In this blog-post I will be discussing the Intellectual Dark Web and trying to understand what its distinctive features are supposed to be. To help understand what the features of the group are I will discuss it in relation to three other groups. This first group I will compare it to will be New Atheism in particular as it is represented by the famous Four Horsemen of Atheism. I will then compare it to two major research programmes in the last Century the Vienna Circle and Behaviourism. The purpose of these comparisons will be to evaluate the degree to which the Intellectual dark web compares with these groups in the clarity of its purposes and what they aim to achieve.
Before proceeding to the comparison I need to make a couple of brief caveats. Firstly, to forestall an obvious complaint, I am in no way comparing the intellectual importance of these respective groups. I hope it should be obvious that I am in not arguing that people like Joe Rogan, and Jordan Peterson belong in the same intellectual universe as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rudolph Carnap or B.F. Skinner. I feel embarrassed even having to make this point; but I will do so to avoid confusion.
Another complaint could be that I am not comparing like with like. The Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivism it developed was an actual research programme, and the same is obviously true of Behaviourism. But the Four Horsemen of Atheism and the new atheism they were leaders of wasn’t a scientific research programme. Rather it was better to think of them as a political movement interested in treating questions about religion and God by the standard methods of science. I think that this is a legitimate criticism. However it doesn’t really affect anything I am arguing here as I am just trying to clarify what type of group the Intellectual Dark Web is, and how it compares with other intellectual groups. I am not offering any criticisms of the Intellectual Dark Web for not being a scientific research programme.
The Four Horsemen of Atheism
Intellectual life, like all areas of life, is pervaded with territorial allegiances. Thinkers form groups which they use to separate themselves from those whom they think of as holding a different ethos about life. In the act of naming a group the members of the group become associated with the name and sometimes people have difficulties disambiguating members of the group. Ten years ago four academics met up to discuss and critique religion from a scientific and philosophical point of view. The four thinkers were Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins; all were already famous atheists and known as members of so called new atheism (which was considered more aggressive than traditional atheism). Prior to meeting in Hitchens’ apartment to discuss the question of religion all four of them had authored a book criticising religion and belief in God. Sam Harris published his ‘End of Faith’ in 2004, Dawkins published his ‘The God Delusion’ in 2006, Dennett published ‘Breaking the spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomena’ in 2006, and Hitchens published his ‘God is not Great in 2007. All four books were massive successes, and prior to writing the books they were already famous for their atheism. So in 2007 when they met up to discuss religion and God and released the discussion to the general public there was huge interest. They became known as the four horsemen of atheism and set off millions of internet debates.
What was interesting about these debates was that in some circles ‘The Four Horsemen’ were treated as though they were identical people who agreed on every topic. The four horsemen were all sceptics about religion and its effects on society and were all atheists; however they obviously didn’t agree on everything. Harris and Dennett disagreed on the nature of consciousness, and on freewill. Dennett and Dawkins disagreed about the use of the term ‘Design’ in evolutionary explanation. Dawkins politics was slightly more leftwing than Hitchens etc. Yet even when these differences were pointed out some people couldn’t separate out the members of it group. It was like as if the existence of a label for the four thinkers worked against some people’s capacity to distinguish between the members of the group. Nonetheless the label was helpful to the members of the group. It was a nice marketing tool, and it helped to entice guys who liked Hitchens’ writing to read the other four horsemen and vice-versa.
The Intellectual Dark Web
Flash-forward twelve years and one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, Sam Harris appears in a photo shoot for a group called the Intellectual Dark Web. A New York Times Article is written by Bari Weiss on the Intellectual Dark Web , complete with the shadowy photos illustrating the leaders of this new movement. They are described as brave renegades fighting against the shadowy forces of political correctness. The article is an instant marketing success and the internet explodes with argument after argument.
The IDW is a much larger group of thinkers than the Four Horsemen. Bari Weiss listed members of it as including Sam Harris, Brett Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Summers, Ben Shapiro amongst many others. What makes someone a member of the IDW? Barri Weiss offers the following vague unhelpful definition:
“Most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now. Feeling largely locked out of legacy outlets, they are rapidly building their own mass media channels.”
She notes that these iconoclastic thinkers are committed to disagreeing strongly with each other while also remaining civil when engaging in this discourse. A couple of lines down, without a hint of irony she gleefully notes that Jordan Peterson responded to an article by Pankaj Mishra which criticized Peterson, by calling Mishra a sanctimonious prick who Peterson would like to slap. Bari Weiss who claimed that to be a member of the IDW is to remain civil while having intellectual disputes; didn’t seem to spot any difficulty in the aggressive uncivil behaviour of one of the leaders of the IDW when someone criticises him.
This is one of the problems with the IDW, it extension is extremely vague. If the being civil to ones critics was a key defining property of its members than Peterson wouldn’t be included in the group. If being banned from your institute because of political correctness was a key criterion for being a member then Sam Harris couldn’t be a member. And the attempt to individuate them as iconoclastic thinkers who are having discussions on podcasts and on twitter etc is equally hopeless. Philosopher Robert Wright has appeared on Sam Harris’s podcast to discuss Buddhism, Harris has appeared on the Very Bad Wizard podcast and vice-versa, and of course Wright has appeared on the Very Bad Wizard podcast and one of the Very Bad Wizard’s (Tamler Sommers), has appeared on Wright’s podcast. Similarly, people like Russell Brand have had Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris on their podcast, Brand has appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast to discuss politics, religion etc. So do the Very Bad Wizards, Russell Brand, or Robert Right belong in the IDW? If not why not? They are an iconoclastic bunch of thinkers who are having an ongoing online discussion, they are committed to civil discussion with each other (I haven’t heard any of them threaten to punch a critic in the face yet). Admittedly they haven’t faced trouble in a University over their political views, then again neither has Harris and he is a member of the IDW.
When people interview members of the IDW they typically emphasise that they all hold different views on a variety of different topics and so, for example, Harris shouldn’t be held responsible for the views of Jordan Peterson. This is similar to the way it would have been a mistake to assume that all of the members of The Four Horsemen held the same views on consciousness. However, there is one clear difference with the four horsemen they claimed to be in agreement on their atheism and on the fact that atheists should be more critical towards religion than had typically been the case. So there were certain key features that the members of the group all shared in common and this was clearly delineated. With the IDW this is not the case. There seem to be no core beliefs that hold them together in a set that exclude people who are not members e.g. Massimo Pigliucci, Robert Wright etc. It is hard to view the IDW as anything other than a marketing plan of a group of friends to promote each-others work.
Even the members of the IDW don’t seem to agree on the significance of the group or what it stands for. In pod-cast Sam Harris portrayed the whole thing as a bit of a joke that isn’t meant to be taken that seriously. Eric Weinstein, on the other-hand, argued that he came up with the name IDW in a deliberate manner to implicitly force the mainstream media (who according to Weinstein have some problem with them), to inadvertently promote the group. It is as difficult to know whether Harris’s account of the IDW or Weinstein’s is meant to be the authoritative, as it is to know what the criterion for membership of the IDW is meant to be. At the moment the so called IDW seems to be little more than a marketing plan to bring attention to a group of podcasts.
The Vienna Circle and Logical Positivism
Of course, just because something has an inauspicious beginning doesn’t mean that it isn’t capable of being developed further once a bit more thought is put into the project. One of the more famous groups in the history of philosophy is the Vienna Circle, they are now remembered as logical positivists, but they began as a discussion group between a few PhD students interested in science, mathematics, logic and philosophy. The group eventually became known because of their joint manifesto on the nature of the movement, and popular books designed to spread it, but in the beginning they were a group held together by shared interests not by an official doctrine.
The unofficial head the group was Moritz Schlick who was trained as a physicist but was working as a professional philosopher. Schlick was known as “Einstein’s Pet Philosopher”, and wrote a book outlining the philosophical implications of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But he soon came under the sway of another great man: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus became a kind of bible for the group. His use of Frege and Russell’s logic to draw limits to what could sensibly be said about reality was exactly what the logical positivists were looking for in their battle against metaphysics. Wittgenstein seemed to have provided a clear criterion that could be used draw a line to demonstrate when claims that had been made were not empirical but were metaphysical nonsense.
However despite his work being central importance to the Vienna Circle, Wittgenstein wasn’t exactly a member. The group did manage to get him to attend some of the meetings, but he didn’t attend regularly and he didn’t approve of the views of many members of the group. Furthermore despite his work being of central importance to the group, there was not universal agreement on how his work was to be interpreted. Some members of the group such as Otto Neurath sneered at the reverence that Wittgenstein was held in by Schlick and Waisman; and argued that Wittgenstein was treated like the leader of a religious cult instead of as a fellow logician. Others such as Carnap was impressed with Wittgenstein’s work; but didn’t agree with all of it. One of the difficulties with Wittgenstein’s work was that it purported to divide statements into three subcategories: empirical propositions, logical and mathematical propositions (construed as tautologies), and metaphysical sentences (nonsensical sentences). The difficulty was that the propositions of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus were not in any obvious sense either tautologies or empirical propositions. They seemed on the face of it to be metaphysical claims which on Wittgenstein’s theory were nonsensical so the entire book could be construed as building up its arguments using nonsensical claims.
The important point to note is that the logical positivists didn’t all agree on how to deal with this problem. Despite being members of a single group they didn’t all agree on either the importance of Wittgenstein’s work, nor on how to deal with difficulties interpreting his Tractatus. And this wasn’t the only point of dispute within the group. There was an intractable debate on the status of protocall sentences that virtually none of the members of the circle could agree on. Nonetheless despite holding many disagreements there were core principles that held the group together. They were all empiricists, promoting a science based world view and who thought that the new logic was the best way of systematizing our best scientific theory of the world.
So the Logical Positivists, like the Four Horsemen, disagreed on many subjects but they were held together by a core set of beliefs on certain topics, in this way they differed from the IDW which doesn’t seem to be held together by any core beliefs that separates them from people who were not members of the IDW. However as we saw above when the Logical Positivists began meeting first they were just some like minded friends interested in a science based world view. It was only later that they developed an explicit manifesto about what the group represented. Likewise the IDW as far as I can see at the moment is nothing but a collection of friends who are promoting each-others work. But it is possible that like the Vienna Circle the IDW could eventually develop a set of core principles that they stand for. It is just that as things stand there seems to be no core principles they stand for that can be used to differentiate them from anyone else.
Of course even having a manifesto doesn’t guarantee unity on core topics. J B Watson’s ‘Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It’, could be viewed as the document that launched behavioural psychology . It has been a hundred years since Watson wrote his famous text and to this day a lot of scientists still identify as behaviourists. However, it would be a difficult task to extrapolate precisely what it is that makes one a behaviourist other than an emphasis on behaviour and scepticism about introspection as a tool.
Watson and Skinner are probably the two most famous behaviourists, they disagreed on many things. Watson was a stimulus response theorist, while Skinner used the three term contingency to explicate behaviour. Watson argued that we couldn’t study private events scientifically, while Skinner argued that private events are a form of behaviour that can be studied in the same way as any other behaviour. However, even amongst the neo-behaviourists who tried to move beyond Watson’s behaviourism there wasn’t a homogenous set of beliefs held by all of them. Thus Edward C Tolman believed that it was acceptable for a behaviourist to use inferred constructs, and cognitive concepts, Clark L Hull argued that behaviourists could use inferred constructs but not cognitive concepts, while Skinner argued against inferred constructs, and cognitive concepts (‘Logical Positivism and Behaviourism’ p. 305). While Hull argued that behaviourism should be a deductive science, Skinner and Clark argued that it should be an inductive science (ibid p. 305).
Tollman considered himself a behaviourist and is considered a behaviourist to this day, however given that he allowed cognitive constructs and inferred entities it is difficult to see why his views should be considered any different than those of a contemporary cognitive scientist. Behaviourism started as a reaction against the introspective tradition in psychology and most cognitive scientists would agree that introspection is a bad tool to rely on in science. With some behaviourists such as Tolman it is hard to find a line that distinguishes them from non-behaviourists; whereas with others such as Skinner the line is a bit clearer.
Behaviourism like both logical positivism and the four horsemen of atheism was largely defined by what they were against; Introspective Methods in psychology, Metaphysics and a belief in God. In the hundred or so years since Behaviourism was first proposed as a method, it has branched off in many different directions; methodological behaviourism, radical behaviourism, applied behavioural analysis, relational frame theory etc. Some behavioural theories can be clearly distinguished from other branches of psychology such as cognitive science, while it more difficult to distinguish some kinds of behaviourism from cognitive science.
It is clear though what it was the behaviourists were reacting against and that the movement developed in concrete ways and was successful in dealing with most of the problems that it set itself. This distinguishes it from the IDW, it is unclear who they are opposing, what makes them different than people who aren’t members of the group, and what would constitute the group being successful.
In our comparison of the IDW with other groups we have noted that unlike all of the other groups there appears to be no clear criterion as to what makes someone a member of the group. This isn’t a devastating indictment of the group, as it is possible that overtime they will develop a coherent ethos. Nonetheless as things stand the IDW is a group of individuals that seems to be grouped together on the basis of mutual marketing and nothing else.