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Materialism, spirituality, and the three C’s

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive linguist, would not make a very good ambassador. In his latest diatribe, he attempts to reassure humanities scholars that science is not their enemy. Science is good, and humanities scholars should stop complaining about ‘Scientism’. Unfortunately, he says this in such a tactless and, er, Scientistic way that it’s guaranteed to annoy not just humanities scholars, but no doubt many scientists too.

Right from the get-go, he patronizes the humanities, giving his essay the sub-title, ‘an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians’, which makes everyone in the humanities sound like losers. Just to make sure of offence, he then claims that Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant and Smith were ‘all scientists’, and all materialists to boot. Even I know that’s wrong – Descartes, Rousseau, Liebniz, Kant and Smith all used spiritual ideas like the soul, providence, God or the General Will in their philosophies.

I don’t care about inter-departmental bun-fights. I am all for cross-disciplinary work between the humanities and the sciences, like the Stoicism and Therapy project I’m working on at Exeter University. The Scientism I object to, which Pinker expresses, is the shrill insistence that science has ‘proved’ materialist utilitarianism and any other world-view is ridiculous. I think that type of Scientism, besides being tactless, leaves out important aspects of human experience.

Materialism’s rejection of subjective experience

According to Pinker’s Scientism, ‘most of the traditional sources of belief – faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty – are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge’.

Dismissed entirely? That would mean ignoring subjective experience, our mental states and emotions. Surely our inner experience is a useful source of knowledge about ourselves – otherwise how would we have any basis for psychology? Certainly subjective experience can mislead – whole shelves of philosophy and theology have been written on the art of discernment – but it seems extreme to dismiss all inner experience as a source of knowledge.

Religious traditions claim that our consciousness, and subjective experiences like emotions, are useful sources of knowledge about how to live

Pinker goes on, ‘the moral worldview of any scientifically literate person requires a radical breach from religious conceptions of meaning and value’. How does it require that? William James understood that the foundation of religions is ‘religious experience’, our attempt to make sense of our consciousness, emotions and relationships, and to discover the wisest way to live. Many ‘scientifically literate’ people still find religious traditions useful guides.

Pinker insists that scientific progress has exposed and debunked the truth-claims of the world’s religions. This is true – some of the truth-claims of Genesis, for example, have been debunked, and it’s unfortunate that many fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept the discoveries of evolution or geology. But Pinker over-eggs his materialist pudding. He says: ‘We know that the laws governing the physical world have no goals that pertain to human well-being’.

No, we don’t. We know that the laws of the physical world led to consciousness, and that consciousness apparently gives humans the ability to think, discuss and philosophize, and to choose better and wiser ways of living which enhance our well-being. A strict materialist might claim that talk of consciousness and free will is ‘woo woo’, but I think the scientific evidence supports the above claims.

We don’t yet know how consciousness works, and whether it’s confined to our individual brains or is connected with other sentient beings and the cosmos. Until then, scientists don’t know if things like prayer, prophecy and revelation have something to them or are delusions (although we can test out the truth-claims of particular prophecies or revelations, and see for ourselves if we think prayer works).

Does science ‘prove’ secular humanism?

Pinker’s right that scientific progress has undermined many religious truth-claims, and in the process undermined people’s values and sense of meaning. But has science led to positive values or meaning? Pinker says that though ‘the scientific facts do not themselves dictate values…[they] militate towards…principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings’. This ‘humanism’, he says, ‘is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies’.

Is it? The fact that modern democracies are doing nothing to prevent climate change suggests that we don’t care about the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. Rather, the ruling value system of modern democracies would seem to be consumerism, and the flourishing of all sentient beings is way down our list of priorities.

Like Christianity, Humanism is an expression of hope and faith in the face of contrary evidence.

I’m not blaming this failure on scientific materialism – the Christian majority of America seem just as consumerist as the atheist minority. I’m merely saying that Pinker’s faith in secular humanism is just that: a faith, something that flies in the face of the abundant evidence that humans don’t care about the flourishing of others, that rationalism alone is apparently not enough to help us. He speaks of the ‘unfulfilled promises’ of secular humanism, much like a Christian longing for a more just world.  Humanism, like Christianity, involves faith (which according to Pinker makes it ‘unscientific’ and therefore unworthy of respect).

Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism ignores the three Cs

Like Pinker, I believe that our ethics should be connected to what psychology tells us about human nature. But I would argue that religious traditions have a better understanding of human psychology and how to develop it into ethical conduct than Pinker’s materialist utilitarianism. I want to emphasize three aspects of human nature where materialist utilitarianism falls short – creativity, community, and consciousness.

First, creativity. Pinker discusses at the end of his essay how ‘new science’ has discovered humans are not ‘rational actors’. Instead, as social scientists like George Lakoff and Jonathan Haidt have researched, we’re moved by metaphor, image, and narrative-frames of purity, heroism, justice and other ‘moral emotions’.

Shelley, kicked out of Oxford for preaching atheism in the streets, still claimed poets were the ‘hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration’.

That’s what religious thinkers from Carlyle to Chesterton have been warning utilitarians since the Enlightenment. But materialism has undermined our myths or ‘sacred narratives’, which is why poetry has gone from being at the very centre of human society to being at the margins. Poets (even atheist poets like Shelley) drew energy from the Platonic idea that they are prophets, mediators to the spirit world – this is true all the way up to Ted Hughes, our last great poet. Once we stopped believing in things we couldn’t see, our poetic imagination dried up. Poetry became a sideshow: amusing but of no substantial import.

As TS Eliot warned, the loss of collective myths led to a loss of meaning and a flattening of emotion, because materialism failed to come up with new sacred narratives that light up our moral emotions, other than the rather toxic narrative of nationalism. Photographs from the Hubble telescope are awesome, but they’re not a guiding myth like, say, Lord of the Rings or Paradise Lost.

Secondly, community. Religious traditions are not perfect at community-building – most of them still struggle with misogyny and homophobia, and secular humanist communities are much better in that respect. But religious communities typically have stronger and more emotional ties, because they have at their heart collective experiences of the sacred, which social scientists from Emile Durkheim to Robert Putnam emphasised as the key to community cohesion.

The most nurturing religious communities have the idea of a loving God at their centre. This allows people to be vulnerable, to care for each other and for their communities, and gives them a common identity at a deep level – deeper than the secular humanist idea that what connects us in rationality. The problem about communities connected only by rationality is they easily become snobbish cliques of the cognitive elite, rather like the Edge Foundation to which Pinker belongs. Secular humanist communities need to learn the art of being vulnerable – that’s why Brene Brown’s work is so valuable.

Thirdly, consciousness. Rather than dismissing subjective experience, religious traditions are storehouses of wisdom about it, and in particular about the emotions, and how to transform them. Secular therapy owes a great deal to these traditions, from mindfulness meditation to prayer in the 12 Steps Programme. This wisdom seems to me at least as valuable as the materialist approach to our inner worlds, which is basically to look for chemical solutions to chemical problems. Religious traditions are also open to ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’ like visions, trances and ecstasies, which scientific materialism can often dismiss as ‘psychotic-like symptoms’.

Of course, the materialist hypothesis may turn out to be right. Our minds may be confined to our brains, there may be no God or higher beings communicating with us, the universe may not care anything about us. But it remains a hypothesis, to be challenged and criticized rather than turned into dogma. As Pinker says, ‘the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today’.

Simon Critchley’s Politics of the Sacred

Simon Critchley, an English philosopher at the New School in New York, has suggested that all philosophy is an attempt to deal with two disappointments: religious disappointment, or the loss of faith; and political disappointment, or the search for justice. In his most recent book, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, he attempts to put these disappointments behind him, and work out a relationship between religion and politics. He’s not a theist himself, so this is a tricky task, but he nonetheless tries to build an atheist Utopian religion which he calls ‘mystical anarchism’.

He’s thus one of several English philosophers (AC Grayling, John Gray, Alain de Botton) currently trying to re-invent religion for a secular age. I’m not certain his attempt will be more successful than these earlier attempts, but before we criticize the project, let’s first outline his argument, because it’s certainly interesting.

1) Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology

Carl Schmitt, Nazi philosopher

Firstly, Critchley argues that all modern political ideology involves a reformulation or metamorphosis of the sacred. In this he follows the German philosopher and ardent Nazi, Carl Schmitt, who wrote in an influential 1922 essay, ‘Political Theology’, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”.

The Age of Reason might have congratulated itself on doing away with the old superstition of Christianity and the Divine Right of Kings. But Enlightenment political philosophies simply created new ‘sacred fictions’ to put in the old gods’ place: The People (or Volk), the Fuhrer, Representative Democracy, the Free Market, the Invisible Hand, and so on.

So, for example, American democracy is built on the strange Deism of the Freemasons / Illuminati. The Invisible Hand, meanwhile, was taken by Adam Smith from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus – at the end of the play Oedipus is carried up by an invisible hand to the Gods. Sophocles took the image from the ancient fertility myth of Demeter. So an image that originally symbolised the divine power of Nature over human affairs came to be used to symbolise the divine power of the Market.

In seeing Enlightenment politics as competing ‘sacred narratives’, Critchley follows John Gray, who made a similar critique of neoliberalism as a Utopian religion in his 1998 book, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. It’s also, interestingly, in line with the recent work of the social scientist Jonathan Haidt, which has looked at how different political narratives of the sacred push different emotional buttons within our psyches. Haidt wrote last year:

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

2) Rousseau’s civil religion

The Enlightenment philosopher who best understood the irrationalism of politics and the need for a conscious reformulation of the sacred was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau understood, better than most Enlightenment philosophers, that man “consults solely his passions in order to act”. The challenge of passionate politics (as Rousseau sees it) is how to transform a handful of alienated and selfish individuals into a mystically fused whole, in which no citizen is subordinated to any other, because all are united in the General Will. How can this mystical transformation happen? Rousseau writes in his Considerations on the Government of Poland: “Dare I say it? With children’s games: spectacles, games, and festivals which are always conducted ‘in the open’”. As Critchley notes, this idea “had a direct influence on Robespierre’s fetes nationales civiques in the years after the French Revolution”.

The Tennis Court Oath during the French Revolution: ecstatic politics in action

Rousseau was also the only Enlightenment political philosopher to follow Plato in seeing music as absolutely crucial to the formation of the national soul. In his ‘Essay on the Origin of Languages, Melody and Musical Imitation’, he blamed the decay of melody for the loss of political virtue, and expressed some hesitant hope that music might be revived and once again used as an organ to shape the national genius. Again, Rousseau’s Romantic nationalism was prescient, anticipating not just the importance of the Marseillaise and of national anthems in general to 19th century Romantic nationalism, but also the zenith of Romantic nationalism in the Nazi regime’s use of Wagner.

The crucial ‘fiction’ in Rousseau’s civil religion is the fiction of the legislator,  an almost superhuman Leader who will guide the people to their mystical oneness in the General Will. The Leader is a ‘superior intelligence who saw all of man’s passions and experienced none of them, who had no relation to our nature yet knew it thoroughly” – not a man, so much as a God.

Goering understood Rousseau’s call for national festivals to create the proper volksgeist

While one can applaud Rousseau’s prescience in understanding the power of the passions in politics, his plan for a civil religion is also a little chilling, bringing to mind Robespierre’s Dictatorship of Virtue and, even more, Goering’s Myth of Hitler, which likewise relied heavily on grand festivals, parades, games, music and cinema. Critchley admits: “It would seem there is little to prevent the legislator from becoming a tyrant, from believing that he is a mortal god who incarnates the General Will. Such is the risk that is always run when politics is organized around any economy of the sacred”.

Another risk of this politics of the sacred, of course, is that the politics of national ecstasy quickly turns into a bad trip of paranoia and bloodletting: Woodstock mutates into Altamont. To keep the people ‘high’, to keep the national festival going, at some point you need to start finding scapegoats to murder.

Critchley recognises the risk of bloody totalitarian dictatorship is a bit of a problem with Rousseau’s politics. He notes that the French philosopher Alain Badiou is happy to follow Rousseau and advocate violent dictatorship. Badiou writes: “Dictatorship is the natural form of organization of political will.” But Critchley, noble fellow, decides this “is a step I refuse to take”. So if a cult of the Fuhrer doesn’t appeal, what other models are there of passionate politics?

3) John Gray’s passive nihilism

Critchley’s search for what Wallace Stevens called an ‘acceptable fiction’ – some myth we can believe in even when we know it’s not true – brings him onto similar terrain as John Gray, whose new book, The Silence of Animals, also quotes Stevens heavily and is also a search for a myth we can believe in. But Critchley wittily rejects Gray’s sacred narrative:

[Gray’s pessimism] leads to a position which I call ‘passive nihilism’…The passive nihilist looks at the world with a certain highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of lyric poetry, yogic flying, bird-watching, gardening, or, as was the case with the aged Rousseau’ botany. In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades  which are usually two arms of the same killer ape – the passive nihilist withdraws to an island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling into a meaning. In the face of the coming decades, which in all likelihood will be defined by the violence of faith and the certainty of environmental devastation, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge… Nothing sells better than epigrammatic pessimism….


4) Mystical anarchism

So what form would Critchley’s more positive and optimistic politics take? He looks to medieval Millenarian anarchist movements, like the People’s Crusade of the 11th century and the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit of the 14th century. He uses Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium as a source, and notes the power of various self-proclaimed Messiahs – Hans Bohm, Thomas Muntzer, John of Leyden – “to construct what Cohn calls…a phantasy or social myth around which a collective can be formed”.

Critchley is inspired by the ecstatic movements described in Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium

Once again, there are some risks to such Millenarial movements: like the French Revolution or the Nazi regime, the fires of political ecstasy were stoked by identifying scapegoats and declaring a Holy War on them. Violence, Critchley notes, “becomes the purifying or cleansing force through which the evil ones are to be annihilated”. But Critchley hopes to build an ‘ethical anarchism’ that rejects such violence, or rather, than seeks to violently annihilate the self, rather than the Other. He looks to Marguerite Porete, a mystic and author of The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls, and how she tried to annihilate herself to become one with God. He’s also interested in Christine the Astonishing, who also tried to annihilate herself: “she threw herself into burning-hot making ovens, ate foul garbage and leftovers, immersed herself in the waters of the river Meuse for six days when it was frozen, and even hanged herself at the gallows for two days”. Astonishing indeed.

We might simply reject such movements as Medieval nuttiness, but Critchley sees them as anticipating modern anarchist movements, particularly the Paris Commune, and the Situationism of Paris 1968. He doesn’t discuss the Occupy movement, but it also struck me as having something of the Millenarial uprising to it, not least in its occasional Woodstock-esque emphasis not on process reform but on a radical transformative politics of love. This is what Critchely is groping towards. He writes: “love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty and engage with its own annihilation”. Mystical anarchism, then, is an annihilation of the self and an attempt at the ‘infinite demand’ of love – not of God, but of one’s fellow men.

Critchely also explores St Paul’s writings at length, partly through the interpretations of Heidegger and Alain Badiou, and sees in Paul a role model of sorts for the Utopian anarchist in late capitalism, longing for another world which is not present, and suffering in anguish in a fallen world that is so alien to one’s desires. And yet Paul somehow manages to hope, to believe and have faith in the not-yet, which is an attitude that the mystical anarchist also clearly needs.

6) Critchley’s spat with Zizek

The last chapter summarises an argument Critchley has been having with Slavoj Zizek, who is supposedly one of the top ten thinkers in the world, according to Prospect magazine’s new poll (if anything exposes the limits of representative democracy, it is that assertion). Zizek sees Critchely’s politics of anarchist protest (for example, his advocation of protest against the Iraq War) as simply playing into the hands of the ruling regime. It makes the protestors feel better, and even helps the regime by giving the appearance of lively liberal disagreement.

Zizek, dreaming of cataclysmic violence

Zizek by contrast, in Critchley’s words, asserts that “the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralyzed like Bartleby”. Go to bed, like John and Yoko. However, Zizek also dreams of  “a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed”. Yikes. Stay in bed Slavoj!

Critchley rejects this position, arguing it involves a misinterpretation of Walter Benjamin’s theory of divine violence. This seems a weird reason to reject it: surely one can reject it simply because it’s evil? Why is Walter Benjamin suddenly granted biblical authority? Critchley can sometimes get lost in critical theory’s jargon and guru-worship, and not see the ethical wood for the semantic trees. I’m glad he rejects Badiou’s call for a Maoist dictatorship, for example, but why does he still quote Badiou so reverently? He called for a Maoist dictatorship! Why quote Carl Schmitt at such length, without fully spelling out quite what a book-burning Nazi anti-Semite he was? Critchley comes across as a sympathetic and decent voice (I have no idea how the man actually lives) but the philosophers he looks to (Rousseau, Heidegger, Schmitt, Badiou, Lacan) hardly inspire confidence in the ethical authority of philosophers.  You sometimes feel Critchley is too reverent before charlatan bullshit merchants like Lacan, that he lacks common sense, lacks Orwell’s ability to see through intellectual bullshit and to recognise a scoundrel when he sees one.

7) Problems with Critchley’s politics of the sacred

My main problem with Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless – similar to my problem with Gray’s new mythology – is that, for an attempt at a ‘passionate politics’, it is far too intellectual, tepid and, well, theoretical. Take this passage, where he attempts to formulate his faith of the faithless:

Faith is a word, a word whose force consists in the event of its proclamation. The proclamation finds no support within being, whether conceived as existence or essence. Agamben links this thought to Foucault’s idea of veridiction or truth-telling, where the truth lies in the telling aloe. But the thought could equally be linked to Lacan’s distinction, inherited from Benveniste, between the orders of enonciation (the subject’s act of speaking) and the enonce (the formulation of this speech-act into a statement or proposition). Indeed, there are significant echoes between this idea of faith as proclamation and Levinas’ conception of the Saying (le Dire), which is the performative act of addressing and being addressed by an other, and the Said (le Dit), which is the formulation of that act into a proposition of the form S is P.

How is such airy-theory ever going to inspire an ecstatic popular uprising? The problem, I think, is that both Critchley and Gray are trying to construct a faith or myth and give it sacred power, but for a myth to have that power, you have to really believe it. You can’t just suspend your disbelief. This is the major difference between Critchley and St Paul or Christine the Astonishing. The latter two were perfectly happy to risk their lives for their sacred narratives, because they really believed in Jesus and in the after-life and so were happy to give up the world, even to see the world destroyed. And, crucially, they didn’t think it was possible to meet the ‘infinite demand’ of love without God’s help. They are weak, but God is strong. Critchley embraces Paul’s sense of human weakness, but is not capable of accepting the idea of God’s strength, which renders the ‘infinite demand’ of love even harder to meet. This, to my mind, is a problem with humanism in general: how to meet the infinite demand of ‘love thy neighbour’. I think Tobias Jones may be right: it is much easier to love thy neighbour when you have a common God above you and within you. Beneath modern cosmopolitanism, after all, is the Stoics’ sacred belief that we are all citizens of the City of God.

More broadly, do Critchley or Gray really believe their myths, or are they just playing? What are they prepared to sacrifice for them? Likewise, what are the followers of De Botton’s Religion for Atheists prepared to sacrifice, other than the occasional Sunday morning? It all seems very post-modern, very cafe-cosmopolitan, ironic, safe, non-committal, and a million miles away from either medieval Millenarianism or modern fascism or Jihadism. It seems like cafe chat. Talk is cheap.

Myths use us as vessels, and can destroy us

My second issue with this new postmodern embrace of religious myth is this: let’s say you succeed in creating a Supreme Fiction which people really do believe in, which pushes their sacred emotion buttons and mobilises a mass movement. How can you be sure that your new religion doesn’t veer into the orgy of scapegoat-sacrificing that previous ecstatic politics have veered into? How do you make sure your Woodstock doesn’t turn into Altamont? How do you make sure the leaders of this movement don’t start believing, as Hitler started to believe, that they really are the Messiah, the embodiment of the national genius, Wotan? As I said in my review of Gray’s book, myths are slippery things – they take hold of us and use us as vessels, like the alien face-suckers in Prometheus.

My final concern is that it seems like the Two Cultures are getting further and further apart. On the one hand, philosophy (and perhaps the humanities in general) seems to be rejecting the Enlightenment, rejecting liberal humanism, and looking to irrational and often violent religious myths for consolation and inspiration. On the other hand, the social sciences are informing a new ‘evidence-based politics’ – what Carl Schmitt would perhaps say as the deification of the Randomised Controlled Trial. The Two Cultures seem more and more incapable of talking to each other.

We need both! Critchley looks out into a bleak future likely to be characterized by “religious violence and environmental devastation”. In such a future, I am certain we will need good myths. But we also need a way to preserve scientific literacy and a respect for scientific evidence. That’s why I find Stoic and Aristotelian virtue ethics one optimistic meeting ground, bringing together both philosophers and social scientists. I think we should be wary of entirely rejecting Socratic humanism and completely embracing an irrationalist or Dionysiac politics. We are a generation that didn’t experience Nazism, and so have a more optimistic attitude to the politics of ecstasy. I like Dionysiac ecstasy as much as the next man, but I prefer it in church to a nationalist Fuhrer rally. As Eric Voegelin put it, don’t immanentize the eschaton.