December 28, 2014

1. Pinker vs. Wieseltier or,
The Scientist vs. The Humanist

The local GreatBooks group recently discussed a debate between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier. Pinker is a leading champion of science, Wieseltier is a defender of the humanities, and a critic of the attempt to bring scientific methods into the humanities. The debate started in August 2013, when Pinker published an essay called “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” Wieseltier responded the following month with “Crimes Against Humanities.” Both essays were published in The New Republic, where Wieseltier was for many years Literary Editor (he recently resigned). The debate continued with additional remarks by Pinker and Wieseltier; there’s also a short video in which Wieseltier summarizes his case.

I regard Pinker’s essay as a good summary of modern, Western, hyper-rational, scientific thinking. Pinker stands truth on its head; we can reach truth by reversing Pinker’s positions. Wieseltier’s attack on Pinker is witty and fun to read, and it may seem like they disagree completely. But if you look at the basic principles of the two writers, if you look at their fundamental worldview, you find that they agree more than they disagree. If Pinker is hyper-rational, Wieseltier is rational; Wieseltier has no use for the non-rational, the mystical, the occult. Wieseltier was a friend of the novelist Saul Bellow, but he didn’t share Bellow’s interest in the mystical. Bellow was fond of mystics like Owen Barfield and Rudolf Steiner. “I explained to Saul,” Wieseltier writes, “that I could not follow him into the floridities of Rudolph Steiner.... I told Saul that I preferred the spiritual profit of reason.”1

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Pinker says that the two basic principles of science are that the world is intelligible, and that reaching truth is hard work. Both of these principles stand the truth on its head, in my view, but Wieseltier accepts both. Wieseltier merely quibbles about priority, about who discovered them first: “Plato believed in the intelligibility of the world, and so did Dante, and so did Maimonides and Aquinas.” When Pinker says that science is hard work, Wieseltier responds by saying, We work hard, too. Wieseltier speaks of “humanistic exertion,” and he says that “the imagination has rigors of its own.... Scientists and scientizers are not the only ones working toward truths and trying to get things right.” Both Pinker and Wieseltier fail to understand that major breakthroughs, in the sciences and the humanities, are usually the result of a flash of intuition, the vision of genius. Neither Pinker nor Wieseltier mention the word “genius” in their essays.

Pinker says that science is about “skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests.” Instead of rejecting this view, Wieseltier says, We do that, too. In my view, finding truth isn’t a rational process or even a voluntary process; indeed, it’s not a “process” at all. Finding truth is about intuition, vision, genius. As Emerson said, “Every man discriminates between the voluntary acts of his mind and his involuntary perceptions, and knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due.” Emerson speaks of “that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition.”

I’d like to ask Pinker and Wieseltier, Where’s the “formal precision” in Zarathustra? Where are the “empirical tests” in Montaigne’s essays? Isn’t Walden about life experience, not “open debate”?

After Dostoyevsky lost all his money in a German casino, the plot of Crime and Punishment came to him in a flash, a vision. When Hawthorne was asked about The Scarlet Letter, he said, I didn’t write that, it wrote itself. Creativity is the result of intuition and spontaneity.

In the scientific world, new paradigms don’t come from hard work; they come from the sudden vision of the 20-year-old, not the patient labor of the 70-year-old. Kuhn spoke of,

these flashes of intuition through which a new paradigm is born.... Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.2

An institution like NASA can harness the labor of thousands of scientists, but big ideas are born in the head of a lone genius. Pinker overlooks intuition, vision, genius; Pinker says that scientists are “immersed in the ethereal medium of information.”

While Pinker says the world is intelligible, I regard the world as unintelligible, mysterious, and I often say, We’re surrounded by mysteries. I mentioned one such mystery in a recent issue: CivilWar soldiers often anticipated when they would be killed. I quoted a Confederate private, Sam Watkins:

Presentiment is always a mystery. The soldier may at one moment be in good spirits, laughing and talking. The wing of the death angel touches him. He knows that his time has come. It is but a question of time with him then. He knows that his days are numbered. I cannot explain it.

Indeed, there are many things in this world that we can’t explain, though clever scientists doubtless have an explanation for everything. Keats praised Shakespeare for his ability to accept mystery without trying to explain it away; Keats called this Negative Capability. Negative Capability is unknown among academics, who seem to pride themselves on never saying, “It’s a mystery, I can’t explain it.”

Life after death is a mystery; there are many reasons to believe that there is life after death, and many reasons to believe that there isn’t. And if life after death is a mystery, then we don’t really understand life or death. The definitions of life and death that we find in our biology textbook must be discarded if there’s life after death.

One mystery that I’ve often discussed in this e-zine is a mystery from quantum physics: The Paired Particles Experiment (also known by other names, such as The Aspect Experiment). Neither Pinker nor Wieseltier mentions quantum physics. Quantum physics strengthens the non-rational worldview, the occult worldview, but both Pinker and Wieseltier have a rational worldview, hence they stay away from quantum physics, Jungian psychology, Eastern philosophy, and other pillars of the non-rational worldview. Both Pinker and Wieseltier speak dismissively of the occult, of magic, and of mystery.

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Pinker is brimming over with confidence:

The worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities.

Pinker says that, while science doesn’t dictate values, there are a few postulates, “a few unexceptionable convictions,” that we can all agree on: “that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct.” I regard Pinker’s postulates not only as questionable, but as false. The idea that man values his own welfare, and seeks his own happiness, is an error that rational thinkers often fall into. Man has a powerful negative streak that prompts him to injure others and injure himself.

The biggest problem in the world today is the suicide bomber, the person who’s willing to destroy himself in order to injure others. Doubtless many suicide bombers would blow up the entire planet if they could do so. “But the suicide bomber thinks he’ll go to Heaven, and enjoy the attentions of 72 virgins, he thinks he’s acting for his own welfare.” There may be some suicide bombers who believe this, but I doubt this is the chief motive of most suicide bombers, and I’m certain it’s not the chief motive of all. And what about school shootings in the U.S. and elsewhere? Most of these killers don’t believe in any afterlife, they simply want the thrill of killing.

Homo homini lupus, man is a wolf to man. The ancient Roman who coined this phrase knew more about human nature than today’s scientists, though he didn’t have any grants or laboratories, and he wasn’t published in any peer-reviewed journals.

Now let’s consider Pinker’s second postulate, “We are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct.” Doesn’t the whole history of mankind demonstrate that man can’t “negotiate codes of conduct”? Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations was based on the notion that we can negotiate codes of conduct, and thereby eliminate war. Wasn’t that notion disproven by World War II, and by all the wars that followed? I think Pinker has done a fine job of standing truth on its head, and showing the errors to which a hyper-rational worldview is prone.

Wieseltier doesn’t challenge Pinker’s two postulates (that man values his own welfare, and that man can negotiate codes of conduct). He does, however, fault Pinker for being too optimistic, he faults Pinker for “sunny scientizing,” and for his “dawn-is-breaking scientistic cheerleading.” In his concluding sentence, Wieseltier writes, “If there was one thing for which the humanities, the old humanities, the wearyingly traditional humanities, could be counted on, it was to introduce us also to the darkness and prepare us also for the worst.”

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Pinker is sometimes called a representative of the New Atheism, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, etc. Wieseltier has been tilting against the New Atheism for years. In 2011, he wrote a scathing review of The Atheist’s Guide To Reality, calling it, “the worst book of the year, a shallow and supercilious thing.”

Is the New Atheism really new? It should be compared to the old atheism of philosophers like William Godwin. Dostoyevsky criticized this “dawn-is-breaking” rationalism in his novella Notes From Underground. There he ridicules the idea that “no man ever knowingly acts against his own interests.” He counters this idea by asking, “In the course of all these thousands of years, [when] has man ever acted in accordance with his own interests?” Dostoyevsky exemplifies his own theory: he knew that gambling was against his interests, but couldn’t stop himself from doing it.

Dostoyevsky asks, What exactly is in a man’s interest? “Advantage! What is advantage? Can you possibly give an exact definition of the nature of human advantage?” Gambling ruined Dostoyevsky’s finances, but this ruin gave him a vision of the plot of Crime and Punishment. Ruin may actually be to our advantage, ruin may further our spiritual growth. “What if sometimes a man’s ultimate advantage [Dostoyevsky writes] not only may, but even must, in certain cases consist in his desiring something that is immediately harmful and not advantageous to himself?”

I once wrote an aphorism called “Growth From Disaster.” Disaster not only fosters personal growth, it may also foster society’s growth. War has often led to progress; for example, European civilization began with Roman conquests. We can’t be certain that peace is in man’s interest.

Dostoyevsky ridicules “this theory of the regeneration of the whole human race by means of the system of its own advantages.” He calls such theories “exercises in logic.” He ridicules Buckle’s notion that “civilization softens man, who, consequently becomes less bloodthirsty and less liable to engage in wars.” (Pinker makes this very argument in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.) “Just take a good look around you,” Dostoyevsky writes; “rivers of blood are being spilt, and in the jolliest imaginable way, like champagne. Take all our 19th century in which Buckle lived. Look at Napoleon, the Great and the present one. Look at North America — the everlasting union.” If Dostoyevsky waxes eloquent about 19th-century violence, what would he have said about 20th-century violence? The views of Godwin and Buckle resemble the views of Dawkins and Pinker, and Dostoyevsky’s criticism of these rationalistic worldviews resembles my criticism of Pinker. The New Atheism isn’t really new.

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Pinker says that “the defining practices of science [include] open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods.” In my book of aphorisms, I argued that peer review suppresses revolutionary ideas, suppresses ideas that make the “peers” uncomfortable.

As for “open debate,” it’s naive to believe that debate is ever really open. We must filter out some ideas because of the sheer volume of new ideas. For example, if someone said, “I can prove that Robert Kennedy was behind the assassination of John Kennedy,” he wouldn’t be invited to a debate at Harvard or Oxford, his theory would be dismissed as ludicrous. But new paradigms often appear ludicrous at first, so we can never be sure that the ideas we filter out really deserve to be filtered out. Oxfordians are never invited to debates by the Harvard English Department, which clings to the Stratford paradigm. So “open debate” can’t lead to truth, any more than peer review.

As for “double-blind” experiments, they often produce changing conclusions, unreliable conclusions. Facts are squishy things, statistics are squishy things. A NewYorker article called “The Truth Wears Off” says that scientific studies often can’t be replicated. That is, the effects that appear initially become less dramatic when the study is repeated. This is sometimes called The Decline Effect. Scientific studies are influenced by the biases and wishes of those conducting the study. Faith in the double-blind approach is as naive as faith in peer review and open debate.

*  *  *  *  *

Wieseltier argues eloquently that the humanities are distinguished by their emphasis on tradition and inwardness. He says,

The humanities, unlike the sciences, constitute a tradition, which is (in Gershom Scholem’s words) “a process that creates productivity through receptivity.” The present has the power of life and death over the past. It can choose to erase vast regions of it. Tradition is what the present calls those regions of the past that it retains, that it cherishes and needs. Contrary to the progressivist caricature, tradition is not the domination of the present by the past. It is the domination of the past by the present — the choice that we make to preserve and to love old things because we have discovered in them resources for contemporary sustenance and up-to-the-minute illumination.

Wieseltier says that the humanities don’t move forward linearly, like the sciences, hence humanists can still learn from Aristotle, while scientists can’t. Wieseltier doesn’t acknowledge that there is some progress in fields like philosophy; Aristotle isn’t as important for modern philosophy as Jung, Nietzsche, etc. And while he under-rates progress in the humanities, Wieseltier over-rates progress in the sciences: the sciences don’t make steady progress, they sometimes encounter baffling new fields, like quantum physics, that give them a new respect for ancient philosophers and primitive thinkers. Science discards errors, but then discovers that the “errors” contain important truths, and shouldn’t have been discarded so hastily. Science doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, as Wieseltier supposes.

Wieseltier realizes that the humanities are about inner experience:

It is the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding, over which Pinker, in his delirium of empirical research, rides roughshod. The humanities are the study of the many expressions of that inwardness.

In a rare moment of agreement, Wieseltier says, “Pinker is correct to hold the humanities partly complicit in their own decline, referring appositely to ‘the disaster of postmodernism’ and ‘suffocating political correctness.’” On these points, I agree with both of them.

*  *  *  *  *

Wieseltier grew up in Brooklyn, attended a Yeshiva in Flatbush, where he became fluent in Hebrew, and then graduated from Columbia. He’s remembered as a B.M.O.C. (Big Man On Campus) at Columbia, often in the company of an attractive woman. His tall frame and flashy clothes reminded some people of Oscar Wilde. He made friends with some Columbia professors, including Lionel Trilling and Meyer Schapiro. After Columbia, he went to Oxford. In England, he became friends with Isaiah Berlin, to whom Trilling had given him an introduction. Wieseltier later said that Berlin was “the only magical intellectual I’ve ever known.”3 Wieseltier spent 30 years at The New Republic, and has long lived in Washington, DC. Like Wilde, Wieseltier has been the target of satire.

In the 80’s a Manhattan hostess looking to spice up a dinner party with an intellectual had her choice of luminaries. In Washington, overstocked with buttoned-down policy nerds, there was Leon Wieseltier and . . . Leon Wieseltier, part Maimonides, part Oscar Wilde.4

One might call Wieseltier the last of the New York Intellectuals, the last representative of the literary tradition of the New York Intellectuals.

2. Ancient Rome

I started a huge tome, A History of Rome, by Cary and Scullard. When I bought it, I didn't realize that it’s a textbook. It’s difficult to read; it leaves the reader wanting less matter, and more art. It’s scholarly, comprehensive, and respected, but it’s not great literature. Perhaps a better survey of Roman history is Michael Grant’s History of Rome.4B

Cary and Scullard say that the lands on the edge of the Mediterranean were cut off from their hinterlands by deserts and mountains. For example, the lands in North Africa were cut off from the rest of Africa by the Sahara Desert. While the lands on the edge of the Mediterranean were cut off from their hinterlands, they were connected to each other by the Mediterranean, hence their geography suggested the creation of one large state, one empire:

The Mediterranean basin forms a natural geographical unit. Its constituent lands are on the whole alike in climate and vegetation; they have relatively easy access to each other, but are cut off in a greater or lesser degree from their hinterlands.... In short, the natural features of the Mediterranean area favor more than they hinder the grouping of its component countries into a unified state-system.

If we accept this view, then the question arises, Who is to rule the Mediterranean basin? Our authors say that Italy was the natural choice because of its central location, and because its land was more fertile, hence it had a larger population. Even today, Italy’s population (60 million) is larger than Spain’s (47 million), though Spain’s area is almost double Italy’s.

Rome developed on the east side of the Tiber River, and used the Tiber as a kind of defensive wall against the Etruscans to the west. The Servian Walls, which were built around Rome about 375 BC, were entirely east of the Tiber. Even the Aurelian Walls, which were built about 275 AD, are almost entirely east of the Tiber. The Vatican was built west of the Tiber, perhaps to separate itself from Rome, perhaps because more land was available west of the Tiber.

As Italy was chosen by nature to rule the Mediterranean basin, so Rome was chosen by nature to rule Italy. According to Cary and Scullard, Rome had several advantages:

  • a central location within Italy
  • access to the sea via the Tiber
  • hills that afforded protection from the Tiber’s floods5
  • a surrounding area, east of the Tiber, that was well-suited to agriculture (the Latin plain)
  • the ability to control passage across the Tiber, and thus control travel along Italy’s west coast

Our authors compare Rome’s situation to that of Paris and London.

In Rome’s early days, it had to contend with various rivals:

  • The Etruscans, who were west of the Tiber, in an area known as Etruria.
  • The Gauls, who came over the Alps into the Po Valley, and sacked Rome in 390 BC (perhaps this prompted the construction of the Servian Walls).
  • The Samnites, who were powerful in southern Italy, as the Etruscans and Gauls were in northern Italy.
  • The Greeks, who had colonies in Sicily, in the area around Naples, and along the Gulf of Taranto (these areas are sometimes called “Magna Graecia”).
  • The Carthaginians, who had spread from Carthage (in North Africa) to Sicily, Spain, etc. The Carthaginians are sometimes called “Punic” because Carthage was originally a Phoenician colony.

3. Stoner

I read a novel called Stoner, by John Williams. Highly recommended. Simple, plain, flat, like a piece of high-quality bread that has no butter or jam on it. Contains little humor or action. Readable and rather short, never dull. It feels like a memoir or biography, it feels true, and you connect with the characters as if they were real people. It deals with the basic facts of existence — love, death, marriage, enmity. One can’t imagine Stoner being written by anyone but an American; it seems to capture the essence of a region of the U.S. — The Plains. Perhaps its chief weakness is that it doesn’t achieve any spiritual victory, any mystic vision.

A kind of cult has arisen around Stoner. It has ardent fans, but somehow it isn’t widely known. It’s sometimes called “the best novel you never heard of.” Here are some critical remarks on Stoner:

  • “Something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, it takes your breath away.” (Morris Dickstein)
  • “I had never encountered a work so ruthless in its devotion to human truths and so tender in its execution.” (Steve Almond)
  • “There is entertainment of a very high order to be found in Stoner, what Williams himself describes as ‘an escape into reality’ as well as pain and joy. The clarity of the prose is in itself an unadulterated joy.” (John McGahern)

Williams’ prose is a model of simplicity and clarity, so his work should be read by students.

Williams grew up in a working-class family in Texas, and became an English professor at the University of Denver. He’s best known for

  • Stoner, which he published in 1965
  • Augustus, a novel about the Roman emperor, which he published in 1972. Augustus was the co-winner of the National Book Award in 1973, perhaps because the judges knew that Stoner should have won the award, and were making up for their earlier mistake. One critic compared Augustus to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, Hermann Broch’s Death of Virgil, and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. Perhaps we can also compare Augustus to a series of novels called Masters of Rome, by the Australian writer Colleen McCullough.
  • Butcher’s Crossing (1960), which deals with Kansas in frontier times
“Critic Morris Dickstein noted that, while Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner, and Augustus are ‘strikingly different in subject,’ they ‘show a similar narrative arc: a young man’s initiation, vicious male rivalries, subtler tensions between men and women, fathers and daughters, and finally a bleak sense of disappointment, even futility.’”6 Williams died in 1994. He apparently wrote little in his last twenty years, though he left a novel unfinished at the time of his death.

In addition to his novels, Williams wrote two volumes of poetry, and edited an anthology called English Renaissance Poetry.

[Spoiler warning: If you’re thinking of reading Stoner, you should skip the rest of this section.] The following passage has the bleak beauty that’s characteristic of Stoner:

They buried his father in a small plot on the outskirts of Booneville, and William returned to the farm with his mother. That night he could not sleep. He dressed and walked into the field that his father had worked year after year, to the end that he now had found. He tried to remember his father, but the face that he had known in his youth would not come to him. He knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand. He broke it and watched the grains, dark in the moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers. He brushed his hand on his trouser leg and got up and went back to the house. He did not sleep; he lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him.

When Stoner becomes a grad student, he makes friends with two other grad students, Gordon Finch and Dave Masters. “The three of them — Stoner, Masters, and Finch — got in the habit of meeting on Friday afternoons at a small saloon in downtown Columbia, drinking large schooners of beer and talking late into the night.” This passage reminded me of Joyce’s remark about Stephen Dedalus: “Stephen... had told Cranly of all the tumults and unrest and longings in his soul, day after day and night by night.” The early chapters of Stoner feel like A Portrait of the English Professor As A Young Man.

One of the high points of the novel, and of Stoner’s life, is Stoner’s affair with a grad student, Katherine Driscoll. Finally Stoner and Katherine separate in order to save their careers; they believe that without a career, a person is nothing. Stoner says that if he elopes with Katherine, “I almost certainly wouldn’t be able to teach, and you — you would become something else. We both would become something else, something other than ourselves. We would be — nothing.”

Williams describes the end of the affair with his usual directness:

He didn’t see Katherine Driscoll again. After he left her, during the night, she got up, packed all her belongings, cartoned her books, and left word with the manager of the apartment house where to send them. She mailed the English office her grades, her instructions to dismiss her classes for the week and a half that remained of the semester, and her resignation. And she was on the train, on her way out of Columbia, by two o’clock that afternoon. She must have been planning her departure for some time, Stoner realized; and he was grateful that he had not known and that she left him no final note to say what could not be said.

One might say that the theme of Stoner is love — love of literature as well as people. When Stoner is an undergrad, his professor (Archer Sloane) recommends that he continue his study of literature at the graduate level; Sloane realizes that Stoner has a passion for literature: “It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love. It’s as simple as that.”

As a teacher, Stoner finds it difficult to communicate his love of literature:

From the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom. He had hoped that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so. Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance.

Eventually, though, Stoner learns to express his feeling for literature in the classroom:

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print — the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.

On his deathbed, Stoner reflects on his passion:

In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him — how many years ago? — by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before.... It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both.

© L. James Hammond 2014
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1. back
2. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, chapters 8 and 10 back
3. New York Times back
4. New York Times back
4B. Cary and Scullard’s textbook is no longer used much in colleges, though Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero is still well-regarded. The “standard textbook” now is The Romans: From Village to Empire, by Mary Boatwright et al. For those who want a shorter work, Boatwright & Co. have written A Brief History of the Romans.

I prefer the older works, even though scholars now regard them as “dated.” The Boatwright textbook skips over topics that I find interesting, such as the tactics that made Hannibal so successful. I’m not interested in modernized, politically-correct history, even if, in some minor respects, it’s more accurate. back

5. The famous Seven Hills, septem montes: the Capitoline, the Palatine, the Aventine, the Quirinal, the Viminal, the Esquiline, and the Caelian. All seven are east of the Tiber, and within the Servian Walls. back
6. Wikipedia back