Friday, November 29, 2002

On November 15th I posted a few paragraphs on the weakness of American political writing, which led me to the post I put up a few hours ago.

"What we share tend to be things that are thought of as absolute, as carrying an almost religious sense of being right or true. And on top of that we toss something called 'style', that is superfluous to the important matters at hand, but still necessary in some way we don't quite get. We don't take it seriously, even as we market to it, but we know it exists."

This is the shallow sense of style or 'art' that I find so ridiculous and so offensive. And the relation now so often posited of rationality -of science- to the market -which supposedly is not shallow- is little more than a metaphor.

Somewhere on my shelf is a book or an article that begins with the description of a conversation between a scientist, a climatologist or mathematician, and a poet or scholar of some sort -a true story- in which they're described as standing on a hill or mountain watching the wind blow clouds across the sky. The scientist begins to describe these natural occurrences scientifically as the interaction of various atoms and molecules, of various properties and rates of motion. The scholar asks if all this analysis doesn't lessen his friend's sense of wonder. One the contrary, his friend says, it increases it.
The story may have come from Steven Weinberg, who loves to take on the artistic temperament and document its failure in the age of science and objectivity to do anything but charm and entertain its guests. And I'll admit, If there's anything that annoys me as much as a scientist who claims to understand while condescending to it the value of art, it's the modern aficionado impressed or intimidated with the sciences, who tries to make art their competition.

The tools of science are capable of making objective measurements, but we are not tools: tools do not dream. Some people think our dreams are what make us interesting, but dreaming doesn't mean our dreams are true. A scientist will be interested in studying what we do when dreaming, using techniques developed while awake. But techniques are tools and we dream while at work. An artist will be interested in dreaming, though he has to be able to walk down the street without bumping into things. But he has to communicate that dream, and communication is not dreaming, or not only. In the past it was philosophically reputable for dreams to rival science as a description of the world, and now it's become reputable to argue that we do not dream, or should not, or that we -at least some of us[!]- can separate one from the other. I'm as angry with the generalizations made by physicists, mathematicians and economists as I've always have been with the romances of rabbis, priests and hippies.

What do I mean when I talk about dreaming?
In making an argument I use every means I know to draw you to my side: I use an authoritative tone; I try to make my sentences flow together, implying that my ideas do the same; I worry about punctuation and run spell check (or I'm lazy and I don't). I try to be witty. I do all these things in an attempt to seduce you into agreeing with my point of view. If I tell you Christ died for your sins, or that I love you, neither means anything without my skill with a story and an audience. To the dismay of young men and theologians it is the telling, not the tale, that convinces. If I were writing out mathematical equations it might not matter, but the logic of argument as much as we would like it to be otherwise is not pure, and the fact that we now have both scientific method and rules of evidence does not mean that such skills are no longer needed.

Every moment of the day we use rhetoric. Every gesture, every vocal inflection, every choice of clothing is a representation of our thoughts and ideas, our delusions and misconceptions about ourselves and others. These gestures are the manifestations of our dreams. And without meaning to be too hyperbolic -since people tend to discount the logic of points made with the help of pat phrases- we ignore their meaning at our peril. Witness of the dreamlife of Paul Wolfowitz.

We learn from the church what we learn from the theater. Even as secularists, we learn from its discourse on dreams. Its tracts contain wisdom on subjects about which science can say nothing. The history of the debate over what constitutes the just use of violence is something that religion can tell us more about than science, if only because science has not debated the issue for 5000 years of recorded history. And notwithstanding the possibility that genetic testing might have made Solomon's threat to slice a baby in half unnecessary, if I had to choose I would trust a judge who knows his Shakespeare over one who reads Scientific American every night before he goes to bed.

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