4 January 2012
If that isn’t hard-hitting enough to suit you, how about this:
The book is a catechism for people who believe they have emancipated themselves from catechisms. The faith that it dogmatically expounds is scientism. It is a fine example of how the religion of science can turn an intelligent man into a fool.
No pussy-footing around for this fellow!
I have been saying some impolite things about Darwinian reductionism and the religion of science myself lately, in this space, but I haven’t had the intestinal fortitude to be quite that blunt.
The dauntless author of these stunningly candid remarks is Leon Wieseltier, a genuine specimen of that nearly extinct species, the man of letters. The quotes are taken from Wieseltier’s recent review of Rosenberg’s new book in The New Republic.
I am tempted to give you the whole of this timely and highly quotable jeremiad against scientism. But these two paragraphs will have to do:
Rosenberg arrives with “the correct answers to most of the persistent questions,” and “given what we know from the sciences, the answers are all pretty obvious.” . . . This is because “there is only one way to acquire knowledge, and science’s way is it.” And not just science in general, but physics in particular. “All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another.” And: “Scientism starts with the idea that the physical facts fix all the facts, including the biological ones. These in turn have to fix the human facts—the facts about us, our psychology, and our morality.” All that remains is to choose the wine.
In this way science is transformed into a superstition. For there can be no scientific answer to the question of what is the position of science in life. It is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. The idea that physical facts fix all the facts is not an idea proven, or even posited, by physics. Rosenberg does not translate non-scientific facts into scientific facts; he denies that non-scientific facts exist at all. But in what way is, say, [Rembrandt's] The Jewish Bride a scientific fact? It is certainly composed of fermions and bosons, but such knowledge, however true and fundamental, casts no light upon the power of the painting, or the reasons for its appeal. The description of everything in terms of fermions and bosons cannot account for the differences, in meaning and in effect, between particular combinations of fermions and bosons. But Rosenberg’s complacence survives such an objection, since he holds also that “the meanings we think are carried by our thoughts, our words, and our actions are just sand castles we build in the air.” This leads him to a boorish attack on the humanities, which are “nothing we have to take seriously, except as symptoms.”
Oh, heck, I can’t resist giving you this, too, on ethics:
He asserts, as would anyone who does not live in Congo, that “most people are nice most of the time,” because “we were selected for niceness,” which is all we need for ethics. He calls this “nice nihilism,” since it promotes moral values without moral beliefs. As for “Hitlers, Stalins, Mao Zedongs, Pol Pots, and Osama bin Ladens”—the people who are not nice most of the time—“biology has the answer”: there are always variations in inherited traits. But the variations cannot be the answer, because they are the question. Moreover, most people are both good and bad, neither devils nor angels. Rosenberg is untroubled by such complications. He is untroubled by everything under the sun. The man’s peace of mind is indecent.
And while I’m at it, let me throw in the finale, for good measure:
“We know the truth,” he declares sacerdotally in his preface. “Some of the tone of much that follows may sound a little smug. I fear I have to plead guilty to this charge. . . .” Once upon a time science was the enemy of smugness.
Who is Leon Wieseltier?
Among other things, he is a prolific literary and cultural critic; the long-time literary editor of The New Republic; the editor of a collection of Lionel Trilling’s essays, The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2000); a translator of the great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai; and the author of a moving memoir, Kaddish (Knopf, 1998).
Here are some highlights of his biography, mostly culled from a long, 1999 New York Times Magazine profile, entitled “Wayward Intellectual Finds God.”
Wieseltier is from a blue-collar background, the child of holocaust survivors, but he entered Yeshiva at age 3 and seemingly never looked back. He wound up first at Columbia, under the tutelage of Lionel Trilling, and then at Oxford, where for a time he was received at home by Isaiah Berlin every Saturday afternoon.
From Oxford, Wieseltier went on to doctoral work at Harvard, but was lured away to Washington by the offer of the gig at The New Republic, which has been his principal base ever since, though he has written for many other newspapers and magazines over the years, from The New York Review of Books to Vanity Fair.
For a while, during the 1990s, his Wilde side won out and his personal life disentegrated. At one point, he wound up sleeping in a furnished room above Larry McMurtry’s famous Georgetown bookstore, Booked Up—a detail I especially relish.
It was his father’s death, in 1996, that turned things around for Wieseltier. Having fallen far away from the Jewish faith, he nevertheless resolved to adhere strictly to the ritual called “mourner’s kaddish,” which—in the case of a parent—involves going to the synagogue to pray three times a day for almost a year. The kaddish prayer itself, however, is not a lamentation for the dead, but rather a hymn of praise to the Almighty.
The unclassifiable book that resulted, Kaddish, is a mixture of personal reflection, philosophical probing, and meditation upon rabbinical texts. It was a great, and unexpected, success.
One reason I find Wieseltier so interesting is that he is a staunch political liberal—he says he can’t imagine The New Republic‘s supporting a Republican candidate for president—and yet, he has been a merciless critic of the New Atheists.
His attack on Rosenberg’s new book does not come out of thin air. Rather, it reflects a consistent philosophical position that Wieseltier has been articulating for some time.
For instance, several years back he published a scathing review of Daniel Dennett’s New Atheist classic, Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006). It was called “The God Genome,” is full of delightful jabs at Dennett’s self-importance.
Giordano Bruno, with tenure at Tufts!
Best of all are some of the things he has to say about the New Atheists in a long conversation with Richard Wohlin, a distinguished intellectual historian at CUNY Graduate Center, recorded in 2010. I have embedded a video of this long, but highly stimulating conversation below (there is a handy index—the discussion of the New Atheists occurs in section #17).
Here are some of the highlights:
The problem with contemporary atheism, or with the New Atheism, is that it’s completely unphilosophical. It is a series of cultural, political, and media interventions. . . . None of the writers . . . go to any of the philosophical trouble that atheists used to go to, to try to actually demonstrate the falsity of the religious worldview. . . .
Cultural atheism or political atheism doesn’t interest me at all, because it doesn’t lay a glove on the problem. . . . I think the New Atheism is intellectually very shabby. . . .
For me, the most fundamental divide—the line that interests me about every thinker on these questions—is not: Are they religious or secular or theist or atheist? All I need to know is: Are they materialists or not? In other words, do you believe that a materialistic account of human life explain all of it, or do you not?
The conversation is not really focused on the New Atheists, but ranges much more widely. One of its highlights is a fascinating defense by Wieseltier of his mentor Isaiah Berlin’s interest in Romantic thinkers.
In the course of this defense, Wieseltier makes a very interesting distinction that is not unrelated to the one I made in this space a few weeks ago (“Two Kinds of Atheists“).
He says there are two kinds of rationalists. One is the shallow, doctrinaire, Voltairian sort of rationalist, who so despises what Wieseltier calls “unreason”—he just means the emotional, aesthetic, and mystical side of human nature—that he refuses to acknowledge it for fear of legitimizing it.
The other kind of rationalist—what he calls the “rationalist with night vision”—is drawn to exploring the nonrational roots of reason in the human soul. Wieseltier places Berlin in a line of rationalists with night vision, including Goethe, Freud, Thomas Mann, and Lionel Trilling.
Finally, he interestingly says that to be fascinated by orientations and worldviews in which one does not oneself believe is the “height of intellectual responsibility.”
By that criterion, Wieseltier is one of the most intellectually responsible critics I know.
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Here is the video of the conversation between Wieseltier and Richard Wohlin: