In person, Noam Chomsky, now 77, is soft-spoken and considerate, looking very much like what he has become — a respected elder statesman among the Western intellectual elite. Last year he topped the Prospect/Foreign Policy list of 100 global public intellectuals, beating out Richard Dawkins, Václav Havel and Salman Rushdie, among others. But this is an ironic honor because Chomsky is also in some respects the anti-intellectual’s intellectual, quick to argue that most other elites have prostituted themselves through what he describes as “service to power.”
Chomsky has been a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., for more than 50 years. In that time, he has managed to become doubly famous — first for his pioneering work in linguistics, which challenged behaviorism in psychology, and second for his well-publicized criticisms of American foreign policy.
When asked about suitable role models for intellectuals today, Chomsky points beyond the chattering classes to the ancient Jewish prophets, including Jesus. This highlights something less known about Chomsky, who was born in Philadelphia to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. While internationally famous as a critic of America’s involvement in Vietnam and Iraq, he does so in the role of a prophet warning the people against the false idol of imperialism. Not surprisingly, the passions of this son of a Hebrew scholar rise up from the well-read pages of the Torah.
When Science & Theology News’ Matt Donnelly spoke with Chomsky in his office at MIT, he assumed, with obvious yet understated relish, the role of cultural critic. Below, in his own words, Chomsky provides a rare glimpse into what he thinks about the proper role of science in the public sphere, how atheism borders on incoherence, and why evolution can never speak to the existence of God.
On Western intellectuals
People that are called intellectuals, their record is primarily service to power. It starts off in our earliest historical records, in the Bible for example. If you look at what the prophets were doing, they were what we would call dissident intellectuals. They were giving geopolitical critique, they were warning that the [Hebrew] kings were going to destroy the country. They were calling for support for suffering people, widows and orphans and so on. So they were what we call dissident intellectuals.
Jesus himself, and most of the message of the Gospels, is a message of service to the poor, a critique of the rich and the powerful, and a pacifist doctrine. And it remained that way, that’s what Christianity was up until Constantine. Constantine shifted it so the cross, which was the symbol of persecution of somebody working for the poor, was put on the shield of the Roman Empire. It became the symbol for violence and oppression, and that’s pretty much what the church has been until the present. In fact, it’s quite striking in recent years, elements of the church — in particular the Latin American bishops, but not only them — tried to go back to the Gospels.
The people who we call intellectuals are no different from anyone else, except that they have particular privilege. They’re mostly well-off, they have training, they have resources. As privilege increases, responsibility increases. And if somebody’s working 50 hours a day to put food on the table and never got through high school and so on, their opportunities are less than the people who are called intellectuals. That doesn’t mean that they’re any less intellectual. In fact, some of the best educated people I have known never got past fourth grade. But they have fewer opportunities, and opportunity confers responsibility.
Science talks about very simple things, and asks hard questions about them. As soon as things become too complex, science can’t deal with them. The reason why physics can achieve such depth is that it restricts itself to extremely simple things, abstracted from the complexity of the world. As soon as an atom gets too complicated, maybe helium, they hand it over to chemists. When problems become too complicated for chemists, they hand it over to biologists. Biologists often hand it over to the sociologists, and they hand it over to the historians, and so on. But it’s a complicated matter: Science studies what’s at the edge of understanding, and what’s at the edge of understanding is usually fairly simple. And it rarely reaches human affairs. Human affairs are way too complicated. In fact even understanding insects is an extremely complicated problem in the sciences. So the actual sciences tell us virtually nothing about human affairs.
When we talk about religion, we mean a particular form of religion, the form that ended up dominating Western society. But if you take a look at other societies in the world, their religious beliefs are very different.
People have a right to believe whatever they like, including irrational beliefs. In fact, we all have irrational beliefs, in a certain sense. We have to. If I walk out the door, I have an irrational belief that the floor is there. Can I prove it? You know if I’m paying attention to it I see that it’s there, but I can’t prove it. In fact, if you’re a scientist, you don’t prove anything. The sciences don’t have proofs, what they have is surmises. There’s a lot of nonsense these days about evolution being just a theory. Everything’s just a theory, including classical physics! If you want proofs you go to arithmetic; in arithmetic you can prove things. But you stipulate the axioms. But in the sciences you’re trying to discover things, and the notion of proof doesn’t exist.
You could be an intellectually respectable atheist in the 17th century, or in the fifth century. In fact, I don’t even know what an atheist is. When people ask me if I’m an atheist, I have to ask them what they mean. What is it that I’m supposed to not believe in? Until you can answer that question I can’t tell you whether I’m an atheist, and the question doesn’t arise.
I don’t see anything logical in being agnostic about the Greek gods. There’s no agnosticism about ectoplasm [in the non-biological sense]. I don’t see how one can be an agnostic when one doesn’t know what it is that one is supposed to believe in, or reject. There are plenty of things that are unknown, but are assumed reasonably to exist, even in the most basic sciences. Maybe 90 percent of the mass-energy in the universe is called “dark,” because nobody knows what it is.
Science is an exploration of very hard questions. Not to underrate the theory of evolution, that’s a terrific intellectual advance, but it tells you nothing about whether there’s whatever people believe in when they talk about God. It doesn’t even talk about that topic. It talks about how organisms evolve.
On “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”
Steve Gould [was] a friend. But I don’t quite agree with him [that science-and-religion are “Non-Overlapping Magisteria”]. Science and religion are just incommensurable. I mean, religion tells you, ‘Here’s what you ought to believe.’ Judaism’s a little different, because it’s not really a religion of belief, it’s a religion of practice. If I’d asked my grandfather, who was an ultra-orthodox Jew from Eastern Europe. ‘Do you believe in God?’ he would have looked at me with a blank stare, wouldn’t know what I’m talking about. And what you do is you carry out the practices. Of course, you say ‘I believe in this and that,’ but that’s not the core of the religion. The core of the religion is just the practices you carry out. And yes, there is a system of belief behind it somewhere, but it’s not intended to be a picture of the world. It’s just a framework in which you carry out practices that are supposed to be appropriate.
On a holistic view of the world
What each of us has is direct experience. So does every other animal, they have some kind of experience. A bee sees the world differently than we do because it is a different organism. And other organisms just try to work their way around the world of their experience. Humans, as far as we know, are unique in the animal world in that they’re reflective creatures. That is, they try to make some sense out of their experience.
There are all kinds of ways of doing this: some are called myth, some are called magic, some are called religion. Science is a particular one — it’s a particular form of trying to gain some understanding of our experiences, organize them. It relies on evidence, coherent argument, principles that have some explanatory depth, if possible. And that mode of inquiry, which has been, particularly in the last couple hundred years, extremely successful, has its scope and its limits. What the limits are we don’t really know. In fact, if you look at the history of science seriously, in the seventeenth century there was a major challenge to the existing scientific approach. I mean, it was assumed by Galileo and Descartes and classical scientists that the world would be intelligible to us, that all we had to do was think about it and it would be intelligible.
Newton disproved them. He showed that the world is not intelligible to us. Newton demonstrated that there are no machines, that there’s nothing mechanical in the sense in which it was assumed that the world was mechanical. He didn’t believe it — in fact he felt his work was an absurdity — but he proved it, and he spent the rest of his life trying to disprove it. And other scientists did later on. I mean, it’s often said that Newton got rid of the ghost in the machine, but it’s quite the opposite. Newton exorcised the machine. He left the ghost.
And by the time that sank in, which was quite some time, it just changed the conception of science. Instead of trying to show that the world is intelligible to us, we recognized that it’s not intelligible to us. But we just say, ‘Well, you know, unfortunately that’s the way it works. I can’t understand it but that’s the way it works.’ And then the aim of science is reduced from trying to show that the world is intelligible to us, which it is not, to trying to show that there are theories of the world which are intelligible to us. That’s what science is: It’s the study of intelligible theories which give an explanation of some aspect of reality.
Scientists typically don’t study the phenomenal world. That’s why they do experiments. Our phenomenal world is way too complex. If you took videotapes of what’s happening outside your window, the physicists and chemists and biologists couldn’t do anything with it. So what you try to do is try to find extremely simple cases — that’s called experiments — in which you try to get rid of a lot of things that you guess are probably not relevant to finding the main principles. And then you see how far you can go from there — the fact is, not very far.
When people talk about what science tells you about human affairs, it’s mostly a joke. Incidentally, I don’t think religion tells you very much either. So it’s not that science is displacing religion, there’s nothing to displace.