December 27, 2005

BUT I'M THE SMART ROCK! (via Mike Daley):

Love in the Age of Neuroscience (Mickey Craig and Jon Fennell, The New Atlantis)

Late last year, over a period of several months, America and Britain were awash in reviews of I Am Charlotte Simmons, the latest novel by Tom Wolfe. Most reviews criticized the novel’s cheap and tiresome devices (excessive repetition, capitalized words, overly dramatic punctuation), stock characters (the ingénue, country bumpkins, frat boys, salacious sorority sisters, dumb jocks, politically correct professors), and, most egregiously, its preoccupation with student sex. Several reviewers were disturbed by the reference to “loamy, loamy loins” by an author in his mid-seventies—a man thoroughly out of touch with his young subjects, perhaps even jealous of their vivacious sex lives. But these critics, with rare exception, entirely overlooked the central themes of the novel. As John Derbyshire wrote in National Review, I Am Charlotte Simmons is a reminder of the “darker side” of recent discoveries in the human sciences, especially in neuroscience and genetics. At stake is the “metaphysic” which provides sense and direction to our lives, including the complicated encounter between men and women. The novel invites us to ask: Is love possible in the age of neuroscience? Or have we unmasked human beings only to discover that love is an illusion?

The university, like American and Western society as a whole, was transformed by the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Grounded in an uncompromising individualism of personal choice, the sexual revolution established the legitimacy of casual, pleasure-seeking sex, independent of procreation, family, and even affection. The story of Charlotte Simmons explores the consequences of this momentous change in human behavior and association. Wolfe helps us see that there is no free lunch: In giving full rein to our biological impulses, there is a toll to pay in human longing and human happiness. As Peter Berkowitz reflects in a superb review essay in Policy Review:

[W]hat if men and women are different in ways that go beyond the structure of their sex organs, and so experience sexual relationships differently? And what if the exercise of the new freedom imparts lessons to both men and women about life, and develops habits of heart and mind, that interfere with the capacity to give oneself to and care for another...? What if relationships teach how to withhold one’s heart, to embrace another with one eye always fixed on the exit...? And what if such lessons, habits, and teachings are more easily acquired than discarded?

Charlotte’s experiences at the fictional Dupont University shed light on these questions, as the ambitious girl from backwater North Carolina is transformed by her sophisticated and salacious surroundings. Far from being the path to higher civilization and refinement of character, Dupont is a toxic impediment to the yearning for higher things, built on a dogmatic denial that higher civilization and refinement of character are even possible. Where, in a former age, the impressionable young student might have aspired to religious salvation or genuine wisdom, today’s typical college student lives more for entertainment, sensation, and release, all the while demanding and largely getting immediate gratification. The individual still seeks status and recognition. But the marks of distinction are all too often inebriation, “hooking up,” expertise at sarcasm (“sarc one,” “sarc two,” and “sarc three”), and insouciance toward matters intellectual and moral. As students learn about and fall into this new ethic, the university not only fails to stand in opposition, it accelerates the process. Dupont, that composite of Duke, Stanford, Yale, and the University of Michigan, corrupts the promising young Charlotte. For revealing this disturbing truth, the author has been reviled by those who are thereby revealed.

More importantly, the teaching of Dupont University is precisely that the soul and the moral dimension of being are illusions. In the past, the university (at its best and in principle) sought to cultivate the human soul toward completion or excellence. The modern university, as Wolfe portrays it, denies that there are truthful distinctions between higher and lower; it teaches that the soul is not real, and that perfection of the soul is thus a thing of the past.

The setting of I Am Charlotte Simmons is truly “postmodern”—a world dominated by Nietzsche and neuroscience, a world which has jettisoned the moral imagination of the past. Not only is God dead, but so is reason, once understood as the characteristic that distinguishes man from the rest of nature. We now understand ourselves by studying the behavior of other animals, rather than understanding the behavior of other animals in light of human reason and human difference. We learn that it is embarrassing for any educated person to be considered religious or even moral. Darwin’s key insight that man is just another animal, now updated with the tools and discoveries of modern biology, has liberated us from two Kingdoms of Darkness. Post-faith and post-reason, we can now turn to neuroscience to understand the human condition, a path that leads to or simply ratifies the governing nihilism of the students, both the ambitious and apathetic alike. [...]

The task of neuroscience is to understand human behavior as it really is, without illusions. This new way of seeing the mechanisms of man confirms that the soul does not really exist and that our behavior is simply a physical reaction to stimuli over which we have no control. Human beings think they have free will and that their choices have meaning. But this is one of the comforting myths of the past that neuroscience is proud to overcome. As Dr. Starling explains, this time with a thought experiment borrowed from a fellow neuroscientist:

Let’s say you pick up a rock and you throw it. And in mid-flight you give that rock consciousness and a rational mind. That little rock will think it has free will and will give you a highly rational account of why it has decided to take the route it’s taking.

In other words: Human beings are simply rocks. Neuroscientists are rocks who know they are rocks. Human beings are bodies in motion, bodies that falsely believe they have free will. But neuroscience, armed with tools like fMRIs and PET scans, promises a true description of human behavior, a final lifting of man’s religious and moral illusions. And that life without illusions may amount to nothing more than the joyless quest for joy or the soulless interactions of the soulless. The consequences of this shift in human self-understanding are enormous.

The one redeeming feature of such terrible nonsense is the hilarity of the materialists insisting that their own gnostic knowledge is uniquely not just an affect of the forces they proclaim to believe in.

He Is Charlotte Simmons: a review of I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tiom Wolfe (Peter Berkowitz, Policy Review)

The governing theme of I am Charlotte Simmons is introduced by Wolfe in an entry from (the fictitious) Dictionary of Nobel Laureates, 3rd ed. that he places at the front of the novel. In 1983, 28-year-old Dupont University assistant professor of psychology Victor Ransome Starling removes the amygdala, which controls the emotions in higher mammals, from 30 cats. This causes the cats to enter a state of hypermanic sexual arousal. When Starling opens one of the cage doors to show an assistant the results of the experiment, the cat leaps out, immediately wraps its legs around the assistant’s leg, and begins thrusting with its pelvis. But Starling is startled when the assistant points out that the desperate animal is actually one of the control cats whose amygdala has not been touched. Pondering the implications of the replication by the control cats of the amygdalized cats’ hypermanic sexual arousal, Starling is led to the discovery for which he is awarded the Nobel Prize, namely, “that a strong social or ‘cultural’ atmosphere, even as abnormal as this one, could in time overwhelm the genetically determined responses of the perfectly normal, healthy animals.”

This sets up the experiment that Wolfe’s novel is meant to conduct: What happens if a talented, attractive and ambitious young person instilled with a conservative sensibility who wishes to pursue the cultivation of the mind is parachuted into a contemporary university? Indeed, Dupont University — a composite institution located like Swarthmore on the outskirts of suburban Philadelphia next to Chester; carrying the cache of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton; and like Duke or many major state universities boasting a national-caliber athletic program — initially overwhelms Charlotte Simmons of Sparta, North Carolina. The product of a poor family in a small town on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the heart of Red America, Charlotte excelled in her studies, was taken under wing by a devoted, spinster high-school teacher who taught her to take pride in her intelligence and to love literature and learning, and won a scholarship to one of America’s finest bastions of higher education. Encouraged by her hardworking and devout parents, Charlotte leaves them behind to pursue an education in the best that has been thought and said. Little does she understand, nor do those who love her back home in Sparta, that Dupont sustains a cultural atmosphere at war with the beliefs and practices developed over millennia to guide normal, healthy young people in their transition to responsible adulthood.

Indeed, consistent with the discovery for which Professor Starling wins his Nobel prize, Charlotte’s moral conservatism and hunger for knowledge prove no match for the larger lessons about sex and the soul that social and academic life at Dupont incessantly drum into students’ heads. Right from the start, Beverly Amory, her wealthy, haughty, emaciated, sexually sophisticated Groton-educated roommate, causes Charlotte to feel clueless about how to speak and what to say, and embarrassed about what she wears and how little she has to spend. Striving to remember that she is, after all, Charlotte Simmons, committed to high ideals and expected by family and friends in Sparta to achieve great things, Charlotte finds herself yearning for a place of honor in the strict campus pecking order. To achieve that very human goal, she is resolved to excel in her studies. But the rigorous rules for social advancement require that she also have sex and find a boyfriend, in no particular order. And as a healthy and attractive young woman, Charlotte understandably feels some thrill at that message.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 27, 2005 11:23 PM

we all make our choices, and all take the consequences. there is only one rule in nature: compete or be meat.

"it's just that simple" - Denny Craine

the people who succumb to the piper's call, open up all kinds of opportunities for those who don't.

there is a contrivance in the book -- if charlotte is really sharp, and is indeed a good soul, she would recognize how worthless a place dupont is and left.

Posted by: toe at December 28, 2005 12:25 PM