A Little Essay on Scientism (“Existentialism Fun Time”)

Cover art for Eric Frank Russel's Sentinels from Space, by Vincent Di Fate.

Cover art for Eric Frank Russel’s Sentinels from Space, by Vincent Di Fate. (1954.) (From 70s Sci-Fi Art.)


Note: Some of my ideas, as they’ve been framed here, have changed recently. (Typically, they’re in some kind of transition, anyway!) Otherwise, I think that they are perhaps better presented through the dialogue (between myself and Los, a fellow blogger) in the comments section of this post. I invite readers to view that dialogue and add their own input, should they like.

(November 29, 2015.)


This was written circa 2013, as an essay presented during a weekly discussion in one of my previous philosophy classes.

If you take issue with any of the views presented herein, feel free to bitch, debate, or spam the comment section below.

As it is:

[…]

Scientism, thus defined: “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities).” Effectively, this is the idea that all knowledge and truth is subject to, and only confirmed by, the scientific method, to the exclusion of all other methods. It is a position that was born from the scientific philosophy of positivism (the notion that all useful knowledge comes from logical, mathematical, and directly observable means) as well as materialism (the idea that all that exists are matter and energy and the forces within their domain, i.e. material), and the iron grasp of the analytic philosophies that pervaded 20th-century thought, and pontificates that science is and forever will be the ultimate arbiter of truth in the world. Science, it is claimed, is falsifiable, because it progresses through rigorous self-criticism, and yet this distinction among the various disciplines actually makes it unfalsifiable, basically speaking.

In 2010, physicist Stephen Hawking wrote the following in his book The Grand Design: “Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead… Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics.”

Similarly, the physicist Lawrence Krauss more recently criticized philosophical investigations into the nature of being and non-being, or metaphysics, more broadly, in the wake of the publication of his book A Universe From Nothing, which provides theories and evidence that matter spontaneously creates itself from quantum fluctuations and gravitational forces. In review of his book, philosophers like David Albert note that the laws of nature and quantum strings still constitute “somethingness,” in reply to which Krauss claims that there is a difference between the “nothingness of philosophy” and the “nothingness of reality.”

Krauss’s scathing dismissal of metaphysics drew some scorn from contemporary philosophers, and in reply Krauss half-apologized, snidely stating, “So, to those philosophers I may have unjustly offended by seemingly blanket statements about the field, I apologize. I value your intelligent conversation and the insights of anyone who thinks carefully about our universe and who is willing to guide their thinking based on the evidence of reality. To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this: Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

Of course, Krauss’s ideas rely on a materialist worldview, as well as an evidentialist one, materialism and evidentialism both being philosophies, grounded in historical dialogue. In the realm of modern scientism, peddled by the so-called New Atheists (most famously Richard Dawkins), there is no room for a reality outside of the objective.

Now, on that note, I want nothing more than to hark back to Kierkegaard’s views on the two “insanities,” one of which is objective madness: being so utterly enamored with and taken over by the objective world that subjectivity no longer matters. Subjectivity dies under the purview of scientism, as do mentalism, idealism, existentialism, and various other philosophies which assert the existence of subjective realities that can exist alongside objectivity. The death of subjectivity is a terrifying concept. It is not the business of science to become so imperialistic as to deny all other forms of knowledge and understanding as “pseudo-science” or flat-out wrong. Science is a beautiful tool that, alongside philosophical domains such as ethics, aesthetics and, yes, even metaphysics, helps to build upon humanity’s heritage of coming to terms with and understanding the world. If we are to leave it to science to determine what is ethically right or wrong (as Dawkins suggests, at least to a degree) via biology, neuroscience, etc., are we really doing morality a favor? How can science so finely tune our ideas as to tell us what is right and wrong in every sense or context? Or, more broadly, how can science truly distinguish being from non-being, or categorical ontologies? Take those presented by Sartre, who made a distinction between different types of “being,” describing the nature of being for objects and subjects as fundamentally different. For scientism, since there is no empirical evidence for these states in a purely objective world, Sartre is simply wrong. He doesn’t “keep up with science,” as Hawking would proudly assert.

How much of that notion is true? Is it a lack of scientific rigor that puts philosophy under the heels of scientism? Or, rather, is it a difference in description? A language game, that is. Scientism’s puerile dismissal of anything remotely “abstract” does an injustice to science itself!

Science is wonderful, but scientism is arrogant and perhaps even dangerous. (Read: technocracy.) Both science and philosophy have long engaged in dialectic and debate, and to simply sweep one or all disciplines from the playing field in order to usher in the dominance of one denies the real multitude of knowledge and truths that we have as a species.

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14 comments

  1. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

    I disagree with a lot of what you’ve written here, so rather than go through your post line-by-line, what I’d like to do is zero in on what I think is a fundamental place where the disagreement arises.

    You suggest that there are “other methods” of knowing, and I’m not sure I agree. It depends on exactly what you mean.

    As I use the terms, science is nothing more than a formalized kind of evidence-based inquiry, which is the method that, as far as I can tell, all humans use for acquiring knowledge: evidence-based inquiry is, quite simply, the application of reason to evidence. For example, when I concluded this morning that I was hungry, I used evidence-based inquiry to reach that conclusion: I surveyed the evidence available to me, applied reason to it, and reached a conclusion.

    As far as I’m aware, evidence-based inquiry is the *only* consistently reliable method humans have of obtaining knowledge.

    So to me, when you suggest that there are “other methods” of knowing, what it sounds like you’re saying is that there’s some different method – separate from evidence-based inquiry – by which humans can acquire knowledge, a different method that is also consistently reliable.

    I’d be very curious to hear you explain what one of these methods is and what makes you think it’s reliable.

    Elsewhere in your post, you suggest that the ideas of Krauss and Dawkins will lead to the “death of subjectivity.” I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I’m pretty confident that neither Krauss nor Dawkins would deny that subjective experience exists, and I’m also confident that neither would deny that subjective experience can be used in some instances as evidence for drawing valid conclusions (as I did when I concluded that I was hungry).

    I think what they would say – correctly – is that subjectivity is in many contexts unreliable because in those contexts it is often operating on incomplete evidence. A person might subjectively conclude that the sun orbits the earth, but he’d be wrong. Or a person might look at an optical illusion and judge that the lines are crooked when they are really straight.

    In those examples, the only way the person could figure out that his initial conclusion is wrong is through evidence-based inquiry: gathering *more* and better evidence.

    Love is the law, love under will.

    Best,
    Los

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    1. Hello, and thank you for your comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to read my post and write such a thorough and challenging reply.

      I thought a good deal about what you said. Here is my reply. I quoted a few parts of your comment:

      “You suggest that there are “other methods” of knowing, and I’m not sure I agree. It depends on exactly what you mean.”

      Science relies on empirical evidence to draw conclusions. Observations or measurements must be tested and falsified based on hypotheses. Empirical knowledge is knowledge a posteriori, whereas a priori knowledge is based on direct intuitive understanding, e.g. tautologies and mathematical proofs.

      “As far as I’m aware, evidence-based inquiry is the *only* consistently reliable method humans have of obtaining knowledge.

      So to me, when you suggest that there are “other methods” of knowing, what it sounds like you’re saying is that there’s some different method – separate from evidence-based inquiry – by which humans can acquire knowledge, a different method that is also consistently reliable.

      I’d be very curious to hear you explain what one of these methods is and what makes you think it’s reliable.”

      My contention is not with evidentialism. (Though I think there are theories of justification more subtle than one which deals merely with either evidence or the lack thereof. I’m not saying I subscribe to one view or another, but that it’s not quite as simple as that, in my opinion.) I also do not have a problem with materialism, physicalism, or naturalism (of a pragmatic sort) I may have mis-communicated. I am essentially at odds with the view of scientism, which champions empirical science as the only, or at least the best, method of investigation, while putting philosophical inquiry on the back burner.

      We may be arguing semantics, I’ll admit. “Science,” in the sense that I’m speaking of it here, deals with experiments, hypotheses, empirical observations, and falsifications. (You may see it differently.) I’m especially concerned with the physical sciences here, and—in dealing with scientism—the attempt to invalidate all metaphysics, and philosophy more broadly.

      “Elsewhere in your post, you suggest that the ideas of Krauss and Dawkins will lead to the “death of subjectivity.” I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I’m pretty confident that neither Krauss nor Dawkins would deny that subjective experience exists, and I’m also confident that neither would deny that subjective experience can be used in some instances as evidence for drawing valid conclusions (as I did when I concluded that I was hungry).”

      It’s not that they would deny subjective experience exists, or that it’s necessary for drawing conclusions based on evidence. It’s that they would deny the phenomenological reality of subjectivity as a kind of truth and being. The world, while it’s probably based in concrete objects, is not totally made up of them. (That’s at least my view.) People like Hawking and Krauss essentially have no interest in investigating ontology, as to them it’s meaningless.

      Under the purview of scientism, which purports itself as a kind of meta- or trans-philosophy, you have positivism to the detriment of existentialism, rigid science without investigation into the foundations that hold up that very science.

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  2. Hello, and thank you for your comment. I really appreciate you taking the time to read my post and write such a thorough and challenging reply.

    You’re welcome. It’s the kind of discussion that I enjoy having. Thanks to you as well for your response and for your mature tone.

    The first thing I’ll say right off the bat is that the primary challenge I posed to you has, I think, mostly gone unanswered, so I’ll state it again. I asked if you would explain one of the supposed “other methods” of knowing – besides evidence-based inquiry – and what makes you think it’s reliable.

    I did not see in your response a clear alternate method of knowing or a reason that you think the alternate method is reliable. You mentioned “direct intuitive understanding,” which I suppose is your alternate method (I think?), but you really didn’t explain it. You offered tautologies and mathematical proofs as examples of the fruits of this alternate method, but I think this answer needs a lot of unpacking.

    I don’t think I agree that tautologies or mathematical proofs are arrived at by “direct intuitive understanding.” You’d have to give some more explanation for me to know exactly what you intend here.

    But more important, I don’t think these examples challenge Krauss or Dawkins at all, because I’m pretty sure that if you asked them, they would both have no problem accepting tautologies and mathematical proofs.

    So basically, I’m still not understanding what “other methods” of knowing you think there are that Krauss and Dawkins are “excluding.”

    I am essentially at odds with the view of scientism, which champions empirical science as the only, or at least the best, method of investigation, while putting philosophical inquiry on the back burner.

    Well, then I don’t think Krauss or Dawkins – or really anybody – subscribes to scientism, so defined. For example, I’m pretty sure that Krauss doesn’t conduct a formal experiment in a laboratory in order to conclude that he is hungry and needs to eat lunch.

    I’ll put my cards on the table: I think “scientism” is a kind of meaningless term. I do not think that Krauss or Dawkins – or any serious thinker – actually thinks that empirical science (in the sense of formal laboratory experiments, hypotheses, falsifiability, etc.) is the only way to gain knowledge or the best way to gain knowledge in all situations. What I think Krauss and Dawkins would say is that science has demonstrated itself to be the most consistently reliable way to gain knowledge in a number of important contexts. Which is, of course, true.

    So because “scientism” appears largely to be a strawman that basically nobody in the world actually subscribes to, I find the term to not add very much to these kinds of conversations.

    At the end of the day, I think the substance of the issue is that some people claim that there are “other methods” of knowing things, aside from applying reason to evidence. I’m still waiting to hear what these other methods are and how one would know that they are reliable.

    There’s lots more in your post that I disagree with or question, but I’ll leave it there for the sake of streamlining the discussion.

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    1. “You offered tautologies and mathematical proofs as examples of the fruits of this alternate method, but I think this answer needs a lot of unpacking.

      I don’t think I agree that tautologies or mathematical proofs are arrived at by “direct intuitive understanding.” You’d have to give some more explanation for me to know exactly what you intend here.”

      Again, I make a distinction here between knowledge a priori and knowledge a posteriori. There are conclusions (based on empirical evidence), and then there are basic premises.

      A tautology, or a logical necessity (there’s some slight variation I won’t get into) requires no evidence, in the sense that one needn’t discover a separate object to fit into the equation so as to garner knowledge. A tautology is, by definition, true in all possible situations, and is in that sense self-referential, whereas the evidence-to-knowledge method we use for most situations in daily life (your example of being hungry, for instance), or in the more complex sciences, requires evidence as an interceding agent.

      A great example is the law of identity, which in a simplified way we can represent as “A=A”. This is self-referential, and requires no evidence beyond the necessary premise. Yet it is still knowable.

      To clarify, I do think evidence-based reasoning represents our best method of approximating truth. I apologize if I didn’t articulate this well enough (this paper was written in 2013, and as of now I myself would have written it differently), but “science” in the sense of evidence-based acquisition of knowledge is not the problem. The problem is denying any decent philosophical speculation on the premise that everything can be understood based on calculations made in a laboratory, looking at physical evidence without delving into abstract concepts and truths.

      What I said about Dawkins was that he is (famously) a so-called “New Atheist”. I don’t know his personal views. My issue is with the hardline naturalist/materialist rhetoric and ideology that comes out of New Atheism–one which makes little room for metaphysical speculation, and is quick to consider it meaningless. It smacks of the positivist idea of what constitutes the “cognitively meaningful”. Again, I used Prof. Dawkins as an example of a person within the New Atheist movement. I wasn’t speaking of his specific views, which I know less of than, say, Hitchens, Krauss, or Hawking.

      “Well, then I don’t think Krauss or Dawkins – or really anybody – subscribes to scientism, so defined. For example, I’m pretty sure that Krauss doesn’t conduct a formal experiment in a laboratory in order to conclude that he is hungry and needs to eat lunch.”

      I don’t think anyone’s actually “subscribed” to scientism as if it’s some sort of organized movement that one can join. As a phrase it expresses something more broad. We’re looking at an almost dogmatic endorsement of science (and often the physical sciences) as constituting a near-worldview, with an often reductionist approach, to the detriment of other methods of exploration. That’s not to say the scientific method is not useful, but that the disregard for the metaphysical is really a change in narrative, and not so much an attempt at intellectual honesty.

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  3. Again, I make a distinction here between knowledge a priori and knowledge a posteriori. There are conclusions (based on empirical evidence), and then there are basic premises. […]A great example is the law of identity, which in a simplified way we can represent as “A=A”.

    Okay. So, let’s use your answer here to return to my question about the “other methods” of knowing that you think Krauss and Dawkins are “excluding.” Putting together a number of things you’ve said in your responses, I think the point that you’re trying to make would run something like this: “Evidence-based inquiry is one way of knowing things, but another way of knowing things – one that Krauss and Dawkins exclude – is direct intuitive perception, which is a method by which we know, for example, the laws of thought.”

    Is this what you’re claiming? If so, I have a number of objections.

    1. I’d hesitate to call the laws of thought “knowledge” in the same sense that we can say it’s “knowledge” for me to know that I’m hungry. As you say, the laws of thought are premises or assumptions. They are assumed, out of necessity, as the starting point of thinking.

    (As an aside, I did a long blog post about the laws of thought in which I argue that “assumption” is a misleading thing to call them…they’re more like our statement of the Way Things Are, the brute facts about reality that shape our thinking)

    2. Even if assumptions like the laws of thought could be called “knowledge,” I dispute that we come to them by “direct intuitive perception.” The laws of thought appear to be our attempt to express our understanding of the Way Things Are. [And if you’re going to object that the processes of “understanding” and “expressing” are dependent upon the laws of thought, I would respond that these processes are not dependent on the understander or expresser first consciously formulating those laws]

    3. Even if I were to grant that “direct intuitive perception” is an alternate method of gaining “knowledge,” I don’t think this example actually opposes Krauss or Dawkins because I’m pretty sure that both of them accept the laws of thought. You specifically referred to them “excluding” “other methods” of knowing, citing the laws of thought as an example, but since they almost certainly accept the laws of thought, something is wrong with your claim. So I’m still baffled as to what “other methods” you think they are specifically “excluding.”

    To clarify, I do think evidence-based reasoning represents our best method of approximating truth.

    That was clear. I’m not accusing you of not valuing evidence-based inquiry. I’m specifically interested in what “other methods” of knowing that you think there are, methods that you think that this thing called “scientism” is “excluding.”

    My issue is with the hardline naturalist/materialist rhetoric and ideology that comes out of New Atheism–one which makes little room for metaphysical speculation, and is quick to consider it meaningless […] an almost dogmatic endorsement of science […] to the detriment of other methods of exploration

    There you go with “other methods” again. Like what?

    I don’t see “near dogmatism” on the part of Krauss and Dawkins. I think it’s a pretty huge strawman to imply that they absolutely discount “other methods” of knowing out of some dogmatic commitment. I see them as recognizing that evidence-based inquiry is the only consistently reliable method that humans have of obtaining evidence, and I see them as recognizing that science – a formalized version of evidence-based inquiry – is the most reliable method in a lot of situations. I strongly think that the reason they don’t accept “other methods” of knowing is that no other method of gaining knowledge has been demonstrated to be consistently reliable.

    Maybe we can try to make this conversation more clear with this question: can you name something that you think is true but that Krauss or Dawkins probably would not accept as true, something that you’ve arrived at by an “other method” of knowing that you think these scientists dogmatically “exclude”?

    If you’re going to say something like Sartre’s ideas about modes of being, I would dispute that something like that constitutes knowledge: ideas like those are more like models for conceptualizing the world; they’re not factual knowledge about the world, in the sense of my knowing that I’m hungry.

    I’m beginning to suspect that you’re ascribing too much to Krauss and Dawkins’s (and Hawking’s) use of the word “philosophy.” When they champion science over the speculations of philosophers, I’m pretty sure they’re not denying everything ever said by every single philosopher in history. For example, I don’t think they’re chucking out the laws of thought. I think what they’re saying is something a lot closer to, “The answers to factual questions – like the question of the origin of the universe – aren’t going to be arrived at by sitting around and speculating on the basis of no evidence. They’re going to be solved by acquiring evidence and applying reason to that evidence.”

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    1. Your main issue seems to be with the phrase “other methods of knowing.” To be clear, by this I mean more of “other methods of framing knowledge and intuition.” Maybe that’s bad articulation on my part. You put it better as “conceptualizing” the world. I think that is more like what I’m trying to get at here.

      No, Krauss and Dawkins wouldn’t deny logical premises. (I use the term “direct intuitive perception,” and you seem to take issue with this, as well. I think it’s become an issue of semantics. Whether we call it that or anything else, the basic idea is that there is evidence based inquiry and knowledge, and then there are first premises.) What they would deny is the framing of knowledge in a metaphysical way.

      You’re a Thelemite, so let’s go with that. You may see Nuit as a representation of the cosmos, all-and-everything, unbridled expansion, or infinity. Similarly, you may see Hadit as monad, quantum, or Primum Mobile. If you tried to explain to, say, Krauss why this may be a useful way to frame metaphysical concepts or cosmic principles, and that the system built (in part) on these principles is spiritually meaningful, useful, and accessible, do you really think his reaction would be one of praise? No. Because metaphysics is considered useless speculation under the purview of a scientistical and positivistic view. Even though you aren’t going beyond evidence and intuition by framing your understanding of the world in such a way, it would be considered a mystification.

      Again, I’m not trying to make claims about Dawkins as an individual so much as use him as an example of the philosophical-scientific milieu he’s a part of. The first time I mention him, I use him as an example of the New Atheist movement. The second time, I mention that he thinks biology will provide the best insights into morality, and puts philosophy on the back burner.

      I mention that Krauss rejects how philosophers “impose their definition of reality abstractly,” and doesn’t realize that that kind abstraction is what expands our dialogue about, and imagines a fuller range of possibilities of, the cosmos. His very view about philosophy is itself grounded in philosophy.

      “Maybe we can try to make this conversation more clear with this question: can you name something that you think is true but that Krauss or Dawkins probably would not accept as true, something that you’ve arrived at by an “other method” of knowing that you think these scientists dogmatically “exclude”?”

      No. I don’t think there is anything I’ve ever arrived at through another method of knowing. I have, however, framed my understanding of the world in metaphysical ways. For instance, I don’t think there is an ultimate self (the Buddhist anatta), and that this implies a transcendent unity that conscious beings have with the entire universe. Though this is a sensible way to look at life, I think Krauss or Dawkins would dismiss a conceptualization like that as “woo-woo,” because, even though it doesn’t go against the evidence, it is conceptualized in a way that sounds flamboyantly mystical to some.

      “The answers to factual questions – like the question of the origin of the universe – aren’t going to be arrived at by sitting around and speculating on the basis of no evidence. They’re going to be solved by acquiring evidence and applying reason to that evidence.”

      Not all questions about the universe can be met with concrete answers. We deal with abstracts here and there. If anything, metaphysics is useful in that it provides an imaginative and intuitive dialogue over the places that physics either cannot go, or has not yet gone. It opens the space for further exploration by physics, or it bridges the gap in an abstract way.

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  4. Krauss and Dawkins […] would deny […] the framing of knowledge in a metaphysical way. […] If you tried to explain to, say, Krauss why [Thelema] may be a useful way to frame metaphysical concepts or cosmic principles, and that the system built (in part) on these principles is spiritually meaningful, useful, and accessible, do you really think his reaction would be one of praise? No. Because metaphysics is considered useless speculation under the purview of a scientistical and positivistic view.

    If I were to explain my take on Thelema to Krauss and Dawkins, I’d start by stressing that I don’t accept any supernatural claims about the universe, that I am a “materialist” in the sense that I don’t think there’s any good evidence for the existence of any worlds besides the physical one, that I think evidence-based inquiry is the only consistently reliable method of gaining knowledge that we currently have, that science is the most precise and reliable kind of evidence-based inquiry that we currently know, and that I would very strongly guess that I would agree with just about everything that Krauss and Dawkins consider to be demonstrable facts about the universe.

    I would then add that I view Thelema as a collection of useful metaphors and convenient terminology that can be used to conceptualize and talk about actual, demonstrable stuff in the universe. I view Thelema as a personally useful and uplifting lens through which to look at actual and demonstrable stuff, and I do not consider Thelema to be a series of factual claims about supposedly non-natural, non-demonstrable entities or forces.

    If I presented Thelema to them this way, I wouldn’t expect them to take too much of an issue with a person privately using metaphors and idiosyncratic terminology to think about actual, demonstrable things. Dawkins has expressed deep admiration for Shakespeare and Keats, Krauss has waxed poetically about the stars, Sam Harris practices meditation and thinks that science supports a lot of Buddhist ideas, etc. I think virtually any educated person would understand, at least theoretically, the advantages of using art as a lens through which to conceive reality, even if that person, himself, wouldn’t be inclined to use that particular metaphor.

    Krauss and Dawkins might, however, express some caution about the religious-y language that Thelema adopts, raising the point that if I’m going to insist on talking about actual, demonstrable things in woo-woo language, I run the risk of confusing people about what I mean or even unwittingly encouraging supernaturalists. And they might have a point there. Their objections would lead to a conversation worth having, a conversation about how useful a particular metaphor is, what the limits of that metaphor are, the need to be aware that a metaphor is just a metaphor, and the dangers that come when people start buying into their favorite metaphors. I do not think that they would launch these objections out of “dogmatism”; rather, I think that their objections would be grounded in articulate, cogent, and thoughtful arguments that would be worth considering.

    [Dawkins] thinks biology will provide the best insights into morality, and puts philosophy on the back burner.

    Well, biology might very well provide the best insights into morality. There’s an interesting book by Sam Harris on the subject of morality, looking at how science might be the key to solving some philosophical problems.

    Again, I don’t see such proposals emerging from a dogmatic commitment to science. I see a scientist like Harris (I’ll use him as the example since he wrote that specific book) taking the most consistently reliable tool that humans currently have for gaining knowledge – a tool that Harris is an expert in – and seeing whether it will lead to insights into, for instance, the optimal ways for humans to behave.

    I’m not saying that Harris’s idea that science can address morality is necessarily correct (when it comes to morality, I would dispute whether moral claims are “knowledge” at all, depending on the definitions). I’m saying that Harris’s idea is grounded in cogent and thoughtful arguments – not “dogmatism” – and it opens up conversations worth having.

    I think it’s a great disservice to the ideas to write them off as the products of “dogmatism.”

    I have, however, framed my understanding of the world in metaphysical ways. For instance, I don’t think there is an ultimate self (the Buddhist anatta), and that this implies a transcendent unity that conscious beings have with the entire universe. Though this is a sensible way to look at life, I think Krauss or Dawkins would dismiss a conceptualization like that as “woo-woo,” because, even though it doesn’t go against the evidence, it is conceptualized in a way that sounds flamboyantly mystical to some.

    I don’t think I agree that conscious beings have a “transcendent unity” with the entire universe. You’d have to define what you mean by that, of course. And if what you mean by it is just a metaphor for describing facts that we can discover through evidence-based inquiry, I imagine that Krauss and Dawkins *would* think that you’re phrasing that idea in an unnecessarily obfuscatory way, and I’d probably agree with them.

    The words “transcendent unity” don’t even comprise a good metaphor. It sounds more like a vague description of a feeling than anything else.

    Not all questions about the universe can be met with concrete answers. We deal with abstracts here and there.

    I’m not sure what you mean. I had just said that factual questions about the universe are going to be solved by applying reason to evidence. And you responded by suddenly introducing the terminology “concrete” and “abstract” here. I don’t see what you mean by “abstract” in this context and how you think it’s related to evidence-based inquiry. What would be an example of an “abstract” answer to a factual question like the origin of the universe, and how would such an “abstract” answer be arrived at other than applying reason to evidence?

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    1. Hi there. Sorry for such a late reply. I have been busy with college for the past few months and I’ve neglected to update my blog and such.

      Looking over this thread of comments, and especially your latest reply, I think that we actually agree more than disagree on this issue. I, too, think of Thelema, as well as Zen Buddhism, Discordianism, Taoism, etc. as providing useful metaphors for philosophical principles. I do not—or at least I’m quite wary of—attributing supernatural explanations to things, or accepting supernatural phenomena. I think we’re both evidentialists, ultimately.

      If, as you say, Krauss, Dawkins, etc. would accept some form of philosophy as useful—spiritually speaking—without violating intellectual honesty, I’d have no issue.

      But the problem lies, I think, in throwing out the baby with the dirty water. We have to entertain different possibilities, even if we don’t accept them. We also have to understand the subtleties and discrepancies of language. We have to understand that some ideas might be worth accepting (or at least entertaining, as I say) not so much for how “true” they are, but because they are useful. There’s no way to prove the literal—”concrete”—existence of, say, Hadit, but Hadit may be a useful metaphor for conceptualizing (“abstract”) the cosmos.

      By “transcendent unity” I mean (in the sense of the Buddhist anatta) whatever is in human nature that is the same in (and hence “connects” us to) the cosmos. And yes, it is a feeling—though to be fair all philosophy is some kind of conceptualization, i.e. thought or feeling.

      Maybe it is, however, “obfuscatory language,” as you say. In any case, I think that ultimately a person can accept evidence and reason as arbiters of truth (or at least what we can approach as truth) while entertaining other metaphysical notions, without being unreasonable.

      I don’t think there’s (probably) an abstract answer to concrete questions such as “What is the origin of the universe?”, “What is 1+1?”, or “What time is it?”

      When we ask questions like, “What is enlightenment?” or “What is the meaning of life?” we open ourselves up to more abstract possibilities, and a multiplicity of “truth”.

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  5. Sorry for such a late reply. I have been busy

    Not a problem. There’s no need to apologize. I prefer conversations to be leisurely and well-thought-out (as opposed to be rushed and full of half-baked ideas). Feel free to respond whenever you have time, and you can rest assured that I will do the same.

    the problem lies, I think, in throwing out the baby with the dirty water.

    I think I’m a little lost in our conversation. Remember that our discussion started when you claimed that certain prominent atheists are proponents of something called “scientism” and that they “shut out” “other ways of knowing.” In response, I argued that pretty much nobody advocates “scientism,” as you define it, and that — after pressing you to get you to explain what you’re talking about — there actually aren’t other ways of “knowing” that anybody is “shutting out” of anything. Further, I argued that the people you were talking about aren’t operating out of a “dogmatic” position but rather operating out of reasonable objections they had to unsupported beliefs and implementation of those beliefs.

    I’m unclear on something: did I persuade you to agree with me on these points? If not, then there’s more meat for a fruitful conversation here if you can explain why you still disagree.

    We have to entertain different possibilities, even if we don’t accept them.

    This is yet another example of what I consider to be you fighting against imaginary positions. Who has ever said that nobody should even *entertain* possibilities? Art, technology, science, and many more pursuits of humanity rely upon entertaining possibilities. Science starts from creating hypotheses by *entertaining* ideas induced through observations: then one goes out and tries to obtain *evidence* to support those ideas (or, rather, to falsify those ideas).

    Nobody is suggesting that one should “never entertain any possibilities.” But some people — me, for example — are indeed suggesting that some specific ideas (the idea that all conscious beings have “transcendent unity with the universe,” for example) are incoherent and generally unhelpful.

    There’s no way to prove the literal—”concrete”—existence of, say, Hadit, but Hadit may be a useful metaphor for conceptualizing (“abstract”) the cosmos.

    Even in Thelemic cosmogony, Hadit doesn’t “exist,” per se. Hadit and Nuit are potentials, the basis of manifestation: they signify any potential point of view and any possibility that a point of view can experience. Every event is an actual manifestation of those two potentials coming together.

    Nothing about these ideas loses anything when we admit that we’re not talking about actual gods. Even Crowley himself in the introduction to the Book of the Law calls the gods figures of “literary convenience” that symbolize ideas.

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    1. I think that you persuaded me to re-assess my own beliefs, yes. Also, I think a bit of this debate has been “lost in translation,” so to speak. I don’t want this to devolve into an argument of semantics, as I think that the both of us actually agree more than we perhaps realize. The issue is, of course, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and figure out the points that we agree on, and those that we don’t, and furthermore how we get at these ideas using particular phrases or metaphors. I think that an extenuated debate like this can easily become a language game, to the detriment of clarifying finer points.

      I also agree that I myself am a bit lost in our conversation. Like I said, the length and time between replies (largely because of my own hectic schedule) has maybe made us lose a bit of the original context of this conversation. That’s OK, though. I think we can get back on topic here.

      Yes, the way we started was with the “other ways of knowing,” and the issue of scientism, of course.

      To clarify my position on the “knowing” bit, I agree that empirical, evidence-based deduction is basically our main method of knowing, or at least giving ourselves impressions of the “known.” (I don’t want to go off topic here, but I will say, as I’ve said earlier, that knowledge and truth are tentative in their own ways, and can only be approximated, so to speak. This is a position I still hold to, in the spirit of Pyrrhonism, skepticism, or Cratylism—not to get too wordy—or basically just because I’m a bit of an epistemological nihilist. Anyway, it appears that the best way to get closest to most “truths” is through evidence-based deduction.) I think that, if you want to categorize it differently, another “way of knowing” may be based on intuition, or insight, which allows us to access basic premises. As I’ve mentioned before, many (or at least some) of these are basically logical necessities, like “A=A”, etc.

      Now, this was admittedly a rushed essay when I wrote it, and I wrote it for a philosophy class—on existentialism—several years ago. My knowledge and understanding of philosophy, and my style of writing, have changed since then. The “other ways of knowing” that I spoke of was mostly my attempt at identifying metaphysical or ontological speculation. Perhaps I’ve unfairly assumed this of Dawkins and his cohorts, but among a number of thinkers who have similar philosophies (i.e. the logical positivists), metaphysics is shut out completely from the debate, and regarded as non-meaningful. Now, to be fair to Dawkins and the New Atheists, many logical positivists would say that even discussing God, or metaphysics (more broadly), may be a useless endeavor, and so atheism itself—as a topic of discussion—may merely serve to extend a useless debate. That being said, perhaps it is not fair to characterize the New Atheists as positivists, considering that they are willing to discuss at least one element of metaphysics. That is, God.

      According to Encyclopedia Britannica:

      “Positivism, in Western philosophy, generally, any system that confines itself to the data of experience and excludes a priori or metaphysical speculations.”

      A positivist, needless to say, would consider even your use of metaphors (Hadit, Nuit, etc.) useless because metaphysics itself is useless, according to positivism.

      I argue that Dawkins sometimes (more so than Harris, who is at least open to more metaphysical possibilities) falls into this trap of equating “metaphysical” with “supernatural.” These words, in fact, do not signify the same thing.

      What you may perceive as incoherent, i.e. “transcendent unity” can actually be quite understandable, and useful. I use this phrase to signify a metaphysical potential, and you seem to take issue with it, calling it incoherent. However, you immediately go on to use “Hadit” and “Nuit” to signify metaphysical potentials yourself, but consider these coherent. The essence of these ideas is the same—metaphysics, as opposed to something found in physical data.

      I understand perfectly well that Crowley regarded the Thelemic pantheon as “literary conveniences,” and I agree with that notion.

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      1. This may indeed be a case of us being in violent agreement with each other. I’m pretty sure that we agree on much more than we disagree, and I think our disagreements are slight and/or perhaps primarily disagreements in terminology, rather than substance.

        If it’s true that our disagreements are largely about terminology, I think having a semantic discussion is actually quite useful. Many people try to dismiss semantics as a waste of time, but I personally think that being clear about what we’re talking about is vitally important in a conversation.

        Below I’ve responded to some of your specific points.

        knowledge and truth are tentative in their own ways, and can only be approximated, so to speak

        Agreed. When I say that I “know” something, I just mean that I think it’s really likely, based on the evidence currently available.

        another “way of knowing” may be based on intuition, or insight, which allows us to access basic premises. As I’ve mentioned before, many (or at least some) of these are basically logical necessities, like “A=A”, etc.

        As I said earlier, I think you’re equivocating on the word “knowing.” The laws of thought aren’t “knowledge” in the same sense in which someone can say, “I know the bus comes every day at 8:00.” The laws of thought are *presuppositions*, statements assumed out of necessity to make thought (and therefore knowledge) possible. [As I also said earlier, I would characterize these laws as things we *assume*, not things that we gain “access” to]

        And again, I’m almost certain that Krauss and Dawkins would tell you that they accept the laws of thought. I don’t know any serious thinker who would deny these laws, not least because the act of denial *depends* upon these very laws.

        The “other ways of knowing” that I spoke of was mostly my attempt at identifying metaphysical or ontological speculation.

        Well, I think the phrase “other ways of knowing” is too vague, and I think that the phrase “metaphysical or ontological speculation” is waaay too vague. I think what’s happening in your post is that you’re equivocating on the word “metaphysical,” using it too broadly to sum up too many disparate ideas.

        Let me try to explain in more detail with an example: I do not consider my usage of the Nuit and Hadit metaphors to be any kind of “metaphysical or ontological speculation.” I said earlier that Nuit is a metaphor (a word picture) symbolizing all possibilities. It doesn’t strike me as “speculation” to say that possibilities exist. As an illustration: let’s say that I give you two six-sided dice and tell you to roll them. There are obviously possibilities for what you can roll. We can demonstrate that this is the case, and we can analyze those possibilities. We can even calculate which possibility is most likely to happen (hint: bet on seven).

        Now, look, I guess you could *call* possibilities “metaphysical” in the sense that it’s an abstract idea (I can’t wrap my knuckles against the idea of possibility), but it’s disingenuous to say that it’s “metaphysical” in the same way that “transcendent unity with the universe” is “metaphysical.” The ideas aren’t in the same ballpark. Possibility is something that can be demonstrated and whose probability can be quantified, and which obviously exists. “Transcendent unity” is a very vague phrase that could mean a lot of different things.

        We might even say that the sentence “All conscious beings have transcendent unity with the universe” is a “deepity,” to use Dan Dennett’s formulation: to the extent that it’s true, it’s trivial (“I’m made of atoms…and so is everything else!”); to the extent that it’s profound, it’s false (“Hey…I *am* the universe, and the universe is *me*!”).

        In other words, my metaphors and your idea of “transcendent unity” are very, very different *kinds* of things, and to slap the label “metaphysics” on both of them is unhelpful. It’s even more unhelpful to suggest that judging one of these things to be BS is therefore a rejection of the other (just because one could give them the same label).

        The more I think about it, the more convinced I’m becoming that this is a general flaw in your thinking: you seem to pay more attention to labels and categories than the things *in* those categories. For example, when Dawkins dismisses “philosophy,” you get all up in arms because you assume he’s therefore dismissing all the things you lump into the category “philosophy.” But it’s not necessarily the case that what *he* means by “philosophy” is what *you* mean by “philosophy.”

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      2. Perhaps you’re right in saying that “metaphysical” is too broad a term… at least in the way I’m using it here. There is, in one sense, the “metaphysical” of literally being beyond, above, or preceding the physical. (The closest to this we can come, I think, with a real-world example, is with abstract concepts, i.e. ideas, or numbers, etc.) There is also the “metaphysical” in the sense of something that, while it transcends the physical (in some sense), also includes it or precludes or causes it. (i.e. “God”, Tao, etc. Perhaps that so-called “transcendent unity”… things which smack of the mystical or spiritual.)

        I’m not sure that the “deepity” you present here is trivial… only redundant. That doesn’t invalidate the truth of saying “I’m made of atoms… and so is everything else!” That’s a true statement, as far as we can tell. (When it comes to matter, anyway. Well, I’m by no means a physicist, in any case.) And such a statement can be important, in that it opens up new perspectives, such as the following “Hey… I *am* the universe, and the universe is *me*!” That’s not a false statement, per se, but rather a matter of either, or both, perspective and semantics. I think it largely depends on your philosophical view of what constitutes identity. (If you follow the Buddha’s line of thought, causes and conditions cannot be separated from identity, or the designation of identity, anyway.) But this is another matter.

        The dismissal of something as “false” simply because it seems vague or overly-“profound” smacks very much of the logical positivism which I set out against in the first place.

        On this note, Encyclopaedia Brittanica states:

        “Logical positivism differs from earlier forms of empiricism and positivism (e.g., that of David Hume and Ernst Mach) in holding that the ultimate basis of knowledge rests upon public experimental verification or confirmation rather than upon personal experience. It differs from the philosophies of Auguste Comte and John Stuart Mill in holding that metaphysical doctrines are not false but meaningless—that the “great unanswerable questions” about substance, causality, freedom, and God are unanswerable just because they are not genuine questions at all. This last is a thesis about language, not about nature, and is based upon a general account of meaning and of meaninglessness. All genuine philosophy (according to the group that came to be called the Vienna Circle) is a critique of language, and (according to some of its leading members) its result is to show the unity of science—that all genuine knowledge about nature can be expressed in a single language common to all the sciences.”

        {http://www.britannica.com/topic/logical-positivism}

        This sort of thinking seems dismissive and rigid to me. I don’t think it’s helpful, philosophically, as it presents an unwavering form of meta-philosophy which makes little room for innovation. As philosophy (at least the way I see it) is open-ended (very much like science), I think perspectivism is what is needed.

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      3. Furthermore:

        Yes, I do pay quite a lot of attention to labels and categories. And, while you may feel that I speak vaguely (and sometimes I would argue it’s necessary, considering that nature of the subject[s] we’re dealing with), I actually do respect clarity and correct use of language.

        What does Dawkins mean by “philosophy”? Well, he hasn’t written much about it himself, as far as I can tell, though he likes to play at being a bona fide philosopher. That’s not to say he isn’t a brilliant scientist… but his attempts at philosophy can, at times, be shoddy. He makes certain assumptions that I disagree with.

        It’s interesting to see this included on the website for his foundation: https://richarddawkins.net/2014/07/im-calling-for-an-end-to-the-philosophy-of-religion-as-a-discipline-in-secular-universities/

        Now, I don’t know about you, but my philosophy of religion course actually taught me more about logic and empiricism than any of my other philosophy courses to date.

        He has also personally Tweeted: “Philosophers’ historic failure to anticipate Darwin is a severe indictment of philosophy. Happy Darwin Day!”

        (https://twitter.com/richarddawkins/status/433519270102708224)

        I can’t think of a more non-sensical statement.

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  6. The dismissal of something as “false” simply because it seems vague or overly-“profound” smacks very much of the logical positivism

    To be clear, I objected to the statement “I am the universe, and the universe is me” not because it was vague but because it is a demonstrably false statement. The words “I” and “universe” refer to two distinct things.

    It sounds to me like you’re mixing up a number of ideas. It is true that the sense of “selfhood” – i.e. the subjective feeling of being separate from our experiences – appears to be an illusion generated by our brains (an illusion that we can suspend with certain practices). It is also true that the boundaries of individuality are, to a large degree, arbitrary. Neither of those facts can be summarized as “I am the universe,” and neither of those facts contradicts the obvious fact that there are distinct individuals who are each a specific subset of the totality of the universe.

    To return to the subject of vague statements, it’s not so much that I “dismiss” vague statements simply because I have some sort of bias against vagueness: it’s that if a statement is sufficiently vague, I can’t figure out what it means, and therefore I have no way to know if it is true. By definition, I can’t accept as true a statement I don’t comprehend.

    So if you tell me something vague – like “I have transcendent unity with the universe” – and if I don’t know what it means, I can’t possibly think it’s true. That’s not to say it’s necessarily false – it just means I don’t have any reason to think it’s true…and, because its meaning isn’t clear, I strongly suspect that nobody else has reason to think it’s true, either. As always, I’m willing to be convinced.

    my philosophy of religion course actually taught me more about logic and empiricism than any of my other philosophy courses to date

    Well, I’m not going to defend everything Dawkins has ever said – my initial point was simply about your charge of “scientism,” which seems to me to be a broad, misleading, and largely useless word.

    As far as “philosophy of religion” goes, my impression is that Dawkins disagrees that the *content* of the subject of theology deals with actual facts. Whether that’s true or not is entirely separate from whether or not philosophy of religion courses help students learn logic. I would argue that *any* college course that deals with writing and constructing arguments could potentially teach someone a lot about logic and empiricism; that fact is entirely separate from whether the *subject* of the course is worthwhile.

    If I’m remembering correctly, Dawkins compares deeply studying theology to studying fairyology: one could, after all, study the beliefs that people have about fairies and learn about the alleged shape and size of fairy wings, etc. But his point is that this would not constitute actual knowledge and wouldn’t be a real or worthwhile subject because the subject matter is pure fantasy.

    Whether Dawkins is right on that point is a separate issue, one that I feel would take us pretty far afield of our current discussion and one that depends – surprise – on exactly what is meant by “philosophy of religion.”

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