Beauty and Scientism (2/2)
Last week I wrote about objectivity in art and how that position was the norm in rational thinking until the eighteenth century.
In this part, I will try to make my case against some of the modern trends that oppose these traditional views on beauty, how they have evolved since the Enlightenment and are making some misleading claims under the name of science.
Religions have traditionally sided with the objective beauty camp as they have seen beauty as something that exists apart from us created by God.
By adding a third actor to the equation, who is capable of creating beauty, it becomes harder for people of faith to accept subjectivity in beauty. Across different religions connecting God with beauty has always been the case.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.
God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.
Prophet Muhammad (Sahīh Muslim)
This narrative started to change since the eighteenth century with the Enlightenment.
There are two aspects to that change, first is what Nietzsche later described in his idea of ‘God is dead’ he means the decline of religious belief. The second aspect is the rise of belief in the potential of humans to perform without direction from a higher being.
It is no wonder that at that same period of decline of religious beliefs, arguments for subjectivity in beauty started to take place led by Alexander Baumgarten and David Hume.
Post-enlightenment thinking in the late 19th century and early 20th century has inherited many of the Enlightenment ideas and concepts, and in most cases, it magnified them.
We became less interested in seeing intrinsic value in things and measure them only by their usability, to that end we became obsessed with answering all of our questions exclusively by science.
The scientific method has proved its credibility in answering many of our questions in natural science and the thinking went on to replicate this approach in all other fields.
Fields of Humanities started to be seen as of a lesser value in comparison to natural science. It is the Germans who started this distinguishing between Geisteswissenschaften (philosophy, history, philology, linguistics..etc.) and Naturwissenschaften (Natural Science). It was a result of the rapid industrialization and the push for natural sciences to fill the demand in markets.
The threat to humanities is even worse today and is led by many known figures.
folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree
Fortunately, Obama apologized for that statement. It is fine if one can make more money by studying engineering or medicine instead of art and literature, but one should not make the case that it is of a higher value than humanities.
The whole comparison is simply wrong because each one of them deals with a different set of topics and questions.
Science should aim to explain natural phenomena but not the purpose of an individual. Words like ‘Why’ do not have the same meaning in science as in philosophy.
Why in science aims to explain past sequence of events through cause and effect up to the point of asking but in philosophy why is to ask about the purpose of something, Why marriage? Why Democracy?
Things that define modern societies like the rule of law, transparency, and elections are not scientific inventions and yet we value them and make them cornerstones of our societies.
Unlike science, scientism tries to answer unscientific questions using scientific tools, and this is not a new trend but a natural consequence of some of the ideas we have inherited from the Enlightenment.
Philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics
Many questions should not be dealt with through science. One should not seek a scientific way to raise his children, appreciate beauty, form social bonds or even dealing with matters of faith.
If science cannot answer a question then no one else has the right to answer it.
The problem with dealing with these questions through scientific tools is that they are not capable of capturing the essence of these issues.
One can scientifically describe the Mona Lisa by the number of pigments in it, their position, their concentration and the materials that are used in it but that is not what the Mona Lisa is about, the essence of it is missing here.
One should not look at Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty leading the people as an accurate historical documentation of a particular historical event that has been fact checked and verified, that is simply not what this painting is about, It is a beautiful allegorical painting that captures the essence of people’s feelings at the time.
In natural sciences, models and theories can be tested using measurement tools and be debunked if they turned out to be wrong but that is not possible when we apply the same tools in unscientific fields, there is no known tool to measure love, beauty or justice, these areas should not be open for pseudo-scientists.
Richard Dawkins is trying to find a God that does not exist in the mind of the believer. He is always asking about some physical properties of that God, where is he? Who made him? Why can’t we hear his voice?etc. For the vast majority of believers, his physical properties are irrelevant; they care about the teachings and lessons of the God they choose to believe in.
When religious texts describe Gods, they do not care about his physical properties; they describe him as a set of ideas. Merciful, wise, loving but no one will find a religious text describing him as tall, weighs billions of kilograms or anything like that.
The pattern repeats itself in different fields by various scientists in unscientific fields.
Last year I was reading an excellent book called ‘Sapiens a brief history of humankind, ‘ and in general, it was a great book except for one chapter that bothered me, it contained an unhealthy dose of scientism.
The chapter was about happiness, and what it means, the author explored many of the philosophical, scientific answers to that question, but at the end of the chapter he concluded:
Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin.
Yuval Noah Harari
Describing the hormones that are associated with happiness is not the same as happiness, it is precisely like describing a person you know and love as a head, hands, legs and a body connected to each other and controlled by a brain. Again this description is not wrong, but it does not capture the essence of the things it tries to explain.
Some scientists take some Neuroscans of someone listening to Mozart and show the results claiming that they have cracked it, and now they know what Mozart is all about, One does not even know where to start with this line of Neuro-BS.
There are fields today that are based on pseudo-science like behavioral economics, and because they cannot conduct real world experiments like real science (physics, chemistry) they rely only on statistics and questionaries.
Worse is the way they mix correlation with causality (Richard Thaler comes to mind), just because there is some correlation between two events happening at the same time, it does not mean that one of them is caused by the other.
Behavioral economists make this mistake all the time, just read anything by Richard Thaler.
The truth is that behavioral economists took some raw and real scientific works by great scientists like the psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and transformed them into this Frankenstein monster to explain the human behavior with mathematical equations. They keep on injecting nonsensical statistics to societies to prove anything they want to verify.
Two years ago in a brunch with some friends, and friends of friends one of them said that a new statistic found that people of faith have a lower IQ than nonbelievers. Usually, I have a policy of keeping my mouth shut when I hear something I disagree with in front of a big group of friends, but that occasion was an exception, I could not keep my mouth shut when someone was using the same nonsensical correlations like these.
So the claimed statistic says that there is a correlation between faith and IQ but what people hear and understand is that the link is a causal one. I tried to explain that correlation is not the same as causality, and through correlations, one can make a relationship between any two nonsensical events and make it seem as if one of them is caused by the other, one can easily make tens of correlations that could be benign towards believers and harsh towards nonbelievers.
Statistics like these are thrown at us every day by behavioral economists; sometimes they even mix cause and effect. A statistic that claims that people of faith have lower IQ or that love and beauty are caused by oxytocin is like saying that the direction of the wind follows the wind pointer.
There is a correlation maker website that generates correlations between data you post and dozens of thousands of charts in their database.
Take a look at some of these correlations and ask yourself if you still think that correlation is an accurate way to describe things around us and if the answer is yes, then you should also accept Horoscopes as science because they do not do anything other then finding correlations between the position of planets and daily events.
As someone who passionately loves art and philosophy, it scares me when scientists try to use their tools in these two fields, and I do not want my message to be perceived as an anti-scientific one, to the contrary I ask for orthodoxy in science and keeping it away from Geisteswissenschaften fields. It does not have to be one against the other.
Using the scientific method to explain philosophical questions does not advance us intellectually at all, it simply opens the door to Voodoo explanations to profound questions.
If we look at how the scientism movement is explaining beauty, they trace it back to natural selection and survival.
First, they trace it back to the sexual desire that allows us to reproduce, and for that, it was necessary for both sexes to evolve a sense of appreciation for each other. So all forms of beauty can be traced back to that original cause.
When one points out to the pseudo-scientists that our love for children and their beauty cannot be traced back to the sexual desire, they agree, but then they add their explanation that similar to the first idea, seeing beauty in children is equally important for the survival of our species.
One tries again by arguing that we appreciate beauty in nice landscapes, where it is green and natural, but they reply that we appreciate it because green landscape is associated with food, so that kind of appreciation is also good for our survival
They will show you how the levels of oxytocin in mothers increase when they look at their babies, how a child that is loved by his parents has a higher chance of survival and all these arguments that are missing the point of beauty.
One can easily debunk these arguments by pointing out to the fact that we love music, poetry, theaters, operas and literature although they have no survival benefit for our species.
From an evolutionary point of view, there is no benefit from appreciating poetry, and yet we appreciate great poems and see beauty in them.
One cannot trace them to the sexual desire or love for children, the same can also be said about the music of Gustav Mahler or any other great composer.
The issue is that scientism does not accept appreciating beauty and art for its own sake, they need to attach a usability to it. Otherwise, it is useless and has no place in our society. Sadly this point of view is widespread these days even among the average person.
Everything is measured by how we can use it.
Beauty is useless, but who cares. Kant said it elegantly that the message of the flower is the flower itself.
People around the world, own cats and according to new surveys cats have become the most popular pets around the world, and yet no one is complaining that they are useless.
A cat does not guard or protect you; it does not clean the house or make any sense from a financial point view. People love these animals for what they are and not because they expect any benefit in return.
The cat does not offer services. The cat offers itself.
This new movement led by Dawkins is transforming Evolution from an elegant and magnificent explanation for diversity in life around us into a theory to explain everything and anything.
I hope that I was able to make my case for objectivity in Beauty that is appreciated for its own sake and no other reason, away from scientism these days that relies on wacky ideas to explain big questions at the core of what makes us who we are.
Now I leave you with the famous painting (Birth of Venus) by Sandro Botticelli as an excellent example of Kant’s idea of disinterested appreciation of beauty, meaning that we take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable.