Jan 23, 2012

Robert Wright's rather weightless ideas

A materialist account of ideas shouldn't have to deny that those ideas have any power or affect. But in practice, this happens.

A materialist account of an idea explains the emergence of that idea in terms of the material conditions out of which it came. It contextualizes ideas, places them in the conditions of their historical moment, and turns attention towards the economics, the cultural situation, the practical realities that were the environment in which the thought thrived. It denies that ideas are free-floating. It denies that they "just were," independent of how people lived.

This is useful and important.

Yet, it's a weird misrepresentation of things to take that account of environment and emergence and end there, not noting, not allowing, not considering how those ideas had a gravity of their own, in turn shaping and changing and affecting the material conditions out of which they came.

There's really no necessary connection between denying an idea is free-floating and denying the efficacy of ideas. Yet, sometimes people take the two together, as somehow inextricably together.

This is my big problem with Robert Wright's bestselling and well-reviewed The Evolution of God.

Wright gives a materialist account of the emergence of monotheism. Using evolution as a paradigm, he charts the growth and mutations of religion from the earliest polytheisms through the growth of moral imagination through monotheism to today, when "God Goes Global (or Doesn't)."

It's an interesting book, and certainly deserving of its popularity. However, Wright consistently ignores or dismisses the ideas he's trying to account for, and in practice, despite some ritual denials, acts as though materialist explanations commit him to thinking of ideas as weightless and without affect.

There's a way in which, even though he's committed himself to this big project of explaining ideas, he thinks ideas are impotent. 

As Wright explains his project, "Attempts to explain changes in religious doctrine come in two basic varieties: the kind that stress the power of ideas and the kind that stress the power of material circumstance." Of this either/or, he has chosen the later:
"The book you're reading, in contrast, emphasizes the power of facts on the ground; it seeks to explain how the conception of God has changed in response to events on earth .... Facts on the ground -- facts about power and money and other crass things -- have often been the leading edge of change, with religious beliefs following along."
If a choice has to be made, then Wright made the right choice. Why choose, though? Why force this either/or?

Both options (thus rendered) make the same mistaken assumption, taking affect as uni-directional. Both are epiphenomenal.

What's wrong with taking ideas as somehow disconnected from their contexts and conditions is that it misrepresents how ideas come to be and how they exist. Taking the "facts on the ground" as somehow free from any influence of ideas, though, is also a misrepresentation.

For one thing those facts on the ground are understood by those on the ground, by means of those ideas that emerge out of that on-the-ground situation. At no point in their exertion of influence were they ever brute enough to be uninterpreted, existing free from the burden of being understood. One can't understand how the ground was understood by those who were there without understanding the ideas they used, the interpretations they gave to their situation (however implausible we take those ideas to be now).

Wright attempts to acknowledge this and then pivot away from it being important, but, in doing so, represents rather weirdly how ideas might be efficacious.

Speaking specifically of the political context for the dispute between the prophet Elijah and two monarchs of ancient Israel, Ahab and Jezebel, he writes: "Of course, sometimes the influence moves in the opposite direction .... It's entirely possible that Elijah had deep faith in Yahweh, and this faith inspired a political movement against Ahab and Jezebel."

This misses the point, though.

The power of the idea isn't necessarily connected at all to whether or not it's truly believed. Here Wright is changing the question, admitting it's possible Elijah wasn't entirely cynical in his use of Yahwehist theology, when, in fact, that wasn't what was at issue. It's irrelevant to the question. Ideas can be believed or not, but that has little if anything to do with whether or not those ideas have any affect. The question in this case is not about belief, but about whether epiphenomenal materialist accounts of ideas are sufficient.

It's not a one-off dodge of the question, either. In an early passage explicitly denying the charge that he's an epiphenomenalist, Wright does exactly the same thing. Instead of answering the question, what affect if any did the idea you're talking about have on the material conditions and contexts in which that idea thrived, Wright sidesteps, and grants that not everyone who held that idea was necessarily cynical. "[T]here is evidence that some ancient kings genuinely believed in the foreign gods they embraced," he writes.

But that's neither here nor there.

Take, e.g., an idea we have every reason to believe was entirely cynical, and really, one we think no one actually ever believed: the idea that "Things goes better with Coke."

To explain this idea, we would of course very much -- absolutely -- need to give a materialist account of the conditions that gave rise to it. We would need to talk about "the crass things," as Wright calls them. Of course. Yet, to account for the slogan, we'd also have to talk about the affect it had on consumption of Coca-Cola. To not do so would be insane. The whole point of the idea of the phrase -- which, note, it's not necessary to believe anyone ever actually believed -- was to affect the material context that, in fact, is also the context out of which the idea expressed in the propositional phrase came.

Understanding the idea without understanding it's function is not understanding the idea.

An epiphenomenal account, a uni-directional account, would not adequately describe either how the idea happened, or what it was, or how it existed, or what its place was in the culture. This is not to suggest that one would be better off ignoring the material conditions, etc., etc., but that the choice itself is silly. We need multi-directional accounts of ideas. It's necessary to look both at how they were affected and how they in turn have an affect.

Wright knows this. He spends a bit time denying doing what I'm accusing him of doing. In the passage after his admission that maybe Elijah wasn't entirely cynical and did actually believe what he said, Wright acknowledges the need for multi-directional accounts of ideas.

He says, "the whole thing is messy, and focusing exclusively on any one 'prime mover' is too simple."

All well and good. But he goes on and does it anyway.

Wright has a specific prime mover in mind, and his whole narrative in this massive book is about this one prime mover as the explanation of everything important about religion. His prime mover -- which he understands as the cause of the evolution of God proclaimed by his title -- is the non-zero sum dynamic of politics and economics. He says as much about 80 pages after saying that to have a prime mover would be too simple. He says "the stubborn growth of non-zero-summness is central to human history, built into the very engine of cultural evolution .... It will be the prime mover behind God's growth."

How he argues for that idea is interesting. Some what he does is really interesting and worth thinking about.

Yet, because he's committed to this uni-directional account, the ideas he's explaining by explaining their material conditions end up misshaped, and misconstrued.

For him the ideas are never more than metaphorical representations of other things. They have no reality of their own. They're weightless and float free, exactly like the idealist ideas the materialist account was supposed to correct, just loose like balloons in the sky drifting away from wherever it was they were once held by "facts on the ground."