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At Ball State University, the Triumph of Scientific Philistinism

As a companion to our ongoing coverage of Ball State University and the drive to expunge scientific discussion of intelligent design from its classrooms, you should read Leon Wieseltier's essay in the current New Republic, "Crimes Against Humanities." An email correspondent brought it to my attention with the comment, "This is exhilarating." And he's right.

FreedomUnderFire.jpgWieseltier, who you may remember deliciously rebuked Thomas Nagel's critics -- including Steven Pinker -- as "Darwinist Dittoheads," now circles back to demolish Pinker's own recent essay also in The New Republic. Pinker cheerleads for "scientism" ("Science Is Not Your Enemy"). He had argued that the tradition of the humanities would benefit greatly from being spruced up by habits of thought imported from science, a view that Wieseltier trashes as arrant, arrogant philistinism.

Pinker happens to have written the introduction to the book that Josh Youngkin brought to our attention, John Brockman's What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, following on Discovery Institute's powerful challenge to Ball State for singling out Professor Eric Hedin's teaching for censure.

Dr. Hedin, a physicist, included in his interdisciplinary honors course on the "Boundaries of Science" a list of optional reading material including books for and against intelligent design. For that he was clubbed into silence by BSU's president, Jo Ann Gora, who issued a campus-wide ban on ID in science instruction. Dr. Gora's purported justification is the usual ignorant business about how ID is religion, out of place in a science course, and how even in a humanities class it would have to be balanced by competing "religious" views.

Yet the same Ball State University offers a course, another honors seminar, "Dangerous Ideas," taught by Paul Ranieri, where the sole required reading is Brockman's book. The latter is full of the crudest, most blockheaded statements of science-flavored materialism and atheism. Chapter titles include: "We Have No Souls," "Marionettes on Genetic Strings," "We Are Entirely Alone," "Science Must Destroy Religion."

Not everything in the book, an edited collection, is as bad, dumb, and ugly as that, but no one would ever call it a balanced presentation of competing ideas, religious or otherwise. That's one reason that Discovery Institute has challenged Ball State either to investigate Professor Ranieri's course and shut it down too if it fails to satisfy President Gora's criteria -- or, our strong preference, affirm the tradition of academic freedom and let both Hedin and Ranieri teach as they think best.

See the full text of our letter to Dr. Gora here.

I recommend Leon Wieseltier's essay to you not only because of the Pinker connection but because Wieseltier beautifully highlights a peril of conceding to scientism and materialism, one that goes beyond stamping out academic freedom and beyond mangling real science. Curbing scientific consideration of the case for design in nature does both of those. But it also represents a triumph of the boorish reductionism that Wieseltier dissects.

He writes wonderfully, by the way. A sample:

Pinker's self-congratulatory suggestion that only science recognizes the complexity and the obscurity of the world -- his implication that in the nonscientific disciplines the acquisition of knowledge, if knowledge is even acquired, is easy -- is very unimpressive. It betrays a contempt for humanistic exertion, even as he accuses the liberal arts in many universities of "cultivat[ing] a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt." The superiority of the sciences to the humanities in Pinker's account is made clear by his proposed solution to the crisis in the humanities: "an infusion of new ideas," which turns out to be an infusion of scientific ideas. There is nothing wrong with the humanities that the sciences cannot fix. Pinker is correct to hold the humanities partly complicit in their own decline, referring appositely to "the disaster of postmodernism" and "suffocating political correctness"; but he does not summon the humanities to recover their greatness and their pride. Instead he summons them to a process of scientization. The humanities, he charges, "have failed to define a progressive agenda." There follows this unforgettable observation: "Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it's to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it's to plead for respect for the way things have always been done." Why can't the humanities be more like the sciences, and "appeal to deans and donors"?

In absolutely excluding the possibility of scientifically recognizable design in living systems and in the cosmos, President Gora has also ruled out appreciating those systems as what they well may be: products of artifice manifesting not only purpose but art.

To take a random example, our intuition tells us that the sleek, lovely felines that Jerry Coyne is continually nuzzling at Why Evolution Is True are exquisite artifacts of a sublime creativity. Darwinian evolution tells us we are obliged -- on pain of professional censure if you're a scientist at Ball State and at many other academic institutions as well -- to renounce that intuition.

Never mind cats, the great and the small, the whole gorgeous world is no more than the result of dead matter slushing around and banging into itself. This is a horrible, flattening, impoverishing idea, not least in the context of a liberal education. But at Ball State University and elsewhere, it's mandatory. This is the legacy of scientific materialism that Pinker and others present to us as a treasured gift.

The impact of this blinkered view, Pinker and Gora's dogma, is bad in science itself. It's no less so in the humanities. In my own college experience, the single least nourishing course I took, the biggest waste of time and money -- and it faced some stiff competition -- was an English class taught just as concepts like cyberspace, hypertext, hypermedia, and other imports from the world of computer technology were about to come into vogue.

The professor was getting hip -- he was hyperhip -- to the use of computers in the humanities, and wanted students to get hip to it as well. Unfortunately, entranced by gimics, he couldn't convey anything of the power or beauty of literature. I remember feeling totally unmoved by his instruction. The two facts did not seem to be coincidental.

One of the hurdles that the argument for intelligent design faces is that the gates to public awareness and consideration are largely guarded by media people with no science training who feel intimidated by claims of Darwinism triumphant from evolutionary biologists like Coyne and evolutionary psychologists like Pinker. For these folks, their humanities background is, ironically, the impediment that ensures a surrender to scientism. Surprisingly, this is not least the case with conservative media -- whereas Wieseltier, the New Republic's literary editor, is I guess you might say an eclectic moderate liberal.

Speaking of na�ve, easily stampeded non-scientists, it may not be irrelevant to note here that President Gora of Ball State is herself a sociology PhD, with a BA in political science.