Sunday, January 16, 2011

Can We Repeal Human Nature?

Human nature is the enemy of ideology. Dictators have despaired of imposing their ideology on human beings because human nature has refused to cooperate.

When ideologues fail, they and their acolytes usually respond by blaming human nature, that is, deeply ingrained bourgeois habits of thought.

Committed ideologues do not take responsibility for anything that goes wrong.

For these reasons, communist dictators have always instituted programs of thought reform or brainwashing. Stalin did it; Mao Tsetung perfected it.

To ensure that people thought the right thoughts and felt the right feelings, the Communist party imposed  indoctrination sessions, non-stop propaganda, a national conversation on the correct way to think, and endless bouts of criticism and self-criticism.

Leon Trotsky explained the goal well: “Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.”

Surely, Trotsky took his inspiration from Nietzsche, but he also seems to have known about psychotherapy. He wanted to create a New Socialist Man.

In principle, therapy should be treating those who are mentally ill. Yet, a subgroup of therapists has always rejected the idea that it should help patients to conform to the dictates of bourgeois morality. It has set itself the larger goal of reforming and repealing human nature.

When I was studying psychoanalysis in Paris in the 1970s a significant number of my fellow students had come to the field through Maoism, or some other form of exotic radical thought.

They did not see themselves as physicians or healers. They felt that they would do better to protect their patients against the sickness that they saw running rampant in bourgeois culture.

I was reminded of these efforts to create a new socialist man as I was reading David Brooks’ recent New Yorker article on the advances in cognitive neuroscience. Link here.

If you are wondering where the new research into the human mind is leading, Brooks offers a hint when he suggests that it is going to lead to the creation of new completely self-aware human beings.

Brooks begins with a group that he calls the Composure class. They are wealthy, hip, cool, and transnational. They drink purified bottled water; they eat organic vegetables; they attend serious intellectual conferences; they race bicycles; and they support all the right causes, from Doctors without Borders to the Clinton Global Initiative.

To say that Barack Obama is their guy is to state the obvious.

Naturally, they lend themselves to ridicule and Brooks provides a goodly measure of it. God knows they need it. At times, I thought I was reading Tom Wolfe.

Of course, there’s trouble in this Paradise. These members of the Composure class are shallow and unfulfilled.

As Brooks explains: “The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own. Nor, for all their striving, do they understand the qualities that lead to the highest achievement. Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment. The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. In short, these achievers have a sense that they are shallower than they need to be.”

What is the answer? Brooks seems to believe that it lies in cognitive neuroscience. By which he is suggesting, while not saying it, that the answer lies in more therapy.

The more we can understand why we do what we do the more we will value human connection over competitive striving. Brooks does not use the term, but he is clearly pushing men to get in touch with their feminine sides.

Taking your moral cues from science is a dubious enterprise at best. As David Hume argued, science describes things as they are, not as they ought to be. It may tell us why we did what we did, but it has nothing to say about what we should do in the future.

Worse yet, science can easily be used to mask an ideological agenda. Pretending that your agenda is scientific fact makes it more palatable to the Composure Class.

When Brooks takes someone he names Harold and exposes him to the new neuroscience, Harold comes away from it believing that he is unhappy because he has bourgeois values and works too hard at competitive striving. Thus, he vows to change his ways. It's almost as though he had undergone a bout of bad therapy.

Brooks writes: “Moreover, Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

“After the lecture, Harold joined his family and they went downtown to their favorite gelato shop, where Harold had his life-altering epiphany. He’d spent years struggling to dazzle his Mandarin tutors while excelling in obscure sports, trying (not too successfully) to impress admissions officers with S.A.T. prowess and water-purification work in Zambia, sweating to wow his bosses with not overlong PowerPoints. But maybe the real action was in this deeper layer. After all, the conscious mind chooses what we buy, but the unconscious mind chooses what we like. So resolved, he boldly surveyed the gelato selections before him and confidently chose the cloudberry.”

For my part, I hope that Brooks is offering a parody of Harold’s discovery of the joys of cognitive neuroscience. Personally, I find Harold’s epiphany to be depressing.

From listening to one lecture by a pretentious know-it-all neuroscientist Harold has learned that the meaning of life is to sit back and choose what his unconscious mind tells him that he really likes: the cloudberry gelato.

But, what if he is diabetic? What if he is allergic to cloudberry gelato? What if his child is waiting for him at school?

Your tastes are one element that will help you to make a decision, but you should never abrogate your decision making to the whims of the moment.

Following your bliss was a silly idea when it was first proposed by Joseph Campbell. It doesn’t get any better for being gussied up in the trappings of neuroscience.

What happens when you bliss tells you that you want the Mercedes and your mind tells you that you cannot afford it?

Hasn't our nation been driven to the brink of financial ruin because we felt that we had to follow our bliss, even if we couldn't afford to.

If Harold’s life altering epiphany tells him that his bourgeois existence and the competitive striving it entails are empty, and if he is now going to give up his work ethic, then science is leading him to an abject surrender.

Harold might well have been overwhelmed by the neuroscientist’s notion that the human mind produces fantasy images that are designed to correlate with reality, but this idea is hardly original.

You can find it in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and doubtless in Aristotle too. It is surely a good idea, well worth the intellectual labor, but it can hardly be counted as original.

And the idea that you should allow your unconscious cravings to dictate your choices is vintage Jacques Lacan. To his credit, Lacan presented it as an ethical precept, never as a scientific fact.

By the time Harold hears the neuroscientist’s words, he has already fallen love and married his sweetheart, Erica.

Since Brooks does not give either of them last names, I will offer one. Let’s call them Harold and Erica Humanoid.

Because, they are certainly not human beings. They are the kinds of abstractions you create by following the dictates of the new neuroscience. And they are the kinds of abstractions you turn yourself into if you believe that romantic love is the meaning of life.

It’s not for nothing that people used to say that love is blind. It certainly wears blinders.

Harold and Erica Humanoid are barely social beings. They are autonomous individuals whose attraction to each other, to say nothing of their decisions to live together and to marry, are described as irrational processes.

Cognitive neuroscience, as Brooks presents it, sees humans being manipulated by emotion. Rational decisions are made to seem like an illusion, and freedom does not really enter the picture.

But, if we go back to the beginning, even Adam and Eve were free to choose. The Bible makes the distinction between temptation and free choice. Without such freedom there is no reason to feel responsible for anything. Thus, the new scientifically-determined Man is free from moral responsibility, very much as the Superman was.

I am impressed by the idea that we are now invoking the authority of science to try, yet again, to undo the Enlightenment.

Here is the way Brooks describes falling in love: “Deciding whom to love is not an alien form of decision-making, a romantic interlude in the midst of normal life. Instead, decisions about whom to love are more intense versions of the sorts of decisions we make throughout the course of our existence, from what kind of gelato to order to what career to pursue. Living is an inherently emotional business.”

Let’s offer some correctives here.

Choosing a spouse is not just a more intense version of choosing which gelato to have for dessert. It is vastly more complex, and, for most of human history, it has not given very much pride of place to romantic love.

No one should ever base such a choice on intensity of feeling.

Brooks withstanding, living is not an inherently emotional business. It is an inherently rational business where we use the evidence of our emotions to guide our free choices.

We are surely influenced by appearance and pheromones when choosing a mate. Yet, the world is awash in good looking people exuding pheromones. For all its many wonders cognitive neuroscience cannot really tell us why we choose Harold or Erica over Christopher or Penelope.


Robert Hagedorn said...

Well, they were free to choose. But what was it that they chose? Please do a search: The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

As long as they were free to choose, they were responsible for their choice. I was trying to distinguish between being free to choose and not being free to choose. The new theories seem eliminate the element of free choice by emphasizing the importance of influence. And, as Brooks says, they seem to suggest that one should follow one's bliss and impulses and choose the gelato... which is fine... and feel that the choice is a good one because it is the one that taste dictated.

There is more to choice than taste, and, in some circumstances, the gelato may have been a very bad choice. In either case one is responsible for one's decisions, as a moral agent, regardless of whether or not they follow one's tastes.

Anonymous said...

"The new theories seem eliminate the element of free choice by emphasizing the importance of influence." - Stuart S.

it's just Marxism in new drag.

"Historical Determinism."
"Your parents did it to you."
the search for "Root Causes".
and on and on.

Someone observed you'll rarely hear "liberals" talk of "liberty".

Possibly because that conversation would require consideration of boundary conditions of responsibility and accountablity as well.

The therapy culture
can't recognize
it has a death wish.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Isn't that the most amazing part of it. This new form of self-awareness has no real understanding of what it is up to. I doubt that Brooks himself would make the connection between the way these scientific discoveries are being applied and past efforts to repeal human nature.

Self-awareness has become so personalized that these thinkers fail to put their efforts into an historical context.

Anonymous said...

Stuart -

Brooks still sees the NYT
as his meal ticket.

I'm not convinced he sees much of anything clearly.


Threapy Culture said...

"To ensure that people thought the right thoughts and felt the right feelings, the Communist party imposed indoctrination sessions, non-stop propaganda, a national conversation on the correct way to think, and endless bouts of criticism and self-criticism."

This has been going on in the US ever since WW1, thanks to our government and our corporate businesses hiring of Sigmund Freud's nephew Edward Bernays.

See "The Century of the Self"

puertas metalicas cortafuegos said...

So, I do not actually consider this may have success.