Primitivism and Science

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

— H. P. Lovecraft

It may seem paradoxical to take primitivism — an ideology that rebukes the advance of civilization, especially technological civilization — and develop a strain that adopts a scientific worldview. For example, it is on the basis of human ecology that primitivists justify their claim that humans are still essentially hunter-gatherers; and out of the theories of cultural ecology they derive their perspectives on social change, development, and collapse. Yet in the end they argue that our current level of scientific knowledge is not worth the negative side effects of technological society and advocate a transition to more traditional forms of society. How could this be?

First — The expression “level of scientific knowledge” is deceptive. It is unclear whether scientific thought is truly progressive. Famously Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions argues that scientific thought is not progressive. Instead, the process we perceive as scientific advance is, in fact, a social process: a case of some group of scientists developing a new “paradigm” for understanding a problem and then waging a campaign against groups of scientists representing an older paradigm. No paradigm is perfect, Kuhn said, and encounters a number of unexplainable phenomena, called “anomalies.” A new paradigm overtakes old ones when it can explain most everything the old one did and account for the anomalies. The best two examples are the transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric model of the galaxy; and the transition from Newtonian physics to relativity. In both cases the now-outdated paradigms — geocentrism and Newtonian physics — were not completely impotent, even if we consider them wrong today. They explained what they sought to explain extremely well. But when the needs of our society, technological endeavors, or industrial economy changed, so too did the problems of knowledge we encountered, calling for a new paradigm. In the strictest sense, then, paradigms are not exactly progressive; they only seem progressive because they are more suited to the needs of our current society.

It may of course be the case that there is an “out there,” a world separate from the mind that perceives it, which we are slowly coming to understand better. This is called “realism,” and I personally find it to be true. (See Bricmont and Sokal’s “Defense of a Modest Scientific Realism.”) In this way we might consider our scientific knowledge progressive in the sense that it is cumulative. But it is not clear whether realism is ultimately correct, and the question may be unsolvable.

Second — To say that scientific knowledge isn’t worth it is separate from saying whether or not it is correct. I’ve said already that I believe scientific knowledge has probably given us the most accurate account humans have ever had of the external world. But, when taken with all its negative consequences, I seriously doubt whether that knowledge has improved human lives overall. Probably the most potent evidence is that almost no humans, even in the industrial world, employ advanced scientific knowledge to carry out their day-to-day lives. They are of course reliant on technological systems that only exist because of advanced scientific knowledge, but that only demonstrates the point further: the current state of science exists for technological and economic development more than it does for fulfilling fundamental human needs. Since the negative consequences of technological society are pervasive, existential, and intractable without social collapse, it seems clear that “advanced” scientific knowledge has left us worse off.

Third — The politics of primitivism does not necessarily advocate the abolition of scientific knowledge, or any kind of knowledge. Mostly this would be impossible anyway. It instead advocates the abolition of technological infrastructure. This will surely cause the loss of scientific knowledge, perhaps completely in some regions, but that outcome is not definite. This is of course no problem, since knowledge is not the only or even most important thing one needs to build an industrial society: more important are resources, social organization, and already-existing technologies that themselves take centuries of social organization to make possible. None of these are possible for at least quite a while after social collapse, and it may be that industrial society, specifically, could never be rebuilt.

In addition, it can be said that primitive peoples have long-employed a kind of rational-empirical thinking that we can broadly call “science.” For more on this hypothesis, see Louis Leibenberg’s The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science.

Fourth — Our current knowledge of the world (or, if you prefer, our scientific belief system) puts us in the position of having to choose our values. We simply don’t have any other way of legitimating our moral or political beliefs. In this sense primitivism as I’ve outlined it is a politics of educated industrial citizenry. Those who still live in “premodern” cultures are almost invariably in agreement with primitivist conclusions — their cultures and beliefs cannot logically be made compatible with the modern world — but it would be pretty much impossible for a person raised with a scientific worldview to hold the same reasons as them.

Besides, if we are to take the scientific worldview seriously, the ultimate source of both politics is the same — will. If we are material, biological creatures, and if there is no God or supernatural realm, then there is no way to reason out a universal, ultimate, objective moral system. It is simply a matter of character and choice, even if the individual believes that his choices are objective.

All this comes with the advantage of being able to woo precisely those who have the most power over world and state affairs: members of the industrial citizenry or global society who live under a scientific worldview. If we cannot put our politics in these terms, we will never be able to relate to one of the most important sets of political actors. And, again in my opinion, we would likely be wrong, since in the end scientific knowledge seems to be a mostly accurate representation of the world.

See also


  • Robert McGuinn says:

    Even though I feed my and my family member’s faces using the digital money provided to me through my employment in ‘scientific work’, I am under no illusion that there is any correlation between the advance of science and the advent of a ‘better’ world. Even if it were possible to form a fully integrated understanding of the world through science (which is not possible in my opinion), humans would not make the ‘right’ decisions to ‘save the planet’. The problem of our deteriorating ecosystem is not related, at all, to the lack of scientific understanding, but is more of a socio-cultural and reproductive behavior problem of our species. It is one that could be solved only through some sort of not-so-benevolent global dictatorship willing to use violence and chemicals to drastically reduce human population and reproduction. I don’t think that would be very pleasant or advisable. If you follow certain conspiracy theories citing the ‘global elite’, you might believe this plan has already been put in motion. Science is just a game that makes humans feel good about themselves more than any sort of solution to anything. I like this quote by conservationist Jane Smiley in “Placing Nature”, 1997: “Our goal should be not to care for the earth, but to enable it to have sufficient complexity that it can care for itself.” Great sentiment, Jane, but given our current population trajectory, leaving big enough pieces of the earth alone, such that the healing complexity can operate, is just a pipe dream. More science is not a solution, we already know enough to act, but we won’t. We will only react. Again though, it is nothing to worry over or fix. It doesn’t matter at all. These types of causes and missions are just past-times for the obsessed and deluded.

    • Robert McGuinn says:

      Further, If I were betting on who is in the best position to affect the change towards preserving some large portion of the non-human environment so that the complexity of the world can be used for self-healing, as Smiley suggests, I would place my money on the above-mentioned non-benevolent, techno-scientific, global elite dictatorship vs. some rag tag band of primitivist philosophers and revolutionary strategists who are mostly distracted by trying to learn how to tan hides and such. It is simply about having the means and the will to make things really happen vs. just talking about it. Not at all saying that this outcome is preferable, just that I can actually see that group succeeding where I don’t see the other affecting much at all. I think the question, if one was a member of that global elite group would only be the timeline. You need to do it fast enough such that your not too late to save the intact ecosystems, but not so fast that you create a revolution of the expendables. That would just get too messy and some among you might lose their stomach for it. And by global elite, I’m not talking about the sophomoric middle-tier industrialists and technocrats who are still enamored with creating wealth, buying jets and homes and such. I mean the ones who have passed all of that nonsense generations ago and are now on to bigger and better projects to cement their legacy in the cosmos. They are the ones really hell bent on building a grandiose project. What better project than recreating Eden on Earth and using the tools of techno-scientific violence and control to do it? Of course, it is all for the ‘greater good’. See, for example, the Half Earth book by E.O. Wilson and the associated project at Wilson has the plan and the right type of knowledge, now all he needs are the backers who have the means and are willing to do the real dirty work that no one really wants to speak of. Also see the inscriptions on the Georgia Guidestones for other evidence that this plan is in the minds of a few who could actually make this happen. This ‘save the Earth’ project is actually viable! It just requires a bit of messy ‘wet work’.

  • Hoot says:

    From Robert above: “And by global elite, I’m not talking about the sophomoric middle-tier industrialists and technocrats who are still enamored with creating wealth, buying jets and homes and such. I mean the ones who have passed all of that nonsense generations ago and are now on to bigger and better projects to cement their legacy in the cosmos. They are the ones really hell bent on building a grandiose project. ” Robert, Where do you think these ambitious people might hide during the proverbial SHTF ? Specific locations ?

  • Robert McGuinn says:

    Fuck. I don’t know, Mars? That lot is better prepared than you or I, hands down. Their hidey hole has a bowling alley. Conspiracy sites have it down to New Zealand as the likely billionaire bug out. Likely to make your average prepper look like a poor field mouse collecting hounddog hair for his bed.

  • Hoot says:

    Dependent little fuckers though. They’d shrivel up like leaches in a drying up pond without their tech tools. I asked a billionaire recently if she would enjoy trying a more primitive life with just a woodstove and kerosene lanterns. “No. Absolutely not !” she said with a smile. I think independence is more important for survival than a retreat with luxuries.
    And by the way, there are many who just plain get giddy destroying shit. All that effort in a heap provides huge giggles and adrenaline. It’ll be a big driver for many I’m sure.

  • Robert McGuinn says:

    Hoot, You may be right there. They will definitely need to complete most of the soft-kill and disarming before they go full-live with this crap. You can bet they will be sufficiently armed and gated to handle any remaining rabble. Also, they will need to finally activate their AI-enabled robot slaves to do all their hunting, fishing, and farming for them, so they won’t need any hard-to-manage human slaves mucking up the works. The hard part will be keeping the too-clever robots from turning on them. Also, they will need to make sure they build in self-repair capabilities to that horde. Surely no one will want to get their hands dirty fixing some damn machine. The game should be plentiful though, without all of the useless eaters around. You may even have some of the elites turn to hunting, fishing, and farming to alleviate the boredom that will surely ensue.

    Of course, an astronomical event will cancel everyone’s plans, and that’s what I’m rooting for. I hate everyone and everything (today at least), and I wouldn’t mind the seeing big old dog of the universe shaking off all the ticks, me included, just to get a clean slate. All in good fun of course!

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