Steven Pinker 2

Harvard professor Steven Pinker wrote a controversial essay for The New Republic earlier this week, defending a mild form of “scientism.”

Though the term has many definitions — and Pinker explains several of them — his version expresses confidence in science as a source of morality and human purpose, and a belief that data collection, physical experimentation, and other empirical methods can provide answers to mankind’s essential philosophical questions. While this ethereal realm has long been the concern of the humanities, he writes, the time is nigh for sciences to move into this territory as well.

Pinker’s a smart guy — his sprawling 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, drew from dozens of disciplines and successfully defended an unpopular thesis. But I can’t help but feel that as an intellectual omnivore — if not an academic dilettante — he misunderstands the unique possibilities of humanistic inquiry.

It’s true, as he writes, that science has helped replace ecclesiastical hierarchies with democracy by undermining the narratives of all religious creeds. In this way, the sciences have “hemmed in” our worldview in a way the humanities never could. But simply eliminating belief systems is not the same as offering a sense of meaning and a positive moral code.

Pinker disagrees. He claims “the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.” And for Pinker, human flourishing is a simple concept: “voting in democracies, living in peace, communicating on cell phones, enjoying small luxuries, and surviving to old age.”

But a humanist realizes that it’s not quite so simple. A holistic definition of “human flourishing” requires more than data-crunching, and very few serious thinkers subscribe to Pinker’s purely utilitarian worldview.

Happiness and fulfillment don’t arise solely from indicators calculated by the World Bank, the U.S. Government, the IMF, and various NGOs. These indicators are a big piece of the puzzle — that’s why the social and hard sciences are so valuable — but they’ll never soothe our eternal angsts and self-doubts, or answer our most pressing existential questions.

That’s where the humanities come in.

How do reconcile our sense of autonomy with a world dominated by Big Data and big corporations? How do we harmonize our desire to live meaningful, purposeful lives with the knowledge that the bureaucracies, municipalities, countries, and companies that we’re part of existed before us and will exist long after us — with the knowledge that these structures are only growing and that our contributions are only becoming more insignificant with the passage of time?

These are just a sample of the questions humanists ask themselves. Yes, they’re incredibly trite, but they trouble most, consciously or subconsciously.

When addressing these questions, Pinker would apparently put his faith in “cognitive psychology,” or biological analyses of the brain’s functioning. But what happens when these methods make us even more anxious?

How do we deal with a modern anxiety based, as TNR literary editor Leon Wieselter put it, on our “massified, datafied, quantified society,” in which we fear being reduced to “a sum total of materialistic influences”?

Here, subjecting ourselves to more experiments and data-based analyses won’t work; in fact, it’d backfire.

Here, we have to turn to responsible humanistic study — based on intuition and reflection. To basically borrow the argument of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, only literature, art, and other aesthetic works can capture the conundrums, anxieties, complexities, and irrationalities of human experience.

They’re ambiguous in a way that a data spreadsheet could never be, and that’s the point.

Let me end by qualifying my argument a bit.

The central claim of Pinker’s essay is that science is not the enemy of the humanities, which is true. If his argument were left at that basic axiom, I would have no problem with it. A potent mixture of philosophy and hard science toppled the autocracies of old and unleashed the modern period of secular curiosity. Nowadays, almost all academics stand in opposition to theocracy, and it doesn’t matter if they deal in books or beakers.

A slew of late 19th-century and early 20th-century thinkers argued that what we study in the sciences arises out of the prevailing humanistic atmosphere. Pinker would make the opposite argument. Either way, no one debates that the humanities and sciences interact deeply.

Still, interaction between disciplines doesn’t mean that there aren’t any boundaries. The humanities draw much of their value from the fact that they can’t be reduced to technocratic decomposition and analysis. This is what Steven Pinker doesn’t get.

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