One theme runs through most discussions of scientism: two sides are talking past each other because they have very different conceptions of science and interpret the word very differently. Never has this been so exemplified as by Leon Wieseltier’s response to Steven Pinker’s widely discussed piece “Science is not your enemy”.
Those defending scientism conceive of science broadly. They see the universe as a unified whole and take an overview of our attempts to gain knowledge of this whole. They see a separation into different disciplines as a useful labelling, but not as reflecting any underlying rifts or divisions in how the world actually is, or in our knowledge about it. Between any arbitrarily defined academic disciplines there always lies a seamless transition of inter-disciplinary learning.
The essential commitment of scientism is the attitude that the same underlying rules of evidence and logic and reason apply everywhere, across all academic disciplines. Thus the different disciplines differ not in fundamentals, but in the subject matter and in the practicalities of investigating different topics.
Further, a scientist sees humans as very much a product of the natural world, as one species that has evolved among millions of others over eons of time, and very much bearing the stamp of our origins. To those espousing scientism, learning about social interactions among humans is just as much a science as learning about social interactions among chimpanzees or zebra. Studying humans as they are now or as they were one thousand years ago transitions seamlessly into studying humans as they were a hundred thousand years ago, or how their ancestors were ten million years ago.
All biological processes are continua, and to set a rigid date and declare that investigation of humans as they were earlier than (say) 6000 years ago is “science” but that investigations of humans more recently is not a science, but instead an arts/humanities subject, is utterly arbitrary and alien to how scientists think.
Further, to pick one species out of the 30 million extant species and to declare that studying that one is not a science, whereas studying any of the other 30 million would be, is contrary to our whole scientific understanding of humans as a natural part of the natural world.
Thus, to a scientist, it is natural to think of the study of humans (history, economics, politics, and the study of the literature and art that humans create) as a branch of anthropology, the study of ourselves. This isn’t just semantics, it’s the way that evidence has led scientists to think about humans.
What do we call this unified and seamless realm of enquiry into the natural world, including humans? The word “science” derives from the Latin for “knowledge” and it is tempting to use it for this whole realm of knowledge.
But this causes problems among those who are opposed to or who misunderstand scientism, because that is not how they interpret the word. To such critics “science” is what is done in the university buildings grouped under the “science faculty”, but not what is done in the arts and humanities faculties. This “narrow” definition of science is a valid use of the word, but is not what “science” means to those espousing scientism. And thence, alas, two sides talking past each other. Perhaps we need a new word for the consilience of knowledge into one ensemble, but lacking one the scientism-ists use the word “science” (and speaking of new words, one for “scientism-ist” would also be useful!).
So to the article by Leon Wieseltier — literary editor of The New Republic and very much not a scientist — as a prime example of where the failure to appreciate this misunderstanding leads.
Wieseltier starts with some grand declarations:
The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy …
At no point does Wieseltier tell us what he understands by “science”, he doesn’t define his terms and shows no inkling that how one conceives of science might be at the core of the issue. He just takes the narrow view that science is what comes out of the science-faculty buildings. Nor, it is worth remarking, does Wieseltier argue for any to the dozen declarations in his opening, he just declares them.
He then makes what seems to me a rather odd suggestion. He says that:
Certain scientists and certain scientizers, or propagandists for science as a sufficient approach to the natural universe and the human universe … feel oddly besieged … they claim that science is under attack … the scientizers claim to have fallen victim … some scientists and some scientizers feel prickly and self-pitying about the humanistic insistence that there is more to the world than science can disclose.
“Scientizers”, maybe that’s the word! But feeling “besieged” and “under attack”? “Self-pitying” about having “fallen victim” to the humanities? Really? Quite the reverse, Mr Wieseltier, we “scientizers” are self-confident and cocky and on the offensive!
While on the topic of rather odd suggestions, Wieseltier also says:
Too many of the defenders of science, and the noisy “new atheists,” shabbily believe that they can refute religion by pointing to its more outlandish manifestations. Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally.
There ought to be a law requiring that anyone making such claims about the “new atheists” must provide at least one quote from at least one notable “new atheist”. The idea that atheists think that refuting scriptural literalism or the extremes of religion amounts to refuting religion is just false. No “new atheist” has ever thought or said that (though you wouldn’t guess that from the frequency of such claims).
But let’s return to the main point, to scientism. Wieseltier addresses Pinker’s suggestion that science is characterised by two ideals:
The first of those ideals is that “the world is intelligible.” The second of those ideals is that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard.” Intelligibility and difficulty, the exclusive teachings of science? This is either ignorant or tendentious.
Did Pinker actually say they were the “exclusive teachings of science”? No, indeed be explicitly said the opposite: missing from Wieseltier’s quotes is Pinker’s preceding sentence: “In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism”.
Again, this is a broad conception of “science” as unified with all knowledge. The fact that ideas of the “intelligibility” of the world are common across disciplines is exactly Pinker’s point! Pinker is pointing out the underlying consilience between disciplines.
Wieseltier has gone horribly wrong because he has made no attempt to understand what Pinker is actually saying, no attempt to understand the viewpoint of scientism. No philosopher would have got that far into the essay without attempting to define the terms under discussion, and Wieseltier’s failure to do that is striking. On the narrow conception of science that I think Wieseltier assumes he may well be right in most of his article, but it is arguing against a strawman, not against scientism as anyone espouses it.
Wieselter sort of gets Pinker’s drift, but just ridicules and dismisses it:
In [Pinker’s] view, anybody who has studied any phenomena that are studied by science has been a scientist. It does not matter that they approached the phenomena with different methods and different vocabularies. If they were interested in the mind, then they were early versions of brain scientists. If they investigated human nature, then they were social psychologists or behavioral economists avant la lettre. Pinker’s essay opens with the absurd, but immensely revealing, contention that Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, and Smith were scientists. […]
Kant’s significant contributions to our understanding of mind and morality were plainly philosophical, and philosophy is not, and was certainly not for Kant, a science. Perhaps one can be a scientist without being aware that one is a scientist. What else could these thinkers have been, for Pinker? If they contributed to knowledge, then they must have been scientists, because what other type of knowledge is there?
Exactly. What other type of knowledge is there? If our universe is a unified whole and thus our attempts to gain knowledge about it should be aiming at a unified whole, then all knowledge is one type. If this is not the case, if there are uncrossable demarcations, different and incompatible types of knowledge, and “other ways of knowing”, then it is up to those arguing for such to demonstrate it. So far they haven’t.
Maybe Wieseltier does think like this, perhaps he is a dualist, considering mind and matter to be fundamentally different, with mind perhaps being supernatural “soul”, beyond what science can study. Afterall, Wieseltier is religious, and many religious people think that way. The following passage suggests that he does:
The translation of nonscientific discourse into scientific discourse is the central objective of scientism. It is also the source of its intellectual perfunctoriness. Imagine a scientific explanation of a painting — a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and a chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated. Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting.
This is revealing. According to Wieseltier a “scientific” account of the beauty of a painting would consist of an analysis of the paint — and then stop there. Wieseltier doesn’t even conceive that the human brain is also a natural and material object, also a subject for scientific study. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; beauty is all about the response of the human brain, about the pattern of electrical activity firing up and down neural dendrites and across synapses, and about the mood and emotion conjured by that neural firing pattern.
A scientific account of the beauty of a painting would of course have to include all of this, and such an account (which, in the infancy of neuroscience, is beyond current scientific capability) would explain “what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting”. Wieseltier’s religious dualism causes him to totally underestimate science and its scope — of course it encompasses ourselves and our brains, and of course it doesn’t stop at the painting!
Wieseltier’s rejection of this is explicit:
With his uniform notion of intelligibility, Pinker rejects the momentous distinction between the study of the natural world and the study of the human world […] Here is Dilthey, in 1883: “The impossibility of deriving mental or spiritual facts from those of the mechanical order of nature -— an impossibility based on the difference of their sources -— does not preclude their inclusion within the system of nature. But there comes a point where the relations among the facts of the world of human spirit show themselves to be incommensurate with the uniformities of natural processes in that the facts of the human world cannot be subordinated to those established by the mechanistic conception of nature. Only then do we witness … the boundary where knowledge of nature ends and an independent human science, shaped by its own central concerns, begins.”
Science has moved on since 1883, the human brain does not come from a source different from the natural world, it is a product of the natural world and just as much the subject of scientific enquiry as any other natural and material object.
It is the irreducible reality of inwardness, and its autonomy as a category of understanding, over which Pinker, in his delirium of empirical research, rides roughshod. The humanities are the study of the many expressions of that inwardness.
Well sorry, Mr Wieseltier, science can study the insides of things as much as their outsides! The “inner” domain of our mental life is the product of our material brain, of the electrical and chemical signals whizzing around our network of neurons. Yes, this will be rejected by a vitalist or a dualist, but vitalism and dualism are intellectual dead ends (ones that died over a century ago); Pinker is right that the humanities need to ditch them in the same way that science already has.