In today’s anti-intellectual social climate I often see philosophy dismissed as useless ivory-tower navel-gazing, but the reality is we are all philosophers. The most basic questions asked by philosophy are fundamental: What Is? (i.e., ontology) and How do we know? (epistemology). We spend our infancy asking those questions–the little kid asking “Why?” endlessly is a perfect philosopher–until we get to the age where we just accept the answers our elders give us. Philosophy is the study of ideas, and it is basic to the experience of being human and having a human brain.
Of course not everybody wants to go pro with philosophy. When I was a kid I was fascinated by philosophy and even told one of my elementary school teachers I was going to get a Ph.D. in it (ha!). Yet by the time I went to college I had learned to disapprove of it as “useless,” and I regret to say I never took a single philosophy class. Granted, this was partly because I had become aware that all of us are doing it all the time, so why take a class? Also, some of my friends (and one guy I dated) were philosophy majors and holy cats could they get infuriating. It was almost impossible to have a conversation without footnotes defining every word! But I still wish I had given it some formal study, if only to learn a better language for asking questions, so I wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time.
“Study of ideas” does sound a little rarefied until you consider that almost everything we ever “know” is actually an idea. We can’t get outside of our own heads, so our experiences are always mediated through our perceptions and memories. Our experience is made up of ideas about things, not the things themselves. In that sense, philosophy is the study of lived experience, plus everything we think about that. So you know, pretty important stuff.
While we’re on the topic let me say that the philosophical school I most closely identify with is Skepticism. I don’t mean those smug jerks who make it their life’s mission to liberate us from our “errors” (they are true-believers, and I’ll come back to them shortly)–I’m talking about David Hume’s Skepticism, or that of the ancient Greeks. Because we can’t get out of our own subjective head-space, we can’t know whether anything objectively exists outside of it, or what that anything might be like. A more extreme Skeptic would even question whether other subjectivities–other minds–exist at all. I don’t take it quite that far. I certainly don’t say that nothing else exists, I just don’t believe any of us humans has a tool kit that would enable us to determine its objective nature, or indeed even our own objective nature. I also think of myself as a sort of Neo-Gnostic in that I suspect (but don’t know!) that there is some kind of objective reality but that our subjective human experience is different from and even deceptive about what that reality is, and I also suspect that reality is both conscious and non-material in nature, though I have no way of being sure. I’m telling you this to be as forthcoming as possible about my own perspective, since I’m about to criticize others for not doing that.
The philosopher and scientist (and skeptic and atheist) Massimo Pigliucci has been calling out scientists and sciencelebrities lately for taking an anti-intellectual stance toward philosophy, and some other disciplines which aren’t their own, for example in this piece at Scientia Salon and this one in the Huffington Post. In his HuffPo piece, Pigliucci points out that philosophy is “the mother of all sciences,” and criticizes sciencelebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson in particular:
“It seems like my friend Neil deGrasse Tyson  has done it again: He has dismissed philosophy as a useless enterprise and actually advised bright students to stay away from it. It is not the first time Neil has done this sort of thing, and he is far from being the only scientist to do so.
…someone who regularly appears on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and has had the privilege of remaking Carl Sagan’s iconic Cosmos series — in short, someone who is a public intellectual and advocate for science — really ought to do better than to take what amounts to anti-intellectual (and illiterate) positions about another field of scholarship.”
But aside from being rude to fellow scholars, what’s the big deal? The dismissal of philosophy as a valid field of inquiry demonstrates two deeper issues:
- There has been a serious deterioration in science (both in practice and education) to the point where its predication on beliefs, ultimate subjectivity, and its history and cultural context have been forgotten, or are deliberately obfuscated.
- In the hustle to achieve greater authority (see the previous post in this series), scientists have become unwilling to face challenge–not only from ordinary people like you and me, but even from fellow academics.
So it’s partly a sign of ignorance of the foundations and ethics of science, and partly due to fear of losing their status if anyone dares to point out that there’s a man behind the curtain.
If you’ve ever taken an English composition or historiography class, you’ve probably been told never to use the passive voice (e.g., say “X did Y” not “Y was done by X” or even more vaguely, “Y was done.”) However in science writing, the passive voice is used preferentially. This is to make it appear as if the findings simply manifested all by themselves, without any interference from a flawed human. It creates a veneer of objectivity.
Just as scientific experiments don’t happen in a vacuum, science didn’t arise in a vacuum: It was the product of specific historical and cultural trends–and philosophical beliefs. These beliefs have evolved somewhat, but not as much as you might think/hope. Science and the belief in scientific and technological progress arose out of what John Michael Greer calls the “prophetic religious sensibility,” which was also the source of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam.
“A religious sensibility isn’t a religion. It’s the substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions on which religions are built, and to which religions owe both the deep similarities that link them to other faiths of the same general age and historical origin, and the equally deep divides that separate them from faiths of different ages and origins.”
Although Greer is talking about religion and not science, it isn’t only religions that are built on the substructure of “religious sensibility”–so are all of our just-so stories. They shape each of our subjective lived experiences. Atheism and science are not the same thing–although the dominant metaphysical premise of modern science is scientific-materialism and there is significant overlap–yet if you substitute “science” for “atheism” in this quote, it is still true.
“…the contemporary quarrels between atheists and theists, like the equally fierce quarrels between the different theist religions of salvation, take place within a shared sensibility. It’s indicative, for example, that theists and atheists agree on the vast importance of what individuals believe about basic religious questions such as the existence of God; it’s just that to the theists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from eternal hellfire, while to the atheists, having the right beliefs brings salvation from the ignorant and superstitious past that fills the place of eternal damnation in their mythos. That obsession with individual belief is one of the distinctive features of the current western religious sensibility…
The hostilities between Christianity and contemporary atheism, like those between Christianity and Islam, are thus expressions of something like sibling rivalry. Salvation from the natural world and the human condition remains the core premise (and thus also the most important promise) of all these faiths, whether that salvation takes the supernatural form of resurrection followed by eternal life in heaven, on the one hand, or the allegedly more natural form of limitless progress, the conquest of poverty, illness, and death, and the great leap outwards to an endless future among the stars.” (my emphasis)
In another post on a related topic, Greer elaborates:
“I think most of my readers are aware that most versions of Christian doctrine insist that the Christian God is the only authentic deity in the cosmos, and the deities of other religions are a) imaginary, b) demons masquerading as divinities, or c) more or less garbled human misunderstandings of the one true Christian god—the choice between these options being largely a matter of the personal predilections of whoever’s doing the preaching.
Those religions that insist that theirs is the one and only real deity tend to have an awkward time dealing with the prevalence, and similarity, of religious experience across the whole spectrum of human religions.
All the prophetic faiths, from east to west, have certain things in common besides their abandonment of the old gods of nature. To begin with, as already noted, each was founded by someone who claimed unique access to the truth about the universe. To belong to one of these faiths isn’t simply a matter of participating in its ceremonies and showing reverence to its holy things, as in the nature religions; all of them started out with the idea that belonging to the religion required acceptance of a specific set of opinions about religious issues—the Four Noble Truths, the Nicene Creed, or what have you—and accepting them, furthermore, in a sense that formally excluded accepting any other set. Most of them, though not all, still maintain that principle of membership to one degree or another.”
All the prophetic faiths also share, to one degree or another, a rejection of the world as it actually exists in favor of some more or less utopian substitute…” (my emphasis)
I quote Greer at length here because I think this point cannot be overstated–the scientific method is a specific response to a specific set of cultural, historical, and philosophical conditions (one of which is the substructure of the prophetic religious sensibility with its notions of progress and transcendence), which were enveloped within the developing concept. Like a snowball rolling along, over time science has gathered to itself a set of mandatory beliefs necessary for membership (an ideology) and its own community of prophets and true-believers. Notice how the exact same language that Christians use to dismiss non-Christians is used by science’s true-believers to dismiss people who believe in sasquatch or ghosts. The problem is when people mistake their beliefs for truth. As we know, this has led to many wars. It’s very easy to point the finger at someone else and label their “truths” as beliefs, but we have to be able to do the same thing in the mirror.
For a more in-depth examination and critique of the mandatory beliefs of scientific-materialism, I recommend this debate on the nature of science between Rupert Sheldrake and Michael Shermer. Note the fact that Shermer, the darling of materialist true-believers, is not actually a scientist (he does hold a Ph.D. in history of science); Sheldrake, their bete-noire, actually is a scientist. It’s not merely an irony, it’s indicative of how true-believers accept as science only that which corresponds to their fundamentalist beliefs.
In this debate, Sheldrake takes the position that science needs to move past its dogma, while Shermer argues “science, properly conceived, is a materialistic enterprise; for science to look beyond materialist explanations is to betray science and engage in superstition” (my emphasis). I think the italicized part there is really interesting and reveals much about materialist orthodoxy: Shermer could have said that science is a materialistic enterprise, full stop. Or he could have said that it’s a materialistic enterprise, everything else is outside of science’s purview, and so simply is not of interest/can’t be addressed by science. If you read the rest of Shermer’s remarks, it seems that the crux of his argument is that attributing something to a “supernatural” or “paranormal” (or by extension, any other non-material) cause is laziness–those aren’t explanations, just “placeholders” for material processes we don’t yet understand. And the goal of science is to continue investigating until we do understand. This is a fair point (although he assumes a priori that the answers science will discover must be material in nature), so why didn’t he say that? Why did he sum up his argument the way he did? When you read closely what he actually did say (in the quote above), you see that Shermer is stating that science is materialistic, and everything else doesn’t exist/is delusion. Moreover, to even attempt to investigate all of that non-material/non-existent stuff is betrayal–which totally contradicts his argument that science keeps on investigating until the answer is known. Shermer is not arguing that we need to keep investigating and not be lazy; he’s arguing that we should adopt a particular ontology and ignore and deny everything that doesn’t seem to fit it. And I don’t know about you, but his language sounds rather religious and very emotional to me. I’m half surprised he didn’t say “apostasy” or “heresy” instead of betrayal. It’s also a ridiculous statement from anything other than an ideological point of view. I mean, think how ridiculous it would be if I applied this same reasoning to an entirely different thing. What if I said, “horses are mammals; only mammals exist, therefore all other animals are mythical and it’s a betrayal of horses to investigate them.” Or, “painting is done with paints; and therefore all other art forms are imaginary, and it’s a betrayal of painting to do other kinds of art.” But notice how normal and familiar it sounds if I say, “Islam (or Christianity, etc.) is the only true religion; all other religions are lies/sin/delusion/heresy/paganism/etc. and it’s a betrayal of God to follow them.” As Sheldrake says,
“These beliefs are powerful not because most scientists think about them critically, but because they don’t. The facts of science are real enough, and so are the techniques that scientists use, and so are the technologies based on them. But the beliefs that govern conventional scientific thinking are an act of faith, grounded in a nineteenth-century ideology….Many people are unaware that these doctrines are assumptions; they think of them as science, or simply believe that they are true. They absorb them by a kind of intellectual osmosis.”
I do know some scientists that are aware of this. Unfortunately, true-believers–the evangelists of scientific-materialism–rarely even understand how scientific experimentation is done, let alone do it themselves, let alone know anything about the history and philosophy and cultural context of science and how the method has changed over the years. Just as 99.9% of Christians I encounter have virtually zero knowledge of the history and philosophy and cultural context of Christianity. Part of why I get so irked by the pop-science Facebook memes (a few of which I dissect in my next post), and the pandering of
prophets sciencelebrities like Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that their proliferation, their sheer numbers, give them credibility in the eyes of anyone who doesn’t think critically about this stuff. The more that stuff is shared uncritically, the more natural and normal it appears to be. “Everybody knows.” “They say.” “Studies show.” “It’s a well-known fact.” They’re all code for ideology.
I love how it looks like Tyson is experiencing some kind of mystical communion here.
I’m not sure when science came unmoored from its fundamentals and its history. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy tells his class, “Archaeology is the search for fact–not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall”? Indy was correctly acknowledging that questions of “truth” are not the domain of science, but of philosophy. Have Tyson and his fellow sciencelebrities forgotten that, or are they simply ignoring it? I can tell you that scientists’ unwillingness to engage with philosophy is a sign of science’s devolution into a cult. It’s more important to belong to the group, and to show that by espousing the same opinions and beliefs and not doing transgressive stuff like, say, cryptzoology to name just one example (unless the point is to belittle the notion). This is an extremely inflexible, and therefore fragile, position.
Because this is where we get into Black Swan territory. For a materialist or a so-called skeptic, a philosophical challenge taken seriously could be a Black Swan. Nothing in your past led you to believe it could be possible, so when it happens, it blows your world up; yet looking back, you see that really, all the necessary ingredients were there all along, you just didn’t realize it. The important thing about Black Swans in this context is that they are dependent on your worldview. An oft-quoted example is that Thanksgiving is a Black Swan to the turkey, but not to the butcher. It all depends on your prior experiences and your perspective. It is possible to turn a Black Swan to your advantage, but all of them are dangerous to some extent. The more inflexible you are, the more likely a Black Swan is to break you. The antidote is to have horizons so broad and mental doors so open that it’s almost impossible to take you completely by surprise.
Once you grasp that there’s more than one way to add up to 9–and even more importantly, that 9 is not even a foregone conclusion but some may be adding up to 7, or 15, or 232–you are down the rabbit hole my friend. You have chosen the red pill, and shit gets weird. You’ll never be able to go back to the comfortable certainty of your prior belief system, whatever it was. Being truly aware of and open to other ontologies isn’t mere political correctness, or even cultural relativism, it’s an awakening that completely changes your views of the universe. Meeting actual flesh-and-blood Martians would not be any more mind-imploding than this. From then on, no premise can be taken for granted. You will, like it or not, be forced to think critically about everything all the time. (The good news is there will be infinite new horizons of thought to explore.)
This is not incompatible with good science–science that lives up to its stated ideals rather than its secret agendas. However, it does reveal scientific-materialism for what it was all along, which is merely one among many metaphysical propositions which cannot ever be proved or disproved. Scientific-materialism is an ideology, and those who trumpet it as the Alpha and Omega, the Way, the Truth, and the Light, are ideologues. They have a vested interest in converting you to their belief just as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Evangelical Christians will try to convert you to theirs. They cannot see that, though, like the fish who can’t see the water. Now, I think they are all entitled to their religions, I only want them to recognize them for what they are.
What we have to avoid here is falling into the same trap as the true-believers. Being critical of some current scientists (and their followers) for not recognizing the philosophy underlying their work does not mean we get to reject scientific principles or findings out of hand. These findings still represent generations of empirical observations made by our ancestors. They are now part of the Western tradition. It means we take things on a case-by-case basis, critically evaluate the claims, realize they are probably at least partly wrong and so are we. Yes, we need guidelines on which to base our life decisions. You can be philosophically a Skeptic or a Gnostic who views life as a flight simulation, but as long as you’re in it, remember that you don’t get infinite lives and play as if it were real. We can even take our guidelines on faith and be totally devoted to living them, as long as we don’t call it truth, ram it down everybody else’s throat, and infantilize and demean them for having different guidelines.
Next time I tackle how ideological arguments are constructed so as to beat us into submission.