Category Archives: Skepticism
There is a ideological binary opposition presented in much of the popular media for the last few decades about nature and nurture being opposed: it works itself up into the academy too with sometimes strong genetic determinist arguments–generally from scientifically questionable speculations by evolutionary psychologists–and then (admittedly rather rare) arguments from the humanities that everything is sociologically constructed (generally pulling from either Foucaultian influenced post-structuralism or structuralists visions of ideological apparatuses). Really, though, this dialectical opposition seems rooted in the early Enlightenment when both biological determinism and Cartesian special-pleading for the self set out two different visions of the human future.
I, however, increasingly doubt this move: The structural elements that wanted do deal only with the synchronic and not diachronic elements was a methodological move that gets reified into a stance that views ideas as either without a history or having a history, but biology is a historical science. It describes the development of organic life over time through processes that we have not entirely understood but have several mechanistic grasps of. This was why I always found the idea of nature problematic: nature implies as non-human totality, which seems to be special-pleading for the human species, or an undifferentiated totality, which is cognitively empty.
This has led to in re-reading Althusser, which I still find as problematic as I ever did as his hermeneutic for interpreting Marx implies that Marx either didn’t mean or didn’t understand his “true” methodology because even late works have “lingering” Hegelian idealism. This led me to take Althusser’s statement that ideology is not “ideal” but physical as manifested in the way we live and pair it, admittedly even to my mind, dangerously, with some ideas I have seen about the acceleration of human evolution. What I am about to articulate takes care of my view that Althusser’s synchronic understanding of historical materialism actually has the structure of the “means of productive forces” in ideology emerge almost without a history before there was an ideology there.
Even when I was in anthropology classes in the late 1990s, I remember being told that it was the consensus view that human evolution stopped with agriculture removing “natural” pressures from the evolutionary ecology of humans. I remember thinking though: How come Europeans developed lactose tolerance if this were true? Then I read Gregory Cochran’s The 10,000 Explosion, which is controversial and has some severe limitations even in my lay mind, but does talk about how social pressures would have genetically selective impulses and this could show up from disease immunities and, more controversially, relationships to authority and impulse control. Cochran admits that there are real limitations here and that there isn’t enough anthropological fieldwork paired with genetic testing to prove or disprove, but sexual selection in early agricultural society was exactly more extreme than in hunter-gather society since there was far more restrictions put on the survival of children, and in certain extreme examples, chieftains sometimes out reproduce serfs 1000 to 1.
Now I don’t know if we can take it as far as Cochran does, but he get to a point: Ideological and social impulses, which emerge from social arrangements in resource production and distribution actually change us physically. Furthermore, there is evidence that culture exists in any social mammal and thus emerges from “natural” conditions. This is say that both the “essentialist” view and the “social construction” view would largely miss the point: there is no dialectical opposition between “nature” and “nurture” nor does genetic determinism limit all social arrangements, but they modify each other in a feedback loop. Both the rubric of “nurtural” stances (or sociology) and “natural” stance (biology, comparative genetics) describe two different ways that human societies develop and interact. The question of dominance or innateness may miss the point: furthermore, both seem to assume that culture somehow emerges as a modern human conception out of nothing, or solely out of the means of production in ways that make “evolution” not possible. This confuses morphological differences with other differences too easily. There would be little morphological difference in modern humans because our social technologies have enabled us to stabilize our environment, but a variety of pressures socially would emerge to have influence on sexual selection.
So not only is ideology physical in the way Althusser meant as manifested by what we do and not just what we “believe,” but ideological pressures factor into to sexual selection ‘naturally” and thus have real effects there as well. It’s not eugenics or anything so crude at play here but developments from “natural” social responses because unless one believes the structures of production and the structures of society emerge ex nihilo, the social interactions come out of our biological and ecological limitations.
The dialectic of “nature/nurture” isn’t a dialectic at all. It is a false binary. Naturally.
Despite my love of philosophy, my first love in philosophy was philosophy of science and as a child, I read Carl Sagan and Michael Shermer to show up the locals in science in my small middle Georgia town. My first love was biology and anthropology, and my first crush on a writer was the science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick, and the scientist and science journalist, Stephen Jay Gould. One of the things you will notice is that while I will make critiques of scientific community’s publishing practices, of the sociology of research, on fields with have little historical, comparative, or experimental checks (such as Evolutionary Psychology): I do, however, think the chanting of many in the New Atheist and “Skeptic’s Community” about “reason” is vapid and more than a little unreasonable as what is meant by “reason:” moves from meaning “science” to “logic” to “commonsense” to “critical thinking” without realizing that these are not the same thing, and even individually
Despite my philosophical critiques, I actually still consider myself part of that moment. I listen to Skeptic podcasts, and while I avoid the new atheist, one of my favorite popular philosophers is Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking (Blog and Podcast). I was struck, however, listening to a recent episode of Rationally Speaking: the difference between intuitive and deliberation reason is fascinating as it indicates that a) most people actually don’t think deliberately rationally, and b) this is rational in a extreme way. This leads to a set of flukes: human beings do not have a base-line “system b” intuition about probability and advanced numbers.
If one wanted to talk about “dialectics of Enlightenment” (to borrow a phrase from Horkheimer and Adorno and use in in a completely different way), it is clear that the more you study the “reasoning brain,” the more complicated our picture of human logic becomes. Most logical skills are not innate, and the optimistic vision of the 17th century Enlightenment enables the science which makes us question “natural” reasoning states. No wonder why post-structuralists philosophers can appear so convincing when you understand them, the more you know about science and logic, the more you realize that people do not automatically think scientifically and logically even without “substitution” and other forms of cultural habit.
So the legacy of the Enlightenment, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Israel, is contested within itself. This, by the way, is why I am not “anti-modern” in a simple sense: I am a loyal opposition to modernity because I think “reason”–by which I mean logic and scientific rigor–actually undoes most of the optimism in the early parts of the Enlightenment and the violent meloncholia that Nietzsche calls nihilism can emerge if one is burned to bad by the dreams of a completely reasonable world. I, however, don’t think it is just philosophy that gets you there–either in analytic breakdown of modal logic or the speculative categories of modern European philosophy and critical theory.
Still understanding “reason” in a not naive way, and realizing the limitations of framing and limits of a particular sociology, science is one of the modern gifts that one should fight, tooth and nail, to preserve even when one is critiquing “scientism” (abuses of the scientific demarcation line) and bad practices, of which there are many, in the scientific community.
It is election day in South Korea, so the dancing girls and old woman handing fliers with numbers on them (as candidates are assigned a number here) with the booming trucks trying through small city streets and crowding the corners. There is not much in American style attack ads and the spectacle is limited for a month or so. In Mohyeon-meon on the outskirts of Yong-in, where my university is nestled in the side of a mountain, I see little of this, but in visiting my beloved in Daejeon and travelling through Seoul, which I do weekly, I see the carnival of democracy.
Of all forms of democracy, I value representative democracy the least: in either its American or Parliamentary form. The tendency for “rational irrationality” to creep into deliberation and the human inability to intuitively understand probabilities make this almost a given. There is one maxim that Badiou gives from his various sets that I take more seriously as I get older: Politics is what cannot be represented. However, I am not taking the purist stance of many anarchists who wish that there are no concessions to spectacles as people’s lives are made and broken in public policy.
At least, in Korea, election day is a national holiday, so people do not work in the mildly warm spring air, one sees children playing in the knocks of the side walk and the edges of the street while street vendors , I stopped by my local fruit vendor and bought some naval oranges. I don’t drive here in South Korea and “New Urbanism” is just, you know, the way cities organically function here for all their problems. So I stop by and interact more with people, even as just as respite from the carnival.
I keep mulling some of my new story in my head: It’s refreshing to be writing something other than critical theory or political blogging for once. Not that there isn’t politics in my short story, even in the long arm of the Hegelian geist: I deal in science fiction because I can critique what is and what could be.
Yesterday I completed most of my spring book buying: I tend to seasonally allot myself reading. In Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanhamoon in Seoul, there is little fiction so no new Paolo Bacigalupi that I wanted, although I have quite enjoyed re-reading his “Pump Six” collection of stories, which rank up their with Philip K. Dick and early J.G. Ballard, as well as China Mieville for writing that truly deals with issues substantively without reading like it is a fictionalized version of a Berkeley culture studies class. So I got a few more shorter Badiou works after looking fruitlessly for anything else by Francois Laruelle.
I noticed a few more “skeptical” titles on religion that I considered: I have become re-engaged with Skeptical Thinkers in both the classical tradition and in the so-called “Skeptic’s Movement.” I am still highly critical of the positivistic inclination in many of the Skeptic’s movement, and the want of consensus of scientists to decide norms from descriptions. In many ways, I find it philosophically undeveloped, and politically naive. The rampant soft-libertarianism, un-reflective left-liberalism, and the acceptance of bad economic thought as well bothers me. Furthermore, I doubt I could get a one of them to put Bertrand Russell, quit whining about relativism and post-modernism without understanding them (or even knowing what isn’t Post-modern or Post-structural.), and realize that criticizing scientific practices in both practical and scientific grounds is often not done out a fear of science, but a love of it within its demarcation.
I consider this a sign of the times, though. The radical Enlightenment never completely one and the few truths of those in the Counter-Enlightenment never really took hold. It is, however, cowardly not to engage with skeptics. After all, I started blogging in order to combat bad science in education and misreadings of science in the humanities, then started combating naivete realism in “Skeptical blogs”–structural frameworks have to be engaged in. As I am not a believer in anything that could be called supernatural, and I detest ignorance as much as arrogance, I should engage with as a person who has come to similar conclusions from radically different means to illustrate the point.
So instead of science fiction, I picked up Jonathan Israel’s massive, “Enlightenment Contested?,” because at the core isn’t this what it is all about? The skeptic’s movement is sort of a popular form of the French Newtonians which pretty much influenced all analytic philosophy. But this book not only goes into thinkers like those considered Counter-Enlightenment, but also Asian influences on the Enlightenment, and how three different variants of the mood of the Enlightenment set the stage for most of political theory in the modern period. As I think we are living in a time when these ideas and the political arrangements, even the aesthetic trends in this, have begun to hit a limit and we can see how they transform.
The spring air calls through the window. One can forget it is an election sense or that even the environment is beginning to show severe signs of wear-and-tear.