Pinker debones the “scientism” canard

I’ve written about scientism for several years, and have highlighted the many people, including Philip Kitcher, Massimo Pigliucci, Uncle Eric MacDonald, Steve Gould (in Rocks of Ages), and the flock of theologians who use the term “scientism” as a cudgel: an example of science overstepping its boundaries.  The faithful also use it to say, ironically, “See? Science is just as harmful as faith.”

One of the problems has been the definition of “scientism,” which varies from commenter to commenter but is always pejorative.  I take it to mean “science overstepping its boundaries” in the sense of Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria: scientists misusing science or technology to bad ends (racism or eugenics), claiming they will take over the humanities (as in E. O. Wilson’s notion of “consilience”), or making moral and political pronouncements that exceed scientific expertise or ambit.

The problem is that these accusations always exceed the crimes, and that’s evidenced by the failure of “scientism” critics to give examples of the sin.  My responses would be that few scientists now misuse the field to support racism or other odious views, that in many ways humanities can truly benefit from using the methods of science—with science conceived broadly as “the use of evidence and reason (and often statistics) to support its claims”—and that almost no scientist thinks that our endeavors will engulf art, music, and literature.

Nevertheless, the criticisms burgeon, and Steve Pinker finally got fed up.  His response appears today in the New Republic, in a four-page essay called “Science is not your enemy: an impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians”.   This is a wonderful piece, written with Pinker’s characteristic logic and panache, and, since it’s free online, you have no reason not to read it.  I implore my readers to go through this four-page piece. In fact, I’ll say it’s required reading for this website. You’ll also like the encomiums given to science and the denigrations of faith.

I won’t discuss the piece in detail since you must read it, but I’ll give a few excerpts to show where Pinker’s going. His main message is that scientism is largely a canard, but that people in the humanities and other areas outside “hard science” should welcome rather than fear the incursion of science into their fields.

One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented. Just as reviled is the application of scientific reasoning to religion; many writers without a trace of a belief in God maintain that there is something unseemly about scientists weighing in on the biggest questions. In the major journals of opinion, scientific carpetbaggers are regularly accused of determinism, reductionism, essentialism, positivism, and worst of all, something called “scientism.” The past couple years have seen four denunciations of scientism in this magazine alone, together with attacks in Bookforum, The Claremont Review of Books, The Huffington Post, The Nation, National Review Online, The New Atlantis, The New York Times, and Standpoint.

. . . In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life. The first is that the world is intelligible. The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves.

. . . The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.

That, of course, is the besetting sin of religion, and why it’s incompatible with science as a “way of knowing.” It has no way to determine whether its assertions are wrong. While the caravan of science moves on, the dogs of theology bark but don’t tag along.

In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science. Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities.

Pinker goes on to list the contributions of science to not only human welfare, but to the understanding of the universe—a litany of achievements that theology can’t hope to match, since it’s revealed nothing convincing about the cosmos. His list of what science has done will give you immense pride in what one highly cerebralized primate has been able to wrest from that cosmos.  Theology, on the hand, brings me only a sense of shame that so many people have wasted their time on a nonexistent being when they could have been contributing to human progress. Pinker then proceeds to debunk the idea that science is responsible for dystopian social movements,

Finally, he lays out the variety of ways science can contribute to the humanities: by giving us a better take on human nature, by the use of statistics and data analysis to settle questions of social and political science, and by providing fertile new ground: the study of how the workings of the human brain, as revealed by science, provide more depth to the social sciences, literary analysis, and even studies of music.  (He uses archaeology, linguistics and the philosophy of mind as successes in applying science to other areas.)

Read it now!  I am not often a fanboy, but really, I find nothing to critique in this piece, though I’m sure some readers will. I see it as the definitive refutation of the scientism canard, converting it into a pressed duck. The final dorsoventral compression is achieved in the last paragraph:

And the critics should be careful with the adjectives. If anything is naïve and simplistic, it is the conviction that the legacy siloes of academia should be fortified and that we should be forever content with current ways of making sense of the world. Surely our conceptions of politics, culture, and morality have much to learn from our best understanding of the physical universe and of our makeup as a species.

This won’t be the end of the debate, of course. I’m sure that outraged theologians and humanities professors will try go get their licks in, so stay tuned.

As lagniappe, today’s Jesus and Mo was inspired by Pinker’s piece:

2013-08-07

217 Comments

  1. gbjames
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    And now we have assigned reading on this site! I love it!

    • jesperbothpedersen1
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 5:54 am | Permalink

      It’s homework time. :-)

      • still learning
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

        Will there be a test on this? :)

        • Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          Jerry will be reviewing your future comments on this bl— website for evidence of conformity… 

          /@

  2. Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Let me just say, that when I encounter the word “scientism” it’s usually a creationist using it and it’s being used as one might use faith in religion.

    Scientism is an unwavering belief that science does (or can) have all the answers and/or it is the only method by which knowledge can be gained.

    Again, that’s just from my experience. I’ve never heard of the ‘overstepping boundaries’ version, though I guess excessive belief in science could be an ‘overstepping boundaries’.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      Scientism is an unwavering belief that science does (or can) have all the answers and/or it is the only method by which knowledge can be gained.

      I would assert that science — interpreted broadly, as Jerry does, namely reasoned deductions from observed evidence — is indeed the only method of learning and knowing about the universe around us, and that if it is possible for humans to know something then science is the tool that will lead to it.

      That’s not the same as saying “science has all the answers” since there are many things that we may never be able to know.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

        I agree, but that is how scientism is defined by the people I deal with routinely.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        {Dara Ó Briain quote goes here.}

        /@

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      Yes, this has been my experience as well.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      OgreMkV #2 wrote:

      Scientism is an unwavering belief that science does (or can) have all the answers and/or it is the only method by which knowledge can be gained.

      When I look closely at what it is people are afraid of with this sweeping version of ‘scientism,’ I usually come up with two basic concerns:

      1.) Religion: they’re trying to protect their spiritual beliefs from objective examination, analysis, and criticism.

      2.) Tastes, preferences, and lifestyles: they’re afraid that some “expert” is going to try to tell them they’re caring about the wrong things and living life the wrong way — even though they’re causing no harm to others.

      Both fears replace God with science, but in different ways. That second way isn’t getting as much attention as the first one among the gnu atheists, but I think it’s just as important.

      There is apparently some sort of intuitive assumption working here that there is an ultimate right and wrong for every picky choice people make. The triumph of “Scientism” doesn’t just mean that you’re told you’re wrong for worshiping God (because it doesn’t exist but they skip over that part and quickly interpret it as a bully judgment.) No, if Scientism wins the culture wars then you’ll probably be told you like the wrong music, you enjoy the wrong things, you love the wrong people. Why? Because Daddy said so. People are supposed to be perfect, after all. And “science” can show that your personal tastes are bad.

      After all, there has to be a Daddy to establish the goodness and badness, the rightness and wrongness, of everything. And if Daddy isn’t going to be God — then it must be Science which takes its place. “Science orders you to change who you are.”

      Ironically, it looks like you have to endorse scientism in order to fear it properly.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Of course, none of those things are actually science and science, almost by definition, cannot make moral or aesthetic judgments.

        Lots of people with science backgrounds make specific moral choices (i.e. freedom), but it’s not science per say.

        That all being said, there’s no evidence that any ‘Big Daddy’ is required for anything mentioned.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

        I don’t think 2 is a legitimate concern.

        There are already experts in various artistic fields that insist “this is right, that is wrong”, without enlisting (at least deliberately) the aid of science.

        But even if science was brought to bear on aesthetic matters, I don’t think the dichotomy produced would be “right/wrong”. It could, however, certainly be “better/worse” or “intelligent/facile”. But would we really need to worry about prescriptions? Eat your PBJ. I eat them, too. But I still recognize that a chocolate soufflé is more of an achievement.

        Interesting and useful information about art, how we create and consume it, can be acquired by applying scientific principles. I’ve read a few books in this vein. Sure, they don’t quite get to the heart of what makes for a more impressive artistic achievement, but there are lessons to be learned. Why shouldn’t we apply science?

        • Sastra
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

          True, but I’m not talking about a rational fear: I’m describing an irrational one.

          The scientific method is the antithesis of ‘faith’ — and faith deliberately blurs the distinction between objective and subjective, fact and feeling. You can only get to the real objective facts through a mystical, subjective process of ‘knowing.’ This is basically equivalent to just ‘knowing’ that good is better than evil … and what is beautiful, and what is not.

          The people who despise “scientism” seem to assume that science is going to try to obliterate the line as well — and is going to be just as autocratic and judgmental as any tyrant God. Science forces us to recognize our human limitations. Their version of a scientistic atheist scientist then is someone who would stamp their foot and insist no, no PBJ for you — it’s “scientifically” wrong to enjoy them. The reasoning is that it will take away the freedom to choose aesthetics because it takes away the freedom to choose epistemically.

          They’re forming science in the image of religion and then, like kids, going “nuh uh … that’s what you’re doing!”

          • Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

            Ah. I thought you were writing from your own perspective.

            I agree with your insights about why some people fear the application of science in some fields.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

      Agreed, “scientism” when I encounter it is a word generally used by creationists.

      It is normally used to mask the difference between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism. The first being “there is only the material world” and the second being “all we can measure is the material world unless someone comes up with a way to measure it”.

      They try to imply that all scientists completely dismiss creationist claims so the creationist can then claim to be “expelled” from science.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:44 am | Permalink

        Oops, should be:

        “all we can measure is the material world unless someone comes up with a way to measure the ‘supernatural'”.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      This is my experience, also:

      “You think science is the only path to reliable knowledge; well, let me tell you, there are Other Ways Of Knowing.”

      Invariably the “knowledge” to which they allude isn’t knowledge at all. Or, ironically, they’ve unwittingly employed a type of scientific methodology, using Jerry’s broad definition of science.

      • Paul S
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Exactly. Not having a science background, I used to think there were other ways of knowing as well. It wasn’t until I read Jerry’s broad description of the scientific method that I recognized I’d been performing my own version of the scientific method all along. I really thought I simply knew things, but I always followed a pattern, hypothesize / test / attempt to falsify / repeat. It can be a bit of a shock to realize you don’t simply “know” something. On the plus side, it has changed how I view what I thought I knew.

  3. Gordon Hill
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the link. Pinker steer a steady cognitive course. In my view scientism is a term created as a soft slur. A web search show a diversity of definitions… take your pick… ;-)

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      It’s a term that walks the fence regarding interpretation, along with environmentalism and feminism. In order to avoid the usual response to words that are being corrupted–switching to new words–I favor standing up for what we have. The other way is endless.

      (Scientism may have been pejorative in its original coinage, while the others weren’t; but for the sake of consistency I say we embrace it as a positive. Nice to see that Pinker agrees with me. :D )

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

        Thanks. I have also seen accomodationism similarly used as both informative and demeaning… :-D

  4. Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    Been reading it this morning, and it’s a good essay. However, I would fault Pinker for not being bold enough:

    Pinker:

    Scientism … is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise.

    I’d say that physical *is* the only stuff that exists, so long as that is taken to include *patterns* of physical stuff (I’d then assert that the other things Pinker mentions in that quote are patterns of physical stuff).

    • Matt G
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      For us to say that something exists, we need some means of detecting it. We detect dark matter not because we can “see” it, but because we can observe its effects on visible matter. Ideas have no physical existence, but they still have effects which we can detect, but in a different way.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

        Ideas have no physical existence…

        I suggest that “ideas” do indeed have physical existence, as patterns of physical matter.

        Most “physically existing” things are patterns of physical matter. A chair is a pattern of stuff. An atom is a pattern of subatomic particles. A proton is a pattern of quarks and gluons.

        Thus I don’t see anything wrong with an idea “physically existing” as a pattern of stuff in the same way that a molecule exists.

        • jesperbothpedersen1
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:44 am | Permalink

          I agree to the extent that it was so when the idea originated. Once it has been described and defined it enters the meme stage and it is spread by the means of communication.

          • Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

            But “memes” and “communication” are just patterns of matter, in the same way that waves are patterns of matter.

            • jesperbothpedersen1
              Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

              Point taken. I agree that everything can be described as a pattern of matter, but I’m also a hardcore fan of scientism.

    • Al_de_Baran
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      “I would fault Pinker for not being bold enough:”

      Correction: You would fault Pinker for being not dogmatic enough.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        Well, let’s have your evidence for the existence of non-physical entities, then.

  5. Ross Burnett
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    Here’s what I wrote on my FB post about this article:
    Steven Pinker’s piece of crystal-clear thinking is worth reading and re-reading, by anyone either for, against, or apathetic about the role and value of science in our world. It should be required reading at the beginning of each school year for children advanced enough to understand its concepts. It should be read aloud and entered into the record of all legislative bodies worldwide. I find it hard to overstate its importance. Get my drift?

  6. Robert Bray
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    I have long been a devoted reader of the ‘New Republic,’ not so much for its political coverage, which I find boring, as for its section on books and arts. And, to bed sure, the ‘Washington Diarist’ essays at the end of each issue by Leon Wieseltier, who almost oscillatingly yanks me between love and despite.

    How ironic, then, that Pinker’s superb essay appears in the context of Wieseltier. A year or so back (I believe it was early in 2012), Mr. W. called Alex Rosenberg’s ‘Atheist’s Guide to Reality’ ‘the worst book of the year’ (meaning 2011). Having read Rosenberg myself, I was stunned by this judgment and not a little offended. After all, Mr. W. could not have read all the books published in 2011, nor did he lay down any principle of criticism that would make comprehensible the notions of ‘worst’ and ‘best.’ But the worst aspect of Mr. W.’s essay was his manifest refusal to engage Rosenberg on Rosenberg’s terms; that is, to ponder his argument before declaring that the ‘Atheist’s Guide’ was an example of ‘how a learned man can become a fool.’

    I write this because Leon Wieseltier is a humanist’s humanist, a fine writer and what passes for a wise person. His take on ‘scientism’ is therefore precisely what Pinker warns the humanists’ Mandarin class against: denouncing science without knowing anything about science.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      Didn’t mean we should surely go to ‘bed.’ Lo siento mucho.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

      “denouncing science without knowing anything about science.” This is a great insight. Those that I engage in debate on the epistemic merit of science often have no understanding of how science operates. They most often don’t comprehend the falsification technique. Therefore they project onto science the confirmation bias often necessary for their epistemology (this seems to be universally true of all people of religious affection).

      • Matt G
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

        Very true. Many people begin their “reasoning” process from a set of unjustified assumptions (like “god exists”, or “I know things” (which they confuse with believing thing), or “the bible is true”, etc.).

      • Sastra
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:59 am | Permalink

        People also constantly conflate science with technology. A method of eliminating bias in how we (humanity) explores and explains the world is treated as if it were the same thing as the tools we can use it to create. Good tools; bad tools.

      • eric
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Those that I engage in debate on the epistemic merit of science often have no understanding of how science operates.

        Or no desire to do it. I think in many cases, humanities scholars reject scientific (or, more generally, non-humanities) methods because they aren’t trained in them and using them would require a steep learning curve for both them and their students.

        To take a simple example, calculus is highly relevant to Zeno’s paradoxes (want to know how long it takes to traverse an infinite number of infinitesimally small distances? We can calculate that!). But how many philosophy professors do you know have either the mathematical expertise or desire to walk through such a calculation during a philosophy class?

        This type of “not invented here” thinking is, I think, a primary contributor of science fear or science rejection. And, incidentally, this door swings both ways; scientists have just as hard a time accepting outsider knowledge which may be relevant but is unfamiliar. The issue is less pressing for them, however, since as Pinker says, science seems to be in pretty good shape in terms of being valued by society, while the humanities are in trouble in that respect.

        • Posted August 8, 2013 at 4:22 am | Permalink

          I think you’ve managed to provide an excellent example of what people in the humanities hate about scientists encroaching on their fields. You’re arguing here that calculus is quite important to Zeno’s paradoxes and how they are used/talked about in humanities, assuming here that you mean philosophy since that’s the one that seems to care about it the most. But:

          1) What can it provide that simply stating “But reality isn’t that way, so we have a paradox” doesn’t cover equally well? At best, you could claim that Zeno got the math wrong … but the philosophical interest is not in the mathematics, but in the conceptual issues. So, not the mathematical infinity, but the philosophical infinity. Stuffing the mathematical concept in there won’t really help much.

          2) Even if it would, why bother having the professors and students all learn calculus — especially since it would have to be more than the simply ad hoc definition of limit that seems to implay that the function approaches but never reaches the limit — for such a small issue? Philosophy is not spilling lots of ink trying to figure out these paradoxes. They aren’t the big problems of philosophy. They are generally introduced as interesting problems and asides in introductory courses. Why put that much effort into a problem that can be covered without the calculus and isn’t that important to the field?

          That’s the sort of thing that raises the complaints when scientists try to enter into other fields: that the scientists do so without understanding why the issues are important to or of interest to the field, and without understanding the work that’s already gone into the problem. Thus, they end up proposing solutions that don’t answer the question, or solutions that the field has already come up with and raised issues with. This is what happened when Krauss and Hawking tried to explain something from nothing (they did both), and what usually happens when they get into morality. As you might imagine, that can be quite frustrating.

          It’s at its worst in philosophy, which has a long tradition of trying to naturalize itself and use science to solve its problems, and rejects that not because they have a bias against it, but because for those questions science has proven ineffective in principle and in practice.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      “a humanist’s humanist” — referring to someone in the humanities rather than one guided by humanism? or one of each??

      /@

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        As a philistine, it was only a few years ago that I ran across the usage of ‘humanist’ that means ‘someone in the humanities.’ Talk about cognitive dissonance.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:16 am | Permalink

          You’re not a philistine; I just learned of its usage in this context yesterday.

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 9, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

            Oh, good, I feel better!

  7. Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    I love Pinker’s piece and identify with it. I studied the humanities in undergrad, which has fueled my playwriting practice but, my work has deepened the past five years, when my day job challenged me to understand the scientific method. I’ve altered my understanding of knowledge due to science (a lot of my burgeoning education has been satisfied at this web-site) and it has helped me advance as a playwright (and helped put a stake in the heart of my vampiric religious traditions). Employing objective standards to information is a wonderful way to remove my ego from the process of intellectual development. And it is fun.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

      “helped put a stake in the heart of […] vampiric religious traditions”

      I am so going to steal that!

      /@

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:55 am | Permalink

        I liked that bit too. It’s kinda Buffy.

  8. Bruce S. Springsteen
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

    Science represents a direct threat to lazy rhetoricians who make their living and reputation via hand-waving confabulations. For such folk, Pinker’s reassurances mean nothing. They know an enemy when they see it.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      I was thinking the same thing. This whole post modernism phenomenon was just about laziness.

      • Sastra
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        Lazy thinking, yes — but also runaway ‘sympathy’ with the oppressed. I think being sensitive to undervalued lives and their ‘points of view’ spilled out into being sensitive to under-evidenced hypotheses and their equal right to stand proudly beside their scientific neighbors. Science privileges right answers — and we know there should be no right, no wrong, just different.

        • Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

          Yes, yes!

          I call it “naive egalitarianism”. They think they’re involved in a noble endeavor.

          • darrelle
            Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

            And, ironically, that their point of view on the matter is the one true correct one.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

              Nice – yes that’s very ironic, isn’t it?

        • Matt G
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

          Yes, science is a meritocracy. We don’t practice affirmative action for bad – or unintelligible – ideas.

        • Mark Joseph
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

          There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Isaac Asimov, sourced on his Wikiquote page

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:01 am | Permalink

            Perfect.

  9. jesperbothpedersen1
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    From Pinker’s piece:

    Though science is beneficially embedded in our material, moral, and intellectual lives, many of our cultural institutions, including the liberal arts programs of many universities, cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt. Students can graduate from elite colleges with a trifling exposure to science.

    This is one of my main beefs with the humanities. It is as if a scientific view of the world, especially if applied to fellow humans, is frowned upon. Like truth is a matter of subjective opinion and that we never can say anything absolute about human nature using the tools of science because nature is without morals and compassion.

    The idea that human culture and behaviour is somehow beyond or transcends scientific scrutiny is one of the most oxymoronic concepts I’ve had the doubtful pleasure of encounting.

    I’m looking forward to the day when hardcore scientism isn’t frowned upon as a cold and inhumane disposition.

    To me the sky is the limit and the impact of scientific thinking applied to humanities spells progress.

    If only the greybearded philosophers of this world would stop and listen for a second and accumulate the evidence, we could revive and invigorate the philosophical story of mankind.

    I wish the field of philosophy would draw a line in the sand and say: “This is were we stand fast against the silly claims of theology. We will oppose the theological arguments with facts and logic, and one simple requirement. Evidence. Or rather in this case, the complete lack of evidence.

    Dear Theologians: It is time to put up, or shut up. No two ways about it.”

    • jesperbothpedersen1
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

      *encountering.
      :-)

    • Chris Slaby
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:42 am | Permalink

      “Like truth is a matter of subjective opinion” Nail on the head. For many, many people, truth *is* a matter of subjective opinion. Of course the world and reality don’t care about your opinion, and that’s basically the way science works as it tries to better understand everything, but if your subject of inquiry is humans and human activity, and humans do not all adhere to a belief in one universal truth or reality, then you have to deal with the complex idea of different truths/realities. Note, of course, the difference between realizing this while trying to objectively study something like the history of religion in pre-colonial East Africa vs. as part of your methods and theories, actively participating in the view that there is no single reality, doing something like writing multiple histories, ignoring the weight of evidence and/or logic, saying all theories/sides are equal. I think the humanities are in a very tricky spot because anything you begin to discuss can easily, and quite legitimately, devolve into a conversation about meaning, competing interests, and truth. When Pinker talks about intelligibility and principles, this is the problem. What if we don’t all agree on the principles? What if the principles are not pure, objective fact? What if, when we’re talking about religion, or events, or concepts, the principles themselves are shaped by values, not just always contingent, but with completely different meanings depending on whose point-of-view your working from? The difficulty of humanities is that the world of human experience is not value-free, that there is in fact no pure, objective, single human story and so in trying to tell (or re-tell) this story, we often get bogged down in very necessary questions of value, meaning, and truth. The end goal should not be, I’ll add, to just say that all versions of the story are permissible since a case could be made; the point is to realize bias, to note it, and to try to produce work that is as all-encompassing, transparent, and objective as possible.

      • jesperbothpedersen1
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

        One of the beauties with most science is that prior to investigation you have the hypothesis that hopefully takes any bias into account as best it can.

        One of the drawbacks( if you can call it that ) is that it is a process of learning by doing and contrary to religion, science doesn’t claim to have all the answers, so inevitably some people will continue to cling on to religion no matter what facts they are exposed to.

        My hope is that somewhere down the line, we will have gained and accumulated so much knowledge about the universe that surrounds us, so religion simply no longer is relevant to the issue of humanities. It is viewed upon as a relic of the primitive past.

        The question still remains though, whether religion can and will evolve to circumvent the facts of the future.

        I’m hoping no.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

        “… the complex idea of different truths/realities.

        I think this is a misnomer.

        Is human behavior complex and varied? Sure. Do people believe different things for different reasons? Yep. Does this imply that there is more than one truth? More than one reality? Nope.

        I think I get the gist of what you’re saying, but you dignify the sloppy thinkers’ claim that truth is a subjective matter when you use language like that which I quoted.

        There is one reality, and part if this reality is that people believe and do all sorts of different, sometimes contradictory things. We don’t have to elevate each type of behavior to the level of being its own, separate “reality”.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      One of the delicious parts of that Pinker quote is his accusing liberal arts programs of having a “philistine indifference” toward science. About time philistinism cut both ways!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

        It would be funny to respond and ask that since this is in context of the Humanities, is he speaking literally or metaphorically when he uses the word, “philistine”. The only reason I find this amusing is once I used, “philistine” metaphorically in an essay and I got chastised because the prof took it literally. It was a Classics class so it can happen. :)

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

          Classics humor!

          It occurs to me that there’s fertile ground somewhere for a thread about humanities jokes, just as we have threads about science jokes. Wonder how many of them I’d get?

  10. Chris Slaby
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    This is a very useful work, and I’m glad that Pinker has said most of what he’s said here. I think that in terms of scientism, and those pushing back against science, he is spot on. However, I am displeased with some of his comments about the humanities. To a certain extent, this reminds me of the Sokal Affair. I think I agree with Sokal’s main points (that the journal that accepted his piece was, by not subjecting it to any tests of veracity, a sad indication of how things work in cultural theory; and that there is a failure of action/success with so-called Leftist philosophy of the past few decades). In my view, however, Pinker (like Sokal before him) missed one of the biggest benefits of post-modern philosophy/theory: the ability to understand what reality looks like from the human perspective, the ability to see how we make (or construct) our own realities. We can see this most clearly when Pinker says the following: “In other words, the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.” This is absolutely not true, certainly not if we consider the entire world. I’m not 100% sure what Pinker might mean by educated, but I don’t think he means a certain political/ideological bent, I think he just means people with access to the most current knowledge and information. However, think of how many people believe in an afterlife. This single view alone drastically changes how one views everything else in the world. Of course many people are dealing with the complex issue of reconciling the scientific realities of the world with faith, but the key point to keep in mind is that many people still find faith compelling. It’s exactly like Jerry going on that trip trying to convince a bunch of people that evolution is true. One of the individuals said something like “that’s convincing, but I’m not convinced.” Many, many people on this planet, probably the vast majority, hold a priori views that affect everything else. They might accept much or all of what science tells them about the world, but as long as they are guided at least partly by some other set of values, then the truths of science and reality might not be the ultimate truths of their worldview. I absolutely agree with the pithy line: science wins because it works. But for many people, that’s not enough and/or they just don’t care (much of the time), and we need to realize that, and understand why. (In this regard, I think that Jerry is probably at least partly right that well being is tied to religious belief.)

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      I think Pinker is referring to scientific thinking and concepts and even abstractions that infiltrated into the culture. In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he talks about hings like economy, percentages, sample sizes, etc. entering our regular parlance that were not that long ago never referenced by popular media. I haven’t yet read his essay, but I suspect that is what he means.

    • jesperbothpedersen1
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      But for many people, that’s not enough and/or they just don’t care (much of the time), and we need to realize that, and understand why.

      That is where I’m ( maybe naively ) an optimist. As science gradually evolves, so do we. I’m convinced that science will reach a state where it can fulfil the emotional needs of the vast majority of people.

      Religion may have been a step up the ladder from anarchy, but now time and new discoveries is slowly working against religious dogma.

      Religion is on its way out and the remaining question is whether or not the people of the world gladly will accompany it to the grave or not.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:36 am | Permalink

        “I’m convinced that science will reach a state where it can fulfil the emotional needs of the vast majority of people.

        I wouldn’t say science itself. I think that a better understanding of reality, as revealed by using the tools of science, will fulfill those emotional needs that believers typically seek from their religion.

        Acutally, I really hope that a better understanding of reality will give most people what they need to not feel like they have to have some of the things, period, that believers typically seek from religion. For example the perceived need to have some outside force define the purpose of your existence, provide your moral values and forgive you for not being perfect.

        • jesperbothpedersen1
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

          I wouldn’t say science itself. I think that a better understanding of reality, as revealed by using the tools of science, will fulfill those emotional needs that believers typically seek from their religion.

          Well put. I’m right there with you.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

        Many of the theologies that complain about science tend to evoke scientific language in a way to justify their misguided ideas (that’s why Intelligent Design exists). In so doing, they reveal that they know science is right or at least its methods are.

        Even institutions like the Catholic Church know they need to accept science because they’re fighting a losing battle so they too twist it to fit their theology.

        I’m hoping these wrong ideas erode away without many of their adherents even noticing.

        • jesperbothpedersen1
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

          One can only hope.

          I’m still puzzled as to why theology is still a course available on universities around the world.

          It belongs in church.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

            The up side is the theology students end up in your Classical Greek class and you get to annoy them with accurate translations of biblical passages and words like, “atheist” :)

            • jesperbothpedersen1
              Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

              LOL. Yeah, we can be annoying like that sometimes. Oh well, that’s what they get for trying to make up their own facts. :-)

    • Sastra
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:15 am | Permalink

      Well put.

      It seems to me that the aspect of gnu atheism which most critics find absolutely infuriating is that it isn’t content to simply criticize “extremists and extremism.” We go after faith itself. It’s the root problem. It’s a vice.

      Religious faith — the conviction that there is something praiseworthy about the commitment to strive for an irrational, unworldly certainty — distorts every one of the values it’s supposed to be promoting. It is not humble; it is not unifying; it is not enlightening; it is not explanatory; it is not ennobling; it is not honest. Those are the virtues of science.

      I think faith in faith encourages the kind of category error which blinds people to this. It’s not just that we need to undermine the ordinary extraordinary assumptions you being up, such as an afterlife and magical universe. The method itself needs to be criticized. A culture which goes all soft and gooey-eyed every time someone breaths that they find “faith” central to their life is not going to encourage a scientific mindset. It will allow only bits and pieces of science, in its place, and dismissed like a taxicab once people no longer like where it’s leading them.

      • Matt G
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        Scientists make claims and back them up with evidence. Theologians make claims and back them up with nada. And how many times have you heard religious people call scientists arrogant? Who is arrogant here?

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        Religious faith — the conviction that there is something praiseworthy about the commitment to strive for an irrational, unworldly certainty — distorts every one of the values it’s supposed to be promoting. It is not humble; it is not unifying; it is not enlightening; it is not explanatory; it is not ennobling; it is not honest. Those are the virtues of science.

        Right up there in the top ten of excellent Sastra quotes.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      With all good will, Mr. or Ms. Slaby, I recommend paragraphing and the blue-pencilling of the word ‘absolutely.’

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      I think what he means is that if you take the trouble to educate yourself about reality (an education made possible by scientific advances), you can make better choices, more moral choices, than you can groping about in ignorance.

      Also, postmodernism is really a day late and a dollar short regarding the observation that we “construct our own realities”. The scientific method is all about avoiding that pitfall, avoiding the biases, wishful thinking, peer pressure, etc that go into “constructing our own realities”. That’s kind of a mundane observation.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Almost a deepity, if you will.

    • gbjames
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Pinker (like Sokal before him) missed one of the biggest benefits of post-modern philosophy/theory: the ability to understand what reality looks like from the human perspective, the ability to see how we make (or construct) our own realities

      I think this is misguided in two senses. First, I think it is absurd for anyone to say that any human being lacks the ability to understand what reality looks like from “the human perspective”.

      Secondly, to use a set of confused human ideas, whether emanating from religion or the local English Department, as evidence that Pinker is missing a benefit of postmodern philosophy strikes me as contributing nothing but additional cognitive chaos. Pinker hasn’t missed anything. He’s simply pointed out that nonsense is nonsense.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:12 am | Permalink

        Even the way you (Chris) state the problem is misguided, I think. Better to say, say, “the ability to see how we make (or construct) our own views of reality

        As musical beef notes, science already recognises how distorting a lens that can be. (Chromatic aberrations of the mind?)

        /@

        • Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          Very nice metaphor.
          :)

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

          Yes, and cognitive biases would be something that would be great in the humanities. I’ve said before that I think I was privileged to have avoided a lot of this crap when I was in school and understanding something like historical context, influences, cognitive biases (reader and writer) were as important as word choice when literature was analyzed.

  11. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    I’m curious to find out the real numbers of the liberal arts departments that have a disdain for science and actively proclaim this. As advocatus diaboli (Yay! I finally got to use this term! It’s just like when I waited for months for someone not to understand the word, “moot” so I could explain it using Rick Springfield’s song, Jesse’s Girl) I wonder if this is overblown by loud mouths more than actual numbers.

    Indeed, I often heard those in science courses call those in Humanities “stupid” and proclaim that “anyone with half a brain could do that” (okay those were mostly engineers and they were nice once they grew up & I worked with them :)). I also did not meet many science folk who had been exposed to any real humanities work. It thus was my delight to impress my science professor when I linked the history of the enlightenment with scientific progress and the increase of communications through technology (like railroads) in an assignment that actually put the two together.

    It’s coincidental that this piece Pinker has written has come out (and I’ll endeavour to read it in detail today) because I’m at the point in his book where he talks in detail about how scientific thinking infiltrated our entire culture.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      Here, have a glass of devil’s advocaat!

      /@

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

        Mmmm just what I needed!

    • Robert Bray
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

      I can’t offer ‘real numbers,’ Ms. MacPherson, but only an anecdotal sense of collegiality at the liberal arts college where I’ve been a professor of English for a long time. My colleagues in the sciences know a great deal more about the humanities than we know about science. A good part of this is, of course, sharing language, reading and a common curiosity about literature and the arts. But another part results from ignorance–and one that humanists scarcely ever do anything to remedy.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

        That’s been my experience as well.

        I’ve been very dismayed to see what a disparity exists between scientists who are well-versed in art and artists who are well-versed in science.

        Although this dies t quite answer Diana’s question: is there really a problem with those in the humanities attacking science, or has a vocal minority been blown out of proportion?

        I get the sense when talking shop with many of my colleagues that, while they may pay lip service to science, when pressed they will cling to their faith-based, Other Ways Of Knowing.

        • Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          dies t = doesn’t

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          I do remember thinking some peers in Humanities courses were ignorant of science. I especially got upset in one class and felt I just didn’t belong there. I was much happier in Archaeology :) I still would like to know those numbers though. What social scientist will take this on? ;)

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          Maybe the fact that they seem to pay lip service to science indicates that they are somewhat embarrassed at their ignorance. Perhaps it’s progress of a sort?

      • Bob J.
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

        As an old codger returning to a JC for classes in art and photoshop, I am appalled at the lack of scientific knowledge among the instructors.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 8, 2013 at 4:57 am | Permalink

          I’m willing to bet however that those same instructors also lack a fundamental understanding of the liberal arts (vs fine arts). Most likely they don’t have adequate knowledge about the French Revolution or a working knowledge of a second language for example.

          It could be they are more broadly culturally illiterate.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        My colleagues in the sciences know a great deal more about the humanities than we know about science.

        They were my teachers, not colleagues, but that was certainly my experience at three different universities as well.

        The scientist as philistine has to be one of the if not the most popular strawmen of all time.

  12. ploubere
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    The first reader’s comment to Pinker’s excellent article goes astray in exactly the way the article describes, by blaming science for the failures of politics. Maybe the problem is in the humanities, in failing to teach reading comprehension.

  13. darrelle
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Some people seem to have a penchant for taking some idea, or group of related ideas, that strike them as profound and using them to inform every aspect of their world view to an extreme, unwarranted degree.

    Similarly, some people also have a penchant for projecting that tendency on to others.

    Science is simply a tool that happens to have an excellent track record of discovering useful knowledge about reality. Science seems to be the only “Way of Knowing” that has incorporated, right into the center of it, that all claims must be tested against reality, repeatedly. It is difficult to take seriously criticism against a commitment to “that which actually works.”

    • vall
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      I think it’s the ONLY tool we have for discovering useful knowledge about reality. I have always considered science as a way of learning from your mistakes. How can anyone except con-men be against that? Isn’t there a bible verse about learning from your mistakes?

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

        And this is exactly what creationists are saying when they say ‘scientism’. The BELIEF that science is the only method we have of gaining knowledge. And that science will, someday, answer all the questions.

        I happen to think that that’s mostly true. I guess I’m a scientismist (aks scientist).

        Of course, the real goal is to put an -ism at the end of science and start a discussion about beliefs and the 1st amendment and all that stuff. Anything to keep from talk about evidence.

        • vall
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

          Yeah, the -ism is a lame ad-hom if you don’t think too hard. All these people deride science by typing away on the internet. It would be funny if it weren’t tragic. The ones who generate so much irony seem to be completely immune to it.

  14. Sastra
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    Terrific article. Glad you forced me to read it ;)

    My own favorite definition of “scientism” is to make it equivalent to what is usually called “pseudoscience.” After all, quantum consciousness and homeopathy could indeed qualify as someone treating science “just like a religion: vague non-explanations apparently pulled out of someone’s nether-regions; virulent us vs. them categories of the saved and the damned; a refusal to open their claims up to general investigation; appeals to secret knowledge and personal experience … and usually, somewhere, some whiff of spiritual or supernatural foundations (sometimes it’s a whole heapin’ stinkload.) Seems to work.

    But having an idiosyncratic, personal definition which rescues a pejorative term by making it no longer applicable to virtuous practices isn’t really very useful. Better, I think, to do as Pinker does — look at the way it is actually used and point out that it doesn’t apply.

    There’s so much good in Pinker’s essay, but yes, I’m going to quarrel with something. This:

    The processes of life, for example, used to be attributed to a mysterious élan vital; now we know they are powered by chemical and physical reactions among complex molecules.

    Oh really? People don’t believe this any more?

    Yes they do. They really do. Scientists tend to be unaware of the views of the general population. From what I can tell MOST people believe in a “life force” of some kind.

    So if Pinker intends to add vitalism to the heap of dead ideas that hardly anyone believes in any more he is sadly mistaken. And no, education doesn’t seem to make a dent in it. Vitalism is too intuitive.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      I guess that depends on who “we” are.

      I do think Pinker understands that what “we” know may not be widely accepted, in the same way that he knows that “[m]ost of the traditional causes of belief“ have not (yet) been “dismissed as sources of knowledge.”

      /@

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        Concur. Seems pretty obvious to me that he’s not talking about the general public there.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      I think you are right.

      But it’s a curious kind of belief.

      Would most people state explicitly that they believe in vitalism? Probably not. Would most people accept the real explanations for how our physical apparatus functions? Probably.

      But their magical thinking is there nonetheless. It manifests more subtly. It is, as you wrote, an unexamined intuition. Many of the things people say or do belie their subconscious affinity for vitalism.

      • Sastra
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

        Would most people state explicitly that they believe in vitalism?

        Not sure. I have a strange … I’ll call it a ‘hunch’ about this (it’s probably not up to ‘hypothesis’ even.)

        If you ask people if they think “there is a life force which moves through all living things” or a “vital energy which permeates the universe” or a “power of Life-giving-and-being which animates mere matter and elevates it above the physical” — and you do this with a positive attitude, as if you are seeking to express your own views, perghaps — then they will probably say “yes.” And they will mean it.

        Ask them the same question in a scientific tone of voice with or without a hint of scorn and they’ll answer “no.” And they will mostly mean it.

        Religious thinking is sloppy thinking, and from what I can tell it often encourages the mind to run along two opposing tracks at the same time. My guess is that the answer you get is going to depend on which ‘module’ you evoke.

        Be interesting to test this out on the “average” person.

  15. still learning
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    An interesting project: Reread C.P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and compare it to Pinker’s essay.

  16. Ken Elliott
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I’m still reading the article, but I wanted to comment on one line by Mr. Pinker in which he states “If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by science.” I believe the word many should instead be all, should it not? Science is technology, technology is perhaps the only positive effect of civilization, and that is debatable, but an effect nonetheless. Without civilization there would be no technology, no science, and no understanding of the universe and our world through its piece parts, which is where we were 14,000 years ago.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

      I think there are some artistic accomplishments of which we can be proud.

      /@

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

      Or (reading ahead), the abolition of slavery!

      /@

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s only smart to avoid absolutes. Pinker is being humble in saying this because he hasn’t examined the whole of everything humanity has accomplished in enough detail to say “all” and as Ant has pointed out, there are some artistic accomplishments we can certainly be proud of.

      • Matt G
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        I agree absolutely.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

          :D I see what you did there!

  17. John K.
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    It really is an exceptional article. I can see why it was dubbed required reading.

    Pinker’s assertion that science ended slavery seemed like quite a leap, though I can understand limiting the scope of the one article. I suppose he means a fluid and results based form of morality made the abolition of slavery a moral possibility, the religious rigid and “absolute” version served more to hinder that change than facilitate it. Still I think a bit more justification is required in a sweeping statement like that.

    So, in four pages I only found one nit to pick. It still gets an A+ from me.

    • Dave
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

      As I read it, he’s not claiming the abolition of slavery as an achievement for science, rather he’s highlighting abolition as a proud accomplishment to set alongside those gifts bestowed by science. No-one, certainly not someone as smart and well-read as Pinker, could credibly claim that science ended slavery. You could probably chalk that one up as a positive achievement of (some variants of)religion, given the important role in the abolitionist campaigns of the 18th and 19th centuries played by Quakers and other evangelical Christians.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Pinker makes the connection between the rise of science and the end of slavery much more explicit in his book Better Angels of Our Nature. He anchors both of them in a changing Enlightenment mindset which began to place more and more emphasis on the importance of reason and happiness of humanity.

      The concept of human rights is bottom-up as opposed to top-down. It grew as we widened our circle of concern and focused on the natural world.

    • John K.
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Bah, I have only my poor reading comprehension to blame. He deliberately excluded the abolition of slavery from the achievements of science as the rectification of something we inflicted upon ourselves.

      If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by science.

      I stand corrected and humbled.

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        It should be noted, too, that the parenthetical clause in question excludes the abolition of slavery from being claimed by any collective endeavor, religion included.

      • Larry Gay
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 4:49 am | Permalink

        This is precisely the kind of statement that makes me think this website is special.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:39 am | Permalink

          Know whatcha mean. It’s like everyone’s read “Mistakes Were Made, but Not By Me.”

  18. Posted August 7, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    FOr what it’s worth, in his excellent book, “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality’, “mad dog naturalist” Alex Rosenberg defines and then defends the following formulation of “scientism”:

    “[Scientism] is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science’s description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when ‘complete,’ what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today.”

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Rosenberg goes further than Pinker will in asserting that “physical facts fix all the facts.” He demonstrates his meaning with a thought experiment of imagining every single fermion and boson in our region of spacetime being exactly replicated in some other, far away region of space time not interacting with ours. His point is that everything we see, feel and experience here would be exactly the same there. The same politics, morals, aesthetics,science, arts, movies, friends and lovers.

      Pinker, on the other hand, pulls his punch by excluding from scientism the “dogma that that physical stuff is the only thing that exists” if by that he means to claim there exists something that is not in principle reducible to physics.

      I think Rosenberg gets it less wrong than Pinker on this point.

      Also, in fairness, Pinker should credit Rosenberg for pioneering the effort to appropriate the term scientism. Rosenberg even made the same analogy to gay rights.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      With an emphasis on the word reliable. A stopped clock is right twice a day.

  19. Myron
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    There is a straw man called “crazy scientism”, which isn’t seriously endorsed by any sane person: Philosophy, art, sport, and hobbies ought to be abolished! Science über alles!

    As a noncrazy epistemological doctrine, scientism basically comprises the following two isms:
    1. empiricism: All (synthetic) knowledge is based on sensory perception.
    2. evidentialism: The degree of justification of one’s beliefs is solely determined by the amount and strength of one’s (empirical) evidence for the propositions believed.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I think this “crazy scientism” is somewhat manufactured as a boogeyman and what causes humanities folks to take offence. I often wonder as well if they have been told their work is unworthy by family members and friends and just overreact without thinking about what science is.

  20. Posted August 7, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    I think the world would be a better place if everyone was required to read “The Better Angels of Our Nature”.

  21. Nwalsh
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    I printed it out. Someone owes me a cartridge :)

  22. Karen
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    Herein lies the problem which Pinker did not address. In polite and courteous company it is not seemly to allude to the fact that some people think faster and wider and more powerfully than others. Apart from doing science, scientists also read novels, history books, biographies, and watch cinema. They also write novels and poems are ride motorcycles. Non-scientists also read science, but that traffic is probably not as frequent, and is usually restricted to popular science with the maths left out, whereas everyone reads novels and watches films together.

    The separation comes about because of difficulty. There is no way round the fact that STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) are harder. School children know that maths and science are more difficult to learn. There is always a large appreciative audience if a child says that they find maths difficult. There is less sympathy if a child admits to finding geography difficult.

    RTWT here:

    http://drjamesthompson.blogspot.com/2013/08/science-is-not-your-enemy-but-it-is.html

    • jesperbothpedersen1
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

      There is no way round the fact that STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) are harder. School children know that maths and science are more difficult to learn.

      I partially disagree. If we stimulate and encourage the natural inquisitive nature of children, we don’t necessarily need to learn them tons of math.

      Science is so much more than math, and if we keep that in mind while educating our children, then maybe they wouldn’t need to remember a ton of facts and formulas.

      As our science evolves, so should our education.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know if I agree with your assessment of harder. It really depends on where your talents lie. I suspect that you have been exposed to the extraordinary. There are many that don’t fit in such a category and are not comfortable crossing over into separate disciplines. Harder I think is a matter of ability and varies from person to person.

    • Bob J.
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

      First comes the curious mind. Then you will learn the math or the ancient greek, latin, or wherever the details take you.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      I completely concur.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Maybe science is harder for most people. I don’t know. I’ve always been mystified by people complaining about math. For me math was always fun and easy. Some of my earliest math education made it out to be like a game, so I was hooked at an early age. Same with computer programming: it was always fun and (relatively) easy.

      On the other hand, reading history and sorting out the complex tangled web of causes, and digging up and analyzing conflicting sources, or trying to piece together plausible scenarios where sources are sparse, seems incredibly hard to me.

      Art seems very hard to me. So does the very detailed analysis and interpretation of literature. Very messy and complicated by the chaotic mess that is human emotion, longing, desire, and motive.

      By comparison, science, at least at the early educational level, is relatively compact, contained, defined, clear, and natural, with ways to get definite answers to questions, and ways to know if you are right or wrong about things.

      So maybe it’s just the way we teach children that makes science seem harder.

      • gbjames
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        Or maybe some things are harder for some people than others. We vary rather a lot in our interests and aptitudes.

        And, of course, some people are willfully ignorant.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

        I found it all easy except when the math came into it. That is because I have dyscalculia that was never diagnosed or dealt with when I was growing up 1) because my teachers in elementary school sucked 2) because they concentrated on reading and didn’t care about math 3) I was a girl and they thought it was okay because they thought that girls just suck in math.

        However I always did well in all other subjects, especially science because the upside of dyscalculia is it endows you with extraordinary language and reading comprehension ability. By grade 6, I could read at a university level. I dumbed down my speech to blend it but what my peers didn’t know is that I liked palaeontology and anthropology so I read all those text books.

        I went to a specific high school because it taught Latin and German so I could take that in addition to French. I never had to work at a language course (until I took Ancient Greek in university).

        I saved all my time for getting through math class. On paper, I look like a B student in math but I worked my butt off with no help to get that mark. The funny thing is people who have dyscalculia also can’t do music – Music was my lowest mark in school!

        By the time I got to university, taking anthropology and German was easy! I wanted to take more languages but I didn’t have enough time to fit them all in. My alma mater let you learn Mohawk but a family friend kept bugging me to take Hebrew which I so wish I had…. also Russian but languages take up a lot time.

        And now, I use statistics at work but if I need help, I just bug my engineering pals or hunt down one of my friends with a math degree :)

        So, I think people do get science but either they aren’t exposed to it properly, they may not even be naturally curious OR they just can’t do math so they get turned off.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but in science there are right answers.

        Humanities can be a matter of opinion.

        I respect the rigor of your experiences, Diana, but what I saw of my daughter’s recent Lib Arts degree was pretty disappointing.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 9, 2013 at 4:03 am | Permalink

          That’s pretty bad. Opinion would not have got us a degree when I was studying. Histogram isn’t a matter of opinion. I even remember looking at various Greek dialects in archeological pieces to place them.

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 9, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

            I suspect there are humanities degrees, and then there are humanities degrees, if you get my drift.

            In all fairness, the same can be said of some science courses of study as well.

            (In most cases, though, I see the opposite; the loading up of all science curricula with every course imaginable, just because major-requirements committees can get away with it.)

  23. Al_de_Baran
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Just a couple of thoughts to leave in the hyena’s den.

    Pinker’s entire argument depends upon his (erroneous) understanding of what critics of Scientism are actually attacking, as opposed to the straw man he erects and sets alight. Here is an accurate and fair definition of Scientism.

    “Unlike the use of the scientific method as only one mode of reaching knowledge, scientism claims that science alone can render truth about the world and reality. Scientism’s single-minded adherence to only the empirical, or testable, makes it a strictly scientific worldview, in much the same way that a Protestant fundamentalism that rejects science can be seen as a strictly religious worldview. Scientism sees it necessary to do away with most, if not all, metaphysical, philosophical, and religious claims, as the truths they proclaim cannot be apprehended by the scientific method. In essence, scientism sees science as the absolute and only justifiable access to the truth”.

    (*http://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/gengloss/sciism-body.html)

    For the rest, Edward Feser has you covered. Feel free to break your teeth attacking the following iron-clad argument against the Scientism promoted both here and by Pinker:

    “1. The predictive power and technological applications of [post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic] science are unparalleled by those of any other purported source of knowledge.

    2. Therefore we have good reason to think that [post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic] science can explain everything that there is to explain.

    And that sort of argument is no better than this one:

    1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.

    2. Therefore we have good reason to think that metal detectors can reveal to us everything that there is to be revealed.

    In fact, of course, metal detectors are as successful as they are in finding coins, lost keys, etc. precisely because they focus only on those specific aspects of coins, keys, and the like which might be detected via their methods (i.e. the metallic nature of these objects) and ignore everything else (the shape, color, etc. of the objects).  And the methods of post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic science are as successful as they are in predicting and controlling natural phenomena precisely because they focus only on those aspects of nature susceptible of strict prediction and control (especially those aspects which might be modeled mathematically) and ignore everything else (e.g. any irreducibly qualitative or non-quantifiable features that might exist in nature, such as teleological features, the phenomenal feel of heat and cold, the phenomenal look of colors, and so forth).  But just as metal detectors are inevitably going to fail to capture non-metallic phenomena, so too are the methods of post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic science inevitably going to fail to capture any aspects of nature not susceptible of prediction and control, nor capable of being captured via the mathematical techniques that make prediction and control possible. 

    Of course, the naturalist might deny that there are any such aspects, but the point is that to appeal to science in order to support such a denial is utterly fallacious — as fallacious as appealing to the success of metal detectors in order to support the claim that only metal exists.  If there are any non-metallic aspects of nature, then you should not expect to find them using metal detectors; and if there are any aspects of nature that elude strict prediction, control and mathematical modeling, then you should not expect to find them using the methods of post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic science.”

    • Paul S
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      One problem with your analogy is that a metal detector is a physical object and the scientific method is a process. I can use a metal detector to dig up my backyard and uncover non-metallic objects. It may not be what the tool is designed to do, but it is still possible. Also, if I cannot detect something directly or indirectly, I can assume it does not exist. If I can detect it, I can subject it to the scientific method.

    • Gary W
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Did you even read Pinker’s piece? He’s not claiming that science can “explain everything that there is to explain” in the sense of replacing the humanities. To use Pinker’s example, “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.” But that historical analysis ultimately rests on a scientific understanding of human behavior.

      You refer to “truths” that you think religion has “proclaimed,” but unsurprisingly you don’t get around to actually stating any of these alleged truths. What are they? And how do you know they are in fact true?

      As for Edward Feser, the man is an ignorant fool.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Al de Baran #23 wrote:

      Pinker’s entire argument depends upon his (erroneous) understanding of what critics of Scientism are actually attacking …”Scientism sees it necessary to do away with most, if not all, metaphysical, philosophical, and religious claims…”

      No, you’re mistaken. Pinker does indeed engage (and refute) this (genuine) understanding of ‘scientism’ as the critics understand it. He does not throw out everything which is not empirical or testable because he does not throw out philosophy, ethics, aesthetics, or other areas which draw from human values. See this:

      It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

      The ideals Pinker cites — intelligibility and the difficult work of constant checks and balances — are designed to help us answer one question: if I am wrong — how would I know? In other words, how can we correct our mistakes?

      As I see it the real issue on which you break your teeth involves your problem with categories. You have trouble distinguishing between the objective and the subjective. Are the supernatural factualclaims of religion (“God exists; there is a karmic law; life goes on after the death of the body; matter comes from Mind, which is cosmically fundamental; etc. etc. etc.”) more like fact claims in general — or more like meaning, values, and aesthetic preferences and expressions?

      It’s very well to point out that science alone can’t determine whether a sunset is truly beautiful or whether we should prefer it when seen over a desert or over an ocean — but “God” is presumably not simply an emotion. Nor is it supposed to be a concept, a value, a commitment, or a way of living.

      If you are wrong about whether or not God exists — how would you discover that? What would change your mind?

      Categories. Category error. Before you lump “religion” in with “philosophy” or “ethics” consider what sort of objective truth you’re aiming at. What is the nature of the claim?

      And then consider whether a purely ‘subjective’ means of verification is appropriate. (Hint: it’s not. And you know this.)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        Indeed, Pinker only suggests that science can aid these other areas. It’s a partnership that I’ve often advocated myself. In this way, the metal detector analogy sets up a false dichotomy.

        • Sastra
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

          As darrelle below points out, the “metal detector analogy” begs the question. It’s simply another way of explaining that “you need the right tool for the right job” and then saying that well, if it’s NOT the right tool then it won’t do the job. Duh. We could flip it around just as easily.

          The scientific method though is not like a metal detector. It’s more like a way of using a metal detector — or a detector of any kind. Careful, cautious, honest … checking against other detectors, digging, consulting with other people using their detectors, building models, making predictions, analyzing results, eliminating bias, changing assumptions with new information, challenging other discoveries and working with others to figure out a consistent answer to the common puzzle what is under the ground? Metal, stone, oil …?

          To extend the analogy, then, we would have to contrast this ONE way of using a metal detector with different ways — methods which avoid the slow accumulation of data, systematic digging, and cross checking and instead throw all caution to the wind!

          “I am the GREAT METAL DETECTOR and nobody in the material world believes what I discover because I am ABOVE them and their petty, pettifogging ways! I scan the ground with my instrument using intuition, instinct, insight, and mystical perceptions! I see what is there with a flash of inspiration! Magic things, amazing things, things beyond our ability to comprehend! Sure, people of “sense and reason” may scorn my metal detector and think it’s just a stick with a bunch of wires and a transistor radio case glued to it — but they see only with the arrogant outer eyes, not the Inner Eye of Wisdom and Humility. Dig? I don’t need to dig. I just tell you what I know … it is what the ancients with their perfect, original metal detectors also knew. I only meekly follow their lead ..!”

          And so on.

          Yes. Better analogy. Hope this one pleases Al_de_Baron even more than his own!

    • Traits
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      So your argument (that Pinker’s made up his own straw argument in the place of an actual argument from those against “scientism”) is to lay out the very same criticisms that Pinker, himself, expounded upon?

      You say (not verbatim), “Scientism seeks to abolish metaphysics, spiritualism and other ethereal explanations and, thus, is flawed because of it.” That’s pretty much what Pinker outlines, and demonstrates as folly. Why would you suppose any musing of the sort (in spiritualism, et al) is a valid entry for explanation of phenomenon, when it isn’t tied down to anything observable or measurable? Why is using those latter traits “unsatisfactory?” Or “not good enough?” What’s stopping me from making my own metaphysical claims that require nothing more than the claim itself as validation?

    • Scott D
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      This is the closest you came to giving examples of what you mean by “other ways of knowing.”

      ” . . . and ignore everything else (e.g. any irreducibly qualitative or non-quantifiable features that might exist in nature, such as teleological features, the phenomenal feel of heat and cold, the phenomenal look of colors, and so forth). ”

      1) What do you mean by “Phenomenal?”

      2) Are you equating statements about one’s subjective experience of things with “other kinds of knowledge?”

      3) If the answer to #2 is “Yes,” then how is the way you experience color “knowledge?”

      Just curious.

      Thanks,

    • darrelle
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Your metal detector analogy does not work, it is a category error. It only works if you already assume your conclusion.

      Any phenomenon that can be detected in any way by humans, directly or indirectly, or have any effect perceptible in any way to a human being, direct or indirect, can have the methods of scientific inquiry brought to bear on it by those same human beings.

      The converse is also true. If a proposed phenomenon can not in any way, directly or indirectly, be detected, or cause any effects that can be in any way, directly or indirectly, detected, then the phenomenon is not detectable by human beings, period, and can have no effect on them. In which case there is not sufficient reason to suppose that the phenomenon exists.

      The methods of scientific inquiry are merely a set of processes that have been proven, through trial and error, to be effective at sorting out various models of what we can observe and finding the most useful ones. Those that allow us to make accurate enough predictions to be reliably useful.

      There are no other realms, or levels of reality, or whatever, that humans can perceive that are not also perceivable by humans utilizing the methods of scientific inquiry.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        Oops. 3rd Paragraph should read . . .

        The converse is also true. If a proposed phenomenon can not in any way, directly or indirectly, be detected, or cause any effects that can be in any way, directly or indirectly, detected by humans utilizing the methods of scientific inquiry, then the phenomenon is not detectable by human beings, period, and can have no effect on them. In which case there is not sufficient reason to suppose that the phenomenon exists.

      • jesperbothpedersen1
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

        Spot on, darelle. Great post.

        • Cliff Melick
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

          Agreed, a great post. I was going to say something scathingly brilliant about Aldebaran, the constellation Taurus and bull…but never mind.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

            I was going to try to work in moot and use Jesse’s Girl to explain it but damn, I just can’t :D

        • darrelle
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          Thanks!

      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 3:59 am | Permalink

        The issue here is that to make the claim that the methods of scientific inqury can be brought to bear on anything empirical, you have to, in my opinion, neuter science and take away from it everything that makes science good and useful. Science is NOT naive empiricism, the idea that I can experience something empirically and therefore gain knowledge. While we think we can do that, science added elements to show that we shouldn’t just take our sense experiences at face value. As others have commented, one of the biggest principles of science that makes it what it is is the fact that it requires additional verification … or, to put it better, that it incorporates skepticism into its method. But it is trivial to imagine cases — even cases that are unique to us — where we can’t really get external verification. For example, pretty much all one-time events. For those, all science can do is tell us that it might be broadly compatible with its theories, but if it was unique all science can say is “We don’t have enough evidence to say that it happened”.

        But that doesn’t mean that the person who had that experience shouldn’t believe it, or in fact shouldn’t claim to know it. That science is skeptically withholding judgement because it is difficult for it to evaluate it does not mean that we all should, or must. And so it certainly seems possible to have experiences that science can’t a) practically investigate and b) can’t even investigate in principle. Unless you want to argue that a naive empirical approach is also scientific, but since the scientific method was invented and gained popularity as a reaction to the failings of naive empiricism this seems untenable.

        • darrelle
          Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:32 am | Permalink

          Well I sure didn’t intend to imply anything like naive empiricism. That is precisely why I used the phrase methods of scientific inquiry. Really, it seems to me just the opposite, that you are arguing for something very like “naive empiricism.”

          “But that doesn’t mean that the person who had that experience shouldn’t believe it, or in fact shouldn’t claim to know it.”

          Well, I did not address these issues in my comment one way or the other. But, to address them now, it all depends on circumstances and exactly what is meant by shouldn’t believe it and know it. I think it would be a shame if a person suffered, or caused others to suffer, because they acted (or didn’t act) on a belief based on a mysterious one time event only they experienced, and the belief turned out to be inaccurate. And just what could anyone claim to know about a one time event that only they experienced? That they experienced something? Granted. But, how likely is it that, based on that limited amount of data of that one time event, that they or anyone would be able to come up with an accurate explanation for the event? And how much stock should anyone else put in that expanation? We know from experience that humans suck as observers. Thus the methods of scientific inquiry.

          “And so it certainly seems possible to have experiences that science can’t a) practically investigate and b) can’t even investigate in principle.”

          Regarding a), sure happens all the time for various reasons. I fail to see how that is relevant.

          Regarding b), I don’t see how that follows at all from anything you have argued here. If it is something you can experience how could it not be possible to examine the experience using the methods of scientific inquiry, merely in principle? Because it is a mysterious one time event? That does not follow.

          The “Other Ways of Knowing” argument is a canard, in my opinion. It seems to me that there are really only two options available. Either you test your ideas / models against reality (the scientific method, in the formal and very general sense), or you don’t (all other ways regardless of the inspiration).

          • Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

            My argument is this:

            1) Naive empiricism produces knowledge.

            2) Science is not naive empiricism.

            If this is correct, then you’d have a way of knowing that was not science. Note that this does not claim that science is not generally better at doing that — ie coming up with true beliefs — than naive empiricism, since I explicitly pointed out that it is. Nor does it imply that that two are completely distinct either and don’t address the same questions. They may, but we may have reason to choose one over the other.

            And just what could anyone claim to know about a one time event that only they experienced? That they experienced something? Granted. But, how likely is it that, based on that limited amount of data of that one time event, that they or anyone would be able to come up with an accurate explanation for the event? And how much stock should anyone else put in that expanation? We know from experience that humans suck as observers. Thus the methods of scientific inquiry.

            But knowledge isn’t limited to full explanation. Yes, we may not be able to get full explanations for why that event occurred or what it means, but we don’t need that to be able to say “I saw that yesterday” … and know that. And that, then, is knowledge, and something that person knows … and is something that by formal scientific standards they can’t know.

            Regarding b), I don’t see how that follows at all from anything you have argued here. If it is something you can experience how could it not be possible to examine the experience using the methods of scientific inquiry, merely in principle? Because it is a mysterious one time event? That does not follow.

            Since, as I said, science requires additional verification — ie testing — to know something, and you can’t repeat one-time events to test them, then in principle science can’t study that unless it wants to relax that requirement for something being scientific. Sure, there’s some leeway around events where you can track the effects, but in principle we can find cases where you wouldn’t have sufficient effects to get scientific knowledge but would probably still claim to know it.

            The “Other Ways of Knowing” argument is a canard, in my opinion. It seems to me that there are really only two options available. Either you test your ideas / models against reality (the scientific method, in the formal and very general sense), or you don’t (all other ways regardless of the inspiration).

            Well, that’s not the formal sense of it, but is just the very general sense of it, as this sense includes … naive empiricism, which allows for testing but not the sort of testing that formal sciences require. As for testing against reality, this ends up being a very vague definition, and would either include conceptual knowledge (eg what would it mean for something to be a moon) or not depending on how you define “reality”. Since I think that concepts have to apply to all possible worlds, testing them against this one is both unnecessary and may also be misleading, where you define a moon as being fundamentally round despite the fact that if the laws of physics were different that thing above us orbiting the earth might be cubical and yet still probably counts as a moon. And so you get it from both sides: a more lax way of testing things is less reliable but still produces knowledge, and another field points out that you are being too restrictive and so are leaving out things that can be known just because your method doesn’t do well with them. Or you can define reality to incorporate concepts and possible worlds and include naive empiricism in science, but at this point that’s not a very interesting claim, nor one that should impact any field that claims to produce knowledge; you would be simply using science as a label, not as a factual statement or argument.

            • Sastra
              Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

              I think I see what you’re saying here — and I think I also see why we’re suspicious of it. Philosophy is cautious and careful … but religion and spirituality encourage a sloppy tendency to make an unjustified leap between what we could call a naked experience and their own explanation for the experience.

              If your head is hurting then you can know, with absolute conviction, what it feels like to feel a pain in your head. That’s technically not scientific knowledge because it’s innately private and subjective. And it really can’t entertain alternatives because anyone who tells you you don’t really have a headache has to be wrong as long as you know you’re not lying. Naive empiricism is immune to outside analysis and criticism.

              The weighing of alternatives, the measuring of effects, the discovery of causes — that’s where science comes in. If someone confidently insists that they KNOW they have a brain tumor because they are directly experiencing the pain of a brain tumor they can be mistaken. Not about the pain; about the cause. Empiricism has lost its innocence.

              One of the most common specific charges against atheists and their naive use of ‘scientism’ is the claim that an “experience of God” is direct, unmitigated, uninterpreted, and undeniable. “If you ever had one, you would have to trust it.” Therefore, they argue for ‘naive empiricism.’ Mystical experiences count as veridical, direct, true knowledge which is not scientific, no –but is nevertheless reliable and justified.

              This is where we point out the fine distinctions between those areas where we deal with subjective truths (“ow!) and where we deal with objective ones (“no, you’ve just got an ice pick sticking out of the back of your head.”)

              • Posted August 9, 2013 at 4:01 am | Permalink

                Sastra,

                Well, tying this to religion isn’t a great move when arguing with a philosopher, but note that philosophically to some extent naive empiricism has to be just assumed; science cannot work if you don’t trust your experiences (there’s actually an essay on my blog about this sort of debate between John Dewey and Bertrand Russell on this). We need to distinguish between a failure of experience and a failure of reasoning about that experience. Is it possible to have a private experience such that it proves something — even the existence of God — but that can’t be shared with others, so that they’d have to experience it themselves? Well, yes, as phenomenal experiences — ie what it’s like to see red — seem to be that sort of thing. The problem is not with any notion of it being a subjective truth, but with the fact that in almost all if not all cases the reported experience is so vague that there could be far more explanations than just “God” for it. That’s a failure of reasoning about subjective experience, not a failure of subjective experience being used as a basis for knowledge, even objective knowledge.

              • gbjames
                Posted August 9, 2013 at 4:35 am | Permalink

                science cannot work if you don’t trust your experiences

                Well, no. One of the important attributes of science is that is provides a protocol for countering the unreliability of subjective human experience.

                Remember Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.”

              • Sastra
                Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

                verbosetoic wrote:

                That’s a failure of reasoning about subjective experience, not a failure of subjective experience being used as a basis for knowledge, even objective knowledge.

                Right. I wasn’t arguing with you; I was just trying to fine-tune what is meant by ‘naive empiricism’ as a valid means of knowing something outside of the scientific method.

              • Posted August 9, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

                gbjames,

                I don’t mean that you claim that your experiences are infallible, but that you have to trust that your experiences are, for the most part, reflecting an actual world and reflecting it in a reasonably accurate way, because if you don’t do that then nothing can save you. You can’t use reason on your experiences because you’d have no idea which are right and which are wrong, you can’t trust replication of experience because you could be quite regularly getting completely false experiences, and you can’t trust other people experiencing the same thing since you only get them through experience which could be equally faulty.

                Note that again I’m distinguishing between an experience and reasoning about an experience. The Feynman quote seems aimed at the latter, not the former.

              • krzysztof1
                Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

                You wrote:”you have to trust that your experiences are, for the most part, reflecting an actual world and reflecting it in a reasonably accurate way, because if you don’t do that then nothing can save you.”

                My experience is that the Sun rises, traverses the sky, and sets, while the Earth appears stationary. But I know by indirect evidence that this is an illusion. So how does that fit in with your comment?

              • gbjames
                Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

                if you don’t do that then nothing can save you

                Huh? Save me from what?

                One trusts one’s experiences provisionally, depending on many factors.

                I remember, after my sister had died at the age of 40, “seeing” her sitting on my front porch. That was my real-world experience. It was not a trust-worthy experience and, naturally, it was another woman who just happened to have similar hair. Had I trusted that experience, I would have embarrassed myself or worse.

              • Posted August 11, 2013 at 4:18 am | Permalink

                gbjames,

                I remember, after my sister had died at the age of 40, “seeing” her sitting on my front porch. That was my real-world experience. It was not a trust-worthy experience and, naturally, it was another woman who just happened to have similar hair. Had I trusted that experience, I would have embarrassed myself or worse.

                I think part of the problem you’re having with this is that you aren’t grasping the distinction I made between the experience and reasoning about the experience, or perhaps better between the experience and your (general) trust in it and what that experience ultimately means.

                Before I get into that, let me remind you that I did flat-out say that my notion of trusting sense experiences did NOT mean that you have to treat them as infallible. They can, in fact, be completely wrong. They can be illusions or even hallucinations. But we don’t — and can’t — use that to say that I should not trust that my sense experiences, in general, give a reasonably accurate view of the world, if properly examined and reflected on. When I talked about us having to accept a sort of naive empiricism, it is of the form “I know that there is an external world because I have sense experiences of that world”, and not much more than that.

                Now, let’s look at your case. You, at least originally, did not in any way question that you saw a woman that looked like your sister sitting on your front porch. Under more normal circumstances, you would likely have simply come to believe that your sister was sitting on the front porch and wouldn’t have bothered checking it; you would have trusted that your senses were giving you an accurate representation of the world. It could have been wrong, but your senses do reliably give you beliefs about the world so it was, in that sense, trustworthy. However, in this specific case it told you something contradictory: that your sister, whom you knew to be dead, was still alive. And thus you had a problem, as you couldn’t incorporate the new belief into your belief system without contradiction. And this is because of the reasoning that you were doing — and accepting — without thinking about it: that seeing a woman that looked like your sister sitting on your front porch either always or at least most reasonably means that your sister was sitting on the front porch. But in this case, that led to a contradiction, so you started considering the alternatives … and discovered the obvious one that it was someone who just looked a lot like her. So, as I’ve said, it’s a problem of reasoning, not a problem of experience. At the end of it all, you didn’t deny your experience, but instead denied what seemed to be the obvious INTERPRETATION of what that experience meant about the world.

                Again, my comment about trusting in experience does not extend to trusting in your reasoning about that experience, so it’s not a problem. And if you don’t trust in general your sense experiences, then no amount of reasoning or testing can ever justify them, because ultimately all data about the empirical world is based on some kind of empirical experience. Claim that empirical experiences are not generally reliable — properly interpreted — and you have no knowledge of an external world whatsoever.

              • Posted August 11, 2013 at 4:26 am | Permalink

                krzysztof1,

                I think you have the same problem as gbjames here:

                You don’t deny that it appears to be the case that the Sun moves and that the Earth is stationary, nor that the Sun exists, nor that the Earth exists, nor that the sense experiences are, in fact, experiences that you are having are things outside of you. What you deny is that seeing the Sun traverse the sky means that it is moving and the Earth isn’t. But we come to that conclusion because we find other sense experiences and/or beliefs that indicate that the Sun doesn’t move — at least in that way — and that we rotate, and that’s what causes us to see what we see. So, again, you don’t deny the experience, but deny the interpretation, or that seeing the Sun moving necessarily means that it is moving and we aren’t. Again, that sort of problem is not what I’m talking about, but do note that unless you have reason to think that the Earth is rotating while the Sun isn’t actually moving around the Earth you will almost certainly simply accept what your senses are telling you, because you have to accept that they are, in fact, reliable in general. It’s only when your sense experiences introduce oddities that you question them, and even then it is usually the case that your last resort is to “hallucination”, only when all other options are exhausted (or you’re in an altered state that tends towards having hallucinations). This is because if you claim that a sense experience is a hallucination for no really good reason there is no way to tell which ones are hallucinations and which ones aren’t, which precludes having any knowledge of an external world whatsoever.

              • gbjames
                Posted August 11, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

                distinction I made between the experience and reasoning

                verbosestoic, I am completely grasping your distinction. It is a false distinction. Reasoning is part of experience. It is not some separate thing off in some dualist’s universe.

                As for my experience regarding my sister… Your counter-pseudo-example,

                “Under more normal circumstances, you would likely have simply come to believe that your sister was sitting on the front porch and wouldn’t have bothered checking it”

                fails, in reality. I live in Milwaukee. “Under normal circumstances” my sister lived in Kansas and Poland. I would have responded identically to the delusion.

            • darrelle
              Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

              I am really not sure what we are arguing about. I suppose if you take “the methods of scientific inquiry” in the most rigid formal sense, which I certainly did not intend or imply, then the distinction you seem to be making may be accurate, but it seems obvious and trivial.

              Unless I don’t quite understand what you mean by naive empiricism (very possible), then I disagree with your characterization of it being inclusive with even a general concept of “the methods of scientific inquiry.” Just experiencing something and then devising an explanation to believe in is not enough to qualify. Rationally measuring your degree of belief in whatever ideas you have regarding explanations for what you have experienced based on past well verified knowledge, and accepting that you can’t explain it if that is where the lack of information leaves you, does qualify. In any case, for the purposes of this discussion, including my original comment, this is an irrelevant side issue. I can understand that it may not have been apparent so let me clarify it here. In all of my references to “scientific methods” I mean the methods that have been successfully used since long before modern science formalized them, but of course including formal science as well. Which broad definition I understand you don’t like, or don’t think is fair. But I don’t agree with that either.

              “But knowledge isn’t limited to full explanation.”

              Neither is science. True, that is the goal, but it is not even remotely necessary.

              I am not interested in rehashing the philosophical concepts of terms like “reality”. I think you understand what I mean. If not, oh well.

              “Yes, we may not be able to get full explanations for why that event occurred or what it means, but we don’t need that to be able to say “I saw that yesterday” … and know that. And that, then, is knowledge, and something that person knows … and is something that by formal scientific standards they can’t know.

              That is bizarre and not remotely accurate. Formal scientific standards do not entail that it is impossible for a person to know that they experienced something, under any circumstances, whether it is a unique event or not.

              • Posted August 9, 2013 at 3:55 am | Permalink

                darelle,

                The relevant section from your original comment is this:

                Any phenomenon that can be detected in any way by humans, directly or indirectly, or have any effect perceptible in any way to a human being, direct or indirect, can have the methods of scientific inquiry brought to bear on it by those same human beings.

                The converse is also true. If a proposed phenomenon can not in any way, directly or indirectly, be detected, or cause any effects that can be in any way, directly or indirectly, detected, then the phenomenon is not detectable by human beings, period, and can have no effect on them. In which case there is not sufficient reason to suppose that the phenomenon exists.

                You claim here that anything we can experience can be studied scientifically. Unless you include naive empiricism in your definition of science, my argument, as stated, is that that isn’t true; even informal science requires a bit more than just “I saw it, so I know it”. And if you include naive empiricism in your definition of scientific inquiry, then you ignore exactly what it is that makes physics, chemistry, biology and all of the other fields that you’d find in a Faculty of Science or that are, at least, claiming to try to do things scientifically successful, as they’ve adopted mechanisms specifically to overcome the issues with naive empiricism … and even informal science, for that matter.

                So, yes, I’m aware that you didn’t mean the stricter forms of science. My argument is that in broadening the definition of science so broadly, you lose the precise mechanisms that make the more formal sciences so massively successful. Informal “everyday” science is what the scientific method and formal science was invented to solve the problems of; to lump them all back in together means that you simply can’t claim the successes of science to demonstrate how good it is at generating knowledge.

                And this is ignoring that you seem to try to base all knowledge in empirical data, which potentially leaves out conceptual knowledge. Which is where being very clear about what you mean when you say that you have to test your ideas against reality to get knowledge; under some meanings of reality, concepts aren’t real, and under others, they are. Either side does not work well in a discussion of scientism, as the former would mean that you can’t have conceptual knowledge, which seems false and to undermine even science, but the latter makes philosophy science, which is somewhat ridiculous.

                That is bizarre and not remotely accurate. Formal scientific standards do not entail that it is impossible for a person to know that they experienced something, under any circumstances, whether it is a unique event or not.

                My point is that it wouldn’t rise to the standards of knowledge for the formal science itself. So if I see something like, say, a rock falling upward, I might be able to know that a rock can fall upward in circumstances where it would seem scientifically impossible, but scientifically that would not be knowledge without extra verification. So there do seem to be cases where I can claim to know X even though I could not claim to know X at least formally scientifically.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      What makes you (or Feser) think that the phenomenal look of colors is irreducibly qualitative or non-quantifiable? Artists mix pigments (or pixels) quantitatively to produce specific phenomenal effects, and video technicians reliably calibrate TV screens against test patterns to standardize the phenomenal experience. The success of such methods indicates that color perception is based on predictable physics and not on some mysterious ineffability in nature.

      As for teleology, we don’t need to appeal to science to deny that; all we need to do is say “Show me.” The burden is on you to demonstrate it, not on us to refute it.

      If your claim is that there are (or may be) facts about the natural world that are inherently undemonstrable, then I’d say you’re using a rather elastic definition of “fact”.

    • PeteJohn
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

      Don’t know how far you’re going to get citing a theologian here, given that theology isn’t much more than high-brow fan fiction and/or a bunch of rationalizations of previously held beliefs.

    • Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

      A metal detector is intended to have a single function with narrow applicability.

      The scientific method was devised to be broadly applicable. Science simply asks “how do you know that?” and “how do you know you’re not mistaken?”. Tell me what area of inquiry it is to which these questions aren’t applicable. (I noticed that your comment was concpicuously devoid of any “hows” or even “whats” gathered using your Other Ways of Knowing.)

      If you want to make comparisons, why don’t you compare the level of evidence you require to believe a given religious claim with the level of evidence you’d require the prosecution to present if one of your loved ones was on trial facing execution. Would Other Ways of Knowing satisfy you? Burningd in bosoms? Revelation? Hearsay?

      I thought not.

  24. krzysztof1
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    That article made my day! Thank you for posting and commenting on it.

  25. lamacher
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    A very apt remark, Jerry: “While the caravan of science moves on, the dogs of theology bark but don’t tag along.” We’ll and memorably said!

  26. David Duncan
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Mo is in a bar? Drinking alcohol? Impossible.

  27. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    A major goad for the recent denunciations of scientism has been the application of neuroscience, evolution, and genetics to human affairs. Certainly many of these applications are glib or wrong, and they are fair game for criticism: scanning the brains of voters as they look at politicians’ faces, attributing war to a gene for aggression, explaining religion as an evolutionary adaptation to bond the group.

    Is the explanation of religion as “an evolutionary adaptation to bond the group” really glib or wrong? I thought that issue was largely unsettled.

  28. Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    You and pinker both ignore that the humanities and science are just as incompatible as science and religion. Like religion, the humanities base their beliefs on faith. Faith in the philosophy of altruism. Altruism relies on the opposite of reason/logic, the concept of sacrificing the individual to the state. Science flourishes where there is freedom and logic, and those come about in a climate of indivualism manifested in free-market capitalism. To the extent we have had capitalism (and we’ve never had pure capitalism) scientific achievement has exploded. Until societies correctly identify the right of the individual to his own life, we will have competing faith-based systems holding science back, whether they are based directly on religion or on collectivism. We need the ‘new atheist’ crowd to adopt individualism and consistent reasoning before they lecture the humanities on how to reason. Until then, they are the allies of religionists.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      Like religion, the humanities base their beliefs on faith. Faith in the philosophy of altruism

      Wait. What, now? I don’t know what humanities courses you’ve taken but most of my professors told me that they expected graduates should all be able quickly to read, assess and respond to arguments and back up those arguments with solid evidence. It’s why we wrote several essays about certain topics as part of our exams and read and wrote constantly where we were evaluated equally on writing style, content and evidence. This is not “faith” in anything let along “the philosophy of altruism”.

      Now backing up, “humanities and science are just as incompatible as science and religion.” No. In order to graduate with an honours Humanities degree, my alma mater required proficiency in a second language beyond level one and a year’s worth of social sciences. They definitely wanted a well rounded graduate with exposure at least to social sciences as well as a year’s worth of history (where you learn what Social Darwinism is btw). Science and humanities are absolutely compatible if you are fortunate to be taught properly….both rely on and promote reason, indeed you should not graduate without demonstrating your ability to use reason and critical thinking from any university course (sorry theology folks).

    • Richard Olson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      ‘Like religion, the humanities base their beliefs on faith. Faith in the philosophy of altruism. Altruism relies on the opposite of reason/logic, the concept of sacrificing the individual to the state. Science flourishes where there is freedom and logic, and those come about in a climate of indivualism manifested in free-market capitalism.’

      What a load of Ayn Rand Objectivism bullshitski. I wonder if the acceptance this crap receives in recent decades, as opposed to the near-universal scorn it initially garnered and richly deserved, is linked to post-modernist influence.

      As if self-sacrifice to the state is some immutable absolute virtue, or the economic utopian scheme mentioned has any more relation to reality than trickle-down economics.

  29. Mary Canada
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Excellent article. Thanks for posting

  30. Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    “I see it as the definitive refutation of the scientism canard, converting it into a pressed duck.”

    Very clever & I completely agree.

    /@

    • darrelle
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Pressed duck is pretty good!

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      I loved that part too because my mind automatically goes to duck whenever I see the word “canard”.

      • jesperbothpedersen1
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        Hehe, I didn’t even notice that one. Thanks for pointing it out. :-)

      • Posted August 7, 2013 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

        Well, naturally so if you know the French.

        I hadn’t thought about the derivation before, but it apparently stems from, “a tactic used by a parent duck to deceptively draw a predator away from its offspring or nest by quacking and feigning a broken wing” [Wiktionary]

        /@

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

          Cool, it really is about a duck & I thought it was just a coincidence like when “homo” is two different things in Greek or Latin

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:47 am | Permalink

          Hey, that’s fun to know. Thanks!

          (Though French ducks must be different–I’ve never noticed that in a good old USian duck.)

    • Larry Gay
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      Dead duck?

  31. lwgreen1
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I read the Pinker piece and have no nits to pick, and I agree that “Better Angels” should also be required reading. If you could get religious people to use one small part of the scientific method, the possibility, even if ever-so-slight, that their “hypothesis” of religion might be wrong, then the world might make progress toward a place where we want to live. In other words, get them to use, in the religious compartment of their brains, the same critical thinking that most people use when they go to purchase a used car. Yeah, we could take a step forward.

  32. Cliff Melick
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Read this article with great delight, not only for what Pinker said, but also how he said it. His prose is just as enjoyable as his thesis.

  33. Steven Obrebski
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Pinker has written a compelling review which has stimulated me to start reading Better Angels which has been sitting unread in my library for too long.

    It will certainly be less corrosive reading than Zealot, discussed earlier in this
    blog.

    I am now reading The Evolution of Blood Clotting by Russell Doolittle, a masterpiece of smoothly and clearly written scientific exposition of the evolution of
    a complex adaptation, a subject that I hope
    will by brought up herein sometime in the future.

    • reginaldselkirk
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      The Evolution of Blood Clotting by Russell Doolittle

      That sounds interesting. No offence to parties present, but I think one of the most interesting books about evolution in the last decade or so was Your Inner Fish by Shubin. By writing about his specific fields of research and teaching, he gave the book a personal quality that is compelling. No one else could have written that book.

      • Steven Obrebski
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        Your Inner Fish was definitely a winner.

        To get a bit off the subject try reading
        the international best seller (so it says
        on the cover) How To Read Egyptian Heiroglyphics: A step-by-step guide to teach
        yourself. Its a “keeper book” – whoever has
        borrowed it from me returned it the next day.
        It was brought to us by Univ. of California Press. It you take it seriously long enough
        you will be able to read Heiroglyphics in
        museum collections. I don’t recommend going
        to see the pyramids at this time.

        One interesting point about the plethora of
        ancient Egyptian scrips in remnants
        of papyrus is that there is no
        evidence that there were Jewish slaves in
        Ancient Egypt and the Mosaic mythology is
        wholly made up. No archeology\ical evidence
        for the Exodus story either. I guess this comment pertains to the earlier discussion of the book Zealot that Jerry brought up.

  34. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m soooooo glad that Steven Pinker brought up Social Darwinism AND defined it! I find this fundamental misunderstanding of Social Darwinism as annoying as the original perversion and misunderstanding of evolution that gave us Social Darwinism!

  35. DV
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    I read Pinker’s article before I saw it mentioned here.

    Love the phrase “generators of error”.

  36. Richard Olson
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I’ll be pilfering bits from Pinker’s essay and many of the comments here for use on opportune occasion. A friend uttered “humanism” in conversation a day ago with marked contempt, and I am saddened but not particularly surprised that even this educated and thoughtful person is compromised by the impeachment of this term, so similar to the way science is impeached by falsely ascribing to it empty/useless religious concepts and attaching -ism at the end.

    An e-mail with a link to the NR Pinker essay, along with the para that contains his definition of humanism, sped to my friend the instant I finished reading it.

  37. Wayne Tyson
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Why is there a black overlay over the last portion of this page, rendering it difficult to read? Was this “simple human error,” or has technology failed us? Has science?
    Has “science?” Did I make the error? Did my computer? Was it a glitch in the web-page or the software, or electronic gremlins doing what electrons do beyond our ken?

    The “scare quotes” are important symbols, as they reveal a crucial distinction between “science” as a pose and science as a mental process, and intellectual discipline. Science does not let us down, we let science down. Science is complex, but it’s central characteristic is HONESTY, not fantasy. Science, as intellectual discipline, has no place for certainty, for egocentric narcissism. But those characteristics often apply to people who call themselves scientists. Science requires a setting aside of those characteristics—yea, it requires the attempt to DISPROVE hypotheses, not to prove them. “The suspension of judgment,” said Raymond M. Gilmore, “is the highest exercise in intellectual discipline.”

    One does not “believe in” science or evolution, as that would convert it into religion. Nature is complex but not complicated, and can be explained (as far as mere language is capable) in uncomplicated (if complex) terms. Scientists love to be proven wrong; that’s how they learn. But “scientific” poseurs are never wrong—they are always right—and woe unto them who dare challenge their, well, beliefs. Cross them and you will be cast out, along with the Phairisees, as it were . . .

    Convoluted prose makes the simple complicated, and if it is complicated and convoluted and long enough, it will be believed by many, especially if the reasoning is based on AUTHORITY rather than intellectual discipline. But all the King’s straw-men fallacies they weave, and all the King’s zealots cannot render an understanding of the complexities of Nature without resorting to the security of the rat-hole of ideology.

  38. gbjames
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Why is there a black overlay over the last portion of this page, rendering it difficult to read?

    Huh?

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

      Starting in the last part of this post: John K. Posted August 7, 2013 at 12:05 pm, under item 17, the “background” is all black and the print is obscured all the way to the end.

      • gbjames
        Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        Something local to you. Looks fine here.

        • jesperbothpedersen1
          Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          Ditto.

  39. Skistimas
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Love the word lagniappe!

  40. Bob J.
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    and a dumb response from Ross Douthat at The New York Times:

    http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/the-scientism-of-steven-pinker/?src=recg

  41. John Copeland
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I’d like to object to Pinker’s latest by way of this blog title, “Why Evolution Is True.” The name is meant to be provocative, obviously, but commits the sin it exists to repudiate.

    The contention that evolution “is true” treats the entire vocabulary of evolution as a mere proposition, trivializing it. It makes as little sense to announce that “evolution is true” as it does to say “evolution is false” or “I don’t believe in evolution” or even “I believe in evolution.”

    Evolution is a way of making sense of phenomena. It’s not the sort of thing we could be mistaken about as we could a proposition. Such a mistake would not meaning anything, since evolution (and scientific explanation generally) provides the context for, or intelligence behind, mistakes.

    Pinker similarly trivializes as mere propositions the philosophical, literary and historical traditions within the so-called humanities. Basically, it’s more complicated than he either lets on or realizes. If we should ‘do more science’ — and we should — he should read more widely, too.

    Start with Richard Rorty.

    But when it comes to cultural politics — to suggesting what is better for us to believe, whether we should make scientists or characters in novels our heroes — he has every right to advocate for his position rather than be faithful to a supposed reality ‘out there’.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      I think the statement “Why Evolution Is True” is targeted at a popular audience, not philosophers.

      It’s how real people talk.

  42. Jeff Johnson
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Until I read the full article, I got very confused here:

    It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

    Pinker is not using “scientism” as the critics of science do. He is appropriating the word “scientism” rather than criticizing it, in the same spirit as gay rights activists appropriated the word “queer”. He is taking a word that is an ill defined and weakly understood epithet against science use by embattled humanists defending their turf, and turning it into something that strips away the stupid “science doesn’t have all the answers” and “science creates Nazis” straw man BS, to transform “scientism” into a word that represents science properly.

    This point kind of gets lost in the excerpts that appear in this post.

    And Leon Kass replies: “Science Doesn’t Have All The Answers”. I haven’t watched that video yet, but is this a misguided headline by a clueless editor, or was that really Kass’s point? If so, he must either not have really read Pinker, or he’s got a reading comprehension problem.

    How do they fail to understand the meaning of a statement like: “the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them.”

    I would never say science has all the answers. But it’s reasonable to say that answers that go beyond science but are in direct conflict with solid scientific findings, or that are not at least founded to some degree consistently with science, are probably very questionable answers.

    But to the threatened humanists, this sounds like “science has all the answers”. What they really mean is that they want to be able to say humanties has all the really important answers, while science exists only to make humanists more comfortable while they do the important work.

    • Richard Olson
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      I could not understand the criticism of humanists in #42 by Jeff J until I read the upthread conversation by Diana’s that the term is applied in one sense as a descriptor of humanities educators/academic discipline.

      Until today, humanism only conjured in my mind an organization with a group of former presidents which includes Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut — the only two who come readily to mind from a long and distinguished list; a relatively substantial number of people past and present who believe in and practice humanist ideals; and a movement that dates at least to the Renaiissaince/Reformation era.

      Granted, humanist philosophy has been anything but consistent throughout the entirety of its existence, but since the Civil War it’s principle tenents are little changed.

      I predict ot is unlikely I will ever read or hear the term ‘humanist’ and my initial thought reaction will be: “Ah, the topic is either faculty or academia.” It seems to me this use unnecessarily confuses the humanist movement with something scarcesly related to it. Maybe this attitude leaves me pissing into the wind all alone,

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

        I did not know of that sense of the word humanist till I read it used that way in a book review by Jay McInerney in the NYT.

        May have been this one–catch the context of its use in his first paragraph!:

        http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/books/review/McInerney-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=3pagewanted=all

        This usage so shocked me that I actually wrote to the American Humanist Association to see if they were aware of it. *rollseyes* They wrote back that that was indeed a traditional usage.

        Bleargh, how depressing.

        Good to be aware of, though, I guess.

      • Posted August 9, 2013 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        Maybe we should call them humanitists

        /@

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted August 9, 2013 at 6:01 am | Permalink

          Unless they accuse scientists of naive scientism. Then they become Les humanitardes.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 9, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          Much better!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted August 9, 2013 at 4:05 am | Permalink

        It must be a recent use of term. Only the new hip kids use it. :)

  43. Jeff Johnson
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    My Nootka has gotten a bit rusty, but I imagine even in that language that people use very large grains of salt when they see argumentation based on ad-hominem attacks like “huckster” and rhetoric like “Logic? Hardly”.

    Just because the man doesn’t speak Shawnee doesn’t disqualify him from writing a popular book intended to outline for a lay audience some interesting findings and discoveries about language acquisition.

    I have a great deal of respect for Pinker, and I haven’t seen anything written against him here that is even a tiny bit persuasive.

    • Jeff Johnson
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      That’s odd. The post I was replying to seems to have disappeared. Perhaps that’s what it deserved. Somebody had quite a bone to pick.

      • Posted August 9, 2013 at 6:16 am | Permalink

        Sorry, Mr. Johnson. I trashed the post because it accused Pinker of being a liar, and I won’t tolerate that kind of language and vituperation on this site. One can take issue with things without ad hominem arguments, and I’m sorry you’re now replying to a nonexistent comment!

        • Jeff Johnson
          Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:29 am | Permalink

          No problem. I figured that must have been the case. The post was annoying to me, so I felt compelled to rebut it, and I can see why you nixed it. I don’t mind in the least that it’s gone.

          It seemed like it came from someone who has put a lot of work into linguistics, and they are jealous of all the attention Pinker gets. But that’s just my subjective evaluation based on mere intuition.

          At any rate, thanks for providing the context so it doesn’t look like my post was a complete non sequitur. Otherwise it could appear to be the posting equivalent of swatting at flies! :)

      • Posted August 9, 2013 at 6:47 am | Permalink

        Having seen via email the ephemeral post you replied to, your reply is to the point and witty.

        /@

        • gbjames
          Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:51 am | Permalink

          I think that the evaporated poster’s nym, an anagram for “sloth or entropy”, matched well the content of his comment.

  44. Wayne Tyson
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    “. . . negative perceptions of others are linked to higher levels of narcissism and antisocial behavior.” http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100802165441.htm

    In my more narcissistic youth, I once suggested to my lawyer, Ralph Yarborough, that we just tell the other party that if he didn’t cooperate we would sue him. In his sonorous Senatorial voice, he replied, “Son, if you want a man’s cooperation, it’s best not to threaten him.”

  45. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry I’m late with the assignment, professor!

    Seriously, thank you for pointing to it. I’m surprised and enthused by Pinker tying humanism to science (instead of merely the skeptic part):

    “And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.” [My cursive]

    I am less surprised and bemused by the fact that he elevates what is hard over what is easy because it supports what he feels is a defensible definition of scientism.

    He claims that there is a “theory of vengeful gods and occult forces” that has been tested but gives no references, presumably because it is hard to verify uncertainty.

    But he also claims that it is a “dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists” despite that the idea of testable closure of system has been around since the first days of thermodynamics, culminating a decade ago in the ease of testing energy closure of the universe with the standard cosmology. If he is thinking of its being parsimonious to boot, that isn’t a feature of support of philosophic dogma specifically, it is a feature of many basic theories.

  46. Peter Beattie
    Posted August 14, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that what Pinker is advocating is an explicitly Popperian view of science—he even uses Popper’s terminology, with “falsification” and in “the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science”.

    Popper even had something pertinent to say on the supposed conflict between the humanities and the sciences:

    Labouring the difference between science and the humanities has long been a fashion, and has become a bore. The method of problem solving, the method of conjecture and refutation, is practised by both. It is practised in reconstructing a damaged text as well as in constructing a theory of radioactivity.

    (From Objective Knowledge)


5 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] we can expect more of the same.) His endorsement of Pinker appeared yesterday, in the post, “Pinker debones “scientism” canard.” Since he includes me, along with Philip Kitcher, Massimo Pigliucci, and Steve Gould who, […]

  2. […] “Pinker debones the “scientism” canard,” Why Evolution is True, August 7, 2013, http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/pinker-debones-the-scientism-canard/ […]

  3. […] Pinker has argued that science is your friend, and others have defended him. Here are takes by Jerry Coyne, Eric MacDonald, and Massimo Pigliucci. I don’t mean to add anything deep or comprehensive to […]

  4. […] Coyne: Pinker debones the “scientism” canard (7 augustus […]

  5. […] Coyne: Pinker debones the “scientism” canard (7 augustus […]

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