A blog about belief

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Debunking vs explaining

In Art, Philosophy, Science on October 23, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I’m often surprised how many smart people I encounter who think of science as some kind of beauty-destroying machine.  This is a particularly common reaction to the attempts of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to understand how people relate to art.  I appreciate the need for different ways of talking about things, particularly when it comes to things as slippery as aesthetic responses, but there’s an anti-intellectualism I can’t abide in the idea that coming up with an explanation for something diminishes it.  There is no reason why our more subjective ways of thinking can’t stand alongside scientific theories, although perhaps science might prod us to adjust them a bit so that they’re less likely to lead us to bad decisions.  If science finds a way to reduce spiritual feelings to the workings of our brain, that doesn’t invalidate them or drain them of their power.  If anything, it validates them by providing evidence for their consistency with the way of looking at the world that’s proven most practically successful for us.

In that last statement I have tacitly given science a privileged position over other forms of knowledge.  I will not recant on this point, but I stop short of imputing that spirituality needs the validation of science.  That, I admit, gets us into worrisome territory.  I do suspect that some people who claim they’ve had a spiritual experience are kidding themselves, but there is a major ethical problem in calling someone else’s claim to have had such an experience bullshit, even if we’ve got MRI scans to back us up.  If someone says they’re experiencing a vision and our cognitive models of spirituality say otherwise, that means that either their claims are false or our models are flawed, and there’s no clear way to decide this.  The scientific standard of truth and those proper to spirituality need not overlap, and an attempt to use a scientific model to debunk something that was developed to sufficiently different ends can be backed up by nothing other than power.

That is, I suppose, the standard postmodern criticism of science.  But using theoretical models in the way I’ve described is not doing science.  Despite the popular image to the contrary, the driving purpose of science is not to debunk.  It is to explain.  Debunking only comes into play when the ideas in question contradict the best scientific models with respect to predictions that can be objectively tested; in that case and only in that case is it in science’s province to investigate who’s right.  Homeopathic medicine is something that’s ripe for refutation, and that’s good, because it causes objective harm.  Sudden irruptions of spiritual knowledge are generally not something that science could coherently debunk, and that’s great, because that sort of experience has resulted in some of the most astounding poetry humans have produced.

It’s because of this that I don’t think scientific investigation is anathema to art, even if we direct it towards art – even, further, if we direct it towards our apprehension of those spiritual sorts of truths that science can’t make heads or tails of.  If we approach the phenomenon of spiritual knowledge empirically, which I think we might as well, we cannot rightly treat that spiritual knowledge as a rival theory to science; instead, we must treat it as something to be explained.  The fact that it has to do with truth of another sort doesn’t mean that science can’t deal with it in that way, and the fact that science might be able to fully explain it doesn’t mean that it can’t still serve as an explanation in its own right.

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Positivity

In Art, Literature, Philosophy on September 28, 2011 at 5:52 pm

I used to claim that there was no such thing as self-expression in art. That’s not something I’d say any more, but not because I’ve changed my mind. Quite the opposite; I’ve gotten even more dead set against the dualism underlying the popular conception of self-expression than I was a couple years ago. I think it’s a worldview that makes an ideal of an empirical falsehood, causing a great deal of misery. But I’ve realized that a true materialism, one that really frees itself from that falsehood, can’t work entirely by negative definition. If the concept of the “true self” that was the fixation of the Modernists is incoherent, and I think that it is, then so is the statement that “there is no true self” with “true self” meant in that way. Reveling in superficiality as a response to Modernism’s failure is, to torture an expression, throwing out the baby and then taking a big drink of bathwater. What we need to do us come up with a new definition of self that isn’t at odds with materialism. As we do so, popular ideas like self-expression will be things we need to account for, not things we need to deny.

One reason I think that negativity has become so popular among literary scholars is that it’s associated, in no small part due to Hegel, with historicism, a philosophical approach that lends itself particularly well to supporting the importance of literature as an object of study. But I don’t want to discount the ethical case against the positive. One can find ample evidence in any history book that positive definitions of what it is to be human or American or a member of society can oppress. There is an ethical onus on the head of anyone who speaks positively about the human, to be sure. But ethics can be a problem for negative approaches as well, and I suspect that it is partially due to institutional constraints in the field of literary scholarship that the ethical arguments made in English departments have been skewed against the positive. A good epistemic standard is not all it takes to be responsible, but sticking to one generally is a prerequisite, and this is quite simply more difficult to do when speaking positively. Oftentimes to really back up a positive claim about the world takes experimental study, and for the most part the institutional support for serious experimental studies is not there in English departments.

This is something that I hope will change as technology makes empirical humanities more practical. Positive statements about culture and the “human” are not going to disappear, and denying them legitimacy in the intellectual world only insulates them from scrutiny. The U.S. is wanting for an institution that could serve as a legitimate place for such claims, where standards of responsibility can be entrenched as, if not explicit points of policy, at least norms of professionalism. If the right is trying to tear down the academy, that means it’s time to start building.