What Value Do the Humanities Have?

Stanley Fish has yet another piece on the value of the humanities. Fish argues that we shouldn’t defend the humanities on any sort of utilitarian argument–that by having students take humanities classes, they will learn how to think, how to write, to become better people, etc.–but rather that we should argue that they have an inherent value in and of themselves. He points out that if we justify the humanities in relation to something else, we are playing by another game’s rules, and we’re not likely to do well by doing so.

While I think Fish is a little too apt to reject any sort of justification of the humanities in the creation of well-rounded humans (perhaps because he’s being a bit elitist himself in his definition of what constitutes the humanities), and while I think he doesn’t actually understand the real value of the digital humanities (something to which I contributed in my dissertation in a chapter titled Introduction to the Fractal Distribution of Words in a Text back in 2004), I do think there is something to his Oakeschottian defense of the humanities. And I think that he would have made an even stronger argument had he understood the spontaneous orders argument underlying Oakeschott’s point.

Science is not justified by its contribution to the creation of technology nor to the improvement of health care. I would go farther and say that science has made almost no contribution to the creation of technology, and has rather come along most of the time to explain the technological advances being made. That’s certainly what happened with the steam engine–the science of thermodynamics was developed to explain the working of the engine; the engine wasn’t invented after we understood thermodynamics. While that may be changing with biotechnology, the overwhelming majority of science throughout the overwhelming majority of the history of science has worked this way. Science is self-justified. We learned why the steam engine works because of curiosity, not to make a steam engine.

The same is true of math. Developments in math have come about because people wanted to solve mathematical problems. That is all. The fact that some math has proven useful to understanding some aspect of the world have been fortunate, but there’s a lot of math out there that has no correlation in the real world.

Math and science are two different spontaneous orders. That is, they are epistemic ecosystems. Mathematical developments are made for their own sake, not for the sake of anything else–not even science. Yet, some of those developments in math have proven useful in understanding the world insofar as they are integrated with science. Equally, scientific investigations are designed to help someone learn something they are curious about, and literally for no other reason. Sometimes those discoveries lead to a practical advancement, but very few people are doing science to make technological breakthroughs. Those who are primarily interested in solving technological problems are working in their own spontaneous order. They may draw on the work of scientists, but often they are doing nothing of the sort.

The humanities–as well as the arts–are similarly epistemic ecosystems. People participate in them not for any “practical” purpose, but because they want to solve some sort of problem, to discover or create new knowledge (or, in the arts, to solve an artistic problem). While it’s theoretically possible for someone like Steve Jobs to take a calligraphy course and be inspired to offer different fonts on his word processor on his computers, I don’t think anyone can truly justify the teaching of calligraphy on the off chance that something like that is ever going to happen.

If we take a broader view of the arts and humanities and include TV and film, visual rhetoric, communications, etc., we can perhaps begin to understand the degree to which the arts and humanities touch literally everyone on earth. Few may read Dante’s Divine Comedy, but reading and understanding it can help one to understand the degree to which those ideas have permeated Western culture and even world culture, permeated our stories and the ways in which we think. That is something which I find worth knowing, but which others may not. And that’s okay. But it should be okay among those who don’t find it personally worthwhile for me to do so. A little less dismissive snobbery from both camps might be in order.

The fact is the humanities help us to understand our social world. Those who enjoy TV and film ought to be among the first to defend the study of works of great literature and the visual arts, because TV and film are always drawing on the past great stories that have lasted for decades, centuries, and even millennia, and they are always drawing on the visuals created over that same period of time. Most of our common cliches were first coined by people like Shakespeare. There are pop songs that directly reference Romeo and Juliet. How many songs in recent years have referenced Nietzsche’s dictum that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger?

The humanities are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Science is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The free market is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Math is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Technological innovation is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The arts are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. So is philosophy, religion, philanthropy, democracy, the social sciences, and any number of other spontaneous orders. They are justified by people simply being interested in doing those things.

Of course, the reason people want to justify what they do is because they need to pay the bills. How do we get people to pay us to do what we love doing? Often we have to argue that there is some value beyond our own interest and the interest of a handful of others. The sciences, the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and math, among others, are luxuries only those with leisure time can dedicate themselves to creating. At the same time, the universality of things like storytelling suggests there is a necessary element to some of these things.

We spend way too much time and energy in storytelling–myth-making, gossiping, reading novels and poems, listening to songs, watching TV, watching movies, etc.–for it to just be a luxury. There has to be some kind of selective advantage for humans to do something so energy-intensive so often. I do believe we need to spend some time and energy learning why this is. Of course, that too is a self-justifying argument. We don’t have to know these things to keep telling and enjoying stories. But we might want to know it for the sake of knowing it–and if knowing that happens to help justify some money being freed up for the humanities, all the better.

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On Boredom and the Arts

I believe that artistic production, including literary production, is a spontaneous order. That means artistic production is an epistemic ecosystem–it creates knowledge. Artists all attempt to solve artistic/aesthetic problems within the artistic ecosystem and create artistic knowledge as a consequence. The one objection–which isn’t a small objection–is what regulates this process?

In the system of trade–properly called the catallaxy, but more commonly mis-labeled the economy (which is a complex system that includes the spontaneous orders of money and technological innovation)–it is profit and loss that (primarily) regulates the order. It is reputation which regulates the scientific order. In technology, it’s simply “does it work?” But what may it be in the arts?

I want to suggest that it’s a combination of boredom and interest. “Boredom” is one of the self-correcting aspects of the artistic order. Enough people get bored, and nobody listens/reads/views the work any more. A work that continues to stimulate people to producing more work–that maintains “interest”–continues to be heard/read/viewed.

Of course, this regulatory process is a slower one than you find happening in the catallaxy, technology, or even the sciences. But speed is no objection. Scientific ideas can lie untapped for decades or longer. Reputations of long-dead scientists can rise and fall. The fact that a poet may have little influence on several generations of poets, then be re-discovered and influence later poets doesn’t mean the process isn’t a spontaneous order.

In fact, we would expect a power law of influence/boredom if it is a spontaneous order. We would expect a few poets to have longevity, or even to be rediscovered long after they were seemingly forgotten, while we would expect the overwhelming majority of poets to be mostly unread in the lifetimes of the poets and for pretty much the entirety of the time anyone anywhere will read poetry. And there will be a medium number of poets with a moderate amount of influence. It’s entirely possible for a poet to have immediate influence and no long-term influence, except through the influence they had on the more important poets they influenced.

The fact is that most art produced by most artists is boring. Most works are uninteresting, uninspired, and uninspiring. They don’t help us see things in a new way or remind of of aspects of being we have forgotten and keep forgetting (Kundera). Or, they may help us see something in a new way that then becomes so widely adopted and “obvious” that the work becomes cliched after the fact and people lose interest. I would think, as an artist, there would have to be fewer worse fates than that–to show the world something that’s so obvious once you’ve shown it to them that its truth is from that point obvious and your work becomes kitsch.

Regardless, such is the rise and fall of artistic influence, of the discovery and promulgation of artistic problems and solutions. No matter what the reason, the worst sin you can commit as an artist is to be boring. Whether or not your work remains boring, though, only time will tell. The same is true of interest–if you create it, you’re golden, while if you lose it, you’re lost. And how do you create interest? By solving artistic problems–and in solving them, creating new ones.

The Devil Speaks That Which Cannot Be Spoken

I think everyone should read Mikhail Bolgakov’s The Master and Margarita — a Soviet-era Faust story. In chapter 1 an editor, Berlioz, and a poet, Bezdomny (the poet’s pseudonym, which is itself telling, since he is writing for an approved literary journal) are discussing the non-existence of Jesus when the Devil appears. The chapter is full of interesting things, but the thing I want to bring out in particular would seem to have nothing to do with theology, even if it starts off with a theological point– a point made immediately after a discussion of the weaknesses of the rational proofs of God’s existence.

The Devil/unknown man/stranger asks: “But this is the question that disturbs me—if there is no God, then who, one wonders, rules the life of man and keeps the world in order?”

‘Man rules himself,’ said Bezdomny angrily in answer to such an obviously absurd question.

‘I beg your pardon,’ retorted the stranger quietly, ‘but to rule one must have a precise plan worked out for some reasonable period ahead. Allow me to enquire how man can control his own affairs when he is not only incapable of compiling a plan for some laughably short term, such as, say, a thousand years, but cannot even predict what will happen to him tomorrow?’

‘In fact,’ here the stranger turned to Berlioz, ‘imagine what would happen if you, for instance, were to start organizing others and yourself, and you developed a taste for it—then suddenly you got . . . he, he . . .’ at this the foreigner smiled sweetly, as though the thought of a heart attack gave him pleasure. . . . ‘Yes, a heart attack,’ he repeated the word sonorously, grinning like a cat, ‘and that’s the end of you as an organizer! No one’s fate except your own interests you any longer. Your relations start lying to you. Sensing that something is amiss you rush to a specialist, then to a charlatan, and even perhaps to a fortune-teller. Each of them is as useless as the other, as you know perfectly well. And it all ends in tragedy: the man who thought he was in charge is suddenly reduced to lying prone and motionless in a wooden box and his fellow men, realising that there is no more sense to be had of him, incinerate him.

‘Sometimes it can be even worse: a man decides to go to Kislovodsk,’—here the stranger stared at Berlioz—‘a trivial matter you may think, but he cannot because for no good reason he suddenly jumps up and falls under a tram! You’re not going to tell me that he arranged to do that himself? Wouldn’t it be nearer the truth to say that someone quite different was directing his fate?’

In this seeming theological discussion of whether or not man is the master of his own fate — or if it is rather God directing all — we have the Devil arguing against the very possibility of economic planning. Note that the Devil specifically uses the terms “plan” and “organizer” — the very things socialists believed, at the time (1938), were possible. Note too that the argument isn’t about whether any particular person can rule him/herself, but rather whether or not man, as a collective, can rule, plan, and organize himself.

But the Devil points out something: in order to plan such that man rules man, man would have to be able to predict with perfect precision everything that will happen, including accidents. Mere accidents throw off the plan, meaning man cannot rule.

More than that, he points out that for all of the rhetoric about organizing for the collective good, all the altruistic organizer has to have happen is a heart attack for him to suddenly become quite concerned about his own personal well-being and to then ignore all of his efforts for his fellow man. More, under stress, the Devil points out that man will not only make rational choices — the doctor — but will even make increasingly irrational choices in order to save his own life. Thus, man is not ruled by reason alone — nor will he ever be. And no man will work for man as a collective when his own individual life is at stake. The fact of self-preservation belies the dream of self-sacrifice for the collective –or of the possibility of the pure rule of reason.

One can imagine the publishing atmosphere in the Soviet Union in 1938, when this novel was finished. Bulgakov had been publishing (not without controversy) for years, and he no doubt expected this novel to be published as well. He thus puts all approved and appropriate views into the mouths of Berlioz and Bezdomny, while criticizing the very foundations on which Soviet rule was made though the mouth of the Devil. The Devil, of course, is the most evil of all evil; the Devil doesn’t even exist, and is proof of the irrationality of man the Soviet Man was overcoming. To put these ideas into the mouth of the Devil was, therefore, safe. One could criticize the ideas on which Soviet central planning was based so long as that criticism was out of the mouth of an irrationally-based, nonexistent metaphor for evil. And more, the Devil is the adversary of God — and if the Adversary is enunciating anti-communist ideas, does that not make him the adversary of the communists? — and does that not suggest Communism has replaced/become God?

Ah, the wonders of literature! The wonders of metaphor — compact or extended! One can say so much, and say so many dangerous things, and pretend innocence of it all. Especially in satire. Just give the Devil the words, and you can communicate them with plausible deniability. If you see the Devil appear in a work of literature, be on the lookout for him to speak what cannot be spoken.

The Global Social Network

The human brain has a network structure that is both local and global. There are small, local modules that perform certain functions, and they are typically close to other modules that support those functions. But there are also huge neurons known as giant fusiform cells that allow for global connectivity across the brain. Giant fusiform cells are only found in the apes, and they are found in the largest number in humans. This combination of local and global that reaches a high degree of complexity in humans is what allows for the high intelligence of apes in general, and humans in particular.

There have been moves across the world–most notably, the EU–to create more globalized, more centralized political structures. Roger Scruton argues that we shouldn’t do away with the nation-state so easily, and he argues that it’s the highly-globally-connected wealthy elites who are pushing for things like the EU and even more global governance. At the same time we are seeing a push for a stronger EU, we are also seeing a pushback with the Brexit vote last year, and also more and more desire for local political control, especially in Spain and the U.K. With many of the independence movements, though, there is a simultaneous desire to remain part of the EU.

We can understand this by thinking about the network structure of the human brain. The global elites who are more comfortable with each other than with their countrymen are the equivalent of the giant fusiform cells. The problem arises when they think the world ought to be just like them. But that’s not the reality among human beings. A brain of only giant fusiform cells wouldn’t be a healthy, productive, or likely living brain. Most people are, like most brain cells, part of a local, specialized area. They have their own local culture, religious beliefs, and industries, among other things. And they persist in the face of global culture.

The point is that those who wish to have a more globally connected world are right, and those who wish to maintain their local cultures and mores are right. We need to be both more local and more global–and have many areas of unity in between. We need a global civilization where the Scots can be Scottish, the Welsh can be Welsh, the English can be English, and they can all be British; where the British can be British, the French can be French, the Spanish can be Spanish, and they and the rest of Europe can also be Europeans. And all regions can have a weak connection through the UN. We need strong local cultures as well as natural classical artists with global reach. We need all of this simultaneously. The more the globe evolves to match the network structure of the human brain, the healthier humanity as a whole will be.

Yes, the Social Sciences Are Sciences

There are many who do not think the social sciences—including economics—should be considered to be sciences. They do so for a variety of reasons.

One objection I keep seeing is that because you cannot make accurate predictions within the social sciences, they cannot be sciences. By this logic, biology isn’t a science, either, because you cannot make predictions in biology. Some of the earliest work in genetics fooled many people into believing you could, but it turns out that 1:1 gene:expression is extremely rare. Mendel lucked out with his peas. Most traits are expressed in rather complex ways, within the context of the other genes, epigenetic effects, and the environment. This generally renders prediction impossible.

Another similar objection is that the social sciences are too complex to understand. But the presence of complexity doesn’t mean understanding is impossible. It is possible to discover patterns and emergent laws in a complex system. In economics, we have discovered the law of supply and demand. It’s always and everywhere true—all other things held constant. The fact that different contexts will affect the degree of elasticity or overwhelm the effect or require major digging down to see how it applies in no way means supply and demand isn’t a law of economics. Complexity actually requires the emergence of laws for there to be complexity. Otherwise, you don’t have complexity, you simply have randomness.

Too many others simply reject the social sciences as sciences because the discoveries don’t fit their ideologies. In this they are like those creationists who reject evolution as science (declaring as “merely a theory”). Just because you want to increase the minimum wage because you think it’s “fair” to do so, that doesn’t mean that the economic law of supply and demand is bunk. If you increase the minimum wage, you will increase unemployment (again, everything else being held constant).

Just because the social sciences aren’t simple like physic and chemistry, that doesn’t mean they’re not sciences. They are sciences. They are complexity sciences. And in many ways, chemistry and physics are only recently starting to catch up and describe many of their processes in similar ways. Does the unpredictablility of the weather over the long term mean meteorology isn’t a science? It would be foolish to claim so. Meteorology is a complexity science. Because it deals with a relatively small number of variables and known laws, we have a fairly high level of predictability. But even so, the weather person can be off even the next day.

We have to get our minds around the fact that there are complexity sciences out there. When we study them, we are trying to work out their emergent laws. The fact that the processes we are studying are complex doesn’t mean they don’t have laws. That’s an important point to understand. Those laws do exist, and those laws interact with each other to create emergent patterns of behavior. In other words, precise predictions are impossible in complex systems, but pattern predictions most certainly are not. We have to get past our demands for absolute, clear, black-or-white answers and embrace instead strange attractor, edge-of-order-and-chaos, ambiguous answers. Because those answers are also true.