Category Archives: Science
C. Derick Varn: You and I have both followed the careers and patterns of a few of the predominant members of the “Skeptical movement,” and in particular, the recent debates over Atheism Plus and New Atheism. What do you think the issues are in New Atheism?
David Poulter: I think the biggest issue in New Atheism is that they have attempted to create a “big tent” movement based entirely on a non-belief rather than on any sort of a belief. And I think that developments like Atheism Plus show how much of a failure this has been. Simple disbelief in a divine spaceman isn’t really a unifying concept, certainly not in the sense that desires for social justice, or class struggle or even racial/ethnic “identity” and “solidarity” can be and are.
In my view it’s almost like forming a social movement around being left handed. Perhaps if I grew up in a more religious-minded society I might see it differently and view a shared disbelief as something more significant than I do but that is not the case. At any rate I see myself as having far more in common with the likes of Baptist preacher Tommy Douglas and Archbishop Oscar Romero than I do with someone like Sam Harris or Penn Jillette despite a shared disbelief in the divine with the latter two.
Another significant issue, so far as I see it, includes a definite propensity to take on many of the characteristics of dogmatic religious belief systems while at the same time trying to wave the banner of “open-minded free thought”. Take the whole “elevatorgate” incident involving Rebecca Watson. As soon as she received criticism from Richard Dawkins to many that made her some manner of heretic and her response provoked further outrage. The wise man had spoken, she should have shut up seemed to be the feeling of many.
It’s amusing and sad that the New Atheist movement has chosen to ape many of the features of the religions it claims to reject. It has it’s holy figures in the form of Dawkins and Hitchens notably. Look at the outpouring of grief around Hitchens’ death, some of it taking the form of nigh-iconic drawings of him. Like this one.
That is a lovely halo effect going on there.
You also have the veneration of “impartial” science over all else with a rabid refusal to even contemplate that perhaps power does inform knowledge and that the likes of Foucault or Irigaray may be right when they discuss how it is the dominant power structure which dictates the sort of scientific knowledge is important or valid and thus impartiality is, to some degree, a myth. Only instead of using terms like “blasphemy” or “heresy” to rebuke contrary views the New Atheist movement and it’s true believers will chastise you for your “moral relativism”. Now I know this assessment will be denied by many Atheists given that I haven’t presented an empirical study in a proper journal and it’s only based on real life experiences dealing with New Atheists in a variety of arenas. And we all know actual real-life experience is worthless as it is mere “anecdotal evidence”…
C.D.V.: Why do you think New Atheism takes two forms of liberalism (center-left liberalism a la British Labour Party, or American style libertarianism) as the dominant political modes? Often the binary is posited as if these positions are the only viable positions and all others are either religious outright or crypto-religious (such as Hitchen’s writings on his early Trotskyism).
D.P.: I honestly have no idea. I find the libertarian position especially confusing given that there is actual statistical evidence that shows that state involvement in the economy is beneficial in terms of unemployment and overall standard of living. I guess it ties into how many in the New Atheist movement have developed their own articles of faith that can never be questioned despite the claims of making judgements based on empirical evidence.
I would guess that some of it stems from an entrenched adoration of the Enlightenment period and it’s heavily atomistic view of the individual. Whenever there is any discussion of philosophy amongst the New Atheists/ Skeptics I know it always seems to stall out at Hume, Mill, Paine, Locke etc. which makes sense given the aforementioned veneration of Science and the Scientific Method as the “one true path to knowledge”. So it would make sense that their political models would be similarly entrenched in the concepts of the primacy of the individual. To get all anecdotal again I know one person who started reading Heidegger and there was some trepidation expressed by her fellow New Atheists. It was felt that his philosophy was adequately “scientific”, although the links to Nazism were not really important. She defended her interest in non-Empiricist philosophy by stating “I do believe an objective universe exists out there, but I also get really frustrated with people in the skeptical community who seem to really not want to acknowledge how subjective personal experience/thought/memory/language/etc is.” which I see as being a great response. Although it is puzzling that a defense had to be proffered at all.Another factor that I think might play a role in this libertarian streak is the background of many in the New Atheist/ Skeptic camp in “geek” culture notably fanstasy and science fiction. These genres do tend to focus on the deeds of the “Great Man” and how important they are, again advocating the primacy of the individual. So I can see how that might lead to a similar outlook in life. There was a discussion I got into on a D&D board about 10 years ago about the inherent right-wing bias in most RPGs where issues of the actions of the exceptional individual were touched upon as well as the issue of non-relative/absolute morality as expressed in the alignment system. Comics also play into this in my opinion, especially with the rise of the heavily individualistic “gritty anti-hero” figure in the 80s and 90s. I can see how someone who grew up with the message that “great” individuals can and should set their own rules and act as agents of true morality and justice might lead someone into developing a quasi-Nietzschean/ Randian philosophical underpinning.
I can only assume in the case of the center-left liberalism that it’s because it’s a pretty easy position to maintain and doesn’t really rock the boat at all or call for wholesale and massive systemic changes, while still running contrary to the conservative philosophy of most religious people and displaying some basic laudable humanistic concerns. Again pointing to how poor a motivating or unifying force simple disbelief is. Expecting libertarians to co-exist with soft left liberals in some sort of big tent group solely because of a shared disbelief is nonsensical as developments with the Atheist Plus movement show us. And this is a split more inevitable than the numerous splits amongst the far Left and based far more on very real differences of belief. Obviously I’m pretty comfortable with this sort of position amongst New Atheists as it’s fairly close to my own wishy-washy Democratic-Socialist beliefs although I would like it better if they were a little more opposed to capitalism as a whole and not just its more egregious offenses.
C.D.V.: Why was a particularly mild form of feminism the launching point for the split?
D.P.: Again for that I would point to the background of many New Atheists in “geek” culture which is not and has never been particularly enlightened or egalitarian when it comes to women’s issues and is somewhat deservedly noted for a fair amount of social awkwardness. Making it worse is the self-image of enlightened thought that many have so as soon as the slightest criticism comes down it provokes a shit-storm response because it is seen as an attack on the very most central element of their self-concept. It’s being pointed out that they are not the enlightened noble intellectual who is above the base masses so when it gets pointed out that they are little better than the stereotypical construction worker shouting “Hey baby!” and that goes over poorly. Add to this a certain amount of that libertarian value system that feels “personal freedom” is somehow imperiled by any sort of feminism that seems to run in the NA community to this generally poor track record in dealing with women and let simmer.
That’s a big part of why you see the same figures who were at one point lauded for their actions when they were proposing their “Boobquake” now being vilified for being “feminazis” because they expressed a desire to not be hit on in isolated places (like elevators at 3 in the morning) or because they would like to see the most rudimentary of harassment policies in place at conventions and the like. They’re heroines when it’s letting the boys see some skin but when it’s time to curb the neck-licking and crude come-ons suddenly they are evil incarnate. Again it ties into the lionizing of the individual, in this case it takes the form of “I want to act like a pig and those mean ol’ feminists are telling me not to so I’m a victim.” Let’s not forget this is a community where the fairly banal suggestion “don’t be a dick” was seen as an attack on the honest and free expression of thought and was actually controversial. Honestly I see more responsibility for actions taken by my 4 year old than I do from some New Atheists.
C.D.V.: This brings me to what I see as a failing of Atheism Plus, it does not actually articulate its ideology and instead tries to wrap left liberal politics in the guise of an identity: the atheist identity, which is posited as developing like that of religious minorities or homosexuals. Do you see any significant failings politically in this approach?
D.P.: Well I do think they will run into huge difficulties being taken seriously as an actual identity worthy of recognition. There’s obviously a world of difference between being gay or black and being an atheist. As for religious identities often there is a racial/ethnic component attached to them that is part and parcel of the identity and keep people in that identity regardless of their actual belief system. For example I was arguing with one Atheist (that is to say a part of the New Atheist community) about, well everything I’ve brought up so far. He was trying to argue that Islamophobia had no racist component to it at all if I recall correctly and claimed that one couldn’t experience anti-Semitism if one was not a practicing Jew. So I guess the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 never existed and no-one ever wound up in a death camp who was labeled as Jewish yet was not a practicing Jew. This same sort of religious identity existing outside of actual religious practice is also something I have also seen firsthand amongst the Catholic/ Protestant divides in the UK, well Northern Ireland anyways. Given that atheism lacks the sort of history that leads to these identities existing I cannot see the attempt to create an Atheist identity succeeding anymore than I can see an attempt to create a LaRouche Democrat identity that is viewed with any sort of validity. Not being seen as an atheist is a simple matter of saying “God? Yeah he’s cool”. Other groups don’t get that luxury even when their identity is supposedly a matter of belief.
C.D.V.: So what do you think the Atheism Plus movement is masking in response to divisions with the New Atheists? Furthermore, why do you think they are afraid of prior militant atheism even if they argue some of the same positions or even slightly more radical ones?
D.P.: If by “masking” you mean what are they trying to gloss over in order to set themselves apart from New Atheism the most notable factor would have to be the continued advocacy, or at least tolerance, of neo-conservative politics of hegemony and extant power structures found in Capitalism. As you pointed out Atheism Plus has by and large adopted the politics of the liberal left and can even be considered progressive in terms of their outlook in terms of social and domestic issues. When it comes to foreign policy politics or the political underpinnings of society as a whole though there is often no critique of neo-conservative policies or Capitalism as a system. Specific outrages, like Abu Ghraib or abuses by banks, might be condemned but the overall policies that lead to these situations go by and large ignored or accepted, if not endorsed. It’s not really that surprising mind you given that two of the idols of the liberal left are Clinton and Obama both of whom were and are staunch advocates of neo-con policies and certainly nothing close to being the “socialists” their foes have claimed them to be. Certainly with a quick perusal of the Atheism Plus forums you see scant attention paid to foreign policy or economic issues while social and lifestyle issues get considerably more mention. This in spite of the professed desire of the likes of PZ Meyers to apply “Skepticism and the scientific method… within even fields that are routinely disparaged by skeptics, like sociology and economics.”
I don’t know if the proponents of Atheism Plus really are afraid of the previous school of militant atheism so much as they have started to realize that they do have some major disagreements and differences with many in that group, notably seen in the fallout from both Plait’s “don’t be a dick” speech and from Watson’s “elevatorgate”. Such a split was, as I posited earlier, pretty much inevitable. I suppose it could be argued that they are merely a happy progressive face slapped on the same old Atheism. Certainly at times it seems like it is for the most part the assessment of simple identity/lifestyle politics from a liberal left position with an adding of non-belief and continue in the “objectivity and science shall set you free” mindset. But if Atheism Plus can lead people to focus more on issues beyond a non-belief in a god, get over their “empiricism or gtfo” attitude and possibly even start to apply their critical assessments to more than identity and lifestyle politics that would be great. Although I do love the arguments over whether the word “stupid” is “able-ist”. Riveting stuff that.
C.D.V.: Let’s shift out to a larger focus: The Skeptic’s Movement as a whole. Recently, I was listening to the Skeptoid podcast and the host listened Penn and Teller as the number one celebrity in science. This hit me given that I remembered Penn Juliette once saying at a skeptic’s conference: “No education is better than a government education.” But what hit me even more was the number of celebrities that claimed that “science” is the “only method of thinking that had any kind of check against bias” which is fundamentally false. What do you think is going with this rather a-scientific view of science itself?
D.P.: You mean why does there seem to always be a subtext to every discussion of science with Skeptics? A subtext that goes something like “Allow yourself to be engulfed by the Purifying Blue Flame of Science’s Great Bunsen Burner of Reason! For it shall burn away all your subjectivity and leave you Enlightened and seeing the Truth! Hallelujah!”? I know it’s a pretty flippant answer but I see Science as Skepticism’s holy of holies and any criticism or questioning of Science (as opposed to science) and it’s actual objectivity is essentially blasphemy. It’s ironic given the supposed value placed on critical thinking and assessment but Science and the belief in complete Scientific Objectivity is the religion of Skepticism and can never be assailed. It could be that it’s an over-reaction to writers like John Ralston Saul, Code, Foucault (again) and the like. Certainly books like Voltaire’s Bastards seems to get their metaphorical undies all bunched up as do the numerous post-modernist and feminist discussions on the role social forces play in shaping our perceptions and values about knowledge.
D.P.:The inability/unwillingness to define “reason” etc is pretty funny considering when pop criticisms of this “cult of reason” (like Voltaire’s Bastard, I’m Canadian and in my 40s, the book was a bit of a popular phenomenon here in the 90s) get criticized one of the common critiques takes forms like “one searches in vain — not only in the introductory chapter, but throughout the entire book — for an unambiguous explanation of the term defining his central thesis.” (as Pat Duffy Hutcheon said of Saul’s book). So if you are using “reason” in a positive sense you can be as vague as you want but if being critical you have to provide a painfully specific definition, otherwise you’re being obscurant. Funny, but not unexpected given the notable and documented human tendency to be more critical in their assessment of positions they already disagree with while not applying the same rigorous standards to positions they like.
As for where this hostility towards the humanities and philosophy come from I think it might have some of its origins in the all too common “hard vs soft” science divide found in academe but certainly it now seems very ideological. Going back to the friend who had her New Atheist/ Skeptic friends expressing surprise over her reading of Heidegger, at least one of them had an academic background in Philosophy. And a cursory look at the friends (and friends of friends) who are a part of this community shows the same sort of backgrounds. Many have no academic background in the “hard” sciences yet they readily join in this elevation of the concept of “objective science”, so obviously it has gone beyond simply the general academic rivalry and become an ideological tenet of this group that the sort of epistemology found in the “hard” sciences and mathematics is superior to that found in the “soft” sciences. And funnily enough it often seems like the ones who do have a definite “hard” science background are more willing to accept, or at least consider, criticisms of scientific objectivity beyond vulgar interpretations of Popper. Probably just a case of their being more notable though, I can think of a few who exemplify the “hard” science bias who do have a background in that area.
As an aside in some cases I do wonder how much of the humanities backgrounds, along the lines of Harris’ in Philosophy, are dilettantish endeavors undertaken in order to become the sort of “well-rounded” expert figure that Voltaire lionized. Certainly many seem to like to restrict their philosophical reading to Empiricists and Logical Postivists, seldom straying far from those who might question scientific objectivity. Nothing against dilettantes mind you, I generally consider myself to be one. It’s just when that confuses some basic knowledge with expertise you run the risk of developing the sort of “arrogance and ignorance” that Popper saw in some of the Atheist community.
There’s no question as to how much of the “I fucking love Science” mentality is down to dilettantish dabbling though. A lot of it.
C.D.V.: What do you think socialists should do when interacting with the skeptic’s community? We superficially share some values. What do you think socialists should do when interacting with the skeptic’s community? We superficially share some values.
D.P.I think that basically Socialists can’t view someone’s status as a “Skeptic” as at all relevant in determining what form any interaction takes. I think that’s an all too common error made by some in cases where they decide there must be some sort of kinship based on not believing in a god or a professed desire for critical analyses. To me there needs to be more than that. To me it’s more important where they stand politically and doing an inventory on areas of agreement vs areas of difference and evaluating whether those differences outweigh the areas of agreement.
Take Penn Jillette, are Socialists to see themselves in solidarity with someone who is an unabashed advocate for unbridled Capitalism who is just as home on the Glenn Beck show as anywhere else? Or in the case of Hitchens, while he may have claimed to still be a Socialist the fact is that he became an apologist for neo-Conservative politics and acted as a mouthpiece for the Bush administration’s policies in both the Middle East and domestically (when he proclaimed bin Laden to be a greater threat to freedom in America than then AG John Ashcroft). Or Harris with his supporting the concept of “preemptive retaliatory strikes” against Iran should that nation ever acquire nuclear weapons. It’s great that they don’t believe in a god and what have you but those differences are far too great in my opinion to overcome. It’s like expecting Socialists to work with the Far Right anti-Capitalists and not take into account the issue that many of them are, for want of a better way to phrase it, Nazis or at least pretty racist and/or Fascistic. Or expecting Anarchists from the Bakunin/ Kropotkin school to align themselves with “An-Caps” because both don’t like hierarchical power structures. I suppose the more Libertarian Skeptics could be worked with on an issue by issue basis but to expect them to ever be in any sort of real accord with Socialists because of a shared disbelief is unrealistic.
The same holds true for the more left-liberal Skeptics as well, although there are probably more issues there that I can see co-operation on. Even so they tend to get bogged down in issues of identity politics and semantics from a fairly mainstream liberal position, at the expense of considering issues of dismantling Capitalism, to ever really be in accord with Socialists. Particularly in terms of dealing with the more Marxist elements of Socialism. I think the adage of “morality has no place in politics” might strike them as being too close to the “Empiricism or gtfo” attitude (as one friend who leans towards the Atheism Plus school describes it) that they take issue with from their fellow Skeptics and that their focus on things like combating ableism would probably drive many Marxists bat-shit crazy.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
D.P.: Nothing much really, we’ve covered most of the bases as to how I feel about the New Atheist/ Skeptic community. In general I had and have high hopes for it and think it’s great if we can see the influence of religion and superstition lessened in the world. I just think that it tries to tie too many disparate points of view and outlooks to ever succeed as a movement in it’s own right. And I also find that in spite of the professed desire for critical analysis and constant questioning the NA/ Skeptic community tends to refuse to apply those same standards to itself as we saw with the veritable shit-storm that arose when the most mild of criticisms was made from within. In that regard it mirrors the worst quality of many movements, including ones on the Left, that being a tendency to cleave too strongly to a set core of beliefs with nigh-religious zeal and not allow any questioning of those beliefs. It’s just that with the professed advocacy of free thought in the NA/ Skeptic movement such dogmatic adherence to beliefs comes off as disappointingly hypocritical.
C. Derick Varn: Marxian notions of science are characterized in two incompatible ways: I have heard Marxists and Marx being accused of proto-postmodern relativism and absolute social constructivism, and conversely as positivistic and crudely deterministic. Do both of these characterizations misunderstand something fundamental about Marx and Marxist-influenced epistemology?
Ben Campbell: In discussing Marxism’s relation to science, it is important to note that there is no one “Marxism”. Rather, it must be understood that Marxism frayed into several strands, particularly after Marx and Engels’ death, and especially after the political failures of the early twentieth century. One of the many areas in which this great divergence of Marxisms can be seen is in their relation to science.
The coherence of Marxism rests upon an attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic. What exactly is meant by such a synthesis has been a subject of great debate. A particularly problematic character in this debate has been Lenin. Lenin’s philosophy, as expressed mainly in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and his Philosophical Notebooks, is quite ambiguous and perhaps contradictory—he seems never quite able to resolve the synthesis between the Hegelian dialectic and materialism. At Lenin’s worst, his philosophy reduces to a “reflection theory”, and what Axelrod called “naive realism”. At his best, Lenin wrestles with the attempt to “apply dialectics to… the process and development of knowledge”, but the issue was never really resolved in his writings. Due to the eventual canonization of these problematic texts, these ambiguities would lead to great disputes in Soviet Marxism, and consequently in Marxism more generally, ranging widely from the metaphysical to the positivistic. Eventually, Soviet “dialectical materialism” would largely be reduced to mechanistic materialism, with the “dialectic” a mere superficial stylistic ornament, the ambiguity of which could be deployed for political purposes. Partially in response, much of the academic work of “Western Marxism” moved in the other direction, abdicating claims to the natural sciences, eventually leading to what you call “proto-postmodern relativism.”
So yes, various “Marxisms” can be accused of suffering from one or the other of these shortcomings, but these must be seen as symptoms of the degeneration of Marxism as a coherent whole. And from a Marxist perspective, this intellectual fragmentation is inseparable from the political failure of Marxism, and the continuation of capitalism with its extreme divisions of intellectual labor. Marxism, at least as envisioned by Marx and Engels, was meant to be a coherent Weltanschauung capable of transcending this divide. While one could argue that there have been some Marxists who have demonstrated the potential of such an aspiration, I do not think that Marxism has ever reached this aspired level of coherence.
Thus it seems necessary to return to Marx and Engels themselves, and ask if there may have been something faulty in their project—perhaps the attempted synthesis of materialism and the Hegelian dialectic is ultimately unstable? Did Marx and Engels themselves even have a clear sense of Marxism’s relation to natural science? Here, many authors have attempted to stress a fundamental distinction between Marx and Engels, for the implicit purpose of saving Marx from some of the ostensibly “positivist” or “metaphysical” elements introduced into “dialectical materialism” by Engels (note the opposite charges). While there are certainly differences between the two thinkers, their correspondence indicates that these are mainly differences in emphasis rather than fundamental differences in outlook.
So what was Marx and Engels’ orientation to natural science? Certainly it is not as explicitly identified or consistent as we might like. The question of what a materialist dialectic exactly means is one that strikes to heart of Marxism’s relation to science, and epistemology. And it is a question that has never really been answered, even in the writings of Marx and Engels. But then again, perhaps it wasn’t supposed to be, for as Engels would write in Anti-Duhring, dialectics “is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought”, and in Dialectics of Nature, “to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.”
Thus instead of looking to Marx and Engels to discover what they really meant by this synthesis, perhaps it is more useful to look to scientific developments for insight.
C.D.V.: What does a Marxian theory of science look like in specific terms?
B.C.: There are really two approaches to this question. The first is a meta-scientific response that addresses the question as one of the theory, practice, philosophy, and history of science. What does Marxism tell us about science and how it is practiced in capitalist society? In this sense, it is worth considering the Hegelian dialectic and its advancement through the resolution of contradictions. There is some similarity here to Karl Popper’s famous view of science proceeding by falsification, with the obvious irony that Popper was a strident anti-Hegelian. The difference is that a Hegelian conception of science anticipates the criticisms that would be leveled at Popper, such as “confirmation holism”, and historicizes this notion of scientific progress. Interestingly, Popper’s most famous epigone, Imre Lakatos was an ex-Marxist émigré from Stalinist Hungary, were he was schooled in Hegelian Marxism — at times directly from György Lukács. Based partially on this background, but more importantly on the themes of his philosophy of science, the author John Kadvany has referred to Lakatos as a “philosophical mole”, and a “covert Hegelian taking the Popperian castle by storm”. But regardless of Lakatos’ intentions (was he really trying to Hegelianize Popper?) we can see in Lakatos something resembling a Hegelian philosophy of science.
As for a Marxist philosophy of science, it would have to synthesize such Hegelian notions of scientific progress with the recognition that scientific consciousness, while ultimately empirically constrained, is shaped by social being—and in capitalist society that is by the reproduction of capital and the scientific labor process. Thus, if you were to synthesize a philosopher like Lakatos with “externalist” accounts characteristic of the best of sociology of science, then you’re starting to get at a Marxian philosophy of science.
Now, speaking of “philosophy of science”, there is a tendency in the West to separate philosophy from science, such that “philosophy of science” studies how science progresses as an institution, but it doesn’t have much to say about scientific theories or nature—that is, it is a study of form, rather than content. This view has been encouraged, by what are seen as the historic failures of Soviet science, which are often seen as a blanket condemnation of philosophical and political interference in science. This rather simplistic portrayal is unfortunate. As Engels once said:
“Natural scientists believe that they free themselves from philosophy by ignoring it or abusing it… they are no less in bondage to philosophy, but unfortunately to the worst philosophy, and those who abuse philosophy most are slaves precisely to the worst vulgarised relics of the worst philosophies… It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements.”
Scientists always use philosophy to inform theory, whether they realize it or not. The very act of induction implies metaphysical speculations about the way the world is. Thus, the second response to this question, which is in my opinion more interesting, involves looking to contemporary science to inform philosophy, and vice versa.
If we return to Hegel, I should point out that he was deeply influenced by the Naturphilosophie of his day, and his thinking was really an attempt to develop an organic conception of the world. Indeed, as Frederick Beiser puts it, the purpose of The Science of Logic was to develop a “logic of life”. While some of Hegel’s scientific errors have been notorious, the central vision of the logic of life expressed by Hegel stands up remarkably well. That is, that life itself is a process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representation of it. That is, we can see in Hegel an attempt to answer the question later posed by Erwin Schrödinger: What is Life?
In answering this question from a biological perspective, there is a long tradition viewing life as a homeostatic process. Sometimes this perspective has been dominant, at other times less so. You can see it from early experimentalists like Claude Bernard and Walter Cannon to cyberneticists like Norbert Wiener and W. Ross Ashby. In this general view, life is envisioned as a process of regulating an internal environment against the ongoing threat of entropy. “Cybernetics”, coined by Wiener, comes from the Greek for “steersman”, emphasizing life as a perilous process of navigation. And as Ashby would note, the process of regulating a system requires the “modeling” of that system. Thus, life is seen as a process of organism modeling its environment. Or, as I said earlier, this is a view of life as a “process driven by the resolution of contradictions between the object and the subject’s representations of it”. Thus, there are long-standing conceptions of life that are ‘dialectical’, quite different than much of the popular molecular biological reductionism.
This conception of a materialist dialectic is perhaps most interesting in the cognitive sciences. In his own day Hegel critiqued Kant, who was himself responding to the threat posed by empiricism. To simplify greatly, this general progression can be seen from behaviorism, to the “cognitive revolution”, to today’s increasingly dialectical conception of the brain. That is, the cognitive science of the 1960s and 1970s was characterized by the study of “forms of thought” in response to the limits of naive empiricism. Hegel praised Kant for a similar maneuver, but went further, arguing that the forms of thought must critique themselves, and thus become dynamic. And likewise, the contemporary conception of the brain has moved from one of a more passive filter to an active conception usually termed “Bayesian”.
Thus, while few contemporary biologists would recognize it as such, contemporary biology is increasingly a vindication of Hegel’s dialectical understanding of the subject-object relation, and hence Marx’s materialist dialectic. Does that mean that today’s science is, in a way, Marxian? No. Marxism is more than just the materialist dialectic. A Marxist scientific practice would be one whose subjects were conscious of that dialectic, both in its natural and social forms. Today’s science, greatly atomized and lacking in coherence, is a long way from that.
C.D.V. Could you expand on this notion of the “increasingly dialectical conception of the brain”?
B.C.: Well, let’s start with a behaviorist conception of the brain as a model learning the statistical relation between sensory inputs and motor responses, a view taken to its logical extreme in B.F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior. What was known as the “cognitive revolution” was very much a reaction to the limits of such a conception, with Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book somewhat of an opening salvo. From then on you begin to see in the “cognitive sciences” an increasing focus on mental forms, cognitive schemata, internal representations, etc. A particularly crude way of thinking about this is that there are a priori mental forms, into which external input is stored, with these forms often (but not always) taken as innate structures of the mind or brain.
However, as I mentioned earlier, to parallel all this work, there has been a trend in cybernetics and computational neuroscience looking at the relation between content and form. Some of this work started by asking the question: how would the brain efficiently store all of this information? And of course the most efficient forms are dependent on content, giving rise to conceptions in which the “forms of thought” themselves vary dynamically, a view developed by early information theory and cybernetics, but also in experimental neuroscience. And so, for example, you would see theoretically-heavy work arguing that the forms in which the visual cortex stores information depend dynamically on the spatial statistics of visual input.
Now, the interesting development in neuroscience came throughout the 1990s when this relation between form and content was increasingly considered temporally. This view of the brain, leaning an internal model of the temporal statistics of its inputs, is one of prediction—that is, that the cerebral cortex, far from just passively receiving incoming input, is actively predicting that input. This has given rise to a contemporary conception of the brain (usually called “Bayesian”) that emphasizes the central importance of contradiction. That is, the brain is constantly predicting its input, and updating its internal model when these predictions are contradicted. And this contemporary view, as emphasized by theorists like Karl Friston, relates back to the earlier homeostatic views of cyberneticists.
Contemporary scientists wouldn’t go near the word “dialectics”, but I cannot think of a better word for this emerging conception of the brain, and indeed life. The characteristic features of a “dialectical” understanding—contradiction, internal relations, emphasis on “the totality”—all find their parallel within contemporary neuroscience. And so in this view, as I said earlier “life is a dialectical process driven by the resolution of contradiction between the environment and the subject’s representation of it.”
Importantly, however, this is not merely a passive question of ‘modeling’. In speaking of the importance of the brain the neurophysiologist Rudolfo Llinás often references the tunicate, or “sea squirt”. Sea squirts begin their life as tadpoles using a primitive nervous system to navigate along the ocean floor looking for a suitable place to live. When it finds such a location, the sea squirt implants itself, to live its adult life as a filter feeder. It then proceeds to digest its primitive brain. The lesson here is that the brain is an organ tied to movement; an animal that does not move has little use for a brain. Thus, in talking of a dialectical conception of the brain, it is necessarily an active interaction of subject and object—or to paraphrase the most famous of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach: the purpose of the brain is not to interpret the world, but to change it!
C.D.V.: What do you think are the key differences between Marx and Engels on science?
B.C.: I am not convinced that there are key differences. Certainly, Marx wrote much less on natural science than Engels, but it seems that this was merely the result of Marx’s deference to Engels on the topic, not a fundamental disagreement between the two. While I am not a Marxologist, I have not seen any evidence of such disagreement. Nevertheless, this has not stopped many Marxists from asserting a fundamental difference between the two, with the seeming misstep of the “dialectics of nature” pinned on Engels. As I stated earlier, these criticisms have come from two opposite directions! On one hand, Engels has been blamed for introducing metaphysical speculation reminiscent of Naturphilosophie into materialism, while on the other hand he is accused of reducing Marx’s humanism to a vulgar mechanical materialism. The fact that Engels can be attacked from two different directions indicates the fundamental tension that exists in Marxism’s attempted synthesis of Hegelian philosophy and materialism. As his problematic Dialectics of Nature demonstrates, Engels never seemed to quite resolve the problem—and thus neither did Marx. But both were interested in it, understood the general contours of it, and attempted to synthesize a Weltanschauung of “dialectical materialism” (although the term was coined by Dietzgen, and now seems inseparable from Stalinist orthodoxy).
Now, having said that, I cannot help but wonder if Marx would have avoided some of the unfortunate formulations and speculations contained in Engels’ scientific writings. In particular, Lukács in History and Class Consciousness is correct to claim that the “the interaction of subject and object” is lost in many of Engels’ metaphysical speculations. It seems incorrect, however, for Lukács to claim that these “crucial determinants of dialectics” are “absent from our knowledge of nature”. They are abundantly present in biology, which is unsurprising, since Hegel was so influenced by an organic view of nature.
C.D.V.: What do you make of the recent turn of a lot of technocratically center liberals towards both neurology and evolutionary psychology to underpin their political instincts?
B.C.: Well, science has a reputation as a neutral arbiter of truth, and as such it is unsurprising that “scientific” claims are frequently enlisted as ideology in support of those with power, which exists today as capital in its manifestation as neoliberalism. One could go back many decades, of course, to see science used as ideology in previous phases of capital accumulation, such as various racist theories in the heyday of imperialism, and even the advocation of eugenics against the working class in the august pages of Nature. Of course, liberals now look back at this “science” in horror, as though it marks mere scientific misconduct or bad practice, while from a Marxist perspective it is entirely expected. Marxism is unique in its understanding of science, ascribing neither to a naive scientific empiricism, nor a postmodern relativism. It questions the ideological assumptions of science, particularly with respect to the requirements of capital, without denying the possibility of scientific truth.
The turn to neoliberalism has been accompanied by the ideology of the “free market” increasingly read into science, as a part of human nature. Evolutionary psychology is the most well-known example, itself somewhat of a rehash of the earlier sociobiology of the 1970s. In their most vulgar forms, these schools of thought attempt to explain nearly all features of human behavior as natural byproducts of human evolution. In this way, through Darwinian selection, people have been selected to maximize “fitness”. While fitness can be precisely defined in terms of reproduction, such controlled experiments are impossible in most cases. Thus, in the hands of an evolutionary psychologist fitness can be treated somewhat similarly to the neoclassical economic category of “value”—that is, in an entirely circular manner. Why do people do things? Because they increase fitness. What increases fitness? Why, whatever people do! By this type of armchair reasoning, evolutionary psychologists can deduce “just-so” stories to explain nearly all human behavior. Some are plausible explanations, for example that the common fear of snakes was adaptive for our primate ancestors. Others are less plausible. In a famous example, the neurologist V.S. Ramachandran wrote an evolutionary psychological response to the question “Why Do Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?” (“to enable them to detect the early signs of parasitic infestation and aging”). It was satirical, but some didn’t recognize it as such, giving some indication of the level of scholarship in this field. At any rate, seldom are evolutionary psychological explanations in any way testable.
While it is easy to laugh at the more absurd examples of evolutionary psychology, from a Marxist perspective it is far from humorous, as it serves as both a Panglossian justification for the status quo (one can always find an evolutionary explanation), and more specifically as “scientific” support for the ideology of neoliberalism, with its view of human nature as maximizing some utility function.
As I have mentioned, these debates are nothing new. Marxist-influenced biologists like Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould had ongoing disputes with sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson beginning in the 1970s. Unfortunately, this type of highly ideological science is today increasingly unchallenged. While there was a scientific element to both the Old Left and the New Left, today’s scientific Left is virtually nonexistent (or more optimistically, has yet to be born). One obstacle is the increasingly anti-scientific stance of the American Right, which for many scientists appears to have reinforced the identification of scientific values with liberalism, and at least postponed any critical scientific challenge to liberalism itself.
As a neuroscientist and a Marxist, some of the more troubling developments in recent years have been in the area of “neuroeconomics”. While much of the work carried out on human decision-making is quite valuable in challenging the assumptions of neoclassical economics, much of the work being conducted by “neuroeconomists” is heavily ideological, driven by a desire to synthesize neoclassical microeconomics and neuroscientific theory. And so the human brain is increasingly viewed through the lens of neoclassical theory, with the ventral tegmental area correlating with utility—dopamine as value drug. And so today, an increasing number of neuroscientists (well-intentioned people, indeed my colleagues and my former self) speak of the human brain as maximizing value, endeavor to measure value and reward with functional MRI experiments (often played for money), and elucidate our contemporary notion of “human nature” through this framework.
Now, from a Marxist perspective it is important to note that this heavily ideological science is not entirely wrong. Marx did not just dismiss his predecessors in political economy because their theories were ideological. Rather, he recognized fundamental insight in their work and went on to develop a critique from that work. Similarly must a Marxist approach both the later developments in economics, and the type of science derived from its assumptions.
I do not dispute that the functioning of the brain can be read in a manner broadly consistent with the notion of maximizing utility. But just as there are different coordinate systems for the same geometry, so are there different interpretations of the same brain activity. Why is brain and behavior so commonly interpreted as “maximizing utility”, when it could be equally interpreted as “minimizing disutility”? Note how the trivial shift in wording leads to a significant shift in our view of “human nature”. The first interpretation points to the neoclassical homo economicus. The second leads back to the homeostatic—and dialectical—view mentioned earlier.
C.D.V.: Do you see this blurring of the lines between a highly philosophical (ideological) discipline like economics with neurology to be related to way most scientific endeavors are funded? Or do you think something else is going on? I noticed a lot of co-option of evolutionary language in economics since the 1970s and Hayek’s use of socio-biology underpinning of the market as a form of evolution, but it seems to have gone far deeper now and the reason for it eludes me.
B.C.: Well, the question of how capital influences the scientific “superstructure” is predictably difficult, especially science the large majority of scientific funding occurs via the state, and then through universities. So you’d need to get into some serious institutional analysis. It is for the most part not a question of vulgar causality, where corporate interests are directly funding science, such as in the age of tobacco research (although there are exceptions). Indeed, when one thinks of such conflicts today one thinks of climate scientists, whose conclusions, far from supporting capital, have been directly opposed by it (hence reinforcing the liberal notion of neutral science). So it is clearly not a situation of either extreme—of a neutral science “speaking truth to power”, nor of science as merely the ideology of capital. Unfortunately, the Marxist study of the history and practice of science is significantly underdeveloped, with the field of “Science and Technology Studies” really lacking a strong Marxist critique.
So, to speak only of the example given, neuroeconomics, I think there are two factors at work. The first is that economics, in order to address increasing criticism, has been forced into the field of psychology, in the form of behavioral economics. The second factor is that neuroscience, and biology in general, is a theory-poor field. This is largely the result of the intellectual fragmentation caused by the specialization of intellectual labor—a fragmentation that has increased substantially over the last few decades. This has led to a general decrease of coherence, with science increasingly reducing to a pastiche of theoretical forms—the science of late capitalism, in Fredric Jameson’s sense. And so just as economics is looking for support from psychology, neuroscience is largely looking for theory.
This trend is probably true more generally. With the decrease of coherent narrative, biology has been increasingly vulnerable to ideological interpretation—and it is certainly related to the decline and fragmentation of the Left.
C.D.V.: What do you think a concerned response to these trends might be by Marxian thinkers? Do you find Gould to be a particularly good example?
B.C.: There haven’t been many explicitly Marxist scientists in the West, at least not since the late 1930s and the disasters of Stalinist science (e.g. the purges of geneticists). There have been scientists that are Marxist-influenced, like Stephen Jay Gould, however this largely attests to the relative strength of Marxism academically in the post-War era. Back then simply receiving a broad pluralistic education would expose one to Marxist critiques and perhaps leave one sympathetic to them, but this is rather different than explicitly looking for connections between Marxism and science, as scientists and Marxists of previous generations had. In the case of Gould, it certainly made him much more skeptical of simplistic causal claims, particularly when they supported capitalist ideology, as well as emphasizing the role of contingency and historicism in nature.
While we could certainly use more scientists like Stephen Jay Gould (these days one can receive a broad pluralistic education without really learning about Marxism), I don’t think that this is sufficient. Scientists, and especially those who study science (e.g. sociology, history, and philosophy of science), really need to develop more of a structural critique of scientific institutions, ideology, and their relation to capital accumulation. And given the hitherto failure of the institutionalized study of science to do enough of this (e.g. Science and Technology Studies) it is likely that this will increasingly have to be done outside of the academy in collaboration with activists and journalists who are willing to engage with science dialectically—succumbing to neither the facile anti-scientific stances that have characterized some on the “left”, nor the uncritical championing of scientific empiricism. And this will be aided enormously with the participation of scientists engaged in an immanent critique of their own practices. The question of how to radicalize a new generation of scientists is interesting. I do not think it will happen to a great extent without a broader rebirth of the left and leftist critiques more generally. In my case it was the broader upsurge of leftish politicization of 2011, epitomized in the Occupy movement, that sparked my interest in the relation of science and capital. And I think that only rarely would scientists even consider these questions without them being raised by a broader left.
Marginalia on Skeptical Thinking: Interview with Steven Gibson on the limitations of skepticism as a movement
He is a small-town entrepreneur who is by nature at odds with “the man.” The man says he is unemployable, and he is increasingly comfortable with that reality. He has been self-employed in video production and multimedia for the last decade. It was there that he wrote the well-reviewed novel of big and skeptical ideas “A Secret of the Universe: a Story of Love, Loss, and the Discovery of an Eternal Truth.” Before that he ran a small office products dealership for a decade. Now he has started what will hopefully be the occupation for his next decade–a boutique car and driver service for independent seniors and busy professionals. Between all of that he questions everything and enjoy time with friends, his significant other, and his kids. I first came across him five years ago on his old podcast, Truth-Driven thinking. Recently Steven Gibson has been more concerned with popular fallacies in economics, and over-claims in regards to religion and politics that are not often covered in the general skeptic’s community, or are covered only in a standard “Democratic Party” liberal or libertarian matter. His honest struggling with the implications let me to want to talk with him on the issues in the community and the problems with skepticism as a “movement.”
C.Derick Varn: What are the major “skeptical issues” that concern you that you don’t think get covered in the greater skeptic community?
Steven Gibson: ether it can be called a major “skeptical” issue or not is unclear; most of the “major issues” do seem to be adequately covered, almost by definition. That said, there remain many important areas of everyday life that appear to lack critical analysis. Economics and politics come to mind, though admittedly they are complex, “softer” areas of inquiry, so difficulties abound. That said, it seems to me that many, many assumptions exist about how our complex economies and markets work, and that economists don’t understand them nearly as well as advertised. Trickle that down to we everyday pundits and skeptical non-economists, and contrary to what we might expect, we see solutions promoted confidently–often quite certainly as ”obvious” truths. But it is clear that ideological biases are attached, perhaps hinting at how we wish the world worked.
Among my favorite commentators happens to be a Hayekian, Austrian-leaning economist from the not-so-left George Mason University, Russ Roberts. He hosts “Econtalk,” and is generally a shining example of how to discuss and disagree while employing intellectual honesty (there are a few exceptions). He often has guest economists from other “schools” who disagree with him. But what I enjoy most is that he seems to readily admit that although he finds his math and arguments more compelling, others are just as convinced their math and arguments are far superior. And the truth is that these very limited models of hugely complex and unpredictable systems appear relatively poorly understood. In fact that is a fundamental message of Nassim Taleb (“The Black Swan” among his great books), who has also been a guest on the program.
Many argue that economics as a discipline, is not a predictive science, and thus should be off the hook for its astonishing failures to predict the things that really matter–such as busts like the global financial collapse of 2008. You might recall that most of the leaders of our economy touted the solid footings of the economy, and dismissed the sub-prime mortgage meltdown as quite isolated (from Bernanke and Geithner to Greenspan and Krugman). The simple fact is that for something as vital as how finance and economics systems work and are managed, we simply don’t understand how they really work in the real world. And yet we make all sorts of moral judgments based upon our almost faith-based narratives of what works and what does not.
Steve Keen’s new models, and thinkers like Nassim Taleb, and maybe a few others like Alan Harvey are at least banging their heads on the established clergy and encouraging rigor and dialogue, but there is a long way to go, it would appear. How about a little humility. Doesn’t the fact that an entire discipline completely missed, and cannot explain, the most significant of events in their economic lifetime imply the need for a little humility? A little introspection?
On the political front I will be more brief. It probably doesn’t even need to be summarized again, but from fact-checking to confirmation bias, we can quickly set our skepticism aside when it is “our guy.”
As always, my observations are purely anecdotal, based perhaps too heavily on Facebook exchanges and other interactions; and I admit to being guilty myself. My concern is that we too seem to fall prey to tribally- and ideologically-driven biases, filters of data, and downright flawed reasoning–just like anyone else. Whether that is objectivism, free market worship, or equally strong Marxist or populist views, we are not immune. Yet we do not discuss these real-world implications of lack of ”skepticism” enough as a community.
For me, all roads lead to Rome. All the smaller, hard-science questions about how the world works are wonderful, but to me the goal would be to work up the chain to god questions, economics, happiness, and philosophical arguments. We should dabble in what is, and what could be. Unfortunately for this average guy from the Midwest, who has discovered just how little he knows, many of these disciplines are far over my head. That’s why I count on you and your readers. All I can tell you is that everywhere I look I see complexity and lack of understanding, but the appearance from others–including skeptics–of dogmatic certainty.
C.D.V.: So what do you make of the relative decline of new atheism within the skeptics movement?
S.G.: Gosh, that’s a tough question because of some built-in assumptions and definitions. If we stipulate that there is a skeptic movement, I’m a bit more hesitant to confess knowledge of the intimate link to new atheism, or of a decline in new atheism within that community. That said, if there is a decline it could be related to the natural cycle of things–there were a few bestselling books for a spell there that ignited conversations; that’s a great thing but momentum ebbs and flows. So I’m not certain about the premise.
It might be that the core of your question, however, focuses on whether or not atheism and skepticism are related; whether they should be; or better still if we run the risk of being scientistic when we spend lots of time on the god questions. At the risk of writing a book here, and showing my ignorance, I’ll take only a quick shot.
Atheism and skepticism are very much intertwined to the degree that supernatural explanations are used to describe natural events and make falsifiable (or potentially falsifiable) claims about how the natural world works. Taking actions based upon untrue assumptions can have horrible consequences. A sick child is refused a transfusion because god has told the parents to not allow it, and that this personal god actively will suspend the cause and effect of the world and move cells or molecules–without other known or unknown earthly cause–and thus heal him another way if we obey? That is a problem, and skeptics and scientists should be all over it. Great harm can come when any imagined claim about reality is acted upon without some degree of critical thinking, naturalistic testing, or thought. (Note: This is quite different than early intuition, thinking outside the box, and creativity or great insights or breakthroughs. (These appear to come from the same parts of the brain that religion does; one can be very “spiritual”, artsy, creative, intuitive, and even irrational, without resorting to defining the sources of such non-linear, non-reasoned creativity as supernatural.)
When “god claims” involve virgin births, causes of earthquakes, moving your pencil, or healing disease, it seems very cool to try to understand those mechanisms and falsify or prove the claim using earthly, naturalistic methods of science. The more we understand about earthly, natural “reality,” (always provisionally), the better off we are. Knowledge is a good thing, and improved knowledge of how the world really works, of causes and effects, always has accompanied forward progress and reduced human suffering. Always.
But beyond falsifiable claims, science has limits that should be recognized so as not to turn it into a religion or philosophy, without very clear disclaimers and delineations that we have entered a new realm (and maybe not even then; see naturalism.org as an admirable effort in that direction). Yes, one can probabilistically make guesses about the unknown based on the entirety of human knowledge, experience, observation, and testing–and thus suggest that a personal god who manipulates atoms is highly unlikely; but one cannot make definitive statements of certainty about that which is beyond our naturalistic, testable knowledge–at least it seems to me. We must be agnostic about mystical, non-falsifiable beliefs, as I believe even the great skeptic Marvin Gardner is said to have argued through his deistic beliefs. While I lean materialist, I realize that becomes a belief, and not the domain of science; . I have much to learn, but that is the thumbnail of my current thinking.
And to bring it full circle, to me it appears that new atheism gains traction slowly but surely when it stays in the realm of natural science, even when refuting claims of religion about testable claims. Where it seems to get itself in trouble is when it dips its toe too far over the line into scientism–which I might add that it does not do very often, but does do.
As for the “ought” part, I still say that all roads lead to Rome (the big questions), and that certainly religious claims made about cause and effect in the natural world are fair game and should be part of skeptical inquiry. But that ought to be engaged in carefully, compassionately, and kindly, with an eye on dialogue that makes the world better and affects meaningful improvements in the human condition. To simply badger or belittle, even with all the facts on your side, gets us nowhere.
C.D.V.: To be fair, Steve, that was a trick question. What do you think are the problems with the privileging of science over all other means of discourse for moral and aesthetics questions that often happens in the “skeptic’s community” through use of disciplines which are themselves problematic as to demarcation as being scientific? In this I would include things such as the use of simple evolutionary psychology or Dawkin’s memetics or Harris’s claims that morality is analogous to medical sceince to the claims that the laws of evolution may apply to physics as being prime offenders?
S.G.: So you are asking about the tendency of even skeptics to use soft or “sketchy” science (e.g. social science research, evolutionary psychology, etc.) in the arguments that science itself should be privileged above other means of answering moral and aesthetic questions? I’m a simple guy from Kalamazoo, and am probably over my head here so will simply say that I’m, well, skeptical of such arguments, and even dubious as to the motives for making them. Mix the demarcation problem with which philosophers of science have long wrestled, the dangers of groupthink and tribalism, and add the seductive power of a great narrative that makes so much sense that it “must” be true—and you have the potential for undermining the search for truth (via both the sketchy science itself, and the use of sketchy assumptions to oversell science, and its epistemological value).
I’ve long argued that one of the reasons we try to find truth in the world is so that we can take actions based upon how the world really works, which will minimize unanticipated consequences and make the world a better place (or less bad—depending on your perspective); conversely, when we take actions based on untruths, we get into all sorts of trouble. Simple. We want to seek truth, and need to be ever rigorous and vigilant of our claims, and avoid overselling what we actually know. But to take it another step, it’s my sense that science loses credibility when it crosses a line into scientism, and starts writing checks that just aren’t cashable (yet).
So it’s a simple answer that I would give: Sam Harris or others could certainly argue that science has the potential to answer moral and aesthetic questions, but as someone on the outside who owns and claims his ignorance on the topic, I can only say that so far I personally do not see any reason to yield too much ground to science on moral and aesthetic questions, especially where such arguments are based upon convenient but far-from-certain narrative hypotheses about what is really true. But again, I’m a non-academic observer and just one person on the jury of billions of humans who get to have opinions and votes; mine could be way wrong, but I’m saying that for good reason or bad, science has some convincing to do on me yet.
C.D.V.: How did you experiment in a Truth Driven Life community on line go? Why do you think it didn’t take off?
S.G.: Well I should probably explain what it was, and what the vision was. The goal was to create a “skeptic” learning community, and the “Bloomfire” technology behind it offered some promise to streamline multimedia and webcam exchanges, archival, and indexing such that participants could learn from the posts and exchanges. Those posts and video-heavy exchanges would then remain there for future members. I had noticed that too often we rehash old discussions in forums or “in-groups,” new members don’t know that we’ve already covered that, and the group or discussion never moves forward. But more than that, my suspicion was—and is—that for many people in today’s world it can be difficult to find authentic, open-minded, and intelligent people with whom I can have safe, substantive, stimulating, and open conversations—where emotion is mastered such that all honest thoughts and inquiries are fair game. So it was both a social tool, and a learning environment (dare I say “like church”?).
While I’m painfully aware of the dangers of in-group thinking and groupthink, I have also long argued that everyone needs a community—a safe place where likeminded people can grow and explore. The idea was to combine the power of peer learning with access to subject-matter experts, guest bloggers, great minds, and exclusive content—while supporting the Truth-Driven Thinking programming and mission. I envisioned more than a “forum”—rather a place where authentic people could gather socially, almost as if physically (via webcam elements of the platform), submit content; read; watch; learn; share; support one another; debate; and ask big questions.
We could also have some rules about tone, demeanor, and civil exchanges. This would be more of a “knowledge club” than a public square. Maybe even invitation, and maybe even with some dues to cover admin and membership, and contribute toward my then podcast.
So why did it fail? Probably for many reasons. 1) My time and resources became scarce, so I couldn’t give it a fair shot; 2) People have Facebook and other places to be social online—so who really needs one more; 3) the Bloomfire creators sold the company, went “enterprise,” and I believed that the platform wouldn’t be around for long in that form; 4) I’m not sure it was as technologically “there” as I’d hoped; 5) Eventually the utopian community probably doesn’t exist anyway—but part of me would still like to try someday.
C.D.V.: Why do you think that the skeptical community has such a limited range of political options expressed in it? Is this an indication that politics has replaced religion as an ideological framework within the movement?
S.G.: Based upon only anecdotes and gut, I will try to speculate. (Data driven? Who, me?) That said, I do think the skeptical community has a narrow range of political options that are expressed in it. And yes, I believe this is an indication that politics has replaced religion as an ideological framework within “the movement”.
Due to my retrenchment and restructuring of my income and life, most of my interaction with skeptics, listeners to my former podcast, and readers of my novel of skeptical ideas come via Facebook these days. So my anecdotes are drawn heavily from those interactions, but also from my broader body of exchanges over the years with many self-identified skeptics around the world. That said, I will hastily categorize my experience of skeptics into two main groups: radical libertarian, free-market, Ayn Randian or Hayekian Objectivists on one side—and general Democratic party enthusiasts in the other cluster. These groups find common ground on social issues: getting the government out of vaginas, etc., however they tend to differ on economic issues, ethical questions of fairness and wealth redistribution, effects of economic policy (Krugman vs. Laffer), and the very philosophical ethics that underpin those views—if they’ve ever even really thought about it that way.
Time and again we skeptics pay lip service to the idea that my “beliefs” won’t own me, that emotional involvement and confirmation bias are to be guarded against, that no notion should be held above critical scrutiny, and that we will follow the evidence wherever it leads us—happily, and on any issue. But I simply don’t see humans, and skeptics are certainly human, behave that way. Our “beliefs” most certain to own us and blind us to pursuit of truth.
Economics is a wonderful example, as is the “issue” of anthropogenic global warming. In the economics sphere, one of my favorite scholarly voices is Russ Roberts, who hosts a podcast called EconTalk (Econtalk.org). What I love is not only his affinity for genuine intellectual exchanges among people who differ on their interpretations of economic theory (hypotheses)—but his experienced voice in articulating the limits of the discipline. Yet few economists would be as honest. In short, and I’m trying to be careful stating someone else’s views, Roberts admits that on the big questions—we just don’t know! That’s right, he sees major fights between “schools” of economic thought, where everyone has their data and believes their data are the best, and has their regression analysis and their hugely complex data sets and multivariate equations—but the reality is that they are simply inconclusive and unresolved questions! These are experts at rhetoric, but deeply divided by school, tribe, gang, or whatever you want to call it, which biases them and creates the illusion of certainty.
Add famed thinker Nassim Taleb or Australian economist Steve Keen (http://www.debtdeflation.com/blogs/), who passionately and persuasively argues that much of the neoclassical economic model is completely oversimplified and unsupported by the data (from aggregate demand to the critical role of total debt/shadow banking leverage in the system)—and you get my point. There is great doubt. But we don’t ever see academics or talking heads speaking as if there is any doubt whatsoever. Everywhere we see certainty. We are no different than those who are religious, we need narratives and structure, and will mold reality to fit them. We will then coalesce into tribes based on those “beliefs”.
So to tie this back to skeptics, and the question of politics having replaced religion as a narrative ideological framework, I see this play out routinely with both the objectivist/libertarian grouping, and the Krugman-ish liberal culture side. But what if both are wrong on this issue? What if rather than spending vs. revenue, we had a more sophisticated understanding of complex dynamics? Some of the same elements are at play in the global warming “debates”, but you get the point.
Again and again I think we have to pause and ask ourselves what would happen if it turned out that we were wrong, and then specifically examine how that would make us feel? Are we that pastor who has so tightly defined our role in the cosmos to a single school of thought or religion that we are blind to the other options? Are we so unwilling to challenge our very sense of self definition and how we interact with the world that we would succumb to the confirmation bias? Are we so afraid of something being taken from us that we cannot see the starving masses? What is the reality about what motivates humans? I don’t know, but I’m comfortable saying that.
The way I hear skeptics speak (and write) on a routine basis makes me think that even the most educated, rhetorically brilliant among us might simply be delusional and tribal at a higher level. Sometimes I lose the will to scale that wall. Frankly, it gets depressing, because I see it in myself as well. It’s human nature.
And that is my longwinded take on your question as to “why” we have a limited range of political options: we are human. We are tribal. We cluster.
C.D.V.: Do you see the passion in the various skeptics communities waning as divisions within the communities are getting more exposed in social network groups?
S.G.: It’s hard to know and I could be biased by my own skeptic friends and experiences, but in my humble opinion the passion does seem to be waning, perhaps as a result of the exposed divisions. The unity and “family feel” seem threatened. Divisions like “elevator gate” and disagreements over style (a.k.a. “don’t be a dick”—in Phil Plait’s terms), and even over scientistic overreaches do indeed take a toll. But it seems possible to me that other natural factors contribute to ebbs and flows as well.
For a long while I’ve wondered if skepticism for any individual doesn’t have a bit of a predictable trajectory and life cycle—perhaps not unlike that of a new adopter of a religion. (No, I am not equating them, per say.) Perhaps a more appropriate analogy would be religious de-conversion. There is often a period of strife and upheaval, or at least some emotional wrestling with a good dose of social side effects. There is also new beauty, and new joy, and perhaps a new sense of connection with new friends and people who think very differently than you used to—refreshingly so. But as with church, the power of that initial transition wanes over time. It might be in our own minds or it might be there is a real reduction in attention and outreach from the community as the dust settles and everyday life settles in. But one way or another we revert to the norms, or regress to the mean, of human behaviors and everyday experiences. Normalcy rules, and there are great people, assholes, and everything in between within a “community” that has very few shared beliefs, cultures, or norms to hold them together. (And see my prior thoughts on how we tribally segregate and remain quite fallible to all sorts of very human behaviors.)
So perhaps the initial trajectory of the experiential curve flattens, and individuals go from raging fire and front-of-mind consciousness, to the warm glow of a naturalistic worldview that shall sustain and enrich them for a lifetime perhaps—albeit at maybe a somewhat less intense level. So could that micro-level effect, if real, also affect and play out on the macro level? Just a thought.
The good news, and my hope, is that there are new people and new passions being introduced to the process on an ongoing basis, and that more and more people are adopting more reason-driven and skeptical worldviews. It does seem to me that this is happening at the same time as our current ebbing, as supported by several recent surveys. So I am not without hope, and not without great gratitude for what skeptic groups and passionate individuals accomplish.
Perhaps this relates to another of my unachieved goals. I used to call my blog “Perspectives: food for the skeptic’s sole (if there is one).” Not unlike churches, who always seem to struggle with retention, its my hope that skepticism and intellectually honest discourse can inspire more soul-feeding initiatives like TED, or The Amazing Meeting, or skeptical comedy or art, in order to feed our intellect and fulfill our social needs—such that our passion remains, and the trajectory of our individual curves don’t flatten quite so much. We are, after all, humans. We need to be connected. We need to be re-amazed. We need to be reinvigorated.
C.D.V.: Do you think this maybe because skepticism is conceive internally as a set of methodological and not an ideological movements?
S.G.: As always I’d drop a disclaimer (in addition to the one that says “what do I know anyway”): that is that it’s probably hard to say for sure how the “movement” conceives or perceives itself. But to the degree it exists might there be some waning passion in the skeptic community as the result of a reflexive and endemic in-group perception as being focused on method more than ideology? Again I’ll bite and say yes, because there are real philosophical schisms, right? Many of the divisions I mentioned (and others) have to do with substantive differences in meta-ethics, ethics, morality, and/or guiding beliefs and philosophies. But those of us who are not trained in philosophy, or who are new to it, are often unaware that our differences are at all born of ideological and philosophical assumptions. So yes, if what unites us is an affinity and affection for methodological naturalism, the fact that there are schisms, tribal divisions, or sects should probably not be surprising—especially in light of the lack of common ideology or guiding principles.
C.D.V.: What do you see as your new projects in regards to skepticism?
S.G.: Well, for the immediate future I am rather occupied with the mundane aspects of existence and survival. That said, as finances and time someday allow, I would like to return to some non-fiction book ideas that I’ve been pondering. Specifically I would like to further explore the real-world implications and practical application of a naturalistic worldview to everyday life, and even more so to the challenges of social-sexual ethics and marital customs. I touched on some of those issues and challenges in my novel of skeptical ideas, but would like to explore them in a deep and personal way in a non-fiction book. I see great pain and angst caused by our unrealistic expectations of strict monogamy for life, romantic love, and the western pressures to achieve all depth of intimate experience through a single person, exclusively, forever. Obviously there are great depths and significant complexities to be plumbed there. And as with all things, the more I learn and experience, the less I “know” for certain, and the more gray I see. But that’s another topic.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
S.G.: Just thanks for your work, posts, writings and thoughts. I readily admit that as a non-academic, my skeptic voice is truly just that of a grassroots life traveler in a state of evolving. You and other academics have so much to give and share with we who are emerging from our Midwest (Western) cocoons. Thanks for doing so, and thanks for rolling with my occasional and obvious ignorance on many levels. But I guess that’s really what it is all about, connecting and influencing a humanity that is composed of people on many different levels of their journeys, and with many different capacities. So we have our work cut out for us. Especially you.
There are two trends dominant in academic discussions about the humanities that I find problematic, if not outright repellent. The “thin” move of the likes of E.O. Wilson and Sam Harris to claim that sense some notion of the aesthetic is evolutionary, then all that needs to be said can be said in terms of biology. The other notion is that of those of the post-Althusserian school who deny any “natural” category and subsume it all to ideology: there is “no human nature,” “no species being,” and no aesthetic categories. Both frankly are power-plays more than legitimate thinking: the later removes any empirical check to any artistic claim, while being “thick” it is also essentially putting all power in the realm of those philosophers of suspicion. The former is thin, and places power in terms of biology, but it’s claim could be said of to be even MORE foundationally true of physics. But no one would expect an electro-magnetic analysis of paint to be able to stand for all that is usefully said about art or literature, so the move seems again to suspiciously favor the field of those who make them.
The truth of the matter is probably much harder as there is no reason to assume the validity of parsimony: both biological and ideological limits exist, mediate our views, and contort our notions of truth and possibility. Both the biological and the ideological shift throughout history and change our notions of art and even of self. Yet neither can could be said to be solely determinate. The thick and thin are both necessary descriptors as the biological world is real as is the ideological world, and both are limits and as limits determine thoughts, but neither are solely determinate nor do I see evidence they they completely subordinate the will in any way. A limit is not a cause, and even a cause is not necessarily the sole cause.
The first part of this interview is here.
Skepoet: What do you make of Jonathan Haidt’s research that indicates ”liberals” have three spheres of value while conservatives have five? I see this related to the your second point about the function of religion. Although I should be disclose my opinion, and say that I think Haidt trans-historicizes both liberalism and conservatism in a way that is highly problematic.
Simon Pratt: It would be very strange to suggest that Liberals literally lacked those two spheres of value, but as an ideal typical model, I think it captures something important about the relationship between socio-economic circumstances and values. This is because Liberal and Conservative, globally, tends to correlate closely to urban and rural, and particularly so in the US. Is it surprising that people who live in nuclear families in cosmopolitan centres where diverse ethnic, economic, and linguistic groups interact daily will be less concerned with the sort of values indicative and protective of in-group chauvinism? I don’t think so. Rather than understand Haidt as trans-historicising liberalism and conservatism, I see him as revealing, perhaps by proxy, what happens when you throw people together in relatively unprecedented ways, and expose human beings to a huge array of identity categories. Unsurprisingly, Social Identity Theorists studying conflict have found that places where people meet and cooperate with members of other groups than their own usually feature less bigotry.
How does my interpretation of Haidt compare to yours?
S.: It’s more charitable, but it is not out of sync with my suspicion that you’re right about the social and economic structure affects things more than ideological ones in the way most liberals use the term. (As Academics, we both know that Marxist and Weberians use ideology entirely differently and in a way that confuses most outsiders). One thing I noticed Haidt had to do though was place both the far left and libertarians into a liberal camp. This may be useful for the comparison between rural and urban social values, but it’s highly misleading to ideological battles. That’s glossed by the categories.
Back to religion: What do you make of the recent study that shows that middle class, educated people tend to stay religious in higher numbers than the uneducated? It’s a recent trend, but one that bucks most of the Enlightenment predictions about American religiosity being tied to education and poverty-level.
S.P.: Grouping libertarians and far-leftists together makes some sense if you consider the historical origins of their ideologies, in terms of how they group morally significant entities and the human conditions that are the goals of their projects. But you’re right to point to this grouping as evidence that Haidt’s categories are themselves fractured, and salient only to certain kinds of explanation. Another way to view the distinction he creates, from an anthropological perspective, is between pre-modern and modern social structures. For people in rural areas, in-group and out-group resembles much more closely the sort of tribal configurations common throughout most of human history, whereas modern social structures, be they libertarian or Marxian, depart radically from this. Perhaps according to Enlightenment and Romanticist lines, respectively? But now we’re entering territory far outside my knowledge.
I was not aware of such a study, but it doesn’t seem hugely surprising on its own. I would need to see more information about what kind of religion inheres more robustly within the middle classes, though. If it’s a particularly flexible or liberal religion, it would make perfect sense to me that it should remain. Nevertheless, a more general negative correlation appears to obtain between wealth/education and religiosity, even if that relationship does not appear in every observable instance.
S.: Back to terrorism: in a very broad sense, what do you think would be a good perspective for a skeptic to take in regards to Terrorism as a cultural strategy of marginal peoples?
S.P.: I’m not quite sure what your terms mean. What is a cultural strategy and what do you mean by marginal peoples?
S.: Well, a cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state. Clearer?Well, cultural strategy would be under the model that terrorism is not committed under the rubric of state legitimacy, therefore it is only political in a looser sense. And by marginal peoples, I mean those who do not have the dominance within a state. Clearer?
S.P.: If I understand correctly, do you mean to say that terrorism is the strategy of agents who do not have legal legitimacy to their actions? Because there’s certainly no reason why such agents cannot be analysed according to the same models and terms as official state agents can, in assessing how violence is used to achieve political goals. Cultures are not capable of holding agency, I think, and so it is wrong to assign to them the sort of intentionality and capacity for deliberation that enables strategic behaviour. But groups of people, whatever their institutional status, are capable of collective decision-making and behaviour, and terrorism, whether carried out by a state or a non-state agent, can be viewed as rational, calculated, and entirely political.
S.: The agency would not so much be the issue but the structural placement within a social system, but part of the confusion seems to be that line of agency makes one see any collective agency as political, but this type of politics has a logic that is justified through acceptable norms, which is a cultural norm as much as a political one, I suppose I want to push you on the idea that politics here is separate from culture in that strict way. But I suppose we must admit that we are dealing with reifications of collective action and norm setting as opposed to something slightly more concrete like a state.
Let me ask another question then, is the bombing of Dresden in World War 2 an act of terrorism?
S.P.: I define terrorism as the deliberate generation of fear, usually through violence or the threat of it, within a political community in order to change its behaviour. This is deliberately a very broad definition, including not only the bombing of Dresden but the entire deterrent component of a community’s criminal justice system. But I would never use this definition without immediately following it with a typology, and ‘terrorism’ as its used in most popular or non-critical-theory academic conversations tends to refer to what I’d call ‘insurgent terrorism’, which is terrorism carried out by a non-state agent, either individual or organised group, to subvert or influence a government and its citizenry via extralegal means.
I don’t necessarily see states as any more concrete than the norms and institutions – merely patterns of behaviour – which constitute them. States are what we make of them. The difference to me between collectives like states and collectives like cultures is the presence of decision-making mechanisms designed to facilitate collective action according to some set of intentions. If you have such mechanisms, you can speak of their collectives as you would speak of agents, within certain situations. But as cultures do not have such mechanisms, I struggle to see a situation in which they can be coherently treated as having agency.
Of course, these reifications are useful explanatory and cognitive tools, and nothing more. They entail no ontological commitments to the reality of some entity and the referential status of my language to it.
S.: Now we seem to be on the same page again: What are good, rational policies for dealing with insurgent terrorism if we assume the ends is to seize terrorist activity without causing more grievances that would inspire new sets of insurgents?
S.P.: Well, there are a variety of ways to engage in effective counterterrorism. One is to have a totalitarian police state, but since you’re asking this of me, I’m going to assume a more specific question: how can societies maintain a set of Enlightenment liberal values and still secure itself from terrorism? Of course, this is a very hard question to answer, and the particulars of any answer will depend on the particulars of the terrorist threat, but we can still look for policies that achieve in a general sense the following features of government and the state in an already liberal context:
-well-funded and trained counterterrorism police forces and domestic intelligence service, with effective civilian oversight and active engagement with community leaders of subpopulations particularly likely to produce a terrorist threat.
-development and enforcement of hate speech laws, such that people and groups preaching or mobilising for a violent agenda can be legally stopped from doing so, also subject to a diverse committee of civilian oversight and review.
-training for emergency services in coping effectively with the aftermath of a terrorist attack, both in rescue and in maintaining civil order, including public relations specialists able to reassure the public while honestly communicating any extent risks.
-ongoing public discussions on terrorism including experts capable of keeping things honest and focusing discussion both on the grievances that would-be terrorists may have and in the legitimate mechanisms available for addressing those grievances
These still do not guarantee that insurgent terrorism will not take place, nor that government personnel won’t find ways to abuse the special powers granted to them in the name of security from terrorism, but I think they comprise the best arrangement of legitimate coercive powers in a liberal context.
Freedom and security are, of course, not always a dichotomy. There are ways for the presence of greater coercion – state terrorism of the legitimate variety – to enable greater freedom than a lesser level of coercion. The ‘optimal’ level of coercion will depend on the particular threats within a context, as well as the cultural resources available to make that coercion normatively acceptable and palatable for enough of the public, but as an abstract notion of governance it lies at the very heart of liberal thought.
S.: However, that is what separates liberal as an ideological development, and liberal as a modern orientation, no? The notion of legitimate coercion varies massively amongst those who developed out of Enlightenment liberalism as everyone from American Libertarians to Stalinist to Bakuninite anarchism are developments of that tradition.
I would tend to agree with you about coercion levels being optimal and handled by community governance. This means that terrorism then should not have the moral weight attached to it, but should be seen as a strategy in and of itself (not an abstract value of “evil” or a mere tactic?)
S.P.: I’m not quite sure what you mean, here. Do you mean the development of a liberal mode of subjectivity as compared to the moral [and entailed political] value commitments of Enlightenment Liberalism?
S.: That is certainly my view: terrorism is not essentially evil, and the moral character of a terrorist act depends on the case. But I am also more committed to (Rule) Utilitarianism than most people, and so even if I were confronted with a definition for terrorism that confined terrorist acts to attacks on civlians – as many definitions do – I could still not call it an essential bad. But in the real world, of course, most of what we call terrorism does seem to me to be pretty bad. There is just too much evidence to show that bombing or shooting people in markets, mosques, clubs, or planes will not be as efficient as other, less violent means in achieving any set of goals I consider worthy. A good analogy would be the so-called ‘ticking time-bomb scenario’ that apologists for torture love to trot out. As a Utillitarian I am entirely willing to endorse torture if it is less harmful than the alternative, but since torture is virtually always a worse way to get information than just about any available alternative, the thought experiment is a red herring.
S.: I mean that Enlightenment liberalism produces very different sets of morality and governance, and the agent of legitimate coercive force and if there is ever such an agent vary greatly. Modern liberalism is definitely rooted in the legitimate agency of a democratic Republics and generally takes a moral calculus from either modern form of virtue ethics or variants of Utilitarianism. Libertarians take a deontological view of such notions, and Marxists tend to deny that have a moral framework as a part of a political theory at all.
This brings me to a another point I have against Sam Harris: do you think meta-ethical justification is important?
S.P.: From what I’ve been able to tell, almost all members of the Skeptics movements tend towards a sort of naive Utilitarianism, and see any moral system that doesn’t seek to maximise human wellbeing as absurd. This does not mean that they don’t simultaneously belief that life is an instrinsic good, despite the arguable incompatibility of the two propositions, depending on the version of Utilitarianism to which one subscribes. I’ve also noticed that Skeptics tend not to be republicans. They are in favour of political processes that serve as individual interest aggregators and adjudicators, and tend not to endorse collectivist conceptions of the public or the polity. At least here; the ones in the UK are a bit more willing to see the state prescribe morality.
I have mixed feelings about the value of meta-ethical discussions. On the one hand, I think that having them with is important because such discussions tend to produce more nihilists, expressivists, or other forms of non-cognitivists, and I think this is a good thing because moral realism is absurd and dangerous. On the other hand, that naive Utilitarianism I mentioned earlier is very likely to be what cosmopolitan folk end up developing (cf. Haidt) so we might as well leave the existential angst to the academics and apply ourselves to the practical matter of maximising human wellbeing. Just so long as we don’t wander around looking smug and heaping contempt upon those who don’t share our moral norms. As an observer and theorist on so-called political violence, I get very anxious when I see my comrades suggesting that those who disagree with our principles simply don’t know the facts.
S.: Both Masmimo Piggliuci and myself are virtue ethicists (although his would be center left and mine would be far left), but that does have a nearly consequentialist metajustication, and I actually find collective conception of community as a norm setter for fairly persuasive, but you’re right that I would be in the minority.