'The Science Delusion' Makes a Familiar Argument From a Fresh Angle

by Brice Ezell

27 October 2014

Curtis White's arguments against the myopia of New Atheism have been made by many philosophers before him, but his alternative provides new insights into the follies of scientism.
cover art

The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers

Curtis White

(Melville House)
US: Aug 2014

Despite their prevalence and the millions of copies of books they have sold, the so-called “New Atheists” have a big problem. These authors, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, have fallen victim to the same thing they spend so much of their writing critiquing: religiosity. When an avowed leftist like Noam Chomsky, far from a traditional theist by any definition, calls Hitchens and Harris “religious fanatics”, clearly something has gone amuck in an attempt to reignite a robust atheism in the public discourse. Tellingly, Richard Dawkins and his supporters completely overlooked the religious associations that are bound with the “Out Campaign”, an advocacy movement wherein atheists wear lapels with the scarlet letter “A” as a sign of their being ostracized by society.

Such an unironic appropriation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel shows the New Atheists’ blindness to the fact that fanaticism and zeal are not exclusive to religion. Furthermore, this blindness is bound to lead to judgments that are themselves religious, or at the very least metaphysical. New Atheists are likely to applaud the line that opens Carl Sagan’s famous Cosmos: “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” One doesn’t need to be an advanced philosopher to recognize that judgment is not scientific, but metaphysical. The claims made by New Atheists, claims that fall under the umbrella of “scientism”, are as grandiose and as easy to make as “God created everything that is, ever was, or will be.”

It is in this debate that cultural critic Curtis White finds himself. White, himself an atheist, takes issue with the philosophical presumptions behind the scientism that drives the discourse of scientists like Dawkins and Harris. His rebuttal to scientism begins with a seemingly benign example from Dawkins’ The God Delusion, where Dawkins describes a lunch he had with Jim Watson. He deems that lunch was “a good lunch.” White’s question for Dawkins is simple: “What’s a good lunch?” Using the metrics that one could reasonably justify from the framework of evolutionary biology, it’s not clear what “good” would mean as Dawkins uses it.

As White rightly observes, terms like “good”, “dazzle”, and “amazement”, which are often invoked by scientists in describing the grandeur of the universe and scientific discovery, “[don’t have] anything to do with the practice of science.” Even descriptive words that do have scientific merit, such as “complexity”, do not in themselves explain anything more than what they are describing. Saying that the cosmos is “beautiful” because of its complexity says nothing other than that it is complex. The former word reveals the kind of armchair metaphysics that New Atheists not only frequently use, but all too frequently get away with. White summarizes, “In short, there is an unacknowledged system of extra-scientific value at work that science refuses to take responsibility for, either because it is unaware of the presence of the system or because it doesn’t wish to disturb its own dogmatic slumber.”

White’s argument, though thoroughly well researched and astutely put, is not a new one. Following the rise and fall of logical positivism in the early-to-mid 20th century, religious thinkers such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (the so-called “Reformed Epistemologists”) on the analytic side of philosophy, and leftist continental philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, launched numerous attacks on scientism. Whether religious or irreligious in persuasion, these thinkers refute logical positivism (the predecessor to scientism) by pointing out that such thought ultimately affirms propositions that are themselves faith-based.

While it may be circular to say that belief in God is proved by God (e.g. “The Bible is all true, God told me in the Bible that he was right”), so too is it circular to say that the absolute truth of the scientific method proves itself true. The weakness of the New Atheist’s argument has achieved the rare feat of bringing together a Calvinist like Plantinga and an atheistic, somewhat positivist thinker like Chomsky together in opposition.

Now, the easy response to White’s argument is to say, “Well, of course we know the things science tells us are true; we don’t question that the earth rotates around the sun, or that we need oxygen to breathe, etc.” White counters this when he points out, “But this ‘of course’ is the marker of ideology, and the ideologist resists examining his own assumptions because to do so would be to make vulnerable his claims to authority.” This shows that White’s argument is not against the practice of science in general, but rather the (unjustified) metaphysical assumption that scientific inquiry is the only way to truth.

Unfortunately, although Dawkins and Harris’ lack of philosophical training is evident to nearly all philosophers, whether religious or irreligious, their hold on the public discourse is considerable. The God Delusion has and will likely continue to outsell any book by its superior critics. Thus, a book like The Science Delusion, however familiar its argument, is a welcome antidote to the battle between what are basically religious fundamentalists and atheistic fundamentalists. But while White’s arguments against scientism in the first part of The Science Delusion may be familiar, where he goes next reveals his fresh take on the subject.

When thinkers like Plantinga refute the New Atheists, the argument ultimately becomes that all world views, religious or otherwise, rely on unproveable faith claims. White himself expresses skepticism at scientism’s ability to provide a coherent picture of the world that goes beyond mere description of facts. However, instead of pulling apart the presuppositions of scientism, he goes on to establish the harmful externalities that come as a result of the sway scientism has on the public at the moment.

In particular, he calls for a return to the Romantic spirit. “It was Romanticism,” he writes, “that first challenged the emerging dominance of the scientific and rationalist worldview; it was Romanticism that first saw how this worldview would tend toward ever greater social regimentation; and it was Romanticism that first claimed that art could provide an alternative, a counterculture if you will, to both science and present society.” Using examples from both Romantic poets such as Samuel Coleridge and the German idealist philosophers, White argues that the anointing of science as the means of discovering all truth has led to a devaluing of the humanities in Western culture. One only needs remind herself about the stereotypical jokes about English majors being useless in the marketplace to realize the pervasiveness of science’s influence on capitalism and industry.

“From its inception, science has been comfortably situated within and dependent upon the oligarchs,” White points out. His most telling proof of this in the present day comes from an example he places in a footnote:

TED might as well be a PAC fundraiser, and in some ways it is. From its inception, Silicon Valley politics have not been all about freewheeling creativity and the making of a techno-counterculture by an army of stringy-haired geeks. Much of Silicon Valley’s politics has been about hyper-rationality, radical individualism, and the personal right to power. In other words, Ayn Rand. [...] When Nick Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist, suggested in a TED talk that wealthy investors don’t create jobs and that a tax on the rich is just what our sputtering economy needs, TED decided not to add the talk to its line of web lectures.

Using the example of Sebastian Seung’s 2010 TED talk “I Am My Connectome”, White argues that the culture of scientism can manifest in popular culture in clandestine ways, which is arguably more problematic than the proselytizing of Dawkins and Harris. Seung begins his talk by addressing the reasonable skepticism against the idea that humans can be broken down to their basic biological material. However, he doesn’t do much to assuage this skepticism when he argues that humans could be explained in terms of their “connectome”:

Since the 19th century, neuroscientists have speculated that maybe your memories—the information that makes you, you—maybe your memories are stored in the connections between your brain’s neurons. And perhaps other aspects of your personal identity—maybe your personality and your intellect—maybe they’re also encoded between your neurons.

With regards to rhetoric, already Seung’s argument is suspect; the preponderance of hedging words like “maybe” suggests that the bold declaration “I Am My Connectome” isn’t going to hit its target. But furthermore, as White notes, “But nowhere does he explain why ‘I am my connectome’ should make anyone feel better about themselves than ‘I am my genome.’”

In spite of these issues, the culture of TED talks, as well as the subtle scientism that underlies their ethos, remains prevalent. Even when those in the now-maligned humanities fields manage to receive anything like the funding those in science fields receive, it usually involves scientific research still playing a crucial role. A good example of this is the $5 million USD grant received by University of California Riverside philosopher John Fischerto research immortality, a scientific subdiscipline of growing interest. 

What it means to return to the Romantic spirit isn’t spelled out to the ‘T’ by Curtis; then again, to do so would be to give in to a scientific mindset. As the subtitle of The Science Delusion shows, scientism thrives in a culture where clear, concise answers are privileged above all others. After all, why come up with a grandiose philosophy about why humans exist and what we are here for when we could boil things down to genomes or connectomes? To respond to the problem of scientism by saying, “The solution is X”, White would be doing poor service to his own argument.

There’s a telling passage that reveals one concrete thing people could do in opposition to the reductive thinking of scientism. Speaking about the thrill of scientific discovery, White writes, “Science is beautiful when the confirmation of its theories disconfirms the dominant beliefs of the culture it is working within, or simply disconfirms the intuitions of the human brain itself.” This is paralleled by artistic invention: “Most art innovations are, at first, accused of being impious, or treasonous, or ugly, or decadent, depending upon the ideology.”

The dissonance of discovering something new and upsetting established norms “feels like life itself. It feels like play and it feels like being alive.” Even though the “airy-fairy” humanities and the “empirical” sciences are often painted in opposition to each other, White here sees them converging in practice. He writes, “I can’t imagine that a scientist working on a new way of thinking about the physical world doesn’t feel something very similar [to an artist coming up with an innovative new work].”

Simply put, the Romantic spirit is captured by both the feeling of alienation from established norms and the desire to upend it with new discoveries. Scientism and New Atheism reject this idea in favor of absolutist, accidentally metaphysical claims like Sagan’s “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” By invoking the rich tradition of Romanticism, White offers a compelling and creative alternative to such dogmatism.

The dogmatism of scientism was made evident in the many responses White got after The Science Delusion‘s initial publication. In the afterword included in the paperback edition he writes, “The most unexpected criticism I received when The Science Delusion first appeared was that I hated science.” Numerous questions in White’s Reddit AMA also demonstrate the knee-jerk reaction to White’s arguments. (The question “Since the scientific method is a process of removing ideology, bias, opinion, etc. from the process of discovery, how can it be an ideology?” reveals just how ignorant many can be about the history of epistemology). To those refuting White, to question science’s absolute authority is to question the legitimacy of science in its totality. Not unlike the religious fundamentalist who excommunicates the doubting Thomas, White’s reasonable critique of the epistemological infallibility given to scientific inquiry makes him an apostate.

For those with an open mind and a willingness to engage in what is a complex cultural divide, The Science Delusion is an essential read. Most importantly, it’s a book that should revitalize one’s love not just for Romanticism and philosophy, but also science, properly understood. Science without skepticism is a boring enterprise; if we really do know with 100 percent confidence that “the cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be”, well, then, what’s the point?

By taking on a Romantic spirit, science not only enables itself to progress further in challenging previous paradigms, but it also gets at that difficult-to-define word: “beauty”. With scientism, a word like that is an anomaly, a meaningless descriptor that at its base only refers to something like symmetry or complexity. With a Romantic vision of science, however, the questions that science can’t answer are just as beautiful as the things it can answer with certainty.

The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers


Topics: new atheists
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