As I’ve acknowledged, our conversation with David Brin was more monologue, and though we tried to redeem that with the follow-up episode, that still didn’t serve the purpose of actually confronting David with our objections to his views (and his style, for that matter) and getting his reasoned reactions.
Well, I had another opportunity to close the circle. He had given us (for Citizen perusal) a philosophy text he was writing for our philosophical feedback. Now, since NO ONE among our Citizens seemed inclined to read it and provide such feedback, and since I’d promised it to him, eventually I did so myself (well, I did the first half, thinking I’d decide whether given his reaction it seemed worth my time to comment on the second half).
Here are some edited excerpts from the email exchange (I’m not going to provide chunks of the essay I was giving feedback on here):
First, I provided feedback on the essay (I’m only giving a few points here and am not going to reproduce chunks of the essay itself, though Citizens can and should still go read it):
p. 4, you say, “On the intellectual plane, modern theology has only begun grappling with basic issues posed by science. For example, in the century since widespread acceptance of Darwin’s model of natural selection, scientific methods have usefully been applied to vexing moral issues such as the repudiation of racism.”
ML: There’s a great difference between the general demand for facts over dogma and actually using scientific methods to resolve an ethical dispute. While racism has undoubtedly waned much because factual claims like “blacks can’t do X kind of job” have been proven false (by the simple fact of plenty of blacks entering such professions), nothing in the way of a specific science is required for this, and the ethical claims involved with treating everyone equally would hold even if the claims of The Bell Curve and such turned out to be factually correct.
Question 4: [where David repeated his quotation of C.P. Snow describing science as forward-looking and the humanities as backward-looking, the point in this context to bash on religion as authoritarian and pessimistic]
ML: I thought this C.P. Snow business was a load of hooey when you voiced it on the podcast and still think it: I think it’s a complex question to what extent scholarship that hangs on understanding the history of a discipline is actually dependent on any claim that people in the past “had it right.” That’s certainly not at all the case in philosophy, where we look to history not as a source of wisdom but as we would to another planet: to a place not immersed in our current debates and concepts where we might be able to draw some inspiration for novelty, understanding as of course you do that much we consider novelty is just a reshuffling and recasting of old material.
Admittedly, it’s more apropos in the context here than it was on the podcast, where you frequently launched verbatim into stump speeches rather than trying to ferret out and respond to what was particular to the actual communication at hand. 🙂
So I think you can retain the main argument here, about the fact that we have morally advanced over history, and simply drop the C.P. Snow quote, which I think detracts from the uncontroversial comments about religion’s praise for a golden age (miracles don’t happen now, past writers actually had a link to God, Man before the Fall, etc. etc.). Per my first point in this email, it’s not science in particular that has overcome racism and brought tolerance… the Enlightenment is fundamentally philosophical, i.e. humanistic: it’s Socratic questioning of tradition that made science possible and Cartesian doubting that followed it every step of the way. The conflict between worshipping the past and looking to the future is not congruent to the conflict to the division between the sciences and the humanities. In sum, this section could be made shorter and incisive if you resist the urge to revive so many of your recurrent themes.
…And I also pressed him a bit in this initial communication about a point he made about the choice in views between seeing human nature as robust, such that we should have freedom/democracy, vs. frail and voracious, such that we should be controlled by elites. The section indicated to me that he was trapped in this tradition’s view of human selfishness, whereas I have through many podcasts back to Hobbes and Hegel, advanced the view that:
…All attempts to fit behavior into a framework of underlying selfishness vs. professed altruism are misguided. People typically lack authentic individuality, but it doesn’t follow from that that they need to be dominated. This is all in line with your own vision of society as beneficial: that we are built into authentic individuals through stimulating interactions, that society is not bad guys holding us down but is the channel by which our energy is built and into which it flows.
David gave me a quick response, most of which was directed at some of the points not quoted above. Since part of the context of the selfishness bit above was martyrdom/sainthood, he thought I was giving a “defense of sainthood.” Here’s one specific response he provided worth relating here:
CP Snow’s principal point was about the language and syntax and processes of humanities vs. sciences, of which there were many chasms, including temporal — the time flow of wisdom and citation of authority, as opposed to the godlike authority of experiment. This “two cultures” divide is fading on those campuses where members of arts and humanities departments are discovering it is both more productive and more fun to find ways to collaborate with science.
I then responded (and am giving most of what I wrote here; a “…” indicates I’ve removed something):
To clarify, my point about self (and the misguidedness of positing underlying motives of self-interest, which is very common) was not a defense of sainthood, but a criticism of the formulation of the problem (“are these supposedly selfless actions really selfless?”) that you’re trying to unmask. I too find the psychology of martyrdom abhorrent…
Speaking very very generally… the point in studying the ancients in philosophy is that, really, there are only so many basic building blocks of thought, basic metaphors, structures for approaching the world, and if you can see the permutations of these through a number of thinkers, then you’re more able to abstract away from from the current intellectual climate and think originally. To use your own example, everybody thinks he’s the first rebel, and even a cursory scan of history shows that’s obviously false. Teleology in particular has a history of abuse (“that’s unnatural!”), but retains its uses in science.
But more fundamentally, I deny that only by playing explicitly with scientists do the humanities attain clear-headedness. (And will add to this that religion is not the alternative, but is for me at least an entirely alien incursion.) Careful examination and self-questioning are the legacy of Socrates. To give one quick example: I just finished reading the novel “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, which, through what are essentially detailed (and presumably largely fictional!) anecdotes, gives us a picture of human nature and our relation to work, to goals: If you want an accurate picture of people’s frailty… there’s one right there, in literature.
Now, you might say that even if the picture is accurate, it’s just a mass of data, and would need to be scientifically confirmed through psychological experiments and statistical analyses: e.g. do stay-at-home mothers with IQs measured greater than 120 suffer greater levels of clinical depression than the national average, etc. etc. etc. And yes, that would be useful for some purposes, but more often than not, penetrating the complexities that underlie individuals’ real-life problems is not going to be accomplished by that kind of approach, which is like trying to use a sledge hammer to fix tiny electronic components. That’s why psychotherapy, which Freud launched with such scientific pretensions, has become a hodge podge of different tricks from different tradition, with the most important factor (so I am told) being simply whether the therapist is a jerk or not. (Needless to say, the “comfort” of religion is not going to be of help either, being more of a blanket draped over the whole thing than a tool for fixing it.)
The pretension of scientism is that an experimental approach (preferably as much like physics and chemistry as possible!) will be useful to in every domain, that it’s either data or (as you say) romanticism that drives decision-making. But in your own political speech, for instance, that’s clearly not the case: it’s neither scrupulously collected scientific data nor errant irrationality that leads you to make such observations as “conservatives are motivated by loyalty while liberals are motivated by self-overcoming.” That kind of observation is exactly what the humanities do, and there’s nothing particularly “romantic” about it, and we have established (not codified, certainly not through the rules of logical inference) ways of critiquing and improving and qualifying such observations.
The premise of your religion essay is that public discourse around religion is degraded: both the camp of science (at least as represented by the New Atheists) and the camp of religion ignore subtlety and insist on simplicity and absolutism. Yes, I most emphatically agree. But your alternative seems just to be for the two sides to understand each other more, for the religious to actually think critically and for the scientists to “learn the language of religion,” which here is just to understand that people feel emptiness which they try to fill with religion when they should be led instead to fill it with this challenge for us to adapt to the future and save the world (and with the wonder of nature, which is one of Dawkins’s points as well). This amounts to a mere political objection to New Atheism without recognition of the fundamental misguidedness of scientism. Reasonableness is not exhausted by the actual process of scientific data collection.
You’ve expressed extreme frustration at the current political left-right climate, at how much that squeezes the mind in ways damaging to real progress. That’s how I feel about the science vs. irrationality dichotomy, where the humanities (romanticism, in your word) are lumped in with religion (which, again, I have almost zero respect for, insofar as it resembles the dogmatism you describe). Though your essay is an attempt to bridge these gaps, a better strategy would be a more fundamental reconceptualization such that the gaps don’t arise in the first place. Philosophy, I allege, has provided plenty of basic structural components for such an effort, but if you choose to discard anything touched by the ancients (who, having little in the way of measuring apparatus, had little else to do but play with concepts), then you’re left with this fundamentally screwed up picture that our culture has presented to us. You don’t START with Snow’s picture and say “Well, that wasn’t quite right; we can bridge this divide” but instead start with something fundamentally different…
I realize this is too vague to be very helpful in revising this essay… But I can say that too much of the word count right now strikes me as aimed at low-hanging fruit and that, for example, thinking further through the issue of purposefulness [there was a section in the essay considering the question about what according to the religious was God’s purpose in creating us; the only option he considered from the literature was that we were created to “love Him,” which of course seems lame] would make that section thicker with original insights. The whole fun of philosophy is challenging yourself: going beyond rehearsed arguments and, instead, thinking on your feet in a new way about something strange (I don’t envy you the task of searching through theological tracts for clever looking things to respond to). I see some of that joy of invention in the essay, but would urge you to push yourself farther in that direction when you get around to completing it. When finishing any given point, turn around and do your best to rip it down, and then rewrite the original point with your own effort clearly in mind. I know you do this already in your novels; the multiplicity of voices weighing in with different theories is part of what makes them so great (though I’d love to see that element in your writing pushed to a Dostoevskian point where, e.g., your anti-technology arguments are so well developed that a reader honestly can’t tell where you personally stand).
…We got a lot of flack from commenters on the blog and our Facebook group that said that we didn’t actually engage with you on the podcast discussion, but you’ve got such a well thought out, developed and in some ways complete picture, that we had little purchase in that forum to start any kind of real dialogue. Anything one of us would say, you would interpret it as one of a number of all-too-familiar kinds of confused sentiments and pull something out of your bag starting with the words “What you’ve got to understand is.” For instance, I thought when you started talking about the insanity of the extreme left that you were reacting in part to the Frithjof Bergmann PEL episode I had sent you (and so contributing to our ongoing dialogue between different points of view), but later realized that, no, that was just part of your TED talk. (I mention that yet again because I think Bergmann’s program of New Work and your picture of the future where we’re still waiting for that one more technical invention that would eradicate poverty would greatly benefit from interaction.) So this is my small attempt to fling a little mud on the side of your edifice in hope that a crack might allow some seepage…
Finally, here’s David’s very nice response, presented more or less in full:
Mark, again thanks for the extensive and passionate input provoked by my paper. I shall certainly pay close heed when I next do a rewrite.
I agree with you that it is important to study the ancient thinkers. Why do you think I read Plato, despite finding him odious in dozens of ways. One can well see how the better side of his preaching — to live an examined life and to use some degree of logical reasoning to escape some kinds of fallacies — served a positive purpose when young rebels in the new universities of the 1300s used Greek thought to pry some openings in scholastic thought, before Plato’s works resumed their original role as incantation-steeped tools of reaction, distraction and repression. Indeed, it is in that light that I find him most worth studying. Aquinas, in contrast, never stuck me as so deliberately engaged in incantatory justification of oppression.
Nothing that I said should be construed to mean that the humanities are valueless. Only that they spoke a different language in Snow’s time, and for centuries before, in which the Enlightenment was constantly being captured by formula-spinning systems. This does not mean that Literature Majors or History Majors learned nothing of value! Lordy, I read more lit and history than I do science!
But clearly the mavens of those departments felt threatened by what was going on in the labs across campus. And this survives to this day, in the prejudicial treatment of denying tenure to the science fiction instructors on almost every campus in America.
The entire notion that all literature should repetitiously chew over again the same “eternal verities” is noxious beyond telling… though I see signs it is starting to fade, at last.
Again, this is not about “irrationality” — Plato taught rationality, all right. It is about the time flow of wisdom and whether you lean upon scholastic authority or the tension of awaiting the next cool thing.
And alas, that is all that I can offer, for now. At least I have shown that I read and enjoyed and will ponder your response.
With cordial regards,
In sum, while this doesn’t quite compensate for these exchanges not happening during our episode with him, and there are serious disadvantages to sending large blocks of text back and forth as opposed to having a conversation, I think this constitutes enough communication to provide some “reciprocal accountability” that Brin praises as being vital to intellectual life. Or not. One of those.