A Modern Thinkers Burden

Norman Mailer once lamented that “there are no large people any more. I’ve been studying Picasso lately and look at who his contemporaries were: Freud, Einstein.” In his book Genius, James Gleick countered this lamentation by arguing that there are simply too many Freud’s and Einsteins around these days for any one of them to stand out. In agreement with this line of reasoning, John Horgan adds that “the scientific geniuses of our era have less to discover than their predecessors did. No modern scientist can discover gravity or natural selection or general relativity, because Newton and Darwin and Einstein got there first. To put things crudely, they solved the easy problems.” As for the unsolved, “hard problems” that remain, however, there is yet another obstacle to the emergence of a “scientific savior” that will usher in a new revolutionary paradigm, especially in fields such as psychology or mental health. As Horgan explains, “Freud’s ability to construct a unified theory of human nature was in large part a function of science’s ignorance during his era. Anyone hopeing to construct a unified theory of mind now must cope with an astronomical number of findings, many of them with contradictory implications.” Now, there was no shortage of theories or literature for Freud to appeal to for inspiration; many writings on human nature have survived over the last couple of millenia. Freud was likely influenced by the writings of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for example, among many others. The crucial point that Horgan seems to be making is that there were really no “scientific” attempts at defining human nature; that is, attempts based on empirical evidence that generated theories based on the scientific method that were testable. In that void, Freud really had a vast virgin territory before him and there was little need for him to exhaustively comb through every philosophical theory of human nature in order to fill it. Similarly, when Darwin was thinking about how one species could transform into another species, he had relatively few authors to familiarize himself with before stepping off into new theoretical directions, having already firmly placed his feet on the existing plateau of human knowledge. On the other hand, in order to produce some revolutionary new theory of the human psyche, consciousness, or mental health these days, one must now trudge through the abysmally thick canon of previous attempts at such theorizing. Moreover, the days in which a genius like J.S. Mill could be considered to know all of the facts on that existing plateau of human knowledge are long gone. Robert Cialdini writes that “today, the notion that one of us could be aware of all known facts is only laughable. After eons of slow accumulation, human knowledge has snowballed into an era of momentum-fed, multiplicative, monstrous expansion. We now live in a world where most of the information is less than fifteen years old. In certain scientific fields alone (for example, physics), knowledge is said to double every eight years. And the scientific information explosion is not limited to such arcane arenas as molecular chemistry or quantum physics but extends to everday areas of knowledge where we strive to keep ourselves current—health, child development, nutrition, and the like. Whats more, this rapid growth is likely to continue, since 90 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are working today.”

While traversing this well-trodden path of scientific knowledge, one is succeptible to a problem that many thinkers have pointed out. Nietzsche writes that, “many a man fails as an original thinker simply because his memory it too good.” Before reading another thinker’s bold leap into the abyss of uncertainty, that abyss is an awesome and mysterious one. Afterwards, however, that abyss seems more comprehensible, more tangible, but can also be rendered more obscure, as it is now mediated by this proxy, to which the imagination more naturally affixes itself than to the original, inarticulate abyss. This is why Schopenhauer warns us that “reading is equivalent to thinking with someone else’s head instead of with one’s own.” Though it is of course possible to have a dialogue with another thinker as one reads him, this takes considerable effort and must often be temporarily suspended in order simply to comprehend the others thoughts. A corrollary to this problem also exists. As Nietzsche explains, “there are horrible people who, instead of solving a problem, tangle it up and make it harder to solve for anyone who wants to deal with it. Whoever does not know how to hit the nail on the head should be asked not to hit it at all.” Both he and his predecessor Schopenhauer had a particular contempt for the infamously obfuscacious Hegel, with whom many still must do battle in order to gain a philosophy degree.

Nowhere is this last problem of clumbsy intellectual architects more troubling than in theories of mind (Hegel’s among them) and mental health. John Horgan reminds us that “by the mid-1980’s, consumers could choose among more than 450 different forms of talk therapy, from active analytic therapy to Zareleya psychoenergetic technique.” Furthermore, many studies exist which show that despite all of their theoretical differences, these various talk therapies produce roughly equivalent results, which more often than not fail to reach the level of relief purportedly gained from appeals to the various religious traditions. To some this appears to be evidence of mass charlatanism that is hidden by the superficial health benefits secured by the placebo effect alone.  A less cynical observer might point out that many of these therapies are based on the same basic theoretical foundations and that all of these therapies involve talking, introspection, confession and empathic support. Perhaps psychological relief is simply derived from these common eliments instead of the placebo effect. Moreover, this hopeful observer might invoke the No Miracles Argument as follows: if the various theoretical models of the human mind and its health were pure myth or fancy it would be a miracle that they all manage to do so much good, as erroneous assumptions would more likely than not damage the therapeudic process by leading clients astray or inventing phantom illnesses (ala the ill-fated recovered memory therapies). This is typically when the cynic will point to studies that show that these various talk therapies, though they do show evidence of providing therepeudic benefit, often fail to produce results better than a control group that received no such therapy—thus implying that talk therapies don’t even provide an effective placebo! This argument, however, fails to take into account the massive cultural shift that Freud and those that followed managed to foment. The “control group” that received no therapy still lives in a culture that no longer stigmatizes mental illness to a fraction of the extent that it did even as recently as the 1960’s.  Moreover, the statistical increase in people suffering from mental illness these days is the direct result of that reduced stigma, encouring more and more people to admit their problems and seek help, along with the fact that the diagnostic bar has been so drastically lowered that many more people qualify as mentally ill (due in no small part to the role of a powerful pharmaceutical industry). In the 60’s a man was much more likely to tell his depressed wife to “stop thinking so morbidly,” or “just put it out of mind,” or “with this booming and affleunt society, what do you have to be sad about,” or “stop being so selfish and bumming us all out!” A control group deprived of talk therapy during the 60’s would most likely not show any improvement in mental health, dispite what modern cynics might imply by citing these studies. However, the above application of the No Miracles Argument leaves much to be desired, as it would apply equally as well to the religious traditions that address human suffering by varying and often conflicting remedies. Perhaps a given therapy can be truly successful without the metaphysical assumptions or theory of mind upon which it is based being true as well. But, where does this leave the soul searcher who is looking for truth if he cannot judge the truth of a theory by its fruits? Where does this leave the genius-to-be who aims to find answers to the deepest human problems or find theories that accurately describe the seemingly unfathomable depths of the human mind? Not only is he now limited to the unsolved “hard problems,” but he must also immerse himself in the impossibly vast and often contradictory torrent of literature on any one of these hard problems, comprehend most of it without becoming hopelessly discouraged or losing sight of the original problem (which is now obscured by the plethora of proxy answers) and somehow remain sensative to his own inner voice, with all of its subtle differences and ideosyncracies that one day may foster the next great theoretical breakthrough. That is beyond a tall order for a mere mortal. Add to this the pressures of making a living, finding love, and generally living a human life, and the result is the apparent lack of “large men” that Mailor seemed to be concerned about.

Despite these difficulties, many brave souls still attempt to find answers to these hard problems. Unfortunately, their attempts at hitting the nail on the head, while sometimes proving useful, nonetheless add yet more volumes to that torrent of literature, which serves not only to inspire and teach future generations of thinkers, but also to confuse, mislead, and discourage them. Moreover, these brave souls also risk their life’s work simply getting lost in the turbid waters of academia; an environment that is based not just on peer review and collaboration, but also on an adversarial system that often funds only those studies/programs that swim in the mainstream. This not only threatens to leave them without the recognition that they deserve during their lifetime, but also threatens their life’s work with a premature and quiet death in the basement of some library. Some of the fundamental mathematics driving modern string theory were revived from such a death completely by accident over a half a century after being resigned to the dustbin of academia! Not every lost theory fairs so well. There is yet another obstacle that may burden the mind of any contemporary thinker who aims to produce a paradigm shift in the mind sciences: perhaps science is the only arbiter of truth and the mind sciences fail to qualify as science at all!

John Horgan concludes in his book The End of Science that many “pure” or “theoretical” sciences (as apposed to applied sciences like technology and medicine) have seen their last significant breakthroughs, revolutions, and paradigm shifts. He is of course speaking much more about natural selection, chaos theory, relativity, and quantum mechanics than about theories of the human mind, which he would snidely dub “ironic sciences,” that are untestable, far-fetched, and ultimately “signs of science’s desperation and terminal illness.” This division of sciences into “pure” and “ironic” smacks of physics envy; a granting of epistemological hegemony to physics simply on account of its testability, precise mathematical models, and technological utility. Horgan does not stop with physics envy, however, but grants “pure” science with this hegemony to the exclusion of all other intellectual persuits. “Ironic science resembles literature or philosophy or theology in that it offers points of view, opinions, which are, at best, ‘interesting,’ which provoke further comment. But it does not converge on the truth,” he argues. Were philosophers like Democritus, who argued about the nature of reality and the existence of the atom merely provoking further comments on such topics without converging on truth? Certainly no Greek philosopher of that day believed that a theory like that of the atom could ever be confirmed or tested. Yet, today we have turned such idle speculation into the same “pure” science that Horgan exalts so highly. Why does he imagine that theories of the human psyche will always remain obscure and speculatory, perpetually beyond the threshold of scientific verification? He admits that the mind sciences are becoming more empirical and less speculative since the days of Freud, but he is skeptical as to how far neurology or genetics will be able to produce the revolutions in thought that philosophers so hope for. “Maybe all this work will culminate in a great new unified theory of and treatment for the mind. But I suspect it won’t,” he concludes. It is depressing enough to consider his hypothesis that the major breakthroughs in the “pure” sciences are terminal points in their evolution, leaving nothing for the rest of us to do but “fill in the details;” to pursue Thomas Khun’s normal science. But he goes on to argue that the “ironic” sciences, which he considers to be pseudoscientific fields, will never become solid, “pure” sciences at all. That is, they will never approach truth. It is one thing to claim that Shakespear’s implicit theories of human nature will never be scientifically verifiable, but it is another thing entirely to claim that they never approached truth to begin with. In defending his own hypothesis in The End of Science, he claims that though this hypothesis is far from certain and is essentially “ironic,” that it nonetheless is a better guess than many alternatives. Presumably, he means that his guess is closer to truth than others are, thus considerably softening his claims about the extent to which “ironic” sciences can touch truth. He softens this stance further when he states that “Noam Chomsky has said that we will probably always learn more about human nature from novels than from science. I agree.” Though the sting of his argument against “ironic” sciences has been partially numbed, one cannot help but dismay at the plethora of competing hypothesis in the mind sciences. How close to “truth” do our current theories of human motivation come? Are we even touching truth when we give intuitive, narrative accounts of why we did certain things? To be sure, it will take a soul more robust than Horgan’s to arrive at better theories of mind, and that is a pretty tall order in deed.

Regardless of which person is right about the number of contemprary “large men,” Mailor, Gleick, or Horgan, it is seemingly uncontestable that today’s prominent intellectuals shoulder a burden signifancly more daunting than that of Copernicus, Darwin, or even Freud. If Mailor is right, this burden is too great and none of these geniuses are being produced today. If Gleick is right, there are too many of them for any one to stand out and be recognized. Worse still, if Horgan is right, there simply is no room left for big revolutions in science and the gaps in our understanding are permanent horizons that we will never peer beyond. Whichever is true, one can be fairly certain that he will never get credit for fostering a new revolution in science, especially one in a more speculative field such as psychology. Is it any wonder, then, that the Self Help section has mysteriously merged with the Psychology section in every bookstore to display the lifes work of many prominent young psychologists whose aspirations extend only as far as pronouncing “Happiness for all, in 10 days, with only 7 easy steps!”? Why should they dare to dream of something greater?

Well, perhaps we should be happy with this wonderful bounty of scientific knowledge and resign ourselves to the work of Khun’s normal science. Filling in the details is not a pointless life, true, but it is impossible to overestimate the pull of legitimate mystery and the prospect of discovery, with its attendant fame and recognition. According to the “ironic” theorizing of Ernest Becker, man’s drive not only to be the best, but to be widely recognized as such is perhaps the most powerful motive in his psyche (and is roughly synonymous with this will to live/deny death). In the 21st century, however, the prospect of being the best in any field of science, to say nothing of being recognized for such an achievement, is highly unlikely. Perhaps this is why our best and brightest, our geniuses, are becoming successful business tycoons instead of scientists. Building a successful business empire is simply much more promising, much more likely to materialize, than building an immortal name like that of Einstein’s. To add insult to injury, many an immortal name, such as Freud’s, Nietzsche’s, and even Schopenhauer’s, have been almost irreparably sullied, despite their great genius. Those who are somehow not motivated by the appeal of fame are probably still discouraged by the prospect of infamy. So, what is in it for the “large people” these days?

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1 Response to A Modern Thinkers Burden

  1. Correction: apparently Darwin had been pre-empted in part by a number of thinkers, though this only strengthens my argument as 1) comparatively, there was in deed many fewer thinkers to get through on a given topic back then than today, and 2) those thinkers who pre-empted Darwin’s idea only add to the enormous heap of literature that one must get through on any given scientific topic today. For those interested, refer to Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle,” pages 49-50 where you will find the following: “The concept of evolving life dawned long before the publication of Charles Darwin’s theories. In roughly 580 B.C., the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus declared that life had not been created by the gods but had emerged by natural means from water. Twenty-three hundred years later, Enlightenment thinkers like France’s Georges-Louis Buffon reinterpreted petriified oddities formerly dismissed as stone tongues and dragon’s teeth. The objects, the audacious naturalists said, were parts of fossilized creatures from a pervious era…” He then goes on to list Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and Erasmus Darwin as precursors.

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