Saturday, April 14, 2007

Scientism of the Gaps & the ‘Two Cultures’

See also my original post on the Freethought Forum with a series of responses.

Written 1 January 2007:

It is essential to note that both pseudoscience under the aegis of legit science and pseudo-science or anti-science under the aegis of supernaturalism both rely on scientism and illicit projections based on gaps. Scientism is a disputed term, but here I am using it to mean a quasi-ritualistic aping of the methods of science in misapplication to an object of inquiry. Because there are always gaps in knowledge, these gaps are exploited to provide pseudo-explanations or denials of the scientific explicability of phenomena. The mirror-image of “Intelligent Design” is the pseudoscience of Dawkins’s memes. All of modern society is trapped in irreconcilable dualisms. A culture capable of generating the one in a scientific age invariably must generate its complement. Over a century and a half of philosophy and broader intellectual currents can be mapped as a competition and vacillation between the currents variously nameable as positivism (scientism) vs. irrationalism (Romanticism).

The religious Right represents one wing of reversion to irrationalism, its power in the USA derived from the decline of liberalism in the 1970s. The liberal wing of irrationalism (misconstrued by its opponents and many of its proponents as radicalism) is vaguely characterizable under the umbrella term of postmodernism, whose intellectual roots are derived from the political Right but have undergone political mutations in the course of their development. The ascendany of this tendency is concommitant with and derives from the same social conditions as the New Right. The attack of the postmodernist wing on rationality and science should be considered as much an assault on secularism and atheism as the attack of the religious Right, and in spite of the mutual cultural and political hostility of these two camps, the postmodernist assault on science serves the cause of the new fascism.

Meera Nanda has documented the problem in relation to India:

Meera Nanda Online

For those who can brave the waters of philosophy and intellectual history, my study guide provides a number of sources for exploring this dichotomy:

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie)

A more easily digestible approach to the problem can be found in C.P. Snow’s 1959 initiation of a debate on the “two cultures”:

The Two Cultures: C.P. Snow, Literature and Science

The ‘two cultures’ problem plagues us today: specialization and fragmentation allow educated people to remain ignorant of huge swaths of information needed to make sense of our world. Dennett, who is a professional philosopher, ought to know better, but philosophy is as divided as everything else, and Anglo-American philosophy is particularly narrow and provincial. Dawkins is an ignoramus outside of evolutionary theory, and he has impermissibly extended his knowledge by instigating the pseudoscience of memes, an illegitimate metaphorical extension of notions from genetics and natural selection to the cultural/social/ideological sphere. This is a repetition of the nonsense to which the new evolutionism was put in the second half of the 19th century.

Just as there is a god of the gaps, there is a pseudoscience of the gaps, which can be tailored to naturalistic and well as supernaturalistic world views. A naive conception of how science can be applied as a universal method, especially to social and cultural phenomena, constitutes scientism, or the fetishistic application of scientific methods and notions to an object of investigation without comprehension of how the two match up.

Sam Harris presents us with a somewhat different version of the problem. First, he presents a new twist, making ridiculous claims for Eastern mysticism, reincarnation, and similar New Age nonsense. Secondly, freaked out by 9–11, he purports to explain social behavior merely as an effect of belief, rendering an understanding of the springs of behavior in both the Islamic world and in our society impossible. Thirdly, he is so politically and sociologically naive that pernicious consequences flow from his public interventions. Harris himself amalgamates aspects of the two cultures, with the New Age gloss, but as he has no basis for explaining social, cultural, and ideological phenomena, he ends up doing as much harm as good.

Missing in all of this is a huge range of possible contributions from social theory, cultural theory, sociology, anthropology, history, and the full range of philosophical traditions, along with the crucial concept of ideology. Where are the representatives of these domains of expertise in the secular humanist, atheist, freethought, and skeptical communities? How is that the two cultures are somehow segmented such that activist atheists and secular humanists seem to be conversant only with one of these two cultures, both on the production and consumption ends of the culture industry?


Ralph Dumain said...

Response to a postmodernist, 3 January 2007:

Postmodernism is a very loosely used term, to be sure. However:

(1) A good deal of the work being done which others place under the rubric of postmodernism is most certainly an assault on the claims of science to provide objective knowledge.

(2) Heidegger was a Nazi, he made formal speeches in support of Hitler, he was instrumental in the reorganization of the German academic system under the Nazis, he refused to recant Nazism after the war, archival researchers in Freiburg have documented his complicity and indifference to violent actions undertaken during his watch.

(3) Hegel, who is indeed worth taking seriously, has nothing to do with postmodernism.

(4) Habermas is the leading figure of the second generation of the Frankfurt School and is known to be mortally opposed to Derrida and that whole crowd.

(5) Postmodernism is not scientism; au contraire, more accurately, it is anti-science.

You need to do a better job of studying Heidegger’s Nazi past, his assault on liberalism and the Enlightenment, and the meaning of that horrible slogan you use in your signature. Your thinking is completely confused.

Note the dichotomy which I proposed in order to oppose it. Dawkins belongs on one side, your postmodernist nonsense on the other. Both positions represent the schizophrenia of bourgeois thought.

Ralph Dumain said...

From my response to several commentators, 27 March 2007:

Expertise in certain areas in the humanities is a dodgy business, hardly straightforward as it usually is in the natural sciences. This is especially true of philosophy, and in some areas of literary criticism. There is expertise, to be sure, in some areas especially, but it's a mix, and there's plenty of pure bullshit, esp. since the selective importation of an ideological entity labeled "continental philosophy" and the retooling of pragmatism for irrationalism and affirmative action. It is more feasible than ever to make a whole career out of talking bullshit--Cornel West, etc.

I’ve dealt with brainwashed little 20-something grad students for many years—little pisspots [ . . .] They really think they know something, but they are provincial and confused. The fact is that the philosophical heritage is so vast, once one gets beyond one’s own circle jerk, there are whole other perspectives and agendas to be explored. The footnote whoring that passes for intellectual work allows people to get away with an awful lot because they are ensconced in delimited networks in which they all give one another hand jobs.

quo said...

'Sam Harris presents us with a somewhat different version of the problem. First, he presents a new twist, making ridiculous claims for Eastern mysticism, reincarnation, and similar New Age nonsense.'

It really is not helpful to make vague assertions of this sort. Exactly what claims are these and why do you think they are ridiculous?

Ralph Dumain said...

The Freethought Forum has been defunct for a few years now. Theoretically, it might be partially recoverable by the Wayback Machine, but there's really no need to track it down to understand this post.