We proud tyrants of the real

The last time I got a glimpse of the wretched new book from Marilynne Robinson, the review was sufficient to dissuade me from bothering to ever read it. Now we have a positive review from Karen Armstrong, and I am now convinced that if ever I am confronted with this work, the only appropriate response would be to unzip my fly and piss on it, on the spot. Only my deeply ingrained social conditioning would hinder me. Dammit, why can’t I live freely and express my primal impulses without these nagging voices in my head?

Once again, her thesis is that her own twisted version of science, which is always reductionist and ignores the forest for the hadrons, baryons, and mesons that make it up, is a curse upon civilization that destroys all beauty and aspirations. How dare we turn a critical eye upon good ol’ subjective superstition? And besides, science completely ignores the mind and art and strangeness and doesn’t encourage people to ever think long, long thoughts.

How’s your bladder holding up?

This, of course, is entirely copacetic with Karen Armstrong’s views. It isn’t civilized if it isn’t wallowing in the subjective and whining piteously about all those investigators of the real with their bright lights and poking fingers harshing her mellow and demanding that she say something sensible, clear, and objectively verifiable. In order to make her complaints justifiable, though, she has to lie about science. Oh, wait — perhaps I should be more charitable. She is obstinately ignorant of science, so she isn’t exactly lying…she just makes fantastic nonsense up about it.

In the past, the voices that say “there is something more” have always been right. The positivist approach would not only marginalise religion, but also the arts, culture, history, and the classical and humanist traditions. Most prescient of all is Robinson’s contention that “it is only prudent to make a very high estimate of human nature, first of all in order to contain the worst impulses of human nature, and then to liberate its best impulses.”

I wish she had developed this crucial insight, because it is urgently needed at this moment of crisis in human history. If we are indeed completely in thrall to the selfish gene, why not throw all constraint to the winds and just be selfish — individually and collectively, in our politics, social arrangements, financial and economic dealings?

There’s always something more? What? It seems to me that this belief in something beyond the natural and material world has always been wrong — at least, it’s been in constant retreat for the last half dozen centuries, fading into worship of ever more petty and intangible deities. It takes a truly deluded mind to translate a perennial collapse of a world view into a pattern of unending victory.

I should think she should also realize that we happy ‘positivists’ are also trying to contain the worst impulses of human nature, but those sorry worst include the fuzzy tendency to reify wishful thinking into a collection of demanding gods and indignant priests. They don’t include art and culture and history. We aren’t the philistines. We aren’t the ones mangling a deep-rooted historical endeavor with an enviable record of alleviating human suffering and liberating the human mind, science, in order to justify lotus-eating ignorance.

As for that inane argument that the path to progress is by closing our eyes to an ugly reality and focusing on the best and most beautiful, I offer one counter-example: public health. You can appreciate that cholera, for instance, is an ugly, cruel disease that has destroyed millions in unpleasant ways, ripping through whole families, killing children in their mothers’ arms by making them shit themselves to death. It’s doctors and public health scientists that stared that ugly death in the face and fought it who made progress and reduced its ravages. There is no illusion that because it is natural, because it has plagued us for ages, because we were in thrall to merciless epidemics, that we must therefore surrender to it. We would not have gotten the answers we do have if we’d turned a blind eye to the suffering because it would demean our view of the world, and if we’d chosen instead to simply celebrate the bright, healthy, happy people who had escaped the disease (so far…oh, but please, do not disturb our opium dreams with possible unpleasant futures!)

Those selfish genes are real, but they aren’t quite what Armstrong imagines they are — when her understanding is a millimeter deep, perhaps it’s understandable that she would leap to the silly midgleyesque conclusion that it means that we are ruled by genes for nastiness and spite and evil, when it only refers to a pattern of inheritance and selection for genes that promote their own perpetuation…which can include genes that enhance cooperation and altruism, as well. But even if it were such a grim story of bad genes thriving, it does not imply in any way that scientists are cheering on selfishness, or that they advocate giving up and becoming short-sighted brutes.

On the contrary, only by understanding reality can we deal with it and apply our minds to aspire to that ambitious human world filled with art and culture and science and reason and ethical behavior that Armstrong and Robinson probably want, too. The only way to accomplish that, though, is by working harder at mastering reality, a key part of the formula that they seem to miss as they so busily languish in their dreams.

I’m still not buying their books, not even for pissing upon.

Ophelia Benson has already taken aim at Robinson/Armstrong. I’m gettin’ slow in my old age.