Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Has man been diminished by the modern mechanistic world view?

In an earlier post, I made the tongue-in-cheek observation that Jeffrey Shallit at Recursivity could not, in critiquing Rebecca Bynum at The New English Review from a materialist reductionist perspective, logically expect anyone else to derive any meaning from his critique since, from the perspective of his reductionist materialism, all his words are are collections of pixels on a computer screen.

Art, a frequent commenter on this blog and a science professor at the University of Kentucky, appeared not to get the jist of this at all and tried to argue that, in disagreeing with Shallit's attempted refutation of Bynum, I was somehow committing myself to the soundness of Bynum's arguments in her article, an article which I had not read and on which I was not making a comment. I simply pointed out to Art that the disagreement with a critique of something is not an automatic affirmation of whatever it was a critique of--an obvious truth which Art didn't seem to understand either.

Well, now I have read Bynum's article and I'll say for what it's worth that I think it is quite good. Bynum argues, in the article tited "The Progressive Diminishment of Man," against what Arthur Koestler has called the "Ratomorphic Fallacy": the idea that studying man as one would study any other natural thing, he becomes, by virtue of that scientific act, just a natural thing. I have pointed out elsewhere the self-defeating nature of this procedure, since the one doing the observing is diminished to the extent that man in general is diminished, throwing the whole project into doubt and inconsistency.

Art's chief argument against Bynum is that--through intellectual carelessness or simply a typo--she got the chemical composition of water mixed up in an illustration of one of her points, indicating that water was made up of one hydrogen and two oxygen atoms rather than two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. He seems to think that this one error somehow calls her entire argument into question. This is sort of like saying that if a scientist, in trying to illustrate a scientific point using a literary analogy and got Rosencrantz mixed up with Guildenstern his whole scientific case would crumble, which, let's face it, is just silly.

Bynum's case is a philosophical, not a scientific one. But when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And Art--like Shallit--seems to think that the scientific manner of analysis is the only legitimate one, and can't seem to get past the chemical composition of water.

Bynum simply points out that the kind of scientific rationalism of which Art and Shallit are proud practitioners has displaced a real humanistic view of the world:
In the space of a few short generations, man has descended from seeing himself as a little less than the angels to king of the beasts to nothing more than a complex machine. The effect this has had on culture, on art and literature, has been devastating. For as the essential importance of man has decreased, so has his ability to portray life in anything other than absurd terms. In literature the concept of tragedy, which once hinged on the idea that the individual loss of freedom was of tragic proportions, has been all but lost. In Shakespearean tragedy, for example, a character flaw often compelled the central character to follow a predictable, tragic fate. But even in Shakespeare the idea of the hero, so prominent in Greek tragedy, was already diminished. Satire remained, of course, and continued from Pope through Byron. Then, in the 19th Century, we witnessed the rise of the psychological novel which then waned as the anti-hero rose to dominance. Today, literature has been reduced to a prolonged and tedious exploration of the aberrant. The hero has long been vanquished, with the exception of children’s comic books, because man no longer sees himself in a great spiritual struggle with eternal stakes. Even that last bastion of heroism, the military, has reduced the description of its mission to nothing more than a “job.” Indeed, the importance of human life has been so reduced that certain philosophers argue, with dead seriousness, that it is actually immoral to prefer human life over than the life of an animal.
Not only is this true, it's so obvious I'm trying to conceive what the argument against it could be. So what is Art's response?
It's a collection of unsupported assertions, plainly stupid statements, and a vague defense of vitalism as a valid description of reality.

... On the bright side, Bynum's world view is but a short hop, skip, and jump from the sorts of relativistic thinking that ID proponents embrace.
Vitalism? Bynum's argument is a fairly standard articulation of classical literary humanism. It operates on an organic metaphor of how the universe works, which is common to any classical view of the world. That is, of course, in contrast to the mechanical analogy upon which modern scientism operates. If Art thinks the mechanistic metaphor better captures what the world is than the organic metaphor, then he should argue for it. Just calling the other view stupid is fairly typical of those of his viewpoint, but it isn't very convincing.

Relativistic? That Art--and Shallit--can't even recognize the type of thing they are criticizing is a measure of the intellectual impoverishment they represent. Exactly what is relativistic about it? Art doesn't say. Apparently the process of taking Bynum's essay and analyzing with his laboratory instruments hasn't yielded much in the way of understanding.

I guess Ludwig Wittgenstein, who she quotes concerning the limitation of the scientistic world view, is just an ignorant hack too, huh?

Now of course Art believes that if you disagree with someone, then you must agree with everyone who disagrees with him, and must accept all his beliefs. I guess we can put Art down as believing, with Darwin, that thoughts are just secretions of the brain, and that organic creatures are just complex machines, and that the one discipline of science contains all truth.

Materialists inhabit a very small world indeed.


Lee said...

Materialists want it both ways. They behave as if they believe in the higher truths just like us superstitious Christians. The world has meaning. Their thoughts have meaning. Logic and order has meaning. Some things are just and right. But none of this follows from the materialist view. If man is only a collection of molecules, logic and morality are less than man, not greater -- just minute bubbles and sparks in someone's brain.

Paul said faith is the belief in things unseen. The materialist has an unacknowledged faith that, even though he cannot explain logic and morality if they are mere byproducts of brain chemistry, they still mean something. They, of all people, ought to avoid any talk of right, wrong, ought tos, correct thinking, etc. But the faith instinct is strong, and they're not immune to it either. To me, they are like someone using vast amounts of air to proclaim that air doesn't exist. Because God created the universe to behave in an orderly manner, where logic helps us to discern its meaning, where morality exists as a reflection of his character, they are there for all to see -- even the non-believers.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

There's an important element in this post that should be developed. Even viewing man as a natural thing wouldn't be incorrect; man is a natural thing, in a certain sense. The problem is that nature is no longer thought of as the realm of things that can change (the Greek and classical Christian concept);the concept of nature itself has been reduced to, as you said, a collection of "complex machines". The problem runs deeper than a methodological error that reduces man, it actually reduces the whole of nature to a mechanistic model. The former error is worse, but it follows fairly quickly from the latter error.