Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Rational Animal

I read E. O. Wilson’s book Consilience around the time it came out, in 1999. I still find that kind of triumphalism annoying. It’s easy to doubt that “single vision & Newton’s sleep” can ever extend its reach to encompass the full range of human experience, as Wilson argues against Blake, but it is a bit more difficult to see where the obstacles lie. I recall Wilson explicitly addressing one potential limit, but I have never been able to find this discussion again. Did I just dream it? In any case, the puzzle arises out of the fundamental structure of the book’s argument: science gives us knowledge about the world of unprecedented accuracy; and science teaches us that human behavior emerges out of evolutionary pressures, the various claims of transcendence or nobility or rationality having little more validity than the chest thumping of an ape.

The puzzling questions that come out of these ideas are then: “Are not scientists humans? Do scientific theories themselves have no more validity than chest thumping? Since even the chest thumping theory is mere chest thumping, hasn’t science cut away its own foundations and left us floating?” In my dream-like recollection, Wilson responds that the scientific method has given scientists an escape ladder for transcending the human condition. Of course, this claim raises more questions than it answers, but I don’t recall Wilson taking the discussion any further.

Nowadays the popular image of science seems to be more and more tarnished. On the one hand, the great power of science has inevitably brought corruption, both real and imagined. For example, tests of drug effectiveness seem to succumb occasionally to the optimistic bias of the manufacturer. On the other hand, the huge stakes involved in an issue like climate change induce powerful economic and political forces to cast doubt on the scientific theories involved, however pristine the methods that generated those theories.

Can we ever free ourselves from our biases, to get a clear objective look at reality? Perhaps the most honest approach to science will turn out to look more like professional wrestling, a no-holds barred battle of ideas, where the results are determined more by back room deals than the circus on public display. This dichotomy between transcendence and baseness is not limited to our quest for truth. Can our efforts to act in a morally good way ever be free from our base urges, our greed and violence? Is all nobility and virtue really a lie, a mere disguise worn to hide a base grab for power?

The 2016 presidential contest in the USA seems to exemplify this battle between the hope for transcendence and the frank admission of our base nature. Clinton represents the bureaucracy that inevitably arises to administer and regulate our efforts to climb toward the shining castle of the good and the true. Trump represents the raw honest direct grab for power.

There does seem to be a generational cycle between these poles, a la Strauss & Howe. As we approach one pole, its flaws become very apparent, while the opposite pole presents the eternal illusion of the greener grass on the other side. Can we ever develop the wisdom to realize that every system has flaws, that real progress comes from working closely with those flaws rather than running away from them?

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