Under the Scientific Bo Tree

By Daniels, Anthony | New Criterion, February 2012 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Under the Scientific Bo Tree

Daniels, Anthony, New Criterion

Le metier d'homme est difficile.

--Georges Simenon, Le neige etait sale

In his memoirs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says that the philosophy of Moleschott was all the rage when he was a medical student in Edinburgh during the late 1870s and early 1880s. Jacob Moleschott (1822-93) was a Dutch physiologist who had also studied philosophy in his youth and was a militant materialist. He is remembered today, if at all, for a couple of aphorisms that sum up his philosophy: "There is no thought without phosphorus" and "The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile."

I suppose it is true that, metaphorically speaking, thought can become as blocked as bile, and even more irritant in its effects. But diis summary, and surely very premature, dismissal of the puzzle of human consciousness and all its associated problems did not long satisfy Conan Doyle, who perhaps went to the other extreme and came to believe in everything from spirit messages to ectoplasm and fairies at the bottom of the garden. Overall, it is not easy to say which of the pair was the more irrational, Conan Doyle or Moleschott, though it is easy to say which was the more attractive. If I had to choose, however, I should award the palm for irrationality to Moleschott because he was so unconsciously prey to the sin of pride, believing himself to have fathomed the unfathomable (give or take an experiment or two).

Of course, Moleschott was neither the first nor the last to suffer from this beguiling scientistic illusion. Some of the less self-assured among his predecessors and successors have claimed that, while there is no such realm as the unfathomable, there still remains much that is unfathomed. For some reason, however, there has been a tendency for even these more modest types to slide gradually from the belief that everything is explicable to the belief that they have explained everything (again, more or less), and that they have therefore achieved enlightenment, as it were, under the scientific bo tree.

The question of what advance in human self-understanding is to be expected from the almost exponential growth in technological sophistication is not an easy one--though perhaps it ought to be if, as is sometimes claimed, we are fast approaching such understanding. But even the question of what constitutes self-understanding is far from easy. Very often my patients would tell me that they would stop drinking to excess (or indulging in some other kind of patently self-destructive behavior) if only they understood why they did it. "What," I asked them, "would count as an explanation? Give me an example."

They were never able to do so. Their very attempts died on their lips as they made them. Was it their genes, their peculiar biochemistry, their upbringing, their drinking environment, the price of alcohol? (There is a strong inverse relationship in any society between the quantity of alcohol consumed per capita and its price.) Some algebraic combination of all these? No human being believes or can possibly believe this of himself, except perhaps for self-exculpatory purposes that he knows in his heart to be dishonest. It is possible to believe it only of others. The man who claims to understand himself in this fashion is like an army that declares victory and goes home.

Of course, intellectuals are as avid for fame and power as for truth, and deep skepticism or the acknowledgment of radical ignorance is not the way to create a following. Claims to total understanding, at least in outline, of human existence have not been lacking, most notably in the last century by Marxists and Freudians, with Behaviorists coming in a poor third. No human conduct ever puzzled a psychoanalyst, at least not for long, only until he had successfully fitted a few facts into the Procrustean bed of his theoretical presuppositions; likewise no Marxist possessed of the laws of dialectical materialism ever found any historical development surprising.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Under the Scientific Bo Tree


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?