Sunday, June 23, 2013

“An All-Out Assault Against Imagination”

According to one reviewer, we writers and readers should be pretty worried about science. Science, "freed at last from the limits imposed by religion, ... has extended its ambitions beyond the debunking of Christian dogma," says Curtis White, in his new book "The Science Delusion." Science "has now turned its attention to another old competitor, the secular world of the humanities and the arts.” As science explains more and more, White suggests, the arts will have less and less to offer.

The arts? That's us! Oh noes! According to White, science is actively fighting with literature and other forms of high culture over the territory of human understanding. And science is winning: it is reducing humans to mere machines. When that happens, when science finally wins and convinces everyone they are merely a bunch of atoms, there will be no place for art.

So why am I not feeling threatened? Maybe because I was raised in a highly-scientific community by a scientist, and eventually I married a scientist. I've been bathed in science since I was born, and I've never felt science has subtracted from my imagination. If anything, it's aided it. Science raises far more questions than it answers, and continuously shows us how much bigger the universe is than we ever imagined. Not just the macro-universe, either, but the micro-universe: if you turn the scopes inward, you can delve down deeper and deeper. Organs, neurons, molecules, atoms. None of this has to be reductive, either: if we get bored with the cosmos or quantum fields, we can turn our attention to emergence: the way complex systems spontaneously arise from "mere parts." For the mystery-minded, emergence offers plenty: how does an ant colony work? How do all those neurons in the brain form a mind? I feel no lack of wonder and curiosity even when I restrict myself to pure science, but of course I don't restrict myself that way. I indulge in the arts as much as the sciences, and don't feel I'm betraying either when I do.

Another reviewer, Mark O'Connell, sympathetic to White's position, says this: "The problem, obviously, isn’t science; it’s the arrogance with which many scientists, and popularizers of science, dismiss the value of other ways of thinking about questions of meaning, about the world and our place in it." Perhaps the issue here is that a few spokespeople have said a few things that are taken as The Word of Science, rather than the opinions of a few men. But it may also be that these opinions are being misunderstood: I've read Dawkins and Dennett, and I'm not seeing the attack on art or imagination. I do see an attempt to replace superstition with reason and evidence — to me, this is not the same as killing human wonder. How can it be, when a dozen inquiries open up for each question answered?

Clearly, though, some people do feel threatened by science. And it's not just theists, it's increasingly people like White: liberal, secular, and Romantic. That's "Romantic" as opposed to "Enlightenment," not as in flowers and candlelit dinners. Maybe White's book is just a continuation of that old debate. Romantic thinkers, like Rousseau and Whitman, tended to focus on the emotions, especially those of terror and awe; they deified raw nature; they embraced mysticism. If you like Edgar Allen Poe, Kerouac's On The Road, and and Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, you may have Romantic sensibilities. Romantics also tend to be nostalgic, looking back to the past for how things should be. Enlightenment thinkers, like the founding fathers of the US, are forward-looking: science and reason should replace superstition. They are humanists, valuing the products and potential of humans; Romantics tend to be suspicious of humanity, feeling somehow that humans aren't really natural and fit less into the world the more they "progress."

O'Connoll, like White, thinks we need "a return to the spirit of Romanticism, to an intellectual culture that looks to poets and philosophers and artists, rather than scientists, for insight into what used to be called 'the human condition.'" What I don't understand is the dichotomy: it's not either-or. All those things White feels are on the verge of being lost — mystery, wonder, curiosity, imagination — are still there, ready to be plumbed by scientists, philosophers, and artists alike. We can all work together, it's not a zero-sum game.

So: artists & writers out there: do you feel scientific progress is threatening your livelihood? Or is this a war happening in White's admittedly vivid imagination?

Cat's Eye Nebula


  1. See! I knew this would happen eventually! We're all becoming machines! ;)

    I find White's ideology to be what my mother would say -- Hogwash! I don't think humanity is going to turn all it creates and imagines over to science. It's kind of a fear factor idea for the artsy types. If White can try to make them think that imagination and creativity are getting replaced by the all-powerful world of science, then he's done his job. He does seem to have a bit of a Romantic mindset, but I like them folks too!

    1. "It's kind of a fear factor idea for the artsy types." Ha — that's great! White is definitely speaking to like-minded folks only ... he knows he won't win over the skeptics, but he wants (and he said this) the nervous people to know they aren't alone.

      Well, thank you for reading this, MM — I thought I must have gone WAY too wonky on this one. :)

  2. I'm with you on this one, Sister Steph. I don't see how one thing must exclude the other. I guess I'm not seeing where art explains things. Art has always been subjective, whereas science deals with facts and objectivity. One attempts to answer questions, whereas the other merely expresses opinions or ideas. Then where is the clash?

    1. Maybe I should read the book (although that sounds incredibly unappealing): perhaps White gives an example of what questions art can answer better than science. I get the notion that stories in particular have a certain truth to them, which is not the same as objective truth. We learn values at our mother's knees when we listen to fairy tales—which have so many moral lessons embedded in them, but are not exactly fact-based. I get an emotional satisfaction out of a great novel that I'm never going to get out of a textbook or piece of brilliant journalism. I can see why we'd turn to the arts for that emotional satisfaction, and for a sense of meaning and connection to other human beings. But I don't think science is trying to do that, nor are the humanities trying to make fact-claims about how the world works. So yeah. Like you said: where's the clash?


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.