Laughter and error-correction mechanisms

Tom James @ 11-05-2009

lightCarlo Strenger has written a good article on enlightenment values on Comment is Free:

…the Enlightenment has created an idea of immense importance: no human belief is above criticism, and no authority is infallible; no worldview can claim ultimate validity. Hence unbridled fanaticism is the ultimate human vice, responsible for more suffering than any other.

it applies to the ideas of the Enlightenment, too. They should not be above criticism, either. History shows that Enlightenment values can indeed be perverted into fanatical belief systems. Just think of the Dr Strangeloves of past US administrations who were willing to wipe humanity off the face of the earth in the name of freedom, and the – less dramatic but no less dismaying – tendency of the Cheneys and Rumsfelds of the GW Bush administration to trample human rights in the name of democracy.

As one of the commenters points out, the profound principle has been ignored by both 20th century secular ideologues, religious authorities, and more recent fanatics, is that of always bearing in mind the possibility you might be dead wrong.

The healthy human response to harmless error or misunderstanding is to have a laugh. Thus error is highlighted for all to see and forgiven by all parties. As Strenger puts it:

At its best, enlightenment creates the capacity for irony and a sense of humour; it enables us to look at all human forms of life from a vantage point of solidarity.

A further mistake on the part of humorless fanatics everywhere is to assume that there can ever be one, and only one, eternal truth. It may be that such a thing exists, but it is likely to be beyond our capacity to discern its true form from the vague shadows on the walls of our cave.

And so human beings are prone to error. There’s no problem with this, as failure teaches us more than success.

This notion was articulated by Karl Popper in the 20th century: it is the idea that you can never conclusively prove that an idea is correct, but conclusively disprove an incorrect idea.

And so human knowledge grows and the enterprise of civilization advances, one laughter-inducing blooper at a time.

[image from chantrybee on flickr]


Do novels help our morals evolve?

Paul Raven @ 15-01-2009

Victorian era typewriter keysAre there hidden messages and subtexts in stories and novels that help reinforce and strengthen the values our society holds? A group of evolutionary psychologists researching Victorian-era fiction suggests that the classics of the time…

… not only reflect the values of Victorian society, they also shaped them. Archetypal novels from the period extolled the virtues of an egalitarian society and pitted cooperation and affability against individuals’ hunger for power and dominance.

[…]

The researchers believe that novels have the same effect on society as oral cautionary tales of old. “Just as hunter-gatherers talk of cheating and bullying as a way of staying keyed to the goal that bad guys must not win, novels key us to the same issues… “

The idea of culture as societal regulation valve is nothing new, I suppose, but it seems the researchers were focusing on the canonical literature of the era rather than what would have been considered popular by the man on the street. What about the Victorian precursors of the pulp magazines, for example, or their oft-unmentioned love of porn and erotica? There was a very different set of values embedded in those, I think we can assume…

That said, I think there’s probably a nugget of truth in the assertion that art contains coded value systems from the society that produced it. So what does that mean for us 21st Century types? We have somewhat different values nowadays, and we no longer have such a dominant monoculture as the Victorians. [image by k4chii]

Looking back on the science fiction novels we’re reading today, what would an anthropologist or evolutionary psychologist from a century in the future make of our values?