Vallejo Nocturno 2016 -drops
review: What do you make of the increasingly scientistic understanding of the self, in that it is reduced to just one object (neuroscientific or otherwise) among others?
Taylor: The scientistic understanding – promoted by the likes of Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker and so on – where we’re conceived as thinking beings, with brains that can be understood like a computer, as the hardware (although they’re soft). Now the concepts of computer programmes and complex algorithms don’t engage at all with the concepts I find myself using as I try to work out my identity, its relation to you and your gaze on me, issues of the good, of the less good – a language that’s highly dependent on being the right interpretation of what I’m feeling, and what I’m experiencing. There’s a total gap between these two languages, and nobody has any clue how you can move from one to the other.
The relationship here is like the relationship between our ordinary talk about temperature – this is warm, this is hot – and talk about the kinetic energy of molecules. That’s the classic example of a reductive explanation. No one has the foggiest idea as to how to bridge the gap between the scientific conceptualisation of the brain and our ordinary sense of selfhood. They pretend to, of course, because they have a picture of a brain that makes it look like a computer. But what in that neuroscientific interpretation relates to my account that, say, this is a horrible way to be, or that I’m deeply alienated, or this is really fulfilling, or this is really admirable? There’s just no connection there. Now I’m not saying it could never happen or that it’s untrue, but the challenge is to produce this kind of ‘bridge’ language, but we don’t even have an idea as to what that would look like. That’s a big promissory note.
Besides, one can’t imagine doing without the language of self-explanation, self-understanding and self-searching, because that’s the language we use for the activity of seeing who we are, what we want and what’s really important. We will never be able to get rid of that language, just like we can’t get away from the language of hot and cold. Perhaps by the 25th century, we will view ourselves entirely in terms of brain science. But it seems to me wildly implausible. You can’t say ‘it will never fly, Orville’, because you have to give science a chance. But it does seem highly unlikely.
review: And, finally, the idea of self-determination – which underpins the development of modern democracy – is increasingly called into question today. One thinks, for example, of the popularity of behavioural economics (so-called nudge theory), and the ‘soft despotism’ and paternalism of Western governments. What do you make of this development?
Taylor: There’s something in the nature of modern democracy which always makes it problematic. If you go back to the ancient idea of democracy, it has a slightly different meaning. It meant rule by the demos. But if you think of modern democracy, you think of rule by everyone, the whole people, right? But the word ‘people’ is ambiguous today. Sometimes, it means the non-elite people, as opposed to the guys on top, hence formulations like ‘they’re not listening to the people’. And then, in another sense of the word, we say democracy is rule by the people, and by that we mean everyone. The Ancient Greeks didn’t have this idea of rule by everybody, because the idea of who was ruling was very clear through face-to-face contact. It was either the whole assembly deciding on a matter, or a much narrower group mainly emanating from the aristocracy and the rich, and there was no problem as to who was calling the shots. Modern democracy is very complex because it refers to very large societies and makes massive use of various forms of representation and representative institutions, because otherwise you couldn’t even begin to imagine what ‘the people call the shots’ would mean. So it’s always open to the questions: aren’t these complex institutions meant to represent the will of the people, and is anything like that happening? Are they being captured at various points by bureaucrats, by lobbyists, by the rich? Modern democracy always potentially invites deep suspicion.
What makes a difference, I think, is that people have the sense that, yes, there is something like democracy going on when, in some way, the distance between whoever the directly ruling people are – ministers, lobbyists, paymasters – and the mass of people is somehow lessened, because somehow money is not running the whole show, we have real popular movements that are having an impact, and so on. And in modern Western democracy, I think you can see a series of epochs when things were moving towards something that looks like the people ruling, and other periods when we’re moving away from this ideal.
So, after the Second World War, with the development of the welfare state and various forms of universal provision, and the existence of powerful trade unions who could fight against employers etc, there was a sense that we’re moving ahead. And that was partly because the great inequalities between rich and poor had gotten less, and much less in the US. Between, say, 1900 and 1950, there had been a real compression of what in the robber-baron days were just astronomical inequalities. After about 1975, in the US and the West in general, it moves the other way. And one of the measures of this is the spectacular growth in inequality. Correspondingly, money seems to talk a lot more loudly. So there’s a sense in which the suspicion that these institutions don’t represent the rule of the people grows. And consequently, more and more people don’t vote, which means that it is increasingly true that these institutions really don’t represent the people. So you get a spiralling towards what could be a believable democracy between 1945 and 1975 and a spiralling away ever since. I think that if we ever reverse the growing inequality, we’ll get a sense that we’re on the road back again.
But I think the thing about modern democracy is that at best you are only on the road to, rather than at, the point at which the people really rules.
The popularity of behavioural economics among today’s rulers must be understood within the context of the imperfections of modern democracy. And behavioural economics is highly manipulative; Cass Sunstein’s nudge theory is highly manipulative. Of course, you might argue that since we’re never going to have an absolutely perfect expression of the popular will, plus the fact that the popular will is probably shot through with irrationality, let’s try to cope with that by being the smart ones manipulating ‘them’, but manipulating them in a benign way because it’s for their own good. That’s a whole understanding of democracy which I call Schumpeterian, which comes from Joseph Schumpeter, which says democracy just consists in, every four or five years, everyone having a vote and throwing the bastards out if you want to, and then, after the election, we go back to the real situation where there’s one gang up there really running the show and the only power the people wield is that the gang up there is looking over its collective shoulder worrying whether it’s going to get elected in a few years’ time. That’s a conception of democracy that gives up on the strong idea of popular rule.