In yesterday’s Daily Beast column, “A life observed”, Andrew Sullivan takes out after “scientism,” defending “ways of knowing” other than science. He first shows a one-minute video of Richard Feyman explaining the methods of science, then quotes Philip Kitcher’s critique of scientism from The New Republic (see my take here), and then gives NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich’s take on Feynman’s video:
Science is our way of describing — as best we can — how the world works. The world, it is presumed, works perfectly well without us. Our thinking about it makes no important difference. It is out there, being the world. … The world knows. Our minds guess. In any contest between the two, The World Out There wins.
Finally, Sullivan goes after me, quoting from my piece on Kitcher:
[Art and literature] function not to find out new things about our world, but to convey to others in an expressive ways truths that are derived from observation. Of course the arts have other functions as well: they can enable us to see in new ways, for example. Who can look at a lily pond the same way if you’ve seen Monet’s renditions? And many of us are moved by Bach or Coltrane. But those aren’t ways of knowing—they’re ways of feeling.
It is indeed “scientism” to dismiss the real progress that has been made in history, archaeology, and other social sciences (though I’d be a bit hard pressed to identify real advances in economics). But few of us would deny that progress, so Kitcher’s form of “scientism” is in many ways a straw man.
I still maintain that real understanding of our universe can come only from using crude versions of methods that have been so exquisitely refined by science: reason combined with doubt, observation, and replication. As one of my commenters said last week, “there are not different ways of knowing. There is only knowing and not knowing.” I would add that there is also feeling, which is the purview of art. But none of this gives the slightest credibility to religion as a way of finding truth.
Sullivan then defends ways of feeling as ways of knowing:
Being moved by Monet cannot be about discovering something “true” about our lives? Religion ceases to have “the slightest credibility” with respect to the truth of the human condition because it has no scientific basis? History – a discipline with its own methods and questions – is not a pursuit of the truth of how things happened the way they did? To relegate of all these human modes of understanding to the supremacy of science is, well, to junk the whole of knowledge for a slice of it that can only measure empirical patterns. Science is a critical part of our understanding. It simply isn’t and cannot be the whole. If that is all human knowledge is, it is pretty sad, and limited to the last few centuries out of 20,000. It consigns the human experience for the vast majority of our existence to condescending oblivion.
What we have to understand first and foremost is not what is out there, but who we are, with all the immense complexity that demands.
Well, let me first dispel Sullivan’s misunderstanding of my views of history and the social sciences. The former, and less so the latter, are indeed ways of knowing, as I’ve said repeatedly. (To quote Sullivan’s words to me back at him, “Has he even read the fucking thing?”) In their best incarnations, these disciplines use empirical investigation, reason, and replication to find out the (provisional) truth. After all, what is going on in the Jesus kerfuffle than a bunch of historians trying to winnow the truth about the man from existing evidence? So no, human knowledge is not limited to the last few centuries. If it were, evolution wouldn’t be a discipline.
True, the scientific way of knowing—that is, the practice of science as we know it—is a phenomenon that began in earnest in the 17th century, but the empirically-based way of knowing is far older. Look at how hunter-gatherers hit on herbal remedies, which still form a large basis for our pharmacopoeia. Through trial, error, and observation, they found that the bark of the cinchona tree was a remedy for malaria. (How many people died in that “experiment”?) Ditto for how the early Greeks decided that the Earth was round.
So let’s leave the science behind and get to Sullivan’s real beef—the arts and religion as ways of knowing. “Being moved by Monet” is an emotion. What truth does it express? Sullivan doesn’t say. Only that one can be moved. Delving further, you might be able to realize that you were moved by something like this, “I never saw light in that way before.” But only in the wildest sense can that be taken as a truth about the world. It may be a truth about you, but how do we know that? It can’t be verified by others, nor may we even be consciously aware of why we react as we do. Personal experience is not the same a “truth,” as innumerable religious revelations (or drug-induced visions) testify.
I may be moved by The Death of Ivan Ilyich, or The Dead, but that is because those novellas artistically resonate with our own feelings. We say, “Yes, yes, that is what it must feel like to die.” Or “Yes, Greta was silently moved her whole life by the death of Michael Furey, and her husband didn’t know.” But the former is based on observation and a feeling that an artist has depicted a common human experience (i.e., observation); while the latter is a feeling unique to one person.
Clearly the entire human experience does not devolve to science, nor have I ever believed that. The human experience includes feelings, emotions, and thoughts. But let us not forget that one day many of those will be scientifically analyzed and dissected. We will discover the parts of the brain, and the chemicals like endorphins, that engender those feelings. Those won’t provide a full explanation of everything that interests us about our species, but clearly our reactions to phenomena, and to other people, are not immune to scientific study. And I doubt that science can tell us, at least not for several lifetimes hence, why one person is moved by Beethoven while another finds his music boring. Those differences constitute the world’s rich diversity that makes life worthwhile and endlessly interesting.
When someone tells you, “I am hungry,” that is also a feeling. Is it a truth? Yes it is, if she’s really hungry, but that, too, is subject to empirical testing. Is her stomach full? When did she last eat? Does she tuck into a huge meal? But again, it’s a personal truth, and tells us little about what is out there in the world beyond the experience of a single person. And we know, scientifically if you will, that deprivation of food brings on hunger. Even the statement, “Fred loves Sue” can be tested, at least according to one’s definition of love.
In the end, though, I think that Sullivan (an observant Catholic) is more concerned with defending religion—at least that’s the pervasive motivation behind attacks on scientism. When he says, “What we have to understand first and foremost is not what is out there, but who we are, with all the immense complexity that demands,” he’s first of all dismissing the entire basis of Western faith, which of course is deeply concerned with what is out there. Maybe theologians don’t care if there’s a god (he might just be a “ground of being,” whatever that is), or what kind of god he is, but most religious people do. And those people want to know if someone is looking out for them, whether they prayers are answered, and what will happen when they die. Those are things that are out there—or rather not out there, for not a scintilla of good evidence exists for those notions. It all comes down to revelation. And of course different people have different revelations.
Given the absence of empirical evidence for a divine being, and the disparate nature of personal revelations and of the tenets of different religions, we’ll never know what is or is not out there, god-wise. That ignorance is what keeps theologians in business. For scientists, we have no need of a god hypothesis, any more than we need an elf or a dragon hypothesis, and so we provisionally reject all of them.
“Who we are” doesn’t have a general answer, except in the empirical sense that evolution built the human genome a certain way and society also gives us certain cultural commonalities. Beyond that there are only personal answers, and who we think we are may differ radically from who we really are. (My own observation: nobody thinks he’s a jerk but yet the world contains many palpable jerks. Ergo many people don’t know who they are.)
And what religion teaches us is how we should behave. Those aren’t truths, but moral strictures, and, of course, many of them are dreadful. It also may tell us something about humanity, in the same way that any work of fiction can. But every religious “truth” or revelation about humanity can be derived, and has been derived, from nonreligious considerations. Religion is among the worst ways of knowing, for it is wedded to false doctrine. Reading good fiction is a far better way to learn about humanity than is reading the Bible.
And what, exactly, is the “religious truth about the human condition” so touted by Sullivan? That women are second-class citizens? That God will send us to hell if we masturbate? That homosexuality is wrong? (Sullivan should pay attention here.) That’s it’s okay to have slaves, and beat them for their own good? That we should give up our family and possessions and follow Jesus? The “truths” that Sullivan gleans from Scripture are, of course, ones like the Golden Rule that he finds morally palatable, not ones handed down from God. And whether they’re morally palatable depends entirely on non-religious considerations.
It strikes me that most people who claim that there are other ways of knowing beyond empirical observation and reason never list any of the questions supposedly answered by art, music, or religion. I have labored through one paper addressing this question, “Truth in music” (J. Levinson, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1981, 40:131-144), only to find this dispiriting conclusion:
I have also said little about the bearing of musical truth on the possibility of acquiring extramusical knowledge-for example, about emotional life-from a musical composition. I fear that what can be said here is mainly negative. In order to come to know something from listening to a composition which was true in one of our senses one would have to know that the composition was true in that sense. But in general, one will not know that the composition is true unless one already knows precisely that which hearing the composition and knowing it was true would have illuminated one about.
I have by no means closed my mind on this issue, but I still await the questions that non-empirical ways of knowing can answer about the world.