What Philistinism Looks Like

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’


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