Dec 9, 2013
The Science Delusion
Posted on Jun 20, 2013
Why the hostility to the humanities? White offers no explanation, but seasoned academics have noticed that outdated metaphors of the nuclear family often inform university communities, where most of these authors work. The scientist is Dad; he goes out into the real world and brings home the bacon in the form of research grants. The students are the children: needy, underfoot, kept safely away from the real work of the research university. The humanities professor is Mom; she takes care of the kids, tells them stories and teaches them values. Dad sees Mom as softheaded and ditzy, and Mom sees Dad as peremptory and a little thick when it comes to social interaction. With her heightened sense of language and the social construction of reality, a humanities professor is more likely to register and perhaps resist this metaphor. If the scientist recognizes it at all, he’s more likely to regard it as either an immutable feature of the real world or the natural order of things. Nothing in his training would attune him to the trope or its limitations. Unlike Bohr, the hubristic scientist dismisses the shaping power of language and the symbolic world, or at least its formal study, as nonsense. In doing so, he risks committing an intellectual sin that my mentor had a name for: contempt prior to investigation.
White gleefully exposes and lampoons such transgressions. In one chapter, he considers the widespread tendency to compare the human mind to a machine. His message to the metaphorically challenged is quick to tell; if we can imagine our minds as machines, and we know that machines can’t imagine, we should also realize that we’re not machines. He also dissects Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine: How Creativity Works” (2012), which the publisher withdrew from the market after allegations that Lehrer fabricated quotations and plagiarized material. Those accusations suggest that Lehrer was both too creative and not creative enough, but White’s main complaint is that Lehrer fails to distinguish between producing powerful art and developing new household products. For Lehrer, both activities are equally valid forms of creativity; for White, Lehrer’s analysis is a parade example of the Middle Mind.
White is neither a religious believer nor a critic of science as such; in fact, he announces his atheism at the outset and demonstrates an interest in scientific activity and discovery throughout the book. His ultimate goal is to reposition both the sciences and the humanities within the broader and distinctively human enterprise of symbolic reasoning. Channeling Bronowski and others, White maintains that “science must come to see itself in the artist, and the two should make common cause against dogma and social regimentation.” He also argues that the Romantics, the first critics of Enlightenment values, repay careful consideration today: not because they’re entertaining, but because they transformed our understanding of art, freedom, creativity and the imagination—all of which have been neglected or trivialized by rigid scientific determinism.
Although “The Science Delusion” is a specific kind of intellectual intervention, some readers may find themselves grouping it with a long list of works that assert or defend the value of a liberal arts education. The touchstone is John Henry Newman’s “The Idea of a University” (1852), but Hazard Adams’ “The Academic Tribes” (1976) is one of the genre’s minor masterpieces. A parody of academia disguised as ethnography, Adams’ book is a forceful argument for humanistic inquiry as the foundation of the modern university rather than another spoke on its curricular wheel. But the gears of higher education are turning in a different direction, and such inquiry seems unlikely to benefit from the brave new world of distance learning, online education, and massive online open courses (MOOCs). The humanities have traditionally taught the virtues of close reading, trenchant prose, incisive argumentation and moral deliberation—all of which tend to flourish in face-to-face intellectual communities rather than virtual ones. If we decide that these virtues are dispensable, the real entertainment won’t be far behind.
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