Monday, December 12, 2011

Objectivism on the Side of the Angels

After reading Hugo Slim’s review for the London Telegraph of Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of Our Nature:  The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes, I am not sure I really want to slog through all 802 pages of the book itself.  Having read some of Pinker’s work and having heard him lecture (thanks to Book TV), I have a fairly high level of trust when it comes to his techniques for both gathering and analyzing data.  If Pinker can apply statistics to psychology, political science, and cultural history to conclude that we are progressing towards less violent times, then I am willing to respect his opinion.

On the other hand I also feel obliged to respect the opinions of Isaiah Berlin, even if he was never as gifted in mathematics as Pinker is.  In particular I am referring to a remark by Berlin cited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. at the beginning of his essay “Has Democracy a Future?”  In an interview he granted towards the end of his life, Berlin declared the twentieth century to be “the most terrible century in Western history.”  Should Berlin’s assessment be dismissed just because his mathematical skills were not as keen as Pinker’s?

One way to approach this question is to consider Freeman Dyson’s piece in the latest issue of The New York Review on the subject of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Here is a case where we have one keen mathematical mind assessing the work of another;  and, through Dyson’s account, one cannot avoid gaining considerable respect for just how much the objectivity of properly applied mathematical techniques can tell us about the complexities of human behavior.  Nevertheless, Dyson is reluctant to let Kahneman have the last word on these matters.  While he does not dismiss the value of scientific thinking, he also does not reject contributions from the literary arts.  To this end he reviews two much earlier thinkers, who may have been less gifted in scientific rigor but whose literary gifts cannot be ignored.  One is Sigmund Freud, and the other is William James.  True, both saw themselves pursuing a more scientific approach to psychology;  and, I agree with Dyson that both have gone out of fashion.  However, I also agree that the lack of attention they now receive may stem from the fact that, by today’s standards, they were not particularly good scientists;  but, in spite of that shortcoming, both of them arrived at significant insights.

The fact is that literary thinking often yields results that are orthogonal to scientific analysis, simply because literature is more accommodating to subjective and social factors that do not readily lend themselves to scientific data gathering and analysis.  We thus find ourselves at a dangerous crossing as readers.  Where human nature is concerned, the objective techniques of scientific reasoning seem to be getting progressively better, while, on the other hand, there are too many instances of literary thinking that just seem to be getting worse (with Malcolm Gladwell as my favorite example).

What I like about Dyson is that he does not take a dialectical approach to these opposing points of view.  He does not advocate the quest for some synthesis that will yield some “ultimate truth” about human nature.  Rather, as Leta Miller has done in her recent book Music & Politics in San Francisco:  From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War, he argues that we, as readers, should embrace the dissimilarity of these perspectives, allowing each to inform us in our own way.  This is a perfectly natural approach to take where aesthetic judgment is concerned, but it may be just as important as we try to come to grips with just how we are equipped to get on in the world.

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