Our Crisis of Foundations
My colleague Jonah Goldberg, speaking at a recent panel discussion in which we were both participating, remarked that modern democracy is sorely in need of a metaphysic. That put me in mind of one of Aldous Huxley's aphorisms. In his 1937 book Ends and Means, Huxley said this: "It is impossible to live without a metaphysic. The choice that is given us is not between some kind of metaphysic and no metaphysic; it is always between a good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic, a metaphysic that corresponds reasonably closely with observed and inferred reality and one that doesn't."
I would not normally raise such ethereal matters in a magazine devoted to politics and culture. Last week, however, I read Tom Wolfe's new novel I am Charlotte Simmons. The novel, as you may have heard, deals with an innocent young girl from back country North Carolina who wins a place at an elite university, where she — or at any rate, her innocence — is destroyed as swiftly, coldly and thoroughly as a kitten that has wandered on to a busy six-lane expressway. In the last chapter of the novel, titled "The Ghost in the Machine," we see a Charlotte who has finally lost touch with her soul, thereby becoming a well-integrated member of the elite culture. She loves Big Brother … who in this particular story is a dimwitted college athlete.
This will not be a review of Wolfe's book (which, however, I enjoyed, and recommend to readers with strong stomachs for cold-eyed observations of modern depravity). It is only that the fate of poor Charlotte; and Jonah's remark; and Huxley's apothegm; and the previous book I'd read, which was Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe; and a scientific encounter I shall describe in just a moment, all together fired off a train of thought that seemed worth recording.
Tom Wolfe has for some years been nursing an interest in matters metaphysical. Back in 1996 he wrote an article for Forbes ASAP with the title "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," centered around some conversations he had been having with young neuroscientists. There are loud echoes of that essay in I am Charlotte Simmons.
Wolfe's preoccupations embrace three main areas of the human sciences.
- Studies of the social behavior of animals. The key name here is Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, whom Wolfe refers to in that Forbes essay as "Darwin II." The fictional university Charlotte attends is, amongst other things, a place where dominant males — fraternity bluebloods and star athletes — browse freely on the sexual favors of nubile females, as in a chimp colony.
- Neuroscience. Charlotte Simmons herself takes a course in this subject, giving Wolfe the excuse to insert slabs of it into his novel. Our understanding of brain function has gone much further than most nonscientific people realize. Nowhere in that understanding is there any trace of a notion of the conscious self. According to Wolfe, practically no working neuroscientist believes that such a thing exists. The "I" that is the first word of Wolfe's title may, science tells us, be an illusion; and the fate of his heroine suggests that this is indeed so.
- Genetics. As with brain function, our knowledge of genetics has progressed much further and faster than is commonly known. Indeed, some of the areas in which it is progressing very fast indeed are those where brain function and genetics meet. Here is a random quote plucked from current scientific literature (actually in this case from the 11/22/04 issue of The Scientist): "Using PET [a brain-scanning technology], Jon-Kar Zubieta, an assistant professor of psychiatry and radiology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and colleagues found that mutations in COMT [the gene encoding manufacture of an enzyme called catechol-O-methyltransferase] increase pain sensitivity by reducing the enzyme's ability to activate the μ-opioid system." Translation: The brain's response to pain is, at least in part, genetically determined.
So is a great deal else of the human personality. I recently had a visit from a researcher at a prestigious university. I had been exchanging e-mails with him on topics of common interest, but we had never before actually met. This brilliant and engaging young man works in a field called Computational Genomics. He spends his time trawling through — "data mining" — the three billion units of the human genome, trying to figure out how it all works. Plenty has already been figured out, as he eagerly showed me, taking me through some academic websites on my home computer. Genes for human intelligence? "Sure, we have several nailed down, and more are showing up all the time. See here … and here …"
I have been interested in these aspects of the human sciences, in a dilettantish way — a Tom Wolfish way — for twelve or fifteen years. At first I welcomed these new understandings in biology, neuroscience, and genetics. They seemed to me to reinforce the conservative view of human nature, and refute the liberal view. Yes, men and women are fundamentally and immutably different. Yes, human races exist, and differ in ways other than the physically obvious. No, the human personality is not infinitely malleable, cannot be molded to perfection by social engineers shuffling environmental variables around. Yes, religious belief is a source of health and strength, both personal and social. (From the point of view of Mother Nature, sub specie Darwini if you like, success is reproduction; and the only really philoprogenitive groups of humans are the religious ones.)
Lately, however, and particularly after reading I am Charlotte Simmons, I have begun to worry about the darker side of these discoveries — about their dehumanizing, deconstructing effects. The neuroscience is especially troubling. The vulgar metaphysics we all carry round with us includes the vague idea of a self, an "I," imagined as a little homunculus crouched inside our heads an inch or so behind the eyes, observing and directing all that goes on in our lives. It seems probable that this is as false as the medieval notion of the sky being a crystal sphere. Yet if the self is indeed an illusion, then what is to prevent that dissolution of all values foreseen by Nietzsche? In Charlotte Simmons's world, a world without the self, what is virtue? What is wisdom? What is responsibility?
We have already gone some way down that path. It is now taken for granted, for example, that homosexuality is a biological attribute of the human organism. "I was born this way!" the modern homosexual tells us, and science confirms that in most cases, if not exactly all, this is true. Yet just a few decades ago, well within the memory of middle-aged people, homosexuality was thought of not as a thing people were, but as something they did. You will hear people speak loosely of there having been laws against homosexuality in past times. There never were any such laws, nor could there have been. The laws were against homosexual acts, committed by autonomous selves who might freely choose to act otherwise. Here, in a largish area of life and jurisprudence, the self has yielded to the organism, morality to biology. And this is the way the tide is running, fast and strong, in channels carved by science. Wolfe: "We now live in an age in which science is a court from which there is no appeal."
The deconstruction of self is not a new thing, of course. It has been 250 years since David Hume, by the rigorous application of pure reason, concluded that neither the inner world of the self nor the outer world of physical matter could possibly exist. Hume then turned and laughed at himself and at what he had accomplished:
This sceptical doubt … is a malady, which can never be radically cur'd, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chace it away … Carelessness and in-attention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them; and take it for granted, whatever may be the reader's opinion at this present moment, that an hour hence he will be persuaded there is both an external and an internal world …
It is one thing to arrive at an intolerable conclusion by pure intellection, though. It is quite another to have it presented to one by a brilliant young man showing you the scientific evidence on a computer screen, an experience both Tom Wolfe and I have enjoyed, or endured. Watching my Computational Genomicist skimming cheerfully through his websites, through ideas and findings that undermine everything we think we know about ourselves, I had a Wordsworth moment:
… Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
For all that, I am not quite ready yet to give up belief in the conscious self. Although the neuroscientists are chasing the self through ever narrower and darker passageways of the brain, they have not caught it yet, and there are good reasons to believe they never will. Roger Penrose's book about fundamental physics offers one of those reasons. Physicists have been pursuing matter for much longer, and with much more fruitful consequences, than neuroscientists have been pursuing mind, yet still the nature of physical reality eludes us. What is the physical world composed of? If you make it through the 1,000-odd pages of Penrose's book, through the explanations of tensor calculus, Clifford algebras, spinors, twistors, Riemann surfaces and Feynmann propagators, you may have an inkling, but that is all you will have. If you can't hack all that heavy-duty math, you won't even have an inkling, ever.
Perhaps, for a few decades at least, we can continue to ignore the scientists sapping away at our vulgar metaphysics. Perhaps Hume's prescription of "carelessness and in-attention" will see us through for a while longer. Math professor Michael Harris tells a true story about a conversation held in his presence during a conference in Münster, Germany, last year. Over a restaurant dinner, three professional mathematicians resurrected an issue from the great "crisis of foundations" that racked mathematics in the early 20th century — during roughly the period from Russell's paradox (1901) to Gödel's theorem (1931). This crisis arose because mathematicians had begun inquiring into the logical and philosophical underpinnings of their subject, trying to find the fundamental axioms underlying all of math, seeking unshakeably firm foundations for the process of mathematical proof.
Well, the three diners all expressed different opinions on the issue in question, which is a very crucial one. ("The ontological status of the continuum" — but you don't need to know this to understand my point.) Harris sought to pursue the discussion down into deeper matters… but found that his colleagues did not have the necessary knowledge, and didn't actually care. These foundational issues, though interesting in their own right, and fine for a few casual conversational exchanges over the dinner-table, do not really matter in the day-to-day work of most mathematicians.
We Americans are heading into a "crisis of foundations" of our own right now. Our judicial elites, with politicians and pundits close behind, are already at work deconstructing our most fundamental institutions — marriage, the family, religion, equality under law. The human sciences are showing human nature in a strange new light. Yet perhaps all this will matter as little in the daily lives of Americans a few decades from now as Russell's paradox and Gödel's theorem matter to working mathematicians. Perhaps we shall come to our senses and stop trying to analyze and deconstruct our humanity down to the bitter end. Perhaps we shall realize that in order to get on properly with life, as with mathematics, a great many things just need to be taken for granted. What will our new metaphysic be? Perhaps the one that sustained Bertrand Russell's grandmother: "What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind."