It is in vogue among science writers to describe the brain and its mysteries in terms of wires, connections, and signaling pathways. But is something missing? Curtis White’s new book, The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, attempts to identify what’s wrong with this sort of thinking, and to mount a defense for a more intuitive, more artful view of the world. Here’s Curtis on The Science Delusion, out now from Melville House.
I’m sorry to confess that the idea for this book did not come from any form of expert interest but from listening to the radio in my car in the early spring of 2012. There, on NPR, I heard an interview with the (now more or less disgraced) science journalist Jonah Lehrer. He was describing for the rapt interviewer how creativity is a matter of chemical events in the brain. As my blood pressure rose to road rage levels, I had a Big Lebowski moment: “This aggression will not stand, man.”
So, I bought Lehrer’s book and began to write, but the deeper I got into the logic of his position the more I wanted to know what scientists themselves thought about the relation between neuroscience and consciousness (including creativity).
First, I watched Sebastian Seung’s TED Talk presentation, then read his book, Connectome. I know that scientists like to complain about the child-minded logic of some Christians, but the logic Seung uses to explain how our brains are “like computers” is also (if not equally) child-minded. Easy answers, indeed. Still skeptical that neuroscience really believed its own bushwah, I turned to the work of Antonio Damasio, head of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. His thinking is indeed more sophisticated than either Lehrer or Seung, but his conclusions are not a lot different: consciousness is the mechanical result of an evolved brain.
I didn’t know at first what I was looking at. Bad science? Or was it something else? My own critical predilections often lead me to look for the ideological consequences of knowledge claims, so I began to think in those terms. Meanwhile, I had begun to revisit the books of the so-called New Atheists. Soon, in the spirit of the “ruthless critique,” I was writing about what many call “scientism.”
Scientism is a bedeviled word. For some it seems to mean “scientists think they know it all.” For me it meant not science as science, but science as ideology.
Now, science has always carried ideological baggage. The Galilean worldview supposed that 1) there are objects, 2) the relation between those objects can be described mechanically, and 3) mathematics is entirely adequate for this description. As Isaiah Berlin put it, this is a “jigsaw” vision of reality. Of course, most candid scientists will now acknowledge that none of these propositions stand up to investigation. To think like Galileo requires metaphysical prejudice. No one knows why mathematics is so useful in modeling reality, but what’s obvious is that it is not a science. Differential calculus is an amazing creation, but in the end it is about the squaring of circles (and other complex shapes). As the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “the squamous facts exceed the squeemous mind.” (Personally, I’ve always felt that it should be the squeemous facts exceeding the squamous mind, but whatever.)
Beyond this old ideology there is the ideology that makes itself comfortable with dominant structures of social power: the narratives and convenient assumptions about nature and human societies that constitute the perspective of “post-industrial capitalism.” (We can quibble about just the right label. This will do for the moment.) Too often, science has been willing to provide the ideological cover—as well as the technology—for the administration, regimentation, and efficient exploitation of both nature and humanity.
The scientism of the New Atheists argues not only that there is no need for religion (about which they appear to know about as much as can be found in a quantum vacuum) but no need for art, philosophy, or the humanities in general. If there is a need for beauty, science can provide that, says Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawkins, Daniel Dennett, and just about everyone else with the exception of Stephen Jay Gould.
And what do they mean by beauty? It is elegance, says Dawkins, although to say that beauty=elegance is what we in the humanities call a tautology. Or it is the “marvelous” prettiness of a distant nebula captured by the Hubble telescope. That too is less than instructive, especially since much of that beauty is color-added. You’d never guess from the comments of these science popularizers that there is a tradition over 2,000 years old, going back to Aristotle’s Poetics, concerned with the meaning of the beautiful.
The ideological assumptions of the neuroscientists are very close to home. Their conclusions have enormous consequences for how we live. For example, the sleight of hand that Jonah Lehrer uses in arguing that creativity is something purely of the brain goes something like this: When we are being creative, certain parts of the brain light up on MRI scans. Whether you are doing a sudoku puzzle or writing a symphony, it is this same part of the brain that is stimulated. The brain itself does not distinguish between Bob Dylan and the creators of the Swiffer mop (sadly, his example), so why should we? The creativity that takes place in a corporate carrel or in the corporate commons is not different from the creativity that led to the creation of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”
Lehrer flattens distinctions. The fact that, since Romanticism, artists have hated and fled the world of mop makers does not enter Lehrer’s thoughts. In short, the entire social function of art is left out: art as dissonance and dissidence. All we’re left with is the slogan used by the creative ad people at General Electric: “Imagination at Work.” The fact that this is alarmingly reminiscent of an earlier slogan, Arbeit Macht Frei, passes notice. Work makes you free; work makes you creative.
But the bottom line is clear: Go to work.
These are the rudiments of my critique of scientism, but it’s just half of the book. The second half, the “positive,” concerns my attempt to provide a better way of thinking about what it means to be a human being. Briefly, I argue that Romanticism still offers us an alternative to the reign of “facts,” just as it did in 1795 (the date of publication for Friedrich Schiller’s “The Aesthetic Education of Man”). I argue that Romanticism is much misunderstood. It is not primarily about walks in the woods, nature mysticism, and novels about suicidal lovers. It was and remains something more rigorous: the dialectical logic of alienation. Romanticism emerged among people who did not recognize themselves in the world they were born into, whether that was the fading world of the nobility or the alarming new world of industrialism with its punishing labor relations and its “mind forg’d manacles” (Blake). I argue that Romanticism was never just a period in the history of art; Romanticism has been part of every art movement that succeeded it from the Wagnerians, to the Symbolists, to the Expressionists, and all the many modernist inventions from that time to Radiohead and Gilbert Sorrentino’s novel Aberration of Starlight.
Scientism is dishonest, thoughtless in certain ways, and supportive of ideologies that are oppressive. If you are wondering what possible oppression I could be talking about in a book about science writers, I ask you to consider the last thirty years of colonization by science and technology of education, of work in the so-called creative economy, and even of our private lives.
Let me give you a homely example. One recent morning I was talking to a friend here in Normal, Illinois, about the problems she faces in sending her children to college. She would like for her kids to get a liberal arts education, but the school she was most interested in, Kenyon College, charges $56,000 a year in tuition. How, she asked, can they ever pay off a quarter of a million dollars in student debt if they are English majors? She looked at me in horror: “They’ll have to study engineering!”
If this does not seem oppressive to you, I would suggest that you have a restricted notion of oppression. This is how what Herbert Marcuse called “one dimensional society” works in the year of our lord 2013.
And then, on a recent late-spring morning, I read in The New York Times that a committee of educators, professionals, business people, and artists put together a report that described a crisis in liberal arts education. Richard H. Brodhead, president of Duke University, was quoted as saying that people talk about the humanities and social sciences “as if they are a waste of time…but…many of the country’s most successful and creative people had exactly this kind of education.” The humanities are “endangered.” Governor Rick Scott of Florida has gone so far as to suggest that liberal arts majors pay higher tuition because what they study is a waste of state dollars.
I’m glad to hear that someone is speaking out, but no amount of pious lamentation will challenge the economic reality of higher education for the middle and especially the lower middle classes. The study of Homer and Picasso are once again a class prerequisite, a luxury for the wealthy.
It would be helpful if we heard from the sciences on this and related issues. One of the heroes of my book is the scientist/humanist Jacob Bronowski. His BBC series The Ascent of Man (1973) was perhaps the last time that a major figure from the sciences argued that the arts and science are inseparable if Western culture is to continue its ascent and not fall back into barbarism. When science sees its fate as one with the power of the state, then, Bronowski wrote, the future is dark. “It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination; because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.”
Curtis White is the author of The Middle Mind, Requiem, and The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work. His essay “The Barbaric Heart” appeared in the May/June 2009 issue of Orion. Read an excerpt from his new book here.