Friday, November 18, 2005

Finding a Path Between Science and Philosophy.

Simon Critchley, Continental Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: 2001).
Julian Roberts, German Philosophy: An Introduction (Humanities Press: 1988).
Andrew Bowie, German Philosophy: From Kant to Habermas (Polity: 2003).
Jurgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge: 1987).

If there is a central theme in Western philosophy during the modern period, then it is probably the question of the nature and status of scientific rationality. The manner in which we come to terms with science and how we define the scope and limits of the scientific enterprise will determine our conceptions of persons, reason and rationality, politics and law, ethics and aesthetics, the status and importance of religious and mythical beliefs, and just about the whole of the intellectual and cultural lives of persons.

Is the scientific understanding of persons as nothing but animals who are genetically determined in interaction with an environment "totalitarian," because it seeks to exclude all alternatives? Or does it do so only within the restricted territory of the "factual"? What is the factual realm? And can we know what is "factual" factually? Is science the sole means by which to acquire knowledge of the "real" world of facts? Is there such a place? If so, then what happens to the wisdom (as distinct from knowledge) which science cannot give us, which we so desperately need?

Suppose that, in addition to facts, what we really need is truth. Is science the only means to truth? For instance, what are we to make of such momentous questions as those which we have just raised, but which are not scientific nor amenable to resolution by the scientific method? Does this make the best answers that we can provide to such questions irrational or arbitrary? I don't think so. Here is Simon Critchley's statement of the issue:

... in the face of the disenchantment of nature brought about by the scientific revolution, we experience a gap between knowledge and wisdom that has the consequence of divesting our lives of meaning. The question is: can nature or indeed human selves become RE-ENCHANTED in such a way that reduces or even eliminates the meaning gap and produces some plausible conception of the good life? The dilemma seems to be intractable: on the one hand, the philosophical cost of scientific truth seems to be scientism, in which case we become beasts. On the other hand, the rejection of scientism through a new humanization of the cosmos seems to lead to obscurantism, in which case we become lunatics. Neither side of this alternative is particularly attractive. ...

This schism has a lot to do with the misperception and miscommunication between educated Americans and their counterparts in Latin America, Africa and the Middle east as well as Europe. Science has "won" in the U.S. to an extent that seems insane to people from other places. Thus, being a rational and/or an educated person in America means adopting a "scientific attitude" or an objective and dispassionate "neutral perspective" on all things. This leads to a perception of Americans as "cold." They're not. The same is said of British people by my Latin American friends, but I am usually able to persuade them of their error by listing all of the great sex scandals in British politics. In Latin America, political scandals are always (boringly) only about the theft of public funds, like in New Jersey.

To appreciate Brits, you have to enjoy chatting with a local vicar or Mrs. Tatcher and one of the Monty Python troupe or, say, Hugh Grant, then realize that all of them exist within one person or identity that is Britain. That's why I insist on Shakespeare as the source to consult if you hope to understand the people of those islands -- or maybe just to understand people. The British psyche is a sort of huge play by Shakespeare. Maybe that's also true of the human psyche.

This much-celebrated neutrality and objectivity is great when we are doing science, but it can be crazy when other aspects of life become central to our concerns. I am thinking especially of social and political concerns. At such times, a neutral and instrumentalist conception of rationality becomes highly irrational.

A recent t.v. commercial pictures a young man and woman in a restaurant, the young man sets up a chart showing market studies and other data indicating why it would be "wise" for the young lady to marry him. "I like what you've done here, Bob ..." says the lovely young woman.

This caricature is not very distant from the way things are now: prenuptial agreements, computer matching, "life-coaches" who arrange meetings between "compatible" couples are routine aspects of the madness of this huge asylum (which I love) known as the United States of America.

Romeo and Juliet, Heathcliff and Cathy were not "compatible," of course, neither were Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy -- but they were passionately in love. "But that's not practical!" says the American law or business school graduate, while science geeks -- regardless of gender --hope to mate by way of frozen embryos, without having met their "biological counterparts," between sessions of lab work and while insisting on 2.5 "offspring," a six-cylinder station wagon, and a ranch home in suburbia. Am I guilty of stereotyping? If so, then it is only "for their own good" that I say these things.

I remember an interview with Sofia Loren in which the movie star explained that, in Italy, "when you are hungry, you eat ... in America, soon, there is only pills ..." I shudder to think of what she might have said if she were asked about sex.

In America, in fact, passionate romantic love is in danger of being forbidden to us on the grounds that there may be adverse tax consequences from too many sexual escapades or reciting love sonnets while standing on the roof of a car in Manhattan at 3:00 A.M., something which I have done and plan to do again. I hope. True, I have Latin ancestry. But I think such experiences have been known to occur, even among strange Norwegians. In New Jersey, sex is only legal if partners wear helmets -- presumably on their heads -- and other safety equipment, such as a catcher's mask to avoid injury. No safety belts?

Only accountants, regardless of ethnicity or race, should be forbidden to love since romantic relationships only produce more debits and losses than gains, more liabilities than profits, and so they must be written off. That's just the bottom line. Nothing personal.

The over-rationalization of life (no matter how scientific the method adopted) creates a straight-jacket that contemporaries find uncomfortable, yet it keeps therapists and gurus busy. At the level of theory, Professor Bowie explains:

The opposition just described has sometimes been characterized in terms of an opposition between 'Romanticism' and 'Positivism.' ... The opposition is often understood as between conceptions which concentrate on the subjective and expressive dimensions of human experience [Captain Kirk] and conceptions which concentrate on the objective ways in which we can find out about the world and ourselves [Mr. Spock]. In its most well-known guise in the English-speaking world the opposition was seen by C.P. Snow in the 1950s as involving 'two cultures,' the artistic and the scientific. The resulting debate affected major aspects of British culture, and continues to do so. If the issue seems too abstract, think of arguments over the fact that the arts make more money for the British economy than the car industry, [Sherlock Holmes alone generates millions for the British treasury,] or look at the relative spending in university departments on the arts and sciences. Another way of looking at this issue is to contrast the description of a human being by an evolutionary biologist, who sees us in terms of how we are determined by genes and by the need to adapt to an environment, and a novelist, who might see us in terms of our ability to be both self-determining and yet prone to give way to baser determining impulses. ...

The challenge for our generation of intellectuals (including scientists) and artists is to retain our humanity in an increasingly inhuman setting that threatens to deprive us of it, where science suggests that we lack importance or significance in the universe. Science, after all, with all of its successes and the wonders of technology that it makes possible, is also a human achievement.

While we require more scientific knowledge -- cures for diseases, an ever greater understanding of ourselves and of our universe -- we must not lose hope in the possiblity of human wisdom nor our appreciation of goodness and beauty, since these things are crucial to the mysterious natures of those creatures who both invent "superstring theories" as well as adventures for Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. It may help to remember that those advanced theories in physics and great stories come from the same human imagination, which we celebrate.

My autonomy and dignity are not negotiable. They are not the property of the state, things to be discarded if some clerk in a government office (or a shrink) decides that it is better for me to do without them. My humanity is not something to be taken from me by anyone. All attempts to understand persons ignoring subjective and spiritual aspects of the self will fail. They should. Wisdom in understanding persons comes only with the appreciation of the paradox that is human being-in-the-world. I am a freedom, just like you, not a thing for you to control based on what you think is "for my own good" and certainly not because you enjoy wielding power over others. Science is not enough to understand people.



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