Materialists and Philistines image

Materialists and Philistines

The new First Things is out today, and there's a super piece in it from David Bentley Hart, reflecting on the debate in the New Republic between Leon Wieseltier and Stephen Pinker. Hard materialism, Hart impishly suggests, is simply philistinism, and comparable to colour blindness:

There really are those out there for whom a poem or a sonata or a sculpture is nothing but an objectively ponderable collection of molecules processed through a series of electrochemical events in accord with certain neurobiological constants, all as determined by a vast set of wholly physical contingencies. There are those who think Plato’s allegory of the cave is little more than a defective attempt to explain the physical structure of the universe. And there are those who take the risible pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology seriously, and believe that every aspect of culture, cultural history, politics, religion, social convention, and so on is more or less wholly explicable in terms of beneficial evolutionary adaptations (if one can only dream up the right Just So story).

So Wieseltier is quite right to insist—as he should not need to do—that there are innumerable dimensions of cultural experience, exploration, and creativity that exist at levels of such formal complexity, and that are so rich in hermeneutical intricacy, and that demand from us such diverse modes of reflection, that they can never be reduced to any mere calculus of particulate physical causes. And he is certainly right to make a case for the rational integrity of the humanities, their necessary heterogeneity, their autonomy, their openness to one another, the endlessly new perspectives they call forth, and so on. But I should also point out that the only sort of person who would disagree with any of that is, quite simply, a philistine. A person whose sensibility is so obtuse and impoverished that he really believes that the only significant questions in life are questions of mass and force and neurological correlates and natural selection is no more likely to be persuaded to appreciate the special logic and dignity of humane learning than a congenitally color-blind person is likely to learn to appreciate the exquisite layerings of color in a Chardin or the chromatic choreographies in a Whistler.

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