Book Review

The Science Delusion

Peter Richardson
Peter Richardson teaches humanities and American studies at San Francisco State University. He has written three critically acclaimed books: No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead (2015); A…
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.
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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