Thursday, April 21, 2011

Greg Mortensen, Ayn Rand, and the power of the moral imagination

The news that Greg Mortensen’s best seller, “Three Cups of Tea”, is partially fabricated has deeply disappointed many of us. We had been enchanted by his tales and held him up as an example of what could be done to overcome the hardships that people in other societies experience, even possibly to assuage the hostility that some people elsewhere have because of our country's policies. We have even hoped that the Taliban could be turned around by our investments in schools for the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Mortensen's stories have turned out to be, at best, embellished versions of events that actually did happen, or at worst, deliberate fabrications. [The best statement of the problems is by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times.]

Once more we have learned that the stories we like to believe are not exactly true. Again it turns out that the stories we embrace have been shaped by the interests and agendas of fallible human beings like ourselves. Much of what we “know” about our world comes to us already misshapen by the interests of those who pass it on to us.

As human beings we engage with the world through narratives. The interpretations we have of events are enabled by presumptions about how the world works. Our decisions and our plans for the future are framed by narratives of possible futures. It is human to live with narratives about what is “true” and “real,” but the narratives that inform our experience often reflect the interests and agendas of others and thus are not precisely true.

Even so, we make commitments on the basis of such presuppositions. Some of us gave money to Greg Mortensen; some people have emulated him by trying to build schools in underdeveloped communities. To the degree that his claims have been untrue the investments in time and money that people have made on the basis of his narratives have been wasted. For some, the losses could be devastating.

And what of commitments made for narratives that are pure fiction? Some of our most prominent politicians claim to have formulated their policies on the basis of the fictional stories of Ayn Rand. [see a link here] Without embarrassment they tell us so. Ayn Rand did not claim to be describing real events. Everyone recognizes her writings to be fabrications. How wise is it to promote public policies on the basis of a fictional world? Ayn Rand created imaginative worlds that suited her narratives. How could anyone accept those stories to represent accurately the world as it actually exists? How could reasonable men take her views to be so “true” that they could base on them serious proposals for solving real problems in the contemporary world? The folly seems so blatant that one wonders how any reasonable person could be taken in by it.

As Marshall Sahlins has put it, the world may not conform to how we think about it. The world, whatever it is, however it functions, has its own properties – properties so complex, so elaborate and involved, that our best ideal paradigms fail to encompass it adequately. Over and over, have not human beings often found themselves trapped in circumstances of their own making that in fact they intended to avoid and indeed abhorred? How can it be rational to propose policies whose only basis is a novelist's imagination?

The task before us, if we are to live wisely in the world, is to discover, as best we can, what our world is like. Our potential for misjudging them, of misreading events as they take place, is cavernous. If we are to be serious in our understandings of the world we must begin with humility, recognizing that its properties are essentially beyond us; much about our world, our universe, even ourselves remains to be discovered. So our policies must be grounded as much as possible on an honest attempt to understand the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. And our individual plans and certainly our collective policies need to be based as firmly as possible on empirically grounded knowledge.

That is the task of social science: It aims to discover the world as it is, to know individuals and collectivities as they are. If our leaders seek to take our country into the future with notions based on mere fiction, can anyone doubt that disaster awaits us?

Greg Mortensen’s and Ayn Rand’s worlds are fabrications. Maybe we would like to believe them but we dare not build our lives on them because they are fantasy. Whatever the real world is like – and it is safe to say that it is always changing, always moving, and thus likely to challenge our best efforts at grasping it on the wing – the closer our imaginative narratives about it need to be if we are to engage with it effectively and avoid a colossal world-wide train wreck.

1 comment:

misterioso said...

Ayn Rand wrote fiction and everyone knew it. Mortensen wrote fiction and no one knew it, until now.