The Case Against Reason

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 10:20 AM

The Case Against Reason

Curtis White argues that science isn’t the only way of looking at the world.

(Continued from Page 1)

“Oh! Art! We must save it!” she says.
“Really? Why?” I ask.
“Well! Because it’s so beautiful, of course!”
“Can you please stop talking with exclamation marks? You’re as bad as a Tea-bagger going on about the federal deficit.”
“Sorry! If not because it’s beautiful, then because our children ought to learn to be creative.”
“Because that’s nice, don’t you think? Are you trying to confuse me?”
If you have a bullshit detector, these “reasons” should set it off, even if you also think, “Oh, let her say what she likes, the moron, since it’s in my interest. ...” 

The readings are pretty high on the old bullshit detector here all right, but not for the reasons White wants to suggest. There are surely more effective ways to discredit a real set of assumptions than having an imagined moron coolly interrogated by an imagined Curtis White. But he does this kind of thing again and again; the book is so filled with reductive imaginings of ideas that are already sufficiently weak in their actual form that the whole enterprise seems in danger of becoming a Million Straw Man March on the citadel of scientism.

Author Curtis White.
Author Curtis White.

Courtesy of Melville House

There’s certainly a very real need to march on that citadel, because the idea that there can be only one kind of truth has to be deeply damaging to the intellectual development of a culture. You don’t have to devalue empiricism to believe that there are kinds of understanding that can’t be accessed in a controlled, peer-reviewed experiment. The problem, obviously, isn’t science; it’s the arrogance with which many scientists, and popularizers of science, dismiss the value of other ways of thinking about questions of meaning, about the world and our place in it. Lehrer, say, wants us to believe that, because neurologists can demonstrate how Observable Phenomenon X was happening in Part Y of Bob Dylan’s brain when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone,” science can therefore “explain” the human capacity for creativity or imagination. This is like saying that the song itself is best appreciated by putting it on your stereo and then mapping the sound waves it creates. It doesn’t really tell us anything useful, or usefully true. But this is the kind of truth in which scientism, and the culture that accommodates it, puts most stock.


I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life in the academic study of English literature and, for me, there is no more painful—and painfully obvious—proof of the intellectual hegemony of science than how the disciplines of the humanities have been forced to adopt a language of empiricism in order to talk about their own value. If you want to do a Ph.D. on, say, the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, you will need to be able to talk about what you’re doing as though it were a kind of science. What you’re doing is “research,” and that research has to be pursued through the use of some or other “methodology.” In order to get funding for that research, you’ll need to establish how it will advance the existing body of knowledge on Bishop’s poetry, and how it will “impact” upon the wider public sphere. The study of the humanities, in other words, very often has to present itself as a kind of minor subsidiary of science.

This is just one, fairly specific, form of the devaluation of the humanities in an efficiency economy. Scientism is essentially the belief, the faith, that all problems and questions are potentially soluble by empirical investigation (and that if they’re not, they’re somehow not real questions, not real problems). But there are large areas of human experience for which science has no convincing or compelling means of accounting. I am, I suppose, more or less an atheist, but when I read the Book of Genesis, I find that there is something profoundly true about the picture of human nature in those verses—a picture of our perversity and self-alienation that neuroscience, for instance, has no way of getting at or talking about. Schopenhauer, Freud, and Heidegger all give us comparable forms of truth—truths that aren’t verifiable or measurable in the same way as those of science, but that are no less valuable. The most important truths are often untranslatable into the language of fact.