Saturday, July 17, 2010

Loss of Faith 2010: Diverting Habits of Thought That Could End Up In Our Extinction [Anthony McCarthy]

The news that the cultural mountebank Saatchi has decided to leave his collection of contemporary art to the British Nation received all of the attention it deserved, which wasn’t all that much. Did you hear about it?

Saatchi is the guy who got a lot of attention in the United States a number of years back by displaying the soi disant image of the Blessed Virgin with elephant dung in his traveling “Sensation” show, leading to the inevitable, entirely predictable, pro forma display of prefab performance umbrage by Rudy Giuliani and William “rent a right wing rant” Donohue. Just what damage the mother of Jesus, who went to her eternal reward about 2000 years ago, suffered from the slight is a slightly interesting question. That’s probably the only slightly interesting one evoked by the artistic experience. I was led to believe from my catechism classes that being in heaven was a state of complete and eternal happiness. You’d think just finding out that there is an eternal reward would sort of compensate for the slings and arrows of hucksters with outrageous fortunes down here below, wouldn’t it?

Just as predictably, the rote outrage on the right led to an equally rote reaction on what likes to take itself as being the trendy left. Though what defending a filthy rich ad man’s well paid for kitsch from its critics has with anything important enough to take up the attention of the political left is a vitally important question.* This is evidence of nothing more than the fact that having the right enemies isn’t necessarily enough to make someone a hero, except to people whose bestowal of that title is too casual to make it meaningful. The trendy reaction has, itself, become so habitual as to be uninteresting.

Anyway, if there is one thing that’s clear in this it’s that Sa
Saatchi is a bullshit art collector, assuming the gender of the elephant. His collection, from every description and the reproductions of it I’ve seen, would appear to be the tedious pursuit of ephemeral attention getting through a display of expensive, elaborate and vacuous silliness. It's about as artistically important as what paper napkins to choose for a child's birthday party.

Of course among the rote retorts made to anyone questioning the artistic significance of this kind of thing is “What is art? Can you define it? ” And that might be an interesting consideration. That question is unanswerable in any objective sense. “Art” is an artificial designation given to objects and performances. Being artificial, the concept of “art” has no objective existence from which we can derive reliable classifications that almost all reasonable people would agree to and which could be applied with something reaching the status of reliability. When it’s something which has no objective existence, widespread agreement would be what constitutes what “art” is. At least in the most secure definition. In the world of collectable art, that widespread agreement no longer exists and has been replaced by market price. It’s “art” if you can sell it for a large amount of money to people of an equally artificial cultural status derived by the size of their money hoard or where they get published. To repeat, since what they deal with is a series of artificial distinctions and standards, contemporary art critics and commentators have accepted the replacement of the previous criteria of their profession with the even more artificial dictates of the art market. To a great extent mainstream criticism has become an exercise in avoiding being considered an oppressive fuddy duddy who won’t go along with the happening and with it, the refusal to buy the mutant tulips and the enhance their reputation by expressing their faith in the durability of the bubble. How often do you hear art critics say about art that has traded at large prices and been shown in esteemed venues, “this is garbage”?

The answer to the various dodges of the critics, that “art is whatever produces an artistic experience”, was good to shut down the tedious tape loop tripe from the champions of idiocy, even if it isn’t an objective definition. Though, for those who experience something to do with a work of art, it is rather self apparent. Now a days, though, you don’t have to have an experience from art to be one of its forthright defenders. It’s reached that level of abstraction and so “art” has become entirely superfluous, something to casually mention you’ve seen to people you want to impress. I doubt that most of the staunch defense of “art” from criticism is about the art but is, also, a political manifestation.

There is also a minor market in critical fogeyism which decries the falling away of standards, though that’s generally tied to ultra conservative politics and petulant annoyance that they might have to learn something that they didn’t get a good grade in at university. I’ll forego the infinitely complex matter which includes conservative sticks-in-the mud who mistake their accustomed and comfortable expectations for objective criteria. Neither group of critics would seem to have much of anything valuable to say. The good news is that none of us are required to listen to any of them or to have anything to do with bullshit art, whatever you would include in that category.


The most interesting part of this spectacle, for me, at least, is what it tells us about the consequences of there being many areas of life about which it is not possible to reach an absolute definitions and how we construct imaginary connections and glittering cities of thought out of habit. Many things in intellectual life are a matter of artificial and so arbitrary definitions. Many of the ideas we grow to believe are objectively real, are imaginary. Many of those arbitrary definitions take on the intellectual and social status more rightly given to ideas which have stood up under use and which were well made to start with. Lesser ideas seem as if they should have that kind of status, not because they’ve been tested but merely out of intellectual habit and by association with where they come from. As with the habit of distorting things with graphic representations, I think this denial of the artificiality of many of our most basic ideas is a product of habits developed through trying to approach them on the same basis that the legitimate subject of science can be**. That habit of thought, the limits that it unconsciously imposes, the hindrance to new ideas and possibilities are very important things to think about.

For the past several years I’ve been doing a lot of reading about scientific epistemology and related topics, looking at both what science was invented -by people- to do and the necessary limits imposed by those people in order to do it.

As has been said here before, cience was invented to produce more reliable knowledge about the physical universe, it was made to do that and it can’t do anything else. It does that by methodically focusing on phenomena, identifying them, observing them, measuring them, analyzing them and publishing the conclusions reached about those phenomena in order for others to take a rigorous look at the research and to see if they can reliably reproduce the results. And when science follows its methods and practices it has, actually, produced information that is the most reliable basis for thinking about those phenomena it has studied and acting in order to influence them to produce a result. It is almost certain that someone reading this will assume I'm rejecting science when that is obviously not what this is about. This is about the habits of thought that come from, exactly that success, both ideas about social and moral status and more general habits of thinking. That reliability has enabled people to enhance their power to manipulate the physical universe to their ends, sometimes beneficially, thought, it seems ever more obvious, for the most part malignantly. Mistaking questioning of the moral status of science and scientists for a rejection of its methods is another habit which will be the subject of a future post.

But the habits gained from depending on the reliable products of well done science leads to problems, among those is the most obvious, that only those things that have been and can be subjected to the methods of science produce those results. Nothing that hasn’t been subjected to them successfully falls within the realm of scientific activity.

A lot of the trouble in thinking about science begins with the matter of it requiring rigorous focusing on discrete phenomena. When you focus, you limit what you’re looking at, you exclude things you believe at the time are not relevant to what you’re looking at. That doesn’t mean those things stop existing, it doesn’t mean that they might not be relevant to what you’re looking at. You can look too narrowly at something and find that you need more than you see. In that case one of the mistakes you can make is to make something up to replace what you’ve gone to pains of excluding or which you can’t observe. The social sciences, in particular, trying to observe extremely complex and, ever more unfortunately, unobservable phenomena have so institutionalized short cuts and fill-ins that frequent overturnings of its most basic holdings have become entirely expected events, unremarkable in their oddly and obviously demonstrating the exact opposite of what the purpose of science is, to achieve enhanced reliability. In fact, as some of us have come to expect, pointing out that fact will produce the most enraged reaction by those who just so want to ignore that clear and dangerous fact.

The effectiveness of physical science has led to it becoming about the most reputable activity and profession in the modern world. That reputation is due, to some extent, on the integrity of many scientists about their work. Some scientists are very honest about their work, the nature of their work and its position in life and human society. And, ultimately, the honest status of science depends on that kind of intellectual integrity. Science doesn’t work if there isn’t honesty about its subject matter, at least. Though there are different kinds of reputability, not all equally reputable. I think that most of the modern reputation of science in the greater culture is due to its use by commercial organizations to make money. Scientists produce things that can be sold, they can extract valuable substances from the earth and from living things which create wealth for themselves and those who employ them. That results in the more widespread status of science. Science, itself, has no ethical content. Those scientists who practice ethics in their work don’t derive them from their observation of the physical universe, they can look forever and they won’t find them there anymore than they will political ideology or preference in what picture to hang in their office***.

But people are very odd creatures, we seem to want to see morality and ethics where there aren’t any. We seem to want to have a priesthood of elite moral authorities and there are people who, similarly, want to inhabit those positions****. There is no rational reason for people to have reverence for scientists merely because of their profession, not anymore than they do judges or heads of state or artists or religious clergy or, sleaziest of all, those in the mass media. The lazy and unconsidered assumption of enhanced moral status is both granted and accepted, often even in the full face of it being in direct conflict with reality. Many members of these priest hoods, these intellectual and academic aristocracies are among the most rapacious criminals we have among us. A number of them are con men, as clearly dishonest and sleazy as the supremely superficial and untalented artists continually on the make or sports heroes. The major virtue of the arts and sports is that the acknowledgment of them is voluntary. These other areas of life aren’t. Though their status and their skills and tools make the scientific, commercial, legal and political crooks far more dangerous and outrageously destructive. Among their most useful tools, though, is the automatic and unconsidered granting of moral status to them.

I think that among the more disreputable members of various priest hoods, there arises a conflict due to turf protection and the necessity of pilfering followers. But that’s a minor matter, however distracting, entertaining and absorbing. The bigger problem for us, who have no choice but to deal with them, is to remove that bad habit of unconsidered trust in the face of its being betrayed. Unlike the bullshit artists, we have no choice but to deal with what they do.

Note: After several years of dealing with, discussing, arguing about the religious beliefs of scientists, it occurred to me one day that there is no reason to care what a scientist thinks about religion than what a street sweeper or politician thinks about it. Certainly there isn’t based on their professions. What is there about the study of the physical universe that would lead anyone to think that a scientist would have special insight into the non-physical? While I’m sure there are other points of view, from now on I’m going to gage the seriousness with which peoples’ religious ideas should be taken to their moral and ethical conduct. And that’s got a lot more to do with how fair someone is, now well they treat other living beings than it does how many letters they’ve got after their names.

* We have two lefts in the west. The play left that spends most of its attention on stupid things like defending commercial art and the real, and it would seem, much smaller left that tries to do important things. I don’t think the real left should spend its time on that play left stuff, it’s a distraction and a trap that keeps important things from getting done.

** All intellectual systems carry inherent defects, yes, even the ones we cherish and use for thinking about life. The habit of assuming those methods which work very well for understanding and manipulating very simple physical phenomena which can be effectively observed work for everything is one of the most basic defects in our post Enlightenment culture. The simple fact is that the methods and habits of the physical sciences only work well because the things they study are not terribly complex. There is little to no reason to believe that they can be effectively applied to very complex areas of life that can’t be observed. I think that a lot of the disasters we are facing flow from the habit of pretending we can achieve reliable results and find reliable knowledge through a dishonest and phony application of the forms of science to things that can’t be fit into it. When that’s done, especially when it’s coupled with the methods of the Anglo-American legal system, you get technologically enhanced disasters that could kill us all. It is already more devastating in its destruction of life than the violence of the theological systems that produced the Thirty-Years War and other, relatively, primitive epochs of blood shed which didn’t have recourse to the enhanced power that science has given us. If they hadn’t had the products of their contemporary science and technology, the religio-political power centers in those conflicts would have killed far fewer people.

*** Evo-psy’s definition of morality as an inherited survival strategy depends on so many distortions of definition and methodology that it being called ‘science’ is dishonest.

**** The personal gratification of the elite in science, the possibility of economic benefit and membership in a sort of aristocracy are certainly known to motivate many members of priestly classes of various kinds. That scientific priestly classes come into conflict with some segments of the, largely, superceded religious priestly class is hardly to be marveled at.