Saturday, April 14, 2012

Casting Spells

In The Dust of the World I mentioned that truth had close ties to reiteration and repetition. Scientific truth prides itself on apparently getting out of that conundrum, of finding a path towards objective truth, away from modes of repetition that enshrine rather than are self-evident. It is through the scientific method, through empiricism, that science claims to have achieved this.

Besides the issue of whether we can completely accept the scientific method as the only way to gauge reality, we can say that it too recognises the value of repetition and it seems to me that Hume's problem of induction can be widened to include all truth.

Hume, one of the first scientists, was the first to set the limits of the empirical method. Basically, he showed that there was no rational way to account for experimental evidence. You could do an experiment and achieve the same result, he held, as many times as you liked - one hundred times, one million times - and yet there was no actual dyed-in-the-wool proof that you would achieve the same result the next time.

Notice that there Hume highlights the notion of repetition inherent within the empirical method of experimentation and re-experimentation. The modern path to truth, then, may actually have more in common with older forms of truth than it would care to admit.

Think of the notion of the mass, of repeating those same old prayers, repeating the Our Father time and time again. Perhaps this is a path to truth, in its own way. Like a hammer hitting a stone, eventually it will wear it out. Truth always bears a striking resemblance to a metaphor, reiterated, repeated, enshrined within our minds, an edifice at which we worship and sacrifice.

Does science not provide a streamlined, sleeker version of this, as if it were in some way a natural progression on this path to truth? The evidence, they say, speaks for itself. That is to say, it repeats itself, over and over. It is a metaphor that acts as if it were self-evidence - a self-evidence gained through repetition.

But we must keep in mind Hume's lesson, that an experiment may not come out with the same result next time. What does that actually mean, when we take into account religious truth and repetition? It loops back, to what I originally said in The Dust of the World, part 5. It means that, in the end, or at the beginning, before or after that continuous repetition and reiteration, metaphor reigns.

The notion of the spell, usually assigned in the West to a pre-Christian heritage, here is instructive. The spell is a set of words that can influence the world through their iteration, reiteration, repetition, centred around an unchanging sacred ceremony in some unchanging sacred space (be it physical or abstract - a scientist's lab perhaps?). The words of the spell grow the power to influence the world. At least, that was the belief. Instead, what is most likely to be the result is power over others.

The witch doctor, like the priest, and now the scientist, held that power position of the infallible through such rituals, an infallible diviner of truth.

Whether this is a good or bad thing is not the issue. Rather, we should recognise a genealogy and a pattern. We should treat science with the same skepticism that we treat those older paths to truth. Hume's dictum demands it of us. If we don't, we may see ourselves following a path and repeating those same old mistakes, just under the modern banner of the scientific.

It is not that there is something inherently wrong with science. But its claim of truth, the belief in its truth, that is what is so valuable a commodity to those who want to have power over others. They will twist this "truth" to manipulate. So, today you find companies trying to sell their products on the basis of dubious scientific claims, such as health benefits. In a sense, it doesn't matter if they are lying - or have paid some third rate scientist to lie - all that matters is that it sounds likely, because we trust the scientific method implicitly. And it has been hugely successful, from penicillin to the bomb. As it enters our culture, not simply taking science as a pure form in itself, as it exists in our culture, it exists in the space reserved for truth. And this is why it stands in such a perilous position - people will always attempt to capitalise on truth. Or, it is more that truth betrays its origin that reiteration attempts to conceal - its origin as a metaphor, something that stands in for something else, perhaps something that stands in for self-evident truth itself, or a sense of it, or even for the silence of the universe, the supposed time of truth before and after language.

I here touch upon the notion of an anxiety with regard to language. Certainly, when speaking of truth, this anxiety can be drawn out fairly easily.

When you turn on your TV, science is celebrated and reiterated constantly. Like a spell. Indeed, it may be - that is to say that I believe this to be true - that truth is a spell. I am completely aware of the paradox I have just created! If truth were to be understood as a spell, metaphors repeated again and again, built up in our minds, with the re-appropriation by science of some key elements of repetition as a path to truth, then what are we to make of its claim that it is the leading vanguard against superstition? Obviously, it cannot be said that science doesn't kick back against the older ways. But this seems more like the rebellion of a wayward teen than a complete break with tradition. And perhaps such a rebellion is doomed, as they so often are, to repeat past mistakes, to repeat them. To put science on the couch, if it doesn't face up to its demons, examining itself and seeing its own genealogy and its past for what it is, it may fall into this trap.

So, what is the vanguard against superstition? Around the same time as scientific revolution began to take off, there was also a surge in literature. The people it could reach, through increased literacy rates and the printing press, was truly unprecedented. As I argued in The Dust of the World, part 5, literature may have a special place (as Borges seems to argue) because in makes conscious unconscious processes, because it allows us to see metaphor and imagine its insincerity.

 It would not be simply literature on its own, but art in general - paintings, plays, poems, and beyond - that were in this vanguard. Anything which presented itself in an honest manner as deferring meaning, as alluding to something else, as being a metaphor.

This is the first step in the fight against superstition. If you think about it, ancient gods could have held the position of characters in a book, were it not for their assumed divinity. It is almost as if, before the proliferation of books and art - which reached unprecedented levels in the early modern era and right through it - there was a literal appropriation of the metaphor. All was truth in a sense, without the distinction between metaphor and truth. And all was metaphor. Both, at the same time. Still, that which is repeated, by the elders in the tribe, or whatever, holds more truth than other things. Spells cast, before time began.

The break, then, happens with the advent of the book, which robs metaphor of its truth, revealing its processes. That is, it reveals truths processes, as a metaphor that alludes and defers. It should be no surprise that many view the edification of metaphor - truth - as a crime these days. I personally think that the preservation of the climate is a truth worth repeating. I can never say, however, that this truth could not be used for something sinister. How does one get out of this bind, caused by truth and its malleable core, to know that reiteration and repetition are its main attributes on its path away from metaphor? How does one cast an ethical spell?

This led me to an interesting thought. If art in general was the real vanguard in the fight against superstition then, recalling Borges speaking of literature as courting its own demise, we can never say what its role is. To do so would be to bring it into the realm of truth and repetition, of reiteration and edification, to take it outside itself, make it the thing which it naturally critiques.

Shhh, then. This can be our secret.

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