1: adherence to the explicit substance of an idea or expression
2: fidelity to observable fact – realism
Literalism is the belief that we can know the deepest truths about our existence by examining only a small perspective of the shallowest facts. When we think about literalism we are often reminded of monotheistic fundamentalist who interpret a handful of selections from their holy texts as confirming social biases likely not intended by the author(s) of the passages. This is often considered to be an issue which arises when religion becomes centralized and populist in its notions; which is always a bane to more advanced theologians and non-believers alike. The idea that the complexity of the divine, if it exists, could be stated with such anthropomorphized juvenile literalism has become the central argument against the teachings of modern organized religion.
However, literalism is not confined merely to religious belief. Today science is most often conducted through either the coffers of the state or those of their oligarchical counterparts in the state chartered corporations. The academic ivory towers, corporate labs and their publishing and media branches have given science a sort of centralized social and economic hierarchy not distinct from the state sanctioned churches who once acted as arbiters of political issues. Not only has science gained a foothold in affairs of centralization, but as a result of its public relations it has also gained a cult-like following among the generally scientifically illiterate consumers of ‘scientific truth’. This populism combined with the centralization has led to a scientistic literalism every bit as intellectually damning as its religious counterparts.
Scientistic literalism comes in many forms, not necessarily mutually exclusive of one another. Among these are Physicalism, Materialism, Naturalism, Realism, Objectivism and Scientism. These all largely arise out of the ignorance of epistemological or ontological claims of a priori metaphysical causes. Often the ignorance is of the nature that the adherents of these world views fail to realize that their truth claims contain metaphysical presuppositions within them. In failing to realize their claims assert deeper metaphysical truths, they are beholden to literal interpretations of the information that confirms the bias of their unacknowledged beliefs.
This form of literalism is largely a product of a single idea, which is itself self-refuting, that of empiricism. The empirical method of investigation was largely constructed so that natural philosophers (as ‘scientists’ self-identified at the time) had a method for investigating very specific questions about the natural world. It is very clear that many of these early scientists were not themselves given to literalism. From religion to alchemy to spiritualism and the occult, early scientists were not proponents of the idea that knowledge about the natural world was the only meaningful sort of knowledge, and science was not created to prove any such assertion. It was thought that a more consistent approach to understanding the natural world would help to tell us something more about the nature of our existence when viewed alongside other intellectual methods of investigation.
In todays world, scientific literalism manifests itself in the worldview which states that the natural world which is observable only with the five senses and conforms to the guidelines of human logic and rationalism is the only source of truth. This literalism presents to us an existence which goes no deeper than the empirical statements we can make about it. Of the metaphorical or allegorical nature of our existence, literalists assure us, these are meaningless questions. Distractions which prevent us from directing all human intellect towards a literalist viewpoint of reality for the purpose of enacting centralized knowledge and policies intrinsic to a literalist viewpoint. These social, political and economic policies, birthed from the womb of empiricism, recognize nothing but the outward appearances of our existence.
It is of very little wonder to me that the world can seem such a frightening place these days. Sandwiched between the religious literalists of the old guard and the scientistic literalists of the current zeitgeist, we have become a species devoid of meaning. We teeter on an existential crisis whose cause will be the dissonance caused by a world in which ideological paradigms of varying types produce Predeterminism from the fallacious literalism which is the foundation of this counterproductive belief system. Even if we could forge an ontological argument against free will, we could not avoid that the epistemological argument for predeterminism is existentially toxic to our human aspirations.
As our existence and consciousness evolve it is important that we seek an ever greater intellectual elasticity. A rapidly evolving era such as ours will require us to understand a multiplicity of sometimes seemingly competing perspectives. The authors of our future understanding will not be those who are adept at denying or favoring certain truths or sets of truths, but those who are able to hold many truths and resolve their differences to find their common message. In these common messages we will find even deeper truths about the nature, meaning and purpose of our very existence.
Literalism is a bizarre superstition that the human species cannot afford to embrace in the face of an exponentially rapid evolution from the age of industry to the age of information.