Monday, June 06, 2005

Two Cultures Revisited?

Many intellectuals or academics denigrate scientific discoveries and, by sneering implication and imprecation, the scientific paradigm, for one simple reason: dislike of the way reality is investigated by scientists. Their preferred method is philosophical. To posit an idea, necessarily simplified to be able to test, then having to prove or disprove it by a strict protocol - the scientific method - seems wrong or at least pointless to them. The sneering, if that is what it is, is similar to intelligent design (creationist) attacks on evolutionary theory. "You are crazy to think these results further our understand of ourselves" would be a reasonably summary of this type of weltmerz. They fail to preface their unscientific remarks with a necessary recognition: science does tend to break things down but it also systematises as philosophy did. Science has provided many of the analogies which novelists and artists use in their creative works. Novelists such as David Lodge frequently take on scientific ideas without the sneering ignorance.

The debate in a new group website Long Sunday
- with a hint of obtuseness and smidgin of chuckly superiority - on the latest research reported at claiming to show sarcasm is modular qua brains, illustrates perfectly the sort of stance that the ignorant and or truculent non-scientist can take. "How can we possibly take this type of research seriously? I can find a quote from Shakespeare that will answer all the questions you may have about sarcasm and human life in three seconds". No doubt.

What is the great divide in this perennial attitude? Is this The Two Cultures Revisited? Not nowadays, surely? People read all sorts and think in all sorts of ways: philosophy, religion, literature and science. A much more holistic approach. There is not the compartmentalisation there used to be; there is more open-mindedness. The reason this seems to be so in much creative writing is academics and intellectuals are, de facto, seemingly in toto, and certainly ad nauseam, arguing a single case - through specific examples they find in their reading - for the superiority of their specialised subject's academic approach to life's problems - and thus the case for art over science.

It ought to be possible to take scientific research which studies people with brain damage - why not the sarcasmless? - and make use of it in an artistic or literary sense. Anyone who knows his canon - I don't but can look it up with the best of them - will find just taking the bare-bones of this latest neurophysiological finding about sarcasm and run with it in a constructive, less negative, more productive way, cn produce a variety of results.

Autism, which is mentioned in the BBC report of the Israeli scientists work on sarcasm, is a fascinating subject for anyone if they have imagination to grasp its significance. Rain Man covered the ground to an extent: though mostly from the savant angle. Have we been living amongst autists (not artists) all these years and not known it? I consider people who cannot talk about anything except their own obsessions and achievement to have something akin to autism. It must be a spectrum of mental disorder. If the artists and writers refuse to even listen to what I say because it does not fit into the narrow world view they were born with and learnt, they are suffering from a sort of deliberate, obtuse blindness, too. You know the sort of thing: you talk long and hard about some interesting discovery you have read about. They fall asleep. You then say," How's work? How’s the novel coming on? How’s the bank balance? How's the family?", they suddenly perk up, giving a long and boring dissertation/ analysis on every aspect of their lives in the last 24-48 hours, which will probably have little added value. The point is their inability to see this. Despite a few new situations they describe, there is nothing exceptionally startling new in their descriptions - metaphors, models, analogues - about what it means to be human. It will in essence be another species of spiritual vacuity mascara ding as intellect.

The same applies in large part to what many fondly believe is right and good: in art, music, literature, in the supposedly rigorous formal, academic thinking. A poem ,for example: difficult, perhaps incomprehensible to anyone but the poet - who happens to be flavour of the month, say - but due according to this type of academic or free thinking intellectual much thought and consideration.

Science is an easy target. There are many millions of genuinely inane, idiotic research projects to attack. In the main science is an integral part of what made for progress. Many arty intellectuals are even ignorant enough to fail to understand the import distinction between science and technology. They probably did no history of science courses. If they had done they will have understood that though science is not technology, they are inextricably intertwined, like hardware and software. This computer analogy is apt: hardware, a product of technology and science, is very different from software, which is based in logic. Hence the word ‘language’ for the various programming tools, which are not science but logic based.


At Friday, June 10, 2005, Blogger Matt said...

On the contrary, scientists are some of the most radical folks around (compared to--let's face it, mostly continental philosophy departments). As many humanist literary types are just beginning to apppreciate.

-Matt from Long Sunday

At Friday, June 10, 2005, Blogger Matt said...

sorry, meant to say "mostly analytic" (though both terms are misleading)

At Friday, June 10, 2005, Blogger Matt said...

Gerald Bruns makes this point in his excellent book on Blanchot's anarchism.

At Friday, June 10, 2005, Blogger Andy said...

Can you quote appositely from Bruns?

At Friday, June 10, 2005, Blogger Matt said...

For a nominal sum.

At Saturday, June 11, 2005, Blogger Andy said...

For a moment there I was worried nominal might have something to do with nominal(ism), so turned to the Catholic Enccyclopedia (those pesky U.S. spellings...a case of relativism?)

which, as usual, is a mine of clarity. Suitably revised, I felt more confident in assuming the nominal you referred to was the more commonplace and understandable one.

This from my abstracts folder:

"Admiration for the ability to do something difficult is not unique to art: we admire athletes, inventors, skilful orators or jugglers; and admiration of skill is at least as intrinsic to art as to any other field of human endeavour (Godlovitch 1998). Ellen Dissanayake has identified a process of “making special’as essential to the arts as practised from the Pleistocene to the present (Dissanayake 1995). However, whereas she sees making special as something that tends to promote an intense communal sense in a hunter-gatherer group, Miller interprets the phenomenon as more connected with display: “Indicator theory suggests that making things special means making them hard to do, so that they reveal something special about the maker”. It follows that almost anything can be made artistic by executing it in a manner that would be difficult to imitate. “Art” as an honorific therefore “connotes superiority, exclusiveness, and high achievement”, and so would be useful as a fitness indicator.

If this is true, the vulgar gallery remark, “My kid could paint better than that”, is vindicated as valid at least from the standpoint of sexual selection, and can be expected to be heard in popular artistic contexts for the rest of human time: people are not going to “learn” from their culture that skill does not count (any more than they will learn that general body symmetry does not indicate fitness). Moreover, even with the elites it is really not so different: the skill discriminations of elites are simply accomplished at a more rarefied level. Cy Twombly’s blackboard scribbles, which look to many ordinary folk like, well, children’s blackboard scribbles, are viewed by high-art critics as demonstrating an extremely refined artistic skill. That the works do not obviously show skill to the uninitiated simply demonstrates that they are being produced at a level that the unsophisticated cannot grasp. The esoteric nature of art, and with its status and hierarchy, thus remains in place." Denis Dutton

At Sunday, June 12, 2005, Blogger Matt said...

Needless to say, now I'm worried that you're quoting Dennis Dutton.

(That hopelessly elitist pro-war philistine, the popularity of whose Farts and Fetters proves daily the sorry state of intellectual affairs.)

At Sunday, June 12, 2005, Blogger Andy said...

Forgive me. I've a predeliction for evolutionary psychological tripe as exemplifying the sorry state of science...or rather the people who claim to be scientists..but, hey, look on the bright side: I'm also quoting Homer you see from latest post.

That, incidentally, came from a trawl for Bruns, which came up with

which I am treating with a cautious respect till I can be absolutely sure this is not too a species of twaddle dressed up in fine words, which is my main intellectual preoccupation to detect and avoid.

Words hide more than they show; they are often more a way to obfuscate rather than clarifiy.

Look at this:

if you don't believe my jibe at evolutionary psychology. The point is simply made: evolutionary psychology is the bastard brother of E.O.Wilson's sociobiology and is very silly and dangerous because - though everyone, on a rainy day in Manchester so to speak, can amuse themselves with takes on the any number of facts in the world, using this 'method' - it allows its adherents to pretend and to try to hoodwink others they are doing science. It is, rather tellingly (a sign of the times?) 'science' often without any scientific data: more a stream of consciousnessby poorly trained philosophers based on a misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. And, to boot, the apparent conflation of two separate disciplines into one.

You get a flavour of this business from this quote which is meant to clarify what evpsy is but actually shows it up for what it actually is, a harmless parlour game:

'In fact, evolutionary psychology and behavior genetics are animated by two radically different questions:

1. What is the universal, evolved architecture that we all share by virtue of being humans? (evolutionary psychology)
2. Given a large population of people in a specific environment, to what extent can differences between these people be accounted for by differences in their genes? (behavior genetics)'

I worry that much so called intellectual debate does not do what a famous quote (from whom? A micropayment to the first person to identify who said or wrote it, paraphrased as

better sometimes to open doors than ask questions.

Which lead me to the 'In Our Times' competition to find the greatest philosopher by vox pop: my answer on the basis of last weeks Radio 3's offering is: Beethoven, with Hume probably a close second.


'evolutionary psychology is a new way of thinking about - human behaviour'

Ah, thinking, there's the rub and nub!

{FADE to strains of strains of dobebdobedobesobedodobedo}


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