Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A somewhat unusual example of the corrosive effect of the promotion of faith on intellectual consistency

Some months ago, I discovered the blog of John Michael Greer, who calls himself the "Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America and the author of more than twenty books on a wide range of subjects". Despite this pompous introduction, the main topic of his blog is really peak oil, the fairly obvious but often willfully ignored fact that oil is limited, that we have already passed the point where growing demand for oil outpaces the development of new sources, and that we will have to live with decreasing amounts of ever more expensive oil in the decades to come.

As mentioned, so far so obvious. JMG further belongs to those who argue that this will mean the end of industrial civilization because there are no real alternatives to the cheap fossil fuels we have come to rely on, both in terms of return on energy invested and in terms of energy density and transportability. He locates himself in the reasonable middle (isn't that true of everybody?) between, in this case, those he considers to adhere to the "religion of progress" on the one side and the those believing in an apocalyptic collapse of society and the possible extinction of humanity on the other side. His own prognosis is that of what he calls a "long descent", a future of slowly decreasing standards of living and a drawn-out falling apart of our current industrial civilization.

Although one should always be careful about making predictions, I should stress that I mostly agree with him on the crux of the matter. Unless somebody invents fusion power really quite soon, it turns out to be really affordable as an investment, and somebody else invents really really damn good rechargeables so that a harvesting machine, airplane or truck can be powered by them, all of which I consider to be highly unlikely, our current automobile and globalization way of living will come crashing down in the foreseeable future. That being said, it is not a pleasant experience to read JMG's blog, although that is not even the main point I want to make here.

The first problem is the stance he has towards the rest of industrial society in the face of his unpleasant but realistic prognosis. One could, for example, say something like this: This is going to become very hard for many people, let's try to get together and find solutions to mitigate the pain. Or one could say: This is going to become very hard for many people, but everybody except me and those who think exactly like me are fools, and they have got it coming. Let's sneer at their foolishness and feel superior!

Reading through many of his blog posts, it becomes clear that JMG is closer to the second than to the first of those two possible stances. Although he makes remarks here or there that provide him with some cover (on the lines of how he is not against political activism but you have to start with changing your own lifestyle), he visibly does not consider himself part of the society that is going down, and thus as partly responsible as everybody else to help steer it onto a safer landing site at least. Instead, his stance is that of a person who is removing themselves from that society and encouraging others to do the same. The problem is that that encouragement is expressed in a language full of condescension and contempt towards those who do not see things in exactly the same way.

Closely related is how he also strongly dislikes what he calls the "feeding trough" of the welfare state, arguing instead that taking care of the unfortunate should be done by voluntary associations. Indeed everything should be decentralized, be it the school system or even, it appears, decisions on civil liberties. It is hard at this point to shake the feeling that at least part of his stance may be informed by the fact that he is a white male in the USA, and that he might see a few things a tad differently if he came from a different background. Just consider, for a moment, the potential situation of the only Afro-American family in an otherwise white town if (a) the breadwinner of that family becomes unemployed, (b) the only social safety net available is a voluntary association of craftspeople, as JMG seems to envision, and (c) the association is made up of people who don't allow non-whites to become members. There are reasons why certain things are managed by the commonwealth.

One could go on and mention people who have loved ones depending on a level of medical technology that would likely not be available in a post-industrial society. One could go on to point out that being sensible enough to have your own vegetable garden and to learn how to mend your clothes will not necessarily protect you from being killed by a starving looter during the great food riots of 2056, even if that looter is one of the people you used to sneer at for being a consumerist sheeple. But I think the point has been made.

Another issue is that it is not entirely clear is who the people actually are that JMG and his followers feel so superior to. As mentioned before, the groups between which they are supposedly the reasonable middle are adherents of the "religion of progress" and believers in the "apocalypse". Now clearly our perceptions are strongly influenced by who we are surrounded with. For example, I know that there are lots of white supremacists in the world but where I live and work I never meet one of them, and so it might be that I tend to underestimate the problem. In this case, it might be that JMG is surrounded by lots of people who hold those two extreme beliefs he constantly argues against, but from my perspective there can't be that many, and those two beliefs are not really that widespread.

As for apocalyptic beliefs, he constantly ridicules those who supposedly believe that humanity will go extinct in the near future. But does any significant number of people really say that? There are, what, seven billion of us?, on all major land masses, living very different lives from hunter-gathering to subsidence agriculture to teaching quantum physics at a university. Thinking that through for a minute or two, it should be obvious that the vast majority of people would, even if they are really pessimistic, at the very most predict a collapse of industrialized civilization resulting in a much reduced population density, something that is very close indeed to JMG's own recent suggestion that "the decline and fall of modern industrial civilization could involve losses on the same scale" as that of the collapse of the Mayan civilization (i.e. 95% of all people die). At a minimum, one would have to conclude that his position is so close to that of the apocalypse-believers he derides that the two are indistinguishable when seen from the other end of the spectrum.

And regarding that end of the spectrum, well, there are the singularitarians, the people whose greatest worry about the future is neither peak oil nor global warming but instead the silly idea that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was a documentary. They appear to believe that if we can only avoid being killed by a homicidal supercomputer, the future will be eternal life and spaceflight for everybody. But let's be honest, how many singularitarians are there? And who takes them seriously?

Admittedly, politics and economics are operating under the delusion that annual economic growth is the natural state of things. That is obviously idiotic but it is also unrepresentative of the general population. No, looking around me, to friends and relations, it seems as if people believe very different things than JMG assumes. Many have now lived through three decades of fancier electronic gadgets but overall declining living standards, and are accordingly disillusioned and cynical about the future. Many appear to assume not that everything gets better all the time but instead, at best, that things will continue to be more or less as they have experienced them so far: if you have always seen cars around you, you assume there will also be cars in 80 years, and if you have never seen a bank run in your life, you assume your savings are secure. Perhaps a bit unimaginative but understandable - that is how humans are.

On the other hand, JMG's preferred model of history, that of cyclically rising, peaking and declining civilizations, is not an embattled minority position overshadowed by the "religion of progress" but the standard point of view of the more conservative half of the population of every single "western" country, with the slight difference that conservatives want to do something to avoid the perceived decline instead of pointing and laughing from the supposed sidelines. Of course, the reasons given for the impeding collapse of Western civilization differ depending on the conservative you ask and in what era you would have asked them - women being allowed to vote, the workers getting uppity, the welfare state, brown people getting uppity, women starting to wear trousers, less people marrying, more people marrying but they are the wrong kind of people (gays, in case that wasn't clear), young people of today having no work ethic, etc. - but the idea that a society may get decadent (whatever that means) and subsequently decline is bread and butter to them.

Moving finally to the people I am daily surrounded with at work, scientists, lab and herbarium technicians, students, etc., be it here or previously in Europe, the common perception is that of course we cannot go on living like we do. Most, however, are hopeful that we (humanity) or some ill-defined "they" (presumably other scientists and engineers?) will have come up with solutions by the time the fecal matter really hits the air circulation device. That may be wishful thinking, but in the meantime they have a wonderful world to discover, a job to do, a living to earn, and perhaps children to raise. We do not all have the skill set to earn our bread by writing books that congratulate the reader for being wiser and cleverer than the hoi polloi because he has unlocked the secret knowledge that fossil fuels are limited.

But all that is not really what motivated me to write this post, because as mentioned earlier, I agree with JMG on most of the fundamentals, and the above are mostly issues of style rather than substance. No, what I found remarkable enough to write this post was the substance of what he wrote last week, a post that in an instructive way lays bare a self-contradiction inherent in the thought of many spiritually or religiously motivated people, only in this case one is unusually not dealing with a Christian but with a Neo-pagan.

Let me summarize the beginning: JMG lambastes the people who doubt that our current industrial civilization is following the same trajectory of rise, peak and fall as previous civilizations for their irrationality, and marshals, at length, comparisons with those earlier civilizations drawn from the works of some scholars he cites. In other words, he uses empirical evidence and inductive reasoning to conclude something about our civilization, something that he considers to be objective, demonstrable knowledge, and then pours out some quite impressive condescension towards those who disagree with him because they are objectively and demonstrably wrong and should now better.

And then comes this:
That is to say, the belief in progress and in apocalypse are both matters of faith, not fact. The same is true of every set of beliefs about the future, however, or about anything else for that matter.  No system of logical inferences, however elaborate and exact, can prove its own presuppositions; dig down to the foundations, and you’ll find that the structure rests on assumptions about the nature of things that have to be taken on faith. It probably has to be pointed out that this is just as true of rationalist beliefs as it is of the most exotic forms of mysticism.  To say, as science does, that statements about the universe ought to be based on observation assumes, has to assume, that what we observe tells us truths about the universe—an assumption that the old Gnostics would have considered laughably naive. [...]
It’s tolerably common these days, outside of the surviving theist religions, to affect to despise faith, and you’ll find plenty of people who insist that they take nothing on faith at all. Of course they’re quite wrong. None of us can function in the world for five minutes without taking a galaxy of things on faith, from the solidity of the floor in front of us, through the connection between another person’s words and their thoughts, to the existence of places and times we will never experience. [...]
Faith is, among other things, the normal and necessary human response to those questions that can’t be answered on the basis of any form of proof, but have to be answered in one way or another in order to live in the world. The question that deserves discussion is why different people, faced with the same unanswerable question, put their faith in different propositions. The answer is as simple to state as it is sweeping in its consequences: every act of faith rests on a set of values. [...]
Listen to atheists and Christians talking past each other, as they normally do, and you have a classic example of the result.  The real difference between the two, as the best minds on both sides have grasped, is a radical difference in values that defines equally profound differences in basic assumptions about humanity and the world.  Behind the atheist vision of humanity as a unique but wholly natural phenomenon, in the midst of a soulless universe of dead matter following natural laws, stands one set of value judgments about what counts as right and true; behind the Christian vision of humanity as the adopted child of divine omnipotence, placed temporarily in the material universe as a prologue to eternal bliss or damnation, stands a completely different set.  The difference in values is the heart of the matter, and no amount of bickering over facts can settle a debate rooted in that soil.
What is the problem? Well, he wants to have his rationalist cake and eat it too. He sneers at other people for being objectively and demonstrably wrong and then immediately follows up with the argument that there is no objective and demonstrable knowledge to be had. It is all just built on faith! But it doesn't work like that, you only get to make one of those points. If there is no objective knowledge, only faith and values, then why does he arrogate to lambaste others for believing different things than he does? If, on the other hand, he believes that our civilization can reliably be inferred to follow the described trajectory, then what is that postmodernist hogwash doing in the same post?

The answer, I fear, can be found in the first paragraph of this post: "John Michael Greer, Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America". He wants to say other people are objectively wrong so that he can condescend to them, but then he also has his own faith or spirituality to promote, so of course he must say that faith is a-okay. Merely promoting the use of evidence and reason is clearly not an option. There are many Christian apologists who play the same card when it is pointed out that they believe things on faith: they claim that so does everybody, including other religions, scientists, atheists, whatever. It is funny to consider the strategy behind this: instead of showing how great one's own beliefs really are, one concedes they are stupid, but tries to drag all other beliefs down to the same level.

Luckily, both the hypothetical Christian apologist and the "Archdruid" are wrong. First, it is not the case that we have "faith" that what we observe tells us truths about the universe. What we have instead is confidence, and well founded confidence at that. I do not have faith that my eyes allow me to perceive walls but I am confident that they do because so far I have a good track record of not walking into walls. By extension the same is true for all empiricism plus rationality, in short: science. Even if one prefers to call it faith, one would have to admit that the "faith" in DNA sequencing technology, inorganic chemistry or aerodynamics is resting on a considerably stronger foundation than the faith in the Christian afterlife or whatever a Neo-pagan believes, if entertain supernatural beliefs they do; to pretend otherwise would be dishonest.

Second, the rationalist approach on the one hand and the various spiritual and religious approaches on the other differ in another important way: everybody agrees on the former in all areas that do not conflict with their religion of choice. The Baptist will use evidence and reason to figure out how to put together a bookshelf. The Hindu will use evidence and reason to complete the training to become a programmer. The Muslim will use evidence and reason to find the way to the market. The Animist will use evidence and reason to manage a herd of cattle. And then they will all turn around and say: "but here, where my religious beliefs are, here you are not allowed to apply evidence-based thinking and rationality". It is not the case that rationality is one of many equally arbitrary belief systems. Instead, it is the one belief system that all of humanity has in common, from 20,000 years ago to today, from Alaska to New Zealand, from shaman to car mechanic, only then everybody except the rationalist goes and commits the fallacy of special pleading when it is suggested they be intellectually consistent and apply the same approach to some unfounded belief they hold dear.

Now of course there is an intellectually consistent way for a rationalist to argue for faith: One could say that the use of evidence and reason is the best way to figure out what is correct and what is false, but that the ignorant masses are too stupid to accept evidence and reason, that they are therefore best shepherded towards what is best for them/the planet/society by designing the appropriate faith for them to follow, and maybe a druidic one is good to shepherd the plebs towards sustainability. That would go well the attitude that shines through in JMG's writing, but I am not sure if that is where he will lead his series of posts at this point. Be that as it may, I vote we try to promote rationality and a good fact-based education for as many people as possible. To paraphrase a better known writer, no society has ever suffered because its members became too reasonable.

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