Under the Scientific Bo Tree

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

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.

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