Friday, April 13, 2012

Storey on Brooks: Philosophy and Darwinian Science

Is David Brooks's The Social Animal an argument for a new form of scientism that aims to replace philosophy with science?

That's the claim of Benjamin Storey in an essay for The New Atlantis.  He seems to be responding not only to Brooks's book but also to one of Brooks's articles for the The New York Times a few years ago entitled "The End of Philosophy". 

Although Storey never mentions Leon Kass, I detect the influence of Kass's attack on "scientism."  In some previous posts, I have explained why I disagree with Kass's move away from the Aristotelian/Darwinian naturalism of his early writings.

As a political theorist who argues for applying Darwinian science to issues in political philosophy, I often hear the sort of argument that Storey makes here--that I am mistaken in thinking that biological science can replace political philosophy.  But this complaint assumes that there must be an absolute separation between philosophy and science, and I reject that assumption, because I follow a premodern tradition of thought in which what we today call natural science would be called natural philosophy.  Aristotle was a philosopher, but much of his writing would today be classified as biology. 

When Ed Wilson says that our ultimate aim should be "consilience"--the unity of all knowledge, with biology as the link between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities--he belongs to this Aristotelian tradition.  Brooks's book is in this same tradition, in which the natural desire for intellectual understanding requires a unification of all knowledge, particularly for understanding human nature in all of its multileveled complexity.

By contrast, Storey belongs to a modern tradition of thought that insists on an absolute separation of the various domains of intellectual inquiry, so that each intellectual domain is strictly limited, and there can never be any unification of thought.  This modern tradition is manifest in the organization of college curriculums, which separate the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, and then divide these areas of study into departments.  The demands for interdisciplinary research and teaching in addressing the greatest questions of thought express the frustration of those who see that the separation of disciplines denies the unity of knowledge that should be the goal of  a liberal education.

Here's Storey's main complaint about Brooks's book:
To truly avoid scientism, Brooks would need to articulate the limits of science in general and cognitive science in particular.  But one will find no consideration of the limits of science in The Social Animal.  While Brooks draws on philosophers, poets, and theologians in his book, he never allows them or anyone else to say to science: "hitherto shalt thou come, but no further."  In spite of Brooks's celebration of "epistemological modesty," there is nothing epistemologically modest about this book. (147)
Notice that it is not enough for Storey that Brooks combines the insights of philosophers, poets, and theologians with those of modern science, because Storey insists that scientists must be absolutely prohibited from addressing the questions raised by philosophers, poets, and theologians.   Against this, I argue that the deepest understanding of the greatest questions of life comes from the unification of knowledge, because this is the only way to understand the multileveled complexity in the phenomena that we want to study.  Storey rejects this position, apparently because he assumes that any scientific explanation of anything must be reductionistic in a way that distorts the complex reality of the human phenomena.

So, for example, Storey suggests, consider the topic of love.
When Harold and Erica first fall in love, Brooks invites us to look "inside Harold's brain" to see love as it appears to the eye of the cognitive scientist.  One method scientists use to understand love is to put a patient in a brain scanner, show the patient a photo of his or her beloved, and watch which areas of the brain "light up" in response to this stimulus.  Such a method might tell us something, but its understanding of love will plainly be partial: any halfway-competent Don Juan knows that love loves a beach, a bottle of wine, and a sunset.  One's ardor might be dampened by the syringes, medical scrubs, and electrodes of the laboratory, distorting the very phenomena the scientist wants to study.  Experimental science that seeks quantifiable results can perhaps grasp those aspects of an experience such as love that will submit to the apparatus of experimentation and permit of quantification, but the rest of that experience, and in particular the whole of that experience, will remain the domain of philosophers and poets. (147)

From this, Storey's reader will assume that Brooks reduces the falling in love of Harold and Erica to the neurochemistry of their brains, while saying nothing about the need for "a beach, a bottle of wine, and a sunset."  But any reader who actually looks at Brooks's book will see that Brooks presents the growing love between Harold and Erica as manifesting "the desire for limerence" or "the urge to merge," which is "the desire for the moment when the inner and outer patterns mesh" (208).  He sees this emerging when Harold and Erica ride bikes to the top of a hill overlooking some water.
Harold stopped at the top of the hill and watched her huff up.  He still had the huge grin on his face, and she was laughing between her gasps, when their eyes met as she pulled up alongside him.  Erica looked into Harold's eyes more deeply than she ever had, and saw through them into some of the things he liked and cherished: his flag-football games, his backpack filled with Great Books, his excitement for her and for their projects together.

They stood aside their bikes on the top of the hill, looking out at the view of the water, and Erica slipped her hand into Harold's.  Harold was surprised at how rough and hard her palm felt to the touch, and how lovely. (202)
To explain what is happening to them, Brooks identifies the likely brain mechanisms supporting it.  But he also quotes a dozen or more poets, philosophers, theologians, historians, and social scientists, including Matthew Arnold, Stendhal, C. S. Lewis, Emile Durkheim,  William McNeill, Plato, and Allan Bloom (199-213).

To me, this looks like a pretty good way to grasp "the whole of that experience" of love.  But apparently Storey thinks that saying anything about what might be happening in the brain when people fall in love necessarily distorts the reality of the experience.

On the contrary, I say that whatever we discover about the science of the brain as supporting romantic love and every other part of our evolved human nature deepens our understanding of who and what we are. 

Oddly enough, in the last paragraph of his essay, Storey contradicts the rest of his essay as he apparently endorses the need for unified knowledge: "On the question of ourselves, we can have philosophers, theologians, poets, and, yes, scientists, for our companions and conversation partners" (152).  I agree.

Despite the title of Brooks's essay on "The End of Philosophy," Brooks's argument is not that biological science must bring the end of philosophy, but rather than this science adds to the great debates of philosophy in a way that supports some philosophic positions against others.  So, for example, the rationalist tradition of philosophy that assumes that human conduct should be governed by pure reason without emotion seems to be refuted by scientific research showing that pure reason by itself cannot explain human conduct.  That's one way in which Darwinian science favors the British Enlightenment tradition against the French Enlightenment tradition. 

This also favors the Aristotelian tradition, because as Brooks indicates in The Social Animal, brain science and modern biology generally is moving towards confirming most of what Aristotle teaches in the Nicomachean Ethics (128, 323, 363), which is not surprising given that Aristotle's moral and political philosophy is grounded in his biology.

I wrote a series of blog posts on Brooks's book in March and April of 2011.  Other posts on related topics can be found here, here, here, and here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In Allan Bloom's Introduction to Rousseau's Emile, he has a few interesting things to say about sublimation (15-16). As I was reading your post, this concept of sublimation came to mind, which in short is the "source of the soul's higher expressions--as the explanation of that uniquely human turning away from mere bodily gratification to the pursuit of noble deeds, arts, and thoughts" (16). Bloom recognizes that Rousseau sought to understand the nature of "man's soul within the context of modern scientific reductionism..." but, according to Bloom, "there is no place for the sublime in the modern scientific explanation of man. Therefore, the sublime had to be made out of the nonsublime; this is sublimation." Bloom interprets the last two books of the Emile as Rousseau attempt to "undertake in a detailed way the highly problematic task of showing how the higher might be derived from the lower without being reduced to it" (16). This seems to express your notion of emergence complexity.

With this in mind, how does one go about analyzing the sublime if it cannot be entirely treated within modern scientific reductionism? Is there another route open within science to attain an explanation of the sublime? What would a Darwinian account of the sublime be? Can one be inferred from his writings? Or do you not think that sublimation is at work in the noble deeds that Darwin talks about in The Descent of Man?