The Scientific Spirit and Modern Society

The scientist inquires into nature to discover what relationships exist between things. By his nature the scientist is one who does not think that he possess the entire truth, as he continues to grasp at it. His quest is to possess this truth and he devotes his life to creating experiments to test hypotheses and theories expressed in propositional knowledge.

The scientist can take many paths as he meanders through the abyss of existing knowledge and ideas looking for new ways test his hypothesis, but two paths are particularly worth highlighting. The first path and the one that is most common within modern societies in that which might be known as that of the builder. This path takes the scientist in the direction of proving theories and developing knowledge that can benefit mankind. The builder sees the great power of scientific knowledge to assist us, and consequently while he is committed to knowing the truth, he must necessarily become more possessed by a spirit of beneficence than a passion for grasping the truth. Over the course of his quest he has gone from experiencing a wide eyed awe towards nature that reaches out to meet it, to an attitude that wishes to merely experiment on nature in order to benefit mankind. While he started as primarily a thinker, he is now primarily an actor or doer.

The path of the builder is the most dominant path for the scientist in modern society as the scientist must justify his worth in terms that the society he inhabits understands. Given that most modern societies are fundamentally oriented around growth, economic concerns and improving material conditions for people the scientist must justify his worth as someone whose work benefits mankind, rather than simply someone who is enamored with the quest for truth. While Socrates was enamored with the spirit of science in that he devoted his life to questioning the nature of reality and knowledge, he would not be funded as a scientist because he refused to produce any tangible artifact that might benefit mankind.

Not always, but typically, the builder becomes a specialist. As a specialist he focuses in one narrow field of study to see what useful knowledge can be grasped within that narrow field for a particular set of practical problems, rather than a builder who wants to grasp the whole. That the builder typically becomes a specialist is not at all surprising as in order to fully experiment on one narrow aspect of nature in depth a scientist needs to devote much time, and study and there are very few scientists who are able to conquer more than one narrow region because of the simple demands of time that are required to fully understand this region.

In addition, the structure of scientific inquiry as it is constituted institutionally in modern society exhibits a structure of divisions in which one must primarily be a botanist, psychologist, physicist or member of another discipline, such that the demands of conformity to a professional discipline confine the scientist to working in a particular field. Of course the professional scientist can examine other fields outside of their work, but this must always be something separate from his professional work, and this pursuit must always compete with other pursuits such as friendship, love, family and other leisurely activities.

The second path for the scientist is far more difficult to pursue in modern society and somewhat ironically it tends to be at cross purposes with the professional scientific discipline. In this path we have those whose fundamental concern is to understand the whole. These individuals typically make unreliable researchers as their task cannot be confined to simply figuring out some particular sphere such as understanding the impact of the consumption of sucralose on appetite. These people are creative seekers who jump from one area of interest to another driven by their desire to synthesize their insights into some coherent understanding of the whole, rather than obedient workers who will be sure to accomplish the task to which they are assigned or have agreed to. Some of them may be able to make a career through scientific inquiry because of their genius and novel insights, but this will always be in tension with the spirit by which they are animated, as those who are driven by this spirit are not necessarily interested in producing treatises but in simply grasping the whole. This last point is one that has been made by many including Arendt, but I think it is worth reiterating because it points to the separation between building intellectual systems for the benefit of mankind or for glory, and to the pure quest for understanding.

This is all to say that the professional discipline of science is not simply a constitution of the spirit that continually pursues an understanding of the whole. Rather, the professional discipline of science is a historical manifestation of many factors, and those of who are captured by the aforementioned spirit may be marginalized and degraded, rather than supported by the institutions of science as they exist in modern societies. Consequently, the institutionalization of science may be as much of a threat to the spirit of continuous inquiry directed at understanding the whole as those who decry science in favour of unreflective forms of faith and tradition.

Advertisements

Tragedy as an Element of Authenticity

I once had a professor mention that the task of trying to find one’s individual path in life according to the notion of authenticity was a Sisyphean task. While I do not agree with this professor, it seems that the task of finding of one’s authentic path in life is far more complicated, and problematic than the way that authenticity is ordinarily understood suggests.

Typically, the notion of authenticity is understand to suggest that the key to living a good life is turning inward and figuring out what you want to do with your life. After one has done this one can then take actions to pursue what one wants to do with one’s life. Consequently, according to this interpretation of the notion of authenticity, the task of finding one’s authentic path is fairly simple and unproblematic.

Furthermore, it is interesting that this popular notion of authenticity tend to gloss over the fact that finding what one wants to do with one’s life need not admit to a singular answer. For example, in my life as I have turned inwards I have realized that I am drawn to activities of artistic creation, activities of philosophical, spiritual and political reflection, and activities of civic/political involvement. But at the same time I recognize that engaging in these activities well requires a large degree of time and devotion, such that I cannot fully commit to all three with the amount of time that I have within my life. In my case thus I have had to make an agonistic choice to primarily commit to one form of activity at the expense of the others. Furthermore, we have little reason to think that my example is particularly peculiar as many people are deeply conflicted regarding the kinds of activities that they want to build their lives around. Consequently, it seems that the task of finding of what one wants to do with one’s life does not admit of a simple, singular answer. When we turn inwards sometimes we realize that there are multiple activities that we want to build our lives around, and that we cannot adequately make time to pursue all of these activities in a way that gives all of them their due. In such a situation we will have to make the choice to devote ourselves to a certain set of these activities at the expense of others that we still find very attractive and valuable.

As a result of the preceding, the turn inwards that is required to figure out what one wants out of life requires us to confront a possibly tragic choice. I call this choice tragic, in reference to the fact that there may be an insoluble conflict between the alternative life paths that one may take. This concept of tragedy is influenced by Sophocles, as a large element of the Sophoclean conception of tragedy has to do with the conflict between incompatible priorities or values. For example, in Sophocles’ Antigone we have the obligations to the city conflicting with the obligations that a daughter has towards her brother. Just as Antigone has to choose to give priority to one set of claims that she finds valid, over another, those who make the inward turn of authenticity sometimes will have to choose between giving priority to one form of activity they find attractive over another that they find attractive. Consequently, the inward turn of authenticity always contains within it the possible experience of tragedy in this Sophoclean sense.

Now, it should be noted that I am not rejecting the notion of authenticity; rather, my issue is that we tend to speak about authenticity as though finding what one wants to do with one’s life will give us a simple, singular answer that we will then be able to efficiently pursue. Within popular culture we tend to speak of the inward turn of authenticity as something that is quite easy to deal with and move on from. However, as I have noted above the inward turn that is required to understand what one wants to do with one’s life can put us in the position of having to make a tragic choice, and there is always the possibility that we will deeply regret our decisions. So, it seems that the inward turn of authenticity is not as simple or as easy to deal with as the popular conception of it suggests, and by stating that it is simple and easy we are deceiving ourselves and ill-preparing ourselves for what we may have to deal with in their lives. For this reason we need to recognize the courage that it requires to make the inward turn and make the commitment to a particular set of priorities over another. Making this choice and facing it requires courage because one has to face the real possibility that one will make the wrong choice, and pursue a life that is meaningless or superficial. Furthermore, another upshot of this is that any person, who after taking the inward turn is confronted by a tragic choice between alternatives and makes the choice for one of these alternatives over the other, may experience a deep sense of loss over what could have been. This sense of loss is not an unhealthy manifestation of a disordered mind, but rather the reflection that a person has made the choice to forgo developing an element of themselves that they would have developed under different conditions.

Music, Commodification, Creativity and Beauty

During this week a colleague of mine and I were discussing a band that she quite enjoys. I commented that while I think this band are good at what they do, I find their music derivative and therefore have never really given them much attention. Her response to this was that she sees nothing wrong with a band being derivative if they produce enjoyable, good music. My response to her comment expressed the idea that part of the point of the creation of art is to create something unique and distinctive, as opposed to something that is merely a re-creation of something that already exists. Ultimately, there was no resolution to the discussion, but this conversation got me thinking about the nature of music and its relation to modes of production and consumption within post-industrial society. I will argue that while music may not need to be creative or original to be good, that the presence of original music is necessary in post-industrial society as original music forces us to recognize the beauty of art, so that we can fully appreciate it, rather than merely seeing music as a commodity and consuming it.

Within contemporary post-industrial society music is not only an art form; it is also a mass produced commodity. The commodity nature of music means that we tend to consume music as opposed to appreciating its beauty; we listen to music not as a response to beauty of the music, but rather because we know that we will gain enjoyment from listening to the music. In this sense we look for the musical product that is most likely to give us a reasonable rate of return in terms of enjoyment relative to our investment in the product. As a result of this, beauty becomes dissociated from music as we do not see music as something beautiful that we need to fully grasp, and appreciate, but rather see it as something that merely delivers enjoyment, just like any other commodity.

Derivative music is typically consumed unthinkingly. If I have a heard a particular form of music before, and I stumble upon another band that performs this style well, my experience of their music will not draw attention to the beauty of the music, as the music will simply appear to me as something ordinary that provides me with enjoyment, rather than a beautiful object that needs to be appreciated. In this sense the consumption of derivative music sits fairly comfortably with the dissociation of music and beauty.

On the other hand, original music serves to reconnect music and beauty such that the listener is drawn to appreciate the beauty of the piece of music, rather than merely seeing the music as an instrument of enjoyment. This occurs as original music provides us with a unique experience that pulls us out of our everyday pre-reflective mode of operation. When I hear a form of music that I have never heard before, whether I like it or not, I am drawn to understand that form of music precisely because it is so alien. The alien nature of the music calls on me to grasp it. Furthermore, in trying to understand that form of music I am drawn to recognize its beauty. Consequently, original music as opposed to derivative music allows us to once again realize that music is more than a commodity; rather, it is an attempt to create something beautiful.

Seeing the relationship between music and beauty is important because this relationship is integral to the practise of the composition of music. The composer of music is not a clever entrepreneur trying to create an attractive product, but an artist trying to create some new manifestation of beauty in the world. Therefore, If one sees music merely as something that provides enjoyment one has failed to understand the practise of the composition of music. This failure seems particularly egregious as the creation of music seems to be a significant practise in nearly all human societies and thus to lack understanding of this practise, is to lack understanding of the human condition in general.

So it seems that both my colleague and I made valid points. Derivative music can be beautiful, and consequently good, but creativity is necessary in music, in a post-industrial society, as the experience of creative music ensures that people will be able to see, and fully appreciate, that music is not merely a commodity, but the attempt to create something beautiful.

Economics, Politics and Self-Interest

It is quite commonplace within the political culture of liberal democratic societies to view politics and politicians in an exceedingly negative light. Many people will often speak of how all politicians are “crooks”. Furthermore, we often hear people using the term “politics” to refer to any situation involving illegitimate bias, partisanship or unfairness. For example, when people refer to a workplace as “political,” they tend to mean that people are not rewarded by their merit, but because of other factors including manipulation and deceit. Consequently, it seems that “politics” as a subject occupies a particularly negative place in the popular imagination of liberal democratic society. However, the trouble with this attitude towards politics is that while it rightly condemns the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest within politics, it cannot explain why politics should not operate according to self-interest, when the broader economy largely operates according to this logic.

Within liberal democratic culture it is seen as perfectly legitimate to try to secure the best possible job for yourself as long as you do not violate the rights of others. To a large extent this has become the dominant maxim of public morality within liberal democratic culture. But while letting the relatively uncontrolled pursuit of self-interest dominate within the broader economy may be acceptable, it leads to a deep problem at the level of politics. For example, when politicians are motivated by the need for re-election they will pass legislation that ensures their re-election, rather than legislation that best serves the interests of all. Furthermore, the person who switches his views at a financial institution to get a promotion or to keep his job, is viewed is prudent, but a politician who takes a different position to ensure re-election is viewed negatively. This disconnect between politics and the broader economy show that the morality of the broader economy is inadequate to govern politics in that we think that there is something wrong with a politician putting career self-interest before the common good, whereas it is legitimate for a person working within the broader economy to do this. Consequently, politics seems to require a more robust morality than the mutual pursuit of self-interest. Rather, in order for politics to reach its moral potential it must operate according to some kind of commitment to the common interest to ensure that legislation is passed that actually serves the common interest.

The trouble is that within liberal democratic culture there seems to be very few voices who speak of the importance of being committed to the common interest, rather at one moment we seem to view politics as just another job that should operate according to the same logic as others, but at the same time we seem to hold politicians to a higher standard, but without being able to explain why they should be held to a higher standard. Consequently, we need to recover the distinction between the morality governing the broader economy, and the morality governing politics so that we adequately grasp the differences between these two realms. If we fail to grasp the difference between these two realms then our criticism of politics will seem incoherent, as we will be criticizing politics and politicians for engaging in actions that are perfectly legitimate outside of politics, without being able to explain why politicians should not engage in these actions while they are involved in the practise of politics.

Experience, Value, Fortune and Mastery

On the planet of Rinsk lived a diligent, simple set of beings known as the Farfallan. The Farfallan resembled human beings of Earth, and shared many of their aspirations. They desired friendship, love, community and beauty and held a great disdain for cruelty and malice. However, in distinction of humans the Farfallan had a mystical connection with Quotsi, a gem that was mined across Rinsk. If the Farfallan inhaled the vapour that was produced through heating Quotsi over a fire they were able to have any experience that they desired. The Farfallan would simply think of the experience they wanted to have and that experience would transpire. The Farfallan would sometimes use the Quotsi to experience sexual ecstasy, while at other times they would use Quotsi to experience beautiful music, or familial affection. Quotsi enabled the Farfallan to truly have control over the experiences they had. Before the discovery of the potentialties of Quotsi the Farfallan were victims of chance and fortune, now that they had a ready supply of Quotsi they were truly masters of their own lives.

One day two interstellar explorers from Earth, came upon Rinsk, and made contact with the Farfallan. The explorer’s names were Annette and Laura, and both of them were scientists who were sent to other galaxies to investigate the forms of life that existed in other places, to try to assist with solving the problems that human kind faced in the year 2300 AD.

When encountered with the Farfallan, Annette was amazed by them. There was little conflict among the Farfallan. Not only were murders, and thefts unheard of, but also domestic conflict was exceedingly rare. The Farfallan would go to work each day, to make enough money to buy what was required to physically sustain them, and to purchase Quotsi, then they would go back to their humble homes and heat up some Quotsi to make their evening more enjoyable. They were not concerned with honour or glory and did not feel the need to excel over and above others. This of course meant that there were very few artists and athletes among the Farfallan, but that did not matter as the Farfallan had Quotsi, and if you can control the experiences that you have why do you need artists and athletes?

What Annette saw with the Farfallan was a truly harmonious society, and if humankind could develop a way to control their experiences in the way that the Farfallan could with Quotsi, humankind would be better off in every respect. There would be less violence and cruelty in society and people would be much more satisfied with life as any experience that they wanted would be right at their fingertips.

Laura shared much of Annette’s admiration for the harmoniousness of the Farfallan’s society, but as Laura continued to investigate their way of life she became more and more uneasy with certain elements of their lives. She had spoken with several Farfallen during her investigation about the importance of many subjects. However, the Farfallan tended to relate the value of all things to the sensual experience of that thing. They tended to explain their valuation of love purely in terms of the phenomenological experience of sexual ecstasy and emotional closeness. This irked Laura as while she saw these phenomenological elements as indispensable elements of romantic love, she also saw the value of romantic love in terms of the emotional intimacy that develops between persons and their commitment to one another.

Furthermore, it was not merely in the area of romantic love that Laura found the Farfallan’s explanation of the value of things to be troubling. The Farfallan had little appreciation for the value of the creative activity of artists and tended to see little value in the person who could write a beautiful melody, or create a beautiful sculpture. One male Farfallan named Lorkel had rather bluntly said to her “Quotsi allows me to experience beauty. I have no need for artists.”

Laura and Annette had to jointly write a report about what could be learned from the Farfallan. As expected Annette wanted to suggest that humankind invest in technology that would mimic the effects of vaporized Quotsi on the Farfallan so that humans too had all desirable experiences available to them. However, while Laura recognized the harmoniousness of the way of life of the Farfallan, she could not go along with Annette’s recommendation. Laura’s only piece of advice for learning from the Farfallan was the warning that if we follow the example of the Farfallan we may lose our ability to value anything that is not an experience.