Review: The Science Delusion by Curtis White
by Ollie Brock
Melville House, 198pp. £12.99
A raft of new books has appeared over the last five years in an attempt to curb some of the loftier claims of neuroscience. Titles like Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience or Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity – among many others – suggest the urgency of the fightback. Rapid advances in brain science had produced a series of nascent disciplines with names like ‘neuroeconomics’, ‘neuropolitics’, ‘neuromarketing’ and even ‘neurotheology’. In the opposite camp, an impression has been building that the scientific-materialist view of reality that supports these developments is getting dangerously out of hand. More evidence of this was provided last year when the biologist Rupert Sheldrake gave a TED talk in London on some of the ‘dogmas’ starting to dominate modern science – such as that consciousness is seated in the brain, or that the laws of nature are fixed – and then saw his talk removed by the online publisher for propagating what they called ‘pseudo-science’.
Over the Atlantic, meanwhile, another heavyweight opponent of materialism-as-ideology is Curtis White. His book The Science Delusion, now out in paperback, is a furious broadside against what he calls ‘the empiricist victory’: the powerful grip of the idea that we are nothing but our brain cells; that our experience is no more than ‘the percolating of leptons and bosons’ and that everything else is ‘the weak-minded religion of the poets.’ His title is an obvious reference to Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which needless to say he decries. Other public intellectuals under attack include the late journalist provocateur Christopher Hitchens. White is not in disagreement with the atheism of these writers. The problem, as he sees it, is more that they feel permitted to marvel at the ‘beautiful’ laws of nature without stopping to ask what it really means to have a sense of wonderment or beauty. Stephen Hawking, White argues, in employing words like ‘miracle’ and ‘amazing’ in his book The Grand Design, ‘uses an aesthetic terminology without feeling any need to provide an actual aesthetic.’ Dawkins, meanwhile, in awe at images from the Hubble telescope, is guilty of a ‘lack of curiosity about what this feeling of awe means.’ This awe and wonder is, White argues, starting to be taken for granted by scientists, who are using it as a passport out of the ‘hard problem’ of why we have consciousness, and closing down our understanding, not increasing it.
So far so disagreeable – but where all this becomes really dangerous, argues White, is when a materialistic view starts to dominate social systems and politics. White is particularly indignant about scientists who feel under threat from religious discourse. The conflict between the two worldviews is less like a ‘war’, he says, than ‘a sixth grader smashing a kindergartner’s face into the mud at recess,’ given that science has ‘powerful defenders in the world of applied science and technology, and beyond that the federal, corporate and military authorities that both depend on and fund the giant budgets of the sciences.’ This strong social conscience is at the core of the book. The shame is that it is also where White becomes just as tribal and blunt as his adversaries, the neuro-empiricists. He would be on a more even playing field with them if he resisted his more sarcastic impulses.
But The Science Delusion is stronger on philosophy and art than on politics, and White’s main point is sound: you cannot escape beliefs. You belong to a belief system if you find the DNA double helix ‘a marvel’ just as you do if you think God is great. A lot of modern scientific rhetoric would nonetheless have it that we will eventually explain our beliefs, our very experience, all by the movements of particles through neural networks. But this ignores ‘neuroscience’s dependence on narrative and metaphor’, argues White. When we say our brain ‘encodes’ thoughts, or ‘stores’ memories, we are describing it according to a symbolic world of our own making. The supposed ‘war’ between faith-based and reason-based worldviews misses the fact that both are rooted in, and making use of, a metaphor-based view of reality which admits that we both observe and create the world. In any case, more ‘explanation’ will only find us in a hall of mirrors. To put it another way: even if it were possible to ‘explain’ what it is to be dazzled, what if that explanation itself turned out to be really dazzling? Where would we turn then?