The real problem with Curtis White's The Science Delusion


56 Responses to “The real problem with Curtis White's The Science Delusion

  1. Boris Bartlog says:

    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.

    • Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston says:

      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.

      • theophrastvs says:

        are you suggesting that Curtis White meant to write a work of pure fiction?

        • Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston says:

          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.

          • timquinn says:

            Does that somehow excuse his actions?

          • NelC says:

            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. Humbabella says:

    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.

    • Gabriel Morgan says:

       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.

      • Humbabella says:

        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.

    • Ted Lemon says:

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

      • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

        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.

        • Ted Lemon says:

          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.

          • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

            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.

      • Humbabella says:

        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.

        • theophrastvs says:

          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).

        • Ted Lemon says:

          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.

          • Humbabella says:

            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.

          • Ted Lemon says:

            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.

          • Humbabella says:

            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.

          • wysinwyg says:

             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.

          • Ted Lemon says:

            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.

          • wysinwyg says:

            @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.)

          • Humbabella says:

            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. RedArrogantKnight says:

    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.

    • lorq says:

      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.

      • Humbabella says:

        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. wizardru says:

    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?

    • nixiebunny says:

      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+.”

      • squintsideways says:

         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.

    • Sekino says:

      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…

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

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

    • Gilbert Wham says:


  5. GawainLavers says:

    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. technogeekagain says:

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

    No, that doesn’t make it all better.

    • mausium says:

      “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. penguinchris says:

    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.

    • Gilbert Wham says:

       It’s unbearably pretentious.

      • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

        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… 

    • Guido says:

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

    • mausium says:

      “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. fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

    “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’.

    • Humbabella says:

      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. brandonmwest says:

    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. deckard70 says:

    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. Humbabella says:

    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. Robert Kost says:

    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.

    • Humbabella says:

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

  13. swlabr says:

    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. timquinn says:

    A rose by any other name is still backpedaling.

  15. Rob Myers says:

    “humanities triumphalism”

    Oh myyyyyyy yes.

  16. mausium says:

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

  17. spacedmonkey says:

    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. 

  18. Pope Ratzo says:

     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.

  19. jorgabcd says:

    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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