Kenneth Smith - Dramas of the Mind  

Dramas of the Mind by Kenneth Smith   

3. THE CULT OF FACT

KOYAANISQATSI (Hopi): (1) Crazy life; (2) Life in turmoil; (3) Life out of balance; (4) Life disintegrating; (5) A state of life that calls for another way of living.

It is an irony of modern life that we are daily subjected to the consequences of abstract presumptions that are all the more authoritative over us the less we understand them. This is the price of not cultivating a conceptual vocabulary, particularly one germane to the actual complexion of our lives.

One of the broadest, most intricately ramified, and most invisible ideologies to permeate our society is our fetish for — our unaccountable infatuation with and slavish capitulation to — facts. At least as far back as David Hume, moderns have taken absolutely for granted a divorce between facts and values, which in itself implied the irreality of values. Auguste Comte, in reaction against Hegel's "negative" philosophy (motored by the dynamism of concepts), devised a positivism that subsequently became a canonical ideology in the sciences, canonical at least until those sciences increasingly mired down in conceptual issues that gave little purchase to experimental tests. Positivism has consistently regarded the realm of facts — observable, objectively describable, and quantitatively measurable phenomena — as the ultimate court of appeal for any scientific question. It is not just a strategy for proof and disproof, a method for verification, but also, like it or not, a metaphysics: positivism carries a number of a priori assumptions — presuppositions or prejudices — as to the nature of ultimate reality.

Positivism is by no means exempt from millennial struggles with metaphysical questions, because human observers still must be able to conceptualize before they can know what they are observing: however provisionally, they must have prefigurations in mind of the sort of reality they are looking for in order to select experimental methods and technology appropriate to its character. The realms of facts will serve as a court of verification only if there are normative evidentiary standards, but of course this creates a monstrous circularity (the "hermeneutic circle" of correlativity between a particular epistemology and a particular metaphysics).

These evidentiary standards have been, historically, one of the most viscous issues in science. They mutate from era to era but this metamorphosis goes unremarked, as Thomas Kuhn's epochal study has argued: scientific revolutions most commonly take place under cover of deceptively stable abstractions. But in conceptual terms, in terms of their a priori implications and inter-defined connotations, those abstractions have not remained identical with themselves; nor in practical or operational terms do they mean the same. "Mass" in Newtonian and in Einsteinian terms has very little more than linguistic surface being held constant: the same might be said of most key-terms in the vocabulary of science, from Aristotle's empirical studies onward. Science has had an on-going philological problem, an unattended difficulty in securing constancy of meaning in the transmission of its primal vocabulary: and this, it could well be said, is the price of filling an enterprise one-sidedly with anti-philosophical practitioners, individuals who are by their professional ideology obtuse on questions of a priori analysis, implicative relations, and other aspects of the dissection of concepts.

As Kuhn has shown, most of the time science can afford this sort of conceptual illiteracy: once a fundamental paradigm (a master-concept of method and subject) has been elaborated and accepted throughout most of the scientific community, science can proceed as if it had no conceptual problems. Such placid periods of unchallenged presumption Kuhn calls "normal science," that is, theorizing and research conducted in a normalized, routinized, mechanical way. So long as its foundational elements remain stable, science can effectively be reduced to technique, the not profoundly problematic pursuit of means for answering questions which can be well-defined in advance. This is mop-up work, largely unchallenging deductive execution, the implementation of pre-existing agendas and extension of research into adjoining territories, all by regular and repetitive procedure.

But periodically, the tectonic plates get restless: the most secure and settled assumptions are found no longer competent to explain an ever-growing fringe of anomalous phenomena. The fact that science is entering a revolutionary or cataclysmic phase is largely obscured from the minds of its routinized practitioners, and it takes almost heretical audacity for someone with the imaginative and innovative resources to perceive that those anomalous phenomena are really counter-examples, subversive matter that undermine the old paradigm and demand the insinuation of totally new premises. In the 20th century we have observed science shifting its theoretical role-model from Newton to Einstein, in a realignment of allegiances we have called the nuclear age, a melodramatic shift in the very scale of phenomena science has to deal with and in the scale of measurements it has to apply (enter the era of powers of 10).

heron01In his time Newton was also a revolutionary, but his revolution succeeded and became an establishment, which is to say, a problem for subsequent revolutionaries: as Mannheim's sociology of knowledge would term it, it mutated from utopia to ideology, from an offensive to a defensive position, from challenger to incumbent. Because of the conceptual incoherence it has unleashed and the greatly enhanced powers of technology it requires, the Einsteinian paradigm has had far more difficulty getting normalized: it defies not only the practical evidence of everyday experience and the "metaphysical common-sense" of our well-entrenched materialism, but also the abstract forms of traditional reasoning and logic. Which is to say, most embarrassingly for the positivists, this new paradigm is radically abstract and deals necessarily with phenomena beyond the scale of human fact, beyond the modes accessible to human senses. The simple act of observation — supposed by positivists to be a release from conceptual controls and predeterminations, a virginal and transparent exception to all our subjective functions — is no longer simple but is known to rest on preconditions that, ever since Heisenberg, are assumed never to be completely given to the observer. Observation is an act of interference: all methods of detection are invasive techniques, they disturb the object they intended merely to see. And we must make priority-decisions as to which aspect of the phenomena we want to capture: the partitioning of phenomena indeed becomes all the more complicated, the more we have to depend on the specialized "experiences" of technology to augment the range of our natural senses.

In the interim — and a very long interim it may yet be, waiting for Einstein to get normalized — theorists are confronted with a pandemonium of subatomic particles, unruly quarks and muons and the like, that disrespect laws of behavior the Aristotelian and Newtonian eras had considered physically inviolate: a cause cannot precede its effect, a material thing cannot be located in two places at once, there cannot be action or influence at a distance, physical things are discrete and structurally independent of one another, everything real must be actual (there are no dormant potentialities in the realm of reality), and so on. Suddenly science has had to invoke the consultation of logicians, in order to improvise new modes of relations between particles that do not conform to the available repertory of logical conjunctions. By the Old-World standards of Newtonian rationality, the New World is a pretty absurd place (as an Australian professor of mine used to say, "a woolly waffle"). Perhaps the most striking methodological change — and again, a transformation to which dogmatic positivists and ahistorical, merely contemporaneous scientists are mostly blind — is the massive drift toward speculation on the cutting edge of science, toward hypothesizing in abstracto, what Einstein termed "thought-experiments"; the manipulation of abstractions is an indispensable prerequisite for pioneering work in astrophysics, biochemistry, etc. (and the hybrid name-form of these sciences is itself an informal clue as to the shifting boundaries of the new subject-matters).

In spite of our ingrained optimism about our technological omnipotence, our particle-accelerators and plasma labs must realistically acknowledge they face a very steep Everest: to liberate every conceivable particle and force, we must eventually reduplicate under earthly conditions or otherwise the titanic grades of superheat and superpressure — and supercompressed time — all the way back to the Big Bang and its preceding supersymmetry of forces. Optimism about man's experimental prowess is no longer going to be as cheap as it once was, and we immediately confront a period of scientific history during which we may have little more than speculative reconstruction to help us: physics may become almost as much of a non-experimental science as astronomy once was. It is a conceivable scenario for the future history of science that man's domination of nature by technology may crest and decline, as we discover ever-more oceanic forces and ever-more fortressed particles: a realistic assessment of course is not feasible, because scientists and their interpreters subscribe to an obligatory professional faith, an ideology of optimism that blindly implies an imperialistic omnipotence over the natural order.

Every ideology carries (as Marx termed it) a "false consciousness," an obligatory misconstruction of reality and of one's own naturally defined interests: like a monstrous gravity-sink, ideology makes every mind that orbits around it to move into denser and denser waves, compacting down into an ever-more perfect crystallization of axiomatic beliefs. It excludes counter-faiths with violent force. Science — or more exactly, the presumption that science is in fact what we want to assume it ideally is — is no exception. Kuhn's historical, phenomenological, and analytical studies have met with strong opposition, not least because he has had the audacity to take a sober look at the sociology and psychology of science and most especially at the revisionism by which science misrepresents its own history. Hidden from the idealized or falsified self-images of scientists are the realities that (a) at its levels of ultimate assumptions, science is no less of a community of faith than is religion, and (b) science is in fact a pluralistic, factional, political community. In literal truth there is no Science, only diverse congeries of those with faith in this and those with faith in that premise: experimental results rarely persuade individuals to renounce their a priori commitments. Kuhn notes that believers in an old paradigm almost never get converted; they just die out. However deductively rational all scientists may be, in inductive terms they are hardly rational at all. This emperor seems a very naked old duffer indeed.

Physical science has traditionally been the pioneer, or the bellwether, for the rest of the sciences. And science in general has been the archetype for materialistic civilization at large, an imprecise vindication for assumptions so infectious that not only economics and politics but also literature, art, philosophy, and other humanistic fields have at times been overwhelmed by the ideology. Philosophers and religious thinkers who have been sufficiently disaffected from this ruling ideology have called our whole historical order a "regime of fact" or a "reign of quantity," a civilization perversely purged of the moral, cultural, religious, and other normative nuclei that previous peoples took to be their whole reason for existence. This regime of fact is so ultimately irrational that it matters not at all that virtually no one believes purely value-neutral facts are even feasible: facts are as contaminated by human bias as are statistics and observation. Facts live only in the attitudes that people take toward them, the meager degrees of objectivity that real human individuals have managed to accomplish: it is not reality that is factual but our attitudes that are "factical," as Heidegger calls it. Facts are the greatest "as if" phenomenon, the greatest project of faith — the "evidence of things not seen" — any civilization ever collaborated on: the a priori substructure of science remains almost totally exempt from the demands for positivistic proof that science has used to demolish the traditional normative enterprises of philosophy, religion, the arts, etc. The vaunted Olympian objectivity of science is an epochal delusion, growing more threadbare with every revelation of falsified lab data, careerism, egoistic self-promotion, irresolvable antinomies between schools of thought, and of course the political commitments of government- and corporate-supported facilities. Value-neutrality in the sense that Weber demanded it in his canonical "Science as a Vocation" looks like a very dead art indeed.

heron02Nonetheless, this regime of fact remains a cogent rationale for the hegemony of science, even the arrogance of a scientism that believes science in principle has no limits to its validity and authority; it is the rationale as well for modern technocracy, the bizarre compulsion that makes it imperative to go ahead and do whatever our technology makes it possible for us to do. And it is the rationale as well for the pernicious ideology of economism, the unleashing of economic forces from moral, social, and cultural controls (economism — the implicit compulsion behind free-market philosophies — is the generic form of modern economic ideology, and embraces both the particular species of capitalism and communism): deregulation, unemployment, factory closings, the nonproductive waste of capital in greenmail and junk bonds, etc., only superficially cater to laissez-faire doctrine — more profoundly, they serve to amoralize the traditional restraints upon economic life.

The regime of fact has indisputably corrupted our education institutions, systematically converting the transmission of understanding into the transcription of information: not concepts and norms but dates and data. By the time they get to college, students absolutely do not expect to have their understanding or judgment challenged, and they are rarely surprised. Education — with the barely notable exception of recalcitrant individuals — has become a process of value-neutral initiation into technique, and universities accordingly have been modulating in the direction of becoming immense trade schools for decades.

In a period in which magazines have proliferated, so that one could readily find over half a dozen periodicals on woodworking and nearly that many on windsurfing, the general-interest publications have shrunk to a literal handful. Most of those that deal with public issues cater only to a sectarian perspective. Hardly anyone would think of publishing what the public ought to be interested in — that could be fiscal suicide; the factical route is far safer, pandering to their actual predilections. The regime of fact has favored a debilitating specialization, a trivialization of interests, in the commercial market, and the academic world is exponentially worse. Facts inherently favor a kind of particularism, the decomposition of the world of culture into crumbs of concern, arbitrary particles of transient interest. Minds bound to the task of being caretakers of facts have become philosophically and culturally atrophied: like bonsai trees cultivated in the microworld of a terrarium, they scale back their aspirations and accommodate themselves to a prison cell for a cosmos. The civilizational prophets of the nineteenth century — Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and others — envisioned a pathetic age of insects, of the reduction of human beings from their past grandeur as a subject fit for cosmology, religion and philosophy, to their demeaned present state, an intercontinental concentration-camp which is purgatory for any remaining traces of self-esteem — man become a minuscule specimen, in an age in which even the brain of science's own greatest modern theorist lies ignominiously in a jar under some obscure academic's desk.

The regime of fact has enabled us to mass-produce technically qualified doctors, lawyers, teachers, and others who have never been even remotely brushed by the traditional value-commitments and character-formation that formerly entitled professionals to say they professed something. This proliferation of technicians impoverished in both scruple and purpose has indelibly marked the whole character of modern society: it has given our entire social structure an amoral cast, which is to say, it has engendered a mass-replicating sociopathic objectivity, a clinical detachment that is no longer an individual psycho-moral accomplishment but has now become a mindless second nature. Eichmann, even in the face of the accusations of the entire world, remained proud of the impersonal and unquestioning commitment of his corps to their military duty: they responded with Kadavergehorsamkeit, the "obedience of corpses," to whatever was demanded of them. The medical experiments, performed pointlessly and without anesthesia at the Nazi camps, were only the historical precedent for the worldwide employment of expert torture which has today become a significant staple in totalitarian and despotic social control.

Modern warfare, increasingly disrespecting the traditional boundaries between combatants and noncombatants, would hardly be possible without the mass-replication of the same sort of amoral, near-sadistic apathy that sustains the apparatus of political torture. Terrorism, heinous as it always is, is pretty small potatoes in the context of the larger forms of institutionalized, regularized impersonality, the massive extent of governments and organizations that employ human beings as morally neutralized instruments. Totalitarianism merely galvanizes pre-existing materials for its purposes, human beings and institutional processes already having been purged of independent moral substance that might serve as residual pockets of resistance. Nihilism, as a pseudo-moral conviction and psychological syndrome insisting on the irreality of values, ideals, and obligations, is something far more formidable and insidious than a chic literary-philosophical posture.

It is a premier article of modernist faith that we live in a post-illusionist order: Hegel called it a "prosaic" age, Weber an era of "disenchantment." The modern world, in terms of morality, religion, literature, and virtually every other spiritual venture known to man, has produced an awesome Flatland of planar mentalities. It is a world paved over, a cosmic parking-lot for one-dimensional personalities, random points with neither depth nor scope. Even the poet laureate of the academics (than whom who could possibly be hollower?) called this place a Wasteland peopled by "hollow men." But it is the earmark of the philosophically retarded that discriminating judgment is no virtue of theirs: what out of our millennial heritage was inestimably valuable, and what was nugatory illusion? By what criteria have the modern custodians of civilization identified and dismissed the merely "illusory" ingredients — by the culturally vacuous methods of analytic philosophy, by the dogmatically agnostic standards of positivists? We cast it all out, the heirlooms along with last month's newspapers, bathwater, baby, bathtub. It was probably the most monumental Cultural Revolution ever to go unnoticed, a herculean effort at vandalism pulled off by the most diminutive wrecking crew ever seen, in a civilizational program of cultural desertification... and then we spread salt on the ruins, the caustic mentality of nihilism and cynicism, so that nothing might ever grow here again.

The grains of gold dust that blow out across the wastes at the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are not more perfectly dispersed than the cultural riches of Western civilization: I know self-educated individuals who are incomparably more cultured than the majority of academics. How can we ever reclaim what we have lost the intelligence to appreciate? Our cultural patrimony may well have become deader than the deadest dead language, and our universities are the Memory Holes to which we obligingly consigned those relics of culture and value. For the benefit of any who regard that claim as hyperbole, let them take a long perusal of Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue and the ideological constrictions by which moral experience has been academically defined out of existence.

Post-modernism is an inevitability, but it has not risen to anything like that stature of the challenge it ought to be. There is more than urge for reform afoot. I believe there is primal distrust, an already too-diffused apostasy of individuals disaffected with materialism, suspicious of science, cognizant of the mass fraud perpetrated by our schools and universities. There is epochal dissatisfaction with the cavalier amorality we are asked to accept as a matter of course. The "banality of evil" is the most grinding atrocity of all, just because it is so amorphous, such a nebulous and intractable climate. But we cannot afford to support systematically protected professional irresponsibility, dysfunctional mass institutions, or the regular promulgation of incompetence by educators suffering from delusions of adequacy. We have made accommodations with an order that is economically irrational, socially and politically destructive, and cancerous to every ideal and value that help us sustain our individual lives. Being a human being, being a citizen, being a professional or parent, whatever we do should reasonably engage our whole selves: the hypocrisy of imagining ourselves moral creatures but unable to enact that morality is a corrosive, decomposing force. It is the superacid of modernist nihilism that we feel, no longer contained by the cloistered environments of specialists. As a civilization, we are about to find out, I fear, what values, conscience, and intelligence are needed for — to sustain people in extremis, in times of cataclysmic tragedy and injustice, as well as to forge a rightly founded novus ordo seculorum, a "new order of the ages."