Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Fundamentalism and Scientism

The Enlightenment Underground was started because we wanted to have a room of our own to play with ideas. Here I want to continue that spirit by calling to task the various manifestations of "the spirit of gravity" -- that ideas are not to be played with, together with a very specific picture of what it makes to take an idea seriously. I want to contest that spirit, and I want to do so by taking ideas seriously by playing with them.

Today, I want to play with "fundamentalism" and "scientism."

The contemporary culture wars are taking shape between the 30% of the American people who hold the Bible to be literally true, and the much smaller and opposite extreme who hold that science gives us the truth about the world. This is a clash between "fundamentalism" and "scientism." In between are the majority, who want to hold onto both traditional Abrahamic piety and the latest in medical breakthroughs. We've seen such fads as "intelligent design" vie for the attention of the majority, and although the street cred of ID diminished after Dover, it'll certainly have a comeback tour.

"Fundamentalism" holds that every jot and tittle of the Bible is absolutely and unerringly true. In maintaing this view, it is convenient to ignore such salient facts as (a) it is philologically difficult to even determine what the jots and tittles of the Bible are and (b) the Bible is silent on most matters that are important to the religious right. (Nowhere in the Scriptures is a clear and consistent position taken on abortion, for example, nor is gay marriage an issue. And despite the clarity of Leviticus 18:22, some scholars have suggested that David and Jonathan were more than just friends. Enough said . . . )

"Scientism" is the mirror-opposite, in that it holds that the totality of contemporary scientific methods and theories are the best (if not the only) way of discovering the Truth About the World.

In debates over the ethics of abortion, the teaching of evolution, and the looming threat of ecocide, the debate is increasingly polarized between scientism and fundamentalism.

But it's a serious mistake to see fundamentalism and scientisim as imerely implacably opposed. Rather, they are implacably opposed because they are different sides of the same coin: the coin of metaphysical dogmatism

Metaphysical dogmatism holds that the world has some real and essential structure which is fully knowable by human beings (even if they need assistance from divine revelation). There is a single and correct Way that the World Is. The only debate between scientism and fundamentalism is over how the Structure of the World is to be discovered: through systematic experimentation and quantification, or through authoritarian interpretation of divine revelation.

Against both, I want to hold out a plea for what Putnam (following Goodman) could call "internal realism", or for what Hakim Bey -- working out of entirely different styles, techniques, and traditions, calls "ontological anarchy": there is no single and correct way that the world is.
There are only many different ways. Scientific theories are, indeed, one way that the world is. Poetry and art are another. Music and literature are a way the world is. And so too are religion and philosophy.

Ontological anarchy refuses to look for a single over-arching principle that can unify all world-ways. It refuses to let any world-way be a Procrustean bed for all the others. It asks only that we cultivate as many different ways of being-in-the-world as we can, in order to further cultivate and expand our capacities for thinking, feeling, and living.


Anonymous Yusef said...

I wonder whether you may be caricaturing fundamentalists a bit here.

( Except that lately, they don't need anyone else to caricature them - they are doing a good enough job at it themselves. )

It's really impossible in our contemporary world for anyone to consistently believe that every jot and tittle of the Bible is the literal truth.

I think that what distinguishes the Fundamentalists is that they refuse and resist any compromise on whether or not to hold to key tenets of faith in the Bible, eg, the divinity of Christ.

Some people might think that you can be a Christian and not believe that Jesus was the son of God; fundamentalists would reject that position.

But here's what I want to ask you: do you think that I am a scientismist or a fundamentalist because I do not believe that there is an invisible hedgehog over there in the corner?

1:53 PM  
Blogger Kirby Olson said...

The idea of a language game from Wittgenstein would work for this, too?

I wonder if the notion of "game" is mostly forgotten here.

The idea of debating ideas seems to be missing. And playing with them, as you have stated. People tend to think they have to line up like magnets with texts. When of course a text is only meant to spark a singular illumination.

There are others of course who take Marx too far -- seeing him as both Gospel and science. Horrifying combo, what.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

Yusef asked:

But here's what I want to ask you: do you think that I am a scientismist or a fundamentalist because I do not believe that there is an invisible hedgehog over there in the corner?

The answer is clearly "no," and I'm having a hard time understanding how this is getting set up as a puzzle or problem for the sort of view I'm trying to defend.

Is the thought here that "ontological anarchy" should let anything go, so denying any sort of claim is tantamount to metaphysical dogmatism?

6:29 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

Putnam's "internal realism" was strongly influenced by the later Wittgenstein's reflections on language-games, norms, and rules.

The hard part, which I'm still trying to figure out, is whether ontological pluralism (of the Putnamian sort) is consistent with taking ideas seriously -- as a commitment to experimentation with different ways of engaging with things, with others, and with oneself.

I don't want to get trapped in the sort of frivolous play that one finds in Derrida or Lyotard. That's the opposite extreme, or a different sort of extreme, that's also deadening.

What's needed here is an attitude of intoxicated seriousness that shuns both the frivolity of Derrida or Lyotard and the sobriety of both fundamentalism and scientism.

"Don't interpret, experiment!" might be a good motto with which this attitude can be expressed.

6:35 PM  
Blogger Idealogen said...

Dear Dr. Spinoza,

Thanks for an interesting post which is also very American - meaning: this discussion about fundamentalism vs. scientism or Intelligent Design vs. evolutionism is basically non-existant in Europe.

Your quote about "ontological anarchy" is, however, intriguing and final (?) proof that postmodernism has sunk in. And YOU are making fun of Jean-Francois Lyotard who coined and defined the term!

Yes, of course you should PLAY with ideas. Remember Nietzsche's description of philosophy as the "gay science"?

6:09 PM  
Blogger Idealogen said...

OOOPS! Sorry about the duplicates. I don't know how THAT happened. Maybe there always is a parallel world, as Plato would have us believe - and which we have since labored under.

Let me quote Nietzsche (again!): The world is womanish. There is nothing inside.

(Political correctness be damned!)

6:37 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

"Ontological anarchy" differs, if only by the width of an edge, from Lyotardian "postmodernism."

After the death of all "metanarratives" (i.e. Marxism), we are left only with a plethora of different language-games, but without any criteria for evaluating them. Diversity becomes an end in itself, and it's in reaction to this sort of nihilism that Lyotard himself became something of a Kantian.

(Indeed, between Luc Ferry in France and Habermas in Germany, Kantian humanism is the dominant philosophical temperament in French and German culture these days, as I understand it.)

Ontological anarchy, by contrasst, holds out the promise of joy, and on this painfully thin ground, offers a critique of global capitalism and of liberal democracy.

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"I'm having a hard time understanding how this is getting set up as a puzzle or problem for the sort of view I'm trying to defend." - Dr. Spinoza, earlier this conversation.

Given the full field of ideas in which to dance and play, you chose to dance with the ideas of fundamentalism and scientism. This is what confused me.

It as if, in wanting to dance and play, you went into a dungeon.

If you want play and joy, go where you may.

It arouses my suspicion, however, if go where you may is to the dank and dreary cells of scientism and fundamentalism....

... You wanted to play, but then you went to where play is so very evidently absent. Why?

I don't want to play where my play relies on seeing a hedgehog in the corner. Those games end badly.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Dr. Spinoza said...

I wanted to play with those ideas whose function it is to prevent us from playing.

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"Can an ass be tragic? To perish under a burden one can neither bear nor throw off? The case of the philosopher."

- Freddie ( Kruger? ) Nietzsche.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Yusef said...

"There are others of course who take Marx too far -- seeing him as both Gospel and science. Horrifying combo, what."-Kirby Olson, from above.

I am a person who wants to see Marxism as science, and this is where I start to get a little defensive.

I think that Dr. SpinDroza's project of using "desiring one's own repression" responsibly either soars or hits a reef ( to mix aeronautic and nautical metaphors,) based on whether Marxism is science or just another ideology.

I take it that Dr. SpinDroza does not believe that irresponsible play is more playful than responsible play, and that we are not, in wanting to play with ideas, abandoning responsibility in our inquiry of " desiring of repression."

I want it to be possible to speak responsibly of "desiring one's own repression," and as far as I can tell that means taking Marxism as a science.

I don't think that taking Marxism as science commits me to scientism any more than taking geology as science does.

I want to see if Marxist science of economics is a gay science which can replace the dismal science of what is now the predominant economic practice.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous kurage said...

Okay, so I'm responding to a somewhat backdated post, but I just stumbled upon The Enlightenment Underground half an hour ago (via a very interesting comment on the Aristotelian metaphysics of creationism over at Pharyngula.)

In any case, I would tend to disagree with your assessment of "fundamentalism" and "scientism" as mirrored opposites. Fundamentalists are, as you said, wholly convinced of the literalism of the Bible (as they understand it), a conviction that requires them to perform all manner of mental contortionism when the observable physical universe would seem to be in contradiction to the Word of God.

Fundamentalists often paint science as a cult or a spiritually bankrupt stand-in for religion. They assume that scientists are motivated by a (misplaced) faith in a (false) doctrine. This is, I think, much what you are getting at here, albeit without the judgmentalism and vitriol - but in any case, you call science and fundamentalism "different sides of the same coin," and assert that science is concerned with the "single and correct Way that the World Is."I think that this is, at the very least, a gross oversimplification.

Scientism lacks the adherence to doctrine that characterizes fundmentalism; theories can and should be revised and overturned. Scientific theories are descriptions of what seems to be the truth based on a certain set of observations, not the truth itself, unlike the Bible of fundamentalist imaginings. Above all, science is pragmatic. It prizes efficacy. Fundamentalism is not constrained by the expectation of quantifiable results in the here and now and is therefore immune to the sort of - dare I say it - evolution that shapes science.

Also, while science is certainly concerned with the way that the world is, I would argue that it is not concerned with "the single and correct Way that the World Is." Science observes and quantifies the physical properties and processes of the world, which, from a scientific viewpoint, are wholly unblemished by "correctness" or "incorrectness"; they simply are. As for singularity, science in no way precludes the possibility of a multidimensional world - one composed not only of subatomic particles and chemical reactions but also of the Sistine Chapel and Beethoven's Ode to Joy, the sublime, the absurd, and the abstract.

In short, science has nothing to say about ethical and ideal human conduct; the fundamentalists are simply getting greedy when they try to lay claim to the physical world as well as the Kingdom of God.

You say "the only debate between scientism and fundamentalism is over how the Structure of the World is to be discovered," but as far as fundamentalism is concerned, the future tense hardly applies. The "Structure of the World" has already been discovered - or rather, revealed. On the other hand, scientism is predicated on the notion that we are yet in the process of discovering the world, and will be for the foreseeable future.

(I realize that I've been using "science" and "scientism" interchangeably throughout this comment, but really, "scientism" is just such an awkward word. Plus, I think it's one of the many nuances inherent to the vernacular use of the more catch-all term "science.")

In conclusion, um, I like your blog.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Yes, but ("kurage" excepted) isn't the generality of this discussion appallingly banal? I can't quite see how the statement "Scientific theories are, indeed, one way that the world is. Poetry and art are another" is anything less trite than "Art tells us about feelings. Science tells us about what happens when a brick hits a window". Do you have any actual, *cough*, arguments? Or is your 'ontological anarchy' (courtesy of Bey's juvenile anti-establishment rhetoric) just an aesthetic stance without any real content?

4:09 AM  

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