No One Is Afraid Of Big Bad Science (When It Agrees With Them)

It transpires that well know conservative philosopher Roger Scruton is giving the Gifford Lectures this year with the title ‘The Face of God’ – the basic gist being popular science is wrecking everything. As Scruton demures “By understanding the world in the way of popular science we fortify those destructive tendencies in our culture which are wiping away the face of the world”. In an essay ‘The Sacred and The Human‘ Scruton gives a preview of what will be said. Scruton begins with a tour of reductions of religion in secular in Hegel, Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Freud, Frazer and Durkheim, then he ends up at René Girard who ‘wins’, by proving a theory of religion that is positive about the role of Christianity as a unmasking of the problems of mimetic violence and proving a solution to it in positive imitation (of Jesus and of God) and the end of sacrificial violence. Contrary to Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens then, religion in general but monotheism and Christianity in particular, is not in essence violent but a refutation of most forms of violence – “Religion is not the cause of violence but the solution to it”. This though is problematic for what Scruton wants, and maybe reveals one of the philosophical problems of our time, highlighted to me at last week’s conference in Dundee and Adam’s recent highlighting of a post on the use of evolutionary psychology in the study of literature. He is attempting to refute one (social) science in the name of another.

The problem with this description of Girard’s theory is that falls into the diagnosis from a strong theological perspective of the problems in Girard’s theory of religion identified by John Milbank in Theology and Social Theory (p 397 -402). What Scruton wants is a recovery of strong theological reasoning over and against the pretensions of the secular sciences (such as modern evolutionary psychology).  This is similar to the programme of radical orthodoxy, where the output Scruton is after is one where theology (or for Scruton, religious thought) is raised once again to the status of queen of the sciences or certainly is taken very very seriously as anything else ends in nihilism and absolutely appalling normative consequences. Hence, the argument of Scruton’s book Beauty is the lack of beauty (found in modern art) is a cause of moral decay. I digress. Trying to get this output via Girard, though tempting for religiously inclined thinkers, is mistaken. As Milbank diagnoses, Girard might read Christianity is a positive light, but he still repeats the error of all the preceding thinkers in creating a neutral social-scientific description of religion which is then used to read Christianity even if it assesses it in a positive way.  To paraphrase: that religion is explained by a social science, social science is true philosophy and also true religion, even if it is equal with Christianity, is just as problematic as the reductions of Freud, Durkheim et al. enthusiastically blustered past by Scruton since it places a secular logic (even if this is believed to be what Christianity ‘really is’, for Girard seemingly exhaustively – there is no Christian religious phenomena or ritual seemingly not explained by his theory- ditto all other religions) over the theological. Girard is just as guilty as the secularists, a point that tacitly Scruton appears to get, his point that ‘religion is not primarily about God, but about the sacred’ would be opposed to RO. Of course the move by Girardians here to counter Milbank is to claim that actually, Girard’s theory isn’t social science, but actually theology proper, in which case it is an attempt to re-narrate Christianity, just differently – James Alison has tried this move. This is a clever move by Girardians, as it allows the myriad objections to Girard as social science (raised consistently and decisively) to be ignored, and the responses like Milbank’s to be reduced to a ‘let’s just argue about theology rather than a meta-suspicion of suspicion itself’. What Scruton wants out of Girard is not actually possible. All of which reveals the apologetic core of Girard’s project – Freud/social science but Christianity wins! And doubtless, the apologetic core of what Scruton is after, we need X otherwise we get Y, where X is religion, the Western tradition or Christianity.

Now all this doesn’t just show that Scruton is twenty years out of date in his Girard studies. But more importantly the whole tenor of Scruton’s talk is another revealing example, once again, of what Anthony has termed ‘the theology of fear’ or here ‘the conservative philosophy of fear’. The big bad scientists are out producing works of popular science that are unleashing what is most terrible about human nature! This is a riff on too numerous extant studies where by science, or some version of instrumental or enlightenment rationality leads to terror, some of which bleed into the anti-civilisation philosophies of technology that have a bearing on ecological discourse we have been discussing here for the last couple of weeks. The shattering of the manifest image is still something philosophers fear will have huge and automatically bad moral consequences because in their infinite wisdom philosophers can already see the sociological effects of certain theories. Yet at the same time, the core of Scruton’ argument rests on getting a science to support this theories. When science agrees with you, it is super awesome. This big bad science thesis was interestingly what was spoken against, in various ways, last weekend at the Real Objects or Material Subjects conference in Dundee. But the super awesome science thesis was very much in evidence also.

So, the problem of the relation between science and philosophy came up multiple times. Some papers were quite happy with the ‘infection’ of philosophy with science. Sid Littlefield was saying that both Meillassoux and Harman did not take the natural sciences seriously enough particularly in Meillassoux’s attempt to do away with causality and laws of nature with his concept of hyper-chaos. Others were not. For example, James Williams was attempting to talk about certain things, pebbles contemplating one another, that could not be explained by a naturalistic account of pebbles being shaped by the sea. Graham Harman’s paper was a full scale attack on the handing over of the keys of metaphysics to the natural sciences. The most interesting paper was Adrian Johnston’s paper who attempted to be pro-science while saying science supported his philosophy – philosophers should storm the gates of science and that “both humanists and materialists have every reason to be unshakably confident. The future definitely is ours”. Against Brassier and his acolytes use of the Churchlands, he pointed out that this was doubly wrong: in terms of analytic philosophy of mind the Churchlands are old refuted news and in terms of empirical neuroscience the philosophical theories that they base eliminative materialism on are about ten years out of date. Contemporary neuroscience tells a different story. Alva Noë’s book Out of Our Heads, Andy Clark’s Supersizing The Mind, Robert D. Rupert’s Cognitive Systems and the Extended Mind and the whole discourse of situated cognition suggests the mind and even brain isn’t trapped inside a Cartesian box but bound up in complex relations with the world, body and environment, including other bodies and minds, in what is better described as an ecological manner. The mind doesn’t exist in the skull, or even in the brain, but is ‘out there’ co-implicated in the world, which is all very interesting and I like it a lot. All these accounts for Johnston point towards a collective and communal account of subjectivity, that politically points towards some kind dialectical materialism and communism/common-ism. Even Ray Brassier (who this is supposedly directed against) reckons that the account of philosophy of mind found in Metzinger’s Being No One that suggests that there is no one ‘pulling the strings’ behind consciousness mind end up like this, saying in a recent interview that in opening a path for “self-less subjects that understand themselves to be no-one and no-where” that can cast “an interesting new light on the possibility of a ‘communist’ subjectivity”.

Yet what Johnston misses is that this kind of argument (which was, I admit, an ad hoc response to questions) – the Churchlands are using old science – might in the future apply to his own collective consciousness models that for him support his political project and a take on Zizek’s ontology. This process may already be under way, since, as with all bleeding edge science, there are some skeptics regarding this approach. Frederick Adams and Kenneth Aizawa The Bounds of Cognition being one. Ray Brassier seems to be hinting toward this in that interview where he says that “it would be a mistake to let current science dictate our account of the ultimate structure of reality” because “our best current science will probably turn out be only partly true”, yet this should not tell us that “science is [not] slowly and painstakingly excavating the deep structure of a reality”. Graham Harman also pointed to the problems of under-girding your stance with science in his paper. The speculative accounts of physics that Ladyman and Ross use in Everything Must Go to ground their naturalised metaphysics are sufficiently speculative that there are a whole variety of competing theories that also have as much empirical data to support them (i.e. none), so hence the choice is arbitrary or based on aesthetic criteria i.e. that they are the darkest, scariest to humanity, most black metal theories! This was a point Anthony made with regard to Ray Brassier’s teleology of heat death. The move is that one’s political commitments, or metaphysics, are supported by the findings of science and this seems problematic – it often seems to simply reduce to giving rhetorical weight to your thought. This is also Scruton’s move, in that his pro-religious commitments are shown by Girard to be founded on something substantial. And it is also the mirror image of the thesis of his Gifford lectures. In a negative version of the same thesis, science, particularly in popular mode, gives the opposite conclusions to one’s social ideas and hence must be wrong. We all break the is/ought division, negatively or positively. Theologians often do this: when the conclusions of science are opposed to what they consider to be religion they have dolorous consequences, when they support religion they are embraced wholeheartedly regardless of their status as good science. On one side, someone like Dawkins cannot use ultra-Darwinism to take down God, but on the other, phenomena like evolutionary convergence, can prove certain Darwinists wrong and re-install teleology and hence an argument for God, pace Simon Conway-Morris’ work. Obviously this is a vague sketch, but this is fairly consistent general tendency in arguments that was occasionally also found in Dundee, plus anti-theologians are just as guilty.

It seems then, and one of the things I took away from the conference at Dundee, that one of the central philosophical (and theological) is to work out what the relation is between philosophy and science without being blunt about it. Here, insofar as I understand it, this is where Laurelle’s notion of the vision in one and the democracy of thought seem really useful (my caveat here is that I haven’t read much of it other than Brassier’s articles and I am relying on Anthony’s descriptions of it from his talks and essays). It seemed the non-philosophical perspective was the one ‘post-continental’ stance that seemed conspicuous by its absence at Dundee, through no fault of the organisers of course. Yet my hunch is that it is the stance that has attempted to think through this problem, while not surrendering the real to philosophy, or to natural science (or any discourse in fact), but at the same time taking what science adds to a philosophical enterprise in finding, unlike philosophy, occasional answers. This to me is what makes it an attractive perspective on such debates and makes me want to hear a lot more about it in the upcoming months.

11 thoughts on “No One Is Afraid Of Big Bad Science (When It Agrees With Them)

  1. Thanks for this great description of the conference and of the issues surrounding science and philosophy today. I wonder if you could offer further thoughts, developing the following from the comment about Johnston’s use of recent neuroscience:

    “The mind doesn’t exist in the skull, or even in the brain, but is ‘out there’ co-implicated in the world, which is all very interesting and I like it a lot. All these accounts for Johnston point towards a collective and communal account of subjectivity, that politically points towards some kind dialectical materialism and communism/common-ism.”

    I am wondering how dialectical this materialism is. That is, if we are already hardwired to be communists, how come we are pushing rather toward global capitalism? Don’t we more than ever require a critical theory of both consciousness and false consciousness? Can science provide this? I have my tremedous doubts about science offering anything like a critical analysis of the difference between consciousness as embedded and communal and consciousness as privatized and associated with selfhood/property. Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on old Rene Girard: he at least knew that science by itself was not going to reveal the structures of illusion that perpetuate violence.

  2. “I have my tremedous doubts about science offering anything like a critical analysis of the difference between consciousness as embedded and communal and consciousness as privatized and associated with selfhood/property.”

    Especially since the whole idea of embedded (etc. — 4 ‘E’s) cognition is that selfhood/consciousness are phenomena that only occur in certain worldly/social/ecological settings. So the critical distinction would have to be between two kinds of embedded/social selfhood, not between “selfhood” and something else. If critical theory needs a dualistic conception of the (at least alienated) self, then the 4-E paradigm is a serious threat to its intelligibility.

  3. All I can say is look at the benighted company that Scruton keeps. He is now a resident “scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute.

    Plus he his the darling of all of the usual right-wing propaganda outfits, especially in the USA. The Heritage Foundation, City Journal, The American Spectator, The National Review, etc, etc

    You wont find Face of “God” in that benighted company–even though they all oft times prattle on about “God”, advertise books from Ignatius Press (for example) and even run seminars of God and “religion”.

  4. Daniel, I take it that the worry I have about the new paradigm in cognitive science/neuroscience is one that Malabou shares. She sees the danger of stopping with the concept of flexibility and not going on to the concept of plasticity, which carries with it the dialectical weight of Hegelian negativity. BTW, this whole “new” 4E paradigm is not so new: it is already present in William James and Henri Bergson. Bergson, of course, had a very well-developed theory of the self’s self-misrepresentation as more like a Cartesian self than what it really was, an embedded self in the duree. For him, self-misrepresentation is part of the adaptive process of intelligence, freeze-framing experience in order to manipulate it better. This seems to correspond to the notion of flexibility that Malabou is at pains to distinguish from plasticity. I am pretty sure that the distinction is lost on most working neuroscientists, since they are not interested in those phenomena that led Bergson and James to credit consciousness with a plastic nature (mysticism, for example).

  5. Bruce and Daniel,

    Simply put, I’m not Johnston, and I don’t have an immediate answer for you, though I am fairly sure his new book on ‘weak nature’ may – his thesis of weak nature attempts to avoid reduction to a determinism of genetics etc., indeed, rather oddly, he invoked Dawkins at this point (he quipped Dawkins before he was shit – ie before he started talking about religion), considering the passages where he talks of humans apparently unique ability to ‘rebel against the selfish replicators’ and overcome our natural basis. Though at a guess, I suspect it would have something to do with the way capitalism (in its alienation, false consciousness etc.) does not allow humans to fully activate the neurological tendencies, in maybe the same way early Marx says about capitalism truncating human capabilities, and later Marx saying much the same about the productive forces in capitalism. In the wider socialist/communist position, I would say that distributed subjectivity shows that notions of “consciousness as privatized and associated with selfhood/property” that undergird capitalism are false and that collective accounts of reasoning are true. Which seems to be what Ray Brassier is suggesting. Though this is obviously gesturing at the moment and I (Johnston) would have to work a lot harder for this to be at all convincing. Chomsky’s critique of capitalism was also brought up, which was interesting…


    I hear you there. It should be noticed that Girard also keeps considerably dodgy company – Peter Thiel, hyper-libertarian, venture capitalist and head of the Thiel Foundation who bankrolls Imitatio, which intends to extend Girard’s theory to all of human culture. Thiel also wrote a reactionary book declaiming ‘multiculturalism’ called The Diversity Myth which Girard blurbed. See his writing at our favourite right wing tossers to Cato Institute –

  6. Following Adam’s note, Johnston’s half of the book (a bit over 50k words) is a pretty intense engagement with the neurosciences that I think really avoids a sort of lame argumentation in which he ‘wins’ because science agrees with him. It’s also more focused on his account of affect than it is on any sort of link between the neuronal and the political, if anything, its much more focused on looking at the relationship between science and psychoanalysis. Hopefully CUP puts the book out soon…

    Alex, while I don’t have time to respond to all of the interesting points you bring up, I really don’t think Johnston is guilty of the sort of politically motivated utilization of the sciences, and I also don’t think he ‘misses the point’ that the science he’s currently interacting with could one day be old news. I think if you read Malabou’s account of the relationship between neuroscience and politics (in ‘What Should We Do With Our Brains?’) you see a much more subtle account which avoids this, and I think Johnston’s work on neuroscience (only bits of which have been published at this point) follows a similar path. I’m not sure if you said this or if it just came up in the comments, but as far as I know Johnston has never written anything that intimates that we are in some way hardwired to be communist. (but if you have seen this reference, do let me know).

    I would presume that, in a sense, someone like Johnston would take a certain Badiou-inspired route in dealing with the relationship between philosophy and science, meaning taking seriously the truths produced by science but avoiding suturing philosophy to science as such.

  7. Mike,

    In Dundee Johnston pretty much said that science had reached a point now where it was able to be stormed by dialectical materialism and that the point has now come whereby Engel’s dialectics of nature did not seem so naive and was now actually possible. Engels was just using old science and in a way his project had come too early. I’m pretty sure this looks like a political use of the sciences. Now it may well not be a full on suture, but there is a relationship of complementary assurance there. Maybe I’m misunderstanding this, or reading my own thoughts into it (whereby I’m fine with it to some extent) but I’m pretty sure he was implying that there was some resources for an account of the common in neuroscience.

  8. Alex,
    Okay, I get where you’re going there. I think the key term then is the political ‘use’ of the sciences. It’s not a form of political philosophy that is not dependent on, or sutured too, the natural sciences. I think in many senses the Dundee paper was meant to be provocative, which it was, but at the end of the day I think it was simply just trying to say that it’s okay for continental philosophy to interact with the sciences (or at least philosophy of mind), and that we no longer have to be afraid of that discourse (something you rightly point out).

    That said, I’m not sure how much of a major theoretical concern this is for his work as a whole. For Johnston, the important point would be about the capacity for affect inherent to the human animal, and the political implications of this, which seems to be a much less tenuous claim than attempting to argue for some neuroscientific basis for communism. At the end of the paper he made quite clear that the moment was ripe for humanist and materialist, and I think his commitment to his own brand of transcendental materialism far outweighs any commitment (or interaction with) neuroscience.

    All that said, you bring up many good points, but I think it’d take some textual engagement to give them a real potency.

  9. I agree, considering I haven’t read any Johnston other than the stuff that surrounds Hagglund. But I was pointing towards a general tendency whereby the relationship between philosophy and natural sciences is rather under theorised in discussions last week, and it requires rather a lot more work.

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