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.
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.”)