“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, August 28, 2004


LI has been trying to catch up with Daedalus. The summer issue is, apparently, full of blasts against Bush. Alas, LI hasn’t figured out how to get back door access to the issue. So we went back to Winter 2003, which we could get access to. Winter 2003 is dominated by liberal interventionism a la Michael Ignatieff. However, there were a few articles that resisted the wish fulfillment fantasy of Harvard intellectuals being showered with flowers as they rode on tanks into various liberated cities. (This is, by the way, a narrative pattern which we associate with the Cold War – but LI wonders about the order of cause and effect here. The narrative surely precedes the Cold war – in fact, it seems to be a narrative to which American intellectuals have been attached at least since the war against the “bandits” in the Phillipines at the turn of the twentieth century. There are plenty of hints of it in the Civil War. To disassociate the narrative from its object is a necessary preliminary step in the analysis of American foreign policy, in LI’s humble opinion. That America is one of the most warlike states in the modern era – which used to be a charge of lefty historians, and has been taken up as a badge of honor of righty historians -- makes it important to understand how Americans see war. We haven’t really seen any work on this that doesn’t immediately try to make a moral point – showing, perhaps, the gravitational pull of the way Americans see war. What we would like is a heuristic/pragmatic analysis jenseits the good war/bad war dichotomy.)

But HOLD YOUR HORSES, as LI’s dear old dad used to say. We are drifting away from the point of this post, as we are wont to do. Here’s the point: Daniel Dennett’s article, On failures of freedom & the fear of science, should be read by all who can get ahold of the thing. It is obviously a lure for the book he subsequently published, Freedom Evolves – and that is rather funny, in a Derridian way, since the article begins its meditation on the fear that science is somehow undermining our autonomy by meditating on those successful lures that cast into doubt the whole notion of rationality upon which autonomy is founded. At least, in the Kantian sense of the term.

Dennett has never been shy about constructing straw men, and we think his construction of Kantian autonomy is one of them – even though it points to a fault that was obvious to the Romantics, and has been obvious to anyone who reads Kant since: the dismissal of emotions from the realm of moral evaluation. A dismissal that makes one masochistic exception – the feeling of humility is accorded a place in Kant’s schema.

Dennett’s straw man, however, is less invalidating than it might be when one considers that the economic construction of rationality is founded on a very imperfect – indeed, absolutely un-empirical – notion of the relation between feeling and calculation.

Dennett, unlike most philosophers, knows how to write. He doesn’t start out with some quasi bad science fiction “thought experiment.” He starts out with Candid Camera:

“Allen Funt was one of the great psychologists of the twentieth century. His informal demonstrations on Candid Camera showed us as much about human psychology and its surprising limitations as the work of any academic psychologist. Here is one of the best (as I recall it many years later): he placed an umbrella stand in a prominent place in a department store and filled it with shiny new golf-cart handles. These were pieces of strong, gleaming stainless-steel tubing, about two-feet long, with a gentle bend in the middle, threaded at one end (to screw into a threaded socket on your golf cart) and with a handsome spherical plastic knob on the opposite end. In other words, about as useless a piece of stainless-steel tubing as you could imagine--unless you happened to own a golf cart missing its handle. He put up a sign. It didn't identify the contents but simply said: "50% off. Today only! $5.95." Some people purchased them, and, when asked why, were quite ready to volunteer one confabulated answer or another. They had no idea what the thing was, but it was a handsome thing, and such a bargain! These people were not brain-damaged or drunk; they were normal adults, our neighbors, ourselves.

We laugh nervously as we peer into the abyss that such a demonstration opens up. We may be smart, but none of us is perfect, and whereas you and I might not fall for the old golf-cart-handle trick, we know for certain that there are variations on this trick that we have fallen for, and no doubt will fall for in the future. When a psychologist demonstrates our imperfect rationality, our susceptibility to being moved in the space of reasons by something other than consciously appreciated reasons, we fear that we aren't free after all. Perhaps we're kidding ourselves. Perhaps our approximation of a perfect Kantian faculty of practical reason falls so far short that our proud self-identification as moral agents is a delusion of grandeur.”

Dennett’s big idea is to reconcile a robust scientific idea of the human animal, with its salts, pumps, evolutionary history, proteins, and unconscious adaptations, to the traditional idea of a self. He doesn’t consider that the idea of a self he is considering, and to some extent caricaturing, arose in the same ideological space as the project of positive science. To consider that, Dennett would have to have recourse to that most yucky of words for an analytically trained philosopher, dialectics. Instead, Dennett uses another pop figure, Tom Wolfe, to make a point about the irrationality of pushing a “traditional” view of the self into discussions of what that self, concretely and collectively, does. Dennett quotes Wolfe objecting to the mass distribution of Ritalin to cure ADD. Or is it ADH? We can never get those pseudo-disorders right. In any case, Dennett compares this to Wolfe coming out whole heartedly against glasses as corruptors of the myopic -- inhibitors of myopic grit. It should be said that Wolfe invites this criticism, for after pointing out, quite correctly, the epidemic of overprescribing, he attributes it to an ethos of irresponsibility. Wolfe has taken a minor and inconsistent property of the social phenomenon as its core and spirit -- which is typical of the ever new journalistic Wolfe. However, Dennett’s criticism of Wolfe is founded on the “scientific” case that Ritalin somehow cures a dopamine imbalance that in itself seems unphilosophically souped up:

“In his recent book Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe deplores the use of Ritalin (methylphenidate) and other methamphetamines to counteract attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. He does this without pausing to consider the mass of evidence that indicates that some children have a readily correctable--evitable--dopamine imbalance in their brains that gives them a handicap in the self-control department just as surely as myopia does:”

To accept this is to accept the idea that the explosion of ADH diagnoses is ‘scientific” – which in turn ignores scientific evidence we have in abundance about faddish diseases and diagnoses, from the vapors in the Victorian era to Attention deficit disorder in our own. In fact, it is to engage in just the kind of scientism that Larry Laudan attacked in 1981 in a much cited article entitled "A Confutation of Convergent Realism." Laudan shows, in that article, that there are many scientific consenses that we no longer believe as “scientific,” like the caloric theory of heat. The reason we don’t believe them does not have to do with their lack of success, but with their gradual lack of congruence with other parts of the evolving scientific world picture. That Dennett thinks the dopamine hypothesis – the diagnosis of ADH – is as solid as the diagnosis of myopia is a hardcore position that even ADH researchers would probably back away from – and that methabetamines “correct” it the way lenses correct myopia is a truly odd position to take. We can explain the latter – but who has explained the former? The explanations for the success of methabetamines sounds similar to stories about the success of lobotomies, or of shock therapy, of earlier period of science.

So – a little dense criticism there. Sorry. But do read the Dennett article.

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