Pictures of the World – Between Method and Zeitgeist?

by Imraan

“One of the most disagreeable present consequences of the failure to understand what method is, and hence what the limits of any method must be, is our current fashion in respectable pseudo-science. Every scientific epoch has been hospitable to charlatanry and hermetic nonsense, admittedly; but these days our shared faith in the limitless power of scientific method has become so pervasive and irrational that, as a culture, we have become shamefully tolerant of all those lush efflorescences of wild conjecture that grow up continuously at the margins of the hard sciences and thrive on a stolen credibility. This is especially true at the fertile purlieus of Darwinian theory, which enjoys the unfortunate distinction of being the school of scientific thought most regularly invoked to justify spurious theories about precisely everything. Evolutionary biology, properly speaking, concerns the development of physical organisms by way of replication, random mutation, and natural selection, and nothing else. The further the tropes of Darwinian theory drift from this very precise field of inquiry, the more willfully speculative, metaphysically unmoored, and empirically useless they become. Yet texts purporting to provide Darwinian explanations of phenomena it has no demonstrable power to describe pour in ceaseless torrents from the presses and inexhaustible wellsprings of the Internet. There are now even whole academic disciplines, like evolutionary psychology, that promote themselves as forms of science but that are little more than morasses of metaphor. (Evolutionary psychologists often become quite indignant when one says this, but a ‘science’ that can explain every possible form of human behavior and organization, however universal or idiosyncratic, and no matter how contradictory of other behaviors, as some kind of practical evolutionary adaptation of the modular brain, clearly has nothing to offer but fabulous narratives – Just So Stories, as it were – disguised as scientific propositions.) As for the even more daringly speculative application of Darwinian language to spheres entirely beyond the physiological, like economics, politics, ethics, social organization, religion, aesthetics, and so on, it may seem a plausible practice at first glance, and it has quite in keeping with our cultural intuition that evolutionary imperatives somehow lie at the origin of everything (an intuition, incidentally, impossible to prove either as a premise or as a conclusion), but it is a purely analogical, not empirical, approach to things: pictoral, not analytic. It produces only theories that are neither true nor false, entertainingly novel metaphors, some more winsome folklore to add to the charming mythopoeia of materialism; and there is no way in which it could ever do any more than this. As soon as one moves from the realm of physiological processes to that of human consciousness and culture, one has taken leave of the world where evolutionary language can be tested or controlled. There are no longer any physical interactions and replications to be measured, and no discrete units of selection that can be identified (assuming one is not so gullible as to take the logically incoherent and empirically vacuous concept of ‘memes’ seriously). Even if one believes that human consciousness and culture are the results solely of evolutionary forces, one still cannot prove that they function only in a Darwinian fashion, and any attempt to do so soon dissolves into a rosy mist of picturesque similes.

“No doubt it says something about the extraordinarily high esteem in which the sciences are held today, after so many remarkable advances over so sustained a period, that there is scarcely a field of inquiry in the academic world that would not like a share of their glamor. It also goes some way toward explaining the propensity of some in the sciences to imagine that their disciplines endow them with a sort of miraculous aptitude for making significant pronouncements in fields in which they actually have received no tutelage. It is perfectly understandable, for example, but also painfully embarrassing, when Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow casually and pompously declare that philosophy is dead (as they recently have). They might even conceivably be right, but they certainly would not be competent to know if they are (as the fairly elementary philosophical errors in their book show). Every bit as silly are the pronouncements of, say, Richard Feynman or Steven Weinberg regarding the apparent “meaninglessness” of the universe revealed by modern physics (as if any purely physical inventory of reality could possibly have anything to tell us about the meaning of things). High accomplishment in one field – even genius in that field – does not necessarily translate into so much as the barest competence in any other. There is no such thing, at least among finite minds, as intelligence at large; no mind not constrained by its own special proficiencies and formation, no privileged vantage that allows any of us a comprehensive insight into the essence of all things, no expertise or wealth of experience that endows any of us with the wisdom or power to judge what we do not have the training or perhaps the temperament to understand. To imagine otherwise is a delusion, no less in the case of a physicist that in the case of a barber – more so, perhaps, as the barber, not having been indoctrinated with the very peremptory professional dogmas regarding the nature of reality, would no doubt be far easier to disabuse of his confidence of the limitless capacities of tonsorial method.”

David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss (Yale, New Haven: 2013), pp 72-74. Okay it has been a while since I’ve had to cite anything properly, but that ought to suffice, one hopes! Typos are most-definitely mine.