Richard Dawkins’ Inconsistent Reliance On Pragmatism

A very popular video on YouTube featuring Richard Dawkins is titled ‘Science Works, Bitches.’ It periodically makes the rounds on social media; as it does, Dawkins acolytes–in the video and on social media–applaud him as he ‘smacks down’ a questioner who inquires into the ‘justification’ for the scientific method. (A familiar enough question; for instance, science relies on induction, but the justification for induction is that it has worked in the past, which is itself an inductive argument, so how do you break out of this circle, without relying on some kind of ‘faith’?) Dawkins’ response is ‘It works, bitches!’ Science’s claim to rationality rests on its proven track record–going to the moon, curing disease etc.; this is an entirely pragmatic claim with which I’m in total agreement. The success of inductive claims is part of our understanding and definition of rationality; rationality does not exist independent of our practices; they define it.

Still, the provision of this answer also reveals Dawkins’ utter dishonesty when it comes to the matter of his sustained attacks on religion over the years. For the open-mindedness and the acknowledgment of the primacy of practice that is on display in this answer is nowhere visible in his attitude toward religion.

Dawkins is entirely correct in noting that science is superior to religion when it comes to the business of solving certain kinds of problems. You want to make things fly; you rely on science. You want to go to the moon; you rely on science. You want to cure cancer; you rely on science. Rely on religion for any of these things and you will fail miserably. But Dawkins will be simply unwilling to accept as an answer from a religious person that the justification for his or her faith is that ‘it works’ when it comes to providing a ‘solution’ for a ‘problem’ that is not of the kind specified above. At those moments, Dawkins will demand a kind of ‘rational’ answer that he is himself unwilling to–and indeed, cannot–provide for science.

Consider a religious person who when asked to ‘justify’ faith, responds ‘It works for me when it comes to achieving the end or the outcome of making me happy [or more contented, more accepting of my fate, reconciling myself to the death of loved ones or my own death; the list goes on.]’ Dawkins’ response to this would be that this is a pathetic delusional comfort, that this is based on fairy tales and poppycock. Here too, Dawkins would demand that the religious person accept scientific answers to these questions and scientific resolutions of these ‘problems.’ Here, Dawkins would be unable to accept the pragmatic nature of the religious person’s answer that faith ‘works’ for them. Here, Dawkins would demand a ‘justified, rational, grounded in evidence’ answer; that is, an imposition of standards that he is unwilling to place on the foundations of scientific reasoning.

As I noted above, pragmatism is the best justification for science and the scientific method; science works best to achieve particular ends. Dawkins is entirely right to note that religion cannot answer the kinds of questions or solve the kinds of problems science can; he should be prepared to admit the possibility that there are questions to which religion offers answers that ‘work’ for its adherents–in preference to other alternatives. Pragmatism demands we accept this answer too; you can’t lean on pragmatism to defend science, and then abandon it in your attacks on religion. That’s scientism. Which is a load of poppycock.

Irène Nèmirovsky On The Failure To Recognize Failure

In The Fires of Autumn (Vintage International, New York, 2015, p. 186) Irène Nèmirovsky writes:

Mankind can only easily get used to happiness and success. When it comes to failure, human nature puts up insurmountable barriers of hope. The sense of despair has to remove those barriers one by one, and only then does penetrate to the heart of man who gradually recognizes the enemy, calls it by name, and is horrified.

Indeed; so easy is it to get used to happiness and success that that pair of supposedly elusive and desirable entities can rapidly lose their allure once they are in our possession. We may even tire of them, find them oppressive, and seek relief in some kind of novelty, some kind of deviation. (Freud quotes Goethe in Civilization and its Discontents as noting that ““nothing is so hard to bear as a train of happy days.”) As for despair, we are, after all, the creatures who can “bear almost any how” so long as we have “a why to live.” As Nèmirovsky notes, such a “why,” a hope, is sought by us almost instinctively; we seek to make sense of, ascribe meaning to, our misfortunes; we seek to make them explainable and comprehensible; we are reluctant to admit that the end of the road has been reached, that the rope has run out. Such maneuvers can indeed make our potential despair bearable; for instance, we may assign some reason, some cause, some purpose, to seeming disasters, and thus decorate our misfortune to make its appearance more palatable. Its true dimensions may remain hidden to us; we are, as existentialist philosophy realizes, meaning-creating and meaning-assigning creatures; true despair only becomes possible when we realize the absurdity of our situation in this world. Such endless evasion is not to be scorned; it enables tremendously creative and productive moves on our part. Poetry and religion and philosophy issue forth. The oft-told tales of returns from the brink of the abyss–of whatever kind, mental or physical–reassure us that sustenance provided by hope is not illusory, that it ‘works.’

Sometimes hope falters, unable to withstand the assaults of despair; the walls crumble, and our last ramparts are overrun. We are horrified by what awaits us, by the true dimensions of the pickle we find ourselves in. What then? Nèmirovsky leaves out our responses to this state of horror; but here too, we do not and cannot dwell too long. This recognition of the actual dimensions of our failure, our misfortune, is all too soon, I suspect, the spur for further discovery of hope. Even in this pitch-black chamber, we start to recognize forms and shapes by which we can begin to navigate and make our way about. Our missteps and our fumbles suggest to us that we are deluded, but we ignore these signals. This is not our resting place; we move on. Optimism begins where we have allowed pessimism its rightful place, allowed it its time in the sun.

Nèmirovsky is not describing a terminus, I think, but rather, the valley, in a series of troughs and peaks.


Mankind as Deluded Sisyphus

As the apocalypse closes in again on humanity in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Joshua, who has been ‘chosen’ to ‘escape’ into space, leaving this world behind, wonders about the cyclical nature of human history:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was  missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they?–this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness. [pp. 285]

These reflections on mankind’s supposed propensity for self-destruction indict it of a particular–and peculiar–failing: a lack of self-knowledge, a misguided or deluded Sisypheanism (which I noted a while ago in the context of personal quests for ‘self-improvement.’) To wit, the achievement of a previously desired state is not enough; a regression–to the bottom–is undertaken; the climb to the ‘top’ begins again; the pleasure of ascending through the ‘lower stages’ is re-experienced; and this novelty, this rapid transience, is all the reward sought or desired. The desired state, the supposed end point, is merely used as marker–it is never to be attained, only the pleasure of the movement toward it is sought.

The nature of the recurrence–the rise, the fall, the rise, the fall again–in mankind’s history, as depicted in Miller’s science-fiction classic, suggests that mankind prefers the anticipatory pleasures of hoping for unavailable light in the ‘wretched darkness’ to learning how to reconcile itself to the illumination of the brightly lit day. The ‘richness and power and beauty’ of this ‘garden of pleasure’ – the world constructed with knowledge and technique and painfully acquired wisdom acts as a disincentive for inquiry, as a retardant on the ‘yearning’, the movement to ‘perfection.’ Thus the destruction, so that the seeking, and its pleasures, may be re-experienced.

Here then, the inevitability of the recurrence finds its grounding in the nature of man, not in the workings of the cosmos. Man is not subject to the cycles of the Eternal Recurrence because such are the cosmologies he confronts, but rather it is because he is the kind of creature who will make of his world a cyclical one, in which he can find his most coveted pleasures in the form he desires. The darkness returns again and again because man brings it back, finding in its enveloping folds a space for his desires not afforded him elsewhere.

The Pleasures of “Emotional Difficulties”

In his review of several exhibitions showcasing the work of Félix Vallotton, Julian Bell writes:

Vallotton is not so much an autobiographical artist as an artist who coolly and procedurally recognizes that his own emotional difficulties might supply him with viable imaginative material.

Vallotton wouldn’t be the first or last artist to recognize this, of course. Writers are among the most notorious exploiters of their autobiographies as source material for their works. So much so indeed, that many a writer has to strenuously object to critical assessments of their work that insist on viewing it as mere revisitation of their life’s previous narratives.

There is another kind of artist who draws on his “own emotional difficulties” to “supply him with viable imaginative material”: the neurotic.  Here, the afflicted soul, familiar–at unconscious, subconscious and conscious levels–of the many traumas and crises that have thus far impinged on his life, uses them to construct all manner of fantasy, again, at varying levels of availability to his conscious self. There are daydreams aplenty, many revisitations of conflict, and lastly, and most interestingly of all, the construction of an elaborate mythology around daily life, the events of which acquire a distinctive hue because of their coloring by these repressed and available memories.

The neurotic, or the depressive, can thus become a tragic hero of sorts–to himself. His past now has a value all its own; it is that which has made his present dramatic and invested it with a poignant quality. He can now conceive of himself as a traveler through a landscape of trial and tribulation, bravely weathering the many storms it sends crashing down on him. He carries a heavier burden than most, he tells himself; his steps are slow and measured in recognition of this crushing load. Sometimes he is Sisyphus, sometimes a composite mythical figure constructed from heroes and saints alike.

There is thus value in this kind of self-conception, this kind of self-portrait. The afflicted life is dramatic and heroic; the resolved and cured life not so much. Small wonder then, that when lovers urge their neurotic partners to get help, to seek palliation and cure, so as to bring relief to their troubled relationship, the neurotic resists. His afflictions, which torment him so, are what make his life not humdrum. They are what render him unique and set him apart from the boring, teeming masses.

The neurotic is aided in his endeavors by the artist. Novelists devote great works to the forensic examination of flawed characters, carefully dissecting, and yet bringing to life, the tormented and the tortured. Artists graphically depict the sufferings of the damned. Those in pain are the subjects of works of art. The neurotic sees his life, this limited span of time here on this benighted earth, as his canvas, his blank page. The materials with which it these can best be drawn and written and brought to life are at hand: his past life, his troubles.

Who needs a cure when an illness can give so much meaning to an otherwise ephemeral and transient life?

Unmasking our Self-Deception about Self-Improvement

In reviewing the incongruous medley of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and two new translations of Dante‘s classic (by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang), Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology. (‘Dante: The Most Vivid VersionNew York Review of Books, 24 October 2013).

In my post on the ‘Sisyphus of sorts’ a couple of days ago, I had sought to provide an unmasking of projects of self-improvement, which all too many of us find ourselves engaged in with little hope–based on their persistent failure–of bringing them to completion. (I hesitate to say ‘similar unmasking’ for fear of being viewed as comparing my attempt to Dante’s!) That post–hopefully!–speaks for itself, but let me, at the risk of sounding excessively pompous, just embellish its claims just a bit.

Repeated, and failed, attempts at self-improvement and self-help display a familiar pattern: the old behavior is discarded in a burst of moralistic enthusiasm, the old lifestyle is deprecated and disdained, and enthusiastic reports are provided on the glories and attractions of the new path chosen. There is relief at a millstone discarded and this palpable emotion is loudly and visibly noted.

Yet, through all this, all too often, the attractions of the older way of being, which indeed, had made it such a persistently adopted mode of behavior, are not paid their due. We fail to recognize that that path had its own role to play in the forms of life we lived; we fail to note the deep habits it formed; no clean surgical excision of it from our selves has been effected. And then, there is the simple matter of the ‘sophomore effect’; the rapid gains visible in the early days of our new-found virtuous life are quickly replaced by the far more mundane, glacial increments of the life that comes about when such novel behavior has become commonplace.

We remain impatient; we miss the easy pleasures of the older way of being, which suddenly, now seems more attractive than ever. So we lapse. But now we encounter again its pathologies. And so we resolve to change again.

The self-deception here is that we do not seek the publicly avowed goal of self-improvement, but merely the movement away from a kind of stagnation, a state of wallowing. When we encounter yet another one, as is inevitable, for life cannot give us endless novelty, we seek out our ‘fall’ again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, quiescent states.

Graham Greene on Happiness

In a post last year on the subject of happiness, I had cited Freud and Burke–the founders of psychoanalysis and political conservatism, respectively. Their views of happiness spoke of the seemingly necessarily transitory nature of the sensation we term happiness–Freud even enlists Goethe to help make this claim–that happiness was marked by brief, fleeting intensity, by its ‘novelty and contrast’.

Today, for a slightly different perspective, I’m going to enlist Graham Greene, a member of that class of humans with perhaps exceptional insight into the human condition, the novelist. Greene always was, in his autobiographical writing, very frank about his depression, psychoanalytic treatments, and the influence these had on his writing and in the case of psychoanalysis, his understanding of the supposed relationship of the unconscious to creativity; his views on happiness should be of interest here.

During the course of a series of interviews conducted by Marie Françoise-Allan, Greene, in speaking of his childhood says:

[H]appiness is repetitious, while pain is marked by crises that which sear the memory. Happiness survives only in the odd incident. Being happy is almost like making love: One attains a state of blissful ‘nothing’–one does not remember, one remembers only happiness, a state of contentment.

This is quite a mixed bag. First, happiness is described as ‘repetitious’–perhaps it is a mental state which recurs or is more temporally extended than pain, which is described in terms similar to the ones that Freud and Burke used to describe happiness. Here, Greene seems to suggest that happiness is a mental state with continuity, one which acquires its distinctive quality because of its ‘sameness’, its invariance. But then, happiness is described as surviving only in ‘the odd incident’, a return to the episodic state described by Freud and Burke. And lastly happiness is compared to the orgiastic pleasures of ‘making love’, a ‘blissful nothing’ which is perhaps supposed to be like the Buddhist nirvana, but with very few particular features to it, so much so that the subject remembers no details but just the sensation (or lack of it). Happiness is now analogized to a ‘petite mort‘ a little dying, a little flirtation with a state of nothingness. (It should be clear that in these descriptions Greene is taking the side of the philosophical inquiry into happiness that suggests it is a psychological term like ‘melancholia’ as opposed to that which would consider it a ‘value term, roughly synonymous with well-being or flourishing’ (Dan Haybron, Stanford Encyclopedia, ‘Happiness‘).)

This does not amount to very coherent view of happiness. Perhaps it is because of Greene is answering a series of questions about the happiness of childhood, and so his memories of that time have suffered the attrition of memory. Indeed, his interlocutor makes a great deal of this loss of memory in this session, remarking on how Greene’s childhood does not play a particularly prominent role in his autobiographies. And Greene’s quickness in ending his answer with a brief ‘We were happy’ also seems to suggest a desire to move on, almost as if the memories of that happiness were too painful to bear. So Greene might have unwittingly left us with at least one more possible facet of this ever elusive phenomenon: happiness might be that sensation, which when remembered later, produces a state distinctly unlike it, a mixture of regret, melancholia, and the fear that that sensation will not be experienced again.

Excerpt from: Marie Françoise-Allan, The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1983.

Freud, Goethe and Burke on Happiness, Pleasure, and Satiation

Defining ‘happiness’ is hard; how are we to know what to do to be happy, if we don’t have a good handle on what happiness is? And thus, the persistent efforts through the ages, of philosophical minds–and more recently, grimly determined social scientists and psychologists alike–to provide some delineation of the concept. (Even David Brooks thinks he has something to contribute to this discussion and thus, often deigns to provide–from his Op-Ed perch–disquisitions on moral psychology.)

One recurring suspicion has been that happiness might not be all it’s cracked up to be; that happiness may only be transient, not a sustainable state, that to seek recurrence of a pleasurable state might be to commit oneself to a foolishly deluded pursuit of rapidly diminishing value, that satiation is likely to result all too soon on the attainment of a pleasurable state, leaving one again, discontent and unhappy. (The phenomenon, noted by many over the years, of how seeking the re-creation of a pleasurable event like a particularly successful vacation or family reunion, never, ever works, is related to this suspicion as are the drug addict’s vain attempts to re-experience the first really great high.)

At the heart of this suspicion is the notion that novelty and contrast play too great a role in our understanding of happiness and pleasure. This has often been articulated, and quite well too.

For instance, in that masterpiece of modern pessimism, Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud notes in Chapter II,

What is called happiness in its narrowest sense comes from the satisfaction——most often instantaneous——of pent-up needs  which have reached great intensity, and by its very nature can only be a transitory experience. When any condition desired by the pleasure-principle is protracted [link added], it results in a feeling only of mild comfort; we are so constituted that we can only intensely enjoy contrasts, much less intensely states in themselves. [footnote 8]

Footnote 8 reads:

Goethe even warns us that ““nothing is so hard to bear as a train of happy days. ““ [Freud then adds: ‘This may be an exaggeration all the same.’]

And of course, Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, in ‘The Difference Between Pain and Pleasure’ famously noted,

[I]t is very evident that pleasure, when it has run its career, sets us down very nearly where it found us. Pleasure of every kind quickly satisfies; and when it is over, we relapse into indifference

So there is resonance, when it comes to talking about happiness and pleasure, between ambitious psychoanalytic speculation which references the insight of the poet–always great diagnosers of the human condition–and philosophical attempts to analyze aesthetic sensibility. (These suggestions show too, that nothing is quite as much a downer as talking about happiness.)

More seriously, what lends these commentaries their particular gravity is that securing novelty and contrast is hard work, requiring constant reinvention, at the end of which awaits, not a serenely quiescent state, but further disappointment. Thus too, the particularly irony of the pursuit of happiness: it marks the beginning of a journey, which is always a return to the state which prompted its commencement.