The Errors of Essentialism
The concept of "essentialism" that will be defined and criticized here,
may not exactly fit with some other people's definition of
"essentialism". Nevertheless, as you will see, and no matter how you
wish to call it, what will be described and refuted below is indeed a
real and heavy widespread mistake that makes a lot of troubles and
misunderstandings in this world, so that it needs to be addressed.
Essentialism is the general attitude of assuming that, in order to
understand any object, problem or debate, the right way would be to
focus on the question of what is its deep nature, what is the
nature of the elements it is made of. It is a form of reductionism - as it
claims to reduce everything to the question of its mere essence,
the nature of its components.
By contrast, the non-essentialist
position that I will hold is that: in this earthly life, it
turns out that, most of the time, to understand the world in
Instead, what matters is the complexity, the structures, the
context of things, the details of the global architecture by which
things connect together. The research of such aspects is precisely the
done by science. It would just deserve to be extended beyond the
thematic limits traditionally assigned to it.
Examples of essentialist errors
The essentialist conception of essentialism
The first error of essentialism resides in the opinion it has of itself.
Indeed, it first poses as a pleonasm: "the essence of any object
resides in its essence", so that it mascarades as a sort of tautology,
something unquestionable, therefore presenting as ridiculous any
attempt to contradict it.
As essentialism consists in focusing on essences, when it considers
"what is essentialism, and how it opposes to non-essentialism", it
assumes that it can reduce the debate to "what is the essence of
essentialism" and "what is the essence of non-essentialism". It goes
on: essentialism deals with essences, so that the essence of
essentialism would consist in what it says about essences. OK, what
more ? it claims that "essences do exist",
while non-essentialism would probably be the claim that essences
are denied, would not exist. This way, essentialism claims to be a sort
of alternative to nihilism.
By contrast, the non-essentialist view of the debate of essentialism vs
non-essentialism, is that the core of this debate does not reside in
what is the essential claim of essentialism or of non-essentialism,
namely, whatever they may say or not say about essences, but in their
complex ramifications and in the way they are applied in different
contexts: what understanding and what errors they may induce when faced
to such or such situation.
If the debate was about accepting or rejecting essences, and about
whether a discussion of essences can make sense or not, then of
course, non-essentialism would be awkward: a claim that "things
have no essence" is an essential claim, a claim about the
essence of things. Indeed, it would be the claim that the essence
of things is that they have no essence.
On the contrary, true non-essentialism does not enter this essentialist
debate, but rejects it as rather pointless. It claims that the essence
of the debate does not consist in a debate about essences, but in a
debate on what matters: namely, it claims that essences don't matter.
This way, by switching from a debate on essences to a debate on "what
matters", it replaces an essentialist debate into a non-essentialist
debate. Because the question "to matter or to not matter" is not a
question of essence, but is a question of structure, of context, of
complexity, of the details of the global architecture by which
things connect together.
Let's go further: if the essence of the debate of essentialism vs
non-essentialism does not reside in its own essence, then we won't be
able to really understand what this debate really is about, as
long as we keep focusing on its essence.
Instead, we have to put it in context, to see the details of how it
works on a wider panorama of concrete examples it may apply to.
The religion vs science debate
An essentialist error about the religion vs science debate, is the
assumption that it would be reducible to the disagreement on their
essential claims, i.e. their claims about essences. Namely, as
religions claim the existence of God, the immateriality and
immortality of the soul, and the ultimately spiritual nature of
everything; while science would be denying these, claiming that
everything is material, and that the mind itself would be a physical
process that can be put in equation. Or, that science would be assuming
that everything must be rationally definable and analyzable.
But, even though some scientists did get trapped in this essentialist
approach of the debate, by trying to argue that God does not exist and
that everything including the mind is mere material phenomena, such
claims are no way a necessary basis or assumption for the development
of science and the statement of its conclusions, nor any key point of how religions should be criticized. Or, if some individual
scientists may have ever claimed the materiality of everything as a
scientific result, or considered the belief in the immateriality of the soul and existence of afterlife and miracles as a key feature of religion and source of its errors, sorry for them, but this is not.
Another possible error is to assume that Marxism is not a religion just because it claims to be scientific and its metaphysics is purely materialistic.
Another possible essentialist claim about the religion vs science
opposition, is that the reason why they could not communicate would be
that they are dealing with essentially different questions. In other
words, that their objects of study would be of a fundamentally
different nature. Namely, science would be dealing with material
things, while religion would be dealing with spiritual ones; and that
there would be some domains of questioning, some objects, whose essence
would allow for a rational approach to be relevant, while other domains
would be so essentially different that rational methods and
intelligence would not be adequate to its understanding anymore.
Sorry but, while there may be here a part of truth, I still don't
agree, at least not to the extent usually assumed. Indeed, first, the
mere fact that rational people usually get involved with traditional
"scientific subjects" while irrational people traditionnally
dominate religious questions, is no indication that their
irrational approach would be adequate than any rational approach for
religious subjects by any means. And this very Antispirituality site is
indeed an illustration of what a rational approach can bring to the
study of several questions that were a traditionally reserved field of
religious and other spiritual teachings, and how more precisely it can
prove the falsity of their "knowledge".
Other aspects of this question will be discussed below.
So, if not a matter of claims about essence, nor about the essence of
the objects involved, what would the real difference between
science and religion consist in ? It is a matter of rationality. That
is, a matter of way of thinking, and of intelligence. But, what is
Rationality and its link to the supernatural
Let's give more illustrations of the same things. We just said that the
separation between science and religions is not a matter of the essence
of the objects to study, nor about what is claimed about the essence of
such or such things, but about rationality, which is just another name
for the scientific method. Some scientists claims that some beliefs,
especially those of the existence of the supernatural, would be
irrational by essence, because of their implications about essences.
Such a criteria would be nonsense. The one criteria of rationality
should be how it connects to empirical evidence.
This is far from obvious. Some experiences are personal and very hard
to sum up. It can be very hard to explain to someone what one could
experience, in order to share the evidence that one's convictions can
be rationally based on.
But, who said that rationality should be something obvious and easy to
Indeed, science includes some very, very hard studies, to draw very
indirect conclusion after a huge lot of work. The fact that the reasons
to draw a conclusion cannot easily be shared to the non-initiated, is
no good reason to call it irrational.
But, scientificity, rationality and proof have no fixed essence either.
Some knowledge is given by obvious means, while some other require a
hard work of rationality.
Rationality is not always a matter of how intelligent or rational one
is. If I make a trivial measurement of a system (ex: what is the color
of this pen), then I rationally deduce that the measured result does
measure its current state. This is as well rationally founded as a
mathematical theorem that takes thousands of pages to be proven. If we
wanted to characterize the essence of rationality, it would be its
ability to ensure finding the right answers to some very hard
questions, as reliably as could be a trivial measurement, while they
cannot be obtained by trivial means. But this even is not really an
essence either, as.
Indeed, basically, rationality is no sort of guarantee to find a
reliable answer to any question (no such an assumption is never made).
it is just a practice of proceeding a search it case it would turn out
to succeed. If a problem turns out to be rationally solved, this means
it turned out to be rationally solvable. If it does not succeed, then
it won't draw any conclusion of any sort.
Maybe a given problem would escape any possibility to be solved by
reason ? So what ? In such a case, rational searches could be made,
again and again, not drawing any conclusion. It would remain safe in
any case, that is, not providing any erroneous conclusions, as long as
it is properly operated. If someone draws an erroneous conclusion, it
necessarilty comes from a failure to apply reason properly. Someone
else should be able to rationally point the error made, in order to
come back to a state of non-conclusion. At least, if a problem is not
solved, the rational search could provide some information, so that
some false conceptions will be rationally refuted. In any case,
this is safe. And how could you tell in advance for sure that a problem
cannot be approached by reason, unless you have some rational evidence
of this ?
Rationality is not a matter of subject and of its essence, but it is
not either a matter of essence of a person's mind. The same person
can be rational about a subject, and irrational about another. This can
be because one subject is simpler than the other, and does not require
the same intellectual skills to ensure the conclusion against risks of
mistakes, so that some people may be clever enough to be rational on a
subject but not on another subject.
Or it can also be a matter of circumstance: some people can be in the
circumstance of getting an information that is a sufficient
rational basis to draw a conclusion, while others could not, not
because of a difference of intelligence or of method, but because they
are in a different circumstance. For example, one can easily accept
well-established scientific results of the past for granted, because we
simply know that they were discovered by serious people with very
reliable methods, so that it is very simply rational to assume them as
true. No, this is not a matter of faith, but a matter of reason, to
simply trust scientific results obtained by others, in the case when it
is clear and beyond reasonable doubt to infer that they are indeed the
result of a reliable scientific study. While of course, it required a
very hard rational work for the discoverers to reach these results in
the first place. Or, it can be very easy to make one more check of a
result based on the last technologies, while the discoverers did not
have this technology and thus had a much harder time reaching the
result in their time.
In other words, there is no such a thing as an essence of a difference
between what is scientific and what is trivial: this difference is
vague and a mere matter of accident.
On reason and its compatibility or incompatibility with faith and
We said the opposition between religion and science, is a matter of
irrationality vs rationality, but the question of rationality itself is
not defined by any essence. It is rather a matter of how thoughts
are globally organised, what is their structures. So, there is no
surprise if faith and reason can sometimes live together in the same
people. This difference of structure can induce a negative correlation
between both, but does not completely exclude the possibility for them
to live together. Whether reason will turn out to reject faith or
not, is rather a matter of chance and circumstances.
Indeed, faith comes to offer some people answers to questions that
their own reason did not happen to decide yet. As long as one person's
reason could not determine a question, there is no surprise if any
other circumstances may cause him to believe something more or less
strongly, in a way that is "not rational". This is no fault of
rationality, because of the famous (?) paradox of prior unknown
probability law: if you have no information to tell you whether a claim
is true or false, this is no good reason to bet a probability of 1/2
each. Raw ignorance of a question is not by itself any source of
equiprobability. And, it is in practice impossible to avoid
assuming some probabilities over unknown data that your life depends on
in order to be able to go further. So, by the force of having to choose
a probability law, as there is no reason to fix this probability as 1/2
each rather than any other figures between 0 and 1, as none of
these figures (even 0 and 1) can be a priori accused of irrationality
by essence, and extreme probabilities are more comfortable than
equiprobabilities, this fatally leads to "irrational conclusions" no
matter how "rational in himself" the person is.
What is irrational, however, is to not make any effort for looking
for a posteriori evidence for what has been obtained in this way,
especially if not all people agree and one's own position is not widely
known as proven. But here a practical problem may be to understand what
precise alternative there can be to one's position.
Because a proof of something is a proof that some alternative
conceptions cannot hold. But you first need to check what these
potential alternative conceptions may precisely consist in, and
not miss those which would turn out to be crucual, otherwise you cannot
know what it is you need to exclude. All depends not only on how clever
one is, not only on how hard one tries to double-check one's beliefs,
but also on the circumstances that may provide the chance to find
evidence for something priorly unknown, or to discover and understand
an unexpected alternative to one's worldview or not. The same person
being both rational and irrational, is no contradiction, and does not
raise any conflict in essence. So, the existence of Christian or
other religious scientists, is no evidence for any compatibility
between faith and reason, and does not preclude the possibillity that
scientific, infallible evidence against some regious claims (even
claims that those religious scientists believe in), may have already
been found by others. Because even among scientists, an evidence once
obtained by someone can have big troubles until reaching wide
acceptance across the community in normal conditions. So, what about
the acceptability of evidences that would destroy one's devout faith ?
And it really looks like that spiritual people usually have no idea
what the rationalist positions they claim to reject, really
consist of. And this site may be presenting other possibilities of
rationalist positions than they are assuming, so that their work of
rejecting the forms of rationalism they usually imagine, is far from
Do you have faith ? - Faith in what ? - Do you believe in God ? -
Which one ?
Many religious people use the simple word "faith" to mention their
belief, and refer to it in a binary way (to have faith or to not have
faith), as if it was something very simple and monolithic, that is, an
essence, that can be there or not be there. However, by doing so, they
are forgetting the fact that this assumed essence could hardly mean
anything without a huge lot of contingent additions and artificial
constructions. Namely, the corpus of the religious doctrine they
received, their so-called Sacred Texts, and other religious habbits and
I'm not trying to deny that faith in God has an essence and refers to
something essential. But, if faith was indeed all about essence like
this, then why do so many people need to complicate it with lots of
Not all people are like this, admittedly. Some people do keep their
faith in a form close to this essence, something simple and
personal, something in their heart, not referring to any "sacred
texts" or other cultural habbits and institutions; and I do respect
this. However, this does not lead very far, in the sense that there are
anyway a huge lot of other questions in life that people will need to
address, and the question is how will they do it. A pure and simple
sort of faith, by itself, will never suffice to answer any significant
part of them. How to find more answers ? By faith too, or by something
else ? But if faith is a pure essence, then how can it provide answers
to many specific, practical questions ?
Many religious people, while pretending that their faith is a pure,
simple and essential enough thing to be properly named by a pure
and simple word "faith", are forgetting the fact that they are in
reality giving this word a completely different kind of interpretation.
Namely, an interpretation full of a lot of contingent additions. Some
put there the Christian Bible, others put there the Koran, others put
there any other religious texts. Maybe because without these contingent
additions, pure faith alone in its essence would be too poor for them
to be worth mentioning, or to satisfy them. So, they go on pretending
that the "one true faith" must be the one including this or that
belief, while people of other religions, believing something different,
would not have the true faith. Each can find a "good reason" to see his
own "one true faith", based on the fact that, among the hundreds of
specific constructed (contingent) additions to his faith, one can point
a particular addition that is not found in any other religions. Well,
this won't be very true for long, as it remains possible for anyone to
create another religion including this specific point but differing on
others. Then, someone will find another difference to be "essential"
too, and split the religion into different denominations...
And remember the verse in Romans 10: "Thus faith comes from what is
heard (or :from hearing the message), and what is heard comes through
the word of Christ". So, if faith is a mere construction out of a
message heard, then how can it be any pure and essential thing
On the hierarchy between mind and matter
In essence, the mind is above matter; Mind is concious, while matter in
unconcious. Mind can understand and control matter and logical systems,
while matter cannot understand and control the
mind, nor even grasp what a mind is, what is existence, what Cogito ergo sum is all about; logical systems cannot
even prove their own non-contradiction (according the Incompleteness
theorem of logics). This essential difference between mind and matter
was so magnificently expressed by Blaise Pascal in these words:
"The grandeur of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable.
But it practice things most often happen the other way round. The laws
of physics are much more marvellous than most human-written books,
especially religious books. The blind forces of nature have been
carrying a great plan of life development (the evolution and
development of life on Earth since billions of years), that played with
individual lives like toys and tools for this plan, with billions and
billions of lives spent and often wasted on the way of this plan; and
the main heritage we have from all these past lives, is the genetic
heritage. An heritage produced and accumulated by the creativity of the
blind, unconcious and impersonal forces of nature that worked without
any purpose in mind; much more important than all what could be
produced by any concious will, understanding and creativity. A very
intelligent, marvellously sophisticated genetic heritage that keeps
producing and protecting life in quasi-miraculous ways purely based on
blind, material processes.
Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. but even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows none of this"
Things are starting to change now. There is a new awakening of the mind
that starts to understand these blind forces of nature that had
controlled life (and the mind itself) until now, and is starting to
reverse this hierarchy: the process of scientific and technological
development. It is by focusing on the understanding and reworking of
material systems that it becomes possible for the mind to domesticate
these forces and to reorient them towards desired directions, that
might hopefully lead the world to a better destiny (if only we work to
keep developing and completing on time its current gaps that produce
disasters on the way).
On the other hand, for millienia, religions have claimed to be the way
of the raise of the spirit above matter. But this claim was an
illusion. On the contrary, religions have been retrospectively a
spectacular case of how material and logical systems could enslave and
play with minds, even more deeply and pitifully than could happen in
previous natural selective processes. Indeed, it is the process
described by memetics, by which the pieces of information and creeds
most successful in deluding people and controlling their thoughts and
behaviors, can thrive the best and form the most popular religions.
Similarly, Marxists usually thought that, first, many evils of the
world were the concious conspiracy of a cast of Masters, that we just
need to eliminate to resolve problems (failing to understand that many
problems have a material cause rather than a spiritual one). Then, that
the effects of the concious understandings, enthousiastic convictions
and democratic actions of the large popular masses, as well as the
intelligence of economic planners once the "revolution of the people"
would have occured, would be wiser than the
blind forces of the
Invisible Hand of market. History proved they were not. The Revolution
of the People and economic planning turned out to be a tsunami of
stupidity and destruction, blindly and unconciously smashing the
fragile wisdom of the impersonal market mechanisms by which life had
more or less worked before, thus leading to a worse situation.
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