Leon Wieseltier responds to Steven Pinker’s on scientism.
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, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate. The credibility of physicists and biologists and economists on the subject of the meaning of life—what used to be called the ultimate verities, secularly or religiously constructed—cannot be owed to their work in physics and biology and economics, however distinguished it is. The extrapolation of larger ideas about life from the procedures and the conclusions of various sciences is quite common, but it is not in itself justified; and its justification cannot be made on internally scientific grounds, at least if the intellectual situation is not to be rigged. Science does come with a worldview, but there remains the question of whether it can suffice for the entirety of a human worldview. To have a worldview, Musil once remarked, you must have a view of the world. That is, of the whole of the world. But the reach of the scientific standpoint may not be as considerable or as comprehensive as some of its defenders maintain.
None of these strictures about the limitations of science, about its position in nonscientific or extra-scientific contexts, in any way impugns the integrity or the legitimacy or the necessity or the beauty of science. Science is a regular source of awe and betterment. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. No humanist in his right mind would believe otherwise. Science is plainly owed this much support, this much reverence. This much—but no more. In recent years, however, this much has been too little for certain scientists and certain scientizers, or propagandists for science as a sufficient approach to the natural universe and the human universe. In a world increasingly organized around the dazzling new breakthroughs in science and technology, they feel oddly besieged.
They claim that science is under attack, and from two sides. The first is the fundamentalist strain of Christianity, which does indeed deny the truth of certain proven scientific findings and more generally prefers the subjective gains of personal rapture to the objective gains of scientific method. Against this line of attack, even those who are skeptical about the scientizing enterprise must stand with the scientists, though it is important to point out that the errors of religious fundamentalism must not be mistaken for the errors of religion. 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. When they read, most believers, like most nonbelievers, interpret. When the Bible declares that the world was created in seven days, it broaches the question of what a day might mean. When the Bible declares that God has an arm and a nose, it broaches the question of what an arm and a nose might mean. Since the universe is 13.8 billion years old, a day cannot mean 24 hours, at least not for the intellectually serious believer; and if God exists, which is for philosophy to determine, this arm and this nose cannot refer to God, because that would be stupid.
Interpretation is what ensues when a literal meaning conflicts with what is known to be true from other sources of knowledge. As the ancient rabbis taught, accept the truth from whoever utters it. Religious people, or many of them, are not idiots. They have always availed themselves of many sources of knowledge. They know about philosophical argument and figurative language. Medieval and modern religious thinking often relied upon the science of its day. Rationalist currents flourished alongside anti-rationalist currents, and sometimes became the theological norm. What was Jewish and Christian and Muslim theology without Aristotle? When a dissonance was experienced, the dissonance was honestly explored. So science must be defended against nonsense, but not every disagreement with science, or with the scientific worldview, is nonsense. The alternative to obscurantism is not that science be all there is.
The second line of attack to which the scientizers claim to have fallen victim comes from the humanities. This is a little startling, since it is the humanities that are declining in America, not least as a result of the exaggerated glamour of science. But 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. It is not enough for them that the humanities recognize and respect the sciences; they need the humanities to submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them. The idea of the autonomy of the humanities, the notion that thought, action, experience, and art exceed the confines of scientific understanding, fills them with a profound anxiety. It throws their totalizing mentality into crisis. And so they respond with a strange mixture of defensiveness and aggression. As people used to say about the Soviet Union, they expand because they feel encircled.
A few weeks ago this magazine published a small masterpiece of scientizing apologetics by Steven Pinker, called “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” Pinker utters all kinds of sentimental declarations about the humanities, which “are indispensable to a civilized democracy.” Nobody wants to set himself against sensibility, which is anyway a feature of scientific work, too. Pinker ranges over a wide variety of thinkers and disciplines, scientific and humanistic, and he gives the impression of being a tolerant and cultivated man, which no doubt he is. But the diversity of his analysis stays at the surface. His interest in many things is finally an interest in one thing. He is a foxy hedgehog. His essay, a defense of “scientism,” is a long exercise in assimilating humanistic inquiries into scientific ones. By the time Pinker is finished, the humanities are the handmaiden of the sciences, and dependent upon the sciences for their advance and even their survival.
Pinker tiresomely rehearses the familiar triumphalism of science over religion: “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures … are factually mistaken.” So they are, there on the page; but most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures have evolved in their factual understandings by means of intellectually responsible exegesis that takes the progress of science into account; and most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures are not primarily traditions of fact but traditions of value; and the relationship of fact to value in those traditions is complicated enough to enable the values often to survive the facts, as they do also in Aeschylus and Plato and Ovid and Dante and Montaigne and Shakespeare. Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence. Like many sophisticated people, Pinker is quite content with a collapse of sophistication in the discussion of religion.
Yet the purpose of Pinker’s essay is not chiefly to denounce religion. It is to praise scientism. Rejecting the various definitions of scientism—“it is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities,” it is not “reductionism,” it is not “naïve”—Pinker proposes his own characterization of scientism, which he defends as an attempt “to export to the rest of intellectual life” the two ideals that in his view are the hallmarks of science. 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. Plato believed in the intelligibility of the world, and so did Dante, and so did Maimonides and Aquinas and Al-Farabi, and so did Poussin and Bach and Goethe and Austen and Tolstoy and Proust. They all share Pinker’s denial of the opacity of the world, of its impermeability to the mind. They all join in his desire to “explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles.” They all concur with him that “in making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede ‘It just is’ or ‘It’s magic’ or ‘Because I said so.’ ” But of course Pinker is not referring to their ideals of intelligibility. The ideal that he has in mind is a very particular one. It is the ideal of scientific intelligibility, which he disguises, by means of an inoffensive general formulation, as the whole of intelligibility itself.
If Pinker believes that scientific clarity is the only clarity there is, he should make the argument for such a belief. He should also acknowledge its narrowness (though within the realm of science it is very wide), and its straitening effect upon the investigation of human affairs. Instead he simply conflates scientific knowledge with knowledge as such. In his 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. It is true that once upon a time a self-respecting intellectual had to be scientifically literate, or even attempt a modest contribution to the study of the natural world. It is also true that Kant, to choose but one of Pinker’s heroes of science, made some astronomical discoveries in his early work; but 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? For all its geniality, Pinker’s translation of nonscientific thinking into science is no less strident a constriction than, say, Carnap’s colossally parochial dictum that “there is no question whose answer is in principle unattainable by science.” His ravenous intellectual appetite notwithstanding, Pinker is finally in the same reductionist racket. (The R-word!) He sees many locks but only one key.
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. Nor can the new “vision science” that Pinker champions give a satisfactory account of aesthetic charisma. The inadequacy of a scientistic explanation does not mean that beauty is therefore a “mystery” or anything similarly occult. It means only that other explanations must be sought, in formal and iconographical and emotional and philosophical terms.