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