If scientists knew everything about our genes, our neurophysiology, about the environment in which we develop, would they then be able to give a completely scientific explanation of our aesthetic preferences?
The presumption that they would I call the ‘god argument,’ since what it implies is that ‘once we attain (god-like) knowledge of everything, all our questions will be answered.’ This argument appears in a number of philosophies and ideologies, including some religions. My favorite such argument is Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind (through the crucible of the dialectic we attain Absolute Knowledge), because Hegel implies that the science and philosophy of his day had already achieved this. He thought the historical process of discovery, debate, synthesis, as well as development of new interests to explore, was completed. He was wrong.
I know that no one is, any longer, arguing that history is over and there is no new knowledge to acquire. But that was only the most obvious evidence of Hegel’s real problem. The god argument itself is wrong, because we are historically and empirically contingent knowers. Even if I grant the claim that science will someday explain everything (and I don’t), the explanation science could give for my aesthetic preferences could very well be right today and wrong tomorrow, dependent largely on contingencies the explanation couldn’t predict. Some of the possible changes could have scientific explanation – e.g., alterations in neurotransmitters in the brain. But others would not – e.g., hearing that a loved one died while listening to a certain song. How that would change my response to the song would depend on a number of factors, having to do with previous experience, previous value choices, contextual relationships (e.g, whether I like my loved one’s family, and cultural codes of showing them sympathy; mutual friends we had and my perceived responsibilities to these; not to mention issues concerning children if there are any involved), as well as dealing with whatever emotions (or other internal responses) I would be feeling (also partly culturally coded); and there would obviously be practical matters to take care of, e.g., going to the hospital, and so on.
Sorry for the run on sentence! But such listings of possible issues to confront in a moment of crisis do all finally form the whole of the experience.
And yes, if all of these contingencies could be accounted for, then how I would afterwards respond to the song I was listening to at the time could be fully explained – possibly scientifically, or perhaps, per Hegel, dialectically.
But only a god could know all this about me; and I don’t believe in god.
‘Literary Darwinism’ is the recent development in literary theory of a notion borrowed from evolutionary psychology, that literature and the tastes we have for it are expressions of evolutionary imperatives toward increased fitness. Some time ago, I did some research on the supposed ‘father of literary Darwinism’ (as some call him), Joseph Carroll. I was able to read some of his theoretical writings online but found very little literary criticism by him. Basically his main interest is promoting a modification of Pinker’s theory that artistic forms are side effects of the evolutionary development of language. Does this tell us anything about literature? Well – no. It’s an argument concerning evolutionary psychology. At one point in an interview (http://neuronarrative.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/what-is-literary-darwinism-an-interview-with-joseph-carroll/), Carroll says: “Identifying adaptive functions for the arts need not detract from the richness and complexity of the arts.” But he’s supposedly a literary theorist! He has to argue how his theory *enhances* our appreciation of “the richness and complexity of the arts.” (Instead he goes on to describe an online psychology quiz to find out what readers think about characters in Victorian novels!)
When I finally got to snippets of Carroll’s literary criticism in reviews of his texts, I found it read – well, like literary criticism: aesthetic exhortation about appreciating the fascinating characters in great novels doing interesting things; explanations of why he thinks certain novels are worth reading and what we can learn from them. Pretty much what literary critics have been doing since long before ‘literary Darwinism.’
Finally, note: Although readers and writers have discussed fiction and verse for many centuries, what we now call “Literature” as an academic study is an invention of the mid-19th century. There would be no “Literature,” no canon of “Literary texts”, except that educators 150 years ago agreed it might be a good idea to have one (see, for instance, Graff’s “Professing Literature,” http://www.amazon.com/Professing-Literature-Institutional-Twentieth-Anniversary/dp/0226305597). Complex social issues brought this about, complex social values have changed around it, driving conflict and debate. The literary cannon has undergone ongoing revision in response to these changes. What we see here is a morass of conflicting philosophical, social, and political conflicts. Nothing gives us reason to think the matter will be settled scientifically; exactly because the matter concerns something we value, and not just ‘what is.’
Here, briefly, I should also question the notion that the common methodology of acquiring reliable knowledge, that we widely accept today – experience, hypothesis, testing, inductive analysis, deduction – as a specifically scientific methodology. This methodology was practiced, after a fashion, by the Greeks, 2500 years ago. Are we saying they were practicing science? 2500 years before the practice of what we now commonly call science? Are we then appropriating the history of Western philosophy to the project of “scientization?”
I’m sorry, but this is really starting to sound like ideology. The Christians also appropriated the Greeks, as somehow proto-Christian theorists arguing for the existence of god. I could never accept that (even when I was a christian!), so I don’t see myself accepting Greeks as proto-scientists (in the modern sense, as studying the ‘natural sciences’), except in the loosest of terms. *
It is indeed arguable that we use some variant of this methodology in many realms of experience. It is far, far less clear that we are engaging in science when we do so. Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes use this methodology to solve his mysteries – do we really agree to call him a scientist? Do we need to, in order to enjoy those mysteries?
This is really causing problems for the argument that science does or can totalize knowledge. If it is agreed that this methodology is not specifically scientific, then the argument deflates rapidly into speculation. If it is argued that it has always been scientific, then the argument is open to critique from outside – obviously an effort to colonize other ways of developing knowledge about the wide range of complex and diverse human interests, with the project of reducing all that knowledge, all such experience, to scientific explanation – the project popularly known as scientism. In which case the position is open to all the criticisms of scientism as an ideological project of imperialistic totalization of knowledge.
* Conceiving certain of the ancient Greeks as mathematicians in the modern sense, is a different matter – and one doesn’t even need to prefix the conception with the cautionary “proto.” That raises some very interesting questions concerning maths and their epistemology. But while some argue that math is a science, and no one denies how dependent modern science is on mathematics, the fact remains that its epistemology still follows effectively deductive practice, and so is not relevant to the methodology of experience, hypothesis, testing, induction and deduction that we have discussed here. I suppose everything hinges on the question of how sensory the experiences we are talking about are, and how empirical the testing. However, for the purposes of this essay, the methodology assumed is understood in the common sensory, empirical sense of the terms, and clearly most mathematics is directed along other pathways, as I discussed briefly in a previous essay.