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Novelist, essayist, and English professor Curtis White defends poetry and philosophy against the culture of ‘scientism’, despite his own atheism.


The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, by Curtis White

(Melville House)

-          Reviewed by  Eric Banks in The New York Times

Most works in philosophy enter the world quietly, but not Thomas Nagel’s recent Mind and Cosmos. With its chin-leading subtitle, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, the slim volume met with a firestorm of indignation from critics who thought Nagel had lost his mind or, worse, had thrown in with intelligent design theory. (Steven Pinker tweeted: What has gotten into Thomas Nagel? . . . a once-great thinker.)

What incited the reaction was Nagel’s questioning whether advances in neuroscience are on the verge of resolving the mysteries of consciousness, and with it issues that have fuelled philosophical speculation for centuries, from subjectivity to free will.

Rather like Nagel, but angrier, is the novelist and critic Curtis White.

Though neither a research scientist nor a trained philosopher, he is infuriated by the sunny confidence of neuroscience, arguing that it is not just a product of ambitious overreach but, more, a willful act of arrogance. In his book The Science Delusion, he writes that the coming battle in this neo-Darwinian culture war will be an all-out assault against imagination by scientists and popular science journalists: 'Freed at last from the limits imposed by religion, science has extended its ambitions beyond the debunking of Christian dogma. It has now turned its attention to another old competitor, the secular world of the humanities and the arts.'

This may come as news to some of White’s would-be shock troops, who generally haven’t announced their hostile intentions to art and the imagination, but White sees their pernicious effects spreading across contemporary American life.

The idea of a rift between science and the humanities is, of course, nothing new. For generations now, we have heard complaints that those broadly educated in art, music and literature lack any scientific literacy. But White inverts the old two-cultures theme.

He goes after a range of public-intellectual scientists who, he complains, have strayed into areas traditionally beyond the ken of their disciplines, with a marauder’s disrespect and next to no appreciation for the objects of their attacks. He bristles, for instance, at the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss’s claim that 'philosophy hasn’t progressed in 2,000 years,' and wonders why popular writing on cosmology relies on words like 'beautiful' and 'dazzling' to describe an otherwise cold, mechanical view of the universe.

Is there really a menace to the humanities in the breezy flourishes of a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Hawking?

White believes that the remarks of such thinkers matter immensely in an environment that glorifies science, one in which lectures by theorists like Krauss attract more than one million YouTube viewers and a TED presentation of the 'connectome' speculations of Sebastian Seung is a hot ticket while attendance at symphony halls dwindles.

The connection between the two, as if the lovers of the classical repertory might not significantly overlap with the viewership of lectures on neuroscience, is the kind of implicit dichotomy assumed throughout The Science Delusion.

White says that high culture and science are battling over a shared ground, and that the gain of one means the retreat of the other. And he is adamant that the emergence of a new form of science story­telling, wedded to entertainment outlets like TED Talks, is creating a monster that substitutes flashy wonder for hard thinking and insulates the practice of science from a real-world political context of value decisions, large capital investment and dubious technological offshoots.

He is unhappiest when it comes to popular science journalism, which he views mostly as a malodorous brew of gushing prose mixed with a dash of snake oil: 'The thing that I find most inscrutable about all of the recent books and essays that have sought to give mechanistic explanations for consciousness, personality, emotions, creativity, the whole human sensorium, is how happy the authors seem about it. They’re nearly giddy with the excitement, and so, for some reason, are many of their readers....'

Full review in The New York Times:

Is Science Enough?

Buy this book:

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