Saturday, February 20, 2010

An Enduring Myth of Modern Thought

Chet Raymo, in Skeptics and True Believers, reveals in passing what may be the central myth of modern thought:

Poetic metaphor ("fire folk") and scientific construct (nuclear-powered spheres of gas) serve useful functions in our lives, but we are confident the latter bears a closer affinity to reality - to whatever is "out there" - than the former. The poetic metaphor conveys a human truth; the scientific construct attempts to remove the human subject from the equation of idea and reality. [p. 12]

The myth is that modern thought has somehow found a way to remove the subject from thought, making it more "objective" and therefore more reliable. The myth is based on a simple misunderstanding but it has had profound consequences. What science really does is discipline the subject of thought within a specified method. The method itself is objective since it does not depend on any particular subject. In other words, how the equation of idea and reality is to be understood by the subject is specified objectively through the scientific method. Rather than dispensing with the subject of thought, as the myth supposes, the actual effect of the advent of the scientific method is to splinter the subject into several distinct types.

The first type includes the genius, a peculiarly modern category of the subject. Classical philosophy in the Aristotelian tradition had a theory concerning the origin of ideas in the mind. Being itself is hylomorphic and the human subject literally absorbs ideas from being; ideas are being as it exists in the mode appropriate to the intellect. Tree is not an idea that wells up in the mind, or is a construct we put on sense impressions that we hope reflects reality; it is the being tree existing in an immaterial mode in our mind. The mind is what it knows, and what it knows is being.

But in the modern understanding of thought, our mind does not know being in its immaterial form of the idea, but ideas that exist independently of being and have no determinate relationship to being (or at least any relationship we can know a priori.) If ideas do not have an origin in being, what is their origin? This is a question modern thought does not and cannot answer, as Kant showed in response to Hume, and gives rise to the man called the genius. The genius is a genie of ideas; he is the creative origin of ideas that are put in human circulation and with which we interrogate reality. Isaac Newton was such a genius. He not only creatively conceived his Three Laws of Motion, but also the ideas of mass, force, and acceleration in which they are cast. The laws of motion and the ideas of mass, force and acceleration mutually define each other and specify a cosmos in the world of ideas, a cosmos we then evaluate through the scientific method. But that evaluation, whatever its outcome, in no way changes the fact that what we know is the Newtonian cosmos in the world of ideas; it doesn't magically transform the foundation of that world into reality itself. All it tells us is that the Newtonian cosmos of ideas "works better for us" than alternatives.

The genius is, of course, a man whom science can never explain, since he is the creative ground of science itself, and the conceptions of science are always posterior to his mind. The unfathomable mystery of Being the classical philosophers located in God, is replaced by the unfathomable mystery of the scientific genius. Being prior to science, the genius is invisible to it, which is why modern thinkers don't account for geniuses like Newton even as they celebrate them. In fact, geniuses are celebrated and then disappear from view altogether in the myth of a science that has magically eliminated the subject. The scientific genius is the true "Prince of the Age", in the words of Walker Percy, because he is the only truly free subject, his freedom found in the creative act of science itself. Everybody else (with the exception of an intermediate type to be described below) exists as a subject of the iron laws of scientific determination. The ancient world had no counterpart to the modern scientific genius, since it considered ideas to be an aspect of being itself, not creations ex nihilo of the human mind.

The subjective complement to the genius, the one who exists prior to science, is the scientific consumer, the one who exists posterior to it. The mass of humanity are scientific consumers, individuals who do not create or perform science, but are expected to respect its results. Unfortunately for them, the scientific worldview has no place for their subjectivity. It has a place for the scientific genius who creates science, and the scientific practitioner who conducts everyday science (a type intermediate between the genius and the consumer; the "retailer" of science), but it has no place for a subjectivity on the far side of science. The only thing that exists on the far side of science are the creative elements of the scientific genius, the forces, masses, accelerations, atoms, neutrons,and black holes in terms of which science is constructed. The only subjectivity they contain are the traces of the subjectivity of the scientific genius who created them.

Since the subjectivity of both the scientific genius and the scientific retailer are hidden behind science as being prior to it, and the subjectivity of the scientific consumer is denied altogether, the myth of the scientific elimination of subjectivity is something that easily takes hold without ever being explicitly advocated, and despite its obvious absurdity. As the dominant myth, thought unselfconsciously starts with it as a premise. Thus, a philosopher of the mind like John Searle can start his work by insisting that philosophy must start with the atomic theory of matter as a non-negotiable premise (see his Mind, A Brief Introduction or The Rediscovery of the Mind), as though such a theory bears no necessary implications concerning the subjectivity, and the mind, that created it.

The classical subject was a unity, not splintered in the manner of the modern subject. This is why Socrates was not embarrassed to converse with anyone in the Agora, be it "those reputed to be wise" (the sophists), the politicians, the craftsmen, or anyone else who might cross his path. In ancient Athens, there was only one type of human subjectivity, and that subjectivity was privileged to be a knower.

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