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An Interview with Curtis White

Big Science, Little Minds


Curtis White’s recently published The Science Delusion (Melville House, May 28, 2013) questions the modern faith in science as the “The Answer” to all questions of being, particularly in relation to the natural world, by exploring similar critiques made by philosophers, poets, painters and musicians of the Romantic era.  Their questioning of the wisdom of placing science over art, philosophy and other expressions of human experience was in response to the destruction of the natural environment, and oppression of human minds and bodies to the “inevitability” of economic growth, capitalism and the Industrial Revolution.  White’s criticism is directed at the unquestioned (and unquestionable?) march and expansion of corporate, military and government sponsored technologies that are necessary tools with which Power conducts the machinery “modern civilization,” while at the same time accelerating the speed at which modern civilization, and whatever life forms it harbors, tolerates, obliterates or ignores, propels itself toward extinction.

Adam Engel: In Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange (composed in a brilliant Huxley/Orwell/Nabokov “patois” of English and Russian) the mask worn by “Dim,” the most inarticulate and sadistic of Alex’s “droogs,”  is not the phallic clown-nose worn in Kubrick’s film based on the book, but a costume mask, heisted from a dime-store, modeled after the face “of an  dead old poetaster, name of Pee Bee Shelley,” during a spree of “ultra-violence.”

Behind the face of the most intellectually articulate of Romantics is the adolescent droog, a walking Id with a “barbaric heart.”

It seems that Big Science would prefer to “liberate” Alex with it’s drugs and electro-therapeutic mind-control, rather than risk losing him to the “Nature Boy” blathering of the philosophers and artists examined in The Science Delusion. 

Curtis White:  The question is: in a world of possible faces to put on a mask, why would Burgess pick Shelley? There’s also Alex’s love of Beethoven, of course. What is Burgess saying about Romanticism? In the film, Alex’s fondness for Beethoven is presented as a saving virtue. Beethoven is the world that Alex would live in if he could. Alex-the-Droogie is, in Adorno’s word, “damaged.” In Adorno’s view, Alex is typical of all modern art: a literalization of the violence (or ultra-violence) that has been done to him by the experts and by family (as the Ramones sang, “We’re a happy family, me, Mom, and Dad”). The Romantic is what Alex would be if he hadn’t been fucked over by technocracy. He is, in a word, alienated, but he has no faith in utopian countercultures as the Romantics did. Instead, like the punks, he chooses to act out his mutilation.

The idea that the solution to Alex-as-a-problem is more technology is our idea of a joke. And yet here we are in this year of our lord 2013 fiddling with the DSM, trying desperately to restrict mental illness to physiology, and offering only the pharmacopoeia of psychoactive drugs for consolation. Psychiatry does not ask Paul Goodman’s question: what are the effects on humans of growing up into a world where there is no meaningful work and no tolerance for those who would create their own projects? Alex is an effect of growing up absurd.

Marx once wrote of “natural children,” what we’d be like without the distortions of capitalist power. For Alex, Beethoven is a natural child, although he has no idea what to do with that insight. My assumption is that there is no return to the natural child, just as Alex knows. So, what is the way forward? For the Romantics, the way forward was not to confront power through socialist revolution but to drift away into art and the creation of counter-worlds. At its best, that is what the ’60s were about. That’s why the words scribbled on the walls of the Sorbonne in May ’68 were: “Imagination is taking over.”

In a sense, that’s what Alex is doing anyway. The costumes, the masks, the elaborately invented language: he’s creating a counterculture. But, like punk, it is a counterculture without hope. It does not present a plausible alternative (as hippies tried) but says, “Am I dead? Then I will be more dead than death.”

AE: It seems important to point out, especially given the (deliberate?) misreadings by several “mainstream” critics, that The Science Delusion is not a criticism of “scientific method,” per se, so much as a condemnation of corporate, government and military misuse and abuse of this method, culminating in “Big Science” and its many subsidiaries including “Big Pharma,” “Big Chemistry” etc.  sciencedShelley was an “amateur” chemist, Goethe studied and wrote treatises on light and color.  But I’m sure Shelley would have been as appalled at Monsanto as Goethe would have been at the use of infra-red light, lasers, etc. for military targeting and surveillance.  Even Newton, despite Blake’s criticisms of his “cold vision” would have trembled at the thought of living, as all of humanity has since 1945, with the “Bomb of Damocles” dangling above our heads.

WHITE: I have no problem with the scientific method so long as its limitations are acknowledged, which they mostly are not by science ideologues. Unfortunately, even the best scientists have a little of this nagging ideologue, like a little devil on their shoulder, insisting on the superiority of scientific knowledge. I don’t know if this has mostly to do with the way in which scientists are trained or native arrogance or mere dishonesty.

Scientists are not sufficiently articulate about and do not seem to me sufficiently serious about the perilous problems presented by the unsolved riddle of confirmation. What does it mean to confirm scientific knowledge? Should the goal of science be to provide access to the real hidden structure of reality? Or should it limit itself to mathematically mediated probability? Or should it be satisfied with practicality, with what works? Does confirmation mean that something is true? That it’s probable? That it’s useful? Depending on the situation, science seems to adopt all of these postures without ever reconciling them. In other words, there is no one approach to scientific explanation.

All cutting edge physics, in fact all physics since Newton made it dependent upon calculus, is vulnerable to the disease of infinities. Calculus explains circles, ellipses, and other complex shapes by finding ways of treating them as if they were an infinity of short lines. There is a fundamental incommensurability between a flowing reality and the squaring function of math (as in quadratic equations). As Tony Rothman argues in Doubt and Certainty, the math equation for the Black-Scholes model for stock trading is identical to the equation for how a particle moves through a liquid or gas, but in the real world there is a difference between stocks and particle movement.

In other words, Newtonian trajectories are a mathematical idealization. They do not exist. And if Newtonian predictions about the movements of things as large as astral bodies are idealizations, what can be said about quanta or strings or the branes strings are said to attach to? These things have no experiential presence at all. These things are only numbers.

I suspect that science fears that if it were more honest (and humble) about such matters it would lose its social authority. They don’t want that and the people who employee them, the government and corporations, do not want that. So we’re fed what Isaiah Berlin called the jigsaw puzzle explanation of science: we’re making progress, putting together one piece at a time, and eventually we’ll get to a complete understanding of reality.

Meanwhile, science makes itself complicit in the discovery and deployment of all the modern horrors that we know too well, nuclear war still at the top of the list. But we might as well also ask who made the technology available that is day after day creating climate change? Poets?

AE: One theme reiterated throughout The Science Delusion, specifically as it relates to Kant, and later Schelling, is the basic attempt to define  “what is real?”  Is there a fundamental principle of reality that precedes the knowledge we gather from experience?  Schopenhauer suggests that since all science is related to representation, comparing the relative value of one perceived ‘reality’ with another this method of inquiry can only go so far.  Similarly, the work of Amit Goswami, the physicist who wrote a basic textbook used by first-year college physics students, proves, through certain lab experiments, that the materialist notion of reality is not always compatible with quantum theory, that there are certain realities that, though they demonstrably exist, cannot be seen or known to us through the  scientific method. Goswami’s experiments have been repeated, with similar results, throughout the world, as featured in the documentary, The Quantum Activist. This has made him somewhat less sought after, as he had previously been, at academic cocktail parties.

WHITE: Science ideologues tell us certain things about science. It is empirical. It is rational. It is mechanistic. This makes hash of the history of philosophy. David Hume’s empiricism was an attack on Cartesian rationalism and it was an attack on mechanism. Philosophical empiricism begins with skepticism not certainty. The kind of philosophy practiced by scientism is based on the naive assumption that these three ways of thinking work seamlessly together. Their use of these terms is incredibly loose. Their public posture is: “We’re empirical, we’re rational, we know how things work,” but they never think that it is important to say what they mean by any of these words. That’s why I come down so hard on Christopher Hitchens. He’ll say that religion “outrages reason” without thinking that he needs to say how he’s using the term “reason.” At that point you are dealing with a kind of dogma that makes believing in the Trinity seem innocent. At least Trinitarians are not gene splicing our food and are not “handmaidens of barbarity” (Chris Hedges) providing the science behind instruments of war and climate destruction.

My sense of the ultimate principle of reality is that there is a mutual dependence of being with consciousness. And consciousness is inseparable from language or symbolic systems like math or music. How exactly this is the case is beyond saying. And yet when someone like Goswami makes the mistake of saying exactly that–consciousness and physics are one–he is turned into a pariah. Goswami is more mystical than I like, but he is still making a very important point.

Buddhism argues that reality is a matter of “dependent co-origination.” We say there are galaxies, but there is no galaxy, there is only a co-dependent arrangement of things that are not galaxies. You can follow this all the way down to the atom. Are there atoms? Or are there co-dependent arrangements of sub-atomic particles held together by a force? But what is force? This game goes on perhaps infinitely as string theorists are now suggesting.

AE: Goethe was as “legitimate” a scientist, giving the limitations of the technology at the time, as any working “professional.” Keats was a medical student, a “man of science” – in theory. Both might agree with Beethoven, Schelling, Kant and all the “humanities” figures in Science Delusion, including Bob Dylan, that music and poetry are humanity’s fundamental forms of expression and the most powerful tools, more powerful than science, used by humanity in its quest to know itself in relation to the universe outside (and within) it. Do you believe this is so?

WHITE: As for Keats, he went kicking and screaming to medical school and basically hated the whole ordeal, especially the cadavers, as I recall. Is art more powerful than science? I wouldn’t want to argue that. At heart I’m a Nietzschean. I’m for whatever leads toward vitality, life, freedom. Both art and science can be practiced ideologically and when they are they are the enemy. Of course, we could always make a distinction between real art/real science and the “culture industry.” At times that’s a very useful distinction. At their best, both art and science are an expression of openness to possibility. Both are forms of play. But science has always had this compromising relationship to money and power in large part because money/power is the only thing willing to pay for science’s very considerable bills. But at what a cost: war, environmental destruction, social regimentation. On the whole, science operates in very bad faith because it will not honestly acknowledge this aspect of its work.

AE: Eric Banks, Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University in a somewhat  supercilious  review of The Science Delusion for the New York Times, wrote something so asinine, so naive, that it begs to be addressed, if not outright skewered and lampooned. 

He wrote of  “angry” Curtis White’s  observations, “You might wonder what the ‘ever-enlarging world of neuroscience’ has to do with the marketing of creativity as a lifestyle — I know I do.” 

That’s like saying, “You might wonder what the ‘ever-enlarging world of high-tech surveillance and psychotropic pharmaceuticals’ has to do with the expansion of the CIA/NSA Intelligence Complex  — I know I do.”

Do you think this is a case of the self-delusion Chomsky and Herman wrote of in Manufacturing Consent, i.e. the ability of those in power to believe their own bull-shit, or a deliberate, politically motivated attempt to bash the book, regardless of its merits and/or failings?

If Science Delusion’s critique of the politics, economics and deliberate mystification of Big Science can provoke such a reaction from a Director of a major university’s “Institute for the Humanities,” what does that say? 

What, ultimately, were you going for in writing this book? Big Science and Academia alone, or a larger, even more formidable fish in whose belly they both comfortably reside?

WHITE: What I think I’m looking at in the book, and seeing in reviews of it, is ideologically motivated dishonesty. I can’t say how Professor Banks understands his place in the social order, but I can say that his approach to my book is not an honest one. He has next to nothing to say about that half of the book devoted to showing how Romanticism lives on in the present. And it is difficult for me to imagine that he entirely missed the irony and humor in the book. It’s as if the culture has forgotten how to read satire. My style, which I suspect I take from Marx and Nietzsche, is to describe the problem, analyze it, propose reasons to prefer an alternative way of understanding the problem, then conclude with scorn for the naked dishonesty of my subjects. I mock them. I satirize them. But critics like Banks only say, “Another angry man, very unpleasant, don’t read this book.” I have contempt for that kind of review. They blame me for creating “straw men” while making an extended straw man attack against me, reducing me to my anger.

Well, I’m not angry, or not merely angry. I’m like William Blake: honestly indignant.

It also feels like a problem that has always plagued the left and apparently also plagues the humanities: the “narcissism of petty differences.” Banks thinks the problem I address is real and someone should criticize it, but not me. He doesn’t like my “style.” I’m sure he thinks he could do a better job of it if he had the time to sit down with his laptop over Christmas break. The scientists who have commented on the book have done so with the usual solidarity shown by conservatives (even though most of them fancy themselves to be social liberals). You’d think a person in the humanities, like good Professor Banks, would be glad that someone is speaking up for the tradition of the arts. Treason of the clerics, indeed.

CURTIS WHITE is the author of the novels of Memories of My Father Watching TV and Requiem. A widely acclaimed essayist, he has had work appear in Jacobin, Harper’s Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, Orion, and Playboy. His book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves was an international bestseller in 2003.

Adam Engel possesses a name whose value spans several dominions. Owner of “adamengel.com,” “adamengel.org” and soon to consolidate his monopoly of the “adamengel” brand through purchase of adamengel.edu, and adamengel.us and perhaps other as yet unchartered domains, he is uniquely situated to shake down the numerous other “adam engels” out in cyber-space for heap wampum if they ever expect to to reap the rewards of their tags. Who’s laughing now?