Mystical seductions

William Davies

If politics and organization have been excessively psychologized, reducing every social and economic problem to one of incentives, behaviour, happiness and the brain, what would it take for them to be de-psychologized? One answer is a constant temptation, but we should be wary of it. This is to flip the harsh, rationalist objective science of the mind (and brain) into its opposite, namely a romantic, subjective revelling in the mysteries of consciousness, freedom and sensation.

Confronted by a social world that has been reduced to quasi-mechanical natural forces of cause and effect, the lure of mysticism grows all the greater. In the face of the radical objectivism of neuroscience and behaviourism, which purport to render every inner feeling visible to the outside world, there is a commensurate appeal in radical subjectivism, which claims that what really matters is entirely private to the individual concerned. The problem is that these two philosophies are entirely compatible with one another; there is no friction between them, let alone conflict. This is a case of what Gustav Fechner described as ‘psychophysical parallelism’.

For evidence of this, see how the promotion of mindfulness (and many versions of positive psychology) slips seamlessly between offering scientific facts about what our brains or minds are ‘doing’ and quasi-Buddhist injunctions to simply sit, be and ‘notice’ events as they flow in and out of the consciousness. The limitation of the behavioural and neurosciences is that, while they purport to ignore subjective aspects of human freedom, they speak a language which is primarily meaningful to expert researchers in universities, governments and businesses. By focusing on whatever can be rendered ‘objective’, they leave a gap for a more ‘subjective’ and passive discourse. New age mysticism plugs this gap.

Many happiness advocates, such as Richard Layard, work on both fronts simultaneously. They analyse official statistics, draw on the lessons of neuroscience, mine data and trace behaviours to produce their own objective view of what makes people happy. And then they push for new ‘secular religions’, meditation practices and mindfulness, which will provide the narrative through which the non-scientist can master his own well-being. The result is that the powerful and the powerless are speaking different languages, with the latter’s consequently incapable of troubling the former’s. Nothing like a public denunciation or critique of the powerful is possible under these conditions.

The language and theories of expert elites are becoming more idiosyncratic and separate from those of the public. How ‘they’ narrate human life and how ‘we’ do so are pulling apart from each other, which undermines the very possibility of inclusive political deliberation. For example, positive psychology stresses that we should all stop comparing ourselves to each other and focus on feeling more grateful and empathetic instead. But isn’t comparison precisely what happiness measurement is there to achieve? Doesn’t giving one person a ‘seven’ and another person a ‘six’ work so as to render their differences comparable? The morality that is being offered by way of therapy is often entirely insulated from the logic of the science and technologies which underpin it.

This problem is exacerbated in the age of ubiquitous digital tracking and the big data that results. In his book Infoglut , the critical media theorist Mark Andrejevic looks at how the phenomenon of excessive information requires and facilitates new ways of navigating knowledge. But, as he shows, these have extreme forms of inequality built into them. There are those who possess the power of algorithmic analysis and data mining to navigate a world in which there are too many pieces of data to be studied individually. These include market research agencies, social media platforms and the security services. But for the rest of us, impulse and emotion have become how we orientate and simplify our decisions. Hence the importance of fMRI and sentiment analysis in the digital age: tools which visualize, measure and codify our feelings become the main conduit between an esoteric, expert discourse of mathematics and facts, and a layperson’s discourse of mood, mystical belief and feeling. ‘We’ simply feel our way around, while ‘they’ observe and algorithmically analyse the results. Two separate languages are at work.

The terminal dystopia of Benthamism, as touched on in Chapter 7 , is of a social world that has been rendered totally objective, to the point where the distinction between the objective and the subjective is overcome. Once happiness is understood completely, the scientist will know where and when it takes place, regardless of the person supposedly experiencing it. The need to learn from the ‘verbal behaviour’ of the person being studied will be eliminated once and for all by sophisticated forms of mind reading. Our faces, eyes, body movements and brains will communicate our pleasures and pains on our behalf, freeing decision-makers from the ‘tyranny of sounds’. This may be an exaggeration of any feasible political society, but it represents an animating ideal for how particular traditions of psychological and political science progress. Mysticism may provide private philosophical succour in such a society, but also a final political quietism.