- Reading through Mis-Readings
Francis Crick, the famous biochemist who helped us understand DNA structure and function, gave us The Astonishing Hypothesis in 1994 that our “sense of personal identity and free will” comes from “nothing more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Curtis White has now given us a book that argues against this as a reduction of reality and our experience. The Science Delusion is White’s fierce statement against the reductionist tendencies of popular ideas drawn from the last two decades of neuroscientists’ work with Crick’s hypothesis. By supporting that astonishingly simple hypothesis, these scientists have both overstated and understated their case, but their chosen goal in doing so has been to give us all a clearer sense of the physical basis of what we call thinking and our sense of self. There is a danger in popularizations of this: people may be misled into seeing only this side of mind.
Curtis White tries to combat that by zeroing in on “three science writers—the science journalist Jonathan Lehrer, and the neuroscientists Antonio Damasio and Sebastian Seung.” In The Science Delusion, White also tries to critique the limitations of the scientific empirical approach itself. He did a brilliant job of critiquing popular thinking in The Middle Mind. That 2003 bestseller carried the socially critical subtitle “Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves,” and it sliced into the pop mind very precisely and entertainingly. The Science Delusion goes up against Lehrer and Seung on a basis that recalls the earlier book and justifies the social critique in this book’s subtitle, “Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers.” Seung’s TED talk about our “connectome” is an easy target for the satirical irony that everyone from Auster to Žižek enjoyed in The Middle Mind. However, both White’s other attacks on scientists here and his focus on a return to Romanticism as a better way of thinking than empiricism are decidedly weak.
This book can lead you to some great reading through the works it cites and the ones it can call to mind, like Crick’s and Žižek’s, that I will call upon in reviewing it. However, getting through to that good reading will take your own critical thinking because White’s own thinking here occasionally stumbles into self-constructed traps of fallacy and mis-reading. The choice of Lehrer as a target after his exposure as a falsifying scholar is too obviously the selection of a straw man. Before getting to him and the showman Seung, though, White takes on the serious science writing of Richard Dawkins and the social criticism of Christopher Hitchens in a kind of hors d’oeuvre course before the Romantic critique of empiricism that he has cooked up for us. White’s title is a response to Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006), and White attempts to create an essential polarity by blaming Dawkins and “science” for “their lack of curiosity about what [the] feeling of awe means,” Our author here blames “science” for failing to acknowledge when it calls upon “extra-scientific” values. Personifying “science” allows White to put words in its mouth without having to misquote any actual person, but it makes him look a bit like Lehrer. If you check White’s sources, you can see that Antonio Damasio, the other serious scientist attacked by White, actually opens his book with the great Lisboan self-mythifying poet, Fernando Pessoa, and closes Self Comes to Mind by consciously giving T.S. Eliot the final words. This comes after a carefully appreciative analysis of the place of myth, religion, and the arts in human development. If you read Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder (1998), you will see that he expresses his awe through quotations, like that title, from the English Romantic poets.
White seems to want to build his...