25 September 2016

Ultradoxy & Acolytes

Call me perverse, but I'm often interested in heterodoxy - alternative opinions. It's not simply that I'm against having a consensus, but that where there is no other way of thinking about something, and I discover some alternative that is being actively suppressed, I find myself giving it serious consideration. The first time I actively remember doing this was when I discovered Immanuel Velikovsky's book World's in Collision. On balance I think Velikovsky was probably wrong, but for a moment in my life I realised that everything I had been taught might be wrong. A door opened.

I'm also a fan of Lynn Margulis' views on evolution. She argues that the role of competition is overstated by NeoDarwinians and that symbiosis, hybridisation, coopertation, and communities have played a vital, perhaps more important role. This is still minority view, but certain results of science have helped to shift the mainstream. For example then discovery that all modern humans originating outside of Africa have genes acquired from Homo neanderthalis and Homo denisova. Almost no modern humans are purely Homo sapiens; most of us are hybrids. Another example is the nascent discovery of the increasing important and far-reaching role of our gut microbiome. It turns out that our internal symbionts are far more intimately involved in our pursuit of homoeostasis than anyone (except perhaps Margulis) could have thought. Lately Elaine Morgan's Aquatic Ape Hypothesis has had a boost as Sir David Attenborough has done another radio documentary on it. And in Buddhist studies, Sue Hamilton's revised understanding of the skandhas has been decisive in how I understand Buddhism.

The heretics that interest me are often women and have been marginalised for no other reason than that the inner circle were men.

Orthodoxy becomes hegemonic - takes over - when holders of orthodox views can no longer imagine any alternative. The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is orthodox, in the sense that it's what the majority believe, but it's not hegemonic because there are alternatives and some quite prominent people hold alternative views (Sean Carroll is a fan of Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation for example).

In economics however the Neoclassical consensus is taught as the only way to think about economics. Many people think that Neoclassical economics is economics. In fact many academic economists reject Neoclassical views and there are several varieties of heterodox view. But heterodoxy is almost never taught in universities, and doesn't get journalistic coverage. World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, recently said:
After over 30 years of “intellectual regress”, the study of booms and busts now reminds him of a lipstick-wearing pig or an obsolete scientific embarrassment like the phlogiston theory of fire. The field is dominated by a tight-knit congregation, he argues, unified by deference to authority, not facts. Their revered leaders rely on high-handed assumptions to make their models work. But they do not admit to these inadequacies, pretending their naked assumptions are clothed in fine theoretical robes. (The Economist, 24 Sep 2016)
In biology something similar applies to what critics call NeoDarwinism. Evolution is the theory of the "selfish gene" and no other theory can possibly be true. Dissenters are treated like heretics. Misguided at best; mad, bad, and dangerous at worst.

This is not the same as subject areas excluding outsiders by maintaining abstruse discussions full of impenetrable jargon and shibboleths. In this case arguments about fundamentals are one of the traps for novices - if one view appeals and one says so, the participants will begin listing all the reasons for not believing that. And this happens whatever one's view is. The point here is not to control what you think, but to gains status by winning arguments. This is how philosophy works for example.

Coming back to hegemony we find a particular dynamic that is common in religious groups as well. Orthodoxy becomes ultradoxy - the one, all encompassing view. It might also be called ├╝berdoxy, superdoxy, overdoxy, etc. Ultradoxy is defined by an inner circle of priests whose main work is precisely defining and maintaining the ultradoxy. And around them them an immune system.

When someone like me says, e.g. "I don't find Dawkins very compelling, and that he just seems to have applied the Neoliberal ideology to biology; and that furthermore I find Margulis a more compelling theorist" this creates an irritation. The irritation attracts a low level acolyte (i.e. a white-cell) who will begin by ritually dismissing the dissent as stupidity or lunacy. This may come off as trolling, but the white-cell is not simply attacking for no reason. In attacking a dissenter, the low-level acolyte is proving their devotion to the ultradoxy. Of course low level acolytes will never be part of the inner-circle, but they crave the approval of that circle (the absent father?) and so they react angrily to dissent and attack with vigour in the hope of getting noticed. They often imagine they have the authority of the ultradoxy behind them, though this is seldom true. Priests hate acolytes in this model.

Unsurprisingly the high priests never get involved in this level of discourse. It is far too crude and coarse for them. These are people who teach undergraduates out of grudging acknowledgement that though they are priests of the inner circle, their salary is paid, and the the temple is owned, by someone else. And these days the money people don't even have a shared set of core values with the priests. So the priests are busy defending their turf in high-levels games.

Debate is nearly always pointless because the acolyte is wholly committed to thinking in terms of the ultradoxy. From their point of view dissent can only arise from misunderstanding or madness. So all they can really do is restate the ultradox view, and say that the dissenter is an idiot or insane (almost all internet "debate" fits neatly into these two slots. Acolytes are not interacting with the view to finding the truth, they are setting out to defend the Truth (as they see it). They take attacks on the Truth quite personally.

The irony is that the inner-circle are contemptuous of low-level acolytes, no matter how well they grasp the outlines of the utlradoxy, they are not initiated into the central mysteries and never will be. And dissenters are often at the same level. If I support Margulis over Dawkins, am really I doing more than wearing a tee-shirt with a name on it? I'm really just advertising my allegiance to people who do not know I exist, and probably would not care if they did. So the insanity charge starts to look more plausible.

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