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.
“I believe that while philosophy may well terminate in definitions, it cannot start out from them; and that, in order to understand, to have knowledge of, the content of philosophical
concepts themselves – and not simply from the point of view of an external history of ideas or of philosophy – it is necessary to know how concepts have come into being, and what they mean in terms of their origins, their historical dimension.” – Adorno
“Philosophy” is often he pathology of the way people justify their identity, but when it is not, it generally ends with questions and genealogies and logics, not pat answers. Generally, however, as Marx, Nietzsche, and Adorno understood and as many other non-German thinkers have also understood but not did have the press to articulate, philosophy is the product of the material development of history mixed with the social development of people. In other ways, people have a condition or position and need to come up with a justification, and then there we go. I would not go so far as to say it was always just a justification as the epiphenomena it produces actually justify all sorts of developments from technology to science (through meta-justifications that do themselves clarify).
Philosophy too then is as Badiou defines it: a way of mediating between truth processes. But this is only in the ideal, and the ideal, sadly, is only rarely the real. In the end, our rubric cannot be the formalized definition, but it’s opposite: The informal question and genealogy.
That said, it is important to look at the historical development of a philosophical position or a political position for what it obscures as much as it what it says. One should also question one’s motives for doing it.
The separation of agitprop from a political philosophy, the slogan from a coherent political stance, the ideology from the meme, and the hard answer from the easy one may be something I take up for wrong reasons. Un-reasoned positions can’t be reasoned out of, and positions which reinforce identity doubly so. That itself may be a problematic form of distinction. Yet, if no one says anything, the easy answers keep getting pushed. I think I am going to have a cup of tea and read a book then.
The easy answers confirm our identity; they reduce cognitive dissonance, they allow things to go unchanged.
So much of what I see on the “left” or the right or the center–the reduction of things, the recitation of statistics without context, the half formed views of nation states as being one thing or the other, is the easy answer. No, I realize that these ideological positions aren’t equally guilty, but the tendencies to view philosophy as a handmaiden to politics and for politics to be about identity or its obfuscation.
Sometimes I think a lot of what passes for progressive ideas is a conspiracy to make fascism look good. No, I don’t actually believe that, but damn, it’s easy to see how bad ideas bring worse ideas to life. Fascism, here, is not right-wing ideas alone or totalitarianism, or discipline, or any such notion: fascism here being the willingness to combine all sorts of ideological predisposition to maintain an identity, despite the fact it is legitimately falling away. (This definition is actually also incomplete, but it fits for here).
The reason I feel that way about a lot of what passes for “progressive thought” is that it often ahistorical and also abiological. Neo-keynesian focus in the 1933 through 1955 and Keynesian spending, ignoring the leveling and rebuilding of Europe in the process and the decline in real profits of the 1970s. ’-isms’ (able-ism, capitalism, sexism) and ‘archies’ (patriarchy, corporatocracy) are spoken about as if they were anamorphous enemies that have been constant throughout time without any improvement or context. These -isms and -archies are rooted in the very real, very lived experience, but as they are spoken about in this way, the realness seems to fall away into mere projection. This is a projection of value that looks inherently unknown and can make conservatism or other forms of ideological positions that are actually not in the interest of many of the oppressed (as individuals or as a class) seem more natural and more contextual. Luckily, in the US, conservatism in the popular parlance seems to have gone insane, but many liberals, leftists, and otherwise take a false sense of security from that and other demographic facts without realizing that they themselves could easily be becoming the sane version of the status quo.
Badiou would inform us of the truth process here in seeing bad politics and our need to cut away. So the formalist and genealogist meet again.
So I’ll end with a chuck of Gravity’s Rainbow and let you, gentle and intellectual reader that I hope that you are, see the relevance as I saw it today:
But the rocket has to be many things, it must answer to a number of different shapes in the dreams of those who touch it – in combat, in tunnel, on paper – it must survive heresies shining, unconfoundable . . . and heretics there will be: Gnostics who have been taken in a rush of wind and fire to chambers of the Rocket-throne . . . Kabbalists who study the Rocket as Torah, letter by letter – rivets, burner cup and brass rose, its text is theirs to permute and combine into new revelations, always unfolding . . . Manicheans who see two Rockets, good and evil, who speak together in the sacred idiolalia of the Primal Twins (some say their names are Enzian and Blicero) of a good Rocket to take us to the stars, an evil Rocket for the World’s suicide, the two perpetually in struggle. Gravity’s Rainbow (727)
Anthony Paul Smith is a scholar and blogger for An und für sich. He came to my attention by a web seminar I “attended” on the philosophy of Francois Laruelle and non-philosophy which I attended. I have since read his translations of Principles of Non-Philosophy (with Nicola Rubczak) and Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy both out with Continuum. While still trying to wrap by head around the implications of Laruelle, I also wondered why Laruelle has taken so long to catch on compared to many of his contemporaries like Badiou, Derrida, and Deleuze.
C.Derick Varn: Why do you think Laruelle has been slow to be introduced to the anglophone world?
Anthony Paul Smith: Regarding your first question, I taught at DePaul University as an adjunct for a year bouncing between the departments of Religious Studies, Environmental Studies, and Philosophy. During that year Alan D. Schrift came and presented a paper to the philosophy department. You may know that he’s editing a pretty comprehensive history of Continental philosophy and I jokingly asked him about why he hadn’t included Laruelle in his history. After explaining that he didn’t really know anyone who worked on him, it didn’t come to mind and whatever, he did tell me that he thought Laruelle was one of those figures who just fell through the cracks. If things had gone a little differently, he said, or someone had picked up a text to translate in the 70s or 80s, who knows if he would have been picked up. I didn’t get the impression he particularly liked Laruelle or anything, but he did bring out for me the contingency of these sorts of things. I mean, there are lots of brilliant thinkers in the world and some of them are exceedingly smart. But in the same way we pass homeless people and think that there is some perfectly good reason why that’s him and not me, I think as readers of philosophy we just assume that there is a really good reason we all keep talking about Derrida or Deleuze or Badiou or even Meillassoux now (just to stick with some sort of contemporary names). So that is clearly part of it, just an accident of history. At the same time his work and the language he uses to express it are difficult and I think this has put off a number of potential translators. I always wondered why Ray Brassier, for example, never translated one of his works, even one of the shorter ones, considering his own skills in that area. But he has tended to go with relatively more straight forward writers like Badiou and Meillassoux. But that’s the real issue — the lack of anything of his to read unless you’re willing to track down the French and work through it in a language unfamiliar to most Anglophone readers.
C.D.V.: Do you think Laruelle’s linkage to Ray Brassier’s work and also to Badiou has limited his reading in the US and Europe?
A.P.S.: As for Laruelle being linked to Brassier’s work, I don’t know if it has limited his reading. Brassier really was the first person to advocate for him in his Radical Philosophy article. At the same time, I think that Brassier’s own development (which is ongoing as far as I understand) did really color how many younger readers ended up reading him. There was a certain assumption, since many of them weren’t reading the primary sources I don’t think, that Laruelle shared Brassier’s antipathy for the human, for religion, for meaning, even for a vision of science that isn’t itself colored by a certain grimness and darkness. I think with Laruelle’s own texts starting to finally be available in English this is starting to fade away, which means many of those first-generation of readers have moved on from Laruelle finding his work concerned with issues they are not. But, I think we are seeing new readers, many coming from the arts, and I’m looking forward to conversations that do build off of Laruelle’s actual work rather than Brassier’s. I should say, I think Brassier was always quite clear that he had found something useful in Laruelle, that he wasn’t just explicating him. And I think we see some of the harshest criticism of Laruelle, if respectful, in the chapter of Nihil Unbound where Brassier deals with him.
C.D.V.: What brought you to nonphilosophy as a methodological way of dealing with intellectual problems?
A.P.S.: I came to Laruelle pretty much by accident, as we usually do with these sorts of things. I had moved to the UK to study with Philip Goodchild at the University of Nottingham and during my MA year was focused on questions of immanence and transcendence in both philosophy and religion. While there I was part of a class with the traditionalist theologian John Milbank. Well, it wasn’t really a class, John isn’t known for really teaching material, but instead what he would do was pick a few books that were coming out that the wanted to read and we’d read them and discuss them. One of those books was John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophyand though Milbank basically encouraged his students to rip apart the book based on its advocacy of philosophies of immanence, I somehow managed to actually read the book! The way Mullarkey described Laruelle’s project suggested that Laruelle may have resources that would be helpful for me as I thought through these questions of immanence and transcendence.
Still, I didn’t finally read him until about a year later in June 2008, during the first year of my PhD studies, when after a particularly bad time at Nottingham (I had run afoul of the traditionalists there) I felt I had to escape for my own sanity for a bit. I had a friend who had an apartment in Paris so I bought a return bus ticket and went there for a week or so. I went to the Gilbert Jeune near Place St. Michel and bought Le Christ futur and Principes de la non-philosophie/ I read Le Christ futur on the bus ride back to England and it opened up a different way of doing philosophy of religion. I talk about this at more length in a chapter in the edited volume After the Postsecular and the Postmodern: New Essays in Continental Philosophy of Religion, but in short I saw a way for philosophy to happen using religious materials in a way that I thought was protected from theological capture, like you find in most contemporary French phenomenologists popular in Anglophone literature (Marion, Henry, Ricoeur, but others as well).
My PhD, though, was always going to be on the question of nature from a perspective that brought together the philosophical, theological, and ecological. Laruelle’s work was a model for me of how that could look. A kind of radical disrespect for the normal disciplinary boundaries, but wrapped in a very rigorous framework that helped me not to simply write “my philosophy” as if I was some kind of crank. Instead of looking at the question of nature, say, in ecology and wondering how these ideas are philosophically determined or how philosophy could shore up an ethics for ecology, I instead could begin with the idea that ecology thinks and it thinks in a way that is, yes, influenced by philosophy, but also outside of philosophy. I then worked to bring together what is traditionally thought about nature and what is found in contemporary scientific ecology into a single kind of philo-fiction of nature. An idea of nature that is philosophically rigorous, but also amenable (but not servile) to contemporary ecological projects. This isn’t a new kind of project, but I think that Laruelle’s non-philosophy gives us a far more robust and rigorous thinking through of the methodology underlying a project like that.
C.D.V.: What do you see as primary limitations to the development of Non-philosophy in the English speaking world?
A.P.S.: I think the primary limitation to the development of non-philosophy has been the lack of primary source material for English-language readers. I think that’s going to change now that so many of his works are being translated. But I’ve never thought that Laruelle was “the next big thing”. In part because his work is very abstract and difficult, but also because the sorts of institutions that support that kind of work are shrinking. It is difficult for me to see working non-philosophically landing someone an academic post, of Laruelle’s works fitting within the ways philosophy survives in the academia as the guardians of ethics subject to the whims of the business school or medical school.
C.D.V.: You recently taught an online seminar on Laruelle how do you think that has gone?
A.P.S.: As for the seminar, I think it started off going well, but I was surprised by how different the performative element of teaching this way is from classroom teaching. There is no “energy” to build off of, you can’t be interrupted with a clarifying question, etc. I also underestimated how busy I would be and how far along the technology is. The internet still doesn’t handle large videos very well and so when the seminar began I was traveling around the UK lecturing and finishing up the co-translation of Principles with Nicola Rubczak. And the speed was always too slow to get the videos up. I do think this is an area para-academics should consider developing though. It brought together people who were interested in Laruelle’s work in a way that a traditional academic environment never would be able to.
C.D.V.: Is there a particular book that you think will have a particularly dramatic reception in the Anglophone world?
A.P.S.: In terms of Laruelle’s own texts, his Principles is an incredibly rich but difficult text. I think it will reward reading for people looking for a way to think how to do thought in a way that brings together philosophy and science (or any other material outside of philosophy proper). But owing to the difficulty of that book, which may require a bit of a guide, I think two other texts are going to be really important for people’s engagement with Laruelle’s work in the Anglophone world: Anti-Badiou and Photo-Fiction, A Non-Standard Aesthetics. The first, translated by Robin Mackay, is a kind of fun polemic. Laruelle often performs his non-philosophical mutations of standard philosophy by taking on another philosopher’s style (I think, for instance, Principles is written very much in the style of Husserl and that makes sense given its mutation of phenomenology). In Anti-Badiou Laruelle takes on Badiou’s own polemical voice and uses it against him, which makes both for a fun read, but also a good way to understand Laruelle’s project in relation to one that is more familiar to readers of French philosophy today. Then Photo-Fiction, translated by Drew S. Burk and published in a bilingual edition by Univocal Publishing in Minneapolis, is a short but powerful recasting of his ideas related to art in the light of his most recent work on quantum theory and an ethics of insurrection (a rather anti-Badiouian notion!). I’m currently in Minneapolis where Laruelle is speaking to an arts organizations and at the University of Minnesota and I have been really happy to see how interested the artists have been and how they also seem to understand the shape of the project. But, both of these texts have a certain energy to them that I think people will pick up on and want to run with.
C.D.V.: What are do you think the internet will bring as far as prospects for more radical philosophy?
A.P.S.: In some ways I am a dinosaur when it comes to the internet. For me, it has always just been a way to fold space so that I could communicate with people I am very far from and do it must faster than sending letters. I think there are people who are more clued into the technology, its limitations as well as what it allows us to do, who may have a better idea of what new avenues of thought will be opened for us. My hope is that it continues to allow for a truly global network of communication between people from various backgrounds who are working on similar projects. Blogs, it seems, have mostly run their course in the philosophy world, and I mostly use my occasional writings at AUFS for book reviews and to let people know about events. What the new form of sharing theory will be is not yet clear to me, but there has been a certain lack of dynamic discussion online since everyone has closed down their comments or have begun to police them in ways that seem counter-productive and more about creating an in-crowd for this strand of thought or that. Whatever happens next needs to resist that.
C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
A.P.S.: In closing, I just want to say thank you. I hope people start to see what Laruelle’s work has to offer our projects. Not as a new master, but as someone whose framework can be redeployed in various ways to productive ends.
“I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.” – Wittgenstein
Why did Wittgenstein say this? For a man whose primary obsession in philosophy was the bewitchment of language, it seems odd that he thought philosophy should only be written as a poetic composition. In a way, this can seem like obscurantist move, or to say that philosophy itself was nothing but the same kind of mystification that Plato would have kicked the poets out of the republic for. It is implied in that statement even in my reading, but I don’t think Wittgenstein was being solely ironic or dismissive here also it is that poetic analogy allows types of experience in language with do not rely on basic proposition statements: the topic of a poem is bracketed out, not said, because saying it would not render the matter justice.
Now one can take a mystical approach to this, and perhaps that is the essential tension that let Wittgenstein to reject his conclusions in the Tractus and turn to natural language philosophy, but the implications are in the ways poets, more explicitly than other word artists or logicians, acknowledge family resemblances of arbitrary games. The danger of the mystification of poetry is there, and, as Zizek is fond of reminding us, most of the nationalist butchers of the last two centuries have been poets or inspired by poets, but the same could be said of philosopher-kings. For example, how many bodies have been made in the name of Lockean property distinctions or Fascist readings of Hegel? It, however, is also those who understand the dangerous mystification of poetry who can see through nationalistic dreams and romantic bewitching of language. So the same with philosophy.
“The philosophers have only to dissolve their language into the ordinary language, from which it is abstracted, in order to recognise it, as the distorted language of the actual world, and to realise that neither thoughts nor language in themselves form a realm of their own, that they are only manifestations of actual life.” [The German ideology.]
“When I talk about language (words, sentences, etc.) I must speak the language of every day. Is this language too coarse and material for what we want to say? Then how is another one to be constructed?” – [Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations]
” Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. Where there exists a relationship, it exists for me: the animal does not enter into ‘relations’ with anything, it does not enter into any relation at all. For the animal, its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.” [Marx, The German ideology.]
“What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use…. The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language….
“Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. — Since everything lies open to view there is nothing to explain…. The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose. If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree with them.” [Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations,]
“He was opposed to it in theory, but supported it in practice” -[George Thomson on Wittgenstein's relationship to Marxism]
It is clear that there can be no way of saving that Marx is Wittgenstein avant la lettre, their (anti)philosophical projects were divided in aims and in content, Wittgenstein arguing out from under positivism and Aristotelian thought, and Marx from German Idealism and Hegelian “dialectics.” Furthermore, while it has been said that both men thought philosophy left the world as it is, Marx placed the emphasis on a means to change it and Wittgenstein thought clarity stemming from philosophical dissolving of pseudo-problems would alter the world. For Wittgenstein this is bracketed out, it is not his job. Yet the emphasis on dissolving problems of the ideal that stems from language’s mystification and reification of abstraction seem, at base, to be a crucial parts of both projects, and given how their successors have taken up the task, an oft ignored one.
(I’d like to think Rosa Lichtenstein, Ray Monk’s book on Wittgenstein and the collection of essays editted by Kitching and Pleasants, “Marx and Wittgenstein: Knowledge, Morality and Politics” for pointing me to this line of inquiry.)
The one intelligible theory of the universe is that of objective idealism, that matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws (Peirce, CP 6.25).
So-called systems have often been characterized and challenged in the assertion that they abrogate the distinction between good and evil, and destroy freedom. Perhaps one would express oneself quite as definitely, if one said that every such system fantastically dissipates the concept existence. … Being an individual man is a thing that has been abolished, and every speculative philosopher confuses himself with humanity at large; whereby he becomes something infinitely great, and at the same time nothing at all. – Kirkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments
There has been a move in philosophical circles since Marx, and most manifestly in Zizek, has been to take Hegel’s idealism, which is predicated on a formal necessary on the material being less real than the ideal form (an argument one sees as early as Plato), and this is key to the Hegel’s assertion in the longer logic: the essential assertion that contingencies and materiality not fully “real” because they depend on other finite qualities to determine them, but Kirkegaard inverts the maxim on the absolute positing the whole as an illusion. However, the organism of the human person is, unique literally, a multiple totality of systems which are not all connected.
Something that has occurred to me is that Kirkegaard’s attack on Hegel was right, but wrong about the problem. While we cannot ascribe our materialism, Marx turning Hegel on his head as the saying goes still fundamentally accepts the Hegelian totality but later Marxists (using the base/suprastructure metaphor) posits ideas as epiphenomenal from the stand-point of production, but then accept Hegelian terminology (as it required to see how Marx uses Hegelian abstraction in the structure of Das Kapital). This is a problem, and it’s one at the core of misreading of Marx and vulgar economicism.
Instead, perhaps, we can realize something crucial: The ideal is the form of matter, not just our comprehension of it. However, instead of consigning the “absolute” or the material to the less the than real, we can take them as an epistemological dialectic–the totality always breaks down into oppositions but the oppositions give form to the totality. The differentiation makes the undifferentiated comprehensible because both exist in our understanding of formal material. Mater isn’t stuff: it is the manifestation of energy, and energy here has its strict standard model of physics definition. In other words, this is not a case of the contradictions that are sublated, but the manifestation of a plurality that is also a totality. It is the point of entrance which prioritizes either the total or the finite. It is related to the locus of understanding the emergence of a system, but a system is always, by definition, a reification of relations. A necessary reification to give one an entry way into contingency and necessity.
So I take heat from a obscure metaphysical note from Peirce: what is meant by an effete or inactive mind? What is the point or emergence? How does this effect our view of politics relationship to the culture? Or both essentially reification of the ecologies, which is itself a reification of social relations? Is there actually a different from objective idealism and formal materialism?
I don’t yet know.
Finally, after a day of travel all of the North end of South Korea, I am back at dorm room apartment. Oh, the life of an expatriate lecturer, one gets to live in a “dormitory” well into their early 30s. Anyway, after vowing to move this blog anyway from abstractions, and mix things up a bit.
I am getting married to a wonderful woman: I was hesitant in some ways for a variety of reason, and I am hesitant to talk about my views on the contradictions within our concept of marriage. With a caveat, I opposed the idea of marriage for most of my early 20s and did, again, after my first divorce. My ex-wife and I are actually still great friends and both did and didn’t divorce for the common reasons: it was not infidelity, it was lifestyle incompatibility and money issues that stem from said incompatibility. I used to joke that I being a “Married male of any orientation should be a different gender category from an unmarried one.” I still, actually, feel that way in a sense.
Now, I am also a believer that no marriage arrangement is entirely natural: both polygamy and monogamy come with some strain and tension with most individuals inclinations and thus cannot be said to be or not be natural unless the social and environmental constraints are accounted for in a realistic fashion. I also a believer that very little avoidances of marriage are entirely without their aleinations even in a particular context, in Northern Europe where divorce and marriage are no longer common, the unmarried relationships often assume a form resembling in almost all domestic aspects a marriage. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá document pretty convincingly that most narratives on sexuality have had a present bias and a pretty moralistically bleak view of libidinal economy, even in good works by Darwin and so forth. The book “Sex at Dawn” which is often taken as a defensive of polyamory can be properly be read as a defense of contextual relationships.
That said, both the abstracted notions of sex on sees in liberal-radicals like Judith Butler (who would never use that phrase) as well as hyper-conservative notions on sees in most people who defend traditional values as “biological” is highly problematic. Traditional values may have been biological in a specific context, but it takes more than will-power for a traditional context to make sense. In this sense, it is not without problems to see our current openness about sex and hook-up culture as a form of liberation. It seems to me that it makes the real objects of sex taboo and also allows us to turn people into objects in lieu of taking about the real objects of sex.
I use “objects” and not object because I think both “radical” and “conservative” discourse about sexuality is entirely reductive to a stupid degree: if sex were about merely procreation then we would have “heat” cycles to ensure pregnancy like, well, most other males, and if it were merely about pleasure then the female orgasm would not be so elusive. Evolution is a harsh mattress and not a teleologically consistent one: it’s an ad hoc universe in the biological sphere. (This, of course, makes speaking about “nature” coherently almost in possible? Even nature has a context).
This is not to deny that there are real limits to human sexuality and real battles fought over it. But in a way, our dialogue on what the “meaning” of sex is may be incoherent to the point of schizotypal because a decoupling of social context and biologic context, but a severing into a dialectical tension that which is not in fundamental contradiction in its unalienated state.
Wait, here I revere to tendencies I dislike about philosophy writing, the tendency to over-abstract: people love and people fuck for a variety of different reasons in a variety of different contexts. Almost none of us are comfortable with that because some form of “other” enjoyment indicates a lack created by our ability to articulate.
What is it Lacan says? Lack is created by language. Before we speak, we cannot postulate that which is not?
So I’ll try to avoid name dropping, with the caveat that Foucault’s basic premise that sexuality is a socially situated, seems to be more or less right. The problem is, as always, that our conceptions of biological and social are falsely separated: while I am critical of the metaphor as “nature” as a “machine,” I do fundamentally think that social structures and biological structures are in a feedback loop. I desire someone both because I have a genetic impulse to desire them, but how I desire them and what forms that relationship takes are, in no small part, socially shaped. The real dialectical conflicts come when social notions no longer fit biological reality, even if biological reality has changed for essentially social reasons.
Technology changes who you are. How can you not think it changes your relationships to people?
This leads to all sorts of issues: I am gay or straight or bisexual? How is that it appears that while sexuality is definitely determined by social pressures and yet we cannot castigate certain practices out of existence? Does it make sense to get married?
In my personal life this plays out in a lot of strange ways: I am getting married to a woman because I love her. Now, I realize in the grand scheme of things, even from personal experience, love is a weak reason for marriage. In fact, it’s not even a good predictor of martial happiness. The information on arranged marriages startlingly conflicts with the notion that peer-love marriage is a good means for contentment for most people who are belong a certain social class and income range. Even the sexual revolution, interestingly, has been more positive for upper middle class women and men who seem to benefit from promiscuity then still get into relatively stable marriages (of varying degrees of openness) whereas the poor who often value marriage more as a social good see fewer marriages and fewer of its benefits? I love a few women quite deeply, and yet I choose one of them because I love her and it seems conductive to that kind of social relationship.
In a way, just talking about fucking is avoiding the a lot of the larger issues here isn’t it.
Nothing in modernity seems to be without its contradictions. Particularly in sex where anything viewed long enough and believed in general in mass culture seems to be fraught with outright contradictions. I, as I stated, am no exception: the polyamorous man entering into a relationship that is rooted in monogamy. Doing so willingly and knowing from personal failure the dangers involved, and yet when I am honest with myself even in my most polyamorous moments my relationships have been based on fundamental rules and commitments that are both from my partners and the larger social milieu. Sometimes, I find it more than a little ironic that liberals for all their emphasis on social importance and social contextualization, take a completely individualistic view on love and sex.
Funny how so many refuse to look honestly at the contradictions in their lives: dialectics, as I understand it, is a way to look at one’s contradictions honestly and try to move past them. Most people, however, from the pain of cognitive dissonance cannot do this: doing this in one’s most intimate relationship is even more traumatic.
But it is spring time, after all, and thus we like to think we should talk about love.
I have written on Sam Harris before in both his claims about Buddhism, which Meera Nanda has covered better than I, and his claims about objective morality, which Rationally Speaking has covered better than I, his arrogance at avoiding meta-ethics, and his veiled advocacy of pre-emptive violence in The End of Faith, which I have written about at length. On the later, I have been told time and again that Harris doesn’t believe this, but here’s the quote: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. . . . There is, in fact, no talking to some people. … We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.” (Sam Harris, The End of Faith). Notice how Harris keeps plausible deniability by the use of “may,” which is rhetorically cowardly to boot.
But, before I can called a theist or a religious apologist or some such nonsense, my problems with Harris are largely that I see him as dangerous to science and philosophy. Philosophy because, while he has an Undergraduate Degree in it from Stanford, he seems to not truly understand a quite a bit of the history of philosophy nor does he seem to be able to make a logical argument. What most of my “skeptical” friends say about Harris is that he “sounds” reasonable, and always speaks calmly. They also dislike relativists and post-modernists. I often, however, get the distinct feeling they actually have never read the philosophers they are arguing against. It is almost always a straw-man argument. Few of the words are quoted or addressed directly, which is telling. Why I see Harris as dangerous to science is that he doesn’t seem to respect most accepted notions of a demarcation line. In many ways, I think Harris is making category errors and also trying to more morality into a scientific category: this seems like a slapdash move to confuse correlation/causation on Harris’s part and to confuse descriptive/normative. To put this in logical terms: this is two category errors. Or, to put in my cultural Marxist language, he is trying to committing trying in a process of rectification to support an ideological complex.
This episode is excellent, but not so much when they deal with Sam Harris who they can barely find a philosophical argument in to actually reject. Points where the Partially Examined Life Crew point out that there are philosophical errors in Dawkin’s, particularly a equivocation on different forms of the antropic principle and pointing out that the “Tea Pot” argument which has always seem to me be flippant actually also contains an error. Furthermore, it seems like the “principle of sufficient reason” is a problem for physics in either a theistic or an atheistic frame work. It may be that the “principle of sufficient reason” itself is not applicable to things that happen before motion in our universe gave us some sense of time. This seems like a major problem in physics right now, but it has major philosophical implications.
Still, I wish they have discussed Dennett more and maybe a more philosophically inclined New Atheist like Victor Stinger instead of Christopher Hitchens, who is admittedly a charming and robust polemicist. Dennett’s concept of memes has been problematic to me. I am not the only one who finds problematic either on the skeptical/atheist spectrum. Rationally Speaking has been exploring the problems of the concept for a while (here and here). The problems with meme and memeplexes is that even as an analogy they are incredibly imperfect: they have no physical or material implantation mechanism, they seem to treat ideas has have no sociological or material context, and almost seems like a (pseudo-)biological dualism as it treats ideas as almost self-existing.
Anyway, I am going to quote Julian Baggini, one of my favorite professional atheists:
This is most evident when you consider the poverty of the new atheism’s “error theory”, which is needed to explain why, if atheism is indeed the view evidence and reason demands, so many very bright people are still religious. The usual answers given to this are not good enough. They tend to stress psychological blind-spots and wishful thinking. For instance, Dawkins says “the meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”
But if very intelligent people are so easily led astray by such things, then shouldn’t the new atheists themselves be more sceptical about the role reason plays in their own belief formation? You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves.
I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all.
However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics. To give a non-exhaustive list, religion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that “religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.
The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness.