Saturday, 19 June 2010

Poet Knocks Out Philosopher!

Controlling the ring suddenly Russell finds himself floored by Durrell.

Now the commentators shout and scream! They talk about mind and body, about natural selection; and god, of all things. A Russian cries out "idel specoolations”, but no-one listens.

Now on his feet Russell, wobbling badly, sees an opportunity....

In his Political Ideals Bertrand Russell, whilst acknowledging that the good society is far away, writes of how easy it would be to achieve: “many of the evils we suffer… could be abolished within a few years.” He blames our apathy, our sluggish imaginations…

This is a rational man’s interpretation of the world – even down to his view of the non-rational drives that fuel our reason. Of course, Russell knew it was more complicated than this, but his vision, his ideals, are based on a world governed by reason and creativity; a world of the mind, and of thought.

But is reason all? Emotions, feelings, ingrained habits, these are more troublesome characters, and are less easy to move, especially when buttressed by cultures that encourage them – more so now, than in Russell’s time.

A line of Lawrence Durrell (from Midnight Dialogue) captures this well:

Snapped in the manacles of reviving error.

Reviving. Such a good word! Captures exactly the power of our body, and the perennial problem. To escape it our mind has to have more drive, more energy; and even then… error prone it can succumb to new phantoms of its own creation, some new god to save us from the messy reality of our daily life. Can we ever be free?

Or is the very idea of freedom a mistake? Larger questions follow in its wake. It may not be the body, but the mind that is the reviving error. What if the mind is a by-product of some other evolutionary change, a kind of spandrel.

A spandrel is one of those more-or-less triangular spaces that you find at the junctures of the arches that hold up a dome. They are often highly decorated; painters competed in devising designs to fit them. Indeed… casual inspection might suggest that the spandrels are there because they provide the opportunity for decoration; that, an adaptationist might say, is what spandrels were selected for. But actually, according to Gould and Lewontin, that gets things backwards. In fact, spandrels are a by-product of an arch-and-dome architecture; decide on the latter and you get the former for better or worse. Arches were selected for holding up domes; spandrels just came along for the ride. (Jerry Fodor)

Not designed for the world the mind is a stranger to it; always looking for that right of citizenship it can never have.

The alternative, of course, is to fashion the world from our minds, to make it rational. Since the rise of science and modern capitalism this has been remarkably successful; though still quite limited, thus Russell’s words. However, is this to create a permanent error? Of a human world permanently out of kilter with its natural environment; because of the dominance of a particular kind of reason: of what Ernest Gellner has called instrumental rationality.

If it is true that the mind is a by-product of evolution, it is curious that now, when we live in a world more mind-saturated than any other, a new religion of Neo-Darwinianism should be formed which insists on the natural selection of all things. We shape the environment more than ever before, but our thinkers say that everything is adapted to natural processes. Everything, it appears, is grounded in nature, which we know and understand – we know that nature has a purpose. For within this theology is the central belief of utility – everything has a use, a function. Which curiously mimics the workings of industrial societies; with its mix of capitalism, science and bureaucracy; its profit motive, its means and ends.

However, these new beliefs may represent only the essence of a particular part of the mind, which is then projected onto all of creation. A belief, moreover, that grows out of the encompassing economic and cultural environment. Lewontin puts it well:

…science, like other productive activities, like the state, the family, sport, is a social institution completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions…. Scientists do not begin life as scientists, after all, but as social beings immersed in a family, a state, a productive structure, and they view nature through a lens that has been molded by their social experience.

Every religion has to be grounded, like every thought that must, at its base, have some observable fact if it is to have validity. In Christendom the absolute ground was in the mind - in belief. What could not be seen and verified was the foundation of the Christian worldview. Today, the natural world is the absolute ground; is the new metaphysical foundation. This may well be true. However, just as we created god in our own image, we must be wary of doing the same with the natural world. We cannot infuse it with our thoughts. Moreover, returning to Durrell’s reviving error, it is possible we will never completely know what it is; even when we think we do. Chomsky has noted that our minds may be constructed in such a way that there are certain things we will never know, or even certain questions we can never ask.

However, a religion has to know the truth; it must have certainty. To do this it must create it – from oneself. Richard Lewontin sums this up well:

Even biologists who have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of what the actual genetic changes are in the evolution of species cannot resist the temptation to defend evolution against its know-nothing enemies by appealing to the fact that biologists are always able to provide plausible scenarios for evolution by natural selection. But plausibility is not science. True and sufficient explanations of particular examples of evolution are extremely hard to arrive at because we do not have world enough and time. The cytogeneticist Jakov Krivshenko used to dismiss merely plausible explanations, in a strong Russian accent that lent it greater derisive force, as “idel specoolations.”


Even at the expense of having to say “I don’t know how it evolved” most of the time, biologists should not engage in idle speculations.

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