Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Enlightenment Was Wrong

In his op-ed column "The New Humanism", David Brooks points to new scientific research which suggests that the Enlightenment view of human nature that Western society has been operating on for the past two or three hundred years is fundamentally flawed. This would be the view of human beings as primarily rational, individual creatures, whose rationality must constantly guard against the unruly passions of the emotions lest all civilization collapse.

The Romantics reacted against the Enlightenment view of human nature, believing that it ignored the richness and depth of the emotional, spiritual, social, cultural, and biological aspects of our nature, but despite the best efforts of many a great poet (including William Blake, who painted the somewhat mocking portrait of Isaac Newton above), the rationalist view has come to dominate the workings of Western society.

This rationalistic view, which ascribes value to things (and people) in terms of numbers, facts, money, statistics, test scores, degrees, credentials, and other quantifiable criteria, now finds itself challenged, according to Brooks, by a wide array of research in the sciences and social sciences (themselves, ironically, the products of Enlightenment rationalism) which shows that the Enlightenment view of human beings--as rational individuals who must constantly guard against the misshaping forces of the irrational and the social--is just way too simplistic.

The new research shows a few interesting things:
"First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place.

"Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason.

"Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships."

So, in at least a few ways, the Romantics now find themselves vindicated by, of all things, Enlightenment science. (The last point, about human beings as social animals, is a somewhat more complex matter since the Romantics were capable of glamorizing the individual in rebellion against society while at the same time romanticizing one's culture, people, homeland, or nation.)

The new research also brings to attention a number of human talents that are not normally valued or even thought about in our bureaucratic, mechanistic civilization, including such neglected classics as equipoise and sympathy, as well as more exotic-sounding things like attunement, metis, and limerence.

Maybe someday soon, as Brooks suggests, our culture will be transformed by these new findings, just as it was reshaped by Freud's theories of human nature a century ago. What will Western civilization look like when it begins to relearn the old, forgotten truths that human beings are concrete souls and not just abstract minds, souls who long to belong to something greater than ourselves, and not just producing, consuming machines?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

T + 50: The Bus To Nowhere

For those in my generation who were children when the space shuttle program started, it might seem strange now (or perhaps just make us feel old) to find ourselves at the end of the space shuttle era. In 1981, when the space shuttle Columbia first roared aloft early on a bright Sunday morning in April, the space shuttle seemed new, futuristic, exciting, and even a little glamorous. During the second and third launches, which occurred during school hours, my 5th grade class spent the day watching the launch coverage on TV.

By the time the space shuttle became operational, in late 1982, I decided that it was no longer worth paying a lot of attention since the whole idea of the space shuttle was to make space flight "routine". Despite the tragedy of the Challenger explosion in 1986 shocking us into the realization that human space flight would "never be routine", the general public, my space nerd self included, relegated the space shuttle to the storage closet of its consciousness. Few saw it as even remotely central to current American or world history as many had seen the space program of the 1960s. Only on rare occasions, such as the return to space of John Glenn in 1998 and above all the destruction of Columbia itself in 2003, did the average American pay any attention to the space shuttle, and in the case of the Columbia disaster, it was largely to question why, exactly, we were doing this anyway.

The question is worth the asking. Why indeed? Why, after landing on the moon "before the decade [of the 1960s] is out", did we spend the next 40 years focusing the resources and energies of our national space program on a shuttle... essentially a bus between earth and near-earth space? Given the tremendous strides the space program made in the 60s (from the first American in space in 1961 to landing on the moon in 1969), the space program since the 1970s has been nothing if not tame. Little wonder that people lost interest and enthusiasm. People are inspired by poetry and adventure, by daring and mystery, not by prosaic workaday chores and errands which the poor space shuttle, the workhorse of NASA, has so often been consigned to do.

The space shuttle was compromised before it even got started because of the Nixon administration's stinginess. The whole concept of a space shuttle is to provide taxi service between the earth and an orbiting space station, as depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It might have seemed at the time (1972) that NASA being committed to developing a space shuttle was bringing us one step closer to the fulfillment of the future imagined by that film, but there was one crucial flaw: the space station was left out of the picture. So the shuttle was doomed to become, for many years at least, a bus to nowhere. Many of the early flights were devoted to launching telecommunications satellites for corporations. Hardly romantic or inspiring.

One of the sad ironies of the space shuttle program is that, even though it never actually succeeded in making space flight routine (which had indeed been its primary reason for existence), it did succeed in making it feel routine to the American public. This is not the fault of the space shuttle itself. The shuttle, born out of compromise due to budget limitations and a lack of political will, was perhaps doomed from birth not to live up to its full potential. The shortsightedness of our national space agency and our Congress only further prevented it from realizing its full potential by being what it was meant to be: a humble but integral part of a fully functioning space program--a space program, and therefore a space shuttle, that had some clue about what it was there for and where, exactly, it was going.