26 min read

Beauty, desire, and rivalry in science and technology

Beauty, desire, and rivalry in science and technology

So far we've talked about what beauty means to scientists, whether theorists or experimentalists, and why it matters to them. But one aspect of beauty we haven't talked about yet is what people find desirable. And desire works in ways that can sometimes be destructive.

The French polymath René Girard, who taught for many years at Stanford among other places, argued that desire is fundamentally imitative or mimetic: our desires are not our own, but borrowed from others. We can see this even among young children: a child may not care about a particular toy until she sees another child playing with it, at which point she suddenly seems to develop an insatiable desire for it. And we never really get over this. We are creatures of imitation, and we inadvertently imitate those whom we perceive have a greater sense of being than us--usually those with greater status or those we perceive as most successful. That's why we give in to ads that promise us the state of being achieved by the model in the ad who uses the gadget being advertised. Mimetic desire also leads to rivalry when the objects of desire are scarce (e.g., a competitive grant or award), and mimetic rivarly can lead to destructive behaviors such as violence and scapegoating.

I wanted to understand how this mechanism of mimetic desire might shape the worlds of science and technology. So I interviewed my colleague Luke Burgis, who recently wrote an award-winning book which is the most accessible explanation I have seen of Girard's work, Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life.

Luke Burgis began his career on Wall Street in investment banking and private equity, and went on to found multiple companies in technology, consumer products, and wellness. He graduated from New York University's Stern School of Business with a degree in finance and accounting, and later studied philosophy and theology at a Pontifical University in Rome. He is currently Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Director of Programs at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at The Catholic University of America, where he is also a professor of Business.

You can watch or listen out our conversation below, in which Luke explains how mimetic desire and rivalry can shape the worlds of academic science as well as Silicon Valley, and how beauty in a deeper sense might help us overcome some of these challenges.

Interview transcript

Brandon: Let's start by talking about your background. You pursued finance. Then you became an entrepreneur, and then you studied philosophy and theology. What motivated you to pursue this path? What desires were you pursuing, perhaps?

Luke: I think I've had different motivations and desires at different stages of my life. It's interesting how indifferent influences on us can affect our desires and what we are attracted to a different time. As a child, I grew up with a grandmother and a mother who are both artists. One of my earliest childhood memories is walking into my grandmother's art studio in Traverse City, Michigan, and seeing all kinds of interesting artifacts and objects. She was a bronze sculptor. I was just fascinated at the sheer wonder of what she did, and my mother as well.

As I got older and got went through school, I began to lose a sense of that wonder. My decision-making was hyper focused on what was going to be useful to me — stability, earning a good income, getting the best job right out of college.

I did that. I pursued that route. I worked on Wall Street for a short period of time, and eventually moved to California and co-founded a series of companies. In all of those companies, most of them were tech-related, where I was completely removed from interactions, like personal interactions with other people. One of my companies was an e-commerce website, so I was behind a computer for most of the day.

My other company was a food distribution business, where I was putting snacks in vending machines and distributed them around the country. I realized at one point that I had lost some of that excitement, that childlike wonder and excitement, and ability to be affected by the world around me. I wasn't as curious as I was when I was a child. That really bothered me. There was a level of affectivity that was gone. I couldn't put my finger on what it was.

Eventually, through a series of events that unfolded in my life, I was re-grounded. I had to just get away and come back to the things that were most important to me. I rekindled some of that childlike wonder that I had. I realized that it was really important to me as an entrepreneur to separate myself from the constant grind, to step back and try to integrate the things that are really important to me in my life.

That's around the time when I decided, I do have this real thirst and hunger for art, for beauty, that I was sort of lacking in my life at that time. I lived literally in the middle of the desert in Nevada, which the desert can be a very, very beautiful place. But I was in Las Vegas, which, depending on what your perspective, it may not be the most beautiful, bright, shiny lights. I just really crave that.

Something was rekindled inside of me. It's almost like a desire that had always been there that I had somehow forgotten. This led me back on a path to a more integrated way of looking at my work. I felt fragmented. Then I was able to become whole again through this long process of searching.

Brandon: The desire for beauty, the desire for wonder, it seems, were part of that search. Then you ended up writing a book about desire, right? Your book Wanting is about mimetic desire. What is mimetic desire, and why does it matter?

Luke: Mimetic desire is a phrase that comes from a French social theorist named René Girard. He was introduced to me around the time that I had this existential crisis I'm describing, where in my work, I had lost some meaning. I wasn't sure why I was doing it. I had lost some of that energy and that wonder.

A good mentor of mine introduced me to these ideas of Girard. Girard's entire theory has to do with why humans want the things that they want. He explored classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle who recognized that there's a strong role of imitation in human life. Human beings imitate. It's how we learn. It's how we learn languages. It's how we learn to be part of a certain culture. Imitation is this tremendously powerful force in human life.

Girard explains his key ideas in this video

René Girard's contribution to this perennial exploration of the role of imitation in human life is that humans' powers of imitation go deeper than external forms of imitation, which he called the imitation of representation — things that we can see on the external surface. We even imitate the desires of other people. We read below the surface level, and imitate what other people want. We're social creatures.

Mimetic is just a word for imitation. Because it comes from the Greek word meaning 'to imitate.' The reason that Girard didn't call this kind of desire imitative desires, because he wanted to distinguish it from the kind of imitation that we're happy to talk about and admit, like we talked about imitating role models when we're children. This is very common.

Mimetic desire, he said, usually happens unconsciously. We're usually imitating other people who are models of desire for us in some way, who are mediating desires to us in an unconscious way. Because, as adults, we don't always like to admit that we're affected in this way by other people. We like to think of ourselves as very independent and autonomous.

The heart of Girard's theory is that our desire, by its very nature, is social. We imitate the desires of other people, for better and for worse. This happens in tremendously positive ways when we're inspired by somebody else's beautiful desire. Maybe they have some kind of quality. Maybe they have a tremendous father or mother. Those are great desires to imitate, right? But other times, we can be drawn to pay attention to bright, shiny objects that other people model to us, whether it's a certain lifestyle.

I realized that's what was affecting me my whole life. I looked around me and found models to imitate without necessarily knowing that I was doing that, which somehow caused me to lose myself in a way and forget that original sense of wonder, that original kind of openness to the beauty around me, as I began to be hyped on this hyper track focus of career, financial stability, totems of prestige — which in my world were having certain kinds of watches and things like that as beautiful as they may be. It was a search for status. Status always, I guess, seems like it might be beautiful before you have it. But then, you realize that the search is kind of empty.

Brandon: You're reminding me of the work of Will Storr. He's got this new book on status. He argues that everything we do is a pursuit of status, and we can't escape it. Even if it's the pursuit of, say, spiritual status, wanting to develop some interior perfection, that's still a kind of status chasing in some sense. I don't know if you have any thoughts on whether we can escape the pursuit of status. Particularly, can we escape mimetic desire?

Luke: I think it depends on — we should probably try to define status then. Status is a state of being, is that kind of what we're seeking. In that sense, I think that no. In that sense, there is no escaping a search for status. We're constantly seeking a certain state of being.

But status can be — we can seek more superficial forms of status and more grounded forms of status. I think that's where the difference lies. I view status as a qualitative spectrum. This is not equivalent to status. But the word 'prestige' is a very interesting one. Often, we seek professional prestige. We seek our colleagues to esteem us or to think that our work is important. Prestige can be a slippery slope, because it literally comes from the Latin word 'for illusion.'

There's a great movie that's named The Prestige about two rivalrous magicians. Prestige had been a sort of relatively abstract concept. The desire for prestige itself can lead us to realize how empty it was. Because when is enough enough? When will we ever have enough prestige? It seems to be the kind of thing that leads naturally to the desire for more of it. It's not concretized in the kind of way that we would ever know that we have the kind that we're looking for. I think there's some relation to status there.

Brandon: I want to apply these ideas about mimetic desire, prestige, rivalry, and so on to the world of science and technology. Then there are different worlds. There are different industries, right? The world of science, academic science, is different from the tech industry. But one of the factors that seems to characterize both of them is competition and also rivalry.

In the world of science, one of the things that seems to matter a lot is getting credit for discovery. It's a really scarce reward. In fact, there's this priority rule where the person who reports the discovery first wins all the spoils, regardless of how many other people were involved, actually, in making that discovery possible. Some people say this has led to a lot of the secrecy and hyper competition and so on, that actually it is bad for science. It has led to the replication crisis, and so forth.

The Nobel Prize is another example of a really scarce reward, where only three scientific fields can win a Nobel Prize. Even in one of those fields, only three people could actually jointly hold that prize, regardless of whether there are 100 people on the team that made that discovery possible.

This is a question, I suppose, about — I'd love to hear your assessment of the world of science and this competition. Is this really a source of unhealthy rivalry? Is this bad for science and for academia more generally, do you think?

Luke: Yeah, the broader discussion of competition, I think, is an interesting one. I come from the business world, the startup world. The word competition, competere, it just comes from Latin that just means 'to seek together,' to seek something together.

In business, I suppose that's profit. You have multiple businesses that are together seeking profit. Part of it depends on whether or not you believe it's a zero-sum game or not. If you're seeking that profit together, if you believe that there's a fixed amount of it, then somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. If you actually believe that you can create more of it, that you can create new value which creates more profit, then I suppose it can be a constructive thing. It can push people to innovate. Innovation is important. There are many stories, throughout history, of competition leading to innovation. Because if you don't innovate, you die. You don't survive. Innovation is more than just this. We kind of wax poetic about innovation. But businesses have to innovate. They have no choice. If they don't innovate, they don't survive.

I guess, the same could be true in academia, with the scientists. There's a good competition, and there's a bad competition, I suppose. I can think of competition pushing discovery, pushing innovation forward through some healthy, competitive rivalry in some sense. But then, other times, it can become just silly when the competition can be such that you forget what it was that you were interested in the first place. It becomes more important to just publish in a certain number of journals or something like that, where you can get distracted. Your attention gets diverted to the wrong place because the competition is for some of the smaller stake things. Where does that end?

I suppose it's sometimes good not to have competition, though. Think of a situation where we're working on a book, for instance. If my publisher said, "Well, Luke, there's three other people that are writing books about the same topic. Whoever finishes the writing first will get to be the one to publish it," I wouldn't write a very good book, because I'd be constantly worried about what everybody else is doing.

Whereas if I had a grant, and I had two years to work on this, and I could just focus on it completely, it's going to get more of my time and attention and thoughtfulness where I'm not constantly looking over my shoulder worried about winning this race. In that sense, I think that for scientific discovery, I think that it is important that people have a certain amount of space to be able to focus on the work and on seeking the truth, and be given the time and the resources to do that.

Now, in regards to the winner-take-all example that you used, the first person to declare something, that happens in business all the time. The winner takes all markets. Mark Zuckerberg got it with the social network. I don't think that's good. That seems like it can lead to people being motivated for the wrong reasons and not necessarily — I think even the way that ideas and work is framed, it can have more to do with the kind of framing things in order to get certain recognition or credit rather than focusing on the work itself.

Brandon: What do you think are perhaps, more broadly, the conditions for mimetic rivalry versus more healthy competition? What are, structurally, those differences if you had the ability to, say, set the stakes? Say, you were the National Science Foundation. You want to incentivize funding or some other way to control structures of competition. Is there anything you would do to create healthy versus this mimetic kind of competition?

Luke: Yeah, there's an interesting distinction that Girard makes when it comes to the different kinds of mimetic desires. He says that there are two major kinds of models of desire in the world. There's the kind of model of desire that is external to us that we don't necessarily have contact with, that we can't really become rivals to. An example of this would be a doctoral student and some famous researcher who already has their PhD. They're sort of not competing for the same things. They're in different worlds, at least until the student becomes on a level where he can compete with the master.

mediators of desire
Internal and External Mediators of Desire. Source: https://read.lukeburgis.com/p/decluttering-our-desires

The other kind of mimetic desire or the other kind of model is an internal model of desire. This is somebody who's inside of our world who's very close to us. That kind of rivalry can be — Girard says that that kind of rivalry can be dangerous. Because if we have two colleagues, for instance, at the same university who are competing for the same recognition or something like that, that can actually lead them to not help one another, to view all the resources as scarce.

In my undergrad school, we had something. It was a bell curve. We all knew that there was only a certain number of people in the class that could get A's. It actually led us to not share our work, to not even help our fellow students. It seemed to me to be a very unhealthy form of rivalry. I guess, creating the conditions in which people have trust — to share their work, to help one another, to work towards the common good — does require that they're not in a position where they're competing for the same scarce resources in some way.

I don't have the answers for exactly how to do that if I was on a committee with the prize or something like that. But I do think more thought needs to be given to this feature of human nature. It's not enough to just dangle recognition and money out there. I think creating structures and conditions that will foster cooperation and trust between the people that are competing, actually, is important, especially in that domain.

Brandon: Yeah, because it seems like the work we're doing is looking at the role of beauty and science. For a lot of scientists, they'll say, encountering the beauty of not just nature or scientific phenomena, but the beauty of understanding and when things come together, you gain an insight into how reality works. That's really what makes everything worthwhile. That's why you go into science. That's why you put up with long hours in the lab. That's why you put up with even bullying, the harassment, and some of the negative aspects of science, and then chasing after grants and so forth.

But the sense of competition, the idea that, "I have to get my idea out there. Otherwise, we don't really get funding. I'll lose my students, and I'll lose my postdocs and so on," that really seems to undercut that ability to experience the wonder, which is, I think, a little bit analogous to your experience.

The initial wonder that draws you to do something in the world and to create something of value is undercut by those mechanisms that, in theory, are supposed to keep the engine moving. But it doesn't often happen that way. Is the world of technology similar? I mean Silicon Valley. That's a world that you're a bit more familiar with. How different is that from the world of academic science or academia?

Luke: I don't know if it's very different at all. Because when it comes to mimetic desire, we're talking about a feature of human nature. At least, from Girard's claims, it's part of human nature. It's humans in Silicon Valley and humans in science and in academia.

In Silicon Valley, you certainly have phenomenons where there's a first mover advantage. You have people that can tell a certain story, get an idea out there first. They attract all of the venture capital money. They attract all of the attention. They attract all of the media. It just fuels itself. There's a mimetic process that kicks off.

I think that the same is true in science as well. To give you an example, I recently read that there's a real controversy right now in Alzheimer's research. Because a couple of decades ago, there were some well-funded studies that got a lot of press and attention that linked the cause of Alzheimer's to a particular protein in the brain. It directs what I call 'hot capital' to this one idea. They can overlook all of the other things that are going on, all of the other research that's happening.

For years, sometimes even for decades, all the attention is focused on this one thing, which can cause funders and researchers to miss other things because they're so focused on this one thing. There is something to there in it that seems to me to be dangerous, or at least can cause us to miss opportunity. Because we think that the understanding, the truth must be found in this one area because that's where everybody else is looking. That could perhaps simply be it for mimetic reasons. That's why it's important to at least be aware that this mimesis works pretty much in any domain that we're in in human life.

Brandon: Now, I think that sounds a little bit like one of the debates that's pretty live in physics, which is around the idea that beautiful mathematics for a long time has been seen as a guide to truth. Especially, the first half of the century, a lot of predictions that were made just betting on what scientists or physicists has found to be beautiful turned out to be true.

Since the '60s, it has stopped working. Then the argument is, from the critics, it's something similar that we're directing our attention to certain aesthetic criteria that worked for a while, those really hot for a while. But now maybe it's outlived its utility.

So, I'm curious about what is the link then between that kind of beauty. Because they are really the folks who are pursuing this route of investigation that are saying, "Look, the math is beautiful. It must be true." They're led by a conviction about beauty. Perhaps in some ways, not too different from some of these venture capitalists who are pursuing some static judgment. I'm curious to know the kind of beauty people find. How is beauty, I suppose, related to desire and to mimetic desire?

Luke: Yeah, I think we imitate models that we find attractive in some way. We wouldn't imitate a model subconsciously or consciously if we didn't, in some way, believe that they possess some quality of being that we would like. So, we're somehow attracted to them in some way.

There's a difference between attraction and beauty. When I look at my own vocational journey — I described a little bit of it in the beginning of this conversation — I sometimes wonder if we look back at our lives and why we were attracted to certain things or people that we were attracted to, and then we look at it 10, 15 years later, that attraction might seem silly. Why did I think that that was beautiful? Why was I so attracted to that?

I think we can begin to diagnose some qualitative differences. Some of these things could be a naive, adolescent kind of infatuation-like attraction. Other things could be rooted in something that's real, some objective beauty in something. I've wondered often whether the things that we find beautiful at different points in our life, if those are some signposts to where we're going to find our ultimate satisfaction and fulfillment in terms of a professional career, calling, or vocation.

For instance, when I was a student, I had classmates that found solving math problems to be incredibly beautiful. One of my friends quite literally cried who solved a math problem. He went on to get an engineering degree, and finds it absolutely beautiful in a way that I do not. Does that say something different about the different paths that we've taken in life? I find different things beautiful.

I think there's a link between understanding ourselves and the various things and the reasons why we might find some things more beautiful than others. But I think understanding that these qualitative differences and why we're attracted to things is really, really important.

In my book, I differentiate between what I call thin desires — which our desires are things that we're attracted to that come and go. There's nothing enduring about them. There's no continuity. I might be attracted to this thing today. Then next week, it doesn't matter to me anymore — as opposed to a thick desire, which seems to be rooted in something that has solidity, continuity, its enduring. There seems to be something objectively real about that desire. There's where I think there's some deep connection to beauty.

Brandon: Yeah, it seems like beauty is one of these things that we can make a second order or reflection on. We can ask ourselves. It's just one thing to say I find this beautiful. But then, should I? We can assess why it is that we find the things beautiful that we do and whether we ought to pivot. That's, in some way, one of the issues in this conversation around science. It's whether the science we find beautiful today is a reliable guide to truth, or should it be something that necessarily will always be reliable?

I want to ask. You've written this article, this essay, for Wired. You've talked about the difference between the logics of Athens, Jerusalem, and Silicon Valley, the relation between reason, faith, and technology. Could you say a little bit about what your argument is in that piece, and how science might fit into that relationship between reason and technology in particular?

Luke: This conceptual framework that I call the Three-City Problem is just me trying to give language. I'm a very visual thinker, so I was imagining that the world is somewhat clustered into these three cities, where people are doing work largely unconnected from the other cities. One of these cities is Athens, which I just shorthand for the world of pure reason. The other is the world of Jerusalem, which would be the religious world, the world of faith. The other would be the world of Silicon Valley, which is the world of technology, but more so utility. It's the world where utility is the primary value.

I've lived in all three of these cities at various times in my life as part of my journey. The feeling of fragmentation that I felt was me wanting to have all three of these cities co-exist in the world that I was in and inside of myself. Because I am a religious being. I do look up at the sky and wonder about things. I'm a rational creature, most of the time, at least. I do believe in creating things that are useful. I like to innovate. Silicon Valley activates a very important part of me, this creative side that I have.

But these things need not be separated. I guess, if I was to situate — I think beauty is part of all three of these cities. In my experience, I tend to find the beauty most in Jerusalem when I walk inside of a beautiful church or something like that. But that shouldn't be the only place that we talk about beauty. It shouldn't be relegated to any one of these three places. Beauty is this perennial human need. Finding ways to not think that the only place that I can seek beauty is in that one domain was an important realization for me. Having this kind of integrity between the three cities.

A really important part of beauty is integrity and coherence. It's one of the things that at least the scholastic philosophers said were really important qualities of beauty: claritas, integritas, and coherence. I think it's, in the modern world, we fragmented a bit. People in Silicon Valley, many of them are so sort of focused on creating useful things, that they're not necessarily thinking about whether these things are beautiful. If we go too far in that direction, what will the world look like 50 years from now if all of the money has been funneled towards simply creating utility or useful things? It seems like beauty has an important role to play there.

Brandon: How do you differentiate that kind of beauty from the shiny things that we chase after? Because there is a kind of beauty in utility, I suppose. People would say that this is the value of something is that it can be useful for a lot of people or it can make a lot of money.

Particularly, for somebody working in Silicon Valley, if someone is drawn to, say, be really creative and produce something, an app that solves some pressing problems, how would you advise them, I suppose, to keep their eyes on this deeper form of beauty? What would be the indicators of that? How would they assess where they perhaps they have drifted into more mimetic realm of chasing after a different superficial form of beauty? What would be some of the red flags, indicator, signposts that they could pay attention to?

Luke: Yeah, well, first off, I think that there is absolutely a relationship between utility and beauty. There is something beautiful about creating efficiencies. Actually, the more utility we have, you could argue the more time is freed up for us to gaze at things that we think are beautiful, and waste time in a museum. Because I was able to order a book that arrived at my house in 12 hours or something like that.

Brandon: Or read some of the books on this shelf.

Luke: Yeah, there's many books on the shelf right now. So, you could argue that the vast utility, the things that have been created have actually allowed me to sit down and be able to spend time reading or invest in myself in exploring beauty.

There are different kinds of beauty. I think there's aesthetic beauty, for sure. There's also moral beauty. When I think back at some of the experiences in my life, the encounters that I've had that I would describe as the most beautiful, almost all of them involve encounters with other people. Witnessing some beautiful act of love like seeing a beautiful soul, seeing somebody work in a beautiful way and who's a master at their craft, I find it incredibly beautiful.

When somebody's invested in being able to do some simple thing with excellence, provide for their family, all of these things, there's a certain quality of moral beauty about that. That transcends my thinking as beautiful for merely aesthetic reasons. There's something deeply human about this. I think that that this deeply human side of beauty, we need that in technology. The minute that technology is divorced from the human person, the minute that business loses sight of the human person which is at the center of all business, what are we doing this for?

Brandon: And science as well, I would imagine.

Luke: And science as well. Then I think that's an indicator when we're creating things that are not allowing people to experience a full range of their humanity, a full range of human emotions. Because I have my head buried in my phone for so many hours a day, that I'm missing the created reality around me. I'm missing nature. I'm missing the sunset that I'm driving right by in my Uber. I'm busy texting somebody or scrolling Twitter or something like that.

These are clear indications. Part of that is personal responsibility involved in this too. But as creators, as people that are thinking about innovating, discovering truths, how do these truths ultimately relate to human life? What will they mean? Especially, when we're creating new things, scientists have a big role to play in this. What does it mean for humanity as we're creating rockets that can go to Mars? We always have to go back to the question of why and what will that do to the human spirit and our society in general.

Brandon: There were some who tried to push back and tried to dissenter and make this Copernican move and say that no part of the problem is decentering of humanity. We need to decenter and look where really the speck on this tiny planet, which is a speck in the middle of this, not even the middle of this remote corner of this galaxy, et cetera. There is a tendency, I suppose, in science today to decenter the human. There's something attractive for scientists who see this decentering as being more true to the nature of reality, that we really are not at the center of the universe, et cetera.

I wonder whether that sort of vision, is there something beautiful there? Is there something ugly there? How do you assess that in terms of trying to make sense of what the purpose of science might be, or what value it has in this world and the kind of pursuit that it is? Because there's that particular tendency to decenter. But then, there's also the transhumanist tendency that wants to overcome and go beyond our humanity. Those are two directions that seems that science is moving in at the same time. I wonder what your thoughts might be, particularly in the world of technology where people want to capitalize on these directions.

Luke: Yeah, I would say we can't escape mimeses. René Girard is clear. We can't escape the mimeses. We can just learn to operate as mimetic creatures in different ways. So, we can't fully escape that. I would argue that I don't think we can completely forget ourselves and do away with ourselves. No matter how hard we try, we are observing reality from your chair, and from my chair. We can never completely sort of — we're not neutral observers, right? We're observing it from a place in the world.

This makes me think of the word transcendence. I do believe the search for truth and beauty has to do with transcendence — transcending ourselves in a healthy, positive way. I think of when I see something beautiful. I just did, shortly before we got together, actually. I had an encounter with a person on the street. It drew me out of myself in a positive way. All I could think about was all the things I had to do today. I was getting ready to have our conversation. This encounter, which was beautiful in many ways, drew me out of myself in this wonderful way.

I think encounters with beauty, encounters with truth are this human desire to continually go beyond laws. But that doesn't mean that transcendence does not mean completely discarding ourselves. That would be, I think, not a healthy way of thinking about it. I think that's the transhumanist movement. I think it tends towards that. There's an element of continuity, I think, about our humanity that's good. We're part of this ecosystem.

I think that transcendence is what desire is ultimately about. It's the search for transcendence. How beautiful of a thing is it that we are social creatures that have mimetic desire. Because I can have an encounter, I can meet somebody, enter into their world in this wonderful way, share experiences with them. We're united in this shared desire for some common good, for instance. That's something that's uniquely human, and I think is good and noble. Science does wonderful things to unite us and to show us what's possible.

Brandon: One of the things that Girard talks about, and you've written about in your book, is the ways in which mimetic desire and rivalry then leads to scapegoating and violence. Particularly, during times of uncertainty, it seems like we really want to look for scapegoats.

We're still emerging out of this pandemic. It looks like uncertainty has been pretty rife. Some people argue that science has been scapegoated in this process. We're still, I think, divided in terms of whether we can trust vaccines or not, whether we can trust scientists or not. I'm curious to know your thoughts on what can bring us out of this world of mimeses. Can beauty, in any way, save the world as Dostoevsky might suggest?

Luke: This tendency of humans to imitate one another and blame is at the heart of this idea of scapegoating, which is a fundamental part of mimetic theory that we often quickly, mimetically unite against somebody that can bear the blame for our problems or our uncertainties. I think that certainly we've seen a lot of that, especially over the last few years. That happens in a closed system, where people are turned inward on themselves. There's the lack of any kind of transcendent good that could pull them out of that mechanism.

The scapegoat mechanism in Girard's view is inevitable in any kind of closed system, where there's what he calls a mimetic crisis, where there's a lot of uncertainty. There's a lot of blame that spreads by contagion within a community, in a group, in a culture. The way that that is eventually resolved is by finding a scapegoat. But that happens in a closed system. He would call that the scapegoat creates a sense of false transcendence, he would say. It's a false transcendence. It actually produces a feeling of catharsis. We may even call it a false beauty or something like that. A beauty that, aha, we've now pinpointed the problem. We have understanding about what the problem is, but a false understanding.

If there is a genuine, transcendent good, it has the effect of pulling us outside of ourselves. We are not necessarily turned inward. I think of, for instance, the famous example of Christmas in World War One when the soldiers in the trenches just had — there was somehow this beautiful day, this idea, this thing that was bigger than them facing off. They put down their arms. I do think that beauty is extremely important. It can act as that way to turn shoulder to shoulder and to look together at something that is truly a real form of transcendence, and not the false kind that we get from the scapegoat mechanism.

Brandon: Would you have any advice on how our listeners or viewers could cultivate attentiveness to that kind of beauty in their lives?

Luke: Well, I think gaining some distance from the noise is important. For me, silence is beautiful. One of the ways or reasons that silence is beautiful is that it just helps me become so much more attentive to the world around me. I know I have to unplug. I try to do it once a year for four or five days. I'm grateful, and I'm very lucky to be able to do that. But I think there are little ways throughout the day to develop routines where we can step back from the mimetic system dynamic that we're in, and look around and refocus. That's been the single most important tool for me to use.

For people that are in science or scientists, I think it's really important to tell stories about the role that beauty has to play in your work and their work to avoid my journey, which was pursuing things for utilitarian reasons. STEM majors are seeing soaring popularity right now. Oftentimes, I'll talk to students and ask why they want to go into engineering or something like that. It's because, well, it's the easiest to get a job and to earn money. I don't know if they've heard as many stories as they should about the integral, all of the other reasons — the stories of beauty, the stories of what it feels like to achieve that understanding. I think this would round out the motivation. I think it's really important to talk more about the role of beauty in work, specifically in science.

Brandon: Luke, thanks so much for your time. It's been wonderful.

Luke: Thank you for having me.

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