Leon Wieseltier attacks Steve Pinker for scientism

September 10, 2013 • 5:45 am

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.

166 thoughts on “Leon Wieseltier attacks Steve Pinker for scientism

  1. I don’t get it. Why are so many in the humanities committed to this “us/them” thinking? As a musician, I don’t see it that way at all. Logic, reason, and, where applicable, evidence should be tools in everyone’s toolkit. It seems to me people like Wieseltier are tilting at windmills.

              1. Windmills have turbines too. The “mill” part of “windmill” refers to the fact that the turbine invariably drove a flour mill.

              2. Well the Dutch have similar looking devices for pumping water, but they are technically known as wind pumps.

              3. No, not really.

                Windpumps are significantly different in design from drainage mills in the Netherlands and East Anglia.

                Besides which, pumping water is not the only alternative to milling grain. And flour is not the only product of milling grain.


            1. Except that my dictionary gives only the “ks” pronunciation. It is an English word after all, not Spanish.

              And then, iirc, there was Diana’s teacher who confused her by referring to “Don Kwicksoat”.


    1. Chardin’s charming cherries? Out, out damned scientistic spot! Leave the dear, darling, painted little cherries alone!

      I can do this:

      “Cherry ripe, cherry ripe…” Out, out damned song-spoiling scientistic spot!

      The guy is clearly nuts.

    2. It sounds to me like he simply feels “butt hurt,” as Jerry has commented a few times before. His anger, contempt and jealousy are making him lash out and in so doing revealing his meanness and ignorance.

    3. At a guess? Resources and students, is why.

      Humanities faculty see more students going to science and bigger/more grants going to science, and think their work is undervalued.

      They probably have a point, in that their work is undervalued by granting agencies and students. But you can’t blame scientists for that.

    4. Philosophers have had it in for science since at least Plato, and the humanities love philosophy, and don’t like thinking for themselves.

        1. Agreed. It is very condensed and omits a lot of the fine detail. Aristotle, for instance, immediately corrects Plato. Hume corrects Descartes and the Rationalists, and Kant corrects Hume. The problem is, all these corrections are subsequently ignored. Rousseau pays no mind to empirics or logic, Kierkegaard, Nietzche and Husserl likewise, and all this just continues with Lyotard (and isn’t that an infelicitous name), Foucault et al. The Analytical branch of philosophy noted that most of philosophy was not based on logic a century ago, and stopped reading the Continentals. Sadly analytical philosophy has its own problems. Stangroom has noted that analyticals seem to make up their own facts. He, of course, is an experimenter.

          1. I think it’s broad in saying the Humanities love philosophy and don’t think for themselves. Philosophy is a small part of the Humanities and it seems to me there has been a lot of progress in linguistics, archaeology, history, literature etc. and those disciplines have thought for themselves. As examples from a few disciplines, linguistics and archaeology found the Rosetta Stone and translated hieroglyphics, archaeology learned to date things by corresponding dates (solar calendars were best if you correspond and event to them) as well as carbon dating.

            Your sentence suggests thousands of professionals and graduates from the Humanities sit around drooling as knowledge twirls around them and until someone from another discipline shows them, using small words, how to move forward.

            1. As a former archaeologist (now recovered), I dispute the suggestion that the discipline is one of the humanities. My training was far more science than humanities.

              1. Not in the US. Here it is considered a social science. The only classes I had that weren’t “sciencey” was a linguistics class thought by a guy who was more philosophically oriented. A fine class, but definitely unusual in the discipline. Our training was all about scientific method, statistics, etc.

              2. Here it depends which archaeology you are taking. If a branch of anthropology, then it is in social sciences though I’ve also seen anthropology in Humanities in some universities. Likewise, linguistics can be a branch of anthropology (as it was in my alma mater) or it can be in Humanities. From my experience, it doesn’t matter if it is in Social Sciences or Humanities as the course is structured the same. My alma mater required statistics for anthropology and some did not. This actually stopped me from entering the field despite being pursued constantly from that department (I had a very high mark in the courses) because of the whole dyscalculia and math fear that I developed from years of horrible teaching and lack of funds to get tutors.

                I took Classical Archaeology so my work was a division of Classics. Requirements for it at the graduate level required proficiency in languages (ancient and modern European) but statistical work was done more as you learned (kinda how I learned on the job doing process improvement).

              3. My alma mater offers both BA and BSc degrees in archaeology, with some difference in course content. But the discipline does indeed appear to have a very scientific bent: “… we offer access to internationally renowned scientific research laboratories in DNA, conservation, isotopes, environmental archaeology, luminescence dating, palaeopathology and soil and bone chemistry.”

                Interestingly, the department has moved to the Science site at some point in the last thirty years. It used to nestle amongst the arts and humanities departments in the city centre near the castle and cathedral.


              4. My daughter took a Masters degree in Archaeology at U of Sheffield. I didn’t pay real close attention, but it seemed more science-ish than humanity-ish from what I saw.

                Heck… archaeology departments all have labs, for heaven’s sake!

              5. Yeah but so do language classes. 🙂

                Usually techs do the dating for archaeologists where I come from.

            2. I don’t, generally, have a problem with the harder of the humanities sciences, but you have heard about postmodernism, right? The fields affected by that, are the fields that went wrong. And I don’t mean to imply that they sat drooling in pools of unused knowledge. I mean to imply that they’ve been very active generating material that had only tenuous links with reality. History was one of the first to wake up, and so there’s less trouble there, but most of the social sciences work pre-1995 is a write-off. And there isn’t much to suggest that post-1995 work is any better. Overreliance on the statistical method for things it was never meant for means that they’ve basically done science on the positive data only. And that is due to antiscientific philosophy.

              1. Yes I’ve heard of post modernism but I was in university in the 90s and never encountered it. I’m wondering if some of it was geographical as I didn’t experience that and it seems this post modernism talk is being used to forever hit humanities over the head like saying that science once rejected plate tectonics so it is therefore forever bad and all scientists dim witted.

    5. It’s not just the humanities. No one likes to get along. My friend comes from a family of engineers – her dad is an engineer & her younger sister has her MA in engineering. When my friend decided to take a biology & english degree, her dad said that biology wasn’t a real science. Even xkcd recognizes this. People are jerks.

      1. That xkcd thing is actually based on the real hierarchy between the sciences. It’s got little to do with whether a field is a real science or not. In fact, if Munroe had gone a little further to the right, he could have drawn philosophy there. The pertinent comic for validity of various fields is this one, which appears to be based on the pomo debacle.

        Munroe does base a lot of his humour on the supposed rivalry between fields, which can trip him up sometimes. Anthropology majors seem especially thin-skinned.

        1. Real hierarchy? The title said “in purity”. From the ancient world onward, math was seen as the purist of all because it was, as Nietzsche would have put it, closest to the thing itself and not a description of that thing….though I’m inclined to see it as another way of describing something so I question its purity.

          The not a real science part was an anecdote outside the xkcd comic about how people see each other. I have been told I’m stupid by many who have never met me and I’m sure if I had an actual conversation with them I, not they, would be using smaller words.

    6. Because the post-modern perspective that has become ubiquitous in he humanities in recent decades is (rightly) under attack by science. This includes Steven Pinker who dealt a strong blow to the assumptions of post-modernism in “The Blank Slate”. I think we are going to continue to see many bombastic and defensive tirades from defenders of post-modernism as their ship goes down.

      1. This comment is not accurate about the status of postmodernism in the humanities. First, it is not ubiquitous. Mainstream philosophy programs rejected postmodernism years ago. Searle, Chomsky, and others explicitly rejected it at least since 1995. Second, others have declared postmodernism dead as a historical movement in the wider culture for years. Third, you speak of the whole of humanities, but postmodernism has influence in (only parts of) english, history, art history, etc. and little or none in classics and philosophy. Fourth, did you not notice the original article was by the philosopher Dennett? Is he a postmodernist? Is A.C. Grayling? Also Weiseltier himself said postmodernism was wrongheaded and he’s against it. So the language about it “becoming ubiquitous in he humanities in recent decades” doesn’t reflect the current situation.

        1. I would like to see some real numbers here. I personally had no experience with post modernism for the 7 years I was a student in the 90s. I’ve asked around to other graduates that I’ve met outside of school, who went to other universities & they did not experience this either. I’m wondering if it is localized or persistent somewhere geographically. It wasn’t until I started reading comments at this site that I learned of postmodernism in this context.

          1. Postmodernism has some influence in certain areas of English, history, art, etc., but not in mainstream philosophy and classics. I took my degree in philosophy in 2000 and never had a course in it (nor was one offered at my program or any top program that I knew of.) The idea that all humanities students are sitting around reading it is absurd. I spent my time learning modern logic and philosophy of science (Popper, Kuhn, Dennett) which couldn’t be different. See the first section here for dates on the demise of postmodernism.


            1. I did one of my degrees in honours English in the 90s and I didn’t come across any post modernism. Hence why I find it so odd.

  2. The technological revolution comment is so bizarre. Maybe Leon would prefer a world where lonely poets scribble verse by candlelight while other people starve to death outside or where only the very wealthy can travel or study or write or think because everyone else is farming to make a living.

  3. I expect the main way scientism has degraded the humanities is by the draconian suggestion that objective evidence be a requirement for knowledge, or at least a qualifier that ideas without objective evidence are less that those possessed of it. Jebus forbid they might have to leave the armchair and library, or admit that the “correct” interpretation might be not all that much more than opinion from authority. The privileged position of being right solely by authority is being threatened, and the scientism accusers do not like it.

    1. Its not really even that objective evidence is required. Some anti-science folks seem to get upset by mere suggestion that ‘if you know of some objective evidence relevant to your hypothesis, you should consider it in your analysis.’

      After all, its not that scientists are going around insisting that (making up an example here) musical taste can only be evaluated using fMRI images. Nobody says that. Instead, scientists seem to get a very negative reaction from the anti-science crow when they point out that, hey, taking fMRI images might tell you something about musical taste.

    2. I’m not sure I’m understanding the issue here. Jerry himself accepts Plato’s argument in the Euthyphro that the nature of morality is independent of God’s will. Plato’s argument is apriori and made independently of empirical evidence and entirely on philosophical grounds (from the armchair, so to speak). Are you suggesting that Jerry is wrong to accept this philosophical argument? The argument has nothing to do with appealing to authority but still makes a logically valid point it seems to me.

      1. This is not to say that philosophy is useless. It can be very good at identifying when ideas are contradictory and impossible to be true because they are incoherent (Euthyphro’s Dilemma is a good example). Logic is an essential tool in forming ideas to be held up to the fires up empirical testing and peer review.

        Yet once the circle is closed by testing and replication, and the idea becomes science, one cannot say the final product is of equal value to the original untested idea, or any other idea that has not been put to the test.

        1. I agree that there are places where logic is used for forming ideas to be held up to empirical testing and peer review at a later point. But notice that Plato never left the armchair in deriving his conclusion that “morality is independent of the will of God.” All the testing took place while seated down. So I don’t see how this fits the circle you describe.

          1. Before you do hypothesis testing, you have to formulate your hypothesis.

            Uncovering contradictions can happen, _should_ happen if you are careful, already at this stage.

            It isn’t a hypothesis test, so philosophical “testing” isn’t what we usually mean in order to make sense of empirical testing.

          2. I would say that he considered the hypothesis of god as the author of morality and found it to be inconsistent and contradictory with the concept of morality as a whole. It was an unworthy idea at the outset, mostly because of what the words meant. His good philosophy was able to strike down the theory without testing it by showing that it was incoherent.

            I still call this knowledge, but it rests upon the meaning of words that are essentially determined by fiat, and not of the same caliber as knowledge tested by empirical methods.

    3. I expect the main way scientism has degraded the humanities is by the draconian suggestion that objective evidence be a requirement for knowledge, or at least a qualifier that ideas without objective evidence are less that those possessed of it.

      Sounds a lot also like the main way scientism has “degraded” religion.

  4. Why is it only for philosophy to determine whether it not god exists? I think Sastra might want to have a few words with Wieseltier about the (im)possibility of testing the supernatural.

  5. …and if God exists, which is for philosophy to determine,

    How is philosophy going to determine whether the christian god ( I assume that’s the one he’s talking about ) exists or not?

      1. I’m currently reading Raphael Lataster’s book “there was no Jesus, there is no God” (which I recommend, despite the paucity of editing.) He makes strong arguments that philosophical arguments concerning the existence of god are useless unless backed by empirical evidence. They are never backed by empirical evidence.

  6. Wieseltier seems to conflate appreciating art and analyzing art. One does not necessarily require science, the other does. Yes, it’s true that for the most part in literature and art ideas “are not demonstrated, they are illustrated” but the Humanities doesn’t exist simply to create or admire art. It exists to analyze it and contrary to what Wieseltier suggests, applying logic does not mutilate the art but makes it more fascinating. The analysis is fun! Jeez, didn’t even count the times particular words were used in pieces? Even this is a quasi statistical analysis! So, his reductio ad absurdum of breaking down the colours of a painting to “explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting” is silliness. No one in the Humanities should be explaining the quality of beauty of a painting! That’s not what’s done in the Humanities.

    Also, that “technological revolution” bothers me a bit. Is Wieseltier a big Victorian poetry fan? The Victorians were (IMO) notorious whiners (granted they were going through the industrial revolution but the Romantics weren’t at all whiny and they went through a huge scientific revolution that turned belief systems upside down). I suspect Wieseltier is harkening to this time here and playing the Victorian victim.

    Finally, I have to comment on Wieseltier’s claim that “only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally.” Yeah? So why are females separated from males in Muslim mosques and Jewish temples (save for Reform – the only temple I enter for this reason)? Could it be the Abrahamic religions literally teach that women are less and these religious institutions literally act on this? Maybe Wieseltier’s skills in observation and analysis have atrophied with exposure to bad teaching in the Humanities. Those who receive a high quality Humanities education, catch onto this right away.

    1. I think even appreciating art benefits from a scientific perspective; knowing the limited availability of pigments to early painters, the understanding of perpective, the representation of light, the fractal nature of trees. Without this stuff it’s a pretty picture, with it comes a greater depth of appreciation.

      1. Agreed and that’s why I think analysis is fun and only makes the art better, but that is not the same as creating it or liking it for purely aesthetic reasons without thinking. There is art I just like because it looks nice to me and appeals to me somehow. Then there is the extra dimension of thinking more deeply about the artist, the influences, the colours, the light, etc. The first part is general taste and appreciation (not work done in the Humanities) the second is analysis (done in the Humanities)

    2. On the whole, it is hard not to read about the supposed scientism debate and not think that it’s a clash between straw men. I suppose there are those who think that there is no use reading Augustine and Milton and Gibbon and Keats and Tocqueville and Emerson and Mill and Dickens, and all the rest that Wieseltier lists since these works are old, that reading and getting into the minds of these writers is a waste of time without an accompanying statistical analysis, but I suspect they are as common as students of the humanities who think that we should banish from our minds any knowledge of science obtained since Kepler.

    1. There weren’t many things that RF couldn’t understand but he’s absolutely right in not understanding how knowledge of the inner structure of the flower and how and why it might have evolved to be the way it is in any way detracts from an appreciation of the flower’s beauty.

    2. Walt Whitman presents another point of view:

      WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
      When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
      When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
      When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
      How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; 5
      Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
      In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
      Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

      Whitman, it seems, would agree that science can take nothing away from beauty and wonderment. He might have had a touch of ADHD as well.

    1. Professor Ceiling Cat turns a phrase so much better than so many of the would-be defenders of the humanities from “scientism.” Interesting, no? There is a phenomenology behind that, as there is for all things, and it is very interesting; right now, though, I’m just revelling in the aesthetic pleasure of the fact that a (shudder) scientist consistently produces works of written language that are so much more interesting and engaging in their own right than many so-called professional writers, whose expertise in such matters is supposed to be so refined by the “human spirit.”

      1. In the defence of the Humanities there are a plethora of fantastic, logical writers and practitioners. They just aren’t bothering with this silly stuff that these lesser writers are concerned with and many of them are probably unaware that there is a conflict.

  7. “…and if God exists, which is for philosophy to determine…”

    Except that philosophy rarely determines anything. There’s often a great deal of useful debate which explores ‘the question’ thoroughly but the final link to reality is shied away from. Pure thought and subjective experiences decide nothing without objective confirmation.

  8. The scientific methodology is philosophically justifiable:

    “The substantive picture of nature’s ways that is secured through our empirical inquiries is itself ultimately justified, retrospectively as it were, through validating the presuppositions on whose basis inquiry has proceeded. As we develop science there must come a ‘closing of the circle.’ The world-picture that science delivers into our hands must eventually become such as to explain how it is that creatures such as ourselves, emplaced in the world as we are, investigating it by the processes we actually use, should do fairly well at developing a workable view of that world. The ‘validation of scientific method’ must in the end itself become scientifically validated. Science must (and can) retrovalidate itself by providing the material (in terms of a science-based world-view) for justifying the methods of science.
    The rational structure of the overall process of justification accordingly looks as follows:

    1. We use various sorts of experiential data as evidence for objective fact.
    2. We do this in the first instance for practical reasons, faute de mieux, because only by proceeding in this way can we hope to resolve our questions with any degree of rational satisfaction.

    But as we proceed two things happen:

    (i) On the pragmatic side we find that we obtain a world picture on whose basis we can operate effectively. (Pragmatic revalidation.)
    (ii) On the cognitive side we find that we arrive at a picture of the world and our place within it that provides an explanation of how it is that we are enabled to get things (roughly) right—that we are in fact justified in using our phenomenal data as data of objective fact. (Explanatory revalidation.)

    The success at issue here is twofold—both in terms of understanding (cognition) and in terms of application (praxis). And it is this ultimate success that justifies and rationalizes, retrospec-
    tively, our evidential proceedings. Though the process is cyclic and circular, there is nothing vicious and vitiating about it. The reasoning at issue is not a matter of linear sequence but of a systemic coherence prepared to accept the circles and cycles of cognitive feedback.
    We thus arrive at the overall situation of a dual ‘retrojustification.’ For all the presuppositions of inquiry are ultimately justified because a ‘wisdom of hindsight’ enables us to see
    that by their means we have been able to achieve both practical success and a theoretical understanding of our place in the world’s scheme of things.”

    (Rescher, Nicholas. Reality and Its Appearance. New York: Continuum, 2010. pp. 61-2)

    (On Nicholas Rescher: http://www.iep.utm.edu/rescher/)

    1. That looks to me like a mimic of measurement theory, devoid of all quantification.

      What would be interesting is if philosophy could come up with its own independent analysis (“justification”).

    2. Oh, I forgot:

      This ties in with my earlier comment down thread. I claim that it is easy to see that philosophy should be unable to come up with its own analysis of science. So this centuries late mimic (millenniums, if we look at the roots of metrology) seems to bear me out.

  9. “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.” – J. Coyne

    “According to [Alex] Rosenberg, naturalism treats literary criticism as fun, but not as knowledge. Does he really not know that Mr Collins is the hero of ‘Pride and Prejudice’? Every normal reader has that sort of elementary literary critical knowledge. Those who know far more about the historical context in which literary works were produced, read them many times with unusual attention, carefully analyse their structure, and so on, naturally have far more knowledge of those works than casual readers do, whatever the excesses of postmodernism.”

    (Williamson, Timothy. “The Unclarity of Naturalism.” In Philosophical Methodology: The Armchair or the Laboratory?, edited by Matthew C. Haug, 36-38. New York: Routledge, 2013. pp. 36-7)

    1. They may have more knowledge of them (literary analysis, historical context, literary context) but do they really receive more communication or more enjoyment from them (the points of most books)? I doubt it.

      In my experience, almost all art “analysis” is 100% post-facto bollocks: It has nothing whatsoever to do with what the artist actually did/does.

  10. Cosmopolitan intellectual, travel enthusiast, film buff, gastronome, music aficionado, art history admirer, custom boot devotee, and animal lover. Mr. Coyne himself, due to radical scientism, is clearly bereft of an appreciation for the humanities.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wieseltier thinks Jerry’s artistic choices suck and thereby demonstrates how science just totally screws up the humanities.

  11. . . .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.

    I have no idea what scientists he’s talked to, but none of the ones I know feel anything like that. They will happily join with humanities professors to help emphasize the value of core humanities disciplines – to ‘recognize and respect’ them.

    I see the problem he’s complaining about arising more out of the corporatizaton of the university system. It’s the recent emphasis on profit and revenue (over the core missions of education and knowledge-production) that is pushing the humanities to become more science-like. And frankly, this trend negatively influences the sciences, too. It reduces support and emphasis on basic, foundational research in favor of more applied work that will produce patents and other monetary benefits to the university.

    IMO its not a good trend, and while the humaities are certainly getting the bigger portion of the beating, its important to recognize that (i) the sciences are getting beat by the same stick, and (ii) science isn’t the one administering the beating.

    TL:DR: blame the business majors. Just kidding. 🙂

    1. +1

      Purely as speculation, but I wonder how much the corporatization of the university system is a function of the democratization of higher education. Getting a college degree was once a rare thing pursued by what was, in many cases, a wealthy elite. Now it is mandatory workforce training for a broad cross section of the public, many of whom often feel they do not have the time nor the money to spend on things that do not advance their job-seeking aims. The university’s mission of preserving and expanding knowledge is often directly at odds with the mission of being an efficient provider of job training.

      Also, the very growth of knowledge (even the growth of available texts in the humanities) has made both missions potentially more difficult, since time and human capacity tends to force everyone to devote more and more energy to a smaller and smaller slice of human knowledge.

      1. Perhaps also a push to make money and only study that which has the most money making possibilities, which to me, completely misses that there is value beyond the monetary. I studied what I wanted to study because I liked it. I’d hate to spend time studying something I hated. The career took care of itself because I used the skills from my studies to find work I also liked.

        1. Unfortunately you are in the minority. I don’t remember the source of this statistic, but less than 30% of college graduates in the US are able to find jobs in their chosen fields and this no doubt includes those who got degrees in fields that did not like, but thought they would would be more likely to find work in such fields. Not only do most people not get jobs in the fields they studied, most people don’t like their jobs. 70% are emotionally disconnected at work.


          1. I am often suspicious of some of those statistics. How long did they follow graduates? What did they mean by field of work? When I graduated the unemployment rate was 12% so I went back to school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated and fell into my jobs by following what I could do and what interested me. However, it didn’t happen over night.

            I am a believer that university shouldn’t be about getting you a job. No one can guarantee that anymore, especially in a fast paced economy where specific jobs come and go. What is important is behaviours and transferable skills. University is about educating you and making you a part of a literate society.

            1. I used to agree with that perspective more than I do now. I grew up in a time when higher education was easily accessible. My first year at UW-Madison had tuition of $150 per semester for full time in-state students. You could work your way through college. Now, kids graduate with $30K+ debt hanging on their necks.

              (Personal experience, here. Two kids graduated, well educated, heavy debt load, underemployed.)

              1. It happened to me too. I lived below the poverty line all my life so luckily I received a lot of grants for my first degree and graduated with $4000 debt, however the interest rate was high & I couldn’t pay it so I went back to school and graduated with $20,000 debt. I was employed sporadically until I found permanent work and that took probably about 6 months. At that point I was making very little money but things picked up quickly and went on from there.

            2. I agree with you 100% that this is what university should be for, but the reality is that most people are not so lucky as to get a job in their field of study that they actually like. I wish I could remember where I got that statistic.

              Just to offer up an anecdote, I have a friend who has a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. He studied what he wanted to but works a job he does not like. His ex-wife has one master’s degree in the liberal arts and works at a grocery store. If I can find the source of the 30% statistic, I’ll link it here.

              1. Yeah, it’s not easy out there. I think I’m lucky in that oddly I went into IT having learned about HTML while doing one of my degrees just because academia had access to the internet before it was commercialized so this gave me a jump. I then learned everything else after I got that first decent job (mind you I had crummy ones selling internet subscriptions for minimum wage, etc before I landed a permanent for realz job). I think IT is the place a lot of lost, highly analytical, introverted souls end up. You find people of all backgrounds there (business, liberal arts, engineers).

              2. I’m mildly introverted – maybe an ambivert. My work habits are definitely introverted though – I need to think alone before collaborating in a group.

  12. I’m not sure what Wieseltier is talking about here: precisely how has technology mutilated and damaged the humanities […]? Which disciplines and vocations? […] Wasn’t that new van Gogh validated in part using scientific analysis of pigments?

    I think that may be one of the issues at hand. For generations people have been doing art analysis (and validation, often to significant fiscal value) using solely subjective criteria along the lines of “It’s in the style of Reubens, and he always liked his blues nice and bright,” but for the last several generations both present analyses and valuations and retrospective re-evaluation of past work have had to deal with the very uncomfortable position that they have a new technique to learn. They have to face the prospect of their expensive opinion, based in large part on their personal reputation, being overturned by, as an example, a chemistry grad student who says “Yeah, it might look like Reubens work. Whatever. But Rubens died 250 years before THAT type of phthalocyanin blue dye was produced.” Which casts doubt on the art expert’s interpretation. What’s that saying about “a beautiful hypothesis, slain by an ugly fact?”
    Implicitly, it also casts a doubt on the art expert’s expertise-to-bovine-excrement ratio ; but then again, there aren’t many people who seriously set out to defraud chemists/ physicists / radiographers. Plenty of frauds in the Art market though.
    A very unsettling aspect of this is that the debunking of one’s life’s work may wait until one, or ten, generations after one’s death. But there, the art critic has nothing unique to complain about ; the prospect awaits any scientist too (what would Newton say to Einstein, or Hawking, could they ever meet?). The general progressive, cumulative nature of science towards increasingly refined approximations between theory and reality does somewhat blunt that. In the sciences, if not in the arts. Into the putative Newton-Einstein-Hawking meeting, one should also introduce one of the astronomers who used Newton’s methods, but longer runs of data, to realise that there was something funny in the orbit of Mercury. Had he lived to 200, and invented nothing new, Newton had the potential to discover the approximate nature of his own work. Failure to live to 200 is not considered a valid criticism of someone’s work. (And when that statements needs a ” , yet.” ending, it’s most likely to be the result of science.)
    Art critics faced with this have to learn both their “critical techniques”, and have a pretty solid grounding in all of the chemical and physical sciences too, to avoid this potential hoisting upon their own petards. And I think they find that very uncomfortable. Hence, they attack. In ineffective ways.
    I suppose that the Arts and Humanities have some way of future-proofing their work, but I’ve not heard of it, so I guess that they can only rely on their egos and loud-fast talking.

  13. I am reminded of that scene from the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, and Luminaries protest the activation of Deep Thought, a computer designed to provide the ultimate answer to the question of life, the universe and, well, everything:

    “You just let the machines get on with the adding up,” warned Majikthise, “and we’ll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job aren’t we? I mean what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”

    As they say, it’s all about professional demarcation and defending against perceived threats to one’s livelihood. Of course, just as in the story, in reality this just gives them entirely new material to work with if only they’d stop feeling threatened long enough to realize it.

    Clip here:

    1. How the anti-science pundits (not you Wayne, your comment just reminded me of this) relate to science reminds me almost of a dysfunctional family. If you can’t bring yourself up, tear other people down. That’s kinda what’s going on here.

      In this case, its “I can’t describe how my discipline provdes value in understanding the world. So I’m going to question whether yours adds value instead.”

      Its a completely negative argument. Frankly, what science can or cannot discover about the world should be largely irrelevant to the question of what any other subject brings to the table. Either you have something that stands on its own, without needing comparison with others, or you don’t. Either you make a contribution worth funding, or you don’t. But either way, you simply look like a child if your answer to the question “what do you add” is “his contribution [point point point] has problems!”

  14. Most of the comments over at TNR appear, so far, to support the attack on Pinker. But I had to laugh at one of the first, who wrote: “Since my research interest is the study of reincarnation and the afterlife, I found myself silently cheering…”
    Yes, I’m sure he did.

      1. I’m not so sure I would. Sounds kind of like a more analytical to Bundy to me.

        (THUNK… takes pulse… Yup, dead. Takes pulse again. Hmmm. Still dead. Checks temperature. Hmmm. Colder than ten minutes ago. “WAKE UPPP!!” Didn’t work. Oh well. Perhaps my experiments still suffer from too small a sample size…)

  15. This is no doubt overly flippant, but the overall impression I get from these humanities types is this:

    Science is hard. You need to understand math and logic, and no one will take you seriously unless you can support your contention with evidence. They went into the humanities to avoid all that, so they could pontificate as they pleased without having to justify anything in terms remotely objective.

    So when someone comes along and suggests that the methods of science (broadly construed) can add to the humanities, that person is leading an invading force that is determined to impose rigor and consistency where it’s not welcome.

    On the less flippant side, I think it’s no exaggeration to say that anyone who’s truly competent in their field within the humanities feels not the slightest bit threatened by the notion of utilizing scientific methods to enhance their studies.

    1. On the less flippant side, I think it’s no exaggeration to say that anyone who’s truly competent in their field within the humanities feels not the slightest bit threatened by the notion of utilizing scientific methods to enhance their studies.

      This puzzles me too. Considering the track record of science one would think that competent coorporation would be welcome within the humanities.

    2. I don’t disagree that a lack of concern for math and logic describes some people in the humanities. I doubt writers and music historians are especially concerned with this. But science is not the only place where logic is utilized. The first system of logic in the West was created by the philosopher Aristotle, in fact, and philosophers still teach the subject and do research in this area. So it’s a bit of an oversimplification to suggest that logic belongs to science and has nothing to do with the humanities.

      1. Yes, I agree. Logic is central to humanities. I hear it talked about all the time when humanities professors defend the “usefulness” of a liberal arts degree. I am starting to wonder if this is because I’m in Canada. I’ve never come across these issues in Canadian universities….

  16. I don’t think I understand the train of Jerry’s thought about the humanities in relation to knowledge here. He seems to think that all knowledge depends on empirical information at some level, but he says other things which conflict with this idea in other places.

    He says that “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.””

    But isn’t it true that Jerry himself accepts Plato’s argument in the Euthyphro that moral values are independent from the nature of God? Plato’s argument there is entirely apriori and independent of empirical evidence of any sort. It is a purely philosophical truth that comes from the humanities.

    Also Pinker says in his original article which Jerry approves of that Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, etc. are “remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data.” This again suggests the truths we learned from them are not empirically based but informative nontheless. So I am having a difficult time understanding just how the notion of knowledge is being used in this context.

    1. The Euthyphro is a great example of exactly Jerry’s point. Its not ‘truth about the world.’ Its a logical or deductive analysis of the relationship between two concepts (specifically, the concept of an omnipotent God and the concept of piety or moral goodness). The Euthyphro analysis does not depend on any empirical support of God’s existence or the existence of objective moral truths. The dilema tells us something about those concepts independently of whether the concepts reflect the real wordl or not. In that respect the Euthyphro is (IMO) more similar to math than chemistry.

      Couchloc, nobody is saying that art or literature or philosophy cannot say things that are interesting and important to humans. What JAC is arguing is that these disciplines generally don’t come up with knowledge about the physical world – and when they do, its when they use scientific-like methods.

      1. Eric, (hi) I don’t think this will work. The statement that “morality is independent of the will of God” is not merely a linguistic point about concepts or something that holds only with formal validity. If you take that route then you’re saying that the Euthyphro problem can cease to exist if we just redefine our terms. But Jerry accepts that the argument is a valid point about religious ethics and not just a matter of semantics.

        On your second point I don’t think you’re paying attention to what Pinker actually says. He says the people I mentioned were “cognitive neuroscientists” and “evolutionary psychologists” (=scientists) and they didn’t rely on empirical data. How is that “scientific-like methods”?

        1. If you take that route then you’re saying that the Euthyphro problem can cease to exist if we just redefine our terms.

          But that is true! If you redefine “God” to not be the source of piety, then the problem ceases to exist. There is no dilema if you are perfectly fine with a God that obeys some externally derived morality. Likewise (for the Divine Command Theorists), Euthyphro poses no problem for anyone who is perfectly happy defining piety as ‘what God commands.’

          But Jerry accepts that the argument is a valid point about religious ethics and not just a matter of semantics.

          It’s a valid argument about religious ethics because the actual religions prominent today use concepts of God and morality for which the Euthyphro dilema is relevant. The majority of western theists reject the notion of a limited God or a DCT morality. But Euthyphro is not ‘knowledge of the world’ because its force and truth is completely independent of whether there is an actual God or an objective morality.

          1. “it’s force and truth is comopletely independent of whether there is an actual God or an objective morality.”

            This misunderstands Plato’s argument. The reason we know the divine command theory to be false is that (in Plato’s view) we have a grasp of moral standards which exist independently of God’s will. Plato was an objectivist about ethics, last time I looked.

  17. Wieseltier writes:

    “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.”

    Tell that to Giordano Bruno!

    Can anyone really be so blinkered, or ignorant, to think that religion has anywhere, at any time, honestly explored dissonances?

    1. “Come Giordano, let us explore our dissonances by the splendid light of this fine fire. A little closer … a little closer …”

      It is amazing that Wieseltier can cram this much Wrong into so little space. He manages to get almost everything exactly backward. I hate to play favorites, but this claim about honestly explored dissonance, along with the one about it being Pinker who “is either ignorant or tendentious,” top the lot.

      In the “science wars,” the boarder skirmishes between science and superstition that have been fought from the Inquisition through post-modernism — the first as tragedy, the second as farce — this cat Wieseltier is clearly one unconscientious objector.

  18. Does the name Wieseltier rhyme with weasel, or with whine?

    Any time someone other than a weasel or a whiner writes scientism(sic) or scientizer(sic), I hope that (sic) is appended to either.

    Soon enough their frequency of use may garner these collections of alphabetical letters a place in dictionaries. Until then, I intend to do all I can to postpone if not prevent this outcome.

    1. tier = animal

      I was going to look up whether Wiesel means the English “weasel.” It’s likely a faux ami; but I’ll check.

      1. … pornounced the same except for that pesky “veh” (w) which is pronounced like the English “v”. (I’ve been swimming in 4-5 languages too long …)

        1. Whiny should be added. Just like when we were in elementary school and learned about La Salle (a Canadian historical figure) we thought it was funny to add “de bain”. Oh the 10 year old laughs!

      1. When I lived in Chicago, the Art Institute was free every Thursday, if I recall. It is free now fom 5 – 8 PM on Thursadys.

    1. Crap, how did I miss that one? We don’t seem to have galleries like that here either. I wonder if this is all in an afternoon.

    2. I tried that trifecta — checking out van Gogh, making love, and drinking a bottle of Bordeaux — once. Got my girlfriend and me kicked out of MoMA.

    3. It would make perfect sense without the commas, except that Vincent probably could not afford a ‘good’ bottle. Salut!

  19. “Imagine a scientific explanation of a painting”. While I wasn’t planning to I imagine that such an explanation might be more interesting than some of the garbage/curator-gabble that that tells you the correct way that you must interpret any given painting. This was bad enough on labels but now that we have those talking guides it has become ridiculous.

    1. On further consideration, having a silent rant about the curator-gabble probably does enhance the enjoyment of the painting

  20. It is apparent that Wieseltier isn’t “trying to get things right.” His whole piece would be superfluous if he had read the quote of Pinker Jerry makes.

    Most of us react to this unsupported claim, which is pure religionism as Jerry defines it: “if God exists, which is for philosophy to determine”. Since we do know of many cases where we can tell that gods with the claimed properties doesn’t exist. For example the various gods that enforced global floods or the various gods that enforced one single human breeder pair.

    In practice we have eliminated all of them. A platonist god concept doesn’t fare any better, because the null hypothesis is that it doesn’t exist.

    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.

    Of course science can’t be justified on philosophical grounds! No one expected it to be or have a need for it to be.

    Philosophy is a system that is closed to the environment. With this I don’t mean that it can’t change when our knowledge changes. I mean that in the cases it can justify that it lacks knowledge (say, an understanding of consciousness), it has to appeal to scientists to find out.

    And it is easy to see that a closed system can’t be used to analyse an open system. Philosophy has no means with which it could “justify” science and its observation process.

    On the other hand it is obvious that science can, and is, used to analyse science. Measurement theory turns the observational process on itself, and acquires statistical data on the quality of observation.

    This is no different than that I can clean out my cleaning cabinet, or that we can use screws to produce electric screwdrivers.

    In fact, I get downright incensed when philosophic minded people like Wieseltier describes the known historically long iterative process of culture, technology and lately science that has resulted in outstanding knowledge, and knowledge how we get knowledge, as “not in itself justified”. He tramples on many, many generations of peoples blood, toil, tears and sweat.

    And Wieseltier smudges the efforts of humanity in the supreme confidence that philosophy confined to push symbols around a paper behind a desk can understand the outside world. If our ancestors had been so nearsighted and deluded as philosophy is, we would still be inhabiting trees.

    1. Yes, those silly philosophers with all their silly ideas. Why did Aristotle come up with the first system of logic? Ockham the principle of simplicity? Hume the theory of empiricism? Descartes coordinate geometry? Leibniz calculus? Locke modern democracy? Adam Smith the theory of capitalism? Gottleib Frege modern logic? Of course these ideas haven’t done anything useful for society.

      (Oh, wait a minute.)

      1. Are you saying that these ideas came entirely from the armchair — that these thinkers never ventured outside to see how the world actually works?

        And are you saying that, if they had had the scientific method available to them, they wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to use it to test and refine their ideas (that, for example, Hume would have shunned empiricism as a tool for testing empiricism?) — that they would all prefer to preserve the pristine purity of the progeny from their congress with Pure Reason, rather risk sullying the tykes by allowing them to tussle with The Facts, those grubby kids from down the street who spend their days playing in the park and swimming in the stream, working in the garden and grousing around in the meadow grass?

        1. I’m responding to the statement “If our ancestors had been so nearsighted and deluded as philosophy is, we would still be inhabiting trees.” Clearly this is false given what philosophy has produced for Western Society over the years which has been immensely important. And, no, I’m not saying that the ideas came entirely from the armchair. Aristotle contributed to biology, Descartes contributed to physiology and physics, Smith to social theory. I don’t see why this latter point is relevant though to the point I’m making.

          1. “I don’t see why this latter point is relevant though to the point I’m making.”

            Because, pace the point you’ve been making, this is all Pinker meant when he described these thinkers as the original “evolutionary psychologists [and] social psychologists, who wrote of the moral sentiments that draw us together, the selfish passions that inflame us, and the foibles of shortsightedness that frustrate our best-laid plans” — and because, again contrary to your comment, Jerry isn’t saying anything (as I understand him) that contradicts Pinker in this regard.

  21. Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally.

    That one statement says all you need to know to understand Wieseltier’s “world view” (i.e., to hell with the facts, let me stick with what people I hang out with think). As for the facts that lie outside of Wieseltier’s worldview:

    A 2010 Rasmussen Reports survey found that 78 percent of Americans believe Christ was raised from the dead, 10 percent don’t believe it and 11 percent aren’t sure.

    Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly – 97 percent – believe in the Resurrection along with 87 percent of Catholics and 86 percent of other Protestants.

    Just less than half of people who rarely or never attend church believe Christ rose from the dead.

    A 2009 Harris poll put belief in the Resurrection at 70 percent, down 10 points since 2003.

    Newsweek poll (2004):

    Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe that, as the Bible says, Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without a human father, according to a new NEWSWEEK poll on beliefs about Jesus.

    ABC News Poll (2004):

    An ABC News poll released Sunday found that 61 percent of Americans believe the account of creation in the Bible’s book of Genesis is “literally true” rather than a story meant as a “lesson.”

    Sixty percent believe in the story of Noah’s ark and a global flood, while 64 percent agree that Moses parted the Red Sea to save fleeing Jews from their Egyptian captors.

    The poll, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, was conducted Feb. 6 to 10 among 1,011 adults.

    1. Wieseltier’s strikes me as someone who doesn’t really enjoy or appreciate statistics and anything quantified. 🙂

    2. 3% of evangelical christians don’t believe in the resurrection of christ??? I’m thinking that it is quite a coincidence that it is also 3% of bachelors who are married!

  22. My handy pH-meter confirms that what Wieseltier falsely characterizes as his “basic beliefs” are, in actuality, weakly acidic.

  23. Jerry:

    I’ve loved and used your paragraph in response to Spufford (on whether it matters if science can philosophically justify its principles a priori or not), which I quoted in a recent thread here.

    But I must say that the four paragraphs in this thread, beginning with “Once again we hear…” are even more magnificent. I know some people who need to read this; if only the opportunity arises. Thank you!

  24. To characterize science as a threat to the liberal arts misses a fundamental underlying problem, I think – that these two human pursuits should have been more closely allied from their beginnings.

  25. For Wieseltier, it’s as though a single word from Pinker about lightwaves would be enough to transmogrify him into the loud-mouthed pedant on a westward-facing pier shortly before nightfall, the one yammering on about refraction and wavelength, about the propagation of electromagnetic radiation, the one who won’t let anybody — and most especially not Mister Leon Wieseltier — enjoy the sunset, goddamit!

    The most telling passage in his screed is this:

    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.

    (italics in original, bold added)

    For Wieseltier, science must be artificially checked; it cannot be allowed to find its own level. He fears that if it is, it might top the dam demarking it from humanities, and that from there, it will be all Johnstown and the swollen Conemaugh River — that, as they come rushing past him, all those precious French Provincial chairs and Louis the XIV loveseats from the humanities department parlor might be exposed as nothing but so much waterlogged furniture.

    That fear is unfounded.

      1. I cringe to see someone’s name shortened to “W”. It it too tightly associated with another person, also full of hubris, and also a science denier.

  26. “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.”

    What it undermines is the claim that science yields truth. That it helps us predict phenomena only proves that the claims of science are useful interpretations, not facts or truths. Which is not itself a problem – but you would, then, have to change the name of your blog from “Why Evolution is True” to “Why Evolution is a Useful Interpretation” or “Why it Benefits the Species to Believe in Evolution.”

    1. That’s a rather silly argument. The truth of an idea is measured by how closely it comports with reality. How well things work is how we perform evaluations of truth.

      The alternative is to claim that all ideas are equally valid. Or for everyone to raise their arms and chant “It must be that way… Jeremy says it is.” The paradox is that if you were to be right, there would still be no reason to credit that idea with any truth value.

      1. “Comports with reality?” What reality? The phenomena we observe? Evolutionary scientists are often the first to say that the human mind did not evolve to represent the world accurately, but beneficially – thus leaving us open to all sorts of cognitive errors. If that’s the case, then you should have said: The truth of an idea is measured by how closely it comports with *our representation of* reality.

        That sounds like the view of a pragmatist, not a relativist. “Truth” is measured by how useful or harmful it is for us. The upshot of that is you’ve divorced “truth” from “the way the world really is.” We would no longer be talking about “objective reality,” but only what is good for life in a particular time and place.

        1. “What reality?”

          The one otherwise known as “the universe”.

          I said what I intended to say. Truth is not measured by how useful or harmful an idea might be but by how accurate it is.

        2. The human mind had to be accurate enough to keep up with the competition. Better yet to be better than the competition. We are pretty good at representing reality compared with the opposition, it would seem. We developed an intuitive sense of time derived from our deep animal ancestry. We then evolved conscious mental faculties capable of constructing vastly superior models of reality. Relativity theory, for example. Relativity may not be the final truth but it is a hell of a lot closer to it than unconscious animal intuition.

    2. “Why it Benefits the Species to Believe in Evolution”

      Far as we know, there’s but one species capable of accepting (or not accepting) evolution — and precious few of its members seem to understand it in even a rudimentary sense.

    3. Evolution is a given – it alone can make perfect sense of the totality of known biological facts – and the theory of how it works is a work in progress. Beyond scrupulous prudence, where the words “fact” and “true” are carefully placed to one side in science, there exists the world at large. In laywoman’s terms science considers evolution to be a fact, to be true. To say that science considers evolution to be simply an interpretation would perpetuate the misleading though common belief, that the word “theory” in science means merely hypothetical, as used in common parlance.

      The only scientific explanation to fit the biological facts and tie up seamlessly with earth, planetary and other astronomical sciences is that existing and historical life evolved from an ancient common ancestor over billions of years.

      Science does not have to show how it is a benefit to know what and how the world really is. Science is just curious to know the facts and the truth about those facts, is the real deal. And science knows perfectly well that the evolution of life and the earth, solar system and universe is true, for all its strict (prudential or puritanical?) avoidance of the word.

  27. An incredibly pompous and condescending retort by Wieseltier. Most preposterous is his suggestion that scientists are casting an envious eye on the provinces of the liberal arts, and want to invade. The scientists are far too busy with real things for such campaigns. Yes, their turf is expanding, and has been for centuries, but that follows naturally…

  28. Well, science sure pooped on someone’s party. Some people have trouble adapting, and would rather live in past times, back when the human mind did not know it’s own weaknesses, back when you could pull the truth out of your hat and be adored by legions for saying it eloquently. Science drives out superstitions, but it also drives out illusions we might have about ourselves, and it sure sheds light on our true limits. Yet we are not becoming machines (which is what seems to scare most of the anti-science people). We are not shedding our animal skins, nor are we hiding deeper under them: we are turning into more than ourselves, escaping the limits of our nature, we are consciously evolving. This should be exhilarating to anyone but those who put their pride before true knowledge.

Leave a Reply