Mark Sunwall – “The State in Denial: Can Scientism Recover Our Moral Memory?”

The State in Denial: Can Scientism Recover Our Moral Memory?

Mark Sunwall | August 18, 2008

The Pentagon is spending an unprecedented $300 million this summer on research for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, offering hope not only for troops but hundreds of civilians.

~ Gregg Zoroya, Aug. 6th edition, USA TODAY

No doubt the opportunity for extended research reported on by USA Today will be welcomed as one of the more benevolent spin-offs of the war in Iraq, even while what is called research might more correctly be termed reparations and serves to mask the fact that combat-related post-traumatic injury resulting from that war was 100% preventable…at least as late as 2003. But then, instead of moral memory, today we have scientific inquiry into the loss of memory. This latter must be considered a phenomenon not an effect, since an effect implies a cause, and in the blinkered world of scientism there can be no discussion of causes, other than physiological ones.

Now ever since the time of Destutt de Tracy (oddly enough, one of Thomas Jefferson’s boon companions) a movement has been afoot to make science an “ideology” of the state. Today the process is virtually complete, unnoticed apart from a few curmudgeons who insist on the distinction between science and scientism. Fortunately scientism has not lived up to the promises of its ideological founders, who were loath to put any limit on the promises of empirical research. Does evil exist? Aha! There’s a stimulating question and perhaps some agency could commission a study on the subject. Is aggression wrong? Certainly the answer would be worth a few piddling hundred million in research funds. Of course any such clumsy attempts by science to take over the function of religion and ethics would invoke ridicule. Rather, the questions themselves have been conveniently abolished from the corridors of science.

Clearly, our problem today is memory loss, and not just among the soldiers coming back with brain injuries…although they are the most visible and tragic symbols of a problem which has become pandemic. The very method which society uses to attack its ills has rendered us all amnesiac. In our times smuggling in the moral prejudices of civilization would be like starting a university lecture with an unwiped blackboard…so the ethical scientist must resort to palliative measures, beginning de novo and piecemeal among the ruins…a truly heroic venture requiring supercomputers, large research teams, and generous state funding.

One medico involved is reported to have exclaimed of the Pentagon funding, “It is huge…it is…just the most…enormous thing that has happened in traumatic brain injury research.” (USA Today, ibid.) Enormous indeed! Like the happy villagers in Bastiat’s famous allegory, the awed researchers, physicians, and grant administrators are gloating as if some providential vandal had broken the plate glass in every hospital from the Mayo Clinic to Miami, requiring massive reinvestment on infrastructure. But of course the situation is complicated by urgent humanitarian concerns, concerns which compel us to agree that if funds actually manage to trickle down to care and therapeutics we should let a thousand flowers grow. After all, once a human being has become so battered and traumatized that he or she can no longer make decisions on personal recognizance, then yes, let the physician and the care giver use whatever means available in putting the pieces of the wounded soul back together, no matter that the means be dropped by Pentagon helicopters.

Yet it is important to remember how that person in need of material care has been reduced to what we call a “patient,” as opposed to an “agent,” someone exercising free will in a social setting. And knowing the particulars of how men and women have been placed into such hellish predicaments by society requires the study of agency, that is, of human culpability, not just natural causes. Few people realize that one of the best studies in the moral philosophy of agency was made by Ludwig von Mises, known today almost exclusively as an economist. In his Theory and History, he rejected the materialist doctrine that mental illness is entirely the result of material causes. He noted that Charcot, Breuer, and Freud reversed the traditional thinking of psychiatrics in which mental illness was the ineluctable result of physiological causes.

Well yes, certainly the proximate causes of combat trauma are physical, but what of the ultimate causes? What of the minds which, of their own free will, committed the troops to a fruitless cause? Will any amount of research, however well funded, be able to trace the links of causality back up to a point in the past where destiny was still fluid and the trauma preventable? No, even in the absence of friendly dissuasion and political pressure, any such attempt will sooner or later run up against a logical firewall: free actions cannot be operationalized, measured or enumerated…therefore they are beyond the pale of rational investigation. Hence the scientific variant of legal immunity, which doesn’t even require a presidential pardon.

You see, the madness is in the method! Its logic runs as follows: we cannot have a science of human decisions, and human history is the outcome of countless decisions, therefore we cannot know anything about what occurred before the present. The corollary of this is that we must remain obstinately agnostic about everything except the gross facts which confront us and their visible antecedents. Or, as Charley Reese has put it so poetically, it is left to each generation to “rediscover the existence of sin.” History being unknowable, we are doomed to repeat it, and suffer the insult of surprise along with other, and multiple, injuries, thus manufacturing a windfall of ignorance which steadily accrues to the fortunes of the political class.

But of course there is something terribly wrong here, because we do know something about the past, even about that indirectly experienced past which we call “history”…although we are at a loss to explain precisely how it is that we happen to know. It is as if we had a mystical intuition which told us stepping off the next precipice will lead to unpleasant consequences, even though we cannot recall performing the experiment in recent memory.

One might venture all sorts of hypotheses regarding this uncanny perspicacity of the scientifically untutored mind, ranging from innate ideas to reincarnation. However the most economical hypothesis is that we know because we have been told, told by people who lived before our own generation. Thus, at least in principle, we are not reliant on stretching out our hands to see if the flame burns. We are not even limited to what our parents taught us, because we have a further means of communication from the Great Beyond. It is a source of knowledge which is stronger than the grave, though weaker than the apodictic certainty demanded by scientific fundamentalists. This source of knowledge we call “literature.”

We learn about the joys and pitfalls of life from literature, even if today we are more likely to encounter the content of books in their more popular media avatars. In either form, we learn from stories, not from case histories or statistical surveys…the latter being no more nourishing to the moral memory than the proverbial stones for bread. (And if there are some genres, like the anthropological monograph, which partake of both categories…these borderlands testify all the more to a basic distinction.) Literature may or may not teach us, but it certainly robs us of any claims to exceptionalism or exculpatory innocence. We should have learned about obsession from Dostoyevski, about society from Austin, about suffering from O’Conner, and about war from Crane and Tolstoy. True, we are likely to keep on making the same old mistakes, but unlike the immaculate ignorance which scientism seeks to instill in us, a world in which every day starts off with a new null hypothesis and absolution from the past, literature should at least teach us a sense of awe at the fragility of life lived in the shadow of old Adam’s bad moral habits.

Which reminds me of a story somebody told about a man named Erick who worked in a Veteran’s Hospital during the Korean war. Actually he was a veteran of the war before that. Now of course we have veterans of the war after that and after that and after that ad infinitum. Well, this Erick was an orderly in the hospital, but to all intents and purposes his personal background and psychological profile resembled a typical patient. He was stuck in a great scientific/bureaucratic/therapeutic machine which ran relentlessly onward. If you looked at one end of it, it seemed to offer hope. But this Erick got to thinking, and the more he pondered the matter the more it seemed to him that the war and its medical aftermath were all part of one seamless event. That is, the war was never over…even though he was living in a university town deep in the Midwest of America, he was still mentally on a battlefield. To be sure, Erick was trying to get a new start on life: exploring his career options, thinking of taking more education, and making some new moves in his love life…but in actual fact, nobody is able to start their life over in an absolute sense. Rather, he started to realize that, in spite of being an orderly and carrying The Keys to Nine West, he was as locked in as the mental patients whom he was locking up every night. If you want to find out how Erick resolved his dilemma you can read about it in the book of that title.

I mention this story because it is the earliest treatment of post-combat trauma of which I am aware. That is, a literary rather than a scientific treatment. It was written by my father during the Eisenhower administration, long before the subject had become widely acknowledged. It is during in the summer of ’52, so much like the summer of ’08 that Erick must endure the seeming fatality of events,

He kept the radio on almost constantly, going to sleep with it on and jarring awake at six when it began to blare the Star Spangled Banner. The music was interrupted throughout broadcast time with news of the delegate fights and Ike and Taft’s arrival in Chicago. Erick wished savagely that neither would get those delegates, that some obscure senator or governor from a western state would get the nomination, sending the politicians into consternation and despair. But this was an old habit of his, to hope for some spectacular and fantastic catastrophe which would upset the order of things and miraculously set everything right. The expected always happened, of course, as the order of unalterable law rolled and crushed. (ibid, p.111)

Erick’s feeling of being “rolled and crushed” by the “order of unalterable law” that is, historical law, accurately describes the reaction of any sensitive person to the seemingly ineluctable progression of political events. This is the other great fallacy which abets the loss of moral memory…the notion that history is determined by some sort of unalterable organic pattern. After all, this seems plausible in light of our historical experience with each new generation being sacrificed to another war. However there is a crucial difference between the valid formulation: “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” and its more popular ellipsis “history repeats itself”…the latter being a tempting snare for those who lack the energy or inclination to analyze their own, and their country’s, past.

As Mises explains in Theory and History, “historical laws” have no more real existence than the snark. The tendency towards repetition in human events is the result of psychological motives which we recognize, in literature and elsewhere, as being common to humanity. However it is important to acknowledge that these motives themselves are not subject to any kind of exact scientific description. We can only understand the free-willing personality in an approximate and indeterminate way. Indeed, it may be possible to create sciences of behavioral observation and control, but the objects studied are no longer free personalities…through clumsy intervention they have been rendered as morally dead as Schrödinger’s proverbial cat. In fact, Mises was so adamant about the distinction of behavioral and literary psychology, that he invented a separate name “thymology” for the latter.

Literature represents a movement in the opposite direction from scientism, towards the recollection of history and the recovery of freedom. However terrible the forces of fatality may press down on the characters of the plot, the intent of the author is to enlighten the reader, making him or her sadder, wiser, and less inclined toward cupidity the next time around…while the window of freedom and humanity is still an option. In contrast, science may be able to ameliorate the human suffering from the Iraq war, but it can’t prevent the next war…indeed, it won’t even let us know if the next war is preventable in principle. Is it?

Published in: on August 18, 2008 at 10:48 PM  Leave a Comment  

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