Sunday, 8 April 2012

Science isn't Everything, Meaning is Pointless and we are all Genocidal (or how my world view was complicated)


My philosophy is varied, likely contradictory and complex, but here's how I came up with it.

I went through New Atheism, antitheism and a dogmatic scientism and gradually grew out of it. By the ripe age of twenty-one I had given most of it up. I remain an atheist, a physicist and philosopher of sorts... but the early simplicity of the Rational and the Irrational, of good vs evil, has melted away.

What remains, however, is a desire to dismiss as much invention as possible: to identify speculation, and de-construct it.

We would all like to give advice to our former selves, and the sixteen-year-old me would’ve been interested in the article that follows (probably as something to disagree with) but benefitting nonetheless.

This is not a philosophical argument and my suggestions to those in a similar position are not clear and prescriptive rules: neither ‘read this’ nor ‘learn that’. Rather, my hope is to present how my view changed, so that I may offer some sense of direction for the philosophically pre-teen.

In writing this I have alas placed the most interesting section last and for chronological purposes have resisted trying to tempt you with it early, therefore I ask for some small perseverance.

Making Sure God was Dead

Whilst younger, I had been iteratively improving my understanding of philosophy entirely through the deconstruction of theism. I had cottoned on quite early that the problem was fundamentally epistemological: about what you could know and what you couldn't. Concluding, my epistemology should be that the world is what science makes it out to be, because scientific methods are the only ones which work.

Entering University I had much more direct exposure to ‘real life new atheists’, sitting on various local and national bodies and charities and speaking at many local atheist events. Between the diary of poorly organised circle-jerks and Warhammer Anonymous meetings, I became increasingly frustrated by atheists who had poor to no understanding of philosophy, and whose primary gripe with theism was just "that it sounded ridiculous.”

“Yes,” I thought, “but expand a little.”

So I tried hard to present a coherent understanding of scientific epistemology and a general epistemological framework that allowed one to rule out the existence of God, prioritizing scientific endeavour in his wake. As it turns out, this isn’t particularly hard to do, and is still somewhat close to my position today.

It is in this environment that I begin to look very closely at the underpinnings of science, especially scientific realism. After reading Descartes First Meditations (which founds knowledge on God’s existence), I was still rationalizing the tensions within realism and knowledge and science, relying heavily on Locke.

My explorations of iTunes U lead me to a large number of audio lectures by Hubert Dreyfus (the source of Hubert Farnsworth) and a lecturer who presented Heidegger quite well. I had heard of Heidegger through my search through existentialist thought: a must for any New Atheist looking to patch-up a world containing god's corpse.

So at this time I had bubbling in my mind a basic understanding of phenomenology: the discipline of describing the most basic and ordinary encounters with the world.  Then, with the help of an online friend I was introduced to idealism, verificationism and the whole Humean tradition, beyond the simplicity of eliminating miracles.

Idealism, in presenting an opposite view to realism, finally clarified earlier tensions. I found that once you dig deep enough into realism you find it unsatisfyingly speculative, and its invention of an "external world" rather theistic.

Realism says that the "world of perception" is hooked-up to "the external world" somehow, and that we can infer the essence of the latter by investigating the former. Idealism, on the other hand, says all we need is the first world, once you have that everything else falls into place.

Couple this with phenomenology and we have a complete "science" of the pre-scientific: a way to analyse what exists and an account of how we know it exists.

Idealism offers certainty about a large part of the world, but it is dogged with misunderstandings and relies on the fatal flaw of requiring an observer and a subject (which seems to have the same externalism problems as realism).

Phenomenology, therefore, seemed to me the successor to idealism and a part-way compromise with realism. We can be certain of a great deal about the world and we can start with few or no metaphysical assumptions: we don’t assume anything about the character of reality in the abstract, but merely describe what is in front of us.

Meaning and Existence


And with God’s death we turn onto that other aspect of existence: meaning.

My first introduction to existentialism was via Satre, who provided an anti-theistic contrarian teenager with "total individual responsibility" and a naive view of freewill - enough to blame everyone of anything I wanted. Couple that with "existence precedes essence" and we have a complete world-view that can be imported whole-sale. Buy one, get one free.

I branched out to Kierkegaard (because everyone was crediting him with inventing the whole thing...), Camus, and Nietzsche. The picture was the same however: meaning was important, but it was definitely a-theistic. Or at least the religious life was not the ethical one (Kierkegaard).

The branch of my study that begins with Satre still continues through the Frankfurt school and Derrida.

And with each creeping addition in understanding the "death of god" new-atheism seemed more and more mired in problems with various authorities of its own. Central, for example, to the attack on Christianity is one particular interpretation of the bible as The Interpretation, privileged above others. (Derrida here has something to say about no interpretation being privileged like this).

The same applies to "the meaning of life" which is still a question for atheists.... they have still inherited the project of Vocation... whereas I had now come to a post-existentialist view: the question of the meaning of my existence doesn’t show up as something important. I would put this down to my analytic studies however, as developments in my metaethics had shifted my concerns towards what societies moral norms produce, therefore to focus the worth of one's actions not on what they mean, but on what they do.

Then we have questions about society and what a (New) atheist's view should be. My original view was of a technocracy of sorts with a Habermassian vision of democracy and freedom. I was the liberal slightly libertarian secularist brand of New Atheist which seems the most prominent. The belief is that knowledge can be handed down and distributed freely by an informed few for the benefit of all...

It is interesting that for the many years I had this belief I was also competing with strongly authoritarian desires and an intense dislike of democracy. I didn’t want to rule, but I wanted to be ruled... and the running of things kept as far away from The People as possible. My view of science almost certainly underpinned these desires.

Then I read Singer and my analytic studies asserted a strong sense of equality regardless of intelligence or capability. A simultaneous exposure to Foucault coloured my understanding of equality to include how we distributed knowledge.

Science and Society


One has to consider the darker corners of history before lighting the present: the persecution of minorities by the medical establishment, the persecution of dissenters in science, indeed the subjugation of people in general. Before a world view can be considered worldly, there must be the realization that knowledge cannot be gained without power, that knowledge distributed to a few is anti-democratic because it is centralising, that a technocratic society is necessarily systematically authoritarian and subjugating.

Questions of how and why society should be organised are not questions of Truth (qua correspondence with an external world to n significant figures). Socially, whether something is true or not is irrelevant, it is how it is used. As soon as X establishes itself as knowledge, it confers power and that has effects independent of the truth of X. Step outside a discipline, and stop asking "is there randomly sampling; are the assumptions about the properties of gold true; etc.", but why does this paper exist: who wants to know? What happens if it is believed to be true, what if it is believed to be false? What is this paper obscuring?

Remember that human beings are not rational animals, they are rationalizing animals. An observation I first noted several years ago by a debate coach, it has taken years of living with that maxim in my head to realize how fundamental and far reaching it is.

We start with preferences and values (non-analytically/emotionally based) and we "come up with" justifications that allow us to have our values realized. Arguments and social clashes are not syllogistic; we don't have premises and conclusions. We have "what I want in a form generalized so you can buy it" and "what you want generalized in a form so I will buy it".

The process of rationalization can be horrific. I was in Cambodia recently (a debating trip) and visited the school-turned-torture-prison Tuol Sleng where people were sent to confess their crimes then killed. The maxim of a debate coach echoed in my mind from years before: consider that they didn't want to just kill, they wanted them to confess - they needed some Truth that allowed them to justify murder.

It is disheartening that many are unaware that the extremes of immorality are not extremes of human behaviour. The every-day processes at work in our lives are the same as those in our darkest moments. For Bauman, the Holocaust was not an exceptional event, it was a modern event where the processes of mundane modernity are repurposed for immorality:  “procedural rationality, the division of labour into smaller and smaller tasks, the taxonomic categorisation of different species, and the tendency to view rule-following as morally good all played their role in the Holocaust”. Such is the sour cherry atop my world view.

Often the most dangerous kind of justifications are those which, in important ways, are true. Suppose that black people did have a biological reason to exhibit lower intelligence than that of white people. The way this Truth is rationalized is not a scientific investigation; it is a genealogical and sociological one. And that analysis is much more successful at deconstructing rationalization than some dry exposition by Singer (though much admired on my part). It asks how society has come to rationalize in this way, what are the artefacts of history that determine what facts we consider important.

Scientific truth does not exist in a vacuum. It is only ever a partial and incomplete view. Partial because there is more to action than scientific fact and incomplete because science never provides all of the pertinent facts.

First someone has to care about some the facts. This caring does not have a scientific, but cultural source. Then they have to fit this fact into a grander justification for action which involves rationalization of their preferences. Science is dangerous because it has a monopoly over knowledge and therefore significant power, and it is doubly dangerous because the knowledge it produces might actually be true.

And this is how my world view was complicated. Science isn't everything: the world is much more rich and complete than the skeletal models of physicists. Meaning is Pointless: the desire for Vocation should be allowed to die with Modernity. And we are all Genocidal: society will not be freed by science.

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