Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Send in the Clowns

Futility, utter futility, says the Speaker, everything is futile. What does anyone profit from all his labour and toil here under the sun? Generations come and generations go, whil the earth endures forever.

All things are wearisome. No one can describe them all, no eye can see them all, no ear can hear them all. What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it can be said, 'Look, this is new?' No, it was already in existence, long before our time. Those who lived in the past are not remembered, and those who follow will not be remembered by those who follow them.--Ecclesiastes 1: 2-4, 8-11
I'm not going to argue with David Brooks. I'm simply going to examine some of what he says, and consider it in light of the larger discussion, the one most people never seem to be privy to. Start with the last few paragraphs of his NYT column today:

If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships.
Or, as Anti-Climacus put it 150 years ago:

A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation's relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation's relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way a human being is still not a self.... In the relation between two, the relation is the third as a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation and in the relation to the relation; thus under the qualification of the psychical the relation between the psychical and the physical is a relation. If, however, the relation relates itself to itself, this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.

If the relation that relates itself to itself has been established by another, then the relation is indeed the third, but this relation, the third, is yet again a relation and relates itself to that which established the entire relation.

The human self is such a derived, established relation, a relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another. This is why there can be two forms of despair in the strict sense. If a human self had itself established itself, then there could only be one form: not to will to be oneself, to will to do away with oneself, but there could not be the form: in despair to will to be oneself.

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be oneself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it.
Just to say, we've been down this road already. Yes, there is still a fight going on in philosophical circles over Descarte's "ghost in the machine" (itself a derisive term meant to remove the metaphor of the "soul" sitting in the mortal shell of the body from Western philosophical discourse), but the idea actually goes all the way back to Plato's Phaedo, and try as we might, we can't seem to dislodge dualism from our Western thinking. I've seen great claims for neuroscience having done that on the "Philosophy" shelves at Barnes & Noble, but somehow I don't think that revolution in thinking (replacing dualism would truly represent a major shift in Western thought) has happened yet; nor is it likely to anytime soon. But the very question of the self itself? The discussion predates Freud (who broke us up into Id, ego, and superego) and has long ago moved away from his categories (we still like to talk vaguely of our subconscious, the realm that either makes us behave insanely, or reveals the hidden truths we prefer to bury; such is the confusion of our discussion). At any rate: the self is relational? And we needed science to tell us this?

More likely science is simply reflecting the dominant paradigms of Western thought. After all, if you don't know what you are looking for, you can't find it. Even science understands that. One point, then, for Thomas Kuhn's "paradigms."

Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions.
Not something I didn't learn before I went to seminary, actually. And didn't we learn this from anthropology by now? Indeed, the basis of structuralism is that all human societies have more in common than they have in distinction. Neuroscience may add to that understanding, but it only does so by confirming the paradigm structuralism (at least) has handed to it. Which brings me, skeptic that I am, back to Kuhn. But it takes the neuroscientists on to the experience of the sacred, which, since they can see it on an instrument, means it must be real!

Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.
Well, the leap from third to fourth is practically a "leap of faith." I won't argue with it, so much as argue the necessary connection ain't necessarily there. But what is the difference between the testimony of a Julian of Norwich or a Teresa of Avila, and a neuroscientist, except the paradigms they approach the experience from? We are supposed to eschew subjectivity in favor of objectivity, but what is Freudian psychology except the elevation of the subjective to science? Which, of course, is why Freudian psychology is no longer in favor, but what other theory of the psyche so well explains our "inner" (itself a term of Cartesian dualism) life? The Humean answer that we are merely a bundle of neural responses leaves us still begging the question: what is responding, and why does it feel so much like a "self"? Because the responses themselves are a relationship?

Huh. Still feels like science-fiction to me.*

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate.
Actually, that's the stupid debate; but that's hardly Mr. Brooks' fault, and I understand why he brings it up here. Still, he brushes that aside in favor of what he considers "the real challenge":

The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.
Or from Christian monks like Thomas Merton, or mystics like Meister Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, or Hildegard von Bingen. Mystics have a disturbing tendency to move away from "cultural artifacts" as their experience of the Divine increases. It's why most churches generally prefer to keep their mystics on a very short leash, one the mystics are always slipping off. And then there are the philosophers of religion, and the theologians. But these are three groups nobody listens to, because they don't have government funding and laboratories and white coats. Or maybe because nobody makes movies about mad monks who want to take over the world, or theologians who want create artifical life, or mystics who unleash deadly viruses that turn us all in to zombies. Or something.

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation.
Let me slow down that onrushing train of thought right here, and point out that "revelation" as a source of knowledge is a debate that goes back to the first encounter between the Hebraic (or Semitic, if you prefer) cultures, and the Hellenistic (or Greek). The former relied on revelation, the latter on discovery; hence the Hellenistic preference for reason over all other areas of human mental endeavor. Or maybe that preference lead to the preference for discovery; it's a chicken-or-egg question we don't really need to tarry over. And revelation is not limited to "that which is revealed by the Divine." Buddhism is no less interested in revelation than Christianity, although Buddhism would radically suppress any consideration for a divinity in the orthodox Christian sense. And as for science and religion joining hands, well, theology was once seriously considered the mother of all the sciences. Everything old really is new again.

There's a delicious irony in this oncoming debate, because even as science says we must not rely on individual experience (i.e., subjectivity), it is being understood as reinforcing individual experience (thought waves exhibit evidence of the transcendent!). Individual experience, of course, is what American culture is all about ("This Bud's for you!"), and that emphasis on the individual arises, not from scientific reasoning, but from the reaction to scientific reasoning and the technology it produced in 18th and 19th century Europe: Romanticism. Once set up in opposition to science (Frankenstein is the prototype of the mad scientist, but his ancestor was Goethe's Faust; both Romantic heroes defying nature and fate), science now employs the tenets of Romanticism to explain data it gathers with its new technologies ("Magnetic helmets"!). So how much progress are we making, really? This much, apparently:

Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.
Reckon I should send Mr. Brooks a copy of Bultmann's work from the early 20th century? Or introduce him to the German Biblical scholarship of the 19th century, itself a "scientific" endeavor that discovered a great deal about the Bible, and exposed a great many errors in our assumptions about its provenance? Indeed, it was the cultural effects of that "scientific revolution" which spawned fundamentalism, just as the technology science gave the West (the "Guns" and "Steel" of Guns, Germs, and Steel) prompted Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East (although, interestingly, not among the majority of the world's Muslims, who don't live in the Middle East). Or should I just direct him to Ecclesiastes?

One further warning, my son: there is no end to the writing of books, and much study is wearisome.
Amen, brother. Amen.

*I should explain. Clark's story, "Dial "F" for Frankenstein," rests on the premise he mentions in that interview: complexity gives rise to life (a variant on the "And then a miracle occurs" in step two of the famous cartoon). The idea of the story was that, given sufficient interconnection of telephones, a "mind" would result, which, rather like HAL, would make its own decisions about what is best. Any day now, the Internet's gonna wake up; just waitin' for that last person to log on; and...it could be you!

Or, maybe not.

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