I have been privileged to read Pinker’s and your essays back to back. This was a wonderfully enlightening and entertaining experience. They are both brilliant expositions. It also enabled me to take in the two moods of the pieces almost all at once. My initial feeling after finishing was that I would like to bring you two together for therapy session, not on couches or parallel chairs, but with a Bach gavotte playing and insist that you both dance around the room in close embrace.
My own thoughts on all this have been expressed very clearly in my book of essays, especially in ‘Man in a Dark Room’, ‘The Ends of Art’ and ‘Science and Art’. Others I hope demonstrate how knowledge provided by scientific exploration can profoundly affect ones life experience.
You represented the humanities in the personification of a miffed female in a partnership. Working in the humanities myself it would seem that she is taking my part in her arguments. Well, like all people who have an unelected spokesperson speaking in their name I have a few things to say about that. And if anyone is going be miffed on my behalf I would want to add my own miffedness. However, the fact is I do not feel miffed at all with Pinker. I think he is right.
In the last 50 years or so the humanities have indeed lagged way behind science in involvement in cultural and intellectual life. But the charge of science bullying the arts out of the way is unjustified. To my mind the humanities have only themselves to blame. The science of these last years has thrown up so many new approaches to how we might perceive the lived life, so many extraordinary and profoundly important descriptions of our position in the material world and our perceptions of it, that I am not at all surprised that the arts have reeled back, not been able to keep up. One can well understand this, as the situation being presented by these revelations is not conducive to anyone having a solid self-image to work with. The ground has been cut away from under us – from the knowledge of our insignificant place in the scale of the universe, to the illusions inherent in our perceptions of the material world, to problems of free will and identity. Old certainties have been ditched. We are left isolated and horrified at the existential and meaningless position we find ourselves in (unless we reside in fantasy – which is where most people choose to live). If we do not choose fantasy we are left with the problem of self-creation, lost in a dark wood without paths or maps. We must create meaning individually. This is a condition which anyone would sensibly turn away from – and the arts in the main have. But they should not. They should tackle it. This failure to address the most pressing and profound propositions put forward by contemporary science has, I believe, led the humanities into the backwaters of popular culture, structuralism and of art referring only to art – not to life, that being too difficult and too scary. There are exceptions but I believe I am right in this. It has also led the arts into obscurantism whereas the sciences have made huge efforts to be clear in communication. So if one is not going to engage then one will be left as a wallflower – the dance going on with those willing to get on their feet and attempt the new steps
But now I sense a change and the arts are stepping up to the mark. Steven Pinker is now behind the times in his assessment of this. From where I operate I do not sense a danger of submersion of the humanities by science, rather now an admittedly belated coming together. The evidence seems clear – look at the new MA course in art and science now running very successfully at Central St. Martins. Look at websites like ‘the Beautiful Brain’. Look at the CV’s of all the artists represented in the GV Art and Mind photograph and the current projects they are involved in. Look at the art/science gallery in Dublin, now up and running, to be followed shortly to a major opening in London of a similar showcase. Look at the work of Kings College in this area. It is also significant that there has even been a major article in the Observer, by the minister for universities, David Willets, arguing very strongly the case for strengthening the humanities in the education system. (Amazing – if one is looking for philistines take a peep into the cabinet office).
And taking a step or two back what I see is a more and more united front, exploring the nature of existence from the objective and the subjective experience, and a coming together more and more in collaborations of increasing validity. And it is neuroscience, now coming under fierce attack from the likes of Ray Tallis (or at least a straw man version of it), that this exploration of objective and subjective experience can be and is being tackled.
You mention Pinker’s use of ‘superstition’. Personally – as Jonathan Miller said recently – I give as much time thinking about the existence of God as I do to the existence of witches. I think Blake said it well in ‘The Marriage of Heaven Hell’ where, after a preamble, he says . . . ‘thus began the priesthood, Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things. Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast’. I think Blake might even have substituted ‘brain’ for ‘breast’ had he known what we know. And I think he is right on a deeper level. I believe, simplifying dreadfully, that religions have formed from art – the combination of the intuitive and very early discovery of supernormal sign stimuli (Ramachandran’s ‘peak shift’) and the mirror neuron system, coming together to present humans with inflated experiences not available in their natural environment. I am talking about the revelatory religious experience – not the ethics or moral tales – which are in the realms of philosophy and therefore arguable. That said I believe all this, everything in fact, exists within a total, implacable mystery, that which comes clear at the end of the most profound of all questions: ‘why this and not nothing?’
I am a reductionist – although as I understand it this word is only used by those of a mystic or religious turn of mind, those who seem to believe there is ‘something else’ just out of our grasp but which has a personal effect on us. Some kind of spiritual phlogiston. I have never felt that nor seen anything to justify the belief. As I see it placing all the things we know of the world, from our most despised and petty habits to our grandest aspirations, imaginings and genius (all perceived in our own image of course – including our images of something supposedly ‘outside’ us) – all of it resides within our brains/nervous systems. If not, where else? Show me. Certainly we have a symbiotic relation with the material world but that remains utterly meaningless and totally amoral without that which happens in our brain’s manipulation of the sensing of it. In reductionism nothing is lost – it is simply correctly placed.
I am profoundly curious as to the nature of existence, to the nature of my experiences of it and I want to know as much as possible about my feelings, senses and emotions as I do about the material cosmos wherein they happen. But I do not think my feelings have any significance at all to the cosmos. And I am sure the cosmos couldn’t give a toss about my feelings – if it were capable of giving a toss. I sense that Hardy’s ‘imminent will’ and Spinoza’s god/nature gets close enough.
It seems obvious to me that knowledge alters our perception of and emotional reactions to a given phenomenon. We cannot see the stars with the same reactions as someone pre-Galileo (unless we live in ignorance or fantasy). And we cannot think about our perceptions now as if we were looking out of windows in our heads at the material world. You argue that the Buddha, Bach and others did very well thank you without knowledge of our contemporary science. Well – looking at it that way so does my cat. But would Descartes have remained a dualist had he the knowledge that we have? I doubt it. I look with dismay at those who decry the brain sciences, as I look with dismay at someone who declares a deep love of the night sky but has no interest in astronomy. I might fall in love and leave it at that, but my curiosity pushes me on to try to find out about it both in subjective and objective terms. We can surely hold that paradox in the true sense of the word – not either or, but both together.
I believe that the period I have been lucky enough to have been born into is seeing the start a tremendous adventure in the exploration of the nature both of the material world and our perceptions of it, through science, through the humanities and a coming together of the two. I have engaged in that pursuit as far as I am able to. If you will not dance with Professor Pinker, I will perform an ‘excuse me’ – and turn up the Bach.
I hope you have a look at my book, as this subject is the whole theme of it and may be of some interest.
There is so much to talk about – but I had better get on with my latest picture – a complete shambles at present. Why do I think so? What are my motives? How will I choose how to fix it? How will I know it’s right? Why do I bother? Who is the ‘I’ that bothers? All very good questions.
With all best wishes.