Saturday, April 21, 2012


A Tale of Three Critics

I briefly touched on Alex Rosenberg’s book, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions before. I haven't read it (so little time, so many books!) but now there are three reviews:

The Bad: "The Answers, Washington Diarist" by Leon Wieseltier, in the New Republic:

Not long ago the prestige of science was nastily contested by American politics, as conservatism’s war on evolution, environmental science, and other forms of empirical research threatened to confound the American sense of reality. ... [I]t was necessary to offer a ferocious defense of the premises, and the blessings, of scientific inquiry. Unfortunately, the defense of science became corrupted in certain quarters into a defense of scientism, which is the expansion of scientific methods and concepts into realms of human life in which they do not belong. Or rather, it is the view that there is no realm of human life in which they do not belong. ...

In this way science is transformed into a superstition. For there can be no scientific answer to the question of what is the position of science in life. It is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. The idea that physical facts fix all the facts is not an idea proven, or even posited, by physics. Rosenberg does not translate non-scientific facts into scientific facts; he denies that non-scientific facts exist at all.
Wieseltier dubs it "the worst book of the year."

The Sort of Good: Michael Ruse, at Massimo Pigliucci's Rationally Speaking blog, rises (half heartedly) to Rosenberg’s defense in "Curate’s Eggo: Alex Rosenberg and the meaning of life":
The old science saw the world in an organic mode — things were living in a sense — and that is why, for instance, it was appropriate to ask about final causes and meanings. The new science sees the world in a machine mode — the mechanistic philosophy — and that, among other things, is why it is inappropriate to ask about final causes and meanings and so forth.

Notice however what using metaphors entails. As Thomas Kuhn taught us — and remember how he identified his paradigms with metaphors in some wise — metaphors are powerful tools for focusing on nature and giving us ways of understanding it. But they come at a cost, namely that they are limited and do not (and do not pretend to) answer all questions. To use a metaphor to talk about metaphors, metaphors are like the blinkers you put on race horses to make them focus on the track and not be distracted by the spectators. ...

But as historians of the Scientific Revolution have stressed, very quickly the metaphor of a machine was truncated to simply the sense of something working according to law, nothing further. The world goes through the motions, as it were. Of course the early workers in the new mode did think there were meanings — meanings given by God. But very quickly they dropped these from their science as of no value qua science. In the words of one of the great historians of the Revolution (Eduard Jan Dijksterhuis), God became "a retired engineer."

So here I do part company with Rosenberg. I think his insensitivity to history blinds him to the fact that science does not ask certain questions and so it is no surprise that it does not give answers — at least, not answers of a form that the theist finds adequate. As I have said, I am not at all sure that the theist’s own answers are correct, but they are not shown incorrect or inappropriate by modern science. Science is limited in scope and since, even if in the future you get rid of the metaphors of today’s science, you will have to find other metaphors to replace them, I would argue that science by its very nature is destined forever to be limited. History shows that! ...
The Ugly: Philip Kitcher in "Seeing Is Unbelieving" in the New York Times:

This conviction that science can resolve all questions is known as "scientism" — a label typically used pejoratively (as by Wieseltier), but one Rosenberg seizes as a badge of honor.

The evangelical scientism of "The Atheist’s Guide" rests on three principal ideas. The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too); Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are. Physics, in other words, is "the whole truth about reality"; we should achieve "a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans"; and neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions "inescapable." Morality, purpose and the quaint conceit of an enduring self all have to go.

The conclusions are premature. Although microphysics can help illuminate the chemical bond and the periodic table, very little physics and chemistry can actually be done with its fundamental concepts and methods, and using it to explain life, human behavior or human society is a greater challenge still. Many informed scholars doubt the possibility, even in principle, of understanding, say, economic transactions as complex interactions of subatomic particles. Rosenberg’s cheerful Darwinizing is no more convincing than his imperialist physics, and his tales about the evolutionary origins of everything from our penchant for narratives to our supposed dispositions to be nice to one another are throwbacks to the sociobiology of an earlier era, unfettered by methodological cautions that students of human evolution have learned: much of Rosenberg’s book is evolutionary psychology on stilts. Similarly, the neuroscientific discussions serenely extrapolate from what has been carefully demonstrated for the sea slug to conclusions about Homo sapiens. ...

Scientism rejects dialogue: the sciences provide the answers; the lesser provinces of the intellectual and cultural world should take instruction. To be sure, well-supported messages from the sciences are sometimes foolishly ignored — think of the warnings from climate scientists about our planet’s future. Yet scientism can easily prove counterproductive. However worthy the impulse to trumpet urgent news, smugness, arrogance and delight in shattering entrenched beliefs are as apt to alienate as to convert. The challenge is not to decide who has the Most Important Insights, but to comprehend the knowledge we have, finite, fallible and fragmentary as it is. We should make the most of it.

"It was the worst of books, it was the middlingliest of books, it was the ugliest of books."

Kitcher's review is most welcome, as it provides a decent alternative to Weiseltier, who is mostly right, but also kind of a jackass. (And an war-monger.)
also kind of a jackass

Never ran across him before that I remember but Kitcher's right ... it takes a certain chutzpah to declare anything "the worst of the year."
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