Peter Finke – Gero Jenner. A case of doppelgangerism?

This week I encountered an amazing book “Mut zum Gaiazän” (a possible translation of the German title would be “Let’s embrace the Gaiacene”). The book didn’t amaze me because I found its contents particularly new or exciting. Quite the opposite. It seemed familiar to me from the start because it deals with just about all the issues that have preoccupied myself over the past thirty years. The parallels between my own spiritual biography and that of Mr. Finke are unmistakable – but so are the enormous differences.

First of all, the parallels. Both of us started with following an intellectual current, the world-famous exponent of which was Noam Chomsky. Finke, as he states himself, played with the idea of non-empirical linguistics (To me, a non-empirical linguistics seemed possible at that time, 73). The idea is by no means far-fetched, for Chomsky realized his general theory of language in precisely this way. He believed that we could talk about basic structural features of language  – all languages – without knowing more than our own native tongue. Such a view was completely alien to the best German tradition, as embodied by men like Franz Bopp, Wilhelm v. Humboldt, and the Schlegel brothers. To talk about language without knowing at least a good number of different specimens would have seemed as ridiculous to them as any astronomer who only observed one single star. As shown by my book “The Principles of Language: towards trans-Chomskyan Linguistics“, I – in contrast to Finke – consider the disregard of linguistic facts, i.e. a “non-empirical linguistics”, to be quite as absurd. Finke and I thus approached the same goal on quite different paths. 

Surprising is our agreement on the philosophical level. Finke, a philosopher of science, resolutely opposes the dominance of Analytic Philosophy (The horizon of analytic philosophy was … too narrow, too rigid, too little future-oriented. It stabilizes the Anthropocene, 95). My book “Creative Reason – a Synthetic Philosophy of Freedom in Nature and Man” espouses the same conviction. It takes issue with a philosophical tradition that knows only what is necessary – in my view this is an overly narrow conception of scientific theory. But like Finke, I am not claiming that analytic philosophy is wrong, it is just too narrow. I even go one step further, for I always deeply admired Bertrand Russell, arguably the most influential father of this philosophical trend. I admired him both for his masterfully lucid and witty style and for his moral enthusiasm. But precisely because I so much respected this man, I felt justified in making a fundamental criticism. If science and technology today dominate the entire globe, they do so because the laws of nature exist independently of man, i.e. independently of our will and desires. But not so morality and aesthetics – here human freedom, i.e. our wanting and desires, come into play. And the diversity of cultures is based on freedom. Finke sees the limits of Analytic Philosophy, but I would argue that he does not sufficiently distinguish the two realms of freedom and necessity. The dividing line must be drawn far more sharply (see Bertrand Russell’s Fatal Error).

We agree again on the choice of our favorite opponents. In my opinion, Finke quite rightly mocks Steven Pinker’s shallow optimism. (The American best-selling author Steven Pinker embodies this optimism. He never tires of making it clear to us that we are on the right track, 83). However, it should be noted that Pinker is not just anyone, but a man of encyclopedic knowledge and outstanding dialectical intelligence. One must indeed be able to muster very strong mental firepower to stand up to such an authority. In my book “Noam Chomsky as a Linguist” I have accused Pinker of dishonesty proving my point concretely: Pinker knows more than he is willing to admit.

By the way, Pinker’s friendship with Richard Dawkins is well known. The latter too is criticized both by Finke (evolutionary biologist and religion-hater Richard Dawkins, 30) and by me. Dawkins, however, possesses a quality that we Germans usually lack – unfortunately myself as well as Mr. Finke – namely that special English wit and humor that I had already admired in Bertrand Russell. I don’t know how far Finke deepens his criticism of Pinker and Dawkins elsewhere, but I took the brilliantly written text “The God Delusion” very seriously and would not label its author simply as a “hater of religion“. After all, Dawkins is only one link in a long chain that stretches from Voltaire and Feuerbach to Russell and Karl-Heinz Deschner. What he says is worthy of criticism not because he falsifies the facts – apparently no one could convict him of such abuse – but because he completely omits the equally numerous facts that speak for the religious interpretation of the world. My book “The Dawkins Delusion” is therefore more than mere criticism – it is a defense of religious thought against its all too facile critics.

In this context, another parallel between Finke and Jenner deserves to be mentioned. Today it is little more than a common truism that the Enlightenment replaced God with Homo Deus. But it takes the courage of a Karl Popper to insist on the fundamental limits of our knowledge in the face of such self-assurance. Finke too shows this courage (he demands a personal admission of non-omniscience, 113), but he remains, as usual, rather “non-empirical”, i.e. abstract. Popper – and before him David Hume and Immanuel Kant – had explored these limits in a much more concrete way; and to remain at least as concrete was also the aim I had set myself in the book “The Miraculous and its Enemies” – not by chance did I borrow the title from Popper!

Looking at another parallel, one could almost think of thought transferrence. We both object to a kind of specialization that can’t see the forest for the trees. Finke expresses his objection quite nicely: Our knowledge is always surrounded by non-knowledge, and this teaches a different modesty than the blinkeredness of the specialists, 137. He probably wanted to avoid this danger by elevating the layman to the status of scientist: Lob der Laien – Eine Ermunterung zum Selberforschen (Praise of the Layman) and Citizen Science. Both works are unknown to me; I only became aware of them when reading the present book. For all the criticism of specialization, which plays a particular role in my latest book (published for the time being on Amazon without an ISBN), “The Predictable Collapse of Techno-Civilization“, I would, however, doubt that the exponentially progressing fragmentation of science and technology can be stopped by taking it out of the hands of professionals and putting it into those of laymen. Again, I agree with Peter Finke about the goal, but my approach is quite different. Following Hume, Kant, Popper and last but not least their earliest ancestor, Socrates, I locate the fundamental doubt about the possible range of human cognition not in the specialist but in every thinking human being, because in this ability each of us is on an equal footing with the greatest thinkers. For me this is a central insight, which I substantiate in detail in the already mentioned book “The Micraculous and its Enemies”.

Finally, I notice one common psychological characteristic. Peter Finke and Gero Jenner are outsiders with unusual theses that run counter to the mainstream. This has the inevitable effect that they both have to be on their guard, lest they be mistaken for crackpots. For many, an outsider is by definition a crank, even more so if he has deliberately made himself an outsider. As I gather from Wikipedia, Finke had the courage to give up his professorship and thus his livelihood because he disagreed with the Bologna reform. I outraged a habilitation committee by presenting a new linguistic theory instead of the expected indological paper on Patanjali. Understandably, this impertinence could not be forgiven even by a scholarship holder of the renowned Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes.

Yes, Finke, just like Jenner, seems to see much honor in making many enemies. The so-called gender mainstreaming – what a ghastly word for a ghastly thing! – is a thorn in his side too (it is anti-diversity, power-oriented, megalomaniac, 128). However, here too, I miss an empirical justification for this rejection – apart from mere indignation. I argue the other way around. See Warum ich leider nicht modern bin (Why, unfortunately, I am not a populist).

After so many similarities, which even extend to common enemies, it is time to emphasize the fundamental differences. There is something to be said for the suggestion that Mr. Finke is personally a more likeable person than Gero Jenner. This may be guessed from the fact that he lets completely unknown people have their say in his book on quite a few pages, being not at all bothered by the fact that they only convey attitudes, but no empirical findings of any significance. In my book “The Predictable Collapse” such people do not appear. I talk about facts, harsh facts, especially exponential progressions – the harbingers of almost any kind of final shutdown.

And here lies an essential difference, which can also be seen as an antithesis. Finke, as he himself admits, had in mind “non-empirical” linguistics. What he presents in “Mut zum Gaiazän” is a “non-empirical” social science, a “non-empirical” political science and a “non-empirical” ecological science. On two hundred pages the author formulates his wishful thinking for a better world – a mythical Gaiazene – and rejects with equal devotion – but without taking the trouble of empirical proofs – the prevailing Anthropocene. Compare this with “Enlightenment Now”, where Pinker takes the trouble on five hundred pages to provide empirical evidence that people never had it so good as in the present time. Since nobody can conjure an ideal world merely from out of his head, without taking the real word as his model, the Gaiacene sketched by Finke necessarily carries many features of the pre-industrial world without all those negative side-effects produced by industrialization during the last two hundred years. In other words, Finke’s Gaiacene embodies all the amenities of industrial “progress” so much craved for by most people, but without its destructive consequences. My question to Finke: Why do we need courage to want such a world?

The implicit idealization of the past seems wrong to me. To clarify this point was my concern in the book “Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in History“. But even “The Predicted Collapse” does not shun a rather short but realistic summary of past living conditions. It is an empirical fact that in all populous cultures about eighty percent of the population were condemned to an often slave-like existence. This fact is completely overlooked by Finke. In a different passage he even resorts to a rather “non-empirical” idealization of the past: The revenge rituals of the Indians with scalping and torture pole really existed, but only our Christian moral glasses let them appear particularly cruel, 170. No, the murder of one’s own fellow men was always cruel and terrible, no matter whether it was ordered by Hitler, Stalin, Putin or an Indian chief – there is certainly no need for Christian moral glasses. Those who relativize crimes in this way run the risk of being suspected of ideological whitewashing.

In my strong emphasis on empiricism lies the decisive contrast between Finke and me. That’s why the result I arrive at is certainly less enticing. I speak of collapse and sketch six future scenarios, none of which gives us an ideal world; at best it will be possible for us to avert the catastrophe in time and to survive with a far lower (but not necessarily worse) standard of living. But this perspective presupposes a united mankind. I had already emphasized this realistic view in the book “Yes, we can – No, we must!”, which attracted the attention of Herman Daly, a grand master of the ecological movement.

Let me conclude this review of Finke and Jenner with a philosophical remark. Platon has made the attraction of the opposites responsible for the fact that these cannot live without each other. Metaphorically speaking, man and woman are half spheres, which only through their union create the symbol of perfection, a sphere. Conversely, we may conclude that too much similarity produces an opposite force, namely repulsion. While reading this book, a light suddenly dawned on me. I became aware that I had already come into contact with Mr. Finke earlier – about ten to twenty years ago – and in a very unpleasant way for that matter, because he made it clear to me that my remarks on linguistics were deeply repugnant to him. In hindsight, I think I understand his reaction. At that time, he himself was probably looking for the diversity of languages, their infinite richness of nuances. I, on the other hand, was committed to the same goal as Chomsky (but in contrast to him in an empirical way): I wanted to find out whether human languages obey common constraints that may be described as laws. Our brief acquaintance broke off abruptly at that time.