Over at Re-Petitions, Dean has a nice post up ruminating on on my “Axioms for a Dark Ontology” (here and here). In retrospect, I think my use of the term “axiom” was misleading. That text would have better been called “Theses for a Dark Ontology” or “Manifesto for a Dark Ontology”. What I took myself to e doing was outlining the basic framework within which I think philosophical questions– at least for me –ought to be posed. In my view, science since Galileo has ineluctably led to the conclusion that there are just certain ways in which it’s no longer feasible to pose questions. It also presents us with significant questions pertaining to how we ought to think about the being of being. Neurology, for example, significantly calls into question the nature of the self, has undermined or significantly problematized introspective and descriptive/phenomenological accounts of mind, body, and subjectivity, raised all sorts of questions about free will, and so on. These are things, I think, that have to be faced head on and that can’t just be waved away. Similarly, biology and evolutionary theory has undermined the idea of species or abstract types that eternally exist throughout time, provoking the question of whether or not we ought to abandon belief in all natural kinds, essences, or universals in other domains (with DeLanda, I lean in the direction of saying “yes”, though I have– as always –significant reservations about the possibility of doing this in the case of mathematics; if there’s one domain that might incline me to a realist ontology of universals it would be mathematics).
Some have objected that my theses for a dark ontology are just a resurrection of 18th century materialism and that we all already know this. I don’t think this is entirely the case– for example, I don’t advocate the humanism of the Enlightenment thinkers, have their faith in inevitable progress, nor draw the hard distinction between nature and culture they do (for me culture is a formation of nature) –but if that’s the case, I think I’m in good company. As Nietzsche argues, I simply don’t think we’ve caught up with the implications of the “death of God” or the shift from a theological to a post-theological universe, and believe you can see this all over the case in presuppositions at work in various domains of the world of theory in the humanities. Despite being the only philosophical framework that’s ever delivered throughout history, people tend to fall into flat out denial when it comes to naturalism and materialism. There’s something deeply wounding, deeply despair inducing, in the materialist framework. It’s a framework the strips us of transcendental assurances of meaning and purpose and comfort, that challenges our belief in our own importance in the cosmic scheme of thing (though certainly we’re important to ourselves), and that undermines claims about the superiority of humans with respect to the rest of existence. I think there’s a reason that post-theological thinkers such as Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Nietzsche, Freud, Darwin, Marx, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, etc., have perpetually generated such violent responses among readers; and I think that reason has everything to do with human narcissism and anthropocentrism, not some some reductive or scientistic shortcoming of their work. (As an aside, I think that epithets such as “reductionism” and “scientism” are forms of rhetoric marking the absence of an argument, and that they are not arguments in and of themselves. That is, I see these charges as ways of ignoring evidence and uncomfortable findings, as shibboleths that authorize one not to think of these things or take them seriously, i.e., they are ostrich strategies not unlike those used by people who shrug off climate change on the grounds that we’ll always be able to go to other planets or technology will somehow save us in a way that allows us to continue living as we have for the last one hundred years).
At any rate, my view is that we have to face these things head on, take them seriously, and think them through in terms of how they force us to rethink philosophical questions, the origins of meaning and value, and how we ought to live. For example, when we learn about how Phineas Gage’s brain injury fundamentally transformed his moral agency, we have to rethink how we conceive criminality and how we respond to certain criminals. If its true that a certain kind of frontal cortext is necessary for certain forms of social and ethical agency, and if a person whose frontal cortex has been destroyed can’t moderate their actions in certain ways, is it just to punish them as we do? Doesn’t such punishment presuppose a Cartesian concept of the subject and agency? Wouldn’t cases like those of Gage suggest that these are problems for medicine, not the legal system? I don’t know. I do know, however, that if we rely simply on phenomenological and introspective methods of analyzing mind, we don’t even notice these things and therefore can’t even pose such questions.
Regarding matters of religion, my positions are more complex than some remarks I make might suggest. First and foremost, I think that belief– of whatever sort, not just religious belief –plays a far smaller role in why social dynamics take the form they take. For example, I think that capitalist dynamics take place just fine regardless of what one believes about them, whether or not one is in the grips of an ideology that supports them, whether one is for or against them, or whether one even knows they exist. Capitalism does not arise from a “belief” in capitalism. This entails that ideological critiques are of very limited value in challenging capitalism. They might serve a valuable role in helping people to see how contrary to their own interests this system is, thereby encouraging them to organize so as to engage in forms of action that might combat that system or seek alternatives, but I don’t think they do much beyond that. Indeed, having spent years in a variety of non-academic public forums, I’ve become increasingly cynical about the efficacy of these things. It seems that people believe what they want to believe regardless of how strong a critique or counter-argument might be, or that Spinoza was right when he pointed out that the mind endeavors to not think those things that diminish the body’s power of acting (folks stick their fingers in their ears and say “la la la! I can’t hear you!” when they don’t like what they’re hearing). I say all this to suggest that religious beliefs probably play a far smaller form in why societies take the form they take than some people might think.
Second, I think the so-called new atheists (folks like Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc) misrecognize what religion is really about. They think of religion as a series of propositional attitudes or beliefs that individuals hold. As a consequence, they see the rational debunking of religion as the way of defeating religion. What they miss, I think, is that its probably true that the vast majority of “religious believers” don’t take their theology all that seriously or literally (here Caputo is right), and often don’t even know the theology of their religion. Indeed, the case may be made that those who take their theology really seriously– and here I’m talking about people like the mother in the film Carrie or the woman that calls for sacrifice in The Mist, not academic theologians –suffer from a form of mental illness that would manifest itself in similar ways were they new atheists, militant Marxists, Randian objectivists, or whatever. Generally fellow religious believers look at the over-earnest and over-literal as embarrassing wack jobs that “don’t get it”.
If religion isn’t primarily about belief as the new atheists think– and here new atheism mirrors bourgeois economic theory that conceives economic activity as individual actors pursuing their own rational self-interest, rather than understanding these are social dynamics that transcend individual propositional attitudes –then what’s it about? I think religion is a form of social organization. In my view, religion is often far more about communal and affective relations between people than about what anyone might believe (ask ten catholics what they believe and you’ll get ten different, often contradictory, answers). This is what the new atheists don’t get. If “believers” are often loath to question their theology, it’s not because they believe silly things like water being turned into wine, but because abandoning those labels means severing family relations, friendships, business relationship, romantic relationships, and a number of other social and supportive relations. Here I think it’s important to remember– as Hume taught us –that we are always communal or social beings first before being isolated individual subjects or minds entertaining beliefs. It’s also worth noting that these communities are often pretty benign.
Third, if I often have problems with Christianity (I’m a child of the part of the world I grew up in), then this is because so often it’s just so un-Christian. As far as social, ethical, and political philosophers go– I could care less about all the Paul Bunyan stories about Jesus being the son of God, being resurrected, having shit that smelled like roses, performing miracles, and the like –I think Jesus is the bomb. The problem as I see it, is that the Jesus I read in the gospels and other works like the Gospel of Thomas shares almost no resemblance to the Jesus I find in institutional Christianity. To hear the institutional Christians tell it, Jesus is about saving us (how narcissistic is that?), absolving us of our sins, he worries a lot about what people do with their naughty bits, he helps people with addiction, etc. By contrast, the Jesus I read about seems really pissed at money lenders, self-righteous religious fundamentalists, moralists, attends to the marginalized like GLBT people and illegal immigrants, is all about forgiving others (not getting forgiveness for ourselves), peaceful resistance, anarchistic democracy, and a number of other things as well. The Jesus we so often hear talked about in religious circles looks a lot like what Freud called “screen memories”, or memories unconsciously used to hide or veil a distressing event or thought. What traumatic event are screen memory depictions such as Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (violence porn) used to repress? I think they’re used to repress the traumatic teaching of surrendering ones narcissism, ones superiority to others, forgiving others, refusal to respond to violence with violence, not demanding adherence to a doctrinal or religious position (research the story of the good Samaritan and what the Samaritans were to the Jews; that story isn’t about what people think it’s about), welcoming the excluded others, fighting the excesses of economic and other forms of exploitation, and so on. In many of the major variants of Christianity we see a point by point inversion of Christ and his ethical and political message, which is what’s led me in the past to say “Christianity is the greatest of conspiracies against Christ”. It’s as if the moment he died, people immediately began cleaning up the trauma of his teaching by sanitizing it and engaging in all sorts of intellectual gymanistics to show that no, Jesus really was encouraging us to go to war, to exclude the marginalized, to hate the sin(ner), to assert the superiority of our ethnic group, to obey kings and economic powers, and so on. This inversion and how it came about– let’s not forget that modern Christianity is essentially an imperial religion that arose with Constantine to consolidate his power –is probably one of the most fascinating psycho-semio-socio dramas in all of Western history. Every time we speak of salvation, the afterlife, heaven, and God, we make Baby Jesus cry (I’ll get to why at the end of the post). Fortunately Jesus is dead so he knows nothing of what people say about him and never will know.
So, as many have noticed, I’ve been talking about science a lot lately, so folks might be under the impression that I’ve abandoned orientations of theory such as semiology, semiotics, Derrida, Lacan, phenomenology, and so on. One might think I’ve fallen into “scientism” (a term for non-thought about science). This isn’t true. And, as I wrote on facebook last night, every time I extoll the virtues and importance of science, I vomit a little in my mouth because I grew up intellectually in the environmental of continental thought rife with political and philosophical critiques of science. Taking these things seriously has been a real uphill battle for me, coming out of the tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, Adorno, and Latour as I have. My knee-jerk reaction is, in my Heideggerian moments, to see science as a way of blinding us to the being of being, in my Adorno-esque moments, to see science as a mechanism by which capital expands, in my Latourian moments, to see science as a mechanism of political power, and in my postmodern moments, to see science as just one more cultural narrative and worldview among others, no different than, say, how the Aztecs, medievals, or ancient Greeks understood the world. I fight a great deal of superegoic, internal critical voices in trying to take science seriously.
So what happened and why do I bother? Why don’t I just obey that superegoic, critical voice in my head? Because climate change and, in particular, climate change denialism. That’s really it. I believe that anthropogenic climate change, and the depletion of water and energy resources, is the greatest, most serious existential threat we collectively face today. I noticed that a significant portion of the United States population, either does not believe this (failing to see what serious threats these are), and believes the science behind climate science is bunk. And what I realized when I began reflecting this is that those people rejecting climate science were using the exact sorts of arguments derived from Adorno, Heidegger, the postmoderns, Latour, and so on. To be sure, they weren’t making arguments as sophisticated as those of these great minds, but they were more or less making the same arguments. At this point it occurred to me that perhaps we aren’t– at least in the United States –being served well by skeptical critiques of this form. Don’t get me wrong. I think we need critiques capable of pointing out bad research, racist bias in research, the role that politics, military, and economics play in science research and all the rest. However, I think we need to conduct these forms of critique in such a way that we’re not led to be dismissive of science as such. In short, I came to feel that a lot of the sort of critique I advanced in the past was a part of the problem, rather than something contributing to solutions. And for this reason, I concluded that I had to begin taking science seriously.
So a final note on the nihilism I’ve been espousing lately (you know, the claims that there’s no cosmic meaning, no cosmic purposes, we don’t have souls, that we’ll never colonize other planets in large numbers, and all the rest). What’s that all about? Am I just going through some existential malaise? Am I some young goth kid taking delight in how much everything sucks and feeling superior to others because they don’t get it? True, my teenage years where characterized by a punk aesthetic and that’s followed me throughout my subsequent life and thought, but that’s not what it is. As much as it disturbs my inner punk sensibility, my nihlism is ethically motivated by a rather hippyish set of concerns. Because Nietzsche. Nietzsche, in his history of nihilism, showed how belief in Platonic forms, purposes, goals of nature, divine providence looking over us and aiming for the best in the future, the existence of an afterlife, and so on led to a generalized denigration of this world, our bodies, and life. If this other world of providence, Platonic forms, the afterlife, and so on is true reality, then these lives, this world, this planet, and so on is of little or no value. Destroy it as we will, because this is but a way-station on the way to our next destination or true reality.
If I want a nihilism that is so extreme, so attenuated, so hopeless, so without an escape hatch, then this is not being I want to say that everything is worthless, but because I want to pass through this nihilism that arises from belief in another world or an escape from this world, to an ethical sensibility that comes to value this world and life for its own sake because this is all we have. I want to contribute to cultivating an ethico-ontological sensibility that says “the world is enough!” and that attends to this world and this life because it is singular and irreplaceable. I want a neo-paganism. Alternatively, you could say that my sensibility here tends in the direction of some variant of Buddhism, with its emphasis on this world (and I love the fantasy hypothesis that Jesus was actually a student of Buddha’s that came to the West and proceeded to get fundamentally misunderstood). Here I join arms with Jane Bennett and Will Connolly, though I arrive at this view of the natural (which is everything, including culture) as the sacred, through a different route. This is why I’m equally critical and vehemently opposed to those who believe we’ll someday colonize other planets in large numbers, that other planets can provide a space hatch as in science fiction, and those who believe in the afterlife. Both ways of thinking, I believe, lead to nihilism, or the idea that we can denigrate and destroy this world because it can always be replaced by something else. As such, both positions can live in apathy in the present, because they hold that a future will save things. But the only way of saving things is through a foreclosure of the future that compels us to act and engage in the present.