Whatever Happened to the Former Love of Ideas? – Positivism vs. the Humanities in the 21st Century: Brain vs. Mind – one should ask…
When I was still in college in the mid-sixties books and ideas were considered very serious things, something to be passionate about; a sort of higher form of existence residing in the Platonic world of the intelligible. Dialogues and debates on ideas were considered a sine qua non of an education worth its salt. And this was true not only for philosophy majors, such as myself, but also for those liberal arts students who majored in history or the arts, or literature. Hermeneutics, or the interpretation of fiction, poetry, history and philosophy was not a mere tool useful for analytical procedures but, more importantly, it testified to one’s moral view of the world. Which is to say, ideas mattered. They mattered a lot. They had power over one’s life. They determined one’s intellectual and spiritual destiny. In some strange way one became the books one read.
Those ideas were found not only in the canon of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger, but in great novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Lawrence, Mann, Kafka, Gide, Camus, Orwell, or the poetry of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Coleridge, Eliot. Philosophy and Literature was in fact understood to underpin all great historical epochs.
This leads to the question: which are the great philosophical ideas that still exert great influence and inspire the current artists? I for one would be hard put to answer the question. Obviously there has been a decline in the appreciation for the grand philosophical and aesthetic credos of the past. It began with the unmooring of metaphysics from philosophy by language philosophers. Then came the Annales’ school of historical thinking (Bloch and Febvre come to mind) which asserted that it was not world-historical individuals who shaped events (as Hegel and Emerson believed), but merely economic, social, geographical factors. They, and only they determined events and the fate of nations and people. This was positivism applied to history. There were more subtle forces at work within history, beyond the wars and revolutions instigated by emperors and generals. They could be extrapolated from the available historical data. This led to deconstruction which elevates the social-semiotic conditions of language over the authors who transformed them into literary art. Enter Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva who insisted that one had to pay attention to what was previously beyond our notice. One did that by phenomenology which looks at what is in front of our noses.
Warhol brought the Campbell soup, or the obvious, to our attention. The banal, the ordinary, the popular became the focus of aesthetic expression. The interest was not so much in art but in the conceit that anything at all could be art. With this went the expulsion of all those ideas that were formerly part of the humanistic canon to create meaning in verbal, plastic and aural mediums. The task now was to unmask Western civilization’s hidden agenda and its doctrinal attitudes and assumptions about art, sex and race as embedded in linguistic and social codes. For those critics, the Enlightenment has generated ideas about the world that were simply naive about their own implications. Enter Barth with his “Death of the Author” and Foucault with his idea that man is nothing but the invention of the Enlightenment, while Paul de Man at Yale university argued that there is no such thing as the human. All this made for some unruly times in the humanities and produced eventually the end of ideas as still alive in mid twentieth century. There are presently no schools of thought in the humanities. One can indeed still study the tenets of the Frankfurt school and the Prague school and study the works of the neo-Marxists (such as Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Lyotard, Marcuse) or the deconstructionist writings of Derrida and de Man but the enthusiasm for ideas and the intellectual energy it generated is gone. It only exists as historical memory. This debunking movement went by the name of post-modern and it was essentially an anti-humanistic stance, even if it arose from within the humanities.
Literature nowadays is often taught without any longer drawing attention to form, imagery, character, metaphor, genre and the relationship between books and society. What has happened is that post-modernism has opened the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience which pretends to explain how we think and express ourselves and affirms that the stuff of consciousness is nothing but a byproduct of the brain’s activity. To understand anything, and indeed everything, all that one needs to do is to map the electrochemical impulses that shoot between our neurons. Reduced to those terms, every academic discipline becomes a neuro-discipline. We are back to phrenology which we thought had been superseded. This includes ethics, aesthetics, theology, literature, you name it. All this leads to the crucial question: if all behavior has an electrochemical component, then in what sense—psychological, legal, moral–is an individual responsible for his actions? If the structures of the brain structures the person, in what sense we can say that there is such a thing as free will? In other words, is a person reducible to his or her physiological components? Is this not sheer reductionism or worse, a literally “mind-less” neuroscience?
What those not trained in philosophy or the humanities fail to perceive is that the focus has subtly changed from the meaning and the interpretation of ideas to the means (the MRI and the brain scan) by which they’re produced. Hence the classical questions that have always intrigued us: What is justice? What is the good life? What is morally valid? What is free will,” have taken a back seat to the biases embedded in our neural circuitry.
Many misguided academic humanists believe that there is no better way for the humanities and liberal arts to save themselves from oblivion than to borrow liberally from the sciences. They claim that the more “scientific” the approach to the arts, the more seriously they are regarded. Several universities now have so called neuroscience centers with specialties in humanities hybrids. The message is this: cognition is literally the tissue that connects all sorts of humanistic endeavors.
And yet there are dissenting voices such as that of Thomas Nagel’s controversial book Mind and Cosmos wherein Nagel has the courage to question the neo-Darwinian belief that consciousness, like any aspect of adaptability, is evolutionary in nature. To the contrary, Nagel affirms that it is highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. Rather, he believes in a teleological universe with nature predisposed to give rise to consciousness, given that no mechanistic explanation seems commensurate with the miracle of subjective experience and the ability to reason. Bit his, alas, is the voice crying in the desert.
To be sure, other scientists have hypothesized that human life is inevitable and that biochemistry is wired into the universe. Stuart Kauffman, for one, believes that all molecules must sooner or later catalyze themselves in self-sustaining reactions or “autocatalytic networks,” crossing the boundary between inanimate and animate. But the more common view among academic scientists is that evolution has no direction, no goals, no set outcomes; our preferences and bias are due to our oversized brains. There are precious few professors who today continue to defend objective values. The zeal for ideas is fast declining. What deeply concerned intellectuals two or three decades ago is now considered anachronistic. Where are today’s Paul de Man, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Hilton Kramer, Isahia Berlin, Susan Sontag, Annah Arendt? Nowhere to be found I am afraid. The liberal arts is no longer where the action is. In 2010 only 7.6 of bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities. The ideas that engage us and seem essential today are primarily scientific.
The passionate issues that galvanized intellectuals thirty or forty years ago seem now far removed from our daily lives. Those ideas engendered by the Enlightenment as regards epistemology, government, aesthetics, alas, no longer engage our best minds, except when we speak of the brain or the meaning of consciousness. We seem to have lost the appetite for locating hidden modalities in art and literature as metaphysics too continues to decline in academic worth and estimation. Will somebody arrive on the scene with the transformative power of a Descartes, Vico, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Kant, Wittengestein, Kuhn or Derrida? As the song goes “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”
There seems to be at work in the humanities nowadays a troubling skepticism, almost a desperation of not being on the right track, of not being able to go anywhere. That in turn leads many humanists to rely on the old-fashioned methods of hard data and the empirical certainty of scientific research. Yet the questions of art, beauty, ethics, our innate capacity for wonder at existence, persist. The question “why is there something rather than nothing” still fascinates a few traditional philosophers. Perhaps it lies in our very genes and will never be suppressed. But overall, for the moment we have yielded those philosophical questions to biological and cognitive science and we have thereby achieved a certain amount of peace. Intellectuals no longer indignantly reach for their pens to debunk materialism and positivism, but it is a pseudo-peace, it is the peace of the cemetery and quite desperation. It is a peace which has put too much trust (or faith if you will) in the human brain, and in doing so it may have given up on the idea that only the mind, and not the brain, will some day be able to fathom the human condition.
How do I know that the neo-positivists of the 21st century are on the wrong track and just as misguided as those of the 19th and 20th century? It is actually quite simple: whenever I inquire of a neurosurgeon if he believes that ideas exist and cannot be denied as existing, the answer is always a resounding yes. But whenever I follow-up and ask if he has ever seen ideas floating around some place in the brain when he operates on it, or reflected in his brain scanner, a perplexed look seems to appear and there is usually no answer to the question. At best one gets an ambiguous: “give us some more time and eventually we’ll find them.” My reply to that statement is: good luck!
Herat, the fire’s bride
The olive eyes of Shaista peep between the bandages covering her burnt body, for she, like so many other Afghan women from the city of Herat, decided to escape her life by way of fire.
Shaista arrived at the hospital burning between wisps of hair and fabric, and her 19-year-old body is now a landscape of lava.
Tears seep between the gauze and the passageways of her blistered skin. Compassion is the closest thing to love that she will experience, and the hands of the man who changed her bandages are amongst the few that didn’t strike her.
She set herself on fire for a crime she didn’t commit, one that doesn’t exist, or one that everyone else appears to see except her. Her crime was being born a woman.
According to Oxfam, 8 out of every 10 Afghan women suffer either physical, sexual or psychological violence.
In 2015, the Independent Afghan Commission for Human Rights registered 5,132 gender crimes and between April and June 2016 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 600, but many go unreported.
The women who go to the police are at risk of being raped before being returned to their families. Those who escape for more than 48 hours face accusations of adultery, the punishment for which is either facial mutilation or death. Passed between relatives, offered to others to pay debts or settle disputes, raped and subjected to acid attacks in the streets; these women lose their mental stability and take their own lives in the most brutal way.
They usually come from lower social groups and as they don’t have access to guns or money to buy barbiturates, they drink rat poison, hang themselves, jump into rivers or set themselves on fire.
Although the families declare a ‘domestic accident’, it is easy to identify a suicide, as the majority are aged between 14-21 years old and are soaked in kerosene, when in fact most people use firewood or gas to do the cooking at home.
85% of Afghan women are unable to read or write and thus out of ignorance believe that they will die quickly. But instead they suffer for days before dying. Many pour boiling oil over themselves or drizzle it over their abdomen in order to raise attention to their plight, but sometimes the flames envelop them.
One of the most influential thinkers and leading Afghan practitioners in the field, Dr. Djawed Sangdel says: “Education is a key. This country needs a thorough horizontalisation of education for all.”
80% of those who arrive in hospital perish because of a lack of means to treat them, and if they do survive, they suffer lifelong consequences, for it is difficult to follow a course of treatment whilst carrying water and looking after numerous children.
Almost 40 years of war brought with it misery, poor health and lack of governance, under which the patriarchal system flourished; a system which made Afghanistan an open-air prison for women, causing them irreparable psychological damage.
The country’s laws tolerate tribal codes and 60% of girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry men double their age, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan.
Studies from the UN Fund for the Development of Women reveal that the majority of widows sell their bodies or turn to begging in order to survive, and 65% of them see suicide as the only solution to their misery.
Herat, once known as the Pearl of Khorasan, is today a ghost town, with a horizon dotted with adobe houses, obsolete war munitions and faces hidden from the world behind the grille of a burka.
After a week in hospital, Shaista’s mother-in-law escaped with her to hide her at home, as her son simply didn’t deserve the shame of a suicidal wife.
Almost a month after the fire, she returned with wounds all over her body and without any feeling in her arms due to large necrotic areas. She did, however, survive – one of life’s cruel jokes.
Now with the same fears as before, scars from the fire on her skin and with only one arm to carry her daughter, Shaista is back in the place that she so wanted to flee.
The Modern Tragedy of Child Marriage
Authors: Pooja Shah & Russell Whitehouse
“And just like that, my mother was married to the village chaiwala when she was 14!” I distinctly recall my grandmother saying as we sat together on the front porch, warmed by the mid-summer breeze.“14? She’s a child!” I gasped out of horror. “How can she be married? Her parents allowed it?” I ignorantly continued.
It was July 2011. I was visiting my now-late grandmother in Ahmedabad, Gujarat after a two-month writing excursion through Mussoorie. The first few days of my stay were filled with pleasantries and questions about school and life in “Amreeka”, quickly followed by the incessant questioning of when I would get married and if I found a suitable companion yet… Of course, to a 19-year old college sophomore student barely at the cusp of adulthood, marriage felt like an intangible figment of my imagination, as it did for most of my peers back home who were too occupied by finalizing our majors and what party to attend next weekend. However, as my grandmother spoke, summoning stories of her own mother, it became dauntingly obvious that not only marriage was the traditional norm, but marrying early was the expectation in the era she grew up in.
12% of girls in the developing world will be married off before the age of 15; in many of the world’s poorest countries, like Bangladesh, over half of girls will be married off before the age of 18. According to the IWWC, over 400M women aged under 50 years old are survivors of child marriage. .Western countries aren’t exempt from this scourge: over 200k girls have been married in this current century in the US.
Although theoretically child marriage is outlawed in India, in many rural areas, impoverished families will often “give away” their children in exchange for fleeting economic security. Rooted deeply in religious, traditional and cultural norms, and often motivated by economic factors, many families view child marriages as a means to end their economic suffering.
My grandmother confided in me that her mother, a child herself, gave birth at the age of 16 with a husband who was nine years her senior. Dadi dismissed my shocking reaction and confirmed, once again, that this was not atypical. I began to realize over the course of our conversation the very limited rights and personal choices these children, particularly young girls, have. Their lives are a mere transaction: exchanging their livelihood and existence for a few rupees on their families behalf, all while being forced to forego their educations, childhood, hobbies, and sense of independence.
This commodification of the lives of girls reinforces a culture of deep misogyny. Being married off while school-age tends to end a girl’s education; less than half of child brides have completed primary (let alone higher) education. This can create economic shackles for a girl in a marriage; without even a basic education, a girl or young woman is unlikely to find a job that can create any level of financial freedom. Being saddled with a child from a young age also impedes a girl’s ability to leave the house to find work. With this reality in mind, it’s no shock that child brides are 9% more likely to experience physical or sexual abuse (generally by a husband or parent in-law) than women. A young lady with little education is less likely to be aware of legal options to end this suffering, like filing a domestic abuse complaint with the police or filing for divorce.
Such a culture is likely to continue other degrading practices, like female genital mutilation and widow ostracizing, as well as create whole generations of traumatized girls and young women. The systemic rape of young girls inevitably moves the social Overton window, making the rape of women, men and boys seem less important or even noteworthy. Growing up in a household featuring such disparate power dynamics is liable to create a twisted sense of self-esteem and justice among children of child brides. Mothers are one of the primary sources of the pedagogy of a child. Thus, girls who were taken from their schools to get married would be less well equipped to contribute to their children’s education. This would be especially apparent in terms of sexual education; a culture of child brides is intrinsically less able to teach its children about health topics like STDs and birth control, to say nothing of ethical issues like consent.
My dadi also revealed how her own mother suffered multiple miscarriages throughout her youth, as her body was not fully equipped to bear pregnancy. This is unsurprising; young girls aren’t biologically ready to go through the physical traumas of pregnancy and giving birth. Pregnant girls under 15 have quintuple the maternal mortality rate of women; 88% of them suffer obstetric fistulae, which often lead to permanent disability. Girls are also disproportionately likely to receive cervical lacerations during intercourse, which can lead to cervical cancer down the line. The children resulting from these underage marriages suffer similar hazards. Babies born to child brides are 28% more likely to die within their first 5 years of life than babies born to women.
When confronted by my bachelorette status (as I often was when I visited India), I remember I would always counter with “I have to finish school first”, acknowledging the privilege I had to control my education and career aspirations. When it comes to these child brides, often times marrying at a young age will likely mean an end to their education, and in turn, will hinder their ability to obtain the skills and knowledge that is vital for income-generating employment.
That day I was enraged by the fact that child marriage continues to exist in the 21st century, as well as my personal lack of awareness on the issue. It has been over eight years since that enlightening conversation, and thankfully due to the tireless efforts of activists, legislators, and advocates there has been movement towards ending child marriage. In fact, UNICEF and Indian Wedding Buzz joined forces earlier this year on Valentines’ Day to #EndChildMarriage, demonstrating that one of the most crucial steps in eradicating this humans right issue is to stand against it. By utilizing their global social media platform and influential magazine, the #EndChildMarriage initiative was aimed at raising awareness of the implications of child marriage and more importantly, how we, collectively, can help put a stop to it. The campaign further empowered young girls in many South Asian and African countries (i.e. Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, among nine others) with the information and resources to understand the implications of what they are being forced into. Furthermore, the program continued to develop national strategies with the efforts of government investments, religious leaders, and of course our community. This social media sensation, backed by Indian Wedding Buzz, demonstrated their respective commitment to being part of the change, so that we as South Asians, as Americans and as humans can follow suit to be part of this revolutionary movement. After all, there is strength in numbers.
Marcia Andrade Braga: A ‘stellar example’ of why more women are needed in UN peacekeeping
Training gender advisors and focal points in the Central African Republic (CAR) has earned a Brazilian United Nations peacekeeper a special gender advocate award, it was announced on Tuesday.
Secretary-General António Guterres will bestow naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcia Andrade Braga, with the UN Military Gender Advocate of the Year Award during the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial conference due to be held at UN Headquarters in New York this Friday.
“UN Missions need more women peacekeepers so local women can talk more freely about the issues that affect their lives”, said Lt. Cdr. Braga.
“I am so proud to be selected”, she said, upon receiving news of her award, also expressing gratitude to her colleagues in the UN Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA).
Serving as the Military Gender Advisor at MINUSCA Headquarters since April 2018, Lt. Cdr. Braga has helped to build a network of trained gender advisors and focal points among the Mission’s military units and promoted mixed teams of men and women to conduct community-based patrols around the country.
These “Engagement Teams” were able to gather critical information to help the Mission understand the unique protection needs of men, women, boys and girls, which in turn helped develop community projects to support vulnerable communities.
Projects include the installation of water pumps close to villages, solar-powered lighting and the development of community gardens to cut down the distances women have to travel, to tend their crops.
Lt. Cdr. Braga is also a driving force behind MINUSCA leadership’s engagement with local women leaders, making sure that the voice of Central African women is heard throughout the ongoing peace process.
Moreover, as a former teacher she has also helped train and raise awareness among her peers on gender dynamics within the Mission.
Jean-Pierre Lacroix, who heads the UN Department of Peace Operations, spelled out: “Marcia Andrade Braga is a stellar example of why we need more women in peacekeeping: Peacekeeping works effectively when women play meaningful roles and when women in the host communities are directly engaged”.
Created in 2016, the UN award recognizes the dedication and effort of an individual peacekeeper in promoting the principles of UN Security Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325) on women, peace and security, which underscores the “3 Ps”, to prevent conflict; protect women and their rights during and after conflict; and to increase the numbers of women participating in all mechanisms, to prevent and resolve conflict.
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