Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I Am a Reductionist; Oops, I Mean Charlotte Simmons

As a sequel to my essay, Requiem for a Nightmare, here is more evidence of how Reductionist philosophy really can harm a person's life and the health of society overall.

Yesterday, I discovered a wonderful article, Love in the Age of Neuroscience, written by Professors Mickey Craig and Jon Fennell of Hillsdale College. Their article - published in the Fall 2005 issue of The New Atlantis - explores the philosophical implications of Tom Wolfe's novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. As we saw in my previous essay, Mr. Wolfe is fascinated by how Reductionist Science is quietly underming American values - with nary anyone bothering to notice. In his latest novel, Mr. Wolfe uses an elite college as the setting for his morality tale.

Professor Craig takes it from there...

As John Derbyshire wrote in National Review, I Am Charlotte Simmons is a reminder of the “darker side” of recent discoveries in the human sciences, especially in neuroscience and genetics. At stake is the “metaphysic” which provides sense and direction to our lives, including the complicated encounter between men and women. The novel invites us to ask: Is love possible in the age of neuroscience? Or have we unmasked human beings only to discover that love is an illusion?… [TW note: I've withessed that first-hand]

Charlotte’s experiences at the fictional Dupont University shed light on these questions, as the ambitious girl from backwater North Carolina is transformed by her sophisticated and salacious surroundings. Far from being the path to higher civilization and refinement of character, Dupont is a toxic impediment to the yearning for higher things, built on a dogmatic denial that higher civilization and refinement of character are even possible. Where, in a former age, the impressionable young student might have aspired to religious salvation or genuine wisdom, today’s typical college student lives more for entertainment, sensation, and release, all the while demanding and largely getting immediate gratification. The individual still seeks status and recognition. But the marks of distinction are all too often inebriation, “hooking up,” expertise at sarcasm (“sarc one,” “sarc two,” and “sarc three”), and insouciance toward matters intellectual and moral. As students learn about and fall into this new ethic, the university not only fails to stand in opposition, it accelerates the process. Dupont, that composite of Duke, Stanford, Yale, and the University of Michigan, corrupts the promising young Charlotte...

The teaching of Dupont University is precisely that the soul and the moral dimension of being are illusions. In the past, the university (at its best and in principle) sought to cultivate the human soul toward completion or excellence. The modern university, as Wolfe portrays it, denies that there are truthful distinctions between higher and lower; it teaches that the soul is not real, and that perfection of the soul is thus a thing of the past.

The setting of I Am Charlotte Simmons is truly “postmodern”—a world dominated by Nietzsche and neuroscience, a world which has jettisoned the moral imagination of the past. Not only is God dead, but so is reason, once understood as the characteristic that distinguishes man from the rest of nature. We now understand ourselves by studying the behavior of other animals, rather than understanding the behavior of other animals in light of human reason and human difference. We learn that it is embarrassing for any educated person to be considered religious or even moral. Darwin’s key insight that man is just another animal, now updated with the tools and discoveries of modern biology, has liberated us from two Kingdoms of Darkness. Post-faith and post-reason, we can now turn to neuroscience to understand the human condition, a path that leads to or simply ratifies the governing nihilism of the students, both the ambitious and apathetic alike.

The task of neuroscience is to understand human behavior as it really is, without illusions…Human beings think they have free will and that their choices have meaning. But this is one of the comforting myths of the past that neuroscience is proud to overcome. As Dr. Starling explains, this time with a thought experiment borrowed from a fellow neuroscientist:

Let’s say you pick up a rock and you throw it. And in mid-flight you give that rock consciousness and a rational mind. That little rock will think it has free will and will give you a highly rational account of why it has decided to take the route it’s taking.

In other words: Human beings are simply rocks. Neuroscientists are rocks who know they are rocks. Human beings are bodies in motion, bodies that falsely believe they have free will. But neuroscience, armed with tools like fMRIs and PET scans, promises a true description of human behavior, a final lifting of man’s religious and moral illusions. And that life without illusions may amount to nothing more than the joyless quest for joy or the soulless interactions of the soulless. The consequences of this shift in human self-understanding are enormous.

This dogma of soullessness is the sub-text for the entire novel. The administration, faculty, students, athletes, and fans are so immersed in this postmodern world that they cannot imagine anything else…

Aristotle teaches that every human being has a natural desire for happiness coupled with a natural lack of self-sufficiency, which results in natural partnerships (family, friends, fellow-citizens). These partnerships, when guided by moral and intellectual virtue, constitute true human happiness. But if the soul and free will are illusions, then friendship and love are illusions as well, or mere words based on illusions…

According to the principles of neuroscience…interaction, at least among humans, results in a competition guided by nothing beyond the desire for recognition, which seemingly overcomes the loneliness of the mere individual. The competition for recognition at Dupont manifests itself as an interminable battle of wits and sexual conquests…

This desire for recognition, shaped by the interplay between Charlotte’s desperate loneliness and desperate desire to belong, is central to the novel…She wants to be recognized. She is animated by amour propre. Her main concern seems to be what she thinks other people are thinking of her. While she says she wants the life of the mind, what she really wants is to be recognized as the best…

Even at the moment when Charlotte has attained what she seeks, she is still miserable. Despite her victory in the battle for recognition, she is still alone in the world, struggling to maintain the appearance of happiness for her crowd of onlookers…

If Wolfe’s description of Dupont accurately portrays the character of our elite universities, then the dissolution of the American way of life is nearly complete. Our ancient faith is no longer a vibrant and effective part of the education of future leaders. Our ability to perpetuate our culture and our constitutional soul will wither alongside our belief in the soul itself. As Lincoln understood, once it loses its ancient faith, the Republic cannot long endure. Perhaps our situation is not as dire as the metamorphosis of Charlotte Simmons makes it seem. But if the portrayal is right, only time will tell whether Wolfe’s diagnosis of our condition can help effect a recovery.

I read Tom Wolfe's book earlier this year, and I really loved it. Heck, I like almost any novel that gives serious attention to the power of ideas to shape and control our destiny (Atlas Shrugged is another example).

If you share my taste in books, I humbly recommend The Mustard Seed.


Jesus Christ Supercop said...

A chocolate cake can be broken down to its component parts, and these, in turn, can be broken down to their component parts, and so on. If you continue this process of reduction long enough you will eventually be dealing with quarks. The baker can also explain exactly what's in the cake and how it's made. What you perceive to be the delicious taste of chocolate cake can likewise be reduced and broken down to chemical processes and whatnot, or perhaps the baker can tell you what you are tasting. Everything has an explanation and a mechanism.

But it's still chocolate cake and you're still eating it because it tastes good. The same thing applies to emotions, such as love. Nothing changes just because you can explain it, the way all things can be explained. Or rather, nothing should change, but clearly there are people who misinterpret these explanations, use them for their own dubious purposes, or see them as convinient excuses and justifications.

In the book, Dr. Starling claims that there is no free will or self because the human mind just consists of matter. This makes no sense at all, unless one could demonstrate that free will and self are dependent on something supernatural, such as a soul. What is that based on, and how could you ever demonstrate something like that? Starling's position is therefore very unscientific and irrational.

Certainly much of human behavior is based on preconditioned responses and biological programming, but this doesn't rule out free will, and those responses and programming are necessary anyway (and can be altered, suppressed and controlled to varying degrees of success). Furthermore, human civilization is clearly dependent on consciousness and free will, because you can't build nuclear missiles with the basic biological impulses found in the animal world. If you could, the Cold War would have been fought between humans and... dolphins or something. I think the only counter-argument to this would be to claim that some entity or force is guiding human behavior, perhaps towards some pre-destined goal, but then you'd be talking religion or philosophy, not science.

So to me, all this new information revealed by neuroscience is, at best, interesting trivia that has no effect on my life, unless its scientific applications will benefit me some day.

Jesus Christ Supercop said...

Oh, and one more thing: after reading your previous post, 'Requiem for a Nightmare,' I conclude that these neuroscience guys are either peddling outright junk science or running the results through an ideological filter, because all the king's men and all the king's horses can't find any reason or logic in what they're saying. An illusion can't deceive us into thinking that we are conscious if there is no consciousness to be deceived, as Descartes already figured out hundreds of years ago. Also, it is simply not true that the brain arrives fully ready at birth, as some seem to think.

This is what happens when you let idiots practise science.

Todd White said...

JCS, A few points...

1) I'm glad you think the neuroscience guys are "irrational idiots." They see themselves quite differently, however. They think they own "Da Truth," and they are quite eager to advance that Truth throughout society.

2) You wrote “human civilization is clearly dependent on consciousness and free will, because you can't build nuclear missiles with the basic biological impulses found in the animal world. If you could, the Cold War would have been fought between humans and... dolphins or something.”

The Reductionists would disagree with you. They would say the Cold War – just like everything in life – can be explained through “evolutionary psychology.” Alpha males in the U.S. and Russia were trying to impress the chicks. And yes, I realize how stupid that sounds. But they don’t think it’s stupid at all.

3) Regarding your cake analogy...If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that Reductionism should be a TOOL of science, and only that: a TOOL. I share that position.

However, if Reductionism is the overarching philosophy of Science (something that E.O. Wilson advocates), then it becomes an obstacle to understanding.

Take the concept of love, for example. Understanding how neurons react to love is interesting, but how much does it really tell us about love? The Reductionist would say “Everything. The neurons are all that matters. The ‘Love’ you speak of is an illusion.” And therein lies the problem. People believe this nonsense. Take my college friend, for instance.

Jesus Christ Supercop said...

Neuroscience itself is great. The more we know about how the brain works, the better we can treat and cure mental illnesses, neurological problems and other brain-related problems. In the future we might even be able to cure sociopaths and pedophiles and whatnot. But some of the conclusions being drawn from neuroscience are non sequiturs, as in the conclusions don't follow from the premises. Dream logic, really. I would imagine that the vast majority of neuroscientists aren't using their research to try to justify some kind of nihilist philosophy or other agenda, but some of them are (or they just don't understand what they're doing).

Terrible things happen when gamers/PUAs start using evopsych and reductionism to make generalizations about all people (since all people share the same biological foundation). Eventually the belief that humans cannot overcome biology becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Todd White said...

JCS: “Neuroscience itself is great.”

TW: Oh absolutely. I agree.

JCS: "I would imagine that the vast majority of neuroscientists aren't using their research to try to justify some kind of nihilist philosophy or other agenda, but some of them are (or they just don't understand what they're doing)."

TW: I agree with that too. In fact, I can’t think of a single credentialed neuroscientist who’s willingly signed up to participate in these Culture Wars. Dawkins, Wilson, and Dennett, for example are NOT neuroscientists; they’re specialists in other fields who are using neuroscience research to advance their own agenda. So yes, it does seem that the overwhelming majority of neuroscientists want to conduct their research in peace and with a minimum of outside interference (which is appropriate).

JCS: “Terrible things happen when gamers/PUAs start using evopsych and reductionism to make generalizations about all people…Eventually the belief that humans cannot overcome biology becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

TW: Yes. An important point. Well-said.