On David Gelernter’s rant

by Neil Rickert

It came to my attention, this morning, that David Gelernter has a strange rant on “Commentary” (h/t Uncommon Descent):

Gelernter is a well known computer scientist at Yale.

I already knew that Gelernter was a critic of AI (Artificial Intelligence).  Since I also criticize AI, that was no reason for concern.  One might hope for a thoughtful discussion piece, but this turned out to be little more than a rant.

On science

Gelernter writes:

That science should face crises in the early 21st century is inevitable. Power corrupts, and science today is the Catholic Church around the start of the 16th century: used to having its own way and dealing with heretics by excommunication, not argument.

That’s the kind of nonsense that we hear coming from the religious right.  What a pity that Gelernter is building his picture of science from right wing religion, instead of by reading what the scientists actually say.

Science is caught up, also, in the same educational breakdown that has brought so many other proud fields low. Science needs reasoned argument and constant skepticism and open-mindedness. But our leading universities have dedicated themselves to stamping them out—at least in all political areas. We routinely provide superb technical educations in science, mathematics, and technology to brilliant undergraduates and doctoral students. But if those same students have been taught since kindergarten that you are not permitted to question the doctrine of man-made global warming, or the line that men and women are interchangeable, or the multiculturalist idea that all cultures and nations are equally good (except for Western nations and cultures, which are worse), how will they ever become reasonable, skeptical scientists? They’ve been reared on the idea that questioning official doctrine is wrong, gauche, just unacceptable in polite society. (And if you are president of Harvard, it can get you fired.)

You can see why I call it a rant.  I have long heard this kind of criticism coming from both the political right and the religious right.  But those criticisms have never rung true.  The universities where have been involved have welcomed open discussion of ideas.

It is true, of course, that those who support “the doctrine” of man-made global warming do present a very strong evidence based case, while the critics lack supporting evidence for their view.  Perhaps Gelernter does not think evidence should be used, but that would be a strange position for a scientist to take.

On Humanism

Many scientists are proud of having booted man off his throne at the center of the universe and reduced him to just one more creature—an especially annoying one—in the great intergalactic zoo. That is their right. But when scientists use this locker-room braggadocio to belittle the human viewpoint, to belittle human life and values and virtues and civilization and moral, spiritual, and religious discoveries, which is all we human beings possess or ever will, they have outrun their own empiricism. They are abusing their cultural standing. Science has become an international bully.

The scientists who are concerned about global warming, are concerned precisely because they see global warming as a potential thread to the future of humanity.  Yet Gelernter accuses science of being anti-humanist, while at the same time he apparently does not want anything done about global warming.  It is the attitude of Gelernter that is the greater threat to humanity.


The voice most strongly associated with what I’ve termed roboticism is that of Ray Kurzweil, a leading technologist and inventor. The Kurzweil Cult teaches that, given the strong and ever-increasing pace of technological progress and change, a fateful crossover point is approaching.

Most of the people that I am acquainted with, have a rather low opinion of Kurzweil’s ideas.  One wonder’s why Gelernter finds them so disturbing.

On Nagel

The modern “mind fields” encompass artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, and philosophy of mind. Researchers in these fields are profoundly split, and the chaos was on display in the ugliness occasioned by the publication of Thomas Nagel’s Mind & Cosmos in 2012. Nagel is an eminent philosopher and professor at NYU. In Mind & Cosmos, he shows with terse, meticulous thoroughness why mainstream thought on the workings of the mind is intellectually bankrupt. He explains why Darwinian evolution is insufficient to explain the emergence of consciousness—the capacity to feel or experience the world. He then offers his own ideas on consciousness, which are speculative, incomplete, tentative, and provocative—in the tradition of science and philosophy.

Gelernter goes on to accuse Nagel’s critics of bullying him.

I’ll grant that Nagel completely and thoroughly refutes the strawman that he is attacking.  But that’s the problem.  It’s a strawman.  Very few people — perhaps none — hold the view that Nagel was criticizing.  We do hear a constant barrage of attacks against that strawman, mostly coming from the religious right.  But Gelernter should be finding about scientists views by talking to them, not by buying into creationist rhetoric.

On subjectivity

This is the part I find most puzzling.

Subjectivity is your private experience of the world: your sensations; your mental life and inner landscape; your experiences of sweet and bitter, blue and gold, soft and hard; your beliefs, plans, pains, hopes, fears, theories, imagined vacation trips and gardens and girlfriends and Ferraris, your sense of right and wrong, good and evil. This is your subjective world. It is just as real as the objective physical world.

I wonder what it could even mean to say that a person’s subjective world is real.  Calling it “real” seems like an attempt to pseudo-objectify it.  And once you attempt to objectify it, you are on the path to declaring that it doesn’t exist.

If Gelernter wants to value the subjective, then he should avoid talk of subjective states, since such state talk is but another attempt to pseudo-objectify the subjective.  Yet Gelernter wants to insist on giving mental states an important place.  I doubt that he has thought this through.


I have picked out only a small part of Gelernter’s article for comment.  I suggest you go read the whole thing for yourself.  You will probably be as puzzled as I am.


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