The Chomsky Sessions II, Science, Religion and Human Nature, Part I

Transcript of Z Video DVD Chomsky Sessions II, Science, Religion and Human Nature, an Interview with Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert (http://www.zcomm.org/zstore/products/114).

Just briefly, what's irrationality? And then, conversely, what's rationality?

Well, a perfect example of extreme irrationality is what we've just been talking about. What Orwell called double-think. The ability to have two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time and to believe both of them. That's the peak of irrationality. And that virtually defines the elite intellectual community.

Now let's take concrete examples of fundamentalist irrationality, I'll give you a real example. Actually it's an example I knew about five years ago, but I didn't publish it 'cause it sounded so crazy it couldn't be true. It turns out to be true. It's now verified. In January 2003, immediately before the invasion of Iraq, George Bush was trying to round up international support for the invasion, and he met the French president, president Chirac. And in this meeting with Chirac, he started ranting about a passage from Ezekiel, the book of Ezekiel, a very obscure passage that nobody understands. It's a passage about Gog and Magog, nobody knows if they're people or places or whatever they are. But Gog and Magog are supposed to come from the North to attack Israel, and then we get off into ultra-fanatic Christian Evangelical madness. There's a whole big story about how Gog and Magog come down to attack Israel, there's a battle in Armageddon, everybody gets slaughtered, and the souls who are saved rise to Heaven.

OK, some kind of story like that. Reagan apparently believed it. When his handlers didn't control him enough and he was kind of off by himself, he'd start raving about this stuff. For him, Gog and Magog were Russia. For Bush, Gog and Magog were Iraq. So he told this to Chirac, and Chirac hadn't a clue what he was talking about. So he approached the French Foreign Office, the Elysée, and said: ”Do you know what this madman is raving about?”. And they didn't know either. So they approached a pretty well-known Belgian theologian who wrote sort of a disposition on this passage and the way it's interpreted and whatever it might mean and so on. OK, how do I know? Well, I know because that Belgian theologian [inaudible] sent me a copy of it, with a background of the story. I never published it because this just sounded too off the wall.

Finally, I was talking to an Australian academic, researcher, and I mentioned it to him. He decided to look into it. It turns out to be correct. In fact the story appears in the biographies of Chirac and in other evidence. So yeah, that actually happened. So here's the world in the hands of a raving lunatic who, you know, is talking about Gog and Magog and Armageddon and the souls rising to Heaven. And the world survived. Well, OK, that's, that's not a small thing in the United States. I don't know what the percentage is, but it's maybe 25, 30 percent of the population. Yeah, that's pretty serious irrationality.

OK. Science, then. What's science? I mean, why is something scientific, what marks something as being sensible science or nonsensical non-science masquerading etc. On the one hand, and, since you're going to answer fully, how do you feel about left criticisms of science? Leftists who criticize science as being, you know, whatever they say, it's imperial or it's sexist or it's rooted in Western whatever, and so on.

Well, you know, like anything that we understand about at all, with regard to things as complicated as human affairs, the answers are pretty trivial. If they're not trivial, we don't understand it. There is a category of intellectuals who are undoubtedly perfectly sincere, who, if you look at it from the outside, what they're actually doing is using polysyllabic words and complicated constructions which, apparently they seem to understand 'cause they talk to each other. Most of the time I can't understand what the heck they're talking about. Even people who are supposed to be in my field. And, it's all very inflated and, you know, a lot of prestige and so on.

It has a terrible effect in the third world. In the first world, the rich countries, this stuff doesn't really matter that much. So, if a lot of nonsense goes on in the Paris cafes or the Yale comparative literature department, well, OK. On the other hand, in the third world popular movements really need serious intellectuals to participate. And if they're all ranting postmodern absurdities, well they're gone. I mean, I've seen real examples, I could give them to you. But, so there is that category. And it's considered very left wing, and very advanced and so on and so forth.

Well, some of what appears in it, actually makes sense. But when you reproduce it in monosyllables, it turns out to be truisms. So yes, it is perfectly true that, if you look at scientists in the West, they're mostly men. It's perfectly true that women have had a hard time breaking into the scientific fields. And it's perfectly true that there are institutional factors determining how science proceeds that reflect power structures. I mean, all of this can be described, literally, in monosyllables. And it turns out to be truisms when you do, OK. On the other hand, you don't get to be a respected intellectual by presenting truisms in monosyllables.

So, when the left, so called left, I don't consider it left, but when the left criticism, so called, happens to be accurate, well OK, that's fine. So, if you point out, a lot of things, just like what I mentioned, well, that's fine. Point it out, everybody can understand it, you take a look and you see it's true and so on. On the other hand, a lot of the so called left criticism seems to me pure nonsense. In fact, that's been demonstrated conclusively. So, there's a very important book by Jean Bricmont and Alan Sokal, I forget what it's called, Dangerous Illusions or something, [Fashionable Nonsense, 1997] where they simply go through the, they happen to be concentrating on Paris which is the center of the rot, but it's all over. And they go through the most respected French intellectuals, and run through what they say about science, and, you know, it is so embarrassing that you kind of cringe when you read it. Actually, one of the most striking ones is one of the very few who actually is a scientist, that knows something about science, [Bruno] Latour, who has a background in science and the philosophy of science. They go through an article of his in, I think I'm remembering correctly, in which he's… Somebody in France or somewhere had discovered that one of the pharaohs had died of tuberculosis. And they did it by analysis of whatever, you know, DNA or something. Latour wrote an article ridiculing this that says: it's totally absurd, tuberculosis was only discovered in the nineteenth century, and everything's a social construction…

Therefore it wasn't constructed yet, so…

…So, it didn't happen. I mean, you know, it's kind of at the level of Bush and Chirac. But it's taken very seriously, and this is considered very leftist.

But one point to look at, I think, is that the description of intellectuals, the description of journalists, and now the description of this sector or part of what calls itself the left. You have something similar going on even though the price is much lower. You have those guys sitting in air conditioned rooms bombing the hell out of the world for their careers, for their status, because of the reflexive lessons that they've learned. And then over here you have people who are in literary criticism or whatever field they might be in, who are also completely divorced from reality, or obscuring it, or dolling it up, for similar reasons, of course, the price is much less.

The price is, in the third world, it's high.

Yeah, but it's still…

In the rich countries it's just a pain in the neck. But…

…Still, not like bombing the world.


I think that, it's not that hard to understand. I mean, suppose you are a literary scholar at some elite university. Or, you know, anthropologist or whatever. I mean, if you do your work seriously, that's fine, you know. But you don't get any big prizes for it. On the other hand, you take a look over in the rest of the university and you've got these guys in the physics department and the math department and they have all kinds of complicated theories, which of course we can't understand, but they seem to understand them. And they have, you know, principles and they deduce complicated things from the principles and they do experiments and they find either they work or they don't work. And that's really, you know, impressive stuff. So I want to be like that too. I want to have a theory. In the humanities, you know, literary criticism, anthropology and so on, there's a field called theory. We're just like the physicists. They talk incomprehensibly, we can talk incomprehensibly. They have big words, we'll have big words. They draw, you know, far-reaching conclusions, we'll draw far-reaching conclusions. We're just as prestigious as they are. Now if they say, well look, we're doing real science and you guys aren't, that's white male, sexist, you know, bourgeois or whatever the answer is. How are we any different from them? OK, that's appealing. And there are other things that went on.

Remember that a lot of this stuff comes from Paris. And interesting things were happening in Paris in the 1970s. The French intellectuals were the last group of intellectuals in the world who were, overwhelmingly, not a hundred percent but, you know, it was very standard and respected to be a dedicated Stalinist and Maoist.

OK, by the mid '70s that was getting to be a pretty hard position to uphold. So what you had, if you take a look at what happened is, there was a sudden shift. People who had been flaming Maoists and Stalinists suddenly became the first people in the world to have discovered the gulag. And went on a tear about how everyone else supports, you know, Stalinist and Maoist atrocities and, we're France of course so we have to be in front of everyone, so therefore we've exposed it and now we're, this was called the New Philosophy or something, and it went over all. I mean, I remember meeting, I won't mention names because it's embarrassing, one of the leading French cultural theorists who happened to visit me around 1974 and she was a flaming Maoist. A couple of years later she was one of the first people to have understood, to have discovered, you know, Stalinist and Maoist atrocities. Well, OK, when you went through that transition, you gotta do something else. How are you gonna be, you know, on the front pages? OK, along comes the invention of post-structuralism.

Alright, what about religion? What do you think religion is?

Well, for one thing it's virtually… Depending what you mean by religion, I mean, if you mean the Abrahamic religions?

We're on weak ground here, because of course I'm religiously illiterate, but…

Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

No, I mean, I guess… Yeah, and the other such religion of that type, what are those?

Buddhism is different, spiritual beliefs among Native Americans was different, there's all kind of religions.

But the distinction we're talking about there…

We're talking about the Abrahamic religions?

No, Catholicism…

OK, that's…

Protestantism, Hindu I guess…

No, the Hindus are different. That's, I mean, quite different. Buddhism is quite different. I mean, if you really look at these systems of belief, they differ a lot. In fact, if you…

No, but what I'm asking is what is religion per se, not…

Some belief that there is something in the world which is beyond my grasp which is determining the way things happen and it's going to, you know, it will be a consolation for me, maybe, you know, if my child is dying I'll see him again in Heaven somewhere, I mean, these kinds of beliefs? And that there's sort of a spiritual force somewhere beyond my grasp, and that explains why things are happening? That's fairly ubiquitous. And it's perfectly understandable. I mean, you know, weird things are happening. Like, the sun is moving around the earth, you can see it. I mean, it doesn't happen to be happening but you see it. Well, something must be making it happen. OK, so it's Apollo on his chariot that's pulling the sun. And the same with everything else that goes on, you don't understand anything that's happening in the world. Why is my child, this sweet little wonderful kid, dying? He didn't do anything. So there's got to be some explanation somewhere.

So it's a set of stories to make sense of reality, except not science…

I mean, Apollo pulling the sun with a chariot, is early science. I mean, it's kind of a scientific theory, it's worked out, not trivial, like, for example the classical Greeks did discover a lot of things.

But if you say it now, when there's lots of evidence other than that, that's no longer science.

That just means that our understanding has deepened. But, you know, the transition from magic to science is a pretty smooth transition. I mean, it just… I mean, even the word ”science” in English didn't even appear until the mid nineteenth century. I mean, there was a word, but it just meant something else, it just meant ”knowledge”. In the mid-nineteenth century there was a divorce between science and philosophy. Before, it was just philosophy. In fact, if you go to Oxford, let's say, you can study natural philosophy and moral philosophy. Natural philosophy is what we here call the natural sciences, moral philosophy is what we call the humanities. The whole concept of science in our sense is a pretty recent one.

And there was an intellectual revolution, which sort of begins with Galileo and that goes on and that lead to enormous insights and after a while, science just kind of took off and became a special domain. I mean, take, say, Kant. He couldn't have told you whether he was a philosopher or a scientist. He taught astronomy, he taught moral philosophy, and, yeah, an intelligent educated gentleman did all those things. Well, by the mid nineteenth century it was becoming pretty hard to do all those things. The sciences were reaching a point where you really ought to understand things. And you couldn't be a gentleman who knows everything. So, OK, things got professionalized, and we get, you know, what we call science, a separate domain. But, recall how recent this is. Prior to that people were trying to figure things out. And we might now call what they're trying to figure out ”magic”, but these are pretty smart people. Take, say, Isaac Newton. He was not a fool, exactly. I mean, he's now, kind of, people laugh about the fact that he spent most of his life working on chemistry and Church Fathers, alchemy and Church Fathers. That was perfectly reasonable. I mean, in terms of what are called corpuscularian theories, that everybody accepted, you know, the world was made up of little building blocks like bricks…

Shift a few…

Yeah, shift a few and you get gold from lead. That makes perfect sense. As for the Church Fathers, that made perfect sense too. I mean, he was coming right after the Humanist period, when there had been a sudden discovery of the wealth and richness of classical civilizations, which hadn't been known. So, the belief expanded that these guys really understood something. And they were kind of keeping it secret from us, so they were doing it in an esoteric way. And if we can decode what they were doing, we'll get all kind of wonderful discoveries. So it wasn't an irrational pursuit. And…

That was a long time ago.

Not that long ago. You know, this is the seventeenth century. And this is Isaac Newton…

In my lifetime it was.

Well, OK (laughs).

OK, so when you come closer to the present, you have some things about religion that have been painful, and have caused suffering and great harm. And other things about religion that have been pretty exemplary and that have contributed to justice.

Sure, take, let's say, liberation theology. That was a revival of early Christianity. And it was so threatening to the United States that the U.S. launched a war against it.

I want to switch to a political variant of some of the things we've been talking about, which is the term called sectarianism.

Well, sometimes it's genuine disagreements which should be worked out with solidarity, mutual sympathy and support and so on. I mean, we've all been in activist groups and, you know, this goes on and on. You have long meetings, 'cause there are real issues to discuss. So that's the right kind of, if you like, sectarianism. A lot of it's ego tripping. You know, I want to be Lenin. So, you follow me, and, there is a lot of that. I've got my doctrines and ideology and, if you don't accept them, you're an enemy of, you know, the working people or whatever it happens to be. And it's extremely common among groups that don't have much mass support, you know, that are kind of isolated, that either don't have a lot to do or like to believe that they don't have a lot to do. And sectarianism is one of the ways of avoiding engagement. We don't have to give examples, I mean, it's rampant. A lot of it's pretty ugly.

But it's not only the behavior, there's something about, it seems to me, holding a viewpoint in a sectarian fashion is sort of like holding a viewpoint in a fundamentalist fashion. It has this element of, ”It's true because it's doctrine, it's true because it's in a book, it's true because I believe it or because somebody else who I admire believe it”. And it's unchallengeable. It's just the way it is.

That kind of sectarianism, of course, can destroy groups. In fact, any decent government infiltrator, and there are plenty of them, would want to stimulate that kind of sectarianism. We've all seen it happen. If you remember, say in the '60s. One of the things that every group had to learn, often the hard way, is that even among your small circle there's a provocateur. And, after a while, it got to be sort of possible to pick them out. They were the ones who were going to show up at the trials and, you know, that sort of thing.

Pretty soon people got to know that if there's someone in the group who's dressed like a Hollywood version of a hippie and who's saying, you know, ”let's stop this nonsense, let's go out and kill the cops!” and so on and so forth, chances are he's a provocateur. Sometimes, it doesn't have to be a government provocateur. A lot of these small groups are parasitic on popular movements, and they try to recruit, you know, so they join, they work, they sit around at the meetings longer than anyone else, they, you know, try to get in a position of some kind of control and then recruit it to their own particular sect. That goes on all the time. And it's very disruptive to popular movements.

But I'm talking about good people who have in their lives been perfectly sensible people, who, for whatever reasons, become sectarian, meaning they adopt a set of views and are no longer open to the possibility that those views could be wrong, that any evidence could be contrary to those views, they no longer can see the world except in terms of those views. That's sort of what I mean by sectarianism.

But that's part of life. You know, I mean, you have it in the most advanced sciences. Take, say, Einstein.

I use that example often.

OK, well, he just wouldn't believe that, as he put it, God could throw dice with the cosmos.

Do you worry about behaving in that fashion?

Sure, anybody sensible ought to.

OK, so…

It doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. 'Cause sometimes you really do believe that you are right and you should pursue it.

OK, so what's the personal antidote to the rampant phenomenon…

For an individual?


Just to try to be as open-minded and as sympathetic to others as you can. It's not easy in controversial, complicated situations or even in the hard sciences. I mean, I find it all the time in just professional work. OK, you sort of, try to deal with it somehow.

And the structural antidote? Imagine you're…

In general there isn't one because it's a good thing. I mean, I don't criticize Einstein for not willing to believe quantum-theoretic approaches and, in fact, as you know way better than I do, a lot of good experimental proposals came out of that, you know, like, what's it called? The quantum… you know, things too far apart to communicate you know… there's a name for that, I forget what it is… [quantum non-locality] That came out of an experimental proposal that Einstein and a couple others made. So, there's nothing wrong with it. I mean, that's the way human behavior ought to be. I mean, it can get to the point where it becomes a personal ego trip, it becomes an effort to take over and control. But these are just aspects of human life that you have to deal with, it can happen in a family. There's no general answer.

There is this creationism phenomenon, which bears on science also. What has been your reaction?

First, a lot of it comes from a religious source. And, a lot of it's really genuine. People do not want to accept the idea that, what they interpret as meaning, everything is determined. Science doesn't mean that, but if you have a superficial understanding of science, and in fact even if you read what plenty of scientists and philosophers say. It's basically saying: "look, you don't have any free will, you don't have any choices, everything's determined. We're just kind of acting out something in a system of controls that you have nothing to do with." Well, I don't want to believe that, in fact I don't. And I can easily see why other people don't want to believe it. They want to believe that there's something good going on in the world. Maybe I can't grasp it, but there is a force somewhere that is trying to make us better, make the world better, make good things happen and bad things not happen. And, also just for personal reasons. To go back to the mother of the dying child. You know, I want to see my child again someday, so I'd like to believe it.

Well, you know, one consequence of this array of beliefs is to think that the world was created. And that's very common. I mean, the founding fathers, for example, who did want to separate church and state, were mostly what are called deists. The idea was that – and it was even said this way – God is a retired engineer. He got the whole thing started, gave it a kick in the pants and then he left and you guys are supposed to run it. Well, that was a sort of secular religion that was common at the time.

But, at the same time, the U.S. has, since its origins, been kind of off the spectrum in extremist religious beliefs. I mean, and there are comparative studies, in the United States belief in miracles and the devil and, you know, the world was created ten thousand years ago and so on, is just off the spectrum. To some extent you find that in other industrial societies like in England, but the United States is literally off the graph. And this goes back to its origins. I mean, the country was founded by religious extremists. The settlers of New England were following God's will.

There is a streak in U.S. history which is called Providentialism. Very dominant streak, it goes all the way from the founding fathers so called, up to the current presidents and so on. God has a conception of history. And we're acting it out. And some of the ways in which this was applied are pretty remarkable. So, for example, the core of… take, say the English settlers in New England. Mayflower and all that stuff.

The first charter of the Massachusetts Bay colony given by the king, King Charles, was I think 1628. And the goal of the Massachusetts colony was to bring the benefits of civilization, including the Christian religion, to the Indians who were pleading for it. We're doing them a favor. In fact, if you look at the great seal of the Massachusetts Bay colony around 1629, it's very revealing. It ought to be on the wall in every classroom in the country. It's the founding of the country. What it shows is an Indian with spears pointed down, a sign of peace. And out of the Indian's mouth is a scroll. And the scroll says: "come over and help us!" So the colonists were carrying out what is now called the Responsibility to Protect, you know, a fancy term for imperialism but it's common. So they were carrying out the Responsibility to Protect, they were totally selfless, they were coming over just to answer the plea of the indigenous population to come over and help us.

That's the time when the famous phrase "city on a hill" was produced. In 1630, John Winthrop gave a famous statement and said we're a city on a hill, we're not like any other country in the world, we're benevolent, selfless, coming over to answer the plea of the Indians to help us. That goes on right up until today. That's a leading theme of scholarship, and journalism of course, that we're just different from everyone else 'cause we're a city on a hill. "Shining city on a hill", as Reagan put it. Right to this minute. And the reason comes from our answering the plea of the natives to help them. Well, in fact they exterminated them. And that was explained too.

Take a look at, you know, leading Supreme Court justices, commentators, others, they say, you know, the ways of God are mysterious. Although we came to help the Indians and we tried, you know, everything we did was in their interest, somehow they withered away. That's the phrase that was used, kind of like the leaves in autumn, they kind of blew away. And this goes right on to the present. I mean, you know, towards the end of the century like, say, early twentieth century, I mean, it's pretty hard to go on with this so you got people like Theodore Rooseveldt, one of the most extreme racist murderers in American history, that's why he's on Mount Rushmore, he explained during the second term of his presidency, it must have been maybe 1906 or 7, I don't know when exactly. He gave a talk to a group of missionaries in which he explained to them that it was for the benefit of the native population that we exterminated them. Literally, I mean, almost his words. He said, because it enabled a superior race to replace them. And that was very common.

I mean you read things like that in Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, I mean, the great heroes. I mean, this is an extremely racist country. And they invented a mythology of anglo-saxonism. We're all anglo-saxons. You know, like you and me. We're anglo-saxons. Jefferson, for example, who was a big believer in this, said that we got to go back to, you know, the eight century or something, when there were pure anglo-saxons, before they were contaminated by others, and that's the ideal of, you know, humanity and justice and everything.

I mean, Benjamin Franklin for example. Actually, Franklin thought that we shouldn't allow immigration of Germans and Swedes because they're not white enough. They're kind of a little off color. But we the pure anglo-saxons just carry civilization forward. It's incredible the history of it, I won't go through it, but Hitler looks mild in comparison. In fact, Hitler used this as a model. It goes right through American history, it goes right up until today. It's part of the American exceptionalism, Wilsonian idealism, you know. Very racist and it's just all over.

One aspect of these beliefs is just what most of the world would call religious extremism. What were called great reawakenings in American history. Periods of mass enthusiasm because, you know, Christ is coming or whatever it may be. And it's all over the place, it just keeps recurring. There was a big one in the 1950s. It's changed in the last thirty years in an interesting way. I mean, this has been right through American history, but it never really entered the core of the political system. I mean, it influenced things, but there was a big change.

I don't think it's ever been studied, but my impression is it comes from Jimmy Carter. Jimmy Carter was an honest, sincere fundamentalist Christian. Probably believed everything he was saying, you know, kind of like an honest simple guy. So all this business with, you know, which most of the world considers as kind of off the wall, he believed.

American elections are basically run by the PR industry. And party managers got an idea I think, I can't prove it but it seems to me what happened is this: Party managers recognized that if you pretend to be, you know, a devout Christian, you pick up like thirty percent of the vote. And in fact every presidential candidate since Carter has professed to be a devout Christian. Take, say, Bill Clinton, who is probably about as religious as I am, his handlers made sure that every Monday morning there was a photograph of him in a baptist church or whatever it is, you know, singing hymns and so on and so forth. I mean, that's a way in which you sort of pick up a segment of the population. And I don't think there's a single exception since Carter.

And integrity, honesty and everything else goes down the drain of course as a habitual obstacle…

Yeah. But it's appealing to something that is pretty deep in American culture. It's intertwined with racism, with, you know, anglo-saxon fanaticism, with "come over and help us", you know. It's just a big strain in the culture. 

Transcribed by Anton G. 

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