Saturday, January 21, 2017

Humanism, Science, and the Radical Expansion of the Possible

Humanism was the particular glory of the Renaissance. The recovery, translation, and dissemination of the literatures of antiquity created a new excitement, displaying so vividly the accomplishments and therefore the capacities of humankind, with consequences for civilization that are great beyond reckoning.

The disciplines that came with this awakening, the mastery of classical languages, the reverent attention to pagan poets and philosophers, the study of ancient history, and the adaptation of ancient forms to modern purposes, all bore the mark of their origins yet served as the robust foundation of education and culture for centuries, until the fairly recent past. In muted, expanded, and adapted forms, these Renaissance passions live on among us still in the study of the humanities, which, we are told, are now diminished and threatened. Their utility is in question, it seems, despite their having been at the center of learning throughout the period of the spectacular material and intellectual flourishing of Western civilization. Now we are less interested in equipping and refining thought, more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being—for those who create and master them, at least. Now we are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us. Or perhaps we are just bent on evading the specter of entropy. In any case, the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own. In such an environment, the humanities do seem to have little place. They are poor preparation for economic servitude. This spirit is not the consequence but the cause of our present state of affairs. We have as good grounds for exulting in human brilliance as any generation that has ever lived.

The antidote to our gloom is to be found in contemporary science. This may seem an improbable stance from which to defend the humanities, and I do not wish to undervalue contemporary art or literature or music or philosophy. But it is difficult to recognize the genius of a period until it has passed. Milton, Bach, Mozart all suffered long periods of eclipse, beginning before their lives had ended. Our politics may appear in the light of history to have been filled with triumphs of statecraft, unlikely as this seems to us now. Science, on the other hand, can assert credible achievements and insights, however tentative, in present time. The last century and the beginning of this one have without question transformed the understanding of Being itself. “Understanding” is not quite the right word, since this mysterious old category, Being, fundamental to all experience past, present, and to come, is by no means understood. However, the terms in which understanding may, at the moment, be attempted have changed radically, and this in itself is potent information. The phenomenon called quantum entanglement, relatively old as theory and thoroughly demonstrated as fact, raises fundamental questions about time and space, and therefore about causality.

Particles that are “entangled,” however distant from one another, undergo the same changes simultaneously. This fact challenges our most deeply embedded habits of thought. To try to imagine any event occurring outside the constraints of locality and sequence is difficult enough. Then there is the problem of conceiving of a universe in which the old rituals of cause and effect seem a gross inefficiency beside the elegance and sleight of hand that operate discreetly beyond the reach of all but the most rarefied scientific inference and observation. However pervasive and robust entanglement is or is not, it implies a cosmos that unfolds or emerges on principles that bear scant analogy to the universe of common sense. It is abetted in this by string theory, which adds seven unexpressed dimensions to our familiar four. And, of course, those four seem suddenly tenuous when the fundamental character of time and space is being called into question. Mathematics, ontology, and metaphysics have become one thing. Einstein’s universe seems mechanistic in comparison. Newton’s, the work of a tinkerer. If Galileo shocked the world by removing the sun from its place, so to speak, then this polyglot army of mathematicians and cosmologists who offer always new grounds for new conceptions of absolute reality should dazzle us all, freeing us at last from the circle of old Urizen’s compass. But we are not free.

There is no art or discipline for which the nature of reality is a matter of indifference, so one ontology or another is always being assumed if not articulated. Great questions may be as open now as they have been since Babylonians began watching the stars, but certain disciplines are still deeply invested in a model of reality that is as simple and narrow as ideological reductionism can make it. I could mention a dominant school of economics with its anthropology. But I will instead consider science of a kind. The study of brain and consciousness, mind and self—associated with so-called neuroscience—asserts a model of mental function as straightforward, cau­sally speaking, as a game of billiards, and plumes itself on just this fact. It is by no means entangled with the sciences that address ontology. The most striking and consequential changes in the second of these, ontology, bring about no change at all in the first, neuroscience, either simultaneous or delayed. The gist of neuroscience is that the adverbs “simply” and “merely” can exorcise the mystifications that have always surrounded the operations of the mind/brain, exposing the machinery that in fact produces emotion, behavior, and all the rest. So while inquiries into the substance of reality reveal further subtleties, idioms of relation that are utterly new to our understanding, neuroscience tells us that the most complex object we know of, the human brain, can be explained sufficiently in terms of the activation of “packets of neurons,” which evolution has provided the organism in service to homeostasis. The amazing complexity of the individual cell is being pored over in other regions of science, while neuroscience persists in declaring the brain, this same complexity vastly compounded, an essentially simple thing. If this could be true, if this most intricate and vital object could be translated into an effective simplicity for which the living world seems to provide no analogy, this indeed would be one of nature’s wonders. (...)

The real assertion being made in all this (neuroscience is remarkable among the sciences for its tendency to bypass hypothesis and even theory and go directly to assertion) is that there is no soul. Only the soul is ever claimed to be nonphysical, therefore immortal, therefore sacred and sanctifying as an aspect of human being. It is the self but stands apart from the self. It suffers injuries of a moral kind, when the self it is and is not lies or steals or murders, but it is untouched by the accidents that maim the self or kill it. Obviously, this intuition—it is much richer and deeper than anything conveyed by the word “belief”—cannot be dispelled by proving the soul’s physicality, from which it is aloof by definition. And on these same grounds, its nonphysicality is no proof of its nonexistence. This might seem a clever evasion of skepticism if the character of the soul were not established in remote antiquity, in many places and cultures, long before such a thing as science was brought to bear on the question. (...)

Is it fair to say that this school of thought is directed against humanism? This seems on its face to be true. The old humanists took the works of the human mind—literature, music, philosophy, art, and languages—as proof of what the mind is and might be. Out of this has come the great aura of brilliance and exceptionalism around our species that neuroscience would dispel. If Shakespeare had undergone an MRI, there is no reason to believe there would be any more evidence of extraordinary brilliance in him than there would be of a self or a soul. He left a formidable body of evidence that he was both brilliant and singular, but it has fallen under the rubric of Renaissance drama and is somehow not germane, perhaps because this places the mind so squarely at the center of the humanities. From the neuroscientific point of view, this only obscures the question. After all, where did our high sense of ourselves come from? From what we have done and what we do. And where is this awareness preserved and enhanced? In the arts and the humane disciplines. I am sure there are any number of neuroscientists who know and love Mozart better than I do, and who find his music uplifting. The inconsistency is for them to explain. (...)

If there is a scientific mode of thought that is crowding out and demoralizing the humanities, it is not research in the biology of the cell or the quest for life on other planets. It is this neo-Darwinism, which claims to cut through the dense miasmas of delusion to what is mere, simple, and real. Since these “miasmas” have been the main work of human consciousness for as long as the mind has left a record of itself, its devaluing is a major work of dehumanization. This is true because it is the great measure of our distinctiveness as a species. It is what we know about ourselves. It has everything in the world to do with how we think and feel, with what we value or despise or fear, all these things refracted through cultures and again through families and individuals. If the object of neuroscience or neo-Darwinism was to describe an essential human nature, it would surely seek confirmation in history and culture. But these things are endlessly complex, and they are continually open to variation and disruption. So the insistence on an essential simplicity is understandable, if it is not fruitful. If I am correct in seeing neuroscience as essentially neo-Darwinist, then it is affixed to a model of reality that has not gone through any meaningful change in a century, except in the kind of machinery it brings to bear in asserting its worldview. (...)

That said, it might be time to pause and reflect. Holding to the old faith that everything is in principle knowable or comprehensible by us is a little like assuming that every human structure or artifact must be based on yards, feet, and inches. The notion that the universe is constructed, or we are evolved, so that reality must finally answer in every case to the questions we bring to it, is entirely as anthropocentric as the notion that the universe was designed to make us possible. Indeed, the affinity between the two ideas should be acknowledged. While the assumption of the intelligibility of the universe is still useful, it is not appropriately regarded as a statement of doctrine, and should never have been. Science of the kind I criticize tends to assert that everything is explicable, that whatever has not been explained will be explained—and, furthermore, by its methods. Its practitioners have seen to the heart of it all. So mystery is banished—mystery being no more than whatever their methods cannot capture yet. Mystery being also those aspects of reality whose implications are not always factors in their worldview, for example, the human mind, the human self, history, and religion—in other words, the terrain of the humanities. Or of the human.

by Marilynne Robinson, The Nation |  Read more:
Image: Kelly Ruth Winter/ The Nation
[ed. This essay is excerpted from The Givenness of Things, © Marilynne Robinson.]