The world as I see it
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • Steven Pinker, Science, and “Scientism”

    Posted on August 17th, 2013 Helian No comments

    In an article that appeared recently in The New Republic entitled, “Science is not Your Enemy,” Steven Pinker is ostensibly defending science, going so far as to embrace “scientism.”  As he points out, “The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine.”  That’s quite true, which is reason enough to be somewhat circumspect about self-identifying (if I may coin a term) as a “scientismist.”  Nothing daunted, Pinker does just that, defending scientism in “the good sense.” He informs us that “good scientism” is distinguished by “an explicit commitment to two ideals,” namely, the propositions that the world is intelligible, and that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.

    Let me say up front that I am on Pinker’s side when it comes to the defense of what he calls “science,” just as I am on his side in rejecting the ideology of the Blank Slate.  Certainly he’s worthy of a certain respect, if only in view of the sort of people who have been coming out of the woodwork to attack him for his latest.  Anyone with enemies like that can’t be all bad.  It’s just that, whenever I read his stuff, I find myself rolling my eyes before long.  Consider, for example, his tome about the Blank Slate.  My paperback version runs to 500 pages give or take, and in all that prose, I find only a single mention of Robert Ardrey, and then only accompanied by the claim that he was “totally and utterly wrong.”  Now, by the account of the Blank Slaters themselves (see, in particular, the essays by Geoffrey Gorer in Man and Aggression, edited by Ashley Montagu), Robert Ardrey was their most effective and influential opponent.  In other words, Pinker wrote a thick tome, purporting to be an account of the Blank Slate, in which he practically ignored the contributions of the most important player in the whole affair, only mentioning him at all in order to declare him wrong, when in fact he was on the same side of the issue as Pinker.

    Similar problems turn up in Pinker’s latest.  For example, he writes,

    Just as common, and as historically illiterate, is the blaming of science for political movements with a pseudoscientific patina, particularly Social Darwinism and eugenics.  Social Darwinism was the misnamed laissez-faire philosophy of Herbert Spencer.  It was inspired not by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but by Spencer’s Victorian-era conception of a mysterious natural force for progress, which was best left unimpeded.

    Here, as in numerous similar cases, it is clear Pinker has never bothered to read Spencer.  The claim that he was a “Social Darwinist” was a red herring tossed out by his enemies after he was dead.  Based on a minimal fair reading of his work, the claim is nonsense.  If actually reading Spencer is too tedious, just Google something like “Spencer Social Darwinism.”  Check a few of the hits, and you will find that a good number of modern scholars have been fair-minded enough to actively dispute the claim.  Other than that, you will find no reference to specific writings of Spencer in which he promotes Social Darwinism as it is generally understood.  The same could be said of the laissez faire claim.  Spencer supported a small state, but hardly rejected stated intervention in all cases.  He was a supporter of labor unions, and even was of the opinion that land should be held in common in his earlier writings.  As for “Victorian-era” conceptions, if memory serves, Darwin wrote during that era as well, and while Spencer embraced Lamarckism and had a less than up-to-date notion of how evolution works, I find no reference in any of his work to a “mysterious natural force for progress.”

    Pinker’s comments about morality are similarly clouded.  He writes,

    In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science… The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.  For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages.  And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions – that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct – the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely, adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.

    In other words, Pinker has bought in to the Sam Harris “human flourishing” mumbo-jumbo, and thinks that the “facts of science” can somehow become material objects with the power to dictate that which is “good” and that which is “evil.”  Here Pinker, in company with Harris, has taken leave of his senses.  Based on what he wrote earlier in the essay, we know that he is aware that what we understand as morality is the expression of evolved behavioral traits.  Those traits are their ultimate cause, and without them morality would literally cease to exist as we know it.  They exist in the brains of individuals, solely by virtue of the fact that, at some point in the distant past utterly unlike the present, they promoted our survival.  And yet, in spite of the fact that Pinker must understand, at least at some level, that these things are true, he agrees with Harris that the emotional responses, or, as Hume, whom Pinker also claims to have read, puts it, sentiments, can jump out of our heads, become objects, or things in themselves, independent of the minds of individuals, and, as such, can be manipulated and specified by the “facts of science.”  Presumably, once the “educated” and the “scientists” have agreed on what the “facts of science” tell us is a “defensible morality,” at that point the rest of us become bound to agree with them on the meanings of “good” and “evil” that they pass down to us, must subordinate our own emotions and inherent predispositions regarding such matters to “science,” and presumably be justifiably (by “science”) punished if we do not.  What nonsense!

    “Science” is not an object, any more than “good” and “evil.”  “Science” cannot independently “say” anything, nor can it create values.  In reality, “science” is a rather vague set of principles and prescriptions for approaching the truth, applied willy-nilly if at all by most “scientists.”  By even embracing the use of the term “science” in that way, Pinker is playing into the hands of his enemies.  He is validating their claim that “science” is actually a thing, but in their case, a bête noire, transcending its real nature as a set of rules, more or less vaguely understood and applied, to become an object in itself.  Once the existence of such a “science” object is accepted, it becomes a mere bagatelle to fix on it the responsibility for all the evils of the world, or, in the case of the Pinkers of the world, all the good.

    In reality, the issue here is not whether this imaginary “science” object exists and, assuming it does, whether it is “good” or “evil.”  It is about whether we should be empowered to learn things about the universe in which we live or not.  The opponents of “scientism” typically rail against such things as eugenics, Social Darwinism, and the atomic bomb.  These are supposedly the creations of the “science” object.  But, in fact, they are no such thing.  In the case of eugenics and Social Darwinism, they represent the moral choices of individuals.  In the case of the atomic bomb, we have a thing which became possible as a result of the knowledge of the physical world acquired in the preceding half a century, give or take.  What would the opponents of “scientism” have us change?  The decision to build the atomic bomb?  Fine, but in that case they are not opposing “science,” but rather a choice made by individuals.  Opposition to “science” itself can only reasonably be construed as opposition to the acquisition of the knowledge that made the bomb possible to begin with.  If that is what the opponents of “scientism” really mean, let them put their cards on the table.  Let them explain to us in just what ways those things which the rest of us are to be allowed to know will be limited, and just why it is they think they have the right to dictate to the rest of us what we can know and what we can’t.

    It seems to me this whole “science” thing is getting out of hand.  If we must have an object, it would be much better for us to go back to the Enlightenment and use the term “reason.”  It seems to me that would make it a great deal more clear what we are talking about.  It would reveal the true nature of the debate.  It is not about the “science” object, and whether it is “good” or “evil,” but about whether we should actually try to use our rational minds, or instead relegate our brains to the less ambitious task of serving as a convenient stuffing for our skulls.

    Leave a reply