Mattias Desmet, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ghent, Belgium, has been making headway as a critic of chosen policies since the corona crisis began. In May this year, he published his book The Psychology of Totalitarianism in which he puts his view in a broader perspective: if we are not vigilant, the world is fast heading towards a totalitarian society brought about by mass formation, a kind of hypnotic state in which a large part of the population supposedly finds itself.
Written in collaboration with Peter Zegers
Although statements made by Desmet on corona had long been opposed, it was only recently that he really came to prominence. On a tour along US talk shows and podcasts to promote the English translation of his book, he also made a stop on Alex Jones’ show. Appearing aside this convicted conspiracy thinker and making rather sweeping statements about open-heart surgery under hypnosis prompted a boom in articles criticising Desmet in Belgian newspapers.
In this article, we want to show that the slip-up at Jones’s show is not a rare carelessness on Desmet’s part, but that his book is full of it. We will leave out the specific statements on corona for the time being, what nonsense Desmet brings about that is hardly original and the refutations are the same as you can find, for example, as critiques of the Great Barrington Declaration. Desmet also sees the corona crisis more as an accidental manifestation of mass formation; it could also have been another global crisis, such as the climate problem.
We discuss the sloppiness, outright mistakes and deceptions further on, chapter by chapter. We use the English translation of Desmet’s original Dutch book De Psychologie van Totalitarisme which was released in January. We may well add new findings later, but this post is already very long 😉
Sloppiness and blinkers
The first thing we noticed was the sloppy handling of quotations and sources. It often proved difficult to retrieve the quotes from the original sources. These are also often incomplete, distorting their purport. Furthermore, Desmet proved to have little affinity with philosophers and historians, because he nowhere addresses the discussions that have been going on in professional circles for at least a century (in the case of Gustave Le Bon) or at least half a century (in the case of Hannah Arendt). Desmet applies his own idiosyncratic interpretation of the oeuvre of his main masters and ignores critical comments from experts. As if nothing has been published in the field of social psychology since Le Bon and as if nothing has ever been written about totalitarianism after Arendt.
Desmet’s entire thinking is based on a superficial analogy with the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. Nowhere does he address why the rise of these ideologies can be compared to the present day.
It sticks to the vague notion that Nazism, Stalinism and the measures against Covid-19 all sprung from the same ‘mechanistic, rationalist science’ as it took shape in Europe since the 16th century. Central figures in this, besides Galileo Galilei, include Isaac Newton and René Descartes. According to Desmet, however, the latest insights into physics teach us that these views are outdated and that we need to ‘transcend reason’ and find access to the ‘essence’ of things through mysticism and poetry.
In our view, Desmet has misunderstood Chaos Theory, Quantum Mechanics and Systems Theory, and makes a fallacy anyway by seeing in the description of reality a model for the organisation of society (the naturalistic fallacy).
If the law-like course of the process Desmet describes were true, it is strange that this development was only manifested in Germany and Russia. So what about the most industrialised countries like the United States and the United Kingdom? Why did no mass formation that led to totalitarianism arise there? Desmet does not answer this, indeed, the question does not even occur to him. Apparently, he has a blind spot for developments that do not fit into his ideology.
Hannah Arendt‘s insights are of great importance in Desmet’s argument, and some central concepts he borrows from her work. For instance, Arendt often talks about the masses. Unfortunately, she has not developed the concept very well and some contradictions can be seen. The concept of Totalitarianism is also not really elaborated on by Arendt.
Strong criticism has been voiced from academic circles about how Desmet is using Arendt to propagate his own views. The Karl Jaspers Society of North America tried to organise a discussion with Desmet in May, but he dropped out at the last minute without giving a reason. However, the criticism of his intended opponents can be read on the website of the journal Existenz (Vol 15/2). In his introduction, Helmut Wautischer notes, “each one of the five reviewers identified serious flaws in Desmet’s argumentation on a wide range of topics, including misrepresentation of Arendt’s philosophy, quotation of alleged psychiatric evidence out of context, misrepresentation of data, and display of lack of related historical, literary, and philosophical knowledge with regard to the human condition.”
Christophe Busch (Director Hannah Arendt Institute, Belgium) also wrote a critique worth reading.
Gustave Le Bon
Desmet also draws heavily on the work of French sociologist Gustave Le Bon, best known for La psychologie des foules (1895). Although it is clear to everyone that Le Bon was a representative of ‘scientific racism’, that does not seem to have prevented Desmet from uncritically adopting his insights on the psychology of the masses. He makes no mention of the detrimental role played by Le Bon’s racist and misogynistic theories. That Le Bon expressed his support for Mussolini’s fascism and Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship in Spain is apparently no objection to Desmet either (Robert A. Nye, The Origins of Crowd Psychology: Gustave Le Bon and the Crisis of Mass Democracy in the Third Republic (1975, p. 177)).
A third major source that Desmet cites as a great authority is Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Again, Desmet does not appear to be very knowledgeable about Solzhenitsyn’s political background. Indeed, he is far from an objective source when it comes to the history of the Soviet Union and Tsarist Russia. He glorifies the pre-October Revolution period and ignores the numerous shortcomings of tsarism. A good example is Solzhenitsyn’s view of the history of the Jewish people under tsarism in his book Двести лет вместе (Two Hundred Years Together). It would go too far to provide a detailed critique against this work, but in summary we can say that this is a highly tendentious work. (For a detailed critique, see: Antoine Lévy, Alexandre Soljénitsyne, Deux siècles ensemble : 1795-1995. ” Mais quand même… ” in Revue des Études Slaves tome 75, fascicule 3-4 (2004) pp. 519-531)). But this was already evident from the quotes from The Gulag Archipelago cited by Desmet. For instance, the latter claims that the number of executions before the October Revolution was relatively low (17 per year). See: Death sentences in Tsarist Russia
Part 1: Science and Its Pychological Effects
Chapter 1: Science and Ideology
Uncertainty principle – Physicists and mystic eastern knowledge – Cranking up the New Age Bullshit Generator I – Science is broken
Chapter 2: Science and Its Practical Applications
Mass media’s pernicious influence – Tylenol – Monsanto
Chapter 3: The Artificial Society
Galileo – Natural versus artificial– Cranking up the New Age Bullshit Generator II – Totalitarianism is ultimately the logical extension of a generalized obsession with science
Chapter 4: The (Im)measurable Universe
Miscarriage rate in vaccinated pregnant women – Cranking up the New Age Bullshit Generator III
Chapter 5: The Desire for a Master
Thoreau’s Walden and the fear of physical discomfort – Psychoanalytical gibberish – The punishment for forbidden relations at the Ta-Ta-Thi
Part 2: Mass Formation and Totalitarianism
Chapter 6: The Rise of the Masses
‘Dull bureaucrats and technocrats’ – Asch conformity experiments – Collective hallucinations
Chapter 7: The Leaders of the Masses
Jews, the Holocaust and mass formation – Hitler wanted to eliminate ordinary Germans with heart and lung problems – Death sentences in Tsarist Russia
Chapter 8: Conspiracy and Ideology
The Sierpiński triangle
Part 3: Beyond the Mechanistic Worldview
Chapter 9: The Dead versus the Living Universe
Galileo & Fibonacci – Irrational numbers – Totalitarianism is the symptom of a naive belief in the omnipotence of human rationality
Chapter 10: Matter and Spirit
Intelligent with a minimal brain – Super granny Laura Schultz – Pychogenic death – Surgery under hypnosis – Louis Pasteur’s deathbed confession – Claude Lévi-Strauss
Chapter 11: Science and Truth
The poetry of Niels Bohr – De New Age Bullshit Generator aangezwengeld IV
Totalitarianism is the defining feature of the Enlightenment tradition
Totalitarianism is not a historical coincidence. In the final analysis, it is the logical consequence of mechanistic thinking and the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality. As such, totalitarianism is the defining feature of the Enlightenment tradition. Several authors have postulated this, but it hasn’t yet been subject to a psychological analysis. This book fills that gap. We will analyze the symptom of totalitarianism and situate it within the broader context of the social phenomena of which it forms a part.
This is a brief summary of Desmet’s thesis. It is a clear strawman argument: there may have been a few people who really thought that rational thinking could answer everything, but they never achieved total control over a society. By contrast, the well-known totalitarian societies described, Nazism and Stalinism, excelled in promoting pseudoscience and other non-rational matters. Of course, the rise of Nazism and Stalinism is difficult to understand without closely studying the history that led to it, including the Enlightenment, but that is different from arguing that totalitarianism is actually already contained in the Enlightenment itself.
Nowhere does Desmet elaborate on what exactly the Enlightenment is, which thinkers were part of it or what diverse views they had on society, history and religion. He stops at a single mention of Immanuel Kant, while there is enormous diversity among the philosophers grouped under the term Enlightenment. It is difficult to lump together the diverse views of thinkers like Diderot, Voltaire, Hume, Moses Mendelssohn and Beccaria.
Chapter 1: Science and Ideology
The great physicists of the first half of the twentieth century proved in the most rigorous way that the core of matter cannot be separated from the observing subject. They demonstrated that the observation of a material object changes the object itself (“Looking at something, changes it,” Erwin Schrödinger declared).
Moreover, they relinquished the illusion that man could ever attain certainty. With his uncertainty principle, Werner Heisenberg demonstrated that it is impossible to unambiguously determine even purely material “facts,” such as the location in time and space of material particles.
Here Desmet pretends that (natural) science is running into a huge problem. Yes, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, for example, indicates that you cannot both determine the momentum and position of a particle with arbitrary accuracy, but Desmet makes it seem as if this phenomenon, which only really comes into play at the minuscule scale of elementary particles, would be a crucial setback to the idea that science can very accurately describe our world.
On a more human scale, we have long since run into other limitations. Predicting the weather, for instance, works quite well for a few days; the limitation is not in uncertainty at the quantum level, but in the limited amount of data you know and can use in complex calculations. Nor is this limitation a reason to rely more on the Enkhuizer Almanak, or something like that, for a longer-term forecast.
Physicists and mystic eastern knowledge
Encounters with that essence often result in what we might describe as the seminal religious experience—a religious experience that precedes and is untainted by religious institutions or dogma. Max Planck testified to that experience, in perhaps the most direct and vulnerable way: Science eventually arrives where religion once started, in a personal contact with the Unnameable.
Based on this experience, the physicists of the twentieth century reappraised the great religious and mystical writings, such as the Upanishads.
The fact that a few famous twentieth-century physicists also flirted with Eastern ‘wisdom’ probably says more about the spirit of the age than about truly profound insights that also hold up when serious philosophers of science examine them. But it is perfectly in line with Desmet’s view that truly important knowledge hides rather in the symbolism and metaphors of mystical and religious texts, which cannot easily be accessed with ratio.
Cranking up the New Age Bullshit Generator I
Throughout the book, Desmet treats the reader to paragraphs that appear very profound, but if you think about those for a moment you find out that they are rather trivial or seem to have been pulled straight from the New Age Bullshit Generator.
The faithful pursuit of Reason attained the highest and most sublime achievement: mapping its own boundaries. The human mind had accepted its own limitations and once more relocated the ultimate knowledge beyond and outside itself. The ultimate achievement of science is that it finally surrenders, that it comes to the realization that it cannot be the guiding principle for man. It is not human reason that is at the heart of the matter, but man as an individual who makes ethical and moral choices, man in relation to fellow man, man in relation to the unnameable, which, at the heart of things, speaks to him.
Science is broken
For Desmet, modern science has ceased to be a method of truth-telling (a term he borrows from the French philosopher Foucault). He points to a number of cases of scientific fraud that came out in recent decades and in particular the replication crisis:
All of this translated into a problem of replicability of scientific findings. To put it simply, this means that the results of scientific experiments were not stable. When several researchers performed the same experiment, they came to different findings. For example, in economics research, replication failed about 50 percent of the time, in cancer research about 60 percent of the time, and in biomedical research no less than 85 percent of the time. The quality of research was so atrocious that the world-renowned statistician John Ioannidis published an article bluntly entitled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Ironically, the studies that assessed the quality of research also came to diverging conclusions. This is perhaps the best evidence of how fundamental the problem is.
Desmet misleads the reader here by not pointing out what kind of research suffers most from the problems identified by Ioannidis, among others. If you look at the article where that huge 85 percent comes from, also by Ioannidis, you quickly see that the problem is mainly in small-scale observational research, which is not at all surprising. The authors are also not criticising that kind of research per se, rather they want to raise awareness so that possibly better decisions can be made when investing in research. They write: “Given the controversy that has surrounded this issue, it is important to note at the outset that these concerns about the irreproducibility of science do not invalidate the validity or legitimacy of the scientific method. Rather it is the rigorous, careful application of the scientific method that has translated into genuine improvements in human health and provided the substantial benefits we have enjoyed over recent decades.”
Desmet, however, sees a few rotten tangerines on the fruit bowl, promptly throws the whole bowl away and starts preaching that fruit is not as healthy as people claim.
Chapter 2: Science and Its Practical Applications
Mass media’s pernicious influence
Social connections were also transformed beyond recognition. The invention of radio and television led to the rise of the mass media and a corresponding decline in direct human interactions with a merely social function. Evening meetings between neighbors, pub gatherings, harvest festivals, rituals, and celebrations—they were progressively replaced by consumption of what the media presented. This seduced us into certain social laziness. It was no longer necessary to make the effort that is required for interaction with fellow human beings.
No risk of arguing; no confrontation with painful jealousy, shame, or embarrassment; no need to dress up or to even leave the house. It also uniformized social exchanges. Public space, including the political sphere, was increasingly dominated by a shrinking number of voices that conquered the living room via the mass media.  In other words, social relationships lost their diversity and originality.
To substantiate this morbid view of the influence of radio and television, Desmet refers to Benjamin Kidd‘s The Science of Power in the footnote in the second paragraph. However, the terms ‘mass media’ or ‘radio’ do not appear in this work. We didn’t even search for ‘television’, as the book was published in 1918. It is a mystery to us what this reference has to do here.
One takeaway from this tragedy is that even pharmaceutical drugs that enjoy long-term and widespread use aren’t necessarily safe. Only in 2021, it was discovered that the popular painkiller acetaminophen (Tylenol), which has been on the market since 1955, contains carcinogens and can be harmful to fetuses.
Desmet does not provide a source here so it is a bit of a guess where he is getting from that paracetamol (=Tylenol) would contain carcinogens. It’s a bit oddly worded anyway, because Tylenol is basically one pure substance. In 2020, there was some discussion on whether the state of California was going to re-evaluate the drug after which it might end up on a list of cancer-causing substances, but institutions like IARC and the FDA see no reason for this. That it could be harmful to the fetus if used during pregnancy is not at all certain, but in 2021 there was a call for better research into that possibility and until that is done, to remain cautious about prescribing it.
And even more so in the years to follow, the sinister marriage between science and murderous rage wreaked such havoc that the war misery of yesteryear paled in comparison. To give just one example, Monsanto produced seventy-six million liters of Agent Orange, which was sprayed in Vietnam to defoliate the trees and drive the Vietcong out of the jungle. The result? Millions of both Vietnamese and American soldiers became seriously ill, often with tumors and cancers, causing deformities in at least 150,000 children.
It is striking that Desmet only brings up Monsanto here, while another chemical company, The Dow Chemical Company, supplied more Agent Orange. You see the same thing with opponents of GM crops who often set their sights on the pesticide glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in the Monsanto-developed RoundUp. Desmet doesn’t seem to be too keen on GMOs either, see the quote in the next chapter under Natural versus Artificial.
Chapter 3: The Artificial Society
Galileo Galilei discovered that the swing time of a pendulum depends only on the length of the pendulum. At least, if you discount everything that might affect the pendulum other than gravity. If you include vibrations from the environment and air resistance in your model, you get a much more complex story. The swing time then even exhibits chaotic behaviour. Desmet learns this from James Gleick’s well-known popular science book Chaos but pretty much turns it into saying that Gleick proved Galileo wrong. Of course, Galileo also understood that his model only gives an approximation for a physical pendulum, precisely because you cannot completely rule out those disturbing factors in practice.
But Desmet goes even crazier:
What’s more, the aforementioned pattern is unique to each pendulum. Pendulums had been regarded as dull, mechanical phenomena that dutifully followed Galileo’s laws, but those elementary mechanical devices were, in fact, creative in nature and idiosyncratically capable of disobedience
Reducing the pendulum’s behavior to Galileo’s law robs it of its “social” qualities, as well as its individuality and creativity. If you were to create a virtual pendulum in a computer program that behaves strictly according to Galileo’s law, it would look very much like a real pendulum, but it would be a death phenomenon, lacking the lively chaos of a real pendulum.
A more complex model that takes more influences into account is still deterministic, but may indeed be chaotic in nature. Why that would be more creative, or even demonstrate ‘social’ qualities is probably fodder for psychologists.
What Desmet writes in the last sentence is also simply not true: those chaotic patterns became visualisable precisely only by showing them using computer models that are essentially only slightly more complicated than Galileo’s simple formula. Chaos theory shows that you can get ‘unpredictable’ phenomena with just a few formulas, one does not have to use any particular fancy tricks at all.
Natural versus artificial
Whether it’s a genetically engineered plant, lab-printed meat, vaccine-induced immunity, or high-tech sex dolls—whenever we artificially reproduce a natural phenomenon from rational analysis, the artificial phenomenon is not identical to the original. The loss is not always immediately visible. Sometimes it is barely visible at all. And yet, it is crucial, both on a physical and psychological level.
No one is yet claiming that lab-produced meat is exactly the same as the meat we obtain by slaughtering animals. But Desmet may come and explain to us the crucial difference between, say, ‘ordinary’ maize and the genetically modified variety. He will only be able to show the difference using the very cutting-edge science he seems to detest so much. This paragraph is a clear example of his a-scientific thinking.
Cranking up the New Age Bullshit Generator II
The human body is, in the most literal sense, a stringed instrument. The muscles that span the skeleton, and the body’s other fibers, are put on a certain tension in early childhood through imitative language exchanges. This tension determines with which (social) phenomena one will resonate; it determines the frequencies to which one will be sensitive in later life. That’s why certain people and certain events can literally strike a chord; they touch the body and, as such, touch the soul. It is for this reason that the voice can make the body ill. Or, conversely, heal it.
Totalitarianism is ultimately the logical extension of a generalized obsession with science
As Hannah Arendt states, totalitarianism is ultimately the logical extension of a generalized obsession with science, the belief in an artificially created paradise: “Science [has become] an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.”
Desmet does not do justice to Arendt here, according to Vicky Iakovou: although he refers here to a text by Eric Voegelin that can be found as a quote in Arendt’s book, he forgets the continuation from which it becomes clear that Arendt disagrees with Voegelin: “‘Scientism’ in politics still presupposes that human welfare is its object, a concept which is utterly alien to totalitarianism.”
Chapter 4: The (Im)measurable Universe
Miscarriage rate in vaccinated pregnant women
Although we indicated in the introduction to leave the issues Desmet raises regarding COVID-19 to what can already be found elsewhere about it, here is an exception. [For some of the other things Desmet claims about the corona pandemic in this chapter, you can read this piece by philosopher Maarten Boudry or SKEPP’s ‘laudatio’ in which they substantiate the awarding of their Skeptic Put (a mock prize) to him].
Desmet claims that figures are being manipulated to positively portray the effect of vaccines and that you can just as easily find studies that tell a different story:
The dominant narrative draws a predominantly positive picture, but out of the enormous flow of data we could just as easily select numbers that draw a predominantly negative picture. Who has heard in the media about the Harvard University study that found no difference in the course of the pandemic between countries with high and low vaccination rates? Who has heard in the media about the study that found the miscarriage rate in vaccinated pregnant women is eight times higher than normal? We are not sure whether these studies paint an accurate picture. But we also don’t know whether the numbers that are presented in the media and that confirm the dominant coronavirus narrative do so. Stories make the numbers, rather than the other way around. That’s what is at issue.
In particular, citing the study allegedly showing a strong correlation between miscarriages and vaccination shows that Desmet is deliberately playing a dirty game here. After all, it cannot have escaped his notice that there was much ado about this study (in a ‘journal’ with a pronounced anti-vax agenda) in which the researchers made a huge mistake. This was so obvious that they themselves were going to get it retracted. This played out a few months before the Dutch version of Desmet’s book came out.
NB The ‘Harvard University study’ also mentioned in this excerpt is also a mess. What Desmet is doing here is a fine example of JAQing off.
Cranking up the New Age Bullshit Generator II
The real questions to be asked are situated at the ideological level. For instance: Do we view man as a biochemical machine that has to be technologically monitored and pharmaceutically adjusted, or as a being that finds its destination in mystical resonance with the Other and with the eternal language of nature?
Chapter 5: The Desire for a Master
Thoreau’s Walden and the fear of physical discomfort
Western European people are overly fearful of illness and suffering, according to Desmet. Spending a hefty portion of our state revenues on healthcare does not change that. It was different in other cultures and times, argues Desmet, giving the following example to illustrate that:
Suffering is by definition unpleasant, but there have been times when people were more resilient to it. In the seventeenth century, when Jesuits tried to convert Native Americans to Christianity by burning them at the stake, the missionaries discovered, to their great frustration, that the Indigenous people were unimpressed. Over time, the Native Americans themselves suggested other, much more painful forms of torture. “Why always at the stake?” they asked the missionaries.
Desmet here refers to an anecdote from Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden; or, Life in the woods. The “Why always at the stake?” is an “enlivenment” of Desmet himself. In Walden it says: “The Jesuits were quite balked by those Indians who, being burned at the stake, suggested new modes of torture to their tormentors. Being superior to physical suffering, it sometimes chanced that they were superior to any consolation which the missionaries could offer;” Thoreau most likely got it again from The Jesuit Relations, descriptions of the Jesuits’ missions in Nouvelle-France, the French colonies in North America.
According to Alda Balthrop-Lewis, Thoreau uses this anecdote to show that the Indians were spiritually superior to the Jesuits. They were actually more Christian than the missionaries, who, after all, gave a rather peculiar interpretation of what Thoreau saw as the core of Christianity: treat others like you want to be treated by them.
The excerpt in Walden revolves around criticism of philanthropy with the Jesuits as an extreme example, who wanted to convert the natives out of noble motives, using extreme violence if necessary. It has very little to do with a different attitude of non-Western European people towards physical discomfort.
From this line of reasoning, we conclude that excessive investment in the mirror image is an overcompensation for the uncertainty that human language generates in interpersonal relationships. But in the extreme, this overcompensation is always a fallacious solution. One tries to assure oneself of symbiosis with the Other, but ends up in psychological isolation from and destruction of the Other. And also in self destruction. It’s best to imagine this in a concrete-visual way: All energy that is inside the psychological system is sucked away and invested in the surface of the body, meaning in the visual image of the body. It is no coincidence that people who focus heavily on appearances often say that they feel “empty” during psychotherapy sessions.
This chapter is full of such reflections where it is striking that hardly any references are given. Here, Desmet is clearly in his element; however, we mostly see learned-looking gibberish.
The punishment for forbidden relations at the Ta-Ta-Thi
Among certain Australian Aborigines, for example, a given tribe might have historically been divided into twelve clans. Both casual sexual relations and long-term sexual relations were allowed only with members of three specific other clans. Therefore, for a man, three out of four women were already taboo beforehand. Violations of both men and women are punished by no less than death. The Ta-Ta-thi tribe in New South Wales has a somewhat milder history. They killed the man, and the woman was “merely” beaten and impaled on a pole until she was almost dead.
Desmet has probably not read the original source, Totemism and Exogamy by JG Frazer (1910), to which he refers, because it says: “the woman is only beaten or speared, or both, till she is nearly dead ; the reason given for not actually killing her being that she was probably coerced.” Surely ‘speared’ is different from ‘impaled on a pole’. And while the book describes numerous different clan classifications with conditions for relationships among North American Indians and Australian Aborigines, not the one Desmet gives as an example.
Chapter 6: The Rise of the Masses
‘Dull bureaucrats and technocrats’
Desmet claims to be relying on a cautionary remark by German political theorist Hannah Arendt, but these exact words in the following quote are nowhere to be found in her oeuvre. There is also no evidence anywhere that Arendt was talking about the West when she wrote about the dangers of totalitarianism. Her only candidate for a third appearance of a totalitarian regime in world history was China.
An analysis of the psychological process of totalitarianism is extremely relevant in the twenty-first century. There are several signs that a new kind of (technocratic) totalitarianism is on the rise: an exponential increase in the number of intrusive actions by security agencies […] and so on. The moment Arendt had anticipated in 1951 seems to be rapidly approaching: the emergence of a new totalitarian system led, not by “ring leaders” like Stalin and Hitler, but by dull bureaucrats and technocrats.
The version The Origins of Totalitarianism that Desmet says he uses does say something similar to this: “The present totalitarian rulers and the leaders of totalitarian movements still bear the characteristic traits of the mob, whose psychology and political philosophy are fairly well known; what will happen our the authentic mass man takes over, we do not yet know, although it may be a fair guess that he will have more in common with the meticulous, calculated correctness of Himmler than with the hysterical fanaticism of Hitler, will more resemble the stubborn dullness of Molotov than the sensual vindictive cruelty of Stalin. “
In our view, this says something other than that any new totalitarian system will be led by dull bureaucrats and technocrats. Himmler may have had a dull appearance to some, but he obviously was a crackpot, a mystic who embraced numerous pseudoscientific theories. And Molotov may have had the image of a bureaucrat, but we can only guess how he would have behaved had he for instance succeeded Stalin in the case the latter had died much earlier.
Asch conformity experiments
The well-known conformity experiment by Solomon Asch demonstrates in a very convincing way the enormous impact of mass formation on individual judgment. Asch conducted his experiment shortly after World War II. He did so in an effort to understand how the often-absurd theories of Nazism and Stalinism gained such a strong grip on the population and sought to gain insight into the psychological mystery of mass formation and totalitarianism.
Asch’s experiments are famous. In a group of test subjects, each participant had to publicly tell which of three lines is equal in length to another line. The trick is that only the last test subject was a real test subject, the other seven in each group were instructed by Asch to sometimes give a completely wrong answer. Regularly, the real test subject went along with the obvious misjudgement of the rest.
Desmet especially stresses that “only” 25 per cent of the subjects consistently stuck to the obviously right answer and thus did not allow themselves to be misled by the majority’s judgement. He forgets to mention that the proportion of subjects who very often went along with the majority when they got it wrong on purpose was not that large either (14 out of 50 went along with the majority in more than 6 out of 12 manipulated cases).
Again, perhaps the translator will have made a mistake: the subjects who were ‘in on the plot’ of Asch are referred to as his ’employees’, while all the participants were simply students of the same college.
What Desmet does not tell is that Asch also did similar experiments where there was not a unanimous majority going for the wrong line, but where at least one other insider candidate did point to the right line. Under those conditions, subjects were much, much less likely to go along with the majority’s wrong judgment.
Asch’s main findings regarding these experiments are ignored in many articles anyway. Indeed, for Asch (and his contemporaries), the experiments were actually evidence of the power of independence even under circumstances where independent judgement comes under great pressure.
Mass formation also sometimes affects our perception, according to Desmet.
In some circumstances, collective hallucinations occur under the influence of mass formation, a phenomenon that challenges the understandings in modern psychology. A well-known historical example is the appearance of Saint Gregory on the city ramparts of Jerusalem, which was witnessed by a full army of crusaders. Another example, from more recent times, is the raft of drowning persons observed in broad daylight by a whole crew of marines and described by each of them in the same way, in great detail. On closer inspection, it was no more than a few branches with seaweed on them.
Both examples Desmet gets from Le Bon. The ‘hallucination’ of the sailors comes from a book by Félix Julien, Courants et révolutions de l’athmosphère et de la mer. It should be noted here, however, that Le Bon does not mention that this crew had been searching for a month for the survivors of another French ship caught in a hurricane.
‘Saint Gregory’ will be a translation error; it should obviously be Saint George (Sint Joris in Dutch). To call his appearance a ‘historical example’ goes a bit far, the fact is that the story recurs time and again in medieval descriptions of the Crusades, but of course, those chroniclers also knew that you shouldn’t kill every good story with a proper fact-check 😉
Chapter 7: The Leaders of the Masses
Jews, the Holocaust and mass formation
According to Desmet, the fact that the Nazis were able to deport the Jews to the extermination camps so easily, was also due to mass formation among the Jews themselves. He reads from Arendt that the Jewish Councils were very cooperative, although there was sporadic resistance which did not end well:
Sometimes there was heroic resistance and the gruesome manner in which it was crushed must have played a role in discouraging it. Think of 425 young Dutch Jews who, after fighting with a German security police detachment, were tortured for months on end in Buchenwald, to the point of death.
The story of these 425 Jews who allegedly fought with the German order police is quite different, but maybe we shouldn’t blame this on Desmet too much. After all, he is relying here on Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, who already appears to have gotten this wrong. This group of 425 (the number is not entirely certain) was rounded up in retaliation for riots in which they themselves were not involved. The incident is known as the Razzia of Amsterdam (the first large-scale pogrom in The Netherlands by the Nazi’s) and was the trigger for the February strike.
This may seem a detail, but uncritically relying on Arendt for the bigger picture in this matter is actually inexcusable. Only if you have paid very little attention you could have missed that she shouldn’t be taken seriously on the historical facts: “Even her book on Eichmann is still taken seriously only by people who have not delved into the history of the Shoah. As early as 1964, Jacques Presser showed that virtually every remark she made about the Jewish Councils or about the situation in the Netherlands was incorrect.”
Hitler wanted to eliminate ordinary Germans with heart and lung problems
The tempestuous, destructive dynamics of totalitarian systems also occurred in Nazi Germany but did not develop all the way to their ominous end. After Hitler deported the gypsies and the Jews to the concentration camps, he aimed to target not only the Ukrainians and the Poles, but also all Germans with heart and lung problems. The war ultimately ensured that these plans could never be carried out.
This again relies on a strong example of hineininterpretieren by Arendt. If you dig out the source reference, you will find a missive from Gauleiter Sprenger to the Kreisleiter of Hessen-Nassau around the spring of 1945 which includes the following text (English translation for the Nuremberg Tribunal): “1. National Health. After the national X-ray examination, the Fuehrer is to be given a list of sick persons, particularly those with lung and heart diseases.
On the basis of the new Reich Health Law, which is still being kept secret to begin with, these families will no longer be able to remain among the public, and can no longer be allowed to produce children. What will happen to these families will be the subject of further orders by the Fuehrer. The Gauleiters are to make suggestions.” The exact status of this document is not clear, but a plan to kill people with such ailments does not immediately appear from it.
Death sentences in Tsarist Russia
The Bolsheviks started out with a determination to remedy the abuses of tsarist Russia. Under the tsars, about seventeen death sentences were carried out each year. The communist revolutionaries thought that outrageous. They screamed bloody murder: The death penalty should be abolished. However, the contract contained a small footnote: In the beginning, there still would be executions if it was necessary to install communism itself as a system. In the first months after the Russian Revolution of 1917, there were 540 executions per year; after a few years, this increased to 12,000 per year; and between 1937 and 1938 more than 600,000 executions were carried out per year.
It is true that the number of death sentences (under civil and military law) per year in Russia was quite limited, indeed the average from 1876 to 1905 was about 17 per year. However, from then on – after the 1905 revolution – it skyrockets to hundreds a year and even more than 1,300 in 1912. [source] The Bolsheviks may have existed as a faction within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party since 1903, but they did not become a formal party until 1912. Above all, we see here that Desmet uncritically adopts Solzhenitsyn’s vilification of the Bolsheviks and portrayal of Tsarist Russia in a favourable light.
Chapter 8: Conspiracy and Ideology
The Sierpiński triangle
The original Dutch-language edition of the book shows on the cover a landscape with Sierpiński pyramids, a three-dimensional variant of the Sierpiński triangle. Desmet uses a specific way to construct such a shape to make the point that the unsuspecting citizen can participate in something akin to a conspiracy without actually having a clue of a preconceived plan. It is a rather cumbersome and superfluous metaphor, but OK, Desmet finds it quite powerful so there is reason enough to take a critical look at this too.
The easiest way to construct a Sierpiński triangle is the one shown in these drawings: you start with a triangle, draw a triangle inside it by connecting the centres of the three sides so that you divide the triangle you start with into four smaller triangles; and you repeat this process for all of those triangles except the inner one. You thus get a fractal, a figure that, when you zoom in on details, looks (almost) the same as the whole.
There is another way to make this figure, a method known as ‘chaos game‘, which is the way Desmet chooses here:
Try out the following: Put three dots far apart on a sheet of paper. Randomly put a fourth dot on the sheet, anywhere you like. Then take a ruler, measure the distance between this fourth dot and any of the three other dots and divide it by two; put a new dot there. Measure the distance between this new dot with any of the three initial dots (randomly indicated) and divide the distance again by two, put a new dot there. Repeat this process a few hundred times and you will witness an astonishing phenomenon. You will see that, from the nebula of points, a Sierpinski triangle will arise.
Desmet presumably finds this cumbersome process more interesting, because when you read these lines it is not immediately clear what pattern will emerge. He continues:
You can easily carry out this process with ten, a hundred, or even more people, who each take turns adding a point to the sheet of paper, blindly following the rules stipulated above, without knowing what the purpose of their actions is. You will create this pattern together by all individually applying the same simple rule over and over again.
This is relevant to what I will discuss in this chapter: Upon seeing how a Sierpinski triangle arises on the sheet of paper, a naive viewer would inevitably be under the impression that the people making the points have detailed prior knowledge of this pattern and are working together in a planned and coordinated way. But the reality is different: Nobody needs to know or have ever even seen this pattern. It is enough that all people independently follow the same simple rules as they place their points. Keep this Sierpinski triangle in mind as you read this chapter, it will resonate here and there.
Nice and all, but does Desmet realise how many dots you have to draw like this before you get a nice sharp picture of the triangle?
The image that follows in the book corresponds nicely to the one on the right. But for that, I had to have the computer draw no less than 25,000 dots according to these rules.
And now comes my objection to this metaphor: the picture is only as sharp if you place a lot of points and do it very precisely. A mere mortal obviously makes some measuring errors, doesn’t put the point exactly in the middle and might even make worse mistakes. The figure you get when you put the same number of points, but with a random measurement error of no more than ten percent at a time, looks a lot less sharp (figure left).
I doubt somewhat whether Desmet would also see this as a “strictly regular pattern”, a “perfect pattern” or “Mind-blowingly precise and regular patterns”:
It is at this fundamental level that we have to situate the “secret” forces that direct individuals in the same direction and ultimately organize society as a whole. As with drawing the Sierpinski triangle, if everyone follows the same rules, it results in strictly regular patterns emerging in society. Like iron filings scattered in the force field of a magnet, individuals arrange themselves in a perfect pattern under the influence of these forces.
It seems rather contradictory: Desmet, on the one hand, is using Chaos Theory to attack science for the illusion of predictability (which he thinks emanates from a mechanistic worldview), and on the other hand, is using it here to argue that a large group of people can contribute to very precise patterns without being aware of it.
Consequently, all people in positions of power automatically follow the same rules in their thinking and in their behavior and are under the influence of the same “attractors” (to use a term from complex dynamical systems theory). Furthermore, they all succumb to the same logical fallacies and the same absurd behavior because they all, independently of each other, or at least without having to gather in secret meetings, follow the same distorted logic. Compare it to computers running on the same, wrong software: Their “behavior” and their “thinking” will all deviate in the same direction, without “communicating” with one another. This is exactly what the Sierpinski triangle shows us: Mind-blowingly precise and regular patterns can arise because individuals independently follow the same simple rules of behavior by being attracted to the same set of attractors. The ultimate master is the ideology, not the elite.
Chapter 9: The Dead versus the Living Universe
Galileo & Fibonacci
More or less in line with these examples, fractal theory (a subdomain of chaos theory) showed an unsuspected, mathematical determinacy of sets of natural forms, such as those of leaves, plants, trees, sea sponges, algae. The best-known examples are perhaps seashell patterns studied by Hans Meinhardt; the Mandelbrot set; and the spiral shapes determined by the Fibonacci sequence. This last determination is so simple that it is easily understandable, even to nonmathematicians. The Fibonacci sequence consists of a series of numbers that is obtained by starting with the numbers 0 and 1 and then continuing with a number that is the sum of the two previous numbers (so 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, etc.). This series of numbers determines the curves of a spiral that can be found everywhere in nature. Galileo’s famous statement in 1623 that “The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics” must be taken literally, it seems.
That you can find the Fibonacci spiral everywhere in nature is a myth you often come across; it is not even a neat curve, but rather a sequence of quarter-circle arcs stuck together. However, you can encounter the Fibonacci numbers in plants, for instance.
Incidentally, Galileo’s (not literal) quote comes from a text revolving around the movements of celestial bodies, so it is questionable whether he would have found it equally applicable to biological matters.
Desmet compares the unpredictability of dynamical systems (he uses the Lorenz waterwheel as an example) with the decimal expansion of irrational numbers and draws weird conclusions:
Therefore, the dynamics of the wheel closely resemble the structure of irrational numbers, such as pi, whose digits after the decimal point do not show any periodicity either. The qualification of such numbers as “irrational” primarily refers to the fact that such numbers cannot be written as a fraction, as a ratio. However, in laymen’s terms, “irrational” in the sense of not rational is not incorrect either. It is true that such numbers cannot be rationally envisaged. That makes them disruptive in a logically ordered, rational worldview. Hippasus (a follower of Pythagoras)—who is considered the person who discovered these irrational numbers—experienced this to his own detriment. Legend has it, he was on a ship with his brethren Pythagoreans and was promptly thrown overboard when he articulated his intuition that there exists something such as irrational numbers. This illustrates clearly: The limits of the ratio always lead initially to uncertainty, fear, and aggression.
You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that Desmet is engaging in nothing but rhetoric here. First of all, he is probably confusing predictability with calculability. If you know n decimals of pi, the next one may not be easy to guess, but it is fixed by the definition of the number. By now, with a lot of computing, we know as many as 100 trillion decimals. Nor is it a feature of all irrational numbers, with some the pattern is very clear. 0.1011001110001111000011111000000… is an example of an irrational number where every decimal is easily deducible. Or take 0.1234567891011121314… If the pattern is repetitive then you have a ‘usual’ fraction, a rational number.
That irrational numbers came as a shock to the Pythagoreans can be understood. But not because it would have exposed the limits of their reasoning. In the Pythagoreans’ (rather mystical) worldview, everything in the universe could be neatly described in ‘harmonic’ proportions, i.e. fractions of integers. However, this is an ideal picture, one of the foundations of their ideology.
The rational thinking that showed that other important ratios also play a role in the description of nature, which arguably cannot be written as such a harmonic number, thus broke the boundary of ideological thinking, not that of ratio. Desmet also knows that the terms rational and irrational in number theory do not refer to thinking, but he suggests you should sneakily do so anyway.
Totalitarianism is the symptom of a naive belief in the omnipotence of human rationality
In the final analysis, it was no longer a question for Enlightenment people to adhere to commandments and prohibitions or ethical and moral principles, but to move through this struggle for survival in the most efficient way possible based on “objective knowledge” of the world. This culminated in totalitarian and technocratic forms of government, where decisions are not made on the basis of generally applicable laws and principles but on the basis of the analysis of “experts.” For this reason, totalitarianism always chooses to abolish laws, or fails to implement them, and prefers to rule “by decree.” This means that, each new situation will require the formulation of new rules on the basis of a (pseudo)rational assessment of such situation. History abundantly illustrates that this leads to erratic, absurd, and ever-changing rules, which ultimately destroy all humanity in society.
This is perhaps the most direct and concrete illustration of Hannah Arendt’s thesis that ultimately totalitarianism is the symptom of a naive belief in the omnipotence of human rationality.
Desmet is really twisting Arendt’s vision here, probably following Foucault. Nassir Ghaemi, in his commentary on the book, even argues that it is actually postmodernism that leads to totalitarianism: “Foucault’s work is a classic postmodernist attack on science, and it reveals a core tenet of the ideology of the author of this book. Jaspers and Arendt clearly and repeatedly opposed this rejection of the Enlightenment tradition in favor of accepting the absolute truths of science, within their scope. Jaspers and Arendt also held that this anti-postmodernist acceptance of the Enlightenment tradition was needed to defend liberal democracy and to reject totalitarianism. In contrast, the postmodern anti-science attitude was held by Martin Heidegger, Foucault’s hero, who collaborated with the Third Reich. Standing with Jaspers and Arendt, I uphold that it is postmodernism that leads to totalitarianism, in its rejection of science and truth.”
See also the commentary to the piece in the Introduction which is very similar to what Desmet writes here.
Chapter 10: Matter and Spirit
Intelligent with a minimal brain
In quantum mechanics, Desmet sees a fundamental refutation of the idea that a mechanistic-materialistic model can explain psychological experiences. But he also makes another argument for this:
For example, there are people in whom almost all brain tissue has died, who sometimes have less than 5 percent left, but whose mental functioning is still completely normal and who, for instance, score higher than 130 on an intelligence test. For the sake of clarity, I am not talking about obscure assertions but about scientific observations reported in journals such as The Lancet and Science. Imaging or autopsy showed unequivocally that the brain cavity in such people was almost completely filled with fluid (see figure 10.3).
Here Desmet is quite misleading. Although he gives references to both an article in Science and an article from The Lancet, the impressive picture that comes from the latter journal concerns a person with an IQ of 75. And the article in Science is not a proper scientific article, but rather a news report describing a British neurologist who makes strong claims which are also criticised in the article.
The figure Desmet provides compares half the image in the article in The Lancet to a normal brain, but without indicating where he got it from. The indications with letters and Roman numerals have also been erased. It suggests that Desmet again copied this from an unmentioned secondary source.
The hole in the brain is also not caused by dead brain tissue, the fluid has pushed the brain tissue aside.
Super granny Laura Schultz
Human beings are sometimes capable of superhuman feats, according to Desmet. The mind makes us capable of doing things under certain circumstances we cannot understand from a purely scientific point of view.
Or in a positive sense, we could refer to events where people gain an almost unimaginable strength, in circumstances where it empowers them to save a loved one. A well-known example is the story of Laura Schultz, a 63-year-old grandmother from Florida, who, in 1977, was able to lift the front wheel of a school bus with one hand to pull her grandchild out from underneath the bus with her other hand.
Such examples should open our eyes and convince us that we need to devote a lot more effort to better understanding psychological experiences.
The skeptical reader will immediately suspect an exaggerated story or an urban legend here. And rightly so. Anyone looking back for the origin of the story will find an article in the US tabloid National Enquirer (usually only slightly more reliable than the Weekly World News). At least in most of the narratives, it is not about a school bus, but about a Buick parked in the driveway where the grandchild somehow got his arm trapped under a rear wheel (it is mentioned that the car was not on the handbrake). It does not take exceptionally much force to lift one side of the back of a car just enough to free the arm since the bulk of the weight is at the front of the car. And of course, if the car was in neutral gear, you easily push it off the arm too.
Despite the claim that this incident would have appeared in all newspapers, no news articles can be found. The story seems to have its origins in a claim made by Charles A. Garfield. He read about it in the aforementioned National Enquirer, a magazine that, among other things, brims with conspiracy fantasies about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. So he was not an eyewitness but heard the story from this Laura Schultz.
Known as hysterical strength, this phenomenon is very difficult to investigate. Nevertheless, it has been researched and one of the specialists in the field believes that there is indeed a limit to what is possible: “But there’s a limit to how fast and how strong fear can make us. We’ve all heard stories about panicked mothers lifting cars off their trapped babies. They’ve been circulating for so long that many of us assume that they must be true. Zatsiorsky’s work, however, suggests that while fear can indeed motivate us to approach more closely to our absolute power level than even the fiercest competition, there’s no way to exceed it. A woman who can lift 100 pounds at the gym might, according to Zatsiorsky, be able to lift 135 pounds in a frenzy of maternal fear. But she’s not going to suddenly be able to lift a 3,000-pound car. Tom Boyle was an experienced weight lifter. The adrenaline of that June night gave him an edge, but it didn’t turn him into the Incredible Hulk.” (Jeff Wise, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger (2009)).
It is well known in anthropology that in so-called primitive societies, people sometimes die after a shaman casts a curse on them. Herbert Basedow describes the typical course of such a ritual, as performed among Aboriginal peoples in Australia:
What follows is a quote from The Discovery of the Unconscious by Henri Ellenberger in which the unfortunate person who has been cursed by a fellow tribesman (that this would be a shaman Basedow does not mention) exhibits all kinds of violent physical phenomena and dies within a short time unless he is freed from the curse by a shaman.
Ellenberger derives the quote from anthropologist Herbert Basedow who published The Australian Aboriginal in 1925. A couple of things stand out. First, the quote Desmet gives is somewhat different from Basedow’s original which you do find exactly as he wrote it in Ellenberger’s book. It seems that the translator of the English version of Desmet’s book translated the Dutch translation Desmet made for his book back into English. Rather clumsy.
More importantly, Desmet leaves out what Ellenberger then describes, namely the redemption of the curse by a shaman, a Nangarri, which is probably a more important part of this magical overall package than the curse. It may well be that the members of this Aboriginal group were convinced that without intervention, the cursed person would die, but if the redemption by the Nangarri always occured in practice, they would therefore never have seen such a death by curse.
Surgery under hypnosis
The fuss surrounding Desmet’s promotional tour in the US was more or less triggered by his statement at Alex Jones’s show that he had seen with his own eyes how open-heart surgery had been performed in Belgian university hospitals using only hypnosis without any anaesthesia. He has claimed this in several interviews in recent years, except for the detail that he had been present himself (and only for that detail did he apologise, it had just slipped from his lips apparently). Surprisingly, he goes much less far in his book:
This may apply to an irrational primitive person who failed to outgrow magical thinking, but surely not to a rational Western person in the twenty-first century? Nothing could be further from the truth. There are countless observations that show that Western man, in his physical functioning, is equally subject to such phenomena. Professor Marie- Elisabeth Faymonville, anesthetist at the University Hospital of Liège, has been performing surgeries on patients under hypnosis for decades. The procedure, which was shown in a documentary on Belgian national television, looks astonishingly uncomplicated. Faymonville speaks to the patient, who is lying on the operating table, in a soothing way, leads him along in a relaxing mental world, and then gives an unobtrusive sign to the surgeon, conveying that he can start with the surgery. The surgeon is then easily able to make the required incisions in the body and carry out the prescribed medical procedures without the patient being aware of anything. And let’s be clear: It does not only concern minor interventions, it also involves procedures like the surgical removal of the thyroid gland, the placement of breast prostheses, or the removal of tumors.
While it is still misleading not to mention that patients operated on under hypnosis do receive local anaesthesia and also pain medication, he does not mention open-heart surgery here. That procedure is also not mentioned in the table of procedures for which hypnosis (as an addition to local anaesthesia and pain relief) is possible in the source he cites. Therefore, it remains somewhat of a mystery why Desmet spoke so often in interviews about those alleged open-heart surgeries, especially since, according to his own statement in an October 2020 interview at De Nieuwe Wereld, it had already been pointed out to him that this was not true. You can read more about this ‘affair’ in a previous post on this site.
Louis Pasteur’s deathbed confession
Further evidence that Desmet takes in quite a bit of dubious literature we find when we see him bringing up Pasteur’s alleged deathbed confession that his opponent Béchamp was right after all. A fabrication that is especially popular among quacks:
When society as a whole is in the grip of anxiety and the accompanying images of illness and death, those images in themselves become a causal factor. As described above, this happens in part because psychological distress radically changes the biological environment in which the virus enters by diminishing the immunity of such environment. Also think of the statement by Antoine Béchamp, which Louis Pasteur also endorsed at the end of his life: “The microbe is nothing, it is the environment that counts.”
The background to this hoax can be read in this article on Science-Based Medicine, the link to the search for the alleged quote therein no longer works, but can be found in the web archive: Pasteur’s Last Words.
A next strong example of what humans are capable of by just using words, Desmet finds with well-known cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.
For example, Lévi-Strauss describes how, when a woman was experiencing complications during childbirth, shamans in the Brazilian rainforest repeatedly induced birth through a ritual that used an established tribal text that was read or sung in a ritualized way to the woman in labor. The text featured a series of characters from tribal mythology and told how a number of good spirits made their way through a narrow corridor leading to a cave where evil spirits imprisoned the baby. The good spirits negotiated with the evil ones until they were willing to let the child go. When the chant reached this point in the story, labor started.
Only a closer look reveals that Lévi-Strauss was completely wrong. First of all, it should be noted that the incident took place in Panama, and not in Brazil as Desmet mistakenly believes. It is on the first page of the article by Lévi-Strauss to which Desmet refers and is actually impossible to miss.
Lévi-Strauss was not an eyewitness to the ritual either; he bases it on an article by two Swedish anthropologists, Nils Holmer and Henry Wassén. They conducted research among the Cuna and in 1947 published a poem recited during complicated deliveries, Mu-Igala or the Way of Muu: A Medicine Song from the Cunas of Panama (Gothenburg: Ethnographical Museum). Lévi-Strauss had only part of this poem at his disposal and therefore came to entirely incorrect conclusions. In the rest of the poem – which was later published – the shaman did appear to perform physical acts. The whole story can be read back at Staffan Mjönes, Shaman, Psychoanalyst or Obstetrician: A Critical Reading of Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Essay “the Efficiency of Symbols”, Folklore vol. 45/2010.
Knowing this, the following words with which Desmet praises Lévi-Strauss highly do come across a little differently:
His description is breathtakingly rigorous in scientific terms and at the same time radically anti-mechanistic in nature. This is the way to go: a science that does not allow itself to be blinded by mechanistic ideology but which pushes the rational analysis of reality to the maximum, to the absolute limit of the rationally knowable, to the point where reason transcends itself.
Chapter 11: Science and Truth
The poetry of Niels Bohr
At the end of this journey awaits an encounter with something that cannot be grasped with logic and rationality. The great minds of science have testified to such encounter in many different ways. Albert Einstein liked to talk about the elusive mystery that he found everywhere in the universe and about the wonderful structure of reality. Niels Bohr understood that poetry has more grip on all things Real than logic.
Desmet describes this anecdote about Bohr incompletely; the full quote reads, “When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.” The omission of the word in creates the wrong impression. He omits the second sentence altogether.
The original German text reads: “Diese Bilder sind ja aus Erfahrungen erschlossen, oder, wenn Sie wollen, erraten, nicht aus irgendwelchen theoretischen Berchnungen gewonnen. Ich hoffe, daß diese Bilder die Struktur der Atome so gut beschreiben, aber eben auch nur so gut beschreiben, wie dies in der anschaulichen Sprache der klassischen Physik möglich ist. Wir müssen uns klar darüber sein, daß die Sprache hier nur ähnlich gebraucht werden kann wie in der Dichtung, in de es ja auch nicht darum geht, Sachverhalte präzis darzustellen, sonder darum, Bilder im Bewußtsein des Hörers zu erzeugen und gedankliche Verbindungen herzustellen.”
Desmet attaches enormous weight to this casual remark made by Niels Bohr during a walk with Werner Heisenberg in Göttingen in June 1922, when he was giving some lectures at the local university and was struck by the 20-year-old student’s intelligent remarks. This anecdote has been passed on from the memoirs of Heisenberg, who wrote about it 47 years later in Der Teil und das Ganze. Gespräche im Umkreis der Atomphysik (1969). Had it really been an important element in Niels Bohr’s thinking, he surely would have written something about it himself.
Desmet places this anecdote in 1920 because he quotes from secondary literature, namely Richard Sheppard’s article, The Problematics of European Modernism in: Steve Giles (ed.), Theorising Modernism: Essays in Critical Theory (Routledge, London 1971). A book on modernism in literature.
Cranking up the New Age Bullshit Generator IV
The ultimate knowledge lies outside of man. It vibrates in all things. And man is able to receive it, by tuning his vibrations, like a string, to the frequency of things. And the more man is able to set aside prejudices and beliefs, the more purely he will vibrate with the things around him and receive new knowledge. This is one possible interpretation of René Thom’s thesis that great scientists do not necessarily have an exceptional logical-thinking capacity but rather an extraordinary ability to empathize with the things they study.
This article is a translation of the Dutch original op Kloptdatwel.nl