The Mystics of Magic and the Mystics of Science

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In John Galt’s climactic speech in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes two foes of capitalism, the “mystics of the spirit” (or, as Rand also put it, “witch doctors”), who promote religion, and the “mystics of muscle” or “Attilas,” that is, especially, the communists, who are atheists and promote Marxist materialism as the antidote for religion. What gets lost in a lot of libertarian theory is the fact that, to take Rand’s idea and expand on it, people who believe in rationality, science, and technology are not necessarily friends of liberty. Indeed, precisely the opposite is often true. Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.

Two types of mystics do exist — whom I prefer to call the mystics of magic and the mystics of science. The latter are my main subjects here.

I am an atheist. Not only do I not believe in God, but I am also of the rather abnormal (but increasingly popular) sentiment that the proposition “I know that God does not exist” can be rationally justified, i.e., atheism is knowledge and not mere belief. However, many of the people who share my view go in the opposite direction and elevate science into a new religion. Here I refer not to the cult of Scientology but to the scientific atheism of, for example, famous philosophy professor Daniel Dennett.

Let me offer two examples.

First, in a Facebook group that discusses philosophy I recently saw someone say something like this: “bitterness and sweetness do not exist, what exists is atoms and void, and sweetness is an illusion.” This assertion was provided as a scientific approach to philosophy, but it manifests a desire to transform science into a new religion, a mysticism of science. Such a religion would depict the world you and I perceive as an illusion. Instead of saying that access to the hidden truth of reality is revealed by God and the Bible, the mystics of science say that revelation comes from reading science textbooks and scientific journals and knowing the results of experiments and research studies.

Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.

Mystics of science love to talk about how neurobiology has figured out all the ways that the human brain is flawed and perceives illusions. Yet, as I explain in my book The Apple of Knowledge, the truly scientific attitude is that the sweetness of an apple does exist objectively in reality, in that the apple’s sweetness, and the apple itself, which physically exists in objective reality, are one and the same thing. The apple’s sweetness is what that collection of atoms tastes like when it acts as a whole upon the tongue’s taste buds. In other words, qualia exist, but they are not subjective; instead the experience of something that physically exists is identical with that thing in itself, because the brain’s means of perception do not alter or create the objects that are perceived. (This is the tip of iceberg, and I needed 400 pages in my book to explain what I mean; the theory is fully developed there.)

The mystics of science would reply that I am ignorant of the fact that taste comes from smell and not from taste buds, so the taste in the mouth must be an illusion. To this I reply that these hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality. I say that we can know what an apple tastes like by eating it; the idea that we cannot know, that sweetness is an illusion — this is sheer mysticism. In my opinion, these mystics of science are far worse than the mystics of magic, because at least the religious mystics are open and honest in their commitments.

Second, Daniel Dennett, a popular advocate of the movement called “New Atheism,” has expressed a position that I call “biological relativism.” This, basically, is the idea that reality looks the way it does because the human body and human sensory organs evolved in such a way that we humans experience this world of our experience. He has actually said that apples look red because the human brain evolved to sort edible objects by color, so that redness comes not from the apple but from the evolution of the human digestive system as expressed in the human brain’s hunger regions. This means, ultimately, that the sky is blue because blueberries are blue. (See Dennett, Consciousness Explained [1992].) If that is true, then the world we experience is entirely relative to perception, is completely subjective, and is a creation of the human brain. This, to me, means that access to objective existence is impossible, since we could never get outside our brains to see reality as it exists objectively.

The only thing about Dennett’s idea that is scientific is the allusion to evolution and the brain. In every other respect it is mysticism, because it denies the possibility that human beings have direct access to objective reality by means of perceiving the external world. Taking my cue from Rand, I dispute any position which defends that idea, considering it not only false but unscientific. The experience of an apple’s redness and the physical reality of the apple are identical, not such that the apple itself is subjective, but such that the experienced apple is objective. Redness exists in physical objects and is not a subjective creation of the eyes, despite all objections from the mystics of science, who would lecture me about the workings of the retina, the optic nerve, and the occipital lobe. Mystics of science might say that the depth and length we perceive are illusions because our brains and eyes process the data subjectively — despite the fact that measurements of space and time recorded by scientific instruments are accurate and objective, e.g. a building could be 100 feet long but our eyes cannot see this clearly.

The mystics of science hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality.

Kant once helped to save religion from science by persuading people that the experience of reality is subjective and knowledge comes from intuition. Dennett, in the name of science, simply buys into this Kantian error. To me, if reality is subjective, then wishes and thoughts can control it, which is a religious worldview that tells people to seek to change their lives through the power of prayer. In contrast, if reality is objective, then it exists outside the mind, in which case science and technology are the correct approach to improving human existence, and Francis Bacon’s maxim “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” is justified because the mind must obey reality in order to succeed. A true philosophical science says that we must learn about reality by observing the external world, instead of trying to use our minds to impose subjective phenomena onto reality. (Again, these are complicated ideas that cannot be presented in one short essay, but I try to explain it fully in The Apple of Knowledge.)

Now let me explain why atheism has very little to do with libertarianism and, contrary to Rand’s assertions, why there is no direct correlation between rationality and freedom. This is obviously true because, historically, the Marxists were (mostly) atheists, and the conservatives who have fought against socialism in America are (mostly) Christians. For one poignant case study, note that the famous science fiction author H.G. Wells was a notorious socialist, as were many men of science of his era. The trend continues to this day, as antisocialists tend to be religious, and socialists and modern liberals tend to be secular.

In The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek tried to explain why men of science tend to be socialists. He argued that scientists seek order and patterns in reality, and this leads them to try using government to impose their ordered plans and schemes onto society; this is a recipe for socialism, especially in the context of the Hayekian belief that freedom is consistent with an order spontaneously emerging from chaos. Just as a scientist might want to design a new plan for a car engine to improve fuel efficiency, a scientist might also want to design a new plan for an economy to improve allocations of wealth. The problem is that a car engine is a mindless tool, whereas an economy is a collection of thinking human beings, each with his or her own plans, standards of “improvement,” and rights to life, liberty, and property. Many of the bosses at the American government’s regulatory agencies are scientists or technologists with advanced degrees, and many of the nonscientists have degrees in economics and mathematics. The EPA’s regulators are often experts in the science of the environment and pollution, and therefore knowledgeable in chemistry, metallurgy, engineering, physics, etc. But their science does not dispose them to become libertarians.

Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom. If any group has been more responsible than others for saving America from a descent into total communism, it is the conservative movement, which is fueled by a belief, one which I think on its face is irrational and crazy, that God supports capitalism and the Bible demands that the American patriotic tradition of free market economics be defended. As Hayek has noted in his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative,” the conservatives love capitalism not chiefly because of any of its virtues but only because it is the old, established, traditional system in America. This attitude is not particularly intelligent or rational, but it achieves a practical result — the defense of liberty by a vast portion of the American voters. To cite only one example, the Tea Party in the House of Representatives, backed by the Tea Party conservatives, has done much to stop Obama’s socialist agenda, although there was little it could do to repeal laws that were already passed, such as Obamacare.

Without much exaggeration it can be said that, absent the conservatives, you would not be able just to go to a coffee shop and buy a cup of coffee. Instead, the atheist Marxist central planners, chosen by Obama and his cronies, would assign your beverages to you, just as they want to assign your healthcare to you, and you would drink carrot juice instead of coffee whether you wanted to or not, and see the end of a soldier’s gun if you tried to escape from the socialist plan drinking. You owe your freedom to the Bible, at least to some extent, whether you like it or not.

Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom.

The best defense of liberty, which most libertarians ignore or are ignorant of, is a Biblical idea, the Golden Rule. This principle of ethics asserts that you should do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In Golden Rule Libertarianism (Hasan [2014]), I argue that the Golden Rule’s implementation in politics is, and can only be, libertarianism: if you desire the freedom to do what you want, you must let me have the freedom to do what I want; but if you force me to obey you, I will be justified in forcing you to obey me, which you cannot possibly want.

In short, the hatred of religion that is felt by some libertarians, especially those who entered the movement through Ayn Rand (but also, to some degree, through Murray Rothbard) is misplaced. If Rand’s “mystics of muscle” idea is taken seriously, then there is a basis in her texts for opposing the mystics of science as fiercely and ardently as we oppose the mystics of magic.

Works Cited

Hasan, Russell. The Apple of Knowledge. Norwalk, Connecticut, Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hasan, Russell. Golden Rule Libertarianism. Norwalk, Connecticut. Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Routledge, London. The University of Chicago Press, 1944
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York, New York. Random House, 1957.




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Comments

R R Schoettker

I have to take issue with the description of the "golden rule" or principle of ethical reciprocity as a "biblical" idea. This is a virtual constant in all philosophies or religious beliefs and can be more accurately seen as just an acknowledgement of truth reveled by human reason and attributable to no specific sect, secular or sacred.

Fred Mora

R R Schoettker, I respectfully disagree, not philosophically, but from experience. If you stayed in certain Middle East or African countries, or if you talked to certain people in Europe (say, travellers from Romania), you'd understand that their general principle is "Family first, then clan. The rest of the world is there to be abused and plundered."

The sad thing is that a large portion of mankind expect abuse and violence as the default behavior from strangers, and routinely attempt to abuse, rob, and sometimes mug strangers. For these cultures, that's the philosophical "acknowledgement of truth", and they would consider the Golden Rule as crazy talk.

R R Schoettker

Mr Mora, I concur with your general assessment of the behavior of the "herd" but I believe this condemnation is as generally applicable to those who espouse a "biblical" moral standard as it is to the specific groups you gave as examples. My point is that the sapient minority of this species; the ones who develop or adhere to philosophies or to a lesser extent, religious belief systems have all shared the concept of ethical reciprocity and that the earliest examples of this far predate the first occurrence in any of the religions of "the book".

Fred Mora

Mr. Hasan, thank you for this good article that raises interesting points.

As you note, the desire for liberty is irrational, as a rational society doesn't necessarily require individual freedom. However, it takes a special kind of irrationality to insist on freedom. I think that this is a distinctive trait of Christian theology.

Case in point: Religions that emphasize karma and predestination. We can of course mention Islam, noted for a certain fatalistic attitude. Less known are Asiatic religions that insist on the illusory and pointless nature of human deeds are in essence implying that humans are all predestined to oblivion and cannot even hope to amount to anything (I am oversimplifying, granted). This explains why these philosophies are not conducive to enthusiasm, action, and liberty.

Contrast with Christianity. The Catholic Church always fought predestination doctrines as heresies promoting despair. Jansenism was condemned. Catharism, which reinvented the Eastern concepts of the hopelessness of human deeds and lives, was fought first by debates, then decrees, finally military action. On the Protestant side, even Calvinism doesn't teach that foreordained grace or reprobation should be a cause of despair and inaction.

Of course, it would be silly to deduce that libertarianism was the central concept of Christianity. However, Christian theology always insisted on individual action, responsibility, and personal choices. A fortunate consequence of this is the support that Libertarians get from classic Christian conservatives.

Christianity has always been a favorite target of Statists. Modern Liberals are always prompt to demonize Christians while promoting "alternative" creeds such as New Age, Buddhism, and now Islam. This is not irrational hatred: They know exactly what they are doing.

Johnimo

I really like this article, and I believe what Hasan is getting at is that the culture of the Judeo-Christian west is one of personal responsibility and individual freedom strengthened by a strong work ethic. It's attendant capitalism has produced such abundance that Christians are none too anxious to get to heaven, because it's so nice here on Earth.

Also, unlike some other religions, the Judeo-Christian culture has nurtured education, reason, and scientific inquiry. Rand saw this and would likely have amended the term "Judeo-Christian," to include Aristotle. This nurturing has happened because, despite opposition from religious hierarchy, the culture has been open to change and rebellion. In regard to this latter phenomenon, I feel the author's analysis is a little weak.

Bill Shugg

I would very much like to read your blog, Russell, but the format makes it unreadable. A black background with all manner of decorations just doesn't work, at least on my tablet.

Lori Heine

Because I see no mention of his work in libertarian quarters, I must conclude that Chris Hedges is under-read there. I am currently reading his little book, "I Don’t Believe in Atheists," and though Hedges makes no claim to being a libertarian, his refutations of “new atheists” such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins certainly resonate with me.

A former seminarian who covered terrorism and war for many years as a New York Times reporter, Hedges is in no way conventionally religious. But I find his takedown of the pretentions and puffery of atheism refreshing. Atheism is, as the Bishop Emeritus at All Saints’ Episcopal in Phoenix puts it, a good rebuke to bad theology. Though I’m perfectly content to take a live-and-let-live attitude toward those who do not share my faith, I agree with Hedges that it’s time to challenge their empty and too-easy assertions.

I don’t recognize my faith in its caricatures – most of which are about as sophisticated and intelligent as Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck. I rarely meet an atheist who even understands what he is rejecting, much less seems capable of expressing his own faith (and that it certainly is) in anything but irrational and hyper-emotional terms.

If you can do that, Mr. Hasan, then you are a rare bird. But I challenge your apparent belief that you are automatically more rational than I, or any other believer, simply because you are an atheist.

I find that my faith must be defended from two adversaries: those who call me an idiot for having faith, and those who claim that because I’m a lesbian Christian, I can’t exist. I fault liberal mainline churches for not standing up more robustly against this dual onslaught. For every person who leaves an evangelical church for a mainline congregation, there are probably twenty who simply leave church, period.

A growing number of Christians support gay inclusion in the churches not in spite of their understanding of Christian morality, but because of it. But they too often expect everybody to know that, without bothering to articulate why.

Likewise, however, many libertarians who share my faith are treated as if they do not exist. I’m forever hearing that I can’t be a libertarian because I’m a Christian, or vice versa. Religious believers are a varied lot. We come in an apparently-astounding variety of shapes, sizes, political philosophies and orientations.

Conservative evangelicals don’t seem to like that. Chris Hedges must be right that atheists hate complexity as much as they do, because atheists don’t seem to like it, either.

When Christian belief is reduced to a caricature, however, it becomes easier for theocrats to push for state endorsement of their own, particular brand. I believe that recognition of our complexity and variety is necessary if religious freedom is to be preserved.

Bob Link

There is actually no real conflict between science and religion. The argument is usually philosophical and seldom about known facts. Pope John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” There is indeed common ground for scientists and theologians to agree.

Scientists have proposed a theory that eighty percent or more of the universe consists of dark matter and dark energy that is beyond our ability to sense or to detect with our scientific devices and processes and they suggest that there may be as many as eleven dimensions. For example, force at a distance such as gravity and magnetism suggest matter and energy beyond our view. We see only the result and not the cause. There resides God and His angels.

Johnimo

Lori, I love to read your opinions because they're "out of the mainstream," as is most insight. Western civilization has been, in its most positive character, a series of rebellions against the status quo. Imagine how "ruffled" their feathers must've been when Jeanette Rankin showed up to be sworn in as the first female member of Congress in 1916. What were those nuts out in Montana thinking?

Keep up the good work. I'll look forward to your next article on this site.

Terry Hulsey

Mr. Hasan, your fair and reasonable article is an illustration of a dilemma that is likely not mine alone.

It is the fact that religion possesses what I call an architectonic influence over passions sometimes dangerous to society. No sensible person can affirm the assertions of religion (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:6-9), yet at the same time, as you have just done in your article, no one can deny some of its beneficial effects.

What we are left with is the dilemma of affirming that what is fundamentally false can be nevertheless beneficial. In practice, this means affirming "truths" that apply only "for the troops" and not for an elite class of cognoscenti, a situation dangerous in itself, as you yourself describe.
I would be glad to read any offered resolution of this dilemma. My own thoughts on the subject are here:

http://www.chineseimperium.com/essaysPending/MarxWasRight.htm
http://www.chineseimperium.com/essaysPending/CatholicArchitectonics.htm

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