Saturday, February 16, 2008

For - And Against - Lewis Wolpert

I first encountered Lewis Wolpert in 1992 when my book Understanding the Present was published. There was a debate at London University. I had never done any public speaking before and Lewis, a suave performer, tore me apart. Since then we have become friends, though he still regards everything I say with unalloyed contempt. It's an odd friendship. Never having had much faith in my own insights, I find his derision bracing. But I am sure that he's missing the point in his contempt for philosophy and his repeated insistence that, in effect, there is only science. I seem to recall I only once got this through to him on Radio 4's Today programme by pointing out that we should beware of our certainties since we were only passing through. Anyway, yesterday I heard him on the radio saying, as he always does, that science offends common sense. Look at the cell, he said, surely it is against common sense to believe that our bodies are made of cells, yet that is what science has taught us. But if we do look at our bodies through the eyes of common sense, it is clear that they must be made of something and, whatever it is, it must be fairly strange stuff. There is nothing about cells, therefore, that offends common sense. Lewis, I realised, underestimates the oddity of knowing anything at all, of being human. But, in doing so, he is, as I say, bracing.


  1. Very keen insight into Lewis Wolpert and his type.
    He's a very clever man, but (as you imply) seems to take for granted the splendour, mystery and improbability of the created world and I suspect, can't (or won't) accept there can be anything cleverer than himself.

  2. I wish that Wolpert and (for that matter) you would define terms. In particular the term "science". What does it mean? It is derived from the latin word "to know". So the most straightforward definition would be science = knowledge. Is that what Wolpert means?

    Well, if he does his suggestion would be that knowledge offends common sense. Meaning, I suppose, that common sense is sometimes wrong. Which, so far as I can see, is just a truism (and, moreover, is itself a piece of common sense).

    But I suppose a distinguished professor would not be appearing on national radio just for the purpose of stating platitudes. So I suppose that he must be using the word "science" to mean something other than knowledge. It might be worth asking: what precisely does he mean?

    Similarly with your complaint that Wolpert thinks that there is only science. You think (I supose) that, on the contrary, there is something else. What, precisely, is this something else? Not, presumably, ignorance?

  3. Perhaps Lewis suffered more frustration than his outward swagger suggests, or even reverted to a shoddy mysticism as an antidote.

    Clearly, science can offend common sense only in the way that philosophical idealism offended Dr Johnson! Indeed, if it is wrong to believe that our bodies are made of cells, it must also be wrong to say that they are made of atoms. Either of which are metaphors - a concession to scientific materialism - for (Weinberg’s) notion of participatory reality!

    Well, none of this strikes me as particularly problematical, but since I have noticed that the most opposing theories can serve to justify the same function, no doubt I missed the point.


  4. ". . . Pope [Benedict] asserted: 'Modern scientific reason quite simply has to accept the rational structure of matter and the correspondence between our spirit and the prevailing rational structures of nature as a given, on which its methodology has to be based. Yet the question why this has to be so is a real question, and one which has to be remanded by the natural sciences to other modes and planes of thought – to philosophy and theology.'"

    "The belief that the only route to genuine understanding is that provided by the physical sciences, and that they are potentially capable of explaining anything that goes on in the world, is merely a prejudice, backed neither by evidence – for after all, there are many things science has not been able to explain – nor by philosophical considerations. In fact, many notable philosophers, including Husserl, Oakeshott, Polanyi, and Nagel, have noted that the assertion that human understanding can be reduced to mechanical causes is self-defeating. It is nonsensical to label the outcome of any mechanical process as 'true' or 'false' – the outcome is simply what had to happen based on the physical laws relevant to the situation. Anyone arguing that human thinking can be reduced entirely to physical mechanisms must admit that his theory applies to his own thinking no less than it does to, say, moral reasoning or theology. Therefore, per his own theory, it is nonsensical to claim that the theory is true! No, even his scientific work is only the meaningless product of the jostling about of a bunch of particles within fields controlling their movements. When an evolutionary biologist suggests that all of mankind’s religious beliefs are attributable to our genes’ efforts to propagate themselves, honesty should force him to admit that his biological ideas also are just attempts by his genes to survive – the 'discovery' of DNA was really nothing more than Watson’s and Crick’s best chance to get laid!

    "Attempts to proclaim science as the only real form of knowledge regularly point to its 'success' as plain evidence of its superiority. But such arguments suffer from a vicious circularity – the criteria by which they judge success are scientific criteria, and, therefore, first award the prize to science and then 'discover' that it holds it. It is as though I tried to prove my genius by taking an IQ test I devised myself, a test in which I included only questions that I was sure I could answer correctly. And, if later I realize I made a mistake, I allow myself to go back and amend it, boasting that this offered even further proof of my pre-eminence, since it demonstrated that I am not wedded to my errors, unlike the usual taker of an intelligence test.

    "Epistemology addresses questions like, 'Does science provide us with a reliable way of knowing things about the world, and, if so, is the sort of knowledge it offers universal or conditional?' Trying to reach answers to those queries through a scientific investigation is logically untenable – the researcher would first have to decide that science is a valid means for discovering truths about reality, but that is the very issue his research is supposed to be helping us to resolve! I cannot avoid concluding that the Pope was standing on the philosophical high ground when he declared that such matters are inherently outside the scope of scientific inquiry, a proposition that can be convincingly defended without any appeals to religious faith or divine revelations."(From "The Pope Is Right About Science", by Gene Callahan.)

  5. Strange chap. Despise him back, mock his socks or his name. Keep calling him: "Loooooooissss!" like that dumb whore in Jackie Brown, though p'raps not the best example since the Lewis in question ends up shooting her in the gut.

    Any case you need to settle his hash the old way, the Chicago way. You know how it goes: he pulls a knife, you pull a gun; he sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue; he mocks your understanding, you lay in wait in a dark alley with a length of lead pipe. Sooner or later he's going to go down that alley, and then we'll see who understands what.

    There can be only one.

  6. No wonder he got depressed: REpressed. If one lives entirely in one's intellect, i.e. science, and reject instinctive understanding then the big black hole gapes and one falls into it. No wonder they're obsessed with Space! It's the great background to their limited understanding, the great blind spot.

  7. When did science become so arrogant? I would have thought it defeated 'scientific objectivity' to do so.

    It does seem intent on a new hegemony and gets self-righteously angry when anyone questions its pretensions. But surely it doesn't believe it has the answers to the really fundamental questions of the why, what for and how should we variety?

  8. Interesting that after all he has gone through he still clings to science as his faith! Guess the emotions and feelings are purely explicable in the realm of science.

    Howver, someone should have asked him to explain society or economics in scientific terms.