It is with a weary heart that I must report yet another benighted article by the columnist we all love to hate, Ross Douthat of the New York Times. His blog piece is called “The scientism of Steve Pinker,” and basically ignores everything that Steve argued in his New Republic piece save one thing: the source of human morality. In fact, Douthat seems to agree with everything Steve says about scientism, but still manages to find Pinker himself guilty of scientism for one reason: Pinker’s supposed ability to derive human morality from science. In the following bits from the column, Douthat’s quotes from Pinker (and my own quotes of SP) are in italics:
Indeed, [Pinker] helpfully supplies a perfect example of [sic; the missing word is either "it" or "scientism"] in his own essay, in his discussion of what modern science has allegedly meant for our understanding of personal and political morality:
“… the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans, and societies—are factually mistaken. We know, but our ancestors did not, that humans belong to a single species of African primate that developed agriculture, government, and writing late in its history. We know that our species is a tiny twig of a genealogical tree … We know that we live on a planet that revolves around one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion galaxies in a 13.8-billion-year-old universe, possibly one of a vast number of universes. We know that our intuitions about space, time, matter, and causation are incommensurable with the nature of reality on scales that are very large and very small. We know that the laws governing the physical world (including accidents, disease, and other misfortunes) have no goals that pertain to human well-being. There is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers—though the discrepancy between the laws of probability and the workings of cognition may explain why people believe there are. And we know that we did not always know these things, that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.”
Now I’m not sure what this says about morality, except that it didn’t come from God—and that’s probably what rankles Douthat, an observant Catholic. Indeed, in Pinker’s piece he explictly denies that one can derive morality from science, but adds, correctly, that science can inform morality. If, for example, you subscribe to a kind of consequentialism, which I presume Steve does, then you can observe the consequences of certain interventions. Doubthat quotes this comment of Pinker’s—
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. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics. The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.
—but then takes it to mean that science dictates a morality that just happens to coincide with “Steven Pinker’s very own moral worldview!” (He doesn’t seem to notice Pinker’s claim that science doesn’t dictate values.) But the claim that Pinker is being tendentious is hogwash: the morality of the Enlightenment, which after all is changing and becoming better, as Pinker asserts in The Better Angels of Our Nature, belongs to many people, not just Steve, and he didn’t originate it.
I’m sure Douthat resents that quote, which, though arguing that morals can’t come completely from science, also affirms that they absolutely can’t come from religion, since religion is a crock. Douthat must hatehat. He then proceeds to argue that dismissing a divine origin of morals, and accepting a materialistic worldview, makes determining moral values much harder:
Now an innocent reader might assume that the crack-up of these world pictures, with their tight link between cosmic design and human purposes, might make moral consensus more difficult to realistically achieve. After all, if our universe’s testable laws and empirical realities have no experimentally-verifiable connection to human ends and values, then one would expect rival ideas of the good to have difficulty engaging with one another fruitfully, escaping from the pull of relativism or nihilism, and/or grounding their appeals in anything stronger than aesthetic preference.
It’s demeaning to secular morality to reduce it to the notion of “aesthetic preference.” Morality may ultimately rest on subjective preference, but it’s not “aesthetic.” Aesthetics is about beauty, not behavior. And yes, it’s harder to derive a real, workable morality from reason, observation and intuition than from simply following what you can pick—or cherry-pick—from scripture, but who can deny that secular morality is superior to that of, say, the Catholic Church? For that “aesthetic preference” has given secularists a morality far superior to that of Catholicism. It is the Catholics, not the atheists, who see it as moral to subjugate women, terrorize children, demonize gays, and micromanage people’s marriages and sex lives.
Finally, Douthat takes Pinker to task for the “Whiggish interpretation of history” shown in Better Angels:
Since Pinker’s last book was an extended rehabilitation of the Whig interpretation of history, it’s not surprising to see him make this kind of case. But it’s intellectually parochial and logically slipshod, and it’s also depends on a kind of present-ist chauvinism: His argument seems vaguely plausible only if you regard the paradigmatic shaped-by-science era as the post-Cold War Pax Americana rather than, say, the chaos of 1914-45, when instead of a humanist consensus the scientifically-advanced West featured radically-incommensurate moral worldviews basically settling their differences by force of arms.
. . . Pinker seems to have trouble imagining any reasoning person disagreeing about either the moral necessity of “maximizing human flourishing” or the content of what “flourishing” actually means — even though recent history furnishes plenty of examples and a decent imagination can furnish many more. Like his whiggish antecedents, he mistakes a real-but-complicated historical relationship between science and humanism for a necessary intellectual line in which the latter vindicates the former, or at least militates strongly in its favor. And his invocation of “the scientific facts” to justify what is, at bottom, a philosophical preference for Mill over Nietzsche is the pretty much the essence of what critics mean by scientism: Empirically overconfident, intellectually unsubtle, and deeply incurious about the ways in which human beings can rationally disagree.
Were I Pinker, who put in years of statistical analysis to show that the world was actually getting better in many measurable ways, I’d be offended at the accusation of “whiggishness.” The purpose of Steve’s book was to show that the moral arc of history was, as Martin Luther King proclaimed, bending towards justice, and then to analyze why, also using reason and data. This is not simply a reinterpretation, but a rational and scientific analysis of history. Apparently Douthat prefers an endless and futile incense-scented argument based on superstition over real empirical analysis.
One can argue whether it’s better to be a consequentialist or a deontologist, but it’s not permissible to pin the two world wars on science, or to argue that the world is just as bad now as it was five centuries ago. Pinker certainly did not overstep the boundaries of science in his documentation of that moral arc; and as for its reasons, well, they don’t have much to do with the “morality” of faith. That’s really what burns Douthat’s onions.