Friday, May 23, 2008

David Brooks and Tom Wolfe on Scientific Materialism

David Brooks had an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times last week that rose to the number one most emailed article, and currently sits at #8 on the most emailed in the last 30 days list. He leads off with this:
In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.

Brooks makes some interesting points, and some questionable points. I would rather quote from the "brilliant" essay by Tom Wolfe:

Ironically, said Nietzsche, this unflinching eye for truth, this zest for skepticism, is the legacy of Christianity (for complicated reasons that needn't detain us here). Then he added one final and perhaps ultimate piece of irony in a fragmentary passage in a notebook shortly before he lost his mind (to the late-nineteenth-century's great venereal scourge, syphilis). He predicted that eventually modern science would turn its juggernaut of skepticism upon itself, question the validity of its own foundations, tear them apart, and self-destruct. . . .

This, science's Ultimate Skepticism, has been spreading ever since then. Over the past two years even Darwinism, a sacred tenet among American scientists for the past seventy years, has been beset by...doubts. Scientists--not religiosi--notably the mathematician David Berlinski ("The Deniable Darwin," Commentary , June 1996) and the biochemist Michael Behe (Darwin's Black Box , 1996), have begun attacking Darwinism as a mere theory, not a scientific discovery, a theory woefully unsupported by fossil evidence and featuring, at the core of its logic, sheer mush. (Dennett and Dawkins, for whom Darwin is the Only Begotten, the Messiah, are already screaming. They're beside themselves, utterly apoplectic. Wilson, the giant, keeping his cool, has remained above the battle.) . . . .

Recently I happened to be talking to a prominent California geologist, and she told me: "When I first went into geology, we all thought that in science you create a solid layer of findings, through experiment and careful investigation, and then you add a second layer, like a second layer of bricks, all very carefully, and so on. Occasionally some adventurous scientist stacks the bricks up in towers, and these towers turn out to be insubstantial and they get torn down, and you proceed again with the careful layers. But we now realize that the very first layers aren't even resting on solid ground. They are balanced on bubbles, on concepts that are full of air, and those bubbles are being burst today, one after the other."

Brilliant. Scientists who do not understand philosophy, the philosophy of science and epistemology have very little intelligent to say these days on the topic of intelligent design. There seem to be many who fit that category, and who do realize how much their cherished theories rest on "bubbles" of assumptions about what we "know" and think we know.

As Daniel Dennett said:
Scientists sometimes deceive themselves into thinking that philosophical ideas are only, at best, decorations or parasitic commentaries on the hard, objective triumphs of science, and that they themselves are immune to the confusions that philosophers devote their lives to dissolving. But there is no such thing as philosophy-free science, there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination. Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995, p.21.