William Davies’ Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason1, poses some alarming conclusions about our times. In this post I will try to comment on them, as a way of explaining to myself and the reader why I do and why I don’t give them informed consent, based on my own experiences. It is a long, dense, post, so I have divided it into two.
The modern world was founded upon two fundamental distinctions, both inaugurated in the mid-seventeenth century: between mind and body, and between war and peace…rapid advances in neuroscience have elevated the brain over the mind as the main way by which we understand ourselves, demonstrating the importance of emotion and physiology to all decision making.
As society has been flooded by digital technology, it has become harder to specify what belongs to the mind and what to the body, what is peaceful dialogue and what is conflict. In the murky space between mind and body, between war and peace, lie nervous states: individuals and governments living in a state of constant and heightened alertness, relying increasingly on feeling rather than fact.
Davies posits that living in these in-between states has us nervous all the time. I suppose he’s right, although there are additional causes (see below).
Considering the mind/body dichotomy: in my clinical education, I began with Freud and Jung (my undergraduate thesis was “Moral Responsibility in the Ideas of Freud and Jung.”) Later I was introduced to Satir’s conjoint family therapy, Piaget’s interpretations of childhood psychopathology, Maslow’s hierarchy, Transactional Analysis, psychopharmacological drugs and their effects during the days of farm mental hospitals for the mentally ill, and then watched the advent of deeper neurological understanding (always beginning with William James) as pharmacology continued. I have learned of efforts to explain many disorders in terms of PSTD rather than psychiatric diseases. I’ve watched as neurological explanations of the conscious and unconscious buzzed around Freud’s id, ego, and superego. I’ve read Michael S. Gazzaniga’s Human, which explains everything as a function of the brain. And I’ve followed the arguments against Decartes’ (e.g., Descartes’s Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio; The Secret Life of the Mind: How Your Brain Thinks, Feels, and Decides, Mariano Sigman) and earlier and later writers’ mind/body dichotomy.
I have wondered whether AI’s ability to devise new Go strategies (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/26/science/chess-artificial-intelligence.html) by assembling and assessing data in ways humans haven’t, indicates the beginning of a new life-form or a least a new way of thinking, and what that means for our understanding of our own thinking.
As neuroscience tries to delineate our very selves into neat categories and electro-mechanical functions, and reconsidering all the above, I have come to see, as Davies writes, that our sense of being detached from our emotions is a false perception. To this as a fact I give informed consent.
Regarding expertise: Davies goes on to argue that, this being so, attempts to represent reality through statistics are doomed to fail (more later). This brings into question the current fad for “evidence-based decision-making,” so popular among the younger politically active people who want to not be subject to extreme ideologies, biases, and hyperpartisanship (a desire I share).
Rather than denigrate the influence of feelings in society today, we need to get better at listening to them and learning from them….we should value democracy’s capacity for fear, pain, and anxiety, that might otherwise be diverted in destructive directions.
I am unsure of the healthiness of listening to all that fear, anxiety, and pain. I have cited in earlier posts the descriptions of “tribes” who do not want to give up their values as expressed in religion, in attitudes toward those of other races, in sexual orientations (see Why Liberalism Failed, J. Patrick Deneen; Identity: the Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama; and Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying, American Democracy, Jonah Goldberg2;), and in sexual identification. I have come to terms with such expressions as “neurotypical,” “cisgender,” and Muggles, and decided how they do or do not describe me. These boundaries are not as clear to me as they used to be, nor as comfortable. But living in-between is not comfortable, either, especially when talking with people still thinking within the boundaries. So I give informed consent to the relevance of these descriptions, as well, but not to the experiences.
I have come to understand that whites view ourselves as the default position, or the norm. I am learning not to think of non-whites as “people of colour.” (Is white not a colour? See Tears We Cannot Stop: a Sermon to White America, by Michael Eric Dyson; and Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America, George Yancy). I give this informed consent.
There is much else in this book, which I will discuss in the next post.
1 I am asked whether I read all these books.
Yes, of course. I do not generally cite from them as if proof-texting, because each has as a complete thing inspired my thinking. I name each book in the hope that others will read it also, and derive what they may.
Many of these are about the same topics, and are academic. I suspect that some academicians hire grad students to write “filler,” i.e., relevant material which, while informative, is not essential to the book’s message. To avoid unnecessary reading of this stuff, I sometimes read the forward and initial chapter, then skip to the end. If the conclusion needs support, I then read the chapter before, and the chapter before that, etc., to see how the argument was composed. If find that if I know where the argument is going, I have an easier time appraising the material leading to the conclusion. I have the impression that this is faster, also.
2 but see also the danger of letting some of these values prevail, e.g., the extreme damage caused by these attitudes when held by police/military authority personnel who are members of the U.S. Border Patrol https://www.propublica.org/article/secret-border-patrol-facebook-group-agents-joke-about-migrant-deaths-post-sexist-memes)