A while ago, Steve Pinker published a critique of the Scientism Canard in the New Republic. His piece, called “Science Is Not Your Enemy”, seemed quite reasonable to me. It wasn’t a call for the takeover of the humanities by science, but simply an expansion of some of the humanities to incorporate scientific insights and methodologies. A quote from that piece gives its tenor:
Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.
(I have a brief commentary on Steve’s piece here.)
Steve’s piece, however, was like a red flag to the bull of New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, who edited some of the articles that prompted Steve’s piece. And the bull has charged with both horns sharpened: Leon has a long polemic in the NR trying (unsuccessfully, in my view) to demolish Pinker’s piece. It’s called “Crimes against humanities. Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen.” Read it for yourself; I provide a few excerpts from Wieseltier and a bit of commentary.
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.
Once again we hear the Planting-ian argument that science cannot philosophically justify its own methodologies. To which I reply, “Who the hell cares—science has helped us understand the cosmos, and is justified by its successes.” I fail to understand why a lack of philosophical justification counts at all against the success of science. It’s as if scientists would abandon their trade if they read some philosophy.
I’d also point out that the humanities can’t justify their (nonscientific) methodologies in that way, either. Can you claim that subjective interpretation and emotional response can be justified a priori as a way to correctly interpret literature, art, and music? No, in the end all we have is opinion, some more informed than others but none that can be demonstrated to be the best.
And, of course, nobody talks about religionism: the far more pernicious view that we can ascertain the truth about the supernatural through revelation and interpretation of ancient fiction. That, too, cannot be justified a priori as a way to find truth, though miscreants like Alvin Plantinga (wielding his ludicrous sensus divinitatis) have tried. If you can have a “basic belief” that Jesus is God, then you can also have a “basic belief” that a combination of empirical observation and rationality is the only route to finding out truths about our universe.
Unfortunately for religion, science has progressed while our understanding of the supernatural has not. Ask a scientist “What more do we know about science than we did in 1800?” You will get tons of answers. Then ask a theologian, “What more do we know about God, his nature, and his will than we did in 1800?” The answer will be, “Nothing.”
I’m not sure what “worldview” Wieseltier thinks science has produced, except for the naturalistic worldview. Well, so be it. But that does not mean that science “can suffice for the entirety of a human worldview.” No scientist—certainly not Pinker—thinks that. We have emotions that we don’t understand scientifically, we respond to and enjoy the arts, and we have judgments about right and wrong. Perhaps some day we will understand more about these attitudes through science, but that day is a long way off. In the meantime, we still go to art galleries to see van Gogh, fall in love, and enjoy a good bottle of Bordeaux.
. . . 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.
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.
Maybe Leon’s circle of religious friends (he’s a nonbelieving Jew, I think) don’t take all of scripture literally, but I’d bet that 90% or more of American religious people take some of scripture literally. Leon mentions Genesis and God’s nose, which, indeed, liberal believers have rejected, but he doesn’t bring up the virgin birth, Jesus as the son of God, or the resurrection. By the way, Leon, have you been to an Orthodox synagogue lately? Are all those davening Jews bowing before a metaphor? As I’ve said before, most believers (not a “tiny minority”) are fundamentalist about some things). Or does Wieseltier think that Christians don’t take the Resurrection seriously?
And apparently Wieseltier hasn’t heard much about Islam, where those who take the Qur’an literally are far from “a tiny minority of believers.”
. . .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.
This is not what Steve said. He said that it would be to the benefit of many of the humanities to incorporate the insights and methods of science. Really, should psychology, sociology, or economics avoid statistics, evolutionary psychology, or blind tests with controls like the plague? The fact is that the humanities should not be autonomous, for human reason is a continuous fabric, and to cut oneself off from science—broadly construed as a set of methods used to find reliable truths—is to cut off one’s nose to spite one’s face. (Except for God, of course, who lacks a nose.)
As for our “defensiveness and agression,” Wieseltier is dead wrong. Almost never do we hear scientists saying that the humanities should be killed off. It is not scientists who are killing them off: it’s the brute fact of a bad economy and a waning interest among students, as well as the humanities’ own self-immolation in the fire of postmodernism. What we hear far more often are the plaints of humanities scholars that they’re being usurped by science. And that’s not the fault of either science or scientists.
. . . 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.
This is madness. Nobody thinks that such an analysis will explain why some paintings appeal and others don’t. But science might be able, some day, to explain at least part of that, for some of our aesthetic instincts may be the product of evolution. Of course, there will be variation among people in what they find beautiful, and that may forever be a mystery. But Wieseltier’s ludicrous characterization of the scientific program as one of pure reductionism is a straw man, one espoused by almost nobody.
. . . The boundary is porous, of course: whatever else we are, we are also animals, and the impact upon us of material causes is indisputable. But we are animals who live in culture; which is to say, the biological or psychological or economic elements of our constitution do not operate in sovereign independence of “the human spirit.” They are inflected and interpreted in meanings and intentions. We do not only receive material causes, we also act upon them. For this reason, we cannot be explained only in terms of our externalities. Not even our externalities can be explained only externally.
What on earth is “the human spirit” here? Does Wieseltier not realize that human culture (and our “spirit”) is in many ways a product of our biology, and at any rate is not independent of materialism or determinism? In his claim that “we do not only receive material causes, we also act upon them,” he comes perilously close to espousing libertarian free will. The last two sentences are simply deepities.
. . . What is a novel if not the representation of simultaneous non-omniscient perspectives—skepticism in the form of narrative? In literature and the arts, there are ideas, intellectually respectable ideas, about the world, but they are not demonstrated, they are illustrated. They are not argued, they are imagined; and the imagination has rigors of its own. What the imagination imparts in the way of understanding the world should also be called knowledge. Scientists and scientizers are not the only ones working toward truths and trying to get things right.
We arrive again at the claim that there is “knowledge” that can be obtained not by science but by the humanities. Well, maybe, but Wieseltier fails—as all critics of scientism fail—to give a single example. Yes, there are subjective experiences conveyed by, say, art and literature, and we may resonate with those. Who denies that? But what the humanities cannot produce on their own are generally agreed-upon truths about the world. Those can only be attained through reason, observation, or experiments. If the humanities is working toward truths and trying to get things right, Wieseltier’s case would be made much stronger by adding a list of the “truths” and “right things” arrived at by the humanities.
. . . The technological revolution will certainly transform and benefit the humanities, as it has transformed and benefited many disciplines and vocations. But it may also mutilate and damage the humanities, as it has mutilated and damaged many disciplines and vocations.
I’m not sure what Wieseltier is talking about here: precisely how has technology mutilated and damaged the humanities (or the other “many disciplines and vocations”)? Which disciplines and vocations? And hasn’t technology actually been, in the main, a force for good in the humanities? We can analyze old manuscripts, ruins, and art much better than we could 100 years ago, for instance. Wasn’t that new van Gogh validated in part using scientific analysis of pigments?
The main problem with Wieseltier’s piece is that it is long on polemic and short on examples. It fails to show how science has damaged the humanities; it distorts the scientific program, as if we somehow not only fail to appreciate the arts and humanities, but want to subsume them under physics; and it falsely claims science is causing the death of the humanities. None of this is true. What is damaging the humanities is bad teaching, the pervasiveness of postmodernism, and an economic climate that favors other areas.
If Wieseltier wants to promote the humanities, the best way to do it is start teaching them properly in schools and colleges. That is the responsibility of humanities scholars and teachers, not scientists.