As some of you know, this has been a very tumultuous few months for me with a lot of big changes. As a result, I’ve been behind on responding to emails and requests for articles. If any of you have been trying to contact me and I’ve been non-responsive, please feel free to resend and I’ll get back to you. Apologies! Hopefully others have not taken my non-responsiveness as a sleight or indifference. When addressed by others with questions I often feel paralyzed and without any sense of how to adequately respond.
May 21, 2013
In response to my last post, Lester asks a set of good questions.
ive been reading your blog with some curiosity for a while now, and would like to ask you a couple of questions, some related directly to this article, some more general that touch on other themes and ideas you have written about in other posts. all of this is coming from a place of growing understanding and interest in the different political and philosophical musings of OOO and political ontology.
i wonder, do you think that your notion of pluralism parallels with that of multiculturalism? coming from a more anthropological disciplinary background, i see many congruities with what you criticize pluralism for and what others have criticized multiculturalism for. namely, that it reduces all difference to that of culture – or the way peoples ‘experience’ and make sense of the world. ultimately, it is about perspectives, of which the pluralist, or the multiculturalist, cannot abide because how to we abandon our experience? i agree with you here, and see the dangers in such a position, the threat of relativism and so on. i suppose the main thing to be said from my point of view here is that we have to know what culture means and implies here. it seems like you are clear about your thoughts on culture by referring directly to naturalism and that you are a proponent of it, or that you side with it at the very least when it really comes down to it. and, from what i know of the history of philosophy and science, this is a very fraught question – culture and nature; where does one stop and the other begin? i take naturalism to be that we humans, or other beings like the animals you refer to, interpret the ‘real’ world, the true nature, and this has, to be sure, characterized the main assumptions of anthro methods and theory for a very long time. but, recently, as im sure you are aware, there have been many oppositions to this philosophical standpoint in many disciplines because of the way it ultimately separates subject from object, culture from nature, modernity, from non-modernity. so, i would be curious to know your thoughts on that particular question of culture and nature (maybe you have another post on it, but i havent come across it?) is it the case that we are all striving, though in different ways, for the one external element, the environment or nature, as the truth? pluralism is but one way of acknowledging the multiple ways people are seeking to comprehend this reality, and i mostly agree with your critique of it. but where i diverge from your critique is in how you separate “true reality” and metaphysical beliefs, which you distinguish based on empiricism and observation and note that its the best method we’ve got. can empiricism account for everything? what about love and so forth? has this not been one major function of phenomenology, to actually provide us with tools for addressing such saturated objects? furthermore, i also dont think that empiricism necessitates direct ‘observation’, but more so experience. if empiricism were to be taken as a tool for directly observing phenomenon and explaining the world only on what we can see and break down, wouldnt this just be positivism?
personally, Latour’s notion of “factishes”, whereby what exists is not reduced to “fact” (the external real world) or “fetish” (reifications of our subjectivity) but to an understanding that what exists is always mediated between subject and object, has been a helpful way for me to think through difference not in a strictly perspectival or cultural way – it is about worlds, or ontologies, and how they develop and clash with other worlds. “facts”, in this sense, are real because they are being done, performed. this, i think, can help us think about morality in a more productive way. for instance, im not sure how you would justify, or ‘prove’, your argument at the end of this piece that stated it is “wrong” to let a child die because of religious belief? an extreme example indeed… but, in any case, perhaps it would be better to think in terms of your own ontology (world) and how things are organized and related within it that makes this morality? that its ‘wrong’ to let a child die for a belief is certainly not a scientific explanation or proof, or even empirically verified fact, is it?
Thanks for the remarks. You’re questions are difficult and I’m still working through them. First, my holy grail is a perspective that integrates phenomenological, semiotic, and naturalistic perspectives. My philosophical work began with the phenomenologists and I still highly prize their descriptive methods. Later it evolved into semiotic perspectives influenced by Peirce, Eco, and Saussure, inflected by the work Lacan, Zizek, Derrida, and Levi-Strauss. For me, ethnography, linguistics, and semiotics are every bit as significant as things like contemporary physics and neurology. Finally, I feel that we need to integrate the perspectives of physics, chemistry, biology, neurology, geology, climate science, etc. I don’t think we can just wave these things away. When I criticize something like Lacanian psychoanalysis or Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, it is never to dismiss these things and suggest that we should instead be doing neurology and abandon these things (after all, I use phenomenological and semiotic styles of analysis all the time. Rather, it is to show that these methods of analysis have blind spots, things that they can’t account for within their theoretical framework, and that we need other frameworks to supplement them. It’s not a question of choosing between these three different orientations, but of thinking them together. For example, in a Lacanian context, sometimes cigarette smoking has nothing to do with the unconscious and linguistic structure of ones desire. Sometimes it really is a matter of ones brain chemistry. I think we need a framework that’s capable of recognizing the interpenetration of these different spheres.
May 21, 2013
Over at Three Pound Brain, Scott Bakker has an interesting post up discussing the conundrums and challenges of pluralism (and I assume that all of us want to advocate some form of pluralism). Pluralism must be in the air lately, as I’ve been thinking about it myself all week. The question that’s been haunting me is that of the degree to which anyone can genuinely be a pluralist. First, it’s worth noting the ways in which I’m a pluralist or think I am. I readily recognize that different critters and humans experience the world in different ways. Cats perceive differently than mantis shrimp. They have entirely different perceptual universes, so we can also say that they have different umwelts. Many things that are there for a mantis shrimp just aren’t there at all for a cat, and vice versa. Autistics like Temple Grandin also experience the world differently than people who have different neurological structures.
There’s also pluralism at the level of universes of meaning. A Christian fundamentalist, for example, interprets the world differently than a naturalist such as myself. If he’s suffering from alcoholism, for example, he might explain this in terms of demonic possession (in the United States there’s been a huge increase in exorcisms to treat such issues). Whereas, the naturalist would explain alcoholism either in terms of neuro-chemical addiction or in terms of attempts to deal with difficult life circumstances, past trauma, or some combination of both.
Now were I still practicing as a psychotherapist, treatment would be different in both cases. As an analyst, you bracket your beliefs about “true reality” and work within the universe of meaning held by your patient. Your job as a therapist isn’t to teach your patients what true reality is, but to work with their symptoms. Were I treating a Christian fundamentalist, I would probably work with their universe of meaning and perhaps even suggest that they get an exorcism because I would be working within the constraints of how their transference is structured. Of course, none of this would be because I think their ontology is true, but because I understand how meaning works in relation to symptom formation in people. It just happens that what is true or false here isn’t particularly relevant (for treatment). The situation is the same with the ethnographer. The ethnographer doesn’t go to the new tribe and try to disabuse them of their metaphysics. The ethnographer merely attempts to understand that metaphysics.
May 16, 2013
Recently, with some reference to “weak theology” lurking beneath the surface, I’ve been hearing a lot of folks defending religion on the grounds that it’s really some form of mytho-poetic thought and not to be taken as a set of ontological statements about the world. The idea seems to be that those who reject religion get it entirely wrong because religion is not a theory of reality, causation, the self, the afterlife, and why things are, but rather religion is really just a set of very powerful stories that help us interpret and understand the world around us. In one recent discussion about these issues, a friend accused me of being unimaginative and overly literal for failing to understand that these are just potent stories through which we interpret the world, and instead treating them as a theory of our selves, being, the world, and the origin of things.
Before responding to these claims, it’s first important to get clear on some points. The ontological nihilist like me doesn’t deny that we experience all sorts of meaning in the world. The idea that we would think this is one of the oddest ideas to ever sprout from anyone’s mind. We’re wired to find meanings, purposes, and motives in everything that takes place in the world? Why? As Alex Rosenberg suggests, probably because being able to predict the behavior of others, how they would respond to this or that, was a life or death matter when we were back on the savannah. You had to have some reliable way of deciding who would help you, who wouldn’t, who was a potential enemy, who might be a friend, who was a potential mate, and all the rest. Of course, the blind watch maker of natural selection, random variation, and heritability doesn’t do such a good job at being distinguishing. It gave us the capacity for thinking in terms of narratives, motives, and purposes, but didn’t restrict the use of this capacity to speculations about other humans and animals. As a consequence, we would inevitably come to see faces in clouds, anger in storms, and favor when something surprising and good happens to us. So it goes. That’s how our lizard brains are wired. Fortunately we’ve begun to develop techniques for getting around this in the last few centuries or so.
Nihilist that I am, I’m no different in this respect. When something randomly bad happens to me, the thought flits through my mind that perhaps I’m being punished. When a nice thunder storm happens as I was wishing for a couple days ago, the thought flits through my mind that perhaps I pleased the divinities in some way and they answered my prayers. When I look at the barks of trees, I sometimes think I see faces or animals. Us nihilists are wired the same way as everyone else and thus have the same fleeting thought. The only difference is that we don’t take these speculations about motives that occur to us when we think about nature as veridical statements about the natural world. We say “that’s a trick of my cognition, not something that’s really there.” It’s the same with a nicotine fit. Once you become aware that the absence of nicotine changes your brain chemistry, you no longer say “that person is being a bastard!”, but instead say “my brain chemistry is a mess at this moment leading me to think this person is being a bastard.” Sure, we still experience the other person as driving like an asshole, but we know this is coming from us not them. We consequently moderate our response to the other driver because we recognize this is a peculiarity of our cognition of the other person, not a motive on the part of the other person.
So back to the “religion as mytho-poetic thought” line of argument. Here are my problems with this line of argument:
1) It’s simply not true that belief is experienced in this way for 99% of the people that have it. Folks don’t say “the story of Job is a potent story that teaches me a valuable lesson about life”. No. They say this is a theory of reality that explains why this or that happens. I’ll never forget a discussion with an evangelical friend of mine. A few years ago there was a string of bizarre weather events here in Texas. We were talking about this and I alluded to climate change. She chuckled knowingly and said “I don’t worry about such things because I know how the world will end” (alluding to end times theology). For her– and I’ve heard this countless times since –Revelation is not merely a potent set of poetic stories, but is something like an insurance man’s actuarial table. It’s a real prediction about what will happen. It’s a theory of reality and causation and why events are happening. This effects her entire politics and attitude towards things like climate change. Outside of the United States, I’m sure there are a lot of folks have a hard time understanding US foreign policy concerning Israel. What they don’t understand– and don’t believe when they hear it –is that there is a huge voting block that relates the Jews returning to Israel with Biblical prophecy and that any policy that interferes with that means a tremendous loss of votes and campaign donations. Ergo, certain issues just can’t be discussed here. I kid you not. And don’t even get me started on the impact of these beliefs on science education and embodied politics here in the States.
I loves me some John Caputo, but I just can’t share his view that these myths are potent stories that help us to make sense of the world. They’re full blown theories that make truth claims about the nature of reality, what will happen, why what has happened has happened, and what sorts of policy and practices we should adopt. These are theories that have had a profound effect on our ability to respond to climate change, science in the states, as well as all sorts of gender politics. It’s hard to escape the mytho-poetic theory of religious belief is a lot of hand waving by well meaning academics and enlightened people who just can’t bring themselves to believe that their neighbors really believe these things, that have sentimental feelings about the ritual they grew up with in their churches, and that have the misguided view that they can somehow persuade these people if they just talk about their beliefs in a nice way. They don’t seem to realize that the lay will always bristle at the thought that their theory of reality is just a set of potent myths to be interpreted after the fashion of Levi-Strauss or, gag, Joseph Campbell.
2) If the mytho-poetic theorists are right, then they’re saying nothing different than the social constructivists and literary critics have been saying all along. They’re saying that these things aren’t representations of reality or the way things are, but are social constructions, effects of the play of the signifier, creations of cognition, and all the like. In other words, they’re rejecting the referential dimension of these things and giving culturalist explanations. But this is what secular-naturalistic orientations have argued all along. One then wonders why the mytho-poeticists continue to defend religion if they really believe all these stories are referentially false as theories of reality. Why aren’t they busily deconstructing them?
3) If it is true that these stories or theories of reality are just potent literature, why do they still continue to privilege sacred texts which have historically caused so much mayhem. If religion was really just great literary works all along, why not instead find mytho-poetic meaning in great literature like Kafka, comic books, television shows, films, paintings, music, and so on? Why hang on to these particular stories that were written by sheep herders that barely understood anything of the universe 6000+ years ago. It’s bizarre that one would hold the theory that these things are just a way in which people create meaning in the world through narrative and then not consider just abandoning those particular stories that have been taken as theories of reality for so long. After all, no one ever burned a witch, stoned a woman, or sacrificed a daughter over Kafka, but they certain did over these stories and have justified slavery and a variety of other egregious things to boot based on this particular literature. Let’s make a clean break
4) The mytho-poetic theory of religion just muddies the waters. As I said, the vast majority of believers don’t advocate this theory. Women, GLBT folks, scientists, etc., are all oppressed in very real ways by these things, and they affect American climate policy, scientific research (evolution, stem cell research, etc), and a variety of other things too. The mytho-poetic theorist comes along and says “but that’s not really what they mean, these are just powerful stories that give life meaning!” In doing so they provide cover for the worst manifestations of mytho-poetic thought (even though that’s not their intention). These folks should be looking to what the lay believes, not what they read in their sophisticated journals and by theologians.
Yes, I too find the story of Jesus very potent and inspiring (as I do with Buddha and a lot of Greek and Roman mythology as well; especially the story of Apollo and Daphne). Moreso, however, his life and not his death. I’m also all for reading the Bible in exactly the same way as we read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and in the way ehtnographers interpret the religious beliefs of other cultures.
May 16, 2013
Me: Because to explain is to reduce.
Matt: This is wrong from a philosophy of science point of view, or at least, an oversimplification. It is noteworthy that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Scientific Explanation (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-explanation/) includes no mention of reduction or reductionism. It is true that in order to explain we need to make some relation between the phenomenon and its explanans, but the explanans is not generally thought of as a reduction to phenonema at a more basic level. Main candidates for explanans include laws of nature (at the same level as the explanandum), causal mechanisms (most of which again are not reductions, e.g., mary throwing the rock explains the broken window), or unifications (again, many of which are not reductions, e.g., Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism).
It is also worth pointing out that one of the most canonical articles on reductionism (Oppenheim & Putnam’s “Unity of Science as a Working Hypothesis”) argues that microreductions can be explanatory, but takes other things (deduction from explanatory law) as definitional of explanation.
Me: The sciences explain the powers of H2O by reference to the features of hydrogen and oxygen.
Matt: This example actually doesn’t work for you. While some features of hydrogen and oxygen, and some quantum mechanical principles like the Pauli exclusion principle, are part of the explanation of the features of water, but there are other chemistry-level parts of the explanation, including especially chemical bonds and related structural properties which are not part of atomic physics.
Me: Indeed, even Latour’s own actor-network analyses are reductions.
Matt: This looks true if you only focus on one moment in ANT analysis. (I just did Reassembling the Social w/ my grad class so this is fresh.) When Latour turns to look at actants, he recommends that we follow all of the connections that “make up” the actants, that make them do things. So while he might have us follow all of the parts of the Corporation as part of an ANT study of the Corporation, he’d also point out that the actants themselves aren’t themselves on a more basic level. Also, his point about the ways the Corporation “speaks” (wholly in documents) vs. how the person in the customer service department speaks to you on the phone seems relevant.
Unfortunately I wasn’t quite clear in my post on Latour and left out the central point I was trying to make: there’s a difference between explanatory reduction (ER) and ontological reduction (OR). Let’s take the materialism of Peter van Inwagen to illustrate OR. If I understand Inwagen correctly, only elementary particles (whatever they turn out to be) and animal individuals truly exist. Thus, for example, when a baseball shatters a window, neither the window nor the baseball really exist. These are just fabrications of our crude perceptual apparatus. What’s really occurred is an interaction between a plurality of different elementary particles. There are no windows nor baseballs, only elementary particles. This is an ontological reduction insofar as it’s basically making the claim that baseballs and windows don’t exist, only elementary particles. OR’s deny the existence of some set of entities.
May 16, 2013
Bill Rose Thorn has a nice post up responding to my theses on Dark Ontology and, in particular, my claim that being is without purpose or meaning. A couple of folks have misconstrued what I’m saying on this point, so it’s worth making a couple words of clarification. What does it mean to say that the universe is without purpose or meaning? It merely means that there’s nothing inscribed in the order of things that has a meaning, purpose, or divine. Natural disasters aren’t rewards or punishments for how peoples have lived their lives. The stars have nothing to say about the destinies of peoples. History is not working towards some final goal. There isn’t a battle between good and evil. No divine being was trying to teach you a lesson when you lost a loved one or got cancer. These are all just things that happen. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no grand drama of being where humans are at the center and where some struggle between the supernatural forces of good and evil are playing themselves out. Humans happened as a result of random mutation and natural selection. Nothing more. We could have just as easily not happened and at some point we’ll evolve into another species that might be far more enlightened or far more brutal than us, or we’ll just disappear from the world altogether as a result of extinction.
What doesn’t it mean to say the universe is without meaning, design, or purpose? Obviously it doesn’t mean that humans and other critters don’t create meaning. We’re up to our eyeballs in meaning every minute of our lives. When I use a hammer to pound nails I’ve assigned a purpose to it and given it a meaning. When a person reflects on the significance of their cancer for their lives, they’re giving it meaning. We set all sorts of goals for ourselves. We wonder about the significance of Hurricane Katrina for culture. We wonder what the impact of 9-11 will be on society. We write novels and philosophies. In everything we do we do so in a world of meaning. The thesis of naturalism and nihilism is not that there isn’t meaning. It’s a thesis about where meaning comes from. The naturalistic thesis is that meaning arises from the play of the signifier and our embodied, lived, cognitive experiences. It’s the thesis that they aren’t in the things themselves. When my daughter sees ponies in the clouds, they’re not in the things themselves. We can only talk about the world meaningfully, but one of the neat things about meaning is that it can talk about the non-meaningfulness of existence itself. Obviously a person’s cancer means a lot to them, but in the order of nature itself independent of their cognition, relation to language, and so on, there’s no meaning to their cancer in the sense of some metaphysically inscribed purpose, plan, or meaning to that cancer. Nope. They just suffered a sad genetic mutation as a result of some substance like uranium they were exposed to. It wasn’t some divine being teaching them a lesson or placing them in some dire straits for some grand cosmic plan. What I’m saying is no different than anything Spinoza or the Stoics said: nothing in itself is beautiful or ugly, good or bad, purposeful or purposeless, only our evaluations make it so. Good/bad, right/wrong, and all the rest are purely relational predicates. My cats seem to take great delight in resting their little heads in my stinky shoes. Me not so much. Is the shoe’s odor loathsome? Apparently not to my cat. It’s my cat that gives value to that odor. It’s value isn’t in the shoe itself.
May 15, 2013
If I were to name a single thing that I most regret in all that I have written in since 2011, it would be my defense of Latour’s principle of irreduction in my article entitled “The Ontic Principle” in The Speculative Turn. Having reflected on this principle in the intervening years, I can’t help but believe that it would be a catastrophe to any knowledge-producing practices were it taken seriously. Why? Because to explain is to reduce. The sciences explain the powers of H2O by reference to the features of hydrogen and oxygen. Likewise, I explain the powers of hydrogen and oxygen by reference to more elementary particles. When someone interprets a novel, they’re carrying out a reduction saying, in effect, that the “manifest content” of the novel refers to this latent, ideational content. When a psychoanalyst interprets a symptom, they’re carrying out a reduction. Indeed, even Latour’s own actor-network analyses are reductions. He takes complex aggregates such as corporations and looks at all the actants that make them up. He’s reducing these aggregates to more elementary units. What we need is not a principle of irreduction, but of reduction that would allow us to distinguish between good and bad reductions.
The problem with the principle of reduction when taken at face value is that it leads us to treat every entity as an ontological given. “God, is but a set of beliefs, you say? Well by Latour’s principle of reduction this is an illegitimate reduction! Therefore we must include God in our ontology!” “Your depression is a chemical imbalance, you say? Well that’s an illegitimate reduction and it really means all that your confused says it means!” And while you’re at it, us Jews really were what the Nazis said we were because, well, it would be reductive to say otherwise!
I suspect that Latour himself didn’t think this is what the principle of irreduction means. After all, all of his actual analyses speak against this as he perpetually carries out reductions. What does Latour actually say? He says, “[n]othing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (The Pasteurization of France, 158). It’s the second part of the proposition that’s important. When he refuses reduction he’s challenging bad sociology. Like the mathematician, he’s saying you have to show your work. Somewhere or other he gives Freudian dream interpretation as an example of virtuous reduction. What’s good about a Freudian dream interpretation. It shows all the transformations (the dream-work) that lead from the dream-thought to the manifest content of the dream. It doesn’t just say “dream x means y”, but shows how the thought or repressed desire gets elaborated into y. Similarly, in the domain of Marxist social theory, it’s not enough to say “capitalism causes r”. You have to show all the mediations and mechanisms by which we get from the dynamics of capitalism to a particular social phenomena. We have to show our work. However, showing your work is a reduction nonetheless. A bad reduction is merely one that doesn’t show the mediations or how you get from point a to point b. Not everything exists. Sorry folks, there are no rainbows, though we certainly experience them as a result of the properties of light, raindrops, and our own neurological systems. Whiteheadian nonsense aside, in the absence of those neurological systems rainbows just ain’t there.