A New Global Agricultural Trend? Some Interesting Facts and Points of Analysis

New research has suggested that, for the first time on record, global farmland is in decline. Moreover, it has been estimated that, with respect to global farmland, “Every two years, an area roughly the size of the UK is abandoned”. How could this be? And what is the driving force behind this trend? The facts are most curious, as Joseph Poore summarizes (an environmental researcher at the University of Oxford) in a recent article.

Humanity’s land grab is extremely well documented. During the 19th and certainly also 20th centuries, these were a time of significant agricultural expansion. “By the 1990s, farms occupied 38 per cent of the world’s land. […] 27 per cent of tropical forests and 45 per cent of temperate forests were cleared in the process”. Today, as is widely known, deforestation is a big problem. It continues to occur at a rapid rate.  Palm oil production is one of the main culprits cited in many reports. But new research drawing on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows that an entirely different global trend is also emerging: statistics reveal that “over the past 15 years, total global pasture area has declined by 62 million hectares (-2%)”. And this decline has occurred in spite of the overall growth in agricultural production. On the basis of all the evidence, it appears that this trend will continue. But how do we explain it?

Poore’s summary article touches on a number of key points. But we can also begin by looking to research published in Nature. Here the demands moving forward were made clear: “To meet the world’s future food security and sustainability needs, food production must grow substantially while, at the same time, agriculture’s environmental footprint must shrink dramatically”. And it would seem that, on the basis of the data taken from FAO, this is precisely what is beginning to take shape. 

One interesting point the data serves to emphasize is how the driving factors behind this trend seem to go against the intuition and also the claims of certain sections of environmental activism. One of the things that has always struck me is that, among the activists, there appears at times and in many places a creeping conservatism based on the ideal of some distant reconciled past. In terms of basic rationale, it doesn’t always seem so different to right-wing social conservative appeal. Of the extreme movements – such as deep ecology and other anti-modern philosophies – idealization of hunter-gatherer and substance life is considered the only recourse. The utopian image of a reconciled nature is fantasized. In less extreme movements, there are different examples of idealization: a return to agrarian lifestyle and culture, with the Shepard and his sheep; the sole reliance on individual gardens and community farms where agrarian concerns and demands dominate over all others; or even the defense of unproductive farming landscapes on behalf of some concept of maintaining the vision of ‘rural life’. Sometimes, even, one will read that one or many of such suggestions are simply “common sense”.

But the great thing with facts is that they remain true even if they don’t agree with common sense. What if what we’re seeing is that, thanks to new intensive technologies among other things, cropland and pasture is in decline, and with this decline an increase in output has been maintained whilst also an increase in re-wilding and biodiversity? One example is the overall drop in global demand in wool, with consumers preferring cotton and synthetics.  This “has far-reaching consequences. One hectare of land can produce 300 kilograms of wool, or 2000 kilograms of cotton, while synthetic fabrics require essentially no land”. Though, cotton farming faces many of its own sustainability issues, the point being raised on the basis of recent evidence is that it is possible, with the continued push for better and more efficient technologies as well as more precise farming methods.

As Poore writes:

Meanwhile, intensive systems elsewhere are occupying significantly less land to deliver the same amount of protein. Of course, intensive farming comes with its own environmental burden, such as fertiliser run-off into rivers and lakes and increased use of pesticides. But Miandasht shows another side to the ecological story. One estimate suggests that globally, farmland intensification saved 27 million hectares from being cleared between 1965 and 2004.

With careful planning, some environmental costs of intensification can be managed. Precision farming, for example, uses information on soil, the climate and crops’ potential to absorb nutrients to calculate the exact amount of fertiliser needed. Pesticides can be curbed by using integrated pest control, which mixes mechanical tools like traps with biological controls like natural predators.

There are clear and urgent ethical issues when it comes to animal welfare concerns on intensive livestock farms. These are well documented. One cannot deny without clear and obvious bias that the industrialised meat and poultry industry – and what some call “food fordism” – is riddled with ethical concerns. Indeed, when served with the honest and very real image of an industrial slaughterhouse and processing plant, with chickens, for example, arriving in packed crates still technically alive but essentially reduced to a state of inertian, awaiting the fate of being gassed, one cannot objectively and in good reason reject the urgency of ethical debates.

Other issues facing contemporary intensive agricultural models include the over-use of antibiotics; incredibly unethical animal rearing practices; soil erosion; high pesticide use; among many other things. Considering that the most comprehensive scientific research to date was recently released concluding ‘strong’ evidence of link between neonicotinoids and the decline of the bee population, deep deliberation on how human civilisation should move forward with regards to its agricultural model is highly contentious and complex and necessary. Because even as we consider the potential benefits of high-intensive systems, it is also important to note that ‘the same forces driving abandonment of farmland for conservation purposes are fueling, simultaneously, increased deforestation elsewhere in the world’ (such as, for instance, in the shift toward cheap palm oil).

Given the complexity of concerns from population growth and future food security to climate change and sustainability, it seems that what is needed is deeply nuanced and complex thinking. There does not seem to be a single, simple reduction and solution. One argument that is difficult to reject establishes the logic that, ultimately, the only solution is for human beings to take on a vegetarian / vegan diet.

I’m not going to get into the debates here, as that would require more space to draw out a logical argument. What I want to think about, though, is an intriguing point: namely, it is intriguing in our present history how, along with new agricultural technologies and alternative evidenced-based policy options, potential solutions appear to be emerging. Some of these solutions, including the potentials of agri-tech, coinciding with the positives hopes for automation and policies like Universal Basic Income, also potentially support the additional requirement of continuing to free human labour, if one subscribes to both enlightenment principles of social philosophy and general humanistic and multidimensional concerns for human progress. Additionally, it is this freeing of human labour that one could argue resides at the very heart of the concept of human civilisation, however much that dimension of the concept has been denied or distorted over the course of recent human history.

What I am drawing on here is a very basic, simple anthropological account of the development of human civilisation, which seems to relate in a very deep way with the human duel with nature and the development of agriculture. There are of course many competing theories for the domestication of agriculture, and it is not my intention here to purpose or emphasize one over another. Rather, I am simply suggesting the basic idea that insight is offered in understanding the value of what agriculture initially provided human beings – insight offered by the basic evidence and arguments in many of our scientific textbooks: that domestication of crops provided something positive of notable benefit, otherwise it would likely not have crystalized as an established historical trend. In that a more stable food supply was established, with larger numbers of people being able to live together – the philosophical description of an increased freedom from immediate existential precarity is given an incredible sense of meaning. The seeds of human civilization were sown. Freedom, in the particular sense of an increased freedom from precarious existential conditions, coincided with the transition from hunter-gathers to an entirely new conception of human life.

The foundation of civilization was laid with the advent of agriculture. From there human social organization could take on much more complex forms. Free time allowed for writing, thought, culture – as well as special and geographical planning and city development. Humans could spend time thinking of new technologies, studying maths and philosophy, among many other things as time unfolded in these earliest centuries.

To my mind, it only stands as reasonable that we ought to remember these foundations and what the agricultural turn originally afforded. This is no longer philosophy but empirically true: today humanity is capable of much more than when civilization first began to crystalize. Philosophically, the continued expansion of free time – freedom from precarious conditions and necessary labour – seem to be integral to the debates on human agriculture in the 21st century, in which agrarian idealizations do not suffice.

One problem, though, is antiquated government policy, as Poore suggests. “For most governments […] concerns over food security mean abandonment is seen as negative, so they design policies to avoid returning farmland to nature”. It turns out this is counter-productive. “With higher yield farming”, these policies no longer move with the evidence and have grown outdated. Thus there are “in need of revision”.

Higher yield farming generally seems to be enemy number one for many environmentalists and alternative agricultural movements. But what if it is a huge part of a new progressive solution? What if high yield farming is the heart of a new agricultural model? I am not arguing here that it is or that it isn’t – what I am suggesting is that the dichotomy of the status quo versus the agrarian cultural ideal of self-sustained gardens and sustenance living seems incredibly false. Such debates often seem to get caught up in worldviews or ideological biases. The research cited in this essay is an example that the realities are complex and so, too, might be the solutions.

Indeed, while the regional ecological impact of intensive farming is a serious issue, as it is known to degrade local ecosystems – the argument on the basis of this particularly collection of data suggests that it spares a lot more land elsewhere. Using the same logic regarding the principle of the decline of biodiversity in relation to agriculture, studies have found that with time this land can recover original levels of biodiversity. Additionally, the emerging evidence seems to suggest that higher yield farming might be able to help balance a number of complex concerns, from feeding an ever-growing population to increasing efficiency and reducing overall environmental impacts, as well as more philosophical complexities in relation to the project of human civilisation and what progress means in the 21st century.

In closing, Poore offers numerous examples of how abandonment of farmland has been managed from a number of perspectives, which makes for an interesting read. He concludes as follows:

These examples of shrinking farmland present a narrative where the return of low productivity land to natural ecosystems can be a positive, not a negative change. They paint a picture of a new agricultural system, where we embrace high yield technologies, where we don’t keep unproductive farmers producing, and where we as consumers avoid products that use large amounts of land. The beginning of this century could mark the point when we began sharing more, not less of our planet with the other species that inhabit it.

The Enlightenment, Science and Core Humanistic Values in a Post-Factual World

R.C. Smith

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve been re-reading a lot of books on the enlightenment (mostly in my spare time), including many notable texts by such prominent enlightenment thinkers as Kant, Hume, Descartes and so on. My interest in the philosophes dates back to when I was a teenager, where some of my very first books of interest was Descartes’ Discourse on Method and the Meditations in addition to David Hume’s Enquiry. This sparked an analytical interest, connected, it would seem, with my love for science and passion for mathematics. And so from there, as I moved into my twenties, it was between the philosophes and humanism, including existentialism, mixed in with a broad-stroke of Anglo-American philosophy, which defined and continues to define my general interest in and engagement with the world of philosophical thought.

From there I eventually discovered interdisciplinary philosophy, or what might also be cited as social philosophy, and finally also limited strands of the tradition known as a critical theory. But after many years and many books, I find myself returning to the enlightenment and its core humanistic tradition. In so many ways the enlightenment seems to represent the roots of the advance modern thought, which itself takes a place in a much wider history in the evolution of philosophical ideas. Though focused particularly on the history of moral philosophy and its development, Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass is one of the best book’s that I have read in recent time. With a background in the natural sciences, there is a structure to Malik’s thought which seems absent in so much of the human or social sciences. This book sits as part of a long tradition, and what is fascinating is its exploration of moral thought across time and throughout cultures.

But some of my favourite of Malik’s writings have to do more focusedly on the enlightenment. His book The Meaning of Race (1996) offers a very important and substantive rebuttal against those who link enlightenment thinking – even science and reason – with racism. Moreover, in examining the ideas of the historical development, and philosophical and political roots, of the idea of race, Malik does a very nice job at showing that racial difference is actually in opposition to the universalist ideas of the enlightenment project. Likewise, his book Strange Fruit (2008) and his many articles on the enlightenment are certainly worthy of broader consideration, as they offer important contributions to contemporary debates. Additionally, Malik’s book Man, Beast and Zombie (2001), is thought provoking. My recent essay reflecting on and around Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, addresses similar issues as Man, Beast and Zombie; but perhaps a separate essay on this book is something worth pursuing in the future.

The enlightenment ultimately brought the value of reason and of the modern scientific endeavour to the fore, serving also as an important catalyst for the development of important core humanistic values. Instead of being premised on the authority of the church, these values were to be grounded in the human world. To state today, especially in the context of our increasingly troubled social world, that the enlightenment project and its legacy is even more fundamentally culturally important is by no means excessive. The impact that the Enlightenment had on western society – and, indeed, throughout the world – underlines a significant part of the modern value of progress. The enlightenment philosophes are not without their issues, which is to say that today we can continue to advance and progress key arguments, given new data and insight over centuries. One obviously place for such progressive advancement, I think, is in the field of epistemology, which, on the side of my own scientific studies and pursuits, is one of my favourite areas of philosophical consideration.

Whether explicitly realized or not, it seems fairly clear from my current vantage point that the basic values often shared by progressives today are tied to the enlightenment and its social, political and philosophical legacy. Equality, cosmopolitanism, and modern conceptions of democracy are a few examples. Conversely, modern emphasis on individual liberty and religious tolerance, along with notions of constitutional government, normative critique of the abuses church and state, and popular scepticism of traditional authority can all be traced to the enlightenment (The scholarship offered by Stephen E. Bronner among many others is very informative here).

Even the contemporary value of “critical thought” is indebted, it would seem, to the basic enlightenment value of reason, understood as the basis for authority and legitimacy in thought and action, which, as a means itself, sought to inspire normative critical reflection on human social reality. Also tied to this, of course, are such values as empiricism, scientific rigor and evidence-based thinking. Social-historical and cultural progress was, too, seen critically as open-ended and unfolding. Unbound to prejudiced or ideological ends, the value of progress seemed explicitly intended to have been positioned in such a way that, based on rational enquiry, it would be safeguarded from the irrational and ultimately totalitarian utopian urge that makes claim to the end of history. One of the philosophical lessons would seem that: “Critical thinking” and unbiased enquiry as synonymous with reason, in that rationality owes no allegiance to any party or movement – social-political, theoretical, or otherwise – serves non-partisan thinking in the same way that facts, or reality, is non-partisan. As Lawrence M. Krauss recently put it, “Reality exists independent of the desires or claims of those in power”. Likewise, reality exists independent of the bias and prejudices of the individual and social collective. Perhaps, many years ago, when I wrote my first book of philosophy and introduced the notion of conscious evasion, this is what I was ultimately aiming to describe – what we might call today, thanks to the advances in cognitive science, the problem of “confirmation bias”.

In sum: if the enlightenment was meant to blow open history in the sense of challenging and breaking free from traditional doctrines and dogmas as well oppressive regimes of thought and social organization (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), this is because the very idea of the Enlightenment as a project and as a set of ideals was meant to become the “source of everything that is progressive about the modern world”, standing “for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future” (Thomas, 2014). Perhaps more emphatically, the Enlightenment was meant to liberate human beings once and for all (Bronner, 2004). This project of emancipation was not only social and political; it represented the possibility of a certain existential liberation as well (Israel, 2002), especially when it comes to the advent of reason and science as common values which support humanity’s overcoming Myth more generally and certainly also the oppressive grip of the Church in particular (Pagden, 2013).

One can cite numerous texts by key Enlightenment thinkers which support the above view.

Marquis de Condorcet (1794/2012), in his famous work titled Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, writes for example on the interrelation between the progress of the sciences and enlightened social behaviour (Gregory, 2010; Leiss, 2011; Pagden, 2013).William Leiss summarizes this nicely while quoting Condorcet: “He [Condorcet] remarks that ‘all errors in politics and morals are based on philosophical errors and these in turn are connected with scientific errors’. He is saying that there is a connection between our conceptions of natural processes, on the one hand, and our understanding of society and individual behaviour, on the other” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29).Moreover, “Condorcet envisioned a future in which ‘the dissemination of enlightenment’ would ‘include in its scope the whole of the human race’” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29). He maintains the position that the enlightenment provides a new way of thinking, a new view of the world, and that this view, based on a transformative ethos (Bronner, 2004, pp. 4-5), not only connects science and reason with morality and ethics, but is principled, as Bronner (2004) writes, on a series of core human values.

Condorcet’s reflections in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind share a common vision with many other Enlightenment thinkers (Bronner, 2004). Indeed, “the Enlightenment” as a whole “crystallized around the principles connected with fostering the accountability of institutions, reciprocity under the law, and a commitment to experiment with social reform” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). It sought not “imperialism, or racism, or the manipulation of liberty”, but instead the ideals of liberty, individual rights and dignity (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013) and what we might describe today as social conditions which foster the “free flourishing subject”. These ideals formed the basis of Enlightenment universalism (Israel, 2001; Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), which sought to protect rather than threaten the exercise of subjectivity (Bronner, 2004, p. 9).

***

So what does all of this philosophical reflection and discourse mean today, particularly for the modern scientific endeavour and for the outward values of science? It would seem that there is a debate about the role science plays in terms of social, historical and cultural enlightenment and about how science engages with the human social world and its search for core progressive values.

Although I don’t entirely agree with his stance about the 2017 March for Science, because I think the campaign is ultimately a positive thing, there is a deeper truth to Jerry Coyne’s article: namely, that the increasing politicization of science is a cause for concern. Additionally, while at various protests the political left seem inclined to make claim to science – that facts tend to have a liberal bias – there are many studies that show both sides can be diluted, driven by confirmation bias instead of an open investigation of reality.

At the same time, the notion of openess and unbiased investigation is much more significant than cognitive bias studies acknowledge. While research into cognitive bias offer tremendous insight when it comes to the problem of political ideologies and prejudices, among other things, it does little with regards to the age-old metaphysical and ethical problem concerning the nature of truth. Is any appeal to truth reduced to bias? Cognitive bias, in a sense, implies closedness. But where things seem to get tricky, at least from my observational point of view, is when this principle is applied within the social domain. For example, is it a product of cognitive bias that one might defend climate science in the face of so-called climate deniers? The obvious answer is that it is not, so long that one’s appeal is to evidence without dogma or prejudice. One can remain open to the opinions of a “climate denier” whilst also disproving their claims. But in today’s world, everything is either reduced to politics or opinion or both. And that seems to be a problem. The stage, as it were, is already set to frame the logic and structure of debate in the way of a purely subjective narrative. In other words, the very meaning and structure and purpose of rational debate and the appeal to objectivity, evidence and facts seems in decline. The mentality, the philosophical approach, is largely logically dubious and irrational.

It is important, in agreeing with Coyne, that the modern scientific endeavour, the very practice and values of science, remain non-partisan and therefore operative in the realm of what I would describe as the critical, objective and open to new data and to the unfolding investigation of reality. Reason, like scientific enquiry, should remain unbiased and untied to ideological or prejudiced ends. Others may describe it differently, but the main point, I think, is that the worst thing that can happen in this pathological era of so-called “post-factualism”, is that science becomes associated with political dogma and agenda.

At the same time, if science tends to foster a philosophy of openness, in today’s social world this would seem to have very real structural-political consequences. This philosophical value of openness also has a very particular epistemological appeal: namely, the openness to diversity, the unknown and to the moreness of phenomena. In the social world, these values seem to be given political appeal, with different sides making claim to the title of rightful defender. But they are nothing more than common universal values in a deeply existential and humanistic sense.

It currently seems to me that a more reconciled approach would be one that acknowledges neither left nor right bias; nor would it assume any one position. Truly open, critical, reflective and objective reason is inherently inclined to reject all such bias and prejudiced claims. Rather than approach the world by way of some worldview, an rational approach would be more fluid. In considering all the facts, we can posit our best and most well-laid out theories which help explain reality; but those systems of thought are not closed. The more we investigate, the more we deepen our theories and the more we deepen our understanding of the objective truth of a phenomenon or issue. It is a process of constant critical openness and learning and receptivity. In the natural sciences, when studying purely natural phenomena and objects in which no bias is inherent in those phenomena, this process becomes much easier when compared to the study of social justice issues. And for all the writing I’ve read on cognitive bias, this deeper point never seems to be considered.

Research would seem to indicate that reality is tough for both sides to swallow. And yet, in emphasizing the philosophical and ethical value of openness and intellectual diversity should not also be conflated with tolerance of oppressive, irrational or prejudiced views. When, in a recent New Scientist article, the issue of same sex marriage is raised in the same breathe that “”open-minded” liberals are just as plagued by confirmation bias as “closed-minded” conservatives, consideration of the problem of cognitive bias and the difference in the nature of its appeal on both sides is lacking. This raises an interesting question in the field of ethical philosophy. It would seem to me, from a purely structural perspective, that a lack of consideration of such a prejudiced and oppressive view as anti-equality perspectives is not the same in meaning as the hate-filled bigot.

In terms of the general political landscape, both sides are fallible. The entire political world, as far as I can tell, is steeped in bias. Both left and right can be anti-science and irrational; but the fundamental issue has much more to do with the pathology of society, in which people forget how to think properly, to approach the world rationally and sensibly. Irrationality accumlates, structurally it seems to propagate.

Personally, I don’t align myself with any political party or movement or denomination because it all seems so senseless. The pursuit of truth and of understanding isn’t and shouldn’t be political. In appealing to the best of humanistic values, science and intellectualism should be for everyone. The best values we have are enlightenment values – they underline everything positive about the modern social world and of whatever progress that humanity has achieved. But these values also appeal to a philosophy that challenges the traditionalism, closed-mindedness generally associated with conservatism, as well as emphasizes a relentless critical openness that challenges whatever creeping closed-mindedness that may hamper liberals.

As Carl Sagan once put it:

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.

No political side can make claim to being the true heirs and defenders of the enlightenment today, and that is what continues to give it meaning: core enlightenment and humanistic values would seem to transcend the rigidity of political worldviews. It would only seem that, more often than not, the defenders of core humanistic and enlightenment values are regularly found within the domain of liberals and progressives, in spite of the evidence that they also at times might turn away from such values and from the scientific mindset when it is most convenient to do so.

***

Science is not absolutely immune to the “sins” of irrational social forces, and the struggle that surrounds it is the struggle for a free and autonomous science. On the one hand, it is important to recognize the special epistemological space in which science is positioned. There is a certain autonomy to science in this regard, the existence of which seems all too often rejected in different strands of contemporary philosophical critique. But in understanding the special space of science and its special or unique epistemological place in society, it would seem naive – again, at least from my current vantage point – that science is somehow absolutely immune to irrational and less than progressive social forces. The problem may be better described in terms of the output of science and how this is socially realized, as opposed to the actual doing of science.

Science works, its history speaks for itself. But what of the output of scientific knowledge, the release of scientific achievement into and as it becomes mediated with the social world, its biases, constructs, and ideological systems? One example people often cite is military technology. Another is the commodification of medicine for the sole purpose of profit. The argument in this case considers how medical advancements have been significant in so many ways, but vital medicines are monetized and reduced to a system of economic profit principles, which are regular untied to core humanist sensbilities. One of the results, the arguments goes, is the manufacturing of the inequality of health and how entire groups of people do not have access to necessary treatments. On the level of moral philosophy, this is a problem. But it would also seem to be a problem for the modern scientific enterprise, if one believes that such an enterprise stands for and helps support everything progressive about a science-based and rational society.

 

And in this sense I think that while science must remain non-partisan, one might speculate that it is perhaps also a mistake to divorce the modern scientific endeavour from the basis of values that underline much of its historical social philosophical motivation. The modern scientific project has a very unique history, outside of the evolution of its methods and historical achievements, that is social philosophical in principle and humanistic in value. Maybe my readings are wrong, and my postulating here is inaccurate. But in my survey of the literature and scholarly record, this other history seems fairly clear and important.

Enlightenment universalism “presumes to render institutions accountable, a fundamental principle of democracy, and thereby create the preconditions for expanding individual freedom. Such a view would inform liberal movements concerned with civil liberties as well as socialist movements seeking to constrain the power of capital” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). In much the same way, Enlightenment universalism – or what we may also describe as the common values of the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2013; Israel, 2002) – moves against prejudice to include “the other”, underpinning the liberal notion of the citizen with its “inherently democratic imperative”, while also pushing back against capitalism’s drive to reduce people to the mere status of ‘economic objects’ and therefore, too, mere ‘costs of production’ (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). Therefore, there should be no surprise when Condorcet, for example, writes:

Thus an understanding of the natural rights of man, the belief that these rights are inalienable and [cannot be forfeited], a strongly expressed desire for liberty of thought and letters, of trade and industry, and for the alleviation of the people’s suffering, for the [elimination] of all penal laws against religious dissenters and the abolition of torture and barbarous punishments, the desire for a milder system of criminal legislation and jurisprudence which should give complete security to the innocent, and for a simpler civil code, more in conformance with reason and nature, indifference in all matters of religion which now were relegated to the status of superstitions and political [deception], a hatred of hypocrisy and fanaticism, a contempt for prejudice, zeal for the propagation of enlightenment, all these principles, gradually filtering down from philosophical works to every class of society whose education went beyond the catechism and the alphabet, became the common faith . . . [of enlightened people]. In some countries these principles formed a public opinion sufficiently widespread for even the mass of the people to show a willingness to be guided by and to obey it. (Condorcet, 1794/2012, p. 101)

From just a short and brief overview, it is clear how much the value of modern science is entangled with the enlightenment and its humanistic traditions. From the Scientific Revolution, dated roughly between the years of 1550 and 1700, the enlightenment can be traced back to the “renaissance humanists” in France and Italy in the 14th and 15th century (Trevor-Roper, 2010), and so too can some of the basic foundations of the modern value of science and the implications of what science means when extended into the realm or field of social philosophy (that is, too, comprising the fields of ethical and moral philosophy).

What I wonder is, as an individual with a long history of being critical of politics, left and right, does this embracing of enlightenment roots necessarily equate to politicization? In other words, I would like to ask: does the defense of progressive values, of the ought of ethical philosophy, presuppose the existence of confirmation bias? Or is it simply an appeal to what Steven Pinker once described as the better angels of our nature? If the modern scientific endeavour is completely divorced from the basis of its deeper social-philosophical and historical values, then does the ethical and moral value of science itself not dissipate? Is this dissipation not detrimental in terms of the social output of science?

As Steven Pinker writes: “The mindset of science, cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation.  It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality”. One of my favourite contemporary physicists, Brian Cox, has a wonderful way of describing, along what I would describe as fundamental social philosophical lines, how science inspires the foundation for the practice of a rational society. His book the Human Universe (2014) is a fantastically inspiring testament to such a hopeful possibility. Perhaps Cox is right when he comments: “the scientific way of thinking is the road to better politics.” One can think, moreover, of the endless inspiring passages of reflection offered to us by Carl Sagan, which very much captures the spirit of the idea of a science-based future rational and democratic society.

Quite simply, the value of science is much more than the practice of scientific research. The importance of science extends beyond the laboratory. As alluded above: Pinker describes it as a “mindset”, and he’s right. “Open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods” as well as the truths “of mathematics, the logic of scientific theories, and the values that guide” the scientific enterprise are just a few that Pinker cite. One could even expand on the point and describe it as a form of subjectivity in the sense of a critical, rational and open approach to how we relate with the phenomenal world, which seeks to transcend the ideological limitations of social irrationality as well as biased and prejudiced “worldviews”. But ultimately what is being indicated are the defining practices of science, the psychology and experiential sensibility that it fosters – to be open to the world, to new data, and to exploring the unknown.

Deepening the account, and perhaps also grounding it in my own way, the scientific “mindset” is akin to the open, mediating, critically inquisitive subject. Many people often think of or evoke the image of a young child openly exploring, enquiring, questioning, searching and orientating within the multifarious world of things. In a bigger sense there is no end per se, no ideological bias, just the open pursuit of knowledge in that reason is a means in itself. All the while, the pursuit of objective reality and truth deepens, our theories become more sharpened and honed. This is, to me, a beautiful account of what science inspires and fosters. Impliedly, and in relation to Pinker’s descriptions and my own in relation to philosophy of the subject, the value of science represents a certain epistemology, anthropology and cosmology (“cosmology” is used here in the sense of the human relation to the phenomenal world, whereas anthropology refers to how we relate with each other). More accurately, I currently think of it as implying the genesis or development of a certain epistemology – in other words, the value of science also refers to practice: how we think of the world, how we relate with the world, and also how we relate with each other and ourselves.

And this is in no way spontaneous philosophical invention. These ideas, these core concepts and concrete values are indebted to such popular and celebrated thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, and Smith (and so on). Beyond the generally familiar, one of my personal favourites is the contributions by Nicolas de Condorcet. But the enlightenment philosophes also include valuable contributions from other perhaps less mainstream names as Marquis de Sade, Montesquieu, Diderot, Beaumarchais, D’Alembert, among others. Their contribution to the history of modern thought and the modern scientific enterprise cannot overstated. Let us also not forget the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, a personal idol, or further back to the infancy of ideas during the humanist renaissance through to important contributions by another personal idol in Galileo Galilei.

Throughout the whole history the modern scientific enterprise, the inspired vision of science can be seen to also inspire an alternative philosophy of life and society. From the tragic story of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, to the progressive struggle by the enlightenment philosophes, who denounced the oppression of the Church and began formulating a scientific and certainly also deeply humanistic vision – the lesson of history, for me, is that the value is as prefigurative as it is institutional. A defense of science against anti-science and post-factualism, as well as post-modern relativism, is more than a defence of our scientific institutions, of entities like NASA’s earth science programme. Science is also lived. And through living science, through the defense and daily practice of reason, one prefigures a better and more rational social world.

And so the deeper reflection is to not limit one’s defence of science to the simple act of protest. What science also fosters is a foundational alternative perspective, a richness and openness of critical and inquisitive experience that helps ensure the vital normativity of progressive horizons of institutional and social practice. In an irrational and pathological social world, the modern scientific pursuit and the wholeness of the value of scientific practice and knowledge evidences, in one way or another, the hopeful vision of a global future society.

Does such an account ultimately, in some way, project social and political values? At present, I’m not entirely sure how to answer this. What I do think is that one should not be afraid of the positive vision that science offers, and seek to repress it in fear of politicization. Carl Sagan, much like Neil Degrasse Tyson, can hardly be criticized for “politicizing science”. And yet, they also embrace the positive and transformative social philosophical appeal in which science and modern scientific endeavour lends itself.

To that, I would like to conclude this admittedly informal essay by considering arguably one of the most important driving forces behind both the enlightenment and science: namely, a critical conception of universalism. Perhaps here the greatest lesson is served to us by the history of physics: science is not a collection of absolute truths, as we always have something to learn. As Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw put it: Science is a discipline that celebrates uncertainty without ever abandoning the idea of truth and the understanding of objective reality. The key to the success of modern science is in its keeping open to new data, new discoveries and to further refined theories as phenomena reveal more of themselves over time.

From Newton to Einstein and beyond, this is an epistemological value to be cherished. It is also a value that very much is embodied in the enlightenment. In that the enlightenment sought to develop a social philosophy based on reason, science (and scientific knowledge); it also sought, as Stephen E. Bronner (2004) points out, to ground a critical conception of progress that owed nothing to dogma or political allegiance. Progress was seen as open, unfolding and almost constant – in a sense, it is an unfolding process, because, epistemologically speaking, the more we learn, the more we understand, the more we can also investigate and interpret our social systems and structures for the benefit of everyone. Thus, celebrated for the advent of modern notions of democracy, there is also something deeply egalitarian about the philosophes and the hopeful scientific vision that they sought to inspire. Empowering these values was the idea of universality and normativity, or, if you like, normative universalism.

To be clear, what I am describing here is a few of the most basic coordinates of a rich account of science in relation to the process of positive social development. And what such an approach does is that it allows us to appreciate the nuances of social development, and the parameters of a progressive philosophy of history, particularly insofar as the relation between social and modern scientific pursuit.

Perhaps what is called for in a post-factual world is, indeed, concern over politicization, while at the same time deep ethical and moral reflection on the social and humanistic values of the modern scientific endeavour? Perhaps, somewhere, a core sense of humanism has been lessened in the pursuit of profit and overproduction and a march for science is also a march for the values of the scientific enterprise? If nothing else, these seem to be important sites of reflection, especially as we face the need for an urgent defense of science in the midst of what seems to be an increasingly irrational social world.

References

Bronner, S. (1995). The Great Divide: The Enlightenment and its Critics. In New Politics, Vol. 5, no. 3. Retrieved from http://nova.wpunj.edu/newpolitics/issue19/bronne19.htm

—– (2002). Critical Intellectuals, Politics, and Society. In Imagining the Possible: Radical Politics for Conservative Times. New York: Routledge.

—– (2004). Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press.

—– (2005). Enlightenment Now: Stephen Eric Bronner. In The Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved from http://brooklynrail.org/2005/01/express/enlightenment-now-stephen-eric-bronner

—– (2014). Moments of Decision: Political History and the Crises of Radicalism. New York: Bloomsbury.

Cox, B. and Forshaw, J. (2009). Why Does E=MC^2?. Da Capo Press.

De Condorect, Marie Jean Antoine. (1955). Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. In Steven Lukes and Nadia Urbinati (eds.) Condorcet: Political Writings. Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-148. Trans. June Barraclough. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Gregory, Mary Efrosini. (2010). Freedom in French Enlightenment Thought. Peter Lang.

Israel, J. (2002). Radical Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leiss, W. (1972/1994). The Domination of Nature. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Malik, K. (1996). The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

—– (2005). Born in Bradford. Retrieved from http://www.kenanmalik.com/essays/bradford_prospect.html

—– (2009a). Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. London: Oneworld Publications.

—– (2009b). The Guilt of Science? Race, Science and Darwinism. Retrieved from http://www.kenanmalik.com/lectures/voltaire_lecture_2009.html

—– (2013a). On the Enlightenment’s ‘Race Problem’. Retrieved from https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/on-the-enlightenments-race-problem/

—– (2013b). The Making of the Idea of Race. Retrieved from https://kenanmalik.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/the-making-of-the-idea-of-race/

Pagden, A. (2013). The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters. London and New York: Random House.

Trevor-Roper, H. (2010). History and the Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Social Pathology, Philosophy of Reason and Bloom’s “Against Empathy” – On Science, Ethics, and Knowledge

R.C. Smith

To think of ethics is likely today to evoke the idea of empathy. Similarly, in the context of many mainstream discourses within social theory, to think of empathy is often to evoke philosophical consideration in the field of radical ethics. The same is true with the order of terms reversed. It is not uncommon for contemporary discourses around radical ethics to be situated very closely to the prevailing emphasis on empathy. But what is the social value of empathy? This question does not mean to incite a common definition, namely “the ability to identify with or understand the perspective, experiences, or motivations of another individual and to comprehend and share another individual’s emotional state”. The target of my query is much more fundamental in the sense of a social value.

It is en vogue these days to believe that empathy is key to unlocking morality once and for all. Religious and philosophical ethics are commonly out the window – the former understandably. Empathy is here to save the day. Like equality or democracy, it has become a social value that many are increasingly relying on philosophically as a source of ultimate and profound goodness. It has become a staple value for progressives. And it makes sense, because empathy suggests the broader horizon of a particular progressive social world conceived on the basis of social justice and non-violence and mutual recognition and all that other stuff. Within this mainstream and established discourse the problem, we learn, is that there’s just not enough empathy. But what I would like to do is take a moment to question this value or principle in its pure conceptual form. More concisely, I would like to ask: is empathy enough?

In beginning to approach this question, I offer two immediate points of clarity. In the past I have written about empathy as a key to a broader ethical theory. In a recent book on social pathology, which considers the deficit of reason in contemporary society from a number of angles, empathy was one of a number of normative values that was considered as an essential constituent of an integrative and progressive social philosophy. But there is a caveat, and it is an important one. Empathy was considered directly in relation to rationality. The same goes for past engagements with things like intersubjective theory, which I have argued toward within the field of interpersonal social ethics, but again with the caveat that social intersubjectivity is insubstantial without rationality. Perhaps, in the end, what all these debates come down to is a discourse on epistemology. But seeing how such a discussion extends beyond the remit of our current engagement, let’s continue down a more simple path that entertains a series of reflections on reason and empathy.

***

Reason and empathy? Empathy and reason? In present popular discourses, the two are often perceived antinomically. Proponents of empathy argue away from reason and rationality. Extreme proponents on the other side, in terms of what some seem to describe in philosophy as a strict and immoderate rationalism within the field of social theory, which should in no way be conflated with a positive, moderate or sensible rationalism, will sometimes lose sight of the value or important role of empathy in interpersonal relations. The criticism here, from what I have gleaned, is that such a strict rationalism, which some seem to also associate with social positivist theory, is said to lose sight of how human emotion, for better or for worse, forms a part of basic human experience.

Admittedly, one might call me a rationalist. Those who know me personally will undoubtedly say that I even verge on the “extreme” end of rationalism, the definition of which I am not always sure. But I also understand that human reality is not so idealistic. Contemporary society is by no means rational, and I tend to think of its lack of rationality as a projection of the deficit of reason on a more macro level of general human experience. Quite frankly,  it is debatable whether human beings have ever known a rational society. But the critical normative value of reason persists, and within irrational society the voice of reason remains one of the only remaining spaces for hope. In any case, understanding and agreeing with the rationalist perspective that the primacy of reason is important, I think it is also upon us to recognize the complexity of everyday human experience (that which resides outside the scientific method), and how human motivation is multidimensional and includes a significant emotional component. On the note, perhaps proponents of empathy theory are not wrong to emphasize the place of human emotion within the context of human reality. But the main issue I have with empathy theory – that is, social theory principled on the primacy or fundamental value of empathy – is that while empathic experience is generally positive, it is also severely limited. More sharply, I would argue the rejection of reason on behalf of the primacy of human emotion is incredibly misguided if not ill-judged.

On this point I was pleased to discover a recent book by Paul Bloom titled Against Empathy (2016).

Putting aside the provocative title, which is custom to the landscape of popular literature, the author’s arguments are generally well laid out. Within we read not an argument against empathy (per se) as a positive value strictly placed on the level of interpersonal relations. Rather what we read is an argument against empathy in what I would describe as its overextended use in moral philosophy.

For Bloom, the notion of empathy that he is “most interested in is the act of feeling what you believe other people feel–experiencing what they experience. This is how most psychologists and philosophers use the terms” (pp. 3-4). Picking up on how it is a popular trend these days to identify empathy as an ultimate philosophical value, a pure source of moral guidance, what we read in Bloom’s book is a counter-argument about how the value of empathy is insufficient on a much larger level. To put it tersely, empathy in the purely emotional sense of its definition is analytically weak. In my own words, it does not in and of itself serve the purpose of constructing a foundation for progressive social philosophy; and by no means does it by itself lead to supporting a more rational social world.

There are a number of ways to unpack these assertions. Bloom offers many illustrations in his book, including the example of charity. This is a good example to run with, because we can also deepen Bloom’s account of charity in the process of exploring some of the positive implications of his thesis. To start, an obvious question arises: what makes for an effective charity drive? Simply put, it is their emotive appeal and call for action. Charities often explicitly target message so as to ensure that their advertisements evoke an emotional response. People describe this as “pulling at the heartstrings”. This is because charities often depend on the human capacity to empathize – the emotional base of human empathy. Thus their campaigns and infomercials often explicitly aim to create or foster a moment of empathic experience – an emotionally charged response of action, often in the sense of contributing a donation or signing a petition.

The very same description can be applied to the ethical consumer movement, where at times the motivation seem much more emotional than rationally considerate. Think, for instance, of the push toward Biodynamic farming. This alternative agricultural technique is on the rise, energized in part by the ethical consumer movement; but it is not without valid concern. Indeed, there are many science-based questions about the legitimacy of biodynamic farming practices. Could it be that, underlying this issue, is another case of how consumers, including or perhaps especially conscious consumers, make emotion-based choices instead of science-based ones? Perhaps this tendency resides at the heart of the struggle to maintain a sense of lucidity within the conscious consumer movement. And this is one of many areas where Bloom’s book can be applied.

Moreover, and on the basis of my crude sketch, an interesting question arises pertaining to the rationale of the operation of charity within society. Again, to approach the matter in a very analytical way, charities of course do a lot of good. This statement is obvious. Charities and non-profit campaigns are generally well intentioned and can have a great effect on a local and national level. But let us for a moment consider the complexities of economic inequality as a focus of charity. Can it not also be said, in terms of a much more systemic and rational analysis, that the human goal should be the elimination of inequality at its roots, as opposed to relying on charitable initiatives for the purpose of generating financial aid to patch the deficits of modern political-economic system? Is this question not the obvious rational point of enquiry?

To approach it differently: does the reality of economic inequality not demand systemic solutions that target the roots of its causality?To Bloom’s point, empathy in and of itself is not analytically substantive or expansive enough to ask these questions. In other words, it does not signify ratiocinative qualities of unbiased critical thinking and rational and evidence-based analysis. It is not empirical, scientific or rationally substantive. Nor is empathic experience motivated by fact or systematic assessment of reality; thus in no way is it necessarily substantially considerate.

Allow me to ask the obvious question in another way: Without the fully realized ability to reason, to think critically, what effective purpose does empathy serve? Likewise, the argument goes, what purpose does charity really serve when it comes to particular issues like economic inequality? It may help ease the economic burdens of an individual or a family, and this can no doubt be lifesaving. To make it clear: I am in no way devaluing what positives charities contribute in this regard. But when it comes to the larger systemic picture, the entire dynamic existence of charity and the emotional basis on which it operates, is there not an argument toward the requirement of a much deeper analysis and line of consideration?.

I think this is an interesting point of thought, one that we could re-employ in the context of Bloom’s book. He does a terrific job at exploring the limits of empathy along similar lines, which leads him to make the case for a notion of “rational compassion”. I think this is an incredibly important concept, which resonates with my own thesis in Society and Social Pathology that was angling toward what I now consider to be a notion of cognitive empathy (which I basically take to mean the same thing).

Continuing to preserve the positive role empathic experience might play strictly on an interpersonal level, how I interpret Bloom’s book is that, empathy itself does not offer the necessary conceptual tools to think through, analyse and ultimately assess social issues in the detailed, evidenced-based and comprehensive manner required. Empathy is not necessarily critical or comprehensive in terms of a cognitive-rational process of assessment. Empathy does not imply rationally contemplative, critical or substantive consideration. As an emotional response it can have an incredibly narrow scope. Empathy can even also be prejudiced and it can be manipulated to serve other’s interests. Ultimately it is a weak guide in the face of complex moral dilemmas. What’s also interesting about this argument is how it may connect to a deeper philosophical analysis regarding the current deficit of social rationality. Indeed, I believe one can draw a direct connection between Bloom’s book and the more broad claims that what is also required today is a historical and cultural renewal of reason and rationality as core progressive social philosophical values. But I’ll save that for later.

***

I would like to take a moment to expand on a few of my comments. It is not that empathy is useless or redundant. Likewise, it is not that empathy isn’t important or that it is not a key guiding value of progressive social philosophy. This essay is not meant to serve the suggestion that empathy doesn’t play a role in maintaining some semblance of sanity in human life. The fact of the matter remains that an overwhelming body of evidence and research confirms the importance of empathy on the level of interpersonal relations, from psychotherapy to medical practice to education and special needs. Even progressive values such as restorative justice or, perhaps more broadly, the very idea of democracy contains to whatever degree a notion of empathy in addition to a notion of compassion and rationality. On the basis of everything we currently know, from anthropology through to developmental psychology and beyond, it would seem fairly safe to suggest that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of social empathy. Contemporary proponents of empathy and its social importance do not appear wrong in this regard. It is only that, at least to my mind, empathy can become over-valued. Or, to put it another way, it is overextended beyond the effectiveness of its range. Thus in taking from Bloom, the argument put forth here is that while empathy has a very real social value, reason and the notion of rational compassion are also absolutely vital. Inasmuch that it may be safe to conclude that a healthy (or less pathological) society is one that fosters a high degree of social empathy, so too it would seem safe to conclude that a healthy society is generally one that culturally fosters a high degree of individual and social rationality. In this sense what we’re talking about is very much a deep, integral, complex and many-sided developmental account.

I think most moderate and rationally sensible people would agree on the basis of evidence that progressive social philosophy, much like a progressive theory of ethics, is grounded to some degree in the social-culture promotion and fostering of empathic experience and intimate social relations. But empathy is not going to solve the many issues we face in relation to climate change. Empathy and its sociocultural increase is not going to solve potentially pending energy crises, systemic poverty, or the inequalities of health. It won’t serve to ensure humanities defense against a possible future asteroid, or put humans on mars, or help us identify the chemistry of sustainable materials or the cure for preventable diseases.

To this point, I like Bloom’s idea of rational compassion. Moral decisions are not purely empathic decisions. Inasmuch as they depend to a large degree on critical thinking and, impliedly, a form of meditating subjectivity, moral decisions should also necessarily be considered as rational, evidence-based and comprehensive systemic decisions in the sense of their relation to the larger social picture. Empathy, which, itself, on a policy level, can become a purely reactionary principle of moral action, lacks the necessary rational and critical normative basis of systemic or comprehensive evaluation. And this, in a very crude and summarized way, is one of the fundamental issues when it comes to contemporary theories that rely solely on empathy and empathetic experience as source of moral and ethical action, as Bloom notes.

Simply put, social theories of empathy become too one-dimensional, and they lack integration into a more coherent and complex view. And for these reasons, among others, my arguments in Society and Social Pathology could perhaps be considered somewhat akin to Bloom’s book: namely, that the practice of social empathy and reason should be considered in a very reticulate way. We may call this “rational compassion” or cognitive empathy or whatever; but the main point, for me, is the underlining basis that is the human capacity to reason. This is why, in my own study on social pathology, I spent a significant amount of time describing irrationality and the social deficit of reason, especially in relation to a form of social critique and within the frame of developmental psychology. But I think an even deeper point is that a less pathological society, one which reconciles the deficit of reason, is one that would evidence not just a high degree of cultural empathy but an even higher degree of social rationality. And in my book on pathology, this was described primary through the notion of the mediating subject.

***

Having said all that, I think Bloom’s book could be expanded and deepened in several ways. My first point of reflection begins with consideration within the boundaries of philosophy of reason.

One senses that there are a number of moments of tension in the Bloom’s analysis. One reason for this, I think, has to do with how the social world isn’t quantifiable in the same way as nature, and for this reason it is easy to anticipate the criticism I’ve read of Against Empathy, namely that it verges on being what a section of philosophers describe as “positivist”. This is actually I term I tend to see a lot in social philosophy, and it is not always easy to understand what it means. Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the complications associated with attempts to purely translate or reemploy the successes of natural science methodologies within the domain of social research and analysis. The difficulty, as I understand it, can perhaps be better expressed in methodological terms. “Positivism”, or “positivist epistemology”, which I would differentiate from positivist social theory, is a highly effective tool within the natural sciences. It is an important epistemology; but when utilized in the study of social phenomena and relations, including the study of human beings, this epistemology is criticized as being limited. The study of social phenomena, of the social world, is different than studying objects of nature. As a physics student, I often think for instance of the difference between the study of a natural phenomenon way out in the cosmos – or the study of the tangled web that is gravity – and the study of something like human migration and economy. Human beings have agency, society too, as one learns through a thorough study of sociology, is the product of a complex interplay of the relationship between structure-agency. A positivist epistemology, as I understand it within the frame of natural science practices, comes under criticism when, what is labelled as “positivist social theory” – that is, the translation of natural science methodology as the pure means of social research methodology – throws a rational blanket over everything, failing to grasp the complexity of human consciousness and the multidimensional realities behind human action and behaviour. Human beings, social phenomena, are said to be seen atomistically with little to no recognition of the realities of social construction. Social scientific practice in this sense can often become economically reductionist when applied within the particular dynamics of the social world.

From the books I’ve read, one way to describe the issue in methodological terms is how when trying to translate the undeniably successful methodologies and epistemologies withing the natural sciences into the domain of social research and study, it’s basically like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I don’t always know what to make of these debates. Being a science student and an individual committed to the natural sciences, as well as an individual widely read in social science, I would suggest in the very least that it would be beneficial to differentiate the useful and effective positivist epistemology we commonly use in the natural sciences, with “positivist social theory”. In critical theory and in critical sociology, the two tend to be conflated or confused and this, I think, is a mistake because what’s good about positivist epistemology gets lost.

Whatever one thinks of these arguments, a critical reader of Bloom’s book will certainly raise concern about how certain moments of argumentation verge toward “positivist social views”.

To avoid the possibility of such charges in the future, perhaps it is useful on a methodological level to see the study of the social world and the study of the natural world as separate complex entities, however much they may also find points of interrelation. While quantifiable in certain ways, the social world has its own complexities and the underlying realities aren’t entirely appropriate for natural scientific methodology. Coming from the perspective of the natural sciences, when I read social philosophy and theory and the perspectives offered in relation to philosophy of science, I often read how scientific methodology easily becomes an ideological extension of society within the domain of social research; because “positivist epistemology” isn’t able to reflect on itself and the facts its social research discloses. In other words: there is a broad range of literature that argues how, the direct translation of natural scientific methodologies into the field of social scientific study, often becomes subservient or an extension of the social status quo. Many popular commentators have also pointed out how it often produces too much of a one-dimensional view of human society. We observe strange theories such as those based on the view of human beings a “rational maximizers”, which seems to neglect the fact that everyday human experience is much more convoluted and messy. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a wonderful line, which I interpret in a similar way: namely about why so many people seem to struggle with even basic mathematics, speculating that it is because human beings are not necessarily purely logical beings. It’s hard to argue against him. What else is modern history if not a simultaneous celebration of modern reason and the value of human rationality in addition to an ongoing struggle to understand the deficit of reason and the problem social irrationality?

It is interesting to reflect on these debates. I think one of the simple lessons within the history of social science, to use a very obvious example, is that when trying to understand the complexities of the social world, we cannot completely expunge human emotion from human life. If what people call “social positivist philosophy” becomes too hardened and one-dimensional in terms of a strictly behavioural view, perhaps what we lose sight of is the role human emotion plays in human experience and the complexities of impact and causality with regards to structure-agency. And this connection would make some sense. Behaviouralism, as a social philosophy, in the sense of its social philosophical designation, relates very much to a particular philosophical paradigm that attempts to translate the insights of natural science to an analysis of human social behaviour.

In physics, chemistry, and so on modern scientific knowledge is unparalleled. The scientific method is undoubtedly one of the great human epistemological accomplishments, which has resulted in an exponential increase in knowledge. But we if take seriously the idea that the study of the social world requires, however subtly, its own unique approach. Is this the same as saying that social research cannot learn from the natural sciences, preserving important concepts or values as objectivity and the generation of objective knowledge about social phenomena? Can it not also integrate natural science methodologies and epistemologies? If the ontology of the social world is different than the natural one, as are the basic dynamic-structures and systems. with issues of meta-theory, epistemology, aetiology, the role of theory, explanation and prediction – surely a progressive framework for social research would have at its foundation the lessons of natural science, the core value of empirical research and evidenced-based thought.

In this sense, if the social sciences are largely considered to be in state of disarray because its prevailing methodologies and frameworks have yet to grasp accurate methodologies, techniques, and certainly also a mature epistemology – perhaps an example of social science research can be found in what is called social systems theory and systems thinking. When analyzing the social world, as a good science-driven systems researcher would do, complexities involving structure-agency, subject-object, individual-collective, universal-particular, qualitative-quantitative, seem to take on a unique complexity. Scientifically driven, it is one example of what I would describe as good contemporary social science; but the problem is that it is few and far between, especially in mainstream social science, which is being increasingly overrun by poststructural and postmodern perspectives with their hypertheoretical, hyperspectulative and meaningless jargon.

With these considerations in mind, maybe what is left to be said is that philosophy of social science must also be adjusted. What doesn’t help, as alluded earlier, is that the social world is  drenched in emotion. It’s largely pathological, often irrational, and its history is almost constantly entrenched in ideology and the battle of “worldviews”. Additionally, even from the side of research practice and analysis, it is easier for the social scientist to become entwined in systems of power and political worldviews, for the concept of objectivity and truth seem to so easily erode within the social sciences. We see it all time, and often it is because the individual subject is more heavily mediated or invested in the social world and the social issues that constitute his or her sociohistorical-cultural context. The natural sciences doesn’t face the same degree of tension, even though it is not entirely free from or autonomous to sociohistorical-cultural contexts (a topic for discussion at a later time).

In the natural sciences I find that it is easier for us to preserve the primacy of reason, the parameters of rational analysis and debate, and the process by which the scientific community can reach consensus. Perhaps this is also because science often acts as a sort of corrective against human error, such as the creeping inclination for instance toward “confirmation bias” (a notion I’ll return to later). In the social world however, even concepts of reason and truth become so deeply socially mediated, that it is not uncommon for an irrational politician, an ideologue or dogmatist, to make claim to the voice of reason and rationality. What were originally progressive, critical and reasonable movements can easily become extremist, while extremist movements are at times seen as “reasonable”. The social world is one where people fight for values, and thus prejudice is freely and openly celebrated. An individual can take up the progressive cause to preserve a piece of natural landscape from exploitation by an oil corporation, standing for the need for the generation of clean energy and against extreme environmental degradation. But that person can also easily lose sight of rational debate and analysis. Instead their position can also become one between opposing forces reduced to political opinion and “difference of values”. Likewise, the same can be said for reactionary movements, which tend to be primarily based in ideology and operate within the realm of anti-reason. Here, the objective is to intentionally reduce debate to opinion, to prejudiced subjectivity, because more often than not reality and fact for reactionary movements – such as “climate deniers” – is an inconvenient truth. But ideology can be found throughout the whole of the social political world, and each scenario can be crossed to the other.

***

In response to these problems, an intriguing alternative paradigm is presently emerging (especially in the UK) under the designation “critical realism”. I am by no means an expert reader, but from my understanding this emerging paradigm seeks to offer a considerable engagement with both a “positivist” and “critical approach” within the field of philosophy of social science. In postulating an interface between the study of the natural and social worlds – to assist the translation of natural science methodologies and epistemologies within the domain of social research and participation – it provides a meta-theory at the intersections of philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, and aetiology (to name a few). Furthermore, it would be interesting to hear an informed scholar’s view of how its combination of transcendental realism with critical naturalism could offer a more thorough sense of an alternative social theoretical paradigm. The speculation here is emphasized further in relation to the question of integration without losing sight of the primacy of reason, something which I’ve discussed in other places.

To deepen our considerations: Critical realism, on my understanding, seems to want to take serious the reconciling of the extensive list of issues at the heart of philosophy of social science. Refreshingly, it doesn’t appear to be sociologically relativistic. Thus, one could perhaps see it as avoiding the traps discussed in relation to other books I’ve critique in recent time. Secondly, and in relation to a number of recent publications, including Bloom’s Against Empathy, on my reading critical realism appears to recognize a critique of positivist social theory without completely rejecting the value of positivist epistemology and, in turn, also accommodate a humanistic and integrative view of the total human subject. Likewise, too, it maintains the primacy of reason, even when opening discourse up to the notion of integration.

In addition to this last comment, note the use of the term “integration”, which connects to what was touched on earlier and what will be discussed a little later. This is something I’ve personally struggled to frame for some time: how to honour the primacy of reason while also doing justice to an integral view of the human subject? How to do justice to reason and social rationality, while also engaging with realities pertaining to the relation of structure-agency and the role emotion might play in human decision making? In a past essay concerning a different book I considered, for example, how it is not enough to posit a holistic and integrative view if that means the primacy of reason is rejected, because what happens is that one’s position eventually succumbs to a variant of sociological relativism (even in spite of aims to preserve universal normative values).

Having said that, I see critical realism as being limited purely to the domain of social research. And it is not entirely without its own cause for critique. For instance, there are subtleties about its position on epistemology that for me don’t quite capture a progressive enough argument.

“Due to CR ontology and epistemology, (there is a ‘real’ world and it is theory-laden, not theory-determined), all explanations of reality are treated as fallible (Bhaskar, 1979), including the explanations provided by research participants, theorists and scientists. This ontological departure of CR from interpretivism becomes particularly useful for […] research in which participants offering competing explanations of a phenomenon and some must be taken as more accurate than others. For the same reason, CR epistemology may also be seen as disempowering for participants (i.e., through the implication that the scientist knows best!). However, it should not be assume that scientific explanations are always more accurate than experiential explanations – indeed, all are potentially fallible, and participants experiences and explanations of a phenomenon may in fact prove most accurate in explaining the reality. In qualitative CR research, participants’ experiences and understandings can challenge existing scientific knowledge and theory (Redman-MacLaren & Mills, 2015).” (Fletcher, A.J. (2016). Applying critical realism in qualitative research: methodology meets method. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, Vo. 20, Issue 2, p. 188)

While it is not entirely inaccurate or unreasonable to suggest that all forms of knowledge and all forms of explanation may be fallible, and that even in certain situations existing scientific knowledge and theory may be challenged and proven incorrect when set against participants’ experiences and experiential understandings; there is a different way to express this whilst also ensuring the preservation of the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge. Having said that, it seems fairly clear that critical realism seeks to utilize “the ‘practice of rational judgement, wherein the researcher may need to elaborate upon (or deviate from) participants’ own interpretations in order to ‘provide fuller or more adequate interpretations’ of reality” (Parr, 2013, p.10; cited in Fletcher 2016, p.190). This suggests that the primacy of reason and scientific knowledge are in fact ultimately preserved, without the naivety of thinking that such forms of knowledge are absolute and free of the possibility of error.

With these considerations in mind, instead of devaluing positivist perspectives within the natural sciences, what the position in this essay offers in its reading of Against Empathy, is recognition of the success of positivist approaches within the natural sciences, with the caveat that attempts to directly and cleanly translate positivist approaches to social theory practice are problematic. In other words, this essay serves to speculate that perhaps the lesson to be learned is that a rationalist perspective, such as the one I often argue toward, has to be more subtle and integrative when applied within the domain of social theory and research.

Unlike positivist attempts at translating directly the success of the natural sciences to social studies, which fails to recognize social construction and the relationships between agency-structure (among other things), viewing individuals only as rational agents, critical realism could be seen to shed another light on the the struggle for a rational social world from within an integrative and holistic framework (as opposed to throwing a rational blanket over everything and pretending human beings are purely rational actors).

***

Returning to Bloom’s book, I sense a bit of a tension, perhaps even naivety, behind certain passages of thought as a result of the above. His categories, his framing, does not allow for what I would describe as holistic or integrative perspective that would seem increasingly vital to social-based analysis and study. This notion of an integrative perspective takes inspiration partly from the humanist tradition, referring on one level to the view of the integrated human person. It goes back to the notion that the individual is not purely an economic means or a rational maximizer, but a complex subject in which emotion also plays a part, for better or for worse.

Such a form of rationalism, which preserves the primacy of reason and places it within a more integrative frame, serves as a reminder of the very real ongoing struggle for reason and social rationality. Reason and rationality are not taken for granted, and the human capacity to access reason is featured as a fundamentally important question.

 

To approach it differently: I think Bloom is right to make his critical intervention. But we can deepen it by recognizing that reason and social rationality – even rational compassion – very much also have a developmental component. To put it another way: the notion of rational compassion is predicated, I would argue, on the overlap between reason, rationality and the healthy status of the individual subject. Reason and social rationality are integral to progressive philosophy of the subject because they very much depend on a form of healthy subjectivity. Philosophy of reason is based, I would argue, in philosophy of the subject.

In Against Empathy there is a risk, in moments, where empathy, reason and compassion once again take on antinomical positions, when I think the progressive argument is much more advanced, subtle and perhaps imbricated.

This comes out in strange ways. For instance, I agree with other commentators that subtle moments, such as in Bloom’s use of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among a few others, as examples of “people of the heart”, as opposed to people of reason, is grossly inaccurate and simplistic. It comes, I think, from an underlying antinomical view. As one commentator put it, these individuals, particularly Gandhi and MLK, were actually very rational in their ethics.

Bloom also seems to make assertions about empathy on the level of feeling, without fully realizing that both empathy and rationality can have a common range: a deeply rational person can also be deeply empathic, in the emotional sense. The difference, and here I can only speak analytically and speculatively, would be in how emotionally defined or oriented empathy would percolate as cognitive empathy in a rational individual. If we consider the following axiom as true, namely that human emotion is integral to the human situation, perhaps the aspiration behind the social philosophical value of reason is not a complete repression of human emotion, which is arguably impossible anyway.

Rather, if there’s reason to suggest that the healthy, open, mediating subject – which I often liken to the scientific mind-set (think of the young discovering child, open and exploring) – is one that supports and fosters reason, this would suggest a more integrative perspective on human development. There is a reason why many leading psychological theories argue that the struggle for rational society is also the struggle for the healthy and reconciled subject. It is likely true that there can be rational people that are not necessarily the most emotionally developed, but there is a defined limit to this statement. Likewise, there can be people who pretend to be rational – one can think of many politicians – but are clearly biased ideologues. As a general philosophical rule, however, I think most rational, sensible and even scientifically-minded (or evidenced-based) people today that exemplify what might be described as a mediating form of subjectivity, possess, to whatever extent, an awareness of their own emotions. Awareness of one’s own emotions would seem to be important in order to rationally and objectively assess a situation or analyse a phenomenon, so as to ensure we keep a check on our own prejudices (social, theoretically, scientific or otherwise).

Following a similar logic to above. A high level of emotional empathy does not necessarily make one a good person. The same can be said in reverse. There are numerous disorders that reduce, neurologically speaking, an individual’s ability to empathize; and a low level of empathy in no way makes one a bad person or a person without progressive ethics. The point to take away from this is that the reality is much more nuanced. And really, what is required is again a deeply subtle and integrative approach.

What it all comes down to, I think, is the issue of (developmental) constitution. This was my argument in my book on pathology. What are the appropriate conditions that foster an openness and security in the individual to feel able to openly, rationally and critical enquire and engage with the world (as opposed to safeguarding “worldviews” or cognitive political ideological designations)?

In the cognitive sciences the notion of “confirmation bias” is incredibly insightful, highlighting the human tendency toward the familiar, to reject “otherwise” or any evidence that contradicts one’s established worldview. There are numerous studies in this area, and they are revealing as to how the human brain works, including in terms of the physiological effects of having one’s established views affirmed.

When reading many of the leading studies in this area, it is interesting to think more broadly in terms of societal functioning, such as in how confirmation bias seems evident in so much of general human behaviour. Think for instance of how the media functions. Black and white sensationalist statements confirming one view or another, the content of which often lacks nuance and thorough consideration of the many sides of an issue. It is opinion versus opinion, bias versus bias. It is hard to deny, especially in our present irrational social context, that confirmation bias doesn’t rule the day. Practically speaking, the difference between the positive feeling of having one’s views affirmed – and even the physiological effects of this experience – and the existential insecurity of having them challenged, is incredibly human.

But one of the issues I have with the assertions made by certain proponents of the confirmation bias thesis is how it can become reduced too much to a deterministic viewpoint. In other words, we have to keep aware of the tendency versus determinism relation. It would seem, on the basis of current evidence, that confirmation bias is a very real dimension of human experience. At the same time, it is one dimension. Another dimension is the possibility of reasoned and rational thought. While the inclination may be to reduce and absolutize the tendency toward confirmation bias and resolutely assert its reality within a deterministic frame, I think it is more accurate within the total human picture to balance this tendency with its opposite (which we can also observe, however fragile and fleeting).

There are so many wonderful examples within the sciences of individuals, even entire collectives of researchers, evidencing a very different type of subjectivity. It is a form of subjectivity, as already described – one that is open, searching, exploring, and willing to consider the possibility of “otherwise”. The excitement and anticipation of possibly discovering sometime new, this scientific experience goes against the tendency toward confirmation bias. In this sense, inasmuch that confirmation bias seem prevalent, there is also evidence of the opposite – people who are open to their own ideas being challenged, to being proven wrong, in their rational pursuit of knowledge.

Undoubtedly even the most rational person must constantly consciously remind oneself of the importance of maintaining normatively open, to thinking critically even when it comes to one’s own theories, ideas and views. The tendency toward confirmation bias seems to be always be creeping in the background. But how might we do justice to both sides, to two very different forms of experience, and two very different developmental mind-sets, and arrive closer to understanding this complex interplay of forces?

In psychology, many seem to argue that emotions play an incredibly important role in determining whether one is rationally engaged or closed, repressed and propelled by overbearing self-preservation drives. Additionally, there are some fascinating studies emerging within the neurosciences that touch on the deeper point being made here: the interrelations between psychological and biological development. What is the difference between the rational individual feeling secure in themselves to constantly challenge their own position, to consider “otherwise” and maintain an openness to the unknown, and the individual driven by the need for confirmation bias?

In engaging with the confirmation bias thesis, I would be inclined to suggest that it is important to remain nuanced and to maintain recognition of the developmental dimension of the irrational attitude and the biased-driven mind. It is possible that I am wrong in my suspicions, but if the inclination toward confirmation bias is one dimension of human experience, maintaining some space for the possibility for the realization of the free-flourishing subject and the flourishing of human reason would also seem vital.

In this age of “alternative facts”, the question begs to be asked: developmentally, what conditions would support or help foster more generally a rational subject who is open to the world and to the constant rational pursuit of knowledge? What are the appropriate social conditions that foster a more healthy, open, critical and rational subject? What are the appropriate social conditions to support and foster “rational compassion”, to use Bloom’s words, or cognitive empathy, which allows for principled, enlightened and evidence-based thought about nature, the social world, and the many complex systemic social issues we face?

To argue that there is a deficit of cognitive empathy – or “rational compassion” – is essentially to argue, by way of inference, that there is a deficit of reason. Holding on to this, it is then interesting to ask what proponents of empathy theory might be responding to in terms of our modern social reality. In asking this question their ideal seems to be a projection of something much more than purely empathic experience on an interpersonal level. A lot of the literature I have read seems to want to extract an entire social theory or foundational social philosophy. Empathy in this  philosophically ultimate sense is perhaps closer in its symbolic meaning to the notion of rational compassion. I say this in the sense that, philosophically, the social value of empathy seems to symbolize more than its strict definition: a certain sensitivity of experiential relations akin to what some philosophers describe as the subject-subject plane of experience. When framed in this way, perhaps there is some compromise as to what both sides seem to be hinting: I would synthesize this as an alternative or perhaps more reconciled mode of experience, which is phenomenologically sensitive, rationally considerate and investigative, fluidly shifting between the subject-subject and subject-object paradigms. As this is only speculation, I’ll leave the thought open for consideration.

As a whole, and in sum, in many popular books that treat empathy as a sort of pure source of moral goodness, one senses that what the respective authors are reacting to is the deficit of something vitally important to healthy societal functioning. There is a lack, a void – a deficit of compassionate, considerable thought as well as a lack of a certain sensitivity of experience and a sensitivity of astute observation and intimate relations (with all things) that very much comprises the idea of a lived ethics. There is a systemic deficit of moral thought and action, in addition to a prevailing hardened subject. The contemporary social world is one of largely irrational action, growing increasing defined by the prevalence of hardened social attitudes. And so the inclination is to identify a positive value, such as empathy, to fill the void. The point of critique, taken from Bloom, is that it is an error to fill this void with some emotional ideal. But in considering the above reflections, perhaps one way to reconcile the debates is through the notion of integration and an integrative philosophy of reason?

***

With these contextual points in place, it is not insufficient to now state that my main complaint with Bloom’s book: the account of “reason” and “rationality” is in no way advanced enough. What I mean by this is that it struggles to reconcile or address the differences between the irrefutable success of the natural sciences and its methodologies with the unique dynamics and methodologies of social research. In this regard, Bloom’s book can be seen to serve too much as a useful target of critique for those weary of “positivist social philosophy”. In defending the primacy of reason this is something one must safeguard against.

The problem, to put it very simply, has to do with a lack of integration. Subtle instances of this lack appear in passing moments, such as in Bloom’s example of the starving child on p. 106, in which we read: “The niceties of personal contact are far less important than actually saving lives”. It’s not fair to isolate this statement and draw conclusions or criticism – I’m simply suggesting that subtly, nuance and an integrated view are constantly required, and it is this more progressive epistemology about where methodology meets social research method that at times lacks in Against Empathy.

Additionally, and in passing, Bloom’s book also lacks reflection in relation to the notion of critical rationality. For instance, in the odd passing sentence in which Bloom will make a statement about morality, or “violence and cruelty”, his view seems to lack critical awareness. When reading Bloom’s book one is inclined to ask: morality for whom and for what end? The answer, for me, is critical: Morality like philosophy of history – the normative universal enlightenment values integral to modern (social) reason and the modern scientific project – are based on a progressive and transformative social philosophy. Reason, as an emancipatory social philosophical concept, is ultimately based on or inspires the struggle for a more humane, egalitarian world. I say this on the basis not because reason is biased or prejudiced toward a particular political agenda, but because, in being a reader of the enlightenment philosophes, reason and rationality are also indicative of the presence of critical thought.

To approach the matter in another way: according to what normative criteria is the telos of morality considered? Perhaps the answer is that it is a means itself, just as reason should be a means itself. Therefore, in making the important case for “rational compassion”, which, I take to be a vital concept positively set in direct opposition to pathological society, maybe the that end rational compassion serves is no end at all. Maybe it harks back to the enlightenment notion of “progress”, which is seen as critical and open-ended. I favour this view, inasmuch as that I favour the view that modern science is also a means itself, which ought to be free of any ideological bias or ends.

I think a progressive account is one that considers social reason, in the enlightenment sense, as a fundamentally critical operation. Today, though, it can easily become conformist, which serves as an important reminder for us all: is one’s notion of “reason” really “reason” at all? Is human rationality not, first and foremost, the capacity to think through a problem in all its complexity and dimensions, given whatever wealth of evidence currently available? And is this not, inherently, also a critical process, a means in itself? I am not necessarily challenging or criticizing Bloom here. But these questions and reflections serve as an important point of reflection. Just like empathy can be prejudiced or manipulated to serve biased or ideological interests, so too can an uncritical notion of reason.

***

In closing, Bloom’s book offers an incredibly important contribution to contemporary debates. Reason, rationality, truly critical thinking – the current social deficit of these important values on behalf of totalized “worldviews” and dogmatic political and economic ideologies, is one of the basic characteristic of pathological thought. And that is because pathological thought, or subjectivity, is often closed, hardened and repressed. Cognitive empathy or “compassionate reason” implies the opposite: an open, free-flourishing, critical and rational subject akin to the scientific mind-set. Empathy has a place too in the more total picture. But empathy or compassion without analytics, without reason and rationality, and without critical evidenced-based thought offers nothing constructive in the grand scheme of things.

In other words: in entering the empathy debates, one can say that what gives reason its emphasis is that, without it, empathy means very little. If irrational, reactionary, and self-destructive patterns and trends are characteristic of much of the contemporary social world, as many argue, the deficit of reason and the lack of truly rational deliberation and discourse is without a doubt the fundamental matter at hand. This issues surrounding this deficit are complex, but the pathological lack of the daily capacities for rationality and compassion ultimately take precedence to a lack of empathy. One cannot have an empathic social world within an irrational societal context.

In this sense one could add in conclusion that the struggle for a more rational social world, a world that is compassionate in a truly considerate and constructively analytical sense – this is also the struggle for a healthy social world and a positive form of social development. Here, we should reintroduce the importance of humanistic philosophy, of which reason has long been an integral and leading member. There are aspects of Bloom’s book in which the internal logic of arguments seems to recognize this point. Concern for other’s welfare, which I agree is more of a mark of compassion than of empathy, is fundamentally indicative of reason and rationality in its social practice, and the entirety of such a social vision is ultimately a fundamental humanistic one (in a very direct enlightenment sense). And yet, to foster social conditions conducive for increasing social rationality, we learn when looking through the lens of social pathology that these conditions appeal to social dynamics that foster healthy, open and mediating subjectivity.

Thus, in the end, the struggle for a rational society raises deep searching questions regarding the status of the contemporary social world, its structures and systems and therefore also the general status of knowledge and subjectivity. It raises developmental questions about the effects of pathological society and about the health and status of the individual, and whether people generally feel secure enough in themselves to feel open to the world, and to the existential challenges of what it means to be rational in practice. When I think of a science inspired vision of society, I think of a form of social practical and debate that would be open and constantly surveying, rooted in evidence and deep consideration. Science inspires the idea of social engagement and deliberation based on facts, on evidence, and on the constant normative consideration and evaluation of phenomena – that is, a constant knowledge forming process. Modern science much like the enlightenment project in general – they inspire, at least for me, a vision based on a very real and materially substantive philosophy of the subject. And one can imagine how this subjectivity, this epistemology – this alternative way of experiencing the world, set against drives toward confirmation bias and the preservation of worldviews – could be the underpinning of an almost natural egalitarian, democratic process of social thought and deliberation. In many ways, this type of social philosophical vision, these basic normative values, represent the lasting legacy of the enlightenment. Long may that legacy continue to inspire, and long may modern science continue to invigorate the idea of a hopeful future.

Review: “The Gods in Whom They Trusted” – On Science, Knowledge and Ethics (Part 2)

R.C. Smith

Ethics of Experience

In think, ultimately,  what we read in The Gods in Whom They Trusted is a set of philosophical formulations that take the human tendency to formulate faith-based constructs, fundamental principles of “life direction”, “core or ultimate convictions”, or “visions of life” – very much in the philosophical sense of absolute first principles – as universal. In other words, these tendencies are perceived as both necessary and existentially imperative.  Like many other basic critiques of “totalized worldviews” or notions of absolute truth, or even absolute first-principles, De Graaff rightly wants to recognize positive “core values” that are not abstract and irrational – hence a critique of religion – and that are also “open” – thus not hypostatized and closed to change. He offers many, many examples of such “core values”, including for example different enlightenment values as well as the general indigenous values of “ecological sustainability”, among others.

In short, barring the complexities of the argument, the strategy or aim of this particular point of critical intervention can be described almost as a retrieval of key progressive values. These values are discerned and pulled from a number of places, and the “critical retrieval” aspect of De Graaff’s project is an advanced one: he wants to preserve the notion of normative progressive values while also formulating an alternative epistemology, anthropology and cosmology which remains “open”, intersubjective and sensitive to the agency of phenomena on the subject-subject plane of phenomenological experience.

In a similar albeit different way, poststructuralism in addition to a number of other intellectual movements has also sought to navigate the same issue or concern. However, of all recent attempts to reformulate and reconcile the notion of progressive normative values, safeguarding them from ideology or even totalized political philosophy, it is fair to say that De Graaff succeeds in coming very close.

In recognizing the need to take basic core values – like democracy, reason, equality, egalitarianism or even more practically, such as in ecological sustainability and community – one of the goals of the book is to ground these values as part of a lived ethics, reconciling them as “phenomenological guideposts”, no more and no less. In relation with his theory of phenomenological ethics, the goal seems to be to establish a normative theory of values in which values or core convictions are grounded in a notion of open, non-absolutizing subjectivity. Ethics, in other words, becomes based in the sort of lived experience predicated on a more open, mediating form of critical subjectivity. Rather than being hypostatized or absolute, and thus non-negotiable, normative values are, well, critical and normative. Anyone familiar with the Enlightenment philosophes will recognize the general direction of such an argument. For De Graaff, values are also unfolding, changing, negotiable, and thus,  in my own words, they are always subject to critical thinking and reflection. The reason for the need for such a retrieval, is because values like theory are rooted in history. Phenomena keep unfolding, we continuously learn more about the social and natural world, and thus also our historical circumstances keep changing and call for new responses or perspectives.

Basic values like freedom, justice, solidarity, etc. are perceived not as abstract values given by god, authorized by the church, or as part of an abstract theoretical and political framework; but as a fundamental “life direction” which speak to us throughout human history. De Graaff seems to strive to five meaning to, or at least deepens the expression, “history speaks”. Rather than maintaining an abstract status as core values tend to in a lot of social theory, political theory or religious contexts, in their retrieval we learn that they are not actually abstract at all. Democracy, respect, equality, science, community, horizontal leadership – they are what De Graaff calls “guideposts”, and they reverberate across time and “speak” in our experience with one another. To use the author’s terminology: “phenomenological guideposts”, core values often speak to us and want to be followed and worked out, for better or for worse.

One of the credits of this book in this regard is how the author remains incredibly sensitive, firstly, to how basic “core values”, “core convictions”, or “visions of life” are usually not negotiable to people. Hence the existence of ideology or totalized political philosophies in our modern social universe, and why what is called “ideology critique” is a popular concern within contemporary social sciences.

What we learn in The Gods in Whom They Trusted is that absolute first-principles for people usually only open up to negotiation, new insight or change when people enter a period of crisis. One can note that one of the definitions of “crisis” takes on this very meaning as, “A crucial or decisive point or situation, especially a difficult or unstable situation involving an impending change”. On the view offered by De Graaff, it is how we actualize core normative values or how they are given form, which is a fundamental question in each moment of history. For this reason, he eventually argues that “in each new situation these ‘normative’ or phenomenological guidelines need to be worked out anew and actualized”. What is negotiable, always, is how, for instance, Enlightenment values are given form or actualized, again and again, depending on the particular sociohistorical-cultural circumstances.

And so, in short, it is a retrieval of values that is another underlying philosophical theme of this book, which again relates to the theme of a non-violent epistemology. One the issues with the book’s formulations, I feel, has to do with what I have already labelled as the author’s use of worldview theory. And here, the whole of my critique comes to together. 

Worldview Theory

For those not familiar with worldview theory, one can type it in to any common search engine and a whole list of links will appear explaining exactly what this means and the tradition of thinking behind it. For our current purposes, it is enough to say that worldview theory is a useful tool for analysing social phenomena, such as political ideologies, and their subjectivities. It can be a useful framework for understanding ideological subjectivities within our contemporary pathological social world, where very few socially-aimed investigations are actually value-free. Such a social world is very much one reduced to subjectivism, or prejudiced “worldviews”, and thus in its rampant bias there is an incredible lack of rationality, openness and “critical thinking”.

In the sense that worldview theory helps capture a critique of such prevalent forms of pathological or irrational social practice, it also one of a number of conceptual tools that helps us explain different social phenomena, such as climate change denialism. People who deny climate change are not only badly informed (or misinformed), denial and ignorance are also a product of ideological blindness and subjective hypostatization. In the contemporary social context, it is often that scientific evidence is reduced in the social world to the status of “opinion” which itself is reduced to pure subjectivism, opinion versus opinion, or political persuasion versus political persuasion. This is a very irrational course of social cognition; and, as such, it is a form of cognition that is no longer rational, open, critical enquiring, and grounded on evidenced-based thinking. Worldview theory exposes the subjective operations of such opinions, but as a wider approach and method of explanation, it is an incredibly limited philosophical position.

In general, there are a number of problems with worldview theory, especially when it attempts to establish a foundational philosophical viewpoint that can explain more than what it is equipped to handle. Like building a modern house with only a rock as a hammer, worldview theory can only take one so far. Often, as a social theoretical perspective, it seems to conflate a very limited and particular critique of modern social ideologies and their subjectivities, with a social philosophical analysis that seeks to broach theories of knowledge, anthropology and even philosophy of science. (Thus, even natural science gets reduced to a “worldview”).

For the most part, such an approach ultimately produces variations of philosophical subjectivism and sociological relativism. Indeed, one its many known flaws can be observed in its more contemporary iteration, where each individual is said to have an “ideology”. Therefore no one “ideology” can be said to have a corner on “what’s right”, “the good life”, or “the truth”. In the context of The Gods in Whom They Trusted, I interpret the book’s position in this way, which is perhaps different to saying that different approaches can recognize the same fundamental truth of nature, or, in the social world, that different approaches can recognize the same fundamental truth of core normative values. In this sense, it is a perspective that is also morally relativistic in addition to being sociologically relativistic.

This may seem like a simple realization, but as a viewpoint it actually has profound implications, not least when it comes to how one views science and its relation with society. I’ll save a deeper consideration of this point for a later essay, which may or may not follow. Meanwhile, the main thing to take away here is that, if my reading is correct, even if the author recognizes that it is how core normative values are realized that serves a constant notice for critical and ethical reflection, judgement toward the formation and, ultimately, deformation of those core normative values becomes restricted. If no one approach has a corner on the truth, then judgement is impossible. This is one of the many pitfalls of relativistic sociological thinking.

Allow me to put it more sensitively: the author is absolutely correct to identify that how core normative values form, or are shaped, is one of the most fundamental of questions when it comes to social philosophy. Consider “democracy”, for example. Many of the prevailing forms of capitalistic democracy are actually not all that democratic, if one weighs the actual content of the value of democracy against today’s popular standard. There are many insightful studies about this, and how the mainstream standard of democracy today is positioned quite far from the actual critical normative (enlightenment) value of democracy, conceived primarily as an egalitarian principle.

So the argument in The Gods in Whom They Trusted regarding the critical retrieval of “core values” can be seen as understandable. But if such a project is approached within the frame of worldviews, and, if, impliedly, in the process it relativizes value formation so that no one line of consideration has more authority than the others, then the system of thinking becomes logically inconsistent. To critically retrieve a value and to therefore apply a critique – e.g., that the contemporary notion of democracy is a hollowed-out version – this implies a critical judgement, and to apply a judgement means that one eventually has to substantiate that judgement, with evidenced-based thinking, which finally also implies some sense of authority toward what’s “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, “conceptually accurate” and “conceptually deformed”. But in a book that rejects the primacy of reason and science, all of this breaks down. 

If each “worldview” is seen as having no more of a corner to “the truth” than the other, one cannot at the same time concede that one or more worldviews are superior. You cannot have it both ways and maintain logical consistency. Or, let me put it this way: If no one “worldview” has a corner on the truth, then the system of rational thinking breaks down and the result is a regression to irrationality, to the world of mere “opinion” and myth. And this is a problem. “Truth”, itself, becomes a highly contestable concept. Not that “truth” hasn’t already become highly contestable in the contemporary social world, where as a concept it appears to be continually eroded to the point where almost every issue, even scientific case, is reduced to politics.

For me, it is blatantly clear that this philosophical position – i.e., the rejection of the primacy of reason – does not correlate with reality. With very careful and well thought out consideration – that is, with finely nuanced and critical rational enquiry – it is more than possible to make critical rational judgements and to arrive at some evidence-based notion of truth. Truth, of course, not being absolute, because, as we learn in physics, truth is always unfolding and deepening. In any case, it is the continuing existence of the reality of truth, however fleeting or fragile today, that makes it possible to discern which course of judgements are based on prejudice and bias and which are based on the core principles of critical rational enquiry. When judging social movements for example, it is entirely possible to be able to distinguish genuinely emancipatory, egalitarian political movements from their mere semblance. It is entirely possible to recognize reactionary, dominant and deeply pathological movements for what they are, when weighed against their non-universality which, in this case, is the critical normative value of egalitarianism. Likewise, one can easily place a critical judgement toward abstract spiritual belief in the stars when weighed against the fundamental truths of astronomy. Truth, as a concept, may step on a lot of people’s toes; but simply because it doesn’t comply with one’s “worldview”, does not in any way subtract from the authority of reason and rationality in arriving to a truth.

What all of this comes down to is the relation between science – and the enlightenment project as a whole – and society. The rational, scientific and enlightenment view is that individuals can take responsibility for their lives, “without”, writes Stephen E. Bronner, “reference to God or some other all-knowing authority”. It is the idea, the hope for humanity, that social rationality is possible. It is the idea, very similar to De Graaff’s thesis regarding an “alternative worldview” (albeit formulated differently), that given the right emancipatory conditions, the individual subject can flourish in a way that fosters open, critical and rational subjectivity. We could even call this the scientific “mindset”, in taking from Steven Pinker. It is a transformative, scientific, evidence-based and philosophically rich social vision, accorded to the universal assumptions underpinning the enlightenment project and the democratic and egalitarian ideals that must be constantly defended today, not only from their direct assault by also from their counterfeited versions, usually often promoted for the benefit of an elite few.

Social rationality is also developmental to some degree. This might sound obvious to some readers, but I’m not sure how obvious it actually is in mainstream sociology. The idea that social rationality is developmental is backed by a vast range of scientific and empirical research. One particularly illuminating example in recent time is the scientific study that found that poverty can impact the development of one’s brain, something I discussed in my own book on pathology. But one could cite numerous references and examples. Likewise, on the basis of such evidence, one could easily speculate that in an irrational social world that exists under a largely indifferent economy, in which the individual is facing the constant threat of economic scarcity (and often having to perform mindless labour) – these constraints will likely never produce a rational social universe. This also has implications for the relation between science and society, and to what degree science and evidence-based rationality is realized in our contemporary social-historical, cultural context.

What is required is not less science and less reason in this respect – philosophically the situation is the complete opposite. But this also requires, however paradoxically it may sound, a holistic view of individual development based on healthy subject development: emotionally, psychologically, relationally, in addition to cognitive development and the development of rational thinking and science-based thinking.

To put it more eloquently, perhaps this is a lesson one can glean from social systems theory and also recent developments in relation to the intellectual development known as critical realism. What I appreciate most about The Gods in Whom They Trusted,  is its own emphasis on the notion of integration, particularly in terms of a philosophy of the subject. But this notion also has some value when it comes to considerations regarding a theory of knowledge. Interestingly, this book touches on a theme I’ve personally struggled to frame for some time, and perhaps the way it approaches the principle of integration that represents a primary site of disagreement: how to honour the primacy of reason while also doing justice to an integral view of the human subject? How to do justice to reason and social rationality, while also engaging with realities pertaining to the relation of structure-agency and the role emotion might play in human decision making? In response to the particular approach in the book currently under review, it is not enough for me when the author posits a “holistic” and “integrative view” if that means the primacy of reason is rejected.

To address these questions in the past I have employed concepts of experiential and analytical coherence as a way to bridge the two sides, but without much success. But maybe there is something to be found within critical realism insofar that, in postulating an interface between the study of the natural and social worlds – to assist the translation of natural science methodologies and epistemologies within the domain of social research and participation – it provides a meta-theory at the intersections of philosophy of science, ontology, epistemology, and aetiology (to name a few). Furthermore, it would be interesting to hear an informed scholar’s view of how its combination of transcendental realism with critical naturalism could offer a more thorough sense of an alternative social philosophical paradigm. The speculation here is emphasized further in relation to the question of integration without losing sight of the primacy of reason. These questions were partly what inspired my final efforts in Society and Pathology (2017).

As a whole, it feels as though The Gods in Whom They Trusted struggles to reconcile itself, and truly appreciate the core normative (and universal) enlightenment principles it wants in its own way to treat philosophically. Aside from what I interpret as the book’s relativistic framing, matters seem to get much worse when the chapters unfold and the author engages with a critique of “western reason” and “science”, as discussed in part one. More pointedly, if reason and rationality are often what are valued today as an important source of such vital critical authority, as opposed to, for instance, the dogma of the Church; it seems that the author’s arguments in this book actually move toward the de-legitimatizing of the authority of reason and science. In the sense that science and reason are reduced to equivalents with respect to other forms of “coming to know”, as part of the leveling process that is the result of the author’s particular view of integration, the integrative theory on offer in this book goes a completely different direction than the one alluded above.

Philosophical intervention and a faith-based view

In The Gods in Whom They Trusted, it would seem that the use of worldview theory or a variant thereof is employed to serve the book’s particular theological interventions and theses. This is especially evident in the last third of the book. (It is worth noting that significant portions of The Gods in Whom They Trusted, over one-third, concerns a discussion on religion, faith-based values and faith-based concepts). The key, it would seem, is that for De Graaff all people are motivated by and act from out of “basic convictions”. We read, for example:

In this way it brings all religious or secular faiths, worldviews, visions of life, or ultimate convictions down to earth from the realm of the sacred to everyday life. Basic convictions give expression to what we value most in life as it becomes manifest in the life we live. Just as our sensitivity gives colour, vibrancy and intensity to all our actions and relationships, so too our ultimate beliefs alert us to the depth and meaning we give to our experiences. As ‘meaning-makers’, as self-aware and self-reflective persons, we need an existential frame of reference to live by. Such a vision of life makes us conscious of the direction in which we are going in life and the choices we are making. Our ultimate convictions make for passion and commitment to the things we really believe in. (pp. 490-491)

Religions, as alluded early, are organized views as different forms of basic convictions. Even outside of religion, all people are said to be ultimately driven by, motivated by, or act from out of “ultimate convictions”. What does this have to do with science, its relation with society, and ethics?

Simply put, it appears to me that it is on the basis of the faith-based, worldview theoretical frame which De Graaff develops and relies on, that ultimately nucleates into the idea that the human “coming to know” is, firstly, always an existential undertaking. The process of “coming to know” would seem for the author to be almost deeply emotionally invested all the time, which I take to be generally counter to the scientific ethos. In the natural sciences, it doesn’t matter how emotionally invested you are in a theory, how much of a household name you represent, or how much a theory means personally; if it doesn’t correspond with the experimental and empirical evidence, it must be discarded. Whether the process of “coming to know” is deeply existential or not, it can hardly be equated, at least in the scientific sense, with the deeper investment of “core convictions” and “worldviews”. And so I think this theory of knowledge is one that lends itself far too much to bias and prejudice. 

Secondly, we read that human investigation can never be without prejudice or bias. This assertion then leads toward a line of philosophical formulation that has dramatic implications when it comes to philosophy of science, and a fundamental understanding of the relationship between science and society. That virtually the whole of modern science becomes reduced to, minimized and perceived as entangled with and influenced by what the author describes the underlying paradigm of a certain dominant ideology, highlights precisely one of my main concerns. And it is not just in this book, but it is a view which seems to be emerging in many other places as well.

In other words, scientific studies and even the “doing of science” can be understood as deeply caught up in dominant ideology – a total, distorted “vision of life” or “worldview” described under the umbrella of capitalism. Everything, in essence, becomes the product of or entwined with a worldview. In another way, almost every aspect the human project is reduced to different worldviews. And for this reason, all underlying worldviews with their particular views of “cosmology, anthropology, epistemology and history”, come to represent a very specific philosophical framing of things like the nature of thinking, rational processes and scientific endeavours.

Like many others, including Naomi Klein at the end of This Changes Everything (2014), De Graaff argues toward the need for an “alternative vision of life”. In advancing this conclusion, he begins laying a foundation for what just such an alternative might look like. But we read time and again the development of a project that struggles to truly emerge, as it becomes increasingly embroiled in the limitations of the worldview thesis. Due to the naturalization of worldviews, which I personally consider to be a product of pathological society and more of an expression of a dogmatic and irrational social world than of an ontological characteristic of human beings, the legitimacy of worldviews is universalized. The hallmark of sociologically relativistic thinking, what happens as we work through The Gods in Whom They Trusted is that normative values, which ought afforded their critical and objective space, become conflated with faith-based concepts rooted in a theory of “ultimate convictions” and “basic convictions”. 

To present the argument in another way: the attempt in The Gods in Whom They Trusted to retrieve enlightenment values (as well as other “core values”) and renew their purpose is not controversial. But, because of the worldview thesis employed, these values (and the Enlightenment project as a whole) ultimately lose their critical emancipatory thrust. Emancipatory enlightenment values, the authenticity of their critical normative claims, cannot exist in world absent of the primacy of reason and objectivity. 

The integral unity between experience, knowledge and worldview?

In digesting these points of critique, my concern is deepened when, as one works through more developed parts of the book’s contents, especially the chapters on science and knowledge, one comes to fully realize the implications of the underlying theses. Namely: experience, knowledge (whether experiential or theoretical) and worldview are seen as inseparably inter-connected. There is, according to the author, a perceived integral unity between the three. And the reason for this particular assessment or formulation relates back to what one might describe as a residue of a faith-based, worldview theoretical construct.

Allow me to explain. On the one hand, it is reasonable to suggest that experience, like knowledge, may help shape one’s view of the world. They can often be inter-connected. But one’s current orientation with the phenomenal world should not necessarily shape one’s future experience, nor one’s subjectivity. In fact, this is generally opposite to what is characteristic of a rational person: their previous knowledge and understanding does not necessarily define the subjectivity of “coming to know” in the present. It may help inform, it may help orientate one with that phenomenon, but in no way does this necessarily pertain to the existence of a “worldview”. Pre-judgment is, generally speaking, the marker of irrationality.

One of the serious concerns on this level is that, by holding onto the notion of worldviews in such a way, instead of seeking to move beyond them, even if De Graaff’s alternative “worldview” thesis which seeks to remain “open” and “integrative”, ultimately runs the risk of collapsing in on itself due to its very nature. To put it simply: an open and alternative “worldview” as formulated in the book is still a worldview and it still implies, to whatever degree, some form of hypostatization.  The open, intersubjective, normative worldview can easily become a principle of itself as a secular frame from which to interpret the world. In this sense, however paradoxical, subjectivity must again endure the possibility or reality of severe restriction. A simple way to explain this is in how there’s a fundamental difference in employing one’s experience to help understand or assess a particular phenomenon, situation or theory than have one’s present and future experience framed within, informed by, or prejudged by a worldview, regardless of its ontological status. The problem is in the actual conceptual framework and approach, which just does not resonate with the reality of two distinct forms of human experience, rational and irrational.

The critical and absolutely vital notions of “openness”, “critical thinking”, “open subjectivity”, “intersubjectivity”, or even “phenomenological ethics” are predicated on the efforts of the individual subject to approach reality – objects/phenomena, investigations, or even new theories – in as unbiased, unprejudiced and rational way as possible. A radical and liberated form of subjectivity, just like an emancipated form of knowledge or science, is one that transcends the very drive to construct “worldviews” in the first place. In the sense of pathological society, a worldview is much more of a representation of what Theodor Adorno would describe as objectivity’s false copy, than as a rational approach to the experiential world of phenomena. The very conceptual basis from which the notion of the “worldview” was conceived, owes a great deal to the social world overwhelmed by prejudiced subjectivity and anti-science and anti-reason sentiment. This very critique, this very critical constraint, is what helped inform the Enlightenment philosophes in the first place. As they sought to emancipate human thought from the oppression of the church, from the absurdities of myth, they also sought to develop a radical humanistic social philosophy which spoke of an alternative epistemology, an alternative way of “coming to know”, based on science and reason and truth – or, if you will, as an anti-prejudiced of a view of the world as possible.

One can, today, ground this perspective in a much more concrete and interdisciplinary theory of subjectivity – that is, the open, free-flourishing, and “mediating subject” free of hypostatization and free of the need to guard absolute first-principles, or “core convictions”. This is a form of subjectivity also free from its own “false copy” driven to secure any sort of absolute, dogmatic or faith-based worldview. It is, in my opinion, a form of subjectivity that is synonymous with science and the scientific mindset as well as the values of exploration and discovery aas well as an epistemological openness to the possibilities of “otherwise” closely associated with the process of rational enquiry.

Further the point, there is perhaps a small remnant of truth to be retrieved in the book’s arguments about experiential knowledge.

Human Knowledge and a Progressive Epistemology

I think one way to read The Gods in Whom They Trusted is in how it seeks to protect the value of experiential knowledge and to remind us of its importance – what we might also describe as phenomenological epistemologies. But the point I have been discussing, and will continue to reflect on, is that there is a caveat here; it has to do with the restricted domain of such knowledge. In other words, I see it as only useful in certain situations and research contexts. Think, for instance, of research and practice in psychology or the important studies of the experience of neurological disorders.  One can cite many examples within the domain of social science, where experiential knowledge and explanations provided by individuals, communities or formal research participants offers particularly valuable insight. In the case of psychology, the experience of individuals can contribute to a more total and formal understanding of their own unique difficulties insofar that these perspectives also have to be weighed against scientific, clinical and/or psychological expertise. In this sense one could say that there is a way of honoring a person’s experience and the experiential basis of meaning with regards to their experience, while also informing that individual of its reality and guiding them toward a rational, objective and diagnostic understanding.

What about the value of experiential knowledge within the natural sciences? I think in certain examples of modern scientific practice, one might reflect on how their is a particular knowledge forming process based on experience and experiential, or, better yet, phenomenological observation. I can think of examples in chemistry and in physics and certainly also in biology and in the environmental sciences. In terms of fundamental science, such as physics, consider the history of modern physics and the evolution of our knowledge and understanding about the fundamental truths of nature. Think of the inspiring story of Michael Faraday,  who contributed significantly to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry using at times nothing more than some coils of wire, magnets and a compass – here is an example of the practice of a certain phenomenological epistemology as integrated within a broader scientific and rational epistemology, the value of which refers to its relation to a more comprehensive scientific, logical-mathematical and empirical knowledge. Such a notion of “integration” is something we’ll return to later. Meanwhile, we can say here that there was something experiential about certain aspects of Faraday’s experimental evidence, particularly in relation to his study of magnetic fields. In general, I think we can pull many examples where a phenomenological epistemology (broadly defined) has value, although perhaps not isolated by itself.

Furthermore, if one was fortunate enough to study at a forward-thinking school as a child, one will remember similar experiential-like experiments in addition to textual study.  Whether in the study of pond life or in taking apart an electrical device, as a child I recall a number of instances of experiential effervescence during my earliest scientific introductions. If nothing else, early science education without immediate experiential application loses sight of the fun of scientific discovery and exploration.

The issue in The Gods in Whom They Trusted, however, is that it is divisive and it doesn’t allow for recognition of the already existing presence of  integral model of knowledge in relation to many areas of modern scientific knowledge, perhaps because experiential knowledge or phenomenological epistemology isn’t necessarily given primacy (and rightfully so). Without a doubt there are examples today, where textbook science tends to dominate and experimental and, indeed, experiential science practice becomes absent (and not always for the better), especially in grade schools. Listen to any seasoned and well-established chemistry professor, and you’ll frequently hear a complaint about the increasing rarity of the knowledge and passion that comes from exploring home chemistry – about knowledge of chemistry by experimentation, discovery and experience (in addition to theory and textbook knowledge). Perhaps here De Graaff’s account makes some sense, as the actual social trends can be seen at times, especially in the appropriate contexts, to be moving toward a lack of integration with regards to the experiential. A common justification for such policy is that it is not efficient.

But, in trying to do the author’s arguments some justice, I think it must be pointed out that there is a difference between emphasizing the practical value of experiential knowledge and learning within certain contexts and arguing toward a full-blown experiential theory of epistemology as though it represents a foundational view of knowledge. In furthering my comments, much of what follows can be reduced to a series of educated hypotheses, based on fairly in-depth study and scholarship. My main complaint, in offering a number of particular points of reflection, has to do with how experiential epistemology is not foundational in and of itself. Its usefulness, if one wants to consider an integral model, would seem not to be without the primacy of reason and scientific (and empirical) knowledge. There are thus important questions to be raised in response to the book’s account which positions experiential knowledge against what is perceived as a totalized “distorted” picture of “modern scientific knowledge”. In many ways what we read is an account that seems to give experiential knowledge primacy as a foundational basis for a progressive epistemology.

To add to this, I think what gets lost in the author’s arguments is the differentiation between social science and natural science methodologies and epistemologies. Additionally, I think there needs to be differentiation between an emphasis on experiential experience in the field of lived ethics and interpersonal relations and a wider theory of knowledge. Impliededly, also, I think there needs to differentiation between the value of experiential knowledge and phenomenological epistemology within certain fields of study and the limitations of the former within many others.

In short: as a general rule experiential knowledge in and of itself only allows for limited access into reality. Experiential knowledge also has to be differentiated from phenomenological epistemology and methodology. Moreover, I am in no way devaluing the importance and usefulness of phenomenological epistemology and methodological approaches, nor am I necessarily dismissing experiential knowledge completely. Phenomenological epistemology is useful in many research contexts, including also in the field of ethics. Indeed, as I have discussed and will also touch on later, phenomenological methodologies are also even important in the natural sciences, including physics. But there is a difference between phenomenological methodologies, which, formally, can be very systematic and certainly also useful in the course of rational assessment or investigation, and experiential knowledge. The latter can be useful, particularly in certain contexts within the social sciences and the humanities. The knowledge generated from people’s experiences can be extremely insightful, and is often cited in relation to social justice issues. More than that one can think, for instance, of psychiatry and psychotherapy, as well as of studies in relation to mental health or disabilities as noted above). There are also many forms of natural science that are incredibly experiential or that at least require significant phenomenological sensitivity. One could even argue that reason and rationality are also necessarily phenomenologically attuned, to whatever degree, and that rational investigation can often find important insight in experiential reports.

What I am railing against here is the idea of a theory of experiential knowledge as being  seen as foundational – that an experiential epistemology is in and of itself the basis for a foundational view of knowledge. When left to its own devices, a purely experiential theory of knowledge is much more inclined toward the universe of folk epistemology as opposed to an evolved enlightenment rational epistemology and therefore also the development of a complex knowledge.

If one were to truly take an integral approach to the study of complex knowledge, with a mind toward a progressive view of epistemology, the experiential would be seen as nothing more than auxiliary in its capacity.  This again is not to say that the experiential is completely inadequate, as it can serve as an important basis within certain research contexts. Philosophically, much in the same sense as phenomenological approaches, an experiential view of knowledge can serve as an important reminder about the sensitivity of our relationship with the stuff of our experience and the valuable insights that can be gained on this level, including when it comes to issues that arise from a priori knowledge and ethics. And oftentimes, especially in the social sciences, this insight  can become forgotten. But an experiential theory cannot be without its own integration within a much broader, complex and evolved understanding of knowledge. From an epistemological level, this really is one of the greatest lessons of the enlightenment, and certainly one of the most revolutionary lessons of the modern scientific endeavor, which serves as the basis for the progressive advance of human knowledge and understanding.

On this point of consideration, I think De Graaff’s use of the notion “integration” anticipates something important; but as the reader may begin to acknowledge, my own use of this notion is very different. In measuring the slope of a line, the leading approach is a logical-mathematical one; but our logical-mathematical knowledge here is – or should be – also in constant interaction with our rational knowledge of the slope and its properties, and even an experiential or physical knowledge of the object or slope. I attempted to describe this study of epistemology by employing a concept of “experiential coherence”.  I think there is a lot to be developed in this idea of “experiential coherence” or holistic knowledge, as it is inspired by systems thinking in that it works toward the idea of the complex and the integral – and what I would call rational knowledge – that recognizes the multifariousness of objective reality and its intricate systems of relations. In truth, one could call it cognitive coherence, intermodal coherence, the coherence of epistemic integration and synthesis – it doesn’t really matter. The basic idea is that a complex, evolved enlightenment (rational) epistemology contributes to understanding the complexity of phenomena in their many-sidedness and multifariousness as well as the complexity and multifariousness of systems and their interrelations. It represents the idea of interdisciplinary knowledge on a micro and macro level (individual and collective).

Consider, for instance, the study of human experience. The reality of human relations and experience is much more than purely cognitive or linguistic, it also emotional, biochemical, and so on. It is multidimensional and its multidimensionality attests to the countless disciplines and fields of study concerned with human experience and social relations.  The same can be said of almost anything. From geological processes to the study of the diversity of frogs in the Amazon Rainforest.  It doesn’t matter if we’re talking physics or biology, I think one of the lessons of modern epistemology that ultimately strengthens a progressive and even deeper notion of enlightenment reason and the project of human rationality is that phenomena and objects of study possess a multidimensional, integral and  perhaps even intermodal complexity. The more we study them, the more we are able to gain access to their fundamental and objective reality, the more they reveal. Is there an end to this process knowledge forming? It’s likely that, in the present moment of history and considering the current status of theory, there is no immediate answer. And so, in the spirit of the enlightenment philosophes, progress, knowledge – the scientific endeavour – is open and unfolding.

This view both of the subject (as I’ll touch on later) and of epistemology can support a much more reconciled awareness when it comes to how we relate with each other, ourselves and the world of things. In the example of psychology, we know that human beings are not purely atomistic – though this is a dimension of human reality. Human action and behaviour is also driven by emotion, cognition, biophysical need, and so on. Or in the case of the study of particle physics, the logical-mathematical in addition to other forms of tangible abstraction is required. In both cases the limits of the experiential is surpassed. It’s just a matter of having good sense of reality and the world. It’s a matter of good epistemology. Sometimes it’s proper to exercise a logical-mathematical form of knowledge, and in the background of one’s awareness understand that object or phenomenon in its integrality.  In other cases, such as in the social sciences where quantification is not always, in itself, the single most appropriate methodological approach, this calls for an even more immediate integration of knowledge and understanding.

For me, this is what a much more nuanced approach to a theory of knowledge would signal.

Having said that: The deeper, fundamental issue that this book fails to address is the inadequacy of the experiential theory’s ability to account for meaningful concepts and theoretical language, discerned from baseless and wild speculation whose meaning cannot or is not given by direct experience. A theory of experiential knowledge as the principia of a foundational view of epistemology does not account for how scientific theoretical frameworks and models, different from philosophical or social, at first unregulated by experience, have proven vital for eventual future empirical explanation. In this book we read an underlying inclination to treat anything outside of the realm of experiential experience as “cognitive abstraction”. Additionally, in presenting its case, The Gods in Whom They Trusted seems to confuse systemic rationale – that is, the logic and rationale of  particular social systems, such as capitalism, with the values of logical and rational knowledge. In other parts of the social sciences, we learn of a system’s rationale as sometimes describes as a “abstract reason” or “instrumental reason” – what I have already described as reason tied to an ends. Without repeating what has already been said, I find it concerning in this book that there is no adequate differentiation. Not even basic forms of tangible abstraction are recognized, which raises so many problems ranging from cognitive science to linguistics and beyond. One could, again, think of infinite examples of how and why such a case and view of epistemology is limited. One could pull examples from archaeology, geology, biology, chemistry, physics, environmental science, and so on. Basic methodological approaches and forms of knowledge we now largely take for granted, like the study of the half life of Carbon-14, or the crowning glory of the Standard Model of particle physics, or the best current theories which explain how and why the universe operates at a fundamental level, extend well beyond an experiential epistemological frame. Our understanding of the sub-atomic world, of why protons and neutrons are built from quarks – that everyday matter is made from atoms, and that atoms have a nuclear core. The basic reality that mass and energy are interchangeable, and the possibility that if we could one day tap into and extract the energy of particles, humanity’s energy crisis would be forever solved. One could go on and on. The point to take away, I think, is that modern science and its methodologies – its epistemological basis – should not be taken for granted or subsumed by social-political philosophical critique, whose range has more to do with political economy than the intrinsic status of science.

It is the task of genuine scientific practice and method to dispel, exclude, or safegaurd against a regress to myth and irrationality characterized by occult forces and things for which no empirical evidence can be provided. In the special or fundamental sciences, theory in absence of empirical evidence is or should be treated in a very particular way, according to criteria that either allows for recognition of the lucidity of the logical structure of a theoretical proposal in relation to some basis of data and the greater totality of current theory and hypothesis, or disregards it as baseless speculation. One criteria is the respective theory’s predicative power. But ultimately, any theory should be discredited, no matter how popular or established, if the empirical evidence doesn’t eventually support it.  Some theories exist for decades until the data catches up and/or our technical capabilities allow for the necessary experiments. Experiential knowledge and its accompanying epistemology offers no basis for such a nuanced defense.

To approach the matter differently: De Graaff’s return to the idea that concepts and theories are given meaning by experiential experience is enticing and certainly has proven attractive for many others (since such a position already has a deep history). But there are particular statements made in his book which, in many ways, seem to suggest a position very close to the relativism synonymous with the deeply problematic theses laid out by Thomas Kuhn. Maybe I am wrong, but there would seem to be a underlining subjectivism to the philosophy of experience offered, in which any notion of objective knowledge appears discredited in The Gods in Whom They Trusted insofar that reason and rationality are de-authoratized. If many very basic truths of reality can neither be confirmed nor dis-confirmed by experience, then what does this say of knowledge and the need to defend against the irrational human tendency toward the occult? When you break down its logic, the experiential thesis toward a foundational epistemology has no answer, it cannot differentiate between the knowledge, for instance, that all internal angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees and the claims toward reality by pseudo-scientific, abstract spiritualism, such as that found in astrology. Epistemologically speaking, its holism is another form of relativism, since, as I discussed in essay one, no approach or investigative means has a corner on the truth. This is an unfortunate turn, in which fundamental notions of truth and notions of contingent truths, as well as rational and scientific values, come to surrender to the sociology of “worldviews”, in which irrationality, myth and post-factualism prevail.

Meanings are more than purely sensory experience, although experiential experience is certainly one dimension. But the experiential thesis cannot make sense of theoretical science. At least to this reader, as I have already alluded, there would seem no room for basic concrete epistemic values such as practice of tangible abstraction  in the context of the epistemology of good science and its unfolding objective knowledge within distinct structure and systems of rationality.Along what lines might one, for instance, discern the difference between rational intuition and the so-called intuition associated with the belief in some dreamed up god? What about the now virtually indispensable entities of cellular nuclei, molecules, and atoms, in which an experiential epistemology would not have the means or tools to postulate or predicate? The ultimate and eventual disregard of the experiential thesis for genuine theoretical language, which can be distinguished and discerned from the sort of careless, irresponsible and reckless “speculation for speculation sake” that appears to be a popular trend across all disciplines and fields, is problematic.

Unfolding Knowledge

One of the positive insights, and perhaps best qualities of the epistemology laid out by De Graaff, is the manner in which he describes knowledge and unintentionally also affirms the scientific understanding of the larger process of generating objective knowledge, as unfolding in the context of the relation of human study and investigation as phenomena unfold and thus reveal more of themselves. It fosters an understanding of rational and reconciled subjectivity as one that is open, constantly mediating, discovering and learning, as opposed to the dogmatic, ideological, irrational and violent epistemologies and subjectivities that comprise of so much of our modern social reality. Better phrased: phenomena reveal the more we know. I would suggest that on the basis of all the evidence at hand, and in light of the core debates in epistemology, this is a very progressive, justifiable and currently verifiable position. How De Graaff formulates this thesis and introduces a number of distinctly ethical-epistemological arguments is thought-provoking, and lends to what I would personally describe as an incredibly rational philosophy of history with respect to understanding scientific knowledge and the development of objective knowledge over time (I am of course inserting my own terms here). Unfortunately, what’s missing in this book is recognition of these points – that upon its critical retrieval, the position being carved out by De Graaff becomes much more akin to the scientific ethic than the author may care to realize, which is predicated on openness to new data and to the constantly revealing nature of phenomena. But I’ll save further reflection on the scientific ethic for another time.

Evolved Epistemology

In short: An entire substantial, widely referenced and researched paper should and must be written on these issues and their complexities. But it is at least interesting to speculate here that, from my observations, an evolved epistemology would be one grounded in successful science and not in philosophy. One could speculate that, in building from realism and others, a foundational epistemology, not to mention philosophy of science, would take the form of something much more advanced than what progressive positions in philosophy of science currently has to offer. Repairing the damage done by Kuhn and postmodernism, retaining the value of objective knowledge and the value of scientific pursuit, perhaps it would build from the critical interventions of naturalism? In any case, and perhaps similar to Quine, I think it would be safe to speculate that a reconciled and progressive epistemology would emerge from within the sciences and would be applied on the basis of the normative foundations of reason, which could take interdisciplinary insight from contemporary studies in cognitive science, developmental psychology, among others.

In any case, and back to the book at hand: One can, perhaps, glean from experience some insight into natural laws for example. In this case, think of early astronomy or pre-modern science. We see that, through experiential observation, one could intuit a direction, but ultimately the understanding was fuzzy, unrefined and without precise accuracy. One could pull countless examples from the entire history of human thought. Think, for instance, of Aristotle who viewed the earth as being at the centre of the universe. The Aristotlean view was one that saw space filled with imaginary grid, and thus things could be measured with earth understood to be positioned at the centre of this grid. Today, we understand this view as being wrong. But not necessarily because it is obvious purely by way of experience. If it was, then this view would have been proven wrong a lot sooner than it was. Or what about a more pertinent example from modern physics, which challenges the linear view of time. An experiential knowledge could not, in and of itself, gain access into this fundamental truth of reality. Another example has to do with linear and logarithmic scales. One of the fascinating philosophical truths pertaining to human perception when it comes to the logarithmic scale, is that human beings tend to perceive many things in a logarithmic way. One could say, perhaps, that there is an experiential element here in terms of an experiential knowledge of reality; but this knowledge is really only deepened when we begin to advance our logical-mathematic knowledge of nature. Or think, for example, of purely unrefined physical experience: that hardwood table in front of you, the cup that holds your tea, the window through which sunlight is brightening the room. On a purely physical and experiential level of experience, we see that wood desk as sold and hard, but on the subatomic scale of reality, on the level of particle physics, we know that space is actually quite empty and the truth of that solid wood desk is very different than as it may be commonly perceived “in experience”.

One could (and indeed many have) write a book about all the countless examples. But the main question here is, where does this thinking leave us? In many respects, it seems easy to take for granted the significant achievements of modern enlightenment reason and of the modern scientific endeavour. That includes the exponentiation of knowledge.

The simple truth is that the history of modern science has shown time and again that our everyday experience proves to be a poor guide when it comes to understanding nature and the profound phenomena that operate on a deeper level. There is no comparison between the advance of scientific knowledge and the more simple world of everyday experiential experience and experiential epistemology, the latter of which remain susceptible to myth and irrationality (irregardless of how well-intentioned such myth may be). Expanding the lessons and insights of fundamental physics toward the realm of philosophy, or, in the particular domain of social philosophy, what one must come to grips with is the radical revision of human knowledge, epistemology and the basic fact that many fundamental truths of nature are often counter-intuitive. As two physicists, Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw recently put it, “it is not wise to extrapolate experience beyond its realm”. This simplest of truths may not fit with one’s social, moral, ethical, political or economic “worldview”, but that is more of a problem for that worldview than for the scientific perspective. Perhaps, in the end, this is one of the practical lessons of the remarkable and still very young history of modern physics, not to mention modern science as a whole. As referenced in a past essay, it constantly challenges the prejudices and, deeper yet, epistemologies that constitute so much of the everyday social world.

Additionally, I think it is fair to suggest or to speculate that there are ethical implications when it comes to a theory of experiential knowledge in the sense that such a theory may be given primacy within the field of ethics. The idea of a phenomenological (lived) ethics is an intriguing and would certainly seem important when it comes to everyday relations – an idea I would personally account or associate with the scientific mindset, as it implies a sensitivity to phenomena and to the considerable study of daily experience. But nowhere in the book do I also read an account of how experiential epistemology, limited as it is, can also be counter to or function in denial of rational evidence-based thought and scientific fact. Restricted in terms of analytical capacity, I cannot see how an experiential theory of knowledge can realize the full weight of an ethical theory, which depends on a social-systemic analysis, let alone a deeper scientific understanding of phenomena (social, natural or otherwise). Think of the typical climate change denier: “Global warming isn’t happening, it’s too bloody cold outside!” This is an expression of a simplified knowledge based purely on lived experience. Needless to say, scientifically speaking we know global warming is happening contrary to the experiential evidence conveyed by some in their particular contextual environments or geographical locations. Further to the point, what I am challenging here is the legitimacy of a knowledge based on the premise of something being “self-evident”, as opposed to being evidenced-based. What most people mean when they describe something as “self-evident” is actually untested assumption. It is more an expression of “worldview” than of evidenced-based and scientific approach. It turns out that reality isn’t always self-evident. From neuormyths in education to various assertions I’ve recently read in relation to alternative agriculture, such as biodynamic farming methods.

While examples of groups and their “contextual” and “experiential” knowledge are celebrated and held-up as ideal-types in this book, the author also neglects the history of movements, political or religious or mythic, which also displayed such forms of knowledge and lived in an incredibly violent and delusion world in which one’s deeper understanding of reality was incredibly far from reality and the truth. Nature religions being one of multiple examples.

Perhaps the deeper point here is how, in our present historical context, looking back through the history of the human endeavour thus far, it is clear that a progressive epistemology is ultimately one that seeks to power knowledge beyond direct experience. Religion, myth, which run counter to a progressive (enlightenment) epistemology, is in no way sufficient. If, as I wrote in the past, there is a tendency for human beings to regress to myth, for reason or rationality to be abandoned and thus result in a regress to irrationality, the lesson of human history with regards to human knowledge becomes very simple: a progressive epistemology is one powered by science. The enlightenment philosophes knew this, and centuries later the struggle between the enlightenment project and counter-enlightenment continues. The epistemological lesson is that one cannot dismiss or believe something simply on the basis of “experience”, which can represent anything from a more accurate and systematic empirical engagement to a delusional religious episode. There are constraints.

Reladtedly, there is certainly a deeply ethical philosophy associated with the core humanistic values of the enlightenment tradition. And perhaps, in considering The Gods in Whom They Trusted, this is one of the valuable contributions this book makes, as it contributes to the sharpening of the ethical criterion within which the modern enlightenment project and the maturation of its epistemology might unfold, which includes a particular experiential sensitivity. In other words, there is no denying that an experiential sensitivity is not important. The book raises a lot of interesting points within this context, such as the concept of a phenomenological ethics, which, as I have already said in a previous essay, fits very much within a progressive philosophy of the subject and also what I would posit as the scientific approach to the world. However, the framing of the arguments within the work is what I consider to be problematic.

Philosophy of the Subject

To conclude, I offer one last point of reflection.

One of the obvious concerns raised in my engagement is how worldviews, even if they start by trying to remain “open”, usually often fall back into a closed-system or totalized view or theory, due to the very definition of a worldview as “a particular philosophy of life or conception of the world”. In other words, a worldview whether reconciled or not serves as the basis from which one interprets the world. On the basis of this, how the book resonates for me is defined by its struggle to do justice to both the notions of rational and critical thought – even as this has to do with the notions of subjectivity and development – and also, for all intents and purposes, the primacy of the unique and special domain of scientific practice and thinking.

There is little room for recognition, for instance, of the scientific method and conscious efforts to remove underlying presuppositions and prejudices from one’s investigations. Are there examples of “bad science” or “bad scientific practice” that can be said to be biased or prejudiced? Yes, and perhaps it will be useful to discuss some of the examples in the future. Does every scientist successfully and objectively practice the scientific method? No. But from the point of view of critical normative philosophy, the notion of objectivity like “truth” is incredibly important to preserve. 

In seeing the presence of “faith” as a necessary and almost unavoidable dimension of human experience, which seems to tie into the idea of the integral unity between experience, knowledge and worldview, this forces the author in my opinion to do too much justice to the existence of faith-based constructs in human history. Thus, all investigations are underlined by a viewpoint in virtually the same way that all faith-based systems approach the world through the lens of their abstract and dogmatic “worldview”.

Naomi Klein, in her latest and extremely popular book, This Changes Everything, reflects particularly in the last chapter that we need a new worldview, a new vision, a radical new way of living and a new set of values (see pp. 460 and ff.). She doesn’t goes so far to elaborate on what is involved in such a transformation of worldview, if we consider that capitalism is the worldview that requires fundamental transformation. De Graaff’s book certainly makes a valuable contribution in exploring the nature of worldviews and offering a phenomenological criteria for evaluating different worldviews.  In this way, the book is illuminating. But what if what is required is a critique of worldviews that actually seeks to overcome the problematic subjectivity and epistemology of worldviews?

By clinging to the notion of the need for a “worldview”, The Gods in Whom They Trusted lingers in the residues of faith-based subjectivities, and thus cannot quite progress to its fullest in terms of its aim in the pursuit of a reconciled and alternative approach to the world, which would be a lot closer to the enlightenment project than perhaps the author may realize.

When it comes to the practice of science, the authoritative status of scientific knowledge, and even providing appropriate space for scientific knowledge as being one of the only remaining rational domains in contemporary society – it all risks being undermined to the extent that objectivity, objective knowledge, “western reason”, and “science” are no longer permitted their unique place in contemporary life.

Indeed, and to return to the author’s assumption that critical value-free investigation is not possible; it is not outrages to speculate that the individual subject is always mediated by his or her sociohistorical-cultural circumstance. This is to say that the individual is always the stuff of their sociohistorical-cultural circumstance, to whatever degree depending on the extent of internalization. As we develop and age, we also bring with us our experience, our neurosis and orientations – that is, our personal histories. As individual agents we bring with us the stuff of subjectivity. On this point, it is a fairly practical step to draw on the assumption that the individual is therefore never value-free. But understanding this facet of human reality should not suggest an absence of an internal freedom and ability to take an objective perspective, especially in relation to the ability to perform critical rational enquiry, which is what help makes the scientific method possible.

One of the many incredible things about human beings, and even about consciousness in general, is our ability as efficacious agent to also overcome our neurosis and to transcend as much as possible our bias and prejudice, to therefore approach the world openly, affect or transform existing sociohistorical-cultural structures, and thus do so attentively. This is one of the many practical things that also gives science its power. The capability as human beings to transcend or overcome our own prejudices may not always be apparent within the vast majority of the irrational social world, but that does not mean it is not possible. It’s not always easy, sure. In fact, it can be quite difficult for a lot of people, and this experience of difficulty is why many scientists train for many years to learn how to achieve as value-free of an analysis that is humanly conceivable.

To the extent that how we distinguish – in terms of general cognition, what we choose to distinguish and not distinguish when organizing our scientific research – one could argue that there is space here for bias or prejudice to invade the scientific process. That is, there is space for social pathology, for dominant ideology, such as capitalistic motivation, to distort the scientific process. But it also goes without saying that, while possible, especially in industrial contexts, this does not necessarily universally apply to the scientific method or to scientific practice and knowledge. The individual scientist may not always be successful but, in reverse, the scientific method is also often very successful. And while science must constantly defend itself and normatively reflect on safeguards against the influence of cognitive bias, the point is that science also works. The success of the modern scientific endeavour speaks for itself. The assumption that there is no value-free investigation is approached from the wrong angle; it is framed in the wrong way. The reality is much more nuanced – that while philosophically and perhaps even within the field of cognitive science one could posit that investigation is technically never absolutely free of subjectivity, we can nevertheless work hard to ensure our investigations are as autonomous, critical, open, non-partisan and free of “conviction” or prejudice as possible.

Indeed, even if one concedes that, prior to the actual practice of science, social bias and prejudice could more deeply pervade the distinguishing process in terms of organizing what scientific research to pursue, this still does not mean that scientific practice is prevailingly entangled in a dominant ideology, as we read in parts of The Gods in Whom They Trusted. The most obvious example of when it is, or might be, is within the context of industrial science, which characterizes the majority of the examples that the author provides. But because the worldview thesis, along with its position on value-free investigation, approaches the issues in such a problematic way, what ends up happening is that the book evolves into a critique of “western science” as being “distorted” as a result of underlying paradigms linked with dominant ideology for over 250 years.

In this sense, the general view is almost to the extreme that every instance of a scientist choosing what to research or not to research is persuaded by prejudice and existing economic ideologies.

Individuals choose what to research for many reasons. Is there room for a critique here in certain specific contexts? Yes. But even in the case of industrial science, concerns about which have already been critiqued by many others, not every scientist working in industrial situations necessarily reproduces a destructive ideological worldview. Think of renewable industries, for example. I suppose the main point is that we’re dealing with specific contexts pertaining to the social and economic use of science. Industrial science is very different than scientific activity in other contexts, which is to say there needs to be differentiation. Further to this point, it must also be recognized that many corporations that rely on industrial science, are also shifting more and more to an ethical consideration of the sort of science they are funding. This shift is largely due to consumer pressure. But even young scientists training to go into industrial science or engineering with obvious heavy industrial application, part of university training now also deals with ethics and with fostering ethical awareness.

In closing, as opposed to the social world, in which political assessments for example are often openly prejudiced and biased, and in which De Graaff’s worldview thesis is more fitting, the pursuit of the natural sciences is more befitting of the alternative epistemology, anthropology and cosmology that he ultimately seeks to argue toward. Avoiding the pitfalls of worldviews and striving toward a clearer and more objective approach to knowledge, experience and how we relate with the phenomenal world: the natural sciences already offer a better early developmental model and, in many ways, anticipate what I like to think of as the general characteristics of a mature (enlightenment) epistemology. It is for this reason among many others, that modern science also possesses such an emancipatory and transformative appeal, beginning with the enlightenment and the primacy of reason.

Review: “The Gods in Whom They Trusted” – On Science, Knowledge and Ethics (Part 1)

R.C. Smith

Introduction

I recently read through and had time to consider Arnold De Graaff’s The Gods in Whom They Trusted: The Disintegrative Effects of Capitalism – A Foundation for Transitioning to a New Social World (2016). This book in particular is one, I think, that can best described as being part of the broader core humanistic tradition, but with several caveats especially when it comes to its relation to the Enlightenment and its views in the area of philosophy of science and reason.

As a whole, The Gods in Whom They Trusted is a detailed philosophical work which may be considered as being situated alongside other popular critical works, such as Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, The Weather Maker’s by Tim Flannery, Eaarth by Bill McKibben, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon, among many many others. Its relationship and position within the domain of social philosophy is complex. The book aims and aspires toward the progressive and transformative end of the social philosophical spectrum. When it comes to core Enlightenment and humanistic values – social values fundamental to a progressive vision of the human endeavour – unlike the first sphere of philosophical critique associated with anti-modernism and anti-enlightenment movements, The Gods in Whom They Trusted does not necessarily reject or discard these normative principles, although its relationship with them seems problematic. On the one hand, it would seem fair to suggest that De Graaff’s overall project aims to ground vital critical normative values in a phenomenological and, therefore, too, lived historical framework. On the other hand, in developing his thesis and arriving to what he considers an “alternative theory of knowledge”, I read this book as a rejection of the primacy of reason and science. In moments it comes close to the anti-modernist domain of critique, as well as to the postructural view of science in relation to society, including what appears to be a social relativist model of “core” humanistic values.

To put it another way, I feel as though the book struggles to do justice to the values of reason and science, if not the enlightenment-humanist project as a whole. “Egalitarianism”, “democracy”, (social and environmental) “equality” to name a few – these enlightenment and core humanistic principles are more or less preserved. Coupled with a philosophical effort to formulate a progressive and transformative social vision, these basic values appear to be central in much of the author’s thesis. But other values, perhaps some of the most important in “reason”, “science” and “progress”, they become entangled in a critique of modern social, political and economic systems. Reason and science are pulled into a sinister holy trinity of principles intrinsic to contemporary “dominant” ideology associated with environmental destruction, colonialism and oppression.

Admittedly, I find the use of the terms “reason” and “science” a bit confusing. In parts of the book what is meant by “reason” or “science” seems to be what some call “rationalism” and “scientism”, the definition of which often seems unclear and convoluted. Similar to my engagement with the Gray-Pinker debate, what is meant by scientism often seems to lack coherence.
In this book in particular, what distinguishes “science” from scientism” is not always clear, and there are numerous moments when the language suggests that there is no real differentiation. This is a point I might reserve for a separate essay. Meanwhile, and to speak succinctly, The Gods in Whom They Trusted seems to be most concerned with a critique of epistemology, where “western reason” and “science” seem to become increasingly conflated with a broad stroke critique of what others might call a violent epistemology. The latter is often associated with the systems logic of modern political-economy.

I am open to being wrong, but on my reading it is difficult to nail down a comprehensive definition of terms. There are many, many moments when, in Chapter 7 for example, rather than focusing on the instrumental use or exploitation of science, the critique often becomes aimed at science as a whole.

In thinking about this book as well as others, what follows is an admittedly informal essay. It will serve as a site of reflection at the intersection of science, knowledge and ethics. By the end, I hope to have successfully unpacked my main complaints.

A brief summary of the book

In the science-driven research of systems theory, we learn how a number of key crises confronting human civilization are defined as global, industrial, and capitalist in nature. Research by Nafeez Ahmed is one that stands out, where in his widely acclaimed book A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), we learn about the systemic interconnections between a number of global crises: from water scarcity and food insecurity to climate change; potential energy crisis; food insecurity; economic instability; forced migration; international terrorism; mass surveillance and increasing militarization.

Deepening this idea, The Gods in Whom They Trusted by Arnold De Graaff furthers the study of these many social-systemic issues. Published in 2016, the book is “based on extensive multi-disciplinary research, scientific reports, journal articles, documentaries, case studies, and first-hand accounts by many peoples”, focusing primarily on three closely related themes: ecology, economics and ethics. Though it is not concerned with a systems approach, it does take “the on-going violation of nature’s and society’s thresholds” as a main inspiration.

From the degradation of land, water, air, oceans to climate change and the creation of untold human suffering, social injustice, corruption, violence, inequality, dispossession, enslavement, as well as millions of climate, food, water, and war refugees – one will find very few books as broad and more thorough in the treatment of details. The first third or so of this 911 page publication really stands out in this regard.

Additionally, the work’s authoritative tone is marked by the quantity of high-grade references. On each issue, De Graaff is careful to ensure a comprehensive interdisciplinary account, combing entire lists of empirical studies and scientific reports. It is here where his academic strengths really shine. Anyone interested in evidence-based critique of the many broad issues we face moving into the 21st century, scientifically informed policy as well as broader philosophical reflection on relevant policy challenges, this is certainly one of a selection of recent publications worth reading.

The second and third parts of the book are more philosophical, providing a framework to help explain the critical realities observed in the first 400 or so pages. The idea, which is indicated in the title, is to introduce a philosophical foundation to understand the crisis of modern society and how we might go about its progressive transformation. There is a lot to unpack here, from social and economic critique to a critique of science, theory of knowledge and even in the final third a list of radical theological theses.

Epistemology is key

One of the key arguments that stands out in The Gods in Whom They Trusted is how, as a result of the logic of the system of capital, a peculiar sort of epistemology has become prevalent. This realization leads the author toward a critique of science, which, after a lengthy study of modern political economy and how science and technology are perceived to relate to neoliberal capitalism, heads toward the direction of a critique of modern knowledge. In other words, a certain dominant and violent epistemology is linked with what the author describes as economic reductionism, the meaning of which refers to the literal cognitive reductionism of phenomena to their purely economic dimension. An example of this can be found in industrial farming, where cattle are not always seen as animals with agency, alive and responsive to their conditions. Rather, they become a purely economic means and, as studies of industrial slaughterhouses disclose, this trend with regards to the human relationship with nature can produce troubling results.

These threads of analysis ultimately lead to the maturation of the author’s critique of science and reason in relation to political economy. In attempting to introduce a number of critical interventions within the domain of social philosophy, including in the area of epistemology, it soon becomes clear that the book is set on a philosophical crash course with the modern values of reason and science. Highlighted in its engagement with a critique of epistemology and an “alternative theory of knowledge”, this book also includes an alternative theory of anthropology and cosmology – or, if you will, an alternative philosophy of human relations. It seems to me that a main inspiration behind the author’s arguments, albeit not in so many words, is based on recognition of a very deep history of pathological social relations. These relations also of course spill over into how we, as human beings, relate with natural world. Having said that, and as already alluded, there are a number of reasons why I feel the book struggles to formulate its concerns adequately within the context of philosophy of history and the evolution of modern understanding, not least when it comes to the need for a defence of reason and science. It particular interventions in the area of epistemology are also problematic.

Evolved epistemology

On my reading, The Gods in Whom They Trusted is a book that expresses explicit awareness toward the lack of an evolved epistemology. While it may not express such an awareness in the same terms, it is clear that in its aim to present an alternative epistemology, what the author is responding to is a problem in the perceived status of modern (social) relations and knowledge forming processes. This epistemology can be considered as being associated with what some describe as the “deficit of reason and social rationality”. But for the sake of our present discussion, it’s not really required that we get into the meaning and theory behind such terms, and the extensive empirical and scientific studies as well as philosophical literature substantiating the issue.

Rather, what is important to point out is that this notion of an evolved or mature epistemology concerns the principle roots of a fundamental social theory at the intersections of human subjectivity, knowledge and ethics. It relates to the philosophical and, more concretely, developmental model of open, mediating subjectivity and knowledge. The same sort of developmental model evidenced in a vast range of studies within the field of psychology, and now also increasingly in the cognitive sciences.

Such a form of subjectivity and knowledge is often considered as the opposite of, to put it in psychological terms, repressed subjectivity and thus hypostatized forms of identity and knowledge. This type of repressed knowledge and subjectivity is what we could describe as being “hypostatized” insofar that, as I have explained in other places, it forms the basis of hardened and often dogmatic views of the world, which, to put it in the context of anti-reason, are closed to new insights, observational data and counter-evidence. In an era defined as “post-truth” and characterized by its obvious lack of social rationality, this broad critical philosophy of the subject is most fitting.

In everyday circumstances, we see this sort of hardened and irrational subjectivity and knowledge play out in a number of ways: from the presentation of reality in mainstream media and the tabloid press, to the observable tendency to think in very prejudiced and absolute terms. There are entire bodies of research in media studies and throughout the social sciences about this very trend.

One could say, with good reason, that hypostatized knowledge, linked with repressed subjectivity and social pathological forms of development, is ultimately what lays the foundation for “worldviews”. By this I mean to refer to the sociological trend in relation to the development of worldview theory, which quite simply is the analysis of the formation of how different (often prejudiced) views of the world emerge in relation to closed systems of thought.

And this is a good place to start when it comes to deepening our engagement with The Gods in Whom They Trusted, as well as other books that speak of the need for a new and more positive “worldview” in contradistinction to neoliberal capitalism. I say this because one of the book’s central most theses has to do with worldview theory in relation to faith, core normative values and absolute first-principles.

In short, it seems to this reader that De Graaff seeks to fundamentally break from hypostatized forms of knowledge and subjectivity, on behalf of what he describes as an alternative and open “worldview”. This philosophical positioning fits, as we will see, with the books overall mission to provide an “alternative foundation” across the ranges of epistemology, anthropology and cosmology. But before I really start to unearth my critique, it may be useful to first entertain a critical summary of my reading. From there, I can then begin to logically breakdown the most important points.

A critical summary

Before I begin, allow me to preface what follows by acknowledging how: many indigenous societies have made remarkable scientific achievements, such as described in many historical, anthropological studies and within the field now called “ethno-science”. One could list dozens of examples, such as how aboriginal people in Australia developed complex number systems. A popular example is also found in indigenous botanical knowledge. Today, there is also a growing global indigenous movement known as “indigenous science”. Very different, no doubt, to modern “western” science and scientific methodologies; but it is nevertheless important to recognize that there are things that can be learned from indigenous approaches to the world and, indeed, from indigenous forms of knowledge, not least when it comes to epistemological practice in relation to management of resources.

This sort of recognition is something that The Gods in Whom They Trusted does well, even if this recognition is ultimately positions against “modern western science”. Although it doesn’t offer much in terms of a balanced view, what the book does provide is pages of examples of the practiced benefits of experiential knowledge, often using indigenous known as an example, such as in the practices of the Cree people and their fantastically sensitive understanding of natural cycles. Perhaps I am wrong, and here I can mainly only speak as a science student, but I think many scientists, especially environmental scientists, would recognize the value in indigenous knowledge and experiential forms of knowledge. I say that in effort to disclose that I do not see much or any evidence of an antinomy, as De Graaff suggests (a point to which I’ll return in a moment). Additionally, inasmuch that one might recognize the value of experiential knowledge in certain contexts; it is also important to recognize that experiential knowledge, broadly speaking, is very limited.

The issue I have with accounts such as the one found in The Gods in Whom They Trusted, is that the arguments often lack balance and nuance and subtly, idealizing too much in this case experiential epistemologies on behalf of oddly demonizing accounts of “scientism”, “western science”, and “scientific knowledge”, including rational and logical-mathematical forms of knowledge. Such accounts conveniently ignore the many limitations that also comes with these “alternative” experiential epistemologies, which one could describe as being variants of folk epistemology,  instead only focusing on what the author’s see as the positives. And I think this criticism also applies to De Graaff’s book, although perhaps in a much more magnified way. In a certain sense, one could read The Gods in Whom They Trusted as an attempt to collate and describe an overwhelming picture of social-economic systemic crises and find the roots of such a totality of crises in a certain destructive or negative epistemology. There are certainly some very interesting studies out there which analyze the epistemology of capitalism – that is, the type of knowledge that the logic or rationale of the system of capitalism fosters, which is often described as economically reductionist. These accounts are very close to if not entirely similar to the one presented in The Gods in Whom They Trusted.  The difference, however, is that in the book under review, there is significant theoretical and speculative conflation between the epistemology of what some call “political economy” and what the author identifies and targets as “western science” and “reason”, the latter which seem to become seen a root problem with regards to the unsustainability of western capitalist societies. On the basis of all the evidence and all of the literature, this seems like a rather odd argument. For me, a progressive and critical and nuanced perspective becomes lost. When I read the book in question the author’s philosophical account becomes much too simplistic in that an irreconcilability between modern science and reason and what the author wants to argue are reconciled epistemological approaches to the world. Reason, science, technology and economy all get mashed into one – representative of a violent and dominant epistemology – as the view or account quickly becomes polemic and thus one-sided, ultimately resorting to the dogmatic arena of black and white thought – it’s one or the other, folk epistemology or unsustainable and dominant “worldviews”.

In performing this error, The Gods in Whom They Trusted loses sight of reason, science and progress and their universal appeal as well as critical normativity, not only when it comes to a theory of epistemology but also in the context of a much broader philosophy of history. It also loses site of the ultimate human endeavour in relation to the positive enlightenment appeal. Even though the author rightly recognizes the importance of preserving universal normative values (however contradictory at times), the totality of the book doesn’t position itself in the right way. A critique of the rationale of capitalism and the epistemology it seems to generate, which some describe in the form of “abstract reason” or “instrumental reason”, is oftentimes a junk or pseudo notion of rationality. One could even argue that there’s nothing really rational about it all. Likewise, contemporary capitalist society’s relation with science is nothing short of complex and problematic. “Scientism”, which some describe as the selective, prejudiced economic and ideological appropriation of scientific input, resembles nothing close to “science”, “scientific knowledge” or “western science”. Likewise, scientific methodology and epistemology – the special nature of scientific knowledge – has nothing to do with what many argue as the destructive force and logic of capitalism. Science within popular society is usually  a watered down cartoon absent of actual scientific values and methodological considerations.  Irrational and pathological society is, fundamentally, largely absent of reason and rationality, not to mention scientific sensibility. The appropriation of science – like technology – for the benefit of economic and ideological ends has much more to do with a question of the social world than the scientific one.

There is without a doubt a lot of junk science, and there is little question about how science and scientific methodologies are vulnerable to becoming entwined with dominant social forces and trends. Ethical questions industrial science, its status as “science”, and the status of scientific methodology and knowledge within the industrial arena do not get raised enough. Additionally, so-called military science and the exploitation of scientific knowledge for the benefit of the military-industrial complex are befitting of a critique of what I gather to be what some refer to as “scientism”. Many scientists and philosophers of science will cite the atom bomb as a perfect example that exemplifies that science itself is not absolutely invulnerable to human sin. But these are questions and concerns that, at their roots, pertain to the irrationality of the human social world and the epistemology of what I would personally describe as pathological society.

What we read in The Gods in Whom They Trusted, on the other hand, are dramatic shifts in tone, from the opening pages which are grounded in modern science toward an overwrought polemic assault toward “modern western science” at the heart of global capitalism. The shift occurs much to the same tone as anti-modernism reverts to a total domination thesis or other documents describe indigenous science as set against modern science: “Unlike Western science, the data from indigenous science are not used to control the forces of nature; instead, tell us the ways and the means of accommodating nature”. This sentence, although not extracted from De Graaff’s book, could easily also be an extract from Chapter 7: even if he doesn’t want to abandon the concept of science for his own “alternative” pursuits, modern science seems to be thought to be driven to “control” or “dominate”.

Again, I am open to the possibility that what is characterized as “western science” is not actually “western science”, but a negative caricature in the form of what people sometimes call “scientism”. As I have complained in many other places, I am not always clear as to what this term means, as often it is employed to describe a whole range of issues which do not in any way seem to correlate with reality. The only considerable critique of “scientism” that I am aware of that raises some valid points – valid concerns which I have written about – is the criticism of the exploitation of scientific methodologies and epistemologies within the domain industry, politics and economy. “Scientism”, thus, as I’ve understood it, refers to as social critique of a particular co-optation of the scientific endeavour within the frame of political and economic ideology, as opposed to a critique of “science”.

Having said that, the account of “science” that we often read in The Gods in Whom They Trusted, paradigmatic in its own way, is the idea that “western science” seems to be seen as intrinsically driven to dominate over nature. This is because, on my reading, the book’s critique is generally positioned in relation to a critique of epistemology, which means that it struggles to differentiate between what some argues as the rationale of economic exploitation, based on the exploitation of scientific methods (i.e., scientism), and the actual genuine practice of science.

Expanding on the above, science, however vague and left undefined in the book, is still treated as an important universal value. As the author says, it is a “given”, which separates the book from typical hardened views associated with anti-modernism. But the basic or principle site of confusion, I think, has to do with a conflated form of social critique. Another way to describe this is as an example of theoretical conflation. The book misplaces the social and thus also pathological influence placed on scientific outputs for a critique of the whole modern scientific enterprise. In the case of The Gods in Whom They Trusted, a critique of “rationalism” and “scientism” quickly becomes a critique of “reason” and “western science”. Indeed, we see countless times how these terms become interchangeable. As a result, the author’s principle theses struggles to do justice to what is unique to modern science and reason, because it cannot recognize these terms outside of the “drive to dominate” narrative, or, worse, outside of the relativistic framing of worldview theory (a point saved for later).

In Chapter 7 we read, moreover, about how “science” is more or less irreconcilable with a sustainable way of living. The oddness of this claim is especially so when one considers that the majority of the honest attempts and most voiceful of popular movements – such as in the “sustainability” movement – are being powered by the natural sciences. Even on the level of a critique of epistemology, I see no grounding here.

Additionally, we are told how “the absolutization of science has made science into a basis for ultimate trust” (p. 529). On the level of a critique of political economy, I can possibly see what De Graaff means. But this is some statement, one that is repeated often, which again I don’t think in any way is universal or explained with any deal of nuance. Does neoliberalism like to think it is grounded in science? Many studies of neoliberal ideology tend to highlight this point. Do we often witness among neoliberalism’s advocates a rationale which affirms the statement of “ultimate trust” in a sort of pseudo-scientific social theory? Again, the scholarship on this issue would indicate so. However, the language again is not clear and it can easily be interpreted as all science. There are many, many natural scientists who would completely disagree with any statements of “ultimate trust” or “absolute faith” or even “absolute truth”. In fact, within the natural sciences, I’ve experienced more skepticism toward such claims than not. Scientists often practice the opposite, while also understanding at the same time that scientific knowledge is one of the best, most unbiased and most authoritative forms at humanity’s disposal. I agree. It works very well, but this is far from becoming “absolute faith” as seems to be the claim.

Within Chapter 7 there are also a lot of other similar assertions that are difficult to ground. For example, we read the claim that “science” – again, it is hard to know if the author means natural or social or whatever – would benefit greatly from the phenomenological tradition (p.556). I can certainly see the validity of this claim within the social sciences. But natural science is actually steeped in the phenomenological tradition. Phenomenology is a commonly used epistemology, including and especially in physics. It is one of the first epistemologies many young science students learn (explicitly or implicitly). Even historically in philosophy and in science, phenomenology is often synonymous with the scientific method. In physics, my own personal area of study and interest, has a very deep relationship with phenomenological epistemology.

It is also easy to feel flummoxed by the author’s critique of theoretical knowledge or scientific knowledge, which then jump straights into ideal counter-examples of indigenous knowledge. Again, it feels kind of “distant” or a too third-party referenced form of critique, because to my mind “good science” or “proper science” performs almost an identical operation to the ideal-type presented in The Gods in Whom They Trusted as a basis of “another view of knowing [and] scientific theories” (p.530).

To each “counter-example” read in Chapter 7, one can think of numerous examples of which the characterization of “indigenous knowledge” would match almost word for word with “good practice” in the natural sciences, minus the spiritualism and also the purely experiential or directly physical basis of knowledge. If I am right that the deeper issue De Graaff is seeking to describe is a critique of violent epistemology, with a mind toward a more open, subject-subject, particular sensitive epistemology, then I can see why it might be tempting to draw poles and issue a very black and white analysis. But to do so is not constructive. Consider, for instance, the book’s critique of “positivism”. Nowhere is it acknowledged that positivist epistemology is very useful and effective in terms of scientific methodology. And while it is very popular and common to criticize “positivism” within the social sciences, this is largely in response to “positivist social theory”, which is different in its own way. The main concern here, from what I have gathered, is that positivist approaches aren’t entirely applicable or appropriate within the domain of social research, and thus attempts by what is described as “positivist social theory” to formulate a theory of society is often met with criticism. But positivism itself isn’t inherently a bad thing or destructive epistemology, especially within the domain of the natural sciences. And inasmuch as The Gods in Whom They Trusted argues against the study of “objects”, there appears to be a lot of confusion about the legitimacy of such forms of study in the natural sciences and the problems such methodologies seem to face within the domain of social science.

Further to the point on the issue of conflation, at the start of the chapter we read a sentence that explicitly reflects on how capitalist economies have “enlisted” things like science and technology (p.529). But from there it feels like things fall off the track, because no longer is this “enslavement” of reason and science the issue. It suddenly seems that reason and science themselves as well as their history become a target. Science becomes an “ultimate belief” and reason, like theoretical knowing, gets laid the blame. The difference between reason and science, and their “absolutization” and instrumental exploitation by neoliberalism, fades as the central and most vital concern.

In that the author rightfully senses the need for a critique of epistemology within the social realm, the book in the end struggles to locate the boundaries of said epistemology. Thus the entire history and operation of reason and science are pulled into the acid bath of a negative social universe, like in much of critical social theory, and balance or nuance becomes lost. Modern economy and its rationale is conflated with the drives of reason and science.

Deeper yet, it feels like a critique of scientism becomes filtered vis-à-vis the worldview thesis that reason – or “western rationalism” – and science have become “distorted” as a result of their underlying paradigms linked with “dominant ideology”. A critique of violent epistemology becomes a critique of scientific knowledge – or even a critique of reason as a whole – which doesn’t make a lot of sense, unless the author is trying to argue that scientific knowledge is inherently violent. And if, indeed, this is what he is trying to argue, there is really no valid grounds for such an argument. The development of advanced nuclear weapons is a perfect example. Here technological development, based on concrete science, is outputted in a way that one should be critical of. But such a pathological development is not driven by science, but by the colonial and military-industrial complex whose rationale is often systemically linked to exploitative political economy. To go from this critique, to suddenly issuing a statement that nuclear physics or nuclear science is inherently destructive, would be completely absurd. Inasmuch that a person may feel compelled to think of examples where science is used destructively and therefore list report after report of such instances, I can also think of numerous examples in which scientific activity and knowledge can in no way be described as violent, “reductionist” or whatever else.

On this point, one analogy could be considered in psychology. There are reductionisms or moments when psychology certainly gets caught up in a negative epistemology or in social forces of domination; but it is not that psychology is inherently distorting in itself. The same can be said about technology or any other area of society. It’s no different than a hammer or any other piece of technology or any human concept for that matter. This is because scientific outputs, like technology, is socially mediated. For me, this seems like the most accurate approach to a critique of “scientism”. Even if, in giving the benefit of the doubt, that the many comments on “science” concern “scientism” in the sense of “science in the service of the economy”; the account is still too polemic and way too general. There is no question that the natural sciences can be appropriated or enlisted by an destructive economic regime, but a great deal of nuance is required in undertaking such a critique and in explaining in just what way this appropriation compromises the very process of scientific investigation and practice.

On this note, on p.548 it feels like De Graaff seeks to correct his position a bit, writing that the appeal is for “an integrated view of science that is in the service of all of life and not just the economy”. But only a few pages before he writes, to recall the passage verbatim: “The irony is that the large commercial fisheries with all their scientific data and sophisticated technology are unable to maintain fish stocks at sustainable levels […]. Of course there should not be a dilemma between a scientific-technological approach and experiential-communal one” (p.543). Sentences like this again imply a misplacing of social critique for a critique of scientific-technological approaches. Rather than focusing on the use of scientific-technological approaches, the aim appears more as a critique of said approaches in contradistinction to experiential-communal ones. Second, while there is an important lesson that De Graaff highlights in his study of an experiential-communal approach, particularly with regards to what we might learn from such an approach, it feels like he ignores the many non-capitalist driven science projects that are incredibly sustainable and also evidence the more or less “alternative” view he seeks to argue toward.

For these reasons among others, it begins to make sense why De Graaff favors indigenous knowledge as an ideal positive counter-example. This is actually quite common in a lot of contemporary critical social theory. Even Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything appears to make frequent references to indigenous practice of life, and for De Graaff it is clearly because many indigenous people have preserved another vision and way of life. Ultimately, indigenous societies, such as the Cree people, evidence for De Graaff his threefold unity between experience, knowledge and worldview. In truth, on a systematic philosophical level, relying on examples of indigenous knowledge as a counter-narrative is weak. No doubt there are many things we can learn from indigenous people throughout the world, not least about ecological sustainability as highlighted by De Graaff in his many references to Berkes’ study in Sacred Ecology. On this point, in the latter parts of Chapter 7 as well as in the other chapters that proceed, The Gods in Whom They Trusted contains a great deal of insight into alternative “holistic” process of knowing, “contextual knowledge”, the experiential process of understanding (i.e., experiential knowledge), and ultimately of a more integral “worldview”. Some of the points of discussion are quite insightful and worthy of reflection.

We read a theory of knowledge that is open, wherein as new, progressive and transformative paradigm-shifting values may arise, a philosophical “foundation” is formulated that seeks to support a reconciled form of subjectivity. With every new discovery, with every new observation or account of a phenomenon or object, De Graaff’s philosophical vision seeks to do justice to the changes that appear on the horizon, their call for recognition, and how to ensure that we stay open to the process of “coming to know”. Some of the sentences and particular moments of reflection are breath-taking, and will surely speak to many scientists, academics and individuals throughout the world.

The drive to dominate nature?

In addition to the above considerations, it is interesting to reflect on part of the subtitle of the book: “the disintegrative effects of capitalism”. For me, this signals a more concise scope of critique. It implies, in short, the negative social use of things like science and technology – one could certainly insert the whole of human life, as De Graaff does – in terms of its appropriation for political-economic gain. There are countless critiques in this regard and from within a wider range of scholarship, from farming and agriculture to education, energy, and even international relations.

On the other hand, the roots of contemporary social, economic and environmental crises is a product of the global social, political and economic system. It is not found in a critique of epistemology or knowledge, because violent epistemology is a product or social symptom – one could say, pathology – of the general coordinates of the social world. Within this social world, science like many other things, often struggle to maintain autonomy. Indeed, in such a social world, science and reason are often isolated and suppressed as social irrationality is the prevalent theme.

As I have written in the past as a result of my own studies in the area of philosophy of history, the presence of a “drive to dominate” narrative is unmistakable. We can trace speculatively, empirically, and also anthropologically its many iterations, subtleties and nuances throughout the whole of human history. Indeed, the drive to dominate nature is largely an existential one and thus we can see it as being transhistorical-cultural. It is also not necessarily a negative thing, as one could easily link this philosophical and psychological concept to basic “self-preservation” drives that are very much an important part of the fabric of the human endeavor.

In philosophy, it is considered, however speculatively, that such self-preservation drives are part of the existential fabric of human existence. It is, in simple terms, an expression of how we respond to the basic human condition and our precarious dependence on nature. This existential dimension of the human project is what is often described as a motivating force that has spurred us on throughout history to create better and more comfortable conditions for our lives. From a philosophical perspective the human existential drive to dominate nature – to establish a more secure existence against the precariousness of the basic human condition – can either be rational or irrational. The word “dominate” takes on two very different meanings, wherein on the one hand there will always be some form of domination over nature in the construction and maintenance of human society, unless, as in primitivism, one wishes a folk epistemology and a hunter-gatherer existence.

On the other hand, the word “dominate” also signals a social philosophical thesis that describes how irrational self-preservation drives – what one may also describe as “self-preservation drives run amok” – translate into social systems of domination, control, and coercion. On my reading, the philosophical thesis around the domination of nature is subtle and nuanced; it is not black or white in terms of good versus evil. It is material in the sense of human existential struggle, and what is required is awareness of the basic conditions of society. And I think this reading is one that correlates with the science-driven research in the area of social systems theory, which reveals that even on a basic systems level, every society that has existed has, to whatever degree, found the need to “dominate nature”. Every society, to speak more technically, has evidenced a degree of entropy. But it is, firstly, the rate of entropy that is the question. Secondly, the irrationality of pathological social systems and forces also comes into the equation.

It is thus not the question of the domination of nature per se, as the misguided arguments behind primitivism or anti-modernism suggest; rather it is the rate of domination that is the question. And I think this is another point of nuance that gets lost in The Gods in Whom They Trusted. It’s a point I will cover more thoroughly a little later. In the meantime, it is worth emphasizing that, inasmuch that The Gods in Whom They Trusted seems to position its discussion on epistemology as set within the two opposing forces – the drive to dominate, which is entwined with “western science” and the opposite, described as an “alternative epistemology” – the debate that the author seeks to construct lacks focus on the systemic. If “reason” and “science” and “technology” are entwined in or tend to become entwined in forces of domination, this has more to do with a study and examination of the logic and particular instrumental rationale of modern capitalism than of scientific epistemology or “western rationality”.

“Modern science” may be pegged as based on the control of the forces or laws of nature. There is certainly an element of truth to this. Much of western science is based on incredibly accurate methodologies which identify natural laws, and many progressive developments over the last four centuries have been based on our understanding of how to control or work with those laws. But to conflate this with the social systemic drive to “dominate nature”, however irrational and pathological such a drive has become in the name of the profit motive, is incredibly misguided. In other words, as I have argued in other places, to consider modern science as intrinsically dominant or violating, even in the context of seeking to understand natural laws and develop control over those laws – how “control” is defined in many critiques is vague – displaces the actual engine behind contemporary forms of almost irreversible systematic environmental degradation: namely, the logic of modern political economy. If such a political and economic system were to be advanced, transformed and progressed in the form of something more sustainable, ecologically just, and so on, then most of the problems this book covers would disappear.

Think, for example, of kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is a natural law. Kinetic energy is also something that has been exploited since early human history, when the first fire was sparked for warmth. The evolution in thought, and in science, from the basic primitive use of fire to the Victorian understanding of the stored energy of coal and the development of the steam engine – one could argue that this entire history is based to some degree on the advancement of understanding in relation to the control of a particular law of nature: what we might now describe as the conversion of mass to energy. This development and genesis of thought is not, in and of itself, a site of some pathological evil. The era of Victorian development – the industrial revolution – was a time of tremendous social exploitation and suffering, as is well-documented in the history books. But this is not a question of scientific epistemology, as the author in The Gods in Whom They Trusted alludes; if anything, it is a question of social and economic epistemology. How such scientific developments are realized, socially, is the more fundamental question. This is not to say that there isn’t a constant and ongoing concern around ethics in science – and we all know the long-term effects of coal-based energy systems. But without that period of development, one could also argue that we wouldn’t be able to enter into an age of renewable technology. The real question, which I think the book misplaces or doesn’t spend enough time considering, is what holds up progressive development? Why are scientific advancements and achievements realized in one way and not another? As many scientists are beginning to ask: In an age of great scientific achievement and technological advancement, “why does needless social suffering persist? Why does social irrationality prevail?”

Without the identification of natural laws, many amazing advancements and developments would not have taken place: without them penicillin would not exist, nor would the renewable energies the world is currently celebrating. In just four centuries, since Galileo, human civilization has gone from the invention of the telescope to putting a man on the moon to planning missions to mars, as Neil Degrasse Tyson rightly exclaimed in an episode of Cosmos. From penicillin among other invaluable medical developments, nuclear energy and better yet the possibility in the future of nuclear fusion, among many other things – they have all become realities taken for granted. The many significant and revolutionary developments that we celebrate today and imagine for tomorrow are indebted to science and the power of the scientific method.

An actual holistic analysis in the area of a study of western development would show, I think, that science is in no way the driving force of modern society. It is a driving force of progress, but the contradiction or antagonism we face is this: it is at least worth reflecting on whether there is a real ethical problem about how, as we read in philosophy, that reasonable or rational output is always under threat in an irrational social world. For example, think of the development of lifesaving medicines such as penicillin, and yet the logic of modern society – its political and economic systems and structures – enforces in many countries a financial barrier that blocks a lot of people from accessing such an important antibiotic. The other day I read a story about an individual in the U.S. who turned down needed medical treatment because they couldn’t afford it. Similarly, there’s a well-documented case currently unfolding where the drug Sofosbuvir, a cure for hepatitis C, is caught in the grips of a patent war. It has been estimated that there are currently 80 million people with hepatitis C, and only 5.4m have access to sofosbuvir. If this patent war goes to the side of pharmaceutical giant Gilead, millions of people will likely continue to not have access to this important drug.

More pointedly: it is a question of social, political and economic drives. The thesis of the existential drive to dominate nature is a social philosophical thesis, meaning it refers to the natural existential response to the precariousness of the human condition and how this is can be projected irrationally (or positively and rationally!) through social, political and economic systems (and thus the drives behind them). A critique of this trend or tendency throughout history – i.e., social pathology – is juxtaposed against a positive theory of rational development. That is, a positive theory of development toward a rational society, which responds to “self-preservation drives” (to borrow language from psychology) in a positive, transformative and truly “progressive” way according to normative universal values. Think, for instance, of so-called “military science” which exemplifies more the logic and rationale of pathological society than of the actual progressive values of the modern scientific endeavor.

What I am railing against here is a critique of scientific methodology and knowledge as a site or source of evil, as an intrinsic drive to dominate, when really these concerns pertain to an examination of the pathology of social rationality. The relation between science and society is the more serious issue, especially as scientific methodology and practice currently translates into the social world.

This raises an important point. For me, what a critique of epistemology is best used for is the evaluation of the rationale and knowledge forming processes inherent to the present social universe. Capitalism tends to foster or encourage, for example, the reduction of phenomena purely to their economic value. Hence the popular cultural expression, “profit over principle”. This is in no way an absolutely universal account. Many people in society don’t necessarily relate this way, but it describes the tendency or trend of the system of capital and its epistemology in terms of how phenomena, people, the natural world are viewed according to the logic of reduction on behalf of the values of capitalism.

Considering this note of reflection, one of the most widely accepted and understood theses is that “every technology embodies the values of the age in which it was conceived or created”, to whatever degree. Science is no different in the sense of the social use of science. Or, in other words, this is what some describe in a critique of “instrumental reason” – i.e., the instrumental and exploitative use of scientific research and outputs. Indeed, at least for me, the actual problem has more to do with the corporatization or economic reductionism, misuse and capitalization of the natural sciences, mostly outside of university and within “industry”, wherein such a dominant economistic epistemology is likely to be fostered and exercised. And many young scientists like myself certainly struggle with this. Scientists’ stories are everywhere on the internet to be read. In not wanting to participate in a particularly exploitative or destructive practices of industry, scientists are often forced to because that’s their only ticket to obtain funding for what is still often very valuable research. But again this is really a critique of what’s termed “instrumental reason” in critical social philosophy – again, the exploitation and instrumental use of science.

***

So what of the thesis of the “drive to dominate nature”? One of the most influential, historically significant and widely read critiques of “scientism” can be found in a book written by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. This book was one of the first that I turned to when trying to understand what critical philosophers mean by “scientism”. The book is titled Dialectical of Enlightenment, and these two thinkers are part of what is called the first generation Frankfurt School. Originally published in 1964, this book remains widely cited within the social sciences, especially in the area of critical theory.

In short, the entire book is an interdisciplinary critique of social forces and trends in the 20th century and, ultimately, of the betrayal of the Enlightenment. It opens with a deeply shocking assertion: “The Enlightenment”, Adorno and Horkheimer write, “understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 2002, p. 1). But instead of fulfilling its promise, “the wholly enlightened earth is” today “radiant with triumphant calamity” (p.1). Ultimately, what Adorno and Horkheimer sought, was a critique of a certain social deformation of “reason” – for the sake of the defence of science and reason – and therefore, too, the enlightenment project and its many important normative values.

However, their treatment of the issues, though often lacking nuance and certainly at times subject of misinterpretation, is thought provoking. While logical positivism is a focus of serious criticism, especially as it is employed in the social sciences, Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of “scientism” is actually more focused on a critique of the distortion of science and of a certain peculiar social ideological exploitation of human rationality. What does this mean, the “distortion of science”? In short, I think it can be read as a critique of the tendency of science – much like reason – to be used as an instrument for negative or destructive ends. Reason is no longer a means itself, but is employed in the service of political-economic ends. In this sense, it is not a critique of science per se. Rather, it is a critique of the social systemically fostered tendency toward the exploitation of scientific research and therefore scientific outcomes for the benefit of destructive social-political, economic projects.

One of the most widely cited examples – although there are many – is the use of scientific practice in Nazi Germany. From the view of philosophy of science, Nazism and its science of discrimination and social extermination through to the advent of the atom bomb – these examples offer concrete and empirical evidence where science has been “instrumentalized” to serve negative or destructive ends. In more contemporary terms, there are emerging critical discourses within the natural sciences and certain also within social philosophy, which use examples of the systemically degradation of the environment for industrial or corporate profit, as another example of the exploitation or even distortion of certain scientific practices. In fact, there are countless books which trace these developments historically as the sciences as a whole become increasingly privatized and corporatized, and therefore citing numerous examples where science and technology are being turned into an instrument for greater economic exploitation and social oppression. In other words: the autonomy of science is eroding, and, instead of serving a very real historical and social philosophical purpose in line with basic core Enlightenment values – emancipation, democracy, egalitarianism, justice, and so forth – many facets of the natural sciences are becoming subservient to neoliberal market ideology.

What we read in much of contemporary social theory is that science and reason (and also technology for that matter) have generally become entwined with “domination”. What does this mean? The problem for Horkheimer and Adorno, as I see it, is that far from reason and science being absolutely identical to power (in the negative sense of power, or what we might call coercive power), they argue that due to the character of real and identifiable social forces, reason and science tend to become entwined with the logical of dominant social systems. It is, in simpler terms, similar to saying that within a “bad” social system even a “good” person cannot fully escape becoming an instrument or extension of the negativity of that system, to whatever degree. In science-based social systems theories of development, we read similar arguments but perhaps in more clear terms, the fundamental point being that violent, domination, and so on are systemically-linked problems. In terms of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the notion of domination is actually understood in a triple sense. To quote Lambert Zuidervaart, it is:

“…a pattern of blind domination […]: the domination of nature by human beings, the domination of nature within human beings, and, in both of these forms of domination, the domination of some human beings by others. What motivates such triple domination is an irrational fear of the unknown”. (Zuidervaart, 2011)

As for the idea of how human reason might become deformed, it is worth stating that many scholars, such as Amy Allen, suggest that we must understand that this process to be historically contingent (Allen, 2016; Sherman, 2007). What this means, as Allen writes, “If, however, the relationship between reason and domination is historically contingent, and if it doesn’t involve a reduction of reason per se to domination, then the paradox emerges from a certain process of rationalization and is not internal to reason as such” (Allen, 2016, p. 170).

To understand the source of this deformation, requires a significant discussion in social philosophy. This discussion lies outside the remit of the current article. The short and overly simply answer is that it is rooted in a general process of rationalization (Allen, 2016, p.167). This is what Adorno and Horkheimer sometimes describe as the process of “instrumental reason”, which does not actually refer to the natural human cognitive capacity but more or less to a critique of a certain distorted “analytic structure” (Sherman, 2007).

Another way one might describe this, as I reflected elsewhere, is reason employed for an end. Reasonableness, when subservient to bias and prejudice – or to a political and economic ideology – this is an alienated concept of reason. In its subservience, the end of the investigation is already the means. Thus, this “analytic structure” is linked to the development of the rationale of contemporary capitalism, which, from the perspective of psychology, functions according to “self-preservation drives gone wild” (Cook, 2007). The meaning of this statement is basically an account of how, in order for contemporary capitalism to operate, it requires a certain deformed rationality, one which drives to exercise greater and greater power over nature, over other human beings, and over each other, for the benefit of profit (or the purely economically defined ends of profit). This is what others sometimes refer to as “cycles of domination”, or, in the case of my own recent book, the pathology of contemporary society (Smith, 2017). It would seem, as expressed earlier, to be a question of social, political and economic drives. The thesis of the existential drive to dominate nature is a social philosophical thesis in that it refers to the natural existential response to the precariousness of the human condition and how this is can be projected irrationally (or positively and rationally!) through social, political and economic systems (and thus the drives behind them).

Now, none of this is to say that each and every person is entangled the negative version of the process in such an explicit and direct way, so as to imply that we are all a function of the philosophical notion of the “will to mastery”. That said, it is more than likely that it has some effect on us and that there is some degree of internalization, to whatever extent. In any case, perhaps the main purpose is to identify systemic patterns, and in the midst of these systemic patterns, to understand the extent of philosophical reconciliation.

Unfortunately, Adorno and Horkheimer do not disentangle reason and science from power once and for all. In their study, which, to be fair, does also require a great deal of critical retrieval, only leaves us with a fundamental sense of direction in terms of how we might actually begin to proceed. This sense of direction is ultimately quite abstract; it succeeds only in offering a critical examination which renders reason and science self-aware of its entanglement with power (Allen, 2016, p. 172).

Moving forward, while I have some complaints about Steven Pinker’s position, he is right to emphasize: “The mindset of science, cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation.  It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality”. To suggest, as Pinker does, that defining principles of science can ensure circumvention of the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable (Pinker, 2013), is a bit of a problem. It’s a problem not because he is wrong, and that the principles of science cannot help ensure against circumvention of socially negatively human error – the problem is that the output of science, the output of scientific practice, is not necessarily immune or impregnable to the “sins” of irrational social forces. Therefore, even though I also have complaints about Lears position, he is not wrong to suggest:

“All [these events of the 20th Century, including the scientific racism of Nazi Germany] showed that science could not be elevated above the agendas of the nation-state: the best scientists were as corruptible by money, power or ideology as anyone else, and their research could as easily be bent toward mass murder as toward the progress of humankind. Science was not merely science. The crowning irony was that eugenics, far from “perfecting the race,” as some American progressives had hoped early in the twentieth century, was used by the Nazis to eliminate those they deemed undesirable. Eugenics had become another tool in the hands of unrestrained state power. As Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argued near the end of World War II in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the rise of scientific racism betrayed the demonic undercurrents of the positivist faith in progress. Zygmunt Bauman refined the argument forty-two years later in Modernity and the Holocaust: the detached positivist worldview could be pressed into the service of mass extermination”. (Lears, 2011)

The main thing to take away here is that what plays a role in negatively shaping or mediating the outputs of scientific advancement, is not “western science” or some intrinsically evil concept of “western reason”.  The ethos of modern science, from its earliest conception, was based on core humanistic values: liberation, egalitarianism, democracy, discovery and exploration. It was based on a social philosophy that sought to emancipate humanity from oppression, grounded in a critical conception of normative universalism. But if what one is seeking, from an ethical standpoint, is a critique of the outputs of modern science and how they take on an especially pathological or destructive form, what one must look at is the pathological social, political and economic system that would seek to exploit scientific knowledge for its own destructive purposes. And this, I take it, is one of the fundamental lessons of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s book Dialectic of Enlightenment, which Lears also cites.

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As a young scientist, the point for me is not a critique of science, nor even necessarily technology. It is not science or technology that makes the practice more unsustainable than De Graaff’s ideal-types. It is how they become entangled with forces of exploitation and domination, as discussed in essay one and two, which is the real point worthy of detailed ethical consideration. There are numerous examples of this in our recent history, where even scientists have been employed, often by large multinational corporations, to create counter-case (or counter-science) aimed at denying strong scientific evidence against the detrimental effects of a corporation’s product or technology. Recently a report emerged (published in Time Magazine) how companies that produce sugary drinks funded scientific studies aimed to suppress the link between the consumption of sugary drink and diabetes. Exxon’s cover-up of climate science is another very good recent example. Or what about the famous example from the early 20th century, where science denial on behalf of corporate and special interests was exposed by Clair Patterson. The scientist funded by the lead industry and in charge of creating a case against the science-based realities related to lead poisoning, such as for instance in the fumes of leaded gasoline, went by the name of Robert Kehoe. Any fans of the show Cosmos will know this famous story well.

Moving forward, I think it is fair and balanced to suggest that De Graaff isn’t wrong to critique how the “doing of science” can be influenced by the dominate ideology of our time (i.e., capitalism or, today, neoliberal capitalism), just like every other area of life or society can fall under such an influence. But there is a problem with the book’s assumption that scientific investigation is never value free, and thus that one always investigates from out of a certain worldview. In Part 2, I will discuss this issue and conclude my review.