Blog author: jballor
by on Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Here’s a link to the introduction to Frederick Crews’ new book, Follies of the Wise, which includes the following statement:

Having made a large intellectual misstep in younger days, I am aware that rationality isn’t an endowment but an achievement that can come undone at any moment. And that is just why it is prudent, in my opinion, to distrust sacrosanct authorities, whether academic or psychiatric or ecclesiastic, and to put one’s faith instead in objective procedures that can place a check on our never sated appetite for self-deception.

This follows his description of the purpose of his book, to lay out the two sides in an “intellectual clash”:

One is scientific empiricism, which, for better or worse, has yielded all of the mechanical novelties that continue to reshape our world and consciousness. We know, of course, that science can be twisted to greedy and warlike ends. At any given moment, moreover, it may be pursuing a phantom, such as phlogiston or the ether or, conceivably, an eleven-dimensional superstring, that is every bit as fugitive as the Holy Ghost. But science possesses a key advantage. It is, at its core, not a body of correct or incorrect ideas but a collective means of generating and testing hypotheses, and its trials eventually weed out error with unmatched success.

Of course, belief in the reliability and truthfulness of “a collective means of generating and testing hypotheses” which then “weed out error with unmatched success” smacks as much of a sort of fideism as any confession of religious faith.

I’ve noted this interview before, but Dr. Tim Lessl’s thoughts on science and rhetoric are quite applicable to Crews’ position:

The approach that would sell the public on the worth of science on the basis of its practical payoffs is like making it a scientific patron on particular issues – which only feeds science for a day. But if the scientific culture can convince us that deep down we are all scientists, or at least that we should all aspire to this elite realm of knowing, then science might enjoy patronage for life. Priestly rhetoric, in other words, tries to recreate society in science’s image.

Priestly rhetoric is not so much about a disdain for “dumbing science down”. Scientists have reservations about “popularization” for good reasons. The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view – by creating a public culture based in scientism.

In this way, Crews is attempting to corner the market on access to knowledge and the rhetorical construal of the scientific method as the only real source of knowledge is attendant to this. After all, “A wise man has great power, and a man of knowledge increases strength” (Proverbs 24:5 NIV). So much for distrust of all “sacrosanct” authority.

More from Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and Bavinck here on the foundations of belief in first principles.

What is Crews first principle? “We materialists don’t deny the force of ideas; we merely say that the minds precipitating them are wholly situated within brains and that the brain, like everything else about which we possess some fairly dependable information, seems to have emerged without any need for miracles.” Crews himself admits this takes the form of a first principle and is not empirically verifiable, “Although this is not a provable point, it is a necessary aid to clear thought, because, now that scientific rationality has conclusively shown its formidable explanatory power, recourse to the miraculous is always a regressive, obfuscating move.”

HT: Arts & Letters Daily