Beyond Monotheism — 6. Monotheism, Western Science, and the Theory of Everything

[I want to thank Adam for arranging this project, and for inviting me to participate.]

Chapter 6 completes the narrative of the “logic of the One,” showing how it culminates with Western science and its modern and contemporary desire to unify everything in a single, overarching order. Schneider does not spend much time discussing medieval Christianity, but she posits a continuity between traditional European monotheism and modern science: “although the empires of Christendom stumbled and frayed, the logic that had grounded their orthodoxies took on a life of its own, eventually erupting in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the ‘scientific revolution’” (75). Here Thomas Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers both contribute to this fantastic idea of uncovering “a single, unchanging divine order” (77) that underlies the scientific quest for universal laws.

Schneider makes an important distinction between modern science as methodology, which is more flexible and potentially capable of accommodating multiplicity, and as ideology, which asserts and defends the unity of the cosmos as truth. The ideology of scientific truth applies a strict method of verification based upon the principles of simplicity (Occam’s razor) and non-contradiction: a phenomenon is either true or false. This process of verification is dualistic, and this dualism is a result of clinging so tightly to the logic of the One. Schneider later distinguishes between tool and truth in the context of Occam’s razor.

The need to overcome the empirical multiplicity of experience takes two forms, the designation of apparent contradictions to this unity as either errors in knowledge or errors in judgment. An error in knowledge is a strategy employed by the logic of the One to assert that any apparent contradiction will disappear as scientific knowledge grows. An error in judgment is a complementary strategy to force a shift in perspective to accommodate any perceived contradictions. Here is an important parallel to religious truth: an error in judgment is ‘solved’ by resorting to an inclusive oneness, whether in physics or religion. “From the proper distance, at least according to the ‘error in judgment’ strategy, all different religions represent paths to the same, and the differences ultimately resolve into sameness, at the proper distance” (85).

Ironically, the logic of the One is dualistic in practice, because it forces experience into the categories of true or false. Schneider begins this chapter with the assertion of “the dualism of One” and she comes back to it near the end. These dualistic strategies of the One applied to multifaceted experience have had enormous success in modern science and technology; however, “the true/false dichotomy also establishes limits to the social and religious imagination and sense of the queer possibilities for existence. And perhaps it limits access to divinity” (87). This last sentence is crucial, because it suggests that divinity is better accessed by multiple modes of imaginative attention to alternative possibilities for existence.

The reductive logic of the One excludes fundamental otherness. One way to get beyond this logic is to follow Luce Irigaray  by “‘thinking the body,’ since, despite everything we try to do to control, repress, or compress them, bodies do prosaically tend to resist oneness” (88). At the end of the chapter Schneider returns to the problem of specifically Christian oneness, and challenges us to think the Other without the One. Usually we project the other as the nemesis of the One, but if there is no One, how do we think the Other? How do we think multiplicity in terms of multiplicity? This is an extremely difficult task, but we can get a clue for its possibility by attending to the fact that the logic of the One inevitably betrays itself. This conclusion sets the stage for Schneider’s extraordinary reading of Dante in Chapter 7.

Reflections/Questions: I’m struck by both the simplicity and the complexity of Schneider’s thought here. On the one hand, as in earlier chapters, there is a sweeping, almost totalizing narrative that approaches caricature: monotheism=imperialism=Christian orthodoxy=Western science, all wrapped up in one and designated as ‘bad.’ At the same time, within this narrative she makes important and subtle distinctions, like between science as methodology vs. ideology, which complicate this narrative (I think Anthony referred to these as ciphers last week). I read this book last year too quickly, and appreciated it, but not as much as reading it more slowly now. I wonder if it’s too easy to slide across the surfaces of the book, without digging into its body and grappling adequately with its complexity?

Does Schneider move too quickly from modern to contemporary science? She barely acknowledges but does not treat counter-instances to the logic of the One in contemporary science, including relativity and quantum physics, but also chaos and complexity theories. She perhaps over-emphasizes the attraction of some physicists to the “theory of everything,” as well as the desire to reduce all things to the workings of sub-atomic particles or quarks. Her discussion of complementarity in relation to quarks on p.85 is a little misleading, since it was photons that exhibited wave/particle duality early in the twentieth century. She could also reference the contemporary cosmological hypothesis of the “multi-verse,” or the idea of multiple universes, as well as the discovery of dark energy, which makes up over ¾ of all the matter/energy in the universe. Are there more scientific resources to bolster her case for multiplicity?

I think one of the significant developments or sea changes of postmodernism is the awareness that there are as many if not more continuities between early and medieval European Christianity and the modern Western world as opposed to discontinuities, and certainly Schneider’s book here accentuates that continuity. This perspective seems to have become relatively pervasive, and I have asserted that we are in an age of counter-enlightenment, because the Enlightenment is rarely seen as a unique break. I wonder, however, whether we are in danger of going too far in the other direction, and losing some critical understanding of what precisely is unique about modernity and how it shapes who we are and how we think about ourselves. Specifically, I wonder about unity-in-multiplicity of modern capitalism, which Schneider does not explicitly discuss, and the extent to which the celebration of multiplicity/multiculturalism constitutes a mask to obscure the function of the unity of the market and/or globalization, as critics like Zizek and Badiou have pointed out. Specifically, in The Clamor of Being, Badiou argues that Deleuze’s celebration of the multiple occurs under the hidden sign of the One. I do not think that Schneider operates with a superficial notion of multiplicity, but I do wonder about how insidious and pervasive the logic of the One is. What specific form does it take under capitalism? Could multiplicity itself be another guise of the One?

3 thoughts on “Beyond Monotheism — 6. Monotheism, Western Science, and the Theory of Everything

  1. I will admit that I very much like this book and agree with its aims, but this chapter was not my favorite. Her account of science isn’t bad, but it is incomplete and I think you run through all the areas that I had a problem with. In some ways I feel bad about my lack of satisfaction, since Schneider is still in genealogy mood here and isn’t making science, a kind of pet interest of mine, her central issue. On top of that there exist very talented theologians who interact with science from the general framework at work here (Catherine Keller is, of course, great on this stuff). Still, it did strike me as serving her needs.

    The questions you bring up at the end concerning the relationship of multiculturalism and multiplicity, the criticisms of Zizek and Badiou against Deleuzians, the lack of explicit discussion of capitalism, etc., do strike me as very important. I am not convinced by Badiou’s criticism of Deleuze and consider Zizek’s Deleuze book an embarrassment to an otherwise powerful thinker. Still, I take the point that there can be a hidden logic of One at work here and that Schneider needs to address the issue of capitalism and its determination of contemporary life. In some ways I think her book kind of operates as a theological supplement to Goodchild’s Capitalism and Religion and Theology of Money and find myself writing “Goodchild” in the margins an embarrassing amount of time. What I’m seeing come out of this book event is a desire to see Schneider move forward from this diagnostic, which it seems all of us have agreed with, to a more sustained explication of multiplicity and how it can resist the logic of the One in the next book. Basically extending what she has done in each chapter. This strikes me as a really rich project that can produce a lot more work.

  2. I know what you mean about the ambivalence, and I was even more critical about the first time I read it, but re-reading it gives me a better appreciation for what she’s doing, and how it fits in with her project. She’s elaborating a narrative, and we can fuss with her on specific fine-grained point, but we should also evaluate the narrative itself, which I’m like you very sympathetic too. I’ve also come to better appreciate how subtle and nuanced her ideas and writing are, although it’s possible to read them without getting this.

    With capitalism and the logic of the One, that’s the key theme I found missing from the book, and I’d love to read what Schneider has to say about capitalism and multiplicity. Like you, I also disagree with Badiou (and I read Zizek’s book on Deleuze as basically a stream of consciousness rather than a sustained engagement with/critique of Deleuze), but I think it is an absolutely critical question, and I think if we are more Deleuzian we need to think about how Deleuzian multiplicity does avoid presupposing the One, and indeed whether it’s possible to think the multiple as prior to the One without resorting to mathematical set theory, as Badiou does. I resist Badiou’s Platonism as well as his atomic materialism (working through Logics of Worlds now), but I think he’s incredibly important, probably the most significant living philosopher.

  3. Coming in on this a little late, but yesterday was surprisingly busy.

    I agree w/ Clayton & Anthony that there is much to be ambivalent about here. There Schneider unfolds a subtle narrative, as Clayton notes, but the subject matter itself be too subtle for such a condensed treatment. Contemporary scientism is, I think, a different breed, if not species, than what she aims at in most of the chapter. Its faith in the One is not as forthright, and certainly not as obvious — esp. with its forays into evolutionary adaptation and complexity.

    I suppose the chapter works, in the context of the book. But I do think it leaves several fronts undefended should cry foul.

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