A “Letters” discussion between Adam Gopnik and me on ways of knowing

February 16, 2021 • 10:30 am

For a few years I’ve had email conversations about “ways of knowing” with Adam Gopnik, who writes for the New Yorker and has also published several books. Our conversation has centered on whether science is the only way of knowing, or whether there are other ways of knowing as well. Adam defended the arts in this respect, and we’ve had some vigorous back and forths about whether music, painting, and literature in particular can be ways of knowing. I wanted to formalize our thoughts in a systematic way, and so I asked Adam to join me in a series of exchanges on the “Conversation” site of Letter. I just put up the first letter, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot below.

Our discussion critically depends, of course, on what we mean by “science” and “ways of knowing”. I’ve tried to define those carefully in my first letter, construing science rather broadly so that the topic becomes “the methods used by science” as ways of knowing. My position, which you’ll recognize if you’ve read this site for a while, is that yes, the methods of science are the only way of knowing. Religion is not, art is not, and ethics is not. I see philosophy and math as more circumscribed ways of knowing, since they convey knowledge about what holds within a system of axioms, but not about the universe. (I’m not a “mathematical realist”.) Of course philosophy and ethics are often informed by facts about the universe, and mathematics is an indispensable tool for understanding the universe.

Anyway, you can read my first thoughts (and definitions) in the first letter, posted on the site today (click on screenshot below). Adam will respond within a week, and we’ll each produce three or four letters in total, depending on how the conversation goes. I’m looking forward to this because scientists don’t usually get to engage in such a discussion with people who know a lot about the arts. I’m honored that Adam chose to join me in the exchange.


Boudry on scientism and “ways of knowing”

July 27, 2020 • 10:30 am

It’s been a while since we’ve discussed either scientism or “ways of knowing” on this site (the two ideas are connected). I’ll reiterate my views very briefly. “Scientism” has two meanings, as Maarten Boudry notes in his piece below, but the most common non-pejorative meaning is that of science making claims outside of its ambit, something that almost never happens these days.

I’m more interested in the idea whether there are “ways of knowing” beyond those involving science or “science broadly construed” (“SBC”, i.e., any profession, including plumbing and car mechanics, that uses the empirical method and relies on hypotheses, tests, and confirmation as ways of understanding the cosmos). As far as I can see—and I’ve asked readers about this—I’ve found no way beyond SBC to ascertain what’s true about our universe.

The most common area to claim that there are ways of knowing beyond the empirical is of course religion, but theology has never found a single ascertainable truth about the Universe that hasn’t been confirmed (or disconfirmed, as in the Exodus) by empirical research. You can’t find out what’s true about the Universe by reading scripture or waiting for a revelation. Even “scientific revelations” like Kekulé’s dream of a snake biting its own tail, which supposedly gave rise to the ring structure of benzene with alternative single and double bonds, had to be confirmed empirically.

Maarten Boudy has a new blog piece that discusses these ideas, but also highlights a new paper that, he says, puts paid to the notion that there are ways of knowing beyond science. Click on the screenshot to read it. (His piece has a good Jewish title though Boudry is a goy.) As you can see from the title, Maarten tells it as it is:

Boudry, by the way, is co-author of this collection of essays, which, though mixed in quality, is generally good and gives a good overview of the “scientism” controversy. (Click screenshot for Amazon link.) The co-author, Massimo Pigliucci, absolutely despises my including stuff like plumbing in “science construed broadly,” and has said so many times. Massimo is deeply preoccupied with demarcating “science” from “nonscience,” and sees me as having messed up that distinction.

Here’s Maarten’s link to the new paper and a useful classification of four flavors of scientism:

Now yesterday I read a clever new paper in Metaphilosophy – yes, there really is a journal by that name – in defense of scientism, which follows the second strategy. The Finnish authors, known as the Helsinki Circle, present a neutral definition of “scientism”, distinguishing between four different flavors represented by the quadrant below. The four positions follow from two simple choices: either you adopt a narrow or a broad definition of science, and either you believe that science is the only valid source of knowledge or that it is simply the best one available.

The differences between “natural sciences” and “sciences” here, as Maarten wrote me, is this:

“Natural sciences” is just physics, chemistry, biology, etc.

“Sciences” includes the human and social sciences, (like “Wissenschaft” in German).

But I’d prefer the distinction to be between “science” (what is practiced by scientists proper) and “SCB”, or the use of the empirical method to ascertain truth (SCB includes the human and social sciences). Given that slight change, I’d fall into the lower-left square. The upper left square, says Maarten, is occupied only by the hard-liner Alex Rosenberg.

But never mind. Boudy and I are more concerned with the criticisms of science that fall under the rubric of “non-pejorative scientism”, and he mentions two:

The authors want to draw attention to the other three versions of “scientism”, which are more defensible but nonetheless interesting and non-trivial. In the rest of the paper, they discuss how the different interpretations of scientism fare under two lines of criticism: (a) that scientism is self-defeating because the thesis itself cannot be demonstrated by scientific means; (b) that science inevitably relies on non-scientific sources of knowledge, such as metaphysical assumptions or data from our senses.

I’ve addressed both of these, but Maarten concentrates on the second. (My criticism of [a] is that you don’t need to demonstrate a philosophical or scientific underpinning of the methods of science to accept it, because science works—it enables us to understand the Universe in ways that both enable us to do things like cure smallpox and send rovers to Mars, and to make verified predictions, like when an eclipse will occur or the light from stars might bend around the Sun). Justification of science by some extra-scientific method is not only futile, but unnecessary.

Maarten refutes (b) handily:

Here I want to focus on the second objection. Does science “presuppose” the existence of an external world, or lawful regularities, or the truth of naturalism, or other metaphysical notions? No it doesn’t. These are merely working hypotheses that are being tested as we go along. I’ve argued for this position at length myself, in a paper with the neurologist Yon Fishman and earlier with my Ghent colleagues. As the authors write:

“One does not have to assume that science can achieve knowledge of the external world. Science can merely start with the hypothesis that some kind of knowledge could be achievable. For all practical purposes, this hypothesis would merely state that there are at least some regularities to be found. This hypothesis could be tested by simply attempting to obtain empirical knowledge with scientific means. If it is impossible to achieve this kind of knowledge, then the efforts would just be in vain. But hoping that something is the case is not the same as believing that it is the case.”

Second, does the fact that scientists rely on their sense organs invalidate scientism? No, because that’s a trivial point. It’s obviously true that science could not even get off the ground without sensory data, but this input too is being refined and corrected as we go along.

All these arguments about science being “based” on some extra-scientific assumption or source of knowledge are guilty of what I call the “foundationalist fallacy”. The mistake is to think that knowledge is something that needs to be “grounded” in some solid foundation, and that if this foundation is not completely secure, the whole edifice will collapse. But this metaphor is deeply misguided, and it inevitably leads to infinite regress. Whatever ultimate foundation you come up with, you can always ask the question: what is that foundation based on? It cannot be self-evident, floating in mid-air. This reminds one of the old Hindu cosmology according to which we live on a flat earth supported by four big elephants. Pretty solid, but what are the elephants standing on? On the back of a giant turtle. And that turtle? On the back of an even larger turtle. And so it’s turtles all the way down, ad infinitum.

Boudry’s Argument from Turtles also goes, I think, for (a): if you must justify using scientific methods through philosophy, how do you justify the value of philosophy in settling such a question? But never mind. If people dismiss science as an activity because philosophy (or science itself) provides no foundation for the empirical method, I’ll just ask them, “Have you ever been vaccinated or taken antibiotics?” If they say “yes,” then they already trust in science regardless of where the method came from. (It comes, by the way, not from a priori justification, but through a five-century refinement of methods to hone them down to a toolkit that works. Remember, science used to include aspects of the Divine, as in creationism as an explanation for life on Earth or Newton’s view that God tweaked the orbits of the planets to keep them stable.)

I’ll be reading the Metaphilosophy paper (click on screenshot below to access and download it), but let me finish by self-aggrandizingly saying that Boudry does agree that SCB is part of the nexus of empirical methodology that includes “real science”

For me, an essential part of scientism is the belief in one unified, overarching web of knowledge, which was defended most famously by the philosopher Willard V.O. Quine. Take an everyday form of knowledge acquisition such as a plumber trying to locate a leak (I believe this analogy is due to the biologist Jerry Coyne). Now plumbing is not usually regarded as a “science”, but that doesn’t mean that my plumber is engaged in some “different way of knowing”. He’s also making observations, testing out different hypotheses, using logical inferences, and so on. The main difference is that he is working on a relatively mundane and isolated problem (my sink), which is both simple enough to solve on his own, and parochial enough not be of any interest to academic journals. Plumbing is not a science, but it is continuous with science, because it makes use of similar methods (observation and logical inference) and is connected with scientific knowledge, for example about fluid dynamics. The plumber or detective or car mechanic is not doing anything radically different from what the scientist is doing.

Take that, Massimo!

And here’s a reading assignment:


Op-ed in science journal Nature disses science and “scientism”, questions Enlightenment values

October 10, 2019 • 10:15 am

Nathaniel Comfort, author of the risible Nature essay at hand (click on screenshot below), is a professor in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. We’ve met him three times before on this site; he seems to be a postmodernist who dislikes genes, New Atheism, and Richard Dawkins.  Now he’s written about. . . . well, it’s hard to discern. If you read the essay (and I both pity you if you do and challenge you to see its point), you’ll see it’s laced with criticisms of Enlightenment values, white males, scientism, and the oppression of the disabled. Oh, and it lauds postmodernism, especially its “other ways of knowing”.

One of Comfort’s main points, at least as I discern it, is that science has somehow deeply changed how humanity has perceived itself. Not so much in the Darwinian way, in which we now see ourselves as part of the branching bush of life, but because of discoveries like our microbiome (seriously, do I think of myself as “Jerry Coyne + bacteria”?), the “blueprint” model of DNA, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, CRISPR technology, and so on. This, of course, is not new: many people have flaunted these buzzwords before and claimed they affected our sense of self, even though our sense of self seems to be pretty much what it was half a century ago.

Comfort’s real point, though, appears to be doing down science, or what he misdefines as scientism:

Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism: the ideology that science is the only valid way to understand the world and solve social problems. Where science has often expanded and liberated our sense of self, scientism has constrained it.

I am not sure that this definition of “scientism” matches that of other people; usually the definition is of “science extending its ambit beyond what it should be”. In that latter sense, I’d see “scientism” as the misuse of science to push ideological issues, like saying “science tells us that we should sterilize Italians and Jews”, or “science tells us that races are inherently unequal”. And, indeed, science has been misused in such ways, though these misuses have severely diminished over time and, in the end, it’s not science itself that’s responsible for these attitudes, but bigots and other bad people latching onto science. Still, what’s the point of running through this list once again?

Further, just because people holding Enlightenment beliefs can also hold un-Enlightenment beliefs, like killing aristocrats and having slaves, does not constitute an indictment of the Enlightenment beliefs as commonly understood and adumbrated by Pinker in Enlightenment Now—the tripartite values of reason, science, and humanism. These values do not call for the killing of aristocrats or the enslavement of others.

And Comfort gives no examples of how “scientism”, even as he construes it, has constrained our sense of self. He seems to give one example at the end of his piece (see below), but it’s unconvincing. In fact, one can make a good argument that the solving of social problems is in many cases a deeply empirical issue. Perhaps your ideas don’t come out of science per se, but from your own values and ethics. But then confecting solutions often requires empirical data. One example of the former is the idea that all people should be equal under the law, regardless of race, sex, or gender. But how do you fix things? Those decisions, like using busing or affirmative action or even demonstrating that unequal representation results from discrimination rather than unequal preferences, are empirical matters: does intervention X facilitate solution Y? That, I’d say, is “science construed broadly.”

Even immunology and information theory come in for a hit, since they somehow facilitate the discrimination between “self and nonself”, or make people seem like machines, in a socially inimical way. Look at the postmodernism on show here:

Across the arc of the past 150 years, we can see both science and scientism shaping human identity in many ways. Developmental psychology zeroed in on the intellect, leading to the transformation of IQ (intelligence quotient) from an educational tool into a weapon of social control. Immunology redefined the ‘self’ in terms of ‘non-self’. Information theory provided fresh metaphors that recast identity as residing in a text or a wiring diagram. More recently, cell and molecular studies have relaxed the borders of the self. Reproductive technology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology have made human nature more malleable, epigenetics and microbiology complicate notions of individuality and autonomy, and biotechnology and information technology suggest a world where the self is distributed, dispersed, atomized.

Yes, and so what? Where’s the scientism here? Certainly IQ was once used to keep foreigners out of the US and even sterilize women, but we don’t do that any more. As for the other stuff he mentions, that’s not scientism but science. The last sentence about the “atomized” self is pure nonsense.

And then Comfort calls on postmodernists (who aren’t of course scientists) to demonstrate the “deep entanglement of science and society”:

The immunological Plato was the Australian immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet. Burnet’s fashioning of immunology as the science of the self was a direct response to his reading of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Tit for tat, social theorists from Jacques Derrida to Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway have leaned on immunological imagery and concepts in theorizing the self in society. The point is that scientific and social thought are deeply entangled, resonant, co-constructed. You can’t fully understand one without the other.

The last bit isn’t really true. Yes, some scientific problems arise in a social milieu, which is trivial, but the truth or falsity of scientific findings themselves is absolutely independent of society. And, as reader Vampyricon noted when calling this article to my attention, “Comfort also leans on the postmodernist myth of science as being focused on dominating nature, a claim that reminds one of Luce Irigaray’s claim that Newton’s Principia is a rape manual.”

At the end, Comfort disses rationality again, because, after all, those who promulgated Enlightenment values were “university-educated men who were not disabled”, and, as Vampyricon noted, wanted to “dominate nature.” Here Comfort mixes postmodernism with wokeness. If any two things are deeply entangled, it’s not science and society, but wokeness and postmodernism, both afflicted with the idea that truths are not empirical and determined by consensus, but personal and validated by feelings:

Yet there is a fruit fly in the ointment. Most of these Age-of-Reason notions of identity, and the dominant sci-fi scenarios of post-human futures, have been developed by university-educated men who were not disabled, and who hailed from the middle and upper classes of wealthy nations of the global north. Their ideas reflect not only the findings but also the values of those who have for too long commanded the science system: positivist, reductionist and focused on dominating nature. Those who control the means of sequence production get to write the story.

That has begun to change. Although there is far to go, greater attention to equity, inclusion and diversity has already profoundly shaped thinking about disease, health and what it means to be human. . .

So, if scientism is bad for society, and the lucubrations of able-bodied white men who went to college are determining our future, what can we do? What is Comfort’s alternative? He offers none. All he does is give us an example of how artistic “liberation” from science leads to some kind of enlightenment for disabled people:

DNA-based conceptions of ethnicity are far from unproblematic. But the impulse to make the technologies of the self more accessible, more democratic — more about self-determination and less about social control — is, at its basis, liberatory.

Nowhere is this clearer than for people living with disabilities and using assistive technologies. They might gain or regain modes of perception, might be able to communicate and express themselves in new ways, and gain new relationships to the universe of things.

The artist Lisa Park plays with these ideas. She uses biofeedback and sensor technologies derived from neuroscience to create what she calls audiovisual representations of the self. A tree of light blooms and dazzles as viewers hold hands; pools of water resonate harmonically in response to Park’s electroencephalogram waves; an ‘orchestra’ of cyborg musicians wearing heart and brain sensors make eerily beautiful music by reacting and interacting in different ways as Park, the conductor, instructs them to remove blindfolds, gaze at one another, wink, laugh, touch or kiss. Yet even this artistic, subjective and interactive sense of self is tied to an identity bounded by biology.

What is the sweating journalist trying to say here, here in the pages of one of the world’s premier scientific journals? Is this kind of art better for disabled people than the many scientists and technologists working on curing disabilities or making it easier for disabled people? (And yes, many of these benefactors are white men who went to college.) Note that the above is Comfort’s peroration, and it’s almost nuts. Not just nuts, but poorly written and loaded to the gunwales with postmodern jargon.

In his last paragraph, Comfort—surprise?—plumps for “other ways of knowing”:

Since the Enlightenment, we have tended to define human identity and worth in terms of the values of science itself, as if it alone could tell us who we are. That is an odd and blinkered notion. In the face of colonialism, slavery, opioid epidemics, environmental degradation and climate change, the idea that Western science and technology are the only reliable sources of self-knowledge is no longer tenable. This isn’t to lay all human misery at science’s feet — far from it. The problem is scientism. Defining the self only in biological terms tends to obscure other forms of identity, such as one’s labour or social role. Maybe the answer to Huxley’s ‘question of questions’ isn’t a number, after all.

Umm. . . Western science and technology—if you construe empirical observation, affirmation, and testing as “science”—are the only reliable sources of public knowledge. “Self-knowledge” is emotion and feeling, but becomes scientific if you want to demonstrate to others stuff like “I am a caring person who helps others.”

But none of this has anything to do with “defining the self only in biological terms.” Such a definition is Comfort’s conceit, and one of the hard-to-discern themes of his piece. But his conceit is misguided and wrong. Even biologists don’t think of their “self” in purely biological terms.

What is also wrong is that the scientific journal Nature published this tripe. What were they thinking?

h/t: Vampyricon

Why is Pinker demonized?

March 13, 2019 • 9:45 am

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a new and longish article by Tom Bartlett about the character, achievements, and demonization of Steve Pinker. Click on the screenshot below to read it.

Let me give my own take on Pinker first. It’s no secret that I consider him a friend and admire him hugely. Among all those in the atheist-sphere with whom I’ve interacted, he’s the most empathic, the most intellectually productive, and the most thoughtful. Dawkins is a marginally better writer, but not by much. I’ve never seen Steve commit a shoddy act nor engage in ad hominem arguments. I’ve read nearly all his books (save the linguistic ones except The Language Instinct), and can’t find much to quibble with.

But people still dislike him—even hate him. This is puzzling to me as he’s a nice guy and can’t be accused of Misogyny and Nazism Through Tweeting. As best I can understand, people don’t like him because he’s famous and they’re not, because he attacks a “blank slate” view of human nature (a view to which much of the Left is ideologically wedded), and because he has documented continuing material and moral progress in humanity (which “riskologists” don’t like because they make their lives crying that the sky is going to fall). I’m not a sociologist, and accept his figures as given, but even his critics can’t find much to quibble with about the data he shows. Rather, they make false claims about his “rosy” view that society will always be improving without effort, and about his ignoring existential threats like atomic wars. If you read his books, though, especially the last two big ones, you’ll see he does take these issues into account.

People like John Gray and others go after him, but I fault them for ignoring the palpable fact (which Pinker documents with endless data) that society is indeed getting better, and has gotten better on average over the last four or five centuries. I doubt John Gray and Pinker’s other critics would want to live in 16th century France, for instance, unless they were royalty or a nobleman. For one thing, they’d be sick a lot of the time, and their life spans would be shorter. Their teeth would hurt and rot. Their food and general well being, not to mention their education, would also be much worse.  Which would you choose: to be a European peasant in 1600 or an American, French, or British farmer today? I think the choice is clear.

A few excerpts. The article begins by raising the same issue that has puzzled me:

It’s not like he was uncontroversial before. His 2002 bestseller, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking), ruffled egalitarian sensibilities by arguing that our tabulae are far from rasa. He’s also dipped into contentious debates about gender differences, infanticide, and IQ. But the pushback against his more recent work, beginning with The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), feels harsher, more personal, at times tinged with real anger. Which is surprising, in part because his message — that, hey, despite some significant challenges we’re making progress as a species — seems benign enough. Pinker doesn’t come off like a bomb-thrower; friends and colleagues describe him as generous, curious, eager to share credit. He carries himself with none of the swagger of an academic rock star, though he’s on a short list of those who could reasonably claim that title.

So how did such a nice guy become such a big target?

Before summarizing the criticisms of the Two Big Books, the Chronicle recounts Pinker’s career and his arduous (and, for me, unattainable) work habits:

When he’s at work on a book, Pinker writes obsessively, to the exclusion of almost everything else. “I tend to write morning, noon, and night until I’m finished,” he says. “There’s a low level state of anxiety that keeps me going until the project is done.” Gary Marcus, once Pinker’s student and now a professor of psychology at New York University, remembers working on a paper with him years ago. “He would write for 12 straight hours,” says Marcus, who struggled to keep up. “He could just go and go.”

Yes, that’s what I’ve learned: Pinker told me that when he’s writing, it’s full time except for meals and exercise. And he just keeps doing it. I admire that but I could never emulate it, nor, given my constitution, would I want to. But of course he’s famous and I’m not: that’s the trade-off, even if I did have the brainpower to do what he’s done.

Some of the criticisms:

Pinker isn’t shy about taking on his more substantive critics. Among the most persistent is the philosopher John Gray, whose firmly pessimistic outlook feels like the precise reverse of Pinker’s approach. Gray has called Enlightenment Now“embarrassing” and a “parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest.” Gray told me he considers Pinker a “not terribly interesting thinker.” The feeling appears to be mutual. Pinker shrugs off Gray’s critiques as “the kind of argument only an extremely articulate sophist would make.”

Another longtime nemesis is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the best-selling author, statistician, and former Wall Street trader who made his fortune betting against optimism. Taleb accuses Pinker of “unstatistical reasoning” and of disregarding so-called fat-tailed variables — that is, when Pinker contends that we’re living in an extended period of relative peace, Taleb laughs and points out that a nuclear war or other cataclysm could wipe out those gains, just like the subprime mortgage crisis upended the stock market. Pinker responded at length to Taleb in an essay titled “Fooled by Belligerence,” a play on the title of Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness, writing that Taleb has not read his work carefully and that “accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people’s ideas are not his strong suits.” When asked if he’d ever debate Taleb, Pinker shrugs. “He’s more of a bully than an intellectual,” he says. It’s possible that Taleb, who likes to compare himself physically to a bodyguard, would take that as a compliment.

But Taleb’s not the only one who makes this case. Even some scholars who know Pinker and respect his work, like Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, are concerned that his undeniably eloquent tone has turned dangerously reassuring: “I have this really awful feeling that one day we’ll all be sitting in a bombed-out bunker saying, ‘Hey, remember Steven Pinker’s book?”

Well, these criticisms are lame. “Not a terribly interesting thinker”? Maybe not to the arrogant and condescending Gray, but a lot of us enjoy Pinker’s books. He writes a lot better than the leaden and mind-numbing Gray, whose picture appears beside the word “hauteur” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Steve did more than just summarize data, you know: he analyzed the reasons for the world’s moral and material improvement. Gray and others may disagree about those reasons, but let them provide alternative explanations for the same indisputable trends. Taleb and Ferguson’s arguments that Pinker neglects nuclear war are misguided: he takes the threat as real and says we have to work on it. Nowhere does he say that we’re on a fast track to Everything Will be Better; his lesson is that things have gotten better, they’ve gotten better because of the assiduous adoption and employment of Enlightenment values, and we have to uphold those values to keep the world from getting worse. Pinker keeps saying that, and people keep ignoring him.

The one criticism that Bartlett sees as valid doesn’t look so valid after all (my emphasis):

But Pinker complains that it’s often his critics who garble his arguments, and then set about torching straw men of their own creation. For instance, a review in The Nation by David Bell, a Princeton historian, quotes Pinker as asserting that “there really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” as if the committed atheist had expressed faith in unseen forces. In fact, in the quoted passage, Pinker is saying the opposite: that social and political advancement only make it seem as if such an arc exists. Bell stands by the quote, telling me that Pinker disregards the reality that societal improvements “take conscious political action” and that in the book Pinker evinces “contempt for intellectuals and what intellectuals do.”

There’s something to that last charge. In Enlightenment Now, Pinker writes that intellectuals hate “the idea of progress” while happily enjoying its multitudinous comforts (“they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia”). He also mocks academics for embracing Marxism, dismissing science, and for being more interested in crafting critiques than searching for solutions. “It’s easy to take an oppositional stance if you’re not responsible for getting clean water to run through the pipes, sewage to be taken away, electricity to be provided, and police to ensure safety,” Pinker says.

I’ve read both of Pinker’s latest big books (Better Angels and Enlightenment Now), and in fact they are the works of an intellectual, providing copious statistical data as well as rational analysis of the data and reasons for societal trends. The “contempt” that Pinker evinces is not for “intellectuals and what intellectuals do”, but for that subset of intellectuals who are protective of their intellectual turf, who cannot bear to see naked data refuting their hypotheses, and who raise the hue and cry of “scientism” when facts are adduced alongside arguments.

He’s also been accused of being an alt-righter, and that’s the most mendacious accusation of all. Pinker is on the Left, though more toward the center than are, say, the Justice Democrats. He donated a sizable sum to the Democratic Party during the last election cycle, and I know from conversations with him that he’s not the neo-Nazi you’d guess from reading, say, Ph*ryng*l*.

Read the piece for yourself if you wish. I have been accused of being Pinker’s Bulldog or an uncritical fanboy, but I reject those charges. I’ve been critical of plenty of my atheist colleagues when I think they say something wrong or act badly. Some of them, like Michael Shermer, Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, I remain friends with although I take issue with some of their ideas; others, like Lawrence Krauss, I’ve broken off with completely.  I just haven’t found anything to dislike about or disagree with vis-à-vis Pinker.

I’ll finish with something that we Pinkerphiles always wonder about: what his next book will be. For there will always be a next book until they lay the man in the ground. And here’s the answer:

The book he’s working on now, tentatively titled “Don’t Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, Outrage, and Taboo,” will attempt to unpack the psychology behind such outsized responses. “One of the reasons that you get shaming mobs, and conspicuous outrage, especially on social media, is when there is some common knowledge that’s an affront to an understanding that is shared in some faction,” he says. When that understanding is under threat, Pinker says, members of that faction “feel obliged to challenge it because their own identity is at stake.”

As Bartlett notes, this sounds a bit like Steve is trying to make intellectual sense of the new opposition he’s encountered, which is a bit defensive. But I don’t mind it, for I’m sure his take on social media, scientism, and the like will be both interesting and readable.


Dawkins’s Darwin Day lecture for Humanists UK: “Taking Courage from Darwin to Fight the Hubris of Faith”

February 18, 2019 • 9:15 am

Reader Michael called my attention to Richard Dawkins’s Darwin Day Lecture to Humanists UK (HUK). Richard is introduced by Humanists UK President and evolutionary biologist Alice Roberts, who was the moderator when I gave this lecture a few years ago. Richard’s lecture was just posted today, and as I write there are only 194 views. I’ll watch it as I write, and give any thoughts I have.

I was glad to see that Richard limned evolution and religion in an antagonistic light, which is what I did when I talked. After all, this is a talk to humanists, so it’s not hubris to do that, much as accommodationists like to argue that people can have their Darwin and Jesus too.

Ten minutes in, I was surprised at how hard Richard went after theology and religion, and especially after Islam and its obsession with “religious control-freakery” such as breast feeding. The audience likes it, of course, as they’re all a bunch of nonbelievers, but I don’t yet see any connection between the criticisms of Islam and Darwin.

The connection came at about 14:15, when Richard contrasts the certainty of theology with the doubt that’s endemic to science. “We don’t know” is his mantra here, and we should use it more often. At 17:30, he suggests a humorous Gendankenexperiment of the kind he’s famous for: he imagines what science would look like if scientists acted like theologians, operating from faith and revelation instead of evidence. (Note the mention of “SJW State University.”)

A quote:

“It isn’t that theologians deliberately tell untruths: it’s as though they just don’t care about truth, aren’t interested in truth, and demote truth to negligible status compared with other considerations such as metaphorical, symbolic, and mythic significance—or simply what feels good.”

Later on, he explains why he’s proud to be a product of evolution—a product with a flexible brain that has vouchsafed to us our ability, unique among animals, to understand our origins—and many other things.

Richard also argues that “the atheistic world view has an unsung virtue of intellectual courage.” To explain that, he introduces the “deep problems” that science might not answer, but that theology can’t, either: these include the “deep problem of consciousness” and the question of “why are the laws of physics as they are?” This leads to his conclusion (40:28) that science (and atheism) help kick ourselves out of the emotional reaction that the “big questions” defy naturalistic explanation—that they defy the scientific assumption that the whole universe arose and evolved through mindless naturalistic processes. As he says,

“However improbable a naturalistic answer to the riddle of existence, a theistic alternative is even more so. But it needs a courageous leap of reason to accept the conclusion.”

He then returns to Darwin as a good fount of courage to seek naturalistic answers to the Big Problems. After all, it was Darwin who, abjuring supernatural explanations, tackled the long-standing problem of life using purely naturalistic methods—and solved it!

In the end, Richard’s lecture is his version of “Faith Versus Fact,” and though it’s independent of my own ideas, I was pleased to see that he’s banging the same drum about the intellectual vacuity of theology as contrasted to the productive wielding of “the empirical attitude” that underlies science.

This lecture is also paean to the virtues of atheism, which won’t please religionists, theologians, and faitheists. Yes, New Atheism makes a brief comeback in this lecture.

If you’re a nonbeliever, you’ll find the last three minutes heartening, bracing, and eloquent. In the last 13 words, he connects atheism with social justice, though that won’t placate the SJWs who are always throwing shade on Dawkins.

At the end, Alice presents Richard with a “Darwin Day medal.”

Washington Post columnist says we’re “wired to need explanatory stories”, i.e., religion

July 24, 2018 • 1:45 pm

The Washington Post editorial below has on tap a considerable amount of science-bashing, as well as heavy pushing of the idea that there are “other ways of knowing” beyond empirical observation. Read and weep; the author is Michael Gerson, an op-ed writer at the paper and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. I’m betting he’s religious, but that’s just a guess.

Gerson’s piece is a generally positive review of a new science book, Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, and he lauds its author, David Christian, for a lucid presentation of geology, anthropology, chemistry, linguistics, and sociology. But then Gerson gets exercised when Christian says he’s trying to replace traditional “origin myths” with true stories.  So Gerson goes off about science. OY! (Gerson’s words are indented.)

Christian has written a book that succeeds at everything except its stated purpose. Ultimately he wants to provide a replacement for traditional origin stories that come from religion. These he finds contradictory and outdated. But human beings are wired to need explanatory stories, revealing, as Christian writes, “ This is what you are; this is where you came from.” Without this rooting, people can become victim to a “sense of disorientation, division and directionlessness.”

Well, yes, maybe, as beings evolved to be curious, we want explanations. But are we wired to accept divine explanations? If so, what’s the evidence? And aren’t science and truth sufficient to satisfy that curiosity? If not, how do you explain Scandinavia, a group of largely atheistic lands where people are not sunk in ennui and anomie?

But wait! There’s more science bashing to come!

In some ways, “Origin Story” is appropriately humble. Christian’s version of history, he admits, provides no explanation for ultimate beginnings. Why did the universe start in a high state of order (which is a low state of entropy)? Why did the newborn universe — what Georges Lemaitre called the “Cosmic Egg” — have operating rules that allowed for the emergence of form and structure? There is really no telling. Maybe, Christian hints, the questions themselves are meaningless. And we certainly can’t turn to the divine. “Most versions of the modern origin story,” he writes, “no longer accept the idea of a creator god because modern science can find no direct evidence for a god.”

Christian thus repeats the defining mistake of scientism: the unquestioned assumption that all rational knowledge is scientific knowledge. This is anything but humble. It is a kind of epistemological imperialism that excludes knowledge coming from moral and philosophical reasoning, from theological argumentation and from historical investigation based on reliable witnesses. Not to mention the kind of knowledge that someone loves us. Christian attempts to increase the certainty of knowledge by limiting it to less consequential things. It makes the Cosmic Egg more like a Faberge egg — ornate, beautiful and, ultimately, useless.

My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Bruce Grant, responded (below) when he sent me the link to Gerson’s pablum:

Michael Gerson’s book review of “Origin Story” in his Opinion column, July 24, accuses the book’s author, David Christian, of repeating “the defining mistake of scientism: the unquestioned assumption that all rational knowledge is scientific knowledge.” But it is Mr. Gerson who is mistaken. Rational knowledge is not private knowledge. It requires verification. That requires evidence that is open to all to inspect. It cannot be simply made up, and accepted as true because it makes us feel good. That’s called wishful thinking. The author of the book Mr. Gerson reviews does not make claims beyond what current evidence supports. Scientists are free to ask any questions they want, but they are not free to make up the answers. That is the significant distinction between science and religion Mr. Gerson fails to recognize.

I’ll add that knowledge of the type Christian was writing about doesn’t come from philosophical or moral reasoning, for which you’d be hard pressed to identify universally agreed upon “truths”, though I think there’s value in both endeavors. (I don’t, for instance, think there are objective moral truths.) Theology, of course, produces NO truths, for every religion has different “truths” that are often incompatible. “Historical investigation based on reliable witnesses” is simply empirical investigation, which of course requires verification, as all good historians know. Finally, as I mention in Faith Versus Fact, even the question of whether someone loves us is based on reason. John Hinkley might have thought that Jodie Foster loved him, but there was no evidence for that. There are signs that someone loves you, depending on your definition of “love.”

Finally, Gerson pulls the ultimate theological rabbit out of the hat: “You can’t prove there’s no God.”

As to God, the claim that modern science can provide no direct evidence for a being apart from the natural world is tautological. Does Christian expect transcendence to be like a gas that glows blue when heated?

At the very least, a Christian should require evidence for the existence of God and Christ before turning her life over to Jesus worship. And yes, a God that interacts with the world should give the world some evidence that He exists. Otherwise it’s just the “wishful thinking” that Bruce mentions above. Such evidence is possible (I give some in FvF as did Carl Sagan in his book The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God [read it!]), but the evidence just isn’t there.  When we lack evidence for a widely believed proposition, like Santa Claus or Bigfoot, we tend to put that proposition in our mental dustbin—except when it comes to God.  Apparently Gerson is one of those who likes to suspend disbelief:

Christian’s view of the universe has an impressive breadth, but it is shallow. Scientism always involves reductionism. “A man who has lived and loved,” said G.K. Chesterton, “falls down dead and worms eat him. That is Materialism if you like.” If loyalty is really chemistry, and truth is just the wisp of electric current in a three-pound piece of meat, this is not enough to provide a sense of belonging and purpose. It is not even enough to divert a class of students who hear the call of a fall afternoon, and love, and a vast sky full of meaning.

Well, maybe science has its limits, but I for one am not going to find “purpose and belonging” in wish-thinking and scriptural fiction. In response to Gerson I’ll simply quote another great skeptic besides Sagan: Richard Feynman:

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

I guess Feynman wasn’t properly wired to need explanatory stories—unless they were true.

Josh Dehaas on “Indigenous ways of knowing” (aka “faith”)

May 28, 2018 • 12:00 pm

Quillette remains a good source of liberal but critical articles, refreshingly free of clickbait and ever critical of Control-Leftism. One recent article worth reading is by Josh Dehaas, “‘Indigenous Ways of Knowing’: Magical Thinking ahd Spirituality by Any One Name.” Dehaas, described as “a Toronto based freelance journalist”, is critical of a Canadian government initiative to put “indigenous ways of knowing” alongside “Western” ways of knowing as equally valid methods for understanding nature. It turns out that while some of these “indigenous ways of knowing” may have a valid core, in the main they’re based on revelation, guesses, and tradition—forms of faith. In no way are they, taken together, comparable to the empirical approach used by scientists and science-based researchers, engineers, or even car mechanics—a method I called “science construed broadly” in Faith Versus Fact.

First, the issue. There’s no doubt that Canada treated its indigenous people horribly. Many children were ripped from their parents, sent to schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice traditional customs—an attempt to forcibly turn them into European Canadians. The country has rightfully tried to make reparations for this and similar forms of ill-treatment, and that’s to be applauded.

But in one way these reparations have gone too far. By attempting to teach indigenous “ways of knowing” as valid, the Canadian government and its universities are putting truly valid ways of understanding nature alongside ways that are not rigorously tested, and indeed, can be dangerous.

Now you’ve heard this equivalence of knowledge in at least two other areas: religion, which also claims “ways of knowing” based on revelation, dogma, authority, and simple faith, and postmodernism, which in some forms holds that there are many “ways of knowing”, with science just one among many, and not privileged in any way.

But we also have the indigenous ways of knowing held by what Canadians call “First Nation” people. Dehaas outlines how these ways are being validated:

From the University of Calgary to The University of Saskatchewan to Acadia University in New Brunswick, Canadian deans are pledging to infuse their curricula with a doctrine often described as “Indigenous Ways of Knowing” (IWK), which teaches that Indigenous peoples arrive at their understanding of the world in a unique way.

The idea has been around in some form for many years. In a research paper prepared for the Canadian government in 2002, for instance, Indigenous education scholar Marie Battiste argued that Indigenous peoples possess a “cognitive system” that is “alien” to Europeans. But in recent years, the concept has gained critical mass, as education officials seek to incorporate IWK into university coursework. Much of the impetus has come from the publication of the Final Report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2015.

The TRC was created as part of an attempt to formally recognize and heal the damage done by the Indian Residential School System, which for generations served to separate Indigenous children from their parents, thereby stripping them of their culture, often under abusive conditions. One of the TRC’s many recommendations was that Canada’s educational institutions treat “Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian knowledge systems with equal respect.” This prompted the universities’ main lobby group, Universities Canada, to exhort members to ensure “mutual respect for different ways of knowing,” and encourage “the cohabitation of Western science and Indigenous knowledge.”

Formally recognizing the harm done by the residential school system is a laudable goal. But I have yet to see any evidence that scholars create knowledge in fundamentally different ways, based on their ethnicities, as IWK proponents claim.

One example:

In an introductory IWK lecture, Paul Restoule, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), starts off by telling his class that “knowledges” are subjective. He also claims that the mere act of defining IWK is “problematic,” since any definitions would use “Western knowledge” as a frame of reference. This is not unusual. I’ve been writing about higher education for a decade, and have investigated the issue of IWK on different campuses. Invariably, my attempts to determine the exact parameters of IWK always meet with this somewhat gauzy, defensive response. Oddly, the most zealous proponents of IWK also are the ones who are the most reluctant to describe what it is.

Restoule claims that, for Indigenous people, “the senses can know more deeply and concretely than knowledge gained through reading and being told.” He asserts that “knowledge is sometimes revealed through dreams, visions and intuitions.” And he offers a Venn diagram with a circle for “Western science”—“limited to evidence and explanation within [the] physical world” and “skepticism,”—overlapping somewhat with a circle for “Indigenous knowledge,” which is described as “holistic,” involving a “metaphysical world linked to moral code” and “trust for inherited wisdom.”

That’s not knowledge, but faith that’s equivalent to religious faith!

Now I don’t know how pervasive this kind of nonsense is, but we know that First Nations people have been allowed to impose on their dying children “native medicine” rather than Western science-based medicine, with the predictable results: the kids die.(Sometimes the courts support this travesty.) I’ll count on Canadian readers to inform me if Restoule’s attitude is an outlier. I suspect it isn’t.  It is instead, as Dehaas observes, “a combination of magical thinking and spirituality.”

He adds:

Whenever proponents are asked to define IWK, “at some point in the conversation, postmodern relativism begins to enter into it,” she says. When asked to explain the unique “ways of knowing” exhibited by Indigenous peoples, advocates tend to describe either folk knowledge or spiritual beliefs, she adds. These may indeed be described as “alternative” ways of knowing. But their alternative character originates in the fact that they present themselves as exempt from the expectation of rigorous scrutiny that typically is applied to claims made by academics.

And it’s that absence of rigorous scrutiny and empirical testing that makes these “alternative ways of knowing” so dangerous.

Now some of you may be thinking, “But many modern medicines are derived from traditional plant-based remedies.” And indeed, that’s true: quinine as a remedy for malaria is the quintessential example. But the evidence that led to these plants being efficacious was still anecdotal: they seemed  to work. Now in the case of quinine they actually did work, but to find out rigorously if they work, you have to do proper empirical testing, using blind tests and statistics. That’s why all plant-based medicines, whether derived from local cultures or not, must be vetted by proper scientific testing.

After all, there are plenty of “traditional” remedies that don’t work at all: have a look at the Canadian Cancer Society’s page on “Aboriginal traditional healing“, which outlines many First Nations methods for cures that aren’t efficacious, including smudging, healing circles, and herbal medicines (some of which have been used on children with cancer). To its credit, the Society notes that there’s no evidence that any of these methods can be used to treat cancer, but the point is that people have used them—because they’re derived from “indigenous ways of knowing.”

Ditto for spiritual healing. That, like religion, is also an indigenous “way of knowing”, and may have some placebo effects, but if you had an infection, would you opt for smudging (inhaling the smoke from burning sacred herbs)— or antibiotics? By all means, if indigenous “remedies” aren’t harmful, make the patient feel more comfortable, and help him to take scientific medicine, use the other stuff as well. But don’t pretend that it’s a cure based on “other ways of knowing.”

Of course people who have been trod upon need their oppression remedied, and the Canadian government has taken admirable steps in that direction. But validating “indigenous ways of knowing”, at least insofar as they are claimed to produce truth about nature and the cosmos, isn’t one of them. There is only one valid way of knowing: a rigorous empirical method designed to overcome confirmation bias, and undergoes tests and replication. It’s called “science”.

h/t: Steve

Ways of Knowing: my talk in Bangalore

December 28, 2017 • 1:36 am

Here’s the full content of yesterday’s talk in Bangalore, “Ways of Knowing: Science versus Everything Else”, along with the questions at the end. Due to my poor hearing and occasional inability to make out Indian-accented English, I had to ask for some help in translating a few questions.

It was livestreamed but is now on YouTube. It was delivered at the Indian Academy of Sciences as part of an outreach program that has just been initiated by a number of Indian scientists.

I won’t listen to this, as I hate hearing my own talks, but it did create a great deal of discussion among the audience, which continued for an hour at tea after the talk. The older folk were more resistant to the notion that religion was not a way of knowing anything true about the cosmos, but many students came up to me after the talk and expressed sympathy with my viewpoint. By and large, and as in America, it appears that most Indian scientists are nonbelievers.

If it’s a bad talk, please don’t tell me!

Amitabh Joshi, who introduced me, was my host at the Nehru Institute in Bangalore.