Friday, April 6, 2012

A Scientist, a Psychologist & a Philosopher walk into a bar ...

Walking to the shop with a friend recently, he told me that he had met this Italian girl on a bus, and that that they were going for a date that evening. Notwithstanding the fact that this is probably an unusual occurrence, for any of us (who meets someone on a bus; who gets past the stage of flirty glances; fair play to the fucker), there was a point of interest, a spark that began the conversation.

He was reading a popular science book called "Connectome: How The Brain's Wiring Makes Us Who We Are". Consciousness, it claims, emerges out of the connection between neural pathways. The website for the book has a nice slideshow complete with an early eighties synthy science fiction score that would not have been out of place on Blade Runner. Ohhh. Ahhh. Wow.

Text appears on screen, accompanied by images of the brain, the universe, all that sort of stuff (ohh, ahh, wow). "100 billion neurons," the text reads, as it goes onto the next image, "A universe of complexity," (true, nice analogy) "If we conquer it," (erm, okay) "We will know ourselves," (so they're equating knowledge with dominance, forcing the unruly into submission, an act of will, and that this submission would bring us in closer proximity to our inner essence) "and change ourselves for the better," (ah, the old utopian caveat, just in case you were beginning to get a bit skeptical) "You are more than your genes," (jeez, how profound - have you ever picked up a book on philosophy before?) "You are Connectome."

Consciousness unbound at last! In its closest proximity to the object of the self as has ever been possible, or so it is claimed. We are not just genes, the website says, in a kind of half-refutation of Dawkinsian materialism. We are instead made up of pathways sending neurons between one another, countless little sparks firing about within our brain. At least it beats Dawkins' view of us all as gene slaves.

Still, we have to conquer the mind first by their own admission, to bring it under submission by force. I'm surprised that they were so blatant to make explicit that hidden underbelly of what we deem the pursuit of knowledge. This is intimately linked to what Hitler called, "the triumph of the will." That may seem depressing, but hey, why can't knowledge be both wondrous and also have this warlike side? Aren't most things like that? "Knowledge is power," as the old proverb says.

A question then comes to mind: science, whither to? and what to do with you? Do you hold within you (especially since you claim a monopoly on a methodology for the discovery of knowledge) a destructive force that must be tempered, based upon a ruthless pursuit of knowledge, squashing beneath your feet all the objects that you wish to know?

This may be impossible, in the end.

This is only depressing if you feel that infinite knowledge ought to be humanity's primary concern; that is to say, if you feel that we ought to grind down and conquer the infinite, once and for all. Going further, does not the infinite share a commonality in some ways with nothing, zero, zilch? Nirvana, the highest state of bliss for Buddhists, is characterised by such a nothingness. It could be said that the great western experiment has been an attempt to know the infinite; to conquer the infinite; to know nothing; to conquer nothing.

True horror comes from what we don't see; this is also the wellspring of imagination and creativity.

To say that the pursuit of knowledge is all bad would also be ridiculous - its effects are multiple and complex. Philosophy is awkward in that way: it seeks to problematise basic foundations, be they scientific, religious or otherwise, to tease out hidden possibilities that lie therein.

Anyway, back to my friend and this Italian girl. She was staring at him as he read the book. I am unsure of the intimate details of the encounter, but at some point along the line, they started talking about it. It turned out that she was a psychologist.

It was at this point that I said, "Hold on a second." I remembered how Freud always insisted he was a scientist. I also remembered a podcast I had heard recently where Brian Cox, a bunch of other science heads, and a token philosopher (last of a dying breed, or so we were led to believe by the recording), were debating whether or not philosophy had any relevance today. Brian Cox, guitarist-turned-physicist, the coolest, hippest scientist around (yeah!), said that it was completely irrelevant, and that science could answer all questions "one day", revealing his own utopian zeal.

The philosopher, when he did get a word in, made arguments about morality and ethics. The philosopher touched briefly upon the questioning of the core tenets of science or the scientific method. He didn't get a chance to expand on them, blow them up, tease out the hidden meaning of the marching thing that we call scientific progress.

I turned around to my friend and I said, "Oh, so the scientist and the psychologist go out on a date, and not a word in for the philosopher? Have you both forgotten where you came from? Typical." He laughed, saying I should come and mediate the date.

Suffice to say that didn't happen.

What is curious is the way in which everybody is so quick to dismiss philosophy, to declare its death. It reminds me of Jacques Derrida's essay about the limits of philosophy (as well as its destructive side) "Violence and Metaphysics." Surely it could be said, without making too much of a leap into incredulity, that science has an ancestor in metaphysics? The scientific method grew up in tandem with philosophy, one and the same with it.

All the same, perhaps once the distinction was made, and the connection apparently severed, people within all these disciplines that philosophy gave birth to have been constantly proclaiming its death, be they Freud or Brian Cox. Which brings me back to Derrida. I am going to leave you with the first opening lines of the essay, "Violence and Metaphysics". Perhaps it is at the moment of its inception, at its utterance, that philosophy has already proclaimed itself as dead? It effects the world, surely, but how? Can we ever truly know?

That philosophy died yesterday, since Hegel or Marx, Nietzsche, or Heidegger—and philosophy should still wander toward the meaning of its death—or that it has always lived knowing itself to be dying... that philosophy died one day, within history, or that it has always fed on its own agony, on the violent way it opens history by opposing itself to nonphilosophy, which is its past and its concern, its death and wellspring; that beyond the death, or dying nature, of philosophy, perhaps even because of it, thought still has a future, or even, as is said today, is still entirely to come because of what philosophy has held in store; or, more strangely still, that the future itself has a future—all these are unanswerable questions. By right of birth, and for one time at least, these are problems put to philosophy as problems philosophy cannot resolve.

~ Jacques Derrida ~

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