Harman & Zizek: Object-Oriented Ontology

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In Defense of Venezuelan Democracy

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Nicolás Maduro is and shall remain the president of Venezuela. Nevertheless, the imperialists abroad and the oppositionists at home have entered into an unholy alliance bent on destroying the national sovereignty of the country. In order to get a handle on the situation, it’s important that we look at the arguments of the imperialist/oppositionist bloc and address them point by point.

I’ve written previously about Venezuela’s real problem (hint: Capitalism). Here we are, two weeks after the inauguration of Maduro for his next term and We$tern Regimes are saying that he is no longer the president. How did we get here?

  • Imperialist: “There’s no democracy! Maduro’s illegitimate!”

Yes, there is. No, he isn’t.

The  head of the opposition is the Majority Leader of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s unicameral legislative body. So if Maduro is so great at rigging elections, why isn’t his party the majority party in the parliament? I mean, a little bit of logic would be helpful here. At the same time, don’t “repressive dictatorships blah blah blah” stamp out any and all protest? Why are there so many protests in Venezuela if there’s no democracy?

Of course, the imperialists will say that the government tries to stamp out the protests with tear gas. In Egypt in 2011, the government used live ammunition to quell the protests. Is there no difference between the two tactics? Shouldn’t we then be condemning Macron’s brutal authoritarian regime crack down on the peaceful democratic oppositionists in Paris?

He’s shooting fucking tear gas from helicopters!

Look at Macron gassing his own people!

Obviously, there is democracy in Venezuela, even if it isn’t perfect. Maduro was elected by a majority (he won with 67% and a 46% turnout – an enormously high percentage with a typical We$tern-style turnout). For the record, the fascist orangutan in Washington did not win a majority. Is that democratic?

Remember that not one single person voted for Guaido to be the president in the elections, because he didn’t run. To declare himself interim president flies in the face of every democratic principle.

The oppositionists are in control of the National Assembly, there’s a broad oppositionist media landscape (including on the internet, obviously), and there is clearly a strong protest culture that has developed freely under the Bolivarian government. Does that sound like there’s no democracy in Venezuela?

  • Imperialist: “The We$t ought to intervene.”

That’s the fucking problem!

The We$t has been intervening since Hugo Chavez was elected in 1999. This is evidenced by the coup attempt in 2002, the sanctioning of the government since 2014, and the creation of the Lima Group, which is an organization created by the most reactionary regimes in the We$tern hemisphere, designed at overthrowing the Venezuelan government. Or, as the Washington Post puts it:

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Obviously, as we’ve established, Maduro is no dictator. If he were a dictator, then we know he would have the backing of Brazil’s regime right now! And, by the way, Duque in Colombia is no better than Bolsonaro. One more thing – if it wasn’t already obvious, Trudeau’s government in Canada is also hardcore reactionary and imperialist.

Of course, imperialism only flows one way – the powerful countries get to dictate what less powerful countries are to do. Violence flows down the hierarchy. Could we imagine, for example, Venezuela declaring Nancy Pelosi to be the president of the U.$.? Would anyone take that seriously?

Neither should we take the claims of We$tern imperialism seriously.

So, to the liberals and pseudo-leftists who refuse to stand with Venezuela (I’m looking at you, Bernie Sanders!), I recommend, as always, that you go back and read Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. He correctly emphasized that “politically, imperialism is, in general, a striving towards violence and reaction.” Imperialism here is not going to bring anything to the Venezuelan people but destruction and ruin.

  • Imperialist: “Even the Venezuelans want Maduro gone.”

Some Venezuelans do indeed want Maduro to stop being the president of Venezuela.

Some Venezuelans have been against the Bolivarian Revolution from the very beginning. Can we make any educated guesses as to what groups of people would be against a socialist party in Latin America? And what groups would support a socialist party?

I’ll give you a hint – rich, white people don’t like Maduro. That’s undeniable. You know who does like Maduro? The poor, black, and indigenous people of Venezuela. Need proof?

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Maduro Supporters Protesting on January 23, 2019

There’s a reason that the vast majority of the Venezuelan people are rejecting this coup attempt (if you don’t believe me, the most trending hashtags on Twitter in Venezuela right now are all pro-Maduro: #YankeeGoHome, #VenezuelaYElMundoConMaduro, and #24Ene). Is that a coincidence?

  • Imperialist: “Socialism has failed.”

This is the primary bullshit argument of them all. Is the Venezuelan economy doing well? No. Is this because of “socialism”? No.

Again, Venezuela’s problem is capitalism. Venezuela’s problem is Dutch disease. Venezuela’s problem is imperialism.

Socialism has not failed.

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2019 will not be a repeat of 2002, however, because the Venezuelan government and the Venezuelan people are united against imperialism. The capitalists and imperialists will fail here as they failed in 2017 and 2014. We leftists must stand arm-in-arm with Venezuela. We leftists must defend Venezuelan democracy.

¡Viva Venezuela!

Portals, Politics, and Post-Modernism: A Call for the Liberatory Moment

Introduction

It is important to note that my own process of becoming Muslim involved the destabilization of my Atheism and the stabilization of an Islamic Theism occurring simultaneously. These were overlapping developments in my life when I was in my early 20s. Although they are necessarily kept separate in these blog posts, I want to stress that I was reading about Islam at the same time that I was reading Anarcho-Primitivist critiques of Science and Marxist critiques of Secular Humanism.

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I have already elucidated before a bit about my early path to Islam on this blog. In fact, Michael Muhammad Knight, in his book Why I Am a Salafi posed an interesting question in response to that blog post.

“A blogger, naming me as an influence on his early explorations of Islam, credited my books along with various Qur’an translations, Vali Nasr’s The Shia Revival, Carol Anway’s Daughters of Another Path, Karen Armstrong’s biography of Muhammad, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X as forming the assemblage that he called ‘Islam’ and to which he converted. What kind of Islam does that sack of potatoes make? To what origin, exactly, can it revert him? Is it really Islam? And if not, if it is only a portal that leads to other portals, at what point does that process arrive upon the real thing, the Islam of preexisting coherence and unbroken unity?” (p. 345)

Knight points out an important aspect of my conversion to Islam – it was based on a limited reading in a specific time and place that cannot be universalized and cannot be retrospectively applied as a standard for understanding Islam. In a post-modern condition, my reading of Islam is thoroughly post-modern (as is, for example, my reading of Marxism-Leninism and post-modernity itself).

In answering these questions adequately, we must first accept some important points – the Islam to which I reverted was certainly an Islam of my own making, just as everyone else’s Islam (whether Muslim or not) is an Islam of their own making. It’s an Islam of what they have read and what they have not read (or chosen not to read). It’s an Islam of what they have been told or haven’t been told and what they accept or don’t accept to be legitimate.

Applying Post-Modernism

We could take the post-modern critique that I proposed in Part One to its conclusions and say simply that reality is always mediated and distorted through a subjective lens and we can never arrive at anything objective. This would mean that these “portals” will never “arrive upon the real thing” and we will never reach “the Islam of preexisting coherence and unbroken unity”.

Whether we follow the ideas of Heidegger, Foucault, or Deleuze (all three white men from Europe), we’re struck by the fact that we’re are trapped by the limited access that humans have to Truth. Indeed, post-modernism (correctly, in my determination) insists that our limited ways of being in the world constitute our limited ways of understanding the world.

The concept of Truth has essentially two dominant strains in society today – correspondence and constructionism. These two ways of thinking more or less fit to two divergent epistemologies – realism and constructionism.

The Correspondence Theory of Truth would be that Truth is out there in the world and we have access to it. If I say something is “true”, we can accept it based on how it corresponds to reality.

The Constructionist Theory of Truth would be that Truth may be out there somewhere, but our access to that Truth is based entirely on our extremely narrow perspectives. We construct social realities and then treat those social constructions as true. If I say something is “true”, then that begs a hundred thousand questions of what it could mean, under what circumstances, and what the structures are that provide me with the means to make such a claim.

As a theist, when I make claims about Truth, the constructionist would ask those questions. The constructionist would ask the same questions, however, if an atheist made claims about Truth. And despite the agnostic (whether strong or weak) attempt at folding out of the debate, there are also deeply embedded Truth claims in agnosticism, along with a mode of being that reflects one or the other predilection.

And I should point out, for the sake of being explicit, that I subscribe to the Constructionist Theory of Truth, which does have its twin in the post-modern critique.

At this point, you could reasonably ask: if we accept the post-modern critique, however, does that mean that we should simply reject any attempts at uncovering the world (in the Heideggerian sense) as it is?

I want to return to this question a bit later. But before doing that, I think it would be worthwhile to address some of the ideas that allowed me to disassemble my Atheism and assemble a Theism.

Being an Atheist and Not Reading Freud

When I was a New Atheist, I had some bizarre ideas and had some deep prejudices based on my very limited experiences.

Indeed, the unexamined core of my New Atheism was the assumption that all religious people are stupid, uneducated (read, un-indoctrinated into proper secular reasoning), and/or delusional. This is a self-serving belief when you’re a young, straight, white boy from the First World. It also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I wasn’t debating theologians or religious philosophers, I was arguing with my peers and my relatives (to whom I owe an enormous apology for being a complete buffoon).

In reality, my Atheism was sparked by a (justified) feeling of alienation and a(n unjustified) feeling of superiority. It seemed that people were just accepting what they had been told and I was determined to break away from the herd. The absurdity of this is most evident when you consider that I wasn’t asking any real fundamental questions – I was just thinking something along the lines of: if there’s no evidence (based on my own subjective standards) for God, then there must not be a God.

Checkmate.

Unfortunately, I did not have access to this wonderful clip from James Burke’s Connections:

Obviously, because I’ve read Anarcho-Primitivist literature, I think that Burke is sorely mistaken about the prospects of technology. However, he is right to point out that alternative views of the universe aren’t any more or less ignorant than rationalistic approaches. If I had been thinking even slightly deeper, then the fallacies would have likely been more evident to me.

How do we determine what is true?

What do we mean when we say something is true?

Does Truth exist?

When we say that something exists, what does that mean?

What should we accept as evidence for such claims?

Are falsifiable claims the only claims worth making?

Is that itself a falsifiable claim?

I had the internet at my disposal and I was wasting my time watching Richard Dawkins lecture to his disciples about how creationists pose a grave threat to humanity. Mind you, I don’t think I knew a single creationist personally, but I was convinced that they were wrong and they needed to be converted to accepting evolutionary biology as a fact.

That was a priority.

If I had had access to Lenin’s critique of this line of thinking, I might have been spared such an enormous waster of energy. But, alas, I spent much of my time wondering how I, the straight white cis-man, could save the planet from the scourge of religion, which I would do by showing people that they were deluded in their beliefs (obviously indicating that I was not – I was above delusion).

Psychologism – the attitude that reduces everything to a person’s psychology – is a tempting game to play for a lot of people who criticize religion. It allows you to say, “Oh, that person believes in God, because they’re afraid of death!”

Since becoming Muslim, I’ve had a number of atheists reduce my experiences, thoughts, and perspectives down in the same exact way. Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” really solidified that attitude in the atheist community.

At the time of my New Atheism, I too thought that people were only religious, because it offered them a sense (a false sense) of comfort.

That was how I thought of it – obviously, anybody who thinks about it rationally and accepts their death will absolutely reject religion!

Of course, this psychologism goes both ways. We have to speak in terms of totalities. The comforts of Atheism (and indeed Agnosticism) are no different than the comforts of Theism. All of these ideas provide the individual with some semblance of understanding the world. If we accept the perspective of psychologism, then we must conclude that no one escapes their own prejudices and subjectivities.

Because of this perspective, however, my New Atheism began to soften and slowly unravel once I had the enlightening thought that maybe not all religious people are total idiots.

In my first year at university, I decided that I would spend each summer reading about a different religion. My plan was that I would gain insights just by treating religions (just slightly) more fairly. Interestingly, it was through reading the literature of Anarcho-Primitivists, who are almost entirely white men, that I began to take the voices of Black and Brown people more seriously.

That’s why in the summer of 2010, I spent a lot of time at the library poring over books on Hinduism. My rationale was that I would read over the largest religion that I knew the least about. Luckily, the library had an extensive collection on Hinduism that provided me with endless information. But, to be honest, at the end of that summer, I felt like I still didn’t have a full grasp on what people meant when they were talking about Hinduism.

It was at this time, however, that I made the decision that I would learn about Islam next, because I felt like it was important to learn about the supposed enemy of the West.

I already knew a bit about Islam.[1] I certainly knew more about Islam than I did about Hinduism and, as an Abrahamic faith, I had some basic knowledge of the cast of characters and some other information – I was already primed for confronting the textual elements of the formal religion of Islam, due to my experiences with Christianity.

However, I wasn’t going to wait until the summer.

Instead, I neglected a number of important responsibilities throughout the next two semesters to read about Islamic history and theology.

Those books and articles, along with the Anarcho-Primitivist literature, had slowly begun to lead me to the questions that I should have been asking. The jump from being an atheist to being a theist began with me questioning my underlying assumptions. It is important to note that I was not interested in becoming religious, I was interested in religion simply as an intellectual pursuit. However, once I started to look into my own epistemological ideas about the world, I realized that I hadn’t thoroughly investigated these questions.

By June of 2011, I was a Muslim.

I couldn’t yet answer these epistemological questions, but by reading more philosophy and theology, I was able to figure out a clear path (even if retrospectively).

Critiquing Post-Modernism

Returning to the question I posed above, should we simply reject any attempts at uncovering the world as it is?

I wasn’t (and still am not) ready to throw out all rationality or attempts at reaching reality. Post-modernism offers us an approach and skepticism that I think we should take seriously – as displayed in Part One. However, this approach isn’t unique to post-modernism and that’s something important to keep in mind.

In her article, The Primacy of the Ethical, Nancy Scheper-Hughes takes a position against post-modernism, arguing that “[t]his imagined post-modern, borderless world (Appadurai 1991) is, in fact, a Camelot of free trade that echoes the marketplace rhetoric of global capitalism, a making of the world and social science safe for ‘low-intensity democracy’ backed by World Bank capital.” (p. 417) Scheper-Hughes sees post-modernism as laying the groundwork for neoliberal capitalist takeover and tries to reveal that for what it is.

This critique of post-modernism is correct, but also a posteriori, and to get to a deeper critique at the heart of post-modernism, we need to shine the critical light of the post-modernists onto their own philosophical underpinnings.

In their article, The Postmodernist Turn in Anthropology: Cautions from a Feminist Perspective, Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen refer to important feminist critiques of post-modernism:

“Political scientist Nancy Hartsock… finds it curious that the post-modern claim that verbal constructs do not correspond in a direct way to reality has arisen precisely when women and non-Western peoples have begun to speak for themselves and, indeed to speak about global systems of power differentials. In fact, Hartsock suggests that the post-modern view that truth and knowledge are contingent and multiple may be seen to act as a truth claim itself, a claim that undermines the ontological status of the subject at the very time when women and non-Western peoples have begun to claim themselves as subject. In a similar vein, Sarah Lennox has asserted that the post-modern despair associated with the recognition that truth is never entirely knowable is merely an inversion of Western arrogance. When Western white males – who traditionally have controlled the production of knowledge – can no longer define the truth, she argues, their response is to conclude that there is not a truth to be discovered. Similarly Sandra Harding claims that ‘historically, relativism appears as an intellectually possibility, and as a ‘problem,’ only for dominating groups at the point where the hegemony (the    universality) of their views is being challenged. [Relativism] is fundamentally a sexist response that attempts to preserve the legitimacy of androcentric claims in the face of      contrary evidence.’ Perhaps most compelling… is the question Andreas Huyssen asks in   ‘Mapping the Postmodern’: ‘Isn’t the death of the subject/author position tied by mere   reversal to the very ideology that invariably glorifies the artist as genius?… Doesn’t post-structuralism where it simply denies the subject altogether jettison the chance of challenging the ideology of the subject (as male, white, and middle-class) by developing alternative notions of subjectivity?’” (p. 15)

In other words, there is no reason to embrace post-modernism, because it’s a bad faith analysis of the world. The argument is that we can achieve the same things through feminism, but that’s an even better lens to achieve those things, because feminism is politically grounded.

Post-modernism doesn’t break down the Enlightenment subject outside of time and space, but rather post-modernists advanced this project that directly benefited them personally and reified the position of white men in academia. In other words, post-modernism is open to its own discursive reversal and falls victim to its own critique – it is nothing more than a discourse of power.

I would argue, along with the feminists, that we could achieve the same things from a variety of different politically-invested stances, including Islam and Marxism.

We could, as good classical Marxists, call post-modernism a fully bourgeois ideology.

However, I think it would be improper to write off post-modernism as well. Rather, we can alter Lyotard’s (in)famous definition of post-modernism as an “incredulity towards metanarratives” to a “skepticism towards metanarratives”.

In the last post, I said that “I have no problem with meta-narratives”. That isn’t exactly the case.

Here, I have no intention of writing a piece called “In Defense of Grand Narratives” or anything of the sort. Instead, I’m arguing that we should approach metanarratives, such as feminism, religion, science, rationalism, Marxism, atheism, theism, etc. with a healthy amount of skepticism. However, that also does not necessitate a total rejection of metanarratives.

Real liberation allows us to embrace metanarratives on their own terms, engage with them from a position of skepticism, and question our own subjectivities with regards to Truth.

Of course, as Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen argue, all of this can be accomplished (and, indeed, be accomplished better through something like feminism, which forces us to do these things, but nevertheless maintain a political commitment to liberation). Alternatively, we could take the theoretical position of Fanon and recognize the subject/object relationship reflecting the colonizer/colonized – dismissing the subject of modernism and digging our feet in the political sands of anti-imperialism.

How do we know what we know?

How do we arrive at Truth, if possible?

In 2011, I found myself dismantling my Atheism as much as I began to see it as an active metaphysical position, rather than just some objective metaphysical position. Systems of knowledge are never a given. As I argued in Part One, it is clear that Secular Humanist Scientism not a neutral perspective and neither are the Atheisms that accompany it.

Conclusion

Many like to argue that Atheism is a religion in the same way that bald is a hair color.

Regardless of the validity of that analogy, we can certainly say that Atheism is a metaphysical position in the same way that Theism is a metaphysical position. Only by challenging these positions on their own terms are we able to see their strengths and weaknesses clearly.

In a journal I was keeping at the time, I wrote:

Evidence exists only when it is observed and interpreted. We interpret phenomena – there is no objective, non-ideological lens. For example, if I claim that everything is a sign (therefore evidence) of God, the response would be that I’m interpreting things through a specific bias, but that is the bias that similarly exists for other ideologies” (October 22nd, 2010).

These three sentences represent a huge break with my previous atheism, because it was the first time that I asked a more fundamental question about epistemology. It was my very attempt to step fully into another system of knowledge.

When we break down modernist conceptions of Truth, Reason, and Progress, we’re left with a level playing field of ideologies, for better or for worse. What initially appears to be a pyramid to many (with science at the top and religion at the bottom) is actually a flat plane upon which individuals determine which ideologies to embrace and which to toss out based on personal preference, knowledge, external structures, etc.[2]

Real skepticism means being skeptical about any systems and any claims to Truth, including those of science as much as those of religion.

This is the liberatory moment.

Standing in front of the plane of ideologies and considering them on their own terms, while recognizing our own limitations, we become free (well, as free as possible) to establish our lives as we please.

When we recognize the potential in other systems of thought, and not just the dominant system that masquerades as the repressed, we stand before an endless sea of new modes of being and new modes of understanding. And although we are not tabula rasa at this moment, we are at least free to choose our next step forward.

In 2011, I chose my next step forward in the direction of Islam for reasons that I will address in upcoming blog posts.

I can accept that I read Islam through a subjective lens and that Michael Muhammad Knight is correct when he writes that I’m stepping through portals that lead to other portals.

There is no pure, authentic Islam at the end, because there is no pure, stable subject to reach it.

I would argue that we’re all just going through portals that lead to other portals. However, that shouldn’t stop us from making steps in a specific direction. Our limited interpretations lead us to limited conclusions, but acting in the world allows us to move closer to more-correct or less-correct conclusions.

As Marx shows, our modes of being do in fact influence our modes of understanding. It is for that reason that we should consciously make the commitment to think, to act, and to be in the world.

When I converted to Islam, I came to Islam with a whole host of cultural baggage and I constructed an Islam for myself in the same fashion that I had constructed an Atheism, although this time I felt that I had made a leap towards getting closer to that Truth out there.

Does that make my Islam any less legitimate?

I don’t think so.

Instead I think it offers me the opportunity to say that I don’t have all the answers and I can’t possibly have all the answers to questions about reality and Truth. And, at the same time, no one has all the answers.

The liberatory moment can (and must) repeat itself in order for the individual to move closer to that reality. Every day we choose which ideologies we’ll embrace – but that choice can be restricted or open. Our knowledges and ignorances define that moment, we’re neither totally free nor totally unfree.

This is a radical skepticism that allows us to also be skeptical of our own prejudices and biases that remain after the moment.

Part of the cultural baggage that I was carrying was my ideas about “rationality” and in Part Three, I will address rationality, theism, and arguments for/against the existence of God.

 

 

 

[1] An interesting side note here is that I used to defend Islam to atheists on the internet. My politics led me to be critical of “my” religion, but I was highly defensive of the religions of religions. This made Christianity my primary target, while I often defended other religions, particularly Islam and Judaism.

[2] Here, I don’t want to wade in too heavily into debates about structure vs. agency, only to remark that the dominant Western paradigm of a hierarchy with science at the top is very obviously artificially constructed.

Science, Silence, and Subjectivity: A Critique of Secular Humanist Scientism

Dear reader, it is time for a confession.

I was once a fan of the New Atheists.

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In my defense, I was always super critical of their politics (which are ghastly), but I nevertheless found their critiques of religion convincing and compelling. I was unable to see through the smoke and mirrors of their rhetorical appeals to science and rationality. However, over a longer time than I would like to admit, I was eventually able to steer myself out of the philosophical muck of New Atheism by examining their ideas more closely.

Unfortunately, particularly since becoming Muslim, I’ve discovered that a lot of seemingly intelligent people are soaked to their core with this unexamined ideological baggage.

As Slavoj Žižek has argued elsewhere, the dominant ideology often isn’t what it seems – Christianity seems to continue to be the dominant ideology in the West, whereas, in reality, Secular Humanist Scientism is the dominant ideology of the day. We could point to any number of pieces of evidence, but let’s leave it with the fact that Daniel Dennett has already made a similar argument.

This reversal is important to recognize, because it reveals that the New Atheists are not the subversives they claim to be. They aren’t killing sacred cows, they’re flogging their corpses and replacing them with the sacred cows of post-religious modernity – science, reason, and progress.

And what makes Scientism as an ideology so influential is that it is so omnipresent in Western culture that it serves as some sort of common sense. People don’t unpack their own premises, because they don’t even think that there are premises. It’s not ideology – it’s fact. This covers up the huge leaps of faith that are required in order to make Scientistic claims about reality.

What makes this particularly dangerous is when people misidentify or misdiagnose a societal problem and then draw up absurd solutions to said “problem”. Those Secular Humanists (who misidentify the problem as “religion”, “irrationality”, or having any “non-scientific” views about reality) want to stamp out all forms of dissent from the dominant paradigm.

And it just so happens that the dissenters are often Black and Brown People and their “irrational” beliefs about the world.

Is it any surprise that the Secular Humanists tend to be White Men?

This essay (the first of a series covering a defense of why I became a Shi’i Muslim) is aimed at revealing the substantial contradictions at the heart of the dominant ideology in the West. The goal here is to illuminate the weak foundations upon which Secular Humanist Scientism is built and how the ideology itself is not as liberatory as it may appear.

Part 1: Secular Humanist Scientism

Scientism, the underlying outlook of the New Atheist crowd, is critically defined by Thomas Burnett as “a speculative worldview about the ultimate reality of the universe and its meaning.” According to Burnett, this is separate from science, which is merely “an activity that seeks to explore the natural world using well-established, clearly-delineated methods.”

To unpack Scientism a bit, I would like to define it here as: the belief that science as a discipline can account for all meaningful questions, whether natural or philosophical.

Indeed, this belief has even led some, like Stephen Hawking, to declare the death of philosophy.

Apparently, Hawking was unable to see how his own worldview was submerged in the ocean of philosophy. After all, Hawking and his ilk are not even simply science-nerds. They are disciples of a supremacist vision for humanity and bring with them the apparent moral charter for that viewpoint – Secular Humanism.

According to the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a Secular Humanist organization, Secular Humanism “is a nonreligious worldview rooted in science, philosophical naturalism, and humanist ethics.”

This is the working definition that I will be using for this essay.

The Secular Humanist value system, according to the CFI, is based on “integrity, benevolence, fairness, and responsibility, and [Secular Humanists] believe that with reason, goodwill, the free exchange of ideas, and tolerance, we can build a better world for ourselves and for future generations. Secular humanism calls upon humans to develop within the universe values of their own. Further, secular humanism maintains that, through a process of value inquiry informed by scientific and reflective thought, men and women can reach rough agreement concerning values, crafting ethical systems that deliver optimal results for human beings in a broad spectrum of circumstances.”

By that definition, Secular Humanism illustrates its deep connection to Scientism. Scientism offers the epistemological and ontological justification for Secular Humanism and Secular Humanism offers the moral justification for Scientism. You really can’t have one without the other. This is a point on which the New Atheists are consistent – their dominant philosophical trends aren’t explicitly contradictory.

However, this consistency, along with the nearly universal acceptance in the West of both ideologies, masks the enormous holes in their logic.

Part 2: Exposing Scientism

Scientism, as a philosophy, is really a perverted Logical Positivism – or, the idea that “[a] statement is meaningful if and only if it can be proved true or false, at least in principle, by means of the experience.” Logical Positivism, the philosophical movement that drove early 20th century scientific inquiry (and arguably continues to do so), has been thoroughly discredited by scientists, philosophers, and anthropologists, but apparently the New Atheists never got the memo.

In order to believe that science ought to be the privileged methodological framework in all times and places, regarding all subjects of inquiry, one must make enormous assumptions.

First, in order for the scientific method to work, we must assume that cause-and-effect is philosophically stable and metaphysically reliable (even though causality can’t be tested using the scientific method).

Second, in order for science to serve as the prime (or only) modus operandi, one must accept the uniformity of nature (despite the obvious problems with such an idea, as David Hume figured out a long, long time ago).

And third, similarly to religion (and really every other system of knowledge), science is post-metaphysical and contains the problem of induction.

Regardless of the inevitable problem of induction though, Scientism’s adherents present science as a method to something untouchable. Listening to these people talk, one would think that science’s methodology was created by (dare we say it) some perfect, omnipotent being, rather than by a bunch of White European Cis-Men at the peak of colonialism.

Poking holes in Scientism is not as difficult as it may appear. Many have attacked it from different angles and I’m going to present some of these individuals and their arguments to show that, regardless of one’s position, Scientism is not the infallible philosophy that it masquerades as.

Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher who coined the term “epistemological anarchism”, makes a damning critique of the elevation of science as a discipline over other forms of knowing. Describing himself as an epistemological anarchist, Feyerabend writes in his book, Against Method, about the history of Galileo and the Catholic Church and shows how rationalism, not religion, hindered the development of a new scientific revolution and why that was.

Feyerabend was writing as a contemporary of Thomas Kuhn, a physicist and probably my favorite philosopher of science of the 20th century.

Kuhn, by all measures, published perhaps the single greatest wrecking ball to logical positivism with his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he argues that the history of science is defined by paradigms and paradigm shifts, which are constructed and deconstructed in a variety of ways. Kuhn shows that science hasn’t delineated any objective progress. Instead, paradigms (such as the Copernican Revolution, competing geometries, or Newtonian and Quantum Physics) are simply better at answering some questions, but may be worse at answering others.

Kuhn’s critical stance towards the history of science paved the way for the philosophical death of logical positivism and the birth of a series of arguments about the subjectivities that are inherent in supposedly “objective” science. This post-positivism isn’t a complete rejection of the desire to find some objectivity, but rather an acceptance and deep awareness of subjectivity.

A powerful example of the subjectivity in supposedly “objective” science is exposed by Feminists like Emily Martin, an Anthropologist of Science. In her article The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles, Martin demonstrates that “gender stereotypes [are] hidden within the scientific language of biology.” (p. 486).

Londa Schiebinger shows that Feminism has even changed science (particularly medicine and primatology), by “uncovering sexism in the substance of science”. (p. 1171)

If this is the case, then what do we get when we construct our value systems based on “science”, like the New Atheists claim to? The result is, of course, a feedback loop of our own cultural hang-ups. So our culture speaks back to us, including its racism, sexism, queer/transphobia, ableism, and other oppressive ideologies.

Science, in other words, is not value-neutral.

I would argue that in many cases, we can’t even begin to talk about objectivity, because we don’t even know what objectivity would look like.

Admittedly, at the time that I was leaving New Atheism, I was barely engaging with these Post-Modernist or Feminist critiques. Instead, I was reading a lot of Anarcho-Primitivist literature.

Ahhh, Anarcho-Primitivism – perhaps the cissiest, whitest, and malest of all the anarchos.

A lot of Anarcho-Primitivist literature that was based on a critique of technology and a critique of civilization, but often went further to criticize the scientific project itself.

I find that Anarcho-Primitivism, although no longer resembling anything like my political ideology, nevertheless continues to uphold an unanswered critique by the true believers of Scientism (or even of science itself).

Anarcho-Primitivism very modestly asks, “Who the hell do we think we are?”

If we accept evolution and say that we are nothing but bipedal primates, then why should humans control and dominate nature? We are a part of nature (whatever that means), right? And why on earth are we so convinced that our ape minds can even achieve something like objectivity? How can we possibly think that our understanding is somehow outside of and superior to nature? Our mental faculties are not so special.

That’s a powerful critique if you take it all the way. Jacques Ellul (about whom I posted last month) argued that science had become the sacralized discipline of the West, replacing religion. Ellul’s criticism centered on how technology and science has become the dominant ideology in the West and remain completely unexamined. The opening line of his book Propaganda reads: “True modern propaganda can only function within the context of the modern scientific system.

Indeed, as I brought up at the beginning of this essay, the faithful followers of Scientism have elevated science to an untouchable level – a level equivalent to the role that God played (and continues to play) in deeply religious societies.

Michel Foucault, in many ways developing Nietzsche’s line of thought, makes another important critique of science on the basis of the relationship between power and knowledge. Foucault advocated using genealogies as a method of tracing the development and diachronic advances of discourses.

As Foucault argues in his Two Lectures: “genealogies are therefore not positivistic returns to a more careful or exact form of science. They are precisely anti-sciences. Not that they vindicate a lyrical right to ignorance or non-knowledge: it is not that they are concerned to deny knowledge or that they esteem the virtues of direct cognition and base their practice upon an immediate experience that escapes encapsulation in knowledge. It is not that with which we are concerned. We are concerned, rather, with the insurrection of knowledges that are opposed primarily not to the contents, methods or concepts of a science, but to the effects of the centralizing powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse within a society such as ours.” (pp. 83-84)

In other words, science and Scientism are not universals.

Science is embedded in institutional (and cultural) power.

And only when we recognize its embeddedness can we extract its usefulness.

Those acolytes of Scientism who insist on science’s universality cover up exactly what the rest of us seek to lay bare, that science is now (and has always been) dependent on Western institutions. When Richard Dawkins castigates Muslims for not having enough Nobel Prizes, he does so without acknowledging the limited resources, brutalities of colonialism and imperialism, and the cultural divides between England and, say, Somalia.

We could also mention here that there is no objective (scientific) reason to value Western knowledges over non-Western knowledges and that, in reality, the frameworks of thought of people in Nicaragua, Burundi, or Sri Lanka are not any less valuable than the frameworks of thought of White People living in the First World.

And who the hell cares about a Nobel Prize in the first place?

How can someone think about earning a Nobel Prize if they have to worry about war and famine?

And why are the people who worry about war and famine not valued equally?

Scientific “evidence” for a proposition exists only insofar as it is observed and interpreted. We interpret phenomena as we interpret everything else – culturally.

In other words, there is no objective, a priori, non-ideological lens. After all, if we accept (dubiously) that the scientific method works as we are told, then we must recognize that the first step of the scientific method – the hypothesis – is already colored through a cultural lens. We construct questions within (not without) our cultural frameworks.

And these frameworks establish, to parrot Kuhn, our paradigms. Science, in other words, is not culturally neutral.

And, of course, we know that science is often anything but morally neutral. This leads us to the moral system that is supposed to guide humanity to a supposedly better future. 

Part 3: Deconstructing Secular Humanism

The assumption made by the New Atheists and many other Secular Humanists is that if someone is religious and she then ceases to be religious, then she will “naturally” become a Secular Humanist.

As though this was the default moral and philosophical foundation embedded in human biology.

The fact that this is essentially the case made by an evolutionary biologist of Dawkins’s caliber is a joke that should be lost on no one.

After all, why should we be Secular Humanists simply if we cease to believe in God? Why not Nihilists? Why not Existentialists? Why not (perhaps most frighteningly for the White Bourgeoisie) Marxist-Leninists?

Louis Althusser correctly identifies Marx’s anti-humanism in his 1964 article Marxism and Humanism. Althusser points out that there is an ideological component to humanism that masks the realities of capitalism. Althusser draws our attention to the relationship between the base and the superstructural element to ideology.

As Althusser concludes, the focus on the human subject’s emancipation (or, as the CFI elaborates “men and women can reach rough agreement concerning values, crafting ethical systems that deliver optimal results for human beings in a broad spectrum of circumstances.”) is a product of the material conditions of capitalism. Instead of a focus on humanism and attempting to achieve emancipation under capitalism, the only way to truly attain human emancipation is by accomplishing communism and overcoming class struggle.

Indeed, there’s a reason that none of the New Atheists are communists. Secular Humanism and Communism are competing ideologies – and only one can serve as the dominant ideology of neoliberal capitalism.

We don’t need to take a strict Marxist perspective to see the failures of Secular Humanism.

Alternatively, we could follow the path of the Post-Colonialists and the Post-Structuralists who questioned the validity of the subject.

Frantz Fanon saw the “subject” as the figure of the colonialist, specifically the White Man, who established the “subject” as diametrically opposed to the “object” of the colonized person. Foucault saw the “subject” as the discursive creation of the Enlightenment. We could, for example, take Foucault’s critique of science mentioned above and see the extension in his critique of humanism. Indeed, in The Humanism Effect, one of the best articles on the subject, Anthony Alessandrini argues that both Franz Fanon and Michel Foucault were engaging in a “movement towards a critical ontology of ourselves, a critical ontology that they both suspect to be impossible.” (p. 74)

As a side note, there are plenty of solid Feminist and Third Worldist critiques of this process of de-centering the “subject” in philosophy that I won’t go into right now. And certainly anyone who has spent any amount of time reading this blog will notice very quickly that I have no problem with meta-narratives.

Suffice it to say that the Post-Modernist attempt at attacking the “subject” isn’t full-proof, but nevertheless it is an extremely powerful critique of Secular Humanism.

Furthermore, even if we accept the value system of the Secular Humanist paradigm, it has largely failed as a project in achieving its own goals. Secular Humanism and the Enlightenment project more generally contain the trappings of those problems which they sought to solve.

As Shabbir Akhtar writes in The Qur’an and the Secular Mind, “Secular humanism was intended to aggrandize humanity but ironically, in a secular industrialized society, no one needs to reduce the self to size since society does it for us – automatically, decisively, casually. As people jostle for places on an underground train or queue to receive unemployment benefit, they know they are nothing. No religion has negated the self, in all its pride, as effortlessly as modern mass society.” (p. 115)

But doesn’t Secular Humanism have some liberatory potential?

For example, doesn’t Secular Humanism save women suffering under religious tyranny? After all, as the CFI feels comfortable arguing, “Religion in general and Islam in particular are women’s enemy.”

Lila Abu-Lughod responds to such claims in her seminal article Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?:

“Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged. All one needs to do to appreciate the patronizing quality of the rhetoric of saving women is to imagine using it today in the United States about disadvantaged groups such as African American women or working-class women. We now understand them as suffering from structural violence. We have become politicized about race and class, but not culture.” (p. 489)

So, it turns out that the language of science is infused with misogyny, as demonstrated by Emily Martin, and the language of Secular Humanism is similarly infused with misogyny and imperialism. If we become politicized about culture, as Abu-Lughod says we should, then we can also become politicized about the consequences of that culture – like science, reason, and progress, which are not neutral concepts.

What can we see here then? Secular Humanism can’t save Muslim women or, indeed, any women, which is not even its primary intention.

In the end, there is absolutely no reason to accept Secular Humanism if one becomes an atheist (as Nietzsche pointed out over a century ago). However, if one accepts Scientism (and all of its flaws), then Secular Humanism (and all of its flaws) seems far more appealing.

What kind of value system is this anyway?

Look at how joyfully the New Atheists cheer when Western countries drop bombs on Muslims. We can clearly see that the discourse of Secular Humanist Scientism is intertwined with the discourses of neoliberal capitalism and Western imperialism.

To pretend otherwise is not only to ignore history, but also to ignore the voices of real living (predominantly Black and Brown) people around the world.

Conclusion

Scientism and Secular Humanism feed into each other. Science provides the basis of Secular Humanism and Secular Humanism powers science in liberal democratic capitalism.

Because of the material conditions upon which this ideology has formed, Secular Humanist Scientism inevitably accompanies a whole set of troubling implications about the world, including the depraved arguments made by individuals like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (who correctly take their premise to its logical conclusion) when they support imperialist projects to bomb Black and Brown People into accepting the Western order.

Do these conclusions require us to reject science and all pursuits of objectivity? I certainly don’t think so. However, they do require us to reject Scientism, to reject the belief that science is the only means of gathering information about the world and developing some moral system based off of that false belief.

It also should lead us to take the Post-Modernists seriously when they encourage us to hold a general skepticism towards meta-narratives. Unfortunately, the New Atheists who claim to uphold skepticism fail to turn that skeptical gaze toward their own presuppositions.

The idea that Secular Humanism is somehow philosophically neutral or objective is self-evidently ridiculous. Just as science is infused with subjectivities, Secular Humanism can often lead a person to be wrong.

And we should never forget that Sam Harris is wrong about everything.

Listening to the voices of women, people of color, queer people, and people from the Third World requires a more sophisticated consideration of the questions of knowledge and power. Feminists, Post-Colonial Theorists, Marxists, and Post-Structuralists all have demonstrated the decrepit foundations upon which the New Atheists have chosen to build their homes.

After all, what do we mean when we talk about science, reason, and progress?

In the end, the many critiques of Secular Humanist Scientism demonstrate that it is important that we scrutinize any claims to truth made by Straight White Cis-Men (including myself and those cited in this text) with immediate suspicion. By echoing the voices of these men, the adherents of the True Faith of Secular Humanist Scientism effectively silence the voices of most of the world.

This is what I had failed to do when I was a fan of the New Atheists and their apparently “common-sensical value system” and “objective” truth claims.

As part of my confession here, in good Roman Catholic tradition, I would like to atone for my sins.

Please forgive me for ever having subscribed to such a worldview and thinking that I had found the “Truth” as preached by these Straight Cis-White Men from the First World.

“Truth” and claims to it will be discussed more thoroughly in the next post.