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Friday, August 17, 2012
Art & Entertainment ... Brain / Mind ... Spirituality ...

The other day, I posted a blog about modern scientific attempts to debunk the idea of God with attempts to explain everything — absolutely every darn thing that might possibly exist — through a self- selection process involving random trial and errors. I explained my own problems with this, pointing to a possible reduction ad absurdum, the same absurdity that scientists accuse the “God theory” of having.

But the world of science is attacking the notion of God on another front . . . and that is “the quiet voice deep within”, i.e. the personal experience that makes one think that there is “something more” than we know in the immediate sense. This is also called “the spiritual experience” or a “religious experience”, and it seems to be quite universal. People of all sorts from many different lands and cultures seem to report similar experiences. Evidence, some might say, that there must be a God; even though humans still fight idiotic wars over what the nature of this God must be.

But the brain scientists are fighting back, performing studies and publishing papers on why our brains make us have such experiences and interpret them as “transcendent”. They have come up with a variety of factors and explanations, including specific genes, evolutionary logic, neurotransmitters, and synaptic structures.

The religious institutions are not exactly making a vigorous effort to confront this movement, although there are a few good spokespeople who yet defend the potential of divine reality despite all the “neuroscientific implications”. One such person is Rev. Dr. Alasdair Coles, a neuroscientist himself and an ordained priest in the Church of England. On the part of those who don’t maintain religious affiliations but still consider themselves “spiritual”, good old Ken Wilber has also taken up the cause against raging neuroscience. According to Wilber,

“Conventional science has correctly dismantled the pre-rational myths but it goes too far in dismantling the trans-rational. The mythic and magic approaches tend to be pre-rational and pre-verbal, but the meditative or contemplative practices tend to be trans-rational.”

Way to go, Ken! Finally saying something useful!

It turns out that neuroscience is also going after the inner muse of the artist. And it looks like someone is fighting back! Here is a recent article in The New Republic reviewing three recent books putting art in the same box with religion, as just another scientific effect of the mind-brain-world interaction. Author Adam Kirsch bravely takes on these three heavy scientific tomes, concluding that

Today’s Darwinists treat the aesthetic as if it were a collection of preferences and practices, each of which can be explained as an adaptation. But the preferences and the practices are secondary, made possible only by the fact that the aesthetic itself is a distinct dimension of human experience—not the by-product of something more fundamental, but itself fundamental.

Ah yes, art and the experience of art is fundamental, in and of itself!!! To continue:

The problem . .. is that there is not the slightest plausibility to the claim that art renders us more “organized” or more “fit,” and there is considerable evidence to the contrary. To prove that art is directly adaptive, one would have to show that people who write symphonies or listen to symphonies have more children than people who do not. Or else one might devise a neurological test to show that an hour of Wagner renders your reflexes a millisecond or two quicker. If both these ideas are preposterous on their face, it is because our actual experience of art points so far from these conclusions.

And finally:

The “usefulness” of this [artistic] way of being is what must be explained, if there is to be a plausible Darwinian aesthetics. Even if there were, it is hard to see how it would change the way we experience art, any more than knowing the mechanics of the eye makes a difference to the avidity of our sight.

I love it! Neuroscience and evolutionary logic can explain THAT we feel, i.e. that the brain is doing something specific when we report having an inner feeling or emotional state. But as to why this assemblage of carbon and oxygen and a few other elements that makes up our bodies “feels” things like art at all . . . Sure, as machines, we can acknowledge and interpret signals and patterns that identify “art”. We can train a computer with a camera to do the same. We can point the camera at a Van Gogh or take it to an opera performance and the screen flashes “art”. We point it at the inside of a Wal Mart or at an Interstate freeway, and it flashes “not art”. But why does that “art” have such deep, unpredictable and even mal-adaptive effects on our lives, and not on the computer system?

One could postulate that even if artists often destroy themselves (and thus should be ‘selected out’ by evolution), they make the group as a whole more reproductive and survivable, and thus the tendency for a group to create an occasional artist can be selected and expressed in our genes. But supposedly the idea of “group selection“, of “taking one for the team”, is disfavored in modern evolutionary theory (unless there are direct family ties, whereby cooperative altruism can evolve genetically; given that when you defend your cousin or uncle, you are defending at least some portion of your own genes; even more so for your brother or sister). And even if this theory were accepted, just how does art make non-artists have more and stronger children? Something to do on date night? Something that inspires love and sex?

Hmmm, not impossible . . . but even then . . . could neuroscience explain why art would ‘hit a nerve’ in our emotional life? Could the boffins and their philosopher stooges (like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett) do so without resorting to circular reasoning, i.e. that the “art response gene” is prevalent because it stimulates reproduction? This kind of reasoning is closely related to the reductio ad absurdum that I discussed in my last blog.

I’m not sure that God is art, and that art is Godly and transcendent; not in all cases, anyway. But something about it seems to be mucking up the neuroscientists in their quest to stamp out all traces of the “numinous”. Given that both science and art ultimately tilt in their logic, I’ll take the side of art; at least it freely ADMITS to its illogic (and even celebrates it!).

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:00 pm      

  1. Jim, A couple of things occur to me. One is that, if I read you right here, art does not necessarily have to move from “art” directly to “god”, at least as far as I see it. (It seems to me you are making this jump, altho I may be misreading you here.)

    I don’t know why there can’t be a kind of transitional stage between “knowing” (the rational, say) and some higher, intangible, mode of “knowing” something about the nature of “things”; perhaps a *step* on the way to what Jung called the “unfathomable” that might be called “art”. OR it could be simply a *different* way of seeing the world which would add to the richness of how the world can be seen by humans; science could be ONE way; art another way. (Thinking in terms of this second point—another way of seeing the world—I find myself wondering if animals already see the world of nature in a way humans do not [always?] see it.)

    After all, it seems to me that animals can feel—and it seems clear they can: e.g., the latest video being shown on news and other TV programs of 2 gorilla brothers meeting, recognizing each other, and having a happy reunion that is clearly and definitely evident in every part of their body language. Thus, it seems to me that “feelings” (and perhaps some higher level of “just” feeling) is a step on the way to “knowing”. Why cannot art and its various manifestations (music, what we call “art” as in painting, photography, other various forms of beauty expressed outside one, even the appreciation of the beauty of nature) be a simply one step on the way to the appreciation of the intangible, which then may lead in who knows how many steps to the “unfathomable”? (And, yes, I am saying that “it” all may be a continuum.)

    Secondly, I’m not sure (perhaps I’m misreading) but I *think* you are quoting here (or stating) that artists do not reproduce themselves. Again, I have reread this a few times and still come up with a “WHAT??!” regarding the whole “reproduction of artists” thing. I would point to this evidence when it comes to artists: Yes, many artists *do* not reproduce; yet many artists absolutely DO. All one has to do is look at families say in movies, TV, music. Often the children seem to follow in the footsteps of the parents. Sure, I’m willing to admit that nepotism may be very much at work here; but there has to be more. Otherwise, without the talent that must be inherited in some way, nepotism will only go so far when it comes to making a career in the public when it comes to art these days. (Or so it seems to me.) Children may travel on the coat tails of the parents for a while, but they will not make a really successful career, as so many have done. I point to Norah Jones, Rashida Jones (2 very different “Joneses” from two very different parents) who immediately come to mind in very different careers. Then there are the children of Will and Jada Smith, who the parents obviously are promoting; but who eventually will have to “put up or shut up” as they grow older. Then there are the many children of various “movie stars” who are entering and/or have already long-standing careers in movies and TV. Just a few incidents of children in modern day artistic work; there are many more who seem to be following in their parents footsteps.

    And one last thing: As to “neuroscientists” “mucking up. . . in their quest to stamp out all traces of the ‘numinus’ “: I would not make that so all inclusive. There are at least 3 neuroscientists (or perhaps better said, those who use neuroscience in their work) whose readings I have been following who, for sure, are not *at all* interested in making neuroscience the be all and end of when it comes to answers regarding how much they do not know. But I would admit that there is a certain group who definitely take the approach you indicate. This group seems to be more in the general classification that you discussed previously in your “science [would like to] know it all” blog recently.

    So perhaps, when it comes to the scientific community that is so well known for its hubris—isn’t this more the physicists? (or am I wrong here?) It may be that they are simply the most well known, the most loudly spoken, the ones doing a lot of publishing that are getting media attention. There are at least some other scientists (that is, specifically non-physicists) who are *not* in the category of “we know it all and have all the answers”. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 18, 2012 @ 10:18 am

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