Scientific Passions

The nerd world felt a slight disturbance in the force a few weeks back, when the hottest new science popularizer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, argued that philosophy yields little value compared to science. The widely quoted statement that drew ire from philosophical types was Tyson’s observation, in response to someone’s admission to having been a philosophy major: “That can really mess you up.”

Anyone who has ever endured a philosophy class recognizes the truth in this claim, but it became a convenient placeholder for Tyson’s more objectionable comments, which amounted to an assertion that philosophy is navel-gazing sophistry which does not contribute to “our understanding of the natural world.”

“Practical men,” wrote John Maynard Keynes, “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.” This is doubly true of practical scientists, like the amiable Dr. Tyson, who are enslaved not to economists but to philosophers, even as they pronounce themselves independent of philosophical drudgery.

The amateur philosopher imprisoning Tyson and many of his colleagues is a centuries-dead Frenchman named Laplace, astronomer and mathematician by trade, who in his Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (he was not privy to Tyson’s cautions against philosophizing) expounded a notion that grips most science popularizers today, and a good many social planners as well. It is the notion that if we could capture all the data in the universe, we could understand the past and the present, and predict the future with certainty.

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Corporate Insanity Starts with Us

Imagine you paid someone to build a house for your child, and imagine one night you get a call. The house has collapsed. Your child is dead.

A year after you bury your child, a letter arrives. It is from your builder. Get out of the house, it says. There may be some defects.

You learn that other houses have collapsed, other people have died. The builder knew of the danger for years. So you get a lawyer, you go to court, you demand compensation—not that any amount of dollars will bring back the child you have lost. You demand the money because it is the only way you know to punish the builder, and to make sure everyone knows his wrongdoing.

The builder sends his lawyers to the judge, and they tell the judge he is not liable. He isn’t liable, because the fool who used shoddy materials was the old him. He is a new man. He can’t be held responsible for the actions of his past person.

Preposterous, right? Yet this is precisely the argument employed by General Motors in response to numerous lawsuits, in response to at least thirteen deaths from engineering defects that cause its vehicles to lock up, rendering their power steering, brakes, and airbags inoperable. In a recent court filing, GM’s lawyers claimed the engineering mistakes were committed by “the old GM.” They represent, you see, “the new GM.”

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The Prodigal Bears His Scars

My last communion was during a brief suspension of my former church’s policy of forbidding it to children. I was already halfway out Protestantism’s door, and three-quarters out of my marriage, but on this their mother and I agreed: we should seize the opportunity to have communion alongside our children. The table was soon blocked again, after much pastoral consultation of texts. Communion remained accessible for hard-drinking adulterers like me, but not for my four year-old.

I lingered at the edges of another church in the following months, and then not at all. The shape of a newly divorced and even harder drinking man is not well-suited—at least it can seem to him, in his vanity and stupor—to pews. I drifted, and far.

My memory of that long descent’s end is the memory of a voice, nightly, over the phone. That voice spoke truths I’d forgotten apply to me: truths about forgiveness, about purpose. It was not the voice of an angel, but close enough, and to this day the sound of it conjures for me salvation.

I still hear it every morning, because it is the voice of a woman who chose to become my wife, long after I stopped believing I deserve such a thing. She took my hand despite my past, took it though her cancer left us unsure if she would live long past a honeymoon. We had no money, no home. Each of us bore a sickness. Today we are mending, and we have a house in a little town, and my children love her more than I imagined possible.

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A Misguided Manual for Civilization

When I was a schoolboy, I used to plan for the world’s end. What would we need to survive? Where would we keep it? How would we defend it from the inevitable roving bands of marauders, who—if movies were any guide—would possess impressive organizational discipline, yet no ability to create anything but weapons?

My side, which included my smart-but-bullied friends and me, would be prepared. We made lists. We drew pictures of supply depots. We diagrammed useful contraptions. The world would need rebuilding, and us to accomplish it.

Years later I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in which science affords predictions that aid civilization-builders. A planned future was possible because the smart people were in charge. When I was older still, I immersed myself in SimCity, designing cities from start to finish, crafting everything from the shapes of their waterways to the style of every home’s roof.

Knowledge is a means of seeing. As you acquire it in great quantities you are tempted to imagine, because you know more than most about important things (and you know they are important things, else why would someone as smart as you bother to know so much about them?), that you are a giant, rather than perhaps just a remarkably stout midget. From your privileged vantage point, you can see distant horizons.

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What Our Children See

“Your child,” says the executive director of a national sex-education organization, “is going to look at porn at some point. It’s inevitable.”

The first woman I saw bare-breasted, her legs splayed for the pleasure of men, was posed in the slick pages of a magazine stashed in my stepfather’s dresser drawer. He kept this woman and others like her hidden, but not well enough. Often when I was alone, I would go into that darkness to see what lay there. I was twelve years old.

Some boys in my neighborhood stashed dirty pictures (despite our ignorance we knew that was what to call them, though these fantasy women were smooth and unblemished) in the hollowed center of an old cable spool that rotted at the edge of our subdivision. This became a sort of library. We were twelve and thirteen and fourteen. Some of us were younger.

“It’s inevitable.”

Perhaps this was true even when I was a child; it certainly seems true now, when so many of our children can access the internet unattended at their friends’ houses, in the privacy of their bedrooms, on the tailored screens of their hand-held devices. Two of my sons have reached the ages of the boys who crept to the edge of our neighborhood when we craved more.

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