Herewith, some commentary on a very poor article by Steven Pinker, Science is not Your Enemy.
I will first state in general why I consider the article of low quality, and then quote a large chunk of it and intersperse some comments (bolded). This is Part One. Part Two to follow if I have the time and energy, and if I can convince myself that continuing is worth my time and energy.
In the meat of his article, Pinker puts forth a number of mostly silly straw-man definitions of 'scientism' which he then has no trouble dismissing. For example, he suggests that on one understanding of scientism, it is the claim that "all current scientific hypotheses are true." Is Pinker joking? No reputable writer has ever said that or defined scientism in terms of it.
After he is done with his straw-man exercise, Pinker proffers his own definition, which, as best as I can make out, comes to the following. Scientism consists in the espousal of two ideals operative in science and which "scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life." "The first is that the world is intelligible." "The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard."
So Pinker's definition is essentially this. Scientism is the view that all of our intellectual life ought to be governed by two ideals, the ideal that the world is intelligible and the ideal that knowledge-acquisition is difficult.
Now that is a pretty sorry excuse for a definition of scientism. First of all, the intelligibility of the world is not an ideal of inquiry, but a presupposition of inquiry. Inquirers do not aim at or strive after intelligibility; they presuppose it. What they strive after is knowledge and understanding, a striving that presupposes that their subject matter is understandable, and is indeed, at least in part, understandable by us. Second, that acquiring knowledge is hard is not an ideal either; it is a fact. Third, Pinker's definition is vacuous and trivial. Apart from a few radical skeptics, who would maintain that we ought not presuppose that the world is intelligible or maintain that knowledge acquisition is easy? Even those who maintain that there are limits to what we can understand presuppose that it is intelligible that there should be such limits.
Fourth, and most importantly, Pinker's definition is just a piece of self-serving rhetoric that has nothing to do with scientism as it is actually discussed by competent scholars. What competent scholars discuss is something rather more specific than Pinker's nebulosities and pious platitudes. There are a number of different types of scientism, but the following will give you some idea of how the term is actually used by people who know what they are talking about:Eric Voegelin, "The Origins of Scientism," Social Research, Vol. 15, No. 4 (December 1948), pp. 462-494. Voegelin speaks of
. . . the scientistic creed which is characterized by three principal dogmas: (1) the assumption that the mathematized science of natural phenomena is a model science to which all other sciences ought to conform; (2) that all realms of being are accessible to the methods of the sciences of phenomena; and (3) that all reality which is not accessible to sciences of phenomena is either irrelevant or, in the more radical form of the dogma, illusionary.
Compare Hilary Putnam, Mathematics, Matter and Method (Cambridge University Press,
1975), pp. xiii (emphasis added):
. . . I regard science as an important part of man's knowledge of reality; but there
is a tradition with which I would not wish to be identified, which would say that scientific knowledge is all of man's knowledge. I do not believe that ethical statements are expressions of scientific knowledge; but neither do I agree that they are not knowledge at all. The idea that the concepts of truth, falsity, explanation, and even understanding are all concepts which belong exclusively to science seems to me to be a perversion . . .
Putnam does not need the MavPhil's imprimatur and nihil obstat, but he gets them anyway, at least
with respect to the above quotation. The italicized sentence is vitally important. In particular, you will be waiting a long time if you expect evolutionary biology to provide any clarification of the crucial concepts mentioned. See in particular, Putnam's "Does Evolution Explain Representation?"
in Reviewing Philosophy (Harvard University Press, 1992).
Here is my characterization of scientism:
Scientism is a philosophical thesis that belongs to the sub-discipline of epistemology. It is not a thesis in science, but a thesis about science. The thesis in its strongest form is that the only genuine knowledge is scientific knowledge, the knowledge generated by the natural sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and their offshoots. The thesis in a weaker form allows some cognitive value to the social sciences, the humanities, and other subjects, but insists that natural-scientific knowledge is vastly superior and authoritative and is as it were the 'gold standard' when it comes to knowledge. On either strong or weak scientism, there is no room for first philosophy, according to which philosophy is an autonomous discipline, independent of natural science, and authoritative in respect to it. So on scientism, natural science sets the standard in matters epistemic, and philosophy’s role is at best ancillary. Not a handmaiden to theology in this day and age; a handmaiden to science.
I will now quote and comment on some of Pinker's text:
The term “scientism” is anything but clear, more of a boo-word than a label for any coherent doctrine. Sometimes it is equated with lunatic positions, such as that “science is all that matters” or that “scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems.” Sometimes it is clarified with adjectives like “simplistic,” “naïve,” and “vulgar.” The definitional vacuum allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of “queer” and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.
Pinker gets off to a rocky start with these straw-man definitions. Who ever defined 'scientism' as the view that "science is all that matters" or that "scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems"? Furthermore, there is no such "definitional vacuum" as Pinker alleges. The man has simply not done his homework. If he had studied the literature on the subject, he would have encountered a number of specific, precise definitions, such as the one from Voegelin above.
Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble.
Who ever said it was?
On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science.
Stop the straw-manning! Who would ever get it into his head to think that all current scientific hypotheses are true? And who ever maintained that this is what scientism means?
It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them.
Nice rhetoric, but what does it mean concretely? And to say that scientism is not imperialistic and expansionist simply flies in the face of what major proponents of it maintain. According to Edmund O. Wilson, "It may not be too much to say that sociology and the other social sciences, as well as the humanities, are the last branches of biology to be included in the Modern Synthesis." (On Human Nature, Harvard UP, 1978, p. 90; quoted in Mikael Stenmark, "What is Scientism?" Religious Studies, vol. 33, no. 1, March 1997, p. 16) If the humanities are branches of biology, then that counts as an "occupation" of the territory of the humanities by a natural science.
If the only genuine knowledge is natural-scientific knowledge, then the only genuine knowledge of the mind is via neuroscience and behavioral psychology; and if reality is all and only what is accessible to natural-scientific knowledge, then not only is phenomenological and introspective knowledge bogus, but the mind as we actually experience it is illusory. To fail to see a threat to the humanities here is to be willfully blind.
And it [scientism] is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.
I am afraid that Pinker hasn't thought his position through very well. I am glad to hear that he thinks that there are truths and values in addition to "physical stuff." What I'd like him to tell us is which natural science is equipped to elucidate truth, falsity, explanation, inference, normativity, rationality, understanding, and all the rest. Biology perhaps?
The first is that the world is intelligible.
This is better referred to as a presupposition of scientific inquiry rather than as an ideal of such inquiry, but let's not quibble. It is certainly the case that all inquiry, scientific or not, presupposes the intelligibility of its subject-matter, not to mention the power of our minds to access at least part of this intelligibility. But pointing this out does nothing to support scientism in any nonvacuous sense.
The phenomena we experience may be explained by principles that are more general than the phenomena themselves. These principles may in turn be explained by more fundamental principles, and so on. In making sense of our world, there should be few occasions in which we are forced to concede “It just is” or “It’s magic” or “Because I said so.” The commitment to intelligibility is not a matter of brute faith, but gradually validates itself as more and more of the world becomes explicable in scientific terms. 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.
What Pinker seem not to understand is that opponents of scientism are not opposed to natural-scientific inquiry. He continues to waste his breath against a straw man.
Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism.
An awful sentence. Let me rewrite it so that it makes some sense. Demonizers of natural science (not scientism) often make the mistake of thinking that the quest for scientific understanding, which often takes the form of reducing X to Y, is somehow mistaken. For example, these people think that if lightning is explained as an atmspheric electrical discharge, then this reductive explanation does not generate genuiine understanding. But of course it does.
But again, what does this have to do with scientism, properly and narrowly understood?
Many of our cultural institutions cultivate a philistine indifference to science.
Sad but true! But it is also true that our cultural institutions produce hordes of ill-educated scientists who know their specialties but are philistines outside of them.
The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard.
No one will deny that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. This is a fact, not an ideal. So far, Pinker has told us that scientism -- in his mouth a 'rah-rah' word as opposed to a 'boo' word -- is the view that two 'ideals should be promoted, namely, the intelligibility of nature and the fact that knowledge-acquisition is hard.
But this definition is quite empty since hardly anyone will oppose scientism so defined. Who denies that inquiry presupposes intelligibility and that knowledge-acquisition is hard?
The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and superstitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.
Now the problem is not that Pinker is saying something trivial but that he is saying something false. One source of knowledge is the testimony of experts and authorities and eye witnesses. Indeed much of what we know about the natural world is known on the basis of the say-so of experts whose authority we credit. For example, I know that there is no such thing as the luminiferous ether even though I have not replicated the Michelson-Morley experiement. How do I know it? I know it by reading it in reputable science texts. Besides, how many physicists have replicated the Michaelson-Morley experiment or the experiments or observations that confirm relativity physics? Could one do science at all if one took nothing on authority and tried to work everything out for oneself, including the advanced mathematics without which modern physics is unthinkable? Think about it. So it is simply false to say, as Pinker does, that authority is a "generator of error." Sometimes it is. But mostly it isn't.
Similarly with "conventional wisdom." Sometimes it leads us astray. But mostly it doesn't.
To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.
More platitudes! Who denies this? And what does any of this have to do with scientism?