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.

In short

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 practice, essences don't matter. 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 one 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 ?

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 share ?
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. 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 object (topic) 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 an object, and irrational about another. This can be because one object 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 object but not on another object.
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 irrationality

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 complete.

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 institutions.
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 additions ?
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 anymore ?

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.
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"
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.

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 their supposedly "intelligent" economic planning (a conscious planning, instead of the blind forces of market) turned out to be a tsunami of stupidity and destruction, blindly and unconsciously smashing the fragile wisdom of the impersonal market mechanisms by which life had more or less worked before, thus leading to a worse situation. So, the impersonal world economic system is the true intelligent but fragile weed which the blind force of human consciousness could crush without noticing.

Fundamental vs. applied research

This was moved to a separate page, follow the link.
Back to Antispirituality main page