Follies of the Wise

Jerry Coyne on Frederick Crews’s Follies of the Wise.

In Follies of the Wise, Crews takes on not only Freud and psychoanalysis, but also other fields of intellectual inquiry which have caused rational people to succumb to irrational ideas: recovered-memory therapy, alien abduction, theosophy, Rorschach inkblot analysis, intelligent design creationism, and even poststructuralist literary theory. All of these, asserts Crews, violate “the ethic of respecting that which is known, acknowledging what is still unknown, and acting as if one cared about the difference”. This, then, is a collection about epistemology, and one that should be read by anyone still harbouring the delusion that Freud was an important thinker, that psychoanalysis is an important cure, that intelligent design is a credible alternative to Darwinism, or that religion and science can coexist happily.

And should be read immediately by anyone still harbouring all four delusions.

Crews gives peacemaking scientists their own hiding, reproving them for trying to show that there is no contradiction between science and theology. Regardless of what they say to placate the faithful, most scientists probably know in their hearts that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world….Virtually all religions make improbable claims that are in principle empirically testable, and thus within the domain of science: Mary, in Catholic teaching, was bodily taken to heaven, while Muhammad rode up on a white horse; and Jesus (born of a virgin) came back from the dead. None of these claims has been corroborated, and while science would never accept them as true without evidence, religion does. A mind that accepts both science and religion is thus a mind in conflict.

Or a mind that resolves the conflict by pigeonholing the two and keeping them, mentally, completely separate – but that seems to me to amount to the same thing. It can be done; people do it; but it does seem like an exercise in denial, and denial is what we use to suppress conflict.

It is not politically or tactically useful to point out the fundamental and unbreachable gaps between science and theology. Indeed, scientists and philosophers have written many books (equivalents of Leibnizian theodicy) desperately trying to show how these areas can happily cohabit. In his essay, “Darwin goes to Sunday School”, Crews reviews several of these works, pointing out with brio the intellectual contortions and dishonesties involved in harmonizing religion and science. Assessing work by the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, the philosopher Michael Ruse, the theologian John Haught and others, Crews concludes, “When coldly examined . . . these productions invariably prove to have adulterated scientific doctrine or to have emptied religious dogma of its commonly accepted meaning”.

Just so. Anything can be made compatible with anything by changing the meanings of both sides of the equation, but that’s not an honest or, in the long run, helpful way of proceeding. Fred Crews does a great job of pointing that out.

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