Steven Pinker On Scientism

Steven Pinker has just published an article that seemed to be getting a lot of attention earlier today. His essay is a rejoinder to the claim, made by many in the humanities, that scientifically minded secular types are besotted by “scientism”, which is nothing more than a new form of faith masquerading as pure rationality.

I’ll disclose up front that I’m a big fan of Pinker’s. He’s an independent thinker of exceptional intelligence, a diligent researcher, and a gifted writer. He’s not afraid to defy the Cathedral’s thought police (as he did, for example, when Lawrence Summers faced the fury of the Inquisition for raising a perfectly reasonable question about women in science), and his landmark book The Blank Slate struck a mighty blow against the Left’s denial of human nature.

Let me say also that I am myself a Godless infidel, raised by two agnostic scientists (my parents used to joke that they had me baptized, and kept my younger brother as a control), and that I am also, along with most scientists, a philosophical materialist. I think that the scientific method of inquiry, as perfected in the high civilization of the West, is perhaps the apex of ten thousand years of human achievement. It has, as Dr. Pinker points out, transformed the human world, and has already given humanity a degree of comfort, abundance, and control of nature that would have seemed miraculous just a few centuries ago. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

But my own militant “scientism” has been tempered in recent years by some highly intelligent and articulate contrary voices. In particular, I am indebted to Dr. William Vallicella for demonstrating how sturdily and coherently the opposing worldview can defend its position, and for pointing out the philosophical sloppiness that characterizes so much of modern secular polemics.

Pinker’s essay, although it is beautifully written (and a rousing pep-talk for the home team), is surprisingly weak. It pops off at a collection of strawmen, such as “the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble”, but fails to address with precision the most pertinent criticism — namely that the “scientistic” worldview assumes for itself plenary coverage of all the world’s phenomena, inappropriately commingling facts and values, and issuing promissory notes for persistent mysteries while dismissing out of hand other, philosophically defensible accounts. Indeed, in Pinker’s confidence (which he shares with Sam Harris) that morality itself can be placed on a purely scientific footing — that we really can derive “ought” from “is” — he exhibits exactly the sort of faith, and philosophical confusion, that engendered so many complaints about “scientism” in the first place.

I’ve been working long hours today, and while I did take the time to read Pinker’s essay, I’ve had no time to prepare an detailed response. I did, however, run across an excellent riposte, by Ross Douthat, that made some of the points that had been taking shape in my own mind. In particular, Mr. Douthat nails Pinker with precision on the illicit move from traditional morality to “scientistic” utilitarianism. You can read Douthat’s piece here.

Finally, I’ll mention that in his scientism essay, Professor Pinker slips in a dig about the still-controversial idea of group selection. I’m in the opposing camp on this one, but I’ll let it slip by for now. If you want to read a detailed and lively debate on that issue, beginning with an essay by Dr. Pinker, you can have a look here.

One Comment

  1. JK says

    Yeah. I know the comparison isn’t really fair but then again – which is the most useful; Scientism or…

    Posted August 8, 2013 at 1:04 am | Permalink

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