The Mystics of Magic and the Mystics of Science
by Russell Hasan | Posted April 20, 2014
In John Galt’s climactic speech in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand describes two foes of capitalism, the “mystics of the spirit” (or, as Rand also put it, “witch doctors”), who promote religion, and the “mystics of muscle” or “Attilas,” that is, especially, the communists, who are atheists and promote Marxist materialism as the antidote for religion. What gets lost in a lot of libertarian theory is the fact that, to take Rand’s idea and expand on it, people who believe in rationality, science, and technology are not necessarily friends of liberty. Indeed, precisely the opposite is often true. Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.
Two types of mystics do exist — whom I prefer to call the mystics of magic and the mystics of science. The latter are my main subjects here.
I am an atheist. Not only do I not believe in God, but I am also of the rather abnormal (but increasingly popular) sentiment that the proposition “I know that God does not exist” can be rationally justified, i.e., atheism is knowledge and not mere belief. However, many of the people who share my view go in the opposite direction and elevate science into a new religion. Here I refer not to the cult of Scientology but to the scientific atheism of, for example, famous philosophy professor Daniel Dennett.
Let me offer two examples.
First, in a Facebook group that discusses philosophy I recently saw someone say something like this: “bitterness and sweetness do not exist, what exists is atoms and void, and sweetness is an illusion.” This assertion was provided as a scientific approach to philosophy, but it manifests a desire to transform science into a new religion, a mysticism of science. Such a religion would depict the world you and I perceive as an illusion. Instead of saying that access to the hidden truth of reality is revealed by God and the Bible, the mystics of science say that revelation comes from reading science textbooks and scientific journals and knowing the results of experiments and research studies.
Some of capitalism’s most vicious enemies have come from the ranks of scientists and technologists.
Mystics of science love to talk about how neurobiology has figured out all the ways that the human brain is flawed and perceives illusions. Yet, as I explain in my book The Apple of Knowledge, the truly scientific attitude is that the sweetness of an apple does exist objectively in reality, in that the apple’s sweetness, and the apple itself, which physically exists in objective reality, are one and the same thing. The apple’s sweetness is what that collection of atoms tastes like when it acts as a whole upon the tongue’s taste buds. In other words, qualia exist, but they are not subjective; instead the experience of something that physically exists is identical with that thing in itself, because the brain’s means of perception do not alter or create the objects that are perceived. (This is the tip of iceberg, and I needed 400 pages in my book to explain what I mean; the theory is fully developed there.)
The mystics of science would reply that I am ignorant of the fact that taste comes from smell and not from taste buds, so the taste in the mouth must be an illusion. To this I reply that these hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality. I say that we can know what an apple tastes like by eating it; the idea that we cannot know, that sweetness is an illusion — this is sheer mysticism. In my opinion, these mystics of science are far worse than the mystics of magic, because at least the religious mystics are open and honest in their commitments.
Second, Daniel Dennett, a popular advocate of the movement called “New Atheism,” has expressed a position that I call “biological relativism.” This, basically, is the idea that reality looks the way it does because the human body and human sensory organs evolved in such a way that we humans experience this world of our experience. He has actually said that apples look red because the human brain evolved to sort edible objects by color, so that redness comes not from the apple but from the evolution of the human digestive system as expressed in the human brain’s hunger regions. This means, ultimately, that the sky is blue because blueberries are blue. (See Dennett, Consciousness Explained .) If that is true, then the world we experience is entirely relative to perception, is completely subjective, and is a creation of the human brain. This, to me, means that access to objective existence is impossible, since we could never get outside our brains to see reality as it exists objectively.
The only thing about Dennett’s idea that is scientific is the allusion to evolution and the brain. In every other respect it is mysticism, because it denies the possibility that human beings have direct access to objective reality by means of perceiving the external world. Taking my cue from Rand, I dispute any position which defends that idea, considering it not only false but unscientific. The experience of an apple’s redness and the physical reality of the apple are identical, not such that the apple itself is subjective, but such that the experienced apple is objective. Redness exists in physical objects and is not a subjective creation of the eyes, despite all objections from the mystics of science, who would lecture me about the workings of the retina, the optic nerve, and the occipital lobe. Mystics of science might say that the depth and length we perceive are illusions because our brains and eyes process the data subjectively — despite the fact that measurements of space and time recorded by scientific instruments are accurate and objective, e.g. a building could be 100 feet long but our eyes cannot see this clearly.
The mystics of science hate the idea that human beings have direct access to knowledge of objective reality.
Kant once helped to save religion from science by persuading people that the experience of reality is subjective and knowledge comes from intuition. Dennett, in the name of science, simply buys into this Kantian error. To me, if reality is subjective, then wishes and thoughts can control it, which is a religious worldview that tells people to seek to change their lives through the power of prayer. In contrast, if reality is objective, then it exists outside the mind, in which case science and technology are the correct approach to improving human existence, and Francis Bacon’s maxim “nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed” is justified because the mind must obey reality in order to succeed. A true philosophical science says that we must learn about reality by observing the external world, instead of trying to use our minds to impose subjective phenomena onto reality. (Again, these are complicated ideas that cannot be presented in one short essay, but I try to explain it fully in The Apple of Knowledge.)
Now let me explain why atheism has very little to do with libertarianism and, contrary to Rand’s assertions, why there is no direct correlation between rationality and freedom. This is obviously true because, historically, the Marxists were (mostly) atheists, and the conservatives who have fought against socialism in America are (mostly) Christians. For one poignant case study, note that the famous science fiction author H.G. Wells was a notorious socialist, as were many men of science of his era. The trend continues to this day, as antisocialists tend to be religious, and socialists and modern liberals tend to be secular.
In The Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek tried to explain why men of science tend to be socialists. He argued that scientists seek order and patterns in reality, and this leads them to try using government to impose their ordered plans and schemes onto society; this is a recipe for socialism, especially in the context of the Hayekian belief that freedom is consistent with an order spontaneously emerging from chaos. Just as a scientist might want to design a new plan for a car engine to improve fuel efficiency, a scientist might also want to design a new plan for an economy to improve allocations of wealth. The problem is that a car engine is a mindless tool, whereas an economy is a collection of thinking human beings, each with his or her own plans, standards of “improvement,” and rights to life, liberty, and property. Many of the bosses at the American government’s regulatory agencies are scientists or technologists with advanced degrees, and many of the nonscientists have degrees in economics and mathematics. The EPA’s regulators are often experts in the science of the environment and pollution, and therefore knowledgeable in chemistry, metallurgy, engineering, physics, etc. But their science does not dispose them to become libertarians.
Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom. If any group has been more responsible than others for saving America from a descent into total communism, it is the conservative movement, which is fueled by a belief, one which I think on its face is irrational and crazy, that God supports capitalism and the Bible demands that the American patriotic tradition of free market economics be defended. As Hayek has noted in his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative,” the conservatives love capitalism not chiefly because of any of its virtues but only because it is the old, established, traditional system in America. This attitude is not particularly intelligent or rational, but it achieves a practical result — the defense of liberty by a vast portion of the American voters. To cite only one example, the Tea Party in the House of Representatives, backed by the Tea Party conservatives, has done much to stop Obama’s socialist agenda, although there was little it could do to repeal laws that were already passed, such as Obamacare.
Without much exaggeration it can be said that, absent the conservatives, you would not be able just to go to a coffee shop and buy a cup of coffee. Instead, the atheist Marxist central planners, chosen by Obama and his cronies, would assign your beverages to you, just as they want to assign your healthcare to you, and you would drink carrot juice instead of coffee whether you wanted to or not, and see the end of a soldier’s gun if you tried to escape from the socialist plan drinking. You owe your freedom to the Bible, at least to some extent, whether you like it or not.
Being a scientist, or being rational, or being an atheist, has very little to do with political support for freedom.
The best defense of liberty, which most libertarians ignore or are ignorant of, is a Biblical idea, the Golden Rule. This principle of ethics asserts that you should do unto others as you would have others do unto you. In Golden Rule Libertarianism (Hasan ), I argue that the Golden Rule’s implementation in politics is, and can only be, libertarianism: if you desire the freedom to do what you want, you must let me have the freedom to do what I want; but if you force me to obey you, I will be justified in forcing you to obey me, which you cannot possibly want.
In short, the hatred of religion that is felt by some libertarians, especially those who entered the movement through Ayn Rand (but also, to some degree, through Murray Rothbard) is misplaced. If Rand’s “mystics of muscle” idea is taken seriously, then there is a basis in her texts for opposing the mystics of science as fiercely and ardently as we oppose the mystics of magic.
Hasan, Russell. The Apple of Knowledge. Norwalk, Connecticut, Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hasan, Russell. Golden Rule Libertarianism. Norwalk, Connecticut. Russell Hasan Books, 2014.
Hayek, F.A. The Road to Serfdom. Routledge, London. The University of Chicago Press, 1944
Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York, New York. Random House, 1957.
Russell Hasan lives in Connecticut. He is a graduate of Vassar College and the University of Connecticut School of Law. He is a huge baseball fan and is devoted to the New York Yankees. He blogs at russhasan.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RussHasan.
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