“gooey prickles and prickly goo”: Alan Watts on our two models of reality and the nature of consciousness

The books of Alan Watts – to whom several websites have been dedicated (here, here, and here) – were an early inspiration to me. It was nice to rediscover him recently through some of the large number of audio recordings of his talks that can be found at the linked websites and on YouTube.

Earlier in life an Anglican priest, he evolved into a teacher of a highly original mix of Zen, Hindu, and Taoist thought. And unlike so many freestyle teachers out there, he had no interest in becoming a guru and didn’t enrich himself at the expense of those who came to hear him. He was an especially powerful communicator and catalyst of a bigger way of seeing.

In a three-part talk called “The Nature of Consciousness,” of which Part 1 is embedded below, he describes our predicament as caught between two untenable models of reality, which he calls the “ceramic” model and the “fully automatic” model. The “ceramic” model posits that the universe and world and all living beings were and are literally made by a Potter/Artificer who somehow stands utterly apart and outside of His/Her/Its creation. The “fully automatic” model arose out of Science throwing out the “lawmaker” (as superfluous to the process of making and testing predictions), but keeping the “law.”

This has been the dominant paradigm of our culture for several decades, its foundational assumption being materialism:

1) only what we can perceive with our human physical senses and measure with our technologies really exists;

2) beings and things are autonomous, separable from one another and their world;

3) there is no such thing as mind or consciousness;

4) we are machines, directed by chemistry;

5) various combinations of genes produce not only everything physical about us but our unimaginably complex emotional and behavioral lives too;

6) they do this via neurochemistry.

The common use of the concept “scientism” is more recent than the 1960s, when this talk was given, but Watts well and characteristically insightfully describes this View – again, the default View of our culture – at the deeper psychological level. I’ve transcribed portions of the talk.

[31:01]

…because what we really believe is the fully automatic model. And that is our basic, plausible common sense: “You are a fluke, you are a separate event, and you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium and that’s it baby. That’s it.”

[34:10]

…the people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game. What they wanted to say was this: “All you people who believe in religion are old ladies and wishful thinkers. You’ve got a big Daddy up there and you want comfort and things, but life is rough. Life is tough, and success goes to the most hard-headed people.” That was a very convenient theory when the European-American world was colonizing the natives everywhere else. They said: “We’re the end product of evolution, and we’re tough, see? I’m a big strong guy because I face facts, and life is just a bunch of junk, and I’m going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else, you see. And I’m real hard.” See that’s a way of flattering yourself.

And so, it has become academically plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles, no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable. Because if you’re an academic person you’ve got to be an intellectually tough person. You’ve got to be prickly.

There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One’s called Prickles, the other’s called Goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it’s waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists and goo people are idealists. And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is that neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn’t know you advocated prickles unless there was somebody else advocating goo. You wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what goo was. Because life is not either prickles or goo, it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.

[37:00]

But however, you see, this whole idea that the universe is just nothing at all but unintelligent force playing around and not even enjoying it is a put-down theory of the world. People who had an advantage to make, a game to play by putting it down, and making out that because they put the world down they were a superior kind of people. So that just won’t do. We’ve had it. Because if you seriously go along with this idea of the world you’re what is technically called alienated. You feel hostile to the world. You feel that the world is a trap. It is a mechanism, it’s electronic and neurological mechanisms into which you somehow got caught.

[39:05]

So you see, all I’m trying to say is that the basic common sense about the nature of the world that is influencing most people in the United States today, the fully automatic model, is simply a myth. If you want to say that the idea of God the Father with his white beard on the golden throne is a myth, in the bad sense of the word “myth,” so is this other one. It’s just as phony and has just as little to support it as being the true state of affairs.

Why? Let’s get this clear. If there is any such thing at all as intelligence, and love, and beauty, well, you’ve found it in other people. In other words it exists in us as human beings. And as I said, if it is there, in us, it is symptomatic of the scheme of things.

We are as symptomatic of the scheme of things as the apples are symptomatic of the apple tree or the rose of the rose bush. The Earth is not a big rock infested with living organisms any more than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. The Earth is geological, yes, but this geological entity grows people, and our existence on the Earth is a symptom of the solar system, and its balances, as much as the solar system in turn is a symptom of our galaxy, and our galaxy in its turn is a symptom of the whole company of galaxies. Goodness only knows what that’s in.

But you see, when as a scientist you describe the behavior of a living organism, you try to say what a person does. It’s the only way in which you can describe what a person is: describe what they do. Then you find out that in making this description you cannot confine yourself to what happens inside the skin. In other words you can’t talk about a person walking unless you start describing the floor, because when I walk I don’t just dangle my legs in empty space. I move in relationship to a room. And so in order to describe what I’m doing when I’m walking I have to describe the room. I have to describe the territory. So in describing my talking at the moment, I can’t describe this just as a thing in itself, because I’m talking to you.

And so what I’m doing at the moment is not completely described unless your being here is described also. So if that is necessary, if in other words in order to describe my behavior I have to describe your behavior and the behavior of the environment, it means that we’ve really got one system of behavior. That what I am involves what you are. I don’t know who I am unless I know who you are. And you don’t know who you are unless you know who I am.

There was a wise Rabbi once said “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.” In other words we are not separate. We define each other; we’re all backs and fronts to each other. You know, you can’t for example have two sticks. You lean two sticks against each other and they stand up, because they support each other. Take one away and the other falls. They interdepend. And so in exactly that way we and our environment and all of us and each other are interdependent systems. We know who we are in terms of other people; we all lock together. And this is, again and again, the serious scientific description of how things happen, and any good scientist knows, therefore, that what you call the external world is as much you as your own body. Your skin doesn’t separate you from the world. It’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you, and you flow into it.

Just for example as a whirlpool in water, you could say because you have a skin you have a definite shape, you have a definite form. Right? Here is a flow of water, and suddenly it does a whirlpool, and then it goes on. The whirlpool is a definite form, but no water stays put in it. The whirlpool is something the stream is doing, and exactly the same way, the whole universe is doing each one of us, and I see you today and I recognize you tomorrow, just as I would recognize a whirlpool in a stream. I’d say “Oh yes, I’ve seen that whirlpool before, it’s just near so-and-so’s house on the edge of the river, and it’s always there.” So in the same way when I meet you tomorrow, I recognize you. You’re the same whirlpool you were yesterday. But you’re moving. The whole world is moving through you: all the cosmic rays, all the food you’re eating, the stream of steaks and milk and eggs and everything is just flowing right through you. When you’re wiggling the same way, the world is wiggling, the stream is wiggling you.

But the problem is, you see, we haven’t been taught to feel that way. The myths underlying our culture and underlying our common sense have not taught us to feel identical with the universe, but only parts of it, only in it, only confronting it: aliens. And we are, I think, quite urgently in need of coming to feel that we are the eternal universe, each one of us. Otherwise we’re going to go out of our heads. We’re going to commit suicide, collectively, courtesy of H-bombs. And all right, supposing we do, well that will be that, and there will be life-making experiments on other galaxies. Maybe they’ll find a better game.

[Edit (1/22/15): embedded video removed as it is no longer online, alas. Hopefully it can be reuploaded at some future point. I will check periodically.]

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Coyne and Sheldrake again…

…this time in the pages of the New Republic, in an unfortunate ad hominem attack by the former upon the latter. Here is a sample of Coyne’s invective (note, “woo” is Coyne’s word for non-materialist ideas or perspectives): “went off the rails,” “misbehaving woomeisters,” “thinks himself an unrecognized genius, persecuted like Galileo,” “woo-spouting,” “paranoid,” “rant [what he’s referring to is far more restrained than Coyne’s own intemperance],” “paints himself as a martyr again,” “The Woomeister,” “paranoid rants.”

The occasion for all of this is Sheldrake’s post linked above, which discusses a genuinely problematic phenomenon over at Wikipedia involving that immensely seductive word “objectivity.” The trouble is that scientific materialism itself is a philosophical position that cannot be demonstrated “scientifically,” so to simply assert it as simple Truth and “objectivity” is an exercise in dogmatic intolerance.

As Sheldrake rightly points out, there really is an organization which calls itself “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW),” they really are (in Sheldrake’s words) “well trained” and “highly motivated.” They do “have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules.” Susan Gerbic of said group really does have a training video up, and she indeed “glories in the power that she and her warriors wield.”

Topics which span cultural fault lines are naturally going to result in highly contentious Wikipedia Talk pages, as partisans fight to gain as much control as possible over the presentation of the article in question. We are not talking about an Encyclopedia Britannica article, where one person is asked to write something and a very limited number of editors join in the rest of the way. The “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia” have a declared mission to steer a great many articles – and more as each week goes by – their way, along with sophisticated techniques for doing so. The problem is that they are unaware of any potential blindspots in their thinking. Specifically, I refer to that cultural paradigm of scientific materialism being simply “objective” “Truth.”

There certainly are areas of Sheldrake’s thought which I don’t follow, including “morphic resonance,” one of his central ideas. But there is no doubt that his thinking and work overall are at the very least worthy of engagement and at their best represent important critiques of certain tendencies within Science today.

What is always striking to me in Jerry Coyne’s writing is the ever-present shadow of “religion.” The word appears all the time, even when there is no reason for it to. In this current piece it announces itself twice significantly. Consider the following paragraph:

Many of you might know of Sheldrake. He enjoys a certain popularity in the US and UK among those who think that there must be “something more out there”—with “more” meaning psychic phenomena. I don’t really understand a penchant for things that aren’t supported by evidence, but that’s probably a failure of empathy on my part—as well as a product of my scientific training to doubt. I am sure, though, that some of the same psychological tendencies that promote sympathy for woo also promote sympathy for religion.

This is revealing, I think. First, “something more out there” – more, that is to say, than what is contained in a purely materialist philosophy – becomes effectively reduced to the phrase “psychic phenomena.” What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t Sheldrake believe certain “psychic phenomena” exist? Yes, he does, but nonetheless I would say Coyne’s sentence is misleading. “Psychic phenomena” is a vague phrase encompassing everything from easily mockable fringe beliefs to non-materialist ways of seeing grounded firmly in “evidence-based” practice. Then there is the link between “sympathy for woo” and “sympathy for religion.” What “religion” is he talking about? The word encompasses an extraordinarily vast and varied field of views, ideas, practices. It claims some of the most degraded as well as some of the most realized beings in our human experience.

And then later in his piece he complains about a BBC interview with Sheldrake concerning the Wikipedia war over his own (Sheldrake’s) page, on the grounds that the opposing side wasn’t represented (though he reports the BBC’s intention to do just that sometime this week). At which point there follows this parenthetical remark: “[Note: the BBC interviewer, Dan Damon, describes himself and his wife as ‘keen churchgoers’].” The implication is as clear as can be: a “keen churchgoer” is de facto suspect as an inquirer into this matter of Wikipedia integrity, in a way “The Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia,” well, aren’t – at all. They’re simply “objective” defenders of The Truth, of course.

(For anyone who wishes to compare Coyne’s characterization of Sheldrake with the latter himself, I embedded in a previous post his “infamous” TEDx talk here. You may disagree with Sheldrake there to one degree or another but I really don’t think it can be said that Coyne’s constant references to him in this article as “paranoid” and a ranter, as someone who likes to proclaim himself a “persecuted” “genius” and “martyr,” as someone “off the rails,” are demonstrable. This can be said also of several interviews I have heard with Sheldrake.)

Pinker and Wieseltier’s discussion on science and the humanities

There have been several exchanges recently between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier in the pages of the New Republic regarding the relationship between science and the humanities. Yesterday (September 26), there appeared this set of responses, which is well worth reading carefully and contemplating. The essay of Wieseltier’s which immediately led to this is here. It too is eminently worth reading. In fact, I consider the latter to be about as lucid, incisive, and elegant a statement as I’ve seen on the subject.

Wieseltier has become a beacon of brilliant sanity in this matter of the domain and role and limitations of Science, and the irreducible centrality of the humanities to human culture.

More about this particular exchange another time.

a response to Sean Carroll concerning scientism (1)

Sean Carroll, a physicist at Caltech, recently posted a piece entitled “Let’s Stop Using the Word ‘Scientism.'” His basic argument – which is the same as Jerry Coyne’s and others – is that the word is vague. Like Coyne, he wants us to cease using it, entirely replacing it with criticisms of specific scientific claims or practices, as they come up. Let’s take a closer look at this.

If we are not permitted to use a word like “scientism,” then we are not permitted to voice the idea that the word “science” is capable of ever masking any significant degree of self-deception. We are instead required to view it as possessing some sort of transcendental status that somehow bypasses human mediation. In other words, “Science” must be viewed as simply “The Truth,” a universal epistemological trump card, and basically incorruptible.

(I capitalize the word here, and in certain other instances, when I specifically wish to emphasize the notion of science as an entire “way of seeing,” distinct from either doctrinally religious views on the one hand, or those more broadly humanistic, on the other.)

Since that is so, this argument goes, the notions of dogmatism, extremism, ideology, and religious “fundamentalism” have no parallel in Science as a whole. The paradigms and practices of science require no overarching philosophical View – which would, of course, need to be supplied by humans, and would therefore be fallible. Nor is science capable of radically straying into any kind of cul-de-sac of error. Therefore, it’s unnecessary and even obfuscating to have a word for this danger. The danger doesn’t exist.

That is the argument. In support of it, Sean provides nine examples of how the word “scientism” is used in one instance or another, claiming that these taken together represent a vagueness or lack of specificity. They are worth reproducing:

1) Science is the source of all interesting, reliable facts about the world.
2) Philosophy and morality and aesthetics should be subsumed under the rubric of science.
3) Science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective.
4) Humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific attitude.
5) The progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world.
6) All forms of rational thinking are essentially science.
7) Eventually we will understand the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.
8) Reductionism is the best basis for complete understanding of complicated systems.
9) There is no supernatural realm, only the natural world that science can investigate.

Now, is Sean implying that all definitions must be reducible to a single thought, a single sentence? If not, I do not understand his point. Six of these nine statements (points 2-7) all go together, forming, indeed, a philosophical perspective that can most certainly be disputed.

First, let me isolate the three that do not seem fairly placed. I would question Sean’s ability to find more than a few scientists, if any, who would assert that “science is the source of all interesting … facts about the world” (point 1). Maybe such people exist somewhere, but they would be rare. His second adjective “reliable” is maybe a little more in line with the other points, but “interesting” is too vague, I think.

Point 9 contains words difficult to define for these purposes (“natural” and “supernatural”). It is presumably in the list because a segment of people who attack science do so from the perspective of religion, often religious fundamentalism. However, it’s not actually relevant here: notions of what is “natural” or not do obfuscate the question. There are more than enough of us deeply concerned about scientism who don’t make use of a concept of the “natural” in doing so.

And finally point 8 is rarely heard: few people will actually assent to being a reductionist. Certainly reductionism manifests as part of the larger syndrome being referred to by scientism, but the mantle of reductionism is not commonly claimed by scientists.

This leaves points 2-7, which very much do all cohere. A given individual might slightly downplay one or the other, as indeed Sean states. But in practice these can be discussed together as indicating a basic view of reality and valuation of human endeavor (and they can all be easily found in for example Jerry Coyne’s writings). Here’s one way of doing it, with only a few additions for linking purposes (the original points are in bold):

All forms of rational thinking are essentially science. Since rational thinking is our only means for getting at the truth of phenomena, the progress of science is an unalloyed good for the world. For the same reason, the humanities and the arts would be improved by taking a more scientific attitude, while philosophy and morality and aesthetics – again following on from the equation of rational thinking and science – should be subsumed under the rubric of science. Being founded and practiced upon rational bases, science can provide an objective grounding for judgments previously thought to be subjective. And when the humanities and arts (along with “philosophy and morality and aesthetics”), as above, are placed upon firm scientific ground, eventually we will understand the important questions of human life on a scientific basis.”

Even though I took more-or-less the entire core of the previous paragraph verbatim from Sean’s own points 2-7 rather than formulating it in my own words, it forms a definition of scientism that isn’t half bad, I would say. In a second post I will try to show the blindspot in this view, and some of the ways in which it is very dangerous.

the blindspots in our religion of Scientism

There are many. Here are some of the most important:

1) Science is viewed as uniquely trustworthy because it contains a continuously self-correcting mechanism in the form of peer review.

2) For this reason, it constantly evolves over time, getting better and truer in every way. Unlike religion, science is incapable of succumbing to dogmatic stagnation and therefore remains incorruptible.

3) Its practitioners maintain a more-or-less pristine purity – of motivation and integrity, intellectual and moral courage.

4) Even where this is not so, Science’s methods are somehow transcendently “objective,” ultimately enabling it to rise above all human partiality and short-sightedness.

In short, we can confidently cede to Science the same kind of trust and faith we once gave to religion. We may as well even (were it not for the fact that we dislike the word so much) call it “God,” because it serves the same primary function for us, being our source of complete and absolute Truth.

When challenged, apologists for scientism – which is not the practice of genuine, humble science but rather precisely this ideology or religion of Science – can be counted upon to deliver these assertions. Mostly, however, they don’t need to, because these have become thoroughly embedded in our culture. The trouble – the big trouble – is that none of them happen to be true.

Taking them one by one, briefly:

1) Peer review is still trustworthy within certain domains of science. Unfortunately, in other areas – particulary medicine and psychiatry – this process has clearly broken down, as has been demonstrated in many publications of recent years. Big, big money and other vested interests infiltrated it quite some time ago. Pharmaceutical companies maintain various means for influencing the interpretation and reception, even the initial framing and design, of studies. (See an earlier post on this.)

2) The idea that science, a purely human enterprise, must necessarily keep getting better is an impulse of religious faith, and nothing more. We laugh today at nineteenth century science’s forays into phrenology: how could they ever have believed that the shape of one’s skull could indicate “moral degeneracy” or “criminality”? Yet today we see research positing a connection between finger-length ratios or inner ear functioning and openness to same-sex sexual expression! All of these kinds of studies have been picked to shreds by numerous analysts, but they still persist and are even widely believed because … science keeps getting better and better, doesn’t it?

But, of course, this is simply not so. There are wrong turnings, and dead ends. There is wishful thinking, and the need for new paradigms. There are simply no guarantees that at any given moment in any particular area of inquiry we are on track. There is even, and very much so, the possibility that dogma may set in, so that an entire erroneous way of conceiving something becomes stuck in falsehood or incoherence for quite a long period.

3) Once upon a time, “the scientist” represented an ideal type. She (though in fact almost always a he, since science until a hundred years ago or so believed women to be unfit for higher education and in fact damaged by it) was a lone, heroic seeker after truth, wherever it might lead. Humble, radically open, laboring away with purest and most disinterested motivation.

Those days, needless to say, are long gone. Though such people undoubtedly still exist, “science” today is a vast domain of disparate activities, many of which are indistinguishable from pure advocacy or profit-making. The reality is that enormous profits may hang upon the acceptance of one study or another, and that big contracts await those who can persude governments or corporations of future cash potential in a line of research. There is more generally the reality of job-seeking and grant application at all levels, and the all-too-human phenomena of ambition and peer pressure, of competitiveness and factions within research institutions.

Some human beings may be saintly, purely disinterested seekers after truth wherever it may lead them. Most of us would prefer, ideally, to have more influence rather than less, to be revered rather than viewed as an eccentric crank, and so on. On top of this, larger cultural paradigms and expectations inevitably influence how we conceive the “scientific” to begin with. By definition, we cannot see a cultural blindspot until something shifts in the paradigm, revealing what was previously obscured.

4) The notion that Science is somehow separable from the human minds which create, define, and practice it is completely insupportable. This is precisely a transcendent, religious notion – an article of faith.

Materialism – the belief that all that exists is measurable, perceptible to the physical senses of human beings – is inescapably a philosophical, not a scientific, position. It contains a number of difficulties which the best minds of countless generations have grappled with. Indeed, there is something rather comical in the spectacle of human minds getting together to express the idea – no, make the dogmatic assertion – sometimes even in formulations of dense theoretical abstraction, that consciousness as such doesn’t exist! That everything mental is somehow generated from the physical. (The buddhists put it the other way round – but they also don’t claim this as dogma to be believed, rather a way to see which we can each personally investigate.) The fact that the material realm does obey certain formulable rules does not warrant an assertion that we can reduce the nature of reality itself to concept.

“We are nothing but the firing of neurons,” say – somehow – the firing neurons…

All interpretation is necessarily subjective, unless, in the seizing of “objectivity,” we want to proclaim Science as dogmatic religion, as our God: indisputably true, the final arbiter in all and every last meaningful question we might put to it. Not just – for here is the most crucial point – within the sphere of non-sentient matter, but also that of sentience, consciousness, itself.

Look at what happens, after all, whenever the arguments I have made above appear in the national press – when they are even allowed to appear. One is told that as a non-scientist one has no right even to speak on the subject, being so ignorant. Science also commandeers all purity of motivation today; all those who lament the extent of its dominance must be, maybe even secretly, employees or spies of Religion. (The only trouble is that when science PhDs say the same things they too are intimidated or mocked.)

We are told:

Sit down, shut up, and marvel – with genuine religious awe even – at the photos we are going to show you of galaxies and the brain (but wait until we first color them in so that they look as startling and aesthetically pleasing as possible, otherwise, actually, you might be rather unimpressed).

We are told:

Do you see that beautiful orange region right there? That, my friends, is “gregariousness”! And that breathtaking purple underneath it? Hold onto your seats, but, yes, that’s the region which, when activated, causes you to weep with joy when listening to Ravel’s Piano Trio or petting a faithful dog! And one day we will be able to locate the exact region where “addiction-proneness” resides, so that – with enough funding – we can develop forms of surgery which will ensure a population where nobody is addicted to anything! Of course, it’s true, the purple area might also light up when you get some unexpected good news, or in numerous other scenarios, and in fact other regions light up too when you pet that dog, and admittedly we can’t actually conceptually bridge material and immaterial yet – um, at all – but give us more time, and tons more money, and we promise we will eventually be able to tell you how you get from a neuron firing to all the immense richness and complexity of aesthetic experiences and human emotions of all kinds.

You can trust us, for we are the representatives of the living twenty-first century God Who has dethroned wisdom as wimpy new-age ‘woo’ in favor of endless, directionless, value-free accumulation of knowledge. We ourselves, of course, are as wooless as woolessness can be. [Note: “woo” is a technical term used by, eg, Jerry Coyne and his fellow warriors devoted to the death of all religion. It means, as far as I can tell, anything enthusiastically stated using a language other than science, especially if it contains sentiments of awe, mystery, amazement.]

It has all become rather a racket. Good research being done, certainly, mixed in with much that is very badly conceived. Everyone scrambling for money, with fame and honor to be gained if something either pans out or can be made to appear promising. An entire culture desperate to believe in something, desperate for certainty – now that most within it can no longer subscribe to religious dogmatism. Corporations, naturally, ever on the lookout for a technological innovation that will give them an edge. Governments, naturally, searching for more successful means of manipulation, control, power. A public with miniscule attention spans and an insatiable desire for “news,” for non-challenging, easily digestible reductionism, the more sensational the better – turning to the media and its nearly uncritical acceptance of anything that comes out of the mouths of our contemporary priests and bishops – the Scientists.

Wisdom? What’s that? Just a certain quantity of “knowledge,” right? Quaint term, but what does a wise person have to give us anymore, anyway? Now if you’ll just read this new study over here, scientists have discovered (sort of, not quite, well not actually at all, but if you read the fine print they have possibly contributed to the advancement of a suggestion of) the next new earth-shattering Revelation…

“perhaps culture is now the counterculture” (2, regarding scientism)

Another excerpt from the commencement address recently given to Brandeis University by Leon Wieseltier, long-time literary editor at The New Republic:

Our glittering age of technologism is also a glittering age of scientism. Scientism is not the same thing as science. Science is a blessing, but scientism is a curse. Science, I mean what practicing scientists actually do, is acutely and admirably aware of its limits, and humbly admits to the provisional character of its conclusions; but scientism is dogmatic, and peddles certainties. It is always at the ready with the solution to every problem, because it believes that the solution to every problem is a scientific one, and so it gives scientific answers to non-scientific questions. But even the question of the place of science in human existence is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical, which is to say, a humanistic [one].

Owing to its preference for totalistic explanation, scientism transforms science into an ideology, which is of course a betrayal of the experimental and empirical spirit. There is no perplexity of human emotion or human behavior that these days is not accounted for genetically or in the cocksure terms of evolutionary biology. It is true that the selfish gene has lately been replaced by the altruistic gene, which is lovelier, but it is still the gene that tyrannically rules. Liberal scientism should be no more philosophically attractive to us than conservative scientism, insofar as it, too, arrogantly reduces all the realms that we inhabit to a single realm, and tempts us into the belief that the epistemological eschaton has finally arrived, and at last we know what we need to know to manipulate human affairs wisely. This belief is invariably false and occasionally disastrous. We are becoming ignorant of ignorance.

So there is no task more urgent in American intellectual life at this hour than to offer some resistance to the twin imperialisms of science and technology, and to recover the old distinction — once bitterly contested, then generally accepted, now almost completely forgotten – between the study of nature and the study of man…. You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it…. [You] are the counterculture. Perhaps culture is now the counterculture.

He concludes:

So keep your heads. Do not waver. Be very proud. Use the new technologies for the old purposes. Do not be rattled by numbers, which will never be the springs of wisdom. In upholding the humanities, you uphold the honor of a civilization that was founded upon the quest for the true and the good and the beautiful. For as long as we are thinking and feeling creatures, creatures who love and imagine and suffer and die, the humanities will never be dispensable. From this day forward, then, act as if you are indispensable to your society, because – whether it knows it or not – you are.

Congratulations.

“perhaps culture is now the counterculture”: again, the humanities make us human

I’m not terribly familiar with Leon Wieseltier’s writing – he being the literary editor of the New Republic. But I just came across a commencement address he recently delivered at Brandeis that is about as rousingly superb a defence of the humanities as I’ve ever seen.

An excerpt (and one more in the next post):

For decades now in America we have been witnessing a steady and sickening denigration of humanistic understanding and humanistic method. We live in a society inebriated by technology, and happily, even giddily governed by the values of utility, speed, efficiency, and convenience….

The machines to which we have become enslaved, all of them quite astonishing, represent the greatest assault on human attention ever devised: they are engines of mental and spiritual dispersal, which make us wider only by making us less deep. There are thinkers, reputable ones if you can believe it, who proclaim that the exponential growth in computational ability will soon take us beyond the finitude of our bodies and our minds so that, as one of them puts it, there will no longer be any difference between human and machine. La Mettrie lives in Silicon Valley. This, of course, is not an apotheosis of the human but an abolition of the human; but Google is very excited by it.

In the digital universe, knowledge is reduced to the status of information. Who will any longer remember that knowledge is to information as art is to kitsch-–that information is the most inferior kind of knowledge, because it is the most external? A great Jewish thinker of the early Middle Ages wondered why God, if He wanted us to know the truth about everything, did not simply tell us the truth about everything. His wise answer was that if we were merely told what we need to know, we would not, strictly speaking, know it. Knowledge can be acquired only over time and only by method. And the devices that we carry like addicts in our hands are disfiguring our mental lives also in other ways: for example, they generate a hitherto unimaginable number of numbers, numbers about everything under the sun, and so they are transforming us into a culture of data, into a cult of data, in which no human activity and no human expression is immune to quantification, in which happiness is a fit subject for economists, in which the ordeals of the human heart are inappropriately translated into mathematical expressions, leaving us with new illusions of clarity and new illusions of control.