Culture Clash

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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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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