Sunshine Recorder

Link: Crimes Against Humanities

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.

Link: Reading Each Other

National Endowment for the Humanities Chair Jim Leach spent most of 2010 on a Civility Tour of America, hosting events and discussions about the importance of the humanities for reintroducing civil discourse to American culture. Leach sees civility as a key part of a functioning society, and I agree. But whatever we mean when we talk about how the humanities can encourage civility, I think we have to mean something more than their ability to provide simple moral instruction.

Rules are good things to have. We need to learn not to wipe our noses on our sleeves, not to take stuff that isn’t ours, not to scream at people when we’re debating them on television, not to shout abuse at politicians even if they deserve it. But as useful as rules like that can be, they’re limited in significant ways. Anyone who has read Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth probably has a few choice words for societies in which everyone obeys the technical rules of civilized behavior and where no one’s voice is ever raised—and where all these perfect manners simply serve to cloak the viciousness with which people treat one another.

If that sort of rule is all the humanities can offer, there’s no reason to value them any more than or any differently from how we do etiquette manuals or advice columns or the barrage of rules for meaningless politeness that Alice gets from the Red Queen. The interactions of politics, of business, of the adult world are too complicated for simple rules to be useful. To learn to deal with these things civilly, we need to get past thinking about civility as social rules that everyone can agree on. We need to talk about more than good manners. We need to talk about what the humanities do best. We need to talk about learning how to be a grownup.

It is, perhaps, another Alice who can help lead the way. In 1921 Booth Tarkington published his Pulitzer Prize-winning and now much-neglected novel, Alice Adams, which contains the most horrifying description of a dinner party since Grendel slaughtered and ate Beowulf ’s men in the mead hall. Alice Adams is just about to age out of the marriage market in her Indiana town. Her social class is marginal. She stayed at home while other local girls of “good” families went away to school, and she became something of the town belle, but did not manage to “secure a husband.” She has now attracted the attentions of Arthur Russell, a wealthy and handsome out-of-towner. Throughout the summer, Arthur and Alice have spent the evenings talking in the romantic twilight of Alice’s front porch. But now the relationship has come to the tipping point and Arthur must be invited in to dinner.

We’ve all done it, right? Dinner for the boss? For the prospective in-laws? For the man or woman we want to impress? We all know how it feels—that fear that what we have and what we are isn’t good enough. And we all begin to die a little inside when things go wrong for Alice. There’s the heavy, pretentious meal that her mother decides to serve: from canned caviar sandwiches and hot soup to larded beef fillet and Brussels sprouts. There’s the intoxicated waitress hired to make it appear that Alice and her mother don’t engage in housework. There’s Alice’s bewildered father, who can’t understand why they have to pretend to be fancy since “If they get things settled between ’em he’ll be around the house and to meals most any time, won’t he? … Well he’ll see then that this kind of thing was all show-off and bluff, won’t he?” There’s Alice’s mother, whose desperation to charm Alice’s suitor sends him running. And there’s the heat “like an affliction sent upon an accursed people”—that renders the heavy food, the reek of boiled Brussels sprouts, and the endless social pressure even more torturous.

The first time I read Alice Adams I was a teenager, and I thought the dinner scene was heartbreaking. It seemed unfair for Alice to have worked so hard and gotten nothing. And didn’t this Tarkington guy know anything about romance? Everyone knows the pretty girl and the handsome young man are supposed to get together at the end. I suffered for Alice, but I suffered childishly.

The second time I read Alice Adams I was in college. This time, I thought the scene was hilarious. Alice and her mother were such hopeless, desperate social climbers! I felt very sophisticated getting Tarkington’s joke.

Reading Alice Adams as an adult, I realized how callous I was as a college student and how sentimental I was as a teenager. Today the scene strikes me as a masterpiece of literary balance. It is tragic. I wasn’t wrong at 15. And it is hilarious. I wasn’t wrong at 20. But it took time and life experience for me to realize that Alice’s dinner party could be both of those things at once—and that when it was, it was a better, richer, more realistic piece of fiction than my earlier readings had indicated.

What I was doing with my repeated readings of Alice Adams, though I didn’t know it, was practicing what the eighteenth-century moral philosopher, economist, and rhetorician Adam Smith called “sympathy.” And I was using the humanities to do it.

Link: The Trouble with Scientism

”It is so easy to underrate the impact of the humanities and of the arts. Too many people, some of whom should know better, do it all the time. But understanding why the natural sciences are regarded as the gold standard for human knowledge is not hard. When molecular biologists are able to insert fragments of DNA into bacteria and turn the organisms into factories for churning out medically valuable substances, and when fundamental physics can predict the results of experiments with a precision comparable to measuring the distance across North America to within the thickness of a human hair, their achievements compel respect, and even awe. To derive one’s notion of human knowledge from the most striking accomplishments of the natural sciences easily generates a conviction that other forms of inquiry simply do not measure up. Their accomplishments can come to seem inferior, even worthless, at least until the day when these domains are absorbed within the scope of “real science.”

The conflict between the Naturwissenschaften and the Geisteswissenschaften goes back at least two centuries, and became intensified as ambitious, sometimes impatient researchers proposed to introduce natural scientific concepts and methods into the study of human psychology and human social behavior. Their efforts, and the attitudes of unconcealed disdain that often inspired them, prompted a reaction, from Vico to Dilthey and into our own time: the insistence that some questions are beyond the scope of natural scientific inquiry, too large, too complex, too imprecise, and too important to be addressed by blundering over-simplifications. From the nineteenth-century ventures in mechanistic psychology to contemporary attempts to introduce evolutionary concepts into the social sciences, “scientism” has been criticized for its “mutilation” (Verstümmelung, in Dilthey’s memorable term) of the phenomena to be explained.

The problem with scientism—which is of course not the same thing as science—is owed to a number of sources, and they deserve critical scrutiny. The enthusiasm for natural scientific imperialism rests on five observations. First, there is the sense that the humanities and social sciences are doomed to deliver a seemingly directionless sequence of theories and explanations, with no promise of additive progress. Second, there is the contrasting record of extraordinary success in some areas of natural science. Third, there is the explicit articulation of technique and method in the natural sciences, which fosters the conviction that natural scientists are able to acquire and combine evidence in particularly rigorous ways. Fourth, there is the perception that humanists and social scientists are only able to reason cogently when they confine themselves to conclusions of limited generality: insofar as they aim at significant—general—conclusions, their methods and their evidence are unrigorous. Finally, there is the commonplace perception that the humanities and social sciences have been dominated, for long periods of their histories, by spectacularly false theories, grand doctrines that enjoy enormous popularity until fashion changes, as their glaring shortcomings are disclosed.

These familiar observations have the unfortunate effect of transforming differences of degree into differences of kind, as enthusiasts for the alleged superiority of natural science readily succumb to stereotypes and over-generalizations, without regard for more subtle explanations. Let us consider the five foundations of this mistake in order.