Romanticism for the 21st Century: Curtis White's 'The Science Delusion'

If you need a refresher course in the cluster of assumptions and prejudices that make up the worldview of the so-called “New Atheists,” look no further than Richard Dawkins’ Twitter feed. Here, in 140 characters or less, Dawkins attacks not only Islam and Christianity, but Continental Philosophy and Postmodernism as well, and all according to the same self-serving logic, which automatically conflates common sense with science and ambiguity with cant. On May 15th, for instance, Dawkins tweeted this: “Continental Philosophy. What kind of a Search for Truth is region-specific? Continental Chemistry? Continental Algebra? What nonsense!” and most of his tweets involve a similar level of derision toward discourses that fail to interest him. For Dawkins, truth is easily within our grasp, if only we would let go of the silly hang-ups propagated by clergymen and humanities professors alike, and turn our gaze toward the clear blue dawn of scientific materialism. If you find Dawkins’ tweets refreshing, and believe him to be speaking truth to power and stripping various emperors of their various garments, then you should buy his best-selling 2006 book, The God Delusion, perhaps alongside the late Christopher Hitchens’ much more entertaining 2007 best-selling God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Together, these books are the foundational texts of the New Atheist movement. If, however, Dawkins’ tweets make you want to grit your teeth, shake your computer, and scream “it’s more complicated than that!” then Curtis White’s most recent work, The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers is the book for you.

The Science Delusion is essentially an artist’s polemic, not only against the New Atheists but against the ideology they recommend as an alternative to religion. White names this ideology “scientism” and argues that it is just as dogmatic as organized religion, and that it is increasing in popularity as scientific explanations are increasingly being sought for questions that have traditionally been the domain of the humanities. This, in itself, might not be so much a problem if it meant that we were being provided with more and better – not fewer and more reductive – explanations for phenomena like consciousness, beauty, love – in short, everything that philosophers from Plato onward have found most interesting. But the main tenet of scientism determines that the opposite is happening; what people like the neuroscientist and popular TED lecturer Sebastian Seung really seek is the destruction of the old interminable questions in favor of scientific accounts that wrap up questions about human nature as neatly and completely as questions concerning protein synthesis. White’s objection to this is twofold: On the one hand he argues that such a quest is doomed to failure, as issues about who we are and how we should live are just different types of issues than those the hard sciences are equipped to deal with – they are subjective, and simply have no objective solutions. In this sense, the quest to scientifically determine what it means to be a human being is absurd and paradoxical. On the other hand, White also argues that the idea that it is possible to answer, scientifically and objectively, every single question that has ever puzzled philosophers about the nature of the self and reality is dangerous. In the absence of new answers, he explains, new mythologies will arise, and these will be just as rigid and prescriptive as the old myths provided by religion.

Between the scientific rationalism of the neuroscientists and their allies in the New Atheist camp and the religious dogmatism of, among others, the Christian right, White advocates for a third mode of conceptualizing reality that he traces to Romanticism, which swept through Western Europe in the 19th century. What White sees as central to Romanticism is a commitment to the interminable re-imagining of society, and he considers its legacy to be intimately bound up with the various counterculture movements that sprung up in the second half of the 20th century, when millions of people throughout the Western world expressed dissatisfaction with their culture and tried to change it. To protest requires an act of imagination or will, the type that the scientific worldview tends to de-emphasize or even outright deny with its vision of man as an elaborate piece of machinery. This isn’t a new idea. As White points out, Isaiah Berlin made a similar argument in the 1960s when he said that “[s]cience is submission, science is being guided by the nature of things.” Many other secular thinkers throughout the past two centuries have expressed a similar form of dissatisfaction with the constraints science threatens to impose on human potential, both individually and collectively. To leap beyond the given – to see the world not as a collection of bare facts but as material to be transformed – is, for White, the essence of a progressive political culture. Scientism threatens to extinguish this belief in possibility and freedom that has always been at the heart of progressive cultural and political movements.

Perhaps the most interesting and unexpected part of White’s book is the section he devotes to reclaiming the legacy of 19th century German philosopher Frederich Schelling. This occurs near the end of the book, after White has nearly wrapped up his polemical arguments about the philosophical reductionism and inherent conservatism of the New Atheists.  White is most interested in Schelling’s insistence on the role of human creativity, or the will, in the construction of symbolic meaning-generating systems. By insisting on the active role played by thought in the construction of reality, Schelling undermined the viewpoint of the naïve empiricists, who in his time as now, considered Truth as merely something that was “out there” to be discovered. “In short,” White writes, “our perceptions and interpretations of the world are always far more complicated than mere physical impressions can explain. The self that takes the impression must already be active in constituting itself before sensation is even possible. The self is something more like Plato’s wax tablet; it must play a productive role in the life of the object.” As the site of perception, and the condition of its possibility, the self cannot be explained in the same kind of objective terms that are used to describe objects of perception. Schelling made a version of the claim that postmodernists do today – to the chagrin of Dawkins and others – that the self can never get outside itself thoroughly enough to describe itself objectively. Who we are, or what we are, will always be to a large extent determined by what we believe ourselves to be. If one accepts this idea, then it becomes obvious that the findings of neuroscience, while interesting and important in their own right, can never fully replace the more open-ended investigations that take place in humanities departments.

The Science Delusion is a highly readable yet powerful defense of the importance of the humanities against those who believe science to be the last interpretative framework standing. It is destined to become a classic among artists, dreamers, revolutionaries, and anyone who, like Kierkegaard, believes asking questions to be as important a quest as finding answers.

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3 comments

  1. John Williamson

    I’ve read both Hitchens and Dawkins and I think they would have both been thrilled if people understood the basic ideas contained in the 1859 Origin of Species. Some of these most basic and well-established principles are still misunderstood or not accepted by hundreds of millions, let alone the results coming from cutting-edge of science being done today. One thing is certain: every day and every year the scientists are telling us more and more about the universe at the micro- and macro- levels. To say, ‘well, science could never address such and such a topic’ is not the way to bet, historically speaking. As for some of the more esoteric
    topics, those are not the primary focus of Dawkins these days. His “Magic of Reality” talks about nothing but everyday, relatively simple-to-grasp topics such as the nature of stars or what wavelengths are. Why? Because there is still so much misunderstanding and ignorance of the basics. Everything Dawkins has written has contributed to the general understanding of science. Judging by the Amazon reviews of “The Science Delusion”, I doubt it has much to offer.

  2. AJP

    Pat says, “what people like the neuroscientist and popular TED lecturer Sebastian Seung really seek is the destruction of the old interminable questions in favor of scientific accounts that wrap up questions about human nature as neatly and completely as questions concerning protein synthesis.”

    I’m sure they are looking forward to the cyborg singularity.

  3. Pingback: The War on Mother’s Milk |

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