Posts Tagged ‘culture’

In our last Philosophy Cafe, we invited Dr. Arthur Schafer, head of the Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba, to talk about whether there are moral absolutes. Schafer is a prominent commentator on ethical issues here in Canada, and  recently invited the cognitive/evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker to lecture at Winnipeg’s new Museum of Human Rights.

Always engaging and provocative, Schafer argued that as long as we had enough facts about a situation, we would steer toward the right action, or at least know what the right action is not. He gave the example of a head hunter in Papua New Guinea. Why do they insist on harvesting the soul of the opponents head, each time a new baby is born? Because they have imperfect knowledge about the fact that harvesting souls is impossible, and hence headhunting is redundant (and so terribly politically incorrect). If the headhunter knew this, they would probably (hopefully) stop headhunting. Ethics is defined by how we view harm reduction in each individual situation, based on factual knowledge.

To me this represented the liberal scientific anti-religious view of life quite admirably. We know what is good based on a utilitarian calculus of harm. The key here is that harm is always defined according to modern liberal conceptions of the individual and of rights. We can respect other cultures’ erroneous and harmful views, because they are acting in good faith without the factual correct knowledge that we have. Therefore it becomes very important to educate people in empiricism and facts, which can undermine harmful ways of thinking.

But if good ethics are based on “facts”, how do we come to knowledge of the intrinsic dignity of the individual – of human rights? I suppose that ethical facts may in the end be reduced to a kind of scientism. Do Pinker, Dawkins, and company view the idea of human rights as merely a useful meme that allows for human flourishing? Do people have responsibility and freedom to act morally, or merely the illusion of responsibility for reproductive advantage?

Since I’m currently reading Daniel Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” in which he extols the “meme” interpretation of culture, I couldn’t resist Roger Scruton’s article criticizing the same. Scruton is a close student of the arts and of philosophy and often says what many people lack the courage to articulate (and articulate clearly). In this New Atlantis article, he does it again:

The theory of the “meme” threatens to debunk the whole realm of high culture by making culture into a thing that survives in the human brain by its own efforts, as it were, and which has no more intrinsic significance than any other network of adaptations.

Scruton provides a sustained argument for the idea of a human person and their subjective experiences, and therefore freedom and moral responsibility.

Even if there are units of memetic information propagated from brain to brain, it is not these units that come before the mind in conscious thinking. Memes stand to ideas as genes stand to organisms: if they exist at all (and no evidence has been given by Dawkins or anyone else that they do) then their ceaseless and purposeless reproduction is of no concern to culture. Ideas, by contrast, form part of the conscious network of critical thinking. We assess them for their truth, their validity, their moral propriety, their elegance, completeness, and charm. We take them up and discard them, sometimes in the course of our search for truth and explanation, sometimes in our search for meaning and value. And both activities are essential to us. Although culture isn’t science, it is just as much a conscious activity of the critical mind. Culture — both the high culture of art and music, and the wider culture embodied in a moral and religious tradition — sorts ideas by their intrinsic qualities, helps us to feel at home in the world and to resonate to its personal significance.

Other, perhaps reactionary, critics of the meme concept have similar things to say. One such critique comes from David Bentley Hart, the orthodox theologian who wields the English language like a scimitar (“Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark”). He points out that memes are a useful metaphor in the absence of any clear understanding of how evolutionary theory might explain culture and ideas. The propagation of memes functions more like a virus, rather than a function of human consciousness, will, desire, and rational thought. Atheists like Dennett, therefore, easily sidestep the need to refute the content of ideas, particularly ones he disagrees with, such as God and religious faith.

So far, from my reading of Dennett, liberal values like human rights are arbitrarily seen to be “good” (always in quotation marks) for the simple reason that things like eugenics, radical reductionism (E.O. Wilson and company), and the concept of God, are common sensically bad. There is no argument here, only assertion backed by the scientistic metaphor of memes.

More to come on Dennett and ethics.

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Reading Northrop Frye’s essays on education is an exhilarating experience, because it is the first time I have encountered a Canadian author who can piece together my experience as a liberal arts graduate with what is going on in our schools.

Not that others don’t exist. But some of Frye’s addresses to Ontario English teachers from the 50s and 80s would be unthinkable today (at least in my experience), because they assume an interest or an understanding of bigger questions in political philosophy. I don’t have time to write an essay right now, but I’ll sketch out some of the main themes.

One of the questions that straddles political philosophy and education is whether we can foster a true sense of identity in a world dominated by media.  A decade before Charles Taylor’s Malaise of Modernity (1992), Frye discussed the fundamental challenge facing our society today and the role literature plays in healing the rift.

More and more, he says, we experience the world in a fragmented way (this was 1981). Characteristic of the arts of phantasmagoria, as he calls them, is that they can only stimulate a passive mind, and do not build up habits of learning.

This disorientation leaves us with an anxiety about ourselves – about the possibility of a continuous identity over time. Constant distraction and amusement leads us away from the “why?” questions of life, but we still feel a strong need for fulfillment as individuals. We start to see ourselves as distanced from society, as alienated individuals with no identity.

Seeing yourself as separate from society is a fallacy, argues Frye.   Along with Charles Taylor, he views the individual as a  fundamentally social animal. Only in community do we fulfill our deepest needs, even while we struggle to maintain our freedom:

the central need of our time is the sense of wholeness of vision, the sense of community out of which all individuality grows. (“Education and the Rejection of Reality, 1971, p. 96 in On Education)

The constant rallying cry to educate the “whole child,” and be “child-centred” plays into the false dichotomy that students can have a meaningful identity apart from the community in which they live.

Under this weight of disorientation, the desire to keep things “relevant” for students only exacerbates the situation.

“We begin by trying to relate social phenomena to ourselves, but end by partitioning ourselves among the phenomena.”(16)

To be clear, Frye is saying an emphatic “no” to direct instruction, and believes that the the good teacher is a Socratic one, who explores new realms of thinking undogmatically:

“The teacher’s function is to help create the structure of the subject in the student’s mind. That is why it is the teacher who asks most of the questions and not the student. The student already knows a great deal more than he realizes he knows. But this greater knowledge is concealed from him, partly by the fact that it is unstructured, lying around in bits and pieces, and partly by certain repressions operating in his mind. All around him is a world of advertising, propaganda, brainwashing, casual conversation with all its prejudices, news with all its slants, everything conspiring to say to him: “it’s all you can do just to take things in; if you try to put things together you’ll probably go nuts even if you succeed; let it go. If you go on you’ll become different from other people, and you’re not smart enough to get away with that. This is not a natural state of mind, which is why so many students are at their keenest when still children, before the full force of social conditioning makes itself felt. (13)

Ultimately the only way back to a consistent identity is through a consistent practice or habit and through a particular tradition. This entirely heretical view – that we should have some common culture –  is striking to our ears:

“I suggest that the literary teacher’s role is to stand out in the current drifting towards conformity and work his way upstream, like the fisherman in Yeat’s Tower, towards the headwaters of his cultural tradition.” (17)

In this way, through Socratic education, and maintaining an ironic distance to conformity with one’s culture, one can put the pieces of reality together again and make sense of our world. This is a deeply personal endeavor, and it is the aim of all liberal arts education.

And finally, as a counter-measure to passive and fragmenting experiences, Frye says students need to pursue the active and creative habit of reading:

“The act of reading as a continuous act of judgment is the key to equality, and the key to freedom. Its purpose is the maintaining of the consistent consciousness which is the basis of human freedom and of human dignity.” (100)

What is at stake here is nothing less than our view of ourselves as human subjects, rather than passive objects, as creative members of society, rather than mechanical conformists. This view requires an exposition of our highest ambitions – love, justice, beauty, and wholeness:

… the arts have something to teach beyond themselves, a way of seeing and hearing that nothing else can give, a way of living in society in which the imagination takes its proper central place. Just as the sciences show us the physical world of nature, so the arts show us the human world that man is trying to build out of nature. And, without moralizing, the arts gradually lead us to separate the vision of the world we want to live in from the world that we hate and reject, the ideals of beauty from the horrors portrayed by art when it is in the mood we call ironic. All genuine art leads up to this separation, and that is why it is an educating force.  44

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