Critical views of science in the news

A Brief Correspondence on Copernicus, Descartes, Kant, Darwin, Freud, George Ellis and Thomas Nagel (among Others)


My friend Gabriel Finkelstein is an historian of science whose most recent book, Emil du Bois-Reymond: Neuroscience, Self, and Society in Nineteenth-Century Germany, profiles a 19th-century German polymath who was extraordinarily prescient about science’s potential and limits. Last fall, I re-posted a great Q&A that MIT Press, his publisher, carried out with Gabriel.

The scientific and philosophical insights of 19th-century German polymath Emil du Bois-Reymond are as relevant as ever, says historian of science Gabriel Finkelstein of the University of Colorado Denver.

Gabriel, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver, recently watched me and my fellow science writer George Johnson chatter on about, among other things, physicist George Ellis's critique of other physicists' critiques of philosophy; philosopher Thomas Nagel's complaint about how modern science handles consciousness (see also my post on Nagel's book Mind and Cosmos); and the "neo-green" perspective of the Breakthrough Institute. Gabriel sent me the letter below, which I enjoyed so much that I'm posting it here.

Dear John, Your conversation with George Johnson raises several issues of historical interest. Here are three that came to mind.

1. There’s an old tradition of scientists bashing philosophy. The German neurophysiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond remarked in 1880:

Since Kant transformed the discipline, philosophy has taken on so esoteric a character, has so forgotten the language of common sense and plain thought, has so evaded the questions that most deeply stir our youth, or treated them condescendingly as officious speculations, and finally, has so opposed the rise of science, that it is not surprising that even the recollection of its earlier achievements has been lost.

2. George Johnson’s analysis of scientific revolutions also comes from du Bois-Reymond. Here’s a portion of du Bois-Reymond’s obituary of Darwin:

Darwin seems to me to be the Copernicus of the organic world. In the sixteenth century Copernicus put an end to the anthropocentric theory by doing away with the Ptolemaic spheres and bringing our earth down to the rank of an insignificant planet. At the same time he proved the non-existence of the so-called empyrean, the supposed abode of the heavenly hosts, beyond the seventh sphere, although Giordano Bruno was the first who actually drew the inference.

Man, however, still stood apart from the rest of animated beings—not at the top of the scale, his proper place, but quite away, as a being absolutely incommensurable with them. One hundred years later Descartes still held that man alone had a soul, and that beasts were mere automata. Notwithstanding all the labor of naturalists since the days of Linnaeus, notwithstanding the resurrection of vanished genera and species by Cuvier, the theory of the origin and interdependence of living things, which was almost universal five-and-twenty years ago, was only equaled in arbitrariness, artificiality, and absurdity by the celebrated theory of Epicycles, which caused Alfonso of Castile to exclaim, “If God had asked my advice when he created the world, I should have managed things much better.”

Johnson then brings up Thomas Nagel’s argument for consciousness as the third Copernican revolution in science. This recall’s Freud’s remarks on Copernicus and Darwin in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-analysis, tr. and ed. James Strachey (1915-17; reprint, New York; London: Norton, 1989), 353.[1] Freud says he’s the third blow to man’s narcissism. Lucille Ritvo claims that Freud got this idea from reading Ernst Haeckel’s Natural History of Creation.[2] Haeckel long held that consciousness was inherent in matter, much as the philosopher Galen Strawson does today.

3. Finally, your comments on environmentalism bring to mind this joke:

Q. What’s the definition of an environmentalist?

A. Someone who already owns a second home in the woods.


1. Sigmund Freud, “Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse” (1916-17 [1915-17]), in Studienausgabe, ed. Alexander Mitscherlich, Angela Richards and James Strachey, 5th edn., 11 (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1989), [Vorlesungen zur Einführung in die Psychoanalyse und neue Folge] 1: 34-445, on 238-239, quoted by Werner Michler, Darwinismus und Literatur: Naturwissenschaftliche und literarische Intelligenz in Österreich, 1859-1914 (Vienna; Cologne; Weimar: Böhlau, 1999), 100.

2. Lucille B. Ritvo, Darwin’s Influence on Freud: A Tale of Two Sciences (New Haven: London: Yale, 1990), 22-30; Haeckel, Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte. Gemeinverständliche wissenschaftliche Vorträge über die Entwickelungslehre im Allgemeinen und diejenige von Darwin, Goethe und Lamarck im Besonderen, über die Anwendung derselben auf den Ursprung des Menschen und andere damit zusammenhängende Grundfragen der Naturwissenschaft (Berlin: Reimer, 1868), 30.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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