Standing Watch against Witches: Magic and Rationality June 13, 2012Posted by Summerspeaker in Anarchism, Epistemology, Technology, Transhumanism.
Over at amor mundi, Dale Carrico lampoons futurism with a mock writing guide. While the piece effectively satirizes futurists – who hasn’t read numerous articles that conform to Dale’s mold? – it relies on an unambiguous division between the sense and nonsense in the classic western intellectual tradition. Dale assumes the impossibility of outcomes “normally attributable to magic” and smugly positions eirself on the side of “serious science” rather than “stupid magic.” In this narrative, futurists earn ridicule through their inability to distinguish between the real and unreal. Dale taps into a deep vein of modern culture here; folks from countless political persuasions enjoy making fun of those they deem beyond the bounds of authoritative knowledge. I consider this dynamic problematic and overwhelmingly a tool of oppression. Rather than simply seeking to include transhumanists and company within the walls of scientific respectability, I question the conceptual apparatus that starkly separates magic from science as well as the desirability of ostracizing epistemological deviants.
To begin, I note that the lines blur even with a cursory look at canonical science history. Dale tellingly omits flight and transmutation from eir parenthetical list of outcomes attributable to magic; innovation has already shifted these two tricks from the realm of the fantastic to the practical. Thus historical association with the supernatural appears a dubious basis for assessing possibility. Furthermore, innumerable icons of science across the ages held views about the world sufficient to give PZ Myers a heart attack. Isaac Netwon loved Jesus and alchemy. Niels Bohr dabbled in mysticism and abstract speculation. Etc. Before leaving the mainstream account of scientific progress, we already discover grounds for epistemological humility. Today’s supposed consensus might become tomorrow’s quackery, and vice versa.
Wandering farther from charted territory, the critical scholarship of the last few decades has emphasized the cultural specificity of the scientific mode of knowledge production. These critiques come from a variety of directions, ranging from Native studies to French poststructuralism. As an example, you have academics such as Eva Marie Garroutte who advocate for indigenous traditional epistemologies to take an equal place beside western rationalism. A bit of reflection quickly leads to skepticism about the solidity of any and all claims to truth and authority. As James Hughes writes, we’ve built our houses in mid-air. Personal experience with actual scientists -who aren’t necessarily above falsifying data when pressed and gleefully indulge in petty squabbling over resources – muddies the waters further. Unless you’re a researcher referring to your own experiments, empiricism means stuff you’ve read about and judge credible. Maybe some of y’all out there have a sure route to knowledge, but I don’t and I doubt any exist. (If one did, how could I tell?) I value science and rationality for their material and intellectual utility, not as a way to access some unitary or reliable truth.
In the context of well-established hierarchy between science and magic Dale invokes, I’m most concerned with the social and political effects of these boundaries. What does exalting the former and denigrating the latter do? As mentioned above, intense mockery of the unenlightened other serves as a beloved pastime for rationalists. Juicy targets include alternative healthcare practitioners, astrologers, climate change deniers, conspiracy theorists, creationists, homophobes, New Agers, psychics, Scientologists, and utopians. The act of naming and denouncing the gullible fool of the day places the denouncer on the side intelligence and reason by contrast. In demeaning crystal-carrying hippies, rationalists assert and revel in their superior status as people who know the difference between truth and superstition. As with queers – and the resonances abound – the insults make and maintain the border of normativity. We define what we are by condemning what we’re not.
Like many who endeavor to disabuse the duped via scorn, Dale makes a point of insisting on the triumph of reality over illusion. Ey concludes the piece by reminding the imagined transhumanist reader of the inevitability of death: “you will die because magic is not real.” Under this schema, rationalism operates as a totalizing vision that tolerates no thought outside of the scientific mainstream. It’s not enough to deny the viability of rejuvenation therapy or even to laugh at the silly immortalists. This project holds the objective of obliterating wrong belief entirely. For Dale, immortalists need to recognize their error and accept mortality. Exposure leads to shame, then repentance and absolution. Sound familiar?
This crusade against falsehood has vast rhetorical potency and a compelling practical logic. At times it advances positive political ends, such as when wielded against bosses whose views conflict with scientific authority. As critical as I am, I shy away from categorical opposition. Proponents point to a version of the public-private distinction in their defense: While everyone deserves the liberty to espouse crackpot ideas in their own home or with friends, the public sphere demands materialist empiricism. Dale distinguishes dreaming – conduct by non-transhumanist actors, presumably in private – from “telling really stupid shitty lies” designed to extract resources from the unwary. I sympathize with concerns about absurd notions infringing on my well-being – at the extreme, this could mean some adherent of an Abrahamic religion stoning me to death. Likewise, I second the desire for shared reality as a foundation for political struggle. However, I’m loathe to bar the gates on epistemological grounds. To borrow a term from Judith Butler, that strikes me as an authoritarian ruse that has deleterious effects at both the political and conceptual level.
By wielding consensus science – at best an exaggeration – as a bludgeon against unbelievers, we enshrine authority and intolerance. This goes directly against the forms of intellectual inquiry and interpersonal interaction I intend to foster. Scientific institutions don’t hold a monopoly on insight. To the contrary, the knowledge claims of science turn tenuous under scrutiny. While pleasurable and occasionally effective at weakening the powers that be, rationalist mockery creates a hostile social environment defined by untenable borders between reason and nonsense. It actually inhibits the wide-ranging curiosity and openness so important in innovation. The fear of being called a quack paralyzes promising research. Faith in established theories facilitates exploitation by experts who of course know better than you do.
Culturally, as mentioned, the rigid rationalist framework privileges one single western tradition over all others. It not only blinds us to potentially valuable alternative ways of comprehending the world(s) but creates an epistemological hierarchy inflected by colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and white supremacy. Grasping these points hasn’t been easy for me. I could be quite comfortable fighting the good fight for materialism. Rather than criticizing the hammer of science, I’d hurl it at Dale in stereotypically triumphalist transhumanist fashion, aiming to annihilate the superstitious scourges of death-worship and anthropocentrism. However, skepticism combined with close friends who espouse a variety of views at odds with mainstream empiricist rationality has lead me here. I’m still figuring out how to navigate encounters with astrology, auras, conspiracy theories, psychics, reincarnation, sacred sites, spirits, vampires, and werewolves. For the moment I take an agnostic approach and survey for commonality case by case. I’m rooted in empiricism and predict I’ll remain so, but my dreams of freedom and equality entail at least the limited embrace of epistemological diversity. I’ve already found the journey edifying and humbling. If nothing else, the supernatural, spiritual, and intuitive provide a language of resistance against ascendent technoscientific modernity.
Along with Wendy Brown, I recommend political argument in place of epistemological claims. I don’t advocate revolution based on the grand trajectory of history or some universal moral imperative, but because I want it. I don’t have or long for the weight of objective truth on my side; I don’t consider my enemies stupid. Criticism of transhumanism that reiterates the game of status and yearns for a position above reproach disappoints me. I encourage Dale and others to question the plausibility of futurist technological assertions without recourse to certainty while simultaneously examining the often pernicious political implication of their superlative proclamations. Contesting the self-serving progress narratives of the elite constitutes beneficial political work; designating a new group to mock as idiotic and infantile from the standpoint of established knowledge replays a dominant oppressive tune.
In conclusion, death to authority and the Imperial Academy! Let’s get some of that magic in our lives. All power to all people. ♥