Wednesday, April 13, 2016

You've Been Telling Me You're a Genius Since You Were Seventeen

Reading Curtis White's The Science Delusion (Melville House, 2013) renewed my respect for Mary Midgley.  I happened on White's book in the library just after I'd reread Midgley's Science and Salvation (Routledge, 1992) and was mulling over the (very critical) blog post I wanted to write about it.  Since White, a novelist and academic social critic, was going over much the same ground, and I enjoyed his title's dig at Richard Dawkins, I decided to give it a try.

I can sum up part of my reaction by quoting this writer at BoingBoing, who says that most reviews of The Science Delusion have missed White's point:
All the invective? White thought he was just being funny and satirical, like Jonathan Swift. The over-generalizing about what all scientists believe and what the culture of science is like? He thought it was clear that he just meant the subset of scientists who don't think there's any value other than entertainment in art, that philosophy is dead, and that culture has no affect on how we interpret science or what we do with it. The weird, pseudo-Deism? He thought he was explaining that science is part of culture, that the questions being asked and the way answers are interpreted are culturally bound and and we have to take that into account. The humanities triumphalism and points where he totally dismisses science and acts like he doesn't understand why somebody would find meaning in being curious about how the mind works? Not what he meant at all, apparently. He just wants to make the case for us needing both science and the humanities to properly understand the world. And White is deeply confused about why reviews of his book keep getting all of this wrong. 
Of course, many writers have had the experience of discovering that the book their readers and critics read was not the book they thought they wrote.  And I must say that I nowhere got the impression that White "totally dismisses" science; only a sloppy and probably biased reader, one with a science-cultist agenda, should have taken that from the book, in much the same way that Obama cultists jump to the conclusion that anyone who criticizes Obama is totally a Republican who hates him and doesn't like or respect or admire anybody. (Or American exceptionalists accuse anyone who argues that the US shouldn't bomb the shit out of countries that haven't attacked us of wanting to see America conquered and destroyed by Al-Qaeda.)

The BoingBoing writer, Maggie Koerth-Baker, complains that The Science Delusion "is written in such a way as to nearly ensure that it will quickly alienate anybody who identifies with science as their community, their career, or their passion."  As I've argued before (and Koerth-Baker herself notices), writers like Dawkins and Hitchens can dish it out but not take it -- Dawkins especially has very tender sensibilities when someone turns his rhetorical style back on him -- so it's highly unlikely that anyone could write a book critical of any aspect of science that wouldn't alienate anybody who "identifies with science."

Still, a humanities-oriented writer, especially one who's been around the block a few dozen times (White is 65, almost exactly my age) should have, you know, thought about the way his or her writing was coming across.  This is why writers show their work to readers they trust before publication: not just to check for factual or typographical errors, but to get their reactions to the content as a whole.  I've mentioned before how surprised I was when I wrote a satirical piece mocking college fraternities with Christian-right rhetoric, and friends (including graduate students in the humanities, from whom I'd have expected better; hadn't they even heard of Swift's "Modest Proposal"? evidently not) took it literally, exultant that I'd given those Greek-system snots what for.  Satire is always tricky that way.  I often showed my poems to people who weren't academics to get their reactions, as I did with my big anti-Christian project (still unpublished) of the 1980s: to see what non-professionals took away from it.  I had better luck with the anti-Christian book; people seemed to get what I intended.

It's to be expected that scientists might have trouble with tone and balance in what they write for a general audience: that kind of subtlety isn't in their job description.  But if White wanted to show the value of the humanities as well as the sciences for understanding the world, he did a poor job of it.  Since I am also humanities-oriented, critical of science triumphalism, and am predisposed to agree with the point he was trying to make, I'm just the audience he was aiming for, and he still left me dissatisfied.

Interestingly, White told Koerth-Baker in e-mail:
I hope you won’t be entirely surprised if I say that I don’t think anything went wrong. The Science Delusion is much like my earlier work, especially The Middle Mind. One person’s “angry screed” is another person’s “passionate defense.” My native audience tends to be among artists, lefty intellectuals, humanists, and other species of the socially dispossessed. This particular book has generated a broader audience, much of which is sensitive to criticism of the sciences. I just received a review by Mark Kingwell, a Canadian philosopher, for the Globe and Mail. It’s a sympathetic review although he complains of the “bad jokes.” (At least he noticed there were jokes!) But the on-line comments about his review hacked him to pieces in the name of the superiority of the scientific worldview. Utter disdain. Baseless contempt. I have to say, the comments made me feel a little better about some of the treatment I’ve received. 
(Wait -- "artists, lefty intellectuals, humanists" are "socially dispossessed"?  Bitch, please.  [P.S., 2017: it just occurred to me that White was perhaps being sarcastic there.])

So it appears that it's Koerth-Baker who misunderstood White's intention.  The part about the attacks on Kingwell's review also fits a pattern I've noticed before: those who try to position themselves as moderates, whether philosophically or politically, tend to find themselves vilified for allegedly taking the very positions they were trying to repudiate.  So, when the journalist Richard Goldstein tried to distance himself from Noam Chomsky's supposed anti-Americanism a decade ago, readers attacked him as anti-American.

Similarly, Koerth-Baker wants to take a middle stance on scientism, by mildly criticizing the tone of writers like Dawkins, and rejecting what she calls "pop-culture, self-help neuroscience."  But "pop culture" isn't really the problem, it's actual working scientists who genuinely believe they know more and can explain more than they can.  So she wrote that "much of White's argument against this hinges on framing pop-neurobollocks as a problem created by and supported by scientists, and a problem that very few people have spoken out about. Neither of which is true."  What she calls "pop-neurobollocks" is in fact created by and supported by scientists.  It's true that other scientists have criticized their colleagues -- see Robert A. Burton's A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind, which I discussed here -- and they locate the problem not in pop culture but in the field itself.  And the criticisms are commonly dismissed by their colleagues as coming from (you guessed it) the humanities, from feminists and leftists who hate science and want to see it destroyed.  Another, superficially milder stratagem is to accuse critics of scientific racism of favoring a "blank slate" view of human nature.

Koerth-Baker also claims that
anthropology was once a field pretty much dedicated to proving the superiority of white, Western colonial powers over their brown subjects. The societal context shaped the questions those early anthropologists were asking, it shaped how they chose to study the world, and it shaped how they chose to interpret the data they came back with. The fact that, by the time I got to anthropology school in 1999, the field had been drastically realigned as a challenge to its former self also says something about the influence of culture and the importance of questioning ourselves and our values in ways that are not purely scientific.
This is mistaken.  First, anthropologists were always divided among themselves.  Many were dedicated to justifying Western imperialism, but others weren't.  Franz Boas is probably the most famous example of an early 20th century anthropologist who opposed and criticized racist anthropology in the service of European colonialism. As an effective critic of scientific racism, he was predictably vilified by his colleages, often on racist grounds.  The eugenicist Madison Grant, for example, jeered that Boas "naturally does not take stock in any anthropology which relegates him and his race to the inferior position that they have occupied throughout recorded history."  (Boas was Jewish, which Grant thought was a "race.")  Second, some anthropologists are still serving Western imperialism.  I'd add that scientific racism based in biology is still very much with us.

But her error is instructive, as an example of the common tendency to speak of "science," "religion," "art," and other fields as if they spoke with one voice and were mutually exclusive.

If Curtis White wants to preach to the choir, that's his lookout.  It's perfectly legitimate to take a side and write for its adherents, to keep up their morale and, if possible, given them good reasons for continuing to believe what they want to.  My complaint about The Science Delusion is not that White picked on science, but that he made such a shitty case for the humanities.  I think that's largely because he too thinks, or writes as if he thinks, that "science" and "the humanities," etc., speak with one voice and are mutually exclusive.

White writes, for example:
What scientists / polemicists like [Lawrence] Krauss refuse to admit, perhaps because they think that it creates an opening for their enemies, is that there is any limit on what they can claim to know.  Nevertheless, it is true even for science that there are unknowable things -- unknowable because not accessible to observation or experiment -- chief among which is the question of being's ultimate origin.  That is not an invitation for the God-mongers to set up camp where science cannot go (creating a "God of the gaps").  Rather, it is simply one of those matters about which science ought to open itself to other forms of thinking, if not knowing, and it might if it felt a little less besieged [53].
What are those "other forms of thinking, if not knowing"?  White isn't willing to concede too much to religion.  He dismisses the "God-mongers" as lightly as the scientists and New Atheists do, and though he stresses that "There are still many and large congregations of liberal Christians, even liberal evangelicals, starting with Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. And the liberal, even radical, Jewish community is famously large" (34), he doesn't spend much time on liberal or radical religious forms of knowing.
Not for Hitchens that rich cross-cultural fertilization of the Levant by Helenistic [sic!], Jewish, and Manichaean thought.  Not for Hitchens the transformation of a Jewish heretic into a religion that Nietzsche called "Platonism for the masses" [29].
What an anachronistic mess!  Didn't Nietzsche also call Christianity a slave morality?  I doubt that he meant "Platonism for the masses" as a compliment, either.  Did Christianity have answers that science knows not of?  Not that I can see, and White doesn't mention any.

White spends some time on various New Atheists' dismissal of philosophy.  He quotes, for example, the same Lawrence Krauss from a 2012 interview in The Atlantic:
Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, “those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym.”  And the worst part of philosophy is the philosophy of science; the only people, as far as I can tell, that read work by philosophers of science are other philosophers of science. [Well, scientists kind of read it sometimes to give themselves conniptions. - D.M.] … And so it's really hard to understand what justifies it.  And so I'd say that this tension occurs because people in philosophy feel threatened, and they have every right to feel threatened, because science progresses and philosophy doesn't [24].
White waxes indignant about these philistines: "What do any of these science writers know about the history of philosophy before Bertrand Russell?  Their comments are merely expressions of an anti-intellectual prejudice.  I would go so far as to say that they are a kind of bigotry" (25).  It might be more to the point to point out that these science writers are still doing philosophy; they're just doing it ignorantly and badly, like the plain-speaking businessman who claims that common sense is good enough for him.  When such scientists try to rebut philosophers and historians of science, they generally get everything wrong.  Philosophers keep worrying away at questions that scientists (and remember, science used to be called "natural philosophy") don't even try to answer, perhaps because they're unanswerable.  To my mind, the benefit of doing philosophy is that it brings home so forcefully how much we don't know.

For Curtis White, the best alternative source of knowledge lies in the arts, specifically in the Romantic movement.
At its inception, Romanticism was about the discovery of a social attitude almost entirely new in the history of Western civilization.  Up through the late 18th century, individuals found themselves only in a group identification with tribe, kingdom, church, nation, and, brutally, social caste.  Romanticism offered a revolutionary and enduring alternative to being absorbed by the culture into which you happened to be born: alienation.  Alienation is the feeling that, as Lord Byron's Childe Harold expressed it, "I stood amongst them but not of them." ... I don't belong anywhere in my own world.  In fact, I see this world for what it is, and it is shameful.  In place of this world I feel something nobler within me that poets and philosophers, not soldiers, must make real...

And yet this sense of being homeless was for the Romantics [like the early Christians] a source not only of pain but of strength and potential joy as well. ... They would be heroes.  They would be free.  They would create themselves [59-60].  
A vain fantasy, and not far from the Promethean fantasies that drive a lot of scientists.  (White overlooks the notorious alienation experienced by many scientists.)  I don't believe White is correct about alienation being wholly new when the Romantics took it up.  Alienation is all over the New Testament, especially but not only in Paul's letters, and it's arguable that a feeling of not being at home in the world accounts for the popularity of mystery religions and other initiations around the Mediterranean in Jesus' time.  Alienation is a basic feature of Gnosticism too.  It seems to me that it's also part of Buddhism, certainly in the Buddha's origin myth (a pampered, sheltered prince, confronted with the reality of human suffering, leaves it all to seek Truth), which reminds me that White thinks almost exclusively in terms of "Western" art, culture and religion; odd that, in one who avows the influence of 1960s California counterculture in his life.

But again, what answers does Romanticism offer?  None that White mentions.  He makes much of its supposed egalitarianism, and throws the word "freedom" around a lot, especially "Schiller's mantra," "Art models freedom" (69).  Freedom is good, who could object to that?  But if Schiller was right, art models freedom through constraint, whether by using established forms or by creating new ones.  Freedom is never absolute. When he tries to get positive about art, White falls as flat as any scientist does.
The more agonistic way would be to say that for the past two centuries artists have hated mop inventors. Beethoven … seemed to hate just about everyone, and wrote his music against them, against his father, against Haydn, against “inkeepers, cobblers, and tailors,” and against the philistine nobility that paid his wages.  In short, [Jonah] Lehrer either has never heard of or simply dismisses the role of social alienation as a driving force for what he blandly calls creativity [117-8].  
What galloping horseshit.  Let's note again the social alienation found in many scientists.  Second, let's note that these alienated kids always expect to be taken care of, usually by women.  White hasn't noticed what a boys' club the arts have always been, no less than the sciences or religion.  Beethoven's hatred of merchants and servants for failing to serve him gratis wasn't "egalitarian" but aristocratic.  Feminism is another alternate way of knowing that doesn't seem to be on his radar.
Lehrer writes, “The story of 'Like a Rolling Stone' is a story of creative insight.  The song was invented in the moment, then hurled into the world” [121]. 
Bullshit, and White recognizes this, but for the wrong reasons. "Like a Rolling Stone" did not spring fully grown from Bob Dylan's head.  Think of the actual process of writing, which was not a moment but went on for some time, producing ten pages of a rant that Dylan whittled down to four long verses.  Then think of the process of arranging and recording, which was protracted and painful.  Some of the versions, including a waltz, have since been released on CD.  The release version emerged in collaboration with other musicians, and Dylan's producer.  Then think of the hostility in the folk community to Dylan's artistic changes.  He was accused of commercialism, though his record label understandably didn't see a six-minute opus as obvious fodder for the charts; but also remember Mim Udovich's rejoinder (from the Village Voice, 29 September 1992, 94-97) to Camille Paglia's lament about commercialism in pop music:
Outrage about the artistic limitations placed on musicians by the marketplace is equally unfounded.  And just to stick on Paglia's elementary level, if Leonard Chess had not told Chuck Berry to ditch the blues for something that would sell, it is arguable that Keith Richards would not be the coolest person living today.  And lastly, if you're going to make this argument at all, you should mention Colonel Tom Parker.
The case of rock'n'roll also brings in the relationship of art and technology -- that is, science.  Dylan could not have made "Like a Rolling Stone" without changes (advances, if you like) in the technology of musical instruments and of recording. The effect of recording on music has not been purely technical -- or rather, technical changes have wrought cultural changes.  A generation, the generation White and I share, learned to think of music as existing in sequence on two sides of a long-playing vinyl record. The advent of CDs changed that, and then music on the Internet, and Youtube, changed it again.  Musical performances used to be ephemeral -- we have no idea what Jenny Lind sounded like, for example -- but we can now listen to the music of long-dead musicians, frozen on lacquer, vinyl, compact discs and now as virtual computer files.
For the scientist, blue is a particular wavelength in the light spectrum that is visible to humans. For the linguist, blue is a sign or symbol carrying meaning (heaven, salvation, Caribbean vacation, etc.).  But for an artist like Messaien, blue is a presence -- both a thing and the experience of the thing -- and only when we are attentive and responsive to this presence can we be said to understand it.  As Messaien shows [except that he didn't, but never mind for now], attention requires a certain non-evaluative openness to the thing [which thing?]; to respond to what the openness offers is the act of music-making itself [162].  
It occurs to me that White always thinks of art from the standpoint of the artist, the Promethean genius who creates, models freedom, and demands our "non-evaluative openness to the thing."  Anytime someone demands "non-evaluative openness" (also known as "faith"), I reach for my critical thinking.  It seems that for White, it's the artist who matters, and the audience exists as a receptacle for "the act of music-making," or poem-making, or painting-making, or philosophy-making.  That's not an "egalitarian" model of the arts, or of life, and it sits oddly with White's insistence, quoting Schlegal, that "To have genius is the natural state of humanity."  Personally, my idea of Hell is a roomful of geniuses, demanding non-evaluative openness to their own products but never paying attention to the products of all the others, who may claim to be geniuses but are just a bunch of posers, man, to say nothing of the stupid sheeple who don't realize the pain of being a supergenius in an uncaring, un-understanding world full of idiots.

One should, of course, take artists' philosophizing about their practice as skeptically as one takes scientists' philosophizing about theirs.  But what is blue to the painter?  A technical problem.  The technology of paint is ancient.  You can't draw a neat line between art and science.  Each practitioner, obsessed with his or her own problems, sees himself or herself as the center of the universe; one role of the philosopher is to decenter them.
The important thing to remember, those few of us who do [really? who is "us" here?], is that there are other metaphors than those offered to us by science, and other ways of thinking about what it's like to be a [sic] human.  There is a long, now dishonored tradition in philosophy and the arts that seeks to account for the "interior distance," our personal and species internal landscape.  The crucial thing to say is that this tradition is under no illusions that it is providing the Truth, the human-in-itself. ... What's more, these metaphors will also provide insight into something science is mostly clueless about: how we ought to live [167].
I disagree that "this tradition is under no illusions that it is providing the Truth"; it seems to me that all these traditions have such illusions, and their "insights" about "how we ought to live" are clueless when they try to prescribe and legislate for everyone.  The religious and philosophical traditions I've gotten the most from acknowledge that "our personal and species internal landscape" can not be accounted for.  People constantly mistake metaphors for reality.  Religious people are especially prone to doing so, with scientists close on their heels. 

White notes that the culture of science "is notoriously thin-skinned and combative" (96), then quotes at length a scientist on the cutthroat competition of science conferences and the scientific professional generally.  I suppose he takes for granted that his readers are aware that this also describes the humanities and the arts, but he doesn't make the point, so let me do it: the culture of the arts is notoriously thin-skinned and combative.  He also told Koerth-Baker that he liked a lot of science writing, such as John McPhee's Annals of the Former World, but he didn't discuss it in The Science Delusion because "McPhee is not in the business of using science to produce pernicious ideology."  Of course, the humanities and the arts have often produced pernicious ideology.  (The Romantics' adulation for, and then disillusionment with, Napoleon Bonaparte is not really addressed by White.) The only way to avoid doing so lies not in a given field or a particular movement in a field, but in not producing pernicious ideology in the first place.  How to avoid that?  There's the rub.  In The Science Delusion Curtis White offered an entertaining though scattershot sendup of the pretensions of scientists, but he merely showcased the pretentions of artists and the humanities.