Monday, July 1, 2013

Explanation and illusion

For some reason, I once used to be vaguely interested in Eastern mysticism and used to go along to talks by visiting Tibetan or Indian monks. But I was fated never to get deeply involved, partly because, even as child, I could never sit comfortably cross-legged, and partly because I always thought there was something a bit silly about Westerners adopting Eastern customs. (A friend of mine, a high church Anglican, converted to Buddhism, but, since he had a Chinese grandfather, I didn't disapprove.)

One thing which frustrated me about these talks was that the speakers never put what they were saying into any broader intellectual context. I remember asking questions about how they saw themselves as relating to this or that other strand of Eastern mystical thinking. I wanted to get an overview in order better to understand what I was dealing with and in order to make judgements.

Ah, but how they disapproved of this entire mode of thinking! I was on the wrong track entirely! Most of these monks wouldn't have known how to characterize it exactly (Western, analytical, reductionistic?) but they really bristled at this style of thinking and talking.

I ended up seeing them as rather blinkered and narrow; but I also have to say that I am less optimistic than I was then that a knowledge of various cultural traditions coupled with basic scientific knowledge can lead to anything like a satisfactory and comprehensive worldview. (I haven't quite given up, however.)

What brought these thoughts to mind was some reading I have been doing in the wake of watching this video of a short talk by Merlin Donald. I wanted to get a sense of where Donald fitted in with others who have written in an area which has been characterized as speculative cognitive paleoanthropology.

One book I have read in this area is Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species which seemed to me a very interesting piece of work, but one which overreached in certain ways.

Rather than going into details, I will for now merely make a general point: that these interdisciplinary and (as they are often called) 'magisterial' works are all fundamentally suspect in that they reflect an outmoded 19th-century ideal. Not only is it no longer possible for a single mind to encompass the knowledge required, but the very idea that there is a scientifically-sanctioned story to tell is wrong. There are facts of the matter – but they are so complex and multifaceted that the grand narrative or grand overview approach is necessarily distorting.

George Eliot sensed this in creating in her novel Middlemarch that absolutely devastating portrait of a scholar seeking to map out just such an explanatory system: Edward Casaubon and his doomed Key to All Mythologies.

Ernst Cassirer's grand theory of symbolic forms falls into this tradition, as does the much more recent attempt by Robert N. Bellah (his Religion and Human Evolution) to interpret the rise of 'the great world religions' in a broadly evolutionary context.

Interestingly, Bellah drew heavily on Donald's ideas, and Donald wrote a favorable – though commendably cautious – review of Bellah's book.

For such works as this often tell us as much about their authors as about the world. And always I am inclined to try to look for what fundamental motivations lie behind various personal intellectual projects. More often than not (in my experience, at any rate) religious and/or more general ideological factors can be seen to be playing a decisive role.

It appears that Bellah is a practising Christian.

Donald is also sympathetic to religion. In his essay 'The Widening Gyre: Religion, Culture, and Evolution' (the title alluding to William Butler Yeats's profoundly pessimistic and apocalyptic vision of our imminent future) he speculates that we may yet find a way to stem the rapid cultural and intellectual decline ("cultural free-fall" he calls it) of the present age.

"Perhaps," he concludes, "a new religious genius will find a ... way to protect the sacred core that has sustained human beings throughout our turbulent history as a species." Sacred core? A new religious genius? What strange – and revealing – ways of speaking.

Mainstream secular intellectuals – like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett or Pascal Boyer – take a very different line, of course, and tend to have very different intuitions about religion and the nature of mind.

I have the view that convincing explanations tend to be constrained, piecemeal and, more often than not, deflationary; and that we should be particularly wary of grand and inspiring narratives.

Which, you might be inclined say, says more about me than about the way the world is.


  1. What then about grand but deflationary systems? There's a lot of those around, I think. Dawkins being an obvious case.

    What I've read of Donald seems well grounded, though not of course the bit you quote, which seems to me utterly stupid.

    Casaubon and Cassirer were using literary analysis to solve scientific questions, a forlorn project.

    Bellah was a social scientist, which can't tell us much about how we became social animals, which is what Donald is mainly discussing.

  2. On Dawkins: I'm not sure that, at his best, he was doing anything more than setting out the contours of a generally accepted understanding of the evolutionary process. He emphasized certain aspects over others, and used some provocative rhetoric, of course. He did propose at least one important original idea (the extended phenotype). There are some genuine scientific controversies involved here, but only at the margins, I would have thought.

    Dawkins was not (and is not now, so far as I know) setting up his own system or proposing his own general theory or even trying to create an interdisciplinary synthesis.

    Since he has become a professional atheist and media performer, I have noticed traces of what seems to be self-importance or pomposity, and have lost interest in him to an extent. But his earlier writings were good, in my opinion.

    Regarding Donald – his notions of the Mimetic and Mythic stages of human cultural development do seem to fit nicely with Simon Fisher's and Matt Ridley's ideas about culture-driven gene evolution (as discussed last month at Language, Life and Logic). I am doing a bit more reading on this, and hope to come back to the topic.

    1. It seems to me that tough-minded intellectuals and academics just love grand deflationary theories. Marxism, for example. Likewise scientism in all its form.

      Dawkins' grand deflationary Darwinism, the selfish gene theory, now seems to be in some trouble. Dawkins wanted a reductionism in which genes explain phenotypes, but since the decoding of the genome there is clearly not much correlation between gene and phenotype.

      Deflationism can be as deceptive as mysticism. Well, maybe not.

    2. Alan, you say that "Dawkins' grand deflationary Darwinism, the selfish gene theory, now seems to be in some trouble," and that "since the decoding of the genome there is clearly not much correlation between gene and phenotype."

      My understanding is that recent research has shown that genes operate perhaps in more complex ways than previously thought, interacting with each other and sensitive to environmental factors, but their role in driving phenotypic development has, I would have thought, not been downgraded at all.

    3. It's the simplistic supposition of a one to one relationship that has gone out the window. What should replace that is very much up for grabs.