I imagine that Leon Wieseltier and I disagree about many things. But I’ve long found him to be a reliable enemy of cant. I was not disappointed by his recent Washington Diarist column in The New Republic.
He takes Duke University philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg and author of The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions to the woodshed.
We had a fine and hard-hitting review by Edward Feser back in the November issue (Scientia ad Absurdum). Feser observed, as does Wieseltier, that Rosenberg simply asserts an untenable scientism, which means the presumption that because science explains things so effectively, the only things that exist are those that science explains.
Here is Feser’s devastating assessment:
Why should anyone accept scientism in the first place. Rosenberg gives a single brazen non sequitur in its defense. The predictive power, explanatory range, and technological successes of physics, he says, far outstrip those of other purported sources of knowledge. And this, he concludes, shows that what physics tells us is real is all that is real. But this is like arguing that since metal detectors have far greater success in finding coins in more places than any other method, metal detectors show that only coins exist.
Wieseltier is a bit less delicate, but makes essentially the same point:
I thought that the argument for imagination and interpretation as instruments of human knowledge was settled long ago—when Vico read the ancients, or when Mill read Coleridge, or when Dilthey read Schleiermacher; but here we are, still wrestling with the distinction between explanation and understanding, still enduring the old crap about the hegemony of the natural sciences.
Above and beyond the simple-minded scientism, Wieseltier observes that “this shabby book is riddled with other notions that typify our time.” He enumerates some. One he omits, however, is this: In our time it’s OK for elite professors to write shabby books.
As I pointed out in my recent criticisms of Stephen Greenblatt’s shabby book on Lucretius, they aren’t criticized by their peers. No doubt this is part because, as Wieseltier points out, their disregard for reason serves the Establishment that pays their salaries. Smug complacency has always characterized decadent elites, and our elite universities are nothing if not decadent (thought they are sometimes more than that as well).
And there’s another reason. These sorts of books are meant to make money, and that rather than truth has become the summum bonum among our academic careerists.