“Tat Tvam Asi”: A Feedback Model of Goodness and Beauty
This essay proposes a counter-theory to the generally accepted analysis of ethics and aesthetics originating from Immanuel Kant. That analysis was based on the idea of disinterestedness–that is, what distinguishes an ethical action from one which is unethical or ethically neutral, is that the act is performed without expectation of reward or payoff, and what distinguishes an artistic act from a merely practical one is a supererogatory playfulness, unmotivated by the hope of gain. These ideas are not without merit in themselves, and their best features–the ones that ring true to our intuition–need to be preserved in any replacement. Kant’s argument is much more sophisticated than my brief description of it, but it is the cultural assumptions that flowed from Kant, and our own approach to art and ethics, that concern this essay; and those assumption are more easily summarizable.
Kant’s position had at the time a very convincing basis–the philosophical crisis that had been provoked by the apparent discovery by enlightenment science that the universe operated in an entirely deterministic way. It was a clockwork in which every event was uniquely caused by its predecessors. A “Laplace Calculator,” given the positions and momenta of all particles in the universe, would be able to predict all future events. If human beings were subject to the same laws, then moral action, which depends on the principles of free choice and assignable ethical responsibility, would be meaningless; and so too would art, since the originality of a work of art would be undermined by its least detail having been stored up in a chain of prior causes for all of time. Thus humans could not be wholly subject to those laws–and thus the world of knowledge would have to be carved up into two incommensurable areas: Naturwissenschaft (natural science) and Geisteswissenschaft (the arts and humanities). The ruling principles of the latter were freedom and originality, specifically the ways in which human spiritual activities escaped the ananke or fated inevitability of the material universe. Humans, clearly, were influenced by the physical world, and could so imbrute themselves that they became predictable like any material object or instinctually-driven animal; but our special nobility was to be able to transcend those motives. The hold that nature had over us needed to be broken by art and religion if we were to possess a spiritual identity: and that hold on us made itself felt through our self-interest. Thus if we are interested in the outcome of an action or event, and stand to gain from it in some material way, to choose the path of reward would be to have been bribed, so to speak, by physicality; our actions could not be free and original, and would fall into the province of natural science rather than the humanities.
One implication of this analysis was that the world of economic profit cannot be ethical or moral, and thus political institutions need to be created and staffed by truly moral and disinterested persons, which can coerce or reimburse the market–coercion and profit being all it understands–into ethical and socially beneficial behavior. The very word “interest”–which also means the profit on a loan–suggests that those who live by finance and banking are like animals, which need to be controlled by the disinterested and the noble, or even, if they threaten human freedom, violently put down. The characters of Alberich and Hagen in Wagner’s Ring cycle, who in their obsession with gold become the murderous enemies of the noble disinterested hero, are symbols of this danger; and tragically the stereotype of the bestial and bloodsucking moneylender has led to much misguided slaughter in the last century. Another implication was that artists must make a point of being impractical, poor salesmen, whose integrity can only be proved by starving in garrets. Yet another implication of the Kantian analysis was that the word “beauty”, with all its corrupting implications of pleasure and emotional reward, must be replaced by Kant’s coinage, “aesthetic”, which connotes a forbidding and difficult encounter with all that contradicts physical wellbeing and mortal happiness.
I believe that the rift between the sciences and the humanities is profoundly dangerous both intellectually and culturally, leading to deep errors of understanding and unwitting crimes. Certainly at the time it seemed the only defense against what looked like a brutal pragmatism in personal relationships and a ruthless historicism in international realpolitik, where the victors in both cases would write history. But the apparent cure–the cordon sanitaire between science and the humanities–had side effects perhaps worse still. Let us look briefly at the history of those key humanistic ideas: freedom in moral action and originality in art.
To be free one must have free will. Will became the core concept of nineteenth century moral philosophy. It was will or intentionality that set us apart from brute nature. But what was the direction of will? It could only be the extension of its own field of action, since any focussing down on a specific object in the world would enslave it to the deterministic motivations of physicality. “Extension of the field of action” is nicely glossed by the word “power”: so “Will” now became “the Will to Power”. Thus power eventually became the key idea of the Humanities, as it remains today in its Foucauldian, Feminist, Postcolonialist, Lacanian, and Neomarxist versions. Strangely, our original enterprise, which was to delineate an alternative humanistic world to the deterministic realm of physical forces, has logically morphed itself into the very enemy it was designed to escape. Power, whether expressed in oppressive violence by a reactionary elite, revolutionary acts by the disenfranchised, or legal sanctions by an enlightened ruling group, is the same thing as physical force: politically it means that you can send men with guns to make people do what you want. If beauty has been culturally relativized out of existence (which is indeed the result of avant-garde theory) and if logical reasoning is, as part of the regnant regime of power and knowledge, no more than the linguistic property of the oppressor, the only way to persuade people is through force. Force is the more perfect, the fewer side-effects and unintended consequences it entails, the less it needs to consult its victims, the fewer reasons it needs to give, and the less it needs to disguise itself. Force, after all, is a deterministic phenomenon–F=ma–most perfectly expressed in one-way cause and effect. However, physics teaches us that power of this kind is absolutely and universally subject to the second law of thermodynamics, that is, it tends over time to waste itself and turn into useless heat and thermal disorder. Thus the humanities, when cut off from nature, ended up not only looking exactly like the brutal world they hoped to transcend, but also trapped in the gradual entropic heat-death of the physical universe. And history confirmed this gloomy picture: the best-intentioned will- and power-based state in the world, the Soviet Union, turned into a nightmare of coercion and finally after seventy years blew away as if by some inexorable physical law of decay. As Lysenko found out, nature had its revenge on will.
Originality in art went through the same sort of tragic devolution once it had cut itself off from nature. Beauty became a dirty word. Originality meant the “gratuitous act”, as the Existentialists put it, unbribed by pleasure, custom, or interest. Every move must be sui generis, a radical novelty; novelty could only be guaged by the shock it administered to its audience; habituation and fatigue constantly raised the threshold of shock; artists found themselves lashing about like huge starving carnivorous fishes in a diminishing pool of state economic support. A new lease of life was provided by the technique of deconstruction–the whole history of past art lay open and available for parody and exciting defacement–but one can only burn something to ashes once. Soon the reserves of fossil fuels–the old artistic traditions, techniques, and values–were exhausted. In the visual art field, something even more ironic happened. Pop artists turned to the marketplace as a source of ideas to demolish. The marketplace found these parodies amusing, and coopted them almost at once, and art became a roaringly profitable investment. Industrial methods of production were introduced, and many contemporary artists of the Jeff Koons variety became almost indistinguishable from chic faux-kitsch interior designers.
But during the same period natural science has, paradoxically, undergone a profound revolution. The theory of evolution proved how astonishingly original nature could be. Chaos and complexity theory showed that no Laplace calculator could keep pace with the world’s own unpredictable self-organization. The feedback inherent in all dynamical systems rendered the idea of power largely obsolete in complex ecological systems, where the top-down balancing influence of the whole system could dominate local chains of deterministic cause. The predator’s power over its prey is part of a system in which the prey species also determines the numbers of the predators and relies on predation to keep its own gene pool healthy. The rigid reductive xenophobia of our immune systems serves a larger organism that is free to explore all kinds of different worlds. The selfish gene becomes the microstructure of the altruism of a social species, and is in turn selected for or against by the resulting adaptability of the species as a whole and the emergent features of the ecosystem it inhabits. Though indeed the determinisms of classical dynamics–and its statistical and time-dependent version, thermodynamics–still hold in isolated locations, they are now seen as idealizations only partly fulfilled in a real universe that is fundamentally unpredictable and free. Cause is now only one of a number of types of connection between events, including quantum coherence and statistical wave harmonics, far-from-equilibrium thermodynamic catastrophes, nonlinear bifurcation, evolutionary emergence, self-organization within strange attractors, and the desires and values of animals and humans. The world according to scientists is no longer one of deterministic one-way power, in which A forces B to become C at the thermodynamic cost of D units of loss to friction and E units of entropic decay. It is becoming one much more like the realm of the traditional arts, of creative growth and emergence, of organically shifting frames of reference, of evolutionary development, mutual influence, and continuous retrospectively intelligible but prospectively surprising change.
Ironically, then, the sciences and the humanities have changed places. The humanities now profess a scientifically obsolete view of events, a power-based account of the world which is as incompatible with the values of human culture as Kant rightly declared the Newtonian universe to be. This is where the “logic of the humanities,” in Cassirer’s phrase, has got us. Meanwhile the sciences, with their rigorous research methods, and beginning with presuppositions just as linear and deterministic as they were accused by the humanities of being, have paradoxically disclosed to us a universe full of freedom and creativity, fertile ground for art and moral action. For the humanities this reversal is tragic, however understandable the route by which it was reached. If there is a moral it is that we should not have lost faith so soon in the power of human reason and experiment when corrigible by free criticism.
But it is too late now to be drawing morals, and who are we to judge the grand humanistic savants of the nineteenth century? The task now before us is to rescue what we can from over a century of largely misguided theory–and thus partly tainted research–in the humanities, and put the field on a sound footing; so that we can bequeath to the future public an institution in better shape than we found it. The sciences, technology and the market now more than ever need guidance from the arts and humanities, which are the custodians of our best human traditions of truth, beauty and goodness. If those activities are exempted from the purview of the humanities, they are being given a licence to be ugly and unethical; science to allow its necessary reductive method to infect its conclusions, technology to be socially and ecologically destructive, and the market to choose short-term exploitation and cheating rather than the more profitable but more demanding path of long-term mutual interest.
I propose, then, a view of the nature and relationship of moral goodness and beauty that will avoid the pitfalls of the existing theory, that will reunite Geisteswissenschaft and Naturwissenschaft, and that will be in harmony with our new view of nature rather than in defiant reaction against the old view.
An initial trio of definitions, which partly explain each other: goodness is love; beauty is what is properly loved; love is identification. The ambiguity of the word “identification” is entirely intentional. The word has three main meanings that are relevant to this discussion: first, “knowledge”, in the sense that to identify something is to know it, to recognize it individually. The second is related to the first–the establishment and validation of the name and human standing of a person. The third is essential, since it transforms intimate knowledge and personal recognition into an emotion: “identification” in the sense that when we identify with a character in a story or a person undergoing some trial, we put ourselves in that person’s place, we empathize, we count ourselves as part of something larger than both of us, a vine or mystical body that we share in, and thus our natural care of ourselves is extended to the person or thing we have identified and identified with. Kantians will see that this definition is not far from Kant’s “kingdom of ends” and Buber’s consequent notion of the I-Thou relationship. But the dynamic is different. It is not the denial of self in submission to the maxim, but the extension of the self–an enlarged selfishness, to put it crudely–that includes the other, or rather no longer conceives the other as other, and at the same time submits itself to the other as one part of a body submits itself to another part, without any sense of sacrifice or rancor. Thus the word “identification” holds within itself a tension, between the recognition of the autonomy and self-validation of the beloved on one hand, and on the other the opening of the self to a larger unity than both self and beloved, to which both are in service, and to which one submits one’s own will, so becoming one with it.
Working backward to the second definition, we may now infer that the beautiful is that which can have such a nature that we can identify it and identify with it. That is, it must share with us at least some of the characteristics that make us human–our autonomy, our capacity for growth and creativity, our participation in the continued reproduction of the universe, our complex interdependence of parts, our capacity for emergent self-organization if only on the chemical level, our continuity as self-sustaining physical entities in space and time, or at least our having at some point existed, that is, been engaged in some reciprocal exchange of information with the rest of the universe. Thus there are many ways in which we can feel an appropriate empathy with something, and thus many kinds of beauty, ranging from the purely mathematical elegance of an electron through the richer and more complex organizations of inanimate matter, plants, and animals, to the full range of empathetically sharable characteristics such as we possess in common with another person.
A further implication is that there may be even more inclusive and beautiful systems whose emergent properties transcend our human ones (while potentially including them)–systems which command our even greater love. Consider the love of a poet for the language, of whose vast neural community his own conversations are but a single synapse (or for another language than his own, of whose community he could one day be a member). Or consider the love of a biologist for an entire ecosystem, including human beings; or the love we bear toward a culture or nation or those unified collectivities that we call divine beings. Note that according to this logic, we can love another being–legitimately find it or her or him beautiful–only by being able to conceive of a larger unity which includes both of us and with which we can submissively identify, thus including the other in the familial warmth of our selfishness. Note also that though the beautiful is distributed among all kinds of entities in the universe, it is also much more intense and richly realized in the more complex and inclusive emergent systems; and thus we have a definition of the ugly, which is the overwhelming of a greater beauty by a less.
Not that this definition of the beautiful is all relaxed harmony and oceanic acceptance. Quite the reverse. The universe is a place of violent transformation as well as mutual influence–indeed, mutual influence, whether through the forces of physics, the trophic relations of an ecosystem, or the dialectics of zealous knowledge-seekers, is the very trigger of change and catastrophic emergence. What we should properly love in other things and people is at least partly their capacity, which we share, of irrevocably changing the world and each other.
Buried in this definition of beauty is a futher definition, then: beauty is the deepest trend or tendency of the universe, which is in one sense the process of mutual feedback itself, in another sense its potential for evolution and emergence, and in a third sense its capacity to recruit larger and larger concatenations of mutual influence and thus identification. One of the things that people laugh at in poets is their tendency to talk to trees and writes odes to inanimate things like autumn, roses, melancholy or nightingales. That sense of kinship–Einfühlung, I think Goethe called it–which the poet experiences with objects or systems, is the very core of beauty. It is not disinterested–it is deeply, deeply interested in every sense of the word. I feel the sickness of the rose, the trembling of the hare as it limps through the frozen grass, because I and the rose and the hare are part of one body, her sickness is mine, his chilled ache is in my body too. I have in one sense transcended selfishness and interest, but through a larger selfishness, an expanded sense of profit and loss. Art now may be seen as the making of larger communities of being–tying together, by literal construction or by meaning, vaster and vaster systems that can constitute a home for an “I”. And art in which a greater beauty is overwhelmed by, or “deconstructed” by, a lesser, is ugly and perhaps evil. The term “jouissance”, by which some postmodern critics have glossed the newly fashionable and disinfected term “beauty”, means precisely the frisson of such deconstruction.
Working backwards now to the first definition, we may now understand goodness as the appropriate response of love to what is beautiful. Since we have now identified love as a sort of higher selfishness, it is essential that there always be a higher shared unity to which one submits in order to love a being of a like or lower order to oneself. As St. Francis of Assisi put it, we are brothers and sisters of the ass and the olive tree and the sun and the moon, that is, we share a common ancestry which makes us members of a larger community. We may now see that this definition of love is quite consistent with the sociobiological concept of altruism as the result of “inclusive fitness”: whether in its narrow genetic sense that we act altruistically because we share genes with our companion, or in its larger economic sense, that we have evolved signal systems that enable us to collude against the Prisoner’s Dilemmma and avoid the mutual loss attendant upon the zero-sum game. The gene pool, the integrated rule-governed and emotion-policed signal system, or in Francis’ sense the common Fatherhood of God–or in Jesus’ sense, the vine of which we are all branches–act as the larger entity of which we stipulate ourselves to be a part and which now commands our egocentric allegiance. Part of the reason, perhaps, why my cat and I are fond of each other is that some tens of millions of years ago there was a small furry ratlike and affectionate animal–not too bright–one of whose suckling babies was my ancestor, and one was hers: our mama.
In the Hindu Upanishads this whole idea is summed up in the sublime words “Tat Tvam Asi”. Translation is hard. A first approximation is “You are that”; better would be “That thou art”. Its meanings include the idea that you–that is, the human being reading the book–are the divine being that is the subject of the holy book. Properly considered, that is, all that you really are is of the divine substance–anything that isn’t, doesn’t really exist and is an illusion, and anything that has real being–one’s atman or soul–is but a holographic fragment of Brahman, that of which all creation is but a single thought. The phrase also can be turned around–Thou, that is, God, art that–whatever one sees or considers, whatever “that” one attends to. But the writer is also addressing the reader human to human, and thus declaring that the reader is part of Brahman as he himself is, and so the phrase is a declaration of love for a fellow human being. That is, the supreme goodness is the recognition of all beings including oneself as part of the divine; and so the phrase can also be translated as the Judeo-Christian couplet, to love the Lord one’s God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as oneself. But we can now see that the two halves of the phrase are really logically entwined–one’s neighbor and oneself are united in a higher selfishness, which is God.
Thus the progress of ethical goodness in the world is not to be found in an attempt to get people to be unselfish, but rather in the wider and wider expansion of what we consider ourselves to be. The most primitive level of morality for us humans would be for a part of us–a damaged gene or cancerous cell or group of cells, or an urge to gorge on food or expend ourselves in indiscriminate copulation–to assert its independence of the rest of our body and seek to gratify its selfish motives. Even this would be a kind of morality, for atoms and molecules would have committed themselves to a higher selfishness to be effective at this level. More advanced would be the rational self-interest of that larger community of all the cells and subsystems of the body–the morality of the virtuous egoist. The etymology of the word “sin” –sunderedness, sundering–now has a powerful context. The next level would be our willingness to sacrifice ourselves for our blood kin–family values–a kind of moral value system, with its institutions of tribal genocide and bloodfeud, that is hundreds of millions of years old. Next would be our allegiance to our city or patriotism to our nation, with its darker side of war. Higher yet would be a sense of Us–the extended I–as including the whole human race in an embracing humanism–an ethic that does not necessarily embrace a care for the biosphere. Next would be an identification with the ecosystem of the planet; but that ecosystem would have to include the human race with all its warts and transformative violence–it would have to be loyal to the “household” of the world economy as well as the world ecology, and see the two as indissoluble, or such an ethic would risk falling back to a level more primitive than mere humanism. Higher still our empathy would be with the whole universe, and would be religious in its scope. At each stage the common roots of our mutual ancestry would extend further back in time and would have a longer-range intentionality into the future.
It might be objected that this value-system of larger and larger spheres of communion would militate against the virtues of individuality, exception, nonconformity, difference, uniqueness. Far from it. These values have in fact increased in the universe in precise step with the enlargement and densification of integrated feedback systems. The relatively isolated photon in space is symmetrical in almost all dimensions, devoid of an inside and outside and a shape, and identical with all other photons except in wavelength. Atoms, with their inner nuclei and outer electron shells, are more asymmetrical and individuated, and they exist in ecologies of other atoms and forms of energy. Molecules show distinct asymmetries of external shape, and organize themselves in crystalline or amorphous communities. Living organisms show even more individuality–at first globular and symmetrical in shape and reproducing by cloning, later organized with a top and bottom, a spinal axis, a head and tail, and the odd upright, skull-forward stance of the human being–and reproducing sexually, so as to produce genetic uniqueness in each individual. The higher the organism, the more likely it is to engage in social behavior and display altruism, to extend its sphere of interest across different biomes, and develop sensory systems that provide the universe with ways of seeing itself at large–but also the greater its scope for difference and nonconformity. Individuality and expanded communities of interest go hand in hand.
One implication of this view would be that the fact-value distinction would no longer hold; ethics and esthetics would be naturalized, and the stipulation that each requires freedom and originality would be satisfied by the new conception of the universe as free and creative all the way down. Facts would simply be fossilized values, so to speak, and values would be enlivened facts. A dramatic new opening in scholarship and education would appear, as the sciences would be reintegrated with the arts and humanities; and this intellectual change would reverberate in terms of a transcendence of irony in the humanities, an unembarrassed reverence in the sciences, and a recovery of both technical virtuosity and moral seriousness in the arts.
We would need, however, to abandon some dearly held prejudices. One would be the existentialist pose of the human thinker alone in an unfeeling and meaningless universe. However, the replacement of the idea of humans at war with nature by an ethic of solidarity with it might be timely indeed. Another obsolete prejudice would be the expectation that art be sensational, an instant orgasm of shock and jouissance, the esthetic equivalent of the movie car chase. We would have to put in the time and attention to works that do their magic more slowly and in terms of long traditions–like Chinese landscape painting–without an irritable grasping after novelty.
Most painful of all to many, perhaps, would be the need to abandon our prejudice against the market. For “interest” would now no longer be the bane of art and ethics, but its core dynamic. The market is, in fact, a very nice model of a large nonlinear feedback system that enlists–in the practical sense of buying and selling–the larger identification of its participants and the higher selfishness of our concern with the health of the national and world economy. The chief problem with the market is not that it is too pervasive, but that it is not pervasive enough–it does not yet sufficiently include social and ecological “externalities”, and a large part of the world’s population is excluded from it by lack of access to legal property rights. If we revised our theory of ethics and esthetics as I have suggested, an ethic of mutual profit would replace that of non-profit–though profit itself would be revised to include higher and higher kinds of goods. The market would be welcomed in to the sphere of esthetics and ethics; but it would at the same time be held responsible to them. We would include among our ethical heroes not only the other-worldly vagabonds who opted for higher profit at the expense of the lower, but also the magnanimous and worldly ethical pioneers who out of their wealth at all levels increased the moral wealth of all of us without loss to themselves. Our artistic pantheon would have room for not only the Van Goghs who starved unrecognized in garrets, but also the great artists who enriched themselves while enriching others–the Shakespeares, the Verdis, the Rubenses, the Austens, the Bachs, the Murasakis, the Virgils, the da Vincis.