Get PJ Media on your Apple

Roger’s Rules

What Philistinism Looks Like

March 24th, 2013 - 9:35 am

For anyone who wants to take a peek into what is perhaps the most radical philistinism of our time, I recommend “The Heretic,” Andrew Ferguson’s long and thoughtful essay in the current Weekly Standard. In part, Ferguson’s piece is an account of the ostracism of Thomas Nagel, the distinguished NYU philosopher who first entered the academic empyrean with his clever 1974 meditation on the mind-body problem, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (short answer: very difficult for us humans to say). But the case of Thomas Nagel’s academic proscription is only half of Ferguson’s story. The other half concerns the breathtaking, almost comic village-idiot sort of philistinism displayed by those presiding over Nagel’s ostracism.

Why and by whom was Thomas Nagel ostracized?  At first blush, he would seem to be an unlikely candidate for the we-now-cast-you-into-outer-darkness treatment by his peers. He has espoused all the right (i.e., decidedly left-leaning) political opinions. And his philosophical work,  though sophisticated in its insistence on the irreducibility of consciousness in understanding experience, operates well within the prescribed boundaries of academic acceptability (no God-talk, for example).

But last year, Nagel committed an unpardonable sin. He published a book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. Yikes. Ferguson shows in hilarious if also disturbing detail how the orthodox high priests of the neo-Darwinian consensus — chaps like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins — have read Nagel out of the fraternity of OK people for daring to question the tenets of their faith.

I’ve seen this play before.  The late David Stove, whom some observers regard as the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, was always troubling to the academic establishment because of his political conservatism.  But he had earned the plaudits of the academic philosophical elite with his penetrating criticisms of irrationalism and idealism and other work. That changed irrevocably when Stove dared to criticize some aspects of Darwinism in Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution. The bien pensant elders shuddered in horror and withdrew their secular imprimatur and nihil obstat. What could obstat  more than criticizing aspects of Darwinism? (Stove did not, by the way, deny the fact of evolution. It’s just that he thought that Darwinian and, especially, neo-Darwinian orthodoxy was “a ridiculous slander on human beings,” which it is.) I recounted the story of Stove’s ostracism in my introduction to Darwinian Fairytales and in “Who Was David Stove?” a more general essay about his work which I first published in The  New Criterion.

One of my favorite expressions of the philistinism of the Neo-Darwinian confraternity is E. O. Wilson’s contention that “an organism is only DNA’s way of making more DNA.”  Query: is E.O. Wilson only “DNA’s way of making more DNA?” How about J.S. Bach?

Ferguson quotes a more extended version of this absurdity from the great scientist Francis Crick:

You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons.

No more than, eh? Nothing but, you say? As a specimen of materialist reductionism, that is hard to beat. The idea the Cricks and Dennetts and Dawkinses of the world wish us to take on board is that really, at bottom, our experience of ourselves and the world counts for nothing. That flowering crab apple outside your window, for example, is not really a beautiful celebration of spring, but merely an agglomeration of biological processes.

Do you believe that?  I don’t. W.H. Auden did not have the honor of helping to discover DNA, but when it comes to the reality of human experience, he is a much sounder guide than Francis Crick. “We seem to have reached a point,” Auden wrote in Secondary Worlds

where if the word “real” can be used at all, then the only world which is “real” for us, as in the world in which all of us, including scientists, are born, work, love, hate and die, is the primary phenomenal world as it is and always has been presented to us through our senses, a world in which the sun moves across the sky from east to west, the stars are hung like lamps in the vault of heaven, the measure of magnitude is the human body and objects are either in motion or at rest.

This is an insight that the English philosopher Roger Scruton has expatiated on in several places, including in his book Modern PhilosophyIn one sense, as Scruton notes, philosophy is the helpmeet of science. It aids in the task of putting our conceptual household in order: tidying up arguments, discarding unjustified claims. But in another sense, philosophy peeks over the shoulder of science to a world that science in principle cannot countenance. “The search for meaning and the search for explanation,” Scruton writes, “are two different enterprises.”

The problem is that we do not, cannot, inhabit the abstract world that science describes. Reason allows us to distinguish between appearance and reality; but our human reality turns out to be rooted firmly in the realm of appearance. “This worry is not just philosophical,” Scruton observes,

it is also spiritual. The meaning of the world is enshrined in conceptions that science does not recognize: conceptions like beauty, goodness and the soul which grow in the thin top-soil of human discourse. This top-soil is quickly eroded when the flora are cleared from it, and nothing ever grows thereafter. You can see the process at work in the matter of sex. Human sexuality has usually been understood through ideas of love and belonging. … The sexologist clears all this tangled undergrowth away, to reveal the scientific truth of things: the animal organs, the unmoralized impulses, and the tingling sensations. … The meaning of the experience plays no part in the scientific description.

It is “naked truth”: in Eliot’s words: “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”

The scientific attempt to explore the “depth” of human things is accompanied by a singular danger. For it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by the social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. It is in this thin top-soil that the seeds of human happiness are sown, and the reckless desire to scrape it away — a desire which has inspired all those “sciences of man,” from Marx and Freud to sociobiology — deprives us of our consolation.

Consolation? Indeed, more: it threatens to deprive us of our humanity. In Plato’s phrase, philosophy turns out in the end to be an effort to “save the appearances.”

We all of us inhabit a world irretrievably shaped by science; we know that the sun does not really move from east to west, just as we know that the stars are not really hung like lamps from the sky. And yet … Scruton’s point is that such truths are accompanied by other, conflicting truths. “The human world,” he suggests, “may be through and through the product of unscientific ways of thinking, and yet at the same time a true representation of an objective reality.” As the quotation from Auden suggests, we recognize the legitimacy of that reality — our reality — every time we wake and find that the sun, once again, has risen.

Also read: Sam Tanenhaus’s ‘Original Sin’

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
Science has been politicized and people no longer trust it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Cultural and moral relativism. Nihilism. Civilization without a purpose, other than Hedonism.

Here we are, in decline and nearing collapse.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If all we are is nothing but a pile of neurons and DNA why is wrong to kill people?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (65)
All Comments   (65)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
The paradox concerning the rarefied post-modern air that academic liberals breathe is that they consistently fail to understand that their polity suffers from the same putative solipsism they impute to those who argue that human experience can't be reduced to a coordinated set of activities at the molecular or sub-atomic level.
It's a kind of A.J. Ayer or Betrand Russell proscription against anything outside the ken of a rank empiricism, which is no more epistemologically justified than those arguing that religion and science, a la the Higgs boson, etc., are, in fact, merging.
I suspect many of these cloistered, inbred intellectuals endorse the highly speculative work at Cern and Fermi, Max Tegmark's work on parallel universes, the 11 dimensions that are currently posited, etc., but blanche at the suggestion that these abstruse, conjectural suppositions may point to a 'reality' beyond our primitive understanding.
In truth, we're all under the same epistemic limitations, the left's protestations notwithstanding. As Wallace Stevens wrote, "The corporeal world is the common denominator in the incorporeal world of its inhabitants." That this incorporeal world may be the predicate of revelations beyond the corporeal world is a testimony of our imagination and faith, something our leftist elites redact from the script, which they naively suppose 'elevates' to the hallowed level of sub-human species.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons." Neurons?! Neurons you say?! My, how naive of you. Why a neuron is nothing but a collection of lipids and proteins. And those are collections of molecules. Of course molecules are naught but atoms held together by electron shells, and indeed what are atoms but protons, neutrons, and electrons? And lest you blithely think you are indeed made up of subatomic particles, think again, for what is a proton but a shmere of quarks and gluons popping in and out of existence in a sea of quantum foam? Now did you really build that?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As a proud, plundering Philistine, and a devout hedonist, I am offended that anyone would think Nagel was a member of our tribe.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
DNA + neurons - brains=liberal.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It seems that an entire organism is an entire organism's way of making more organisms, rather than being DNA's way of making more DNA. More accurately, two organisms seem to be two organisms' way of making more organisms.

As for what I am, even speaking materialistically, that seems to be not just neurons, but an entire body. I'm surprised even neurologists would let Crick get away with such reported nonsense. He's reverting to the notion of a homonculus, a "little man," so to speak, inside the body, a conscious part that is "me," controlling the body. Again, there's really not some partial starting point; rather, the whole body makes contributions to conscious experience. So defining an edge of what's to be considered conscious seems arbitrary.

Defining an edge between what's the body and what's not the body seems impossible without acknowledging the role of consciousness itself. Just what is it that defines the edge of what counts as body other than someone conscious? The body is a territorial claim by something acquisitive and possessive.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"As a specimen of materialist reductionism, that is hard to beat."

I laugh at these people, whoever they are, who apparently get an ego high reducing human life to neurons and chemicals or expound with great (phony) moral authority on what man is or isn't.

I liked Chris Hitchens, but his paean to pure evolutionary theory, God Is Not Great, did not convince.

Part of our problem is the very way we've ordered our world, all the divisions and systems we've created and have attempted to impose on it, divvying it up into separate disciplines like philosophy and science.

Anyway, when one of those egocentric, reductionist geniuses (like Dawkins) can explain "this", maybe I'll listen.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2296850/Scientists-reveal-detailed-map-universe-created--reveals-80-MILLION-years-older-previously-thought.html

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The way beyond this ritualized debate: http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/views/vw366.htm
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
A scientist is someone who takes the back off of his TV set and pokes around in the wires to try and figure out how the show he's watching will end.

They never have to answer for their sins of their past, even while they constantly shove religion's past in the faces of the religious. Who tortured Frances Farmer? Pretty sure that was men in tweed coats with PhDs who said, "Don't argue with us. We're scientists. We know how to repair the human animal."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Yep. How about eugenics, lobotomies, etc., the Tuskeegee Experiment? Nazi and Japanese germ warfare experiments? It was all science - all about learning, exploring, improving mankind. The men and women who did those things were idealists. The people who let them do those things were awed by science, technology, and expert credentials.

Science has about as much to answer for as atheists claim religion does. Anyone who claims that being an atheist, being a humanist, being a scientist exempts them from blame or protects them from the dark side of human nature is being naive.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Hmmm. Philistine. Ah ...
I'm reminded of what you wrote about Rand Paul.

Help me out here, Kimball. Just who is the philistine here?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Kimball would say that both Paul and those scientists he talks about are philistines. For my part, I don't think "philistine" is the right word, since it suggests absence of taste in the arts. I would rather say that Paul (as well as Dawkins and the others) are "mass men" straight from Ortega's Revolt of the Masses. Both the half-educated zealot and the presumptuous scientific specialist are there.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I don't think "absence of taste in the arts" applies. Everyone has some sort of taste but those you call "mass men" have the worst taste because it denies the only possible human condition that can create art (faith) and cheerleads every nihilistic form of art that debases natural human emotion. And when I use the word faith I'm speaking not only of religious faith, but a faith in the need for all that is fine and beautiful in human beings and in our world.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
As well as a need for - and love of - the unknowable.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What about the idea of emergent properties? Last biology course I took, the textbook stated that life as we understand it is an emergent property of matter. That basically means the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That's not a reductionist statement. A "mere" collection of chemicals cannot and will not do the things that the simplest living organism can. Something that's "just" a bunch of chemical reactions can't breathe or sweat, much less write a poem, build a cathedral, or THINK ABOUT ITSELF.

Emergence, as scientists understand it, may be materialistic but I don't think it's reductionistic. And it may give them an opening (at least on their days off) to speculate about the non-material.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I have always thought that "emergent properties" is a pseudo-idea: something that sounds superficially new and interesting, but is really nothing more than a fashionable phrase invented to help attract government funding.

No one has ever doubted that matter can perform the physical acts involved in writing poetry and building cathedrals: the human body is material. Thinking is a completely different kind of phenomenon, and you can't bridge the gap, as if by magic, by invoking the word "emergence."
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Read Wolfram's book. It shows how this works. It's not pseudo, not mere fashion, and not government money. e.g. Videogames use fractals to generate landscapes.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'm pretty sure the author was writing about the piggy-little nature of the fascists going after those who don't genuflect at the throne of Darwinist evolution. Not the reductionist aspect of the thing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1 2 3 4 Next View All