Friday, March 23, 2007

"We have to touch people..."

by Len Hart, The Existentialist Cowboy

In my last article, I referred to Jacob Bronowski, whose Science and Human Values addressed not merely the objective, scientific bias behind "logical positivism" but also the human drive to create in both science and art. Arguably, this drive is as basic as are the instincts to procreate, eat and seek shelter.

Bronowski, was a scientist, a positivist; but, just as importantly, he was a humanist. When Bertrand Russell would wander into the arid deserts of pure symbolic logic and linguistic abstraction, Bronowski, would bring us all back to earth with the human touch, a comforting reminder that "' is not a mechanism but a human progress."

I cannot believe that it was by accident that what may be his finest effort -- Science and Human Values --was written in the war scarred, arid intellectual landscape that was the post World War II world. The surreal devastation that had been Hiroshima and Nagasaki were symbolic of that world. It was a world that dared to ask or was perhaps forced to confront the frightening question: what would I do if I were the only human being to survive a world wide apocalypse, the last human being left alive?

Positivism is associated with Comte but more recently with the "logical positivists" like A.J. Ayer who proposed and outlined in Language, Truth and Logic a "verifiability criterion of meaning":
"A complete philosophical elucidation of any language would consist, first, in enumerating the types of sentence that were significant in that language, and then in displaying the relations of equivalence that held between sentences of various types.
For Ayer, the function of a sentence is to convey meaningful information. But, if only meaningful sentences are significant and nonsense insignificant, then what is the meaning of meaning? Whether Ayer successfully offers up a meaning of meaning, as he had hoped to do, becomes the litmus test of his legacy. Did he succeed? Or --was Wittgenstein correct to state that all such "positivist" attempts end in infinite regress. What is the meaning of the meaning of meaning?

For Ayer, meaningful sentences are significant because they are verifiable or because they are tautologies. For example, "bald men have no hair" is true by definition. "Synthetic sentences", as Ayer classified them, are only true when measured empirically but are significant because they may be so verified. Statements about the height of certain mountains, on earth or moon, are resolved only by actually measuring the mountain. But statements about them, even if false, are nonetheless, significant. For the moment, we may assume reasonably accurate methods of measure.

Ayer is dry reading:
2. Reduction of material object language to language about sense-contents.

logical constructions (p. 63): if we can provide a definition in use showing how to get rid of a term ‘a’ in favor of other terms ‘b’, ‘c’, etc., then we may say that the thing supposedly referred to by ‘a’ is a logical construction out of the things referred to by ‘b’, ‘c’, etc. So, for example, tables are logical constructions out of sense-contents. (Here is the tendency for positivism to lead to idealism!)
--Language, Truth and Logic, A. J. Ayer
Bronowski, by contrast, talks as much about creation as verification, about culture and civilization as about symbols and formal systems:
This is the act of creation, in which an original thought is born, and it is the same act in original science and original art. But it is not therefore the monopoly of the man who wrote the poem or who made the discovery. On the contrary, I believe this view of the creative act to be right because it alone gives a meaning to the act of appreciation.


'The society of scientists is simple because it has a directing purpose: to explore the truth. Nevertheless, it has to solve the problem of every society, which is to find a compromise between man and men. It must encourage the single scientist to be independent, and the body of scientists to be tolerant. From these basic conditions, which form the prime values, there follows step by step a range of values: dissent, freedom of thought and speech, justice, honour, human dignity and self-respect.'
Only Bronowski, who understood science as well as art, could have written this perfect synthesis of both sides of the human brain, this perfect description of the cultural role that is often played by science.

The act of fusion is the creative act, he wrote. Few have written as eloquently or as precisely about the creative process. Indeed, few have known or understood that both science and art are products of the same human will to create. The artist will produce a gestalt of his/her own brain and hand. The scientist will reconcile, for example, Everest as seen from the north with Everest as seen from the south.
All science is the search for unity in hidden likenesses. Let me illustrate. Western mountain climbers, at home with compass and map projection, can match a view of an some inaccessible and rarely seen mountain with another view that they have seen years ago. But to the native climbers with them, each face is a separate picture and puzzle. The natives may know another face of the mountain, and this face too, better than the strangers; and yet they have no way of fitting the two faces together.

On the morning of the 27th we turned into the Lobujya Khola, the valley which contains the Khombu Glacier (which flows from the south and south-west side of Everest). As we climbed into the valley we saw at its head the line of the main watershed. I recognized immediately the peaks and saddles so familiar to us from the Rongbuk (the north) side: Pumori, Lingtren, the Lho La, the North Peak and the west shoulder of Everest. It is curious that Angtarkay, who knew these features as well as I did from the other side and had spent many years of his boyhood grazing yaks in this valley, had never recognized them as the same; nor did he do so now

The leading Sherpa knew the features of Everest from the north as well as Shipton did. And unlike Shipton, he also knew them from the south, for he spent years in this valley. Yet he had never put the two together in his head. It is the inquisitive stranger who points out the mountains which flank Everest. The Sherpa then recognizes the shape of a peak here and of another there. The parts begin to fit together; the puzzled man's mind begins to build a map; and suddenly the pieces are snug, the map will turn around, and the two faces of the mountain are both Everest. Other expeditions in other places have told of the delight of the native climbers at such a recognition.
J. Brownowski, Science and Human Values, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1965, p. 11.
Of two views, one.

It was a flash of pure creative inspiration that lead Newton to conclude that the moon is falling, literally, around the earth, that an orbit is simply an acceleration of a falling body graphed over time. It was Einstein who took this creative "unification" yet another step. This acceleration graphed over time is a "projection", the very curvature of space-time itself.

It was Bronowski, who urged that we be not "...overwhelmed by the scale of science." There is still work to do. The discovery of mesons occurred during attempts to reconcile our understanding of light as "wave" with its behavior as "particle". Likewise, it is hoped that "string theory" or some other TOE (theory of everything) will make of science an ultimate creative fusion.

For Bronowski, the appreciation of art as well as the understanding of science lies in the willingness of a third party, an observer, to re-create the process. To do so is to share the creative process itself.
The poem or the discovery exists in two moments of vision: the moment of appreciation as much as that of creation; for the appreciator must see the movement, wake to the echo which was started in the creation of the work.'
There are difficulties with both Bronowski and Ayer. Ayer, a thorough-going, formidable logician, cannot verify value statements nor can he state the conditions under which such statements might be verified. His own "Verifiability Criterion of Meaning", his meaning of meaning itself, prevents his doing so.

Bronowski, significantly does not reject such positivism. He embraces its contradiction and transcends it in another paradigm. He humanizes it, pointing out in a single sentence, the underlying, unproved social injunction implied in Ayer's analytical methods. That implied imperative is:
We OUGHT to act in such a way that what IS true can be verified to be so.
It was, after all, Ayer and his fellows, who had eschewed the very word "ought". Thus, at a time when modern philosophy had consigned human values to the realm of meaninglessness, Bronowski, conjoined them in a supreme act of creativity.

Bronowski is best known for his monumental The Ascent of Man, a series that he wrote and hosted for the BBC. In thirteen episodes, Bronowski traced the evolution of human society. Many characterize this monumental achievement as refuting Kenneth Clark's earlier Civilization series. That criticism misunderstands both Bronowski and Clark. I like to think of both efforts as book ends on a single shelf. The Wikipedia assertion that "...the two series can be seen as a dialogue between two fundamentally opposed philosophies" misunderstands the nature of both perspectives as the Sherpa, described by Bronouski in Science and Human Values, failed to recognize Everest from the other side.

Bronowski is not easily reduced to one thing or the other. A thorough-going scientist, he was as much a humanist. As a perpetual war is waged in Iraq and the specter of international "terrorism" is raised by demogogues and genuine terrorists alike, we are in need of real humanists. We are in need of more Bronowskis. We are in need of a rational, yet creative and meaningful, world.

The most moving moment in the Ascent of Man occured in an episode entitled: 'Knowledge or Certainty'. In it, Bronowski visited Auschwitz where many members of his family had died.
We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.

We have to touch people.

Since posting this article, I found another take on Bronowski and Clark. It is from the nationally syndicated Engines of Our Ingenuity hosted by Dr. John Lienhard of The University of Houston's College of Engineering. Lienhard had prepared a broadcast about both Clark and Bronowski for "Engines". Here is an excerpt and a link to a transcript of the broadcast.
Watch either of these TV series by itself and I promise you'll be enchanted. But watch both, and you'll see a stunning convergence from two directions. Clark and Bronowski converge on hope, they converge on belief, they converge on the pervasive unity of the human species. Of course both are wary. In the end, Bronowski says,
We are all afraid ... That is the nature of the human imagination. Yet [we have] gone forward. ...
And a worried Kenneth Clark, facing the social upheaval of the late '60s, says (as much to himself as to us),
... civilisation has been a series of rebirths. Surely this should give us confidence in ourselves.
They both clearly assert our capacity for saving ourselves. They realize that technology, science, and the other arts have always converged upon our problems. And they surely remain our only real hope in troubled times.
-Dr. John Lienhard, Engines of Our Ingenuity, No. 1880:
Clark and Bronowski

When Ascent of Man aired, some "critics" suggested that Bronowski aimed to refute Clark. I never saw it that way. Indeed, Lienhard referred to a "convergence":
Watch either of these TV series by itself and I promise you'll be enchanted. But watch both, and you'll see a stunning convergence from two directions.
-Dr. John Lienhard, Engines of Our Ingenuity, No. 1880:
Clark and Bronowski
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