Against Scientism

Steven Pinker understands the limits of scientific knowledge no better than the fundamentalist understands the limits of biblical knowledge.

In a recent high-profile debate, Steven Pinker defended science against Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, who for his part ably defended the humanities against Pinker. Wieseltier says that Pinker’s position is “scientism,” to which Pinker responds that “scientism” is a “boo-word,” the meaning of which is more emotive than conceptual. But Wieseltier uses the term with all due precision: scientism takes the paradigm for knowledge and truth to be the knowledge and truth gained by the natural sciences. To the extent that philosophy or literature or religion is not amenable to the methods of natural science, it is treated as a sub-standard form of knowledge. In this straightforward sense of the word, Pinker clearly defends scientism.

Consider his remarks about religion. “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value,” writes Pinker. He argues that to believe in a God who works in human affairs is to turn one’s back on science. Since divine providence cannot be known in the way in which electromagnetism is known, Pinker argues that it cannot be known at all; it can only be ignorantly asserted in the spirit of fundamentalism.

If Pinker had said that science does not reveal the working of divine providence, he would have spoken with scientific precision. Or if he had said that certain conceptions of providence have become untenable in the light of modern science, he would have made a valid non-scientistic point. He might have said, for instance, that once we learn about the inner-worldly causes of thunder, we will not be so quick to discern divine anger in the thunder. And from here he might have gone on to warn believers not to be too quick to infer direct divine action in the world on the basis of gaps in our empirical knowledge; once those gaps are plugged by the advance of science, the divine action will seem to be discredited. But to say that the very idea of divine providence, along with other fundamental categories of religion, is discredited by the scientific world view—well, that is vintage scientism.

Pinker’s scientism is a kind of “scientific fundamentalism” or “fundamentalist science.” He is not so different from the Christian fundamentalist who tries to determine the age of the earth using the Bible alone. The Bible is a religious document and is not suited to settling questions of geology—just as natural science is not suited to settling the question of God’s existence and of His actions within the finite world. Pinker understands the limits of scientific knowledge no better than the fundamentalist understands the limits of biblical knowledge.

For Science and Against Scientism:  William James

William James, a thinker with impeccable scientific credentials, would certainly take issue with Pinker. James was educated as a physician and taught medicine at Harvard. Eventually, he turned to psychology, and finally to philosophy and religion. Philosophically, he developed positions that bear the marks of his scientific education, calling himself a “radical empiricist” or a “pragmatist.”

James was, at the same time, a man of deep religious sensibility. He constantly challenged the idea that the world disclosed by science is all that there is. At the end of his classic study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, he wrote:

can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear [an] inward monitor… whispering the word “bosh!” Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow “scientific” bounds.

Pinker will protest that he is not defending any such narrowness. But James goes much farther with his anti-scientism than Pinker is willing to go. To illustrate his point, James used to draw an analogy between human beings and our domestic pets.

Our cats and dogs are surrounded by meanings that they cannot apprehend. Thus, if my dog bites a neighbor, I owe the neighbor in justice some compensation. Yet this imperative of justice, though it arises through my dog’s behavior, does not exist in the world of my dog. A dog cannot apprehend such an imperative and cannot be moved by it as the dog is moved, say, by danger. Or when I make a truth claim, or speak in the subjunctive rather than in the indicative, or make a promise, I live and move in a realm of meaning to which my dog has no access, even though the dog hears the sound of my words.

Now, James reasoned, we human beings must surely interact with higher meanings that we can just as little register as the dog can register human meanings. James thought that the world described by science is just as little finished and closed as the world of the dog is finished and closed. “That our whole physical life may lie soaking in a spiritual atmosphere,” James writes, “a dimension of being that we at present have no organ for apprehending, is vividly suggested to us by the analogy of the life of our domestic animals.” James would have sharply rebuked Pinker for being closed to this spiritual dimension of being, and especially for being closed to it on the ground that it does not register on the screen of natural science.

Scientism and Philosophy: The Argument from Queerness

Scientism is not limited to reductionistic thinking about religion. It can corrupt our thinking about even the most elementary forms of living being. Pinker says: “The processes of life, for example, used to be attributed to a mysterious élan vital; now we know they are powered by chemical and physical reactions among complex molecules.” The German philosopher Hans Jonas does not agree; he argues that there is in the simplest living being a spontaneity, a power of self-constitution, that cannot be exhaustively explained in terms of chemical and physical reactions. There is a passivity about reactions among molecules in contrast to the activity of a living being, in which Jonas discerns incipient freedom. He means that a living being lives out of a certain interiority, whereas chemical reactions are exterior, they are entirely embedded in the object-world.  Thus, Jonas attempts to recover something like an Aristotelian soul for the explanation of life.

Now, it is scientism to think that this debate can be settled by biology; it is a philosophical debate, which has to be joined at the level of philosophy. You cannot refute Jonas with facts about biochemical interactions, because he acknowledges these empirical data and argues that there is something more in living beings. He does not appeal to more facts of the same kind, but to a certain “selfhood” that can only be discerned in philosophical reflection. So it is not only with regard to God and religion that Pinker gives away his scientism; he gives it away in his approach to amoebas.

The Australian philosopher J.L. Mackie provides us another revealing specimen of scientism. In his Ethics, Mackie attacks “objective value.” Mackie calls himself a value subjectivist; he follows Hume in saying that we human beings, by the force of our feelings and sentiments, “gild” reality with the appearance of value and disvalue: take away our feelings and sentiments, and nothing remains but a system of value-free facts.

Mackie advances his subjectivism from his “argument from queerness” (he uses the term in the old sense of strange, foreign). He says that, seen from the point of view of empirical science, values are “queer” entities. They cannot be registered by the instruments of empirical investigation, and disputes about values cannot be settled in the way in which disputes about the natural world can be settled.

Mackie makes himself guilty of scientism when he goes on to argue that objective value is discredited by this queerness. He says, in effect, that since value looks queer from the point of view of natural science, it cannot really exist. But this is like saying that colors are queer from the point of view of hearing, since hearing does not register color qualities, and thence inferring that colors are discredited. Why make hearing the measure of what can be perceived? Why make natural science the measure of what can be known?

Pinker’s attempt to debunk the idea of the soul of a living being is really just a version of Mackie’s argument from queerness. Pinker has nothing more to say on the subject than that a life principle or soul looks queer when considered from the point of view of biochemistry; it looks queer and is hence discredited. This line of thought is worth no more than the attempt to discredit color qualities on the grounds of their inaccessibility to hearing.

Scientism and the Human Person

And then there is scientism applied to human beings. In the debate with Pinker, Wieseltier defends the humanities by claiming that they give us knowledge of man that fundamentally exceeds what we can know through the natural sciences. He makes a very important observation: the humanities explore human beings through our interiority, subjectivity, self-experience, and first-person perspective, but the methods of natural science cannot access any such subjectivity. Neuroscience can measure brain function, but it cannot capture the interiority of conscious experience.

The signature of the human person is found in our freedom and self-determination. But if we look at human beings from the outside, as we do in the sciences, we find no freedom; we find only behavior that can be plausibly explained or predicted in terms of natural laws. Only by entering into the subjectivity of persons can we find the sense of responsibility, of agency, of acting through oneself, of choosing between goods, that is the experience of freedom. We can make sense of freedom and keep human beings intact as persons only by going beyond the natural sciences and examining ourselves from the first-person perspective, as we experience ourselves from within ourselves.

Thinkers like Pinker succumb to scientism when they say that free will is a relic of a pre-scientific world view. They wrongly think that we recognize free will in persons so as to plug some gap in the empirical order, just as they wrongly think that the religious sphere is recognized so as to plug some gap in the natural order. But free will is something over and above all that can be scientifically observed about man, just as the numinous is something over and above the natural. If people want to contest free will, let them come forth with real philosophical arguments, and not content themselves with saying that free will looks queer from the point of view of neuroscience.

Is there not, in the end, something distinctly narrow-minded in Mackie’s argument from queerness? Is this scientism not simply the voice of someone wedded to a certain comfort zone? Does it not remind us of the American travelling abroad who, when given a price in a local currency, impatiently asks what the thing costs “in real money”—that is, in US dollars? Is it not vulnerable to the taunt of Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”—or, in this case, your scientistically contracted world view?

Remember William James: “Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name.”

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