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The Science Delusion : An Interview with Curtis White

Published in May of this year, Curtis White’s The Science Delusion has garnered the type of fractured responses one might expect for a book that aims to “critique the delusions of science alongside a rousing defense of the role of art and philosophy in our culture.”

The following email conversation took place in the weeks leading up to his Powell’s appearance here in Portland (this Wednesday at 7:30). Topics covered included scientism, Romanticism, Christopher Hitchens, and moist robots. 

Cheston Knapp: What led you, a fiction writer and sometime cultural critic, to want to write about science? How do you understand this book as fitting into your past critical work, like The Middle Mind and The Barbaric Heart?

Curtis White: I have written about science before, mostly in relation to environmental issues, especially in The Barbaric Heart. My interest in science comes from the fact that most of what I do in my criticism is take apart ideological narratives in popular culture from Terry Gross to Saving Private Ryan to The Underground Economist. Science ideology is becoming increasingly aggressive, especially in emerging areas like neuroscience. Philosophers of science like Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris, Alex Rosenberg, and many others are writing popular books in which the work of neuroscience leads them to conclude that, in Daniel Dennett’s words, we’re “moist robots.” Those seem to me to be fighting words.

Like Nietzsche, I have only ever had one purpose: the end of lying. The end of the dishonesty of ideology. From what I can tell, I am succeeding only in the sense that a lot of people are angry with me.

CK: Can you distinguish between science and scientism?

CW: Yes and no. My sense is that most rank-and-file scientists are in the business because of a genuine fascination with the way that the scientific method opens up the physical universe. I have no problem at all with that. In fact, I find it fascinating. I devour books about science. But scientists should not be mistaken for metaphysicians or for social critics. They do not seem to me to be sufficiently aware of this very real social fact: science participates in the construction of ideology. Science as ideology is what I mean by scientism. Believe it or not, most science ideologues are scandalized by the idea that they have anything at all to do with ideology. But that’s sorta how ideology works.

Science’s founding ideology, as well as its metaphysic, goes back to Galileo. Galileo posited that the universe was composed of discrete objects, mechanistically related to each other. He also supposed that mathematics was adequate to the job of describing this objective, mechanical universe. This is science’s founding dogma and its metaphysic. It has always been Pythagorean in the sense that it has assumed that sleeping within or behind reality is the music of numbers. In short, Being can be calculated. The universe itself speaks calculus. The more likely possibility that math is just a language, a system of symbols, and that even the most basic equations, like Newtonian gravity, are mathematical idealizations, this is deeply offensive to many scientists.

Even now, with all of the ways in which Einstein and quantum physics and string theory have poked holes in Galilean and Newtonian physics, scientists like Lawrence Krauss and New Atheist philosophers such as Daniel Dennett seem to forget that the universe is “stranger than we can imagine” and return to talking about facts and the progress of knowledge. They say. “We’re moist robots. This is something that we KNOW.” To which I reply, no, that’s how you’d like us to think about ourselves so that we have less reason to question the regimentation and mechanization of our lives and world.

Needless to say, this idea of the ongoing accumulation of “knowledge” is something that capitalism and capitalist militarism have always found both useful and enabling. It tends to legitimize capitalism’s rapacity. But that’s a huge topic for another day.

CK: Why should we continue to care about Romanticism? How is it, as a movement, still relevant to us today?

CW: Until rather recently, my assumptions about Romanticism were stereotypical: Romanticism was an art movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its primary contribution to Western culture was an aestheticized form of nature mysticism. Wordsworth on Tintern Abbey. Turner’s landscape painting.

That all changed when I began to read the primary texts from German Idealism/Romanticism, especially Schiller and Schelling. Then I read Morse Peckham’s books on Romanticism and came to understand the romantic very differently. Peckham supposes that Romanticism is the “second chapter” in human history, the first being the founding of cities. Its primary characteristic is the feeling of alienation, not mysticism. For the first time, humans began to feel that they did not belong to their own culture and so began to create alternatives. In other words, Romanticism is the logic of counterculture. In his epochal essay “The Aesthetic Education of Man,” Friedrich Schiller argues that we move away from the “misery of culture” through art. It is amazing to me how much Schiller’s essays remind me of Marx’s early essays…but they were fifty years earlier!

To a great degree, I feel like Peckham is explaining why I am the way I am and why I take so much consolation and inspiration from art. I fled Vietnam, and walked away from whatever role my lower middle class world had in mind for me, through music and books. I became a dissident hippy artist intellectual. I’m still that. In other words, Romanticism is an ongoing project. It may even be appropriate to say that it is just getting started.

As I write this, I’m listening to Jonny Greenwood’s film music to Bodysong. To me it sounds like courage, refusal, and joy. It sounds like Romanticism.

CK: What should Art’s role be in the culture?

CW: It should be what it has been since the Romantics: a means to self-creation within a culture determined to make you a mere function of its own activities. In Schiller’s phrase, art should “model freedom.” Art’s job is to seduce us to freedom. When you feel like you are profoundly un-free, it is an easy seduction to make. I was seduced to freedom by the cover of Sgt. Pepper. I was seduced to freedom by Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.” Later, I was seduced by Mahler, Beethoven, Coletrane, Fellini, Wallace Stevens, and Egon Schille. For me it’s a long, long list. Art is about the refusal to die. Right now its appeal is very circumscribed, but as you should know simply from living in Portland, it is always there, doing its thing, and awaiting its opportunity to broaden its appeal.

CK: This book has generated quite a disparate response—it’s impossible at this point to ignore it. I’ve read passionate defenses of it and perfunctory dismissals. What do you think accounts for that?

CW: First, I just want to say, “Wow!”

The thing that has really struck me, struck me in a way that I wasn’t struck ten years ago when The Middle Mind blew the side doors off of America’s mini-van, is how bizarre and fractured the reception of books has become. First, there is the disemboweling of the review media. There are ever fewer places that feel responsible for providing thoughtful reviews, ever less money for the reviewers (Publisher’s Weekly, I’m told, pays reviewers $35), and a general lack of esteem for their products. Unfortunately, this lack of esteem is for good reason: reviews are mostly not very good. Actually, they’re mostly terrible. The only organ that maintains any sort of legitimacy as a kind of arbiter of what’s important and good is the New York Times, and, loyal subscriber though I may be, I find the Book Review depressing. And Michiko Kakutani? Disgraceful.

One reviewer told me that her review had been re-written by management because it was too positive. I had never heard of that being done before.

I have not read one review that was able to account for all that I’m doing in The Science Delusion. That may sound like sour grapes, but what I’m saying is that commentators seem to be interested only in the scandalous things that I say about Christopher Hitchens, or Dawkins, or “science.” Mostly, they’ve talked about how unpleasantly angry I am. “Don’t read this book. It is the product of a very angry man,” as if I were the curmudgeon down the street that the children are instructed to avoid. Everything is reduced to the level of gossip and name calling. “How dare he say such things about science!” Somehow gone missing is the fact that half the book is a painstaking description of Romanticism as something that is alive now. Also strangely missing is all of the positive things that I have to say about scientists like Jacob Bronowski. I devote the last section of the book to an account of how science is beautiful. That has never been mentioned in any review. And so I’m reduced to complaining, “Look! I wrote all of the words in the book for a reason.”

But who needs intelligent book reviewing when you’ve got the Web! Oh man. I did a Reddit session and of course no one had read the book, but that did not stop anybody from having an opinion about it or saying, “You suck.” When Salon ran the Christopher Hitchens excerpt, the New Atheist philosopher Sam Harris called for a boycott of Salon and posted it on his Facebook site. My God, the vitriol! Breathtaking! One “friend” took great pleasure in observing that Curtis White rhymed with “parasite.” Again, wow! The internet may have democratized public commentary and put the traditional review and analysis organs on notice but only at the cost of showing us boobus Americanus on binary meth.

Here’s the thing, though, and I think it’s really interesting even though it also scares me to death. Not so long ago publishing still meant what it originally meant: publicity. Make ideas available to the public and advocate for those ideas through books. If you want to know about those ideas, you have to get a copy of the book and read it. But now a book is published and it may reach the attention of hundreds of thousands of people, as I think mine has, but there’s very little reason to think that this means people buy the book much less read it. The digital spectacle stimulated by the event of the book takes the place of the book, and the poor publisher has yet another way to go bankrupt.

For instance, one blogger wrote an extensive rebuttal of my position based upon a review she read in Slate. She couldn’t understand why I would say that it’s science vs. art. Frankly, neither can I, except that of course I argue just the opposite of that. Not that she’ll ever know because she’ll never read the book. But all of her blog readers will have this idea that they know something about my book. “Oh, yes, he’s the one who hates science.” Or they’ll comment on her post and say, “Right on, girl! I just don’t understand how people like White can get it so wrong!” It’s like Stanislaw Lem’s book A Perfect Vacuum in which reviews are written of non-existent books. Even now, I can’t quite understand why anyone would bother to publish a book, never mind a seasonal list. Why not just send out a catalogue with summaries of possible books, possible arguments, and let the Web do its thing with that?

CK: Do you think the uncertainty and play and randomness of the literature that you make and enjoy has had anything to do with the culture running toward the kind of science you lambast in the book and embracing its promise of a kind of bedrock?

CW: That’s a very difficult thing to know. Is the technocratic culture we presently inhabit a reaction to the freedom of ‘60s-style play? Well, its ideology would seem to want to claim that the discoveries of neuroscience and the happy, profitable world of the Creative Economy are continuations of the ‘60s. I have a long section on Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine: How Creativity Works. The title alludes to John Lennon, and one of his prime examples of creativity is Bob Dylan, but the creativity he endorses mostly happens in the techno-hip world of Silicon Valley, product development (the Swiffer mop), and advertising. I call it fake geek bohemia.

While I’m on the topic, I would really appreciate it if the street-hip youth responsible for finding music for television commercials would stop what they’re doing. In recent years our commercial jingles have been provided by Arcade Fire, Sleigh Bells, and, most recently, Tame Impala. It’s usually for a smart phone or an investment firm. A small band gains a loyal underground following and the next thing you know they’re part of the reason why you should switch to Verizon.

CK: Where would you like to see us as a culture go from here? Who out there is getting it right?

CW: I would just like the culture to become more honest. As I often say, it’s all right with me if capitalism is the best economic system possible among us fallen humans. But can we please stop being dishonest about what it is? Can we stop saying that it is about freedom? Can we please acknowledge that it is destroying its own world? That it requires poverty and insecurity for the majority of its subjects? Can scientists please stop saying that they are only involved in the disinterested search for truth and acknowledge that for the last two hundred years they have served as “handmaidens to barbarity,” as Chris Hedges puts it? That they make possible the destruction of the natural world and they make possible the ever-greater machine slaughter of war? These things are obvious and yet we are not allowed to say them. Hedges has made himself notorious for doing nothing more than saying the obvious. We could use more people like him.

Last night I finished watching the epic documentary Hotel Terminus: the Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988). The filmmaker, Marcel Ophuls, has a playfully indignant way of filmmaking and interviewing. He’s clownish, rotund, and he dresses as if someone had dumped a hamper over his head. But he takes an intense pleasure in placing his interviewees—whether from the French resistance, ex-CIA, witnesses, collaborators, victims, or fascists—in the uncomfortable position of having to retell under very bright light the narratives that they’ve used for decades to explain to themselves the horror they’ve participated in. Of course, Ophuls is offended by Barbie and by the fact that the world seems so eager to produce Barbies, but his film often feels like an interrogation (minus torture) of the ethics of the “narrative construction of reality.” His questions are as much an effort to get the interviewees to judge their own stories as they are to judge Barbie. And here’s what’s interesting: they never are willing to question or abandon those narratives. They contort, re-phrase, threaten, or get a wounded look in their eyes as if they were being tortured, but they do not abandon their stories. It’s as if Ophuls were asking them to take a leap into the abyss, and in a sense he is. As Nietzsche warned, “When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back.”

Scientists also tell stories about their social roles that are crucial to the maintenance of their self-image. These stories also are told in a troubling context: their relation to the state, the defense department, and capitalism. When those stories are challenged, they feel threatened—even if I’m not condemning science outright but saying: “Isn’t this a better way of thinking about science?” The appeal to honesty is not a sufficient reason to risk having to confront their own bad conscience.

That’s why Jacob Bronowski is such a crucial character in my story. He helped to provide the math that allowed for the efficient carpet-bombing of Germany. He was a science advisor to England in its nuclear program (as was C. P. Snow). But after Hiroshima he abandoned physics and devoted himself to a new narration of science that made it the ally of art in the ascent of man. He’d had enough of being a handmaiden to barbarity. Sadly, his vision is mostly lost to us now.

Curtis White is the author of the novels of Memories of My Father Watching TV and Requiem. A widely acclaimed essayist, he has had work appear in Harper’s Magazine,Lapham’s Quarterly, Orion, and Playboy. His book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves was an international bestseller in 2003.




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