Culture Clash

The Spectacular Arrogance & Ignorance of Steven Pinker’s Scientism

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

What is one to make of an essay seeking to bridge a purported divide of understanding between science and the humanities – in which the humanities are said to fear and mistrust the sciences – that opens with the sentence, “The great thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment were scientists”? The essay goes on to list “Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith.”

There is no mention in Steven Pinker’s “Science Is Not Your Enemy,” after or at any point, of Shakespeare, Cervantes, Swift, Voltaire, Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Hayden, Bach, Mozart, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rafael.

If one were to claim that by “Reason and Enlightenment” was meant those rational philosophical and experimental and empirical enterprises that would not properly include this latter list of names, then Pinker’s opening claim would be tautologous and therefore pointless and meaningless to his argument. If he was suggesting more broadly, as he should have been, the development of the modern human being and world – or as Harold Bloom titled it in his magnum opus on Shakespeare, The Invention of the Human – then the absence of those names glares like a dark star.

What is one to make of an essay that purports to address the the fears and flaws of the humanities, but that devotes most of its time to countering the most primitive magical thinking of old religions, thus promoting such a conflation?

What is one to make of an essay in defense of science that does not state that there is no empirical evidence or reasoned argument for a belief that “the laws governing the physical world … have … goals that pertain to human well-being,” but that claims instead that we know that these laws have no such goals?

What is one to make of an essay that states,

We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small,

yet that shows the presumption above and demonstrates otherwise a complete ignorance of  what the humanities in their essence are as a human expression and what elements of experience they address?

What is one to make of an essay that waxes enthusiastically that

[s]cience has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space,

but that takes only the notice of a phrase in the existence of the visual arts and no notice of the profound distinction, and meaning to be found, in beauty that is, precisely, a human creation?

What is one to make of an essay that in seeking to gain the support of humanists for science, offers as examples of what rejuvenating contributions science might make to the humanities enterprises that reduce the humanities to mere subject for empirical study.

What is one to make of an essay that evinces not the least visible recognition of a difference between a human being and a humanoid, between human experience and humanoid operation?

Nothing. Simply nothing.


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