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 In both cases the now-outdated paradigms — geocentrism and Newtonian physics — were not completely impotent, even if we consider them wrong today.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

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