Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Treacherous Invisibility of Sociality

We are dealing with phantasms, which makes drawing a line among them difficult.

It is easy to take potshots at science for its blinkered focus on the measurable and the concrete. How many people have pulled out the famous Shakespeare line about the many more things, poor Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy? How many times does the newest research in social sciences tell us what anyone with common sense already knows? However, on the other side, the quest by softer sciences, like economics and ecology, to man up and drown themselves in math in order to satisfy their envy of the "hard" sciences. There are clearly conflicting emotions on the matter, which occasionally boil over into Trumpism and general anti-elitism.

But understanding by way of careful observation, useful simplification / reduction / schematization is what all scholarship and learning is about. One can't get around learning about something in detail if one wants to master it, either operationally or intellectually. The scientific method was revolutionary development, not only for science per se, but for philosophy and specifically for psychology. It expresses a skepticism of knowledge gained by theoretical, authoritarian, and armchair means, untethered from whatever the object purports to be, whether physics or biblical texts or history. Just as we suspect statements made by our current president when based on nothing, likewise we should suspect other claims lacking evidence of a rigorous, empirical kind.

But there is a deep problem, which is that our most important issues and forms of knowledge are social, not measurable and concrete. While science struggles to grasp social patterns and knowledge from its particular perspective- and not yet terribly successfully- those patterns are at the same time experienced richly in everyday life by everyone and portrayed with great variety and complexity in the arts. It is the core of drama- who knows what, who likes whom, and can I see through layers of deceit.  All of this is invisible in the conventional sense. It may be encoded somewhere in our brains, but the proper level of analysis is clearly not that of the neuron. As scientists, we are left with questionnaires, polls, and, generally, utter blindness when it comes to this most important apparatus of our lives.

Hard to read?

What hides, and what exposes, the social matrix? Language is the premier medium, of course, going far beyond the pheromones, grunts, dancing, and grooming of other animals. Blushing, facial expression, and eye direction, are a few more biological examples of other ways we externalize our social feelings. Yet there is great value in hiding feelings as well, whether out of politeness or deceit. Indirection, subtlety, puns, jokes, allegories, metaphors, a single look. The cues, even when present, are devilishly hard to read, which prompts theories about how sociality drove gains in human intelligence. So even on the social level, let alone the scientific level, it is hard to know what is going on beneath the surface, where sociality truly resides.

An inference of sociality, constructed in typical mid-20th century fashion.

The result of all this is that we are very enthusiastic inferrers and theorists. Conspiracy theories, truthers, birthers are some of the more extreme manifestations, but we all have to do a lot of reading between the lines just to survive as social beings. What is a soap opera but the carefully and gleefully managed reveal of social facts that are not, in timely fashion, apparent to the participants? Some people are more skilled at all this reading and inferring than others are. Extroverts enthusiastically wade into this murky unknown, while introverts regard it as hostile territory, and tend temperamentally to populate the scientific ranks, struggling to find certainty in an uncertain and largely invisible world.

What becomes treacherous about all this is the over-enthusiastic inference of things that are not there. On the social plane this can be over-sensitivity to slights and oversights. But it can also be religion- the natural inference of sociality to inanimate phenomena. Animism seems the most natural human condition, anthropomorphizing everything around us from insects to mountains, and putting ourselves into subtle social relations with it all. The rise of patriarchy seems to have prompted a massive shift from animistic patheism to father-centric monotheism. The theological object is no more real, however, for being consolidated and blown up out of all proportion. It is still an over-enthusiastic inference of sociality / personhood put on the void. Smarter theists have given up trying to explain particular aspects of reality via crackpot theology, such as electricity or evolution. Yet "everything" is still somehow fostered, created, or underpinned by this phantasm, much as prostate health is "supported" by the latest herbal supplement or hemeopathic nostrum.

What's the harm? On the social plane, over-inference leads to a lot of drama, but is quite finely tuned and bounded by actual, empirical, interactions (though our politically partisan echo chambers breake this model). It is how we evolved to deal with each other. On the philosophical plane, it has been disastrous, giving us centuries of bad ideas, intolerant theologies, and mis-directed energies. Think of all the monks and nuns praying away in their cloisters to non-existent deities for undeserving patrons. And today we are still living in a world at war over religious differences, all based on imaginary inferences created out of the template of our social assumptions and desires.

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