The real problem with Curtis White's The Science Delusion

So, here's a new writing nightmare. What do you do if, after your book is published, and the reviews start to come in, it slowly dawns on you that you've accidentally written the wrong book ... a book which you would not actually agree with?

That's how I felt after interviewing Curtis White, author of The Science Delusion — a book that has been widely reviewed as containing some good points, buried under a lot of angry rants and straw men. According to White, however, those reviews have all completely missed what he was trying to do and trying to say.

All the invective? White thought he was just being funny and satirical, like Jonathan Swift. The over-generalizing about what all scientists believe and what the culture of science is like? He thought it was clear that he just meant the subset of scientists who don't think there's any value other than entertainment in art, that philosophy is dead, and that culture has no affect on how we interpret science or what we do with it. The weird, pseudo-Deism? He thought he was explaining that science is part of culture, that the questions being asked and the way answers are interpreted are culturally bound and and we have to take that into account. The humanities triumphalism and points where he totally dismisses science and acts like he doesn't understand why somebody would find meaning in being curious about how the mind works? Not what he meant at all, apparently. He just wants to make the case for us needing both science and the humanities to properly understand the world. And White is deeply confused about why reviews of his book keep getting all of this wrong.

I recently had a chance to interview White — both live and in some email follow-up after the live event — and I've come to the conclusion that I can't properly review this book without including that information. There's just too big a gap, from my perspective, between how the book reads and what White wanted you to take away from it.

Reading The Science Delusion was an intensely frustrating experience for me. Much in the same way that reading some of the commentary written by White's least-favorite people, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, has always been frustrating for me. With all these authors, I see an undercurrent of an argument I'm happy to agree with. But that reasonable position is bogged down with layer upon layer of cheap jokes, "gotcha" quotes removed from their context, critiques of cultures and communities they clearly haven't taken the time to understand, caricatures, and the sort of comic rant style that looks very good on Lewis Black and fits sort of awkwardly (at best) on most other people. In this case, the result is a book that carries a message it clearly believes science needs to hear, but which is written in such a way as to nearly ensure that it will quickly alienate anybody who identifies with science as their community, their career, or their passion.

And that's a shame, because, as I say, White makes some good points in the book and he makes those points somewhat better when he's just talking to you.

For instance, nearly half the book is dedicated to a critique of pop-culture, self-help neuroscience — the sort of stuff that is the once and future bread-and-butter of Jonah Lehrer. It is absolutely ridiculous, as White says, to look at an fMRI scan and declare that we are seeing a thought, let alone an emotion. It is problematic when we extrapolate the findings of fMRI studies to suggest that they can help fix your marriage, give you a leg up in business, or really do much at all beyond supplying a rudimentary understanding of what happens in certain parts of the brain in response to certain stimuli. We are learning the basics of brain function here, not discovering the secrets that will help you make yourself more creative. (Unfortunately, in the book, much of White's argument against this hinges on framing pop-neurobollocks as a problem created by and supported by scientists, and a problem that very few people have spoken out about. Neither of which is true. If you want to read more about why this type of neuroscience is wrong and how it distorts our understanding of ourselves, I'd recommend reading Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience , instead. Or just spend some quality time with The Neurobollocks blog.)

White also has something important to say about the way cultural context influences science. Science is a tool for understanding the world. But while that tool can produce very good data, it can't really tell us exactly what we should do with that data, or how we should think about it. More importantly, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that culture helps decide which questions about the world we investigate, to begin with.

Culture explains why anthropology was once a field pretty much dedicated to proving the superiority of white, Western colonial powers over their brown subjects. The societal context shaped the questions those early anthropologists were asking, it shaped how they chose to study the world, and it shaped how they chose to interpret the data they came back with. The fact that, by the time I got to anthropology school in 1999, the field had been drastically realigned as a challenge to its former self also says something about the influence of culture and the importance of questioning ourselves and our values in ways that are not purely scientific.

Another example: There's not technically any reason, from a simplified rational perspective, why it should bother a woman to be invited back to a man's room late at night while the two are riding alone in a hotel elevator. But if you take into account the metric crap-ton of cultural context and subjective experience at play, that same scenario becomes something entirely different and more threatening. One of Richard Dawkins' biggest problems (as far as I have seen) is his tendency to look at situations like this and refuse to see the cultural context.

That's not to say most people aren't aware of the way culture influences science (and vice versa). But it is something we could stand to have more conversations about. Ultimately, that's what made The Science Delusion disappointing for me. It feels like a wasted opportunity. Wasted, in that White's book seemed more concerned with scorning scientists and painting a picture of science as a would-be philosophy for cheerfully bourgeois, materialistic robots (and the people who aspire to be them) than with actually engaging anybody in a conversation about why we can't ignore the cultural context that science floats in.

Even more disappointingly, that was kind of White's intention.

Not that he was actually trying to say "Science sucks!" (although, the book does come across as saying that), but that he was specifically not trying to communicate with the scientific community or science fans. He was, instead, intending to really only talk to other people outside the sciences who already share his frustrations with the place science holds in our popular culture and who think that comes at the expense of the humanities. If you read the book and don't like it, chances are good that you weren't intended to read it, anyway. Despite the equally strong chance that the book was about you and things you feel strongly about.

And that brings me to the more interactive portion of this book review. I interviewed Curtis White on June 12, in a live event at Minneapolis' Magers & Quinn Bookstore. It was a great chat. Not at all what I expected from just having read the book. And it revealed White as somebody who does love science, who isn't particularly angry, and who could actually make me think past the tone of his book to talk about the stuff that needed talking about. You can listen to the whole thing via Soundcloud. (Quick note: There was an audience Q&A session that I cut out of this recording, on account of the fact that my microphone didn't pick up any of the questions, making White's answers kind of confusing, to say the least.)

[soundcloud url="" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

After that interview, I sent White a few more questions via email, trying to better understand the apparent disconnect between the style of The Science Delusion (and its' apparent message) and the style of White's speaking presence (and his apparent message). You can read that exchange below.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: When we were talking before the interview, you mentioned that you don't really write your essays to convince anyone of anything, that you're instead writing to provide aid and comfort to people who already agree with you. Why do you think that's useful/important? How do you think it affects the way you write?

Curtis White: Writing to change your opponent’s position is a mostly hopeless task. I have written for Harper’s. Does anyone read that magazine who is not already convinced by its left/liberal point of view? Not many. Culture War is a permanent state of affairs. (Some neuroscientists have actually suggested that this is so because the liberal and conservative brains are structurally different!) I try to show those who are skeptical of radical materialism and mechanism and technophilia why they feel that way. Romanticism is not dead, it’s not even the past. Contemporary art countercultures, just like the counterculture of the ‘60s, are part of the living spirit of that epochal moment in Western history that we call Romanticism. But do the mostly young people who vote with their feet and move to Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, New York understand this old connection? It wouldn’t seem so. I try to aid in their self-understanding.

MKB: When we spoke, you talked about being really surprised by the response you're getting from critics. In particular, you said that you didn't mean to write an angry book, but a satirical one. And you also said that you meant to critique specific people in the sciences, rather than critiquing science and scientists in a more generalized way. I'm curious, now that you've had more time to think about it, what you think went wrong here. Honestly, as a writer, the idea of having accidentally written a book I didn't mean to write seems like a kind of nightmare, and I'm curious about how you're processing these reviews now and thinking about your own writing.

CW: I hope you won’t be entirely surprised if I say that I don’t think anything went wrong. The Science Delusion is much like my earlier work, especially The Middle Mind. One person’s “angry screed” is another person’s “passionate defense.” My native audience tends to be among artists, lefty intellectuals, humanists, and other species of the socially dispossessed. This particular book has generated a broader audience, much of which is sensitive to criticism of the sciences. I just received a review by Mark Kingwell, a Canadian philosopher, for the Globe and Mail. It’s a sympathetic review although he complains of the “bad jokes.” (At least he noticed there were jokes!) But the on-line comments about his review hacked him to pieces in the name of the superiority of the scientific worldview. Utter disdain. Baseless contempt. I have to say, the comments made me feel a little better about some of the treatment I’ve received.

MKB: I was really surprised that you came into this not very aware of the popular science writing being done by scientists and journalists online. To me, that makes up a huge part of the representation of science, and a huge force behind the culture of science. It felt a bit like you were writing a book about what/how scientists think while completely skipping over a major source of them telling you what/how they think. Do you feel like you missed something in your research by not looking at that? Or was this really just meant to be about Dawkins and Hitchens and Lehrer and wasn't intended to reflect on what is happening in science culture, as a whole?

CW: As a science journalist and blogger, you are no doubt rightly disappointed that I didn’t go there. I’ve read your work and I appreciate what it does and I don’t think there is anything in it that is socially suspect. What I am more concerned with is the broadest and most public representations of science, and for me that means these books. They are symptomatic of what I take to be a serious social and political problem. But then I’m old enough to still believe that books and not the Web are what is important. That may be a delusion on my part. But then most of the books that I cite, and a good many more that I don’t cite, are really good books. I love John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, but I don’t mention it. But McPhee is not in the business of using science to produce pernicious ideology.

MKB: Talking about this book with my husband, he brought up something I thought was kind of interesting. Back in high school, he used to be an Objectivist. And one of the big revelations for him, coming out of that, was the realization that a philosophy could be logically consistent and could make total sense, on paper, but could also be 100% wrong about people and wrong about the way the world actually works. For him, science is incredibly valuable because it focuses on “how this works” rather than well-constructed, logical arguments about how somebody thinks things ought to work. What do you think the limits of philosophy are when it comes to that dichotomy between what makes sense with internal, consistent logic and what makes sense when you study people?

CW: I’m not clear on how your husband has ceased to be an objectivist. As Friedrich Schelling (whom I discuss in the book) observed, empiricism has a fundamental dogma: there are objects. But in order to make this claim, empiricism must presuppose that there are subjects/selves to observe these objects. Empiricism tends to ignore the difficulty in saying what in the world a self is. Another way of putting this is that empiricism is insufficiently interested in the fact that all access to objects and all access to “how this works” is mediated by one kind of model or symbolic construct or another, whether that means language or math or instrumental experimentation. As Immanuel Kant argued, we have no access to the “thing itself,” it is forever unknowable. Our knowledge is never the thing. We are modelers, not knowers. We are condemned to life in the analogue, a glorious thing if it is looked at properly.

The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers


  1. To me, it sounds like White is willing to tailor his message to the audience. Interviewed by a scientist / science blogger, he’s polite, measured and philosophical. Trying to sell books to the public … not so much.

    1. Wow. It’s almost like the things we produce for public consumption are constructed and don’t fully represent us. Does that mean Christian Bale isn’t out fighting crime as we speak? That would explain why my attempt to buy Wayne Enterprises stock made my broker chuckle.

        1. No, just that the public persona of a writer is NOT what the writer is like at home. Like any artist. Or any other human being who interacts with the public on a regular basis.

          1. Does he need an excuse? I thought he’d just written a bad book (or maybe a good book badly). We can critique it without painting the author as a bad man who needs to ask our forgiveness or avoid our wrath with excuses. Bad books happen; it doesn’t mean the author is necessarily a bad person.

  2. Even while being measured and polite he still seems to want to caricature empiricism, or just completely misunderstands it.  

    Empiricism tends to ignore the difficulty in saying what in the world a self is.

    He’s got an epistemological problem.  He thinks that knowledge and truth are magic and if you don’t know something then you don’t know it.  But to me that’s exactly the kind of thing that Maggie’s husband was complaining about by saying that a philosophy can be 100% logical on paper and be totally wrong about the world and about people.  If you are a real materialist then you must accept that your thoughts are made of the same kind of thing as the things you think about – there is, after all, only one kind of thing.  It rules out knowledge in the traditional sense of things being absolutely true or right.

    So for the people he is criticizing, the fact that we cannot access the thing itself isn’t a problem at all for saying that we know things.  It’s just that we mean something a little different by “knowing” than he does (and, as a materialist I would also point out that from my perspective his idea of knowing is a baseless fantasy that can never be – it’s like he’s complaining that materialists can’t account for unicorns).

    And yes, most people who think this way haven’t really thought deeply about the questions he is posing.  But, as he says in his own interview, most people who agree with him haven’t either.  Apparently, even by his own estimation, not being interested in a question is not a barrier to coming up with the right answer to it.

    1.  More importantly, he misunderstood the question, which Maggie should have clarified in a follow-up.  Maggie’s husband was an Objectivist – presumably, an Ayn Rand disciple.  The interviewee either missed the capital ‘O’ or wasn’t aware of the difference between Objectivism and objectivism/empiricism.  It’s a complete whiff that a polite interviewer would have corrected before publishing the response.

      1. Well that is a much more charitable reading than I gave, and you may be right. On the other hand, objectivism is based on the idea that there are objects and that our senses apprehend them (how it gets from there to the political philosophy is pretty weird, if you ask me) so it’s possible that he knows exactly what objectivism is, and that he is criticizing precisely one of its main tenants – the bit about our senses apprehending objects. At any rate, his answer to the question was centred around the idea of preferring “what works” to philosophy, and that’s really what I went on about in response.

    2. “If you are a materialist then you must accept…” is precisely what he is criticizing.

      1. If anything, I’d argue that he’s more critical of the ‘If you are a materialist, you don’t actually have to accept, except as provisional and convenient assumptions…’

        If there is anything that tends to vex non-materialists more than blithe, philosophically unsophisticated, easy-to-refute materialist redshirts, it’s people who are familiar with the assorted clever epistemological quagmires that engulf materialism(and pretty much any other attempt at Knowledge); but really just aren’t bothered by that, and are not losing any sleep over treating blithe materialism as a useful set of operational assumptions(and, what’s worse, having great success with those assumptions). You try to pin them to the wall on their logical problems, they cheerfully admit them; but don’t even seem to be slowed down.

        1. To you it sounds like sophistry.   That’s okay—you’re allowed to have that viewpoint, and you may well be right.   But that you dismiss it as sophistry is the problem that he is addressing with his criticism.  And since you admit that you dismiss it as sophistry, the criticism is valid.

          1. It isn’t that it is sophistry, it’s nobody has yet come up with something immune to truly brutal critique(even good old Descartes was begging the question); but some attempts achieve provisional knowledge of nothing in particular, and others achieve provisional knowledge of all of  modern science and technology.

      2. I honestly don’t understand what you are saying. Maybe the word materialism means something very different to you than it does to me. To me my statement was about as controversial as “If you are talking about the natural numbers you must accept that for every number there is a number after it.”

        I don’t think he is criticizing the idea that materialism is a philosophy that denies the existence of the non-material. I think he is criticizing materialism.

        1. i suspect there’s more Humpty-Dumpty (“When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”) in all this that any proper investigation of (“science”) philosophy or logic.   that is, if you sat everyone down and forced them to tediously agree on some clear definitions of terms you’d probably be left with a couple of Hallmark™ greeting cards and little else of substance.  but then, i’m a cynic (in the philosophical sense, of course).

        2. Your statement isn’t controversial.   And I was perhaps a bit too brief in my observation.   The point he is criticizing, I think, is that to a materialist, it is self-evident that all things, even things the functioning of which we do not understand, must necessarily be material.

          It is almost certainly impossible to observe the phenomenon we refer to as consciousness and be sure that we are objectively observing the same thing that we are experiencing subjectively.

          He is not taking the position that it is therefore the case that consciousness is not material.   He is saying that whether it is material or not is not knowable, and therefore the assertion that it is necessarily material is an article of faith, not an objective truth.   He is not saying that he knows.   He is saying that he does not know, and neither do you.

          1. But whether consciousness is material or not is knowable.  The problem is that we completely disagree on what it means to know something.

            He thinks that knowledge is magic, and I think it is our best current understanding.  Using his traditional idea of knowledge, the only thing anyone ever seems to be able to know is that they can’t know things.  Using the idea of knowledge embedded in the scientific method, we know all kinds of things, and it is unproblematic that something we know today will not the be same as what we know tomorrow.

            The question is, what is the point in defining knowledge in a way that: 1) doesn’t line up at all with how people use the word in their real lives; and 2) doesn’t really allow anyone to ever know anything about the world?  And don’t tell me that that’s just what knowledge is, because according to that idea of knowledge you can’t know what knowledge is.

            And so we get back to your paraphrasing of his idea: that materialists this it is self-evident that all things are material.  I’m not going to say that no one thinks that, but for me it is far from self-evident.  Rather, I feel there is currently evidence that points strongly to that conclusion that so I would be foolish to ignore it.  All ideas of the non-material seem to be the proverbial “God of the gaps.”  This is why I say, “If you are a materialist then you must agree that…” because “I am not a materialist so I don’t think that” is a perfectly valid response.

          2. I don’t disagree with much of what you have said, but this idea of the “God o the gaps” that you’re talking about is what I think creates the controversy.

            The article we have to hand doesn’t talk about the “God of the gaps,” nor even allude to it.   Possibly the book does—I haven’t read it.   But I don’t get the impression that it does, or that the author believes in such a thing.

            The problem is that if I point out to you that not only is consciousness not evidently material, but that it is actually impossible to demonstrate that it is material, and you immediately assume that I am a follower of this “God of the gaps,” then we can’t have a conversation, because you are putting words in my mouth.  To be clear, I am not saying that you personally are doing this.   However this sort of response is highly prevalent.

            As a non-materialist non-believer, this particular conversational problem is quite frustrating.   I understand how it arises, because of course believers in this “God of the gaps” do tend to start the conversation the same way.

            But this is the essence of the criticism that the author seems to be making, unless I am just projecting my own rhetorical frustrations onto him.

          3. Well, “God of the Gaps” is sort of like “strawman,” no one would ever bring it up in relation to their own arguments or claim that that is their own God.

            But the fact remains that the history of the realm of God and of the mind and of the spirit has shown repeatedly the following pattern: First everyone agrees that a phenomenon must be attributable to God/Non-material Mind/Spirit.  Then someone finds a material explanation for the phenomenon and people say that idea is dangerous to God/Non-material Mind/Spirit.  Then everyone accepts that the phenomenon is material and gets on with their lives (this unfolds over generations, not weeks).

            At this point, when someone makes a claim that something is non-material or can’t be material or can’t be shown to be material I think we have a good reason to be skeptical of that claim, and to demand extraordinary evidence.  Why else would I not believe that it will not simply follow the same pattern.  As firmly as White believes that we can never show the mind to be material, people in the past have believed all manners of magical nonsense.

            I believe that we can and will demonstrate that the mind and consciousness itself is material, that this will happen in less than a century, and that the only refuge for people who do not want to believe this will be saying, “Well, we can’t really know anything.”  It looks to me like White has seen the same future, has decided to be on the wrong side of history, and has got a head start on the skepticism.

          4.  Rather than calling it an “article of faith”, one might call it “a reasonable hypothesis”.  After all, absent some empirical demonstration of some immaterial substance with causal power materialism is a pretty reasonable null hypothesis.  I’d happily reject materialism if anyone could give me a good reason beyond “I can’t think of any way you can account for this in a materialist framework and therefore it’s impossible to account for in a materialist framework.”  Which is essentially every critique of materialism I’ve ever seen.

          5. The problem is that that particular hypothesis isn’t falsifiable, so while it’s a “perfectly reasonable hyphothesis” in the sense that you aren’t crazy to think it’s true, it’s not a perfectly reasonable hypothesis to use in an argument.

          6. @Abhayakara:disqus I can think of ways it might be falsified.  In fact, I mentioned one in my comment: an empirical demonstration of some immaterial substance with causal power. I’d also accept a logical argument predicated on premises with which I agree that implied that materialism is false — but it would have to be a better argument than “I can’t see how so it must be impossible!”

            If it was not perfectly reasonable to use unfalsifiable hypotheses in argument then argument would be impossible for all arguments are predicated on premises which are typically unfalsifiable hypotheses. (If they were falsifiable they could be established as conclusions rather than used only as premises.)

          7. But I’d like to point out that you are holding the idea of a materialist account of the mind to a much higher standard than you are holding the theory of gravity, our current understanding of heat, or the idea that a recipe reliably produces a cake.

            We can’t know any of that unless our concept of knowledge is that we can know things that we don’t have absolute certainty of.  Then we can walk around saying that we know that other people exist, that we know the leaders of our nations are shapeshifting reptilian aliens and that we know what day our birthdays are.  In other words, we can use the word “know” the way that everyone outside of a philosophy classroom uses it all the time.

            What gets on my nerves is the monopoly philosophers claim on defining knowledge.  A definition of knowledge that defines knowledge as a thing we can’t have is not just useless, it is wrong.  We’d be better off calling that concept quaxar and saying we can’t quaxar that the mind is material.  At least that way we wouldn’t be prone to equivocate between our narrow term that is only useful in a certain kind of epistemology and a concept that we utilize in our every day lives.

  3. What are the thoughts on his response to that last question?  I think I understand the point he’s making, but it doesn’t seem like an answer to the question being posed.

    1. Basically he doesn’t understand that Maggie is talking about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  Which is surprising, given his identification with lefty humanists, his objection to widely available and popular yet ideologically pernicious literature, etc.; one would think he’d get the reference right away.  But given his apparent lack of facility with the finer points of argumentation, maybe it’s not so surprising.

      1. I think he might understand.  I know that Objectivism is almost always talked about in terms of it’s political dimensions, but at it’s root it is materialism + the idea that our senses directly apprehend the world.  That the political dimension of the philosophy arose out of the axioms is a result of Rand’s upbringing.

        When you talk about Objectivism making sense “on paper” it is hard not to talk about the materialist component of it (since without that foundation it’s just a lot of baseless assumptions).

  4. So, what he’s saying is that he’s not a very good writer?  I mean, if most of the criticism of the book stems from him not being able to properly convey his message through his writing, how is that the fault of the reader?

    1. All of which leads one to the obvious review:

      “This author doesn’t know how to write the book that he meant to write. Grade: D+.”

      1.  Perhaps he just needs a good editor/publisher to make sure the book will reach the correct audience. My advice would be change his editor.

    2. That’s exactly what I got as well. He sounds like he was writing as if it was to a group of close peers who already knew him personally, would already know his underlying beliefs and would get all  his jokes.

      If one just wants to write his thoughts specifically for people who already share his thoughts, then what’s the point of writing a book? I think LiveJournal is still around…

    3. This is kind of the central theme of life in the first world right now. Misspeaking, non-apologies, leave Britney alone.

  5. My take?  He used trolling to attempt to generate buzz for his book, but the buzz didn’t generate sales, so now he’s going to try and meta-troll the reviews to hopefully scrape in a few more sales.

    Or maybe he’s just a crummy writer who needs to practice the whole “respect for the humanities” thing before preaching it.

  6. “Scientists are a bunch of idiots. Just kidding!”

    No, that doesn’t make it all better.

    1. “You should review the book, and the author, separately”

      Why, when they’re both crap? This isn’t an ad-hom of an otherwise excellent book. The author’s failings are present there as well.

  7. It seems like the criticism is right on target, for a reason that he points out himself – he’s delusional about the balance of power in the public perception of science. The guys he’s attacking/”satirizing” deserve it, but they really aren’t what most of the public is aware of.

    I think it’s fine if the book is for a very specific audience, and it sounds like he’s not surprised that everyone lobbing criticism didn’t get that memo and is not part of the intended audience. I am not sure what value the book has in that case, even for its specific audience, which I guess is the subtext of this review/interview.

    He describes his intended audience as “artists, lefty intellectuals, humanists, and other species of the socially dispossessed”, which is really rather pretentious… but which could also easily describe boingers. Yet it’s my sense that few around here would take a shining to the book or its message. As was said, he’s entirely missing the actual cultural context of science, which has its place right along with (and interacting with) the humanities.

    So he’s written a book attacking Dawkins et al. with the exact same (if not worse) problems that their approach has. OK. Not surprising I guess.

      1. It’s a good thing that our society doesn’t have any actually ‘socially dispossessed’ people who live lives of powerlessness, poverty, and frequent exposure to the pointy end of state power… 

    1. The thing is, you can be a lefty intellectual and a scientist. Is not like scientists are mostly right wingers.

      1. CP Snow in his famous “two cultures” essay of 50 years ago wrote about how, unlike in the 19th century, by the 1950s, the term “intellectual” seemed to only refer to humanities types and not the scientific.

    2. “I think it’s fine if the book is for a very specific audience, and it sounds like he’s not surprised that everyone lobbing criticism didn’t get that memo and is not part of the intended audience.”

      Do smug intellectually incurious persons buy a decent amount of books, or is this mostly going to be bought by the usual right-wing talking heads on MSNBC and CNN?

  8. “Another way of putting this is that empiricism is insufficiently interested in the fact that all access to objects and all access to “how this works” is mediated by one kind of model or symbolic construct or another”

    The (inverified assumption) of the existence of Umediated Truth(whether as something we can have, or as a contrast to our sad, pale, scraps of knowledge) seems to have been nerd-sniping the more aesthetically minded since at least Plato.

    I’d also argue with the notion that ’empiricism is insufficiently interested’. If anything, it’s the fact that empiricism succeeds like crazy in spite of(or perhaps even because of) refusing to be bogged down in hairy epistemological conundra that irks enthusiasts of hairy epistemology so much. Simply by ignoring some sticky questions, it turns out to be possible to do vast amounts of informative research. without any apparent inconvenience imposed by Knowledge being impossible.

    Even worse, hairy epistemology is so hairy that people who do get bogged down in it tend to get nothing but amusement for their trouble and often end up waving their hands in the direction of some flavor of romanticism or mysticism, while people who just blithely ignore the problem don’t get any Truth; but they do get a lot of contingent-but-useful ‘knowledge’.

    1. The thing is the empiricism has a perfectly good epistemology.  It just works on a radically different paradigm than pretty much all epistemology.  Instead of fantasizing about “Unmediated Truth” (thanks for the phrase) it actually tells us what truth and knowledge are in practical terms we can apply.

      Whenever I see someone talking about how we can’t “know” things it makes me think about heat.  Humans have known about feeling hot and cold for a long, long time.  Over that time we’ve come up with lots of different explanations for what heat is, getting more and more functional over time.  But over that entire time, we have a sense that we were trying to grasp at the same concept.  The phlogiston theorist wasn’t thinking about something completely different than we talk about today when we talk about heat, they just didn’t understand it very well.

      So this is the problem that epistemologists have with empiric epistemology.  They are wrong.  Their notion that we can’t know anything is based on an idea of knowing which is about as right as the idea of phlogiston.  It’s not that it was never useful, and it’s not that they are talking about something completely different.  It’s just that the idea that truth and knowledge are the closest we can get to a description of a concept we are mutually grasping at is closer to the concept of knowledge and truth that we are mutually grasping at then their idea of knowledge and truth is. (That is totally a sentence)

      So the empiricist epistemology not only works, but how it works gives us a good hint as to why empirical methods are good at producing results.  The epistemology I’m describing can be applied to itself and show that we know what knowledge is and we can say truthfully what truth is.  Pretty nearly every other epistemology I’ve come across can’t answer how we know what knowledge is or what is true about what truth is – and mostly they give way to skepticism about everything else too.  Is it any wonder, then, that empiricism tells us how things work?

  9. Classic problem of separating the intent from the work. If the work can hardly stand on it’s own without context, it’s a failure. Sorry Curtis.

  10. It doesn’t sound like he wrote a book that he later came to disagree with – indeed, he disagrees with the reviewer’s assertion and says “I don’t think anything went wrong”. Rather, he wrote a book that some reviewers wish he hadn’t written because his harshness was not inviting enough for them. That’s a fair complaint, and if that complaint has caused the author to soften his tone in speaking appearances that’s an evolution of presentation, not a change of premise.

  11. As long as you are interested in the best you can do so far instead of in some sort of ultimate unmitigated truth, the fact that science is influenced by culture ranges between a pragmatic problem and not a problem at all.  It’s not fatal to the idea that science will keep making things better for us.  It’s just that science isn’t magic.

  12. thank you for this article, Maggie.  I don’t know how well Curtis White argued for it in his book (you say he’s better in person), but this is exactly the nature of the conversation we ought to be having.  We need to consider just how far we can objectify the subjective, without it evaporating altogether.

    1. The good news about the subjective being part of the objective universe is that it doesn’t just evaporate (except at high temperatures).

  13. The 1966 Time Life picture book ‘Age of Enlightenment’ by Peter Gay mentions this kind of stuff. As the idea of the scientific method was gradually being introduced into Western culture in the 1700’s, hucksters began promoting cheap miracle cures with “SCIENTIFIC” properties… 

  14. The only thing worse than Hitchens’ drek is people who use his same exact (always smug, often insincere) style to argue against him.

  15. People who have a problem with the implicit “materialism” in science are mostly arguing against what science was a hundred and fifty years ago, not what it is now.  Now, everything is probability waves carrying quanta of energy and momentum, and what we think of as matter is just the interference patterns of those waves, like the patterns of intersecting sets of ripples in a pond. Particles take every possible path from one point to another, and we can use that to do computation. Particle-antiparticle pairs constantly pop out of the quantum vacuum and return to it. Entropy, and consequently information, are physical quantities.  Before we discovered these things, they all would have seemed preposterous, and “non-material”  but anything that affects the physical universe we live in is just as “physical” or “material” as anything else.   It just bothers me that the people arguing against “materialism” mostly seem to implicitly think that physicists still imagine that everything is just a bunch of tiny billiard balls bouncing around. 

  16.  Mr White is now trying to get the reviewers who panned his book to re-write his book for him.

    He’s just the leading edge of the well-funded creationist movement.  Since they can’t produce evidence, the best they can do is try to discredit the contradicting evidence (Science). 

    The past month has been a big public relations push by the Discovery Institute, the leading creationist organization.  They’re partnering will a lot of right-wing and christian radio programs as well as mainstream outlets to bring on “scientists” to talk about their books like, “Darwin’s Doubt”, etc.  Their basic argument is, “People are so complicated that there just HAS to be an intelligent designer, darnit!  Thus, Jehovah.”

    I think writers like White need to be treated with polite suspicion.  His efforts to work the refs (reviewers) does nothing to diminish that suspicion.  Let him write a few more books and we’ll see if he’s a sincere commenter on Science or a troll.

  17. White’s post-publication explanations and clarifications remind me a little of physicist Lawrence Krauss’ (A Universe From Nothing) huffy reaction to his critics who pointed out that he, apparently, didn’t mean “nothing.” (He never did answer that, and, of course, no one can.) This whole chain of comments supports Jonathan Haidt’s thesis in “The Righteous Mind:” We all defend what we “feel,” and won’t be diverted by inconvenient “facts.”

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