Scientism, Signifying, and Meaning

Since I wrote my brief broadside against Steven Pinker’s monumentally misguided New Republic essay “Science Is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians,” a slew of additional responses have come to my attention. Rhetorically, my reply was a proslepsis (among its many names), a technique by which one talks about something while pretending not to. (I won’t even mention what a condescending scientisitc snot Pinker was with that subtitle.)

The last few posts at Byzantine Dream will lead you to many of these worthwhile offerings. At Maverick Philosopher, you will find a clear explanatory definition of the scientism – not science – that Pinker was so offensively defending.

Scientism is a philosophical thesis that belongs to the sub-discipline of epistemology. It is not a thesis in science, but a thesis about science.  The thesis in its strongest form is that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, the knowledge generated by the (hard) sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and their offshoots. The thesis in a weaker form allows some cognitive value to the social sciences, the humanities, and other subjects, but insists that scientific knowledge is vastly superior and authoritative and is as it were the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to knowledge. On either strong or weak scientism, there is no room for first philosophy, according to which philosophy is an autonomous discipline, independent of natural science, and authoritative in respect to it. So on scientism, natural science sets the standard in matters epistemic, and philosophy’s role is at best ancillary.  Not a handmaiden to theology in this day and age; a handmaiden to science.

To clarify I would add to philosophy, above, aesthetics and hermeneutics, though these are, of course, philosophical expressions. A common fundamental criticism of Pinker and others who promote scientism is that they do not even recognize the distinction between science and scientism, which is why, as Pinker did, some conflate the two by their use, only, of the word “science.”

In addition to this conceptual confusion, between an epistemic method and an epistemological theory, Pinker makes a perhaps deeper error still, by an apparent inability to cognize, or credit, alternative ways not just of knowing, but of being. I refer to this in my comments to the post as

a predisposition of the scientific mind to think mechanistically, instrumentally, and teleologically – that last in the sense that human “purpose” is posited ideally as some kind of bell that gets rung in the end. Is that what human purpose need be? Is centrality found only in mechanistic or final causation?

Adam Gopnik offers just a clarifying first eye opener to this different vision here, in this apologia for the humanities led into the fray by the study of English. Science offers us a large measure of what is, and how it is (and why it is only in that sense of how), but of symbol making and symbol reading – signifying – and of meaning, science does not speak.

No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.

Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.



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