feelings, nothing more…

Andrew Sullivan has apparently chosen neuroscience as a pet topic for the past few weeks. Key quote:

Without religion or a shared culture, science has assumed a role it is not qualified to play: a judgment of the whole, not just of its relevant area of inquiry. Don’t get me wrong: science is a vital mode of human thought; it is also just part of it. History, aesthetics, prudence, morals, virtues: these it cannot understand; and when it tries to explain them, it is not wrong, so to speak. It’s just irrelevant.

What strikes me so much here is that, out of that list in the final sentence, only ‘History’ is something that arguably takes place (mostly) outside of the human head. The rest are essentially all subtly-colored synonyms for ‘feelings’.

Aesthetics is concerned with shared sub-cultural tastes and values, which are, at their root, feelings-based. Imagine two people: the art professor trying to develop a new formal theory of aesthetics, and some random person in their car choosing a radio station for the drive to work: Whether they realize it or not, each is trying in their own way to answer the same essential questions on some level: What sub-cultural tribe do I identify with? What am I supposed to like or dislike, based upon that? What makes me feel good? What makes me feel uncomfortable, or in territory unfamiliar?.

Tell me your socioeconomic background, age, gender, marital status, where you’re from and your religion, and I’ve got a pretty good chance at guessing your taste in movies, books, art, music and politics. That is ‘aesthetics’.

“Prudence, morals and virtues” have even less essential substance. The study of ‘Morals’, as Nietzsche pointed out over a century ago, is largely a subset of aesthetics (you inherit your initial set of morals from your originating tribe, perhaps modifying them as your tastes change over time as you interact with and move between different sub-cultures), so the above applies. I’d argue that ‘Prudence’ is essentially the urge to avoid public shaming or other consequences. And I’d argue that ‘virtues’ are ultimately derived from pride, both private and public. Prudence, when it works, is the thing that keeps you from getting shunned or expelled from the group. Virtues are the things that will help you to acquire social capital (and therefore status) within a group.

Feelings, all.

Emotional life is of course a valid mode of human experience… but we must remember that nothing is more easily manipulated than human emotion. And if you can control that, then you control almost every other aspect of a person’s psyche. I’ll just post my favorite Richard Feynman quote here:

The first principle [of the scientific method] is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

I pick on Sullivan here because he’s a kind of ‘cultural canary’, quite canny at sniffing out overall trends, and this general anti-science backlash is definitely something I’ve noticed coming back into prominence over these past few years.

The slow, inexorable move towards post-scarcity economics seems to be driving two general trends. First, more and more goods are becoming positional goods, i.e. things that derive their value mostly from their artificial inaccessibility to the general crowd. And secondly, the increased prominence of social capital in the lives of ordinary people.

Up until a few centuries ago, only the ruling class and their courtiers had to worry much about social capital: the so-called lower orders, generally too busy surviving to indulge in much intrigue or social games, tended to derive all their value from their originating tribe. Move forward to the present, and the Everyfolk now seem to spend much of their of time displaying cultural signifiers and tribal identifiers to one another on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, YouTube, etc. Much like the old Courtiers at Versailles, (though minus the scented handkerchiefs), and frankly not too different from Baboons flashing their red haunches at each other– we are primates, after all, and it’s just part of what we do. There are even forums like Kickstarter now, which give the Everyfolk a chance to actually monetize any social capital they acquire to fund a new product or service.

My point: We seem to be moving from the old American notion of ‘Every Man a King’, towards a new aesthetic (there’s that word again) of ‘Every Man a Courtier’. And I do think this is a big part of what’s driving the anti-science movements, because the notion of objectivity threatens this new culture.

Essentially, you discriminate between tribe A and tribe B by what they believe– but if there is only One Right Answer, that distinction disappears. A positional good rarely has any objective excess value of its own (the $10K Rolex and the $10 Timex are objectively equivalent in function, for example). And most of the baubles of social capital are either matters of opinion (i.e. aesthetics), or have no essential substance at all (i.e. they are completely inside our proverbial heads).

Small wonder, then, that there’s so much anti-scientism in popular culture: If you derive almost all of your personal value from these things, you will unconsciously see science, with its potentially corrosive truth-seeking, to be a dire threat to your very self.

IMO this will only get worse as time moves on: But this tension between our tribal primiate natures, and the new global machine-culture that’s being born as we speak, will be one of the primal forces driving everything from our art to our politics for at least the next few decades.

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