Scientism and the Integrity of the Humanities

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The continuing debate about the application of scientific methods beyond their appropriate domain reached a wider mainstream audience this year, with the publication of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s essay “Science Is Not Your Enemy” in The New Republic. Pinker responds to criticisms of scientism with a spirited defense of science, thereby missing what those criticisms target. Certainly, for anyone who takes for granted the benefits we derive from science, a reminder of its many blessings is always in order. But as far as I know, none of the essays about scientism that Pinker cites — including my own 2012 New Atlantis essay “The Folly of Scientism” — criticize science as such. While Pinker correctly says that these other essays reject scientism, his failure to give an accurate account of what scientism is and to engage closely with its critics, and his subsequent fortification of science rather than scientism, show that he misunderstands the matter altogether.

Pinker claims that scientism is a “boo-word” whose meaning is unclear to him. But some very precise definitions can be taken from the words of scientists who have advocated what critics call scientism. The chemist Peter Atkins’s claim that natural science has a “universal competence” serves as a concise definition of scientism. More generally, scientism is the idea that there is no human knowledge outside of the domain of the natural sciences.

As the analytic philosopher Alvin Plantinga has argued, equating all knowledge with natural science is a logically incoherent position, because science itself cannot provide us with any reason for believing that science is true. More precisely, the statement that all knowledge is (or potentially could be) scientific — the product of scientific methods — is itself not a scientific statement; it defeats its own universal claim. We must go outside of natural science, into the domain of philosophy, in order to establish the theoretical foundation for scientific knowledge. This foundation includes, for example, the notion that the universe is an ordered and intelligible system, an idea that has its roots in Judeo-Christian theology and in Greek philosophy. It is not a finding of science, but is rather the theoretical basis that makes science possible, and in light of which scientists seek resolutions between conflicting findings and theories.

Pinker muddies this distinction between philosophy and science when he claims that the founding figures of the Enlightenment, such as Descartes, Locke, and Kant were “scientists.” Certainly some of their activity was what we recognize today as science, but much was what we now call philosophy. Descartes, for example, contributed to mathematics, physics, biology, and philosophy. However, his physics and biology were mostly wrong, and if these were his only contributions to our intellectual tradition it is doubtful that he would be remembered today. It is his contributions to mathematics and above all to metaphysics and epistemology that have ensured his lasting fame.

In fact, Descartes’ philosophical efforts helped lay the groundwork for modern science. The question he posed in his Meditations on First Philosophy was how, by a process of methodical doubt — now a hallmark of scientific methodology — we can say that we know anything at all. His answer was to seek in metaphysics, specifically in the indubitability of our own being and in the certain existence of an intelligible world, a solid foundation for our knowledge and thus also for natural science. Subsequent thinkers who rejected Descartes’ particular solution to the problem, such as Locke and Kant, nonetheless agreed that the problem is one of metaphysics, not of natural science. Scientism, on the other hand, renounces our Enlightenment heritage by denying that natural science requires any philosophical foundations outside of itself.

Science and Morality

Pinker also states that “the worldview that guides the moral and spiritual values of an educated person today is the worldview given to us by science.” Before this he says that “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.” As the author of over three hundred peer-reviewed scientific publications, I suppose I qualify as a “scientifically literate person.” But science is the last place I would look for moral and spiritual values. Indeed, it would be hard for me to imagine any way that science on its own can provide an answer to even simple moral questions, such as whether it is wrong to lie on a tax return or whether it is justifiable to use violence in self-defense.

Of course I agree with Pinker that scientific exploration can reveal to us unexpected wonders in the universe. I’ll never forget, for example, when, as an undergraduate, I observed for the first time a tiger beetle under a dissecting microscope. That sight opened up for me a new world of beauty of which I had been unaware, an experience that played a significant role in my choice of a career in biology. But it wasn’t science that told me that what I was observing was beautiful. My aesthetic response to nature was shaped not by science textbooks but by poets like William Cullen Bryant and John Clare and by The Little Flowers of St. Francis.

Pinker claims that because scientific discoveries have discredited certain religiously based beliefs regarding issues of scientific fact — for example, the age of the universe — science has therefore somehow undercut the moral authority of religious teachings as well. But there is no necessary logical connection between the two. Knowing the truth about scientific claims does not impart moral authority generally; I know plenty of very competent scientists who could not make a coherent moral argument to save their souls. Conversely, there is no reason to doubt that a person who is ignorant of science, or even one who firmly holds some very wrong notions on matters of scientific fact, might be able to construct a sound moral argument.

But Pinker wants us to believe that “the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.” He provides no information regarding which scientific facts might be the ones doing the militating, and the idea that we should have a “defensible morality” is hopelessly vague. Moreover, the morality of “maximiz[ing…] flourishing” that Pinker advocates is indistinguishable from traditional utilitarianism — an approach to morality most associated with nineteenth-century philosophers but with intellectual roots that can be traced back to ancient Greece. Because utilitarianism was well developed before we knew about evolution, DNA, the age of the earth, radioactivity, relativity, and quantum mechanics, it is hard to see how it can be viewed as a consequence of modern science.

Furthermore, as with any utilitarian ethic, a weak point of Pinker’s ethical theory is that it leaves “flourishing” undefined. Surely each individual will have his or her own idea of what would constitute flourishing, and those definitions may often be in conflict. The utilitarian ethic provides no basis for resolving cases where one individual’s concept of flourishing can only be accomplished at another’s expense.

Giving Credit Where It’s Not Due

In his enthusiasm for science, Pinker credits science with everything about the modern world that he finds good: “The numbers show that after millennia of near-universal poverty, a steadily growing proportion of humanity is surviving the first year of life, going to school, voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age.” It is hard to see how science is responsible for all of these benefits, other than those directly related to health and technology. As regards public education, peace, and democracy, the causal relationship is likely the reverse of what Pinker assumes. A peaceful and democratic political order and a literate populace create the conditions under which science can develop, rather than being consequences of science.

Pinker further credits science with putting an end to various past evils for which he blames religion: “human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.” In fact, both the intellectual arguments and the decisive practical steps that put an end to these practices in Western society were largely religious, and specifically Christian, in inspiration. Those who seek to denounce the evil that has been done in the name of religions are more credible when they accurately acknowledge the good as well.

One of Pinker’s most ambitious goals in the article, as the subtitle “An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians” suggests, encourages the application of scientific ideas to areas of the humanities such as literary criticism. As a scientist, I should perhaps not speak for my colleagues in the liberal arts, but I doubt that many of them would question that science can provide insights useful to scholarship in the humanities. In fact, the humanities have long drawn on other areas of knowledge, including natural science. “Linguistics,” Pinker opines, “can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience.” This would hardly be news to Longinus, the ancient Greek author whose treatise On the Sublime examines the emotional effects of language. But the extent to which the humanities could benefit from the methods of, rather than just the knowledge accrued by, natural science is questionable. How the scientific method helps in the interpretation of texts, in art criticism, or in settling a dispute over traditional metaphysics is far from clear.

More to the point, the erroneous claim of scientism is not that science is useful in the humanities, but that science can replace the humanities. It is the latter claim that needs to be resisted if we are to maintain the integrity both of the humanistic and the scientific elements of our Western intellectual heritage.

Austin L. Hughes, “Scientism and the Integrity of the Humanities,”, December 12, 2013.

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