Friday, September 21, 2012

A world without Quality

@435 SecularAnimist:

I think it is arguable that empiricism - which is the heart of science - is responsible for essentially all of humanity's advancements throughout all of human history and pre-history.

This is almost a dictionary definition of scientism. Please try to imagine the emotional impact this statement has on artists. Have they contributed nothing to humanity's advancement? Are the contents of museums useless rubbish? Should we empty them out and repurpose the buildings as laboratories or factories? What is advancement? Is it inherently good, or does its goodness depend on what we're advancing towards?

I'm not being rhetorical or provocative. I'm trying to understand how we got into this mess in the first place, so I can more effectively inspire myself and others to deal with it. Robert Pirsig raised similar questions in his 1974 inquiry into values, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." He described pervasive technological ugliness, and hypothesized that its source was a split between art and science, or between what he called the "classic" and "romantic" world-views. He then attempted to save reason from its own self-devouring logic, by positing pre-intellectual awareness (which he called "Quality") as the source of both subjects and objects. In my view his solution was naive and retreated into mysticism, but regardless it apparently didn't work, because forty years later we're no closer to a resolution, and the ugliness Pirsig was describing has blossomed into the greatest threat in human history.

In a famous passage Pirsig used realism to prove the existence of his central term, "by subtracting Quality from a description of the world as we know it". His description could just as easily describe a world in which "empiricism ... is responsible for essentially all of humanity's advancements."

We have been listening to scientists, maybe not about climate change, but about nearly everything else, for hundreds of years, and the results are increasingly ghastly. Even scientists are scared. If scientists are now going to tell us that there's no hope without even more drastic technological change, they would be wise to adopt some humility, and acknowledge that mistakes were made, instead of preaching science as a glorious march to advancement.

I know it seems like I'm attacking science but it's more subtle than that. I'm an engineer. I work with scientists and use math and logic all day long, and I don't doubt for a second that science "works", in the pragmatic sense that our explanations of phenomena can improve with time and effort. What I'm questioning is the notion that science is neutral, or as Pirsig would say, Quality-free. Art isn't just "whatever you like" and there's more to life than being right.

"We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane."
-Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

1 comment:

sherman said...

Brilliant post, Chris.