Friday, February 22, 2008

Concealing a lack of rigour

Mick notes that ‘wisdom’, while clearly a positive word, does have its weaselly side:

the term is open to abuse. Every half-baked alternative view offered up to our general post-Enlightenment world will loudly trumpet its wisdom - often enough ancient wisdom - which we in the West are sadly in danger of losing due to our over-reliance on science / materialism / left-brain thinking / whatever.

He quotes a man called Nicholas Maxwell (reviewing a book by a man also called Nicholas Maxwell):

science represses problematic assumptions concerning metaphysics, values and politics - assumptions that ought to be clearly acknowledged so that they can be thrown open to criticism, revision and improvement. The book argues that we need a new kind of science, and a new kind of academic inquiry having, as their basic aim, to help humanity learn how to become wiser and more civilized.

Meanwhile, Ophelia takes issue with John Polkinghorne, who says that “the experimental method… is science’s great secret weapon” (great, yes – but secret?). He goes on to say that “there is a whole swath of encounters with reality” in which this is inadequate:

Religion offers a broader and deeper understanding [than science]. … It just explains more.

Ophelia responds:

So in what sense does religion offer a broader and deeper understanding? I'm guessing that Polkinghorne means in the sense that he finds it more congenial and comforting, more emotionally satisfying. I say that because it isn't really intellectually satisfying (because of the infinite regress), yet believers always claim that religion 'explains better.' 'Better' must mean something like in a more friendly or anthropocentric or familiar way.


Both of these lines – on ‘wisdom’ and ‘broad, deep understanding’ – are about promising something that science doesn’t claim to do, but then failing to offer much in the way of substance. After nodding to the achievements of the scientific method, they then insist that the terms of debate be shifted, but in doing so they dismiss the rigorous intellectual standards of explanation that are as much a part of science as test-tubes and microscopes.

This sort of talk facilitates the shielding of flakier, vaguer views from criticism while still sounding reflective and inquisitive. It’s a nice trick – all the more effective for those who use it to stay in their comfort zones not realising its evasiveness.

Hush now. If you listen very carefully, you may be able to hear the words ‘holistic’ and ‘spiritual’ rushing over the hills towards us.

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