A defense of skepticism

 

As an anthropologist, I am usually a proponent of respect for “non-Western worldviews” (whatever that means). However, I noticed something problematic in the comments section of this video by the channel Genetically Modified Skeptic. This video is a deconstruction of the Gaia channel/streaming platform, which is purportedly a channel devoted to alternative medicine and paranormal subjects, but Genetically Modified Skeptic claims it is a essentially a scam. I believe he is correct, and I believe that Gaia is promoting pseudoscience.

However, in the comments section of this video, the argument that this channel is simply “counteracting scientism, which is a new religion”, trying to counterbalance Western rationalism, and promoting non-Western worldviews was prevalent. I saw almost verbatim all of these arguments being employed. I argue that there is a significant difference between counterbalancing rationalism and the Western dualistic extreme of irrationalism, and that categories such as this are a product of the Western mind and its long philosophical history of the Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, reason vs. passion, etc. Spirituality as it is understood by the purveyors of New Age spirituality and New Age pseudoscience is fundamentally different from non-Western worldviews. Furthermore, the Marxist argument of religion as false consciousness can be legitimately employed in this regard, if one takes into account the full and original purview of Marxian thought on religion.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek talks about how leftists and legitimate intellectuals should distance themselves from the fundamentally irrationalist ideas currently in vogue among some of the “politically correct” Left. Among this crowd, the ideas of postmodernism and deconstruction have been hijacked to advocate for a kind of ecological New Age spiritualism. Funnily enough, the essence of this problematic is found in the “Gaia hypothesis”, a theory proposed by chemist James Lovelock, in which the Earth can be considered a self-regulating biological “organism”. This theory has been co-opted by advocates of New Age spirituality who interpret the hypothesis as a neo-Pagan religion. Furthermore, from a theoretical and scientific point of view, the theory has flaws. One example of a flaw in this theory is that as a self-regulating system, the earth should seemingly be able to adapt to climate change. On a purely semantic level, calling this theory the “Gaia hypothesis” opens up a Pandora’s Box of anthropomorphization and attributions of sentience to entities that do not have any. Zizek goes on to argue that the Gaia hypothesis fits within the capitalist ideological framework of environmentalism as an essentially individual problem: we must “get back to nature” rather than looking structurally at the concrete environmental struggles and policies that shape the planet. Rather than looking at the planet as simply an ecosystem, the Gaia hypothesis stretches this hypothesis and essentializes the concept of ecosystem as inherently stable and permanent, instead of fragile and vulnerable. Viewing Earth as the “providing Mother”, while it has deep roots in ancient religions across the world, is no longer tenable in the Anthropocene, in which human-induced climate change can change the very dynamics that have structured the earth on geological time scales.

The Gaia platform obviously embraces this double-edged sword of a concept. But the concept is not without its merits on a purely formal level: seeing things as interconnected is not wrong. However, the manner in which they are interconnected is ignored in favor of a holistic, largely “essentialist” spiritual worldview. Rather than seeing those interconnections as a potential problem (like the cascading effects of climate change), interconnection has become the buzzword of the New Age movement.

Genetically Modified Skeptic does a good job of summarizing what Gaia is all about, so I won’t repeat his assessment. Rather, I’d like to focus in on why Gaia is not promoting “non-Western worldviews”, but rather cultural appropriations of non-Western worldviews jumbled together with scientific claims that are untenable.

One of Gaia’s video categories on their streaming service is “yoga”. What hasn’t been said before about the cultural appropriation of yoga by white, Western liberals? I’ll try my best to summarize. Essentially, yoga became popular during the 1960s during the counterculture movement as more people began to explore Eastern spirituality. Because these Americans were “open-minded people”, they did not want to adhere to the strict traditions of a particular system, but rather saw yoga as a “consciousness-expanding tool”. The downside of this worldview is that what made yoga effective in the first place, as a system of meaning within a larger cultural framework, dissolved in favor of yoga as either a general spiritual “healing technique” or a purely physical exercise. Sure, the buzzwords about “enlightenment” and “opening the soul” remains, but not in its original forms. One could argue that yoga never really “worked” in this regard, but the fact remains that the proper respect to the original traditions that practiced yoga (Hinduism and Buddhism) was not given. Furthermore, the idea of practicing yoga as a person who is not a devotee of these original faiths is as alien as taking the eucharist without being a Catholic, or wearing a yarmulke without being Jewish as a fashion statement. It is basically a statement of personal choice, a hobby rather than a spiritual commitment.

Gaia enthusiasts may vehemently disagree with me when I say that they do not practice as a spiritual commitment, or may argue that they are free to practice yoga as they please, and that yoga is not the explicit property of Hindus or Buddhists. However, I argue that they are not practicing yoga at all, but rather a distorted version of it. Furthermore, I argue, at least within the confines of Tantric Buddhism, that yoga was never meant to be general practice among the general populous, but it was designed as an esoteric practice only for the most advanced adepts and solitary hermits. There is a reason for this: the original practice of yoga involves practices such as doing 100,000 prostrations, not putting your leg over your head. Yoga in its secular form has become an interesting form of exercise, but that is not the original meaning of the word yoga.

Furthermore, while modern yogis and yoga enthusiasts may claim they are combining their spiritual practice into their practice of yoga, and employ some of the same terminology including chakra, without the context of chakra within a larger Tantric worldview, which involves either devotion to a specific god in the Hindu tradition, or the realization of the body as a Buddha body in the Buddhist tradition, the word chakra and the positions of the wheels in the body is virtually meaningless. There is no heart chakra, no real physical heart chakra. It is metaphor for spiritual realization: this is evident enough in Buddhist texts. Some New Age yogic practitioners seem to think that there is some sort of real essential thing called a heart chakra, as the also believe in a real thing called the Self. This is why New Age yoga tends to veer toward the Hindu tradition: but I digress.

From this example, it is evident that New Age spirituality is categorically different from “non-Western worldviews”. There are certain patterns of thought of a Western mind are so deeply embedded that something akin to a “subconscious cultural divide” exists between Western and non-Western cultures. Even when a Western mind seeks to consciously overcome these patterns of thought, the Western cannot help but systematize, analyze, and apply rational systems to what are essentially folkloric and customary habits. I argue that it is hard for the Western mind to understand the philosophical niceties and metaphors that surround the Eastern philosophical mindset. Spirituality among Westerners has always been literal: Gods really exist, spirits are real and tangible if they want to be. From my ethnographic experience, culturally Buddhist people from Asian countries do not experience belief in the same way. Rather, a pragmatic attitude prevails about spirituality: if it works, I believe it. Therefore, there are practices related to spirits, demons, etc. but they are practical endeavors made to appease rather ill-defined malevolent beings to ensure a practical purpose: a good harvest, etc. This is the way it has always been for many traditional societies. The Western rationalist cannot help but make these organic, living breathing traditions into stale, systematized concrete ideas. For instance, the idea of a “guardian spirit” in a tree or forest prevalent among animist societies is intimately connected, as Roy Rappaport and Darrel Posey argue, to concrete traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and specific knowledge about certain environments and cycles. Rather than a vague, holistic idea of “being connected to nature” (a product of real alienation from nature), traditional societies experience being connected to nature as a pragmatic, real, and everyday reality. Knowing the cycles of the seasons is experienced directly, as a part of their practical means of subsistence, as well as their larger epistemological and cosmological framework. However, the Western project and process of abstraction of these experienced cosmologies reifies these belief systems into terms like “animism”. Therefore, the project of “neo-Paganism” “neo-animism” is in vain, because the material substrate in which these belief systems were embedded is gone.

In conclusion, New Age spirituality is a product of the alienated Western consciousness, and in many ways can be interpreted as a product of capitalism and a longing for wholeness that is not essential to the human mind. As hard as it is to swallow, the “search for meaning” that drives Western people living in industrialized countries to seek answers to philosophical questions is not a cultural universal. Where I believe this skeptic channel could adapt their argument is viewing these people not as inherently biologically “insane”, but as the product of complex cultural and historical dynamics that have been given many names: the “Death of God”, the great disenchantment, or more concretely, the rise of feelings of nihilism driven by sociological ills in capitalist society.

 

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Do Zizek and Peterson agree on religion?

Spoiler: no they do not.

Jordan Peterson is so fundamentally bad at making arguments that he can’t help but make the naturalistic fallacy every time he opens his mouth. Hierarchy is natural and good, religion is natural and therefore good- that’s his whole spiel, as many authors and columnists have pointed out explicitly. It’s pretty obvious when he engages in these kind of religious apologetics that his ultimate agenda is propping up conservative ideology and politics, but why does it appear in this video that Peterson is making a similar argument to one that Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek often repeats about God and the unconscious? Is it because Zizek is a closet fascist like his detractors claim?

What exactly is Zizek’s argument? Here’s a good video clip summarizing Zizek’s position on religion:

Zizek states in his works many times that the Dostoyevskyian assertion that “If God does not exist, than everything is permitted” is actually true in reverse: “If God does not exist, nothing is permitted”. Why? Because true believers or fundamentalists can violate seemingly inviolable moral law if they “fulfill God’s will” (think jihadists who martyr themselves for the cause of Islam). But why is nothing permitted to those that do not believe? Because for Zizek, they still unconsciously believe in a Big Other.

This bears a strange resemblance to Peterson’s argument that non-believers secretly believe, but not all is as it seems. Peterson is simply falling back on the old “no atheists in foxholes” argument: non-believers unconsciously believe they may be punished in the afterlife if they commit a sin.

Here Peterson commits a fundamental misreading of Christianity. As Zizek argues following Hegel, in Christianity God literally dies on the cross in the act of kenosis or becoming fully man. Thus for Christ, one’s fate in the afterlife should be inconsequential to you when considering what is right and wrong. Thus, atheists, in their conception of a moral law that is higher than God himself (if he exists at all) are more faithful to the spirit of Christianity than Christianity itself. This may seem just as obscurantist as Peterson’s claim, but it is clearly different. For Zizek, atheists who hold certain ethical standards as absolute do not do so because they believe in God, but they simply have been raised in a culture steeped in Christian history.

If Zizek were to raise this point to Peterson, Peterson might do a victory lap and claim religion, irrespective of whether it is right or not, invented art, morality, etc. However, notice how Peterson would attach a value judgement to the idea of absolute ethical standards being good. Absolute ethical standards have sometimes led to draconian laws and a perverted sense of justice – one need only mention the Inquisition. Peterson also, in proper New Age fashion, collapse in his apologetics of religion all religions into one, despite the fact that they hold vastly different moral codes. He would possibly claim that they share certain common elements, but one need only look at the moral system held by the Jains when it comes to food consumption and compare that to any religion that does not promote vegetarianism to conclude that there are complete incompatibilities between religions. If he were to claim that all religions promote love for mankind and certain basic ethical principles, I would actually agree with him- religion’s essential dimensions are the ethical and metaphysical or cosmological, which then concatenate with the social or cultural. But Peterson’s utter lack of nuance makes all of his pithy comebacks about everyone being religious “on the inside” ring hollow to avid atheists. If he were to claim that a central aspect of being human is spirituality, anthropologically I would have to agree with him. I would also agree with him if he couched his language in historicism, by claiming that the main source of inspiration for art and poetry for most of human history was the spiritual or religious traditions that were kept in a particular place and time. However, what Peterson fails to do is differentiate the existential dimension of being human from spirituality or spirituality from organized religion, thus rendering his naturalistic argument, which seems to make a claim about all future, as well as past, art and poetry, a moot point.

The problem is I know exactly where he’s coming from, from a Jungian perspective, and its actually somewhat refreshing to see the New Atheist crowd taken to task and asked some tough questions. The dialogue is actually somewhat interesting, and I’m trying to lay my political prejudices aside in this theoretical debate. But everything, every intellectual terrain, is micropolitics. There is a micropolitics inside of linguistics, inside of anthropology – perhaps to the inside observer they are more than micro!

Peterson fails to understand the lingering legacy of the European Enlightenment. The man is definitive product of reactionary elements in the Romantic movement – Peterson would fit right at home in 19th century Europe, taking what he will from disparate cultures in a hodge-podge manner and filling it out with sophistry. Peterson reminds me most of armchair anthropologists and psychologists of the 19th century like James Frazer, author of the Golden Bough and one of the primary influences of Carl Jung.

One of the gifts of the Enlightenment and German idealism is that rational thought can be decoupled from tradition. Tradition and social custom, as even Diogenes the Cynic knew in ancient Greece, are the antithesis of free thinking. Organicist defenses of social custom and tradition divorced from the content of that tradition ignores many of the ills that have been created by art and poetry throughout the ages. Art has been the most useful tool for propagandists since the rule of Hammurabi, since the dawn of the first empires on Earth. One need only read the Mahabharata or the Iliad to realize that, as Walter Benjamin said in his Theses on the Philosophy of History:

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” 

I think we haven’t grappled with the true weight of Benjamin’s realization.

 

Short reflection on current trends in popular ideology: Jordan Petersen v. Sam Harris

In terms of popular intellectuals, I see Sam Harris as the archetype of the view to be rejected, for a number of reasons. His background, coming from cognitive science, is essentially a positivist “scientism”, and his views on how beliefs are constructed flow from this paradigm. Harris essentially views the phenomenon of belief in terms of chemical reactions (a reductionist point of view)- when a person believes something, it sends out a positive response from the brain, a dopamine reaction, that creates a kind of feedback loop. In short, it feels good to believe something, even if it isn’t true, especially if that belief makes one feel like one has a life after death, etc. What is the problem with this belief? It is just a modern neuroscientific version of an atheist argument. The problem is Harris abstracts it as a model for all belief, which is where he goes wrong. Harris does not include more complex psychological processes that go with the creation of belief on levels more complex than the neurological- he does not include the familial, the cultural, or the metaphysical (I will explain what I mean by metaphysical or existential). Belief, say in what a human being is relative to the universe, is fundamentally patterned by social group, or culture. Harris knows this, but his model of how culture influences belief is limited/not fleshed out. In short, Harris believes he is writing from a privileged lens, the scientific lens, which is not hampered by superstition or any sort of belief system, even though he has an ideological agenda. That ideological agenda goes as follows- religion, any sort of belief in God or the afterlife, is a BAD belief, it is detrimental to humanity. This is despite the fact that many societies have been fundamentally organized by religious beliefs. Many of these deficits in Harris’ argument are now being pointed out by Dr. Jordan Petersen, a professor of psychology, who includes in his perspective anthropological perspectives, as well as Jungian theory on how humans are driven to find meaning in the world through myth. The inclusion of Jung is a big step in improving the popular conception of religion, which is being heavily influenced by the New Atheists like Dawkins, who idolize science and scientific belief as a new worldview that should overturn religion (an essentially 19th century way of thinking, rationalist in character).

Peterson starts by deconstructing the model of humans as being essentially irrational until the Enlightenment, and then through science became rational people. However, I find his approach to be lacking rhetorically. Peterson starts (in an interview) by referencing the fact that religion is not always the motivator of conflict. A good start. However, his evidence is that chimps also go to war. I find this to be a shoddy use of evidence, given that the close cousin of the chimp, the bonobo, is essentially docile. The book War, Peace, and Human Nature by Douglas Fry is an essential reference on this topic, however Petersen probably is unaware of this book, given that its in the modern anthropological canon. Petersen relies on writers such as Jung, who try to move away from the positivist doxa, but more prescient deconstructions of scientism exist now, in the works of Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Slavoj Zizek, not to mention most of the anthropological canon (Evans-Pritchard, Malinowski, Levi-Strauss, etc.) Much more has been written on the structure of the human mind by these theorists. Petersen’s book is called Maps of Meaning– I would find an even more enlightening book (perhaps one I will eventually write) be Maps of the Mind (or Cartographies of Subjectivity, in academic speak). Petersen’s book explores how humans make sense of the world, through religion, etc. What I would explore is how each of these different ideologies (or great thinkers) conceives of the human itself- how does Jung think of the mind? Freud? Then go back to Christian conception of the subject (the soul), contrast it with the modern conception of the subject- in short, a complete version of what Foucault attempted to do (Foucault was limited in his archaeology of the subject to the Western world, but still got pretty far with his work the History of Sexuality). I would try to include more cross-cultural sources- an encyclopedia of how humans think of themselves.

What I’m trying to get at, in a matter of speaking, is that trying to form a way of thinking, a model, about how we think, from a purely scientific perspective, is essentially reductive and limited- it leads back to one source- the baseline of atomic reactions- while a more holistic way of thinking is unending in scope. Its also much more interesting. Sam Harris never fails to be reductive in this way, whenever he tackles some phenomenon related to belief or religion- take Islam and fundamentalism for example- he always reaches the wrong conclusion for this essential reason. He can never include any other reason for why people believe the way they do in his frame of reference. We must always remember the essential wisdom of Buddhist metaphysics- the web of causes and conditions is so complex and multifaceted, it can only truly be comprehended by an omniscient being. Sam Harris always follows the reductionist pattern when talking about Islam because of this- “they hate us because they hate us”.

All human beings have these kind of cosmologies or “maps of meaning”, even if they aren’t religious. We have to because we are, in Heideggerian terms, Dasein or “beings thrown into the world”. Everyone knows the story- we search for the reason why we are here, look up into the stars and wonder why things are the way they are. This fundamental existential level is only conceived through language, which is taught at an early age, and thus all belief is conditioned by culture. It is good to see a real intellectual (Peterson) introduce these concepts to a wider audience and receive a level of respect, and try to drown out the chorus of New Atheist science-worshippers.