Pinker pushback I: New Republic editor decries scientism

On August 5 this 3½-minute video, featuring Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, was put up on YouTube. Leon edited several of my own pieces for that magazine, including my attack on the compatibility of science and faith, but now finds himself attacking the incursion of science into the humanities. Given his attitude towards accommodationism, at least as evidenced in his encouraging me to publish my critique of religion, I was surprised to see this.

This video is, I believe, a reaction to Steve Pinker’s article on scientism that was published on the evening of August 6, but had been in galleys for a long time. My guess is that Leon knew Steve’s piece was coming and wanted to go after it.  After all, I’ve never seen Wieseltier put up a video like this.

Leon is not strident here, but I think he’s mistaken in nearly everything he says. First of all, while he appears to blame the decline of humanities largely on the incursion of science, what he’s really blaming, according to his words, is postmodernism: the attempt to reduce the humanities to “sociological, political, and economic factors.” That’s not scientism, but Marxism and postmodernism.

But he also indicts scientism—which he calls the “belief that science has answers to all questions, not just scientific questions”—for the decline in appreciation of humanities. He claims that the quantification of science, its desire to “look for wisdom in numbers” and “the explosion of big data,” have been inimical to things like the Big Questions traditionally besetting the humanities.

This indictment of scientism is wrong. Even Steve, in his own New Republic piece, claims that extreme reductionism is not always the way to go:

But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. 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.

No scientist claims that we should reduce all courses in literature or art to evolutionary psychology.  I, for one, learned to love literature from professors who loved it, too, and explained to me what an author was trying to do in a given work, and how to read it carefully. Ditto for art. There was no evolutionary psychology on tap there; it hadn’t yet been invented. That said, Steve is right in claiming that perhaps evolutionary psychology or neuroscience can give us insights into why we like the things we do.

And to the extent that the social sciences can reach empirical conclusions, well, the incorporation of math and, especially, statistics, is all to the good. After all, statistics was developed to give us ideas of how likely a phenomenon will occur under different initial hypotheses: likelihood that can’t be judged from just looking at the data. Reliable conclusions demand evidence and rational thinking, which is science conceived broadly. There is no other way to get reliable knowledge.

In the end, Leon’s claim that scientism reduces all humanistic questions to scientific ones is ambiguous. Insofar as any discipline, including the humanities, purports to tell us what is true about the universe—and that includes questions about what influenced an author, how we should regulate health care, and what motivates people to cheat—must involve the scientific mindset, because it involves determining what exists in the world. Science is the only way to address those matters.  The other so-called Big Questions, such as “How am I to live?” or “Where will I find purpose?”, “How many ways can I read this text?”, or “Is this action moral or immoral?”, are questions with individual-specific answers that can be informed by science but never answered by it. But these are subjective questions lacking objective and general answers, and involve value judgments. People who decry scientism always fail to distinguish empirical reality from opinions.

Finally, although Leon is, like myself, a nonbelieving Jew, he clearly has more “belief in belief” than I (read his book Kaddish).  His cozying up to religion is seen at the end of the video when he mentions the idea of “souls” and “the sense of mysteriousness of human experience and human feeling.” This is close enough to religious discourse to make us wonder where his sympathies lie. For, in the end, the explanation of the human experience and human emotions must rest on our understanding of neuroscience, environment, and genes. But for the nonce we must study things on the levels accessible to us.

I have to add that, to Leon’s credit, he is an inveterate wearer of cowboy boots*, but only those made by Pablo Jass of Lampasas, Texas (I have a pair of those, too):

Mideast Israel Jewish Intellectual

Wieseltier, properly dressed for intellectual combat

*I have just learned that Pinker, too, is no stranger to cowboy boots.

84 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    This clip is so off base. He creates many straw man arguments.

    This is refuted by Patricia Churchland’s “Touching a Nerve, the Self as Brain” which is an excellent book even if she believes in free will after redefining it.

    • Chris Bosio
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      Especially if this is an actual response to Pinker’s essay, it’s way off base. He made it sound like scientists are advocating an Asimov-like Foundation approach to the humanities.

  2. gbjames
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    Mostly I just want to say “sigh” when I hear these sort anti “scientism” comments. They always boil down to someone’s personal fear that their humanity will be lost. How’s that, exactly? Is Steven Pinker somehow deficient in the humanity department?

  3. wildhog
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    I think the animal skins are better left on the animals. But I do have to give him credit for his hair.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Nah, even his hair doesn’t measure up to Pinker’s.

  4. ethologist
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Ross Douthat too: http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/the-scientism-of-steven-pinker/

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:42 am | Permalink

      Douthat is 100% wrong in every article and every time he is on TV. At least he is consistent.

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

        The best thing about columns by Douthat and David Brooks are the comments, in which members of the readership demonstrate their intellectual superiority to these writers.

        • Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

          +1 to that, the intellectual superiority of the readers, but I read Douthat’s piece, and it seemed he’s more interested in turning a phrase that arguing for something.

          All I got is that he thinks Pinker is a Whig.

          I didn’t watch this video because it annoyed me it was linked to after the first part of Pinker’s essay. Let me finish reading before you offer the counterpoint. Or, you know, don’t offer a counterpoint on the same page. Let me just enjoy the article I’m reading.

          • gbjames
            Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:37 am | Permalink

            There is a cure for that. Don’t watch videos until you want to.

            But also, it isn’t all that polite to tell people to change their style just to suit your taste.

            • Greg Esres
              Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

              But what if it’s Sam’s style to ask others to change their style? Isn’t it likewise impolite to ask him to change his style?

              • Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

                Ha ha — it’s not my style, I don’t think, to ask others to change their style for me (although I order sandwiches without mayo all the time), but it did annoy me to have Pinker’s essay barely begun before they are telling me “click here for someone who disagrees.”

                It’s impolite to complain about a company’s web page layout when I find it disruptive to the flow of the article I’m reading?

  5. Matt G
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    They use many of the methods of science (and they should because they work!), but want the freedom to throw those methods under the bus when they get in the way.

  6. Brian
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Leon Wieseltier sounds like a first class snob. So if people adopt science and data, they might not share Leon’s “high” artistic tastes. Well, Leon, I have just fine artistic tastes thank you very much.

    I noticed that nearly every time someone mentions scientism, it’s always a political thing. Someone else won’t share in their religious beliefs and joy of the humanities, so people like Leon accuse them of scientism. I mean, seriously?! That’s not even a real intellectual philosophical argument, it’s just insulting people for being different from you.

    Perhaps there is something to be said that I don’t think one can quite appreciate art in scientific terms. I don’t think science is quite the vocabulary and perspective I would want to use to describe being moved by a truly great painting or novel. Joy of art is about emotion. That being said, certainly science can study the arts and why people tend to appreciate certain art. You could collect data on what art people like. Science might not be as romanticized an approach as I’d prefer or I experience, but that isn’t to say science can’t address the matter. It would be very interesting to apply rigorous scientific methods to understand why people tend to prefer certain art over others. Obviously one can be moved by a painting and separately understand the rational theory and psychology of what makes the painting good. I think in combination that leads to a deeper appreciation of art without losing the simple experience of being moved.

    • Brian
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      Note that what I envision as a good argument for the humanities here is the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where the class introduces poetry as plotting Perfection vs Importance and then Robin Williams’ character tells the boys to rip out that page of the text. Art is a bit more about appreciation than plots.

      Of course, what Leon Wieseltier said is excrement.

      • Robert Bray
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        ‘Of course, what Leon Wieseltier said is excrement.’

        This is manifestly unfair. Mr. W. is indeed a cultural mandarin (as I noted in another post), but he is also a person with immense insight into the human condition, especially regarding justice as the highest social virtue. While I think he’s myopically wrong about scientism, he is often just right about human social and political behavior, with the normative principles to back up his rhetoric.

      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        I had forgotten about that scene from DPS.

        What a ridiculous strawman it is.

        As if you could even come up with quantities for “perfection” or “importance” to plot in the first place.

  7. Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    I see a link here between those who condemn scientism and those fighting the rear guard action in defense of free will.

    Leon is smart enough to see the threat clearly. If scientism is true, he gets no credit for who he is.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:25 am | Permalink

      This quote from the notable art critic Clement Greenberg came to mind when I read your comment.

      “Aesthetic judgments are given and contained in the immediate experience of art. They coincide with it; they are not arrived at afterwards through reflection or thought. Aesthetic judgments are also involuntary: you can no more choose whether or not to like a work of art than you can choose to have sugar taste sweet or lemons sour. (Whether or not aesthetic judgments are honestly reported is another matter.) (Greenberg, vol. 4, “Complaints of an Art Critic” p. 265)

      This has always seemed to me to echo arguments against free will. I wonder what Leon thinks of it? And I have always wondered what Greenberg thought of free will.

      Artist John Baldessari created a painting that consists of this quote hand painted in black on a plainly colored canvas. Last I heard the piece was valued at over 4 million dollars, though I haven’t checked the accuracy of that. It resides in the private collection of Craig Robins. I love the quote but, though Baldessari is without question a talented artist, I find the fact that this particular piece of not art is valued so highly to be ridiculous.

      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        If scientism is true, then aesthetic judgments are no less works of art than the art that inspires them.

        If only Leon could be satisfied with himself as an artist rather than a metaphysician he might find scientism has its consolations. He could even claim for himself, as a matter of scientific fact, the exalted artistic status of being a mere instrument of his muse.

  8. 7x7
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:41 am | Permalink

    what he’s really blaming, according to his words, is postmodernism: the attempt to reduce the humanities to “sociological, political, and economic factors.” That’s not scientism, but Marxism and postmodernism.

    This, exactly.

  9. Ralph Pickering
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Am I the only one who thinks he looks a lot like Angry Kid?

  10. Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    Right, which is why they call philosopher Alex Rosenberg a “mad dog” naturalist since he supposes higher level descriptions (e.g., of human beliefs and other intentional states) don’t really refer, that only fermions and bosons are real.

    It’s too bad Pinker, like Rosenberg in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, ends up championing scientism (which unequivocally refers to the misapplication of science) when what he’s really defending is science and empiricism. You can (and should) substitute “science” for “scientism” in his NR piece and it reads just fine.

    Wiki: “Scientism is a term used, usually pejoratively,[1][2][3] to refer to belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints.”

    • Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      Hi Tom,

      Rosenberg goes further than Pinker does 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.

      By the way, Rosenberg is very clear that he finds higher level descriptions essential tools. And he also agrees that it’s computationally intractable to make predictions from physics at higher levels of description, such as biology, psychology or economics. His claim is that, nothing, in principle, blocks a reduction to physics, even though the reduction may presently be computationally intractable. Pinker seems to think there is such a thing. Do you?

      Jack

      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        “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.”

        This is a thesis about supervenience: if all microphysical facts are identical, so are higher level facts, which seems reasonable to me since as far as I know there’s nothing non-physical contributing to states of affairs at any level.

        But whether, given perfect knowledge and infinitely powerful computing, we could *predict* higher level facts using only micro-physical regularities is another question, one concerning reductionism and the status of the laws of the special sciences. IOW, do we in principle need higher level laws and generalizations to usefully account for higher level facts? I tend to think so, and not just because of computational intractability. But this doesn’t mean anything spooky or non-physical is going on, only that higher level laws have their own contribution to make that can’t be derived from lower levels, not even by Laplace’s Demon. (I don’t have a proof for this, but it’s my current intuition.)

        Glad to be corrected about Rosenberg if indeed he admits the utility of higher level descriptions. But seems to me their utility certifies the entities in those descriptions as being just as real as fermions and bosons, which is what he, being scientistic, denies.

        My invited response to Rosenberg: http://centerfornaturalism.blogspot.com/2009/11/is-naturalism-nihilistic.html

        • Posted August 11, 2013 at 2:59 am | Permalink

          “But seems to me their utility certifies the entities in those descriptions as being just as real as fermions and bosons, which is what he, being scientistic, denies.”

          Rosenberg doesn’t quibble, as I read him, about the word “real.” He’s concerned instead with the point that whether it’s “real” or not, everything is in principle reducible to physics.

          Do you mean to suggest otherwise?

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

        It’s not just computationally intractable; it’s pointless. A description of World War I strictly in terms of particles and forces would tell us in great detail precisely how the war happened, but it would not tell us why. It would be nothing more than a catalog of trajectories: a travelogue, not an explanation. There’s no way we could generalize such a description to illuminate other instances of war, because the very concept of “war” would be invisible to it; it’s all trees and no forest.

        Forming useful, generalizable hypotheses about high-level phenomena requires that we abstract away the specifics of particle motions and talk in terms of high-level entities and interactions that aren’t visible at the particle level and that can apply to many different micro-configurations of particles. Indeed, if the purely physical description were computationally tractable, we would then have a second instance of the high-level phenomenon (World War I) instantiated on a completely different particle substrate (silicon chips instead of carbon molecules). Similarly, we properly recognize natural selection as one phenomenon, regardless of whether it’s acting on RNA molecules, primitive cells, or macroscopic organisms. Such substrate-independence is what blocks the reduction of high-level understanding to pure physics.

    • Matt Pettis
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      But here’s the kicker, right? Pinker’s thesis is that those who use the term “scientism” paint with too wide a brush. To me, one of the points Pinker brings up is the anecdote of Harvard’s gen. ed. report that frames the discussion of science as discussing both the positive and negative impacts of science, but would never say such things about a humanities discipline. The “scientism”-ists seem to over-hype the places where science has had problems inorder to keep science out of their realm, or at least knock it low enough so that their pet humanity fares better in comparison.

      There seem two courses open, then, to counteract that approach. One is to do as you suggest, replace “scientism” with science. But rhetorically, that seems to smack of the strength of responding in earnest to the classic question “do you still beat your wife?” Just addressing the question weakens your stance. The other, as Pinker stated plainly, is to co-opt and own the label of “scientism” and do what he is doing in the article. I think it puts him on rhetorically stronger ground to do as he did. It can make the opposition either support their claims or pull back from them, and possibly make them address more the pros of science.

      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

        I don’t think co-opting and embracing the label scientism for practicing science (and perhaps for a science-based worldview) is particularly helpful, given its overwhelmingly negative connotations and the fact that historically it’s a term widely used to describe the *misapplication* of science. These misapplications sometimes happen and they are usefully described by the term “scientism.” Sam Harris verges on scientism in supposing science can settle moral disagreements, as does Rosenberg when he says:

        “Once purposes are ruled out of nature—biological, social, psychological–there is only one way that something’s functions can bring it about or maintain it, or explain its changes over time: the process that Darwin discovered–blind variation and environmental filtration. And that is a process in which arms races, and the reflexive, nested instability they entrain, makes human sciences only a little less myopic than the history that has been familiar to us since Thucydides.

        “So much for the meaning of history, and everything else we care about.”

        http://onthehuman.org/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality/

        To counteract those inappropriately critical of science, one simply needs to show that their criticisms are unfounded, which Pinker does nicely (but regrettably he didn’t leave it at that). If they say we’re being scientistic, the response should be that no, we’re not; we’re practicing science properly, that is, we’re *not* supposing that it can pronounce on all questions of morality, meaning, purpose, aesthetics, etc. To go the route recommended by Rosenberg, and now, unfortunately, Pinker – to embrace the pejorative term “scientism” as a descriptor for practicing science – is to really muddy the waters and retard acceptance of scientific empiricism and ultimately the worldview derived from it: naturalism.

    • Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

      “unequivocally”

      Evidently not.

      /@

      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        I raised my eyebrow there, too.

        Tom, I agree with your points, but I think it would be more accurate to say that people who use the term “scientism” are alleging a misapplication of science. There have been very few instances in which I agree with the accuser that science has been misapplied.

  11. Chris Slaby
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    A lot of this reminds me of the (mostly horrible) discussion on methods of prediction leading up to the 2012 U.S. election. On one side we had Nate Silver working with aggregates of data and a mostly objective system. On the other side were pundits and commentators, who neither really understood the differences between what they do and what someone like Nate Silver does, nor who seemed much to care. I think we all agree that thought, introspection, commentary, and opinion are an important part of most human endeavors, but the contrast, when aiming for specific goals and results, is very marked. If you want to think about things, hear opinions, ask a pundit; if you want to know who will likely win an election, ask science. It seems like many people are reluctant to admit that science is not only useful, but clearly just more successful at certain tasks or goals that have/had been previously associated with more humanities-like approaches.

    • Matt Pettis
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      +1 here. I think that it is this successful encroachment on classically non-science territories that is frightening to the local practicioners. Cleverness of argument is no longer the final arbiter of winning; science can now shift the argument to a place where evidence has the final say, like with Silver. And that makes a lot of these people who have staked out their territory based on style and cleverness now vulnerable. Either they have to gain some new mastery of some aspects of science, which would disadvantage them to those better versed in it, or they can choose to kick science out of the arena.

      I think it is this combined with, as I think Pinker said, the science wars of the ’90s. Particularly the still-felt sting of the Sokal Affair (sure readers here all know it, but for completeness: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair )

      • JBlilie
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Cleverness of argument is no longer the final arbiter of winning; science can now shift the argument to a place where evidence has the final say …

        Exactly, another Galilean revolution:

        What is observed by us is the nature or matter of the Milky Way itself, which, with the aid of the spyglass [telescope], may be observed so well that all disputes that for so many generations have vexed philosophers are destroyed by visible certainty, and we are liberated from wordy arguments.

        Siderius Nuncius, “Starry Messenger”, 1610 [Visible certainty = empirical data.]

  12. Diana MacPherson
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    What a lot of blah blah. Wieseltier should know better than to talk about his fears without citing examples (or probabilities of them materializing :D). His entire thesis seems to be that if we think about data and science and quantifying things, we’ll lose what it is to be human and become “souless” automatons. How ridiculous!

    I recall a whole movement in the arts that quantified things, listing the facts & explored truth from different perspectives in very healthy, interesting, human ways. I think it is very well expressed in one of my famous poems by Margaret Atwood. I paste it here for your enjoyment:

    This is a Photograph of Me

    It was taken some time ago
    At first it seems to be
    a smeared
    print: blurred lines and grey flecks
    blended with the paper;

    then, as you scan
    it, you can see something in the left-hand corner
    a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
    (balsam or spruce) emerging
    and, to the right, halfway up
    what ought to be a gentle
    slope, a small frame house.

    In the background there is a lake,
    and beyond that, some low hills.

    (The photograph was taken
    the day after I drowned.

    I am in the lake, in the center
    of the picture, just under the surface.

    It is difficult to say where
    precisely, or to say
    how large or how small I am:
    the effect of water
    on light is a distortion.

    but if you look long enough
    eventually
    you will see me.)

    • Kevin Henderson
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      That is a great poem. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    Those who would claim that science has no soul must themselves surely be soulless — for consider the rainbow, once unwoven: we discover that it is not merely a pretty splash of color, but ripples of the waves of light from the Sun as perturbed by innumerable spheres of water falling from the sky.

    How impoverished the antiscientismist brigade. When offered the bottomless cup of the finest wine the Cosmos has to offer, they would rather slake their thirst by licking the mud off the boots of their familiar old masters.

    b&

    • Mike Yonts
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Very well said!

      • Kevin Henderson
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Agreed. They do seem impoverished. But if we speak to them they do tend to learn more.

    • JBlilie
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Those darned scientismists can’t write either! 🙂 [Well said Ben.]

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:54 am | Permalink

      How impoverished the antiscientismist brigade. When offered the bottomless cup of the finest wine the Cosmos has to offer, they would rather slake their thirst by licking the mud off the boots of their familiar old masters.

      Bravo!

  14. W.Benson
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    If we can trust ngram-viewer, the term ‘scientism’ came into use in the late 1860s and early ’70s as pejorative apparently directed against the encroachment of evolutionary understanding on theological authority. It is curious how things change but remain the same.

    • JBlilie
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Yes, see my quote from Galileo above.

  15. Posted August 8, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    //

  16. krzysztof1
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    ‘No scientist claims that we should reduce all courses in literature or art to evolutionary psychology. I, for one, learned to love literature from professors who loved it, too, and explained to me what an author was trying to do in a given work, and how to read it carefully. Ditto for art. ‘

    Yes! Science can explore the arts to the extent they yield up scientific questions (I probably could have said that better!). And science should do that. That isn’t reductionism.

    If you want to understand music (my field) from the inside out you have to learn to think like a musician, and if you don’t learn to play, at least listen to a whole lot of music. It’s the same with art. If you want to learn how to “see” like an artist, learn how to draw. Short of that, try to learn how artists think, what’s important to them.

    The job of humanities instruction is to expose students to as much great stuff as possible and provide some keys for understanding how they enrich our lives. Where the train went off the track is when academics started with their deconstructing of everything that we used to just enjoy. (Beethoven’s Ninth isn’t a life-changing work any more–it’s the “throttling murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release”. [The person who wrote that later toned it down considerably for inclusion in her book.])

    I suspect this derailment was fueled by the pressure to publish and the takeover of peer-review by intellectuals with an ideological (preferably Marxist-Freudian) bent. Am I extreme? Probably. But it’s kind of fun once in a while.

    To think that science will eventually solve all the problems of music, art, literature, poetry, drama is extremely foolish. The reasons why should be obvious to any thinking person.

    • JBlilie
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      I remember a friend telling me about how Michaelangelo used geometry and math to lay out a famous picture with proportions just X:Y, A:B, and P:Q, and various other deconstruction he learned at university.

      He could repeat what his profs. said but not understand art.

      I told him: Total bollocks! He did no such thing. He painted what looked good to him, full stop.

      • MikeN
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

        You should have listened to your friend. The Renaissance painters were noted for their application of geometry to art, enabling them to break free of the traditional standards of medieval painting (i.e. more important people are depicted as larger) and achieve their astonishing results based on developments of techniques like perspective.

        The “if it feels good, do it” style is more a part of modern art (some of which is, of course, also very good).

      • Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

        Ditto what MikeN wrote for music.

        The architecture of quite a lot of music is informed by math, notably the golden ratio.

        It’s debatable whether that kind of thing is what makes the music great or successful or whatever (I’m actually inclined to say it’s not; I think what a composer does with pitch content is much more important than how they divide the piece up into “chapters”), but it’s there.

  17. Sastra
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    Once again a secular critic of “scientism” seems to be inventing a target. Is Wieseltier really refuting what Pinker has written — or is he just using the article as a springboard for leaping into a criticism of a culture he thinks is going in the wrong direction? If it’s the latter (and I think it is) then he’s being very unfair to Steven Pinker.

    People who invoke the scientism boogy-man are usually afraid of one or both of these scenarios: people are going to stop believing in God and/or people are going to try to bully other people into having the “right” tastes, preferences, and values. It looks to me like Wieseltier is in that second camp. “Statistics show that Lady Ga-ga is the correct musician to play. You cannot support your preference for Mozart. Science has spoken.”

    The problem though is that I find it hard to put my finger on exactly what this gentleman fears because — like most secular scientism critics –he’s frustratingly vague on what he thinks will happen if ‘scientism’ has its way.

    Oh, yes, he seems to be telling us his concerns directly, doesn’t he? He mentions specifics. But if you look at his examples they’re not really all that specific. You can’t really get an anecdote which starts with the words “for instance” or “for example” out of a generalized concern for losing the soul and mystery, say. So this leaves me with the impression that at heart what worries him about ‘scientism’ the most is that kids will stop reading books and play video games instead because English classes will lose funding.

    If that’s a bad guess (and it probably is), then I think at least part of the fault for that lies in Wieseltier’s own lack of concrete examples.

  18. Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    I think Wieseltier should stop worrying. In any field of inquiry,new ideas and new ways of doing things can come along and transform that field. If this is what is happening in the humanities he should welcome it. This could lead to a new flourishing of the humanities where scholars find ways of answering questions that were intractable before. But if, as Wieseltier thinks, science cant answer the relevant questions in the humanites it will soonbe discarded.
    I think his concern comes from what you see in every field – the old-guard threated by new ways of doing things. I sympathize. When I was an undergrad in the early 80s I remember and old-time embryologist saying that molecular biology was ruining biology. If I was in science now I think I’d be threatened by the fact that do get anything done you have to master the use of massive genetic databases. ( The kind of stuff Eichler does, I’m not talking about BLAST! )

    RodW

  19. Posted August 8, 2013 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I was actually surprised by how much I was in sympathy with Wiseltier. What I found him to be saying in the main is that we ought to be careful not to overestimate our knowledge of what we don’t know about humanity, getting caught up, maybe, in our increasing actual knowledge of its causes.

    This is fair enough in that science in an incredibly wide array of fields is and has been for over a century delivering unprecedented levels of insight into the human condition.

    However, the same can be said in the other direction: that we ought not underestimate that which we are able to glean from science, especially as it so often nips at the heels of longstanding assumptions.

    So, in so far as his critique is cautionary, I take it seriously. In as far as it sets up a straw man of large numbers of people thinking they now “have all the answers”, it isn’t serious.

    • darrelle
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      “What I found him to be saying in the main is that we ought to be careful not to overestimate our knowledge of what we don’t know about humanity, getting caught up, maybe, in our increasing actual knowledge of its causes.”

      Did you mean underestimate, or should the hilighted “don’t” be deleted?

      I agree that caution and humility are necessary, and there are plenty of examples of the lack of both by individuals in the pursuit of science. And even more examples of a lack by those using the results of science, often while misunderstanding the science.

      And yet, the pursuit of science continues to get useful results, is more influential than ever before at informing our understanding of ourselves, and life is getting better for more people at a faster rate than ever before in history. Take a look at Pinker’s latest book and the voluminous statistics that support his arguments.

      So though I also take the need for caution very seriously, I don’t take Leon’s critique, and others like it, very seriously. Caution and humility are necessarily central properties of science. Science evolved precisely to counter such human flaws. Now, I don’t think that is any reason for complacence. I think we need to continuously remind ourselves that caution and humility are necessary. But to suggest that science is in any more need of cautioning than any other human pursuit is not creditable.

      Leon’s call for caution seems more like someone who feels left out or rendered inconsequential defending their turf. And to be clear, I don’t think that of the humanities at all. And I wish Leon, and others like him, didn’t feel put upon by science. I don’t think they need to be.

  20. Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Nice piece. Marxism is not Postmodernism though, and Marxism historically has been very pro science, rationality, and empiricism. These things were distorted in service of tyranny of course by Stalin, Mao, etc, but the Poststructuralist attacks on rationality are at odds with Marxism, as explained fully here:

    http://fightback.org.nz/2008/08/25/a-marxist-critique-of-postmodernism/

  21. Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Marxism historically has been very much in favor of science, rationality, and the empirical. These ideas were of course warped by Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot and others but the poststructuralist aversion to the rational is not Marxist, but rather comes from French theory and the Frankfurt school. For the differences between Marxism and Postmodernism, check this out:

    http://fightback.org.nz/2008/08/25/a-marxist-critique-of-postmodernism/

  22. Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Almost Rational and commented:
    The key point here is simple. Leon is confusing “scientism” and “postmodernism”. This is an especially odd confusion because those 2 things are exact opposites. He seems to equate “scientism” with an extreme reductionist positivism. It’s not that either. So, I agree that postmodernism and positivism are both bad for the humanities (IMHO of course), neither of those is what “scientism” is.

  23. Chris Bosio
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I find it hard to beleive that this is a direct response to Steven Pinker’s essay. Nowhere does Pinker claim that science can answer all the questions raised by the humanities. Pinker was very careful to describe the value and place of science in the humanities, and the excesses of ‘scientism’ Leon Wieseltier decries in his video are already addressed in Pinker’s piece. Maybe this was recorded before Pinker’s essay came out?

    Furthermore, Jerry Coyne rightly points out that much of Wieseltier’s concerns are the result of political and postmodern influences, not ‘scientism’. Pinker very eloquently made the case for how scientific methodology can enhance areas of the humanities. Science and the humanities are not anathema, although they are often portrayed as such in the media.

  24. Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    “For, in the end, the explanation of the human experience and human emotions must rest on our understanding of neuroscience, environment,, and genes.”

    There’s much more upon which explanations of the human experience rest.

    Materialism, reductionism, and determinism are essential to the scientific method. But also essential to scientific methodology is the recognition that complex structures and functions, beyond atoms, molecules, tissues, and organs and what they do, represent and require different and more complex levels of analysis.

    Specifically, it is now widely recognized that these emergent levels of complexity – minds, individuals, societies, for example – require analytical methods different from those of materio-reductive determinism that have proven so useful in chemistry and physics.

    This is not to say that in eschewing such esteemed natural science methods we have turned to those of woo, magic, religion, or ghosts in boxes. Hardly. To think that understanding the mind, for example, one must apply either the methods of chemistry and physics OR invoke woo is to ignore crucial aspects of a prominent part of the scientific enterprise that is focused on complex systems.

    The best accounts of the differences between these approaches – natural science and complexity analysis – I have read may be found in the works of Raymond Tallis, Peter Zachar, Stuart Kauffman, and Stephen Wolfram. All are renowned and proven scientists.

    What a mind and its human embodiment are, do, and leave behind materially and culturally when they die exceeds the description of a brain’s chemistry and physiology and cellular genetics.

    Human language-based cultural behavior is an emergent property of mammalian, primate evolutionary history. Our high symbolic communication and cumulative, trans-generational culture produced and continue to contribute to a domain of human experience that exists beyond our individual lives, genes, neural wiring, and brain chemistry.

    I do not regard reductionism and determinism, that is, in the strict materialistic sense that is practiced in most quarters of the natural sciences, as the only valid and therefore best approach for understanding and explaining human behavior. The nature of Humankind, that which unequivocally distinguishes us as Homo sapiens among all other animals, is most apparent from and best understood by examining and considering the interaction between the conscious, language and culture-bearing human person, and the social and physical worlds. I am therefore fairly certain that the social and behavioral sciences of anthropology, psychology and sociology, or philosophy, will not be replaced by a science of humankind based exclusively on physics, chemistry, genetics, and neurology.

    Genetics and neuroscience have many successes to their credit and there will assuredly be many more payoffs to come. But I strongly doubt that a conclusive, unambiguous reduction of all of Humankind’s ideas and interactions, past and present, to the chemistry of genes and the structure and physiology of brain circuitry alone, will be among them.

    Who I am as a culture-bearing primate, in terms of my genes and brain circuitry, will not be passed to my children. They will inherit potentials for making bodies, including gametes and brains, but not my beliefs, thoughts, values, and morals as purportedly encoded in my genes and neurons. My children’s own minds and selves will emerge from their genes and brains and will have a unique meaning, agency, and purpose they create by actively, consciously engaging the world and “drawing upon” Humankind’s, their, very rich cultural inheritance.

    Yes, happily, there is very much more than our brains and genes upon which rests a scientific and meaningful explanation of the human experience.

    • Posted August 8, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      Neither Dr. Coyne nor Dr. Pinker claimed that there aren’t various levels of analysis. In fact, there’s a passage in Pinker’s piece, quoted by Jerry in this very OP (the passage about how to explain WWI) that acknowledges there are nested analytical strata. It is still a useful thing to be able to distill each layer to a simpler, more general layer until you reach some basal level of analysis. It is nothing but helpful to be able to see how the higher layers emerge from the lower layers. For the life of me I don’t understand why so many people have a problem with this approach.

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

        Yes, Thank you for the reply I am aware of Dr Pinker and Dr Coyne’s caveat on the ultimate reducibility of history to chemistry. I was directing my comment to Dr Coyne’s concluding state which contradicts that view.

        I agree with you that much can be gained from studying the neuro-chemical substrates of human behavior. I also agree there is value in studying how complex systems emerge from less complex entities. We seem to disagree on whether this kind of study will establish a unbroken causative link between chemicals and human behavior. You seem to think it might whereas I am highly skeptical that it will.

        As for your inability to comprehend the questioning of the universal applicability of causal chemical reductionism to everything, I kindly offer you the following by Dr Peter Zachar. Though he is addressing psychology, what he has to say also applies to history and culture.

        “The most obvious response to someone who wants to talk about psychology only in terms of neurophysiology is the infinite regress critique; i.e., if psychology is really the activity of the nervous system, then neurophysiology is really the result of biochemical interactions, which in turn are really the activity of subatomic particles. If sensations are ‘really’ brain processes, then brain processes are ‘really’ actualized genetic programs, which are ‘really’ incredibly complex arrangements of atomic particles. Ultimate, everything will have to be eliminated in favor of subatomic physics. Scientistic thinkers (followers of strong scientism) are most vulnerable to this regress because physics is presumably more scientific and therefore more real than biology or psychology.” – Peter Zachar, Psychological Concepts and Biological Concepts: A Philosophical Analysis

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

          CORRECTION: Psychological Concepts and Biological Psychiatry: A Philosophical Analysis

        • Posted August 9, 2013 at 7:49 am | Permalink

          “I was directing my comment to Dr Coyne’s concluding state[ment] which contradicts that view.”

          Again, I think your understanding of “rest on” may be different from Pinker’s and Coyne’s.

          If does not mean “is fully [or best] explained by”.

          /@

        • Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          It really doesn’t matter if we can establish a “causative link between chemicals and human behavior” (although I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it). We can still fruitfully refer to those different levels in different explanatory contexts.

          I don’t see what the point of your comment is if not to say that we shouldn’t pursue reductionism. And as I already wrote, I don’t see why we shouldn’t. We can study reductive explanations, while leaving higher level explanations intact and in full force. They are not exclusive of each other. Coyne and Pinker appreciate this and say as much.

          • Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

            Actually, I pulled a punch I shouldn’t have.

            Chemicals have already been conclusively demonstrated to have profound effects on behavior.

            Alcohol? Marijuana? Ecstasy? LSD? Endorphins? What about all those people out there who depend on antidepressants to keep them from hurting or killing themselves?

            • Posted August 9, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

              Again, I left a good point unmade.

              The fact that we have pharmacological ways to treat depression is thanks to reductionism. Psychoanalysis and talk therapy aren’t anywhere in the same league as antidepressants in terms of efficacy.

    • Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      I think your understanding of “rest on” may be different from Pinker’s.

      /@

  25. RGBowman
    Posted August 8, 2013 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    There are areas where science is being used in art, as an example. Now this may be too far below LW, but in the areas of business logos and cover art, companies can spend millions of dollars to determine what design to use, how to use it, and why.

    Attention to color blindness, culture, and language. There are even differences between male and female perceptions of a given design. Many times they are designed for a specific group of people, as in industry and trade. How easy is it to remember, is it too busy, too simple, color conflicts, resemblance to another design that may blur one’s memory of it with something else?

    Graphic artists, design studios, and advertising agencies are well aware of all these things. Customers are absolutely adamant about specific colors, and artwork presentation.

    Then, of course, there’s the music jingle, political study groups, and interior design. Even Hollywood gets involved with study groups for TV shows and motion pictures.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted August 8, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Don’t forget, there Is high fashion where beauty is up the butt of the designer.

      • RGBowman
        Posted August 8, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

        Ah, yes. The thong!

  26. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Wieseltier has nothing to say on Pinker’s essay or on scientism. He strawmans Pinker’s definition of scientism, and against the empirical and useful [archeology!] intrusion of “big data” [gene sequencing] he laments a ‘philosophical’ mistake.

  27. nsrocker92
    Posted August 10, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Muser.

  28. Jeremy Smith
    Posted September 3, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    I think Wieseltier would answer, and he would be right, that you in fact have emptied the humanities of significance, through your relegation of any “knowledge” to be gained through the humanities to the realm of the “subjective” and relative. This is a very common move, and Wieseltier is saying, I think, that it is in fact the influence of scientism that has give the viewpoint such cultural cachet. AS you put it: “”In the end, Leon’s claim that scientism reduces all humanistic questions to scientific ones is ambiguous. Insofar as any discipline, including the humanities, purports to tell us what is true about the universe—and that includes questions about what influenced an author, how we should regulate health care, and what motivates people to cheat—must involve the scientific mindset, because it involves determining what exists in the world. Science is the The other so-called Big Questions, such as “How am I to live?” or “Where will I find purpose?”, “How many ways can I read this text?”, or “Is this action moral or immoral?”, are questions with individual-specific answers that can be informed by science but never answered by it. But these are subjective questions lacking objective and general answers, and involve value judgments. People who decry scientism always fail to distinguish empirical reality from opinions.””
    In other words, for you it comes down to the idea that the “great questions” are merely a matter of opinion. But then a very simple question arises: what is then to distinguish one’s taste in beer from one’s “taste” in art, religion, and ethics? Here is where the real ambiguity and confusion lies. Alot of talk can emerge from an attempt to answer this question from the generally accepted stance–but I think Wieseltier would say–and I would agree–that the attempts to distinguish taste in beer from other value judgments while holding that those other judgements are “merely opinion” is bound to fail and engenders endless excuses and endless obfuscation.

    • gbjames
      Posted September 3, 2013 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      “what is then to distinguish one’s taste in beer from one’s “taste” in art, religion, and ethics”

      The hops?


7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] by another New Republic writer/editor, Leon Wiseltier, suggests something of a response that is examined in a more detail here for how he confronts ideas of Big Data and the quantification of life (i.e. the measurement of […]

  2. […] he assumes to be a direct response to Steven Pinker’s essay in the New Republic, can be found here. (He calls it ”Pinker pushback I,” so we can expect more of the same.) His […]

  3. […] could go on, but Mike’s post is well worth a read, as is Jerry Coyne’s piece, which takes a charitable, yet critical, view of Wieseltier’s video. I highly recommend […]

  4. […] on scientism in New Republic. Here is Jerry Coyne’s take on it, and he has also responded here and here to two criticisms of Pinker. The article is very interesting and I am in complete […]

  5. […] do we deal with a modern anxiety based, as TNR literary editor Leon Wieselter put it, on our “massified, datafied, quantified society,” in which we fear being reduced to “a sum […]

  6. […] do we deal with a modern anxiety based, as TNR literary editor Leon Wieselter put it, on our “massified, datafied, quantified society,” in which we fear being reduced to “a sum […]

  7. […] Coyne: Pinker pushback I: New Republic editor decries scientism (8 augustus […]

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