Transcendence, Immanence, and Scientism: a pluralist commentary

Is pluralism compatible with eliminativism? Pluralism in its most general extension involves refusing cognitive primacy to any tradition, including the tradition of science. It would seem difficult to reconcile the pluralist de-throning of science from its central position as purveyor of knowledge about the world in general with eliminativism’s scientistic certitudes about the brain and its illusions in particular. Treating the mind’s operations as equivalent to brain functioning, and identifying that functioning as the heuristic treatment of data in view of increased chances of survival and reproduction is itself a heuristic procedure, a useful rule of thumb for generating research hypotheses and experimental tests. Yet this eliminativist hypothesis, with its further implication that all cognition is heuristic, is sometimes taken as an apodictic, scientifically proven thesis – which is a flagrant contradiction.

On the one hand eliminativism affirms a position of radical immanence, as heuristics excludes any appeal to a transcendent norm or method as premature, unavailable, or unnecessary. On the other hand it relies on a partial, provisional, and usually very personal synthesis of cherry-pickings from neuroscience and cognitive science embedded in some overarching neo-Darwinian paradigm. So it is obliged to limit the claim “all cognition is heuristic” with the disclaimer “except for scientific cognition, which is apodictic”.

It may be useful to compare eliminativism with Spinoza’s philosophy. Spinoza propounds what Gilles Deleuze calls a philosophy of immanence: all theological notions are eliminated in favour of the rigorous deductive chains of premises and consequences in parallel with the rigorous physical chains of cause and effect. The common view of Spinoza’s system places it under the auspices of scientism: the philosopher and the scientist know the true causes of things, whereas the common mortal in his or her ignorance replaces them with imagined sequences deriving from imaginary causes and fallacious premises, their cognition is illusory. Paul Feyerabend criticises Spinoza not only for his scientism, but also for his epistemological and ontological arrogance in situating other human beings at a lower level of existence. The scientist and the philosopher attain objective knowledge, whereas the common man and woman are limited to simple heuristic devices at best, and to mere chimeras in the normal state of things. The very privileging of conceptual understanding and of causal cognition over the imagination, according to Feyerabend, conserves an element of transcendence in the form despite its being denied in the content.

For example, in his eyes the notion of God employed by Spinoza is a bloodless, de-vitalised abstraction, that Feyerabend compares unfavorably with Newton’s more personal, and much more fecund, conception of God. Even the rationalist Isaac Newton reserved some place for a more humanitarian vision than simple abstraction can accomodate: “Newton rejected the God of Descartes and Spinoza. For him God was a person showing concern and demanding respect, not an abstract principle” (CONQUEST OF ABUNDANCE, 236). Admittedly, in Newton’s case, the place reserved for God in his natural philosophy is a small remnant of a once all pervasive component of our knowledge, but it does draw limits to the reign of abstraction. “Newton … opposed intellectual notions of god (such as  Descartes’s and of Spinoza’s) and emphasised personal relations between God and his creatures”,  FAREWELL TO REASON, 146). This opposition between intellectual notions and personal relations is another variant of the struggle between apodictic knowledge and heuristic conjectures, or between justification and participation, that has traversed our intellectual and existential history.

So we are led to pose the more general question: does immanence lead to a scientistic reliance on a univocal knowledge of causes and effects and an over-valorisation of intellectual at the expense of affective and perceptive intensities? Or can its eliminative thrust be turned against its own mythological self-entrapments?

Eliminativism is a form of immanence that is confined within the limits of science. Typically it remains unaware of its own tacit reintroduction of transcendence by means of scientistic presuppositions. This notion that our ordinary visions of the world do not contain apodictic knowledge of causes and effects but rather heuristic devices to cope in the absence of such knowledge, suggests a possible non-dogmatic way out.

The transition from the commands and prohibitions of the Despot and the Priest to the prescriptions and recommendations of the Expert need not be interpreted as a transition from superstion to knowledge, but rather as a movement inside the same dogmatic form. The decisive change is the passage from the authoritative universality of dogmas and norms to be believed and to be obeyed to the democratic provisionality of hypotheses and advice relative to a given revisable state of knowledge, diversely appreciated and enacted, and a historically contingent situation. The implication should not be that we must leave behind heuristic devices for knowledge, but that absolute authority is for many people today heuristically unsound. Immanence means that we are always in the realm of heuristics. In particular, appeals to immanence cannot be reconciled with an epstemologically naïve submission to the authority of science.

Thus, the Spinozan elimination of transcendence, while a step in the right direction, does not go far enough: it contains dogmatic and authoritarian elements in its reliance on a monistic “knowledge of causes and effects”, which ultimately comes down to a naïve and inadequate view of science. (In a slogan: don’t forget your Latour or your Feyerabend when you talk about Spinoza!). Naxos on his philosophical blog proposes a reading of Spinoza in which the word “God” can be eliminated as our understanding of immanence affirms itself: “an immanence that means no transcendence, no heaven, no ‘God’.” This understanding of immanence must present itself first heuristically under the mask of a new conception of “God”, that then allows us to eliminate the word and the idea not just from our vocabulary, but also from our understanding and our body: “If we get rid of the word of ‘God’ as the result of this ethical and philosophical understanding of the infinite ―and through Spinoza’s axiomatic system―, we also get rid of its idea from our body”.

I would like to push this further and say that “Nature” and “Reason” and “Science” are such epistemological masks too. This is a version of the Nietzschean move of eliminating “Nature” and “Reason” and “Science”as themselves being religious residues. For me it resonates with Lyotard’s move of a complexifying reading relevant to the present: “I read Kant [Note by me: we can equally read “Spinoza”] not just with Kant himself, but, simultaneously, with all that comes after Kant – and this in the hope of ameliorating my complexity or my differentiation [ we can keep this and add: in the hope of ameliorating my pluralism and my immanence]. The result of such non-dogmatic understanding by means of self-deconstructing concepts is perhaps best described as the attainment of the post-Spinozan felicity of ungrounded freedom. This task of ameliorating my complexity is the guiding thread of my thinking. It is also the only way I can explain to myself positively the eliminativists continuing scientism, despite his intense revisionary theoretical trajectory: eliminativism is one way of pursuing the goal of ameliorating our complexity. It is an integral part of the eliminativists individuation process, and he should propose it to us as such, not as a final truth but as a possible way out of the constructionist labyrinth.

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2 Responses to Transcendence, Immanence, and Scientism: a pluralist commentary

  1. I think there is a wrong letter in the second setence that has an effect on the meaning:

    Pluralism in its most general extension involves REFUSING cognitive primacy to any tradition, including the tradition of science.

    Liked by 1 person

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