Discussion at Revolution Books in Berkeley

Revolution, Religion, Epistemology

March 2, 2018 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From a reader:

We just had a small but exciting discussion at Revolution Books in Berkeley. I want to share what we did and some of what was provoked in the discussion because I think this is an essential pathway of engagement with Bob Avakian (BA) that we should pursue, particularly among students on the college campuses. And it’s the type of thing that Revolution Books—as the political, cultural, and intellectual center of a movement for an actual revolution—should be known for.

Earlier today I was walking thru Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus and passed by a young woman on the steps (the Mario Savio steps) preaching emotionally about how she was “lost” and now is “found.” On the one hand, there is the reactionary biblical worldview and political program that she “found.” On the other hand, how many students and young people are feeling “lost” and searching for fundamental answers? I know I was to some extent when I was in college. As BA pointed out, one of the things that is objectively posed for youth and students, and many grapple with, are the “existential” questions—not just “why is the world like this and can it be different,” but “what is the meaning and purpose of human existence” and “how should I go through the world?” If we are not in the mix on this, the religious folks will be there with their faith and their Purpose for you... or you’ll end up with the default, finding your “own truth,” meaning and purpose, just looking out for yourself and your immediate circles.

And WTF, why are the Christians the only ones with passionate intensity and conviction to stand up on those steps and tell the world what they believe in?! As we know, things were a little different when Mario Savio was in that same spot challenging everyone to put their body on the gears of the machine. It wasn’t just that progressive and radical politics were ascendant—as opposed to Christian and alt-right fascist politics—but also that the movements of opposition were not so paralyzed by the relativism and identity politics we see today, where everyone is told to “stay in your lane” and only speak from personal experience. And, as BA pointed out in the Q&A on students (Part 2 of the Q&A sessions for his filmed talk THE TRUMP/PENCE REGIME MUST GO! In The Name of Humanity, We REFUSE To Accept a Fascist America, A Better World IS Possible ), it was also the whole mix of political struggle and debate along with wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, the wrangling about poetry and philosophy, which got people thinking critically and asking the big questions.

In that spirit, and in response to a Christian event on campus that raised the question “Is there evidence for God,” we decided to have our own discussion with students on “Revolution, Religion, and Epistemology” based on four quotes (see right column) from the chapter from BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian, on “Understanding the World.” We started the discussion with a clip from Bob Avakian’s dialogue with Cornel West on Revolution and Religion: The Fight for Emancipation and the Role of Religion (minutes 45 to 57), where BA describes, beautifully and poetically, what a radically different world would be like, but also why we need a scientific approach for that to get there, humorously comparing/contrasting different kinds of bad doctors up against a real doctor. Then we read the BAsics quotes together and opened it up.

Right off the bat, everyone said they agreed with the point from the BAsics 4:10 about truth being objective (although one student joked that things like food preferences are of course subjective). Another student pointed out that people who claim that there is no truth are caught in the paradox of having just made an objective truth claim. Someone else raised the question of whether ethics is objective. She also said that while she thought the natural world could be studied scientifically, she didn’t think that human society could be. This launched us into a whole discussion about philosophical materialism (that all of reality, including human society, consists of matter in motion) and philosophical idealism (that reality is just an extension of ideas).

One student brought up the question of whether energy is something other than matter or whether it’s a form of matter. He also raised the question of numbers, arguing that numbers are not objective (there’s no objective thing that’s a number), so how does materialism explain that? Are they like a metaphysical “Platonic” idea, a universal that exists independent of the particulars? Someone else argued that no, numbers correspond to the structure of nature—they are a concentration of the fact that particular things exist—pointing to books on the table and counting 1, 2, 3. Another person raised Wittgenstein’s [an Austrian-British philosopher] point about language, that it doesn’t exist independently of our use of it, that the book that was pointed to could be 1 or it could be 267 (the number of pages) depending on what we were trying to say.

From there we talked about the difference between science and logic, that an important part of being rational is that the conclusions must follow logically from the premises, but science is necessary to tell whether the premises are true. For example, “All Black people are good at basketball. Bob is Black. Therefore Bob is good at basketball.” That is a logically consistent statement, but it is a racist lie, because its first premise is false. We contrasted an idealist approach of going for “internal consistency” versus a materialist approach of testing whether or not something is true.

At the same time, we also contrasted the empiricist approach of people like Hume, who argued that all you can really know is what you perceive, with the dialectical materialist approach of looking for the underlying causes, dynamics and larger relations behind the perception. We talked about the example BA gives in the essay on “‘A Leap of Faith’ and a Leap to Rational Knowledge: Two Very Different Kinds of Leaps, Two Radically Different Worldviews and Methods”: If you don’t know the rules of American football and watch a game for the first time, it appears to be just be a bunch of big guys banging into each other. But after a while, you can make the leap from perceptual to conceptual, from experiential to rational knowledge, and come to understand the patterns and underlying rules that govern the game.

One student raised the question of whether the scientific method itself is just an “assumption,” a “leap of faith.” What if another method comes along in 20 years that’s better? Someone argued against that, saying that the scientific method is not arbitrary, but is drawn from reality, and not just the body of scientific knowledge, but the method itself deepens and develops as we learn more. At the same time, from an evidence-based perspective, if God comes down from the heavens with a flaming sword and reveals the Truth to us, we’d have to recognize that!

A student who describes herself as “spiritual” referred to the doctor analogy that BA gave in the film. She agreed that there is a problem with the identity politics approach that truth is simply experience, because then, like BA says about the doctor that just repeats back to you the symptoms you already know, we can’t get beyond the surface to understand the underlying causes of things. She said she’s been thinking about the difference between law (lower case, derived from society) and Law (upper case, divinely inspired). She raised that maybe we need Law to “cure” the disease.

At this point a Muslim student wanted to raise some other important differences. He said he disagreed with BAsics 4:17 that religion was just created out of ignorance. And he said that in a lot of Native American tribes, religion wasn’t tied to class divisions. He argued that indigenous people and Islamic scholars already had science and that the Koran is not in contradiction with science, and in fact is in line with it (citing for example a passage in the Koran about life coming from water). He contrasted the North American indigenous corn/beans/squash agricultural combination (which benefit each other when planted together)—but which is explained by them religiously/mythologically in terms of “three sisters,” as opposed to scientifically—with the soil and people destroying “science” of agribusiness companies like Monsanto. He also raised, regarding BAsics 4:12, that there was Islamic evolutionary science that Darwin drew from, and that Darwin himself had racist ideas. He also said that while he does believe in the science of evolution, and that BA is right in the film when he says the Genesis story cannot be literally true, he believes that all this was set in motion by an original creator.

Someone else made the point that the key question (including in BA’s quote about evolution) is what method are you using. He said that this student was mixing up two very different things—evolution, for which there is a lot of evidence, and a creator, for which there is none—and trying to merge together two different, and opposed, methods. He also argued that the fact that important truths have been arrived at by people who also hold religious views doesn’t make those religious views true. For example, Isaac Newton was in many ways a religious fanatic. His scientific breakthroughs don’t somehow legitimize his fanaticism. In relation to all this we also talked about the concept (that BA has made a core part of the new communism) that communism “embraces but not replace” other spheres of inquiry and endeavor, that truth can and does come from many quarters which communism engages and learns from.

At this point, one of the students was like, “Wait, I’m confused, is communism a political system or is it more than that? It seems like a whole method for investigating reality.” Yes, we said, it’s both! It is the most thoroughly and consistently scientific method and approach—not science in one realm and faith in another, not science for the “natural” world and relativism for the social world. At the same time, it is a political project to change the world, which flows from and can only be achieved by applying that science. But it is not simply a political project in the narrow sense. We talked about one of the problems with the first wave of communist revolutions was too limited a conception of the “material needs” the revolution is aiming to meet. We quoted BA quoting the bible that “man cannot live by bread alone,” and ended by digging into BAsics 4:30 and why awe and wonder, the imagination, and “the need to be amazed” are at the heart of this new communism and its exciting scientific method.

While there was A LOT that was still unresolved, and lots of important questions were still left on the table, everyone, including the communists leading the discussion, was provoked to think deeper and really enjoyed the discussion. While I felt a real tension between the wide-ranging and abstract grappling in the realm of philosophy and giving people a sense of why all this matters and what it has to do with changing this fucked up world, I think it was important to “go there,” to wrangle with these ideas in their own right. And through the course of it I do think we opened these students’ minds to a whole new method and a new understanding of communism, and opened a doorway to BA’s whole project and body of work. At the end we strategized together about continuing the conversation, not just amongst ourselves, but spreading this kind of engagement with BA to other students on the campus.


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