I thought it was just a large watermelon
Update on the Dylan Evans article. New information. This just in. Your correspondent has learned. In short, my colleague tells me that Dylan Evans has said sensible things at times. For instance in a certain philosophy magazine that my colleague has something to do with.
It’s very confounding, frankly. Because some of the things he says in that there magazine seem diametrically opposed to the things he says in that Guardian article. Are there pod people in his garden, I wonder? Or has he simply had a radical change of mind.
For instance, from a TPM-sponsored public debate on the issues raised by a paper given by Professor John Dupré at the
Mind/ Aristotelian Society Joint Session titled ‘Against Reductionist
Explanations of Human Behaviour’ in which Evans was the other protagonist and the chair was Ian McEwan.
Dylan Evans began by noting that science has always had to face down its
detractors. ‘They sit, Canute like, on the sands of obscurantism, shouting
in vein at the advancing tide of knowledge. “Get back! Come no further!
Leave me this little piece of unexplained territory!” Thankfully, science
takes no notice. The Promethean spirit that animates scientific enquiry,
that terrifying curiosity that inhabits the human soul, always proves
stronger than the fear of knowledge that opposes it.’
The Promethean spirit? That terrifying curiosity? Does that jibe with the hostile and, frankly, inaccurate characterization of science in the Guardian article? Especially with this bit –
But I do think there is one respect in which religion is more truthful than science – in its depiction of the longing for transcendent meaning that lies in man’s heart. No scientific theory has ever done justice to this longing, and in this respect religions paint more faithful pictures of the human mind.
Well. Maybe with some very determined hammering, the two can be made to fit. It depends what he means by ‘transcendent meaning,’ I suppose (but then what does anyone ever mean by that handy, elusive, capacious phrase?). But surely a Promethean spirit of terrifying curiosity is one form of transcendent meaning. (And in fact arguably a far better one than actual, existing religion, as opposed to the wishful religion that Evans has in mind, provides. Religion gives such dull, limited, closed, unexciting answers to the questions humans ask, after all. They’re about as Promethean as a Sunday advertising supplement in the newspaper.) And the Promethean thing, the terrifying curiosity thing – that seems to me to have far more to do with ‘longing’ than religion does. Religion does the opposite of the Promethean, it doesn’t keep looking for more, opening newer doors, it just seals everything off. It’s not really about longing so much as it is about termination. About giving inadequate answers to large questions.
Evans noted that ‘although the
evidence for evolution is overwhelming today, there are still those who
ignore it. Over half the US population still believes in the literal truth
of Genesis. Thankfully, the population in the UK is somewhat more
enlightened on this matter. Few people here seriously doubt that we evolved
from other life forms. But even in the UK, there is still a widespread
reluctance to take this idea to its logical conclusion, namely, that our
minds are just as much the product of evolution as our bodies. This is
Canutism. The new Canutes admit that the tide has come further up the shore.
Science has already claimed the human body as its own, they recognise, but
please don’t let it claim the human mind.’
Evans is taking religion awfully literally there. Why doesn’t he just treat it as a metaphor?
And then from another piece, this one written by Evans, about a public discussion at LSE between Alan Sokal and Bruno Latour.
Latour was clearly the most accomplished
public speaker, often raising hoots of laughter with his quips and
one-liners. Latour’s rhetorical skill, however, was not matched by a
corresponding level of logical rigour. Indeed, many felt that his
entertaining performance was deployed to conceal the lack of clarity in his
argument. Sokal, on the other hand, while not so accomplished an
entertainer, was crystal clear, and made the most incisive arguments. Again
and again he pressed Latour to clarify his position, but to no avail; Latour
gave contradictory responses, first speaking in terms that could only be
construed as highly constructivist, then denying that his position was
relativist when challenged by Sokal. The result was a rather frustrating
debate, in which the speakers never quite managed to make contact. Sokal
tried valiantly to clarify some complex issues, but was defeated by Latour’s
apparently deliberate obfuscation and ambiguity. Some might put this down
simply to a clash between two very different intellectual traditions; those
of Anglo-American philosophy of science and French cultural criticism. This,
however, merely avoids the real issue, which is not merely a question of
cultural differences – the issue of scientific objectivity. Unfortunately,
the debate will not get any further until the Latours of this world learn to
speak and write with greater clarity.
Strange, isn’t it? Either there’s a pod in his garden, or he’s just had a radical change of mind. But I have to say, I don’t think the change of mind has done much for the clarity of his writing.