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Play, Dissected


“But why on earth won’t they let us play?” That is the question I came away with after reading David Graeber’s excellent “What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?”, from The Baffler no. 24. It’s a question I have been asking myself since I began studying and practicing economics. While it was ethology that Graeber was discussing in his piece, it’s economics that has done the most to spread this drab and depressing view of life in the humanities.

Thomas Carlyle famously called economics the “dismal science.” What makes economics so dismal is that it reduces all human activity to the so-called “laws” of supply and demand. What makes it so dangerous today is that it tells those in power that the best policy is to simply leave people to engage in market transactions without any interference and utopia will result. While supply and demand might be important, proceeding from there to reduce all human behaviour into market transactions is sheer nonsense. Unfortunately, this is the direction that economics has taken since the turn of the nineteenth century.

In modern economics, it has crystallised into an idea generally known as the “utility-maximising agent,” or the “rational agent with rational expectations.” This agent is a sort of cyborg man with fully deterministic properties who is fed a range of numerical values and organises these into a hierarchy which then determine how he will behave. This cyborg can then be used to explain all sorts of economic phenomena, from the purchase of muffins to how the financial sector organises itself to the effects that certain economic policies will have (yes, our cyborg can be used to justify austerity!). These days, our cyborg is even applied to explain why people organize their sexual activities in the ways they do.

This is the same impulse as the one Graeber complains about concerning the field of ethology. It is one that seeks to corner all activity and plaster on its forehead a formula or label explaining everything in terms of some sort of rationality or calculation. This is, in essence, a moral discourse, one that prejudges which activity, animal or human, is valid and which is invalid; formulates a priori hypotheses that exclude any activities that do not fall within the constructed field of validity; and finally, unleashes this whole structure upon empirical reality and dubs the result “science.”

But how did this happen? It is tempting to think that, perhaps, this has something to do with capitalism. Economics, in such a system, would grow from the same rational organization of nature as the biological sciences, like ethology and genetics. Everything is mere calculation: thinkers like Richard Dawkins, this line of thinking goes, are nothing more than the naïve dupes of the bourgeoisie, their arguments nothing but the ideological result of the greater social situation that they find themselves within.

Personally, I was never satisfied with this solution to the puzzle. There were simply too many pieces that didn’t quite fit. Modern economics often strays from capitalism in its assumed distributions and theoretical foundations. The problem is better viewed from the point-of-view of the rationalising tendency itself, deeply embedded in the Englightenment’s understanding of anatomy.

Rene Descartes believed that human beings consisted of two separate components or ‘substances’. One of these was the body and the other was the mind. The body was simply a machine, a mechanism subject to deterministic laws. From this mechanical description came other descriptions of the body as machine, but the mind, for Descartes, was something wholly different. It was not subject to deterministic mechanistic laws, but instead existed in a different sphere altogether, maintaining a certain degree of independence. This view is generally known today as mind-body dualism.

For Descartes, animals did not have souls, and so they could be viewed as mechanical automatons, pure and simple. The only reason that human beings were safe from this fate was because they possessed a mind independent of the materiality of the body. Viewed solely in the terms of their material body, human beings would also, like animals, simply be machines.
Others wanted to take Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy much further, insisting that all human actions were determined by mechanical actions—“a matter in motion.” Julien Offray La Mettrie published Man a Machine, in 1748, concluding that “man is machine, and that in the whole universe there is but a single substance differently modified.” This view, as Karl Popper noted over two hundred years later, in 1978, “has perhaps more defenders than before among physicists, biologists, and philosophers; especially in the form of the thesis that man is a computer.”

In neurology today, we see a sort of Hobbesian or Mettriean mechanistic materialism—the firing of neurons. But when this pure materialism runs into obstacles, we get a variant of Cartesian dualism, one which modifies the original by largely rejecting the autonomy of the mind and trying to establish as much determinism as possible.

In this modified version, we see the mind as conceived by Descartes being replaced with a modernised version of the automata: namely, the computer. The brain or the genes, in this view, are the hardware; the rationalising agent is the software. Is it any wonder that the end result cannot engage in play?

Anatomy of the Mind

But what generated these machine metaphors? Why did writers in the early modern period begin comparing human beings and animals to primitive robots and crude mechanical inventions? This is where a rather unusual source comes into play: that of dissection and anatomy.

With the rise of Cartesian dualism, a new view of the human became popular. Rather than view man and woman as subjects, as a holistic organism endowed with an irreducible soul that permeated the whole body, the early moderns began to view the human body as an object analogous to those that could be constructed and deconstructed by their own hands in workshops.

Dissection allowed philosophers and scientists to conceive of the human body in completely new ways. Prior to this, it was viewed as a whole, and it was taboo to interfere with the whole by cutting it into parts. Dissection meant that medical operations could be performed on the human body in precisely the same way they were performed on machinery. Put somewhat differently: the body became not a sacred vessel, its dissection hitherto banned by all cultures, but rather an object that could be tampered with by an inquring scientist, due in part to the Church lifting the taboo in the 13th century. In Church doctrine, the soul was far more important than the body, and therefore, dissection could be sanctioned.

The analogy with automata then becomes obvious. Because automata were designed to mimic human form, they became at once a copy and a metaphor for the human body. In his notebooks dealing with dissection and anatomy, Da Vinci wrote, “Though human ingenuity may make various inventions, it will never devise any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does.” Already in the Western Renaissance, when educated writing on human dissection was only beginning, we have attempts to equate the human body with machines.

From this, it was only a small step to claim that the body was merely a machine made up of working parts, fitted together in such a manner that could be fully and completely understood. Descartes’ dualism placed a limit on this by considering the mind as a separate and irreducible entity, but once the computer came along, it was easy to break through this limit by assuming that the mind, too, was analogous to these new machines. This is, in a very real way, where we stand today.

Does Science Change?

There have been perceptible paradigm shifts in the fields and methods of scientific inquiry, which plague not only the physical sciences but also the philosophical profession. They are leading to the proliferation of new terms that signify old ideas while simultaneously disavowing them. For example, in order to evade the fact that contemporary mind-body philosophy has fallen into the old dualism, philosophers like Dennett today rename what used to be called “substance” into something called “property.” When you pick away at this supposed difference, it becomes clear that they are one and the same idea and all that has happened is that the words have been changed.

I do not think that this debate will evolve from philosophers and scientists making speculative arguments amongst themselves. Rather, I think we are currently in the process of a massive conceptual shift that is taking place across the scientific community, which is likely the product of large-scale cultural change.

The public today is quite skeptical of modern science—and with good reason. And while some scientists are battening down the hatches and adopting elitist postures, others are changing their conceptual coordinates. Will they finally get it right? Can they form a truly coherent narrative that will replace the dualism and materialism of old? There are some hints that this is taking place in the higher echelons of the physics profession.

How can we speed this process along? I think the first step is reintegrate science and the humanities. The division of labor in modern industrial economies have violently separated these from one another.

Further than this, I do not believe that you can engineer such a paradigm shift. You can merely manage it. I would advise those making proclamations on such issues to try to straddle the boundaries themselves rather than picking sides. Those on the side of the humanities have an awful tendency to reduce scientific discourse to general cultural discourse, while those in the scientific community have an equally awful tendency to tell themselves that modern science has transcended all those Big Questions that philosophy has been dealing with for millennia. Some humility on both sides would go a long way. Perhaps this would cool the tensions and deflate the egos.

Can science and culture ever truly meet in the middle? Can scientists recognize how limited their role in society actually is, and come to appreciate that they are not the Masters of the Universe that almost every scientist seems to think him or herself to be? At the same time, can culture recognize that, while science cannot provide us with answers to the Big Questions, it is nevertheless, when done properly and unpretentiously, an extremely progressive force?

Only posterity can answer these questions. But consider this: that we do not live in a deterministic universe and that consequently we create our own posterity. I would counsel that everyone march into the future somewhat humbled by the indeterminacy that we all necessarily face and not seek answers from the philosophical and scientific snake oil salesmen that spring up from the seeds of uncertainty that have been cast into this strange world of ours.

A longer version of this piece can be found at Philip Pilkington’s website, Fixing the Economists.