Tag Archives: Pinker

Replies to Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s essay from last week on ‘scientism’ obviously stirred some pots, and there have been a couple of thoughtful replies, from both scientists and humanities scholars. For the most part, people argue that he spent too much time defending science itself (which few people recognize has a bad thing) and not enough time discussing what the limits of science are (an open and interesting question).

One reply is from philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci on his blog Rationally Speaking: Steven Pinker embraces scientism. Bad move, I think. (via 3quarksdaily). For one thing, he disagrees with Pinker’s rebranding of the word ‘scientism’ as some good thing, and instead prefers to reserve it for the circumstances when science over steps its bounds.

I have begun to think of scientism as in a sense the opposite extreme of pseudoscience: while pseudoscientific notions arise from science badly done (or non-science masquerading as science), scientism is about science overreaching (or science trying to expand into non scientific domains).

Most of the response is about how Pinker did too much to drive a wedge between science and the humanities, and not enough to bring them together. He summarizes

Pinker really wasted a good chance here. He has the intellectual stature and public visibility to nudge the debate forward in a positive direction. Instead of embracing scientism as a positive label, he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed. Instead of telling us again platitudes about the benefits of science (while ignoring its darker side) and chastising the humanities for not embracing it whole heartedly, he could have presented a nuanced examination of where science really is useful to the humanities and where the latter are useful to the sciences – not to mention those several areas where the two can safely ignore each other in pursuit of different goals.

And physicist Sean Carroll says that a lot of this argument is just semantics (see his post Let’s Stop Using the Word “Scientism”)

The working definition of “scientism” is “the belief that science is the right approach to use in situations where science actually isn’t the right approach at all.” Nobody actually quotes this definition, but it accurately matches how the word is used. The problem should be obvious — the areas in which science is the right approach are not universally agreed upon. So instead of having an interesting substantive discussion about a real question (“For what kinds of problems is a scientific approach the best one?”) we instead have a dopey and boring definitional one (“What does the word `scientism’ mean?”).

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Science and Mystery

Steven Pinker’s essay defending scientism (which I made some brief comments on yesterday) has unsurprisingly drawn some criticisms from the humanities crowd. A. Jay Adler has commented:

What is one to make of an essay that evinces not the least visible recognition of a difference between a human being and a humanoid, between human experience and humanoid operation?

And there was a response from Leon Wieseltier, one of the editors of The New Republic:

We are becoming a massively datafied, quantified society which looks for wisdom in numbers, and thinks that numbers can provide certainties of certain kinds. Owing to the explosion of big data, there has developed this excessive confidence in the ability of the quantifying disciplines to explain human life.

I did not interpret Pinker’s essay as an out-and-out attempt to completely replace the methods of the humanities with the methods of the sciences, but rather to complement them. As he says,

It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them.

This a much more benign stance than some scientists have taken. E. O. Wilson, for example, said in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis:

Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.

which is a pretty aggressive statement. But using the sciences to address some the most funamental questions, questions that seem like they perhaps shouldn’t be within the realm of science, isn’t the only issue. There is also a fear that an overemphasis on the sciences may lead to a forgetting of the important subjective aspects of human experience, the difficult to define qualia that lend life much of its meaning. Wieseltier expresses this fear when he says

My worst case scenario is that people stop regarding themselves as souls, which is a word I use not in a religious sense, or as selves, which is a word I use in a very rich, almost nonsecular sense, that they regard themselves as the sum total of the materialistic influences upon them, that they lose any sense of the mysteriousness of human experience and human feeling.

Here he is stating that this sense of the mysterious is a fundamental element of what it means to be human. This is interesting considering that Albert Einstein mentioned this same thing as a fundamental driving element of science,

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.

Behind all the seeking that people do, whether in the meticulous observation and logical reasoning of the sciences or the intuitive, subjective exploration of the arts, there is the general desire to address some of these grand existential mysteries. There are all sorts of different complementary methods by which we may try to construct an understanding of ourselves and build a way forward.

I think that the point that Pinker was trying to make wasn’t that we don’t need the humanities or that they are unimportant, but instead that any worldview that emerges from that work must necessarily be based in objective scientific facts. That though “the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities.” Science cannot define for us how to live or where to find love and happiness, but it does place some limitations on what answers we can choose. It can tell us that a 6000 year old Earth is not a viable religious belief, that “there is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers”, and that some of the most basic human emotions are inexorably linked with neural processes. The truth is, objective facts about ourselves can be quite empowering. Almost by definition this ‘sense of the mysterious’ must have elements that cannot be dealt with scientifically, but by applying scientific methods to such vague notions as morality, love, and happiness, we can more carefully pinpoint what it is we hope to capture. Barabara Fredrickson said this quite well

Learning how love works can make a clear difference in your life. It can help you prioritise moments of shared positive emotions and elevate your faith in humanity. Science need not inevitably leave you holding a flat corkboard with a dismembered butterfly pinned to it. Science can also glorify, painting a colourful and multidimensional road map for a more potent life journey, one that eliminates the detours of false hopes, false prophets, false claims, and charts a course toward the real thing.