A New Political Dialectic
~ by Christopher Carr
Jackson Lears has a riveting piece up at the Nation which soundly routs the new parapositivism taking the popular and newspaper science cultures by storm. The piece is called “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris”. It’s a takedown of Harris couched within a takedown of the New Atheist conceptual framework couched within a takedown of a positivism which oversteps its bounds. Freddie deBoer recently praised the piece:
I think that absolutely everyone should read this profoundly necessary evisceration of Sam Harris, the Moe of the New Atheist Three Stooges, written by Jackson Lears and published by the Nation. It may be my favorite essay published this year; it goes well beyond the usual stalking horses of New Atheism and speaks to some of the fundamental analytical and ethical issues confronting our species, particularly when it comes to progress and the limits of knowledge. Read the whole thing, seriously.
While I would characterize Sam Harris as more of a Shemp, I strongly second deBoer’s recommendation. In general, Lears’s piece is an important and exhaustive work, which, in addition to exposing the New Atheist conceptual framework as confused and reductionist, provides much factual background necessary to participate in public discussion:
Atheism has always been a tough sell in the United States. In Europe, where for centuries religious authority was intertwined with government power, atheists were heroic dissenters against the unholy alliance of church and state. In the United States, where the two realms are constitutionally separate, Protestant Christianity suffused public discourse so completely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that some positivists felt the need to paper over their differences with religion. US politics has frequently been flooded by waves of Christian fervor. Sometimes religion has bolstered the forces of political sanctimony and persecution, as with Prohibition in the 1920s and anticommunism during the cold war; but it has also encouraged dissenters to speak truth to power—to abolish slavery, to regulate capitalism, to end the Vietnam War.
The Christian right, which had risen to prominence in the late twentieth century, provided an unprecedented target for New Atheists’ barbs. Here was a particularly noxious form of religion in American politics—more dangerous than the bland piety of politicians or the ad nauseam repetition of “God Bless America.” From the Reagan administration to that of George W. Bush, the Christian right succeeded in shifting political debates from issues of justice and equality to moral and cultural questions, often persuading working-class voters to cast ballots for candidates whose policies undercut their economic interests. Rage about abortion and same-sex marriage drowned out discussion of job security and tax equity. Fundamentalist Christians denied global warming and helped to derail federal funding for stem-cell research. Most catastrophically, they supplied the language of Providence that sanctified Bush’s “war on terror” as a moral crusade.
Of course, none of this speaks to the existence or nonexistence of God, but it is important to note that Harris et al. are not representative of atheism, nor are they representative of science:
The midcentury demise of positivism was a consequence of intellectual advances as well as geopolitical disasters. The work of Franz Boas, Claude Lévi-Strauss and other anthropologists promoted a relativistic understanding of culture, which undercut scientific racism and challenged imperial arrogance toward peoples who lagged behind in the Western march of progress. Meanwhile, scientists in disciplines ranging from depth psychology to quantum physics were discovering a physical reality that defied precise definition as well as efforts to reduce it to predictable laws. Sociologists of knowledge, along with historians and philosophers of science (including Karl Mannheim, Peter Berger and Thomas Kuhn), all emphasized the provisionality of scientific truth, its dependence on a shifting expert consensus that could change or even dissolve outright in light of new evidence. Reality—or at least our apprehension of it—could be said to be socially constructed. This meant that our understanding of the physical world is contingent on the very things—the methods of measurement, the interests of the observer—required to apprehend it.
None of this ferment discredited the role of science as a practical means of promoting human well-being: midcentury laboratories produced vaccines and sulfa drugs as well as nuclear weapons. Nor did it prove the existence (or even the possibility) of God, as apologists for religion sometimes claimed. But it did undermine the positivist faith in science as a source of absolute certainty and moral good. As ethical guides, scientists had proved to be no more reliable than anyone else. Apart from a few Strangelovian thinkers (the physicist Edward Teller comes to mind), scientists retreated from making ethical or political pronouncements in the name of science.
This brings us to the blending of the fact/values distinction for which Harris is notorious:
More commonly, though, Harris depends on the MPFC to make more provocative claims. He says nothing about the pool of test subjects or the methods used to evaluate evidence in these experiments. Instead he argues by assertion. As he writes, “involvement of the MPFC in belief processing…suggests that the physiology of belief may be the same regardless of a proposition’s content. It also suggests that the division between facts and values does not make much sense in terms of underlying brain function.” This is uncontroversial but beside the point. The nub of the matter is not the evaluation of the fact-value divide “in terms of underlying brain function” but the conscious fashioning of morality. Harris is undaunted. He asks, “If, from the point of view of the brain, believing ‘the sun is a star’ is importantly similar to believing ‘cruelty is wrong,’ how can we say that scientific and ethical judgments have nothing in common?” But can the brain be said to have a “point of view”? If so, is it relevant to morality?
There is a fundamental reductionist confusion here: the same biological origin does not constitute the same cultural or moral significance. In fact, one could argue, Harris shows that the brain cannot distinguish between facts and values, and that the elusive process of moral reasoning is not reducible to the results of neuroimaging. All we are seeing, here and elsewhere, is that “brain activity” increases or decreases in certain regions of the brain during certain kinds of experiences—a finding so vague as to be meaningless. Yet Harris presses forward to a grandiose and unwarranted conclusion: if the fact-value distinction “does not exist as a matter of human cognition”—that is, measurable brain activity—then science can one day answer the “most pressing questions of human existence”: Why do we suffer? How can we be happy? And is it possible to love our neighbor as ourselves?
Finally, Lears’s conclusion is one of the more compelling descriptions of our era I’ve come across:
Maybe this explains why Harris remains an optimist despite all the “dangerously retrograde” orthodoxies on the loose. Moral progress is unmistakable, he believes, at least in “the developed world.” His chief example is how far “we” have moved beyond racism. Even if one accepts this flimsy assertion, the inconvenient historical fact is that, intellectually at least, racism was undone not by positivistic science, which underwrote it, but by the cultural relativism Harris despises. Ultimately his claims for moral progress range more widely, as he reports that “we” in “the developed world” are increasingly “disturbed by our capacity to do one another harm.” What planet does this man live on? Besides our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, “we” in the United States are engaged in a massive retreat from the welfare state and from any notion that we have a responsibility to one another or to a larger public good that transcends private gain. This retreat has little to do with Islamic radicalism or the militant piety of the Christian right, though the latter does remain a major obstacle to informed debate. The problem in this case is not religion. Despite the fundamental (or perhaps even innate) decency of most people, our political and popular culture does little to encourage altruism [emphasis mine]. The dominant religion of our time is the worship of money, and the dominant ethic is “To hell with you and hooray for me.”
I find myself largely comfortable with the main flow of Lears’s essay, from his characterization of the unique complexities of atheism in the United States to his takedown of Harris’s reductionism (thankfully using science itself) to his diagnosis of the primary social problem in the United States being an individualism grossly mutated into selfishness. However, there is one current running throughout the essay – almost ubiquitous in materials from the left these days – that I must take issue with.Just as liberals today seem to lack the necessary imaginative faculties to understand the support of young people for a candidate like Ron Paul, Lears finds it unfathomably strange and monstrous that young people in the sixties would have supported the Goldwater campaign or libertarian causes; Lears’s incredulousness is for reasons that are apparently just so obvious to the Nation‘s readership that they remain unexplained:
What could be more ludicrous than the spectacle of young people embracing an old reactionary who wanted to repeal the New Deal? One might as well try to revive corsets and spats.
Lears then proceeds to link Goldwater and his Republicans to the kind of positivism exhibited by Sam Harris. This link is established by virtue of only the coeval existence of that nascent philosophical movement and what Lears baselessly asserts to be Goldwater’s yearned-for sweet golden age of policy before the New Deal, when twelve-year-old chimney sweeps died in the cold from tuberculosis while fat cats spent all day and night polishing their mountains of gold coins. (In fact, there is a much more substantial and well-documented link between positivism and New Deal progressivism about which I would happily go into detail, except that the notion of Republican policies being based on science is laughable.)
Here it is important to note that Goldwater and other post-New Deal libertarians were reacting to the same arrogant positivism that Lears excoriates. The 1960s libertarian sympathy for individual sovereignty, limited government, and traditional institutions derived not from a belief that these institutions represented a one best way but from a skepticism that technocratic government could effectively solve all the problems facing us and a fear that that same institutional optimism could take us to places where we didn’t want to go.
The specifically libertarian component of this anti-positivist reaction to design by the best and brightest lay in the idea that traditional institutions, having developed organically and to equilibrium, were necessarily superior to those designed from scratch and then released upon the world – hence opposition to bureaucracy, over-regulation, and (obviously) rule by scientific design. The specifically socialist component of this anti-positivist reaction (which seemingly Lears represents) was an anti-corporate egaltarianism which sought to erect legal and institutional barriers against rule by the lucky few – hence support for environmental protection, robustly codified civil liberties, and (obviously) self-rule.
These two schools of political thought remain alienated today, but considering the whole range of political opinion in America, they share much (of what is important) in common: a certain epistemic humility; a realist policy outlook; an appreciation for life’s complexities and humankind’s poor ability to understand and tame them; politics as a utilitarian resource and no more; a focus on the agency of the individual; an engagement with the idea of justice as fairness; and a desire to remove unnecessary obstacles to subjectively-defined meaningful existences. It is the failure to recognize this shared heritage that fuels the antipathy of what we’ll call socialism to what we’ll call libertarianism (and vice versa) when the two should be natural allies.
Libertarians (effectively classical liberals) and socialists don’t have to like each other, but they’ve historically done their best work when responding dispassionately to each other’s theories and criticisms (see the great economic calculation debate or everything Marx wrote for instance). As such, libertarianism and socialism operate best in a dialectic sense (in contrast to the prevailing “culture war”) – of establishing mutual agreements and moving on to iron out details or implementation. On the standard political compass this dialectic would be represented not as a position point but as a vector, pointing in the direction of reforms away from any and all authoritarianisms.
Freddie deBoer wrote several months ago calling for a new political discourse which includes the socialist left; for a long time our political vector has been pointing directly away from socialism. It’s easy to understand why from a historical perspective: with the Soviet Union as principle threat to liberty and the American project, it made sense to strongly represent ourselves as the opposite. In the year 2011 – as it was a hundred years ago – threats to society and the common good are multiple and authoritarian in nature. History shows that our political discourse should be running away from authoritarianism of all stripes, and we should be enacting policies that are consistent with a non-authoritarian consensus. Whether these policies result in something resembling Kropotkin’s mutual aid or something resembling Hayek’s spontaneous order, it’s time for a new era of non-coercion, heterodoxy, and pluralism.