Knowing Knowledge X: The End, But the Moment Has Been Prepared For, Dialogues, 02/05/2015

Steve Fuller and my months-long discussion of his book Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History has come to an end this weekend. I said before that I wanted to try new  approaches to book reviewing, and this has been the most ambitious yet. If you want to catch up on our exchange, you can follow the links to previous posts that I’ve threaded throughout this sentence, or just head to the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective and read the whole damn thing there. My text picks up from my A-Team joke that I made on Thursday.

Perhaps if the United States' powerful conservative
Christian politicians and political organizers better
understood the theological roots of modern science,
they'd be less quick to dismiss all science as going
against God, and maybe take anthropogenic climate
change (or any climate change at all) a little seriously.
Dear Steve,

Even though my old supervisor Barry Allen’s incredibly harsh review of your book put me in a bit of an awkward position at the SERRC, I do agree with him about one important point. I am genuinely impressed by your analysis and conceptual creativity in Knowledge. But I am equally frustrated with a naïveté that I see throughout the book and our correspondence. 

You dismiss the relevance of climate change denial because it isn’t scientifically rigorous. But such casual dismissal gives free rein to politicians who turn denial of climate change into concrete policy, even in states like Florida that are in danger of being swallowed in a rising ocean. 

Same with the imbecilic Biblical literalism that smears the intelligent design science in which you see such merit. You dismiss them as uninformed cranks who don’t even understand their own religion. But activist evangelical Christian politicians are leading a successful campaign to replace high school biology textbooks throughout the United States with dogmatic tripe that devalues evolutionary theory as the baseless speculation of a godless amoralist and contains illustrations of neanderthals riding a triceratops. 

These radicals who pervert your religion are not weirdos in the wilderness. They are men like Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Nikki Haley, Mike Huckabee, and other governors of American states, some of whom have a decent chance of becoming that country’s President next year. 

They have so much money and media in their corner that the more sensible intelligent design theorists we’ve discussed – critics of orthodox Darwinism who see the practical merit of design principles in understanding biological order – have no real power to advocate for their ideas. Their voices are completely drowned out by the organizational and financial power of the radical evangelical ignorati of the United States. 

When I read Knowledge, I know I’m reading the work of a contemporary genius to whom few in a comparable position today are equal.* But I suspect that I’m also reading the work of a man who is growing disconnected from the real conflicts that define our planet’s politics. I don’t know if it’s an effect of the academic ivory tower, or there is some more complicated cause, but your naïveté is growing dangerous.

Alan Sokal, perpetrator of the biggest dick move in
Analytic philosophy post Second World War.
* Though I would also recommend Barry Allen’s latest book on the history of Chinese philosophy for the same reason. 

There’s one last point that I want to raise, appropriately about what we actually do when we write philosophy, and what our philosophical texts are for. Your conclusion goes back through the conflict that exploded every discipline where philosophy and science intersect: the Sokal Hoax. 

Your book’s conclusion makes one of the most genuinely delightful critiques of Sokal that I’ve ever come across, because not only does it make him look like the dick that he was, but it also articulates a productive creative vision for what purpose philosophy’s engagement with scientific disciplines and knowledge should have. 

You identify that Sokal took humanities practitioners to task for not being familiar enough with the high-end, technical concepts and details of contemporary quantum physics to write on it with the proper expertise to be considered experts. Those who defended the humanities’ claims to articulate scientific concepts through their perspectives said, unfortunately falsely, that they did have such expertise.

But the humanities practitioner is not writing to the technical expert audience in the scientific discipline about which she writes. At least, this is how you describe what she should have told Sokal. Philosophy should try to craft the new metaphors and cultural frameworks through which the broad populace should receive the technical insights of a scientific discipline. Those technical ideas become the general metaphors having political and social relevance.

I am extremely doubtful that any theoretical physicist of the 1700s literally thought that the universe was a clockwork mechanism. This was a metaphor, a culturally powerful image crafted in philosophical discourse, that articulated a key insight of Newtonian physics into the popular conception of the universe. 

This is, in essence, part of what my own upcoming book, Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, available this August from Palgrave MacMillan publishers, does. I guide my readers through ideas that are important to ecological science about the interdependence of living bodies, species, and communities, about the nature of existence as processes, and about the integration of those processes in a dynamic whole whose individual parts retain and enhance their own power through that connection. 

Those ideas, when we hold onto them while stepping back from the technical specifics of ecological and biological sciences themselves, are politically transformative. We all depend on each other to survive and thrive in a harsh world. All things are subject to flux and change, making a mockery of conservatism for the sake of heritage alone. There is nothing in our lives that escapes real connection with others, no matter how much we try to hide in our bubble of ignorance as discrete individuals.

These concepts aren’t for the technical discussion of investigations and mathematical models in ecological science. They’re philosophical, social, and political insights about the ecological character of the world. This is what philosophy is for.

I hope our last two months of dialogue has achieved some of that same iconoclasm.
Ecological consciousness and self-consciousness has grown in our era in political and philosophical
contexts as well as popular art, as in Alan Moore's legendary run on DC's Swamp Thing.
• • •
Dear Adam,

I find it touching your concern about the state of my political awareness. If it’s any consolation, I also find your sense of politics naïve. In fact, from our exchange I am not even sure that you have a clear understanding of politics, but maybe that all will be revealed in your heavily trailed new book.

For me politics is ultimately about re-making the world in the image of one’s ideals. This raises two sorts of empirical challenges:  One involves operationalizing those ideals – i.e. would you be able to recognize utopia if you saw it?  The old saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for’, captures the nature of this challenge. Ideals that look great when cast at an abstract distance may turn out to be nightmares when observed in practice.

My own approach to politics can be
summarized with an artistic
inspiration, Free Your Mind and
Your Ass Will Follow
The political theorist Steven Lukes wrote a novel of ideas nearly twenty years ago, called The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat, that illustrated this point beautifully in a style that was half-Candide and half-Gulliver’s Travels. Basically, Caritat (the real name of the Marquis de Condorcet, as it turns out) has been sent by his war-torn society to scour the world to discover the political order that works best. The usual suspects are canvassed – utilitarianism, communitarianism, libertarianism, proletarianism. However, in his travels Caritat keeps discovering that what sounds great as ideological pronouncements result in all sorts of ironic consequences, which continually get Caritat into trouble with the local authorities.

The other empirical challenge posed by politics involves calibrating means to ends. After all, the direct route is not necessarily the most effective. This is perhaps where we most seriously disagree. You seem to advocate what Joseph Schumpeter cynically called a ‘safety valve’ view of politics, in which if people state what is wrong with the current order openly and articulately enough, change will be forced to happen. 

Originally this point applied to the emerging intelligentsia in 18th century Europe. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was gradually extended to freedom of press and assembly, and -- notoriously inscribed in the Weimar Constitution -- right to public demonstration, the legal crucible in which today’s identity politics was forged.

The problem with this view is that reduces politics to the art of complaining, occasionally spilling over into disruptive behaviour. It is a largely self-consuming activity, ‘politics as pure performance’, if you will. It never gets to the next stage of constructing a desirable new order. In fact, if history is our guide, the resulting mayhem simply de-stabilizes the existing order, allowing a well-placed third party – that is, someone previously marginal to the proceedings – to capitalize on the situation. Georg Simmel dubbed it the tertius gaudens, the beneficiary of others’ misery.

This lesson was learned in the 19th and 20th century by ambitious foreign powers who began to export ‘change agents’ to places where it hoped to exert lasting influence. The Cold War marked the high watermark of this activity, when both the Americans and the Soviets routinely ‘parachuted’ specially trained change agents. The late 1950s B-movie, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, captured this sentiment in all its paranoid glory.

Thus, there is nothing subversive in allowing a Slavoj Zizek or, for that matter, a Thomas Piketty to address hundreds of university people at a time about the continuing relevance of Marx – especially if it’s the original 19th century Marx. These people are effectively like Rolling Stones tribute acts. 

If I speak solely in terms of career parallels, I consider
Laurie Penny one example of the kind of career path I
hope my writing work will travel. I think of her because
I'm currently reading her excellent book, Unspeakable
. She began as a blogger and journalist, slowly
building an audience and a constantly updating
platform to maintain her visibility. She has since
parlayed the contacts she built as an independent
online author to publish books and regular works
of journalism and essay writing. And I wouldn't be
publishing Ecology this August if there had been no
platform for you to read about its ideas.
They enable the audience to simulate a sense of radical freedom that dissipates as soon as they leave the venue because there is nothing outside the venue to sustain the sentiment cultivated there. There is no plan, no candidate, no strategy: just more or less pleasant noise. Nevertheless, it is true that they generate a minor level of social instability that others may be in a position to capitalize on.

Given that you’ve detached yourself from academia and hence can write in a ‘free’ capacity, you too are contributing – albeit in a quite minor way – to this instability. One of the unforeseen consequences of making politics ‘public’ is that it becomes easily virtualized. Thus, people can do ‘gameboy’ politics in their home as they talk back to their television screens – a familiar trope in my childhood – or sound off on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

And this is what you seem to spend much of your time doing. The activity does little in terms of the goals it purports to be advancing, but it does provide the opportunity for others to appropriate that activity for their own purposes. Public opinion polling and market research are just the most mundane examples. 

Put in more world-historic terms, the beneficiary of such opportunities is more likely to be Google automatically scooping up all your data than a Marxist organizer lurking outside your workplace ready to make a pitch.

Let me put the point bluntly: If you don’t have a reasonably clear agenda – that is, clear enough to tell whether or not you’re getting closer to realizing your major goals – then you’re doing nothing more than providing data for others to harvest: Use it or lose it! 

From about 1850 to 1950, it was common for social theorists to bemoan the ‘herd mentality’ of the masses newly allowed to vote, enter in private contracts, etc. It was thought that such people, unleashed from prior paternalistic structures, would simply end up gravitating to the lowest common denominator. But really, all it meant was that people were biddable. It was the (perhaps reluctant) recognition that people have a dynamic sense of themselves, which leads them to be open-minded about the future.

While anyone wishing to lead people into the future needs to know how people think about their past (be it positive or negative), the bottom line is whether they can be led to somewhere better. Originally demagogues stepped into the breach, often brutally.  However, in the 20th century their way was increasingly paved by pollsters and market researchers. 

While the politics of protest's most remarkable images
are the protests themselves, the nation-spanning
friendships that form through mobilizing these
demonstrations – whether gatherings of people
or discussions in totally accessible public forums that
anyone can read – that enormous social movements
are formed, networks of people who make it part of
their daily lives to encourage people to live differently.
These network politics are how societies genuinely
transform. Without the coercion of the state, but with a
much greater power to make its change permanent.
Thus, the demagogue’s idiosyncratic charisma has yielded to a media-friendly personality who can show how people’s lives haven’t been a waste of time while opening up the prospect of a full realization of what they’re already trying to achieve. In this respect, social scientists have sublimated demagoguery into the ready market for politicians that we see today.

My point here is that those social scientists who conduct the polls and surveys will probably know before you do what sort of candidate will appeal to you at an election where people who think like you have reached a ‘critical mass’ to affect the electoral outcome. If no such candidate looms on your personal horizon, then you probably don’t matter – yet. Everyone – including your good self – has a vested interest in how everyone else thinks, regardless of how they go on to use that information.

In terms of my own politics, as I’ve said before, I play a long game. The UK Fabians provide a good model, one most effectively emulated by the Mont Pelerin Society, which incubated for four decades before neo-liberalism became the world’s dominant ideology.

It is quite common in intellectual history for good ideas to be initially promoted by ‘bad people’. I have made it clear what I do and do not support. So while I am friendly terms with members of, say, Seattle’s Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design, I’ve never been invited to become a fellow – and nor would I accept an invitation. These lines are pretty clear in my mind, and I’ve made them when required to do so.

Of course, my actions have not been rhetorically successful – at least, insofar as some ostensibly intelligent people continue to condemn me simply for associating with people with whom I share an intellectual affinity though not their larger political agenda. But for me, their response simply provides evidence of the default level of hypocrisy in academia, especially when it comes to doing anything that might verge on politics. Two aspects of this phenomenon are worth noting.

First, philosophers always make a big deal about the ‘genetic fallacy,’ namely, that the origins of an idea bears no necessary relationship to its validity. Fair enough. Too bad this principle is enforced in such an obviously self-serving way.

The fallacy itself is normally credited to Ernest Nagel and Morris Cohen’s An Introduction to Logic, a famous US textbook first published in the early 1930s, though it is related to the contexts of scientific discovery / justification distinction that Popper and Reichenbach were promoting the same time. And all of them were ultimately drawing on William Whewell, the 19th century cleric coined the word ‘scientist’ in English for someone who not only discovered things but who knew the general principles required to justify them to the widest possible audience.

The classic example of the fallacy was the Nazi dismissal of relativity theory on the grounds that its founder and main promoters were Jews. But after the Nazis were defeated, the fallacy was equally committed by those who wished to stop genetics research because most of its leading researchers (regardless of their views on Nazism) were advocates of some form of human eugenics. Luckily that didn’t come to pass.

Unfortunately the current interpretation of the US Constitution with regard to the separation of Church and State enshrines the genetic fallacy in law. In effect, if a theory is shown to be religiously motivated, it cannot be taught as science. And it is certainly true that intelligent design has been – and remains – a religiously motivated view. 

That's what anarchism must be for the 21st
century. So yeah, that's my politics. More
detail this August.
But what if as a matter of empirical fact, it is unlikely that we would have modern science, were it not for the global imposition of the anti-authoritarian version of the Christian world-view which Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History foregrounds?

This brings up the second point concerning the hypocrisy of academics. What you say in a seminar or a journal should be good enough for the courtroom and the media.

Anyone who has studied the history and philosophy of science in any detail knows that the 17th century Scientific Revolution in Europe was the product of a very particular theological configuration that was pro-Christian yet anti-establishment. They also know that China was by far the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation at the time – and arguably remained so until the end of the 18th century. Clearly something in Christian theology made the difference between the fates between these two great regions in the world.

Moreover, the theology made a bigger difference as it was detached from its original institutional expression, which is the ‘Enlightenment project’ in a nutshell. Thus, the privileging of humanity remained but without the hyperbolic reminders of our ‘fallen’ character that had been designed to shore up clerical power. And I’m happy to admit that this trajectory very quickly moved in successive waves of secularisation and democratisation from Enlightenment to Imperialism to the Cold War, etc.

I would take my detractors more seriously if they came up with alternative scenarios – ‘normatively preferable counterfactuals’, if you will – by which we would have arrived at something at least as attractive as where we find ourselves now. Just to be clear: I’m happy to grant that people today could thrive in worlds that significantly vary from the actual one.  

The question is whether starting with, say, Chinese assumptions would ever get us to such a world. If not, then all the China-talk is simply about wanting people to be other than they have demonstrated themselves to be. In that case, a serious (aka coercive) political programme is required to redress the situation – not a lot of metaphysical gas that smells like Spinoza.** 

**My apologies to Kurt Cobain.

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