The Jurisdiction of Science

By Mark A. Signorelli for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Somerset, NJ. In the second half of their book What Darwin Got Wrong, authors Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmerini critique the theory of natural selection from a conceptual standpoint, arguing that the theory fails to satisfy the criteria of a scientific law, especially, in its failure to support counterfactual statements, and that therefore “there isn’t any theory of evolution.”  I am not interested here in weighing the merits of their argument; I think it has much to say for it, and some things to say against it.  But the response from the evolutionary crowd has been unambiguous; these people hated it, and have seized every opportunity available to them to express their disgust in print.  Nearly everyone of their reviews included the assertion, somewhere among the vitriol, that Fodor (in particular) should not be writing on the topic of evolutionary theory because he is, after all, a mere philosopher, and evolutionary theory is a matter for evolutionary biologists to consider.

This assertion should seem remarkable to any sensible person, since, as I indicated, what Fodor was doing was examining the conceptual coherence of a theory which purports to have a very broad application to human and non-human nature.  It may come as news to those in the Darwinian camp, but that is actually what philosophers do for a living.  Pursuing conceptual rigor, and exposing its absence, is one way of defining the philosopher’s craft.  So simply as a matter of academic credentials, no one could be more suited for the work that Fodor was doing than someone who possessed, like him, a philosophical training.  Whether one ultimately agreed with his conclusions, no reasonable person could doubt his professional right to examine the coherence of the theory of natural selection.  And yet every Darwinian did object to his doing so.

Of course, Fodor is not the first author to be on the receiving end of this “argument from professional jurisdiction.”  This is the first rhetorical tick of any Darwinian when their theories are challenged; instantly, they complain that the critic has not properly understood evolutionary theory, and loudly lament the intrusion of the unscientific mind upon such topics.  They warn us of the complexity and depth of scientific research, and remind us of the dark eras of superstition when scientists were subject to the censure of the unknowing.  Almost everyone of their polemical endeavors resorts to such arguments at some point.  They have been remarkably successful too, since Darwinian theory comes in for far less criticism than such a paltry and popular system deserves, and this can only be explained by an undue deference on the part of the general public.

What is so nakedly hypocritical about this tactic is that, in fact, the Darwinians have no general objections to non-scientists writing about their theories.  To the contrary, among the leading figures in the movement to extend evolutionary explanations to a variety of academic disciplines – literature and the arts and ethical philosophy, among others – are journalists, English professors, and other similarly unscientifically credentialed individuals.  Their books are received by the Darwinians ranks with varying levels of acclaim.  Their qualifications to publicly pronounce on the significance of evolutionary theory are never called into question, though some of them display an ignorance of the topic as thorough as could be imagined.  For instance, in his quite popular account of “Darwinian aesthetics,” Denis Dutton declares that “paradoxically, it is evolution – most significantly, the evolution of imagination and intellect – that enables us to transcend even our animal selves,” though any intelligent person who has read and understood evolutionary theory knows perfectly well that there is absolutely no warrant for claiming that theory as the grounds for any conception of transcendence; rather, the whole point of the theory is to demonstrate how the ultimate directedness of all man’s faculties reduce to the same level of survival and reproduction.  Yet such a gross misapprehension of evolutionary theory prompted no outrage from the minatory Darwinists.  Their only criteria for whether or not an author understands their ideas is whether or not an author agrees with their ideas.  They have no objections to non-scientists writing on evolutionary topics, so long as they do so in the proper spirit of submissiveness and adulation.

Yet if evolutionary theory does have broad consequences for the study of ethics or the study of the arts – as we have been told with greater and greater frequency of late – then it is a theory which may be fairly considered, and fairly criticized, by scholars in the fields of ethical philosophy or literary criticism.  This should be a perfectly uncontroversial matter.  To maintain that evolutionary theory needs to be taken seriously by humanist scholars, while simultaneously forbidding those same scholars, under penalty of the severest invective, to weigh the rational substance of evolutionary theory, is a piece of impudence so raw and ridiculous that it could only be performed in this most outlandish of ages.  Whatever absurdities were perpetrated in the past by Freudian and Marxist theorists, they never retorted to objections towards their ideological reading of texts by saying, “you are no psychologist,” or “you are no economist.”  If the Darwinians wish their theory to be taken seriously outside the laboratories of the biology departments, then they simply must accept the fact that it has become a fair subject of refutation to the entirety of the educated community.

And to say that the Darwinians wish their theory to be taken seriously outside of the scientific community is an understatement of the most dramatic proportions.  The most cursory examination of their literature reveals their conviction that evolutionary theory is the theory of ultimate explanation, the final reference for all claims of human origins and human purposefulness.  As Michael Ruse has proudly proclaimed, “evolution has always been more than just a scientific theory – it has ever been a philosophy, a metaphysics, a Weltanschauung, a secular religion (not so secular at times), even indeed an eschatology.”  Well, eschatologies are not scientific theories.  When Richard Dawkins begins his most famous book by asserting that Darwin was the first man to uncover “the reason for (man’s) own existence,” he is not making a biological claim.  When Daniel Dennett concludes his apologia for Darwinism by asserting that the theory of natural selection “transforms” all values, he is not offering a hypothesis that can be confirmed by experimental data.  When author after author in the Darwinian camp purports to explain away all theological knowledge from evolutionary premises, they are not doing anything that bears to least resemblance to scientific methodology.

By any account, such speculations amount to ethical, metaphysical, even cosmological claims, and such claims need to be subjected to the same dialectical review as any other such claims.  One cannot earn exemption from such critical strictures merely by waving one’s hands around, and repeatedly hollering, “I am a scientist!  I am a scientist!”  The question is simply, what sort of intellect is best qualified to weigh the competing merits of discrepant moral or religious claims?  And a preliminary response to that question must acknowledge that a mind becomes qualified to weigh such claims by thinking often about such claims – by reading deeply in the relevant philosophical literature, and reflecting incessantly on the mass of complexities implicated in every such argument.  There are no academic credentials that qualify a person for this labor, and the fact is that a very distinct majority of our contemporary professoriate, in all disciplines, do lack the proper training to competently perform this work.  As tautological as it may sound, they are best qualified to deliberate the truth or falsity of large philosophical claims who can best speak on the truth or falsity of large philosophical claims.  It is an intrinsic qualification that is relevant.  It is a certain kind of intellectual formation that constitutes the authentic title to admittance into the arena of metaphysical and cosmological debate.  And as soon as we realize this, we realize too that the program of study which least endows a man with the requisite mental attributes for these inquiries is the scientific program of study.  As scandalous as it will sound to so many of our contemporaries, the type of thinker least qualified to handle the sorts of broad speculative issues that the Darwinians are constantly agitating is the scientist.

It was Jose Ortega y Gasset, in his invaluable work The Revolt of the Masses, who best described the shortcomings of the scientific mind, and the effects on thought and politics which were likely to follow by ceding a cultural primacy to such a mentality.  For Ortega y Gasset, what characterizes the modern world most distinctively is the rise of the “mass man,” the unqualified person, to a leading role in the affairs of the time: “the characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.”  The man of science, in his mediocrity, is a “prototype of the mass-man,” because the nature of his work requires no special talents: “a fair amount of the things that have to be done in physics or in biology is mechanical work of the mind which can be done by anyone, or almost anyone;” as a consequence, “experimental science has progressed thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre.”

The scientist is essentially a specialist, a man who has acquired deep learning in one particular line, without so much as casting his eyes on any other discipline; he “’knows’ very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest.” Despite his mediocrity, then, the scientist regards himself as one in the know, because of his mastery of one field of inquiry, and behaves with all the self-assurance of one in the know:

Previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other.  But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories.  He is not learned, for his is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his specialty, but neither is he ignorant, because he is “a scientist,” and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe.  We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.

As a result of his own intellectual self-satisfaction, the scientist asserts his opinions over the whole range of human endeavor, with absolutely catastrophic consequences:

Such in fact is the behavior of the specialist,  In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man, but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of – this is the paradox – specialists in those matters.  By specializing him, civilization has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations, but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty…Anyone who wishes can observe the stupidity of thought, judgment, and action shown today in politics, art, religion, and the general problems of life and the world by the “men of science,” and of course, behind them, the doctors, engineers, financiers, teachers, and so on.  The state of “not listening,” of not submitting to higher courts of appeal which I have repeatedly put forward as characteristic of the mass man, reaches its height precisely in these partially qualified men.  They symbolize, and to a great extent constitute, the actual domination of the masses, and their barbarism is the most immediate cause of European demoralization.

Reading these passages, it is impossible to chase from one’s mind the image of a Dawkins or an E.O. Wilson.  When Wilson, after a lifetime spent collecting bugs, begins churning out book after book filled with the most superficial and uninformed observations on religion and ethics, what else is he betraying except that “very inner feeling of dominance and worth (which) will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty?”  When Dawkins responds to the critics of his infantile theological reflections by denying that theology is a real subject, what else is he doing except refusing to admit of specialists in any matters but science?

And as for “stupidity of thought, judgment, and action shown today in politics, art, religion, and the general problems of life and the world by the “men of science,” anywhere we look in a Darwinian book, we will find evidence of this.  Like memes.  Or reciprocal altruism.  Or non-teleological purposes.  Or the notion that my second cousin has a one in sixteen chance of sacrificing his life for me.  Or the belief that preferences in landscape painting are a consequence of early hominid migration patterns.  And so on, and on and on.  Is it for the men who have recklessly and ignorantly offered up such conjectures to inform the rest of us about the proper limits of our theorizing?  Are we now to defer to the porcine minds which are content to wallow in the muck of these nonsensical dogmas?  In the end, it is only our final theories about ourselves and our universe that matter; are we supposed to extend the privilege of propounding those theories to persons whose profoundest speculations resolve at last into such insipid crap?

The fact that our intellectual climate is such that so many merely scientific thinkers so consistently and so brazenly offer up their lame insights on the most momentous of topics does indeed constitute an essential aspect of our present barbarism.  The attempt to understand the entirety of human existence in biological terms has less of philosophical seriousness about it, and more of professional pride. We would find ourselves in a very nearly analogous situation if a conclave of plumbers began writing books, asserting that water was the essential element in all nature, that our thoughts could best be understood as so many conduits to our actions, and that society itself is nothing other than a complex structure of pipes, aqueducts, and irrigatory canals, sending and receiving every life-giving benefit.  Such a mode of philosophizing might be enjoyable for a while, but it could never be persuasive, and it could never be right.  In both cases, we would recognize that the hard labor of authentic thought was being replaced by the facile application of a vocational jargon.  In both cases, we would conclude that a form of knowledge, immensely valuable in its own sphere, had been distorted and falsified, by being rashly extended far beyond that sphere.

And this is why the Darwinians so constantly complain about hostile foreigners intruding into their sovereign territory of biology: in order to distract us from the reality of their own imperial ambitions.  There is one enormous fact about the contemporary intellectual scene, and it is not the fact that non-scientists are relentlessly asserting their opinions on scientific questions; it is the fact that many scientists are now in the incurable habit of relentlessly asserting their opinions – their very dopey opinions – on a range of philosophical and cultural issues.  And this is a situation that is infinitely more perilous and revolting than if the opposite were the case, because it means that those persons who, by trade and by training, are least competent to judge mankind’s most momentous questions are precisely the ones who are more and more commonly doing just that.  We should not be distracted from this terrible reality by the Darwinians incessant howling about the rest of us critiquing their opinions; rather, we should recognize their noise for the rhetorical feint that it is, but one more tawdry polemical maneuver utilized by the proponents of an ideology that is false, ignorant, and dishonest to its core.

Mark Anthony Signorelli is a poet, playwright, and essayist.  He currently serves as Contributing Editor for The New English Review.

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