April 10, 2009

I don’t see the connection between science and materialism

What’s Opposed to Materialism? from Now-Times by Alexei
Levi has a new post up in which he seems to be claiming that materialism is the cure to every woe. I’m not sure that that’s the case, but it’s not because I’m against materialism. In fact, I’m just as much a materialist as most of us are. I do happen to think, however, that Levi hasn’t got a very sharp notion of what materialism really is...

In fact, I happen to think that materialism has absolutely nothing to do with our scientific advances. What do change — and this has nothing to do with Idealism, materialism, or realism per se — are our abilities to observe, measure, and idealize phenomena (personally, I think the latter is the most important but that might just be a personal thing). To keep things simple, let’s restrict ourselves to the following, abstract genealogy: Aristotle begets Ptolemy, who begets Copernicus, then Brahe & Kepler, then Galileo, then Newton, etc. Now Aristotle is just as much a materialist as Galileo is, and as Newton. What differentiates them from one another is really the mathematical and observational technology available. It’s not that Aristotle is an empiricist, Ptolemy a Rationalist, Copernicus a materialist, Galileo an even more staunch materialist, etc. What changes, is precisely what we can observe, how we can abstract the essence of phenomena from the flux of sensation, and extrapolate from it. Aristotle had no magnifying glass, although he thought observation was crucial. Ptolemy didn’t have algebra. Copernicus still relies on epicycles. And then we have Galileo, who proposes something entirely new: on top of observation, he invokes abstraction and experiment.

Abstraction and experiment, however, aren’t ‘materialist’ concepts. For although they may be empirical, and may even lead one to some form of empiricism, they have very little to do with ‘a privileging of concrete, material things.’ Simply put, empiricism isn’t necessarily materialism. Berkeley and Hume, for example, are empiricists but not materialists (or at least Hume is not a straightforward materialist — there’s a lot of pychological elements, which one could perhaps interpret materially). Now consider Newton, who ‘finishes’ Galileo’s insights (while also being a theologian and alchemist). How does Newton’s view of Space and Time square with materialism? The simply answer is that it doesn’t — space and time might be absolute, but they remain part of God’s sensorium.

Despite Galileo’s run-in with the church, and his imprisonment (which seems to have been political, or maybe personal, rather than docrtinally motivated, since folks prior to Galileo had openly argued for heliocentric models of the solar system — directly with the Pope no less! — without being charged with heresy or what have you), and Newton’s mathematical genius, his pushing our understanding to pretty much it’s contemporary limits, there’s nothing specifically materialist about anything they do. In fact, the only reason one might be tempted to apply the label ‘materialism’ to science in general is because science deals with things. But ‘having to do with things’ isn’t a necessary or sufficient condition for applying the label ‘materialism.’

The upshot: so far as I understand the development of our understanding of motion, there’s nothing materialist about it. And Levi’s claim is simply misleading. Levi also makes a few claims concerning biology, medicine, neuroscience, etc. But I think the basic point holds. There’s no real connection between materialism and these sciences — other than that their respect objects of study are things (not abstract ideas). However, having things as your object of study doesn’t by definition make you a materialist. The positivists, to pick another example, weren’t materialists either; they simply thought that ontological questions are malformed and senseless.

But that’s not the only weird comment from Levi. he also writes this:
Occasionally the materialist will encounter grumpy old Luddite farts like Adorno and Horkheimer that blame materialism for the holocaust (was there ever a thesis more absurd given how tightly woven National Socialism was with all manner of superstition?), or the Soviet Gulag, or the destruction of the planet.

Now to the extent that Levi simply assumes that science must be materialist (why, I don’t know), he here assumes — completely wrongly — that Horkheimer and Adorno are Idealists. The opposite is true of course. Adorno’s whole criticism is based on the spectacular success of Idealism, of the philosophy of the Hegelian Begriff, to overcome any material opposition (in fact, there’s a section of Negative Dialectics called ‘Idealism as Rage,’ which poses the problem quite elegantly. For Adorno, and for Horkheimer, Nazism and Stalinism — totalitarianism in general — follows a superbly Idealistic logic, which leads to the self-extermination of the particular in favour of the universal, simplified Notion. So again, Levi is just factually incorrect here. The issue if far more complicated than he is willing to acknowledge.

The funny thing, however, is that Materialism is an Idealism. This is Adorno’s (and a few others) insight. According to the very logic of the Begriff, which Adorno seeks to criticize (in fact, the most elegant formulation of Adorno’s whole philosophy would be this: meta-critique of the concept in order to make space for the non-conceptual), the only materialism that is not an Idealism is an inconsistent one, a non theory, one that acknowledges the Kantian Ding an-sich, non-identity and the priority of the individual object, because only this inconsistency refuses to reduce the material thing to its conceptual features. If things are analyzable in their entirety then they have been abstracted and formalized. They are not material objects, but scientific essences. Scientific essences, however are not material, they are concepts. And hence a consistent materialism liquidates precisely the particularity — the materiality — it takes to privilege. A Materialist theory of something is no less ideal than a naively Idealistic one.

But now I’m getting bored with this. Suffice it to say that (1) I don’t see the connection between science and materialism, which Levi thinks is paramount. I actually think he’s imagining it. And (2) materialism isn’t opposed to idealism in the first place (this is one of the reasons Marx is still typically thought of as an Idealist, as is Lukacs). Also (3) Levi is simply factually wrong when it comes to Adorno and Horkheimer — they were neither Idealists nor were they Luddites. moreover (4) Critical Theory’s criticisms of high modernity amount to showing that it operates according to a pre-eminently Hegelian logic, which obliterates actual particularity and materiality in favour of complete conceptual transparency.

These basic errors, however, point to something interesting: materialism isn’t opposed to idealism, nor is it aligned, necessarily with realism. So these categories aren’t contrary. One can be an idealist realist, without being a materialist. one can also be a materialist anti-realist without being an idealist. So, life is complicated.

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