Thursday, April 16, 2009



There is a review by Bryan Appleyard in New Statesman of Lewis Wolpert's new book, How We Live and Why We Die: the Secret Lives of Cells that prompted some early morning musings.

Appleyard is already on PZ Myers' list of hack journalists who produce "smug blatherings of a truly stupid person." PZ points to a potentially interesting connection between Appleyard and James Le Fanu, recently discovered by the otherwise Discoveryless Institute, who may, in fact, be the person who made the complaint that caused New Scientist to pull Amanda Gefter's article on "How to spot a hidden religious agenda."

Anyway, Appleyard's review of Wolpert (who he calls a "distant friend") has all the indicia of what Wolpert once called him: a "closet Christian." There is talk of cells being "improbably complex;" and of the condition of being alive and aware as "a miracle, whatever meaning you attach to that word" and as a "wildly improbable process," a conclusion Appleyard reaches based, apparently, only on "a moment's introspection." And there is the "complaint" about the fact that humans have only about 30,000 genes, which "just doesn't seem to be enough," which Appleyard apparently got from Le Fanu.

All that is prelude to what caught my eye:

Under all this are signs of Wolpert's familiar folly of overvaluing contemporary knowledge. This may be merely a rhetorical problem. For example, he writes that Aristotle "was a wonderful thinker but wrong about almost all the science he wrote about". This may be true, but an alert reader will reasonably conclude that if Aristotle was wrong about so much, then it is safe to assume that, 2,500 years from now, it will be apparent that Wolpert was wrong about just as much.

This is not a point that he or any other hard-science thinker ever fully takes on board – it requires humility, not a common virtue among prominent scientists, often found clutching a microphone and a book contract. It also requires an awareness that, as we can never know the limitations of our science, one must fall back on more durable forms of wisdom. Wolpert, however, has spent far too much of his career trashing these forms, which he, along with all those militant atheists, insists on seeing as the enemy.

Now, I'm no science triumphalist. I don't think that ours is the lucky generation that has finally arrived at the truth of the universe, leaving only a few inconsequential details to fill in. Appleyard is right that we can never know the limitations of our present science but the conclusion he draws from that -- that we have made no advance in our knowledge at all and we are as equidistant from the truth as any of our ancestors -- is flat out wrong. No matter how far we are from the ultimate truth of the cosmos, we are still demonstrably closer to it than Aristotle was.

And what, exactly, are those "more durable forms of wisdom," anyway? What area of human knowledge has remained unaffected over the last 5,000 years by our increase in knowledge of the material world? Certainly not ethics; not philosophy; and, particularly, not theology or religion.

Appleyard is merely engaging in the production of soothing sounds to lull those who would rather not contemplate the implications of the real and measurable world -- a class Appleyard almost certainly belongs to himself -- into thinking they don't have to.

It's an insidious narcotic.

We can never know the limitations of our science, except of course the limitations that evolution can't explain the Cambrian explosion and that some things are too irreducibly complex for evolution. That's according to ID scientists anyway.

Not very many ID scientists are found clutching a microphone and a book contract, I'm sure!
Not very many ID scientists are found clutching a microphone and a book contract, I'm sure!Maybe you just didn't notice all the clutched microphones since so many of them are in churches.
You really must learn to read as a prelude to learning to think. And who is this Myers goon?
Heh. I'm not surprised that vague platitutes are the best reply you have.
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