Friday, May 2, 2014

An Echo, Not a Thought

Yes, we live in the age of neuroscience. We have overcome religious superstition to the point that the god of Reason rules.

And yet, when our psycho-professionals are asked to explain human motivation and intentions they invariably refer to a pagan myth. In particular, Ovid’s myth of Narcissus.

Narcissism has become the go-to explanation for all of human psychology.

Terms like pathological narcissism and malignant narcissism trip off of the tongues of psycho-scientists when they want to offer a “scientific” explanation of psychopathology. At times, they even stoop to mention normal narcissism, so that those who love themselves do not feel too badly about it.

Narcissus became a mythic hero by turning away from romance and falling in love with his image, as reflected in a pool.  Ovid's story counts as a cautionary tale, in part for those who are too full of themselves, in part for those who reject intercourse with other human beings, in part for those who have an excessively high, but barely grounded opinion of themselves, in part for those who are captivated by their own beauty.

Then again, the myth may be telling us that young men should not become overly preoccupied with their beauty. Not because it draws them out of the world, but because such beauty should remain the province of women.

For those who live in a mythic world, narcissism serves as an accurate description of those who have built their self-esteem on air. It helps us to understand what happens when someone decides that he or she is the ultimate judge of his or her beauty of worth.

Narcissism describes people who have detached from social intercourse and commerce. Whatever we call it, it is not a good thing.

The more you are absorbed in how you look to yourself the less you will be worrying about how you look to others. If so, the common injunction not to be judgmental derives from a narcissistic belief that you and you alone can be the ultimate judge of how you look to others.

It doesn’t make very much sense, but, then again, what does?

Of course, narcissism creates problems. Those who fall in love with their beauteous images will not know how to deal with whatever reactions their image elicits in other people.  A young woman dresses up like a vamp and takes grievous offense when certain men look at her as though she is a vamp.

Were you to engage her in conversation she would tell you that she is not dressing up for them. She is dressing up to express her creativity. No one has a right to judge her for as much.

A young man will go for a job interview dressed in cut-off jeans and a dirty sweatshirt. When a parent or friend recommends that he dress more appropriately, he will announce that it is fine if he does not get the job. He does not want to work for someone who is hung up on appearances.

As you know, Narcissus drowns in his image, only to be transformed into a flower. In today’s parlance, he ends up flourishing.

And then there is Echo, the spurned lover of Narcissus.

According to Ovid, she was a garrulous nymph until she was cursed by the goddess Hera. The terms of the curse were that she could only echo the last words of what other people were saying. 

You might say that she was a psychotherapist before there were any psychotherapists, but, at the least, Echo represents the vocal and aural sides of narcissism. By that I mean that she was cursed to be incapable of holding a conversation.

Echo could not offer any thought of her own. She merely repeated what others said, or at least, their last words.

Consider the following: today's young people are known for their narcissism. They are known for being so full of themselves and so confident in their exceptional powers that they are incapable of handling the least bit of criticism, to say nothing of a less than perfect grade.

But, they have also developed the unfortunate habit of echoing the opinions of their teachers. They do not know how to think freely. They do not know how to discuss different ideas. They do not know how to evaluate the evidence. They seek out the most politically correct and academically acceptable opinions and echo them.

Peter Wood opened a recent essay by pointing out that in the bad old days college students suffered from sartorial conformity syndrome. I am old enough to remember the days when male students went to class wearing suits and ties.

Now, students are less conformist in their attire, but they are completely conformist in their opinions. In fact, they all think exactly the same thing.

Wood explains the situation at Bowdoin College:

What we found was conformity that was more than jeans deep. Students at Bowdoin agree with one another with a zeal that can seem to an outsider almost pathological. On many topics--racial preferences, sustainability, gay marriage, world citizenship, patriarchy, harassment, sexual freedom--there is room on campus for only one opinion. The very few who have broken this unstated rule have been quickly cut down to size. Bowdoin, for example, recently found a pretext to terminate a couple who had served quietly for nearly a decade as advisors to an evangelical Christian group. They broke no rules and occasioned no complaints, but Bowdoin just couldn't bear the idea that people in a minor position of authority might hold opinions on homosexuality that diverged from the campus orthodoxy. They were presented with an "agreement" that they could not sign without violating their faith, and on that basis, the college dismissed them.

Today’s students are not just in love with their mirror images. They are in love with their own ideas. They do not know how to converse with anyone who thinks differently.

Once today’s college students elevate an opinion to the status of dogma, they will no longer discuss the matter. They set their minds to silencing anyone who disagrees.

If the free exchange of ideas, as Justice Holmes wrote, is designed to facilitate the discovery of the truth, then students and non-students who close their minds to different opinions and who cannot even engage with ideas that do not feel like echoes of their own thoughts will remain alienated from the truth.


Ares Olympus said...

I couldn't make head nor tail of this essay. It seemed like someone grabbed a broom on a windy day and started sweeping, and leaves and dust flew around a while, but if you try to reach for something solid, there's nothing there.

It's probably just me. I accept the important point - things are not right, religion has been downcast into the past, science has been elevated into religion, and we're all confused by a religion that has no moral code greater than I create my own reality.

Ares Olympus said...

On the claim that college students are apparent passive receptacle for pseudoscientific ideas, I just can't see how things were ever any different?

I'll take E.F. Schumacher's advice on individual maturity and skepticism with scientism disguised as science, and reductive science disguised as the whole truth. But how do we teach all of this? Learning how to take tests won't make people curious and look past the narratives, and if you do look, you'd better be ready for a lifetime of not knowing and that uncertainty real science brings.

Schumacher notes that within philosophy there is no field in more disarray than ethics. He argues that this is because most ethical debate sidesteps any "prior clarification of the purpose of human life on the earth." Schumacher believes that ethics is the study of divergent problems; which require transcendence by the individual, not a new type of ethics to be adopted by all.

He argues that there is an increasing recognition among individuals that many solutions to human problems must be made by individuals not by society, and cannot be solved by political solutions that rearrange the system. For Schumacher, the "modern attempt to live without religion has failed."

He says that the tasks of an individual can be summed up as follows:
1.Learn from society and tradition.
2.Interiorize this knowledge, learn to think for yourself and become self-directed.
3.Grow beyond the narrow concerns of the ego.

Man, he says, in the larger sense must learn again to subordinate the sciences of manipulation to the sciences of wisdom; a theme he further develops in his book Small is Beautiful.

Schumacher was very much in favour of the scientific spirit; but felt that the dominant methodology within science, which he called materialistic scientism was flawed; and stood in the way of achieving knowledge in any other arena than inanimate nature. Schumacher believed that this flaw originated in the writings of Descartes and Francis Bacon, when modern science was first established.

He makes a distinction between the descriptive and instructional sciences. According to Schumacher the descriptive sciences are primarily concerned with what can be seen or otherwise experienced, e.g. botany and sociology, while the instructional sciences are concerned with how certain systems work and can be manipulated to produce certain results, e.g. biology and chemistry. Instructional science is primarily based on evidence gained from experimentation.

Materialistic scientism is based on the methodology of the instructional sciences, which developed to study and experiment with inanimate matter. According to Schumacher many philosophers of science fail to recognize the difference between descriptive and instructional science; or ascribe this difference to stages in the evolution of a specific science; which for these philosophers means that the instructional sciences are seen as being the most advanced variety of science.

He is particularly offended by the view that instructional science is the most advanced form of science; because, for Schumacher, it is the study of the low hanging fruit of inanimate matter, or less metaphorically the study of the lowest and least complex level of being. As Schumacher sees it, knowledge gained about the higher levels of being, while far harder to get and far less certain, is all the more valuable.

He argues that applying the standards and procedures of instructional science to descriptive sciences is erroneous, because in the descriptive fields it is simply not possible to use the experimental techniques of instructional sciences. Experimentation is a very effective methodology when dealing with inanimate matter; but applying it to the living world is liable to destroy or damage living things and systems, and is therefore inappropriate.