Steven Pinker's Scientism Debunked
- A few weeks ago this magazine published a small masterpiece of scientizing apologetics by Steven Pinker, called “Science Is Not Your Enemy.” Pinker utters all kinds of sentimental declarations about the humanities, which “are indispensable to a civilized democracy.” Nobody wants to set himself against sensibility, which is anyway a feature of scientific work, too. Pinker ranges over a wide variety of thinkers and disciplines, scientific and humanistic, and he gives the impression of being a tolerant and cultivated man, which no doubt he is. But the diversity of his analysis stays at the surface. His interest in many things is finally an interest in one thing. He is a foxy hedgehog. His essay, a defense of “scientism,” is a long exercise in assimilating humanistic inquiries into scientific ones. By the time Pinker is finished, the humanities are the handmaiden of the sciences, and dependent upon the sciences for their advance and even their survival.
Pinker tiresomely rehearses the familiar triumphalism of science over religion: “the findings of science entail that the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures ... are factually mistaken.” So they are, there on the page; but most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures have evolved in their factual understandings by means of intellectually responsible exegesis that takes the progress of science into account; and most of the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures are not primarily traditions of fact but traditions of value; and the relationship of fact to value in those traditions is complicated enough to enable the values often to survive the facts, as they do also in Aeschylus and Plato and Ovid and Dante and Montaigne and Shakespeare. Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence. Like many sophisticated people, Pinker is quite content with a collapse of sophistication in the discussion of religion.
Yet the purpose of Pinker’s essay is not chiefly to denounce religion. It is to praise scientism. Rejecting the various definitions of scientism—“it is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities,” it is not “reductionism,” it is not “naïve”—Pinker proposes his own characterization of scientism, which he defends as an attempt “to export to the rest of intellectual life” the two ideals that in his view are the hallmarks of science. The first of those ideals is that “the world is intelligible.” The second of those ideals is that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard.” Intelligibility and difficulty, the exclusive teachings of science? This is either ignorant or tendentious. Plato believed in the intelligibility of the world, and so did Dante, and so did Maimonides and Aquinas and Al-Farabi, and so did Poussin and Bach and Goethe and Austen and Tolstoy and Proust. They all share Pinker’s denial of the opacity of the world, of its impermeability to the mind. They all join in his desire to “explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles.” They all concur with him that “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.’ ” But of course Pinker is not referring to their ideals of intelligibility. The ideal that he has in mind is a very particular one. It is the ideal of scientific intelligibility, which he disguises, by means of an inoffensive general formulation, as the whole of intelligibility itself.