zondag 9 november 2008

The demise of the Netherlands

I want my country back. Venerable and anarchic Amsterdam, the glorious arse-hole of Europe, seedy and hungover, blinking at the harsh morning light. Or suspiciously modest Groningen, ill at ease in a countryside most of its denizens never see, bathing in the waft of tobacco factories, marijuana, and the scent of Surinam groceries. Or my hometown of Oude Pekela, teenage pregnancy capital of the country, jovial and violent, the dirty water of the river a deep and warm green in the afternoon haze. Living in one of the most orderly and squeaky-clean countries of Europe, I miss all that. And while I'm at it, I want my Guilder back, too, with the face of the Queen (a friend of mine reminds me that the Euro has the face of the Queen, too. But it's not the same). And the smoking sections in the trains. And a Communist Party which I can vote for once in every four years and rail against for the rest of the time.

I write this post after having read that the Christian Democrat Party wants to shut down the Coffeeshops, that most Dutch of Dutch institutions. First, they take away our real money and substitute it for fake money. Then, the moralist Mayor of Amsterdam starts a crusade against the red light district (okay, it's more complicated than that, but allow me to vent my spleen). Then, the Christian Democrats ban smoking in pubs - destroying the bruine kroeg, our Dutch equivalent of the British local pub. From now on, pubs in the Netherlands will be trendy hell-holes with abstract art on the wall, filled with non-smoking twits eating sushi and drinking drinks that glow in the dark. And now, they come for the Coffeeshops. For clarity: this is not going to happen. I do not believe it will be possible to introduce a prohibitionist mentality in a culture congenitally hostile to prohibitionism. But the very idea is enough to arouse my anger (ever-simmering as of late) at the direction the Dutch government has been taking.

Dutch culture has always had its own dialectic, a covenant between pencil-pushing bureaucracy and anarchism, between vicious social control and toleration, between finger-wagging moralism and libertinism. But the covenant has now been broken, and for the moment, the prigs and prudes and puritans seem to be in the ascendancy.

Secular-minded leftists often rail against communalism, the viewpoint that religious and cultural minorities in the West should be left, to a large extent, to handle their own affairs. The irony is that what is still the most liberal society in Western Europe is also deeply, thoroughly communalistic. After the reformation and the foundation of the Dutch republic at the end of the 16th century, Dutch Calvinism became the state religion - which it remained until halfway the 19th century - but Protestantism never attained the absolutely dominant position it did in Scandinavia. The Catholics remained a very sizeable minority (and currently, a majority among the religious part of the nation). The Calvinists very quickly fractured into orthodox and Arminian factions and continued to fracture. And Calvinist protestantism was never alone to begin with: the Anabaptists were the first organized protestants in the Netherlands, and the Doopsgezinde congregation remains (even if small).

Coupling this with the fairly weak state during the Republic (Orange-minded groups and institutions constantly competed for power with republican groups and institutions) goes a long way in explaining the Republic's tolerance for outsiders and dissidents. Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews came to the Netherlands and were left alone; philosophers and scientists such as Descartes and Linnaeus studied and worked in the Netherlands; protestant Huguenot refugees from France found a refuge in the Netherlands in the 17th century as did Catholic refugees from Germany in the 19th century.

The system that would gradually emerge in the Netherlands has been called pillarisation: any particular religious, cultural or political community had its own institutions, media, political organizations, etc., creating a 'pillar' of clubs and institutions surrounding the individual from birth to death. A Dutch reformed boy would go to a Dutch reformed school, join a Dutch reformed football club, work most likely for a Dutch reformed boss, marry of course a Dutch reformed girl, and would quite likely end his life in a Dutch reformed nursing home. For individuals, the system may well have been quite suffocating: at the same time, it worked - there was very little violence or strife between various religious groups (outside from maybe the traditional village-to-village brawls in the countryside). And communities would work together when needed. During the Second World War, the Communists and the hardcore Calvinists were both very active in the resistance, and they developed a curious respect for each other.

The system began to crumble and decline in the 1960s and later. The ruling Christian Democrat party is itself a symptom of that decline: being based on a 1980 fusion between a Catholic and two Protestant political parties. My own youth is pretty much a picture of the survival of 'pillarised' institutions in a secularizing society: I visited a Catholic primary school, a ecumenical (but largely Protestant) high school, played in a Dutch reformed marching band and attended meetings of the Communist Party.

Dutch television is still largely 'pillarised': public television airtime is divided between a Catholic station, an Evangelical one, a Social Democrat one, etc. But marking the demise of pillarisation, for example, is the fact that the liberal protestant television, after the 1960s, turned into the most artistically radical and countercultural station (the first to show full frontal nudity, etc.). We would watch their children's television when we were little, which was pretty edgy (I recall one show where the Monster of Frankenstein underwent a sex operation). But my parents preferred us watching that than watching the American children's animations on the other stations where people would be shot up and so forth. In any event, the station is currently protestant in name only - and where the other religious stations maintain a stronger identity, even the Evangelical one has been under pressure to secularize.

But even as the individual 'pillars' crumbled, the Dutch policy of leaving people pretty much alone to settle their own affairs flourished. A verb that entered politics was gedogen, literally 'tolerate' but specifically referring to the policy of neither legalizing a particular area of vice, nor prosecuting it. Prostitution has been 'tolerated' for a long time before legalization which meant simply that it remained technically illegal but the state refused to prosecute. The same still goes for the possession of small quantities of most drugs (quite aside from the regulated sale of marijuana in Coffeeshops). The policy remains, in my opinion, a fairly brilliant one: I still wonder whether gedogen is sometimes actually preferable to full legalization. Legalization is a double-edged sword: it tends to favour larger operations and companies which can deal with the regularizing and state intervention inevitably following rather than, say, the individual grower having a backyard full of weed plants or the individual prostitute. Also, legalizing a sphere of activity such as prostitution and bringing it under government control may lead to policy decisions not necessarily in favour of the persons involved: in the city of Arnhem, the red-light district (central, well-attended and therefore quite safe) was shut down with the official 'prostitution zone' removed to some kind of industrial zone at the edge of town.

In any event, the Dutch political equilibrium, and its toleration policy, was decisively disturbed with the meteoric political rise and murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Fortuyn's movement channelled immense unrest and discontent about multiculturalism, the problems of which had been covered up with a suffocating blanket of political correctness for decades; with softness on crime; with globalization and the European Union which remains highly unpopular in the Netherlands; with the government constantly crowing on about economic good times which, somehow, surprise surprise, did not really trickle down to the poorer layers of society, etc. Fortuyn's jerry-rigged political 'party' did not survive his death for very long, but right-wing populism remains a force to be reckoned with in Dutch politics.

(As does, incidentally, left-wing populism: the Social Democrats have been bleeding supporters into the hard-left, economically socialist and culturally conservative Socialist Party, which is on the verge of overtaking them).

Basically, the feeling is that the Dutch policy of gedogen has also extended to 'tolerating' crime, vandalism, youth gangs and the ghettoization of parts of the big cities. At the same time - and this is a peculiar and interesting feature of Dutch right-wing populism - there is a (not unjustified) feeling that the muslim minority does not share the general Dutch tolerance for gays, alternative sexual lifestyles, etc. Pim Fortuyn was much more a libertarian than a conventional European nationalist.

Toleration in Dutch society has never been an enshrined principle in the way secularism is in the French republic, or constitutional values and individual liberty in the United States. Precisely because the Netherlands for such a long time has been a collection of various cultural and religious groups, living their own lives and pulling together as needed, depillarisation and its consequences have left us, I believe, grasping for such a basis: liberalism and toleration itself is not enough when dealing with the integration of a minority which has in some aspects quite illiberal values. At the same time, one might state that the integration of islamic minorities has been mismanaged from day one: guest-workers from the 1960s were discouraged from assimilating too much into Dutch society in order to discourage them from staying - and yet they stayed, leaving a second generation to grow up with one foot in a culture which is not theirs anymore, another in one which has never been quite welcoming and is currently utterly hostile.

The 2006 elections were, in some way, a revolt of the 'countryside' against the political elites of the big cities. The winners were the hard-left Socialist Party, with its base in the Catholic south and also strong support in the traditionally socialist/communist North-East; the culturally conservative and economically leftist Christian Union (itself a fusion of two denominationally different Calvinist groups: another example of depillarisation) which has its support in the Dutch Calvinist 'Bible Belt' from Zeeland in the Southwest to Kampen and Staphorst in the East; the Christian Democrats which always have been strong all over the countryside; and the hard-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, which has strong support in Limburg where Wilders is from. Losers were the Social Democrats, the liberal democrat D66, the right-wing liberals of the VVD - all parties with their power base in the big cities and the suburbs.

The resulting government has for the first time involved the Christian Union. I actually like the Christian Union (and the openly theocratic SGP) as opposition parties: they are excellent conservative watchdogs. I am less enthusiastic about their participation together with the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in government, which has driven an increasingly illiberal line. The apex of which are justice secretary Hirsh Ballin's efforts not just to preserve but to broaden Dutch anti-blasphemy laws (which were last used sometime in the sixties). As well as his efforts in having a Dutch cartoonist lifted from his bed and arrested by 10 armed coppers for violating 'hate speech laws'. Interestingly, there seemed to have been little pressure from the supposedly offended muslims at work here - rather, the Christian Democrats are using them as an alibi for their own campaigns.

What they want is turn the Netherlands into just another squeaky-clean, nannyist European country in which any actual discontent is covered with 'hate-speech' laws, we all step in line, obediently filter our internet, do not indulge into such unhealthy activities such as smoking joints, and correspond perfectly to the Brussels bureaucrats dreams of what Europe is supposed to be. It won't work of course. The illiberalism of the Christian Democrats is, ultimately, foreign to the Dutch mentality as a whole. Laws people don't see the sense behind are simply ignored. The same is already starting with the smoking ban, which is openly ignored by an increasing number of pubs.

On an optimistic note, here's rap group THC's patriotic hymn to Amsterdam:

vrijdag 7 november 2008

Another very long post on sexuality

Forged in Jesuit logic and tempered in the cold bath of science. I nevertheless understood at that second the ancient obsession among the God-fearing for another kind of fear: the thrill of exorcism, the mindless whirl of Dervish possession, the puppet-dance ritual of Tarot, and the almost erotic surrender of seance, speaking in tongues, and Zen Gnostic trance. I realized at that instant just how surely the affirmation of demons or the summoning of Satan somehow can affirm the reality of their mystic antithesis - the God of Abraham.
Father Paul Dure in Dan Simmons' Hyperion

This is a post that I've been woolgathering about for a while. It's going to be one of those long chaotic ones. It's about sexuality, pornography, prostitution and sadomasochism. And religion. Consider yourselves warned.

Up front: I have no issue at all with homosexuality, am in favour of legalizing prostitution forthwith in the rest of the world as it is in the Netherlands, my main gripe with pornography is the poor quality of a lot of it, and I find sadomasochism relentlessly fascinating. This put me at odds, in part or in whole, with the mainstream of Christian opinion, as well as with the feminist-influenced Left (the standpoints of both overlap to some extent).

By 'mainstream of Christian opinion', I mean that body of opinion which tends to relate critically towards homosexuality and gay marriage, pornography, and legal prostitution. I am thinking here in terms of generalities which of course may belie the complexities of individual thoughts on the issue. Also, the underlying ideological basis of criticism is very different in case of the Protestant and Evangelical right than it is in case of the Catholic Church (or mainline Protestants, or Evangelical progressives, etc.), which tends to anchor its criticisms of, say, porn, into a general criticism of the commodification of humans and of human sexuality which relates to the Catholic Church's latent uneasiness with capitalism (in contrast, the Protestant right, especially in the US, seems to be extremely fond of capitalism).

Especially the Protestant and Evangelical right seem to be, at times, obsessed with such things as the photographic depiction of the girly parts of girls and the tendency of some men to scorn the girly parts of girls for the manly parts of men. As an example, take this letter from the Christian right group Focus on the Family warning about the horrors an Obama presidency would have inflicted on the United States by 2012. A remarkably large part of it is, you guessed it, about gays. I would bet that, regardless of their actual position on homosexuality, most European Christians would wonder why the gayness issue receives so much attention in comparison with, say, economic hardship and exploitation, environmental destruction, warfare, etc.

The unpleasant truth, I suspect, is that organizations such as Focus on the Family do not really mind such trivial issues as the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in Iraq, the legitimization of torture and dehumanization of prisoners by their own government, and so forth – not as much as the paramount issue of gays doing gay things with each other and wanting to get married.

The question which presents itself to this particular socialist-minded Dutchman is to what genuine extent James Dobson-style Christianity is 'Christian' and to what extent it is a rather idolatrous legitimization of American aggressive militarism and laissez-faire economics. It is, in any event, of rather slight religious interest to me, and my internal ideological 'sparring partner' in the sections below would be, instead, a Roman Catholic or a representative of traditional Protestantism or maybe a Christian feminist.

There is very little, if anything, about sexuality in the Gospels – only that Jesus seems to have been extremely critical towards divorce. The main passage in the NT which can be used to support a conservative sexual morality would be Paul's first letter to the Romans:

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.
Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
(Romans I: 21-26).

As basis for condemnation of homosexuality, I find it unconvincing. Paul was commenting here on sexual libertinism in Roman society, which cannot be unquestioningly identified with homosexuality in modern society – concepts such as ”homosexuality” as a sexual orientation in addition to heterosexuality did not really exist for the Romans and Greeks, but sexual relationships between men were widespread in addition to male-female marriage, rather than exclusive of it. Male-male relationships often enough involved a slave on one side of it (who did not necessarily have much say in the matter). The modern conception of homosexuality as a lifelong orientation was quite foreign to this mentality.

A sin is not a simple infraction of any specific rule from the Old and New Testament – the message of the New Testament is indeed precisely that it is not. Sin as a turning from or alienation from God is both condition and activity – and as an activity, it much more refers to one's intentions and motivations rather than the outward features and consequences of that activity. Love between persons cannot be sinful – but to the extent that sin as a condition prevents the lovers from loving each other perfectly, that some of the alienation between us and the other can never be quite overcome. But nonetheless interpersonal love is a heroic attempt to overcome sin-as-condition and in that sense revelatory of God (regardless of whether you believe in Him or not). I am convinced that love for gay men or lesbians is not of a different nature than that of heterosexual pairs and that's the end of it, as far as I am concerned.

This is an interpretation. I am not sure if it is the correct one (though I hope it is). But there is no level of reading the Bible without interpreting it in some fashion – and it is better to do so explicitly. The Bible is not a recipe-book with abstract rules and generalities (and it seems to be that Christ's message was precisely one of moving beyond such an understanding of Scripture).

My imaginary sparring-partner would have an immediate reply ready, and state that where I exempt safe, normative and socially acceptable homosexual relationships, the Pauline condemnation of sexual debauchery still stand – and with it, pornography, prostitution, darkrooms, a pretty significant part of the inner city of Amsterdam, etc. The above would be quite compatible with an interpretation of sexuality as a symbolization of interpersonal love but a simultaneous rejection of lust as a perversion of such a symbol. With my fondness for symbolism in concrete life and acts, my sparring-partner would suggest, I end up at an interpretation of sexuality which is quite compatible with that of the mainline Protestant Churches such as the Swedish Church, which are quite ”sex-positive” in that they will celebrate sexuality as a gift from God, will abandon moralizing about, homosexuality or, say, masturbation or premarital sex - but will still tend to resist pornography or prostitution as commodifying and objectifying.

I would answer that in this sense, the mainline Protestants follow general secular liberalism in looking at sexuality through rose-tinted glasses. In other words: sex is great, as long as it's consensual and safe and so forth – but let's not look at the seedy sides, the sex industry and its objectification of women, prostitution, etc. I think this is precisely idealizing sexuality too much. I do not believe ”lust” to be a sin in any kind of simple sense, but neither do I believe sexuality and sexual lust to be in any simple sense a gift from God – except for all the bad stuff.

Pornography is notoriously hard to define and I am not going to make any bad jokes about defining it. But the depiction of sexual acts and naked human beings in picture and text goes back quite a bit (though the cordoning off of such from mainstream society as precisely pornography may well be a very modern phenomenon). I generally have little time for feminist objections against pornography: I agree, to a large extent, that pornography deals with the commodification of sexuality, and of the human body, and that in this sense pornography very well reflects the values of modern capitalism (just as the sex industry itself is part of a capitalist economy, though still a fairly marginal one with a strong countercultural element at its more ragged edges). I want to be careful here for taking an overly Eurocentrist view (the Japanese had a flourishing pornographic culture, complete with the trademark tentacles and monsters etc., before Japan's forcible ”opening” to the West) but this is simply the way it looks from my neck of the woods. Where I would disagree is whether pornography is just that, or indeed, whether the focus on objectification, humiliation, etc. in some pornography (mostly the one focused on the most by critics of pornography) is even a bad thing. A liberal Christian take on pornography mentions that ”The critical feature of all pornography is not that it deals with sexual themes, but that it eroticizes violence, humiliation, degradation and other explicit forms of abuse.” and that no images are neutral. Indeed, they are not – but images have also a habit of meaning more than they mean at face value, or are intended to mean.

Opinions on pornography are often formed on filmed and photographed stuff from the post-Deepthroat era. But before that, of course, there were the erotic comics of the 50s and 60s such as the bondage-themed comics of Georges Pichard, erotic novels such as the hilarious 1907 slapstick Ten Thousand Rods of Apollinaire, etc., etc., etc. - I'm not interested in objections to the extent of ”this is not porn, it's art!” since I don't see how the two are mutually exclusive, and if the objection means that pornography should be more artistic, well, yes, that would be nice. In any event, go back to the end of the 18th century and you meet with Sade, who was both a pornographer as well as an artist and a philosopher. In fact, I think Sade is probably my favourite atheist philosopher, and this relates very much to the contradictions inherent in the man – which I believe is reflected, to an extent, in the contradictions inherent in pornography as well.

I've never been able to read Sade's classic 120 Days of Sodom from beginning to end. The book contains a catalogue of perversities and cruelties which is still utterly ”out there” (it is probably for the best that videocameras were not yet invented in Sade's day). But in all its relentless focus on dehumanization, objectification, cruelty, something interesting happens. The villains of Sade's texts (usually members of the aristocracy, or priests, which are depicted with slightly more venom) are pretty much empty shells. To the extent that they have internal worlds, that is not what Sade is interesting in. He's interested in the internal worlds of the victims, in their thoughts and feelings. Sade remarked rather darkly somewhere that women are capable of more refined cruelty than men because of their more delicate nervous system. He hit upon something important here: the basis of cruelty and sadism is indeed empathy. The ability to identify with the other, and with the other in pain (and I've wondered whether at least in some cases, sadism may not be a variety of masochism). And the fascinating thing about Sade is that he relentlessly criticizes conventional morality and conventional religion in his novels (seeing it as simply one more way of keeping the weak and oppressed in their place) precisely through exploiting the titillating, prurient aspects of cruelty and oppression. For all the bloodthirstiness in his novels, Sade detested the very real bloodthirstiness of the French revolution (and succeeded in averting quite a few executions during his time as a functionary in the revolutionary government).

This humanistic strain in Sade's writings is captured very strikingly in Pasolini's film adaptation of the 120 Days, Salo. The Marxist Pasolini's version is the best film I will not want to see again in the foreseeable future. By which I mean that the film (in which the plot is transplanted to Fascist Italy: four Fascist functionaries round up boys and girls to a remote mansion for a final debauched escapade before the inevitable defeat of the regime) is brilliant but quite hard to watch. It is ultimately strangely optimistic, in that a certain essential ”humanness” is shown as surviving against terrible odds. The four predators force two of their slaves to get married in a perversion of a marriage ceremony; then, they sit down to watch the boy rape the girl. It doesn't happen: the two shily shuffle towards each other, try to cuddle, but to not follow their masters' script. One of the guards starts an illicit affair with a servant at the mention: they are caught and their sexual action is of an all-too-human, all-too-affectionate nature for the four masters. As they put the boy against the wall to shoot him, he makes a defiant raised-fist salute before he is riddled with bullets, and in that fashion exposes the weakness of the masters: they can kill him, but they cannot defeat him. And most strikingly at the end of the film, as part of the slaves are brutally murdered in the courtyard, two of the guards find a record of dancing music, put it on, and start dancing. One of them asks the other what his girlfriend's name is. The answer is ”Margerita”. Here, ”humanness” survives in a place where the four Fascists are not even looking. For all their trying, they cannot stamp it out.

There is an element – explicit in Sade but often potentially in a lot of pornography – which subverts traditional gender roles, oppression, humiliation and dehumanization precisely through its depiction of it. Of course, a great deal of it is dross – but the part that is dross is often the safer, softer kind, the surgically or digitally enhanced American beauties of Playboy (and even Playboy retains a love for the subversive and countercultural in its writing, if not in its photography). The dross is not the focus of much of the criticism against pornography. Anti-porn activist Nikki Craft's pages are adorned with bondage pictures and Hustler cartoons. Which, to me, suggests that Craft has a tin ear for the media she rails against.

Sadomasochism (and here, for clarity, I am speaking of consensual sadomasochistic practice) plays with some very dark symbolism – the ropes, the display of power and submission, the controlled infliction of pain etc. - but in doing so, it tends to subvert and transcend that symbolism. Being bound up and gagged may, if taken at face value, signify loss of freedom, loss of agency and objectification – but for the participant, it may also signify the deep trust put in the partner. Love may be the ultimate end of sadomasochistic practice just as of any ”normal” sexual practice – precisely because the symbols involved sometimes seem to mean very much the opposite of love. By acting them out, they are disarmed. It need not be that serious of course. But even when Max Mosley went around spanking prostitutes while dressed up in a Nazi uniform, the meaning of the ritual was not that Max Mosley is, or wanted to be, a Nazi. Instead, he was making fun of authority figures (another mainstay in ”kinky” sexual practice as well as in pornography). Which is a rather anti-authoritarian thing to do.

Another example: mainstream pornography has been criticized a lot for the supposed racism inherent in its depiction of blacks. Suffice to say that 'interracial' is indeed a subcategory in pornography and that there are whole lines of movies whose title I shall not mention but refers simultaneously to the blackness of the black actor's member and the whiteness of the female actor. Here too there is no simple, face-value ”message”. It can be seen as reinforcing the stereotype that blacks are well-hung and sexually active. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that this is depicted as desirable from the white female actor's point of view. I think the bottom line is that stereotypes about blacks do exist among white males, and that these stereotypes focus on various aspects of the supposed masculinity of black men. What pornography does here is not so much create the stereotype as take it and make a joke out of it.

I'm not saying here that in no way pornography reinforces conventional role-models and sexual stereotypes. It does, but at the same time pornography in the West has always been countercultural, has always developed in opposition to the sexual mores of the day, and even with the commercialization and growth of the porn industry in recent decades, it cannot entirely lose that edge. It is part and parcel of the attraction. This point has has not been lost on some of those discontented with conventionalized gender roles and their reflection in pornography.

What, then, of the dark stuff? What of the quoted liberal christian notion that pornography ” eroticizes violence, humiliation, degradation and other explicit forms of abuse”? The bottom line is, that I am a complex person and I assume other men (hetero or gay) are no less complex. There is part of me that likes the eroticization of power-play, violence, humiliation and degradation. And if these are indeed as prevalent in pornography as claimed, I am hardly unique. At the same time, I am more than a collection of turn-ons. The dark sides of my and others' sexuality are not in themselves, I believe, sinful, but a relentless focus on them to the exclusion of the other person as a person, to approaching of and sharing with the other, which is love, which is very much the opposite of sin – rejecting all that is indeed sin.

At the same time, if the demonic side of me is not a place where I want to live, neither is the angelic. I also reject the high-minded sex-positive notion of sex as a simple and straightforward symbol of love. Because, things aren't like that. Things aren't that simple. I am simply not the person that the sex-positive but anti-pornographical liberal christians claim that I am.

(I'll have to save working out my position on prostitution for sometime later. But it flows pretty naturally from my somewhat jaundiced view on sexuality. And here, at least, I have tradition on my side).

zondag 2 november 2008

An unusually atrocious New Scientist article

Via Victor Reppert, a pretty atrocious piece in New Scientist about the looming threat of Creationism to neuroscience.

First, I have to state I intensely dislike both the big pop science mags, New Scientist and Scientific American. For two reasons. First, they seem to be attracted to pseudoscience like flies are to shit - at least in as far as non-physics subjects such as linguistics are concerned. And I can only state this because I know nothing about physics. About subjects that I do know a bit about, both mags seem to have a tendency to colossally mess up. This is worrying.

Second, both of them represent the suave American liberalism that is the intellectually least interesting and most superficial of stances - coupled with a good bit of self-congratulatory "brave scientist saves the world from Republicans" nonsense. Which reached its apex in SciAms disgusting hatchet job on Bjorn Lomborg.

And if the "Global Warming Denialist" is the one perennial bugbear of suave American pro-science liberalism, the other is certainly the "Creationist". Both keeping the not-quite-highbrow sometimes-thinking left-leaning-but-not-too-far part of the population perpetually busy with their attacks on Science and Reason.

It is the latter that is the bad guy in this particular New Scientist article. Apparently, Creationists are now mounting their attacks on Reason and Science through neuroscience and philosophy of mind:

Schwartz and Beauregard are part of a growing "non-material neuroscience" movement. They are attempting to resurrect Cartesian dualism - the idea that brain and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things, material and immaterial - in the hope that it will make room in science both for supernatural forces and for a soul. The two have signed the "Scientific dissent from Darwinism" petition, spearheaded by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, headquarters of the intelligent design movement. ID argues that biological life is too complex to have arisen through evolution.

The first problem with the piece - and it's a very big one - is that dualism or the position that "matter and mind are two fundamentally different kinds of things" (which does not necessarily imply Cartesian dualism, but anyway) has been a respectable minority position within philosophy of mind for God knows how long. I assume it is a minority position; my subjective impression is that most philosophers of mind hold to some kind of property dualism or emergentism which in effect acknowledges mind to be irreducible to matter while at the same time holding to some kind of ontological materialism. Then there's a minority of hard-core materialists (the Churchlands, Daniel Dennett) and a minority of dualists, panpsychists and idealists (Galen Strawson has defended a panpsychist account, which he regards as a kind of materialism, in a special issue of Journal of Consciousness Studies).

Briefly, the viewpoint that there is a "hard problem" of consciousness, that mind cannot be scientifically explained or reduced to matter is pretty widely accepted. And various arguments go back a long way. The argument that the (normative) ground-consequence relationships of reasoning cannot be reduced to the (non-normative) spatiotemporal relationships of matter in a manner that is not self-refuting has been proposed with great clarity by Popper in The Open Universe back in the fifties but goes back to, as Popper mentions, to Descartes and Augustine.

The second problem is that the article stays firmly within the framework of "neuroscience". There is an irony here, in that in doing so, it repeats the main conceptual error of the ID/Creationist bogeymen (assuming that it originates with them):

To properly support dualism, however, non-materialist neuroscientists must show the mind is something other than just a material brain.

(Aaargh! No they don't!!! Conceptually, the mind is something other than a material brain! The challenge is precisely to argue that dualism, or non-material causation, or whatever is explanatorily more comprehensive than materialism)

To do so, they look to some of their favourite experiments, such as research by Schwartz in the 1990s on people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schwartz used scanning technology to look at the neural patterns thought to be responsible for OCD. Then he had patients use "mindful attention" to actively change their thought processes, and this showed up in the brain scans: patients could alter their patterns of neural firing at will.

From such experiments, Schwartz and others argue that since the mind can change the brain, the mind must be something other than the brain, something non-material. In fact, these experiments are entirely consistent with mainstream neurology - the material brain is changing the material brain.

The crux of the issue is, of course, that the relationship between mind and matter - the problem of qualia, intentionality, and so forth, and how these are to be placed in a material world of law-governed spatiotemporal entities, or the other way around - is a philosophical problem, not a scientific one. The natural sciences (such as neuroscience) must by necessity stay within their naturalistic, non-teleological explanatory framework. The human sciences (such as semiotics, linguistics, psychology) must by necessity stay within their teleological non-naturalistic explanatory framework. And neither science is able to justify the basic philosophical framework by itself. So looking for neuroscience to provide for a justification for materialism is an exercise in question-begging.

Just one example of this is the way in which Libet's experiments have been regarded as either an indication for the illusory nature of consciousness, or for the existence of retrocausal, non-materialistic phenomena with regards to the human mind.

Because, of course, things go both ways. For biological ID to succeed, it would need to argue for a shift in metascientific perspective: that a framework borrowed from the human sciences is more explanatory for biology than one borrowed from the natural sciences. It is often forgotten that there is a whole body of inquiry, in some areas at least as old as the natural sciences, in which "supernatural" concepts such as free will, goal-directed agency and so forth are methodologically presupposed even by those who would philosophically reject them: linguistics, history, psychology and the like.

The irony I referred to lies in the fact that scientism and it's ID/Creationist opponents often tend to take the same kind of post-Enlightenment one-dimensionalism for granted: there is a single world, and a single set of facts (scientific facts). Creationism tends to simply substitute the Bible as a replacement for the results of scientific inquiry.

But back to the article. I have a nasty feeling that at least some of the thinkers mentioned in the article as Creationist enemies have a viewpoint on some of the issues I mentioned above quite a bit more subtle than reflected in the writer's myopic focus on neuroscience. I haven't read J.P. Moreland, but glancing from the contents of his book, I would hazard a guess his place is within fairly mainstream philosophy of mind, rather than within some ID fifth column of neuroscience. And of Henry Stapp I know that he is working on a Whiteheadian process-philosophical interpretation of quantum mechanics, which has again everything to do with philosophical and metascientific frameworks and absolutely zilch with ID or Creationism.

Not to mention that process philosophy, which has been applied to mind-matter problems by others as well, such as Stuart Hameroff, is as far from Cartesian dualism as you can get. Farther, at least, than eliminative materialism. (Not to speak of conservative Christian theology).

And ultimately, upon the basis of what I can only see as an exercise in non-understanding, the article devolves in familiar scare-mongering. The ragtag bunch of non-materialist neuroscientists, quantum physicists and philosophers mentioned in the article are a Danger to Science and Reason, no less:

And as Clark observes: "This is an especially nasty mind-virus because it piggybacks on some otherwise reasonable thoughts and worries. Proponents make such potentially reasonable points as 'Oh look, we can change our brains just by changing our minds,' but then leap to the claim that mind must be distinct and not materially based. That doesn't follow at all. There's nothing odd about minds changing brains if mental states are brain states: that's just brains changing brains."

(Presupposing a materialist conception of the mind-matter issue, yes. Which is precisely the issue. See previous remarks about blatant question-begging.)

That is the voice of mainstream academia. (No. It. Is. Not.) Public perception, however, is a different story. If people can be swayed by ID, despite the vast amount of solid evidence for evolution, how hard will it be when the science appears fuzzier?

What can scientists do? They have been criticised for not doing enough to teach the public about evolution. Maybe now they need a big pre-emptive push to engage people with the science of the brain - and help the public appreciate that the brain is no place to invoke the "God of the gaps".

I have a better suggestion. On second thought, it would be too obscene to mention here. (I need to get outside and calm myself down with a cigarette).

(Back). I have a better idea. Neuroscientists should study neurology and not pretend they do philosophy. Philosophers of mind should study philosophy and not pretend to do natural science. Incidentally, I have a feeling that most of either group are already doing this and not need my advice.

Popular science journalists, on the other hand, should try their hand at reporting science. Not pseudo-science. Not politics or the intellectually barren perspective of left-liberal culture warriors. Not distort genuine, and interesting controversies through the lens of anti-religious hysteria.

Things like this almost make me root for a McCain victory, out of sheer spite.