If his new book, The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers (Melville House, 224 pages, $24), is any guide, Curtis White has the same nightmare every night: Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and Christopher Hitchens are sitting in a room, kicking back with cigars and expensive wine, toasting science’s final triumph over the last realms of human endeavor. Art, the humanities, philosophy—all conquered!
As neuroscience maps the parts of the brain where creativity and consciousness originate, it becomes tempting for scientists to take over the province of literature and art. Curtis White, an English professor at Illinois State University, is fiercely guarding his turf, mocking the past decade’s very successful pop-science books, such as Dawkins’ The God Delusion.
White, an atheist like the scientists whose arguments he critiques, is worried that science, triumphant over its old enemy religion, has turned its soulless eye to the humanities—reducing thoughts and emotions to a series of chemical reactions in the crisscrossing wires of brain tissue. White likes to refer to the “genius” in an artist or scientist, and makes frequent reference to muses.
But for White, the problem isn’t just that science is tone-deaf to what makes us human. He spends a large chunk of the book discussing how science is all too comfortable cozying up to the forces of “social regimentation, economic exploitation, environmental destruction and industrial militarism.” Science, he says, has been usurped by “oligarchs” wanting to use it to make weapons and cling to power. These same corporate forces are codifying what “good art” is, and how it can be used to make them more money.
White’s prose is fluid and often enjoyable. He mixes in references to Bob Dylan smoking pot, Kafka and James Joyce while refuting (or ranting about) scientific claims. White clearly knows his stuff when it comes to classic literature, and offers an interesting sidebar on the development of Romanticism.
But White’s overall case remains unconvincing. He does effectively point out flaws in the reasonings of the scientists he critiques, but ends up resorting to the same kinds of polemic attacks he decries, issuing mostly unsubstantiated doom and gloom about how science and money are killing the arts. And besides, if we’re to believe every depressed (and terribly misunderstood) teenager, since maybe ever, isn’t apocalyptic gloom the stuff of the greatest art?
GO: Curtis White reads at Powell’s City of Books on Burnside, 1005 W Burnside St., 878-7323, on Wednesday, Aug. 7. 7:30 pm. Free.