Sunday, April 12, 2009

Philosophers of the Cusp: Evidence of Twice-Born Empiricism?

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Surfing around this morning on William James' (right, Harvard) concept of the "twice-born" soul, I found a piece by Charles Taylor that describes it well, and helped me "theorize" two bits of data from the morningImages newspapers.  (The linked essay is a reprint of a section in Cross-Currents magazine from Taylor's book on James.)  There's a sort of dialectic:  once-born souls "have the sense that all is well with the world and/or that they are on the right side of God;" sick souls focus on nothing but the dark side of the world; twice-born souls have experienced a "loss of faith," but have emerged from being sick with a more humble and realistic optimism.  Taylor (as he does in A Secular Age) describes a modern population (include me) who acknowledge that all we are ever going to "know" is what we can observe and measure and record, and recoil at human claims to knowledge of the supernatural, yet who feel, as Taylor says, "a sense of unease at the world of unbelief: some sense that something big, something important has been left out, some level of profound desire has been ignored, some greater reality outside us has been closed off."  Taylor says of James:

As one stands on the cusp between the two great options [science and religion], it is all a matter of the sense you have that there is something more, bigger, outside you. Now whether, granted you take the faith branch, this remains “religious experience” in James’s special sense, steering clear of collective connections and overtheorization, is a question yet to be determined. But as you stand on the cusp, all you have to go on is a (very likely poorly articulated) gut feeling.

James is our great philosopher of the cusp. He tells us more than anyone else about what it’s like to stand in that open space and feel the winds pulling you now here, now there. He describes a crucial site of modernity and articulates the decisive drama enacted there. It took very exceptional qualities to do this. Very likely it needed someone who had been through a searing experience of “morbidity” and had come out the other side. But it also needed someone of wide sympathy and extraordinary powers of phenomenological description; further, it needed someone who could feel and articulate the continuing ambivalence in himself.

I have a sense that this most recent economic crisis has laid the cusp bare.  Most of the time we don't think about how we know what we know, nor do we need to, but nothing jars us like a gaping breach between what is, and what we think ought to be.  My friend Susan Neiman's work explores this - and not surprisingly her view is that Kant was the great philosopher of the cusp.  It's interesting that her Evil in Modern Thought begins with the revolution in thinking about natural and moral evils prompted by the great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, because it was economics and earthquakes that got me traveling down this path this morning.

In the Sunday Opinion section of the New York Times, Susan Hough, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, explores the current limits of science in predicting a natural evil - earthquakes.  A researcher, Giampaolo Giuliani, predicted an earthquake for March 29 at L'Aquila based on small tremors and radon readings.  When it didn't occur, the Italian Civil Protection Agency made him take down his warnings, only to have the quake occur on April 6.  Hough says Giuliani's prediction was merely fortuitous, and not good science for purposes of predicting quakes by "narrow windows in time, location, and magnitude."  In short, after an earthquake occurs, you can always go back and find patterns of data that might be predictive, but going forward, it turns out that all that data looks like noise.  There's yet to be found any reliable precursor of an impeding major quake; not radon levels, nor warping of the crust, nor animal behavior.  That's not to say that scientists will never be able to predict earthquakes, but they can't do it now.  

The Boston Sunday Globe has a piece that continues in the spirit of Nassim Taleb's Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan:  an article debunking books about how to achieve business success.  The point is really the same as the one being made about earthquakes.  In Search of Excellence, the classic tome by Peters and Waterman, identified successful companies (the erupted quakes), and purported to derive essential conditions (necessary?  sufficient?) for business success, such as bias for action, customer focus, and "simultaneous loose-tight properties" (whatever they are!).  The problem, of course, is that these conditions can't predict business success any better than radon measurements can predict earthquakes.

I'm not suggesting that we regress to the Dark Ages and look to divine sources of earthquake and economic causation.  It's unquestionable, however, that something is different now about human society than it was in 1200, even if there's still murder and genocide and aggression in the world.  I do, however, wonder if it's possible for there to be something of a twice-born epistemology, where we sit on the cusp, as it were, somewhere between scientific explanation, meaning, resignation, and cynicism.  I doubt it in any real sense - any "evidence" of a mature post-scientific age, the Age of Cuspitude, is, as Hough says of other noisy data, "about as meaningful as finding animals in the clouds."  Maybe it's a question of humility and learning; in the words of former UCLA coach John Wooden:  “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

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