Straw Man Attacked by Manufacturer of Scarecrows! Or, Crimes against Humanities

No one is happier than I to see good takedowns of rhetorical straw men, particularly when those straw men are in the shape of folks whose non-straw brains are think are pretty admirable. So on the one hand, I’m pleased with Mark O’Connell’s review of Curtis White’s The Science Delusion, which appears to be a kind of polemic against “scientism.” O’Connell very rightly takes White to task for ad hominem attacks against those with whom he disagrees (for example, attacking Richard Feynman for attending strip clubs).

But the problem is that O’Connell only dislikes White’s approach because he wants to see a better, more substantive attack on “scientism,” a worldview, I have to say, I don’t even really believe exists. Here’s O’Connell:

There’s certainly a very real need to march on that citadel [of scientism], because the idea that there can be only one kind of truth has to be deeply damaging to the intellectual development of a culture. You don’t have to devalue empiricism to believe that there are kinds of understanding that can’t be accessed in a controlled, peer-reviewed experiment. The problem, obviously, isn’t science; it’s the arrogance with which many scientists, and popularizers of science, dismiss the value of other ways of thinking about questions of meaning, about the world and our place in it. Lehrer, say, wants us to believe that, because neurologists can demonstrate how Observable Phenomenon X was happening in Part Y of Bob Dylan’s brain when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone,” science can therefore “explain” the human capacity for creativity or imagination. This is like saying that the song itself is best appreciated by putting it on your stereo and then mapping the sound waves it creates. It doesn’t really tell us anything useful, or usefully true. But this is the kind of truth in which scientism, and the culture that accommodates it, puts most stock.

Is there anyone, I mean literally anyone who feels this way? Does anyone, Dawkins, et. al., included, really think that music and art and all of humanity’s numinous experiences are pointless if not understood merely as bits, atoms, and electrical currents?

Of course not. So why must we march on this citadel that is guarded by an army of zero? My marshal our forces to topple a citadel of cards?

Why would anyone, atheists in particular, fear a deeper scientific understanding of mind, of why we feel the way we feel, of what makes the numinous meaningful? Their significance is not diluted by having knowledge of their workings. As a professional actor, for example, I know the tricks, techniques, and artifice behind a work of theatre, and I know that it is a wet glob of meat encased in my skull, accepting electrical currents to process the performance’s stimuli, whose churnings encompass my experiencing of it. But these things in no way rob me of the appreciation of a wonderful show.

Why must we war on that which does not exist? Nonbelievers in particular should know better.

Oh, and as a side note, this made me roll my eyes. And as you witness me rotating my ocular orbs, remember that I am an artist, a humanist in the academic sense: an actor, a musician, a writer, etc. Okay, get ready:

I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life in the academic study of English literature and, for me, there is no more painful—and painfully obvious—proof of the intellectual hegemony of science than how the disciplines of the humanities have been forced to adopt a language of empiricism in order to talk about their own value. If you want to do a Ph.D. on, say, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, you will need to be able to talk about what you’re doing as though it were a kind of science. What you’re doing is “research,” and that research has to be pursued through the use of some or other “methodology.” In order to get funding for that research, you’ll need to establish how it will advance the existing body of knowledge on Bishop’s poetry, and how it will “impact” upon the wider public sphere. The study of the humanities, in other words, very often has to present itself as a kind of minor subsidiary of science.

Whoa, you’re saying that academic work about literature has to actually contribute something to existing thought? It must be at least somewhat novel? A crime of the highest order.


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