The final round: Pinker vs. Wieseltier on scientism

Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay; I came to say I must be going. Tonight is l’affaire Dawkins, so posting today will be light.

One item for your delectation: the final exchange (the third) between Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier.  Pinker, as you recall, wrote an article in The New Republic about the follies of the scientism, “Science is not your enemy.” That was published August 6. On September 3, Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of TNR, wrote a critique of Pinker called “Crimes against humanities.” Wieseltier also put up a 3.5 minute video, “No, science doesn’t have all the answers,” which, although not referring to Pinker, was clearly directed at Steve’s ideas.

Finally, we have the denouement: “Science vs. the Humanities, Round III.” The match is how over, and the referee holds Pinker’s glove to the ceiling.

You should read it for yourself (in fact, the whole exchange will give you a good take on where “scientism” is at), but here are a few points from this last piece. Pinker avers once again that he’s not calling for a takeover of the humanities by science—merely a beneficial infusion of science into some of the humanities, including lit-crit, art, and history (note the language, very strong for Pinker):

The very possibility of a synthetic understanding of human affairs, in which knowledge from the sciences can contribute to the humanities without taking them over, is inconceivable to Wieseltier. Beginning with its tasteless title, his article steadily escalates the paranoia, tilting at the position I explicitly disavow, namely that science is “all there is,” that it is “a sufficient approach to … the human universe,” that the humanities must “submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them,” that they must be the “handmaiden of the sciences, and dependent upon the sciences for their advance and even their survival,” that a “a scientific explanation, will expose the underlying sameness” and “absorb all the realms into a single realm, into their realm.” If you are a scholar in the humanities, and fear that my essay advocates any of these lunatic positions, I am here to tell you: relax. As I wrote, and firmly believe, “the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them.”

Steve also gives examples from his own research of when the reverse has happened: sciences have been helped by ideas from humanities. (In my view, the benefit is, however, largely in the other direction.) The tone of Steve’s piece is stronger than I’ve ever seen in anything he’s written; he clearly feels deeply about the issue of scientism.

There’s more, but I wanted to note how Steve responds to Wieseltier’s previous claim about religion: “Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally.”  Anybody who knows how religion is practiced, in either the U.S. or elsewhere, knows that this claim is ludicrous.  Almost every believer takes some scriptural claims literally (for Christians, the non-negotiables are the divinity and resurrection of Jesus), and many take large dollops seriously.

Here’s Steve:

In defending religion, Wieseltier writes, “Only a small minority of believers in any of the scriptural religions, for example, have ever taken scripture literally.” Really? How does he know? Wieseltier writes as if his say-so is all we need to move on to the next step of his argument. Let’s put aside the astonishing “have ever” part of the claim, and confine ourselves to the present. Recent polls show that between 30 percent (Gallup) to 60 percent (Rasmussen) of Americans believe that the Bible is “the actual word of God to be taken literally, word for word”—hardly “a small minority.” Figures for believers in the world’s other scriptural religions are even higher: According to a recent Pew survey, between 54 and 93 percent of Muslims in the countries surveyed believe that the Quran should be read “literally, word for word.” The point is not that Wieseltier is factually mistaken in this assertion. The point is that a more scientific mindset would recognize that an empirical proposition demands empirical verification. The era in which an essayist can get away with ex cathedra pronouncements on factual questions in social science is coming to an end.

Wieseltier’s response seems almost sheepish (for him), and I sense he knows he got the worst of this exchange. He calls for a “two magisteria” solution, with science and humanities kept separate, but with “porous boundaries.” But that is exactly what Pinker called for, too! Wieseltier claims that Pinker and other advocates of scientism advocate “totalistic aspirations,” i.e., the complete takeover of humanities by the sciences (“unified field theories,” Wieseltier calls them), but Pinker explicitly said that he wasn’t calling for that.  So Wieseltier mischaracterizes Pinker completely (and Steve doesn’t get to respond) when Leon says (with a bit of snark):

But the belief that science is supreme in all the contexts, or that it has the last word on all the contexts, or that all the contexts await the attentions of science to be properly understood—that is an idolatry of science, or scientism. Pinker is wrong: I am not censoring scientists. They can say anything they want. But everything they say may not be met with grateful jubilation. So let the scientists in—they are already swarming in—to the humanities, but not as saviors or as superiors. And those swaggering scientists about whose intentions Pinker wants humanists to “relax”: they had better prepare themselves for a mixed reception over here, because over here the gold they bring may be dross.

As you can see above, Steve never argued that science is, or should be, supreme in all the contexts. Indeed, in his earlier piece he noted that art and literature, while they might be informed in some ways by science, nevertheless have benefits independent of science. To me, those benefits include affirming our common humanity, being moved by the plight of others, even if fictional, and luxuriating in the sheer beauty of music, words, or painting. (Note, though, that one day science might at least explain why we apprehend that beauty.)

Finally, Leon, who hasn’t a leg to stand on with his “sophisticated religion” claim, responds to that with obfuscation:

And a word about religion: Pinker is right to point out that most religion is folk religion. Intellectually sophisticated religious views are not held by most of the people who hold religious views, just as intellectually sophisticated scientific views are not held by most of the people who hold scientific views. The reputation of science should not be held hostage to folk science. Of course Pinker denies that there can be intellectually sophisticated religious views: “a more scientific mindset would recognize that an empirical proposition demands empirical verification.” So it would—but a less scientific, and more capacious, mindset would recognize that religious faith is not just a set of empirical propositions, and that it is not inconsistent, when intelligently interpreted, with empirical verifications. There remains the question of why one would wish to interpret intelligently texts that seem in some ways unintelligent—but that is a much larger discussion and a much deeper disagreement, which Pinker and I can pursue when we meet at the Consilience Café, where I will insist that we split the check.

Note here that Wieseltier backhandedly admits that his earlier claim was wrong.  But he manages to get in a dig at science as well, arguing that “folk science” (which I take to me the average person’s understanding of science) is not intellectually sophisticated, either. But this avoids the issue.  Even sophisticated believers (the equivalent of professional scientists) hold fundamentalist and superstitious views. Francis Collins, for instance, accepts both the resurrection and the divinity of Jesus. And what about William Lane Craig and his divine command theory, or John Haught and his Argument From Hot Beverages?

As I’ve said repeatedly, nearly all believers are fundamentalist in some ways, and that fundamentalism involves a combination of faith and the acceptance of propositions that are both empirical and wrong—so Wieseltier is wrong on that count, too. Let me note that the dangers of faith come precisely from its empirical content, not from the weekly forgathering of believers to sing, quaff wine, and smell the incense. It’s the combination of absolutism as expressed in faith, and the notion that you have a handle on what God wants, that causes all the evils of religion in this world.

As for religious faith being “not inconsistent, when intelligently interpreted, with empirical verifications,” well, that’s just wrong. If Leon has empirical evidence for God or his will, let him give it to us immediately. (By the way, the “not inconsistent” usage simply expresses Wieseltier’s residual doubt. He could have said “consistent,” but that sounds too strong. It reminds me of Orwell’s advice to avoid the “not un-” and “not in-” usage, giving as an example, “The not unblack dog ran over the not ungreen grass.”)

113 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    Subscribe.

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

      2

    • Cara
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

      Subscribe.

  2. Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    “… but a less scientific, and more capacious, mindset would recognize that religious faith is not just a set of empirical propositions, and that it is not inconsistent, when intelligently interpreted, with empirical verifications.”

    AKA: Bullshit w/o borders.

    For someone who is so rabid about defending the humanities, Wieseltier appears to lack creativity regarding the possibility of merging scientific applications with the arts. I suspect nothing less than unadulterated Leonism.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:25 am | Permalink

      Indeed — the visual arts wouldn’t exist in anything even vaguely resembling their current form were it not for some very hard science. Painting is almost as much about the chemistry of pigments and the geometry of optics as it is about emotional expression, even if the language typically used to describe those scientific parts of the art stems from an older, less-precise tradition. And photography? That’s perhaps more science than art.

      And then there’s music and acoustics, Rodin and anatomy, ballet and physiology, every art form and the psychology of perception and emotion…

      …really, this notion that science has no business in the arts can only come from somebody who knows less than nothing about the arts.

      Cheers,

      b&

  3. JBlilie
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Wieseltier is appropriately named!

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      Small, furry, hyperaggressive, and… let’s not even talk about the sexual proclivities of the weasel-beast (any species of Mustelus). Such comparison with the author of Crimes Against Humanities seems a bit over-the-top to me, and even if accurate on all counts this would be an ad hominem fallacy with respect to the argument with Pinker.

      But to judge from the comments at NR, the audience there is nearly all on the Weasel’s side. Bunch of loons (Gaviidae).

  4. Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    I was amazed by Wiesteltier on this. Just to highlight it:

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

    Pinker: {Lots of evidence showing he is wrong.}

    Wieseltier: “most religion is folk religion. Intellectually sophisticated religious views are not held by most of the people who hold religious views.”

    In other words, only those with “intellectually sophisticated” views count! How come people like Wieseltier get away with sneering at the masses and their “folk religion”, when atheists are not allowed to?

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      Another way of looking at it is that it’s pretty clear that Wieseltier has no personal experience with anybody who takes scripture literally, except for the occasional door-to-door Jesus salesman or Pat Robertson headline. The religious people he knows either don’t talk religion to him or rush to reassure him that the Resurrection is a Metaphor™ or some such.

      In a way, that sort of cluelessness is almost worse than the elitism it has engendered in him….

      b&

      • gluonspring
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        +1

    • Sastra
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      An “intellectually sophisticated religious view” is that God itself is only a metaphor, a remnant of human habits of thought and a symbol of human concerns.

      Iow, atheism. A sufficiently intellectually sophisticated religious view is covert atheism hiding under paeans of praise for the “sacred.” Otherwise, as Jerry says, it’s just clunky literalism trying not to be explicit.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      That was flabbergasting.

      Not only is he sneering at the unsophisticated believers, he’s ignoring the fact that they can and do wreak havoc in the world. They need to be acknowledged and addressed the most!

      And when he goes on to blather about the empirical propositions made by religion he’s missing Pinker’s accusation. Pinker was referring to Wieseltier’s proposition that only a small minority of people take scripture literally. That proposition requires evidence, not only W’s say-so.

    • gluonspring
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      “Intellectually sophisticated religious views”

      Whenever someone says something like this I always wish I were there to ask them to give an example of such a sophisticated religious view. What does such a religion look like? What is it’s content?

      So far as I’ve seen, sophisticated religious views are just childish religious views wrapped in a fog of sophistry, but I’m open to being surprised with something new.

      • Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

        What does such a religion look like? What is it’s content?

        Why, it’s entirely apophatic! (and thus designed to be unfalsifiable, as a defence against us scientists coming along and examining it).

        • Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

          I must admit, I’m a bit apathetic about apophatic aphorisms….

          Cheers,

          b&

          • Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

            Apophenia-driven apophatic aphorisms, no less.

            • Sastra
              Posted October 3, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

              +1 — aptly appropriate.

              Theology has been defined as “faith seeking understanding.” I think much of modern, sophisticated theology looks suspiciously like “faith running away in horror from any hint of understanding, be it in content, concept, coherence, consistency, or clarity.”

              • Posted October 3, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

                And a +1 right back at you!

                I think applause is applicable.

  5. eric
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    And those swaggering scientists about whose intentions Pinker wants humanists to “relax”: they had better prepare themselves for a mixed reception over here, because over here the gold they bring may be dross.

    Wow. Just wow. Doesn’t that just scream ‘not invented here’ syndrome?

    Science offers new tools and techniques for collecting and analyzing data (and sometimes, its not even that new). That’s it. There’s no teeming hordes of greeks in this horse trying to burn down your city. If you’re hostile to even the idea of new tools, that bespeaks a very strong parochalism or conservativism (in the historical sense of rejecting anything new).

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      He’s the sort of purist who would sneer at listening to Bach on anything other than at least faithful replicas of the exact same instruments Bach wrote for…and completely missing the point that Bach’s fascination with the organ was the novelty of the sounds it could create. Bach would have been thrilled and astounded to have heard what Stokowski and Wendy Carlos did with his music — and his next reaction would have been, “No effin’ way — let me try!” And I can only imagine what his reaction to George Crumb or John Cage or the other Experimentalists would have been….

      Cheers,

      b&

      • TJR
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

        Indeed, imagine what JSB could do with modern instruments.

        • akincana
          Posted December 7, 2013 at 4:09 am | Permalink

          This comment does not demonstrate a clear understanding of music or musical instruments. The design and features of musical instruments go hand-in hand with the style of music performed. If JSB were using ‘modern’ instruments such as electric guitars, synthesisers, drum machines, etc., aided by computer software, it’s unlikely that JSB’s music would resemble his musical output in his era. Those who like JSB for his presently termed ‘classical’ music, might not like what he would decide to do when interacting with modern instruments, as their capabilities would influence his thinking entirely.

    • couchloc
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      There is a bunch of miscommunication going on with Pinker and Weiseltier which explains the quote you mention. I think their last exchange makes clear that they both agree there is useful interaction between science and the humanities and that their views are much closer than one would have thought. The main issue for me is that Pinker disavows any interpretation of science imperializing the humanities, which is what the worry was about ealier. I wish people here and elsewhere would pay careful attention to Pinker’s many references to humanities/philosophy ideas that have contributed to science and vice versa.

    • Posted October 4, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

      Unfortunately, there have been a lot of cases where scientists tried to give gold to other fields that ended up being dross when those fields evaluated it … and the scientists weren’t always pleasant when they were told that, either.

      A case where I don’t have the response, but which is quite telling, is when I was doing a philosophy course on Aesthetics and Cognitive Science, which looked at the ways scientific results could advance our philosophical understanding of art and aesthetics. In one case, a scientist — I forget the name — came up with a theory about how we seem to prefer aesthetically art that’s understandable, and that we can easily process, based on some — admittedly interesting — results of experiment. He then went on to claim that this explained why a major art form took a longer time to become popular, because it wasn’t understandable.

      Those who had studied art history in the class were incensed. Why? Because what he said contradicted what art history actually said about the progression of that art form. He made a conclusion about art history without, it seems, actually looking at the art history to see if his conclusion and theory held. Dross, and dross from at least a disregard of the field that the science is supposed to be trying to help.

      And we can look at Krauss’ “Something from Nothing” solution as another example. When the philosophers pointed out — sometimes heatedly — that his solution wasn’t, in fact, a solution to the problem they were actually studying, his reply was to, essential, claim turf protection and why we should simply accept the philosophical definition of “Nothing” … ignoring completely that the questions he was trying to raise and, in fact, his solution itself were already considered in philosophy, talked about, had problems raised with, and so on.

      If science wants to help other fields, it had better be prepared to accept it when those other fields say “Yeah, that’s not what we need”. And note that Pinker’s first paragraph:

      In his commentary on my essay “Science is Not your Enemy,” Leon Wieseltier writes, “It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art.” I reply: It is not for Leon Wieseltier to say where science belongs. Good ideas can come from any source, and they must be evaluated on their cogency, not on the occupational clique of the people who originated them.

      Seems to flat-out deny that the experts in their fields, the ones who spend day-in and day-out examining and understanding the problems and advancing and evaluating solutions, get to be the ones to decide whether the idea is, wrt their own field and problems, a good one. That idea, that the people in the fields are the most qualified people to judge whether an idea is good or not wrt their own field, seems to me to be pure common sense.

      • darrelle
        Posted October 4, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

        “Seems to flat-out deny that the experts in their fields, the ones who spend day-in and day-out examining and understanding the problems and advancing and evaluating solutions, get to be the ones to decide whether the idea is, wrt their own field and problems, a good one.”

        Well, it doesn’t seem to deny that at all to me. Pinker doesn’t say that scientists are the ones that have to evaluate the cogency of an idea. And he didn’t say that the experts in the particular field the idea is about could not evaluate the cogency of the idea.

        What he said is that the cogency of the idea should not be determined by what demographic the person who came up with the idea belongs to. For example, an idea should not be deemed good or bad because the person who came up with it is a scientist. Or a philosopher. Or an art critic.

        Pinker wasn’t talking about who gets to decide, he was saying that a person’s occupation, the group they belong to, is not the measure that should be used to evaluate that persons ideas. Get it? Basically he is telling Leon that refusing to consider ideas because they originated with a scientist, and not evaluating the idea on its merits, but only its source, is not good.

        Regarding your post in general I think you are confusing things. I have no doubt that there are, always have been and always will be, scenes like the one you describe above. Such conflicts are common within disciplines as well as between. You are complaining that a scientist made a fool of himself and pissed some people off.

        First, so the fuck what? Does that kind of thing have anything to do with whether or not the claim that some aspects of the Humanities could be enhanced by applying some of the methods used in the sciences is accurate? Would you truly claim that that is not true? In case it wasn’t self evident no worries, there is already plenty of evidence from people working in the Humanities that have done just that very fruitfully.

        Second, Pinker, nor I, nor I am sure most people making the claim, are suggesting that scientists go into the Humanities colleges of universities around the world and take over. We are suggesting that the professionals already there in those colleges apply these useful tools themselves, where applicable.

        • Posted October 5, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

          I’ll concede, on re-reading, that Pinker DOES focus on the originator of the idea at the end there … but then that quote from Wieseltier can’t be what Pinker is replying to, because in that quote and in the paragraph it is contained in Wieseltier isn’t talking about saying that an idea is bad because it was originated by a scientist, but is indeed precisely talking about it being the case that it isn’t science that determines whether science is of use to a field. I believe Wieseltier gives that to philosophy, and that is indeed something that philosophy does, but I’d add in that even in that case the fields themselves also, at least, get a very large say in that. So Pinker isn’t actually refuting or disagreeing with the point that Wieseltier is making, but with some other point that he didn’t actually manage to demonstrate existed in what Wieseltier said … despite it being the fact that when you quote something, that’s what you’re supposed to do. So, either Pinker really focusing on the originator of the idea and has simply missed Wieseltier’s point, or he is disagreeing with Wieseltier’s point and the talk about the originator of the idea is an add-on to him arguing that a scientist, say, can indeed say to another field that the scientific idea is of use even if the experts in the field say it isn’t.

          Regarding your post in general I think you are confusing things. I have no doubt that there are, always have been and always will be, scenes like the one you describe above. Such conflicts are common within disciplines as well as between. You are complaining that a scientist made a fool of himself and pissed some people off.

          No, my point is a response to eric’s claim about their being no such hordes at the doors of the humanities by pointing out that we do have some clear cases of some scientists being such hordes, and to see that we have to focus on HOW they made such fools of themselves: the first, by “predicting” what happened in a field without bothering to ask it or look at what actually happened, and the second, more damningly, by insisting on having solved a problem and then getting angry at the experts in the field who told him that it actually didn’t. If we can all agree that these cases are cases where the scientist was out of line, that’s great, but if we look at, say, Krauss’ case there were some scientists who, indeed, claimed that the response from philosophers was turf protection, and not a valid complaint.

          Does that kind of thing have anything to do with whether or not the claim that some aspects of the Humanities could be enhanced by applying some of the methods used in the sciences is accurate? Would you truly claim that that is not true?

          I would not, and never have. In fact, I even claimed that the Cog Sci example was interesting. So that has no relevance to anything I said. In essence, I’m on Wieseltier’s side, at least from that first paragraph: I think that science can be of interest and use to other fields, but that a result or method being scientific does not mean that it should get any greater respect inside a field than anything else, and less than the methods and results already in that field until it proves itself to THOSE standards, not scientific ones. In short, the use of science will be judged by what the humanities care about, not what science cares about.

          Second, Pinker, nor I, nor I am sure most people making the claim, are suggesting that scientists go into the Humanities colleges of universities around the world and take over. We are suggesting that the professionals already there in those colleges apply these useful tools themselves, where applicable.

          Fair enough, but then I presume that if those professionals say that they aren’t applicable you will accept that as a valid assessment, yes?

          Note one issue with this is that philosophy is brought up a LOT as a field that has a problem with using scientific results … when in its history it HASN’T. It has had a long history of using scientific and empirical data, and even has a long history of naturalizing itself, trying to use the methods of science to solve its problems. When philosophy, as a whole, rejects a scientific solution to a problem, it is not because it dislikes science, but because, in general, it has TRIED scientific solutions and found that they fail to solve the problem.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 4, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        Because anything arrived at by opinion must be true as long as there’s a consensus.

        • Posted October 5, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

          I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. Taking a stab at it, why would you think that, say, philosophical consensus would be more “opinion” than scientific consensus is?

  6. Hempenstein
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    or John Haught and his Argument From Hot Beverages?

    Best not to read that line while drinking a hot beverage.

  7. Greg Esres
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Some of Wieseltier’s incomprehension rests on Pinker’s head. As a psychologist, he should know better.

    It seems obvious to me that long articles, essays, or blog posts are almost never persuasive. Your opponents will find one idea, one sentence, or one word they don’t like and so reject the entirety of what you have to say. This is what Wieseltier has done. Yes, you might expect better reading comprehension and argument analysis from someone defending the humanities, but this is what you normally get.

    Non-opponents will simply have comprehension problems. I think the Magical Number 7 ± 2 rule applies here. For you to comprehend an argument well, you have to keep the whole of it in your head at one time, but once an argument becomes too big, it starts crowding out important pieces, rendering the entire structure unstable.

    Really, every stretch of writing needs an executive summary. This is mine.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      I don’t think I agree with your analysts on articles being too long for comprehension but I didn’t read all of your lengthy comment. 😉

      • Greg Esres
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

        “analysts”

        You misspelled “analysis”, therefore I reject your rejection.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Honestly, if someone has comprehension problems over a long article, especially one written coherently as Pinker’s (and I don’t really think his stuff was that long) then this person really isn’t qualified to comment on it.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:42 am | Permalink

        “coherently as Pinker’s (and I don’t really think his stuff was that long)”

        It’s coherent and not-overly-long to you only because you already agree with it.

        This is why communication fails; an inability to see from the perspective of the audience.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

          No it’s coherent to me because I read it and understood it and then agreed to it. How could I agree to it before I read it? I actually read the whole thing skeptically because this whole scientism thing is just weird to me.

    • eric
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      Your opponents will find one idea, one sentence, or one word they don’t like and so reject the entirety of what you have to say.

      How is selective quoting, selective response, or W.’s choic to use a fallacious argument Pinker’s fault?

      Doing what you say is not any sort of good defense against an intellectually dishonest respondent. If you stick to a few points, as you suggest, they’ll use their space to complain that you didn’t address point Z. Or they can always just tone troll you.

      If you lay out a strong, multi-part argument and your opponent uses it’s complexity as an excuse to intellectually dissemble, his dissembling is on his head, not yours.

      • Posted October 3, 2013 at 9:16 am | Permalink

        After all, what if the strength and the multi-part nature are actually needed?

      • Greg Esres
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

        If you stick to a few points, as you suggest, they’ll use their space to complain that you didn’t address point Z. Or they can always just tone troll you.

        Why does the skeptical community widely ignore the recommendations in the “Debunking Handbook”, which was published a few years ago? We all said we loved it, but didn’t change our ways.

        Under “The Overkill Backfire Effect”, it says:

        Common wisdom is that the more counter-arguments you provide, the more successful you’ll be in debunking a myth. It turns out that the opposite can be true. When it comes to refuting misinformation, less can be more.

        This happens because

        The Overkill Backfire Effect occurs because processing many arguments takes more effort than just considering a few.

        The solution?

        The solution is to keep your content lean, mean and easy to read. Making your content easy to process means using every tool available. Use simple language, short sentences, subheadings and paragraphs. Avoid dramatic language and derogatory comments that alienate people. Stick to the facts. End on a strong and simple message that people will remember and tweet to their friends.

        • Greg Esres
          Posted October 3, 2013 at 9:53 am | Permalink

          An implication of all this is that an attempt to address every point your opponent raises is a victory for your opponent.

          You need to be prepared to declare that certain claims are irrelevant to the core argument and will be ignored.

        • Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          I think it’s a mistrake to assume that a single rhetorical style is going to be best in all situations.

          It’s true that what you describe is generally best for effective mass communication. However, just as an example, it’d be a terrible idea in many professional settings, especially including scientific publications and many areas of the law.

          Know your audience, and present your ideas in whatever form will be most effective for that particular audience.

          Also keep in mind that few audiences are homogenous any more, and that it’s not uncommon for those distant in time and place to also be part of your audience. It’s perfectly fine to toss a bone here and there to the outliers, especially if done in a way that doesn’t turn off the primary audience.

          Cheers,

          b&

          • eric
            Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

            I have to agree with Ben; your argument isn’t convincing in this case, Greg.

            Yes, keeping a communication “lean, mean and easy to read” is generally a good idea. However, when the specific piece in question is Part III of a back-and-forth between a scientist and philosopher about scientism, published in New Republic, it seems silly to claim that it’s Pinker’s fault he didn’t keep it short enough for a general audience. We would not expect this piece’s audience to be “general” in the first place…and this particular installment is part freaking III. Any readers still with us are ones that don’t need pithy for comprehension.

          • Greg Esres
            Posted October 3, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

            ” it’d be a terrible idea in many professional settings, especially including scientific publications and many areas of the law. ”

            True, but that’s not the context we’re talking about here.

            • John Scanlon, FCD
              Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

              Because in a public forum, a philosopher and editor can legitimately pretend he doesn’t see where his argument was refuted.

              Got it, thanks.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      What?

      Concision is important, but if your thesis requires a certain amount of fleshing-out then so be it. It’s the reader’s responsibility to be thorough in attempting to understand the message before arguing with it.

      What about books? Are you suggesting we shouldn’t write books?

      I just do not buy your theory at all.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

        “I just do not buy your theory at all.”

        And those of you who don’t are demonstrating the problem that Pinker talks about, as does Pinker himself. That’s of failing to incorporate the latest scientific findings into the humanities.

        People insist on writing essays in ways that make themselves feel good, rather than in ways that have demonstrable effect.

        • Diane G.
          Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

          Yes, but…he’s addressing the humanities. When in Rome…

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 3, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

          Pinker is addressing academics. If the are so obtuse as to not understand how to read what Pinker writes when these same people are quite familiar with writing theses, academic papers and reading at an advanced level, they shouldn’t be allowed in the Humanities.

          The misunderstanding is not because of Pinker’s rhetorical style.

          • Greg Esres
            Posted October 3, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

            The misunderstanding is not because of Pinker’s rhetorical style.

            That’s sort of like blaming the patient for not getting well. If a person wants to communicate, he must accept the burden of making sure the communication occurs.

            • Posted October 3, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

              “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

              Cheers,

              b&

            • eric
              Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

              I got Pinker’s message. Did you? Yes, right? So how poor of a communication job could it be?

              I’m not exactly Nobel material. If I got it, I’d like to think that the message is communicated more than clearly enough for a humanities Professor.

        • Posted October 3, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

          There is scientific evidence that length makes something incomprehensible?

          Again, what about books? I’ve ready quite a lot of books and not had a problem.

  8. Stephen Barnard
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Wieseltier uses a straw man argument from start to finish.

  9. darrelle
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    “But the belief that science is supreme in all the contexts, or that it has the last word on all the contexts, or that all the contexts await the attentions of science to be properly understood— . . . they had better prepare themselves for a mixed reception over here, because over here the gold they bring may be dross.”

    As you pointed out already Pinker did not say anything like this. This excerpt sounds like someone defending their territory merely because it is theirs and they don’t want to share it. It is as if Wieseltier is worried that something will be taken away from him. Is he worried that he won’t be able to keep up? That he will become irrelevant to the field he has enjoyed a high level of respect in? Sounds like he sees this as a matter of scientists attempting to count coup on the Humanities.

    “Of course Pinker denies that there can be intellectually sophisticated religious views: “a more scientific mindset would recognize that an empirical proposition demands empirical verification.””

    Is Wieseltier confused here, grasping at straws or intentionally being tricky? The quote he attributes to Pinker here was not directed at religion. It was directed at an empirical claim Wieseltier made in support of his counter argument in defense of religion. Pinker clearly states the target of this statement . . .

    “The era in which an essayist can get away with ex cathedra pronouncements on factual questions in social science is coming to an end.

    Wieseltier is not representing himself well here.

    “There remains the question of why one would wish to interpret intelligently texts that seem in some ways unintelligent— . . .

    I think a perfectly reasonable response to this is a puzzled WTF(?). Does Wieseltier mean that we shouldn’t take religion seriously? Considering the reality of religions in our societies that is insane. He seems to be deliberately obtuse here. How does he propose to demonstrate that these texts are “unintelligent?” By interpreting them “unintelligently?” Is he trying to say that it is silly to be worried that a large percentage of the population bases their world view on these “unintelligent” texts? Pushing such a position seems the height of irresponsibility, considering the reality of religion in our societies.

    • gluonspring
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      I have some sympathy for the fear. Without science the world can be whatever you can imagine it to be, and your ideas are as believable as you are eloquent and charming. For a person used to operating in that space, or who has a nostalgia for a time when that was possible, it can feel like something is lost when science comes in with it’s reality constraints. Of course, it’s childish to plug one’s ears and refuse to accept, say, that the stars are huge balls of gas because you prefer to think of them as ancestor spirits or angels. But I can have sympathy for someone who feels a loss at the intrusion of reality, just as I can have sympathy for a child realizing Santa isn’t real. Much of these kinds of objections to ‘scientism’ strike me as sort of like a grown up tantrum thrown by someone who doesn’t want to acknowledge Santa isn’t real.

      A scholar, someone who aspires to be intellectual in some sense, though, should see it as a challenge. Very well, the stars are gas, how can I honestly accept that and still invoke, in writing and art, the kinds of feelings I cherish from the time when they were thought to be ancestors? What new areas of human experience, human reactions, does this open up? What work of fiction, say, would capture, with honesty and art, the human experience at this point in our understanding?

      • darrelle
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

        “Much of these kinds of objections to ‘scientism’ strike me as sort of like a grown up tantrum thrown by someone who doesn’t want to acknowledge Santa isn’t real.”

        Nicely put. Humor aside I think that is a fairly apt analogy.

        I have some sympathy too, but, as you also seem to have said, not enough to respect views like Wieseltier has espoused in these exchanges with Pinker.

        • Diane G.
          Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          Hard to have a lot of success for someone whose success had rested largely on just being one of the best blowhards.

          • Diane G.
            Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

            That first “success” was meant to be “sympathy,” of course…

          • darrelle
            Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

            Ha! :)

            I have to agree with you.

      • Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

        +1

        Particularly the second para.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    It is very likely that Wieseltier’s ultimate goal, though he backpedals on the strategy a bit later, is an attempt to protect religion. He says:

    in the struggle to establish accurate and respectful relations between the sciences and the humanities, I am for a two-state solution. In this arena of tension, as in the other one, I believe that a one-state solution would involve the erasure of one of the realms, its distortion by, and subordination to, an authority that has no legitimate claim over it.

    Clearly he feels that science has, but for unstated reasons shouldn’t have, authority over religion.

    Wieseltier’s project then can be that by showing how separation could work for humanities it could (and then should) be emulated for religion.

    This is also an unsupported claim:

    Nothing in the physical world, in the world of the senses, in the world of experience, can be immune from or indifferent to the categories of the sciences; but there are contexts in which scientific analysis may be trivial. That is not to say that science is trivial, obviously. But the belief that science is supreme in all the contexts, or that it has the last word on all the contexts, or that all the contexts await the attentions of science to be properly understood—that is an idolatry of science, or scientism.

    It isn’t a belief, but a well tested observation, that science is supreme in all contexts where it can be applied, e.g. empirical quantification. That should be distinguished from empirical experience, which if it can’t be quantified isn’t subject to such supremacy.*

    As I’ve noted before, “scientism” is just an empirical observation on science, within science, and useful for science. “Science. It works, bitches!

    Seeing how useful science is for society, everything that is useful for science should be supported. Not irrationally kvetched about.

    * Ironically, what people have used as a premier example of such experience, more or less chaotic drug experiences, seems to be easiest, often universal, experiences to quantify.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      By the way, I am curious how Wieseltier sees that science has “distorted” religion.

      – Is it that history has shown religions are a dime a dozen? Or that they are myths?

      – Is it that science has shown that they have no handle on truth? Or that they are largely untrue (geologically, biologically, archaeologically, historically, physically)?

  11. TJR
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    I’m always puzzled that anyone thinks there is some sort of conflict between arts and science, given that (as noted above) most art forms are hugely dependent on technology which depends on science.

    The whole two-cultures thing (IMHO) isn’t a quarrel between scientists and artists, its a quarrel between scientists and art critics.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      It is also a “been there, done that” abandoned concept.

      As I understand it, it was abandoned in the 90s. Perhaps when the internet started to fuse the world?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      On “The whole two-cultures thing”.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Yeah, I find it puzzling as well and I think the scientist and art critics comment is apt.

  12. Observer
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    What can you make of a literary editor who evdently cannot read.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      A Senior Editor. Principal Supervising Editor. Editor Emeritus. Something like that.

      • Old Rasputin
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        +1

  13. Sastra
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Here’s a question which puzzles me: has anyone ever been accused of “scientism” who was NOT an explicit atheist (one who has written on the topic and argued against religious claims)? Examples?

    It seems to me that religion/spirituality is always the crux of the issue and that no scientist who believes in God (or who is overtly sympathetic to those who do) would ever be in danger of being accused of scientism — that despite all the sturm und drang this really has nothing to do with borders between science and the humanities. But that could be ignorance on my part.

  14. eric
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I liked this bit (by W.):

    There is a basis in reality for the demarcations of the frontiers between the sciences and the humanities: they reflect the actually existing multiplicity of the realms, and their various degrees of incommensurability with each other. This seems entirely uncontroversial and inoffensive to me.

    Really? Not only is this exactly the sort of ‘claim by diktat’ that Pinker dislikes, but its an entirely ridiculous one. Beavers don’t have separate engineering and philosophy departments. Whales don’t separate music and communication. Its ridiculous on its face to claim that our academic disciplines have “a basis in reality.” If Wieseltier thinks he’s found an “actually existing multiplicity of the realms,” perhaps he can help us out by building an objective realm-detector.

    At the risk of asserting my own diktat, I think it’s pretty clear that academic disciplines are human cultural constructs. In many cases they may be sensible constructs, but there’s no objective reality about them. And I can’t imagine how anyone could seriously insist otherwise.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Moreover, how does he explain (e.g.) philosophers working in (say) cognitive or computer science departments sometimes, or those who study technical writing and a language, etc.

  15. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    I read this when it came out & I thought it was his best piece yet about this whole ridiculous scientism debacle. Pinker makes it very clear that the waving of the arms and the hysterical clawing at the cheeks is a tempest in a tea pot of a minority who are probably not very good academics.

    • couchloc
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think this is quite right actually if one knows the history of the debate. E.O. Wilson the famed biologist once wrote that “the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers” and “biologicized”. And Sam Harris has written that “science can determine moral values.” Never mind that none of this has actually happened. It’s these earlier sorts of excessive claims that critics like Weiseltier are worried about. Pinker does a good job in his article of disavowing them, but that doesn’t mean others haven’t occasionally made them.

      • eric
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        Please tell me why Weiseltier should be worried about science being able to determine moral values. If any discipline can do it, isn’t that a win for all of us?

        Whether science can succeed or not, it seems very parochial to me to be upset that they are trying.

        Let’s reverse the situation. If Weiseltier discovers desktop fusion or an FTL drive, I’d be ecstatic – not upset that the answer came from the humanities instead of the sciences. I don’t see why humanities professors can’t feel the same way about the sciences.

        • couchloc
          Posted October 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

          Hi Eric, you raise a good point. I don’t think the problem is really with the general idea that someone else might do it. If another discipline could do it that would just be something ethicists have to live with I suppose. It’s related to the way in which these particular individuals propose to rewrite the field. Harris makes several claims that science can do what he claims, while simultaneously ignoring relevant work by people who’ve considered his very proposal already. He says he won’t engage moral philosophy because he “finds it all boring.” And then he proceeds to restate a bunch of problematic views that are known to people who work on the subject. So there’s a kind of excessive simplification and arrogance involved.

          • qo
            Posted October 5, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

            Or maybe it’s related to competition for funding in academia. Naw…

  16. Posted October 3, 2013 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    From Pinker:

    “As I wrote, and firmly believe, “the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them.”

    So what are the tools that the humanities have that the sciences do not? Because if all of the legitimate intellectual tools that the humanities use to aqcuire knowledge are already in the Sciences’ toolkit, then this really is a case of the humanities becoming part of science.

    I am a fan of Pinker and I completely agree with his position on improving the humanities. But I think that it would help soothe the butthurt of folks like Leon if Pinker, Coyne, and others could expand on the unique tools that the humanities have that science does not possess.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      Some of the more general (sub)disciplines of philosophy have (even within memory of some of the people on this site) farmed out new ideas. For example, so-called philosophical logic is cultivated there, and now is important in computing. There are many others (though I know the philosophy-and-computing ones best).

      Even logic broadly speaking has long been cultivated by both mathematicians and philosophers.

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

        Ok, but how is logic unique to math/philosophy.

        I’m looking for tools that are used by the humanities but NOT by science. If such good tools exist for acquiring knowledge, then I’d also like to know why science can’t or does not want to use them.

        If no such tools exist, meaning the humanities are currently composed of a number of legitimate knowledge-seeking tools (that would presumably also be used by science) and questionable “other methods of knowing”. If that is the case, then this dialogue b/t the sciences and the humanities is one of the humanities taking on board additional scientific tools and rejecting any dubious methods.

        In other words, becoming part of science.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:27 am | Permalink

          I think common tool use is probably not the thing that separates science and humanities. The two disciplines pursue different things in general: humanities study human culture (I like to see it as the output of humans but that also implies poo :D) while the sciences study the natural world and human behaviour (social sciences).

          • Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

            Ok, but both are attempting to increase knowledge about their respective subject matter, so sound “knowledge acquisition tools”, at least the basic ones, should not differ too much b/t them.

            I think that part of the answer may lie in the fact that some subjects in the humanities are not really about acquiring knowledge, where knowledge is defined as an asserted understanding of some aspect of reality that can be falsifiable or in some way not true.

            In the field of lit crit, how is my analysis of some piece of writing true in the sense that the Modern Synthesis of evolution is true?

            If your professional life consists of output that doesn’t really attempt to explain some aspect of reality (including human affairs) or increase our knowledge of it, then scientific concepts would probably be mostly irrelevant.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

              In most cases the tools are probably the same though as with anything, the tools are chosen for the task at hand. You may use critical thinking in the same way, for example. You may even use statistical tools — even for literary analysis.

              Truth will be evidence based but confidence may never be as high as say confidence in evolution, depending on what you’re analyzing. So, if you’re analyzing literature, and your argument is something like the influence of scientific advancement during the Romantic period on Romantic literature, you will bring to bear historical records, etc. of the time, what the author was exposed to, who the author knew, etc. but you will most likely never be as certain as you are precisely certain with other scientific pursuits. In this way, it’s similar to proving a legal case however you don’t manipulate presentation of the evidence to suit your case but let yourself be led by the evidence.

            • Posted October 4, 2013 at 2:53 am | Permalink

              It’s this sort of comment that starts the whole “scientism” charges in the first place:

              I think that part of the answer may lie in the fact that some subjects in the humanities are not really about acquiring knowledge, where knowledge is defined as an asserted understanding of some aspect of reality that can be falsifiable or in some way not true.

              First, who says that that’s what knowledge should mean? The field of epistemology doesn’t define knowledge that way, because by their definitions you can clearly have knowledge of truisms, and in fact deductively certain truths are the strongest form of knowledge we can have. Sure, that’s the sort of knowledge SCIENCE is after, because of its subject matter and the tools it has and method it adopts, but that absolutely does not mean that that’s just what knowledge is and if you don’t follow that method you aren’t interested in “real” knowledge (note that I am not saying that you explicitly said “real knowledge”, but it sounds a lot like that).

              Second, if the goal of the field is indeed different than that of science … well, so what? It just means that they’ll have to use some different methods, and that the results of science may or may not be relevant to that, as you say in the last paragraph. But the fields could still produce knowledge and true statements, and should not in any way be judged by the standards of what science wants or is after. Again, you aren’t explicit about that, and do seem to accept that, but the first “the humanities are not really about acquiring knowledge” immediately rings the alarm bell of privileging scientific results over those of the humanities as being results that are “really” true or “really” knowledge.

        • Posted October 4, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

          Perhaps I was unclear: I meant specific formal approaches have been cultivated within philosophy (for example) and then later taken up elsewhere. So for a while they were only found in philosophy, but later other fields used them and enhanced, etc.

          One specific example of this is epistemic logic.

  17. Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Great summary. I look forward to reading the detailed articles.

    One comment I do have though is about the “not inconsistent” wordage. I actually think it can have value over “consistent”, though imperfect.

    Think of a claim: X is true! Then a piece of information can affect the claim three ways:

    “consistent” = +evidence for X
    “inconsistent” = -evidence against X
    “not inconsistent” = zero

    The relationship isn’t symmetric at zero because “not consistent” inaccurately describes the zero case. Zero is technically “consistent” but using that word loses the differentiation between zero and positive evidence.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Maybe I’m missing your point, but I don’t agree. Not inconsistent implies consistent.

      • Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

        Seems like “not consistent” just means irrelevant.

        Consider X statement: “Tom Brady is the best QB in the NFL.”

        Suppose we learn that he hates cats. It is “not inconsistent” with the statement, but totally irrelevant.

  18. Stephen Barnard
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I should have said something stronger: “not inconsistent” if and only if “consistent”. There are logically equivalent.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      they

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      They may be logically equivalent, but they’re not rhetorically equivalent. In English, at least, the double negative is used to shift the emphasis of the meaning in some way. In this case, stating that something is not inconsistent would tend to imply that there’s no reason to think that it’s inconsistent, but that future developments or a different interpretation may well reveal an inconsistency. Stating that something is consistent would generally rule out such ambiguity.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

        I agree that there is a rhetorical difference, but not a logical difference. I think that, unfortunately, the double negative is often used as a dishonest way out of getting out of making a seemingly stronger, but actually equivalent statement that would raise eyebrows or prompt guffaws or make offense, and that’s what Wieseltier did. I don’t think he could bring himself to say, “… a less scientific, and more capacious, mindset would recognize that religious faith is not just a set of empirical propositions, and that it is CONSISTENT, when intelligently interpreted, with empirical verifications.” This implies that anyone who believes in, say, the virgin birth, is not intelligent.

      • Jim I
        Posted October 3, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

        Ben: 1
        Orwell: 0

    • Kevin
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      I have not read “not inconsistent” in any science article I have ever come across. ‘Consistent’ is used ubiquitously. There is a reason (see Ben Goren’s reply).

  19. Kevin
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    “Even sophisticated believers (the equivalent of professional scientists) hold fundamentalist and superstitious views.”

    Well said Jerry. I get so many liberal Christians who come to me pleadingly asking don’t you think Dark Energy is god? Don’t you think the complexity of the universe is god? Don’t you think all that science has clearly not understood is god? These people are trying so hard to convince themselves of something left, something…if science cannot get it, it must be god.

    So many Christians who believe in science, who believe in gay rights, who accept abortion as a right, who are nearly indistinguishable from a humanist, still want heaven. They must have that superstition to be true and they will go to incredulous lengths to confirm that ‘If it is beyond my comprehension, it must be the proof for my transcendent life.’ Most of these people actually do not even care about god, they just want to live forever.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      “Most of these people actually do not even care about god, they just want to live forever”

      And/or, the want some sense of greater transcedent purpose. Being goal-oriented seems fundamental our ability to function, so the concept that the Universe and existence has no greater purpose or end game is uncomfortable and alien to us.

  20. staffordgordon
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    “It’s the combination of absolutism as expressed in faith, and the notion that you have a handle on what God wants, that causes all the trouble in the world.”

    Smack dab; or as we say in the UK, spot on.

  21. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    … which Pinker and I can pursue when we meet at the Consilience Café, where I will insist that we split the check.

    “I have been exposed as a fool, but do not possess the fortitude to acknowledge the fact, nor even the grace to be good mannered about it.”

  22. eric
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    The comments (at NR) are underwhelming. Lots more ex cathedra statements about how there just isn’t much important science can add.

    I snorted particularly hard at this one:

    But understanding the science of these things [pitch, rhythm, other things at the border of art and science], whatever that means, and from whatever scientific angle that understanding is pursued, helps not a whit in understanding those things as as operating in their arts, as essential to creating the beauty of their arts.

    Um, Vitruvian Man? I’d say understanding the science of anatomy was pretty damn essential to the beauty of the art. And that’s just one example.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Oh dear. What that person wrote was scarily convoluted. I am not even sure what he or she is saying.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      That commenter clearly hasn’t read This Is Your Brain On Music.

      /@

  23. Shiva
    Posted October 3, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I hate to drag out that old tired buzz phrase of “spiritual but not religious,” but this whole debate on scientism v. religion is incomplete.

    What those who believe in “scientism” (which, say what you want is every bit a philosophical dogma as organized religion could ever wish to be) always, always miss is that there are phenomenon, such as consciousness, that to date have been ill-explained by science.

    These things cannot be empirically described. Love, joy, awe, suffering, the compassion of other human beings, the mysterious loss when a being dies, these things cannot easily be reduced to scientific measurement. Maybe some day they can be, but not now.

    Buddhists know this very well and they believe in no god whatsoever. Is Buddhism a religion? No, but it is a spiritual discipline that takes into account that some things have so many conditions that we’ll never get to the bottom of them, so let’s find another way to get at the truth.

    In other words, there are some paths to truth that are based on science and some paths to truth that are not. And these two paths are not mutually exclusive.

    • Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Such phenomena are woefully ill-explained by any other “paths to truths” (or “ways of knowing”). In fact, there is nothing that is explained by any “path to truth” other than science. Everything else is simply “Fred did it.” Science cannot yet explain consciousness, but how would you test the veracity of any other explanation?

      /@

    • Sastra
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      Love, joy, awe, suffering, the compassion of other human beings, the mysterious loss when a being dies, these things cannot easily be reduced to scientific measurement. Maybe some day they can be, but not now.

      Scientific explanations do not greedily reduce and thus “explain away” personal experience. They do not even attempt to do that.

      What critics of “scientism” always, always miss is an understanding of science. They’re too focused on the conceit that truth is going to have a capital-T and be Ultimate.

    • Sastra
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Also, Shiv — could you please answer my question at #13:

      Could you name someone (or clearly describe someone) whom you think is guilty of “scientism” who is NOT an atheist? Or a materialist/naturalist? Is it even possible?

      I’m curious.

    • Cliff Melick
      Posted October 3, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

      Too Deepak Chopra for me. Sorry.

  24. Posted October 4, 2013 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on π's blog.

  25. Al_de_Baran
    Posted October 4, 2013 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    It’s pretty amusing to read Jerry declaring Pinker’s victory mainly by taking at face value Pinker’s assurances that science is not trying to become the master perspective to which all other perspectives must bow.

    Those of us who are less naive (or less disingenuous) remember Emerson’s wise words, and note their applicability to Pinker’s modest demurrers: “What you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you say”.

    • Stephen Barnard
      Posted October 4, 2013 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

      That’s an interesting quote, new to me. You seem to be calling Pinker a hypocrite, and Jerry naive and disingenuous.

    • Posted October 4, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

      You know, I’m not completely ignorant of how Darwinism interacts with the social sciences, nor have I heard of Steve, whom I know, secretly declaring a takeover of the humanities.

      If I were you I’d apologize for calling your host naive and disingenuous.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 4, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

      Why would you have any reason to doubt Steven Pinker’s words as anything but sincere? Are you really trying to say that Pinker is maniacally plotting a Humanities take over? I have to say that the image is amusing and I can’t help but think of Pinky and the Brain but only because, like mice taking over the world, Pinker taking over the Humanities, is a ridiculous, unlikely goal. What will Steven Pinker do next? Steal the Cadbury secret?

      • Sastra
        Posted October 4, 2013 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

        My guess is that Steven Pinker is about to come out with the definitive, scientific list of writers worth reading and musicians worth listening to and artists worth enjoying. It will be very scientific, with the final, absolute last word on how to reduce and quantify qualities like “beauty” and “meaning.” And if you disagree with the rankings well, then — you are just plain wrong to like what you like, or dislike what you don’t like. It is science. Sciiiieeeence.

        And — oh yes.

        As a final blow, Steven Pinker is going to do it: he will discover “love” with a microscope — and take its picture. For the textbook.

        Bwahahaha!

        Religion is just the beginning. The wily, crafty ways of Scientism are as unavoidable as they are nefarious. You will be assimilated … assimilated …assimilated.


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