Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Truth and Falsehood

These days, given the dominance of scientific methods, there is little actual respect accorded the results of a human being sitting alone in a room. It is true that many resultant works from such a scenario are beloved: there are mass market fictions and non fictions that are created from isolation, there is this blog you are currently reading and, of course, millions of others. However the currency of Truth is not of the essence in isolated pursuits. Rather these days scientists, especially of the hardest variety are very much of a mind like Patricia Churchland, who flatly stated that there could only limited progress in understanding from a person sitting alone and thinking. If you thought this was bad, and wondered whether progress could be made through relation and conversation, biologist Simon Levay is on hand to assure us that no progress could be made in the realm of understanding human sexuality from sitting around and discussing it. Apparently sexuality is such a third person, objective part of life that only, say, brain imaging and controlled studies could get at the truth of sex.

These are views of life that could only arise when a significant part of the elites or leading intellectuals in a given culture have implicitly or explicitly rejected the notion of first person experiential consciousness, or at the very least, have relegated such consciousness to an illusory movie that plays as a result of neurons firing. The problem with this view is not that it is reductionist per se, but that it is so extreme and radical a reductionism.

These are the sort of sentiments and assertions which naturally flow from an age of the brain. Everything that is not strictly the product of specifically scientific laboratory experiment, as in minute monitoring of brain states and so on, is seen as unreliable and in some quarters unreal and speculative.

In such an age, one that Karl Popper would rightly call "scientistic", disciplines like philosophy and psychology are essentially getting replaced by neuroscience. What good is sitting alone in your room, as wrote Kander and Ebb in Cabaret, when you can go to the lab and find out why you really are the way you are, rather than relying on your poor misguided memories, recollections, feelings, everyday reasoning, ordinary observations?

On all of these blogs I have been sitting alone in a room typing. Quite literally too, as unlike many of my contemporaries it has not and is not on a laptop amidst a crowded public space, say, a coffee shop. Would you have more implicit respect for me dear reader were my results not dreamed up from out of my brain but backed by "studies" - able to posted all over the relationship section of the Huffington Post, with keywords like "controls" and data and all sorts of though experiments like dividing people in rooms and getting responses to games and puzzles involving ethical issues and life situations? If it involved the sort of topical fears and fads of the moment, like food and nutrition issues, and our perceptions of each other, and the roots of Tea Party racism, or why and how we are altruistic or religious, or selfish according to some research group, would not my blog be a little respectable?

Never has a culture been more obsessed with the truth and falsity of itself and its representations of itself. Perhaps, not coincidentally, never has a culture had more plainly fallacious views of things. (Some of the more improbable religious beliefs are held by over half the population). The two problems are connected because we fail to honor both Poetry and Science. We have forgotten that each have work to do, but, they are not meant to be in tandem. (There is that knee-jerk Holism again in wanting to merge the two).

This split between Truth or fact on the one hand, and illusion and imagination on the other, has been a problem for much of human history. It is not inevitably a problem, for example, that we must have parts of life that are imagined or pretend and parts of life that we take to be as factual as the ground beneath our feet, nor is it a problem that these two are kept separate in some way. It was such a problem for Plato that he would have banned poets from his Republic. Plato, for all of his unscientific pontificating about ethereal forms, had a suspicion of the poets because he was only concerned with that which could be said to be really existing. He thought human culture should be a kind of news program, whereby people are saved from the sorts of dreams and nightmares that come when people spend too much time alone.

(Interestingly enough, just as I write this scientists have discovered that it is bad for us to think alone. I am not a conspiracy minded soul but is this a mere coincidence that this proof of the perils of thinking alone is revealed at the very moment when we only respect team generated scientific discovery?)

We do justice to neither poetry and science and eventually one of the domains might, in an almost colonial manner, come to play the role of or replace the other.

This project is akin to Churchland's project when she insists that there is no "spooky" stuff. By "spooky" she means that there really aren't real values in the world floating in the ethers like Justice and Love and Beauty and so on. These are rather mere metaphors for habits we have gotten into in perception perhaps a result of some crude atavistic need to reproduce and similar stories. She is not saying the feelings aren't real; she is not saying we should stop using words like Love and Justice but that we have been wrong about their meaning and source all along. In essence we have been as wrong about ourselves as we were about chemistry and physics in previous centuries before further proof was available.

Of course to do this move is a damning indictment of this richest of cultures we inherit. It is also a way to flatter the present at the expense of our rich past. Could it be that Shakespeare has less truth or fact in his plays because he lacked our scientific advantages?

Or it is possible that one can make genuine discovery or progress in non scientific ways, in ways that consist of sitting alone in a room or talking to others in an informal context?

This blogger - your weary, jaded, middle aged musician and amateur philosopher, clad in my three piece flannel lounge suit (though with no pipe or martini in sight) is alone in a room and here to assert, without consulting the proofs of science, without benefit of experiments however controlled, that Love, Justice and Beauty and Truth are actually quite real. Indeed I submit that they are as real as tables and chairs. That they do not have an actual physical location in space or even in our brains is no argument for their non-existence. I know that this is a terribly old fashioned view, I know it is very unhip. While it does have a venerable and historically ancient pedigree, it might strike, you dearest reader, as simply too simple or traditional to be possibly true.

Yet this was the view of some of our greatest minds in many cultures around the globe. The details and tones might differ but the sentiment is the same: we have selves, our world is thoroughly suffused and shot through with value. We are conscious. We have experiences.

What I am talking about is not a religious view. Indeed one need not be religious in the slightest to hold to what I am now saying. The religious themselves play the same game as the scientists. They want to live in a world where all is reduced to third party or third person evidence; it is just that their criteria for what counts as evidence is so thoroughly baroque as to run to the opposite extreme to Churchland. Whereas she wants to edit and chisel cut away all non essentials within a hairbreadth of life, many if not most of our religions want to expand indefinitely until every part of our Soul is accounted for, explained, and mastered. The result is, in spite of the profound differences (Science makes a fetish of evidence, Faith makes a mockery of it) rather similar. I sense in both a touch of the Fundamentalist.

We live in a fundamentalist culture, as today's election results in the United States in part attest. We think in terms of ultimatums, in terms of final causes and at our worst, final solutions.

Let us never lose sight of the individual. It is the individual who is precious. Descartes made many an error but one thing he got right is that the one thing we can be sure of is that we are undergoing an experience, and through that experience we exist, though I would not want to limit it, as Descartes may have, to only thought.

After the earnestness of this blog I promise my next one will be more colorful. I promise to make sure and be more chatty and intimate, to "reach across the aisle". I promise to have some pictures to delight, amuse or distract.

But remember, after all, I am just a guy sitting alone in a room.


  1. Pragmatard dilettante detected. "Other ways of knowing" nice try Carney. Fetishization of mysticism. Perhaps this why your blog sucks balls. The death of humanities is the single greatest step towards the liberation of humanity.

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