Sunday, 19 August 2012

Bleak moments

Do you ever have super-cynical moments where you know the human condition to be much bleaker, simpler and mechanical than we usually admit? I do and I suspect many others do too.

I don’t mean I’m torn to ribbons by bouts of uncontrollable angst or anything remotely like it. I'm rather fond of a spot of bleak every now and then. But I sometimes wonder if we’d be better off making a clean breast of things - in a socially honest kind of way.

Allow me to take the arts as an example. Let’s apply a bit of bleak simplicity to the arts.

The arts are a loose grouping of artificial stimuli which affect us emotionally. Paintings, sculpture, music and literature are socially constructed stimuli designed to induce certain emotional responses – we call them aesthetic. They do not originate within the aesthetic creation itself, but from the social rules by which it was created. The rules do not have to be rational.

I don’t want to pursue this argument as an argument, but as an example of how one could quite easily and consistently analyse aesthetics into nothing but socially approved emotional responses to stimuli. The details of how these responses gain their social approval may be complex, diffuse and fragmented, but once they are established, the analysis is simple. Bleakly mechanistic but simple.

Now we all know that this kind of mechanistic thinking isn’t at all new and I suspect substantial numbers of people have always teetered on the edge of it from time to time. But most of us don’t take the plunge, because to do so would deprive us of our aesthetic pleasures. The music, the appreciation of beauty, harmony – the whole gamut of aesthetic satisfactions would be lost, or at least degraded.

Now let’s apply some bleak simplicity to science:-

Science is all about tools –how to make them and how to use them - nothing else. We are tool-makers - science and engineering are merely tool-making. Sooner or later all scientific speculation must end in the building of a new tool or in a new use for existing tools. Otherwise science is merely gossip. It may be mathematical gossip – but still gossip.

Maybe this kind of bleak simplicity is the key we throw away, the one we are all aware of but prefer not to use - the key to unlock comforting social illusions. Once unlocked they would offer scant comfort and little business for professional wordsmiths of the soundbite persuasion, so we are persuaded to leave them alone.

In fact most of us seem to be conditioned from birth to go along with many useful social illusions. Maybe it’s why intelligent people become frustrated. My own view is that bleak = true, but whether I'm inclined to go along with my own view is another matter.

And as you may have guessed - I'm reading Zola again.


Nigel Sedgwick said...

No doubt this is an interesting view; I have a small number of concerns.

Firstly, one interpretation is that you are trying to rationalise the spiritual/loving/artistic side of life. One can do that, but the meaning so found is, IMHO, ephemeral.

Secondly, taking the bleak view might just be a variant of the catharsis of the guilt trip. Only the taker would actually know (and then only if he/she were lucky in their self-analysis).

Thirdly and lastly, taking the bleak view could be extended to finding no point (purpose) in a rather complicated example of quantum-electrodynamics (ie sentient life and thought). That lack of point is equivalent of there being no rationality in being impressed by the example: it arises through its very possibility of existence, combined with waiting long enough.

As an alternative, I have (at its simplest) the dichotomy of utility and spirituality. I am still struggling to determine whether the thirst for knowledge is part of the second, a belief in future utility that is currently unknown, or something separate and of its own validity.

Best regards

Sam Vega said...

Excellent post, AKH; one of the best yet.

Like Nigel, above, I have my doubts, but this view of yours really gets me thinking.

My first thought is that lots of people touch on this bleakness, but then back away. It is outside their comfort zone, and can look like a slippery slope into utter meaninglessness and depression.

Secondly, this looks rather like a form of mindfulness. Being aware that one's response is contingent upon a particular set of circumstances, rather than being something which it is advantageous to be attached to.

there is a problem in applying this to science, though. Science is about creating tools, I grant you. But are you going far enough here? What about applying the bleakness to the ends of science as well as the means? The tools make us comfortable and efficient, etc. But are these qualities not contingent and ultimately meaningless in the same way?

Sam Vega said...

Sorry, another quick point. What I was leading to is that we should also apply the bleakness to the conclusion of "bleak = true". Does bleakness undercut itself, along with other forms of contingency and relativity?

Sam Vega said...

Me again!

Go and check out Duff & Nonsense this morning, on Picasso. Strangely relevant to your theme.

A K Haart said...

Nigel - "one interpretation is that you are trying to rationalise the spiritual/loving/artistic side of life"

It is, and what I'm saying is that this may be possible but undesirable as we tend to chuck out the spiritual baby with the bathwater so to speak.

In the end we do have, as you say, both a thirst for knowledge and a spiritual nature, both of which we seem to need. So I suspect your dichotomy is sound, we can't allow one to be subsumed by the other.

Sam, Sam and Sam - thanks. I tend to go with your first point - it is a slippery slope and one we shouldn't push too far because it can be genuinely damaging.

As for applying it to science, as you say we should also apply it to the ends as well as the means.

I'm not so sure that bleakness undercuts itself though. To my mind that's the real problem with it, the slightly scary aspect.

I have checked out Duffers and left a comment. I didn't know about that quote - what an old cynic the guy was!

Demetrius said...

Life is a social illusion and possibly more illusion than social.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - agreed!

James Higham said...

Soaring and heightened are also real.