Tuesday, September 15, 2015

There Is No Theory of Everything

I want to talk here about an undergraduate teacher of mine about whom many stories were told, but who is not so widely known. His name was Frank Cioffi (1928-2012), an Italian-American from a peasant family who spent his early years close to Washington Square. His mother died giving birth to him, and his distraught father died when Frank was an infant. He was then brought up by his grandparents, who spoke in a Neapolitan dialect. He dropped out of high school, spent time with the United States Army in Japan and then in France trying to identify dug-up corpses of American soldiers for the war grave commission. In 1950, he somehow managed to get into Ruskin College, Oxford, on the G.I. Bill, where he began to study philosophy and discovered the work of Wittgenstein, whose later thinking was just then beginning to circulate. After teaching in Singapore and Kent, he became the founding professor of the philosophy department at the University of Essex in the early 1970s. I encountered him there in 1982. It was memorable.

Frank (which is how he was always referred to) has recently become the subject of an interesting book by David Ellis, “Frank Cioffi: The Philosopher in Shirt Sleeves.” It gives a very good sense of what it felt like to be in a room with Frank. Truth to tell, Ellis’s title is deceptive, as I never recall Frank in shirtsleeves. He wore a sweater, usually inside out. He never had laces in the work boots he always wore, and strangest of all, because of an acute sensitivity to fabrics, he wore pajamas underneath his clothes at all times. The word “disheveled” doesn’t begin to describe the visual effect that Frank had on the senses. He was a physically large, strong-looking man, about 6-foot-4. The pajamas were clearly visible at the edges of his sweater, his fly was often undone (some years later, his only word of teaching advice to me was “always check your fly”) and he sometimes seemed to hold his pants up with a piece of string. In his pockets would be scraps of paper with typewritten quotations from favorite writers like George Eliot, Tolstoy or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whom he revered. (...)

Despite the astonishing breadth of his interests, Frank’s core obsession in teaching turned on the relation between science and the humanities. More particularly, his concern was with the relation between the causal explanations offered by science and the kinds of humanistic description we find, say, in the novels of Dickens or Dostoevsky, or in the sociological writings of Erving Goffman and David Riesman. His quest was to try and clarify the occasions when a scientific explanation was appropriate and when it was not, and we need instead a humanistic remark. His conviction was that our confusions about science and the humanities had wide-ranging and malign societal consequences.

Let me give an example. Imagine that you are depressed, because of the death of a loved one, heartbreak or just too much hard and seemingly pointless work. You go to see a doctor. After trying to explain what ails you, with the doctor fidgeting and looking at his watch, he exclaims: “Ah, I see the problem. Take this blue pill and you will be cured.” However efficacious the blue pill might be, in this instance the doctor’s causal diagnosis is the wrong one. What is required is for you to be able to talk, to feel that someone understands your problems and perhaps can offer some insight or even suggestions on how you might move forward in your life. This, one imagines, is why people go into therapy.

But let’s flip it around. Let’s imagine that you are on a ferry crossing the English Channel during a terrible winter storm. Your nausea is uncontrollable and you run out onto the deck to vomit the contents of your lunch, breakfast and the remains of the previous evening’s dinner. You feel so wretched that you no longer fear death — you wish you were dead. Suddenly, on the storm-tossed deck, appears R.D. Laing, the most skilled, charismatic and rhetorically gifted existential psychiatrist of his generation, in a blue velvet suit. He proceeds to give you an intense phenomenological description of how your guts feel, the sense of disorientation, the corpselike coldness of your flesh, the sudden loss of the will to live. This is also an error. On a ferry you want a blue pill that is going to alleviate the symptoms of seasickness and make you feel better.

Frank’s point is that our society is deeply confused by the occasions when a blue pill is required and not required, or when we need a causal explanation and when we need a further description, clarification or elucidation. We tend to get muddled and imagine that one kind of explanation (usually the causal one) is appropriate in all occasions when it is not. (...)

This is the risk of what some call “scientism” — the belief that natural science can explain everything, right down to the detail of our subjective and social lives. All we need is a better form of science, a more complete theory, a theory of everything. Lord knows, there are even Oscar-winning Hollywood movies made about this topic. Frank’s point, which is still hugely important, is that there is no theory of everything, nor should there be. There is a gap between nature and society. The mistake, for which scientism is the name, is the belief that this gap can or should be filled.

by Simon Critchley, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Tucker Nichols