Killing the Cats
(Some Brief Thoughts on the Dangers to Civilization of Imaginary Solutions
to Impending Catastrophes Large and Small )
Walter G. Andrews (Dec. 2008)
1. Introduction: Problems
The physicist Vladimir Chaloupka uses the term "The Basic Problem" to describe the situation today in which the awesome, realized and potential benefits of scientific progress have, with a few exceptions, blinded us to the very real danger of a massive, global "civilization changing" catastrophe caused by the accidental or intentional misuse of our technological powers by individuals or small groups. For example, when an adequately trained scientist or technician, using equipment no more advanced than that found in some high school biology labs, could engineer a deadly virus for which there is no existing vaccine, we have a problem. And this problem is especially acute at a time when small extra-national groups have shown themselves willing to make deadly low-tech suicidal attacks on random civilian targets in order to advance their agendas and to harm perceived enemies by spreading terror among target populations. One aspect of this problem directly concerns people who do science and technology and those who oversee the funding and applications of science. As Chaloupka, Bill Joy, and others warn, scientists need to be acutely aware of the potential for accident and misuse. They must both do as much as possible to assure that a catastrophe does not occur and prepare for an eventual (and, perhaps, inevitable) catastrophe.
Another troubling aspect of "The Basic Problem", also pointed out by Chaloupka, is "The Big Gap", which refers to the huge gap that, from a historical perspective, has grown up relatively recently -- at least since the scientific and technological revolution that ushered in the modern era -- between our understanding of the physical world and our understanding of human beings and the ways they think, interact with one another, and organize their interactions communally. This aspect of "The Basic Problem" is quite legitimately in the domain of scholars in the "humanities" (which I take broadly to include what we call "the arts" and "the social sciences"). However, one of the consequences and/or sources of The Big Gap is that our global society and even the community of humanities scholars do not have a clear, shared sense that the work of understanding people is now, more than ever, a matter of life and death.
2. Killing the Cats:
In order to picture how the Big Gap is integral to the Basic Problem and increases the dangerousness of the world we live in today, we might consider an example from the history of an analogous situation. There is a much-repeated story -- which may or may not be true -- about the devastating bubonic plague epidemics that ravaged 14th century Europe. When the plague swept over Europe, existing medical knowledge and technology had no way to account for or to treat the causes of the plague, which we now know is the result of an infection by the bacterium yersina pestis transmitted by the bites of infected animals -- often rats -- or, in most cases, the bites of parasites (lice, fleas) that have been infected by their hosts. Lacking knowledge of actual causes, pre-modern Europeans often attributed the disease to God's wrath and sought to placate the Creator by various means, most ineffectual and some quite horrible. Women accused of witchcraft were burned, Jews were murdered, and, by some accounts, certain communities killed off all of the village cats because of their supposed association with witches. The story of killing the cats is especially treasured by cat-lovers because of its poignant irony and its dire warning to those who fail to appreciate the benefits of feline companionship. What constitutes the irony in the story is, of course, that the pre-moderns did not know that rats, other rodents, and their parasites are primary vectors for spreading the plague. Consequently, as the story goes, removing the cats allowed the rodent population to burgeon and caused the plague to rage even more lethally than it might have done in a more cat-friendly environment.
We must remember, though, that in pre-modern times, there was plenty of writing about disease, physiology, surgical procedures, mineral and herbal remedies and other medical techniques. There were also various medical theories about the origins of disease but none of them were substantially different from those developed by Galen in the second century CE. The problem was that lacking technologies that could reveal the existence of pathogenic microbes or even a theory that could account accurately for their existence and effects, any attempt at a cure was, to a large degree, hit or miss. Preventative measures based on theories about contagion, for example, often worked, even though the actual mechanisms of contagion were unknown, because quarantine was an effective way to slow the spread of infectious diseases. Some herbal remedies worked quite well, others were either useless or damaging. Wide-spread popular treatments such as blood-letting occasionally weakened the body's natural defenses to the point of contributing to fatal outcomes in cases of naturally survivable infections and wounds. In short, without a technology that could reveal the microbial agents of disease, without a concept of empirical, data-based studies of treatment outcomes, without a means to trace the vectors and mechanisms of infectious diseases there was no way to distinguish clearly between effective solutions and "killing the cats" solutions that only made things worse.
The interesting point of this story in relation to the Big Gap is that the conditions of medical and biological knowledge in the 14th century can be seen as roughly analogous to those of humanistic knowledge today. The study of human beings and their social interactions has certainly developed significantly since the days of our ancient Greek (and Middle and Far Eastern) intellectual ancestors but, nonetheless, the gap between the content and methodologies of the humanistic studies of Plato and Aristotle's time and ours today is small in comparison to the gap between their knowledge of the physical world and that of modern science.
The humanities are departmentalized, compartmentalized, and generally lack a shared, universally accepted understanding that all of the humanities "disciplines" are, in some sense, working together on a joint project of vital importance. On the one hand, I think we could safely say that there is no scientist in his or her right mind who would believe that one could work in physics without mathematics, or chemistry without physics, or microbiology without physics and chemistry, and so on. On the other hand, while historians, for example, might occasionally dabble in literature and literature scholars might dabble in history (and linguistics, and psychology...), it would be strange (or inconceivable even) to many, if not most, humanities scholars to argue that a political scientist, for example, ought to take love poetry into account or that scholars interested in love poetry might in some wise emulate the methodologies of social scientists, or even that social scientists and love poetry experts have a vital interest in sharing ideas and methods. Moreover, it is seen as seen as no less strange to suggest that humanities scholars should take physics and chemistry and microbiology and computer science into account...or to suggest to some scientists that there are humanistic critiques, concerns, and projects that they should be aware of (or even contribute to).
One "basic problem" of the humanities is that we have no generally agreed upon picture of what the fundamental elements of human interactions might be or what is important and what is trivial, what is empirically verifiable and what is imaginary. We do not even know if there is a micro-universe of human thought and behavior underlying our interactions that remains as invisible to our tools and methods as microbes were to 14th century medicine. In an act not unlike pre-modern reliance on divine providence, we have largely turned over to science actual, practical responsibility for maintaining and improving our civilization. We talk in vague generalities about the value of the humanities and a humanities education but are extremely cautious about claiming that urgent, real-world problems could be more successfully addressed -- although, not necessarily by us -- as a result of our producing more knowledge in an organized or even programmatic way about, say, the impacts of art, poetry, drama, novels, and music or by better understanding group psychology, languages and linguistics, politics and political persuasion, religion and spirituality, nations and nationalism, work and play. Yet, every day we read in newspapers and blogs, hear on the radio and see on television a variety of "experts" quite confidently expressing quite different and often mutually exclusive hypotheses about why such and such atrocity occurred and every day we see responsible people applying "killing the cats" solutions to problems whose underlying causes they do not really understand.
Now, let us look at an example of one way in which the problem of the humanities manifests itself.
3. What's in a poem?
In a paper he calls, "A Brief Tour: through the potent mix of modern and ancient worlds", which brings together a selection of readings relevant to The Basic Problem, Vladimir Chaloupka cites a section from a well-known (in some circles) essay/sermon with the English title "Jihad (holy struggle) and Shahadat (martyrdom/witness)" by the Iranian Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani (d. 1979). The excerpt ends, following a section on the status of "protected minorities" (dhimmi) in the ideal Islamic state, with the conclusion to a discourse on martyrdom, which Chaloupka frames as follows:
Then the ayatollah goes on go to discuss the meaning of martyrdom, in a poem:
From the inanimate I died and I became vegetation,
From vegetation I died and I became an animal.
From an animal I died and I became human.
I am not afraid of death; death has never made me lesser.
Once more I shall die as a human being,
And I shall fly as an angel;
Then once again I shall fly from the angelic,
And I will become something unimaginable.
I will become nothing, nothing, because the harp
Tells me: "Unto Him we shall return."
I see great beauty in this poem but it is a ghastly beauty. It helps in understanding how can hundreds of young men and women blow themselves up at the prime of their lives, to fulfill what they see as their sacred duty.
In a sense this "poem" is indeed ghastly, but it is only so when embedded, as it is here, in a discourse that would, shortly after Taleqani's death, ground the suicidal martyrdom of not just hundreds but hundreds of thousands of Iranian children and elderly during the devastating Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). In fact, Taleqani is here citing an excerpt from the great and vastly influential Masnavi-e Ma'navi (Spiritual Narrative) poem, often called "The Bible of Sufism", composed by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, who is said to be, in Coleman Bark's English translations, the best-selling poet in the United States today! Other ironies abound in Taleqani's appropriation of this poem. It is inconceivable that Rumi -- himself driven to emigrate from Balkh in present-day Afghanistan to Anatolia (Turkey) by the Mongol invasions of the early 13th century -- would have supported the kind of martyrdom that Taleqani espouses. In one poem Rumi says:
The man of God is beyond infidel-hood and the true religion
And in another,
What is to be done, oh Muslim? For I do not recognize myself.
I am neither Christian nor Jew, nor fire-worshipper nor Muslim
I am not of East, nor of West, nor of the land, nor of the sea
I am not of India, nor China, nor Bulgaria, nor Saqsin
I am not of the kingdom of the two Iraqs nor the land of Khorasan
The poem fragment cited by Taleqani is itself taken from a verse story about a "lover" who is willing to risk everything -- self, life, this world -- for love despite the advice of well-meaning friends and advisors. This is a "love" that transcends creed and nation and seeks only to return to the divine unity that is the ultimate beloved. In Rumi's mystical spiritual vision, there is no place for sacrificing oneself for worldly ends, including the defense of a country or a regime or a ruler or even of a religion. The only "jihad" for Rumi is the struggle against the "self" and attachments to worldly concerns. Taleqani knows this. Prior to quoting from Rumi, he takes great pains to redefine and recontextualize Rumi's words. He says (in a version slightly re-edited for clarity, to which I have added some commentary in square brackets and underlining for emphasis):
The shahid [martyr/witness] is the one who has experienced the shuhud (vision) of truth ["Truth" (Haqq) is also and significantly one of the names/attributes of God]. The sacrifice of his own life is not based on illusion or agitation of his emotions. He has seen the truth and the goal. That is why he has chosen to wallow in the blood and the dust. Such a person does so with the intention of intimacy with God, not on the basis of fantasies and personal desires. He is above these worldly matters. He has understood the value of truth in a deserved way. This is why he annihilates himself, like a drop in the ocean of truth. This is the true meaning of the esoteric term "fana fi Allah" (self-annihilation in God). Fana is not what the Sufi does in the khanaqah [the mystics' lodge], shouting "Hu! Hu!" and then imagining that he has reached God.
Herein Taleqani takes a fundamental tenet of Sufi mysticism and the ultimate theme of Rumi's poem, "self-annihilation in God", and dissociates it from the practice of Sufism. When he says, "...he annihilates himself, like a drop in the ocean of truth", he evokes precisely what Rumi turns into poetry in concluding another version of the "progress of the human soul" image:
Pass again even from angelhood: enter that sea
That your drop become an ocean like a hundred seas of Oman
Yet, although Taleqani seems to embrace the Sufi concept, he rejects the Sufi understanding of the arena in which the sacrifice of the "self" occurs and replaces the goal of that sacrifice with another (unnamed) goal. He does not say right out what the (more) appropriate arena and goal might be but he introduces a powerful (and in a Shiite context, the most powerful) example of martyrdom -- the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn -- as an alternative to the mystics' radically pantheistic, a-political, and pacifist notion of self-sacrifice.
For those unfamiliar with Shiite beliefs and practices, the status of the Imam Husayn requires a brief introduction. The Arabic word "shi'a" means "party" (as in "political party"). Used to describe a group with a particular set of religious beliefs and practices, Shi'a is short for "Shi'at ‛Ali" or the "Party of Ali" which first described those who, at the time of the Prophet's death, believed that his spiritual (charismatic) authority was inherited by his son-in-law and relative, Ali, and passed down to his descendants. Ali's claim to leadership of the Muslim community was disputed by the then governor of Syria, a man named Muawiya, whose partisans ultimately prevailed and installed him as the first caliph of the Umayyad Dynasty after the assassination of Ali at Najaf (in Iraq) in 661. In 680, when Muawiya's son Yazid succeeded to the caliphate, Ali's son, Husayn answered the summons of the Iraqis and marched from Medina toward Kufa to dispute Yazid's succession. Ultimately, Husayn's small force was surrounded by armies led by Yazid's general Ubaydallah near the town of Karbala. They were cut off from water, which caused them great suffering, and, on the 10th of Muharram, the remnants of Husayn's forces were slaughtered together with their leader. Among the Shi'a, who believe that Divine Authority in this world was inherited through the line of Ali, the story of Husayn's martyrdom grew into the master narrative. Husayn is depicted as the inspired agent of Divine Will , paragon of all things good and decent, from whom the divinely inspired, holy Imams of the Shi'a are descended. Every detail of the events of the ten days leading up to Husayn's death has been scrutinized and folded into a tragic and heroic tale that is recited and celebrated with highly emotional rituals, private readings, parades, and ceremonies every year during the first ten days of the Muslim (lunar) month of Muharram. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to convey a sense of how sincerely, deeply, and poignantly this story is experienced by Shiites today and how love for the martyrs -- Husayn, his family, and his companions -- is woven into their most intimate and intense emotional and spiritual lives.
The purpose of this little glimpse at some features of the potential impact of a few lines of verse is intended to demonstrate, in an extremely limited way, how complex the factors influencing the psychology and decision-making of a suicide bomber might be and to what extent those factors -- including history, poetry, mysticism, and love -- are ultimately legitimate objects of research in the humanities. What we see the Ayatollah doing in his sermon is taking a poem-fragment out of a very particular spiritual arena and "re-purposing" it in an arena that is at once spiritual and political -- Husain is a spiritual icon engaged in a political act: marching with an army to replace a corrupt or errant regime with a spiritually and ethically correct one, a regime ordained by God. In making this shift of focus, Taleqani creates a very powerful argument to his target audience in favor of a reading of a hugely popular spiritual text (Rumi's poem), which might support self-annihilation in the service of ultimately political ends.
4. The Problem of Social Pathology
It is not difficult for us to accept that it is an example of social pathology when a small group of people, strangers to us, are willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to spread terror among perceived enemies, us among them and, in doing so, to randomly slaughter non-combatant men, women, and children, including, at times, their own co-religionists and countrymen. It is perhaps slightly more difficult to see unequivocal social pathology in suicidal assaults on perceived enemies, invaders, or oppressors possessed of overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons (asymmetrical warfare): for example, the teen and elderly martyr brigades that the Iranians employed in the 1980s against a military invasion by the U. S. backed and supplied armies of Saddam Hussein (Husayn). It is very difficult or impossible for most people in the U. S. to see as pathological our huge expenditures on building weapons of every kind far in excess of our own defensive needs, which we sell in large quantities to totalitarians and democrats alike all around the world, while at the same time we argue for disarmament and world peace. After all, how wrong was the Ayatollah Taleqani when he said the following?
If there were no religions, how else would the wise men and reformers of the world find a solution? Can we say that war should vanish from the face of the earth? This has indeed been an argument. Today this claim is still widespread. The institutions of peace and arms-limitation work day and night. They do this in halls and rooms above the ground. Underground there are factories which are in a frenzy to create destructive, murderous weapons. Just below the people who brag about peace and disarmament, nuclear weapons are made.
The problem I am trying to highlight here is that many of the visible elements that accompany social pathologies are not, by themselves, social pathogens. On the contrary, Rumi's poem, for example, taken in its original context, was part of the grounding of a spiritual perspective that has for long transcended traditional enmities and sectarian divisions and continues to this day to ground a spiritual argument for peace, tolerance, and inclusiveness. Peoples' willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of their communities is, in the vast majority of cases, beneficial and praiseworthy. Religion is as least as often an impetus toward social justice, altruism, peace, and goodwill as it is a source of divisiveness, bigotry, backwardness, and all the other sins of which it has been accused.
Among the crucial things that we do not really know well enough is what the agents and processes are that recruit normally beneficial elements of social interaction to participation in socially pathological behaviors. To continue my heaping-up of medical analogies, the situation seems in many ways like that of cancer and auto-immune diseases. Cell-division is an absolute requirement for human life but, when some type of cell begins to replicate itself and spread without control or limits, the result is a deadly and often fatal disease. The body produces special cells that protect it by destroying potentially dangerous microbial invaders but, occasionally, something happens to the body's protective mechanisms and these protective cells misidentify the body's own cells as foreign and destroy them with devastating results. We see very similar general processes at work in social relations. Psychologically and socially beneficial emotions such as love and close friendship, needs for social bonding and group formation, the impulses to produce and consume art and music, all of these (and more) are implicated in suicidal, genocidal, and even potentially civilization-destroying social pathologies. However, where scientists from several disciplines are laboring, with significant public and private support, to unravel the multiple, complex, and as yet incompletely understood mechanisms of cancers and auto-immune diseases, outside of some social sciences, humanities experts do not, in general, see their work as part of a similar joint project that could likely save countless lives.
5. The Task of the Humanities:
Most, if not all scientists, even those engaged in the "purest" research, seem to have a sense that the knowledge they produce will someday be a part of a more comprehensive knowledge of the world that may, in some way, be of benefit to humankind. In the humanities we are publicly ambivalent about the "usefulness" of humanities education and research. The many rather expansive and correspondingly vague arguments for the "value" of a humanities or "liberal arts" education are countered, at the opposite extreme, by the "deflationary", anti-justification, "academicizing" arguments represented most prominently by Stanly Fish [Save the World on Your Own Time], who argues that liberal education is, "an enterprise which, if it is to remain true to itself, must be entirely self-referential, must be stuck on itself, must have no answer whatsoever to the question, "what good is it?" Fish may be right in saying that vague "grandiose claims" -- for example, that humanities education creates better citizens, better ethical judgments, a more thoughtful and creative public -- are unverifiable and so tangential to what should go on in a liberal education as to be meaningless, misleading, and even downright wrong. This does not mean, however, that the general public has no right to demand some sounder justification for its investment in liberal education and especially for education in the humanities. After all, if academics are going to argue that liberal education is an enterprise that should be "...entirely self-referential, must be stuck on itself, must have no answer whatsoever to the question, "what good is it?" a non-academic would have a perfect right to ask, "Ok, then how does this kind of education differ from, say, golf? And no one is asking me to pony up big bucks in taxes or contributions to support golf clubs, golf pros, or golf lessons and if they did, I'd object!"
If we accept the existence of "The Basic Problem" -- the problem of a world in which individuals and small groups have or will have at their disposal powers of destruction matching or exceeding those that were formerly limited to large confederations, or empires, or nation states -- then the immediate, pragmatic, urgent value of humanities research (and education) should be visible without any excursions into distant realms of morality, social conscience, and so on. All we need to do is to ask ourselves the following questions:
• If the impulse to taking human life on a large scale is a dangerous socio-cultural pathology, where, outside of the university, will we find the expertise to study the cultural and social phenomena that make up such complex social processes?
• What sources of developed and tested methodologies exist for examining cultural and social phenomena other than those employed in humanities research?
• Where are the non-academic institutions set up and funded to do humanities research?
The answer I have in mind is, of course, that today the expertise, methods, and institutions exist together only in our institutions of higher education. Moreover, studying the processes that turn usually benign cultural and social assemblages into pathologies seems to fit nicely within the most conservative definition of the "job" of a university professor -- with only one exception: it does provide one, very specific and limited answer to the question "What good is it?" The dichotomy Fish seems to set up between "self-referential education" and "job training" is a false one, I would argue. There is obviously an arena of "focused understanding" in which scholars attempt to understand "how the world works" with an eye to understanding better "how we can work more effectively in the world". For example, medical research that focuses on cures for specific diseases is neither training for the job of being a physician nor is it "entirely self-referential". If we can do a better job of explaining the value of humanities research and teaching to the general public, to funding agencies, and to university administrations, it is neither an abdication of allegiance to some mystical duty of all scholars nor is it advocacy of a lesser calling.
It is true that a concerted effort on "focused understanding" by interested humanities scholars would demand more cooperation, more interdisciplinary thinking, and more reaching out to non-humanities disciplines than we are accustomed to doing and not all humanities scholars will want to do this reaching out or need to do it. After all, we never really know what knowledge is going to be beneficial in the future. But it is difficult to see concerted effort with practical implications as a bad thing or as something that is not going to happen anyway. It is certainly the "job" of humanities research and teaching to engage in the creation of "knowledge" and, if some of the knowledge produced helps non-academic institutions and agencies avoid applying "killing the cats" solutions to the most difficult and ominous problems of our day, so much the better. If humanities scholars can join the general discussion of "what is to be done" about the Basic Problem, it cannot help but improve our communications across cultures and make our world a safer place. And, in the end, this will be good for us all...including the cats!