Monday, October 17, 2016

Steven Pinker's Shakespearean Reverie

Psychologist Steven Pinker informs us that Shakespeare was “one of our first and greatest psychologists.” (Via Maggie's Farm)

He is hardly the first to have made the point. He brings up the point in order to allow modern psychology to pad its resume. After all, why would it not be that psychologists are really storytellers, trafficking in fictional constructs that purport to explain human behavior?

Shakespeare dramatized conflicts between fictional characters. One may marvel at his genius, his characters and his stories, but we must keep in mind that his was a fictional world inhabited by fictional beings.

Shakespeare certainly knew the difference. When he bade adieu to the theatre in The Tempest, he had Prospero speak these great lines:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Rather than declaring Shakespeare to be “one of our first and greatest psychologists,” we can as easily say that cognitive psychology, especially in its pretense to provide moral guidance, is really a fiction masquerading as scientific truth. Certainly, the description applies to Freud.

Pinker makes his case by saying that Shakespeare understood that human beings overestimate their intellectual powers, and especially their ability to understand themselves:

In seven words, Shakespeare sums up a good portion of the findings of modern psychology: “most ignorant of what he’s most assured.” A recurring discovery of social and cognitive psychology is that human beings are absurdly overconfident in their own knowledge, wisdom, and rectitude. Everyone thinks that he or she is in the right, and that the people they disagree with are stupid, stubborn, and ignorant. People reliably overestimate their own knowledge, and misjudge their own accuracy at making predictions. A common theme of both Shakespeare and modern social psychology is the human species’ overconfidence.

Shakespeare is saying that “man, proud man” is so arrogant about his mind that he is overly confident about his knowledge. Of course, others have asserted as much. Didn’t Western religion begin when Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thereby becoming like God? Later, Christianity made pride the deadliest of sins and promoted the virtue of humility.

Pinker says humans are overconfident, but overconfident about what?  Are they overconfident in their ability to understand the natural world or to understand their own motives? Surely, Freud, who did not do science, would have agreed on the latter point.

But,perhaps this search for unconscious motives is something of an aberration itself. Normally, human beings are more interested in knowing what to do thanin knowing  why they do what they do.

This differs significantly from their confidence in making predictions. Knowing the present and knowing the future are certainly not the same thing. Knowing what is and knowing what might be are not the same either.

I suspect that Pinker was speaking in shorthand here.

Of course, Pinker is well known today for his prophetic powers. Writing in the Atlantic Joe Fassler describes Pinker’s most recent book, thusly:

In his previous book, The Better Angels of our Nature, Pinker argued that the years since World War II have been an era of unprecedented peace and stability.

One might say that World War II exhausted humanity’s taste for violence for a time, but one might also note that in this era of peace and stability, Mao Zedong and his cohorts produced a massive famine that killed some 35,000,000 people, coupled with other acts of violence that killed tens of millions more. And those were certainly not the only times when humans destroyed other humans en masses.

True enough, highway fatalities have decreased as have shotgun weddings, but war has not ceased. We are now involved in a civilizational conflict between Islam and the West. The Middle East is not a beacon of peace and stability. And displaced Middle Easterners are bringing the war to Europe and America. One does not like to sound overly dour, but the world contains thousands of nuclear weapons pointed this way and that. If you believe that they will never be used, you are far more optimistic than I.

Some like to imagine that atheism and scientific thought have brought about a brave new world of peace and prosperity. Yet, when nations tried to establish a new culture based on atheism they created Communism. No atheist will admit that Communism had anything to do with atheism, but during their short half-life governments based on atheistic Marxist principles excelled only in their ability to destroy.

For Pinker and other new atheists, the ghost of David Hume looms large. One will not understand what Pinker is aiming at if one does not know Hume’s famous dictum: that science is about what IS while ethics are about what SHOULD. The two do not coincide. Knowing what is does not tell you what you should or should not do. True enough, as Hume also said, ethical principles must correlate with natural human tendencies, but these human tendencies cannot, in and of themselves, determine ethical precepts.

Human beings are inclined to engage in reciprocal exchanges, but the human brain is not responsible for the way we apply the rule. It does not dictate whether we should adopt the law of the talion or the Golden Rule. Do unto others as others have done unto you is not the same as: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. I have explained the point in more detail in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.

Our framework established, we can address what Pinker is trying to say in his brief excursus through a text by Shakespeare.

In Measure for Measure, Isabella argues for the life of her brother Claudio… a Venetian who is being judged by substitute ruler Angelo and who is about to be decapitated for having impregnated his fiancée before marriage.

But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur'd;
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.

Pinker says that she is appealing to Angelo’s common sense. She is not. She is showing him what he will look like if he commits such a barbarity. She is appealing to his sense of shame.

The story has a happy ending. Pinker describes and analyzes the scene:

The play reminds us of the ubiquity of puritanical legal codes and barbaric punishments through much of the history of civilization. It’s a reminder that the horrors of the Islamic State are nothing new: our own cultural tradition has had enough of it that it could serve as the backdrop for this famous play. Of course, by the time Measure for Measure was being performed—1604—theatergoers must have perceived decapitation for the offense of fornication as barbaric; that revulsion is the source of the play’s tension, as we sympathize with Isabella’s appeal to Angelo. In this way, the play is propelled by the kind of moral progress I write about. We witness the triumph of nonviolence over violence: Angelo does not, in fact, carry out the harsh sentence.

True enough, certain brutal forms of punishment are prescribed in the Old Testament. But, it is also true that the practice of stoning adulterers was stopped a long time ago when Jesus said:

He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

Western civilization did not rid itself of this barbaric practice because people began to understand its unconscious motives. It did so because a religious teacher, proclaiming himself the Son of God, declared it to be barbaric. Jesus was saying that people should consider the way they would want to be treated before deciding how to treat anyone else. Science did not provide this principle and could not have.

Why did Jesus say what he said? Because he understood that the law of the talion was barbaric and was more likely to produce retaliation and vengeance than it was to produce social harmony.

Pinker is quite right to note that cultural norms cannot be established on the basis of human authority. He writes:

… all human claims to authority are, despite our pretensions to wise leadership, contingent and fleeting. The authority of rulers is insubstantial, our sense of justice fickle and haphazard.

He is saying that the truth value of a proposition or a policy cannot be established just on the fact that a human being says it is true. If so, on whose authority do we accept values, customs and cultural practices?

For my part I see this in pragmatic terms. Some cultures are more successful than others. Some sets of rules and norms work better than others. We judge them by putting them into practice and seeing what works. At their best, lawgivers and teachers observe human behavior and articulate the rules that work. At worst, they believe that their rules and values are the best even if they fail to produce a strong, prosperous and harmonious community.

People follow the rules because they believe in a higher power. The authority of the higher power makes it that the rules apply equally to everyone and that they have not been written to advantage one group or individual over others.

One cannot have a culture without having a uniform set of rules, a uniform set of moral codes and a uniform set of precepts and principles. Everyone needs to accept these and to act accordingly. They cannot be established on the basis of individual insight and self-awareness, because there is no way that each and every individual will arrive at the same insight and self-awareness… to say nothing of the same rules.

Besides, physical punishments, decapitation and stonings are barbaric because they attempt to form a culture on the basis of threats and punishments. As Confucius said, it is better to rely on peoples’ sense of shame. 

Pinker has his own way of seeing how moral codes and cultural norms came into being:

There is the moralist’s perspective: behaviors that cause suffering are acts of pure evil, freely chosen. They are ultimately inexplicable and forever inexcusable. Then, there is the scientist’s perspective. The scientist seeks the cause of behavior. Scientists don’t judge, and they don’t weep; they ask why. Interestingly, the moralist’s perspective aligns with the perspective of the victim: this suffering is needless, inexplicable, avoidable, inexcusable. The scientist’s perspective, on the other hand, aligns with the perspective of the perpetrator: it seeks to rationalize and contextualize evil acts, the better to make sense of them.

As I said, Judeo-Christian religions replace codes based on guilt and punishment with moral principles that rely on an individual sense of shame. And yet, when we incarcerate people for having committed crimes aren’t we inflicting suffering on people. Is prison inexcusable?

Moreover, is Pinker correct to say that scientists ask why? Do they ask why the planets revolve around the sun and not vice versa? Do they ask why gravity exists? A scientist might want to know the formula for the orbit of the planets or the formula for the pull of gravity, but these do not answer the question of why. The latter belongs to the realm of metaphysics, not physics.

Religious texts ask Why? when calamities befall human beings. When a flood wipes out most of humanity, when a conflagration destroys a city, when a plague kills half of Europe… people ask why it happened.

They want to know whether the calamity is meaningful, thus, whether it was God’s way of telling them that they had erred or that they had offended Him or that they had fallen into impiousness. If they can understand why they themselves were deserving of the punishment they can cleanse their souls, mend their ways and prevent it from happening again.

Such reasoning granted human beings far too much power over real world events. Of course, we have gotten beyond all of that, except that we believe that our behavior causes bad weather events and climate change. This allows us to see climate change—which has been happening since time immemorial—as something that we caused and that we can fix… perhaps by sacrificing a goat.

Of course, this search for why must inevitably lead to soul-searching, to confessional literature and to Freudian psychoanalysis.

Human science made a great leap forward when Westerners decided that it was best to dispense with why and to try to understand how and what had really happened. It was better than blaming it on everyone’s sins. Westerners came to believe that  at least some of his knowledge of the natural world could be grasped by lesser minds. Self-awareness did not bring us penicillin.

Those who want to know why, Pinker notes, often use the information as a way to exculpate perpetrators. It is common practice among psychologists who study criminal behavior to concoct narratives that purport to explain the behavior. But, these narratives tend also to exculpate criminals. They induce us to feel empathy for people who do not deserve it. They propose rationalizing crime, not punishing it.

We are not as barbaric as the people of the talion, and we prefer to use shame rather than prison as a way to motivate people to do the right thing. And yet, we have not abolished crime and have not shut down all of the prisons.

You can try, as Confucius said, to produce social harmony by guilt tripping everyone. We cannot produce harmony by having everyone introspect and ask themselves why they want to do what they want to do. We owe the modern form of this recourse to Freud. The Viennese neurologist wanted to replace shame culture with guilt culture. Certainly, he set many people off on an extended guilt trip.

Even Pinker, who is decidedly not a Freudian, seems to believe that we can improve our behavior if we come to understand our motives. One is surprised to see him suggesting that we can best produce social harmony by putting everyone in therapy.


AesopFan said...

Very interesting post.
And educational. On several levels, including vocabulary.

At first I thought Stuart had misspelled "law of the talon" - as in "nature, red in tooth and claw" -- but when he did it twice I looked it up and learned a new word (doesn't happen often these days after 50+ years of serious reading, but always glad to add to my cache).
(Anyone else remember the old Reader's Digest feature about words and definitions?)

Ares Olympus said...

It seems to me the common issue of psychology or literature might be called "perspective taking", the process of stepping back from your own predicament, and see that from the outside.

Like if I tell you your behavior is wrong, your oldest reptilian brain likely to double-down on your bad behavior, rather than submit to an external authority. However if I tell a story of someone else's bad behavior, that defensive position of the ego may be temporarily side-stepped, and a point may be communicated without the ego getting in the way, at least the possibility.

Stuart: Even Pinker, who is decidedly not a Freudian, seems to believe that we can improve our behavior if we come to understand our motives.

I don't know if "motive" is a most helpful way of seeing, but if you have no understanding of your motives, especially the possibility of unconscious motives, like are expressed in instincts, or archetypes, then you really have no free will. You're simply compelled to act by whatever "nature" that your inner nature provide, and rationalize it as necessary to be imposed on the world.

And I think the Jungian psychologists perhaps do better with the idea of archetypes, where you accept human nature, human instincts are expressed through archetypal patterns, and while we're experiencing these patterns the ego can easily associate itself with the archetypes, rather than as someone with free will who is above the archtypes, and still has a choice how to behave.

Jungians also show interest in the old Greek Gods, like Ares for example, the God of war, so when you are expressing aggression, you could be said to be under the influence of Ares, and Jungians would say this older expression of divinity may be helpful because it allows the archetype to have an independent existence of the ego, and in part this is bad, because it could imply we're not responsible for our own actions, but its also good because you can see there's something "not I" that is influencing us, and that we can master a "relationship" with that archetypal force, so we can be aware of it, without allowing it to simply control us.

Anyway, I see the Bard's great plays also show such archetypal forces at work, and surely some Jungian has done an analysis of some of the stories. But whether any given story, or any given interpretation is sufficient, its easy to say probably not.

And going back to Jesus as well, they say Jesus spoke at more than one level, and his parables and stories might have one meaning to the masses, and another more subtle meaning for people who are ready to consider more invisible things than the rule of law, or simple ideas of right and wrong.

Jesus's stories often existed to turn the world up-side-down or inside-out, where the ordinary way of looking at things was completely backwards. And of course that's also why ordinary christians don't really take his words seriously - I mean who turns the other cheek when struck, and how do the meek inherit the earth?

It doesn't make sense. You can rationalize it's about heaven, some other place, but its not clear he meant that at all. He's saying we're all free to choose a path that is not self-interested, and you have free will over your basest personality. You can choose to be something else, and see what the consequences are.

And many early Christians followed that, allowing themselves to be lambs to slaughter, rather than submit to earthly powers, and got themselves literally killed in the process. And yet a great religion arose because of that will to sacrifice, even as sensible followers still are not willing to be so unsensible as Jesus proposed.

All because of stories.