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book review

Curtis WhiteHandout

Like so many of us, I have not attempted to read anything by legendary physicist and Simpsons character Stephen Hawking since his A Brief History of Time brought parts of my 1988 to a juddering halt. So I am grateful that freewheeling critic Curtis White, in this spirited but scattershot attack on bullying Big Science, quotes Hawking to this effect: "[P]hilosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics." Lawrence Krauss, another target of White's critique, offers a related indictment: Philosophy, Krauss has declared, "hasn't progressed in 2,000 years."

I will inform my colleagues of our demise. Meanwhile, let me say for the record that (1) assessing the vitality of Discipline A as a function of its "keeping up with" Discipline B is a form of what we philosophers call begging the question, otherwise known as assuming the very thing you need to prove. Also that (2) more than a few of us understand the business of philosophy to be not "progress" – that most self-serving of intellectual narratives – but the search for conceptual clarity.

Granted, we have not succeeded in laying life's big questions to rest, but that's partly because we know that every claim to have done so has been mistaken. This suggests that there are, perhaps, some kinds of knowledge and meaning that are not best framed as problems to be solved once and for all. The essence of philosophy is a restless, relentless insistence on asking for reasons. It is, as Edmund Husserl put it, a matter of "infinite tasks."

I know there are scientists, including physicists, who feel the same restlessness. They are not the objects of White's ire. He is exercised, instead, by two groups: the aggressive New Atheists, including Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens; and the popularizers of voguish neuroscience, such as Steven Pinker or the hapless Jonah Lehrer, the latter lately disgraced by charges of self-plagiarism and illicit manufacture of Bob Dylan quotations.

The resulting book does not convince me that these two groups are in fact allied, or that their danger is all that pressing, but that's because White shows the galloping atheists and neurobabblers at their least persuasive. He suggests that their sometimes heated rhetoric is a sign of frustration, perhaps a subconscious awareness that such snappish appeals to human reason don't seem to mesh with, well, human reason.

I realize that the notion of "subconscious awareness" is just one of those things that aggressive science would dismiss as meaningless. Unfortunately for them, this and other aspects of the human mind are experienced daily by thousands, if not millions, of humans. The tough neo-Darwinians of our moment are like the economists in an old New Yorker cartoon: Their theoretical models would work much better if the people were left out.

On the face of it, after all, the emergence of personal mindedness in a strictly material world, ruled by purely physical causes and effects, is unlikely, if not bizarre. And yet here it is, as you and I know even as you read these words of mine. To put the stakes very crudely, the fact of our consciousness means either that the purely material model is inadequate, or that the model must explain consciousness in its own terms – which usually means explain it away, like a drunken guest at a dinner party for robots.

Even then, the enduring paradox is that someone, a hunk of ambulatory meat somehow possessed of purpose and a sense of self, is still doing the explaining. "What is the universe like?" is a question that must be answered in a way that includes the asking of that question. And so you needn't be a runaway divine-design jockey to think that the human mind might just be the universe becoming aware of itself.

White is an unbeliever, and that's pretty much what he thinks. His brisk takedowns of Hitchens, Hawking, Krauss, Lehrer and others are sharp and necessary, wielding elementary logic against figures who should know better. They are the best parts of the book, and show just how easily good science can shade into the self-aggrandizing ideology of scientism.

It has to be said, though, that he is stronger on offence than on defence. He celebrates a kind of neo-hippie Romanticism that includes Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Thomas Carlyle and especially Friedrich Schelling among its heroes. This is the Romanticism of creative dissonance, the endless play of cultural force and individual urge. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony receives a devout hearing. Dylan gets his due, and without any false attributions; also Frank Zappa, Radiohead, Of Montreal, Chico Marx, The Karate Kid and, for some reason, Michael Cimino's 1980 movie-house flop Heaven's Gate.

White makes a more convincing case with respect to scientism's ties to financial and social power. Refusing to accept its status as one imaginative discourse among many, claiming the key to all intellectual doors as well as the lion's share of grant money, this kind of science has aligned itself with "the broader ideology of social regimentation, economic exploitation, environmental destruction, and industrial militarism that, for lack of a better word, we still call capitalism."

The Science Delusion would benefit from fewer bad jokes, less sixties nostalgia, more argument and deeper substance – in other words, philosophy. But for that, you can read Thomas Nagel's compelling, and bestselling, recent attack on neo-Darwinism, Mind and Cosmos. Otherwise, as a lively, accessible polemic against the arrogance of scientism, this will do.

Mark Kingwell teaches philosophy at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Unruly Voices: Essays on Democracy, Civility, and the Human Imagination.

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