Harvard — August 11, 2013 12:43 am

Against Steven Pinker’s “Scientism”

By

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.

Image credit: theguardian.com

  • dovhenis

    Comprehend Scientism’s Universe:

    What Holds In The Real World

    The Nobel Prize Committee Is Wrong. There is
    Definitely NO Higgs Particle. Gravitons are the elementary particles of the
    universe.

    Origin and nature of “may be gravitational
    waves” are continuously released gravitons since the last big-bang as
    singularity mass reconverts to energy.

    ============================

    On The Essence And Matrix Of The Universe-Life

    The following three sentences are the shortest
    data-based TOE. Seriously. Very seriously.

    The clearer the shorter

    Natural Selection to Self-Replication is Gravity

    - Self-replication is the ultimate mode of natural selection
    is the essence and drive and purpose of the universe. Period.

    - The pre-Big-Bang singularity is the ultimate
    self-replication (SR) of the cycling mass-energy universe. Period. (mother of
    universal SR mode…)

    - Earth’s RNA nucleotides life is just one of the myriad modes
    of self-replication.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

    http://universe-life.com/

    http://universe-life.com/2012/11/14/701/

    -The 20yrs development, and comprehensive data-based
    scientism worldview, in a succinct format.

    -The Genome is a base organism evolved, and continuously
    modified, by the genes of its higher organism as their functional template.

    - Everything in the universe derives from mass-energy
    duality, from the universe cycle between
    its two poles all-mass/all-energy.

    - The Origin Of Gravitons is the ONLY thing
    unknown-unexplained in the Scientism Universe.

    PS: Spoon feeding

    The universe is a (circa 20 hillion yrs?) cyclic affair
    between all-mass and all-energy poles. NATURAL SELECTION of a mass format
    mandates energy intake because since the big-bang the resolved mass is
    reconverting at a constant rate from inert mass to energy, to moving mass. The
    mass that reconverts to energy SELF-REPLICATES to mass, in black holes, for the
    eventual re-singularity. The energy-to-mass SELF-REPLICATION process is
    GRAVITY. All this is enabled and goes on and mandated by/due to the small size
    and shape and inter-attraction of the gravitons that enable zero distance
    between them to re-form singularity. Black holes extract the gravitons from
    matter and store them at low energy level. Singularity is attained only ONCE
    per circa 20 billion years when ALL the gravitons of the universe are together
    at zero inter-gravitons space because it takes the totality of their combined
    low inter-attraction force to form the universal singularity.

    I hope that now it is understood what gravity is and why it
    is the monotheism of the universe…DH

    =================================================

    Black Holes Whence and
    Whither

    A.

    Black Holes Whence

    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/345481/title/Cohabiting_black_holes_challenge_theory

    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/351747/description/Milky_Ways_black_hole_pulling_in_gas_cloud

    From

    http://universe-life.com/2011/12/13/21st-century-science-whence-and-whither/

    http://universe-life.com/2012/09/02/all-the-mass-of-the-universe-formed-at-the-pre-big-bang-singularity/

    Galactic clusters formed by conglomeration?

    No. Galactic clusters formed by Big-Bang’s fragments
    dispersion, the released built-in singularity’s stresses, evidenced by their
    Newtonian behavior including their separation acceleration.

    The big bang is the shattering of the short-lived
    singularity mass into fragments that later became galactic clusters. This is
    inflation. The shattering is the start of movement of the shatters i.e. the
    start of reconversion of mass into energy, which is mass in motion. This
    reconversion proceeds at a constant rate since the big bang as the resolution of
    gravitons, their release from their shatters-clusters, proceeds at constant
    rate due to their weak specific force due to their small size.

    B.

    Black Holes Whither

    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/345421/title/Team_glimpses_black_hole%E2%80%99s_secrets

    From

    http://universe-life.com/2011/12/10/eotoe-embarrassingly-obvious-theory-of-everything/

    A commonsensible conjecture is that Universe Contraction is
    initiated following the Big-Bang event, as released moving gravitons (energy)
    start reconverting to mass (gravity) and eventually returning to black holes,
    steadily leading to the re-formation of The Universe Singularity,
    simultaneously with the inflation and expansion, i.e. that universal expansion
    and contraction are going on simultaneously.

    Conjectured implications are that the Universe is a product
    of A Single Universal Black Hole with an extremely brief singularity of ALL the
    gravitons of the universe, which is feasible and possible and mandated because
    gravitation is a very weak force due to the small size of the gravitons, the primal
    mass-energy particles of the universe.

    This implies also that when all the mass of the presently
    expanding universe is consumed by the present black holes, expansion will cease
    and be replaced with empansion back to THE Single Universal Black Hole.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

    ===========================

    The Universe, Some Updates

    What Big Banged To Produce The Universe

    From : http://universe-life.com/2011/12/10/eotoe-embarrassingly-obvious-theory-of-everything/

    A commonsensible conjecture is that Universe Contraction is
    initiated following the Big-Bang event, as released moving gravitons (energy)
    start reconverting to mass (gravity) and eventually returning to black holes,
    steadily leading to the re-formation of The Universe Singularity,
    simultaneously with the inflation and expansion, i.e. that universal expansion
    and contraction are going on simultaneously.

    Conjectured implications are that the Universe is a product
    of A Single Universal Black Hole with an extremely brief singularity of ALL the
    gravitons of the universe, which is feasible and possible and mandated because
    gravitation is a very weak force due to the small size of the gravitons, the
    primal mass-energy particles of the universe.

    This implies also that when all the mass of the presently
    expanding universe is collected and stored at very low energy level in black
    holes, expansion will cease and be replaced with empansion back to THE Single
    Universal Black Hole.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

    ====================

    Universe Inflation And Expansion

    Inflation on Trial

    Astrophysicists interrogate one of their most successful
    theories

    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/342219/title/Inflation_on_Trial

    Commonsense:

    Inflation and expansion are per Newton.

    Since the Big Bang galactic clusters loose mass at constant
    rate. Mass, gravitons, continue escaping at constant rate from their Big Bang
    fragments-clusters thus becoming energy, mass in motion, thus thrusting the
    clusters. Constant thrust and decreasing galactic clusters weight accelerate
    the separation of clusters from each other.

    Common sense.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

    http://universe-life.com/

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