it comes to implementation, I tend to keep one foot on the brakes, especially since radical changes can now be implemented globally and with much greater speed than in centuries past. I’m not at all convinced that science in its current state understands all the collateral processes of nature well enough to make the “exhaustively tested” claim. Or, to go back to our telescope of time, isn’t it possible that scientists 200 years from now will look back and shake their heads in amusement at our “exhaustively tested” claims?

And I haven’t even gotten to the corruptive influence of money and big corporations when it comes to what substantive areas of scientific inquiry will be funded and how results will be implemented. There may be something like a “fallacy of scientific purity” embedded here.

The fallacy of epistemological scope

Here, I use epistemology broadly as the quest for knowledge – almost, one could say, the quest for self-actualization that drives human reality, if not every aspect of reality. British Romantic poets will be my outside reference point here. The Romantics saw the development of self-knowledge, or self-actualization, in three stages. In Blake, these correspond to an Age of Innocence, Age of Experience, and an Age of Redeemed Imagination. In the Age of Innocence, we access knowledge through the fantastic mechanism of imagination, which keeps us in a state of wonder but leaves us naïve about the world and easily exploited. In the Age of Experience, we begin to access knowledge through reason and science, gaining factual knowledge that makes us less naïve and more worldly, but with that worldliness comes a cynicism, a sense of world-weariness, a sense of loss, of fallenness. Indeed, the Romantic world view at times seems to equate the world of Experience, the world of objective facts, with the world in its deadened aspect. The trick in Blake is to find the turn into a third stage, wherein the power of imagination re-engages at a mature level, re-animates the dry world of abstract facts, and saves us from the cynicism of Experience. In a word, we can put the scientific-type knowledge of Experience into perspective. We can still see its value but without being constrained by it in our quest for self-actualization. In Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” this plays out as the innocence of “boyish days” (73), experience “‘mid the din / Of towns and cities” (25-26), and the “tranquil restoration” of the mature poet (30). In the third stage, the sensory raptures of youth and the worldly knowledge of experience have both lost their traction. Specifically, the poet has lost the pleasure of immediacy but has gained the power of inward reflection. The “sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused” (95-96) is reserved for the third stage, and indeed is specifically used as a counterpoint to the sensory appreciation and worldly knowledge of earlier phases.

These 3 stages can easily be projected beyond the individual onto the cultural or even the cosmic screen. Blake, with his Jungian vision of the archetypal sources of consciousness, readily applies it to the cosmic level. I’ll apply it to the level of cultural history by saying that the Age of Science fits the second stage very well. Science emerged as the dominant epistemology around the late 17th century, putting to bed some childish theories and introducing us to a more worldly-wise engagement with the physical world. Who knows when this Age of Science will end, but when it does, perhaps then we will enter the Age of Aquarius I’ve promoted only half tongue-in-cheek. And perhaps then we will look back at the Age of Science as Blake or Wordsworth look back at their middle stage – as an epistemological period that starts out liberating but eventually binds our imaginations, makes us a little cynical about the possibilities of self-actualization, chains us to what Plato calls “the prison-house” of materialism. So the fallacy of epistemological scope is the fallacy of myopically seeing only that force of knowledge that is present in the middle period, whereas true wisdom may be broader than that. It may be that the innocent child and the mature poet can grasp things about reality that are inaccessible to the purely scientific mind.

The watchdog sleeps

So those are my fallacy sketches for my scientific friends. Now pause and ponder.

rachael art - bad day

 And if in your pondering, you find yourself viewing me with the gaze of the character above (provided by the talented Rachael Gautier), remember: When my watchdog shift ends, I’m more on your side than you think. At least you can take comfort that in the next U.S. election I will be voting for the party that takes science seriously and not the party that seems perpetually at war with science. Meanwhile, I’m happy to revise, especially if a particular Ukrainian physicist I know will home-brew another batch of Russian Imperial Stout to facilitate the review process.

On Edmund Burke

Reading Iain Hampshire-Monk’s review of The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke by David Bromwich, I noted Bromwich’s comment that “no serious historian today would repeat the commonplace that Burke was the father of modern conservatism.” Picking out “the father of modern conservatism” does pose difficulties, as such abstract categories as “liberal” and “conservative” are context-sensitive and shift dramatically over time, and picking a single “winner” from among the contestants implies a bit of a game-show approach to history. But to play the game and see where it leads, I confess that some of my own publications support the notion of Burke as the father of modern conservatism, at least if that means providing a modern substructure for conservatism.

My line of reasoning (drawing heavily on Burke’s seemingly apolitical treatise on the sublime) was that the 18th century saw rapid erosion of objective social hierarchies as a legitimating discourse in favor of subjective registers – from empiricism’s egalitarian emphasis on the five senses to the Cult of Sensibility novels, wherein “nobility” is established by personal character and not birthright – all tending toward the subjectivism of Kant. Pre-modern conservatives clung to the old hierarchical thinking of the Great Chain of Being. Burke, though, could see the writing on the wall. The new playing field was the field of subjective registers. Kant and Wordsworth (liberally, in my reading) use the new subjectivism to demystify those old hierarchical power structures and empower the individual. Burke, on the other hand, brings conservatism to modernity by updating its ideological support system. He leaves the mystification of objective power sources intact but articulates a subjective and modern ground of authority for that mystification. First and foremost, he does this through his emphasis on the “second nature” of learned behaviors and received traditions folded into our very identities. But one can see it also in how his aesthetic theory shifts the locus of “the sublime” from the neoclassical objective markings to subjective registers of power, terror, etc. In so many ways, he shores up the dignity of traditional institutions and gives them a foothold in the modern playing field. Thus when Enlightenment radicals like Paine and Wollstonecraft would replace monarchy and aristocratic birthrights with rational democratic principles, Burke countered with the  subtlety and forethought that laid the ground for modern conservatism. At least that’s one way of looking at it.

Gary Gautier, “Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian in Context: Gothic Villains, Romantic Heroes, and a New Age of Power Relations,” Genre 32 (1999): 201-34.

Gary Gautier, Landed Patriarchy in Fielding’s Novels (Edwin Mellen Press, 1998), chapter 3.

Romantics in the House

Long ago, I saw the 3’ x 4’ painting below in the jumble of cats and canvas and old wine bottles at Cheryl‘s home studio, and I fussed and flattered and cajoled until she finally said, “Aw, hell, just take it.” In lieu of cash, I give her this tribute of thoughts.

bayou lafourche1 Depending on the time of day or my vantage point as I walk by, it strikes different aesthetic keys from the abstract to the representational. Sometimes my eye catches firefly flecks of color randomly appearing in the textured darkness (a rich blue darkness not well captured here) – but with brushstrokes too large and thick for flecks — more like thumbprints pressed in. Sometimes I absorb it in its representational aspect, as a personalized vision of Bayou Lafourche. In this aspect, it’s like having a trace of the Romantic movement hanging at the bottom of my black spiral staircase, with those impressionistic flecks resting upon the older, richer colors of a Romantic base, a remote natural scene full of darkness and depth, but at the place of greatest depth, the vanishing point at center left, we’re lost not in darkness but in a patch of dim light. Still, the light does not dominate. This is not an airy or ethereal painting. The darkness, the thickness of the atmosphere, the closeness and earthbound quality dominates. The sense of losing oneself in the depth of nature strikes a romantic register, but it strikes a note more brooding than festive.

Compare to Kyle’s 4’ x 6’ triptych (“Ghosts in the Range,” referenced also in my entry on the 4 sheaths) on the side wall of the same room for a different kind of Romanticism.

kyle cropped1Kyle’s vision follows Blake, bringing into focus a Romantic recapitulation of classical themes – archetypal, cosmic, eternal symmetries rolling through, or out from, the sunspot Magna Mater at the center. Cheryl’s painting, on the other hand, triggers the moody pensiveness of a Wordsworth or Coleridge, a mysterious personal communion with some local and obscure and fleeting corner of nature. If the Romantic aesthetic is the sublime aesthetic, I’m not even sure I can call Cheryl’s landscape style sublime. Kyle better fits the Kantian model of the sublime (Critique of Judgment), where one is overwhelmed by the tremendous power (Kant’s dynamical sublime, as in creation or destruction on a massive scale) or tremendous size (Kant’s mathematical sublime, as in the infinity of stars in the clear night sky) of the representation at hand. Then again, if the defining affect of the sublime is the affect of being overwhelmed, Cheryl’s painting might give a different, internalized version of the same, where one is overwhelmed not by any vast external power but by a brooding melancholia within that swells and swamps in its own local space until it overwhelms in its own right.

Either way, each of these paintings replays in its own way the Romantic push off the more neatly contained rational pleasure of the neoclassical aesthetic, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have both in my house where they keep folding themselves ever more deeply into my unconscious. Cheryl and Kyle, you’ve wormed into my psyche “like a maggot in a nut,” as Mr. Bounderby says of himself in Dickens’s Hard Times, which I assume is an old English way of saying that you’ve pretty much gotten in and not getting out. Works for me.

(Compare to my thoughts on other New Orleans artists, Thomas Morrison and Sarah Dunn.)

Wordsworth and Kafka

Another path from classical to romantic to existential…

The classical ideal, epitomized say in Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, offers a closed system of perfect beauty, gives that calm rational pleasure that comes with the compound of beauty and completeness. The impact of a romantic piece like Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, on the other hand, comes specifically from a lack of closure. It is full of longing, and longing is by definition longing for something out of reach; the beauty is not the perfect beauty of a closed system but the melancholic beauty that comes with a conspicuous lack of closure, a sense that the system is incomplete, that what we desire is forever out of its scope.

Compare this to Wordsworth and Kafka, icons of Romanticism and existentialism, respectively. Both break from the classical ideal of a closed system of perfect beauty, but they break differently. For the Romantic poet, the world holds enormous meaning, warrants enormous feelings beyond the reach of the classical’s neat rational boundaries. But that locus of meaning, of feeling, is at a depth that we can sense but never quite reach. When Wordsworth speaks of the “meanest flower” that “can give / thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (“Intimations Ode”), the melancholic tone comes from an incomplete desire. The poem is not a closed system of perfect beauty, but a locus of longing, ever pointing to something outside of itself. But if “too deep” locates the object of desire ever at a distance, there is no doubt in Wordsworth as to its substantive presence:

…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
(“Tintern Abbey”)

Kafka and the existentialists create narratives that seem more romantic than classical in that they too rely on a conspicuous lack of closure. The meaning sought is forever beyond the scope of the system they are trapped within. But whereas Wordsworth reaches out from the system to grasp a meaning whose “presence” is too large or too deep for him to get his hands around, Kafka’s K (The Castle) and Joseph K (The Trial) reach out from the system for a meaning that is not present at all but absent. That locus of meaning, that presence that validates the depth of human feeling, was for Wordsworth too big (Kant’s mathematical sublime) or too powerful (Kant’s dynamical sublime) to be contained in classical symmetries but for Kafka it is infinitesimally small. It is an empty vanishing point and nothing more.

If I could draw diagrams in WordPress, or set up toolbar icons on my own computer program, I’d say picture a pearl that fits perfectly in someone’s hand as our classical icon. Click it to play Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Now picture a second icon in which the pearl has become a sphere the size of a planet under the person’s feet, far too large to grasp or hold or even imagine in its entirety, however one might long to do so. That is our Romantic icon. Click to open Wordsworth. Now the sphere disappears and the person is floating in empty space. Click for Kafka.

Darkness and Melancholia

Romantic and Existentialist: Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness

I had to expedite this sequel to Von Trier’s Melancholia after a pleasant give-and-take with Paul Adkin in the comment section. There is certainly a romantic lacing to Melancholia, which Paul finds in the soundtrack and which I find in the lyrical beauty of the visual imagery, especially in the early sequences. To me, the romantic elements counterpoint rather than shore up the existentialist elements. The romantic lyricism, however fleeting, leaves an eternal mark of beauty, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, even when the people involved are long gone. The melancholia of the Romantics traces back not to the Blake/Byron line (where I placed Coppola’s Dracula) but to the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which were drenched in a kind of melancholia that I find largely absent in Blake and Byron. But the melancholia of Wordsworth and Coleridge, unlike that of Von Trier and Camus (to use Paul’s reference), comes from the heaviness of too much meaning, an overload of emotional content, not from the anemia of life without meaning and emotional content. As Wordsworth says at the end of the Intimations Ode, “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” That to me is romantic melancholia, and (at least to me) it is fundamentally different from, though perhaps genetically related to, existentialist melancholia.

The darkness of Romanticism, unlike the melancholia, does trace to the Blake/Byron line. It comes from a passion so excessive that it becomes morally dark and dangerous (witness Dracula’s treatment of Lucy in the Coppola film). The darkness of existentialism, on the other hand, is married to the melancholia (at least as Von Trier presents the concept). It’s the empty darkness that is left when all meaning and emotional content are drained. It is the suicidal depression that Camus tries to escape by imagining Sisyphus happy. It’s different from the darkness of an emotional content so overloaded, a passion so excessive, that it becomes wildly destructive in terms of its human toll.

So the melancholia associated with existentialism (at least in Von Trier’s film) may find a historical antecedent in the Wordsworthian branch of Romanticism, and the darkness associated with existentialism may find a historical antecedent in the Blakean/Byronic branch of Romanticism, but both the melancholia and the darkness settle into completely different values in the symbolic economy of existentialism.