Epistemology and Ontology Among Friends

A week or so ago, I had an extended “conversation” on Twitter with two very old friends, Erik Davis and Ted Friedman. Erik’s a writer, specializing in “modern esoterica” which ranges from psychedelia and Led Zeppelin to Philip K Dick and Cthulu. Like me, Ted’s an academic, but he’s Professor of Communication at Georgia State University, who works on movies, digital culture, and is writing a book on Marx, Buddhism and pop culture. We all worked together on a college music ‘zine, back when those required paper and glue to put together (at least we had laser printers). And both Erik and Ted were trained in the lit-crit practice of 80s academia. They’re both damn smart, but their outlook on the way the world works and how we interpret it differs from mine, trained by what’s by now many years as a scientist.

So I thought it might be thought-provoking to present and annotate our discussion.

(It wasn’t completely trivial to recreate a linear narrative from the Twitter stream. For those of you unfamiliar with the conventions of Twitter, “@” is used to direct a message to a particular user, but everything is out in the open. Because of the infamous 140-character limit, I’ve occasionally combined successive messages (“tweets”) into a single statement. Also, I’ve changed the usernames for Ted, Erik and me to save space and make things a bit more legible; those limits, along with the slight time delays, and the distractions over the more than an hour that this lasted means that it doesn’t exactly follow a linear narrative. Finally, I’ve also put in some links to some of the articles and books mentioned.)

Ted:@Erik Exactly! The virus metaphor is too Darwinian/Freudian/scientistic/empiricist. Reflects Dawkins’ own vulgar Darwinism.

Andrew:@Ted (and @Erik) “Vulgar” darwinism?

I entered the conversation late, but I was amused by the description of Dawkins’ ideas as “vulgar” Darwinism (which Erik takes the opportunity to joke about).

Erik:RT @Andrew: @Ted “Vulgar” darwinism? I love it when Darwinism wears pink hot pants and swears like a sailor!

Ted:@Erik Magic’s a much more accurate metaphor for how culture works: Mysteriously. Unpredictably. Irrationally.

Ted:@Andrew See Gould’s critiques of Dawkins in The New York Review of Books. He’s primarily slamming evolutionary biology as Social Darwinism. But he’s also critiquing Dawkins for not accepting Gould’s concepts like spandrels and punctuated equilibrium.

Erik:@Ted Perhaps too quick to say that magic is irrational though. Emergent perhaps. Metaphorical. Unbound. But not methinks irrational.

This is when I started to get interested, but worried — I’m all for using “magic” as a metaphor, but nothing more.

Ted:@Andrew And Dawkins’s Darwinian fundamentalism is of a piece with his fundamentalist atheism. Compare to Karen Armstrong, Terry Eagleton.

And this really annoyed me: it’s wrong to use “fundamentalism” in this way (even though the application of the term to Darwin and Dawkins comes from Gould’s essay.) Armstrong and Eagleton’s recent work has attempted to be a more nuanced view of the ongoing science/religion debate, but in fact I find them to be well-written and well-thought-out sociology, but entirely miss the point that religion really does make claims about what happens in the real world, and that those claims, when tested, almost inevitably end up wrong. If you remove those claims, most believers wouldn’t recognize what is left as religion.

Ted:@Erik Good point. Depends what counts as rationality. Magic is the domain of the unconscious rather than consciousness.

Andrew:@Ted Nonetheless Dawkins is correct on both counts… (Armstrong and Eagleton are better writers, but still wrong.)

Ted:@Erik In Campbellian terms, magic is part of the Special World. As Alan Moore says, “it’s all true as long as you understand that it’s all going on in your mind.” Although that’s too cut-and-dried to explain synchronicity and action at a distance.

I couldn’t actually find that Alan Moore quote, but it sounds like something he would say. This is where I thought we would get agreement — magic is a way of interpreting the world. But it quickly became clear they wanted a more real magic than I am willing to grant, given what I know about the way the Universe works.

Erik:@Ted I would say more that magic (as a practice) is the interface between consciousness and the unconscious, a mode of mediation.

Erik:@Ted agreed. the “weird shit” still exceeds the mind-only theory. thank gods!

Andrew:@Erik @Ted Hmmm, I am all for weird shit — but all in the mind. To me, that’s the amazing power of the sub- and un-conscious.

Ted:@Erik And then there’s the stuff I really don’t have a handle on, like Rupert Sheldrake’s theories, remote viewing, and entheogens.

Ted:@Erik I like the idea that vulgar Marxism was when Engels pimped Karl out for a hot night on the town.

Ted:@Andrew Don’t you encounter tons of weird shit in your day job? Isn’t the challenge in making a TOE thinking outside the box (or collider)?

Ted:@Erik Great book on this subject: Alva Noe’s Out of Our Heads. Dismantles cognitivism via phenomenology.

Erik:@Ted Looks good! I am pleased that the embedded-enactionist consciousness folks are on the rise agin the neural mechanists.

Andrew:@Ted Of course there’s natural weird shit, too. But no need to explain, say, synchronicity, as anything more than pattern-matching. Yes, I am a (boring? pedantic?) arch-rationalist…

Erik:@Andrew I am not trying to dismantle realism (good luck) but I’m talking shit thats weirder than that. And, ya know, shit happens!

Ted:@Andrew Maybe. But pattern-matching is how we make meaning. Synchronicity resonates for the same reason as great art. The sublime. Numinous.

Ted:@Erik I like that! It lives in the limnal spaces, like the edge of the forest, the Star Wars cantina, the frontier.

I do so love that my friends have moved from Jungian synchronicity and highbrow religious studies to the Star Wars cantina in just few 140-character messages.

Ted:@Andrew Disagree. Dawkins and Armstrong are speaking at cross-purposes. Armstrong argues God is a metaphor. Dawkins says “just a metaphor.”

Ted:@Andrew To Armstrong, a world without God is a world missing a very useful word to describe a big part of what it means to be human.

Ted:@Andrew And Dawkins’s and Hitchens’s impoverished hermeneutics demonstrates how much their scientism has cost them - and all of us.

Andrew:@Ted “But pattern-matching is how we make meaning.” My point exactly — complete agreement!

Ted:@Andrew Armstrong and Jung see the disenchantment of the universe as both a given and a challenge. #fsfmedia

Ted:@Andrew My favorite response to Dawkins and Hitchens: Stephen Batchelor’s Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. He’s a zen existentialist.

Andrew:@Ted Disagree that Dawkins’ & Hitchens’ hermeneutics are impoverished: all meaning comes from us. What could be better?

Erik:Synchro in the house: just as I was about to transcribe the word “happy” from a PKD ms [Philip K Dick manuscript]. I pressed a weird key combo and got a smiley face.

Ted:@Andrew I’m judging by excerpts, interviews and reviews, I admit. What I read suggested Dawkins is uninformed in the history of theology.

Andrew:@Ted He is better-informed on theology than 99.9% of believers.

Ted:@Andrew Meaning Dawkins found it unnecessary to study the discourse of his opponent, rather than attempt to understand, engage, synthesize. That speaks to a empiricist, technocratic arrogance, and ultimately a lack of skepticism towards one own’s assumptions.

Erik:@Andrew Dawkins may know as much theology as believers (ie, not much), but he don’t know shit about religion as a social/antho phenomenon.

Ted:@Andrew But Batchelor isn’t a believer. Armstrong and Eagleton have come to be, but remain curious and skeptical.

Andrew:@Ted I don’t disagree re: Dawkins’ tactics, but I’m all for “empiricist arrogance”. It beats “truthiness” any day.

Ted:@Andrew Harold Bloom is an atheist, but his book on American Religions is more sophisticated and sympathetic than most believers’ texts.

This is why these discussions often flounder: we can’t quite decide if we’re talking about ontology — what the world is made of, epistemology — how we interpret the world, or sociology — how is it that these systems of interpreting the world came to be (I hesitate to use the word “evolve”)

Ted:@Andrew There isn’t only a believer/nonbeliever split. There’s also a fundamentalist (believer or atheist)/skeptic (openminded) split. Skepticism is too useful a word to cede to Skeptical Inquirer and Penn & Teller. Skeptics question orthodoxy. Fringe-science weirdos with real scientific chops, like Rupert Sheldrake and Charles Tartt, are skeptics too.

Actually, the line between “skeptic” and “crackpot” is pretty well-marked…

Andrew:@Ted Category error: Dawkins &c not fundamentalist in same sense as religious types. Skepticism is part of method.

…as is the line between fundamentalists and proponents of well-tested scientific theories.

Ted:@Andrew Disagree. Empiricist arrogance leads to orthodoxy, incuriosity, and silencing skeptics. Synchronicity is more than truthy.

Andrew:@Ted I’ll let you call yourself a skeptic if you never call me a fundamentalist.

Ted:@Andrew Sorry, didn’t mean you! Dawkins just pisses me off.

Andrew:@Ted No offense taken — he annoys me, sometimes, too. But (I am steadfast on this) he is right on the facts!

Andrew:@Ted @Erik This is a fab conversation but it’s late here… I’m sure there’s more to discuss later if you want to keep it up.

Ted:Scientists: any opnion on this new book by a philosopher and a cognitivist, What Darwin Got Wrong? See this for an Overview @Andrew

Ted:@Andrew Oops - I’m late for lunch myself. Catch you all later!

So by the end, we inevitably agreed to disagree, waylaid by the need for food and drink. I do think the world is weird as hell, but that’s because all of the meaning that there is comes from our incredibly puny but incredibly powerful minds, and plenty of the weirdness comes out of those very minds. But all together, the world is still and only “a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing then another” (as the philosopher David Lewis had it, following Hume). We may see patterns and want to call it magic, or synchronicity. But eventually we tame those patterns and relate them to one another and get to make a rigorous system out of it.

Needless to say, this is my gloss — Ted and Erik may well disagree. In recompense, let me do my best to pimp my friends: you should buy Ted’s book, Electric Dreams, and at least one of Erik’s too.