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The Science Delusion

Posted on Jun 20, 2013

By Peter Richardson

“The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers”
A book by Curtis White

Consider the best-selling atheist manifesto, one of the most intriguing publishing phenomena of the previous decade. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and their anti-religious brethren—almost all were male—produced a short shelf of surprisingly popular books that attacked not only fundamentalism and intolerance, but also religion itself. Bill Maher piled on with his documentary film, “Religulous” (2008), and though the bill of particulars differed from work to work, the corpus as a whole asserted that religious faith itself was inherently and dangerously irrational.

Now a new batch of titles, written mostly by scientists, is producing some fresh irrationality of its own. What these books share is the dismissal of all the humanities, and not only religion, as so much empty talk. Stephen Hawking, for example, begins “The Grand Design” (2010) by announcing the death of philosophy. The cause, we are told, was its failure to keep up with developments in modern science, especially physics. “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge,” Hawking and his co-author declaim awkwardly. In “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions” (2011), Duke University professor Alex Rosenberg assures his readers that if the goal is knowledge or wisdom, the humanities can be safely ignored. “When it comes to real understanding,” Rosenberg claims, “the humanities are nothing we have to take seriously except as symptoms.” The examined life, it turns out, begins with the trivialization of Socrates, and to believe that we might learn something from literature, history, art, religion or philosophy is to court illusion. For Rosenberg, himself a philosopher of science, humanistic inquiry is show business, pure and simple. “If that is not enough for the humanists,” he concludes, “if they are not satisfied with producing entertainment, well then, there is nothing for it but trading in their tools for those of the cognitive neuroscientist.”

In “The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers,” Curtis White considers the handiwork of Hawking, Rosenberg, Dawkins and others who seek to discredit humanistic inquiry to better establish science’s monopoly on truth. This isn’t White’s first rodeo; now professor emeritus of English at Illinois State University, he’s most famous for “The Middle Mind” (2004), which argued that most of our cultural programming, including NPR’s “Fresh Air,” consistently fails to take literature seriously. His takedown of host Terry Gross, whose attention improves the fortunes of any book, created a succès de scandale. Molly Ivins dubbed White a “splendidly cranky academic,” and David Foster Wallace, Paul Auster and Slavoj Žižek endorsed his work. In the next five years, White produced two books, “The Spirit of Disobedience” and “The Barbaric Heart,” which not only argued for but also demonstrated the relevance of humanistic thought to American public life. (Full disclosure: I acquired both works for my former employer.) For a cranky academic, White is remarkably playful—one of his basic tenets is that play deepens and expands our humanity—but the most refreshing aspect of his work is its focus on a central humanistic question: How shall we live? Science is ill equipped to furnish an answer, and with all due respect to professor Rosenberg, one wonders how that supremely practical question reduces to entertainment. 

White begins “The Science Delusion” (the title echoes Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”) with a disarmingly simple observation: Even as the Science Boosters denigrate the humanities, they routinely fall back on its basic concepts, especially when describing nature’s marvels. Their books teem with references to dazzling beauty, amazement, awe and wonder. But as White notes, none of these notions has anything to do with the practice of science. Such celebrations of the natural world, he argues, “operate within a matrix of familiar aesthetic values that while not necessarily religious are entirely extra-scientific.” Moreover, their appeals to those aesthetic values are often trite. “When scientists gush about the splendor of the universe,” White observes pointedly, “they are speaking like poets but very bad poets. Bad because they are so incurious about the meaning of their poetry—the claim that the universe is beautiful—and are content with a tautology.” Bad poets or not, White quickly adds, these authors are correct that the universe is beautiful; but all too often, “they have no idea why this is true.” 

To see long excerpts from “The Science Delusion” at Google Books, click here.

“In the end,” White claims, “the problem for science is that it doesn’t know what its own discoveries mean.” It isn’t that scientists can’t communicate that meaning, but rather that doing so requires a language of human value that isn’t itself scientific. This is only a problem, of course, when some of them try to forbid all other forms of meaning. Many great scientists wouldn’t dream of doing so. Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1922, paid careful attention to language, in part because he regarded it as a flawed but indispensable medium for describing the scientific advances of his day. While washing dishes on a skiing holiday, he offered Werner Heisenberg a shrewd analogy:

“Our washing up is just like our language. We have dirty water and dirty dishcloths, and yet we manage to get the plates and glasses clean. In language, too, we have to work with unclear concepts and a form of logic whose scope is restricted in an unknown way, and yet we use it to bring some clarity in our understanding of nature.”

Here was a scientist who knew his way around a simile! White quotes Bohr approvingly on a related point. “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms,” he said, “language can be used only as in poetry.” This wasn’t a dismissal of poetry but rather a call to scientists to refine their use of language. White also admires Jacob Bronowski, who identified imagination as a primary tool in science as well as in art, and he endorses paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s argument that science, religion and art are “non-overlapping magisteria,” each with its own legitimate purpose or “domain of teaching authority.” The new philistines, however, will have none of it. 


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